Chapter Sixteen: Blame it on the Weather
Gil gently laid the steak on the heated frying pan and smiled at the pleasant sound it made as it sizzled. He was initially surprised to have a taste for the red meat, considering it had been the only thing he’d eaten for over a week, and to an extent he never wanted to touch the stuff again—the thought of consuming raw beef made him gag. But prepared slightly differently—that is, fresh, heavily-seasoned, marinated, and very well-done—he found he actually had quite an intense craving.
He also found that he had a rather strong craving for fruits and vegetables, although he wondered if the yearning was born out of the paranoia of having scurvy. He thought a lot about it the week before, when he made the short two-mile walk home in his damp and dirty clothes. He looked and felt like a bum, and hoped to get home without being seen by anyone. But as he trudged onto his block, he was suddenly and loudly greeted by a man sitting in a chair on a porch a few doors down from his house.
“Gil?” the man shouted. “Gil Sanders, is that you?” Gil only stuttered for a moment, feeling a little awkward that the man seemed to know his name—he had no idea who the man on the porch was. But as the wheelchair-bound man rolled down the walkway, Gil eventually recognized it was his neighbor from the night he had been abducted. This was the late-night walker who had been sucked up into the air before falling back down to the ground. Now he sat in a wheelchair, both of his legs set with plaster casts. Despite this recognition, Gil still couldn’t address him by name, because he’d never learned it. How the hell does he know my name? Gil wondered.
“Your legs are broken,” Gil finally managed, nodding towards the man’s lower half.
“What? Oh, right… never mind that,” and he twirled his hand to move things along. “I mean, you got picked up and taken away by that thing! Where did it drop you? And where have you been? You…” he stifled a laugh, “you look like shit, you know.”
Gil’s eyes widened. “You saw it?”
“How could I have seen it? No, I saw the effects of it, though. Namely, you and, well…” then he whistled while pointing to his two legs.
Gil stared at the man’s legs for a moment, stuttered some more, and then said, “I gotta go. We can talk about this in a little bit, maybe tomorrow, but I gotta go home. Uh… sorry. Bye.” And Gil began walking away.
“Hey, wait!” the man called to him. “People have been looking for you!” But Gil only held up a hand as he walked away, acknowledging the man but making it clear he wasn’t going to stop.
A few moments later, Gil wriggled through his bathroom window that never locked—the latch broke off a few months before and he hadn’t gotten around to fixing it. His front door was locked, which told him right away that his neighbor was right and at least someone had indeed come looking for him during his kidnapping. When he got through the tiny opening and looked in the bathroom mirror, all he could do was laugh. His neighbor was right about that too: he did look like shit. His face was dirty, cut up, bruised, and covered in long, greasy facial hair. His clothes were permanently stretched out from the sweat and other fluids, making them appear a size too big on him. And his arm was covered in still-healing little holes that made him look like a drug addict.
His teeth were killing him, the spaces between them all packed tight with bits of raw meat. His gums were bright red and his breath was putrid. So the first thing he did was floss, and it was a painful experience that resulted in a lot of sensitive, bleeding gums. Then he brushed the hell out of his teeth. Twice. Afterwards, the toothbrush felt so full of gunk that he threw it away and took another from a box full of unopened toothbrushes under his sink—he’d nabbed them from a dentist’s office that had just changed their firm name and thus had no use for the old customized brushes. He was smearing more tooth paste onto his new toothbrush for a third go at it when he heard the doorbell ring. He slowly shuffled through his house towards the front door, assuming it was his injured neighbor again, or perhaps his friend Daryl. But when he got to his front door and opened it up, he was speechless.
News vans from three different television stations and a growing collection of bystanders crowded behind two police officers. At the sidewalk, a man with a microphone said to a woman holding a large video camera, “We are outside the home of Gil Sanders, the man who witnesses say was carried away last week by the first-ever tornado reported here in Elk Grove. Nearly as shocking as his disappearance is the fact that the tornado was apparently invisible. This rarity occurs when a cyclone forms without enough dirt on the ground to make it observable. Now, neighbors have reported that the man returned to his home just moments ago, disheveled and disoriented, and—oh, there he is! Let’s see what he has to say.”
Gil looked out at them, tired as hell and embarrassed at his appearance, and timidly asked, “Can I help you?”
“Are you Gil Sanders?” one of the officers asked.
“Uh… yes?” Gil responded, with a raised eyebrow and an upward inflection that made it sound more like a question than a statement of fact.
A well-dressed woman with a microphone in her hand asked so firmly, so loudly and with such annunciation that it was almost as if she were yelling at Gil, “How does it feel to survive being picked up by a tornado?” And without waiting for a response, she asked, “Where have you been for the last week?”
Gil’s brow furrowed, and he responded, “Tornado?” He looked behind the reporter and saw not only his friends Daryl and Linda, but also his wheelchair-bound neighbor. The man had apparently made quite a few phone calls after Gil abruptly ended their conversation.
He thought hard. He once again recalled those famous abduction stories he’d pondered while aboard the spacecraft, and asked himself what kind of lives those alleged victims were leading nowadays. Some had gotten book deals… a few of those books were later turned into modestly successful movies… and even those lucky few were largely considered crazy people, or elaborate pranksters, or both. The rest of them were simply crackpots, and Gil had a feeling that would be the camp he’d be stuck in. The time for obtaining any proof—besides his souvenir drinking glasses—was long gone, and now all he had to go on was his memory of the experience. He wished he’d taken something with him, something more substantial, but it was too late.
He still had no regrets about letting Korben go, however; with the alien ship back in space and with Korben likely already digitized and on its way back home, the alien would show up shortly behind its travel companions and give an account. If they chose to stick to their decision to leave Earth alone forever, then all the better. But if they chose to come back and make official contact, hopefully Gil’s decision to let Korben go after all they put him through would count for something. That’s when Gil would share his story. Until then, he decided he’d much rather just get back to work and find someone to take the space next to Daryl’s restaurant.
The reporter’s questions came back to the front of his mind, and the corners of Gil’s mouth curled into a small smile. He was relieved that he didn’t have to come up with a story that would explain away his absence. The idea that an invisible tornado had ripped through Elk Grove was ridiculous—though not nearly as ridiculous as being abducted by Martians—and they’d clearly made up their mind about what had happened. Any mention of aliens, and they’d surely take one look at his pockmarked arm before jumping to some conclusions. It would be an open-and-shut case. So he took a deep breath, and mostly lied through his teeth.
“I don’t remember anything,” he said calmly. “I don’t remember a tornado, I don’t remember being picked up, and I don’t remember where I’ve been. One moment, I’m taking down my garbage cans, and the next, I’m waking up in a field in the nature reserve next to the highway. I walked home.”
The crowd murmured to life as the three news reporters tried as hard as they could to gracefully squeeze past the two police officers at the opening to Gil’s porch. The two groups began asking many of the same questions, though for different reasons. After patiently answering exactly as many questions as were necessary to get them to leave, the crowd dissipated, and soon only Daryl and his wife remained. He was happy to see them, but could no longer hide that he was exhausted and just wanted to eat something, clean himself off, and sleep for a day. Still, he reluctantly invited them in.
Daryl and Linda stood in Gil’s kitchen as the filthy man dug around the refrigerator and pantry in search of food that was still edible. They asked an endless stream of questions which he answered without any comprehension, because he was so preoccupied. The couple had taken the liberty of tossing out the rotten fruit in his kitchen—bless their hearts—and only just yesterday came into the house to throw away the spoiled meats in his refrigerator. After drinking what felt like a gallon of water, he grabbed an unopened bag of pretzels and ate out of the bag. He assembled a peanut butter and jelly sandwich that he ate in no more than four bites. He fried up four eggs over medium and set them on a paper plate, which he then curved so that he could feed them into his mouth.
Linda finally shook him from his ravenous pursuit when she asked if they could take him somewhere, or go somewhere and bring him something to eat. He considered, then shook his head. With a gravelly voice thick with the phlegm of a freshly-eaten meal, he explained that he would go to the store and buy groceries tomorrow. He asked if they’d come over for dinner tomorrow night, to which they enthusiastically accepted. And then after a short pause, with Gil’s tact completely gone, he told them he loved them and then politely asked them to please get the hell out of his house so he could take a shower and go to sleep. So they did. And he did.
Over an hour later, when Gil was finally cleaned, shaven, and bandaged, he walked towards his bed without so much as a single thread of fabric on his body. Crawling under his sheets, he started to wonder if he might favor sleeping on the ground, curled up in front of his fireplace since he’d been forced to do it for over a week, but couldn’t even finish the thought before he fell asleep. He slept solidly and loudly for over fourteen hours.
He awoke the following afternoon with a high fever. After postponing his dinner with Daryl and Linda to the following day, he planned to stay in bed and sleep it off but awoke again a few hours later with a throbbing pain in his eyes. He recalled it as a symptom of the alien sickness from Korben’s transmission, and reluctantly decided he had to visit a doctor. And after a brief examination, he was shocked and terrified to learn the hospital had contacted the Center for Disease Control.
When CDC staff members arrived, a nervous and sweaty Gil obediently answered questions about who he’d had contact with, and where he’d been, with mostly fake answers. The convenient tornado made an appearance in the conversation.
At last, after the CDC staff members had departed, his doctor revealed that Gil had been infected with Rift Valley Fever—a viral infection largely native to southern Africa and most commonly observed in cattle. As it turned out, the virus was usually transmitted to humans as a result of handling the raw beef from infected livestock.
Gil remained at the hospital for the following week while he received treatment to ensure the virus didn’t spread. The nurses and doctors would later remember Gil as the most pleasant patient to visit the hospital in recent memory. They were surprised to have a case of such an obscure virus in the United States, but even more surprised that, when they told Gil what he’d contracted, he laughed out loud. If only they knew, Gil thought. One of Earth’s most domesticated animals had been responsible for the near-extinction of an entire alien race.
When he was released a week later, he went straight to the grocery store.
Gil flipped the steak over and continued chopping lettuce for the salad he was putting together. He told himself it was going to be epic, and he probably had a dozen different nuts, berries, cheeses, and meats to dump onto the bed of greens. Later that night, eating with his friends and enjoying the best beer he’d ever tasted, they talked and laughed about what Gil had missed while he was gone and what it must have been like to wake up in a field with no idea how he got there. In the middle of what had to be his tenth assurance that he didn’t remember anything, Daryl suddenly started laughing and interrupted him.
“I’m sorry, but what is that thing?”
“What’s what?” Gil asked, though he had an idea he knew what Daryl was referring to.
“That!” Daryl exclaimed, pointing his finger. “That broken PVC pipe you’re drinking out of.”
Gil looked at his glass. The soft, pearlescent material formed a slender cylinder that rose up and tapered off to an edge like a juice box straw. He smiled and stated matter-of-factly, “It’s a souvenir.”