They were heading west, endless miles of highway blazing under the wheels of the powder blue Impala. The worn leather seats stuck to the bare skin peeking out of the girl’s white summer dress. She looked out the window at the seemingly infinite New Mexican desert drowned in red by the setting sun. They’d been on the road close to a week now, passing by strip malls and gas stations in search of the place where the sky glowed at night and the famous danced with the rest.
She turned toward the man on her left. Blue eyes, square jaw, he gripped the steering wheel. She stared at the window behind him for several moments.
“You hungry?” he asked.
He veered right, not waiting for an answer, and several minutes later they stopped in front of a small diner. Flickering neon signs advertised double supreme burgers and milkshakes. Gravel crunched under her white sneakers as they made their way toward it.
“What can I get you?” The kindly waitress asked.
She was in her late 50s with exaggerated red lipstick.
“Double supreme burger for me, order of fries and a vanilla milkshake for the lady,” the man quickly answered.
She brought their food out. The girl watched the man bite into his burger.
“How are the fries?” he asked. “Remembered they’re your favorite.”
She hated fries. He reached over and grabbed one, dunking it into ketchup.
“Good, aren’t they? You want a drink? I could have one, but I’m driving.”
He continued on, looking at her in between bites. She looked through him at the window. It was dark, and the neon lights cast flickering shadows on the gravel.
“We should settle in for the night.”
He pulled a few crinkled bills out his pocket and dropped them on the table. She hardly touched her food.
A few miles down was a seedy motel, all grimy white paneled walls and vacancy signs glowing blue. He jiggled the key and jimmied the door open, revealing a queen sized bed with white sheets and yellow wallpaper. She stood under the unsteady stream of hot water in the shower. She thought about her parents. Her father had wanted her to go to college, get an Associate’s degree and work in an office somewhere, taking calls and making appointments for rich men in suits. Her mother wanted her to go to church, get a husband, and have small children who would make macaroni necklaces and draw on the walls. She wondered what the purpose of it all was.
“What’s taking so long, doll?” the man called from the room. “Get over here so I can see those pretty blue eyes,” he said in a way that had nothing to do with her or her grey eyes.
They hadn’t known each other long but he had a car and she had soft hands and pretty hair, and after his lady love left him, he was quite lonely. So they went, off to the golden coast, hoping to discover whatever it was they were missing.
That night, their small bunny eared television flickered. All over the country, bunny eared televisions were flickering. This national phenomenon was the first of a series of peculiar events which led to the end of all we know. The next morning, as they had their toast and coffee, orbiting satellites were picking up signals of unknown origins. While the man tossed their duffels into the trunk, government astronomers and mathematicians had confirmed the signals were extraterrestrial. By the time they pulled up into a gas station a hundred miles away, President Nixon was giving a national address about our newfound company in the universe. The man stopped to smoke a cigarette.
“…hope to form friendly relations with our galactic cousins. We have much to learn from them, and we can only hope they are willing to educate us…” Nixon’s voice blared from a nearby radio, cutting through the smoke like a razor.
The entire country was abuzz. Tens of different diners, countless plates of fries, yet the conversation never changed.
“Maybe they’ll teach us interstellar travel. Maybe they’ll end world hunger. Maybe they’ll tell us what the purpose of it all is.”
When these mysterious visitors finally presented themselves, their fat, bristly faces were on every television set in America. They weren’t what we expected. They weren’t completely alien as to be entrancing, nor were they beautifully angelic. They were simply ugly.
After the great reveal, the talk changed.
“They’re so small and hairy. I have a bad feeling just looking at them. They’re probably up to no good.”
They called themselves the Tralfamits. They spoke fluent English and Chinese. They claimed their own planet had been in plentiful harmony for tens of thousands of years, and they had come to share their secrets with the Earthlings. Soon, their ambassador, a particularly fat and hairy Tralfamit, was holding biweekly meetings with the Congressional Committee of Energy and Natural Resources, claiming to know of a cheap sustainable power source.
Their planet, which was 4.8 million-light-years away from ours, had four moons and two suns. They picked up on one of the many radio signals we were always sending out, and reached us in roughly five months. They had no use for weapons, prisons or mirrors on their planet. Free education was universal. All citizens were first class citizens. They claimed to have the highest standard of living among all civilized races of the universe. We gave them a truly patriotic welcome. Protests emerged, stuffed muppets burning, “Go Home Ugly Aliens” in bold black letters against white backgrounds, American flags waving in the background.
Perhaps they deemed us hopeless. Perhaps they were just sensitive. Perhaps they found us bloodthirsty and malicious. Perhaps they were too. The girl and the man were sitting in the car when it happened–a high pitched hum, followed by complete and utter silence. Soft white snow began to fall, despite the summer heat. The car wouldn’t start. The girl got out and touched the snow collecting on the hood. Not snow after all, but ash.
She watched as he dug around the hood, black oil staining his hands. Fruitless efforts–the car was long gone. The man walked over and grabbed her hand in his. He smiled.
“Just you and me now, doll.”
She looked at him, at his pretty blue eyes which she knew had never once seen her, and let go. Wiping her greasy black hand on her white dress, she grabbed her sneakers and continued walking west. The setting sun cast her shadow on the highway, a shadow much bigger than her, bigger than anything she had been, but not bigger than the vast plains of land that lay ahead.