CHAPTER ONE

It was an afternoon like any other on Hugo Drive, and that was as it should be. After all, nobody was expecting humankind to topple from the apex of creation later that evening.

Dena Anderson set out two plates and two sets of silverware on the dining room table. She knew Michael would want to eat in the family room where he could watch television, but that was not going to happen. It had been a point of contention throughout their six years of marriage, leading to nightly arguments that had become an almost comfortable ritual. Dena would usually get her way, Michael would pout and all would be forgiven by the time they finished their salads. On rare occasions, when Dena was feeling magnanimous, she would let Michael win the argument and they would have their dinner on folding trays in front of their large, flat screen television. However this evening was not going to be one of those occasions.

As she arranged Michael’s silverware, Dena could hear him turn the television on – it sounded like a newscast. Michael liked to catch the news when he first came home from work.

The newscast was drowned out for a moment by the sounds of aircraft overhead. Dena glanced out the dining room window, but did not see any planes on that side of the house. Hugo Drive ended in a cul de sac and connected at the opposite end to an undeveloped stretch of Route 228 that ran east of Caldonia, Pennsylvania. Twenty years earlier a contractor by the name of Benjamin Hugo had built thirteen homes on a tract of land that he hoped would grow more valuable as Caldonia expanded eastward. But the town had not expanded eastward; all of its subsequent growth had been to the north and west. Other than the commuters on Route 228, there was very little traffic near Hugo Drive. The neighborhood was a combination of suburban ambience and rural quietude. Dena and Michael had moved into their home three years earlier, and Dena was sure she had never heard any planes or jets in all that time.

She went to the kitchen and took a head of lettuce from the refrigerator. Then Michael called out from the family room, “Have you seen this?”

“Seen what?”

“Come in here, Dena.”

The ivory landline phone on the kitchen wall began to ring. It had to be either Dena’s mother or Izzy Franklin from across the street. Dena started to reach for the receiver, but thought better of it. If Izzy was calling, it was undoubtedly about the new family that had just moved into the house between the Bouchards and the Inghams. Izzy Franklin was the president of the Hugo Drive Neighborhood Association. She was devoted to preserving their small enclave’s heritage, which, to Izzy, meant keeping the neighborhood white and Protestant. When the Lewinbergs moved into Number Two Hugo Drive, not long after Dena and Michael had bought their own house on the cul de sac, Izzy Franklin had wanted to start a petition and was genuinely surprised to learn that the Hugo Drive Neighborhood Association had no authority to expel a Jewish family, no matter how many signatures she could muster.

The newest family on Hugo Drive was Indian. The moving van arrived yesterday, so Dena knew the Naras were still living out of boxes. She had met the husband, Rajinder Nara, earlier that day and he seemed very nice; but he was also very dark. He and his wife had a little boy. Other than that, she did not know much about them.

Dena decided that she did not want to risk the chance of being subjected to one of Izzy’s racist rants. She really did not like Izzy Franklin very much, although Izzy’s husband Jerry was all right. Ignoring the phone, Dena put the head of lettuce down on the granite kitchen counter and went to the family room.

She immediately took in the image on the television, but what she did not understand was why Michael was watching science fiction. Michael Anderson had very little imagination, and speculative fiction usually was not his cup of tea.

Dena asked, “What are you watching?” Whatever the plot, the setting was supposed to be St. Louis, Missouri. The wide television screen displayed the St. Louis Arch with an expanse of the Mississippi River behind it.

“It’s a live broadcast, Dena.”

She looked to her husband to see if he was joking, but from the expression on his face it was clear that he was not. “This has to be a hoax,” she said.

Michael shook his head. “I don’t think so.”

Just behind the Arch and above the river was an enormous tear-shaped object. The tapered end pointed towards the Arch. Dena could not tell how large it was, but she thought it must be longer than a football field. The thing hung motionless in the air, or at least that is how it looked on the television screen.

Dena asked, “That’s a UFO?”

“They don’t know,” said Michael. He ran his fingers through his thinning, blond hair. “I mean, of course it’s unidentified, and it’s obviously a flying object of some kind, but they don’t seem to know what it is.”

The phone in the kitchen stopped ringing. For a moment Dena wondered with a touch of guilt if the caller had been her mother. Or maybe her brother Dalton, although she had not talked to him in months. No, Dalton would have called her cell phone.

An announcer’s voice came on, but there was no real information in his patter. The White House had not yet responded to press inquiries. The announcer speculated that the vessel – for it was surely a vessel of some kind – might belong to the military. Most of the announcer’s talk was nothing more than an ongoing description of what Dena and Michael could see on their screen: the hovering UFO, the Arch, the river and an ever-growing crowd of onlookers. If the vessel belonged to the military, they obviously did not want anybody near the thing. A long line of soldiers in camouflage fatigues kept the crowd back from the Arch and its underground visitors’ center. In addition to this, a unit of the Coast Guard was turning back all of the people who tried to approach the UFO by boat. Most of these were sightseers coming upriver in private speedboats and pontoons; from what Dena could see, none put up any argument or resistance.

Dena sat next to Michael on the striped loveseat. She saw how his hair was disappearing at the crown of his head, and thought to herself how odd it was to notice something like that just then. Michael had very light hair, with the reddish tinge that people often described as strawberry blond. His eyes did not leave the television screen as Dena sat down, but he reached out and took her hand in his.

Dena said, “It can’t be anything really dangerous or those soldiers would have more than rifles, don’t you think?” When Michael glanced at her, she added, “You know, like tanks or bazookas.”

As if in response to her question, the announcer took a break from describing the riverside crowd to say that the Pentagon had issued a brief announcement. The Army and Air Force were both mobilized and standing ready, but keeping a distance to avoid creating a hostile situation. Dena thought this new development effectively obliterated the theory that the hovering vessel belonged to any branch of the United States military. The idea that a foreign power could penetrate the heartland of the nation was unsettling.

The announcer resumed giving another verbal sketch of the vessel and the crowd staring at it. Other than the vessel itself, the most amazing thing was the casual atmosphere that had come over the people gathered near the Arch. The initial surprise had worn off, and a festive ambience had settled through the crowd. Parents held their children on their shoulders to give them a view of the ‘spaceship’. Some people had their dogs with them. A few placards had been hastily drawn up by people welcoming the ‘aliens’, if the vessel was indeed piloted by aliens, which Dena thought unlikely but not beyond the realm of possibility.

There was an insistent knocking at the front door. Dena looked to Michael, but his attention was glued to the television screen. With a sigh, Dena went to the living room to see who was knocking. She glanced back several times behind her at the screen as she walked, nearly tripping over the small Chippendale table next to the entrance of the family room.

She was not surprised to see Izzy and Jerry Franklin. Izzy was blond, but there was nothing natural about her hair color. She had an angular body with a thin, bony appearance that suggested borderline anorexia. Jerry Franklin, on the other hand, obviously had no difficulty eating. Dena thought he was probably medically obese. She sometimes wished that Jerry would stand up to his wife more often. The Franklins were nearly ten years older than Dena and Michael, and had two children who were both away in college. They often bragged about their son, J.J., but rarely spoke of their daughter.

It was Izzy who asked, “Have you seen the spaceship?”

Dena nodded. “Michael and I are watching it on television right now.” The Franklins were looking at her expectantly, so she added, “Would you like to come in?”

Izzy Franklin pushed past Dena, with Jerry following along in her wake. Dena went with them into the family room, where Michael barely glanced up to say, “Hey Jerry…Izzy.”

Jerry immediately sat down next to Michael, leaving Dena no choice but to share the adjacent couch with Izzy. Nothing had changed during Dena’s brief absence. The tear-shaped vessel still hovered over the Mississippi River, and soldiers continued to hold the crowd back. The announcer’s voice continued to drone on without telling them anything new.

Dena asked, “Do either of you know anyone in St. Louis?”

The Franklins both shook their heads. Jerry said, “I’ve met a few people from there, but I don’t know anyone well enough to call.”

Michael said, “I’m sure it’s extraterrestrial. I didn’t think so at first, but there’s no other explanation.”

“Why do you say that?” asked Jerry. “Just because they don’t know where it came from doesn’t mean there are Martians inside that thing.”

“Not Martians, no,” said Michael. “But they said the military is keeping its distance, except for the soldiers keeping that crowd under control.”

Izzy said, “That’s so the Army won’t provoke a hostile situation.”

Michael stared at her as if she had sprouted alien antennae herself. “When has our military ever worried about provoking a hostile situation? There should be tanks all around that thing, and somebody with a bullhorn ordering the ship to surrender.” He let his attention return to the television. “Our government is afraid of these guys, wherever they’re from.”

They all watched the motionless vessel on the television, listening as the announcer gave the current temperature and humidity in downtown St. Louis. As if anyone cared.

Then the picture changed and they were looking at an astronomer, a Dr. Stephen Walsh, who admitted what everybody already knew on some level; the tear-shaped vessel was very likely from another planet. Dena listened attentively for a few minutes, but it soon became obvious that Dr. Walsh knew no more than anyone else. He was being interviewed by somebody offstage, reciting theoretical statistics concerning the likelihood of contact with intelligent extraterrestrial races.

Considering the fact that they were staring at the image of a UFO hovering next to the St. Louis Arch, Dena thought the chance of extraterrestrial contact was probably somewhere around one hundred percent.

Izzy Franklin said, “This is so exciting. Jerry and I were just getting ready to go out to eat when the newscast came on.”

Michael glanced at her and Jerry. “Why don’t you guys join us for dinner? Dena doesn’t mind, do you, honey?”

Dena kept what she hoped was a smile on her face. There was no gracious way to say, yes, she really did mind. Instead she did a quick mental inventory of what she had in the kitchen that could possibly be stretched into dinner for four. It was Dena’s habit to get all of her weekly grocery shopping done in one trip every Wednesday morning, and this was Tuesday. Her options were limited.

Izzy stood, saying, “Let me help you. It’s the least I can do.”

“Yes,” said Dena. It really is the least you can do. She pushed her irritation with Izzy aside and followed her into the kitchen. It was Michael with whom she was really angry. Dena hated when he phrased something in such a way that she could not disagree without appearing mean or unreasonable.

In the kitchen Izzy looked around and asked, “What do you want me to do?” She spied the head of lettuce. “Can I make the salad?”

“Sure,” said Dena. She opened a cabinet and surveyed her sparse collection of canned goods.

Izzy took a knife out of one of the kitchen drawers and found the cutting board that Dena kept in the cabinet under the sink. “This whole spaceship thing was beginning to bore me anyway,” she said. “I wish the aliens would do something interesting.”

Dena nodded absently as she chose a can of green beans, and another of new potatoes. She would mix them together, she thought, and add a little salt and tarragon. But she still needed to think of something for the main dish. The two chicken thighs she had planned to broil for Michael and herself would not stretch for four people.

Cutting up the head of lettuce, Izzy said, “I suppose you’ve heard we’ve had our own alien invasion here on Hugo Drive.”

“What do you mean?” asked Dena. She knew exactly what Izzy meant, but she was not going to play along.

“I mean the new family that moved into Number Fifteen. Have you met them?”

“I’ve met him, Rajinder. I haven’t met his wife yet.”

Izzy’s eyebrows, much darker than her platinum hair, lifted ever so slightly. “And that doesn’t bother you?”

“What? That I haven’t met his wife?”

“They’re black.”

Dena opened the can of corn. “They’re Indian.” Like it made any difference.

Izzy put the chopped lettuce into a large wooden bowl. “I told everyone this was going to happen back when the Lewinbergs moved in. It’s happening all over the country. First the Jews come, and then you get your colored. You mark my words, the next thing we’ll see are the gays trying to buy a house here.”

Feeling the flare of anger ignite in her stomach, Dena dropped the can opener on the counter and hurried from the kitchen. She passed the doorway to the family room, went quickly through the living room and stepped out through the front door. Once outside, after closing the door quietly behind her, she felt hot tears pooling in the corners of her eyes. At times like this she hated Izzy Franklin. Even worse, she hated herself.

The neighborhood was curiously quiet. Dena’s home was one of five houses encircling the cul de sac. Evening shadows were beginning to reach across the lawns and gardens as night approached. Each of the five homes had a front lawn that tapered slightly as it came up to the pavement, and each had a mailbox standing at the end of its driveway. She saw that the door to the mailbox at Number Twenty Seven was hanging open. Either the mail carrier was getting sloppy, or Beaker was. Probably the latter, she thought. The side of the box was painted with the house number and the name R. K. Beaker in white, stenciled letters. Dena still did not know what the R. K. stood for. She and Michael had introduced themselves to the large, unkempt man when he moved in the year before, but all he gave them was his surname. They rarely saw Beaker. His large pickup truck was sitting out in his driveway as usual, so she knew he was home. Izzy had told Dena that the man was widowed.

Directly across the street was the Grahams’ home. Like the Franklins, Dave and Lisa Graham were about ten years older than Dena and had grown children. Lisa had hinted to Dena more than once that she should think about a child of her own, tossing in the cliché about biological clocks, as if everyone’s lifelong dream was to bear progeny. It was true that Dena had never tried to prevent a pregnancy after marrying Michael – she did not even use birth control – but it had never happened, and deep down in her heart Dena did not think she was missing out on very much. She did not mind other people’s children, but she could not imagine taking on that much responsibility around the clock. On the other hand, she had always known that Michael dreamed of someday becoming a father, so she had left the matter up to God. At the age of thirty-two and still childless, Dena had come to the conclusion that God did not think she should be burdened with the responsibility of parenthood either.

Her home and the Grahams’ bordered the entrance to the cul de sac.

Izzy and Jerry Franklin lived next to the Grahams, and the Martins’ home – between the Franklins’ house and Beaker’s – completed the circle. The Martins were in their early seventies, and were the oldest couple on Hugo Drive. Jim Martin had paid for the centerpiece of junipers that stood in the hub of the cul de sac, and he personally tended the bushes with as much care as he lavished on his own lawn and garden.

On most evenings, even when there was nobody else to be seen from Dena’s front yard, she could usually hear some kind of activity from elsewhere in the neighborhood: Jim Martin’s lawn mower behind his house, the sound of the Bouchard children playing down the street or perhaps Stacy Cooper and Darla Clark laughing about something over drinks on the Clarks’ patio. That afternoon Hugo Drive was silent. There was not even much sound of traffic passing up and down Route 228.

The UFO in St. Louis had captured the world’s attention.

The door opened behind Dena, and Michael leaned out. With an urgent tone, he said, “Get in here, now.”

“Give me a few minutes, Michael. I can’t face Izzy right now.”

“Izzy? What about her?” He looked genuinely confused. “What are you talking about?”

“What are you talking about?”

“It’s the UFO, Dena. It’s moving.”