Five years ago, in the sticky damp heat of an Atlanta summer, I learned that humans are not alone in the universe.
Listen. I know. I know how it sounds. But I saw what I saw, and I swear every word I'm about to tell you is true.
It was a Thursday, just after ten o’clock in the evening. I had ordered dinner at one of those throwback carhop drive-ins that litter the south, and was killing the wait time paging through a battered paperback of Bradbury shorts by the phosphorus white light of the street lamps. The windows were down and the engine off, a valiant and futile attempt to keep my rental car happy in the midsummer humidity.
My wife and I had driven into the Peach State a couple of days prior, on a honeymoon long overdue. She’d wanted to see “the biggest aquarium in the world”, and I was happy to be along for the ride. But we were both West Texas born, and accustomed to the angry dry heat that baked dirt into concrete and pulled cotton from the cracks in the topsoil pavement. We had not adjusted to air the consistency of a soppy dishrag.
I was also the only customer at the restaurant. Fifteen carhop stations, all empty save mine. Not in itself unusual; it was a weeknight, and places like Happy Burger were not as convenient as the more ubiquitous modern drive-thru. It gave me a sense of unease, though. I was in an unfamiliar city, with an unfamiliar nightlife, sweating through unfamiliar weather, at a novelty restaurant I’d only picked because it was the first thing off the highway exit ramp.
For those unfamiliar with either fast food history or southern cuisine, a carhop works like this: the customer pulls up into a parking space, beside which is an electronically lit menu and a button that activates the intercom. The customer decides on their meal, presses the button, and orders food. They wait for said food to be delivered, pay, and leave. There is a small building on an island at the center of the intercoms, but it’s just an enclosed prep station, and has no dining area.
I was ruminating on this, my eyes glancing off the pages of the book without taking anything in, when a blinding silver ‘50s Cadillac convertible pulled into the space two stations down from mine.
I’d always heard the muscle cars from that era had engines that roared, deep and guttural, signifying power and station. Not this one – it purred onto the lot so softly I only glanced up when I heard the car doors shut. Then I watched with a touch of bemusement as a family of four began to approach the prep building with elegant, measured gentility.
They were a tall group, pale and thin. Even the father, who cleared six feet by a number of inches, would not have cracked two hundred pounds soaking wet. Each was clothed in immaculate garments--both the father and the son (who appeared to be the youngest, around seven) were in pressed grey suits with shiny silver ties. The mother and daughter (who looked about fourteen) wore modest dresses of rich crimson that hugged what few curves they had, and covered their arms and legs. They had plain, ordinary faces, the kind your eye just fell away from, but their hair…
Their hair was perfect. Not a strand out of place on any of them, though they had been driving with their convertible top down. And each had a different, equally striking color. Dad was a tight cropped rusty brunette; Mom had a shock of lightning blonde, done up in a beehive; Sis was a redhead, her long locks pulled into a loose ponytail behind her; Brother was midnight black, slicked down and parted in the middle.
More than anything else about that strange night, I remember the hair. From the start, before I saw anything else, I knew there was something off about the hair.
As they came upon the door to the prep area, they all looked at each other and gave a string of beatific smiles. Just a happy family, out that evening for a late meal. I grinned to myself and went back to my book. Must be from out of town, I thought.
A few moments later a young man in a red and blue polo with a crooked name tag pinned to his breast walked the group back to their vehicle. I saw him pointing to the sign with the menu, and to the speaker box. I wasn’t really listening, but it was clear he was explaining the eatery’s ordering system. It was kind of cute. These well-to-do folks must be on some kind of road trip, gotten hungry, and pulled into the first joint they saw. Not their fault it wasn’t a standard restaurant.
I checked the clock on my dash for the time--what the hell is taking so long? It’s just a couple of burgers and sodas--and was about to return to my book when I noticed that all four travelers were standing outside their vehicle. They were hunched over, studying the drive-in menu with a scrutiny usually reserved for hieroglyphics, or Renaissance art. They pored over the words, running long nimble fingers over the surface of the menu as they conversed in hushed, breathy tones. After a full minute of discussion and dissection, Dad lifted an index finger and depressed the call button.
His finger had six joints.
“Hello and welcome to Happy Burger, how may I help you?” a tinny, abnormally cheerful voice--presumably the young man from before--piped up through the speaker.
Dad leaned in until his lips almost touched the speaker, as though he didn’t trust the device to pick up his words. “Do you have any recommendations?” His voice was high, with a thin buzzing resonation. It was as though a bee had flown by just as he’d started speaking.
It occurred to me as I watched that the car I had taken to be a classic top-down Caddy was not precisely that, either. I’d thought it a brilliant silver, so bright it stung my eyes. But that wasn’t quite right. It was more…luminescent, as though the shine was emanating from inside the vehicle itself, not reflecting off the surface. Which made sense, I realized: there wasn’t enough ambient light in the parking lot to give off that level of effulgence. I was trying to figure what kind of paint job would give it that effect when my gaze fell on the tires. They were velvet black, the antithesis of the vehicle’s transcendent brightness, so dark they seemed to consume the glow that surrounded them. As I stared, I recognized that, whatever the tires were made of, they didn’t quite touch the ground. They hovered an almost unnoticeable inch over the ashen concrete lot.
I snapped my attention back to the family, who were still situated around the menu. Each leaned in close one after another to announce their order, like wooden birds drinking at a neon pool. It must have been Sis’s turn. She leaned forward and I heard a shrill, buzzing voice ask, “May I have a cheese-burger, but without the cheese?”
“Yes, ma’am, that’s a hamburger!” the jovial voice replied. I couldn’t tell, but I got the distinct feeling the Happy Burger kid was having a ball. I did not share his enthusiasm. I was starting to question my sanity.
“Okay,” Sis continued, “I would like a ham-burger with mayo-naise and tator tots,” she said, her tone a sing-song lilt. When she turned to look up at Dad, I caught her profile. She seemed pleased with herself. Their skin wasn’t pale, as I’d initially thought, but a delicate, smooth grey. Her eye was large, glassy and opaque. I doubted it held a drop of moisture.
“Can I get you a drink with that?” the kid’s voice asked. Sis’s smile faltered. She hadn’t expected that.
“…Yes?” she replied.
“Great! What can I get you?”
“I will have…” she spoke slowly, six-jointed fingers gliding again and again over the menu, “…a straw-burr-why milk-shake, please.”
“You got it!” was the response. Sis’s shoulders sagged in unmistakable relief.
“Can I get you folks anything else?” the stannic voice chirped.
“That will be all,” Mom said, leaning in. Her voice, too, buzzed, deeper than any of those who’d spoken before her. It sounded like syrup being poured.
I checked the clock on my dash again, almost afraid to move. It had been five minutes since this…craft, its occupants, had parked nearby. I was having a close encounter. Worse, I was having it on an empty stomach.
I considered giving up on food and just charging the hell out of there. But I’d turned off the engine, and to this point, the family in the other car hadn’t paid me any mind. I didn’t know if I was just beneath their notice or if they genuinely didn’t register that there was another person around, but if I tried to turn the engine over, it might attract their attention. So I sat, and watched, and waited.
I wasn’t scared. I had not been given any real reason to be frightened. But I was deeply, deeply unnerved, and that did for fear in a pinch.
Only a few moments seemed to pass between the completion of their order and the carhop’s delivery. This time he was on skates, pulling himself to a backwards-rolling stop right next to the craft. The family, who had proceeded with clockwork precision to reoccupy the craft in classic Norman Rockwell fashion--Dad in the driver’s seat, Mom the passenger, two well-behaved kids in the back--applauded with genteel enthusiasm as he gave a deep bow, tray balanced above his head. The carhop then handed two stuffed, greasy bags to Dad, and waited with admirable patience as he passed the contents of each to the family. Once that task was completed, the kid handed over a cardboard drinks tray, which Dad passed to Mom for dispersal while he took out a wad of something that looked too large and salmon-colored to be American currency. The kid shook Dad’s hand, and skated back toward the prep building.
My lungs ached. It occurred to me that I might have forgotten to breathe for a few heartbeats. I sucked in a low gasp of air, suddenly aware of the multiple and sundry ways my sweaty, gassy frame could give my presence away.
The craft pulled out of its space, like any other vehicle, then rose off the ground and into the air at sharp a thirty degree angle, gaining a steady acceleration on the incline. It emitted no noise, but shrank off against the horizon above the trees with impossible speed. I felt a gust of wind blast through my car, blowing my hair and stinging my gaping eyes. Quiet stillness rung hollow in its wake.
“Hey, sorry about the wait, man,” said a voice on my left. I screamed.
“Whoa, hey, you okay?” the kid asked. He was holding another greasy brown bag, and a couple of sodas in large Styrofoam cups.
I gaped at him, jaw unhinged. “Did you just…tell me I didn’t just…you saw that, right?”
The kid grinned. “Ah, you seen one take off, you seen ‘em all.” He held up my food again. “Sorry about the wait,” he repeated. “But I thought you might enjoy the show.”
Seen one…take-off…? “You’ve seen…” I pointed absently to the inkblot Georgia sky. “You’ve seen that before?”
“Sure,” the kid said. “We’re a pretty popular spot. First food stop off the exit, y’know?”
Derek Moreland <INSERT SELF-DEPRECATING BUT HUMOROUS WITTICISM HERE>. He is co-host of the podcasts “Blah Blah Comics Blah Blah Curse Words” and "DC Animated Adventures," available on Soundcloud. You can follow him on Twitter @blahblahpod, and on his website, derekmoreland.wordpress.com.