Space Signals by Mackenzie Hurlbert

Harvey bit into his apple and savored the sour tinge of pesticide. He pointedly ignored Meredith when she insisted he wash them.

“You’ll get canc-ahh,” she chided from the kitchen. She had the tendency to do that–to drop her r’s and let the vowel slide off her tongue slower than a slug on honey.

“We’re all gonna die sometime,” he muttered and followed up with the pop hiss of a freshly cracked can of Rolling Rock. Forget wine and cheese—no pairing beat granny smith apples and beer. He sat back in his recliner and flipped through the channels. Landing on Animal Planet, he settled for that Bigfoot show he knew Meredith couldn’t stand. On the screen, two men, wide-eyed and pale in the green glow of a night cam, crouched over a monstrous track with a measuring tape. Harvey took another bite of the apple and chased it with a swig of beer.

He just wanted some peace and quiet. He was a quiet man with a quiet life in small town Middlebrook, Pennsylvania. He could count on two hands the number of times he’d ventured beyond the county borders. He had Chip’s Hardware down the street, the General Store for groceries, and the library with shelves full of his favorite yellow-paged sci-fi paperbacks. What else did a man need? he thought.

“Haah-vey…” Meredith called from the kitchen. He sighed. She’d grown up in Middlebrook, too—they actually dated in high school—but unlike Harvey, Meredith left. She tried beauty school in the city, flunked out, worked at a bowling alley, and supported a deadbeat boyfriend for a few years. He ended up running off on her with the mail lady. To this day, Meredith still carried an irrational hatred for any woman working at the post office.

He heard her heeled sandals click clack into the living room and opened his eyes only when she rattled the pillbox in front of his face. The TV’s milky glow shined through the clear plastic, revealing Thursday’s section was still full. “Haahh-vey, your meds.” He looked from the pillbox to her face, and she pursed her lips in disapproval. Her nails were hot pink and filed to points.

‘Hate’ was a strong word in Harvey’s opinion, but he closely associated its meaning with Meredith. He probably hated her, but he definitely hated himself—for letting her move in and for being too soft to kick her out.

Six months ago, Meredith had wandered back to Middlebrook and registered at the grimy Lunar Motel off the highway. He ran into her at the General Store and asked how things had been. Of course, he didn’t actually care, but what else do you do when you run into an old girlfriend some fifty years later? So he asked, and she cried enough to make her blue eyeliner dribble onto her cheeks. Harvey grew embarrassed, and to save them both—him from the moment’s unexpected wave of emotion and Meredith from her unfortunate situation—he offered to rent her the second bedroom of his house. At the time, it seemed like a win-win. He could use the extra income, and the rates she was paying at the motel were practically robbery.

He was kicking himself now, though. One week after moving in, she’d adopted a little one-eyed Pomeranian mix from the pound named Dumpling, who followed her from room to room. When Meredith was in the bathroom, the dog (if you could call it that) stood guard outside and growled if Harvey walked by. Dumpling had already shredded one of the couch cushions and one of Harvey’s work boots in a fit of rage. Harvey was also pretty sure the dog ate the barbeque lighter he left sitting on the counter. All he found after it went missing was a tiny shred of green plastic. He never told Meredith about the incident but kept a close eye on Dumpling, wishing for the best (or worst). A week passed, and Dumpling seemed fine, though his remaining eye did start to leak a bit more, leaving a dark ring of matted fur around the socket.

This morning the creature decided to mess on the rug outside Harvey’s bedroom. Meredith saw it as a sign of affection.

“He’s marking you as his!” she said as Harvey cleaned it up. She looked at Dumpling sweetly, running her taloned fingers through the snarls in his fur. Dumpling just stared blankly at Harvey with his one leaky eye.

Even still, the worst part about having Meredith here was the talking—the constant gossiping about anyone and anything. Harvey didn’t give a damn about any of it. He never understood the draw of drama. He kept to himself and wished everyone else to do the same.

Of course, some people thought he was the weird one. He heard the talk around town—Hermit Harvey, they called him. It was a big shock, he bet, when Meredith moved in. Everyone in town probably thought they were shacking up, when in reality, neither of them made a pass. Without addressing it, they both seemed to understand that any romantic relationship between the two of them had died with their youth.

Meredith treated Harvey like a dying old man—she hounded him about his meds, chastised him for his diet, and more recently, she tended to shout everything she said at him as if he were hard of hearing.

On the other hand, he treated her the same way he treated the outdated wallpaper in his home: with an all-encompassing indifference. But ignoring Meredith was proving to be much harder than ignoring the ugly wallpaper. He had tried to kick her out twice already, but she always guilted him into allowing another month and then another. Money problems, crippling anxiety, and a poor housing market were just a few of her reasons against leaving, and who was he to argue with any of those? He admitted it was nice to collect the rent, but his patience with her constant talking was running thin.

Meredith left the pillbox on his chest and click-clacked back to the kitchen with Dumpling at her heels to finish packing up the cauliflower casserole she made for dinner. She started babbling about this woman at work who wore too much perfume and who was probably cheating on her husband with their boss.

“She hasn’t said anything to me, of course, but I see the way those two look at each oth-ahh.” Meredith was always seeing things no one else saw, especially between her coworkers at the dress shop.

He swallowed a handful of Thursday’s pills with another swig of beer. Tired of Bigfoot, Harvey flipped over to the news and turned the volume up enough to drown out Meredith’s rambling. A serious-looking anchor addressed the camera while the caption at the bottom of the screen read: “Mysterious Object Seen Over Middlesex Valley.”  

“Over the past week, witnesses in Middlesex Valley have reported seeing a low-flying aircraft. Could these sightings coincide with missing livestock in the area? Some locals say that may be the case. We revisit this mystery after the break.” As they cut to commercial, Harvey took another bite of his apple and noticed Meredith had stopped talking and stood in the doorway.

“You know, I heard people talking ‘bout that today,” she said, gesturing to the screen. Dumpling was licking her toes. “Linda, you know, ‘Sweaty Linda’ from high school?”

Harvey, who had no idea which Linda she was talking about, just nodded.

“Well, she came in today with her daughter—it’s about time for prom dresses again—and she says she had two chickens missing last night, and her neighbor lost one of his sheep. Then Roger—you know Roger Cahill; I used to babysit him back in the day—well, he’s one of our delivery men, and he was telling us that his family lost a cow and her calf. They’re down to two now. I told him they probably just ran off, but he says there’s no way.”

Harvey shrugged. “Maybe this plane here scared ‘em.”

Meredith moved to sit on the couch. “Well, I hear it’s not a plane,” she said. Dumpling was on her lap before she had finished sitting. “I hear it’s some Russian surveillance drone. They’re trying to find a way into DC airspace. Roger thinks it’s a UFO, but I told him that if it’s aliens, they’ve got better places to be than Middlebrook. I mean, come on, what’s the draw? Cows? Chickens?”

Harvey stayed silent as he remembered a show he’d watched a few nights back about explorers of the “New World.” From chocolate in South America to pheasants from Asia, those early globetrotters brought back souvenirs to impress the folks at home. Hell, the show even touched on a group who brought back people for display. At one of the World Fairs, there was this whole living exhibit of Pygmies from the Congo. Harvey thought, If humans did all that, who’s to say aliens wouldn’t want to take home a cow for bragging rights? 

“Anyway, I told Roger that he could take that crackpot theory to the press if he was so sure about it. Maybe he did. I wonder if he’s one of these witnesses they’re talking about.” Meredith was still jabbering about Roger as Harvey got up from his recliner and carried his empty can and apple core to the kitchen. He opened the door to the back porch and walked out into the warm night air. Dumpling ran past his feet and started sniffing around the lawn.

“Run off now, ya here,” Harvey said to him. Dumpling ignored his voice and lifted his leg to pee on the flipped-over wheelbarrow. Harvey sighed and let the door shut behind him as he sat on the porch steps. The stars were bright in the sky overhead.

He could hear Meredith’s yammering grow louder, meaning this quick moment of peace was coming to an end. This was it, he thought. No rent was worth having to listen to her at all hours of the day. He would say something again tonight, and this time he would stick to it.

In the yard, Dumpling circled. He was caught on a scent and trotted quickly, sniffing the ground in tighter and tighter circles until he must have found the source and stopped. Dumpling sat and raised his one good eye to the sky. Harvey looked up, too, and saw nothing but stars.

Meredith walked out on the porch and stopped mid-sentence. “What’s he looking at?”

“Aliens,” Harvey said.

“Oh, stop it, you,” She playfully slapped his shoulder as she passed by and went to join Dumpling in the yard. “Whatcha lookin’ at, Dumplin’? What’s up there?”

The dog stayed sitting, staring into the night sky. Meredith looked up, too, mouth agape. Harvey watched as these two creatures stared skyward.

Harvey held his breath and waited. Now would be the time, he thought. Now would be the opportune moment for a UFO to glide over from behind the treetops. It would be the perfect time to let down a blue beam of light, and once they were packaged away safely within the saucer, the aliens would lift these two off into a new world where Meredith’s ceaseless yammering would be a novelty. The moment continued, and Harvey waited. Meredith was silent, and Dumpling sat like a good boy, a trick he learned years ago in a different life when he had two eyes.

Mackenzie Hurlbert is a Connecticut-based writer with previous publications in Hofstra’s Windmill, We Walk Invisible, Written Tales, Five:2:One’s The Sideshow, and Flash Fiction Magazine. She studied English, journalism, and creative writing at Southern Connecticut State University and received an honorable mention in the 2019 Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards for her story “Milk Teeth.”