The first thought I had was of hangover. Usually, that's what happening when what was waiting whenever I woke up on the ground, the feeling of having the shit kicked out of me by skinheads. It took awhile to realize there was no pain.
I sat up. Bright sunshine. High Cirrus clouds creased the afternoon sky. A smell of ozone in the air, dark lozenge-shaped missiles rising behind the trees…
“What the ever-living…?” I heard Rob say. I stood, unsteadily, and brushed pine needles from my hiking pants.
Rich was sitting up, craning his neck to look up. Frank…his hand making a shield over his forehead as he, too, watched the ships disappearing.
“That happened,” I said. “Didn’t it?”
Rich stood. “I think it did,” he muttered. “I think it did…”
Around us, just as we’d left them, were our backpacks, the tea mugs crawling with insects. I reached into my pack, pulled out the stove and a water bottle. I lit the stove. It hissed and warbled into life. We all looked at each other.
“Let’s have some tea,” I said. “And think about this.”
The GPS was working again. Our phones still had no signal but they lit up obligingly.
“It’s Sunday,” Rob said. “How can it be Sunday?”
But all of our devices agreed. It was Sunday.
“Guys…” said Rich quietly. “We’ve been gone three days.”
We stood there, sipping hot tea. It tasted like nectar to me. And then, as one, we all ripped into our food supplies, stuffing handfuls of trail mix, crackers, lumps of cheese, into our mouths. We were ravenous. But I felt rested, oddly relaxed. I looked at the guys. We all appeared to be fine. In fact, there was a healthy radiance coming from us.
“We’re all OK,” Rob said.
“We’re OK,” we mumbled. We all stood quietly. The treetops waved lazily in a perfect Pine Barrens afternoon.
“I don’t remember anything,” Rob said. “Do you?”
“Nothing,” we mumbled.
“Nothing…” I said. “Except for…”
“The…ships,” said Frank.
“The Ships,” we all said.
And then we packed up our gear. Without speaking, we began to walk, as before, back towards the trailhead.
Nobody spoke at all as we hiked. It took several hours to reach the parking lot where I’d left my truck. Frank’s truck was at the other end of the Batona, where we’d left it the previous Friday morning. I fumbled in the pack for the keys and pretended for a second that I didn’t have them. An old joke.
“Fuckin’ space aliens took your keys, John?” Rob laughed. We all laughed, then our laughter trailed off. There was beer in my truck. There’s always beer in my truck. I’d been thinking about all the way back up the trail, a big flagon of fine ale from our local brewery and I didn’t care if it was lukewarm, I was going to unhinge my jaw and pour it down my gullet but then I looked at the cans and I didn’t want it at all. That was odd.
We all piled into the 4Runner and I was going to take the bumpy back trail down through the woods, something I loved to do, slewing in the sand, charging through puddles of brown water that came up to the doors. But Rich put his hand on my arm and pointed instead to the paved road.
“Take the long way, John…”
I understood. We’d had enough of the woods. Nobody said a word as I drove the twenty-odd miles around the long way to where Frank’s truck was parked.
Frank and Rich got out. Stowed their gear in Frank’s truck. Then we just stood around, kind of scuffing our feet, waiting for someone to speak. Eventually Rich cleared his throat.
“I don’t know what happened,” he began. “But something did…”
“We were abducted by fucking aliens, Rich,” I said, angrily.
Then we all were all yelling at once, over each other. We could agree on one thing through: we were intact. They hadn’t sucked our brains dry or removed any vital organs, that we could tell. The last thing any of us remembered was stepping into the obelisks, rising into space, and then simply, just…waking up on the ground.
“Nobody’s gonna believe us,” Frank said, tiredly. He rubbed his face. “Jesus….”
“Alright, guys,” said Rob. “Alright…listen. You’re right, Frank. Nobody’s gonna believe us. They’ll think we’re fucking with them. I mean…really, we go into the woods, we get abducted, or whatever. Did we see any actual aliens, or anything?”
“Besides those…ships, whatever they were?” I realized that I was sitting on the ground now, hugging myself tightly, anxiously, and the others were pacing around, similarly agitated.
“Let’s go home guys,” Ruch said tiredly.
“And…what, Rich? What then?” I asked.
“Then…nothing,” he said. “Nothing at all. We tell nobody. Not a thing. Whose gonna believe us, anyway?”
He was right. Rob and I got back into my truck and Rich got into Frank’s truck and we drove away and within a few miles the signal came back and our phones lit up with text messages and voice mails. Rob and I looked each other, shrugged, and then took our phones and began to dial.
“Yeah it was great honey!” I told my wife. “You know…hard hiking, hard drinking….what? Yeah I’ll be home in a couple of hours. Yeah, I’ll take care of the yard, yeah…love you…”
And Rob was saying the same things to his wife. We drove home. I dropped him off. He slung his gear over his shoulder and gave me a hard look.
“Nothing,” he said. “To nobody…”
“Likewise, pal,” I said back, and drove away