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Knott's Berry Farm
It was August 5th, 1984, and the sky trembled with heat over Knott’s Berry Farm. It was hot and bright blue, and if Buck stared at it long enough, he could see strange blue-white shapes in it, twisting and squirming like hooked worms in time to the beat of blood in his temples. He lay on his back in the prickly grass between blackberry rows and listened to the electric hum of insects all around him. The air was dusty and the sun burned his freckled skin the shade of Mama’s best raspberry jam. Up at the house he heard pots banging desultorily and chickens clucking as his sister Mae mucked out the coop. A hot wind sprang up and carried the strains of Pap’s old radio with it, all buzzing voices and wheedling fiddles that threaded through the piercing insectile chorus, setting Buck’s teeth on edge. There were no clouds. Buck squinted up at the blue, blue sky and saw a new shape.
It seemed to wobble before his eyes, and he reached up to rub the stinging sweat out of them, squinting harder, willing himself to see. The thing, whatever it was, looked gray. A small round gray disk perfectly covering the sun. It grew larger in degrees, and it took Buck a moment to realize that it was coming closer. He abruptly scrambled up on his elbows, ignoring the bruise and scrape of grass and rocks beneath him, and noticed suddenly that all the insects had gone silent. The buzz of grasshopper, cricket and cicada had been replaced with a single concentrated whine that bit into his brain, growing louder and shriller as the heavy, mercurial disk came closer. The wind quickened, and suddenly all heat and color seemed to blink out of the day. The ground beneath Buck felt trembly and sick. He felt a prick on his finger and looked down to see the dust coming alive with sharp little blades of grass, swarming up everywhere, growing impossibly fast and large. It was like watching faded stop-motion photography. Buck heard a dry slithering sound and looked over to see the blackberry vines twisting thornily like snakes, shooting out of the ground as if they had lain coiled there, dormant and waiting for this strange gray disk, this thing. Blackberries swelled to twice their size, then three times it, then five, shining darkly like juicy balloons about to explode. A grasshopper hopped past Buck and fell twitching to the ground, where it writhed out its last moments and then lay still, dead. The grass, sharp-edged, thick, and verdant as any jungle, towered high above Buck now, blocking out his sight. It was a washed-out shade of poisonous green. Green as envy, like his Mama would say. Buck scrambled to his feet.
The disk covered the whole sky. It was huge, massive, featureless and implacable, and beneath it everything seemed to warp and twist. Far off to the right the tall dusty shanty of a house seemed to lean impossibly. His sister’s shape seemed to grow tall and improbably thin. The rows of blackberries, wriggling crawlingly, seemed to stretch farther and farther back into the distance, as if space was being pulled like toffee to accommodate this smooth gray behemoth. It made every gray, gray, gray. But now the disk was changing. From the edges, 16 long, spidery legs were unfolding, strangely jointed metal of some kind, unfolding slowly and extending towards the berry farm. One came so close to Buck he could smell it before it clamped down into the earth, hidden in the grass. It smelled like ether and marsh-gas. Like metallic sulfur. Suddenly Buck felt sick. Horribly sick. His stomach lurched and he retched. But instead of this morning’s hot mash and bacon, blood came up and out of his gaping fish-mouth, bewilderingly thick and red. Buck fell to his knees in the saw-edged grass and clutched his middle, head swimming and eyes tearing. The world before his eyes lurched and swam, edges devoured by darkness. Buck saw a metallic ramp extend from the disk. He saw… something walk out, carrying a white bundle, almost like a swaddled baby. The thing was huge, spindly it seemed. It might have been made out of thousands of metallic parts, constantly shifting like a kaleidoscope. It might have had 7 legs or a hundred. All he knew for sure was that it had no eyes, and that it had teeth like icicles. Then cold bit into Buck, and the last thing he saw before his eyes froze was the creature setting down the bundle and dissolving into the air.
The crickets were chirping. The grasshoppers were sawing. The cicadas were buzzing.
A warm breeze stroked the tiny hairs on the young boy’s arms.
Ants went about their business.
Buck opened his eyes.
Above him the sky was the pale, fragile blue of morning-glories. He was lying in the grass and it was short and prickly.
Buck stood up.
The air was warm, and it was morning. All around him the rows of blackberry vines, immobile except the occasional leaf blowing in the breeze, stretched green and orderly into the distance. Up on the little bald hill the tall beige house stood straight and quiet. A few chickens clucked and then were still.
Buck started up the dusty path between the blackberry rows towards the house. The cool dirt felt good on the tough souls of his bare feet and the air smelled of grass and fresh berries. Up at the house, he saw his good old hound Jerry dozing on the rickety front porch beside Mae’s wellington’s and smiled. Everything was just as it always was. A dream then. He had dozed off in the blackberries and had a funny dream. He swung open the screechy screen door and walked into the kitchen. Mama was there, washing the dishes from breakfast in the sink. She was crying.
“Mama?” whispered Buck. She didn’t hear him. Buck didn’t understand. Mama never cried! Not when a fire burned the old house down. Not when she broke her leg falling off the porch. Not even when little Avery died of pneumonia that last cold winter. Something must be horribly, horribly wrong. “Mama?” repeated Buck, louder.
Mama whirled around. Her face was white as a circus clown’s and her mouth hung open comically. Her eyes were red, and transparent tears traced their way through the grooves and runnels of her face. She looked… old. Different. And shocked beyond belief.
“B-Buck…?” she said hoarsely. “Honey, is that really you?”
“Of course it’s me, Mama,” Buck said, surprised. “Who else would it be? There’s no need to carry on so, I ain’t been gone half an hour!” Mama gave a strangled gasp, leaning against the messy counter for support. There was another change. Mama always kept the counter clean.
“Honey,” she said. “Honey, you’ve been gone a year.”
There was silence. Then there was a gurgling cry. Buck, swallowing air, turned distractedly to face the sound.
In the next room there was a tarnished metal crib, its slender straight bars tarnished russet with rust. In the crib was a baby.
“We found her in the blackberries the day you disappeared,” said mama. “Say hello to your new sister.”
And the air smelled of metallic sulfur. And everything was gray.