by Michael Anthony
It seemed like just another summer day as three sixth graders leapt from the railroad trestle into the river below. But, this would be a day they would never forget.
Each made a big splash, then disappeared below the water. Henry and Willie surfaced first and treaded water waiting for their friend, Carl. They swirled round and round scanning for bubbles, but saw none. The submerged twisted limbs of fallen trees had snagged more than a few swimmers’ legs, so they were nervous at how long Carl had been underwater. Nervousness turned to panic when he didn’t surface.
Shouts of, “Carl! Carl!” echoed up the gorge the Perfection River had cut beneath the rusting bridge.
Some dozen feet away Carl Iverson shot up like a breaching whale, his back arched as he gulped the sweet air. Carl roared at his friends’ obvious concern. But, that’s the way Carl was. Anything for a joke. Henry and Willie were not laughing as they waded towards the sandy shoreline. A distant hum caught Willie’s attention. But, seeing nothing unusual, ignored it.
The river ran from the peaks of the Perfection Mountains and was as cold as it was clear. Over the thousand-foot drop to the natural dam that formed along the ridge, the river ran over miles of worn rounded stones. They ranged from marble-sized to what looked like medicine balls the gym teacher hurled at boys when they interrupted the girls’ exercise class.
Locals often spent Saturday mornings gathering as many of the perfectly rounded rocks as they could fit into the trunks of their cars. Then they parked along Route 14 hoping to attract the attention of out-of-towners passing through Cometville.
Visitors would stop and marvel at the different sizes and colors of the sandstone spheres. “Are they real?” some would ask naïvely. Others would simply say, “How much?” Prices ranged from two cents for the smallest ones on up to a quarter for anything larger than a basketball. On a good day, a person could make as much as ten bucks hawking those rocks, which folks thought were part of that famous comet.
* * *
The otherwise forgettable town got its name back in April 1921, when a celestial phenomenon blazed across the night sky. During its seconds-long flight through town, the mysterious object glowed so brightly that anyone still awake thought dawn had come early. Dogs howled. Cats ran scared under porches. Horses and cows kicked against stalls and barn walls. Children woke up screaming, startled by the whooshing sound of the fireball.
In minutes, the entire population of four hundred and eighteen was awake and outside their homes in various stages of undress. Children wore Doctor Dentons. Fathers stood in slippers and suspendered work pants. Mothers held babies swaddled in pink and green crib blankets. You name it and somebody had it wrapped around them.
Of course, nearly everyone had their own explanation for the unnerving visitant that buried itself at the base of the schoolhouse and set fire to a fifty-five foot spruce that stood just outside the entrance.
“It was one of them aeroplanes.”
“St. Elmo’s fire.”
“Poltergeists. That’s what it was, poltergeists.”
“Artillery fire. Like back in Verdun.”
In the morning, townsfolk huddled around the schoolhouse staring at the charred limbs of that once stately evergreen; the scorched wall with its paint bubbled right off the wood; and, the twelve-foot deep hole that exposed the building foundation.
Mr. Wilkins, the school’s English teacher, speculated it was a comet of “epic proportions.” The Chairman of the Southern State University Science Department drove down the next day and after several hours of probing, sifting, and testing determined the glistening black orb to be a meteorite. “No bigger than a grapefruit,” he declared.
Despite the professor’s official pronouncement, word spread throughout the county that a comet had landed in town. A steady stream of wagons, automobiles, rack-sided trucks, and people on foot came to see The Comet.
Within weeks, nearly everyone in a fifty-mile radius was referring to the tiny hamlet as Cometville. It took another year for the town council to officially change the name. There wasn’t much opposition considering the place used to be known as Shy Beaver.
* * *
A loud rumble broke the silence as the three friends sat on the riverbank. While putting on his eyeglasses, Carl shouted, “It’s the express out of Chicago. Should be in by 3:40.”
“No. It’s thunder,” Henry countered.
Willie just listened. As the town’s acknowledged tomboy, Willie Gawden had bloodied more than a few boys’ noses to prove she saw herself as their equal. Others learned quickly, and sometimes painfully, that her name was Willie, not Wilhelmina. Her short haircut gave no indication of her gender. But, to Henry and Carl she was just another pal.
The roar grew until it rivaled a summer storm. Henry fixed on a formation of eight aircraft emerging from the clouds. He wondered why they were heading north towards Cometville? The closest air base was some four hundred miles due east.
Henry shouted to Carl and Willie, but the airplanes drowned out his words. Peering straight up, Carl noticed the lead plane dip its wing and veer off to the west. “Never seen anything like that,” said Henry.
Concerned her Uncle Gard hadn’t picked them up as planned, Willie said, “We should start back.”
They had been walking for less than five minutes when those airplanes roared overhead again. This time they flew so low, the pilot’s faces were visible. Just then the gravel exploded in a line.
“They’re shooting – at us,” Henry screamed.
“Run for the trees,” Carl shouted.
Willie dove into the marsh weeds where she saw Henry holding his arm. “You all right?” she called.
“I’m hurt bad,” Henry howled.
“Over here,” Carl said while grasping his shattered eyeglasses.
“Let’s go – now,” Willie urged while helping Henry.
Unable to see without those glasses, Carl scrambled all over the road until Willie grabbed hold of his shirt and pulled him along. On one side she cradled the wounded Henry. On the other, she dragged Carl whose arms were outstretched like a blind man searching for a wall.
The trio slowed at the sight of the stone farmhouse across the pasture down Walker’s Run.
“Where are we?” Carl asked; his head pivoting; his eyes straining to see through those cracked lenses.
“Formulet’s place.” Willie replied.
“Good,” Henry wailed. “We’re almost home.”
“Let’s cut across the field and follow the creek to town.”
“Formulet don’t like anyone on his property,” Carl warned.
In her typical fashion, Willie grabbed Carl’s shirt and said, “You gonna wait for permission or get Henry help?”
“All right. I just can’t see,” Carl complained.
They passed the century-old house and made their way through the pasture where Ameel Formulet’s Holsteins usually grazed, but not today. Willie led Henry and Carl into the shade of the solitary oak that marked the halfway point between the house and the stream.
A massive blast slammed them to the ground. Lifting her face from the dirt, Willie saw the Formulet house ablaze. Stones that once formed the back wall lay scattered about like children’s toy blocks.
The drone of airplane engines grew. Willie crawled around the tree trunk to scan the sky. “They’re coming back.”
Henry screamed, “We’re going to die. We’re going to die.” Carl just laid on the ground sniveling. Though her legs quivered, Willie knew they couldn’t stay there.
The ground erupted in a cloud of dust and rocks and clumps of alfalfa still clinging to the rich black soil. Debris fell with the staccato rhythm of a sudden downpour. Willie hollered, “We’re getting out of here and we ain’t stopping ‘til we get to the creek.”
“Not sure I can m-make it,” Carl stuttered.
“So stay here, ‘cause I’m taking Henry.”
“Don’t leave me,” Carl whined.
“Then get up,” Willie snapped. “When I count three, start running. Carl, grab hold of Henry and don’t let go. Henry, run as hard as you can. I got you.”
“One, two, THREE. Go.”
They aimed for the creek that branched from the Perfection River to the south end of town. The water splashing on Henry’s arm eased the pain some, though the weight of the water against their legs slowed them. Each wished they could wake from this nightmare. But no dream, it was as real as the bloody cloth wrapped around Henry’s arm. Willie measured their progress by the rising depth of the rivulet. Near town, it was some three feet deep. They were now at two. Another quarter mile or so.
Not far ahead the crenellated façade of a factory loomed like a medieval castle. Built by Carl’s great-grandfather to cast and assemble parts for the steam-powered automobiles being manufactured by the Stanley Company it put the town on the map. But, when Stanley folded, so did the assembly plant.
The county grange rented a portion of the first floor for their larger meetings and harvest festivals. Old Phil, the last watchman, still sat on an upended box just inside the gate. Grange payments barely covered Phil’s expenses. There really wasn’t much need for his watchful eye beyond chasing hobos away and keeping local kids from breaking windows.
As he reminded anyone who listened, Old Phil had been a medic in “The Big One.” So, Willie hoped he could help Henry. Unfortunately, the wooden box that served as Phil’s guard post was empty and the gate locked.
His arm still bleeding, Henry was beginning to look ashen.
“Come on we’re going to Doc’s,” Willie hollered. “Carl, hold Henry up.”
They navigated around the back of the brick building and moved towards the large open field that stood between the factory and the streets of Cometville. Each July Fourth, before the fireworks display, residents would set themselves down in that space to picnic on fried chicken, red potato salads, and fresh squeezed lemonade made by the Wilson School Women’s Auxiliary.
Carl clutched Henry’s uninjured arm while Willie stayed about three paces ahead. “Hold it!” Willie shouted.
“Why are we stopping?” Carl worried.
“Look, over there by the back of Wilson School. See ‘em?” Willie said while shielding her eyes from the blazing sun. Carl squinted through the broken lens of his eyeglasses at the gathering a half-mile away. Always one for dramatics, Henry whimpered about getting to Doc’s because he was convinced he had gangrene and Doc would surely amputate if they didn’t hurry.
“Looks like what flew over us by the bridge,” Willie said.
“They invaded Cometville.”
“Aw shut up, Henry,” Carl grumbled. “You been reading too many of them Astounding Stories.”
“Come on. Let’s cut through Elmer King’s yard. Stay close to them hedges.” Willie always knew the shortest route from one place to another or the most surreptitious.
The trio inched along the path, bending beneath forsythia bushes that drooped under the weight of bright green leaves that embroidered their long curved branches. With another forty yards to Water Street, Willie scouted ahead. Carl squinted over his shoulder ensuring they weren’t being followed. Still whining about the pain, Henry just sagged against Carl.
“Ready?” Willie warned as they prepared to dash to the tool shed in Becky Barbour’s yard.
“Yeah. Let’s go.”
Running like frightened deer, they rounded the peach tree; sprang for the shed; and, pressed themselves against the side.
Willie’s heart pounded. “Two more blocks. We should just walk, so we don’t attract attention.”
Once again Willie did the thinking for the group. Trying to be nonchalant, Willie, Carl, and a stoop-shouldered Henry started down Water Street to Main.
The few cars belonging to those who could afford them were parked along the ditch that served as a storm drain. Even Ed Novak’s milk truck, which at this time of day was usually back at the dairy, still sat outside Langston’s General Store and Post Office. Willie peered into each vehicle, hoping to find someone, anyone. Every last car was empty.
They looked through the general store front window to see who was sitting on the bench just inside the door. Ordinarily there would be several Cometville elders recounting their exploits during the twenty-seven coal strike; bemoaning the decline of the Sox pitching staff; or opining on the state of the nation. Today, there were none.
“Where is everybody?” Carl whispered.
“I told you. We been invaded,” Henry cried.
“Knock it off,” Willie growled. “They gotta be around somewhere. We just ain’t found ‘em yet.”
Even on a normal day, passing O’Malley’s Mortuary felt strange. So, with the entire town seemingly abandoned, it was downright unnerving. They passed Miss Jolene’s Piano and Dance Studio; the house Willie’s Uncle Gard rented out; and, started across Main Street to Doc’s when Willie froze. Her hand went up, signaling her friends to stop.
Eight men clad in brown leather flying jackets with sheared wool collars marched out of the town hall. Mirrored sunglasses hid their eyes and leather gloves covered their hands. Each wore a hat similar to what Henry recalled seeing in a book about the Army Air Corps.
Yet, there were no insignias above the black patent leather brims. Gray twill jodhpurs with a thin black line down each side were tucked into polished boots that ran from foot to knee.
With the leader walking point, the triangular formation approached. One aviator in the center of the group held something round and metallic.
Willie stepped back until she was against Carl and Henry. Then, she spread her arms as if that alone would protect her friends. She tried to read the stranger’s eyes. But, those mirrored glasses made that impossible. A silent smile broke across the tall aviator’s waxen face. But, to Willie, it appeared more a sinister grin than a friendly greeting.
“Don’t you touch us,” Willie shouted.
Though the leader of the group did not react, the others turned to one another, but said nothing. Willie’s chest began to vibrate like at the July Fourth fireworks. Only this time, there were no colorful displays, no concussions overhead, just a tense hush and that rumbling deep inside her rib cage.
The leader reached into his jacket.
Willie feared he was going to pull out one of those forty-fives pilots carried. If it was a pistol, they were as good as dead because they could not outrun a bullet. Nor, was there anywhere to dive for cover. The hand reappeared holding a small pad on which the leader wrote with a silver, cigar-shaped pen. While Henry sobbed on Carl’s shoulder, his knees buckled. “I’m going to…”
Despite Carl’s efforts, Henry sank to the ground in a heap. Luckily, Carl managed to slip his hand under his pal’s head before it hit the pavement.
“Listen, mister,” Willie yelled. “I gotta get my friend to Doc’s now. You shot him by the railroad bridge and he’s hurt bad.” Willie’s fearless resolve surprised even her. She was emboldened as if she had inhaled a chestful of frigid winter air. “Come on, Carl,” Willie said. “Let’s get Henry.”
Still mute, the leader handed Willie a page he tore from the pad. It felt thin as onionskin and smooth as plasticene. Willie read the note silently; then shoved it in her pocket.
The aviator stepped closer and bending on one knee extended his hand over Henry’s prone body. He signaled his men to encircle the boys. The leader touched the silver pen to Henry’s wound. The vibration in Willie’s chest swelled and competed with her pounding heart.
The leader placed his left hand on Willie’s shoulder. Despite the gloves, it felt cold as dry ice. The silver pen in the aviator’s other hand glowed bright as an acetylene torch. A spark shot from the glowing orb held by one of the flyers. It arced into the air and then down to the pen before burrowing into Henry’s arm.
Willie’s shoulder ached and her ears rang as Henry flopped around on the pavement like a fish just landed.
The aviator stood and led the squadron down Water Street towards the field where those eight fighter planes sat gleaming in the sun.
“What happened?” Henry groaned while still lying on his back in the street.
“You passed out,” Willie responded as the eight turned the corner past Wheeler’s Garage.
“Come on. Let’s see where they’re going,” Willie said.
Henry whined, “What about my arm?”
“Look at it,” Willie replied.
Henry lifted the cloth wrapped around his wound to find none. “Hey, my arm ain’t hurt. What did you guys do?”
“It was them flyers,” Carl said.
They headed towards the field. When they rounded Wheeler’s Garage the wash from the propellers that drew silver circles around the nose cones of the fighter planes pushed them back. Maintaining formation, the planes taxied; turned; and, aimed for the far end of the field.
Dust stung the trio’s squinting eyes. The leader looked in their direction and waved. Willie returned the gesture. The syncopated roar of the engines grew louder as the planes sped across the grass.
In seconds, the eight were airborne and climbing towards those mountainous clouds that towered some fifteen thousand feet above the horizon. Willie blinked the dirt from her eyes while watching the formation disappear into a thunderhead.
“What did that paper say?” Carl asked Willie who replied, “Said they came to retrieve something that was theirs and that Henry would be all right.”
“Let me see,” Carl demanded. He unfolded the note Willie gave him. “There’s nothing on it.”
Sure enough, it was blank.
The clinking of empty milk bottles rattling in wooden crates broke the eerie stillness. The trio turned to see Ed Novak’s milk truck bounding down Main Street. People were again outside. Except for a cluster of folks at town hall, it was as though nothing had happened.
The three snaked through the gathering; up the town hall steps; and, squeezed inside where Sheriff Brian Stevens was examining the smashed display case that once held the object for which this town had changed its name. “Take it easy, folks,” Stevens cautioned. “There’s no way that thing could have jumped out and shattered like that. Something must have fallen or somebody bumped the case.”
Shards of what looked like obsidian littered the floor. Folks commiserated that the famous Cometville Comet had been destroyed.
Henry tugged at Willie’s shirt, “Think it was them flyers?”
“Who else?” she whispered back.
Each of the three questioned friends and family about the airplanes. Not one saw or heard them. And, for certain, nobody observed eight uniformed men enter or leave town hall. Nor did anyone witness a confrontation at Water and Main. Even Henry’s mom never learned of his wound or its inexplicable healing.
With its famous extraterrestrial namesake gone, Cometville was soon back to its old boring self and the three friends just sat on the bridge dangling their legs over the side.
Though Henry and Carl would eventually move away, Willie Gawden remained in Cometville still caring for folks, but as the town doctor.
Every year on the anniversary of that strange day, a formation of eight lights appeared briefly in the night sky over Cometville. When it did, the silver cigar-shaped pen Dr. Gawden used to write patient notes and prescriptions vibrated. It was a pen she had never refilled since finding it in her pocket some twenty-seven years earlier.