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As soon as Billy saw the reflection of the moonlight flashing from the manhole, he scrambled off of his bed. Very little of that light entered his room because he’d kept the curtains closed but for one tiny slit through which he’d been observing the manhole. But he wasn’t one to miss the tiniest clue. So, in the near-dark, he touched his way to the open closet.

Shoes—where were the sneakers he’d hidden from Mommy? There. Way before he saw them, he smelled the unwashed sweat mixed with blood, spat out during the countless bullying sessions in the locker room. (Billy, the bullied, and the others, the bullies, to be clear. Things hadn’t worked out in Billy’s favor since entering elementary school, around which time he’d begun wearing glasses—possibly because of his habit of reading copies of Alien Today in the dark without noticing that the sun had set—but he still had great plans for himself and never ever bullied anyone. He didn’t want to disappoint his future fans.)

Like a dog that could smell its way through anything, Billy snatched the sneakers from the sundries filling the closet, put them on (didn’t bother putting on any socks), groped for the flashlight, the one on his desk—but found nothing. It was supposed to be there.

Come on, hadn’t he practiced for an entire week for this very moment? Blindfold and all? From his bed to the manhole? To get out of the house while Mommy snored in the next room?

Billy whirled and whirled in search for the flashlight—thump.

Mommy’s snoring immediately stopped.

Billy held still. He’d whipped the flashlight from the desk. The thing kept rolling across his tiny room for a second until it hit the bed with another, quieter thump.

“Billy?” called Mommy, her voice full of sleep.

She was an extremely light sleeper. That was the funny thing about being tired; one would think that as soon as the head touched the pillow, one would fall asleep and stay that way, but it wasn’t so. Mommy awoke at the tiniest noise.

As quietly as possible, Billy breathed in and out. Only his cotton pajama pants fluttered in rhythm, as if they were protesting how difficult it was for them to attempt to cover Billy’s ankles. He’d outgrown them months ago; why did Billy insist on making them labor past retirement age? And especially his mother, shouldn’t she know better? Hadn’t she watched Billy’s grandma die at a premature age from overworking?

Just bear with me, thought Billy. Once I find the aliens in the sewer, I’ll let you retire. Not just that. I’ll mention you when all the newspapers and TV stations interview me. I’ll tell them—these pajama pants have stood by me when everyone else around me told me I’m crazy, including my mother—

Mommy’s snoring resumed.

Billy let out a soft sigh and picked up the flashlight. Tonight, luck was on his side.

His heart raced and he felt hot. In this condition, he wouldn’t need a jacket. He turned the bedroom door handle slowly. The hinges creaked as they moved; but this door, unlike the closet door, Billy couldn’t have left open the previous night. Mommy would’ve noticed his suspicious plans. She didn’t approve of Billy’s alien stories, so much so that sometimes it felt like she didn’t approve of Billy.

But all of Mommy’s disapproval was about to come to an end.

Billy tiptoed down the hallway, out their two-bedroom apartment that was more like a one-bedroom with a thin wood panel between the so-called two rooms, then turned on the flashlight and began running. The light danced, shook, and jittered as Billy swept downstairs, past other apartments full of snoring men and women. He rushed faster than he’d ever been compelled to run from the bullies who’d never imagine just what he was about to do: finding aliens, proving to the world that the missing children staying with the aliens were in tip-top condition, and thereby bringing about the age of human-alien cooperation.

Billy Clifford’s name would go down in history as the almost-first person to have contact with aliens and the first person to convince them to admit contact. His pictures would be everywhere. He’d be paid a million dollars per interview. He’d demand it, because he wouldn’t possibly have the time to grant interviews to all the outlets that wanted one, so he’d have to prioritize, and what better method of prioritization than through money?

But Billy Clifford had integrity. He vowed never to grant interviews to the broadcast stations with the front desk people who’d laughed at him. There’d been a time when he’d wanted to let them know how cluelessly they were acting. That time was over.

The president who’d visited their town of Everton multiple times since the disappearances began about a month ago; the bunch of choppers he’d brought with him; the army that had surrounded the town; the mayor who ran around trying to look in control amidst all the newcomers—they all meant well, but they were all clueless.

No blood, no hair, no shoes of any of the missing children had been left behind. The perfect crime—a human couldn’t do that. Of course the aliens had done it. But no one had paid attention to this theory of Billy’s, at least not officially.

The law-enforcement officials treated the cases as if a completely normal human criminal had taken the children. Those “professionals” looked where even the most moronic of criminals wouldn’t think of putting their kidnapped victims. The nearly-collapsed shed in the woods behind Billy’s school, for example; or the abandoned tuna can factory across the river from his apartment building.

Then there were the really clueless people who thought the president was overdoing it by visiting Everton only to find four missing children. Not that child disappearances didn’t matter; but such cases happened all across the country, all the time. So why Everton? Why all this fuss?

No one but Billy had an answer: the president was in Everton because he knew that the aliens were behind the disappearances; the Commander in Chief just couldn’t alarm the public with the truth. He, like Billy, needed a concrete proof to make the existence of aliens undeniable.

So Billy set out to find that proof:

To mountain peaks, ideal for communicating with extraterrestrial species visiting the Earth.

Through forest clearings, with traces of wax drippings and animal sacrifices, where magical rituals had been performed. (You couldn’t exclude the possibility of wise witches communicating with aliens before all the mundanes.)

And of course to the gas stations. Duh. Aliens controlled all things of value in the universe, and what was more ridiculously expensive than oil? In fact, Billy was pretty sure that the aliens nourished themselves by drinking oil.

At any rate, Billy had investigated patiently. Then, a week ago, the key breakthrough had happened: he’d seen a sparkle move beneath the gaps of the manhole cover—the one on the street right in front of his apartment.

A fleeting movement, it’d been, and the sun had been setting. The “magic hour” in which all sorts of beautiful light tricks happened, enough to drive big movie crews crazy—but Billy Clifford had clearly witnessed: the alien message.

So what did Billy do? Report it, of course, like a good patriotic American citizen. He’d reported it to anyone and everyone who’d listen. And listen they did, those front desk people at TV stations and police officers who screened prank calls. But “listen” in the purely physical sense wasn’t a synonym for “pay attention.” Those who’d listened had once again refused to relay Billy’s important intel to the decision-makers.

Hence Billy’s solo investigation had continued.

He had to admit, over the past week, he’d been on the verge of giving up. Had those front desk people been right? Was he just a silly first-grader who didn’t have a clue about criminal minds, let alone alien minds? Should he instead focus on figuring out a way to see clearly without his glasses, so he could pretend to be cool, or a way to stop growing so that he wouldn’t look so ridiculous in his too-short jeans and sweater?

But Billy had made the conscious decision to push those unproductive, negative thoughts aside. No, Billy Clifford, he’d told himself, the only way you’ll be happy with glasses, buy new clothes, and let Mommy retire at a premature age instead of making her die at a premature age like grandma, is to find the aliens.

He’d kept observing the manhole, and that was how Billy was rushing out of the creaking door of his apartment building at 2 a.m., here, now.

For a brief moment, Billy regretted not having put on a jacket. It was April, which meant that it’d been over six months since the first bullying incident in the locker room. April also meant that the New England night air was as chilly as oyster kept cool on ice for the enjoyment of tourists.

Billy’s teeth chattered. But he didn’t worry about that. Out here, at this hour, no one who could stop him could hear him. He breathed in deeply—the smell of dewy leaves, the first of this spring. Yes, focus on that, Billy.

His glasses kept fogging and clearing up at the alternation between his hot breath and the chilly air. The full moon brilliantly illuminated his path to the manhole where the light-flashing was still going on.

Now, you might be thinking, This kid is too stupid to live, even for a first-grader. What if human kidnappers killed the missing kids and are now living in the sewer? Why is this kid so optimistic?

But do not underestimate Billy Clifford. He wasn’t one to be blinded by groundless positivity.

Firstly, humans who hide in a sewer probably do so because they don’t want to be found. If Billy were to hide, he’d ensure that he only wore black, and only of a kind of fabric that absorbed light rather than reflecting it. And he’d definitely not make flashy displays using light signals.

Secondly, anyone who’d watched a thousand crime and mystery movies, as well as TV shows, like Billy had, would know that the two most common motivations for kidnappers were money and ego display. But these particular hypothetical kidnappers had not demanded ransom or made a show out of the crime scene; in fact, the police couldn’t tell where exactly the kidnappings had taken place.

Was there a criminal in the world who’d go through all this trouble without some sort of gain, monetary or imagined? Billy didn’t think so.

Oh, but of course, there was the third motivation for kidnapping: to be rid of a child. Apparently, TV people found this motivation too depressing to depict on TV, therefore few people knew about this, but the police had considered this one, which had led to the arrest of the father of one of the missing children, Hanna.

Billy knew her from school. If Billy was the boys’ favorite scapegoat, Hanna was the girls’ counterpart. She always wore her hair in pigtails and it was too obvious that she kept them so because she didn’t wash them often. Hanna smelled of clothes that weren’t sweaty or dirty enough to be washed (it wasn’t her habit to run or fall), therefore simply hadn’t been washed for months. Girls hated her for that in a way that scared even Billy; they could be mean without ever hitting anybody. Hanna twitched and winced without overt triggers throughout the day. Billy guessed that a never-ending internal monologue went on in her head, so that she constantly relived the moment in which an actual trigger had occurred.

Sometimes, during class, Hanna noticed Billy’s gaze and they made eye contact. Whenever that happened, Hanna held so still that Billy couldn’t move, like under a spell—until some girl behind Hanna giggled about something completely unrelated and Hanna returned to her twitching, wincing self.

Anyway, none of the vanished children’s parents had an inkling of where their children could’ve been at the estimated time of their disappearances. So what had the police done? Strike out ransom, strike out ritualistic serial kidnapping, land on the one remaining motivation: getting rid of unwanted offsprings.

Which had led to a bunch of investigations into the home lives of the kids, followed by the revelation that all were dysfunctional but Hanna’s especially. Hanna’s dad was an abusive alcoholic, which had led to the questioning of Hanna’s mom, which revealed her wounds from beating, which put Hanna’s dad in prison, which led to Hanna’s mom’s public threat about how she’d kill Hanna if she ever returned, for having put her father in prison—

All this, on national television. A big mess. A huge mess.

But Billy didn’t think those parents could have acted out of the third motivation. They were too disorganized. Making a person disappear without a trace took great coordination, or magic, or alien work.

And the petroleum that soaked the asphalt and the manhole proved that the third kind of force had been in play.

Billy turned off the flashlight about three feet from the manhole. He stood in the middle of the street. Nothing but a few trees and his pajamas moved in the wind. Billy pushed his hands under his armpits and soundlessly marched in place to keep warm. His bare ankles felt numb from cold, but at the tension of imminent discovery, his teeth-chattering had stopped.

Under the daylight, that ring of petroleum around the manhole shone in rainbow colors; under the moonlight, it shone in one color, that of a mysterious snow-white.

But to Billy, one thing was crystal clear without any mystery, and that was the aliens’ good intention. If they’d wanted to do harm, why not just blow up a village? Blow up the Earth? Blow up a galaxy?

And now, after all this theorizing and observation, only the moment of revelation remained. The aliens were telling Billy to hurry: reflected moonlight still flashed in the sewers.

© 2022 Ithaka O.
All rights reserved.
This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
No part of this story may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author.

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