Part 1 of 2
The Clairborn Valley Hospital won an award for being the best mental hospital in Connecticut, maybe all of New England. I don't know, having only read the headline on the front page of the Clairborn Gazette. I used it to wrap the giraffe figurine with my name on it, Kelly-Anne. Mommykins gave it to me before she was taken. I was four, maybe five, maybe six, somewhere around that age. The giraffe was all I had to remember both Mommykins and my name. She wasn't taken to the hospital, like some people think. I'd be lucky if that were the case. At least I'd still get to see her.
Before she was taken, life was a seamless stretch of summers under the hose, and winters ice-skating on the Clairborn River on the fringes of CVH in the 1980s. In between play and school, (I was in second grade), I used to do patrol with Daddykins at the hospital. It was his job, but it was also his passion, and he did more than look for suspicious behavior, people drinking and parking, graffiti artists, and lovers. Daddykins was an expert sky man. He knew what to look for in the dark canvas, the embroidery of stars, of the night sky.
Every night, we packed into the pickup truck (Daddykins and me, never Mommykins). We'd bring ham and cheese sandwiches, half mustard, half mayo, sometimes stuffed with potato chips, and a thermos of pop or green juice, or HP (code for Hawaiian Punch). We'd have flashlights, blankets, a pillow, Teddy, and The Kit, which contained all things survival, like two walkie-talkies, a shortwave radio, flares, medical supplies, rations, water pouches, a knife, fishing hooks, special matches, rain ponchos, and more. Daddykins and I both had cigarettes, but his were the brown-paper kind and mine were candy stick, or sometimes the gum kind, though Daddykins said the gum kind were bad because the Skylings might hear me chew. He said they had super-duper equipment that could hear human hairs falling from the hairbrush. I was chewing gum-stick cigarettes the day Mommykins was taken. I never did again.
Our night patrol started at the main gate of the hospital grounds. Some of the area was fenced in, but most was wide open and accessible to the public. We'd start surveillance by the doctors' houses, small identical dwellings that lined a street with sycamores and maples. Daddykins sometimes used his searchlight to see into the woods and backyards. Sometimes I'd get to see a raccoon or deer, once a bobcat.
From there we drove through the admin buildings, big structures like a giant might live in, with Greek columns holding up the roofs. We made a turn-around on the dead-end road near the civilian housing, a few streets over from where we lived. Then a left onto Atticus Street, past the abandoned barn where horses were kept in the 1800s, the roof now hunched like an "M" surrounded by overgrown ferns and skunk cabbage.
My favorite part of the patrol was the patient cemetery. It was on the right side of the thin, paved road, surrounded by trees. Tiny sandstone markers, most of them no bigger than Teddy, with only a number etched on the front of the stone. In death, patients only got numbers, no names, no loving brother or loving sister. Just numbers, 020, 104, 056, like eyes on the stones, and there were tons of them, like hopscotch squares dotting the grass field.
Daddykins usually setup his shortwave at the cemetery. He extended the uber-long antennae and flicked the knob for the right channel, one that came in better in the wintertime because there wasn't as much interference. The channel was set to pick up Skyling chatter, which Daddykins was an expert in deciphering, having heard it ever since boyhood when he bought his first shortwave.
Still parked, he'd smoke a brown-stick and get his maps ready, his tools, like his pencil—sharp as a sword—a ruler, binoculars, and other gadgets that helped him track the Skylings. Slowly, we'd continue south, and swing left toward the high security mental building. It was easy to pick out from all the others because it was white and newer, unlike the old brick ones that stood for more than a decade. In the old days, Daddykins said, they used to bring the patients in by train, leading them in through underground tunnels to an enclosed stairwell, above ground, that led straight to the cells. I always got the shivers when we drove past it, imagining a lunatic in a straightjacket loose in the tunnels.
Near the end of the route, we went right on 54th Street, and took it out to a private lookout over the Clairborn River, the Clairborn Bridge in the distance beside the town pushed up like Lincoln Logs against the straight edge of the river. The city lights looked like baby stars reflecting off the water. Daddykins parked, even turned off the engine. We'd eat our sandwiches. Now was when the real patrol started.
While we watched the sky for Skyling craft, we also listened for Skyling talk on the shortwave. If a transmission came through, Daddykins jotted it in his notebook, analyzed it, and made some more notes. He rarely shared the message, saying I was too young. If I started to cry, he'd show me the message, reading first in Skyling speak and then in English so I could understand. Eventually, I could understand it the first way. We're here for you. We're watching you. Our position is X latitude cross-secting Alpha longitude at Y.
Once, Daddykins went white after he deciphered a message, even went as far as taking out his gun from under the seat, something I've only seen him do a handful of times. He said the Skylings had given him a date when they'd come for him. The date changed but sure enough the Skylings came, only not for Daddykins, cause he was prepared. They took Mommykins instead, something Daddykins could never forgive himself for.
When I got older I started to interpret the messages too, and became real good at it. This gave Daddykins more time to patrol the skies looking for craft. He taught me that too. How to tell a satellite from a star, and a star from a planet, and a planet from a Skyling vehicle. Stars twinkled. Planets were bigger and brighter than stars. Satellites moved horizontally. Skyling craft, which Daddykins said were round in shape, zigzagged and dipped, and often came close to the height of airplanes, which we saw plenty of.
Very rarely did a night pass without a shortwave message. Sometimes it would be weeks before we'd spot a Skyling craft, and when we did, Daddykins marked the map in red. When I was older, he'd let me mark the map, and I got good at that too. Daddykins said we had our very own Area 51. We called the lookout Area 54 in homage. And because it was like Area 51, Daddykins said we had to be careful of the govs showing up and confiscating our data. I made a promise to him I'd never tell a soul about our patrolling. Not even Mommykins knew to what extent we were involved.
Sometimes in the middle of the night, well after I'd fallen asleep, Daddykins would head out of Area 54 and go down to the local donut shop for coffee where he'd meet other Skyling watchers. They're the ones that gave him the name Sky Man, even gave him a blue baseball cap for his birthday with the name sewn on.
From the truck, snuggled into my pillow with Teddy, I would watch Daddykins leaning on the front of the truck with his Skyling buddies. They'd smoke and drink from Styrofoam cups, Daddykins looked smart in his security uniform, the green jacket with the CVH patch on the arm sleeve. Daddykins shared a few of his secrets from the book with his buds—but not everything. He said Skylings could take on human shape, like the way Native Americans could switch places with animals. Bobcat Bob was the one he trusted the most. Sometimes he'd let Bobcat up to the lookout to scan the grounds with his metal detector for ground craft. They'd find shards of strange metals and sleek black materials, clearly not human-made, that they'd catalog and date. On the weekends the three of us would scout the abandoned railroad tracks and the deserted foundations of the old laboratories, places Daddykins and Bobcat said they did experiments.
It wasn't easy to get to the foundations. First, you had to travel down the train tracks, which were up a steep hill, to a spot where the ties bunched up before a bridge, still suspended, but covered in vines and bramble. Hidden in the grove, deep in the woods, was a stairwell of 100 steps that went up vertically over two tall hills. At the top, there was a clearing in the woods, where the foundations stood, three in all.
Bobcat thought fire ravaged the facility. Daddykins agreed with the fire part, but said it wasn't made by humans. A Skyling craft must've shot them from the sky. They figured that the foundations were discovered around the same time the govs started using Area 51, maybe even moved some of their experiments from CVH to there. "Mind studies," Daddykins said. "That's how come there are so many crazies." Didn't start out that way. The govs were testing out Skyling tactics on humans. Daddykins wept when he talked about the tactics, thinking about poor Mommykins being subjected to the same thing on a Skyling craft somewhere.
The night the Skylings took Mommykins was just like any other night—clear skies, a bright moon, not too many trespassers on the grounds. I remember Daddykins looked a little unsettled when we got to the lookout. Didn't even want to take out the shortwave, but I did it for him. He kept worrying at his wedding band, claiming that it hurt to wear it, until he finally took it off and left it on the dashboard.
After midnight, when I'd fallen asleep, Daddykins skipped the donut shop and drove home instead. Half-awake out in the truck, I heard him yelling at Mommykins. He kept saying over and over: don't you know how much I love you? Later, I thought it was almost like he'd known the future, that she was going to be taken, and that she needed to hear it so many times before they got her.
We headed back to finish the patrol, me pretending to sleep. When Daddykins's shift was over, we went home. He carried Teddy and me to bed, kissing me on the cheek, saying, "We'll get back to our work tomorrow night." I fell fast asleep, but awoke soon enough to a great disturbance, like thunder, or the sound of a hundred car engines revving at the same time.
First I heard yelling and screaming, then loud noises, like the house was being tossed around—kind of the same way it felt when the big town trucks came by hauling dirt. Then came bright lights filling up my bedroom windows. I wanted to go to the window to look, but remembered Daddykins said never to let the Skylings see you. Even half-asleep in my bed, I knew enough not to even peek.
As all this commotion was going on, I hid under the bed with Teddy to wait it out, knowing Daddykins would come for me. Sure enough he did, but not until morning when the neighborhood was back to quiet. No one would've suspected we had a visitation. Not unless you saw the inside of the house, completely disheveled, like a box of toys someone dumped out.
Daddykins brought me to a clear spot in the living room and very somberly told me that the Skylings had taken Mommykins. He gave me a speech about being strong and to not give up on finding her. I cried for several hours, until Daddykins said he couldn't take my weeping and that I had to stop because it wasn't going to help get Mommykins back. We had to take action.
After the visitation Daddykins went to his underground workshop to analyze his data. It was the first time he let me down there with him. Guns of all different sizes and calibers filled one wall. The other side was laid out with surveillance maps. In the middle was a great oak table he said Grandpa had made as a wedding present before he died. We spent several days down there. It was equipped with electricity, food, water, and a bathroom. I had coloring books and Teddy, for when I wasn't helping Daddykins find Mommykins in the night sky.
After several weeks, we intercepted a Skyling message, one that Daddykins said he was waiting on. It meant that they were coming back for us. He told me we had to act now since we had vital information. So we started to prepare for an attack or abduction, or capture. An attack was like what happened to the experiment labs, when the Skylings just blasted things they didn't like off the Earth. Capture and abduction were altogether different things; abduction meant you'd be returned after the Skylings were done with their tests. Capture was permanent. After the first year, Daddykins upgraded Mommykins from abduction to capture. That's when we officially mourned her, and held a mini-funeral for her in the backyard. After that we hit the road to avoid a full-on Skyling attack that Daddykins predicted was imminent.
We crisscrossed America in those early days. We started out in the Midwest, a place that made the eyes long for trees rather than cornstalks. Daddykins worked a few jobs here and there, always saving a little money, and kept up with our supplies. Then we'd move on, each time keeping one step ahead of the Skylings, which Daddykins said were closing in. "If we get lax or doze off for even a minute, they'll catch us, Van."
Van was Daddykins's secret name for me. No one else called me Van. It was the only way I truly knew it was him and not a Skyling. I was given a new name for every town we stayed in. Daddykins too. I was Rebecca, Laura, Emily, Mae, Lexy, Lorna, and Addie, after the character in Paper Moon, whom Daddykins said I looked like, except I had freckles. Daddykins was Robert, Willy, Skinner, Richie, Johnny, and even Elvis once. Sometimes he played my father or an uncle, sometimes a distant cousin. It was fun to be different people, like dress-up or make-believe.
People were all kinds of nice to us. In Indiana we met a man that gave Daddykins a new tire to replace the spare we'd been using. In Arizona, a grandmother baked us an apple and peach pie for the road and gave us a jug of milk to wash it down. In the Rockies we met some Skyling hunters that taught us how to ski and to trap squirrels. Daddykins learned to shoot a rifle and even let me shoot cans, which I always missed, unless they were real close.
As the years went on, The Kit grew. Soon we had a tent and heavy sleeping bags, a grill, flashlights, and water tablets to purify the water. We always had a four-pack of toilet paper and a lunch pail of jerky, which Daddykins said we could subsist on for a whole week if things got rough.
While we passed town to town, we never forgot why we were on the run. At night we took turns keeping watch. Sometimes the other stayed up and helped out with the Skyling messages until they fell asleep, to be woken again if a transmission came through.
I remember we were camping near Pike's Peak in Colorado when we were almost taken. It was Daddykins on watch. I was in the tent. I heard him scream and then heard the gunfire. The bright lights of the Skyling craft made it like day inside the tent. I was nearly twelve by this time and quick on my feet. I unzipped the tent flaps and ran to our cover spot against the rocks, hovering, waiting for Daddykins, praying he hadn't been taken.
Daddykins told me daily that if anything ever happened to him I was to go back home to find Bobcat, he'd know what to do. Daddykins kept a metal suitcase, locked and hidden under the passenger seat of the truck. I wore the key around my neck. The box contained our most important possessions, like our IDs, most of them aliases, reserve cash, the deed to the old house, bullets for the gun, and instructions of what to do if Daddykins was taken.
That night on the ridge, I waited hours for Daddykins, and was in tears, talking myself down, trying to be brave and face the fact I was on my own, but then I heard a rustle in the trees, and the slide of shoes on gravel. Daddykins was out-of-breath, cut up from running in the woods, but he was safe. We hid until morning and left Colorado for good.