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Behind the Mask

I awoke with a jolt—

The events of the previous night slowly flooded my consciousness. I lay back on the truck seat, shaking my head, trying to clear the cobwebs while still grasping onto the finite threads of my sanity. What I had witnessed had shaken me to my core, yet the reality of it had brought into focus a belief system shattered and the newfound logic that the world would never be the same for me again.

Okay. Let me back up a little. If you are to understand, I need to bring you along slowly; otherwise, you will lose all sense of what is real and what isn’t. I know it will take some getting used to, but the truth is stranger than fiction.

My name is Buck Crawly, and I’m a truck driver of sorts. Not the big rigs, you understand. I drive a one-ton Ram dually transporting RVs from the factory to dealership, back and forth across the country. I pick them up, fresh off the assembly ne in Indiana, and put them in some dealerships inventory in every state east, west, or south of the assembly plant. You’ve seen me go down the highway pulling that long fifth-wheel eighty miles an hour, passing everyone else, because I get paid by the mile, not by the hour. There is always a row of rigs ready and waiting for me to pick up and deliver into the hands of the camping gurus, the salesmen at CAMPING WORLDWIDE, that will tell you how much fun your family will have when you go into debt for this RV I’m towing.

It was a moonless night, the clouds heavy and low, masking any nocturnal glow from the firmament above. Most of the haulers and smart truckers on the road would be looking for a place to pull off by now, and I was considering doing the same. The rioting and insurrection running rampant across the country had spread the boys and girls in blue pretty thin. It was common knowledge that the anarchists got wound up on meth or whatever crazy shit they were snorting after dark, so it was safer to get off the highway and lock yourself into your rig until daylight. Still, tonight I had pushed on, hoping to drop my load in Tampa as early as possible tomorrow.  Besides my milage rate, I get a bonus for early delivery, and I was on schedule to get a nice paycheck from this run.

I pulled off Interstate 75 just south of Lake City, Florida, into a big REST AREA that could hold a hundred semis and RVs. I’d stayed here many times before and knew the bathrooms would be reasonably clean. Before COVID, there had been 24-hour security, but now, three years into the worldwide health hysteria, you took your chances and accepted control of your personal protection. The big parking lots had loads of tall security lights, but only a few were lit since the insurrectionists shot the bulbs out almost as fast as they could be replaced, so the only ambient light came from the running lights of the big idling rigs, making for a lot of shadows and dark places.

Failure to cover your face with a suitable mask in public would bring a minimum of one year in a Federal holding facility if caught, and hefty rewards were paid to informants. Facial recognition software was so advanced now that any picture from a phone’s camera would instantly identify the unlawful individual. As much as I disliked the face coverings, my desire to remain outside of a Federal lockup superseded my rebellious nature. I had become a facemask fashionista, with over a dozen different colors and designs of masks holding court on the dashboard.

Feeling patriotic, I grabbed up a mask that was covered in American flags. One of my favorites, I wore this facial fabric covering more often than any other. I wholeheartedly believed in the resilience and tenacity of the American spirit. I knew deep in my soul that we would survive the COVIDs and come out more vital than ever on the other side of the sickness. Strapping the loops over my ears, I exited the cab and performed a quick walk-around of the truck and tow to make sure my tires were in good shape if I needed to make a quick exit from this parking lot.

Satisfied that all was in good order, I made my way towards the dark shape I knew to be the bathroom block. I preferred to run dark. In other words, I didn’t turn on my headlamp. I moved from shadow to shadow like a wraith. I intended to make my way to the bathroom, take a piss, fill my water bottles, and get back in the cab of my Ram without drawing any attention to myself. I’d heard too many horror stories of truckers beaten, robbed, and their rigs stolen by opportunistic criminal elements or nihilist groups while parked up in these lawless zones. I didn’t intend to become a statistic. Just in case, I always carried a can of bear spray in a holster on my belt, and for worst-case scenarios, my tried, and true Glock 19 was concealed under a Hawaiian shirt.

Winding my way through the parked 18-wheelers, I stopped in the shadow of a Kenworth and perused the wasteland between the tractors and bathrooms. I wanted no surprises as I dashed for the men’s room. It was then I heard the racing engines.

Midnight road races down the interstate had become the rage by young, not-afraid-to-die wanna-be fast car enthusiasts. Another reason that truckers vacated the highways after dark was so as not to be entangled in multi-car pileups. It was so common now that DOT ran a pair of big front-end loaders down the freeway at daylight, pushing crashed cars off the road before the morning rush traffic started. These were coming from the north. Four or more street racers from the sound of it. Running hard.

I paused my forward movement, internally debating making a run for the bathrooms, but it was then I heard the rapid down-shift and knew that one or more of the muscle cars was taking a shortcut through the REST AREA. With no desire to become a hood ornament, I held fast just as the headlights of the fast-approaching cars came into view. Two speeders vying for an advantage running inches apart, tearing ass over teakettle through the parked rigs, made me step back, but out of the corner of my eye, I saw a trucker exit his cab and step into the roadway.

The two cars didn’t slow down. Maybe so focused on each other, they never saw the guy. Two long strides into the drive-through lane, the truck jockey realized his error, but it was too late. The inside car hit him and launched his body head over heels ten feet into the air. He caromed off a Peterbilt’s big chrome grill like an eight ball, flipping twice in the air as the racers flew past, then splatted on the asphalt like a wet sack, and slid twenty feet across the roadway, burning up all the pent-up energy it had gained from the ricochet.

Before I realized it, I was running towards the limp form, even though I knew it was futile. No one could survive that impact. Kneeling by the still figure, I marveled that somehow his COVID mask had remained on his face, but my attention was drawn to the bodily fluids that were leaking from him. Not blood, but a clear gel-like substance. I touched the flow with my fingers but quickly jerked them away and clasped both hands over my ears as a voice screamed, “WATER. POUR WATER OVER ME!”

I knew not where the voice had come from, but it was within my head, and it was so loud it hurt my brain. “WATEROVER ME!” The voice yelled.

I didn’t question the request, if only to stop the roaring voice in my head, so I took my hands away from my ears and grabbed one of the half-empty water bottles and furiously unscrewed the cap, and poured it across the oozing body. “MORE,” the voice came again, and I dropped the empty bottle and grabbed the other, quickly pulling the cap, and just as I was to dump its contents—watched in wonder and amazement as the man’s body started to steam, and the gashes and cuts began to close up.

“Slower now,” the voice implored me, “sprinkle it over me,” and I did just that, shaking the bottle and letting the water spray evenly over him. “That’s good,” the voice told me, but this time not so loud. Confused and baffled, I reached up and pulled the man’s mask away from his face, and beheld that he had no mouth to speak from, just a fleshy funnel-shaped spout protruding where his lips should have been.

So shocked that I couldn’t speak, I stared at his body, steaming and mending itself before my gaze. “Don’t be afraid, cousin,” the voice whispered. “I’ll explain it to you shortly. Let me regain some energy first.”

I didn’t move. And then again, neither did I jump up and run, as the steaming slowed, and all traces of his cuts and abrasions disappeared under his tattered and torn clothing. After maybe two minutes, his body shuddered, and the voice spoke to me again, “Help me up. I need to get into the bathroom. A little more water and I should be whole again.”

Standing on shaking legs, I reached out and took his hand to pull him to his feet and felt something akin to an electric shock surge through me. He took the mask I’d torn from his face and fitted it back over what should have been his mouth. Then with my help, though I could feel my body tingling, we crossed the road and followed the sidewalk up to the men’s bath. He wasted no motion as he opened the tap on a faucet and filled both his hands, and repeatedly dumped water over his body. Within minutes, other than the torn fabric of his shirt and jeans, you could not tell he had suffered any injuries. I looked at the man’s eyes now watching me from above the mask and saw only kindness emanating from them. “I owe you an explanation, and much, much more,” the voice in my head said, “come with me, and I will tell you everything.”

Putting my personal needs on the back burner, with a slew of questions for the strange man, I nodded my head. He said, “Don’t be afraid, we are going to move very fast now,” and he placed both of his hands on my shoulders, and I felt the ground shift under me and a whooshing sound, followed by a stream of lights passing over my eyes. When we stopped, I was standing in an expansive room with a wall of monitors, unlike any computers I had ever seen, with chairs that floated, not attached to the floor in front of them. I turned to look around me and saw doors leading into another room. This wasn’t like any truck cab and sleeper I had ever seen. More like pictures of a NASA rocket, I thought.

“Sit down, Buck Crawly. I have a lot to tell you, and you will be better off seated right now.”

I took two steps and collapsed into one of the seats that seemed to conform itself to the shape of my body instantly. It wasn’t like a chair—more like a glove that wrapped me up. Looking up at the strange man, I asked, “How do you know my name—and how did your body heal itself like that?”

His eyes softened as if in a smile, and the voice in my head replied, “I read your thoughts much like you hear my voice in your head. You and I are alike in many ways, yet so different in others. My name is Niffe, but you may call me Paul. It is the name I go by when I visit here.”

Somewhat uncertain what he was trying to tell me, I asked, “You are visiting from another country?”

Paul shook his head slowly, “Not another country, Buck. Another world. I am a distant ancestor of yours, yet much, much older, and over millions of what you call years, my people have developed changes to our physical body that you do not possess yet, though in time will.”

I started to feel slightly nauseous with his revelation, “Another world? You’re telling me you’re not human?”

“Relax, Buck. This is a lot to take in, and honestly, in the thousands of your years that I have been visiting your world, this is the first time I have ever had to reveal myself to anyone. Let me try and explain it to you more clearly. Millions of years ago, our life forms were the same, but what you call an asteroid hit our home planet and divided us up. Your life form ended up on this planet you call Earth and developed somewhat differently than mine did on our home planet.

I felt a jolt of realization, “You are telling me you’re an alien?”

“More like a distant cousin, Buck. Though we know that because you have a limited understanding of us, you think of us as a different life form, or alien.”

“You travel in UFOs? Is that what we see in our skies from time to time?”

“It is, Buck. We give you a glimpse of us occasionally so you can get used to us, but we have had a presence here for many thousands of years. So as not to scare you, we cloak ourselves in different forms. Sometimes we take on a plant form, like a tree or bush. Many of us choose to display the form of a sasquatch or yeti. Our true form is not unlike your human form, except we evolved without a mouth to speak or eat through. When the first COVID virus started three years ago, many of us used our telepathic powers to encourage world leaders to use masks. Since then, we no longer need to hide our forms; we just cover our faces.”

“How is it you don’t need a mouth?”

“Our home planet is even wetter than your Earth. While over seventy percent of your world is covered in water, our much larger planet has almost ninety percent coverage. We nourish and restore our forms with water. Your physical body is made up of over sixty percent water. So is mine. We evolved differently in that instead of plant and animal protein to sustain us—we use water. It is the purest form of protein. We communicate telepathically, so all we need to sustain ourselves is water.”

Paul reached behind and took a hose off the wall, removed his COVID mask, and inserted it in the fleshy funnel spout where his mouth wasn’t. I watched him take what seemed like large breaths while he spoke in my head, “We utilize the pure, energy-rich waters from your world’s glacier lakes and streams when we visit. It is as close to the water that is on our planet. We have long since done away with the industrial pollution you have here on your Earth, so our waters are richer and stronger than yours.”

“What would have happened to you if I hadn’t revived you with the water from my bottles? I asked.

“My physical form would have simply evaporated in a few minutes. But my ethereal being, my spirit, if you would, just like yours, would continue and later would inhabit another physical body. At our essence, we are not too different.”

I was overwhelmed to the core. All my belief systems, though I was not what you might call religious in nature, were torn asunder. “So you are using the COVID disease hysteria to move among us. Is it hazardous to us?”

“No more so than the thousands of viruses and mutated bacterial infections that have predated it, and not unlike your common flu. Nature, your Earth, is a living organism in itself. It sustains itself by limiting the number of life forms at any one time, be they plants, animals, fungi, archaea, or bacteria. It is why there are red tides, forest fires, and viruses. Simply, it is population control. It is the Earth sustaining itself by limiting overpopulation.” 

I was momentarily speechless. It all seemed so logical. But I still had one question, “How is it that I find you in a trucker’s rest stop, Paul?”

I heard him chuckle in my head, “Because just as we have the ability to cloak our life forms, so do we cloak our interplanetary transport. Come. Let me show you.”

Paul reached out and grasped my arm, and a flurry of lights, like a galaxy of stars, flashed through my head. I found myself standing in the parking lot of the REST AREA, facing a bright red Freightliner with a massive eight-foot sleeper cab. “Now, Buck, get ready for a thrill. I’m going to show you what’s really parked up here in front of you.”

Moving behind me, Paul covered my eyes with his hands and pressed lightly against my temples. When he removed his hands, where once had been a hundred big rigs hauling trailers, it now looked like an airport tarmac with spacecraft of different proportions.

Some were in the shape of saucers or discs, others were tri-winged, and several had duel tail configurations with rounded fuselages. A few were long tubular shapes like Saturn V rockets laid horizontal, and a couple looked like cubes with wings. There were hundreds of them.

I didn’t comprehend that I had stopped breathing until Paul covered my eyes again and put pressure on my temporal lobes. When he removed his hands, I once again saw the Peterbilt’s, Freightliners, Mack’s, Volvo’s, and Kenworth I had parked alongside.

Paul stepped in front of me and swept his arm, “It is in your nature to see what you expect to see. When your ocular nerve witnesses something out of the ordinary, you process it into something familiar. There are millions of us from the home planet around you on your Earth at any one time. We observe you but do our best not to interfere or interpolate your development. You will make mistakes, just like we did on our home planet, but in the long run, you will learn from those mistakes and make fewer of them.”

I looked at Paul with a new awareness and understanding, “I suppose you’re going to wipe my memory so I won’t remember any of this?”

Once again, he laughed. “No, that only happens in your Hollywood motion pictures. You will retain your memory, and we will meet again. I know you won’t tell anyone of your experience tonight because who would believe you, right?”

Now it was my turn to laugh, “That’s true, Paul. If I tried to tell anyone, they’d either think I was crazy or drunk. So what happens now?”

“Buck. You need to go to your truck and get some sleep. Your system has been put through a lot of unusual stress tonight. When you wake up, I’ll be gone down the highway, but somewhere in another time and place, I’ll find you. Go now. You need to sleep.”

By the time the words finished sounding off in my head, Paul had disappeared. I shook my head, trying to process my new understanding of the universe. Then I returned to the bathroom and drained my bladder, filled my water bottles, and retraced my steps to the Ram. Almost before I had taken my seat in the cab, blackness overcame me.

I slept hard, but my dreams were of other worlds. The first thing I did when I awoke was to fix my COVID mask in place. I no longer saw this facial fabric covering as an inconvenience. I knew others were in our midst that could move among us freely, and I, for one, wanted them here.

This story was a Quarterfinalist in the ScreenCraft Cinematic Short Story Competition 2020-2021

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