Aliens Invade Florida! You May Be Next!
There are weird spots all around this country—like Plano, Texas, home of the Cockroach Hall of Fame and Museum—and then there’s Hell Country, a patch of the Everglades so remote, it stands apart from time altogether. As a crack reporter for the Weekly World News, I’d visited a number of strange and eerie sites, but Hell County was a whole different animal. No one goes to Hell Country unless they’re running drugs or fleeing the law. It’s a network of badlands full of lightning-struck sawgrass marshes and impenetrable cypress and mangrove forests lost to the brackish reserves of time. Hell Country’s marshes are so vast, so immeasurable, that their topography changes over the hundreds of miles this river of grass consumes, from stale pine forests to coastal prairies whose more colorful denizens include stone crabs, alligators, and Burmese pythons. Oddly enough, though, it isn’t the pythons—which I’ve photographed—that haunt me to this day. It’s my friend from fifty years ago, Dalton Trummel, the last of a strange breed of tabloid reporters who never let well enough alone and vanished because of it.
Dalton was one of those kids who always had his eyes on the stars, who was convinced
that Flying Saucers Magazine was real life and that the stories of Arthur C. Clarke really were being enacted somewhere in a parallel universe. We grew up together all over Florida, and it was Dalton who first piqued my interest in science fiction when he gave me a small rock that he swore came from Mars and may have once held life.
Dalton could write reasonably enough, in the average way most hometown talents can, and like me once aspired to be a great novelist. Like me, Dalton failed, but back around 1963, we managed to turn our finesse with language into a less than promising career starting up a local Florida paper called The Tanganee Star. It was an early community rag for weirdos that aspired to be The National Enquirer’s bastard love child.
I can’t remember which nut wrote us the tip that cost Dalton his life—there were so many in those days. But I still remember the paper: newsprint white, which somehow made the madness look more official. First alien touches down in the Everglades, sparking war, the tip read. See before… The paper was dramatically torn, as if the writer had fought with his last breaths to half-write a thought, yet miraculously had time to stamp and mail an envelope.
“This is crazy,” Dalton said at first. “Everyone knows aliens already touched down in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. We even had pictures of their rubber bodies.”
Dalton adjusted his coke-bottle-thick bifocals, ever the Sixties stereotypical nerd, and then scratched his equally stereotypical crew cut top as if for good luck.
“But we could get two weeks of stories out of it, easy,” I told him, stroking my anachronistic goatee. “And you could take plenty of pictures.”
Dalton smiled. Pictures were worth more than words in our game, where any sensationalized Frisbee on a string could make for the next “Aliens Preparing Invasion” feature
that was the bread and butter of our little operation.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I could just rip off some more Sturgeon stories or maybe Richard Matheson. He’s been writing a lot lately.”
That’s when I knew I needed better ammunition. So I hit Dalton with the only prop that might seal the deal: a mailed-in alien hand that accompanied the letter. Dalton took the alien prop in hand, so to speak, and held it up to the light. He shuddered, dropped the hand on the table, and stared at me the way he did when he had to relieve himself.
“Gather your supplies,” Dalton said. “We leave in the morning for Florida’s Land of Z.”
Martian Hand Warns of Evil Invaders!
The boat trip to Hell Country was one I’ll never forget. There was one of those quick Florida monsoons, where the sky pounds the waters like a drunken dad, and then suddenly sobers up and cries gentle tears. Our guide was a slender guy called Smokes, who paradoxically never seemed to smoke any. He was tall, with black eyes and jet-black hair, and he had scars everywhere an alligator could bite or scratch a man without swallowing his flesh whole.
“What brings you to the Glades?” he asked, smirking as he eyed us over.
There was a lot to smirk about. Dalton had dressed like a British big game hunter, complete with a tan vest, gun, coke glasses, and a deerstalker cap. I, on the other hand, just had a reflective raincoat, a bunch of sprays, a gun, and a sombrero better suited for southern Texas. At least we kept relatively dry.
“We’re reporters,” Dalton said, stupidly. “We’re running a piece on Gladesmen like
yourself for National Geographic.”
“Is that so?” Smokes asked. “Well, then, let me give you boys a little advice. Turn back now.”
“But aren’t there UFOs?”
Smokes laughed, but not at the absurdity of the question so much as at the man asking it.
“It’s the Everglades,” he said. “Everything here is unidentified until it kills you.”
Smokes spat some tobacco juice out and said, “Be careful. There’s runners here that don’t much like bumping into people, especially two young draft dodgers like yourselves.”
“Actually,” Dalton pointed out, “the military wouldn’t take us.”
“You don’t say,” Smokes said, pulling his boat by the last bit of solid land uninterrupted by swamp for hundreds upon hundreds of miles. “Good luck to you,” he said. “But if you have any sense, you’ll mind my words.” He reached out his hands and said, “In case we don’t meet up again.”
Dalton paid Smokes handsomely, and then said, “I have more if you come back for us.”
“Don’t worry,” Smokes replied. “I’ll find it, whether you’re alive or dead.”
With that, Smokes left us at our own boat and sailed the other way.
Massive Alien Ship Found in the Everglades!
I distinctly remember the moment we were screwed, and I blame myself for it. In between battling mosquitos and flies, I found the perfect little disc-like platform jutting out from the swamp for us to take a shot of. The problem was, Dalton couldn’t identify it, and Dalton was not the type of reporter who handles mystery very well.
“Looks like part of an airplane,” I told him. “There have been plenty of crashes in these parts.”
“But the metal,” Dalton said. “It’s so thin but so strong. It just bends back into shape.”
“So what if the tip was right?”
“If I photograph it from a certain angle—”
Dalton wasn’t convinced. He kept angling his head around his newest treasure, taking shot after shot of his own.
“If only we could get in the water.”
“Dalton,” I said, but it was too late.
Despite snakes, snapping turtles, alligators and leeches, there Dalton was, fumbling around with the wreckage from the small airplane like a small boy tearing through a toy shop.
Dalton’s face as he rose above the swamp waters has stayed with me ever since. He was stone-faced, dead white, lost of all expression, as if his face was carved into the clouds of the surrounding sky.
“There’s a body down there,” he said, “a small one. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen.”
I put my camera down on the boat. “That could be someone’s kid. We should report it to the authorities.”
“No. There’s an alien body down there,” Dalton said.
“Just take a look.”
As a credit to my stupidity, I did get into the water, if a bit more gingerly than my fellow tabloid reporter, but the water was murky and before I could see anything, there was a boat with three Gladesmen approaching. We heard thunder, but not from the sky, and so we fumbled like fools for our guns. Dalton, failing to get enough leeches off in time, trembled and fainted. I stared at the three grizzled men, all in flannel and jeans and mosquito masks, as they approached my boat. I put down my gun.
“Who do you work for?” the middle guy, an older man with a piece of his cheek missing, asked us.
I didn’t say anything at first, but stood, shaking and thinking. I knew Dalton’s lie was preposterous. I thought of saying that I worked for the cops, but I’m not sure that would be any better, so I embarked down the least advisable path: I told the truth.
“Get them,” the old man said. “Take their guns. Tie them up.”
Aliens Use Alligators to Subdue the Earth!
“Of all the ways to die,” I said. “Alligators never even made my list.”
“It tops mine.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“Why not? It’ll be painful, but memorable,” Dalton told me. “We’ll always be remembered: People eaten by alligators always are.”
“Can you name a single person who was eaten by an alligator, Dalton?”
Dalton shut up for a few moments.
“And to think,” I said. “I never did get to write that great novel or get married or have kids. What typical luck…”
“If it’s any consolation, it probably wouldn’t have been so great.”
I paused for a moment, then added: “The novel, the marriage, or the kids?”
Almost as if on cue, an old man stumbled across his deck, smashed. I don’t know exactly what else they had in the boat besides us, but his intoxication led me to believe that he had just fulfilled a rather large shipment somewhere near where he picked us up.
“Ready to die?” he asked us, removing our blindfolds.
It was an unnecessary question—how many nineteen-year-olds are, really?
“First,” Dalton, ever the reporter, asked, “can you tell us what you saw, since we’ll be dead anyway? I’m dying to know, if you’ll forgive the choice of words.”
“Maybe as your last request.” The old man squinted at us and then, thanks to the miracle of alcohol, grew red-eyed and added: “I know what it’s like to be about to die.”
“Aliens?” Dalton asked.
“Who else?” the man said. He took another swig from his bottle as he said: “The aliens
just won’t leave the Glades alone. Can you imagine what it’s like to live in fear?”
Dalton and I, still bound, just looked at one another. No, I thought. We have no idea.
“Every night, when darkness falls, we see lights in the sky. And every night one of our girls disappears.”
“Maybe she has a boyfriend.”
Dalton and the old man shot me a look.
“The aliens. How tall? Did they have five hands? They did, didn’t they?” Dalton asked.
“They look just like we do,” the old man said. “It’s downright unsettling, if you ask me.”
He took another swig and then put our blindfolds back on. He went over and gave us each a beer. “Drink up,” he said. “It will numb the senses.”
“Don’t I get a last request too?” I asked when he sounded like me might be within earshot.
“What the hell do you want?” the old man said. “You’re just a lying reporter. You’re not reporting the truth about what the aliens are doing, and it’s too late now.”
“Maybe one last cigarette?”
The old man shook his head. “I don’t know.”
Glades Aliens Are Sadly Overrated!
Hours later, we sat on deck, not knowing which way was up, talking about the most random things.
“The Fifties were so much better,” the old man said between puffs. “Aliens just kind of kept to themselves.”
“People still had a sense of wonder,” I said. “I really grew up believing we’d set foot on the moon.”
“The late forties were good too,” the man replied. “It was like this nation stood up and said, I mean something.”
“Yeah,” I said, though I was too young to remember most of it. “Now, it’s like watching an athlete aging and getting fat. We just kind of roll over on little countries and wonder what the hell we just squished into our sides.”
“You ever think of keeping a flying saucer?” Dalton asked, randomly.
“You know there’s one still out there we didn’t shoot,” the old man said.
“A flying saucer?” Dalton asked.
“No. An alien.”
“Yep. Standing just as straight as the hair on your lip.”
“Can I see?”
The old man shook his head. “Sorry. After tonight, we’re moving on up the Glades, and you’ll be in the belly of an alligator.”
The nonchalant way the old man said that, as if I were just moving to an apartment in another part of town, would’ve bothered me if I had been in my right mind.
Instead, I proved once and for all that it’s better to be stupid and lucky than smart and luckless. The alligators, which were basking in the sun, looked hungry. So I started throwing whatever the old man gave us their way. I thought the old man would kill me, but he just laughed as the alligators ate away, rolled their eyes, and then slipped back into the water, sinking below.
At a signal from the old man, his buddies tossed us overboard and there we were, in alligator country, with a bunch of alligators with disagreeable stomachs.
Luckily, the old man was out of his mind too. His little henchmen forgot to seize our boat, which waded right alongside of us.
We waved at the old man, whose name I never did get to know, as he sailed off. He called back: “To hell with the Sixties!”
We cried “To hell with the war!” I then managed to drag Dalton to the boat.
Within minutes, he was standing at stern, looking back out at the Glades.
“We have to find that body,” he said. “We still have time.”
“Dalton, you’re crazy,” I told him. “When will you wake up? There are no flying saucers, no little green men, no sasquatches. Going back is suicide.”
“But we have to know. What if—”
He stared at me the way a boy stares at his father after his father says there really is no Santa Claus. “Just when did you stop believing?’
“The moment our college buddies left for Vietnam and came back in body bags,” I told
“The writers, the real writers, the giants, like Bradbury, they never stopped believing. To them, it was real the moment they put word to paper. They bled through their words. To you, words are like squares of toilet paper. You just wad them up in any way you see fit.”
“Dalton, how many cases in the past year have led us anywhere?” I shook my head for emphasis, adding, “Face it, Dalton. Whether life exists elsewhere or not, for now, we’re just alone on this tiny blue dot. And it’s up to us to make it work. It’s up to us to end this war.”
With that, Dalton got into his small boat and set off, leaving me a little money for Smokes on the last patch of solid shore. I didn’t say another word to Dalton; there were no long goodbyes. I simply watched as this boy-man went back, searching endless waters for mysteries he could not fathom, as if the greatest discovery in the history of the world might be found in any bayou. I took another smoke and then headed back. And while I did reach Washington, I was only a tiny comma in the great book of history, but I was happy to be that comma, on that page, as that page turned, and history turned with it.
Aliens Abduct Weekly World News Reporter Until He Promises to Retire
Forty years later, I packed up my cubicle at the Weekly World News. I had attempted the great American sci-fi novel and duly failed, but in chronicling the oddities of this and other worlds I somehow excelled. My best piece, however, was a small local piece on the young girl who was discovered with the plane wreckage I did end up reporting. She was never identified, so I used the last of the money Dalton and I earned to pay for a proper burial. It may have been the only time I ever made a difference as a journalist.
The Weekly World News called me in the seventies, while I was unemployed yet again, and I went to work for them. I took old stories and changed around words, so that planes became saucers and questionable artifacts from my refrigerator became alien residue. My most famous piece, though, was on a telepathic cockroach who could prophesize the future in small clicks that came out around New Year’s Day each year. While it never rivaled the celebrity of Bat Boy, I was able to use it to pay the bills and raise a family.
My desk, as I packed the last of my crap away, spoke to my life of wonder and chicanery. It had everything but evidence. There were alien limbs, moon rocks, the enchanted toe of an Amazonian princess, and even a shrunken alien crystal skull. But the dearest of my prizes was the small rock Dalton gave to me as a boy, the one he swore came from Mars. As I packed it away, keenly aware that I’d never set foot on Mars, I smiled. Part of me still believed, even in the face of no reassuring evidence, that Dalton was still out there, having met up with his alien, flying around the stars. Part of me still thought that after all these years someone needed to write about aliens, Bigfoot, and the Loch Ness Monster. Some of us still needed to believe.
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