Viewed from above, the street looked like a typical American neighborhood — a long quilt of manicured lawns, freshly painted rambler homes, and a big, shiny car in every driveway, all connected by wide sidewalks on either side. On this bright spring day, kids played ball in the street, mothers knelt by flower beds, and fathers watered or mowed the grass, pausing to wave to their neighbors as their paths brought them near.
The only traffic on the road was a lone bicycle, its front basket filled with newspapers. As he passed each house, the boy pedaling the bike expertly spun a paper on to each doorstep, following each toss with a wave that was smilingly returned.
Halfway down the block, Marjorie Jones stood up from rearranging flowers by the front door of her house and brushed the soil from her hands as she waved at the newspaper boy, then stooped to pick up the paper. She clucked sadly as she read the two-row banner headline: “FLOODS INUNDATE EASTERN PART OF STATE: THOUSANDS BEING RELOCATED.”
She caught the eye of Bea Smith, her next-door neighbor, as she stood reading the same headline, and the two women walked to the perfectly trimmed hedge separating their yards.
“So sad, isn’t it?” Marjorie said, gesturing with the paper. “All those people who have lost everything they have, their communities disrupted so.”
Bea nodded solemnly. “I’m so glad that nothing like that could happen here. We’re so high up that floods could never reach us. We’re so safe here. I feel bad for them, though. I wish there was something we could do.”
“What do you think about this?” Marjorie said, reading from the paper. “‘Shelters near the flood zone are overcrowded. The governor has asked citizens throughout the state to take in families displaced by the flooding until it is safe to return to their homes.'”
“That’s a nice idea,” Bea said. “I wish we could, but we have a full house. What with Tim home on leave from overseas and all.”
“Us too,” replied Marjorie. “Where would we put them? I’m sure there must be plenty of other homes that have room. Not like any of us on this street. I can’t think of anyone who has a room to spare. The Jacksons, the Petersons, anyone.”
Bea shook her head at each suggestion. “No. But I’m sure other people can help. That’s what people do at a time like this, they help each other. Right?”
The sudden sound of an unfamiliar car engine at the end of the street drew the attention of both women as a dark station wagon turned on to the street and drove slowly down. Everyone stopped what they were doing and watched the car, as if it was a magnet turning needles toward it as it passed by.
“Now what do you suppose that could be?” Marjorie whispered. Bea only shook her head slowly in response.
The car continued slowly down the street, seemingly oblivious to all the attention being paid to it, until it reached the last house on the right and turned in the driveway.
“You don’t think . . . ” Bea asked.
“The old Wilkerson house?”
They watched in silence as the station wagon doors opened and a family stepped out — a tall, slender man and his equally slim wife, and two reedy children. The man opened the back of the wagon and unloaded a pile of suitcases as the family huddled closely together behind him, as if in shock or disoriented.
The family gathered up their suitcases and walked to the house. The man and woman waved to the people staring at them, a few of whom gave hesitant waves in return, as dazed by the spectacle as the new arrivals.
“Well, what do you make of that?” Bea asked.
“I don’t know,” Marjorie said, squinting and shading her eyes in an effort to get a better view of the interlopers. “I can’t see much.”
Carl Peterson, Marjorie’s neighbor on the other side, was standing in the sidewalk with a knot of others. “I heard that Tom Carver called the governor’s office. Said that the old Wilkerson place was available for the relocation program.”
“You mean, they’re from the east?”
Peterson nodded somberly.
“Do you think they’re going to stay?”
Peterson shrugged. “Who can say with those people?”
Everyone watched in silence as the new arrivals carried their tattered belongings into the house, then looked at each other with concern and even fear in their eyes.
Just another ordinary day on an ordinary street, in an ordinary town somewhere in America. Today, however, the lives of these ordinary people are about to be disrupted by something very much out of the ordinary — and in just a little while, they will find themselves peering over their perfectly manicured hedges and white picket fences into the abyss . . . of the Event Horizon.
Marjorie Jones hesitated for a fraction of a second before ringing the doorbell. After a few seconds, the door opened, and Marjorie looked down into the wide, shellshocked eyes of the young daughter of the new arrivals, staring up at her from the other side of the screen door. Her black hair was disheveled, and her face still had traces of mud and dirt.
Marjorie put on her brightest smile. “Well hello there, young lady! Is your mommy or daddy home?”
The little girl nodded silently and disappeared. A moment later, the mother appeared at the door. She smiled exhaustedly at Marjorie, dark rings under her eyes. She opened the door. “Hello,” she said.
“My name is Marjorie Jones,” she said slowly, as if to someone who might not speak English. “We want to welcome you.”
The woman smiled. “Hello, I’m Elaine LaPope,” she replied. “Would you like to come in?”
“No, no,” Marjorie said, relieved that she could speak normally. “You must be so busy after your trip. I just wanted to bring you a little welcome-to-the-neighborhood gift,” she said, lifting a large basket filled with canned foods, cereal boxes, and other staples. “We thought you might need this after your journey.”
Elaine took the basket from Marjorie’s proffering hands. “Thank you so much!” she said with genuine relief. “That’s so incredibly kind of you. I don’t know what to say . . . John!” she called back into the house. “John, come here and see what Marjorie brought us!”
The tall man came to the door, his white shirt and pleated pants stained from what looked like river mud. He, too, smiled as he extended his hand. “John LaPope. Thank you so much! We genuinely appreciate it. We lost everything in the flood, you see. We had nowhere else to go.”
Marjorie nodded. “Well, welcome to our street. If there’s anything that any of us can do while you’re here, why, you just ask. We all look after one another here.” There was a slight edge to that last sentence.
“Are you sure you don’t want to come in? I mean, we don’t have anything to offer . . .”
Marjorie demurred. “Really, no, thank you. Maybe some other time. I mean, I’m sure you’ll be eager to get back to your own home soon enough. This is just to tide you over.” She began to back down the steps.
“Well, okay, then, but please feel free to come by anytime.”
Marjorie waved as she turned to leave. “Sure, someday!”
Elaine closed the door. “That was so incredibly nice, wasn’t it?”
“Yes it was,” John said, relief in his voice. “Let’s go see what they’ve brought us.” They carried the basket in the kitchen and began to unpack. They gave packages to their children to put away and to snack on.
A little while later, the doorbell rang again. This time it was Bea Smith and her husband, carrying a stack of blankets and bedding. “Hello, I’m Bea and this is my husband Phil, and we thought you might need something for your beds.”
“Goodness, you are so kind! Would you like to come in and meet . . .”
“No, no, we’re sure you must be tired after so much travel. Do you know yet when you’ll be able to go back to your home yet?”
“No, our street is still completely flooded. We don’t even know if our home is still there, to be honest.”
They chatted a bit longer before Bea and Phil excused themselves. Elaine and her daughter busied themselves making up the beds using the new bedding. It was fortunate that the house still had basic furnishings, but now they wouldn’t have to spend what little money they still had to buy all of their necessities.
The doorbell rang again. “My, this neighborhood sure is friendly!” John said, wiping his hands on his soiled pants as he headed to the front door to open it. A short, balding man in jeans and a flannel shirt stood on the porch. John opened the door and extended his hand, which the man shook heartily.
“Good afternoon, my name’s Carver. Tom Carver. I live across the street,” he said, pointing with his thumb over his shoulder. “I’m a reporter for the paper and I’ve been covering the flood. I’m so sorry about your loss.”
“Please, won’t you come in?” John asked, holding the door open.
“Are you sure it’s not an inconvenience?”
“Not at all!” John laughed. “Everyone’s been so kind to check in on us and offer us things, but no one wants to come in! I assure you, it’s no bother. Please.” He ushered Tom in.
“Let me introduce you,” John said. “My wife, Elaine, my son, Peter, and that shy little one hiding behind mommy is Christine.”
Tom greeted each of them in turn, then squatted on his haunches and smiled at Christine, who blushed and smiled back.
“Are you the person we should thank for calling the governor’s office to let them know about the house?”
Tom looked down sheepishly as John ushered everyone into the living room to sit. “Well, yes. It’s fully furnished but it’s been vacant for months since the couple who lived here moved to a retirement home upstate. It seemed like a perfect idea. I’ve seen the damage over there first-hand. It’s just terrible.”
“We’re not sure if there’s anything left of our house at all,” Elaine said, trembling.
“Well,” Tom said, “You can stay here as long as you like.”
John and Elaine exchanged nervous glances. “We don’t want to overstay our welcome . . . ”
Tom dismissed their concerns with a wave of his hand. “Nonsense. It will take a while for the National Guard and everyone to clean things up over there. It won’t be safe to travel for weeks, is what I’m hearing. So you’ll have plenty of time to get to know everyone.”
“They seem nice,” Elaine said. “I mean, they’re so generous, but everyone seems a little scared of us.”
Tom chuckled. “You have to understand these people. Their world revolves around this street. Sure, they go to work and have their bosses over for dinner, but their whole social circle is here. Birthdays, holidays, community picnics, everyone’s invited. All the time. But that doesn’t mean they don’t like you. They just need a little time to get used to change, is all. They just prefer things to stay the way they’ve always been.”
They chatted some more, discussing work and school — Christine eventually sat down next to Tom and told him all about her second-grade class project. They laughed and relaxed and got to know each other, and when Tom pointed out that it would be getting dark soon and he’d best be going, they invited him to stay for dinner, so eager were they for good company and a distraction from the upheaval they had just gone through.
* * *
Down the block, in the twilight, Marjorie and Bea and several other families had gathered, looking at the light coming from the house where Tom and the LaPopes were dining.
“I can’t believe Tom actually went inside,” Marjorie said. “He’s been in there for quite a while.”
“Do you think he’s all right?” Bea asked.
“There’s no telling,” one of the other neighbors responded. “They’re not like us over in the east. They do things differently there.”
“But they looked so nice.”
“But did you see how scruffy the children were? Do they even take care of their kids?”
“I didn’t see the boy when I went over. I wonder if he’s not allowed to meet people.”
“What could be wrong with him?”
“There’s no telling.”
“I hope he hasn’t hurt Tom!”
“Well, I don’t feel safe not knowing. I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m going to keep my door locked tonight.” Many others in the crowd nodded or muttered their agreement. One woman hurrieldy ushered her two children back to their house, casting a nervous glance behind her as she did so.
“Hey, look, there’s Dan Parker,” Carl said, pointing to a man running toward them with an urgent expression. “What’s wrong, Dan?”
“I just heard some news!” Dan panted. “Buddy of mine says that the flood destroyed that Army base over there in the east.”
“Yeah, I heard there was a base there,” said one of the men. “I thought it was just a depot station or something.”
Dan shook his head vigorously. “That’s the official story. My buddy says that it’s really a testing facility for biological weapons.”
“What’s that?” an elderly woman asked.
“Diseases as weapons,” another man replied. “Like anthrax or . . . ”
“Or smallpox!” someone said loudly.
“Or the plague!” someone else shouted.
“My buddy said that everyone from the flood zone could be infected,” Dan said.
“Everyone get the children inside!”
“We have to get those people out of here before they kill us!”
* * *
“What do you suppose all that commotion is?” John asked, rising from the table where the LaPopes and Tom were just finishing up dinner. Tom got up and peeked through the dining-room curtains to see a loud mob advancing down the dark street toward the house. He followed John to the front door. The two men stepped out on the porch as Elaine ushered the two children to the back of the house. They squinted into the dark, trying to identify people. John flipped on the porch light, which illuminated the angry faces in front.
“Can I help you?” John asked the crowd, which maintained a safe distance from the house, spreading out to form a semicircle — or a perimeter. “What’s going on?”
“We heard that you’re infected with a biological weapon!” someone in the back of the crowd shouted.
“What?” John chuckled. “Where did you hear that?”
“The Army base!” “Biological weapons!” “Escaped during the flood!” “Everyone’s infected!” people shouted at once.
Tom stepped in front of John. “Now, that’s just nonsense,” he said, loudly and firmly. “That base was just a storage depot. There weren’t any biological weapons there.”
“A buddy told me!” Dan said.
“Yeah, well, your buddy told you wrong, Dan! What’s his name?”
“I don’t have to tell you anything, Tom.”
“It’s nonsense, Dan! Do you believe everything that your buddy tells you?”
“How do you know for sure?” One of the women shouted at Tom.
“I’ve been to that base dozens of times. I even covered the opening for the paper five years ago.”
“Well, a lot can change in five years!”
“Or five minutes,” Tom shouted back. “I was in the east covering the flood just yesterday. Does that mean I’m infected too? That I’m a walking bacteriological time bomb?” He stepped down from the porch and advanced toward the crowd, which backed up like a flinching animal.
“Stay back, Tom! You always take their side, don’t you?”
“You mean I always take the side of the facts?” Tom shouted back. “If so, then that’s one thing we agree on, Smith!”
“Stop trying to confuse things! We know what we want, and that is for them to get out of here!” a man shouted, pointing at John and Elaine, who had joined her husband to find out what was going on.
“They’re going to contaminate us! They’ve already disrupted our whole way of life just by coming here!”
“Why did they have to bring their problems and their crime and their diseases here?” Several people shouted their agreement.
“Maybe we should leave,” John whispered to Tom, his voice tremulous.
“You belong here, just like any one of them,” Tom replied.
“We don’t want to cause trouble,” Elaine said.
“You’re not the ones causing the trouble,” Tom said, but he agreed that the situation was fast getting out of control.
“Okay, okay, we’re leaving!” John said, raising his hands in placation.
“And you go with them, Tom!” shouted Dan. “You’re contaminated too! And seeing as how you’re so convinced that the story isn’t true. Maybe you can think about how wrong you were as you’re dying from the anthrax!” Dan laughed cruelly.
Elaine gathered the two children and scuttled to their station wagon as Tom and John shielded them from the crowd as it slowly began to press in on them.
“Stay back!” Tom scoffed. “I might cough and infect you if you get too close!” The crowd roared back indiscriminately.
Elaine and the children climbed into the back seat as John and Tom climbed in the front, and backed the car out of the driveway carefully. The crowd split to let the car pass; as it accelerated away, the crowd came together again, yelling and shaking their fists at the shrinking pair of taillights.
* * *
The LaPopes’ station wagon sped along the nearly deserted highway, its headlights picking up nothing but the long ribbon of asphalt stretching into the darkness. Tom, who was taking a turn driving, stared ahead amid the silence.
“Look, there’s another one!” John said, pointing to a neon motel sign on the left side of the road that had the word “VACANCIES” lit up underneath. “Fifth time’s a charm, right?” he chuckled, trying to lift everyone’s spirits. Christine was asleep in her mother’s lap, while Peter stared morosely out the window.
“Let me take this one,” Tom said as he turned into the parking lot, the gravel crunching under the tires. “You stay here and try to get some rest.” John nodded in exhaustion.
A bell over the office door rang as Tom opened it. The man behind the counter looked up at him, as did three other people standing around the counter. All were leaning toward a radio on the counter that was broadcasting what sounded like an urgent news story.
“Evening, mister,” said the man behind the counter. “Need a room?”
“Two, please. One for me and one for a family of four. What are you listening to?” Tom asked conversationally as he approached the counter.
“Haven’t you heard about the epidemic?” one of them asked. “The Army base that got flooded. Some kind of deadly plague got out. They’re saying that everyone who was there is infected. Could kill us all if it made its way here.”
“Mighty late for someone to be looking for rooms,” the owner said as he slid the paperwork across the counter to Tom. “Where you from? You ain’t from east, are ya?”
“No,” Tom replied as nonchalantly as he could, trying to ignore the four pairs of eyes boring into him.
“Gonna need to see some ID, mister. Address.”
“You’ve got my license,” Tom tapped the card on the desk.
The man nodded slowly. “And for of the people traveling with you.”
Tom put the pen down and locked eyes with the owner. “My friends are tired. They’ve lost everything they have. They have nowhere to go. They’ve been chased out of my neighborhood. No one will take them.”
“I think you’d best be on your way, then, mister,” the owner said. The other three men stood up straight, readying for a fight. “Because if they’re from east, we won’t take them, either.”
“I’m a reporter. I covered the flood and the Army base. I’m telling you, there’s no biological weapons there. No plague. No infections. I’ve interviewed the police and the doctors. No one’s seen anything like that there.”
“Why should I trust you? Lying press,” he spat.
“I don’t know where this story got started, but it’s total nonsense.”
“It makes sense to me,” one of the men said. “Never did trust the Army.”
Tom closed his eyes for a long moment in resignation, scooped up his license, and after glaring at each man in turn, turned to leave, slamming the door in frustration. The men shook their heads and turned their attention back to the radio.
Returning to the car, Tom slumped into the driver seat, his expression telling John everything he needed to know. After a long pause, Tom started the car. “If we can get far enough away, maybe we can find somewhere that the rumor hasn’t reached yet.” He backed out of the parking lot and back on to the empty, dark highway.
“Tom, I can’t ask you to keep doing this,” John said after a few minutes’ silence.
“They chased me out, too, John.”
“But you can stay. We’re the ones with the IDs that have addresses from the eastern part of the state. Not you.”
“I’m the one who recommended the house for refugees. I owe you.”
“It is we who are in your debt, Tom. You are a good man. It’s time for you to leave us and go on your way.”
“What are you planning to do?” Tom asked, concerned.
“Don’t worry, my friend. I’ll show you where to pull over. It’s almost time.”
“Time? For what?”
“For my family and I to go home.”
“I . . . I don’t understand.”
“I know. Don’t worry.”
They drove in silence for a few minutes. Tom was fretting that John was planning to do something desperate to end the suffering of his family, when he suddenly noticed a bright light in the sky, above and to his left. He watched as it grew in size and intensity, and descended in an arc to the right, where it appeared to come to rest in the distance.
“A meteor?” Tom said, pointing.
“Looks like a reentering space capsule. I saw one once, on assignment.”
John smiled. “Something like that. Turn here.”
His journalistic curiosity overriding his concern, Tom turned down a dirt road that appeared to wind in the general direction of the glowing light. As the car crested a hill, Tom could see that the source of the glow was a large silver disc-shaped craft resting on three spindly legs, capped by a hemispherical dome ringed with what appeared to be portholes. He stopped the car, stunned. He turned to John for reassurance that he wasn’t seeing things.
John was smiling. In fact, Tom could see in the rearview mirror that Elaine, Peter, and little Christine were all smiling now, looking very much rested and healthier than before.
“What . . . ”
“We are indeed from a long way away, my friend Tom,” said John, his voice resonating deeply. “Not from the eastern part of the state, but from a star system in what your people call the Large Magellanic Cloud, some one hundred sixty-three thousand of your light-years away.”
Tom tried to ask one of the hundreds of questions suddenly racing through his mind.
“We came here to observe how your people react to strangers. Because we may be returning to your world someday.”
“Yes, Tom,” Christine spoke from the rear seat, her voice far more mature than that of an ordinary second-grader. “We are visiting all the inhabited planets in this sector of the galaxy, seeking those that are ready to join our assembly of peaceful worlds.”
“We do not think your planet is ready to join us yet,” Elaine said. “It seems that you still have much to learn about trusting those who are not like you.”
“But don’t worry,” John said, smiling, placing a reassuring hand on Tom’s shoulder. “We see it as a good sign that there are men and women such as yourself who are dedicated to the light of reason and fact. There are so many worlds where this is not so. You are well on your way.”
With that, John and Elaine opened their doors and stepped out, followed by the children. After a moment’s hesitation, Tom did likewise. The five of them gathered at the front of the car, bathed in the twin headlights.
“Goodbye, my friend Tom,” John said, shaking his hand. Elaine and Peter did likewise, while Christine extended her arms up toward Tom. Tom knelt down and hugged her, then stood up, smiling.
“Remember that it is fact and reason that will guide you past mere survival and toward peace, trust, and mutual prosperity,” John said. “I believe you are well on your way.” With a final wave, John and his family turned toward the spaceship and climbed up a spindly ladder that had descended for them. After a few moments, the ship silently hovered off the ground, the landing legs folded, and the ship accelerated into the sky with such speed that it almost seemed to blink out of existence.
Tom stared for a long time at the spot in the empty sky where his friends had vanished, thinking about what he had witnessed and what he had learned.
“I wish I shared your confidence, my friend,” he said softly, before returning slowly to the car, which turned around and disappeared into the night, toward the highway and the distant city.
It has been said that a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its boots. Tonight, Mr. Thomas Carver — a diligent and honest purveyor of truth — has learned that the damage inflicted by a lie is not always confined to this particular world. And that the fear and mistrust and baseless prejudice that follow in the wake of a lie do more than simply ruin lives, though that is bad enough. They also condemn all of mankind to live in the darkness of ignorance and superstition — a darkness that cannot always be contained . . . in the Event Horizon.