At The Madhouse that same evening, Simona, Rick and Wanda had retired to Rick and Wanda’s room a few hours after the house meeting and were now engaged in a serious discussion about their favorite topic of the last few days.
“So let me get this straight,” Wanda was saying to Rick. “You know something about Al that we don’t know. But for some weird reason you can’t tell us? What did Al do, swear you to secrecy or something? Come on, Rick, we always tell each other everything.”
“Oh, all right,” Rick relented. He hesitated for several seconds before continuing. “But you’ve got to promise me not to tell anyone else, or let on to Al that you know his secret.”
“All right, already!” Wanda and Simona exclaimed in unison. “So what’s the big secret?”
“Well,” said Rick, settling back comfortably on his bed, “you remember last night’s rainstorm? Traffic on the Bay Bridge was moving so slow I couldn’t get to The Last Resort in time to pick up Wanda. By the way, you’re not still pissed at me, are you? It wasn’t exactly my fault, you know.”
Wanda said through clenched teeth, “No, Rick, I’m not still pissed. But I’m sure gonna be if you don’t get to the point. Now what about Al?”
“OK, when I got to the bar, it was all locked up for the night. So I went around to the alley entrance, you know, to that little room in the back where Al sleeps. Well, the light was on, so I looked in through the little window and guess what I saw?”
“This is no time for guessing games,” broke in Simona impatiently. She looked at Wanda. “We’re both gonna take serious action here, if you don’t get on with it!” They both glared at Rick menacingly.
“OK, OK! Well, Al was sitting there with a young girl who looked like, you know, a street person. And she was screaming her head off. And then the weirdest thing happened!”
“What, what?” pleaded Simona, rocking back and forth on the bed.
“I dunno,” said Rick sheepishly after a few seconds of silence. “Like, this is gonna sound way too weird, but I swear I heard this—this voice in my head. And it was saying, I don’t know, something like, ‘Come in and sit down!’ and I couldn’t do anything but what it told me to do. So I remember sitting on a box in the corner and then I must have missed some stuff because the next thing I knew, the girl was gone and Al was talking to me like I’d been there all the time and just nodded off or something. And that’s when he told me.”
“Told you what?” shrieked Wanda in exasperated fury. “I swear, Rick, it takes you longer to tell a story than the Wizard when he’s tripping on acid!”
“He told me,” replied Rick with dignity, ignoring her outburst, “that he had studied with the holy guys in Tibet and he was just helping this girl with her tension headaches. He told me not to tell anybody else ‘cause he was embarrassed about being a spiritual dude in the 90’s. Thought people would laugh at him or something.”
“So that’s the big secret we’ve been waiting for?” Wanda sounded disappointed.
Simona looked at Rick thoughtfully. “That could explain some things about Al, I guess. But do you think we should believe him, Rick? I mean, how do you know he isn’t just giving you a story? You’ve got to admit, that’s the kind of stuff you’d take to heart. Sure, we all like Al, especially some of us,” she looked at Wanda who blushed but said nothing, “but can we really believe everything he says?”
The other two shook their heads doubtfully.
“I don’t know, Simona,” ventured Rick. “It seems like you’re always suspicious of everybody.”
Simona got up, looked out the window for a moment, and then snapped her fingers excitedly. “I’ve got an idea!” she cried. “I think I know a way to get some answers, one way or another! Remember, last night at the bar? We were with that stuck-up reporter and she showed us that article about a UFO in the Park? Well, I got to thinking. Didn’t you guys tell me that you first saw Al wandering around naked at just about that exact time and place? So what do you say we all go out there right now and do a little investigating. I was thinking about it last night, but the damn rain got in the way.”
“Sure, Simona,” said Rick with a puzzled look. “I’ll drive us out there right now. But what do you expect to find? It’s been two days and there’s been heavy rain. If there was any evidence, it’s probably been washed away by now.”
Wanda knit her brows in concentration. “Are you saying, Simona, that you think there’s some connection between Al and this UFO sighting? I’m not sure I like the way this is going.” She frowned and lowered her head.
Simona went over and put an arm around Wanda’s shoulders. “I don’t really know, Wanda,” she confessed, “but I’ve got a feeling. Remember when I had a feeling about that bike messenger you were in love with last year?”
“Boy, do I ever!” she made a gagging noise. “The creep turned out to be a strung-out junkie and couldn’t even get it up.”
“Well, I’ve got a feeling about Al, too. Not bad or anything,” she added hastily, “but some things about him just don’t add up. So humor me, will you?”
Wanda nodded her head. “I guess I can trust you, Simona.”
Simona turned to Rick. “OK, then. Let’s get this show on the road.” She looked at her watch. “It’s only about eight o’clock now. That means we can get out there, look around, and still make it back to The Last Resort in time to have a few drinks before closing and invite Al to dinner. Is that OK with you guys?”
“Sounds good to me,” said Rick. “I like the dude, even sort of love him, I think—no offense, Wanda—but I want to know the truth as much as anybody.”
“Well, what are we waiting for?” asked Wanda, suddenly impatient.
“That’s the spirit!” exclaimed Simona.
While Wanda went into the kitchen to pack a thermos of coffee and some sandwiches (“Be prepared!” Simona had cautioned), Rick went out and pulled the van up to the front door. So in about twenty minutes they were cruising up Fulton Street on the north side of the Park.
“Where did you say you first saw Al?” asked Simona, looking out the window at the street signs.
“I guess it was somewhere around that entrance at Eighth Avenue,” replied Wanda. “Rick’s van had broken down—again!—and we were parked on the south side of the street. Rick was working on the van and I was pacing up and down. It must have been near midnight—‘cause I was sure we were gonna have to hitch downtown to make last call—when we saw this naked dude coming out of the bushes. Well, we both giggled and Rick gave him some clothes—but you know the rest, right? I just like talking about it,” she sighed. “He’s just sooo cute!”
“OK,” said Simona, strictly business. “Rick, turn the van around and park as close as you can to where you were the other night.”
Rick did as he was told. They were just about to get out of the van when Simona stopped them. “Wait a minute, you guys! What’s going on over there?” She pointed to a man who was wandering aimlessly back and forth just inside the Park’s entrance.
“I don’t know,” replied Rick. “Poor dude looks like he’s in some kind of trouble.”
The three of them got out of the van and walked toward the stranger who now appeared to be staggering from side to side like a drunkard. On closer inspection, he proved to be a youngish man with a trim, athletic build, clean-shaven, with slightly longish, sandy-colored hair. He was dressed in California casual style—Gap sweatshirt, Dockers and running shoes—but his clothes were torn and dirty, as if he’d been wearing them for days. Every now and then he looked into the interior of the park, covered his face with his hands, and moaned piteously.
Rick walked up to the stranger without hesitation. “You OK, mister, you need some help or something?” he asked gently and sympathetically.
The stranger looked at Rick, and then at Wanda and Simona, who had followed close behind. With a trembling voice he asked them, “Have any of you seen my little dog? She’s a cute little toy poodle, pure white.” He seemed to be in a state of shock.
Rick took him by the arm and gently led him over to the van, the others following. “No, we haven’t seen your dog,” replied Rick kindly, inspecting the stranger for any signs of injury. “But what are you doing out here? Did you have an accident or something? When did you lose your dog, anyway?”
His eyes had a glazed look as if he didn’t understand. But he let Rick put him in the back seat of the van and accepted a little of the coffee that Wanda poured for him. In a few minutes he began to react more normally.
“That’s better,” said Rick. “Now, please tell us what happened.”
The man made a visible effort to pull himself together and began. “My name’s Barry—Barry Mariano. I’m a theater costume designer. I was walking my little dog out by the side of the Park, like I always do. We live just a few blocks up from here, across the street, me and my little dog Zsa Zsa, in a cozy little apartment…” He buried his face in his hands and began to sob. When he had recovered somewhat, he continued. “So I was walking Zsa Zsa and we decided to go into the park. It was later than we usually go, but it was so warm out, I just had to give in when she brought me her little leash…” He sobbed again for a few seconds. “Anyway, we had only been in the park for a few minutes when we saw these incredibly bright lights up in the sky, kind of hovering, if you know what I mean. They looked like those searchlights you see at Hollywood premieres, you know? So I went toward the direction of the lights—toward a meadow—and they came down closer and closer until finally they were on the ground. I pulled Zsa Zsa behind a bush and tried to make her be quiet. But she started barking like she was terribly afraid of something and pulled the leash out of my hand and ran away.”
“Poor guy,” said Wanda sympathetically.
“Those lights—that must have been the UFO sighting. But that was two nights ago,” said Simona in amazement. “And you’ve been wandering around here all this time?”
“No wonder you’re in such bad shape,” added Rick.
‘I’ve been looking for Zsa Zsa,” sighed Barry. “I guess I lost track of the time. I don’t really remember anything between the time I lost her and I saw it—and when you guys found me. Has it really been two days?”
Simona ignored his question. “What do you mean, ‘saw it’?” she demanded.
“Well, after Zsa Zsa ran off, I stood up and started calling after her, but she wouldn’t listen and soon she was out of sight. So I started to run after her and—then I saw something I’ll never forget! There were two glowing figures, all bathed in white light. They were standing in a sort of glowing green circle. And there were these voices…” He put his hands to his head as if to block out the sound. “It’s like they were in my head, sort of like coming from a Walkman. I couldn’t understand much of it, but somehow I knew that the voices were coming from the lit-up figures and it’s like there were two voices. Like one was talking to the other. It kept saying something like ‘replicate’! And then one of the figures started changing, becoming gradually more human in shape and at the same time I could feel—and this is the really scary part—like a sort of hand reaching into my mind and, like, pulling stuff out of it. And then this one figure was fully human and the other was just a light going back up into the sky. Then this human figure looked at me—I was still standing there in plain sight, too terrified to move—it looked at me and that’s when I really freaked out. It was—or seemed to be—a naked man. But that’s not the weirdest part. Get this—he looked exactly like my old lover, Alan—Alan Page—who died of AIDS over five years ago. This Alan thing looked at me and, I swear to God, it smiled at me! Then it walked toward the place where Zsa Zsa and I entered the Park. I guess I don’t remember anything after that.”
As Barry finished his story, the three companions looked at him and then at each other in amazement.
“Wow!” said Wanda finally. “I wouldn’t believe that if I saw it in the movies. What a great story!”
“I assure you,” said Barry, regaining some of his dignity, “every word of it happened just like I said. Either that or I’m totally insane. But you’re the only people I’ve told so far, and I feel better to have gotten it off my chest. What do you think, am I crazy or did it really happen?”
“I, for one, am inclined to believe you,” replied Simona gravely. “After all, something frightened your dog, didn’t it?”
“That’s right, Zsa Zsa! I’ve got to find Zsa Zsa,” cried Barry, looking distraught again. “She’s a house dog. She can’t survive in a wilderness like this!”
“Don’t worry, Barry, we all believe you!” Rick looked at Wanda, who nodded in agreement. “And we’ll help you find your dog, if we can.”
“But first,” said Simona, “lead us to the place where you saw those lights.”
Barry obliged. As the four explorers approached the meadow, they could just barely see a faintly glowing green ring about fifty yards in diameter circling the center of the meadow.
“I’m going to check this out,” said Simona boldly, starting toward the ring.
“Wait a minute,” cautioned Wanda. “What if it’s radioactive or something?”
“Good point,” agreed Simona, picking up a fallen tree branch. “I’ll stick this into the ring and see what happens.”
As she did so, she felt a strange tingling sensation, first in her hand, then in her arm, and finally spreading over her whole body. “Omigod!” she exclaimed, dropping the branch. Then before anyone could stop her, she plunged into the glowing green light and closed her eyes. A blissful look spread over her face, and she began to writhe in what looked very much like sexual ecstasy.
“Quick,” cried Rick, greatly alarmed by this turn of events. “Let’s get her out of there!”
Rick and Barry immediately grabbed her by the arms and pulled her out of the ring. “Come on,” Rick called out to Wanda, as he and Barry half carried the still-moaning Simona back to the van. “We’re going to The Last Resort,” he told Wanda grimly. “There’s only one dude who can make sense out of all this—and that’s Al!”
As they got into the van and started downtown, Wanda looked wistfully back toward the park. “Gee, Rick,” she said plaintively, “couldn’t you have given me just a few minutes alone with that ring?”
Chapter 15 >>© Cantara Christopher 2001, 2022 :: SUPPORT MY FREE MINIPRESS AT KO-FI.COM/CANTARACHRISTOPHER