Berkie Dunham stomps on the wet sidewalk reflections of the UFOs. They hover ten feet above the street, monitoring everyone. He knows they’re taking note of the way he walks, the way his left leg drags a bit behind the right, a consequence of an accident with a bike and a lawnmower when he was in grade school; the way his feet fall like bricks of lead on the soggy pavement. He sees the UFOs shatter beneath his boots and laughs wildly in his mind—only in his mind, though, because they cannot know that he knows they are watching him.
When he walks like this down the street, or shaves his scruff in the washroom, or scavenges the dumpster behind the Y, they watch. They know his hands shake, that he keeps his empty wallet in his inner jacket pocket, that he sweats through his undershirt even now in December. They know that the bump on his neck is not an ingrown hair like the clinic lady said, but a microchip installed by the government because he refused to enlist like his older brother John.
He’s known for a long time, too. Ever since his mind was freed from the control of the chip when he first tasted snow and his brother was abducted from the desert and his mother started drinking to drown the pain.
The headlights of a UFO cross his face the way a searchlight scans the prison yard. A trapped man leans out of its window, shouts something, and Berkie reaches for him with no success as the UFO swerves around him.
Damn. His teeth dig into his cheek. They got another one.
Berkie glares at the ship flashing its red, yellow, and green lights at him, mocking, bragging. A fleet of ships is coming down the street. Hands and fingers reach out of darkened windows, begging for salvation, but he misses them one by one. He’s useless this way.
He needs firepower.
Home base is in South Street Seaport district, a few streets from the Brooklyn Bridge, but it used to be a red brick apartment with white shutters in Turtle Bay. His family set up their Christmas tree by the living room window every year so you could see the lights from the street. They used to go to a tree farm where John would saw the trunk of a balsam fir clean across and Berkie would catch it as it toppled over. But after John left, their mom bought an artificial tree from Home Depot with the lights already fastened to the plastic branches. Now, when Berkie recalls his childhood home, he only sees his mother hunched over the sofa, colors from the fake tree’s lights glinting off the tinsel, casting rainbow spots like chicken pox on her damp cheeks. It was January 2010 when they got the letter. Berkie watched silently from the stairs, wondering what was in the envelope bearing the seal of the U.S. Army that she held to her chest, wondering why John hadn’t come home for Christmas like he said he would in his last letter. His sister Kat, a plump 16-year old wearing the new pajamas she’d gotten only a few days ago, ran into his back. She grabbed his NYU sweatshirt and tried to push him forward.
“Just hold on,” he hissed.
“I’m hungry! I want pancakes.”
“Would you just hold—”
“Mom!” she bellowed. Their mother looked up at them, her mouth tight and sideways, eyes glassy like they got when she occasionally drank wine or watched old home videos.
“Kids, go back to bed.”
Kat trotted down the stairs. “I’m hungry. What’s for breakfast?”
Berkie sighed and followed her, sat down on the couch, and reached for the letter.
His mom shook her head, saying, “You don’t want to read it,” but didn’t stop him from peeling the envelope from her trembling hands. He opened it, saw his brother’s name in that stale black font.
He’s grown wiser since then. He knows the war is never truly over—the enemy has just changed. Now he realizes that the aliens had been watching him and his mother through the lights on the tree that January morning, laughing as he crushed the letter in a fist and threw it across the room to join the piles of wrapping paper left over from Christmas morning.
His apartment in Seaport district is nearly pitch-black when he walks through the lopsided door, save for the ghost of the moon through the kitchen window. All the other windows are boarded up so the UFOs can’t spy on him. From the coat closet in the hall he takes his Glock 34, sits on his couch, and flips on the TV. A weatherman points to a blue swirl over New York and calls for a snowstorm in the next few days. Berkie calls his mother.
“Baby,” she says. “How are you?”
“Have you seen the news, Ma? You got enough food?”
She sighs. “They say this stuff every winter, Berkley. I’ve got my Campbells and Tab, I’ll be fine. It’s been weeks since you last called. How’ve you been?”
Berkie changes the channel. The chief of the NYPD is standing in front of a microphone. Camera lights flash off the gold insignia on his cap, but Berkie sees right through his act.
“You still there, Berkley?”
“Did you ever get your roof looked at, Ma? You don’t want it caving in if it snows. Has Kat visited you lately? I think I’ll head over there after I finish with you, I’ll ask her to visit you tomorrow. We’ll all visit you.” He hears something clinking in the background. “Ma, are you drinking again?”
She coughs into the receiver. “Berkley, baby, you know it’s hard for me this time of year, and your sister too. You should just let her be.”
The TV shifts to news and something about Syria pops up: a video of soldiers with U.S.-funded weapons sneaking around a building, civilians shuffling behind them.
Crock of shit, Berkie thinks, his toes curling in his boots. Everything on the news is fabricated, some B roll shot to appease the public, to keep them from asking questions. Berkie rubs the prickles of hair that have grown from his chin down to his Adam’s apple, traces a circle around his stump of a neck until his finger rises and falls over the bump of the microchip.
A few months after John went missing—months after he and his mother and sister had collapsed on the living room floor surrounded by shredded wrapping paper and shattered lights and stockings torn from the mantle—he started hanging with this older guy from Brooklyn named Greg who gave him everything he needed to forget for a while. That was when he noticed the chip. That day he put another tablet under his tongue—didn’t know how many he’d taken by then—and laid down on the wooden floor of Greg’s shadowed apartment. Summer had come early so he only wore shorts and a t-shirt he’d gotten for orientation freshman year. He could feel the floor splinters tickling his leg hair. He hadn’t dropped out of college yet, but had been considering it. He would only get through another three months in the fall before he stopped going to classes altogether and moved in with Greg.
As he laid on the floor, dragging fingernails down his arms and chest and every accessible inch of his bare skin, he felt the bump on his neck and scratched it until it bled. Greg, who’d been sitting nearby smoking a joint, ripped off a scrap of Berkie’s orientation t-shirt and wrapped it around his bleeding neck.
“I’ve been around for a while, kid,” said Greg, taking a drag. “They take everything you have and when it’s not enough, they take you instead.” Greg was the only person he had told about his brother, the only one who was honest with Berkie. Greg told him the truth, told him what the bump really was, and everything suddenly made sense.
The news shifts again on the TV. A police cruiser blows down the highway trailing a red car, the live aerial view tracking its pursuit down I-278. Another cruiser joins the chase while the cars on the other side of the divider whiz past, oblivious.
“Andrew’s been working late nights,” his mom says, and Berkie realizes she’s still speaking. “Crime always goes up around the holidays and they need more eyes on the streets. Kat says she doesn’t mind being home alone, but I still worry.”
That good-for-nothing asshole, Berkie wants to say, but holds back. He tries to stay calm, but his hands start to itch, and when he looks at them they’re shaking. The gun in his hand is a blur, like he’s look at it through murky water. He hopes the guy in the car gets away. That’s how they snatch you—arrest you for something so mundane, like speeding or stealing Christmas presents for your kids. They take you in for processing and then you’re never heard from again. Or worse, they get you to go with them voluntarily, ship you off to another country where, unlike county jail, you can’t call or visit. Maybe you get to send your family a letter or two if they aren’t lost in the mail—another crock, anyone with half a brain knows they read all the mail—a call if there are telephone lines and calling cards, but if you die, they won’t know unless the government wants them to know. If you go missing, the government won’t try to find you. Because they know exactly where you are: on a laboratory table in a ship being probed like a slab of meat by a bunch of big-eyed space crustaceans.
The police cruisers begin to catch up as the red car desperately swerves around slower cars, and Berkie hears the driver crying out, Don’t let them catch me, please, don’t let them catch
He unloads the magazine into the screen and the room is suddenly flooded with yellow light. He dives to his hands and knees on the floor, panicking, wondering how they finally broke into his home. But the light dims as fast as it appeared and he realizes it had been from the frayed, sparking wires now visible through the shattered TV screen.
“Berkley?” He hears his mother’s voice shrieking through the phone. He fishes it out from where it fell beneath the couch, although it slips through his warm, wet fingers.
Berkie says, “I gotta go to Kat’s. Let’s get together sometime soon. You, me, Kat and John, yeah?”
“Berkley, you can’t keep pretending—”
“I gotta go, Kat needs me. Bye, Ma.”
She starts to say something else, perhaps reminding him to wear a scarf, but he hangs up. Glass crunches under his feet as he leaves his apartment and heads south. Kat’s home is above a little café where they used to get brunch Sunday morning before she got hitched and he became the family pariah, just because he’d tried to stop his idiot sister from marrying her police officer fiancé, who was obviously one of them.
The East River glistens in the distance, the whitecaps roiling as if disturbed from below. Berkie pulls his hood over his head. It’s late enough now that most people are inside, not walking the streets of Seaport district while snow spits from the sky. It accumulates like ash as he crosses Gold and Cliff Street, down Fulton, his footprints the only evidence that life continues in the absence of screeching cars and honking taxis and photo-taking tourists.
His gun presses hard against his tailbone where he’s stuck it in the waistband of his jeans. Dr. Peterson would have marked him off back in school for not saying coccyx. The hilt of it tickles his sacrum and the end of its barrel chills a soft triangle of skin at the superior end of his buttocks. Kat’s done what he couldn’t. Graduated and in her first year of med school. Still unemployed, he owes his mom two grand, the school even more. Kat’s only mistake was marrying that piece of shit alien sympathizer.
A streetlight suddenly turns on and splashes light all over him.
He takes off running with his gun in his hand, adrenaline spilling over his shoulders and down his back, thinking they’ve found me, they’ve found me, they’ve found me. Spots of light hover in front of him, pulsing; he takes aim at the largest, brightest spot, but it moves every time he focuses, and he can see it smiling, flashing, mocking him. Kat’s house is only a few blocks away; he can see the black silhouette of a POW/MIA flag hanging limply from her bedroom window, and he sprints towards it, dodging the lights in his vision. He runs up against Kat’s brown door and knocks. A neighbor yells for him to shut up even though he’s barely making a sound. He puts the gun in his jacket pocket so they don’t see and call the cops. Then Kat is standing there.
“Mom called to tell me you were on your way,” she says, blocking the door. “I don’t want you here, Berk.”
Berkie holds her to his chest. She still only reaches his neck even though she’s twenty-three, but she’s warm and soft. The microchip vibrates. “I missed you, Kitty Kat.”
She pulls away. “I’ve told you, it’s Katherine, and—my God, what did you do to your arm?”
She grabs his jacket sleeve and pulls it up. He is bleeding. “I didn’t do it, Kat. They did.”
“They? You don’t mean…” Her eyes narrow. “Are you on something, Berk?”
He wrestles his arm from her grip. “Is John here yet? I called Ma, said you would visit her tomorrow. Maybe the three of us can go. Did you know she’s drinking again?”
Kat steers him towards the couch, sets him down, and tells him to stay put. “You can’t keep doing this shit,” she calls as she goes to kitchen. “I thought you were getting clean.” His arm is shaking, but so is his whole body. It’s their fault.
Their damn fault.
“This is no one’s fault, Berk,” she says, wrapping the rag around his arm. “You’re sick. You need help.”
He takes the rag, blows his nose in it. “I’m fine, Kitty Kat. It’s you I worry about. Being here all alone, defenseless, while your pig of a husband ruins the lives of innocent people.”
“Berkley. Andrew is a good man. He’s not involved in any conspiracies like you think.”
Berkie rolls his eyes, which sends the room spinning. The walls are all white, only interrupted by a set of windows which rotate so that the river is in the sky, then on the ground, then in the sky again. Kat leans forward and her brown hair hangs over half her face, her sour apple shampoo in his face, biting the chapped edges of his nose, stinging his eyes. As she plucks splinters of glass from his arm she says again that he needs help, that she can call someone, maybe Andrew. Berkie scoffs.
He looks for John under the pillow but he’s not there. When he stands up to check under the couch, his gun falls out of his pocket and hits the carpet with a dull thud.
He checks the pantry.
“Berk.” Kat’s voice is strained. “Why do you have a gun?”
He darts to the window. He points to the UFOs hovering outside. “They watch you while you sleep, you know. You’re most vulnerable then.” He taps a knuckle against the glass. “I can board these up since your husband obviously doesn’t care about your safety.”
Kat hasn’t moved. Her face has gone white, though, and her fingers are drumming against her pajama pants. They’re the same pants she wore that Christmas, the last one before he dropped out of school, the one with the shattered Christmas lights. Berkie closes his eyes, but the memory is still there, a swirl of colors, the sound of his mom crying on the living room floor. His fist hits the window once, twice, another, and Kat is shouting at him, telling him to leave, but he won’t.
Not without John, he thinks, or says, and then she’s picked up his own gun and pointed it at him. He runs for the back door when she threatens to call the police and dives into the bitter night. The UFOS crowd around him, absorbing the protective darkness. He hears his sister yelling for him to stop and her neighbors’ angry voices joining from all around like a celestial choir. The snow makes things vibrate and the road belly dances like a hot summer day as he runs further south, his left leg hitting the ashy street half a second later than it should, his fingernails clawing at the chip in his neck. He can feel it under his skin. Can hear the sirens of their ships tracking him down, using the chip to find him.
Pearl Street. Front Street. The bridge stands in the river like the sturdy legs of Goliath. The sirens have grown louder and echo painfully in his ears, the high-pitched squeal subdued only by the low rush of the water below. He knows he can lose them in the alleys of Brooklyn. In the middle of the bridge the water becomes a constant thrum, a cushion that absorbs the sound and light behind him. But there’s light above him, too, trailing the suspension cables, igniting the surface of the water with fire. Brooklyn shines like an ocean liner on the other side of the bridge.
Trapped, he realizes. He is the red car on the highway.
The water doesn’t look so threatening anymore. He steps up onto the railing, crosses the tress to the edge of the bridge. Beneath him the UFOs swirl in their foreign dance; red and blue blur into purple as they stop beneath where he stands. Andrew or a copy of Andrew or an alien in Andrew’s body gets out and yells at him to come down, to not do anything rash, that they’ll take him somewhere safe.
His hand, the bloody one, becomes warm, and he looks over to see John standing beside him. Berkie squeezes his brother’s hand.
“Do you believe me?” he asks.
John looks at him, his face tired. His hair is longer, like he’s growing out his buzzcut, and his fatigues are wrinkled and stained. But he is there.
Berkie smiles. “I didn’t think you’d come back. We’ve missed you. Ma’s expecting us and Kat tomorrow—you free?”
John nods. Berkie looks down at the police standing beside the UFOs, then slaps his brother on the back.
He turns to the dark water.
Jennifer Rohrbach is a senior Creative Writing and English major at Widener University in Chester, PA. She is currently the editor-in-chief of Widener’s undergraduate literary journal, The Blue Route, and student news site, The Blue&Gold. This is her first published story.
Artwork: Brooke Shaden, A Boy Broken