It was Christmas Eve, although it wasn’t the eve of anything and I wondered, as usual, why the day, from early morning until the sun went down, was still referred to as the eve of Christmas when it was simply the day before. My thoughts turned to the single subject that continued to overwhelm almost all other thoughts that ran back and forth through my brain. The artifact. First, when Gularte accidentally dropped the box, the concrete had cracked when it struck, and then, when I’d taken the small object from its ‘nest’ the thing had penetrated inches into the hard concrete from a fall of only a few feet, if that. Instead of accelerating at thirty-two feet per second per second, which was the accelerating speed of any object’s fall inside earth’s gravity well, the thing had acted like it was shot out of a gun…but without seeming to have added anything to its speed of fall at all. It simply wasn’t possible for it to have gained what appeared to be tons of weight without dramatically increasing its speed, but there’d been no increase, of that I was pretty certain, at least not of the speed it would have to have been traveling to do the kind of damage it did.

The day was to be partially to be taken up by Mary’s visit with Paul, which Paul hadn’t bothered to cancel. My wife didn’t seem to mind having a good chunk of her Christmas Eve day eaten up in getting ready and then visiting with my therapist. We drove to Dana Point, Steve Bro, one of the Dwarfs working normally as a lifeguard, babysat with Julie. The big tough-looking physical specimen of a man, although possessed of a significant intellect for such a developed athlete was an amazingly gentle and entertaining babysitter. Julie, and even Bozo, seemed to love him.

The drive to Dana Point was made in silence. When I parked in my usual spot at the rehab center, I did so expecting to spend a good hour, or so, with Paul and Mary at the appointment but ended up standing out in front of Straight Ahead, minutes later, with time on my hands. Paul wanted to talk to my wife alone, for whatever reason I still couldn’t imagine, which was okay although inconvenient as there was no set time when he’d be done with her. The harbor project under construction was about the only place I had to go except the coffee shop across Pacific Coast Highway and, since I knew not a soul in Dana Point proper, there wasn’t much point in getting coffee and sitting alone to watch the traffic. Butch might be hard to find among all the smaller construction sites inside the mess of the larger torn-up area, but I could try to track him down. I’d wanted to continue our conversation, as discomforting as it’d been before but, outside of my wife, Gularte, and Paul almost no one back in the ‘world’ I’d returned to have any comprehension about what was going on inside my brain that was either explainable or I had enough trust in to talk to them about. Paul indicated that he needed about half an hour, so I’d have to make my search and then contact him quickly. Mary wouldn’t want to spend any more time inside, or just outside the rehab facility than she had to I knew.

I drove down and into the construction site, stopped the Volks in front of Butch’s trailer, and sat, letting the little air-cooled engine of the German ‘People’s wagon,’ idle. I looked contemplatively at my right hand, the one I’d handle the object with. My eyes instantly focused on the surface of my palm. Little parallel lines were traced across the surface of my hand. I rubbed the skin with my left hand, but the lines didn’t go away. I remembered the surface of the object. It’d had given the appearance of being composed of iron in texture and color but weighed in about the same as a small ball of aluminum. The surface of the artifact was covered in scuff marks like the marks had been put there by a grinder or wire wheel. Those marks were imprinted now on the palm m right hand. I eased up on the rubbing, instead running the surface of the fingers of my left hand lightly across the marks. They weren’t stains, I realized, with a feeling of fear. The marks were embedded into my hand like by pressure, but unlike such marks that might be put there by pressing an object to the skin, these seemed much more permanent.

Butch knocked on the top of my car just above the open window.

I jerked my head to look at him, dropping my right hand to my lap, in almost a self-protective gesture, while wondering in fear about whether I could look forward to the hand turning black and falling off, or worse.

“What do you want, my new friend,” Butch said, with a big smile.

“Do you have a Geiger Counter?’ I blurted out, realizing how stupid that request sounded, as opposed to simply responding to his opening question.

“Good morning to you too,” Butch shot back.

“I’m serious,” I replied.

“I caught that, but I don’t have one. One of the guys who worked at the nuclear plant has some of the old badges they wore there though.”

“Okay,” I said back, some relief in my voice. “How fast does a badge give results?”

“Ah, I don’t know,” Butch reflected, his smile having changed into a frown. “You’ve been exposed to some kind of radiation?”

“I didn’t know it came in kinds.”

“Oh yeah,” Butch laughed. “High intensity, low intensity, alpha, beta, and more. The guy with the badges runs on and on about it.”

“I don’t need no stinking badges,” I whispered to myself so silently Butch couldn’t hear what I said.

“Let’s go over to his truck, which he basically lives in, and see what we can find,” Butch said, going around the front of my Volks before jumping into the passenger seat.

The drive lasted only seconds, as we approached what looked more like a converted motor home rather than a work truck.

Butch jumped out and walked up to the passenger side of the shabby vehicle. There was a door with levered steps leading up to it. Butch climbed up and went through the door without knocking.

“He’s working, which is what he does best.”

I followed him, wondering how Butch expected to find anything among the hoarder’s mess the guy who lived there existed among.
Butch took almost no time to lean over the space’s sink and pull what looked like a baseball card from a string hanging down in front of the closed window.

“Got it,” he said, “now what do we want to put it up against to gauge the radioactivity?”

I reached out my right hand and took the card from Butch. “I’ll let you know I replied, continuing to hold the card in my hand. “How long does it take to give a reading?

“No time at all, but there’s no reading,” Butch laughed back. “If it turns red you’re burned and if it turns black you’re dead.”

I stared down at the card, its center section cut out and replaced with a gray strip of some material. We both left the converted truck residence and moved back toward my car. The card’s strip remained gray.

“You drive out and I’ll stay with the crews here,” Butch said. “Let me know what you find.”

When I got back to Straight Ahead, I didn’t have to park again. My wife stood waiting outside the main entrance, looking like a million dollars in her halter top and mini skirt. The card still read gray, I was getting a new job with a significant cash advance, and we’d be living in a real house next week.

Mary got into the car, and we took off and headed for home. She didn’t say one word on the trip back, even though I attempted to engage her in conversation several times. The card, now in my right pocket, staying gray had given me a high I wasn’t used to. I was going to live. In thinking so I’d only then become aware that the artifact had induced such a deep-seated fear of my demise deep inside me.

My wife didn’t talk when we got home either, instead going immediately to work on cleaning up the Christmas mess. Something was wrong, really wrong, I suspected. Finally, I could take the silent tension no more. I got up and physically guided her over to the couch. Bro was gone and Julie was upstairs evaluating and toying with the rocket box which I hoped was still unopened.

“What is it?” I asked, but she said nothing.

I continued to ask the same question four more times before I got an answer, my thoughts going to what terrible things Paul might have related to her about me. After one more brief silence, I found out that the problem had nothing to do with me at all. Paul had vaguely and passingly invited her to have a threesome with him and his girlfriend.

I sat in shock. There was no question Mary was telling the truth. She was too deeply affected to be lying. I had no comeback. I literally didn’t know how to respond.

“I’m sorry,” I finally got out.

“Why are you sorry? She asked back. “You had nothing to do with it. Paul thinks you are some sort of God-like warrior from our early conversation. My only question is knowing what he has to know about you and your background why would he risk what you might do to him if I told you what happened?”

I again had no response.

“Julie and I are going to the beach,” Mary said, getting up. “I need to soak in the ocean for a bit.”

With that, she went upstairs to change and get Julie ready. It took only minutes. I never moved from the couch.

“We’ll be back in a few hours,” Mary said, as she and Julie went out the door.

I sat thinking for quite some time, my ‘high’ from only a short time before, having cratered into a broken mass of distorted problems once again. Paul’s potential to move on from treating me now is very likely, and even if he stayed how would I work around the question my wife had put to me and I hadn’t answered because I had no answer? I feared that an answer might come to me that I might have a hard time accommodating. I knew my wife and daughter would be gone for some time so I went upstairs to get down and prepare the recorder to listen to the last tape.  I noticed that the heat engraved writing on the plastic of the reel read: “…careful” just after the descriptor.  I wondered what that meant, but I knew deep down that the word wasn’t there to serve as anything other than a warning.  I put the material back in the closet to wait for a more settled time to go back at them and finally listen to the  no doubt troubling tape.  Mary had a lot to think about and so did I, as I went to work on some odd jobs I’d overlooked for some time. When I was done I went back downstairs.  When Mary and Julie came through the door they both headed straight for the upstairs bedroom to shower the sand off and get cleaned up.  I was glad that I’d decided to wait on listening to the tape since they’d not spent the time on the beach I’d expected.

The real Christmas Eve began when the sun went down and people began to show up.  The party that wasn’t supposed to be a party went on to a little past midnight.  Mary and I were both surprised by the number of lifeguards, police officers and others we barely knew came by.  By the time we got to bed the refrigerator was nearly empty and the mess in the kitchen would take at least an hour to clean up.   Christmas morning was a different sort of bedlam, having coffee, cleaning the mess from the night before and then opening presents.  Only the debris from opening presents remained when I took a break.

I was going to turn on the television when I was interrupted by the doorbell. The bell rang a second time and, getting over my surprise of it ringing at all, I moved to the door and opened it. Bob Elwell stood just back on the flat square pad of concrete that served as the final approach to our front door. It was the first time in a while that he’d used the doorbell to announce his presence outside. He’d come by for the festivities of the night before but we’d never had a chance to talk. Over our short time of knowing one another, he, Gularte, Manning, and Bro had taken it as their right and custom to simply open the door when they visited, step inside, and then announce their presence to whoever was inside. I noted that Bob didn’t look the same as he generally did. He wore the same San Clemente Lifeguard shirt and shorts but his whole comportment was not one of his normal casual and confident presence. His upper body was instead held stiffly upright and the expression on his face was one of nervousness and concern.

“Bob?” I asked, holding the door open. It was Christmas Day, but the morning was long gone, although the debris from the opening of presents with Mary and Julie, plus a new collar for Bozo was still strewn all around me.

“Good that you came,” I said, smiling and gesturing for him to come inside.

“Your presents under the tree,” I went on, trying to ignore the emotional state he was obviously in.

“I don’t want a present, and you know that,” he murmured, stepping inside so I could close the door behind him. “You know I don’t believe in that stuff. I hate Christmas.”

Bob had shared a short version of his upbringing, wherein his parents had been harsh disbelievers in the gift-giving side of the Christmas holiday, when we were standing at the end of the pier one afternoon, waiting for the other Dwarfs to gather. I’d not realized at the time just how deeply that period of his life had affected him when it came to celebrating Christmas after he left the confines of his nuclear family.

I reached under the tree to pull out a sizeable box, brightly wrapped by both my wife and Julie. I pushed it at him, stepping close so I could whisper since both Mary and Jules were doing something together in the kitchen. Bozo sat on one of the side tables next to the couch, occasionally pawing at his new collar. I wasn’t sure whether he liked it or hated it, although he had allowed Julie to get it properly adjusted very painstakingly around his neck.

“Don’t say a word,” I whispered. “They don’t know how you feel about Christmas, and I don’t want them to. You’re not expected to return a gift in kind, just make believe you like the one they’re giving you.” I knew I had a much better chance of not having Bob cause a scene if he knew it would affect Mary or Julie, two people he adored. I was certain his feelings about me were much more complex and probably not quite as favorable.

Bob moved to the couch, holding the gift box under one arm. He seemed more relaxed when he finally sat down, some of the tension he was under seeming to drain down from his shoulders.

Julie came running into the room, tossing Mrs. Beasley onto the couch before pushing the doll aside so she could sit right next to Bob.

“Let’s unwrap it,” she exclaimed, holding out both arms as if Bob had been with a gift meant for her instead of him.

Bob handed over the box, which Julie took all of ten seconds to strip off its gaudy paper, nearly shredding it all in the process.

“Save the paper,” my wife yelled from the kitchen, “it’s expensive stuff we can use next year.”

“What is it?” Julie exclaimed, holding the box while trying to figure out what the photo imprinted on it was.

“Coffeemaker,” Bob replied.

“Oh,” Julie said, grabbing Mrs. Beasley and heading back to the kitchen.

“Not just any coffeemaker,” I said, with a laugh. “That’s a Subito by Moulinex.”

“I don’t have anything for you,” Bob restated what he said when he walked in the door.

“Okay, Bob, what’s going on,” I asked, my tone befitting the seriousness of his whole expression. “You didn’t ring the doorbell for no reason at all and you are not here on Christmas Day to join in the celebration. What is it?”

Bob looked toward the kitchen for a moment before turning his eyes back toward my own. His facial expression was as serious as I’d ever seen it so I inhaled silently and braced myself for bad news.

“Gularte told me,” Bob said as if those three words would mean something of import to me.

I waited, but he didn’t go on.

“Told you what?” I asked, trying to keep the frustration I was feeling out of my tone.

“About the UFO thing,” Bob replied, surprising me.

I kept my face from allowing any emotion through, as best I could.

“What UFO thing?’ I asked back, allowing a frown to crease my brown.
“You know damned well, that thing that came out of a UFO,” Bob went on, I don’t know what it is, and neither does Gularte, but he’s scared of it. He says that almost everything you touch or get involved with scares him to death. That Claymore incident. Screwing around with the train. Sinking Mardian’s Porsche, and then there’s the tapes and the recovery. But the UFO thing takes the cake.”

There was silence, as Bob ran down in getting his pent-up message out to me and I tried to think of how to respond to him. I trusted Bob as much as I trusted Gularte, Bartok, Thorkelson, and Manning. That I might be trusting too many with too much had already occurred to me, but in every situation, I was involved with regarding each of them I wasn’t in almost any position to doubt. I realized that I trusted their actions but that didn’t necessarily extend to their ability to remain silent. I knew I should have realized the depth of emotion that witnessing the effects of the artifact had reached inside me also would extend to anyone who was physically accosted by a physical proof of its very existence. I was, however, mildly relieved that the letters UFO had somehow been inserted into whatever revelations had been made.

“You never talk about anything,” I began and waited for his response to a comment that was anything but an answer to questions he hadn’t as of yet asked and I didn’t want him to ask.

I clenched my right hand although I could only feel the indentations the artifact had made in my palm. Those marks weren’t pressure marks or they’d have quickly disappeared, and they weren’t some sort of traumatic injury no matter how minor, not that I could feel anyway. The marks were like some sort of special series of concentric parallel scars, or maybe a ‘scent mark,’ the thing that was made for anyone, any sentient being, who dared to handle it.

“No, I guess I don’t, but this one bothers me because if what Gularte says is true at all then somebody or some people are going to be coming for it at some time and those kinds of people might be scary.”

“I can’t thank you enough, Bob,” I replied, again surprised that his concern was not about knowing more of the object or its behavior or the reality of its existence but about being concerned for my safety and the likely safety of my family.

“It’s the Dwarfs, you know,” he said when I didn’t go on. “You started all this kind of thinking by making us all detectives.”

I laughed out loud, once again comparing my near accidental creation of the Dwarfs with the conversion of my Marine company from what it had been into what it had become under my haphazard and mostly accidental leadership, driven more by terror than by cold analytical thought. I was also realizing that the object could attract the kind of attention Bob was worried about, and I should be more worried about. The astronaut knew about it, as well as some members of NASA, no doubt, and then there was Mardian himself. At my level, at the level of the artifact’s actual possession, there was only Gularte, Bob, and quite possibly Richard. I had no control or remaining contact with any of the other men, but Gularte and Bob had to be sworn to a silence that neither of them might be able to keep.

Richard was another matter entirely. I would have to depend upon his membership in the CIA to be strong enough to hold him in silence. The reality of the object’s existence, once physically demonstrated, was life-changing and almost anyone, even someone as capable of holding secrets as Gularte, would need to have someone to talk about it with, as I’d just discovered. The object needed to be moved to a more secure location known only to me if security was to be recovered and then maintained. I couldn’t give it back to anyone because I had not even the smallest of hope in reaching anyone who might be able to receive it, and then only if they chose to.

There was only one emotion that might provide the security of silence I needed, and that emotion was fear.

“Bob, you bring up a good point,” I said. “You’re correct. They will come for it but my possession of it will only be their final stop. They’ll have to have somewhere to start and they will be with anyone they think knows. Such people might also have to use draconian methods to assure that the information they got from someone like you was valid and real.”

Bob looked into the empty fireplace across the room, for a few seconds, until it hit him. “You mean torture?” he breathed out.
I squeezed my right hand, closing it into a fist, and then re-opening it. I repeated the action, waiting to get more of Bob’s reaction to what I’d said.

“What’s wrong with your hand?’ Bob asked.

“Nothing,” I replied, sticking it into my pocket.

Despite the unnatural marks on my hand and what the artifact’s characteristics that had been revealed so far, I had to know more about its capabilities. I knew that was dangerous, but I also knew I couldn’t stop myself. I needed a place for the box that was completely private but also accessible to me, which meant I’d need to hide it in plain sight, but not in its current form of presentation.

It was Monday and Christmas which meant that Tuesday would be almost a regular business day. I had the down payment for the house on Lobos Marinos, I’d go in early and rent the place hoping to get in as quickly as possible, before transporting the box all by myself. The garage next to the house, thankfully separated by a significantly sized patio, was huge and would work well for my purpose. The explosives and rebreathers could remain in storage.

The object gave up information in being handled, but it gave no conclusions at all, none that I was capable of coming to, anyway. The second Christmas gift that wasn’t a gift at all, of course, was whatever was on the last tape. Later in the day, I knew I’d have to listen to it, if for no other reason than the be done with it, in which case all the tapes needed to go into the same kind of secure hiding place as the artifact.

Bob left and I sat once again on the couch among all the unwrapped presents, their boxes and wrappings still strewn all over the living and dining rooms, Mary, in light of her visit with Paul, having quit without finishing the cleanup. Julie’s gift, an Estes rocket, Saturn V, provided by Gularte, had been the hit of all the Christmas presents. Julie had taken the box, bigger than her, to bed with her on Christmas night, wedging it under the covers just on the other side of Mrs. Beasley.

Before the day had so abruptly changed, I’d been looking toward listening to the last tape but now, with plenty of time and alone, I just couldn’t do it. I looked at the new Seiko my wife had given me for Christmas, no doubt with cash purloined from the shoeshine box…the cash I never counted. I didn’t care, only smiling ruefully. I needed a break and Galloway’s was open for another hour. I’d go there, rest up, recover, get myself right, and then listen to the tape. Paul had issues, there was now no question, but dealing with him would have to wait, both for his safety as well as that of myself and my family.