When the phone rang at midnight, I knew it wouldn’t be good news. Who phones at that hour, besides cops calling to say that there’s been an accident and your loved one has been seriously hurt or even killed? The Publisher’s Clearinghouse people never call you up at midnight to tell you that they’re on your front porch with one of those ridiculously over-sized checks made out for millions of dollars and it’s got your name on it. The person of your dreams doesn’t ever stop by at oh-dark-hundred to say, “Hey, this is crazy, but I’m desperately in love with you. Would you like to go to the Denny’s in Ames, for coffee and a Grand Slam?”
I reluctantly answered the phone, knowing that I should just let the call go to voice mail. “Huh-lo,” I mumbled half-coherently into the receiver, hoping that at least I wasn’t holding the phone upside down.
“Karen Agnew?” It wasn’t a voice I recognized, but the male caller had at least gotten my name correct. I sat up and rubbed bleary eyes.
“Yes, this is Karen Agnew. Who’s this?”
“You are in serious danger.” The man’s voice was completely free of accent, pleasant to listen to but there was nothing that stood out as particularly remarkable. If it was a color, it would be beige.
I was stunned into silence. Then I got mad. This guy had interrupted a really nice dream about George Clooney and me on a beach in the French Riviera. “Who is this? Did Brandy put you up to this? I’m gonna kill her! Do you realize that it’s –”
“You must believe me,” the guy interrupted. “Haven’t you noticed the black van following you? Or the men in black suits who are always there whenever you turn around?”
I stopped for a moment and listened. Oh, my God. He was right. I had noticed a big black windowless van in my rear view mirror more than once in the past couple of weeks. I had even made a comment about it to my mother, saying something about it being a pedophile’s car. She encouraged me to call the police and report it but I’d just shrugged it off as paranoia. And there had been always been a trio of men in black suits in two different restaurants I’d gone into in the past week. At the time, I’d just assumed they were Mormon missionaries. Now, though, I began to think that maybe there was something a little more sinister about them.
I was scared now. “Who is this? Why are they following me? Who are they?”
“I am going to help you, but you have to trust me.”
“Tell me who you are first.”
“My name is Norville. Go to your window and tell me if they are out there.”
“Yeah, okay.” I slid out of bed and peeked through the curtains on the window that faced the street in front of my house. Sure enough, there was a big black van parked two houses away. “Oh, my God. They’re out there now!” I whispered into the phone, panic making my voice harsh. “What do I do?”
“Get dressed without turning on any lights. Go out your back door and into the alley behind your house.”
“Okay,” I said hesitantly. He hung up before I could say anything else. I stood stock still for a moment, deciding if I wanted to call the police. I heard a car door closing and it was all the motivation I needed. They were coming for me. I knew it.
I quickly got dressed, not even caring if my socks matched, and slipped out the back door. I hunkered down a bit and quickly crossed my yard. God, this was insane! Who were those people in that van? Who was Norville?
I went out my back gate and saw a man there waiting for me. If it was Norville, he was as beige as his voice. Completely unremarkable and unmemorable. He wasn’t tall or short, fat or thin. His clothing was boring, his hair and eyes were brown. If he was standing next to me in a crowded elevator, I doubt I would have even noticed him. I stared at him for a moment and then asked, “Are you Norville?” Was that his first or his last name?
“Yes.” He nodded and turned around, headed for the end of the alley, where it spilled out onto the street that ran perpendicular to mine. “Follow me. There is not much time.”
I walked quickly after him, still wondering what was going on and why I trusted this man. Why hadn’t I just called the cops after I saw that van in front of my house?
We met up with the road and he turned right, heading farther from my home. “Do you have a car or something? Is that where we’re going?” I asked, slightly short of breath from the fast walking.
“Yes, my vehicle is ahead. I will explain everything once we are inside.”
His vehicle, as it turned out, was a van with one of those fish-eye windows on the passenger side in the back, like the ones the police use for surveillance in the movies. It was a carbon copy of the one that was sitting on the street in the front of my house, except for the color, which was brown. I stopped dead in my tracks and began shaking my head. “Oh, no,” I said firmly. “I am not avoiding one van just to get into another.”
“Karen Agnew,” he said, turning to face me. “I will not hurt you. Please get into the vehicle and I will explain everything to you.” He extended his hand to me. I stared at his palm long enough to realize that there was something weird about it but not long enough to figure out what, before slipping my hand into his and allowing him to lead me to the van.
Once I was settled in the passenger seat, with my seat belt firmly locked into place, I looked around the interior of Norville’s van. It was clean, spotless in fact, and smelled vaguely of something that brought to mind Christmas at my Granny’s house in South Dakota. I thought maybe it was a mix of cinnamon, ginger, and evergreen. Whatever it was, it made me feel safe and I began to relax. I half-turned in my seat to see what was behind me as Norville climbed into the seat next to me.
The walls in the back of the van were covered with metal boards that were filled with blinking lights, dials and switches, and tiny screens. I thought maybe he was a HAM radio enthusiast. As I looked closer, however, I noticed two things missing—a microphone and an antenna. Both things would have been necessary for a HAM radio, right?
“What’s all that for?” I asked as Norville slotted an odd-looking key into the ignition of his van and turned it. Nothing happened; the engine didn’t turn over, the radio didn’t come on, the headlights were still dark. “Oh, no. Is your battery drained or something?” I felt a rising tide of panic. We had to get away.
Norville pushed a button on the dashboard. The blinking lights behind me dimmed and the van’s headlights came on. Then he pushed another button and we began moving forward.
“Oh, I get it,” I said, nodding confidently to myself as I felt a rush of relief. “You’ve made this an electric vehicle, right? My friend Wanda’s got one of those Prius cars and it’s really quiet, too.”
“Yes,” Norville said. “This is like an electric vehicle.” He fell silent then. Norville was a man of few words. That was fine with me, so long as he used his few words to explain to me just what was going on.
We made a left onto Main Street, the only street in town that would take us to the highway. I twisted around in my seat and tried to look out the rear windows, only to discover that there were no rear windows. “They are not following,” Norville said. “They do not yet know that you are missing.”
“Well, that’s good.” I took a deep breath and tried to relax a little more as I watched the scenery out the windshield. “Are you going to tell me what’s going on?”
“Yes, I will do that.” He reached out and pressed another button and then turned in his own seat, facing me now.
“Hey! Watch the road!” I shouted at him, reaching to grab the steering wheel that he’d abandoned to talk to me.
He frowned a little and turned to look out the window. “Why must I watch the road? Does it do tricks?” he asked. It was a joke my seven-year-old niece would have made but when he said it, he sounded genuinely confused.
“What? No. But you’re… we’re… the car…” I stopped talking and my jaw dropped. “The car’s driving itself. Oh, my dear lord. The car is driving itself.”
“Yes. It is fully automated,” he said blandly, as if cars that drove themselves were everyday objects. “Now I will explain.” Norville turned his attention back to me. “Do you know the word Roswell?”
“New Mexico? Roswell, New Mexico? Where the government found the crashed alien space ship? My great-grandfather was stationed at an air force base near there. Holloman, I think it’s called.”
Norville’s bland face light up with a ghastly smile. It appeared that he was both proud of me and relieved about something. “Yes, that is correct. Holloman Air Force Base. The men in the black suits who drive the black van are from there.”
I narrowed my eyes at him, suspicion filling me. “Wait a minute. Are you telling me those guys are aliens from that ship, the one that crashed?”
“No. They are not aliens. They are U.S. government employees who work on that base. I am an alien.”
I snorted with barely controlled laughter. “Come on,” I said. “Who put you up to this? It was Brandy, wasn’t it? This is revenge for the April Fool’s Day thing I did two years ago, isn’t it?”
“I do not know Brandy.”
“Okay,” I said slowly, still squinting suspiciously at him. “Say for a moment that I believe you’re an alien life form from another planet –”
“I am not from another planet,” Norville interrupted. “I am from this planet.”
“But you’re an alien. How can you be an alien if you’re from this planet?”
“I am alien because I am not homo sapien. Is that not the correct usage of the word ‘alien’?”
“No, that’s right. But usually when people say ‘alien’, they mean little green men from outer space. But never mind that,” I said, flapping my hand to dismiss further discussions of dictionary definitions. “How can you not be human? You look human. You’re talking like a human.”
“There is a gorilla named Koko. She looks human and she speaks a human language. But she is not human.”
That shut me up quickly. He was right. But wait a minute; what was I thinking? This was crazy! This whole situation was insane. “No, no. Don’t distract me from getting the truth out of you. If you’re not human and not an alien from another planet, then just what are you?”
“I am a biologically-engineered, sentient being,” he said, as though any of that made sense.
I frowned at him, slowly working through what he’d just said. Then it dawned on me. “You were created? Like, in a lab or something?”
Suddenly, like a supernova going off above my head, I realized what was weird about his hands. “And that’s why your hands are so smooth. You don’t have fingerprints or lines on your palms.”
“Or a navel. Yes, that is all correct.” Norville gave me the ghastly smile meant to show that he was proud of me, but it only succeeded in giving me the creeps.
I nodded slowly and then turned away from him. I curled up in my seat and rested my head against the window. It was cold and smooth and I drew some strange form of comfort from it. It was a familiar sensation. It was something I’d done a hundred thousand times before and I clung to that familiarity. The rest of my life might be a bizarre, confusing mess of aliens and government officials, but this window reminded me of being ten years old and riding in the backseat of my dad’s 1973 Pontiac Le Mans.
“Is there something wrong, Karen Agnew?”
I shook my head and glanced over at Norville. The ghastly smile had been replaced by a look of concern that was infinitely less creepy. “No, it’s just… Well, you have to admit that this is a lot for a girl to process all at once. I mean, aliens and government agents… Hey, wait a second.” I sat up straight in my seat and swiveled to face Norville again. “Why are they chasing me?”
“Oh. Yes. Of course.” Norville looked worried for the first time in our short acquaintance. “Well, you see. We—the aliens—have identified you as our queen.”
“Bull,” I said immediately.
Norville’s head flew around to face the road, a panicked expression on his bland little face. “A male cow? Are we in danger of striking it?”
“No,” I said, no longer amused by his fish-out-of-water act. “I mean, you’re making up a story. You’re lying to me.”
“I assure you that I am incapable of telling any sort of falsehood. You are our queen and I was sent to fetch you. We will soon be taking over the world and we need you to guide us.”
“Wait just a minute here,” I said as I threw my hands up in front of me, in the classic stop position. “There are so many things wrong with what you’ve just said that I need a moment to figure out where to begin.”
“There is nothing wrong—”
I reached out and laid my finger against Norville’s mouth, immediately shutting him up. I took a deep breath and began sorting through everything he’d just told me. “Okay. So. Back in 1963—”
“Yeah, whatever. Back in 1947, an alien ship crash landed near Roswell, New Mexico.” Norville opened his mouth to answer me but I put my finger against his lips again. “Just nod if I’m correct.”
He nodded obediently.
“And there were aliens on board? I’m assuming they were dead.”
“So, the scientists, what? Took bits of their DNA or whatever and… And made you?”
Norville nodded again.
“And there’s more than one of you?”
He shook his head.
I kept forgetting that he was so literal. “No, I mean, more than one alien like you? More than one of your kind?”
“And you all got together and decided to take over the world, and in order to do that, you have to have a queen?”
He shook his head.
“But you just said—”
“If I may speak?”
Now it was my turn to nod.
“Thank you. We did not decide. It is our purpose. It is why the ship—our ancestors’ ship—was on Earth to begin with. The human race was meant to be subjugated twenty years ago, but because our ancestors were dead, the whole project was put off schedule.”
Subjugated. That didn’t sound like fun. “And when you say ‘subjugated’, you mean… What, exactly?”
“Completely under our power.”
“Yeah. That’s what I was afraid of. Stop the van.”
“Bull,” I said. “Either you stop it or I’m gonna jump out. I have the feeling that those government agents were following me around to keep me safe from you.”
“I am truly regretful, Karen Agnew, but I cannot stop the van. The autopilot has engaged and the vehicle will not stop until we return to New Mexico.”
I growled at him and reached for the door handle, only to find it missing. There was no window crank either. I slapped my hand impotently against the window and then threw myself back against my seat, arms crossed over my chest, jaw clenched. “I’m trapped. I’m freaking trapped with some freaking alien thing in a freaking alien van headed for freaking New Mexico. I cannot freaking believe this!”
“A quite succinct summation,” Norville said, “though the colorful euphemisms are a bit overwrought.”
“I’ll show you overwrought,” I muttered. I sighed and shook my head, letting go of my anger and fright. There was very little I could do about my current circumstances and there was little point in being angry about it. Norville said I was his queen, so I had to be important to him. He wouldn’t hurt me but maybe…
“I’m your queen, right?” I said, turning to face him.
“Yes. You are my queen.”
“And I’m important to you and to your schedule thingie, right?”
He nodded, a relieved expression on his bland face.
“So that means that you can’t hurt me?”
“And you have to do what I say?”
Norville nodded again, but this time he looked worried.
“Well, then. As your queen, I demand that you stop this van and let me out.”
He regretfully shook his head. “I have already explained, Karen Agnew. I cannot stop the vehicle once the autopilot has engaged. And as we are now traveling at the speed of sound, if you were to leave the vehicle, you would be killed instantly.”
I gaped at him. Speed of sound? I turned and looked out the window and sure enough, the scenery was whizzing by faster than I’d ever seen it go. “Well, crap,” I said. “How long until we get to New Mexico?”
“Approximately one and one-half hours,” Norville answered. He was looking at me suspiciously, as though he expected me to either break my window and leap out of the van or perhaps throttle him with my bare hands. Honestly, at this point, both seemed like a viable alternative to being the queen of some weird alien race bent on taking over the world.
But since I didn’t want to die—I wasn’t even thirty yet and my bucket list had exactly two things crossed off—I settled in and decided to be smart about things. Norville said I was his queen and that he had to do what I said. I wanted answers, and apparently, he had to give them to me.
“Relax,” I said. “I’m not going to kill myself or hurt you. I want you to answer some questions.”
“Yes, Karen Agnew. I anticipated your request and have prepared a presentation that will hopefully answer your questions.”
“A presentation? Like, a PowerPoint thing? With a projector and stuff?” That was kind of fancy. The real estate agent I worked for had one of those that he used to sell overpriced condos near the university.
Norville frowned. “No. There is no power in it, beyond what is driving the van.”
I sighed heavily. “Never mind. Get on with it.”
Norville ducked into the back of the van, where I’d seen the dials and switches and tiny screens earlier. He sat down on a backless stool and started fiddling with the controls. It still weirded me out that he wasn’t stuck in the driver’s seat, that he could get up and move around the vehicle and there was no danger of us careening off the road to plunge head-long into a fiery death.
“It is ready for you, Karen Agnew,” he said after a few minutes. He stood and indicated the stool he’d been occupying and touched one of the larger screens on the vehicle’s wall. “Please sit here and watch this screen.”
I did as I was told, and half an hour later, understood everything—who Norville was, where the aliens came from, and what they intended for the world. I had to say, it really wasn’t a terrible plan. A little violent maybe, and I was unsure how it would improve the human existence, do away with poverty and hunger and stuff like that, but I wasn’t a politician or a scientist, so what did I know?
“Did the presentation answer your questions, Karen Agnew?” Norville asked once I’d climbed back into the passenger seat in the front of the van and sat down.
“Yeah. Thanks. I do have one that wasn’t answered, though.”
“I will attempt to elucidate you then.”
I arched my right eyebrow. Elucidate. That was a new one. “Why do you keep calling me by my name like that? My first and last, I mean.”
“It is more than your name. It is your title. I must call you that to show the proper respect for my sovereign ruler.”
“Title? Like… Queen Karen Agnew?” That had quite a ring to it.
“Yes. You are our Karen Agnew. There was another Karen Agnew before you, but she wasn’t the correct Karen Agnew.”
“Wait. What do you mean, there was another one before me?” I frowned. “Are you telling me that you guys went through the phone book or something, looking for Karen Agnews?”
“Yes,” Norville said, his strange little head bobbing up and down in agreement. “We could not be certain which of the fifty-five Karen Agnews currently residing in the United States was the correct one. But I determined that you are the correct Karen Agnew through the internet and ancestortree.com.”
“But what makes me the correct one? I mean, there’s fifty-four other Karen Agnews in the country. How are you certain I’m the right one?”
“Because he was in New Mexico when you guys crashed your ship?”
“Yes, Karen Agnew. That is correct. He was kind to the survivor—”
“But you said there weren’t any survivors.”
“One of my people survived for approximately sixteen minutes and your great-grandfather held his hand and comforted him until he expired.”
I smiled softly, happy to hear that. It had to be a scary experience for both parties and the fact that my ancestor had been compassionate enough to comfort a strange little alien creature when he could just as easily have turned his back and let the alien suffer made me proud. Because of that little gesture, I was going to help these aliens restructure the world. It wasn’t a bad deal, all in all.
I glanced out the window and saw that the landscape had changed dramatically. We’d passed through the wooded plains of Iowa and Missouri into the dry scrublands of far eastern New Mexico. We were nearing our destination. I started to feel nervous. What if the aliens’ plans didn’t work out? What if humanity was too resistant to their ideas? What would happen to me? Would people blame me for the failed take-over? Would my life be in danger?
“Norville, what if your plan doesn’t work?”
“It will work, Karen Agnew. Humans will understand the necessity of our plan and embrace it. They will see that it is in their best interests to embrace it.”
I snorted. “That’s what they said about prohibition, too, you know.”
“Please trust me, Karen Agnew. Everything will work out as it should.”
There was very little I could do but trust him. After all, he’d managed to coerce me into a van that drove itself at the speed of sound. If he could do that, well, I could just about believe that he’d get the rest of the world to come around to his way of thinking as well.
Half an hour later, we had arrived at the gates of Holloman Air Force base. The military police on guard waved us through without much fuss and the van took us to the rear of a large, featureless warehouse. There was a series of soft clicking noises and the van’s doors sprang open. Norville and I climbed out and he ushered me inside the warehouse.
What I saw was strange and disturbing. A sea of faces that looked exactly like Norville’s stood in ranks below me, on the floor of the building. Surrounding them, seated at workstations that looked exactly like the one in the back of the van, still more aliens sat, manipulating dials and switches and computer mouses. These aliens, however, did not look anything like Norville. They were wide and gray, just as Norville was thin and brown.
There was a group of three aliens waiting for us, just inside the warehouse’s outer door. These aliens did not look like the other… kinds. They were female, for one, and blue—their eyes, hair, skin, even their clothing was blue. They bowed deeply to me and came forward to encircle me. I cast a panicked look at Norville, who was wearing his awful reassuring smile.
“It is all right, Karen Agnew,” he said. “The Ladies will not harm you. They are your servants and helpers.”
I nodded and relaxed a little. The Ladies swept me away into a small side room that had been furnished and decorated in a way that would have pleased the Queen of England. One of the Ladies ushered me to a plump chair upholstered in purple crushed velvet, while another took off my shoes and mismatched socks and began massaging my feet. The third Lady presented me with a bowl full of wasabi peas and glass of ice-cold RC Cola.
“Whoa,” I said, a little overwhelmed by everything. “How did you know I loved these things?” I grabbed a healthy handful of the snack and popped a few into my mouth, washing them down with a swallow of RC.
“Norville told us,” the masseuse answered. “He knows all about you, Karen Agnew.”
Well, that was only slightly creepy, but it made a certain amount of sense, I decided. It had been his job, after all, to research all the Karen Agnews in the country, and once he’d found the right one, he probably wanted to make sure he and his other alien buddies could keep me happy.
A few hours later, massaged, wined and dined, and poured into some custom-made clothing that made me look and feel like a Victoria’s Secret Angel, Norville came for me and led me down into the warehouse, where I met all the aliens. While they might have all looked like variations on one of three themes, they all had different names and personalities. There was, however, no way I’d ever remember their names but thankfully, I didn’t have to. I had Norville for that.
After I’d met everyone, Norville, my head Lady Gladys, and the leader of the gray aliens, Herman, led me into a smaller room just off the main warehouse floor. There was a round table, four chairs, a telephone, and an enormous TV screen. When we were all seated, Norville punched some buttons on the phone, picked up the receiver and held it to his ear. The TV screen lit up and was sectioned off into a grid of four by four. Each part of the grid showed a different scene. I recognized one of them as the Oval Office. I was stunned to see the President sitting behind his desk, a phone receiver to his ear as well.
“Good morning, afternoon, and evening, gentlemen and ladies,” Norville said. On screen, I watched as the people all responded to Norville’s voice. Holy crap. He was talking to leaders all across the world. Were the aliens going to kick off their campaign now? Was this the beginning of my reign as queen of the world? I sat forward, my attention consumed by Norville’s words and what I saw on the screen.
“My name is Norville. I am a representative of the true ruler of this world, Karen Agnew, late of Ames, Iowa. I have been chosen to deliver her message to you in the hopes that you will accept her leadership and carry out her will.”
There appeared to be a lot of outrage caused by Norville’s words. Angry faces and gestures seemed to be the order of the day on the screen. Through it all, though, Norville remained passive, expressionless, silent. He let the world leaders blow out their rage and only spoke again when the images on the screen calmed down.
“As you will learn in just moments, we are fully equipped and prepared to bring you under Karen Agnew’s rule in a vile and most diabolical way,” he said in his brown, bland voice. “Karen Agnew prefers, however, that this end in a peaceful meeting of minds. Take steps to correct your errant ways immediately, and no one will be harmed. The world will enter a new time of peace, goodwill, and prosperity.”
The images flickered on the screen, revealing new scenes. It appeared that webcams of college students from across the world had been activated, giving us up-close views of their faces, lit by the blue light cast by their screens. The grid was further divided, giving us views of the screens themselves. Each of them showed some sort of text, either a blog post or a social media comment. Each comment was rife with grammatical errors, punctuation blunders, and spelling mistakes.
“What we are about to do to these eight young people will prove that we are serious. Karen Agnew is serious. Begin teaching your children proper grammar, punctuation, and spelling immediately, or this will happen to more of your world’s citizens.”
The grids showing the computer screens suddenly went black and then displayed a large stop sign, accompanied by what I could only assume was a terrible noise, judging by the expressions on the faces of the kids on the screen. They all tried to turn off the sound on their computers, but that didn’t appear to stop the noise. One by one, the screens went black as the students turned off their computers.
“They are not safe, even now,” Norville explained. “The cessation alarm will continue to follow them, no matter where they go, emitting from every electronic item equipped with a speaker, even if it isn’t theirs, until they can demonstrate they have learned and can apply proper grammar, spelling, and punctuation. You have one month, ladies and gentlemen. One month to bring your citizens up to standard. One month to prove that you are willing to comply with Karen Agnew’s wishes. I will contact you again then. If your citizens have not improved, Karen Agnew will take steps to escalate the punishment for non-compliance.” Norville hung up the phone and the screen on the wall went dark. The aliens exchanged pleased looks and then turned to me, their expressions anticipatory.
“Well,” I said. “Um… Hopefully they will comply. Just out of curiosity, what’s the next step, if they don’t pass your test?”
“They will be denied internet access,” Herman answered.
“Huh. And after that? If they still don’t pass?”
“Paper and writing utensils will be taken away from them.”
I bit down on the inside of my cheek to quash my laughter. “And after that?”
I blinked in shock. “Death? Don’t you think that’s a little harsh? I mean, they’re just misspelling things and not using punctuation correctly.”
“But that is the first step to a lawless, uncivilized society,” Gladys explained. “Haven’t you noticed a correlation between the rise of war and death and famine and the blatant disregard of proper language skills? When newspapers—once bastions of perfect grammar and spelling and punctuation—do not even proofread their own copy, the world is in danger of toppling. War, famine, rape, murder—these are all symptoms of a greater underlying problem. As soon as people begin using correct language skills once more, they will no longer be murdered or starve or fearful of war.” The aliens around the table began nodding their agreement. “You will see, Karen Agnew.”
As it turned out, Gladys was right. One month later, when Norville phoned the world leaders again, test scores has risen dramatically. Soon, Israel and Iraq had opened their borders and North and South Korea had merged back into just Korea. Apple orchards and endless wheat fields sprang up in Ethiopia. Guns and missiles and other tools of war were melted down into printing presses and writing utensils. It was a glorious new age of education and literacy, and I watched it all from my basement room in Holloman Air Force base.
And best of all? No one died in the take-over.