Winston’s mom walked toward him with a bundle of clothes in the crook of her arm. She held the bundle out and said, “Change.”
He glanced reflexively around the yard. Trees hid him from Progress Oaks, and no one could easily see into the overgrown yard from nearby houses.
“Why?” he asked, not trying to be argumentative, just genuinely confused.
She said nothing, only once again put a finger to her lips.
“Oh, come on. Seriously?”
This super-secret business was starting to get on his nerves. But her grim, harried attitude and crossed arms allowed for no argument, so Winston self-consciously stripped down to his boxers and changed into all new clothes. The gray skate shoes were a half-size too small but still comfortable. The jeans fit fine in the waist but were a pinch short in length. She capped off the outfit with a totally forgettable, solid gray T-shirt and a charcoal, thermal-lined sweat jacket.
“Geeze, Mom, a little overkill? It’s in the seventies, not the forties.”
She looked at the pile of Winston’s old clothes on the cement patio, considered them for a moment, then said quietly, “Leave them.”
Winston stared at her. His mom never wasted anything. And if that wasn’t strange enough, it wasn’t the green Civic waiting for them when they came back around to the driveway. Instead, he found an unmarked, silver Toyota Van that looked like it had been made in the days before anyone knew that Leia was Luke’s sister.
“Holy cow,” Winston said as he climbed into the tall bucket seat. The vehicle only had an AM/FM radio and smelled of old plastic, probably a result of the massive dash baking in the sun for the last millennium or two. All of the seats had been pulled out of the back and replaced with faded brown carpeting. There were no cup holders, no automatic anything except the transmission, and only one DC power port, which currently held a--
“Oh, wow, is that an actual cigarette lighter?”
“I think so,” said his mother as she backed out onto the road. “It’s a little before my time. Sort of.”
Winston looked at her quizzically. “Mom, if just one thing could start making sense today, that would be great.”
She nodded. “I know. Just let me think.”
She bit both lips, always a bad sign. Biting the top lip meant anxiety. Biting the bottom meant she was trying to think of a creative explanation for something. Both together? This was going to be bad.
As his mom pulled the lumbering Toyota onto Highway 217 South, she took a long, unsteady breath and began.
“I’m sure you’ve figured out by now that a lot has been…that I’ve kept a lot from you. And for that, I’m sorry. I couldn’t be more sorry, Winston. But it was to protect you.”
Winston tried to break the tension. “You wanna know something funny?” he asked. “This morning, Brian Steinhoff snapped me with a towel in the butt, and the place where he hit me turned blue. Shade said I must be an alien.” He chuckled. “Crazy, right?”
She finished merging into traffic and gave him a quick look that told him it wasn’t crazy at all.
“Oh, God,” he said and put his face in his hands.
“No, you’re not!” she said quickly. “Not really.”
“Not really? Mom, there’s a big freaking gap between no and not really!”
His mother pointed at her own face. “Look at me. I’m human. I’m your mother. You are not an alien.”
A terrible thought struck Winston.
“So what about my father? All these years, you’ve never mentioned hardly anything about my dad. Were you abducted? Did they do experiments on you and…and impregnate you with some kind of alien—”
“No! Ew! How could you even think that, Winston?”
“Because you’re still not making any sense, and that seems as likely as anything else today!”
“No, it’s not like that,” she said, shaking her head. “It’s like the complete opposite of that.”
“You did experiments on an alien?”
She looked at him again. Winston waited. She checked the traffic ahead, then went back to his eyes, still keeping silent.
“Wait. Shut…up. There really was an alien in this—”
Winston broke off as a name resurfaced from recent memory.
“Bernie. Mr. A said I glowed blue like Bernie.”
His mom tightened her grip on the wheel and focused on the road before them. “Yes.” Her brow wrinkled and she cocked her head slightly. “But why would he say that?”
“I think the rest home was drugging him with something. He seemed really loopy and dizzy. Wait.” He pointed a finger at her. “How do you two know each other?”
“Because—” She broke off and chewed on both lips some more.
The air conditioning hadn’t had time to cool off yet, and the sun felt too hot on Winston’s face, the air in the van too close. He wanted to roll down the window and hang his head outside like a dog, if only because then he wouldn’t hear anything else.
“You know,” she said quietly. “I’ve rehearsed this talk for thirteen years. And now that I actually have to say it, I can’t think of where to start or how to say anything.”
“Well, we already know I’m not really an alien. That’s something.”
She smiled, but her eyes were troubled and sad.
“You don’t know who I am, and you need to. It’s OK.” She inhaled deeply again. “I… My name is not Amanda Chase. It’s Amanda Dabrowski.”
“I can see why you might change that.”
She flashed a hint of anger. “It’s a good name. It’s my parents’ name.”
Winston held up his hands and leaned away. “Kidding!”
“I was a biologist, with a Master’s from Tufts University.”
“No way. You’re a diner waitress. You have been as long as I can remember.”
“I can remember a lot farther back than you. A lot. I was hired by the government to do research and development on penicillin production during the war.”
Winston was more confused than ever. “The antibiotic stuff? But why? Weren’t antibiotics everywhere by the ‘90s?”
Her bottom lip disappeared between her teeth again as she cast him another nervous glance. “Not that war. I mean World War II. I was hired not long after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Winston…I was born in 1918.”
Winston wasn’t supposed to study U.S. History until high school, so his mother had to fill in a few details.
“All right, where do I start?” she mused as she ran a hand through her hair. “You know the United States entered World War II when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, right? That was in December 1941, but President Roosevelt knew that war was probably inevitable. For almost two years, he’d been gathering every scientist and mathematician he could find into government-funded research groups. He remembered how developments in sonar and machine guns swung the war to the Allies in World War I.”
“Whoever has the best toys wins,” said Winston. “I get that.”
“But not all wartime research is about weapons. If we were going to have millions of soldiers in the field, the military wanted better ways to keep them healthy, especially after getting wounded. So, I led penicillin research for two years. Then, in late 1944, I went to this conference that brought together project managers from across military research fields, everything from food sciences to nuclear physics. And there I met…”
She trailed off. Winston saw her swallow and frown slightly. She took a deep breath and started again.
“I met Claude Hawthorn and Devlin Bledsoe, two of the lead assistants on a top secret effort you might have heard of: the Manhattan Project.”
“The nuclear bomb thing?”
She nodded. “Atom bomb, yes. In 1945 the rest of the world would learn all about the Manhattan Project when President Truman ordered the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That was our great new toy, as you say. We won the war, but that was only the end of one crisis and the beginning of another. Japan and Germany were in ruins, but then there was the Soviet Union.”
She gave him a quick, disbelieving glance. It was the adult’s you don’t know…? look. As in, you don’t know what a record player is, Mr. Digital Download?
“Today, it’s the Russian Federation,” she said. “The Soviets were originally allies with Hitler, but when Hitler betrayed the Soviet president, Joseph Stalin, they switched sides. The Allies needed Russia to help beat Germany, but everyone knew that Stalin was just as vicious and murderous as Hitler. After the war, America was the only superpower on the planet, but Stalin was determined to change that — and he did.”
“He wanted nukes,” ventured Winston.
“And he got them. Long story short, that was what kicked off the Cold War between America and the Soviet Union. We had nukes. The Soviets had nukes. And you only had to look at the radioactive fallout and massive rise in Japanese cancer rates to know that if we got hit with a nuclear attack, the devastation to our country and people would be unimaginable. There was no known way to cure biological damage from radioactivity, but the government was willing to try. We knew that if it ever came to World War III, the winner, if there is such a thing, would be whichever side got less sick in the aftermath.”
Winston connected the dots. “And you were a research biologist.”
“Yes. It was the first time that biology and nuclear physics went together like chocolate and peanut butter. The government set up a secret research facility in Nevada and brought together the best people in the field to work on the problem. That was how I ended up back together with Claude, Devlin, and…” She paused again, expression distant. “…a close friend and colleague of Claude’s named Theo. He arrived the following year.”
Winston raised a hand as what she’d said struck him. “Wait. A secret facility in Nevada? Mom, are you talking about Area 51?”
She rolled her eyes. “You don’t know what the Soviet Union was but you know Area 51? That’s just great. Are they also teaching you about Pokémon in World Cultures?”
“Anyway.” Winston blew aside her sarcasm. “Was it Area 51?”
His mom cleared her throat. “Not exactly. It had no name. Everybody referred to it as Area X. Area 51…came later.”
“No way!” Winston clapped his palms against his thighs. “My mom worked in Area 51! That’s so awesome!”
“Do you want to be quiet and learn something or not?”
Winston muttered “still awesome” under his breath but otherwise fell silent.
“I became friends with the three men. Working fourteen, sixteen hour days, we didn’t get much free time, and it was lonely out in the middle of nowhere. But Claude and Theo were great. They were kind and always helpful. Some of the happiest moments of my life were spent in that desert. It was only later that the three of us shared that ‘finches fly in the fall’ phrase, in case there was an emergency and we had to run suddenly.”
“Hold on. You had three friends. What about the third guy?”
She narrowed her eyes, as if debating. “For a long time, we didn’t see Devlin Bledsoe as a threat. But he was different. Very smart, very ambitious. All three of them were important in the success of the Manhattan Project. Something inside of Devlin was broken, though. He scared me.”
“But you were saying about Area 51…” Winston prompted as he glanced out the window.
They were in the middle of downtown Portland, taking the Marquam Bridge over the sparkling Willamette River. Winston never spent as much time downtown as he wanted. Hopefully, as he got a little older, his mom would loosen his leash a bit and let him go explore all of the shops, museums, parks, and other things missing in boring little Beaverton.
“On July 2nd, 1947,” she continued, “an unknown form of aircraft crashed in the desert outside of Roswell, New Mexico. The crash site was a three-hour drive from Alamogordo, where the U.S. had conducted its first atomic bomb tests only a few years before. The Army didn’t think that was a coincidence. That night, troops cordoned off the area and swept it clean. It was no ordinary aircraft, as you’ve no doubt guessed.”
“A UFO?” Winston was practically jumping in his seat.
“There was an alien still alive inside the craft,” she said.
“Two days later, we received new orders from the President himself. The spacecraft contained some sort of nuclear technology we’d never seen before. Radioactive readings spiked all over the crash site. Everyone had been dosed with it. But the alien — we named him Bernie — showed no sign of radiation sickness. He was immune. The potential answer to our prayers and research had literally fallen from the sky. So the spaceship and everything in it became the center of our new world. It was called Project Majestic.”
“What did he look like? How’d you know Bernie was a he?”
His mom frowned, trying to remember. “We weren’t sure if Bernie was male at first. He had no discernible male organ.”
“You mean a penis?”
“Mom, I’m fourteen. You can say penis instead of discernible male organ. Geeze.”
“His body was hairless and quite thin,” she continued quickly, “but the hair on his head was completely white and down past his shoulder blades.”
“So he looked human? Not like…I dunno, a Wookiee or Jell-O or something.”
“Very humanoid. Five fingers, five toes, and all that. But there were some differences. He had two sets of eyelids, one like ours and then another darker set inside those, like built-in sunglasses. I remember he had the most fascinating eyes, with several colors and intricate patterns in the irises. He had no vocal cords. His skeletal structure was much like ours, but reinforced with something similar to today’s carbon nanofibers. We learned that when we…surgically explored him.”
Winston wrinkled his face. “While he was alive?”
His mom nodded regretfully. “More importantly, we learned that there was another organism living inside of Bernie. It was similar to a virus. We called it a quasi-virus, or QV. But it was too regular and ordered. It didn’t have the genetic haphazardness you find in normal evolved organisms. The QVs were specifically designed for these aliens, probably by them.”
That made no sense. “Why would someone design a virus for themselves?”
“Not all viruses are deleterious,” she said, and both her tone and hand gestures reflected a world-class scientist used to lecturing, not some waitress in a Beaverton diner. Winston only half-listened. It was just too weird, trying to wrap his head around this new person in his mom’s body. “If you read about biological sciences today — and not just computer stuff…” She gave him a glance that reminded him that the regular mom was still alive and well. “…you’d see a lot of the work being done with genetic manipulation. We haven’t gotten to the point where we can create new life forms from scratch yet, but that doesn’t mean that Bernie’s race couldn’t. We thought they probably had.”
“So what did these QVs do?”
She shook her head and smiled wistfully. “What didn’t they do? They helped to heal him. They were able to repair his body at the genetic level. They helped Bernie to communicate.”
“But you said he didn’t have vocal cords.”
She nibbled her bottom lip and looked at Winston. The pieces fit together in his head.
“My telepathy. The Stadlerator 7000. That’s why you freaked out. So you’re saying—” He held up his hand between them, turning it this way and that, looking at it as if it was totally unfamiliar. “That would mean…”
“We had no choice,” said his mother. “The Army had put us on a schedule to start testing QVs on humans. They wanted to build a super-army, and we had to know what would happen to people before the military did. We had to. But what we didn’t know…we didn’t know I was already pregnant.”