Excerpt from NEON GREEN
By Margaret Wappler
When the spaceship landed in the backyard at exactly 8:57 p.m. on August eighteenth, seven days after the first day of school, Cynthia was the first of the family to see it through the kitchen’s picture window. A flying saucer made of silver sheets of bolted metal hovered over the trimmed grass emitting a low humming noise that pained her teeth, like pressing sugar into a cheap metal filling. At just about twenty-five feet across, the spaceship fit snugly between the house and the weeping willow tree in the backyard. Five delicate tentacles shot out of the belly of the spacecraft and pierced the ground, one of them cleaving through the fruit of Ernest’s heirloom tomato plant.
“What?” she shrieked, somewhere between delight, disbelief and dread.
The saucer rooted further into the grass, vrooming its engine. On top of the metal portion of the spaceship, separated by a band of lights, a dark glass top. Twirling lights hysterically crawled around the yard, hot white lights that could shrink pupils into black dots.
Cynthia’s hands dripped with the hot, soapy dishwater she’d abandoned to come to the window. “Ernest? Come here!” she screamed, planted to her spot. “Ernest, where are you?” The water, now cool, ran into her elbows as she plugged her ears. The humming reached a semi-excruciating pitch, vibrating her sternum and surging up through her feet. “Oh my god, oh my god,” she moaned but she could only hear the sound of her voice muffled inside of her head.
She remembered then that Ernest was at an Earth Day meeting and wouldn’t be home until late. Her relief that he’d snagged a job he enjoyed—finally!– outweighed her admittedly unreasonable irritation that she’d have to parent this disaster alone. What if they were scared? Wasn’t she scared? Was that why her muscles twitched, as if she were about to leap into a dark shaft? Unable to stop watching, she waited for the kids to come down. Some strange knowledge swept in, tidal and moonlit: The spaceship, she thought, was meant to be here but she couldn’t tell if it was bringing release or terror.
Upstairs, Gabe played his sister an album that’d been forced upon him by a senior with a mohawk that sagged from liberty spikes to wisps by 3pm. On school nights, between 7 and 11, Gabe and Alison’s world shrank to the confines of their home, and the options for amusement dwindled as well: watch TV, listen to music, play videogames, talk to their parents, talk on the phone. At some point, Alison would usually draw for a while in her room. Sometimes, Gabe would read, lately about the Vietnam War. He was glad he wasn’t eighteen in 1968 but oddly jealous, too. Everything seemed so meaningful back then.
“If I don’t like this band,” Gabe said, “Todd said that it means I don’t like punk, which means I’m basically a stupid worthless fag who will end up married to that half-retarded girl Tracy who works at TCBY.”
“Harsh verdict,” Alison said as she painted her thumbnail with a black Sharpie. “Do you even like that guy Todd?”
“No,” Gabe said, “but still.” The music sounded sawed-off and gritty. Gabe wasn’t so sure he liked it exactly but it intrigued him, like looking at pictures of Istanbul or Anchorage.
Alison sat listening for several moments squinting around the room before she finally said, “Who’s this again?” “Fugazi,” he answered. Alison scrunched up her face. “Fooo-gah-zee. Always the ugly names with these punk bands,” Alison mocked in a prim voice, “Is it satanic, or just trash?” Gabe turned it up as a dare. Alison raised him and flicked up the volume knob even more, inspired as the music redrew all the room’s features, rendering it debauched and arrogant, but also carefree.
In her baggy jeans and too-big striped sweater, Alison popped up on the bed but then didn’t know what to do. After a moment, she jumped around in place, her hands a little off to the side like she might be carrying a guitar or maybe it was just a household saw. Then she flipped her brown hair around in a fit of head-banging, imitating the long-coated metal guys on MTV. For extra snazz, she threw in a plié from her long-abandoned ballet training. Gabe rolled his eyes. He was pretty sure Fugazi weren’t head-bangers.
The song ended and another crashed into being. Dizzy from the thrashing, Alison collapsed onto Gabe’s bed in giggles. She pressed her face into the mattress. The flannel bedspread hadn’t been washed in maybe a month or so and Alison smelled her brother on it—vaguely minty from shaving cream and tooth paste, plus the lavender dandruff shampoo that Cynthia bought him from Karen’s that she always handed to him in a covert paper sack, as if it didn’t end up in the same shower caddy as everyone else’s stuff.
Above Gabe’s bed, a pinned poster of the rock star Ziggy Stardust, with his rooster pouf of pink-red hair, posing in darkness on stage. Alison stood on Gabe’s bed in her socks so that her face almost touched Ziggy’s face, a space of breath between them. As she stared into one of his eyes, a sliver of iris barely perceptible around the dilated pupil, she entertained a thought about her life: that everything she was experiencing—herself, her family, her suburb—could all be happening within Ziggy’s eye, all controlled and ultimately created by him. Why not him? Wasn’t he as good as any other God? But what if it all got wiped out the second Ziggy’s heavily shadowed lid closed over that violet eye?
She routinely had these kind of thoughts but hoarded them, little secrets never to be shared with her brother. She laid back down on the bed, content with imagining a deity actually from her era, who’d been to the dentist or eaten a burrito. Lit by Gabe’s desk lamp, the ceiling appeared warm and splotchy, an ocean of shadowy and then brighter yellows. Gabe sat cross-legged on the carpet flipping through the CD booklet with photos of the band wearing leather jackets and no shirts, finding them gross and compelling at the same time. Then he cocked his head. A loudness, distinct from the music and morphing from lawn mower to helicopter to something with magnitude, overtook the music, and when the song ended and the speakers were silent, the loudness remained—a mighty roar from the outside.
Alison started to say something as a NyQuil hue poured in from the window. One saturated shaft lit up the bed, her arms and shoulders. The two kids ran to the window. “O man,” Gabe said, laughing.
“I—shit.” A flying saucer, dead-center in their backyard, lowered into the space, the walls of the house shuddering. The pure green of the lights, switching to white and then back again, overwhelmed their eyes. A number of small birds scattered out of the weeping willow, which now appeared dwarfed by its new neighbor. Somewhere in Alison’s amazement, in the awe that ricocheted and collected strength, she registered the look of ecstasy and fear on her brother’s face, fighting for dominance. They quickly cut out of the room and banged down the stairs.
In the kitchen, where the view of their new visitor was the best, Cynthia wiped her soapy hands on a dishtowel, a frantic look in her eye. “I didn’t know this was coming,” she said, shouting to project over the motorized roar of the spaceship. They all stood at the picture window. Something like an airplane take-off, the spaceship’s noise was occasionally punctuated by a musical exclamation point appropriate to ’50s cocktail records with boomerang shapes on the cover. Every three minutes or so, it climaxed with a saccharine pop—effervescent and thunderous—that made the spacecraft vibrate. The hysterical searchlights roiled in the silvery skull of the ship’s top. They beamed in through the window every few seconds—lighting up Cynthia and then plunging her figure into darkness again.
“This is amazing,” Gabe shouted. “Can we go outside and see this thing?” Alison asked. “Let’s wait a little bit until it calms down.” Cynthia stared out of the glass where she usually watched cardinals hopping from branch to branch, their little speck brains chittering instinctive code. On one occasion, she spotted a lone deer that had wandered far off-course, standing in the light cast from an outdoor bulb. When they looked at each other—the deer’s eyes were soft and beyond fright, almost paralyzed—something passed between them, the mutual acknowledgment of imminent death. It ran out of the yard and then stood gawkily in the center of their suburban street, seemingly confused about which way to go. It was a long journey back to the woods.
Several minutes passed and the spaceship showed no signs of retiring for the night. But it was firmly planted now.
“OK, let’s go out there but I want you kids to hold my hand,” Cynthia said. Both kids began to complain. “Hold my hand!” Gabe and Alison each grabbed a palm. Together they climbed down the back porch steps. They stepped carefully around the machine: Cynthia’s loafers, Alison’s Mary Janes, Gabe’s sneakers. Up close, the sound of the ship was deafening—whirring, vrooming, pop!— so they cupped their hands over their ears. There was so much to look at: the swooping saucer shape; the dark glass windows they couldn’t see through; the magnesium-noxiousness of the lights. Where it wasn’t obscured by the spaceship, the grass appeared phosphorescent and nearly liquid in the light.
The aircraft seemed more familiar than not. In some ways, it appeared to be little more than old airplane parts repurposed into a saucer. The same sharkskin metal bolted together. The material sturdy and impenetrable but also weathered. In some places, the surface buckled a bit or was scratched. The legs (each one was two tentacles bound together and then jointed in a few places for flexibility) looked like standard tubing from a hardware store, though with a silkier sheen.
Margaret Wappler has written about the arts and pop culture for the Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone, Elle, Cosmo, The New York Times, and several other publications. Neon Green is her first novel. She lives in Los Angeles and can be heard weekly on the pop culture podcast, Pop Rocket.
Pick up a copy of NEON GREEN at UNNAMED PRESS or at your favorite indie bookstore.