nora laughed nervously. "you mean you are a martian?"
nora realized that she didn't have as much of a sense of humor as a lot of people, but being a naturally polite person, she usually tried to smile or laugh when someone said something that was supposed to be funny.
but although she was pretty mild-mannered, she could get really mad if she thought anybody was trying to make fun of her!
but this man with the greenish face, who seemed so nice - whose niceness almost seemed to envelop her like a cloud and soothe her weary soul - surely he was not making fun of her by saying - sort of - that he was a martian?
no, it was just a little joke, meant to put her at her ease. because he was so nice.
and she was at her ease - very much so.
suddenly nora realized she was staring at the man!
"i'll get you that coke," she mumbled, and turned to go into the kitchenette.
the man smiled at her, apparently quite at ease in the uncomfortable chair beside the radio.
there was a half empty bottle of coca-cola in the refrigerator. it was probably flat. nora decided to pour it for herself, and open a new bottle for the - nice man.
she caught herself thinking of him as "the martian". ha ha!
she wondered if he was using mind control on her. but that was just silly.
she came out of the kitchenette - glancing at the door to the children's room to make sure it was closed tight - and smiled at the man and handed him his glass of coke.
gosh, it wasn't even cold!
and she didn't have a nice table for him to put the glass on. he had to hold it on his knee.
how she wished she could afford nice things!
"you wish you could afford nice things, don't you, nora?" the man asked.
nora almost spilled her own glass of coke in her lap. had she told him her name?
"no, nora," the man smiled. "you didn't tell me your name."
nora just stared at him.
"but i haven't told you my name," the man said.
"you can read my mind," nora interrupted him. which was sort of rude, but her head was spinning.
"just like you are not exactly a martian."
"exactly. or not exactly. ha ha! " the man smiled again with his perfect teeth. "it all amounts to the same thing." he took a sip of his glass of coca-cola. and smiled again, at least pretending to enjoy it.
"do you know everything about me?" nora asked.
"not - ha ha! i know the most important thing about you, nora."
"and what's that?"
"that you are a dreamer."
nora blushed slightly. "how do you know that?'
"that's an easy one. you are a human, and all humans are dreamers."
"oh. so i guess i am just like everybody else."
"oh no, nora, you are special. that is why i came here to see you. you, and not any of the people next door."
"um - i don't really know the people next door."
"oh, you know them better than you think. but i still haven't introduced myself. my name, for your purposes - "
for my purposes, nora wondered, what does that mean? but she didn't say anything.
" - my name is walter."
"you were probably expecting something like mar-del-kor-thalm, that you couldn't remember."
"walter is easy to remember. i had a cousin named walter. "
"there you go. and i represent an organization that for your purposes we will call the interdimensional federation - i f for short. i f - that's easy to remember, isn't it?"
"i guess so."
"tell me, nora, how would you like to make twenty dollars a month?"
twenty dollars a month! now walter had nora's attention. all this stuff about reading her mind and being a martian and the interdimensional whatever was one thing, but twenty dollars a month!
"i could use twenty dollars a month," nora heard herself say. i could use five dollars a month, she thought, but did not say it out loud.
"i thought so." walter reached into his jacket pocket and took out a small rectangular object. looking at it across the room nora thought it looked like the kind of small box that would hold wooden matches.
"can you keep a secret, nora?"
"keep a secret? i don't have much time to myself. i - i have four children. and a husband who - who - uh - "
"always wants to know what i'm doing."
walter nodded. "but i think you can keep a secret, nora. do you know why?"
"because you're a human. and do you what humans are, besides dreamers?"
"what?" nice as he was, walter was sort of like jack, nora thought - thinking he was going to continually amaze you with his brilliant thoughts.
"humans are adaptable. so even though it might seem unusual for you to be working for the federation and you could not imagine such a thing just an hour ago you are a human and you will adapt."
"you think so?" yes, for twenty dollars a month, nora thought.
"take yourself. look how you have already adapted in your life. you were just an innocent girl in school hanging out at the malt shoppe, and then you went to war."
"i didn't exactly go to war. i worked in a factory that made canteens for the soldiers."
"yes, but these dogfaces never could have slogged their way through hell without the nice canteens you made for them. and then, even in the factory you were still a girl and then you woke up one day and you were married and had four children. what is working for the interdimensional federation compared to that?"
" not much, i guess."
"you can do it, nora." walter put his glass of coke on top of the radio and stood up, with the little rectangular object in his hand. "now here is what i want you to do…"
and that is how nora came to sell out the human race and become an agent of the interdimensional federation.
how many other noras are there out there, behind closed doors, behind high walls, on lonely highways and deserted landscapes, selling out the human race - and maybe more than just the human race - to what unnamable and unimaginable forces?
you see, now, what can happen when you don't know who your neighbors are?
reader, do you judge nora? would you do the same, for twenty dollars a month? maybe you belong to a better class of people and would only do it for a few hundred a month, or a few thousand?
or maybe you are sincerely horrified by these revelations. if you are, all i can say is - be on your guard!
keep an eye on your neighbors, such as they are, and on the people you pass on the streets, or in the aisles of the new supermarkets that are springing up all over the country and replacing the old general stores and grocery stores where everybody knew everybody else, and be alert!
i wish i could be more helpful and tell you where to report your findings, but if you go to the police or the f b i, how do you know they are not also in league with the unnamable forces themselves?
how do you know?
and - watch the skies!
james, the day desk clerk, watched fred flynn come out of the elevator and cross the lobby of the hotel st crispian.
"good morning, james."
"um - good afternoon, mister flynn."
"yes, it is afternoon, isn't it? so the mail must have come."
"indeed it has." james turned and retrieved a letter and a large manila envelope and handed them to fred. "here you go."
"thank you." fred looked at the letter - from his brother on rikers island. no rush to read that. the manila envelope was the one he had used to send a couple of stories to al johnson at smashing wonder tales. he balanced it in his hand - maybe al had not sent both stories back?
fred took a seat in the nearest chair in the lobby and opened the envelope. it contained one of the stories he had sent - "neighbors" and a note from al johnson.
thanks for the space dog simms story. i will use it for the cover story in march-april. as for this thing - what have i been trying to tell you? what is this supposed to be? olaf stapledon? or something a twelve year old kid would write? like a lot of what you have been sending, it's not smart enough and it's not dumb enough. i am your pal, if i knew anybody else who might take it i'd let you know, but i don't.
more space dog simms stories, please! we both have to eat.
and drink. drop by sometime, and i will buy you one.
your best friend in the world,
"bad news, flynn?"
fred looked up. "farmer" brown was standing there, in his usual pose with his thumbs in his lapels.
"you look like your dog died, ha ha," the farmer guffawed.
"no, it's nothing." fred rubbed his eyes. "i was just going to get a cup of coffee."