By Preston Dennett
The body was lying alongside the road. It sure looked like a body. I hopped out of my truck to investigate. It was Stick Man, and he was dead. He was on his back, his arms draped beside his body, as if he had decided to take a nap. But this was one nap he would not be waking up from. I reached out and touched his arm: cold. It was hard to believe, but Stick Man was dead. Even now, his large bubbly eyes stared out glazed and lifeless.
I huffed it over to Margie’s place and pounded on the door.
“What’s all this?” she said, eyeing me sharply.
“It’s Sticky,” I said. “He’s died. His body is right out at the end of your drive.”
Margie’s plump face shook with emotion. “In front of my drive? Are you sure?”
“Right at the end,” I said. “You didn’t see him?”
“I haven’t been out yet. It’s still early.”
“Well, call Sheriff Dooley, would you?”
Margie peered past me toward the road.
As Margie went inside, I returned to Stick Man. He looked so different dead, so still. I still couldn’t believe he was gone. How had he died? I wondered. His shirt and pants were dirty and full of holes, but that was normal. His face looked calm, but it was so full of wrinkles, it was hard to say.
Poor Sticky, I thought. You had a hard life. You deserved better than this. I crouched there next to him thinking of all the times I had ignored him, denied him a handout. And now he was dead.
Several minutes later Sheriff Dooley drove up. He pulled over and glanced down at Sticky. “Pete. What happened?”
I shook my head. “I found him like this. Looks like a heart attack. Like he just fell asleep and died.”
Dooley bent down and examined the body, checking for signs of life.
He stood up. “Well, he’s definitely dead. I reckon it happened recently. This morning probably, or last night. I may as well take him in to Doc’s, have him checked out. Can’t say I’m surprised though. The rascal had to be pretty old. Think about it, Pete, when we were kids he was old. And we’re both now sliding along the back side of our fifties. That would make him nearly a hundred, I’d say.”
“It’s a pity,” I said. “A man deserves a better life than this.”
Dooley shook his head and patted my back. “You’ve always had soft spot for Stick Man, haven’t you? You know, I imagine that you were his only real friend. Definitely you were the only one he really talked to. It was awful nice of you to let him stay on your land.”
“Well, that was really my father’s decision.”
“Yeah, but your father’s been dead for years.”
I nodded. “I couldn’t rightly kick him off, could I?” Of course, I had thought about it. But I just didn’t have it in me.
“Yeah, well, the way I see it, a man reaps what he sows. Stick Man was a lazy no-good son-of-a-bitch. The bum never worked a lick that I saw. Just sat there in that old shack of his wasting his life away, that is when he wasn’t wandering around town asking everyone for a handout.”
I shook my head. “You’ve got it all wrong, Jake. Sticky was a good man. He had his problems, sure. But what man doesn’t have problems? He never hurt anybody. I don’t know. He was lazy, yes. Maybe you’re right. I guess I just felt sorry for him.”
“Yeah, well, you’re probably the only one. Hate to say it, but most folks around here won’t care about poor Stick Man. Fact is, they’ll be glad to see him gone. I don’t think I have to tell you, he was not well-liked. If you hadn’t kept him on your property, he’d have been run out of town long ago.”
I didn’t say anything. Stick Man was a grumpy old man, a lazy bum, and a mean rascal, but he was still a man. And no matter who they are or what their circumstance, a person deserves respect.
“Well,” said Dooley, “Would you help me get him into the back seat? I’m going to take him in to see doc. And while I do that, would you do me another favor. Could you check out that shack of his? I don’t imagine he has any family to speak of, or we would have known it by now, but it won’t hurt to check. Let me know if you find anything.”
We lugged Stick Man’s body into the car. I was amazed to feel how light he was. His arms and legs looked even thinner than normal. It probably wasn’t too nice to call him Stick Man, just on account of the thinness of his limbs, but that’s what folks had always called him. Somehow I always felt bad for him about that.
When I was a child, I used to visit Sticky in his shack, and we’d talk, mostly about the folks in town and how they treated him. Guess I always felt sorry for him. I remember I once asked him what his real name was. He laughed and said some long Chinese sounding name. There was no way I could pronounce something like that, so I just went right on calling him Sticky. As a kid, we had many good times, fishing, talking. As I grew up though, I began to ignore him more and more. Lately, it had been tough for Sticky to get a dollar out of me. Times were hard and I just didn’t have the money to give anymore.
I climbed into my truck, pulled a sharp U-turn and headed back to the farm.
Sticky’s shack was on the far end, where the ground was too rocky for good planting. It was just a small thing, not much to look at. But my father told me–before he died–that Sticky had actually built the shack himself.
I hadn’t been inside it in years, not since I was a kid. Sticky never entertained visitors. As I understand it, I was the only person he had ever let inside his home.
Now, opening the door to this rundown shack, I felt bad for Sticky. I was entering another man’s castle. I mean, a man has a right to his privacy.
There was no electric light. No running water. Yet, inside, it was dry and clean. Looking around, there was absolutely nothing of any value. The bed was an old hand-me-down my father had given him. There was a chair that–from the look of it–would snap in two if a normal-sized person sat in it. There was a small table with one of Sticky’s crusty old hats on it.
Along one wall there was a line of old wood boxes, each filled with various junk. I took one box out. There were dishes, old clothes, a few books. I recognized some of the things that I had given him. Some of the other stuff looked familiar. It took me a second to realize why. Everything else had been given to him by somebody else in town. And by the looks of it, he had saved everything that anybody had ever given him.
Each box was the same. More stuff that people gave to Sticky. God knows he didn’t buy anything himself. Sticky was a true bum and as far as I knew, lived entirely off others. A parasite to society, and yet, I thought, somehow a true gentleman. He had always been kind to me at least, ready with a smile.
Then I got to the last box. It was mostly clothes, until I got to the bottom. I stared down at the contents in shock.
It was filled with money. A lot of money. In fact, there were dozens of thick bundles of dollars. They were mostly dollar bills, though as I flipped through each stack, I saw the occasional five, and even a few tens and twenties. As I pulled the money out, a gleam came from the bottom of the box. I pushed the bills aside and saw coins – what must have been thousands of quarters, dimes, nickels and pennies.
Jesus, I thought. He kept everything anybody had ever given him. Including money. He had never spent a dime of it. He had just secreted it away and gone on begging for more. It made no sense. He had collected all of it for what, fifty years now, and just kept it?
Perhaps Stick Man was crazier than I knew. Why would a man go on living like he did when he had all this money? Sticky, what were you thinking?
I shook my head. It was a lot of money. I thought about the debts on my farm and all the stuff that needed fixing. I could sure use that money. I piled it all back into the box. It would be safe there for now. I continued looking around, but there was little else to see. No pictures, no documents, nothing to give a single clue as to who Stickman really was.
I remember my dad saying that Sticky just showed up one day. But for some reason, dad would never say anything else about him, almost as if he was scared of him for some reason.
Well, no matter. Sticky was dead…and had left nothing behind but all this money. He had no relatives. Which would mean that the money belonged to whom? Me?
And why not me? I thought. Like Dooley said, I gave Sticky more than anybody. Perhaps not this much, but some at least.
I shook my head. The sight of all that money was making my head spin. I would go tell Dooley about this, see what he said. But first, I was going to count it.
Nearly three hours later, I came up with the number. I’m not going to say it’s totally accurate because I may have skipped a few bills. And I was tempted to count it again because the number seemed too high. But after doing my best, I came up with a grand total of three thousand four hundred eight dollars and ten cents.
Dooley’s jaw dropped when I told him the number. I sat in the chair in front of his desk and told him everything, from the dishes and clothes to the box of money, which was now resting safely under my bed.
Dooley shook his head. “Unbelievable. So, I suppose you want to know if you can keep the money.”
I nodded. “He was on my land. I took care of him.”
“You did that. Well, Pete, I’m not going to lie to you. In cases where someone dies and has no heirs, the property goes to the state. On the other hand, that involves a lot of unnecessary paperwork, and seeing how you were the only person in the whole town who treated Stick Man with any decency, if anybody deserves to keep the money, you do. So go ahead, Pete. Keep the money. Just be quiet about it, will you? Get rid of all his stuff. We don’t need folks about town find out about this. And get rid of that shack. Just tear the whole thing down. Folks just want this whole thing to go away. Could you do that for me, Pete?”
“That’s it?” I said. “Just take it?”
“You deserve it. Just don’t tell anybody. The last thing I need is everybody asking for every damn dollar back that they gave him. Too messy. Just clean up the mess, okay Pete?”
“Okay, Jake. If you say so.”
I felt bad for poor old Sticky. Everybody just wanted to get rid of him. And now that he was gone, they wanted to get rid of any evidence of him. He was a dark stain on the town. Nobody liked him.
The next morning, I went to Sticky’s shack to clean it out, and prepare it for destruction, as I had promised Dooley.
I pulled out all the lighter stuff first. I built a fire and burned what I could. The rest I bagged up and threw away.
The last was the furniture. None of it was salvageable. The last was the bed. I pulled it towards the door and my gaze just happened to wander down to the floor. That was odd. There was a perfect circle on the floor, where the bed had been.
The floor of the shack was wood, except for in this one spot, a circle of some kind of material which at first appeared to be metal, but on closer examination, looked like glass. It was large, easily two feet across.
I squatted down and tapped at it in fascination. Why was this strange circle of glass built into the floor? I tried to see through it, but the glass was frosted. Whatever was underneath it could not be seen.
Thinking to test its strength, I stood on it.
In a matter of seconds, the circle sunk into the floor to the level below.
I held my breath, both in shock and in fear as I watched the shack disappear above me. I was standing on a cylinder which lowered onto the floor and into a large chamber. I couldn’t have been more shocked if the world was coming to an end.
The chamber below was not much larger than the size of Sticky’s shack, but it was filled with all kinds of things I had never seen before or even imagined.
My first thought was that Sticky had been some sort of secret agent sent from the government folks. But that didn’t make much sense. Why would the government want to spy on simple folks like us?
And looking around the room, it was clear that this was no normal room. First, it was spotless. And not the kind of clean that you see in the home of somebody who is a neat-freak and spends the entire day cleaning the house. I’m talking about the kind of clean you don’t even see in hospitals. It was shiny clean and gleaming. Most of it was made of that same strange kind of glass–the walls, the floors, the ceiling, even part of the furniture, shelves and a small bench built into the wall.
A cool soothing light glowed from part of the ceiling, though looking around, I couldn’t see anything like light bulbs. It was all mighty strange.
I saw what appeared to be a bed in one corner, but it was unlike any bed I had ever seen. It was too long and skinny for a normal person, and it was made with a weird plastic-looking mattress.
Shelves along the walls were filled with all kinds of weird knickknacks and things I didn’t recognize. I took a closer look and saw one that was sculpture of some kind of wolf-like creature. There were others of other kinds of creatures, including many of tall slender beings with very thin limbs. There were a few sculptures that appeared to be just globs of glass and I wondered if perhaps they weren’t sculptures at all, but instead had uses I wasn’t aware of. Everything looked so strange.
By now it was clear to me that Sticky was not human. He couldn’t be. This secret chamber. All those alien-looking doo-hickeys.
I walked over to what appeared to be a closet. Inside, there was a soft blue robe made of no material I had ever seen before. I could barely feel it as it slid through my fingers.
I was getting ready to get out of there when suddenly the room dimmed and what had first appeared to be a blank wall, now revealed itself to be a screen.
The screen lit up and showed what I imagined must have been an extremely surprised alien creature.
It was one of them sculptures–tall, thin, stick-like. They looked almost like human stick-bugs.
Now I’ve never seen one of these things before, but I could swear that it was shocked. The way I was shaking, it certainly had no reason to be scared of me. It was probably seven feet tall. But its body trembled and its large head snapped back slightly.
It began letting out a series of squeaky nonsense noises. I imagine it was trying to talk to me, but I couldn’t understand a word of it.
“Stick Man’s dead,” I said. “He died a couple of days ago. He’s gone. Do you understand me? Sticky is dead.”
The image on the screen hesitated. Suddenly the screen went blank. The entire wall glowed brightly and out stepped the image from the screen.
If I wasn’t convinced these guys were aliens before, well I was now.
He chittered something in his alien language and moments later, it came out in English. “You are the friend of the one you call Sticky.” The voice came from a speaker-like device strapped to the creature’s chest.
I nodded. “In a way.” I would have run away, but there was nowhere to go.
“He spoke of you. I have see the given. Sticky, as you call him, has completed his task. We are unhappy to see that he has gone.”
Gathering up my courage, I asked, “What exactly was Sticky’s job? What was he doing here in our town?”
“We are the monitors and the measurers. We are here to determine the level of civilization on your planet. We were heartened as upon study of your accumulated knowledge, we have learned that your great thinkers have already reached a crucial step and have discovered one of the best markers to gauge the level of a society. By this we mean the treatment of the disenfranchised. Those who cannot care for themselves.”
“Oh, like Sticky?”
“Yes, he was our monitor. He could only take what was freely given. I have seen the given.”
“The given? Oh, the clothes, the dishes.” The money, I added to myself.
“Yes, the given. You have treated him well. You have passed the tests. It has been decided that your people will be allowed to survive.”
I wasn’t sure I heard them correctly, but after re-playing it back in my mind, I didn’t want to ask them to repeat themselves. I smiled nervously.
The creature looked around at the objects in the room and then back at me. Its screeching insect-like voice began chittering again. He sounded like a cross between a buzzing mosquito and an injured raccoon.
“I will be sending in a replacement immediately. Tell no one who he is. For our survey to be accurate, his identity must remain secret.”
“Okay,” I said.
It studied me more closely. “You will not come down here again. This place must remain a secret.”
I nodded. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to intrude.”
“Leave now,” it said, pointing at the elevator-thing.
It didn’t need to tell me twice. I found the smooth circle of glass that had brought me in and I stood on it. I waited a few seconds and to my great relief it finally rose and carried me back up into the shack.
I don’t think I’ve ever run back home that fast in my life.
I was out of breath when I reached the door. I flung myself inside and closed the door and ran to the window. I could just see the shack, a small dark smudge off in the distance.
So they were here to test us, to survey us and determine our level of advancement. That’s what the creature had said. They were here to monitor us. All this time, an alien right in our town, right under our noses, and nobody had even noticed. And worse, we had treated him so badly. I was frankly surprised that we were being allowed to live. Folks in town were sometimes downright mean to Sticky.
And what else had the alien said? Something about a replacement. I didn’t like the sound of that. It was a long time before I could sleep that night.
Dooley showed up a few days later and pointed toward the shack. “Weren’t you going to tear that thing down?”
“I decided not to,” I said, averting my gaze.
“Really?” said Dooley. “Can I ask why?”
I shrugged. “I threw all of Sticky’s stuff away, like you asked. I cleaned it out, but I’m keeping the shack. It’s my land, Jake. I can do what I want.”
“I know that, Pete. It’s just, you know how folks are.”
I stood my ground.
“Well, I’m not going to argue with you about it. Keep the shack. But there’s something else you should know. Doc’s pretty upset. Seems like Stick Man was not normal.”
I looked up at Dooley. “Not normal? Like how?”
Dooley shook his head. “I have no idea. Doc was soused out of his mind. I couldn’t get a word out of him. But I’ll tell you this: something about Stick Man scared him bad. He kept saying that there was no way Stick Man could be alive, that his organs were all messed up.”
“Well,” I said. “He was an old man.”
Dooley shrugged. “I don’t know. Doc was freaked out. He burned the body, can you believe that? Said it wasn’t natural. Said he didn’t want something like that anywhere around him. But he won’t say a word about it. So let me ask you, Pete. You knew Stick Man best. Was there anything strange about him? Anything unnatural?”
I shook my head. “Not that I know of, Jake. He was just a beggar, is all. Just your average town bum.”
Dooley nodded skeptically. “Something you’re not telling me, Pete?”
Jake did not look convinced, but knowing how stubborn I was, and probably seeing that he wasn’t going to get anywhere, he left me alone.
I thought about what Doc must have seen. I decided Doc must know that Stick Man was an alien. He was a man of science. He had examined the body. He had to know. I thought about going to see him, but no, I would wait. Truth was, I didn’t really want to talk about Sticky. If Doc wanted to talk to me, he would have to be the first to make a move. Somehow, I didn’t think he would.
I had become like everyone else in town. I just wanted Sticky gone, erased, out of my life. I would have burned down that shack if I could. But thinking about the possible consequences, I didn’t dare do it.
Sure enough, I woke up the next morning to hear someone knocking on the door. It was a young man, extremely tall and slender. He was wearing shabby clothes and had those same large bubbly eyes. It was one of them for sure. It was Sticky’s replacement.
He reached out one of his hands, palm up. “Can you spare a dollar?”