The Traveler of Hickory Hills

by Ryan Olsen

“This is the best day ever!” Herb exclaimed as he threw his hands into the air with triumph.

Herb arrived back at home as he parked his Studebaker in the freshly paved driveway. He was just promoted at work and couldn’t wait to tell the world. Not only that, his lawn needed a mow with the brand new gas powered lawnmower he received from his doting wife for his birthday last week.

“Dear! Honey! I’ve got swell news to tell you,” started the increasingly enthusiastic Herb. “Mr. Humphrey pulled me into his office after my big meeting and offered me a promotion! I’ll be the VP in no time!”

“Let’s celebrate tonight,” said his wife Haley with a giant smile. “We’ll go to your favorite restaurant and make our way over to the soda fountain for a banana split.”

Life all around Hickory Hills mirrored that of Herb’s. Herb wasn’t particularly special, he was just one of the growing number of people finding a life in the new suburbs. The jobs were plentiful, schools were superb and the new houses meant new neighbors who were just as friendly as life long friends. With the war over, the country was starting to get back on the right track.

The uniforms were dry-cleaned and promptly hung in a closet where they would become symbols of bravery and heroism, never to be talked about again. Marching orders were traded for work orders as Hickory Hills kept expanding and booming.

Herb finally opened the door to his new home, thanks to the generous laws being passed for the GIs, and placed his hat on the coat hook while setting his briefcase down at the same time. Haley dialed the radio into Herbs favorite station before he got home. The news was on.

“The dancing craze is sweeping the nation as Sock Hops are popping up coast to coast,” explained the up-tight newscaster. “In other news, Hickory Hills was named one of the best areas in the nation to live.”

“Hear that Haley,” shouted Herb contently from his overstuffed davenport as he lit a Lucky Strike. “You were right on the money when you said we should move here.”

Herb took another long, cool drag of his cigarette as he went upstairs to get ready for a night on the town. He was sure to wear his best hat.

In the words of Herb, it was a “whiz bang” evening. The diner tasted better than normal and the soda fountain hit the sweet spot. When the fun was all over, he opened the car door for his wife as they were ready to go back to the sprawling grids of houses they called a neighborhood. They were still giggling and laughing at the soda jerk who accidently poured a cherry phosphate down his pristine white shirt.

Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed the alley behind the soda fountain glowing. To be sure it wasn’t the sugar rushing to his head, he confirmed with Haley he wasn’t being a loony. He wasn’t. The glowing light was pulsating the primary colors with an unnatural pattern that seemed to call for Herb by name. He softly kissed his wife on the cheek and calmly commanded her to stay in the car.

“I’ll be back in a flash,” Herb said semi-confidently. “It’s probably a neon sign gone haywire.”

As he neared the alley, he took one last glance back at Haley. She gave him a little wave and blew him a kiss as her sign of support from behind the locked car. The glow started to get less intense as Herb rounded the corner. His hairs were standing on their ends as he got the full view of the alley. It was empty except for the dumpster full of stale hotdog buns and a gadget the likes Herb had never seen before.

It was a green circle with yellow lines making geometric patterns to the tiny lightbulbs around the outside circumference. Stiff leather handles flanked opposites sides of the gizmo with toggles where the thumbs would rest. Smack dab in the center was a black rectangle that seemed to have no purpose. As Herb picked it up, he flipped it over to see two slender, metallic tubes with perforation up and down the sides.

Herb reached for his smokes stowed neatly in his shirt pocket. His shaky hand spilled his freshly opened pack on the ground but not before he could grab one from the box. Before he had a chance to reach for his matches, the black rectangle started to flicker a blinding white color. Soon, it was displaying full color, with words appearing on the screen.

“Hello operator,” the machine spoke in a measured cadence. “I can’t believe I finally found you. Commencing recall function in 5… 4… 3… 2… 1”

“This has to be a mistake,” said Herb “What is going on?”

The machine lit up like Main Street on Christmas and, in a swirl of lights, made Herb vanish. Nobody ever heard from him again.

Back in the car, Haley started to worry about Herb. After five minutes that felt like here hours, she opened the car and went to where her husband vanished. She looked around only to find the stale hot dog buns and the spilt cigarettes. There was no other trace of Herb. Panicked, she ran to the police station down the block.

Sargent Hammer was just leaving the station to sleep after his graveyard shift. Haley fell at his feet and started to blubber her plea to find her husband.

“Herb… He’s… Gone… Vanished… Strange Lights…” sobbed Haley, “Find him! Find him!”

Hammer was an old army pal of Herb. If Haley was this upset, something was wrong. Terribly, horribly wrong. The whole police force would do their best to get to the bottom of this.

“Slow down Haley,” said Hammer as reassuringly as an old army dog turned cop could. “Tell me everything that happened. From the beginning.”

The town’s newspaper reported the story straight from the police report the next day, but the town soon latched on the most fantastical elements with the bright flashing lights.

The busy bodies from the bridge clubs gossiped that Haley faked the whole thing so that she wouldn’t have to endure the embarrassment of saying her husband left her. Herb’s co-workers thought the last meeting he had with his boss went south and Herb killed himself because he was fired. The children of Hickory Hills thought an alien mothership abducted Herb and made him an Earthling prisoner on a distant star far, far away from home. Herb’s old war buddies never said much of the matter, but always had their own unique suspicions.

The years passed and Haley would occasionally hear the whispers from the community. It was a story that lived on. The rumors eventually wound up in papers each anniversary of the mysterious disappearance. A decade after Herb went missing, stories were told that Herb fought against super Communists in that back alley. That was the tipping point where the stories got more fantastical, even after the real missing person case went ice cold. It would bother Haley to the core that nobody actually cared to help her find out what really happened that night. All they cared about was lacking on to the next outlandish tale about her Husband that was simply untrue.

Nearly a lifetime passed and Haley was spending her waning years still in Hickory Hills, trying to find any morsel of information that would help her find Herb. The town was now in a state of decay. The once booming businesses and new construction were giving way to bulldozers and closed signs on manufacturing plants. The only constant that remained where the frequent tall tales of Herb. Where the soda fountain once stood was a small park with a plaque dedicated to his memory, from his loving wife Haley. It was the one oasis in the entire town.

It was late at night and Haley finished watering her flowers. Her back creaked as she put back the watering can on a low shelf. Then, out of the corner of her eye, she noticed a strange glow coming from inside the house.

“It couldn’t be,” said Haley. “Herb, I’m coming.”

She didn’t hesitate to go inside.

A week and a half later, Haley was reported missing by the next-door neighbor. A lone police officer arrived at the house that was something of a legend in sorry excuse for a once great town. First, he rang the doorbell. Nothing. Then knocked. Nothing. Then forcibly opened the door.

What he found inside was sure to keep the stories going for another lifetime. This time, it wouldn’t take a whole week for the neighbors to notice.