Mother feared the grey men. Except they weren’t men. They were only men in the sense they had flat chests and young girls were advised not to go with them. Mother pointed them out at the playground at Highland Parks back when she still took you to Highland Parks. She wouldn’t point with a finger. It wasn’t rude to do so, but it only drew attention. You learned early on to track mother’s eyes with military-grade accuracy. All it took was a look, and once you saw them, a pointed finger seemed excessive.
You first saw one at Walmart. He—or it—had loitered by the bathroom. Which, men’s or women’s, you couldn’t discern. You had gawked in passing and clenched your buttocks when Mother guided you along, brisk but not too brisk. Shoppers made no fuss about the grey man, but they too wove around him. No shocked gasps. No pesky fingers wagging. Only children were permitted to stare. They didn’t know better, but you soon did. Even then, you knew better to hold your bladder until you returned home.
No one spoke about the grey men. When teachers led fire drills, tornado drills, lockdown drills, every size and bit of drills, never was there a word about the grey men. When they brought in a police woman to talk to your class about drugs and stranger danger, she hadn’t mentioned them either. You assumed that talk was up and coming. Older kids spread rumors about the infamous “sex ed” PowerPoint that came when kids graduated to the sixth grade, and you were looking forward to it. Not in the dirty way the boys were, but because you figured of course, surely, most definitely they would address why the grey men, who wore no clothes, only grey skins, had no equipment between their legs.
Had you made it to the sixth grade, you would have been disappointed.
On occasion one or two of them would approach the fence barricading the school playground. During recess, not during recess, they didn’t discriminate. Mother thought Highland Parks could have used a good fence like that, and she had written plenty of letters both to Highland Parks as well as Cowberry Elementary.
Sometimes the grey men would curl their long grey fingers through the fence’s diamond loops and just watch the kiddies play. Other times—you could count the times on both hands and three toes—they would mope about the hilly slope that dipped from Cowberry to the wetland below, licking dandelions or fishing garbage.
A para would send them scurrying with an aggressive flick of a hand. Skittish as birds. And not a word more was needed. Your classmates, now old enough to know better, didn’t gawk nor gab, and they knew not to get too close. The adults would handle that.
Though he would deny it if asked, Grandpa sometimes kept watch in his pickup in the school parking lot come recess time. Bailey, his Australian shepherd, would be panting in the passenger seat. You knew Grandpa had his shotgun strewn over his lap, and you knew he wasn’t the only grandpa—or grandma for that matter—who did the same. You were more surprised they didn’t start tailgating while they waited; it probably would have scared away more grey men in the process.
Grandpa didn’t like talking about them, but unlike most adults, he did talk. Not as much as Mother though. Mother slept with a .38 under her pillow. You knew because you had found it once. She took it with her whenever she got up in the night for a pee or to check on you in your room. This you couldn’t confirm, but you knew how Mother was.
Mother said most of them were invisible. Not literally. Don’t be silly. She meant they blended in. Looked ordinary. Like friends. Like neighbors. Copies. This was why, after a field trip to the science museum one October, you weren’t allowed to play with Debby Bollinger anymore.
“She looks like Debby, but she’s not.”
“How do we know, Mama?”
“I just know.”
Mother’s instinct, you called it. Or she did. You couldn’t remember.
Grandpa didn’t have this instinct, but he did have Bailey, for a while, anyhow. Grandpa spent a lot of time rocking his chair on the porch or in the kitchen cooking his grandpa’s Italian recipes. Bailey stuck by him always. She was faithful, steady, young yet, and quiet.
You only heard Bailey put up a bark-storm once. You were washing dishes with Grandpa. Bailey had dipped out the doggy door to do her business, not to be long, when she sounded the alarm.
Grandpa hurried out. You shadowed. Bailey was barking at Mother’s garden, which bled into the azaleas bordering the woods. The evening was dim, and all you caught of the grey men were their lean, slippery legs as they scampered off.
They didn’t go far. The foliage swallowed them out of view, but their glowing eyes assured they were still with you.
You slept in Mother’s bed that night. You grazed the .38 under her pillow more than once. Like a teddy bear.
Grandpa trusted Mother’s instinct, even when it meant Bailey had to go. You had found him at the kitchen table with his cheaters in his hands. Bailey was gone. So was Grandpa’s spirit. He garbled little whimpers. He rubbed his eyes dry when he saw you.
“How do we know, Mama?” you asked through tears. She still had Grandpa’s shotgun in her left hand.
“I just know. Trust me, Bubba-boo.”
And you did.
You trusted her to tuck you in every night, make your lunch, see you off to school. You trusted her enough to avoid the grey men when you saw them standing up against walls at Hy-Vee or sniffing gas tanks at 7-Eleven. You trusted her enough to avoid the Australian shepherd you saw linger by the house now and again. You knew it wasn’t Bailey. The grey men already had the real Bailey, and even if Mother had disposed of the copy, you assumed there were others. You assumed if spliced open, you would find grey matter.
You trusted her up until the last night you spent in your bed, when you had woken in a hot sweat, and you weren’t alone. At first you thought the lean, looming thing in your doorway was one of them. A grey man. No chest. No equipment between the legs. Just two eyes and vague intent.
You were blessedly wrong.
It was Mother in the doorway, not a grey man, but a small, girlish thing was tugging her nightgown. In Mother’s face was terror, and in her left hand was the .38.
“Mama, something’s in my bed!” the girlish thing said. It was your voice.
Mother approached the bed. The girlish thing followed. She was wearing your clothes.
“Mama, something’s in my bed!”
It was you.
Andrew Hansen is a Minnesota writer with a current focus on short fiction, largely of the speculative and unsettling variety. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Creative Writing from the University of Minnesota, Mankato. Find him @andrewhansen22 on Instagram.