As he manned his small wooden shack by the roadside, Erwin Pries took a step back out of the blazing desert sun: the fairy-light adorned colander atop his head having heated up so rapidly, the rim was at risk of scalding his skin.
He sighed heavily with boredom. Despite his cries and callouts galore, nothing or no-one had come by all day, save a few tumbleweeds. He was contemplating shutting up shop early and heading up to catch up on the conspiracy forums – until, he heard a soft, low whirring sound approaching from a distance.
It was too quiet for a car. Or a dreaded black van. A drone, perhaps?
After some time, an electric wheelchair rolled into view: pulling up and stopping outside of the Curio Shop. Its owner was, like Erwin, a red-headed gentleman with fair skin and freckles. However, he looked far more formal in his smart shirt, coat and tie, and his own fiery locks were tinged with the odd silver thread: tell-tale age lines around his eyes.
For a while, the visitor said nothing. He simply looked at Erwin closely for a few moments, almost as if he was examining him, before casting his eyes over the various posters, photographs and merchandise that adorned the shack's walls. Then, turning his head to and fro, he glanced around himself, as if he was on the lookout for something – or someone. But, aside from himself and Erwin, the street was as deserted as the town's natural landscape. Edging his chair slightly closer, he locked eyes with the young conspiracy theorist, and addressed him in hushed tones.
"What do you know about The Mother?"
The directness of the query took Erwin by surprise. Very few people he'd come across in town knew the things he knew – and if they did, they didn't discuss them. This gentleman must be from elsewhere… and he was asking questions. Naturally, that meant he couldn't be trusted.
Then again, could anyone in Strangerville really be trusted, either?
"I don't know what you're talking about," Erwin answered… but a nervous wobble in his voice betrayed him.
The stranger laughed.
"Oh, come on!" he scoffed. "Clearly, you're interested in alien life. And those pod plants are all over the place. You must know what I mean."
Erwin crossed his arms in a laughable, struggling attempt at a defiant gesture.
"Nope," he said. "No idea."
The visitor tutted. Shaking his head in amusement, he reached into his coat pocket, and produced a business card.
"I'm not from the Government, you know," he said light-heartedly. "I'm on your side here, not theirs."
He laid the card on the counter, pushing it forward gently. Erwin picked it up to examine: his eyes widening as he read the name.
FREELANCE INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALIST
"The Lincoln Broadsheet?" he wheezed. "From the Miniopolis Chronicle?"
"That's me," came the reply, the speaker's face beaming proudly.
"I used to read your column every week!” Erwin enthused. “Your investigations! Your theories! They kept the forums buzzing for months afterwards! You're a legend!"
“You flatter me.”
“No, seriously! Growing up, I wanted to be like just like you!”
Lincoln let out a short, sharp laugh.
“You even look like me,” he remarked, pointing to their respective red-haired heads. “Only, your chin is a bit less defined. And your nose isn't as pointed as mine.”
“It got like that because I keep sticking it into other people's business."
“Sir,” Erwin breathed, as though he was praying reverently. “It is an honour to be talking to you.”
"Please, please," Lincoln told him, dismissively, waving a hand. "I'm just a humble truth-seeker, the same as you. And one truth I'm definitely seeking is what exactly is going on in this town. I think you know a lot more than what you're letting on."
"Only rumours, really," he confessed, rather reluctantly: ashamed to admit the fact in front of his hero. "Just… hearsay."
"A lead is a lead," Lincoln replied firmly – restoring Erwin's confidence somewhat. "Listen… what's your name?"
"Erwin. Erwin Pries."
"Pleased to meet you, Erwin. Help me out here, won't you? Tell me what you've heard."
His eyes darted around himself again – his guard still raised.
"Ideally, somewhere more private," he added hastily.
"I live nearby," Erwin told him. "We can talk there, if you want. Just let me close up the shop first."
Erwin's home turned out to be a small trailer only a few minutes walk, or wheel, away. The… interesting assortment of gnomes and other ornaments on the small patch of grass outside it indicated to Lincoln which trailer was his before they'd even reached the door. Upon entering, he learned that the whole structure consisted of two rooms: a bathroom, and a combined kitchen, bedroom and lounge area – more cramped than cosy.
Now that they were (hopefully) safely away from overhearing ears, Erwin told Lincoln everything he knew about the Mother, and the weird goings on that had occurred in Strangerville. From there, however, the conversation spiralled into passionate discussions about other theories and Lincoln's past investigations. Clearly, Erwin was a dedicated follower of Lincoln's work, which flattered the journalist greatly. Miniopolis might not have appreciated his so-called "crazy" ideas – he was barred from publishing them in their papers now, after all – but it was wonderful to meet somebody who did.
Soon, Erwin's excited chatter began to wheeze into a croak.
"I'm parched," he rasped, his hand clutching at his aching throat. "Shall I make us both some coffee?"
"That would be great."
As Erwin got up to rustle through the kitchen cupboards, Lincoln looked around the trailer. It was, he felt, essentially a larger version of the Curio Shop. Alleged alien knick-knacks were everywhere. Posters, photos and newspaper articles had been pinned on all of the walls - including some of his own. However, his eye was caught by what was, to an untrained observer, the most ordinary thing in the entire place: a family photo.
It contained two adult figures – presumably Erwin's parents – and his host as a young boy: no older than five or six, Lincoln would have guessed. It was your standard happy family pose, complete with smiling faces… and not the fixed, eerie grins of those possessed by The Mother, either.
All the same, Lincoln noticed that it was… odd. Both the lady and gentleman had brown hair: dull and dark, like the wood in an extinguished fire. A stark contrast to the boy's blazing amber coiffure. Further, whilst their eyes were a soft, duck egg blue, his were an emerald green.
In fact, he looked rather like...
Lincoln's blood ran cold.
No, he thought to himself. No – he couldn't be.
“I don't want to die. Oh, please, please, merciful Watcher – I don't want to die...”
The agony of another contraction ripped through Lincoln's body, forcing him to howl like a wretched, wounded animal as he clutched his rounded belly. There was no way he could make it through this sort of pain alive. He was certain of it.
The kindly doctor reached for his hand and gripped it extra tight as she walked him over to the Caesarian section machine: helping him slowly and carefully to lie down on the bed before heading to the operation terminal. She always sympathised with patients such as these – males abducted by aliens, impregnated against their will – but this one was an extra special case.
He was still so young. Eighteen years old and about to start college. No family support - or at least, so it would seem. Clueless about how to raise a child, and totally unprepared for what was about to come.
He hadn't even been stargazing when they came for him. He was simply... chosen.
Being on the verge of beginning his journey to a hopefully great career in journalism – his long-since chosen profession – the young man had decided that he was going to give the child up for adoption: right from the moment he'd found he was pregnant. He simply wasn't ready for the responsibilities of fatherhood. He wanted to fulfil his own dreams first.
That being said, Lincoln still had concerns for this baby he was carrying. It was as innocent as he was in all of this. Would anyone out there really be willing to take on an alien as their own child?
He could only hope for the best. For both of them.
The sharp sting of the pain relief injection faded away into a hazy bliss – Lincoln's troubles melting away along with his awareness.
After the Watcher only knew how long, Lincoln slowly began to come round again – the doctor gently shaking his shoulder in an effort to rouse him. His stomach felt sore, but far lighter. He remained groggy as he was pulled up onto his staggering feet and led over towards a nearby bassinet: only for the sight of what was laid within to shock him back into reality like a thunderbolt.
There was no denying it. The newborn, who was male, had Lincoln's fair skin, and a few slender strands of his red hair atop his head. There were no extra eyes, or pointed ears, or a tail. In fact, nothing whatsoever about him indicated his unusual origins.
“He appears to be a special case,” the doctor told him. “We've run tests. Normally, human males impregnated by extraterrestrials give birth to implanted foetuses of the Sixamian species, or occasionally, hybrids. In your case, however, it seems a rather different experiment was run on you when you were taken up.”
Lincoln looked at her.
“What do you mean?”
“Mr. Broadsheet... your baby is a clone.”
Lincoln's face grew as ghostly white as the doctor's coat.
“A clone?” he gasped.
“Of yourself,” the doctor went on. “You're genetically identical to one another. You have the exact same DNA.”
Lincoln managed a weak smile as he peered back into the bassinet.
“So... he's basically a little me,” he said – offering his son a finger to clutch in his tiny hand.
“Given the situation,” the doctor continued, “do you still want to go ahead with the adoption?”
As Lincoln saw his baby staring up at him with wide, fascinated eyes, he felt his heart slowly breaking into pieces. Turning back to the doctor, he blinked back tears... and nodded.
“Yes,” he told her firmly. “I want him to have a real family.”
He sighed, half-laughing.
“And besides... having a clone around might raise more questions than an alien baby would.”
The doctor smiled.
“Very well,” she said. “I'll contact Social Services right away. We need to get you down to the recovery ward, but I'll give you a few moments to say goodbye.”
Once he was alone in the operating theatre, Lincoln scooped his baby up into his arms: cuddling him close as they shared their first, and only, embrace. He told the child how sorry he was that he wasn't able to be the perfect father that he deserved, but hopefully, whoever took him in would fit the bill far better than he did – not to mention giving him a loving mother, too. He was making this choice, he insisted, not because he lacked love for his child, but rather, because of the overwhelming love he did have for him.
As the nurse arrived to lead him down to the ward, Lincoln kissed the infant on his forehead, and lay him back down in the bassinet.
“Goodbye, little one,” he whispered. “Who knows? Perhaps you and I will meet again one day.”
It was only later, once he was alone in his hospital bed and concealed by the lonely darkness of night, that Lincoln allowed himself to break down and weep.
Although he knew it was the right decision, giving his child up was the hardest thing he had ever done.
From now on, he would never give up on anything again.
Lincoln later graduated from university with full honours. He attended several interviews for various different papers and publications, who rejected him for a variety of reasons: too young, too inexperienced, too radical, too mainstream. But he didn't give up, and eventually, the Miniopolis Chronicle took him on board, and gave him his big break.
Feeling ready to enter a relationship, he started to look for love. He went on dates with various women, such of which were followed by a second or third, but none of these courtships ever really went anywhere. But he didn't give up. Soon, he met Laura, and they shared something special for a number of years. They even got engaged.
In the end, that union didn't work out, either – but it went on for long enough to bring Chloe, Lincoln's beloved daughter, into the world. As he'd held her in the hospital on the day she was born, he couldn't help but think back to the son he had once cradled in his arms so closely, before letting him go forever.
(Laura didn't know about that. Nobody did.)
Now, however, Lincoln was older, wiser, and more mature. He was ready for this responsibility. He endeavoured each and every day to be the best possible father to Chloe... and still continued to do so. He may have given up one child – albeit out of love – but he would not do so again.
Then the accident had happened. The terrible incident that not only robbed Lincoln of the use of his legs, but practically destroyed his nose, jaw and chin, too. Plastic surgery had restored them, but he no longer looked the way he once had. His profile became distinctively different. His quirky habit of changing his contact lenses to different colours every so often did little to restore any sense of familiarity.
Recovery had been a slow and painful process. Lincoln was told very clearly from the offset that he may never walk again. He tried various treatments and therapies, with little success, and eventually accepted his situation. But that wasn't him giving up. He never gave up. Instead, he turned his focus onto how to live his life and do his job as best as he could with his handicap – proving to everyone that he could still be as a good a father, and as good a journalist, as he had been before.
Until the paper had let him go. Having always had one mystery to ponder during his working years – the fate of his adopted son – it seemed only natural that Lincoln would be drawn to investigating others. Plus, as someone who'd secretly experienced an extra-terrestrial encounter, why should he not look into those events that others dismissed as conspiracy theories? Some of them even had some very convincing evidence to examine, once Lincoln looked into them more closely. In the end, his editors had denounced him as some sort of madman, and sent him packing.
Yet still, he wouldn't give up. He refused to be silenced. Miniopolis may have barred him from sharing his work, but the rest of the world hadn't. He submitted articles to various publications. He started a blog and shared his thoughts online. His old, loyal readers followed him onto his new endeavours, and he gained new readers besides. There was no shortage of mysteries out there for him to go out and solve.
Like the mystery of The Mother. That's what had brought him to Strangerville.
And into the home of this familiar-looking young conspiracy enthusiast...
The clatter of cups being placed on the table in front of him pulled Lincoln out of his thoughts. As Erwin turned his head to which of his many pictures was grabbing his guest's attention, he smiled.
“I know what you're thinking,” he said warmly. “Yes - I was adopted.”
“Oh,” Lincoln replied – taken aback that his host had been so forthright about it. “I... I hope I haven't...”
“Upset me?” Erwin replied dismissively. “No, not at all. I never knew my birth family – I was still a baby when Mum and Dad adopted me. They're amazing parents.”
“Only... they're not big fans of conspiracy theories.”
Lincoln smiled sympathetically.
“Mine never were, either. They didn't exactly approve of my work.”
“I do wonder about my birth family sometimes,” Erwin went on. “After I found out about my adoption, we used to have this joke in the family that I was some kind of clone grown in a lab somewhere.”
His chuckling became a guffaw.
“I mean – we are in Strangerville, after all!”
Both men burst into laughter. Lincoln's, however, was far more hollow.
“Anyway,” Erwin said, after he had composed himself, “I've told you everything I know about The Mother. Is there anything else you want to discuss?”
Lincoln hesitated. Part of him longed to say something – to ask Erwin his age, to get some sort of evidence he could use to confirm what he was thinking... and what perhaps, in his heart, he already knew. But, dear Watcher above, how would he even begin to bring up the subject with the young man? Even by conspiracy theory standards, the story of his son's birth was near unbelievable. Erwin knew he was adopted, and talked with happiness about his family. Nothing he had said suggested he knew anything more about his origins. Plus, the pair had only known each other for a matter of hours. This wasn't something you could bring up casually out of nowhere, like small talk about the weather.
Still, Lincoln was going to be in Strangerville for quite a while as he undertook his investigation. And Erwin seemed very willing to help him. Perhaps, if they stayed in touch, built up a closer bond... then maybe, in time, the right moment would come.
Erwin was still patiently waiting for an answer: his and Lincoln's coffee growing cold on the table. The journalist picked his up and downed it in one slow, steady gulp, before wiping his mouth and turning his attention back to his gracious host.
“That's all for now,” he said. “Thank you for your information.”
“My pleasure,” Erwin replied. “As I said, you're a hero of mine. I always wanted to be just like you.”
And you are, Lincoln thought to himself. Right down to the DNA.
As Erwin escorted him to the trailer door, Lincoln thanked him once again, and headed out into the early evening sunset – overjoyed with the information the day had brought him.
He'd come to Strangerville to investigate one mystery. But today, after many years of wondering and pondering, he'd received the solution to another.
And out of the many mysteries he had known, and the answers he had sought, it was this one that would always mean the most.