NOTE: Science fiction humor (thought I'd warn you.)

The Day Dinner was Late

by Anne Davidson

5:30 pm. Clyde slid off the sticky-hot truck seat and slammed the door, sending a satisfying crash echoing through the garage. That ought to let the old bird know he was back.

The house door was unlocked, so Clyde pocketed his keys and went through to the kitchen for a cold beer. Mabel was there as usual, fussing with her pots and pans.

"What's for dinner?"

"Fried chicken, potato salad, and cherry pie."

"Be ready in time for the seven o'clock news?"

"Yes," Mabel said, sliding a pale-crusted pie into the oven and setting the timer.

Clyde grunted and looked around. The kitchen was covered with flour and potato peels, and there was a big stack of dirty bowls and silverware soaking in the sink. Women sure could make a big deal out of cooking three simple things. Shaking his head, Clyde plodded on to the den and settled into the padded naugahyde lounger, which hissed and creaked as it received his weight. Popping the top of the beer, Clyde took a long draught. Aaahh, that was just what a man needed after a long day at the plant.

He closed his eyes for a long, relaxing moment, then opened them and looked around. The clock over the TV showed that it was almost a half hour before the local news. His paper was neatly folded on the side table next to the remote control, his slippers were tucked just under the edge of the chair, and the curtains had been drawn over the picture window to block out the glare of the late afternoon sun. Clyde nodded in satisfaction. After thirty-odd years, Mabel had learned how he wanted things when he got home.

He kicked off his shoes, slid his feet into the cool slippers, and unfolded the paper.

5:50 pm. Clyde had finished the front page and the sports section and was looking at boat ads. He'd been thinking about getting a nice little outboard and taking some of the guys out on the lake on weekends. Maybe he'd even take Mabel for a spin some time. But then, she'd probably just sit there stiff as an umbrella spoke and worry about the boat turning over.

5:55 pm. With the potato salad cooling in the refrigerator, Mabel had a few minutes to clean up the kitchen. If she hurried, she could wash the dishes, clean the countertops, and vacuum the floor by the time the pie was finished.

As she ran hot water in the sink and soap bubbles started forming, she watched a hundred reflections of the kitchen window turn aqua, then yellow, red, violet, and back to aqua.

6 pm. Time for the news. Clyde clicked on the TV and turned the volume up. After all these years working in noisy plants, maybe his hearing wasn't what it used to be, but if people would just speak up a little there wouldn't be a problem. He never missed anything at home.

He sat staring at the screen, absorbing reports of local accidents, murder trials, and protest marches. Once, for half a minute or so, the sound turned to bursts of static and the TV picture broke up and almost disappeared, but before Clyde was all the way out of his chair it was back to normal again.

6:15 pm. Mabel stuffed the vacuum and cord back in the closet, turned the buzzer off and took the pie out of the oven. The crust had browned perfectly.

She checked the clock; time to start the chicken. Mabel switched on the burner under the pan of oil and then hurriedly washed her hands. As she turned from taking the package of chicken parts out of the refrigerator a flash from over by the window made her look in that direction. There was something strange out in the back yard, in the open grassy space between the weeping willows and in front of the shed.

Still holding the cold package of chicken, Mabel went to the window for a better look. Whatever it was in the back yard was unlike anything she'd ever seen before, as big as a car, but rounded all over and shiny. She frowned as she stared, and then, slowly, she retraced her steps, put the chicken back in the refrigerator, rinsed her hands, and turned off the stove.

Then she went to the back door.

6:19 pm. As Mabel stood in the grass staring, a doorway opened in the thing in her yard and two people emerged. At least, they looked like people, but there were small differences, the shape of the eyes, the texture of hair, the way they moved. 6:21 pm. The beings were looking at her and making sounds that Mabel soon recognized as crude attempts at English. She was frightened at first, but as they spoke she became interested, then excited.

6:30 pm. The ads were on. Clyde thought about getting out of the chair and doing something, maybe checking on progress in the kitchen, but the news would be back on in a minute. He ought to get Mabel to watch some of this stuff; it might get her mind off herself.

But if he asked her in here once, she might think he wanted her to come in every day. Then she'd always be twittering around in here when he was trying to relax, and on top of that dinner would likely be late. Maybe he'd get her one of those little TV's for the kitchen instead. Sure, that was it. Her birthday was coming some time soon and he never knew what to get her.

6:31 pm. The beings were gesturing as they struggled to talk, drawing sweeping arcs above their heads with their slim, elegant hands. Then they began to point to the door they had come through, with gestures of invitation towards Mabel.

6:33 pm. The beings went back into their strange vehicle. Mabel followed them.

When she had climbed inside the door closed.

6:40 pm. More ads. Clyde shambled across the den on his way to the bathroom, his legs stiff from sitting so long. When he flushed the toilet he noticed a strange sound in the pipes. That could mean trouble. Maybe he should get Mabel to call the plumber.

6:55 pm. The local news was almost over, and although he could see through the open dining-room door that the table was set, Mabel hadn't started bringing out the food. Clyde's stomach turned uncomfortably with the first stirrings of hunger. He decided to go to the kitchen and see what was keeping her.

Mabel wasn't there. There was a pan of oil on the stove, and a cherry pie cooling on the countertop, but nothing was cooking. He was really getting hungry. Where was she?

The bathroom, maybe. He walked down the hall to the closed bathroom door; there was no light showing underneath, but still he tapped delicately on the door before calling out, "Mabel!" When there was no answer, he pushed the door open. The room was quiet and dark.

He went back out to the dining room and called out "MABEL!" There was still no answer. He opened the curtains and looked out at the back yard, but she didn't seem to be there either. Then, although it was crazy to think it, he checked the garage. The truck was still there. He even went to the end of the driveway and looked up and down the road, but she was nowhere in sight.

7:02 pm. Clyde stood in the living room and shouted, as loudly as he could, "MABEL, I'M HUNGRY. IF YOU'RE NOT GOING TO FINISH COOKING I'M GOING OUT TO EAT."

He waited. There was no response. A reporter was talking earnestly about the lead story on the national news, but Clyde turned the TV off.

"MABEL!" he called again. "I'M GOING!"

Then, more softly, "Would you like to come?"

There was only silence. He lingered a few more minutes, putting his shoes on slowly and absently fingering his keys before putting them back in his pocket. Then he started for the garage, shaking his head. That Mabel would get a good talking-to when he got back.

As he passed through the kitchen again he noticed that the door to the back yard was slightly ajar. He went over to lock it, but instead stepped out onto the concrete patio and glanced hopefully around the back yard. He didn't see Mabel, but he did notice, in the fading sunlight, that a rather large patch of grass in the middle of the yard was dying.

He'd have to tell Mabel to do something about that too. She was a good enough housekeeper when she kept her mind on it, but she never noticed what was going on outside her own back door.