Kaitlin Out of Space

Kaitlin Out of Space

by Krishan Coupland

When I went outside Kaitlin was lying on the lawn, surrounded by a circle of burned grass. I know that was her name because it was etched into her spacesuit: Kaitlin Morris. Almost invisible under all that soot. The sky was blue; no vapour trails, no smoke. The air above her shimmered hot, and it was hours before I dared to touch her. She was only small, thankfully, and so light that for a moment I thought the suit might be empty.

From the start I knew that she was meant for me. To fall all that way and land squarely in my tiny patch of a garden. In the one garden of the one house of the one woman who wouldn’t ever turn away a stranger. She must have been sent. They must have known I’d look after her.

For hours she lay unmoving on the sofa. I tried removing the helmet, but the catches were shut tight. Years ago I might have called my son, but not now. No sense in worrying him, not when he was so far away, not when he had problems of his own. The police? The police would think me a senile old dear. Instead I sat and waited, and watched the gardening show. At six o’ clock I started making lasagne for dinner. Every few minutes I’d check on her in the lounge. I put out the big mixing bowl just in case she needed to be sick.

After I put the dish in the oven I went back and found her sitting up. Her smooth visor turned towards me, darkly polarised, shining like a cat’s eye. I saw myself curved and tiny, holding the doorframe. She reached up and, with a twist, plucked the helmet loose. Sweat-wet hair fell around her shoulders. I’d never seen eyes so improbably blue before.

I guided her into the bathroom and ran the water warm. The pipes rattled like they always do and she looked afraid. I wiped some blacking from her suit and showed her how the water rinsed it from my skin. She looked at the taps with an expression of wonder, flinched when she dipped her gloved hand into the stream.

“It’s okay,” I said. “It’s good. Look.” The water beaded and ran off the heavy canvas of her suit, splattering black onto the smooth white of the tub.

We ate dinner in the conservatory. It had been a long time since I hadn’t eaten alone. I set out placemats and coasters, wiped down the knives and forks. Kaitlin looked at everything with the same polite puzzlement.

“You must be hungry,” I said. “Eat.”

It took her ages to get the cutlery settled in her gloves, but when she finally managed it she copied me exactly. At the first mouthful her face lost itself between shock and delight. She devoured her portion of lasagne, and I went to the kitchen, fetching back pickled onions, hot sauce, milk, chocolate, ice cream. Different things for her to try. I think, looking back, it might have been the first time she ever ate anything.  In her face there was nothing but delight.

Kaitlin took my son’s old room. It had been six years now, and when he’d come to visit last Christmas he’d stayed in a hotel by the coast. I’d kept it clean though; every month I dusted and vacuumed and shook out the covers, ready for if he ever returned.

She could have taken the box room, or the sofa downstairs, but I thought that she might like a bit more space. The double bed was big enough for her to sleep in her suit, and some of my son’s model aircraft – relics from before university, before marriage, before Australia – still dangled on near-invisible thread from the ceiling. They were sleek, moon-coloured things. Perhaps they would make her feel at home.

The next morning Kaitlin watched me stretch in front of the television. The slow bend and the hold and the breath felt spiritual under her blue eyes. I tried to show her, but the bulky suit wouldn’t let her move the way I could. She held my arm, the elbow joint perched on the tips of her gloves, and examined it minutely.

I took off my blouse, then my skirt. She watched, blinking blue, wide eyes. I turned like a dancer. My body sagged now, wrinkles collecting at the armpits, stretch marks laddering my stomach. She looked at me like she’d never seen anything quite so fascinating. Her gloved hands floated around the middle of her body, looking for a zip or a button or a fastener that simply wasn’t there.

It had been over two thousand days since I last shared the house, and Kaitlin fell into my life like a stone into a pond. Astounding, the time it takes to accommodate another living being, to adjust to the noise of movement elsewhere in your home, to double the portions of every meal, to leave the landing light on at night.

She learned slowly. And she was polite. Simple things like washing up or hanging out clothes to dry she picked up quickly, even as the gloves made each task laborious.

“You should take those off,” I said after a couple of days. She shook her head, frowned a little. I motioned pulling at my wrists and she copied me, shedding the gloves to reveal pale, slender hands that looked tiny in comparison to her suited body. She stared at them in surprise. They trembled. When I held them I saw that she had no lines on her palm, no fingernails, no prints.

A week later I came downstairs and found her sitting in front of the television. The screen was blank. She was naked, cold-looking and tiny and odd, like a cat without its coat. She sat cross-legged, hands on knees. When I came in she smiled.

The suit and helmet were gone. I checked her room and the garden and all around the house. Nothing. I fetched some clothes from my son’s wardrobe. The things that he’d left when he first moved away – old band t-shirts and jeans worn through with holes – were just the right size. I watched her dress, noting the smooth absence of a belly button, the lack of genitals. The fumbling way she lost herself in the clothes. She had secrets inside of secrets and I would never know the least of them.

I started taking her out for walks in the woods. I hadn’t had reason to use the car in so long. I would drive us out from the city, down quiet roads lined with fir trees. Rain-wet woods dripping onto wet tarmac. Silence when I stopped the engine. I showed her how to drop pound coins into the National Trust parking meter. She was delighted by it. She wore a big, crumpled raincoat that I’d found in the boot. It swamped her, and she peered out happily from within the folds.

When walking, she kept an odd rhythm. Sometimes she would pace beside me, and watch me, and try to match exactly my stride. At other times she would leap ahead, moving with weird exaggerated steps, as though used to a different gravity altogether. Once or twice she simply stopped, froze, tensed as though she’d seen something only she could see.

The police came first in late September. Two of them, swollen like bumblebees in their big jackets. A man in a suit hovered behind; I disliked him as soon as I saw him. He had a cruel face. The cruelness was worn into it as though he’d been that way for years. His eyes were narrowed, his mouth twitching on the verge of an outburst.

“Madam.” The two police took off their hats and wiped their shoes. I made tea and listened to them tramping around upstairs. Kaitlin was up there too, but all I heard were low policeman voices. When I went back into the lounge the suited man was surveying the postcards on the mantelpiece. He stopped when I came in, and took a step towards me, then a step back. He rubbed his hands together, but we didn’t speak. I sat on the sofa and read my book and after a while the police came back down. No Kaitlin. They apologised indifferently, and one of them took a biscuit. I looked into his eyes, and his eyes looked tired.

The bathroom was empty, the bedrooms the same. They were empty but not empty. You could tell. The way the air was taut and breathing. She was somewhere, waiting, hidden. I stood on the landing and said, “It’s okay. They’re gone now. You’re safe, don’t worry. I didn’t tell them anything.”

Back downstairs I started making dinner. Kaitlin joined me just as I finished chopping the vegetables and, without a word or a gesture, began running water for the washing up.

My son sent a postcard from Australia – a sunny beach and his grinning family. Two boys now grown enough to stand and smile. I’d only known them when they were little enough to carry. That had seemed almost impossible, that I could hold so easily a piece of a piece of me. Cameron has started nursery school, read the card, and Kendra’s getting jealous. I showed the picture to Kaitlin before I put it on the mantelpiece. She touched the glossy surface of their faces, and then touched my stomach.

“They’re a long way away,” I said. “I’m sure you know what that’s like.”

I only noticed small changes at first. They happened little by little. One morning her hair was finer than it had been before. The next she grew freckles. It was as if she were moving into focus. The iris of her eye bloomed with subtle lines that had not been there before. Her tongue, once smooth as rubber, was now rough and human.

It was as if, when she fell, she was nothing more than a sketch. An approximate person. The right size and the right shape but lacking in detail. A drawing by an artist who had only seen their subject from afar before, but who came back later to fill in bits they’d missed.

When it was raining or cold or I did not want to go walking we sat at the dining room table and I taught her how to read. I used an old boyfriend’s book of poetry. It had few words and the spine was old and cracked enough that it would lie flat on the table between us. I would point at a word and make the sound of it, and Kaitlin would mouth it back to me, soundless as if she lived underwater.

“Why can’t you speak?” I asked her. “We should take you to a doctor.”

I never did of course. Not afraid of what they would find, but afraid of what they would do when they found it. Even then I knew she wasn’t human.

After the police came we were more careful about our walks. We’d wake early for them, and I’d pull the car up to the door of the house so that nobody from the road would be able to see. That aside we carried on as normal. We read and stretched and watched the gardening programme. Kaitlin helped whenever she could – drying up was her favourite. When I spoke she listened, calm and patient. The burned grass in the garden grew back tall.

She went to bed later than I did. Often I would hear her hesitant tread moving around the house late at night. Sometimes the sound of the shopping channel warbled upstairs like the cry of a salesman’s ghost. When I went down in the morning I often found her sitting at the kitchen counter, the book of poetry open in front of her, those blue eyes downcast, that silent mouth moving as if in prayer.

Gradually, she was changing to look like me. First her hair grew and greyed, and then one morning she was an inch taller than I remembered. Her skin began to soften, wrinkles accruing around her eyes and mouth. More and more it was like seeing my reflection outside of a mirror. I didn’t like it.

One day, while we read and it rained outside, I said. “You can change, can’t you?”

Kaitlin smiled, mouth pulled wide.

“Change for me,” I said.

She didn’t move. Her finger rested against the same word on the same page, and I thought that perhaps I was mistaken. But then she wasn’t Kaitlin anymore – she became an old man who we had seen out walking one day, then a woman who worked on the checkouts at the supermarket. She became me, then my old boyfriend, then my son as he had looked on the day he left home. She stopped there, lingered as him. Breathtaking. You could almost forget it wasn’t real. I did forget, and I reached out to touch him before I remembered. He was beautiful. The shock of it – seeing him there so suddenly when he was always before so distant. I wanted to hold him. And then I looked at his eyes and saw that they were blue.

My son’s things were all piled together in the box room now, and one day I found her there. She had lined things up on the dusty bed to form a neat rectangle of possessions. No reason or order to them: Happy Meal toys, pencil stubs, craft candles, model cars, skateboard wheels, sticker packs, expired sugar cookies, brightly coloured figurines and pots of paint.

She started when she saw me, then smiled. She used that smile the way someone else might use their laugh. She moved to the bed, eager to show me something. Her face creased. Starting from the skateboard wheel, she drew her hand across the lines. Like reading words off a page. Like I read to her. Her mouth moved, made words, even if she couldn’t speak them. I held the doorframe. Felt, for a moment, as though the whole house was about to collapse inwards, into me. Felt the wetness on my face before I knew that I was crying. Kaitlin reached the end. She came to me, and I held her, and felt beneath her skin the familiar shape of my own, old bones.

The police came again in March – more of them this time. I had known that they would. The men wiped their feet before stepping inside, and showed me cards they wore on clips at their belts. Four of them in shirts and ties, caps pinned under arms. The one who spoke to me had such a young face – baby-curly hair cropped close to his scalp. Kaitlin was upstairs, sitting silent in the bathtub. She had retreated there when the doorbell rang, her face sad but calm.

“She could be dangerous,” said the man. “I hope you understand how important this is. How important she could be, to us.”

I sipped my tea. “You’ll have to speak to her yourself.”

While the policemen stumped around upstairs the man looked with feigned interest at my postcards.

“Where did she come from?” I asked.

He bit his lip. Nodded upwards, not at the ceiling or the rooms above that or the sky above that or the clouds above that but at something far beyond it all. “We don’t know.”

“What is she?”

“We don’t know.”

“The name on her suit was Kaitlin Morris.”

The man didn’t answer for a long time. Eventually he said, “Morris was one of our astronauts. Years ago. She’s fifty-five now and lives in a farmhouse in Maine.” He looked hesitantly at me, and his fingers reached out and brushed absently against the face of my granddaughter. “We think they copied her. That’s what we think.”

They searched the house at least a dozen times, and never found the slightest trace. They didn’t seem surprised. The man with the young face made me sign a piece of paper and promise not to tell. I told him I had nobody to tell it to, and he smiled tightly. I watched them drive away in their van, and wondered if they were really gone, or if they still watched from a house across the street, from satellites, from cameras now planted in the walls of my home.

She returned, of course, late that night. I woke and she had come into my bedroom. I patted the bed beside me. She climbed in. She was wearing her astronaut suit again and there was something small and quiet about her: a child just risen from a nightmare. I held her face.

“It’s okay,” I said. “I’m here. Mummy’s here. I’ll keep you safe. You stay here with me and nothing will ever hurt you.”

In the morning she was gone. Hard to say how I knew, but I knew straight away. I woke up in a void, in the emptiness that she had left. I didn’t even need to check the house. She was gone, I knew, and she would not come back.

I slept late that day, then went downstairs and started tidying. I wondered if the policemen were watching me through hidden cameras. I made some biscuits and put them in the oven, then went and switched the television on. I turned the sound up loud. That made things better, a little.

Some nights now I go outside and look up at the sky. I don’t know the names of the stars. They’re so distant I can’t even see them clearly. But I’m not looking for stars. Someday soon they’ll come. I wonder what it will be like when they do. I imagine bright lights and metal. The kind of things you see in film trailers nowadays. Maybe that’s how it will be when Kaitlin’s people come. Or else maybe they will look like us, and behave like us, and know us quietly though poetry and gardening and walks in the woods and evenings spent reading. I don’t know. But they will come – I’m sure of that. Sooner or later. When they do they’ll find my door unlocked, my landing light on. I will greet them in the kitchen with a cup of tea and a book. Please, I will say to them, sit down. Make yourself at home. I always knew that you, at least, would return.

_______________

Krishan Coupland is on the Creative Writing PhD programme at the University of East Anglia. His writing has appeared in AmbitAestheticaLitro and Fractured West. He won the Manchester Fiction Prize in 2011, and in his spare time he runs and edits a literary magazine. His website is www.krishancoupland.co.uk.

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