Caretaker

“Caretaker”

by Eden Royce

 

Doctor Bryant was the premier astrobiologist in the United States and she was crouching in a corner of her lab, cowering from anyone who tried to approach her.

“What the hell?” I asked, aghast at the sight of the professional woman who had a few months ago graced the cover of NASA’s scientific journal, Space & Sky.

The head of the research facility had the grace to look embarrassed. Barrett Crowder was a tall, upright man with a head full of steel gray hair, but right now, concern mixed with a touch of fear covered his usually fascinated gaze.

“We didn’t know what to do. We tried—we all tried to help her. But we…” His voice trailed off and he shrugged, helpless.

“I still don’t get why you need a shrink,” I said.

“Behavioral psychiatrist,” he corrected me with the same words I’d used on him once to clarify my title. In spite of myself and the situation, I gave a brief smile.

“Is that why you’ve called me? What about her family?” Every facility like this one had a staff psychiatrist. Long hours, governmental pressure, the fight for project funding, took their toll on the scientists installed here.

Crowder shook his head. “This has to be contained here for the moment. Until we know more about what’s happened.” He cracked his knuckles and the resounding pops made me wince. “Besides, we checked her next of kin and she’s only got a distant cousin who’s deployed somewhere in the Middle East. Until we know something more, I don’t think we should stir up worry.”

Stir up—Oh, never mind. I gazed back through the reinforced glass into the lab where Dr. Bryant huddled, then went to turn the handle.

“Wait,” he said, effectively stilling my hand. “Can we keep whatever you find confined within this facility? I just don’t—”

“Don’t worry. This will come under doctor/patient privacy regulations.” For the time being.

I turned the knob, pushed, and the door knocked into several trays of uneaten food just inside the room. While the lab was well-ventilated, I still caught the faint, sharp scent of urine in the air. I stepped over the trays and went to the opposite corner of the room and knelt in front of her, a respectable distance away, as I did when I was taught tea ceremony.

“I’m Dr. Fujioka,” I said, my tone gentle. “But you can call me Karen.”

Her eyes, which had followed my progress since the door opened, were the only thing I recognized of the woman who had visited my office only once before for a mandatory, routine evaluation. Her dark skin was ashen, her Afro of hair—usually full and shiny—looked dry and brittle.

“Dr. Bryant? Do you remember me?” I waited, then tried another line of questioning.

“What’s your name? Do you know it?”

She regarded me, silent, but she wasn’t doing any of the wailing or frantic convulsions Crowder told me of. Her body trembled as though she were cold. Maintaining my distance, I turned my head to him. “How long?” I asked.

“How long what?”

“Has she been here? Has she been like this?”

“Like this? Um…it’s the second day. But she was working in this lab up to thirty-six hours before that.”

“And you’re only now getting her help?” I kept my voice gentle, not wanting to startle my patient, who was watching our exchange.

“At first, we thought she was stressed and was venting; we all do it. Figured she needed a little time to herself, so we let her be. When she didn’t come out…well.”

I faced Dr. Bryant, who looked confused as if she were puzzling out our conversation.

“Get me a cup of water—not a glass—a clear cup.”

I was impressed he didn’t ask why and rushed off to carry out my request.

“Now that he’s gone, we can have a little girl talk, can’t we? Want to tell me what happened?” I asked in the same voice I used when asking my sister for the details of her latest date—warm, conspirational. “Maybe something at home or here in the office?” I wasn’t sure if she would—or could speak.

She didn’t give me an answer, but she came out of her crouch to sit in the corner, back against the wall.

When Crowder returned, he was carrying another tray.

“Put it on the floor and go,” I said.

“Go? I can’t leave you here.”

“You can,” I said, speaking to him but trying to keep contact with Dr. Bryant. “You have plenty of glass to observe through.”

Crowder, bless him. Such a scientist. He’d brought cold and hot water, each in a clear cup because I hadn’t specified which I wanted. There was also a tea bag and a small tube of high-end instant coffee and packets of milk, sugar, and honey.

“How does Dr. Bryant take her drinks?”

“Huh?”

“Does she drink tea or coffee?”

“Oh,” he said, relieved he had a response. “Um…coffee. Two sugars and one milk, I think.”

“Fine. Check on us in an hour or so.”

He edged back and the door closed with a soft click. Once I heard the door close, I retrieved the tray. “Dr. Bryant, I’ve been told you enjoy coffee. Is that right?”

Watchful silence.

I prepared her coffee with the reverence of practicing ocha, touched the side of the cup to my lips to see if the temperature was too warm. The last thing I wanted to do was injure her. I mimed drinking, then set the cup in front of her and prepared another for myself.

When Crowder returned, although I expect he’d been watching the entire time, Dr. Bryant was imitating my kneel and sipping her coffee with a solemnity worthy of a monk.

“How did you—”

I waved away his question and posed my own. “I’d like to take her home.”

His eyes grew bug-wide. “Oh no, I don’t think so.”

I was prepared for his refusal. “Okay. Are there facilities nearby? A bath or shower? What about her personal care products? Does Dr. Bryant still menstruate?”

“All right, all right,” he said, pink flushing his cheeks and neck. “You can assist her in getting home. You’re an employee of the facility. But I’ll need you to sign a lot of paperwork.” He looked bewildered. “Waivers and…such.”

“Fine. Where is her office?”

“I’ll show you.”

Bryant’s office was immaculate chaos. Books and magazines stacked in tidy piles all over the room. An MIT coffee mug—clean—sat on her desk amid a variety of pens and styluses next to a state-of-the-art laptop.

“Fingerprint password,” Crowder said, checking his buzzing cell phone. “Index finger. Be right back.”

I nodded and put it and the power cord in a bag. I searched drawers in her desk and finally found a bag of toiletries—liquid African black soap, anti-perspirant, a fluffy hair cream and a firmer, more paste-like one. When I looked over at Dr. Bryant, who had followed me like a small child, she was pressing a button inside one of the open drawers in her desk. A hatch popped open and she looked at me.

“Know,” she said, her voice stark. She pointed to a forest green journal. “No-noo…notes.”

I glanced around, then grabbed the book before anyone could see. I dropped it in the bottom of my purse and took Dr. Bryant’s hand as we left the facility, with me feeling like we were making a getaway.

How I managed to get the directors at the facility to let me take her into my care, I didn’t know. I didn’t have permanent permission, but I could care for her in my home or hers, for a month. With regular, weekly visits from the Center, of course.

“This is where you’ll be staying for a while.”

“This?” Her footsteps were tentative.

She was nervous when I first brought her to my house. She shrank back when her sneakered feet moved from the concrete outside to the laminate flooring. She tested it, then moved deeper inside, following me. Maybe I should have taken her to her home, but I needed to feel reassured as well. The change of locale disturbed her, but I spoke soothingly, showing her around. She looked at me with big, shimmering eyes, then turned her gaze to the outlay of each room, the texture of each surface, upon occasion touching a table or a painting here or there.

“So that’s it,” I said. “Tour concluded.” My hands were clasped together and I wasn’t sure what to do with them if they were free. I wanted her to be able to speak with me, like she had before—with passion about her work and an enthusiasm for life beyond our knowledge.

She looked around, her blinks coming more slowly than average. “Cold.”

For a moment, I was lost. Then I realized.

“Oh, right.” I grabbed one of my old Clemson sweatshirts from my bedroom and helped her into it, turning the sleeves up once so they weren’t so long on her arms.

She waited patiently while I did so, then said, “The color orange is an excellent complement to darker skin tones. It makes them glow with radiance.”

It was the first full sentence she’d spoken since—well, whatever happened—and I didn’t hide my smile of pleasure. Although I was ashamed to admit it, it was also the first time I truly believed I’d be able to solve the mystery of her.

“I’m glad you like it.”

The TV was on one of those channels that showed only programs from twenty years ago. I tuned most of it out when she was watching. The jingle from a commercial I hate—butter or low-fat spread or something—came on, blaring in my ears. Food is love. And love is in everything you make. Damned butter as a vehicle for affection was one of the reasons heart disease was such an issue in this country. She pressed a button and the jingle was replaced by children singing and a fake laugh track. It was better… marginally.

I left Dr. Bryant, who after four days was now in a routine of TV shows and long hours in the backyard, staring up at the sky, between her sparse meals. When we first arrived, I watched several online videos to learn the best way to care for her hair. After I washed and conditioned it, I ran pomade-coated fingers through it carefully to work out any snarls or tangles. Since then, she’d taken care of all her ablutions on her own, leaving me to decipher her cryptic, almost childlike, comments.

I headed to my home office, thinking it was a good idea to give her time on her own. Later, we could have our daily session where I tried to coax out answers. In another three days, someone from the Center would be here to check on her progress and “determine next steps.” That phrase, however honorable its intent, sounded ominous and I strained to come up with a breakthrough before then.

I was frustrated with work because they were making up paperwork for me to complete so I couldn’t extend my time with her. I had no idea what they were going to say when they got here. Or even what I was going to say. Hopefully, I wouldn’t have to go into the office with her.

I checked the living room and Dr. Bryant wasn’t in there. My guest bedroom upstairs was empty as was the bathroom. The smell of fire entered my nostrils and I threw myself downstairs, heedless of my bare feet and the clanging smoke alarm.

She was in the kitchen, smoke coiled around her, her head in the oven. My heart shattered in my throat. She emerged a second later with a tray of dark lumps. Steam emanated from her coils of hair like mist on a lake. There was no oven mitt in sight, but she seemed unharmed.

“What have you done?” I grabbed at the tray, then cursed. It was searing hot. I managed to set it on the stovetop with a kitchen towel and turned to find her at the other end of the room, pouring see-through coffee into a glass.

I rushed over, but she was moving again, pulling a plate with slices of lunch meat, a cold boiled egg, a smear of peanut butter from the fridge. She headed to the stove and added two of the burnt pucks.

She held the plate out to me and smiled. One of her teeth was missing, a cuspid, and I found myself wishing, praying, that it had fallen out on its own, that nothing had hurt her.

I hesitated. I never eat in the mornings and the combination of smells—charcoal and sulfur-rich egg and roasted nuts was mildly nauseating. She pushed it forward in increments toward me, indicating that it was mine.

“I don’t—” My nose wrinkled.

Her face fell. “Food is love,” she whispered, turning away.

My hand touched her rounded shoulder and I led her to the dining room where I ate every scrap before going back to my desk.

I’d been poring over her files on the laptop, and aside from being astounded by the depth and breadth of her knowledge, I’d made little progress. She’d been working on several projects, but there didn’t seem to be anything that could have caused her current condition. Whatever that was.

Stress crept in on me. I’d cancelled all of my appointments for the week to dedicate myself to Dr. Bryant. We hadn’t left the house—there was no need to as my favorite takeout delivery companies had my credit card number saved on their sites. But now my head was pounding and there were no little white tablets in my desk drawer or the bathroom cabinets. I searched for my purse, finding it under several day’s worth of junk mail and yanked open the zipper in anticipation of easing the tympani pounding in my head.

Dr. Bryant’s journal lay in wait between my wallet and a pack of travel tissues. How could I have forgotten it? So stupid.

I took the journal and tried to decipher it. In addition to being brilliant, Dr. Bryant had atrocious handwriting. To top it off, the journal was in some kind of shorthand I’ve never seen and could have possibly been a combination of several languages and sigils mankind hadn’t used in eons. After a few pages, my excitement at finding the journal again had abated and the headache tympani was back, joined by the entire percussion section. I growled in frustration and grabbed the bottle of over-the-counter headache pills from my bag and headed to the kitchen to chase three of them down with the remains of my cold, weak coffee from breakfast.

When I returned, Dr. Bryant had commandeered my desk chair and had the journal in her hands.

“Story time boys and girls,” she said, looking pleased for some reason. Her language skills had improved over the past few days, but what she said lacked enough context for me to completely grasp its relevance. “A story by and about mommy.”

“What?” I was more perplexed than ever and my frail hope that she’d be able to tell me the contents evaporated. I reached for the journal, but when she spoke again, I froze in place, hand outstretched.

When the Kytat raiders came, me and my family fled N-ailihaf. No one knew I was full with new offspring. They sent ships after our cruisers, and several of our family were scattered in the ensuing flight. I do not know where or if they are.

The voice was Dr. Bryant’s but not. It was as if another voice overlay it, an echoing hiss of escaping air. Her face was expressionless, but she followed the words and symbols with her index finger as she read.

The last words my father said to me were Find Earth. I managed to get to the outer atmosphere, when a Kytat fighter found me. We battled and I won, but my cruiser did not survive the battle and I plummeted to the surface.

This one—Dr. Bryant lifted her finger from the page and placed it on her forehead, then replaced it on the next symbol in the journal—found me in a forest…a clearing. She tried to heal me, but I was too damaged. She said that not all humans would help, be kind; they were too curious a people and that could make them unaware of their cruelty. I understood this.

We spoke, my mind to hers, for long moments. When I told her about you, my children, water covered her face. She agreed to keep you until you could return to N-ailihaf to expose the coup of the Kytat and return our planet to peace. I told her I did not know how her body would receive you, but she understood this. Once I placed the sac containing you in her abdomen—she had no place human women are said to have for bearing children—water poured from her eyes and her thoughts became confused. I worried, but she accepted this.

When you are ready, she will take you to what is left of me and my ship. Your life, your care, I have trusted to this human. And I have died in peace.

The journal ended, and I sat down hard in the chair across from Dr. Bryant. Her life’s work—to prove there was life outside of our solar system—given up to care for the last of an alien race. I hadn’t known she’d been unable to have her own children, but this…

I saw her lips moving, heard whispers—in my ears and in my head. The N-ailihaf children were talking.

Have we hurt her?

No, I do not think we have.

We have been gentle, yes?

At first, things were difficult. But all right now.

Dr. Bryant lifted her head, her gaze heavy on me. “Have we hurt her? It is of importance we did not,” the same echo-overlay voice that read the journal asked.

Shaken, I stuttered. “I-I…no, she’s okay. I think.”

“Please check.”

Even though I was a psychiatrist, a medical doctor, I hadn’t performed a physical examination in many years. Gently, I led Dr. Bryant to a sofa and took her blood pressure and her temperature, both of which were normal.

“So far, it all looks good. The only issue I’ve noticed is her mental state. Her reactions to stimuli around her a few days ago were extreme.”

Dr. Bryant nodded, but her eyes were glassy and distant. That is our fault, of course. We were afraid at first.

No longer.

No…we are ready now.

“Ready…for what?” I asked, although I knew.

Please take us to the crash.

“I don’t know where it is.”

This one knows.

Again the finger to the forehead. I bundled Dr. Bryant up and put her in the passenger seat of my car. I drove, following her hollow-voiced directions. It was a clearing, set back from the road, sparsely canopied by ancient oaks and pine trees.

“Hot,” she said in her normal speaking voice. She began to fidget and wriggle in her seat belt, trying to get the sweatshirt off.

Home.

We will be…full of care.

Careful.

Yes, do not be concerned.

Too late for that, kids. I parked, released my seat belt, then Dr. Bryant’s. I unzipped the hoodie and she shrugged it off. She pushed against the door and tumbled out when I unlocked it, heading toward the base of a thick root. She dug with her hands as copious amounts of sweat beaded on her exposed skin and puddled to the forest floor.

I tried to help, but she said, “Not yet. Soon.”

She unearthed what looked like a shoebox, and brushed the dirt from it. A few beeps sounded when she punched in a code and the box opened, releasing the scent of scorched metal and smoke and mossy wine. Inside lay indigo-colored fragments of what looked like plastic that wobbled in a gluey, viscous paste.

Dr. Bryant sighed and slumped forward, murmurs echoed around her and I knew it was the children. Puddles of what I thought were sweat, shimmered and vibrated, then rose from the ground into transparent, gelatinous figures.

We thank you.

N-ailihaf thanks you.

We will return.

One day.

If this one needs us, we will come.

They encircled Dr. Bryant, a rhythmic, yet toneless hum to their vibrations. In turn, they each touched her gently—her face, her neck, her hair—as if to memorize her. I heard their words to her clearly…she will one day remember them and they will always remember her. Then one broke off from the group and moved to the box, covering the contents with itself. The indigo plastic grew in size, expanding until it almost covered the creature. Another child slunk away to join the first and another and another, the plastic-like substance compensating for additional participants.

Finally, it stopped growing and hardened into a spherical shape the size of the model Earth Dr. Bryant had in her office. As it rose into the sky, it too, became transparent and disappeared.

The aliens are gone and Dr. Bryant lies in my grasp, limp. I lift her—she’s so thin now, light—and I help her to my car and head for the emergency room. I wait at the hospital and they let me see her a few hours later. She doesn’t know me at all and I suppress the urge to cry. I wonder if the N-ailihaf will keep their promise that she will one day remember them and her sacrifice. Or the one that they will return if she ever needs them.

“My name is Doctor Fujioka. But you can call me Karen.”

She smiles, flashing me her little gap, and shakes my hand. “Amber. Amber…” Her smile falters when she realizes she can’t remember her last name.

“It’s okay,” I soothe. “It will come in time.” I vow that I’ll be there when—if—it does.

She nods, unsure.

The TV flickers, its picture changing to show a close up of a pale yellow carton. Music plays. Amber sings along to the jingle, bobbing slightly in the bed. She stops when she remembers I’m there.

“Sorry, it’s silly. But I love this song.”

“It’s okay. I do too.”

“Really?”

I nod, then offer to get her something to eat. “French fries? A cup of coffee?”

“Oooh!” She claps her hands in delight. “Please.”

I leave her room, promising to return while they’re both still hot. Food is love, after all.

________________

Eden Royce is descended from women who practiced root, a type of conjure magic in her native Charleston, South Carolina. She now writes dark fiction from her home in the English countryside. Her stories have appeared in FIYAH Literary Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction, Fireside Fiction, and on PodCastle. Find her at edenroyce.com.

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