Abyss & Apex : First Quarter 2007

STORIES OF THE ALIEN INVASION Illustration

Stories of the Alien Invasion

by Manek Mistry

 

1. Arrival

They came in small ships—small but numerous, shaped like objects from our houses, familiar and strange: a flying toaster, an easy chair that hovered, a lampshade dropping gently down from orbit. The ships landed on roads, rooftops, and parking lots; they landed in parks, fields, and forests; they landed everywhere, and then they opened and unfolded in complicated ways, revealing interiors of shiny chrome, and delivering the aliens. The creatures themselves resembled small piles of sticks—like the beginning of a campfire, before it’s lit, before it acquires the weight of heavy logs that will turn to glowing coals—small piles of sticks that marched across the roads, rooftops, parking lots, through the parks, fields and forests, to our doorsteps.

The twig–piles spoke to us in raspy English, in Spanish, in Japanese, in Hindi, in a hundred other languages. They spoke to each other with clicking sounds, and with vibrations that we felt as compressions deep in our chests.

“Greetings, Earthlings,” they said. “We come in peace.” Then they laughed—the recognizable sound of human laughter, familiar but incomprehensible. “Take me to your leader,” they said, but refused to follow. “Take me to your leader,” they repeated, and laughed some more.

They invaded our lives, disrupting traffic, interrupting broadcasts, justifying absence from work, from school, from home. They overwhelmed small towns, gathering in prodigious numbers, clicking at each other, laughing at us. And we watched them, speculating, guessing. They were opaque to our questions, answering in riddles: “Where are you from?” drew the response “Home,” or maybe “Heaven,” or sometimes “Oz,” or “Narnia,” or “Wonderland.”

And always laughter. Some of us became sensitive and angry; others became bored, and left the aliens alone. But most of us were drawn to them, and tried to engage, to understand, to communicate.

They did not care. They spoke to each other, they spoke to cows, in long, lowing “moooos,” they spoke to the air, to the grass, to cars and trucks, to empty buildings. They spoke to us, yes, but also to themselves, mumbling long strings of words, words that used to mean something.

 

2. Close Encounter

Nick came to the coffee shop every afternoon before work, hoping for a few words with the barista. Hoping to flirt, without coming across as needy, which was how he felt. Sometimes she would smile at him, but mostly she would make his coffee and then move on, cleaning out the machine or wiping the counter.

Today, when he walked in, there were aliens.

He had seen them before, from a distance, but today, after he sat at the counter, one came and perched on the stool next to him. Its companions remained clustered on a table near the door, watching.

“Smite me,” said the alien.

Nick glanced over at the barista, who was steaming milk for a latte, then looked back at the small pile of sticks at his side. “What?”

“Smite me,” repeated the creature. It sounded like a smoker, hoarse from shouting, its voice rough. “Smite me with your… with this.” It pointed to Nick’s hand, extending one of its stick–like arms.

“Hand,” said Nick. He had large anvil hands; even as a kid, he’d been able to pick up a basketball in one palm.

“Yes,” said the alien, grinding its harsh voice into the air. “Smite me with your hand, closed like a rock.”

Nick made a fist, held it up.

“Yes. With that.”

Nick paused, glanced again at the barista as she handed him his latte. Did the alien really know what it was asking? Would it be insulted if he refused? And that word—smite. They wouldn’t have picked that up from TV or radio—it must be mistaken. He tried to think of other things it might want with a fist.

The alien watched him with one eye; the other eyestick poked across the counter toward the barista, who slapped at it. “Keep that thing away from me,” she said to Nick.

Nick shifted uncomfortably on his stool. She shouldn’t do that, he thought. “Where do you want me to hit you?” he asked.

It lifted a stick, bent, and pointed delicately at itself. “Here,” it said.

Nick tapped it with his knuckles; the sticks shifted and shuffled against each other, then resumed their previous configuration.

“No,” rasped the alien. “Hard. With… gusto.”

With gusto. Ok, Nick thought. I guess there’s no misunderstanding. There was a feeling he had—he’d heard other people describe it this way too—a feeling like he’d just lost an argument with the alien, and that he had to comply, even though he didn’t want to. He pulled back and punched the pile of sticks; they scattered and fell, and the alien’s eyes bounced on the floor and rolled under a table; the other aliens laughed and clicked at each other, and Nick felt the compressions in his chest that he’d heard about, the compressions that meant they were talking to each other.

“What the hell did you do that for?” asked the barista. She brushed sticks off the counter.

“It asked me to,” Nick said. His hands shook, and he clutched the counter to steady himself as the other aliens opened the door and shuffled out, chuckling. Had he killed it? They wouldn’t just leave it if it were dead, would they?

“You shouldn’t listen to those things,” the barista said.

Nick leaned over to look at the broken twigs, inert on the floor, then straightened, his hands still shaking. “How are we going to understand if we don’t listen?”

She shrugged, finished wiping the counter, and looked at his drink. “There’s crap in your latte—you want another?”

He nodded.

She drew two shots, steamed the milk, and handed him the warm mug. “It’s on the house,” she said, winking. “We humans have to stick together, right?”

He nodded, looked at her, then looked away. She wasn’t Julie. I guess it’s too soon, he thought. “Can I have that to go?” he asked.

 

3. Comfort

Julie arrived early at the doctor’s but they still made her wait. She flipped through an old issue of Newsweek—early pictures of the invasion. They had seemed so strange, then, these visitors from—where? No one knew, still.

“Julie?”

She looked up, but the summons was for someone else—a girl, nine or ten, whose thin frame and sunken eyes suggested a poor prognosis. Julie smiled sadly at the girl, and then thought about her own son: My son will grow up in a world where aliens are ordinary, she thought. She got up for a drink of water, returned to her seat, flipped through the magazine a second time.

“Julie?”

At last. She followed the nurse into the back hallway, where he took her temperature, blood pressure and pulse. Finally, he settled her in a room. “Doc’ll be in here in a minute,” he said.

But it wasn’t a minute, it was twenty. She paced around the room, looked out in the hallway, sat down, stood up, looked out the window, read the charts on the wall—about smoking, about prostate cancer, about the circulatory system.

When the doctor came, he had two aliens with him, riding an inflatable ball that rolled beneath them as they walked backwards on top. “Our guests would like to observe. Is that ok?” the doctor asked.

Guests, she thought. They weren’t exactly guests, were they? They hadn’t been invited. She shrugged her assent, feeling the uncomfortable pressure that was a combination of guilt and a desire to please; she’d experienced it before. The aliens rolled their ball against the wall and hopped onto the examination table near her.

She let the doctor feel the lump; he pressed it and poked at it, and she sat still, trying to read his face.

“Is this a sexual encounter?” asked one of the aliens, its voice like gravel.

“No,” said the doctor. “A medical exam.”

“It is the same, though?” asked the alien.

The doctor shook his head, still prodding her. “Similar, but very different in how we both feel about this touching.”

The aliens both inched closer. She heard their clicks, felt the compression in her chest as they spoke to each other.

“Feelings are so important,” said one. “May I?” It extended a stick toward her.

She hesitated. This is private, she thought. “Ok,” she said, reluctantly. The stick arm touched her, a rough poke on her side. Then she felt it, a gray rumbling somewhere in the back of her mind. Her own emotions—fear, hope, sadness—diminished as she shared them with the alien. The second alien touched the first, and she felt an echo of the rumble, and her feelings diminished further. Maybe this way is best, she thought.

“Ok,” said the doctor. “Here’s what we’ll do.” He stripped off his plastic gloves, threw them in a box marked ‘biohazard.’

Biohazard. Those are just garbage, she thought; there’s nothing hazardous about them. She wondered where biohazard went. Was it buried? Burned?

“We’ll take a biopsy to confirm it’s malignant, and then—assuming it is—we’ll do a scan–and–destroy, to see how far it’s spread and to wipe out as much as we can, ok?” He left the room without waiting for an answer.

She looked at the aliens, then turned away. Malignant.

The doctor returned with an enormous syringe. Her fear spiked, and then it faded, replaced by the alien rumble.

“This won’t hurt,” said the doctor. He pushed the needle into her breast, feeling the lump with one hand as he drew on the syringe with the other. “That’s it,” he said, pulling the needle out. “I’ll have the lab check this, and they’ll synthesize some nano for the scan–and–destroy based on what they find.” He left the room again.

She glanced at the closer alien, who withdrew its sticklike arm. Her feelings flooded back, and she started to shake. “Touch me again,” she said. “Please.”

The stick arm returned, and she relaxed a little, taking a deep breath as rumble replaced fear.

“You are afraid,” said the alien.

“Yes,” she said. “Very.”

Then clicks and the chest compression. “I was explaining to my friend,” said the alien. “It does not speak English.”

She nodded. “What are your names?” she asked, wondering how long it would be before the doctor returned.

“My name is Comfort,” said the alien. “And it—” pointing with another stick appendage—”it is Mother Teresa.”

Julie closed her eyes and leaned back against the wall. Scan–and–destroy. The success rate for the nano treatment would depend on how far the cancer had spread. I might die. She thought of her son—growing up in a world with aliens, but maybe without a mother.

“You want to be healthy?” asked the alien. “You want to live?”

“Yes,” she whispered. She started to cry.

The alien lifted a twig to her face; she felt it touch her gently, then felt a warm and affectionate sadness wash over her, hold her, comfort her.

 

4. Visitation

Nick saw his son every weekend, from Friday at six until Sunday at six. It was almost too much time, but he never allowed himself to say that out loud. On Sunday afternoons he loaded up the bag, put Aiden in the stroller, and walked over to Julie’s. She wasn’t unfriendly, but it was better if he left quickly. And he always needed Sunday evenings to unwind after the full–time weekend stress of being a father. Sometimes he dropped in at the bar for a drink; other times he strolled around the little lake on his way home.

He worried that he wasn’t a good father. Julie was always so confident; motherhood seemed to come naturally to her. He thought maybe he’d have an easier time when Aiden learned to talk—which was coming late, but he’d been told not to worry—when Aiden finally learned to talk, they could interact more meaningfully, he thought, although he didn’t really know what that would look like. Sometimes being a parent just felt so boring.

One Sunday in September the temperature dropped unexpectedly to below freezing. Nick bundled Aiden up, worried about the cold. Julie had the car seat, though—he never took it, because he always walked, with Aiden in the jogger. Probably not a good idea in this weather, though. Aiden fussed while Nick hesitated. “Hush, it’s okay,” said Nick. He carried Aiden out to the carport, started the car, then went back inside. “It’s okay.” Shit it’s cold outside, he thought. He put on a hat and looked for a pair of gloves. Aiden cried when they went outside. Nick thought about seat–belting his son in the back seat, but decided instead it would be safer to hold him on his lap. He backed out of his driveway, and drove slowly over to Julie’s, watching the traffic carefully, paying more attention than usual, his hazard lights flashing. “It’s okay,” he repeated as he drove.

At Julie’s, he carried Aiden to the front door. “He’s a little fussy,” he said, handing him to Julie.

“He must be cold,” she said. “Poor little bug—are you cold?”

“I forgot his bag,” said Nick. “I’ll drop it by later.” He looked at her face; watched her watching his son. Julie.

She nodded. “Bye,” she said, and shut the door.

He walked back to the car and pulled away from the curb. He drove around the lake instead of heading straight back home. There was a fire burning on the hill near the lake, and he heard sirens.

An alien by the side of the road caught his attention. It waved to him and he stopped the car and rolled down the window. “Will you drive me to the fire?” it asked.

He shrugged. “Ok,” he said. “Hop in.”

The alien climbed the side of the car, came in the through his window, clambered over him to the passenger seat. “Thank you,” it said.

“Why do you want to go to the fire?” Nick asked.

“To see,” said the alien. “Also, I am cold.”

“Isn’t your house warm?” He had never been inside the messy–looking alien structures on the south side of town, but he’d always assumed they were at least heated.

“I am not at my house,” said the alien.

Nick drove up the hill and parked on a side street away from the fire. “I’ll walk over with you,” he said.

The alien sat on his shoulder as he made his way to the fire. A single–wide was engulfed in flames; black and gray smoke filled the air, climbing toward the sky, while firefighters methodically prepared their equipment. Clusters of neighbors stood nearby watching; a family wrapped in blankets huddled near the fire trucks.

“What do you want to see?” asked Nick.

“The drama,” it said. It turned its eyes toward him. “Thank you again.” It jumped down from his shoulder and moved to join a group of other aliens watching the fire.

Nick strolled over to a firefighter standing with a radio to her ear. “Need any help?” he asked.

“Just stay back,” she said. “And keep them back, too,” she added, nodding toward the aliens.

Nick went to stand over near the aliens. He recognized the alien named Comfort, who had started wearing a pink ribbon tied to one of its eyestalks. He had met Comfort at Julie’s the month before, and had seen the alien a few other times at her house since then. The other aliens were indistinguishable; he couldn’t even tell which one had been in his car. As they watched the fire together, his cell phone rang; he looked at it, saw it was Julie, and answered.

“Did you drive over here without the car seat?”

He swallowed. “I was worried he’d be cold, in this weather,” he said. “I was very careful.”

“Don’t you ever do that again,” she said. “Don’t you ever! You could have called me; I would have come.”

“I didn’t think of that,” he said.

“Idiot!” She hung up.

He put his cell phone in his pocket and watched the fire with the aliens. He heard one of the firefighters say “Total loss.” They still hadn’t hooked their hose up, and Nick realized there wasn’t a fire hydrant nearby; they’d have to pump icy water from the lake, down at the bottom of the hill. He looked at the family hunched in their light blue blankets—there was a woman crying, holding two children to her side, and a man in a wheelchair. “Everything’s in there!” the woman wailed. “Everything we own!”

Nick heard the clicks of alien conversation, felt compression in his chest, then saw three of the creatures dart into the burning trailer. “Shit!” he said.

“Keep them back!” shouted the firefighter he’d spoken to earlier.

“Stay here,” he said to the remaining aliens.

They didn’t answer, but he heard more clicks.

“What are they doing?” he asked Comfort.

“Helping,” came the reply.

He watched one of the aliens come out, dragging a chair. It pulled the chair away from the fire, then turned and went back in as the other two came out with a table. Just then, the whole trailer collapsed, and flames soared upwards; he heard shouts from the firefighters over the roaring crackle of the fire, as they stepped back. A small bundle of burning twigs stumbled from the flames, staggered a few feet, and collapsed, blazing quickly down to a pile of ashes. The two aliens who had rescued the table rejoined the group.

“I’m sorry,” said Nick.

Comfort turned one eye toward him. “Why?” it asked. Like all of them, its voice was low and raspy, but Comfort sounded less like a machine and more like a person from another culture.

“I’m sorry for your friend, because it’s dead,” said Nick. He wondered if they believed in an afterlife. Or maybe they didn’t die when their bodies did—maybe there was some kind of mental energy transferred to the others. He thought he’d heard something about that, maybe—or was he imagining he had?—but then, who understood them, really?

“Yes, it is dead,” said Comfort. “But why does it matter?”

The others turned their eyes from the fire as well, and edged closer, until they crowded around Nick and Comfort.

“Explain to us,” said Comfort. “Explain to us why life and death are so important, and why it matters so much if a person lives or dies.”

Nick sighed. The question was like many others he had tried, inarticulately, to answer—about the meaning of art, music or literature, or how watching a sad movie might make a person cry. “Because,” he said, “because the person is no longer there to talk to and to spend time with.”

“But there are other people,” said Comfort. “Billions of them; more than you could ever meet in your lifetime.”

“Yes,” said Nick, “but each person is unique, and their passing is a loss.”

“No one is unique,” said the alien. “Your people are all the same—two arms, two legs, a head, with a collection of memories and psychic scars. I am the same as all my siblings—a set of appendages,” it moved some of its sticks, “with eyes, curiosity, and a certain way of speaking. If I die, you could interact with my neighbor and not notice the difference.”

That was true, Nick reflected. They all seemed alike, to him—or what differences there were didn’t register. “But each person is related to others, and the death of a relative is a sad event.” He felt himself struggling, faltering, and knew there were better explanations. He thought of his mother, who had overdosed when he was fourteen, and his father, who had left when he was five.

The alien shook its eye–stalk. “Relatives die all the time, without affecting their kin—we have seen it happen, repeatedly. To say someone is related does not explain this sadness about death.”

He told them about Julie, about how he loved her, despite their fights, despite the fact that she had left him for someone else; he told them about the ache he felt when he thought of her, and the sadness he felt in her presence, when she spoke to him, and how the air around her, the smell of her made his heart pound, even after almost two years of separation. “If she died,” he said, “I’d fall apart… I love her; she’s important to me.”

The aliens considered this, and Nick heard clicks and felt compression in his chest. Then Comfort turned back to him. “But you are already sad, and she is alive,” it said. “If she died, perhaps you would move on, find someone else important to you—another woman, perhaps—and if this other woman died you would find yet another person.”

“But she’s the mother of my child,” said Nick, and realized with guilt that he hadn’t thought of Aiden’s death; had thought only of Julie. “And if my child died…” he said half–heartedly, and trailed off. He felt, for his son’s sake, that he must, he must persuade them, make them understand why it would be sad if Aiden died. “If my son died, I’d be heartbroken.”

The alien’s eye–stalks rose an inch. “You are still fertile,” it said. “You could have another child, with another woman. Perhaps you would love this second child even more than the first… and the other woman as much as Julie?”

No, thought Nick. Maybe another child, but never another woman. He sighed. “I love my son,” he said. “He’s important to me; if he died, I’d be sad—devastated, and I could never replace him with another child.” He said these words, but thought of Julie; sweet, beautiful, irreplaceable Julie; Julie who was already gone forever.

 

5. Departure

It was not a departure so much as a migration and an extinction. The alien slums grew larger, then spread thin and shrank as aliens died from contagious diseases or wandered back to the orbiter, drifting away from the harsh conditions.

Comfort stayed. “I am stubborn,” it said. “And there is more to explore; more to discover; more to learn. I am curious, like a child.”

Nick sat across from the alien, reading a reprint from a medical journal. He looked up. “But you’re at risk,” he said. “You might die.”

“I know,” said Comfort, then launched into a speech, imitating the style of a preacher who had spoken on TV the day before. “And I have come to fear death; to dread the reaper and his formidable scythe.” The alien shifted on its ball, and gestured with an appendage. “But against that fear, I weigh all the things I have never known—things like joy, or excitement.” Comfort paused, and resumed its normal speech pattern. “I will never understand these things if I go now. The other day I saw a leaf falling from a tree into the river, and it was so beautiful. I think I have grasped beauty, and I am hungry for the rest.”

Nick nodded. “I want to tell you something,” he said. Talking to Comfort was easier, sometimes, than talking to people. “Aiden has autism—a disease. He was just diagnosed.” He stood up, went to the refrigerator, looked inside, then returned to his chair. “I think it’s because I’m a bad father.”

Comfort turned both eyestalks toward Nick.

“I don’t know what to do,” said Nick. “I feel like I’m letting him down.”

“Julie was a good mother,” said the alien.

“She was,” said Nick.

“She would have known what to do.”

“Yes,” said Nick.

“Think what she would have done,” said Comfort. “And then do it.”

Nick nodded.

Several days later, Nick, Aiden, and Comfort went to a nearby field to watch a small band of aliens crowd into a rundown ship, preparing to return to the orbiter. The craft resembled an old sofa, its fabric shredded in spots as though scratched by a cat.

“Doesn’t look safe,” said Nick. He watched Aiden sitting on the grass, holding a stone. “Not that I know much about the technology.”

“They do not know to be afraid,” said Comfort. “They might die, or they might not. They do not understand the difference.”

Nick watched as Aiden raised his stone, lowered it to the ground, raised it again. “But if they’re so indifferent to their fate, why are they bothering to leave?”

Comfort shrugged, lifting sticks and dropping them again. “They are bored of what they are experiencing now, and curious about what life would be like on the orbiter, or on the next planet. They lack the staying power to investigate this experience. To really live it.”

The small craft rocketed upward, quickly disappearing from sight, leaving only a whispy trail of blue vapor and the scent of lavender.

“Well,” said Nick. “That’s that.” He picked Aiden up, and the three of them returned to the car. “Are you sad at all? Lonely?”

“No,” said Comfort. It helped Nick fasten Aiden into the car seat. “I have friends.”

Nick started the car and they drove home.

That night, after Aiden was asleep, Comfort went down into the crawlspace below the house and puttered around, working on the nest it was building. Nick sat at the kitchen table with a glass of milk, and thought about the arc of his own loneliness. He’d been devastated when Julie left, and his grief had worsened over the years they lived apart. But now that she was gone, the intensity of his unhappiness was subsiding.

Although he didn’t believe in God, or an afterlife, he liked to imagine Julie looking down on Aiden, watching to make sure their child was safe. He took a sip of milk, and wondered if she ever saw him when she looked down from above. Then he thought about the orbiter, up there in space with Julie, getting ready to move on to another planet.

He finished his milk and stood up. As he walked to put the glass in the sink he heard Comfort bang on something beneath the floor. Aiden made a noise in his crib, and then was quiet. Nick realized, for the first time in a long while, that he didn’t feel lonely at that moment. He stood by the sink, the empty glass in his hand, looking out the kitchen window into the darkness, the unlonely feeling settling in his heart

__________

Manek Mistry lives in Olympia, Washington with his wife, his dog, and three cats.

  





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