The Pool Noodle Alien Posse’, M.L. Clark

Art © 2023 Carmen Moran

 [ Radio, © 2023 Carmen Moran ] Jonas switched off the radio to listen to the yard, his arm cutting over mine to reach the sill over the sink. Callie and Bixie were still at play, clear as day through the window to the backyard, and we both knew Bixie would’ve sounded the alarm if something didn’t feel right. But my eldest needed this sometimes. A sense of control, however spuriously manufactured, in a world grown too strange to guarantee a bit of it.

We all had our compulsions. I still replayed messages from the night Elias left us, headed for the mountains. I’d revisited both sides of our final feuding a hundred times, if not more, while running chores or sitting alone at home, the kids out with friends whose parents were all in their own states of disarray. Did they talk about us while idling in the skateboard park or outside the rec center? Or did their own diversions and disputes take top priority? I can’t say that mine were even interesting. For all the repeat listening, I think I’ve forgotten the exact arguments in my frantic voice-messages, and I can’t tell you from memory the contents of Elias’s paranoid, accusatory replies. They’ve all shifted from signal to noise—but a noise I can’t let go of, any more than Jonas can stop searching for whatever it is he fears (or hopes?) will one day be outside. Just more background radiation, I guess, in Earth’s post-contact lives.

There’s a new message I keep recording, too, and listening to for days, before deleting it and re-recording. It’s for the day when Elias’s cell comes back on, and I can send it with any hope of reaching him. Really reaching him. One perfect shot in the dark.

On TV you’ve got all these politicians in office, and researchers off in private and public labs, doing the same but on a cosmic scale. I’m not sure if that should be as comforting as it sometimes is. Oh, and I don’t mean all the blowhards on social media, of course. All those shock-jocks posting spoof messages just to stir up their followers and upset their haters. I mean the ones genuinely trying to reconnect with the guests we turned off, scared off, or whatever actually happened after the World in Concert fundraiser took an unexpected turn. All those brilliant minds who now spend their days hashing out the perfect phrasing—or else trying to come at the problem a million ways, from a million private channels—in the hope that one message might strike true with the three little ships that came and went away.

We’ve all been there, honey, I always want to say when one of those update segments comes on. And sometimes I do say it, if I’m alone: We’ve all been there, honey, trust me—at least, the ones who stayed or were left behind.

From the scrunched up look on my son’s face, I could tell that Jonas wasn’t satisfied the yard was ‘all clear,’ but he knew he’d made a show of his discomfort for too long—you could see it in how his shoulders tensed, so like his father’s—and he turned the radio back on.

“Going to Aston’s for a few,” he said, with a peck on the cheek I treasured.

“A few,” I said. More an acknowledgment than a question. Delicate age. I wanted him to know that I trusted him and was here for him, whenever he wanted to talk, whatever he wanted to say. But there were so many brief encounters where I could easily come off as too judgmental, and then he might completely shut away. You know what happens next—all too often, on the news. And with his dad having set such a difficult example… Well. Not my Jonas, at least. Not if I could help it. This world’s taken casualties enough.

Finishing up, hands wrinkled enough that I could almost pretend them wise, I let the warmth of the late afternoon sun heat my forearms, and marveled at Callie’s easier resilience, making games of her tidy-up chores with Bixie at her heels. When our visitors showed up she was, what, six? An age when movies and TV shows still made fantastical promises about the wonders of the universe that were so easy to believe. Of course there were aliens. Have you seen the size of this place, mom? Do you know how small our sun is? And of course they’d be advanced enough to visit us. Do you know how old some of the other galaxies are? And how many of them there are? So if the aliens went away after their first visit, so what? Of course they’d come back again. Why wouldn’t they? What was everyone else’s deal on Earth, being so sad and scared that they’d come and gone again?

The radio had all the usual weather updates, dust storm and heat warnings that would translate to possible power outages and water restrictions in the coming days, starting with a real ripper of an overnight offshoot from a twister ravaging farmland as we spoke. Nothing like what other parts of the planet were enduring, mind you—death counts from exposure and landslide and tornado that were difficult to process from our generic slice of standalone suburbia. Slippery little data points of horror from lives I could hardly fathom in the best of times, half a world away. But when in my youth had storms ever been so aggressive after dark? And plenty were perilous enough, day and night alike, that you still heard of full-on disasters close to home. Suburban sprawl stripped of all its roofing. A family lost in its entirety when the shelter caved in. Elderly care facilities where people stroked out in the dozens.

The homes on our block were fairly well-prepared: generators and barrels and cooling stations at the ready, and the neighborhood parents’ group was filling up with check-in reminders and replies. Still, the imminent storm threats were a good excuse to pick more ripe veg from the garden, and maybe see about a swap or two with the neighbors before everyone hunkered down. Fran and Hetty’s chickens. Ghassan’s vegetarian stews. Yuri’s bread.

I tried not to get too excited about the bread. Yuri was a crowd favorite these days: three wonderful teen daughters, and a wife who’d been killed in one of the first, panicked riots. Not directly, but by the chaos of civilian militias taking to the streets in some fool show of force while our visitors were still high in the skies. A senseless death. But weren’t they all?

Her name had been Reya and she’d done wonders for our local tool library. Taught French and biology. Had a fondness for adding pockets to any garment we wanted. Held some particularly hateful views about Russians, any Russians, that surprised us when they came from so generally calm and positive a face, an overall demeanor. Repeated a few treasured anecdotes maybe once too often at all our social gatherings. Always touched you just so on the arm when something important needed to be said or shared.

Now everyone dropped by her old house, which still had some of her homemade suncatchers in the window, and traded for Yuri’s homemade bread.

Oliver and his jellies. Edie and her honey.

This late in the day? There might be nothing left.

But I was ready to take that, too.

Callie and Bixie continued their own, private conversation as we loaded up the wagon. Bixie was too easily distracted to pull it herself—not if we didn’t want the wagon to tumble on a curb—but she did a fine job keeping Callie safe and on task, pacing her young charge and keeping broader watch. The seamless synchronicity that two animals could achieve across species—if they really wanted to, at least, and if they knew the right way to get the job done.

Had we really wanted to, when we received our first message from the ‘space seats,’ where our unexpected guests were hanging out and listening in on the global concert? Perhaps we’d never truly had the capacity to imagine sharing the universe after all.

But oh, I was being unkind, wasn’t I? Thinking of us like a hive mind—like we’d ever had a chance to come to a genuine consensus, and deserved to be punished for the actions of a few. That had been the whole theme of our massive, multi-site climate-action fundraiser, hadn’t it? The belief that the only way to flatter our trillionaires into investing in environmental reform was to get all our celebrities on stage on our behalf, to entertain the wealthy into acting. All that effort, all that set-up—all the people who died in stadium disasters, stampedes, and workplace accidents along the way—just to get a few people to do a fraction of what they could’ve done all along.

Yes, I decided. We’d really wanted to connect with something beyond ourselves. The “we,” at least, that had wanted us to be a “we” all along. We just hadn’t known how.

Ghassan wasn’t home, apparently—no answer, no note—but we found Fran in the front yard, sawing off a limb we all knew had to come down eventually. They were lucky the last storm hadn’t sent it hurtling into the shrubs and street already, to be honest.

“Nicki, hi,” she said, breathless from the heat more than the work. “Watch out, just a few strokes more.”

Callie held Bixie back by her collar as the fateful CRACK! took hold and the branch fell into a specially cleared plot. Fran frowned as she brought a gloved hand over the split, noting the darker traces in the freshly revealed grain.

“Poor thing,” she said. “We might have to call the city after all.”

“Aren’t you still waiting on those potholes?”

Fran snorted. “Hetty filled them in herself. Public hazard like that? Couldn’t put it off forever. Whatcha got for us today, girlie?”

This last was directed at Bixie, who recognized and wagged her thick white-and-black tail at her second name. Callie giggled while Bixie barked back, and as Fran pretended she was hearing all the day’s specials from our collie-mix instead of my daughter.

“Just eggs?” she asked me, after picking out onions, tomatoes, carrots, and potatoes. “Or a jar of Hetty’s chicken noodle, too?”

“Wouldn’t say no to that, would we?” I asked Callie, who shook her head in agreement.

We paused while three fighter jets tore overhead—the usual daily fly-bys, ostensibly to reassure locals that the government stood ready against any domestic and otherworldly threats. Fran rolled her eyes at the commotion before ducking inside with her fresh bounty.

“Is Jonas playing tonight?” she asked on her return, with a flat of eggs that Callie held aloft, peering between the two cardboard wedges at their prizes before setting them in the wagon. “Down at the Center?” I took the soup with a murmur of thanks and secured it in a corner, while also making subtle adjustments to the placement Callie had chosen for the eggs.

“No, I don’t think so. Why? Is the Center unsafe again?”

“Just the usual rallies, I think. Lots of chatter, but who knows when it’s real or not?” She hesitated. “You know, it’s good that he’s got a hobby, friends, an outlet, but…”

I grimaced for us both. “Not a fan of the name either. But their generation got a lot of flak for that meme, while the rest of us were reposting it everywhere, blasting its existence on news feeds, making it impossible for the aliens to miss. So who’s really at fault, you know? I’ve looked it up. There must be a hundred bands around the world now with some variation on the ‘pool noodle’ meme in their name. What more damage can it do?”

Fran shook her head, gloved hands at her hips as she sized up the fallen branch ready to be cut up for wood. “Straw that broke the camel’s back, I guess. Could’ve been anything at that point. We just had too much rot in us to begin with. There was almost no chance we’d take them seriously, without some mush-for-brains online trying to spin it for personal profit.”

“Many mushes-for-brains,” I agreed, with a bracing smile at Callie, even though she didn’t seem to need to be reassured. “Give Hetty our love? Still on for Sunday?”

“Still on for Sunday,” said Fran, blowing kisses at Bixie as the wagon pressed on.

On the abandoned house beside Yuri’s, the graffiti was getting creative. Not just tags and spoof characters but bigger pieces of a more abstracted nature, giving the vague impression of idyllic nature scenes. Cornfields, maybe. Or a desert giving way to oasis? The block hadn’t decided yet what to do with the detached unit, but the Monterreys surely weren’t coming back—at least, no sooner than Elias would be—and the place needed someone in it for upkeep, if nothing else. Some of the neighbors were still reluctant when it came to property swapping on that scale, though. We were all pretty new to this share-and-share-alike business. First there’d been the localized energy grid, which usually made enough to give back to the main system instead of taking. And the water collection upgrades that Ghassan had so kindly showed us how to install, to optimize our home gardens in place of all the lawns we’d once owned. Not that long ago, some of us would have been carping about permits, bylaws, and property lines over the slightest changes to one of our cookie-cutter homes. Some had lived on that stuff, really: like Jonas at the kitchen window, and me by my recordings every night. That vaguely comforting, if entirely ridiculous, affectation of personal control.

Consensus, unspoken but emphatic at all our neighborhood meetings, was that we’d still go as slow with any drastic local changes as the world’s fresh crises ever allowed.

From Yuri’s driveway I could see the new greenhouse in progress in the back—and Yuri’s powerhouse of a trio of daughters hard at work getting as much secured and covered as they could before the coming storm. Acid reflux, or envy, surged in my throat at the site of their family united. Elias could’ve stayed, couldn’t he? And built something here with his own?

But that had been one of the first lessons of the fallout: that some people, even people we’d thought closest to us, had always been holding different stories in their heads—about everything. For a while, there’d been nothing unusual to notice, because nothing in our lives had compelled me to notice. Callie and Jonas had their classes, their afterschool activities, their doctors’ appointments. The parents’ group had its occasional grandstanding meet-ups and parties. My department had its usual frenzy of marketing shoptalk, ever-interested in how the unending recession would change sales pitches to new clients. And Elias’s faculty get-togethers seemed normal, or at least of a piece with his eclectic research interests in medieval poetry.

Even when the aliens first came and went, slipping off in the middle of a cacophony of bad and belittling media spin-cycles, the cadence of what came after hadn’t seemed so different, had it? After the first wave of panicked riots, everyone invested in that mess had kept going, hadn’t they? At least, as far as any of us could tell. School terms pressed on. Professional workshop invites were sent out. Hiring committees convened to review the latest applicants.

I didn’t even realize, until Elias left, the extent to which he’d been on those forums all along. Listening to commentators who’d only ever seen our guests in one way from the moment they’d first apologized for interrupting our fundraiser: as leverage. Leverage in ongoing Terran power games, leverage in the next election campaign, leverage in backroom manipulations of the global economy. Apparently he’d been listening to those cynical and estranging pundits well before our visitors’ arrival, too—hooked by a yearning for “simpler times” in their broadcasts and posts and newsletters that I’d never realized ran so deeply in my husband all these years. Just reading and soaking in the worst of their isolationist takes, the starkest of their appeals to a black-and-white world, day after day after day.

The aliens had been his final straw, but maybe there would’ve been another, if our much-abused visitors had never shown up.

I wasn’t sure if that comforted me at all.

Yuri had been in the kitchen, making dinner for his hard-working team in the backyard. He had an apron on, cream with brown trim, and his hands left water marks over his rib cage and abdomen as he wiped them off thoroughly before clasping one of mine.

“Nikita, so good seeing you. And Callie, my dear, wait a minute, wait a minute!”

Callie and I exchanged knowing glances while Yuri retreated and returned with a biscuit for Bixie, whose tail was already two steps ahead of the whole performance.

“What shall we ask of her this time?” he said to Callie. “To shoot for the moon?”

Not your usual roll-over or paw tricks with these two. Yuri crouched in the drive, the big man becoming as small a ball as he could manage, while Callie instructed Bixie to “get ready for take-off” (forepaws and head poised, rump and hindlegs restlessly wiggling), before counting down to “lift-off,” when Bixie launched over Yuri and caught the treat he furtively tossed to her on the other side. Then it was Callie’s turn, though when she leapt he “surprised” her by unfurling and catching her in mid-air instead. Gotcha! to her delighted shriek.

Once returned to Earth, Callie was eager to recommend all the veg we had left, and I let her frown with the affectation of a stern shopkeep when Yuri teasingly asked what he could have if he didn’t have anything to swap at this time.

“Well…” said Callie, uncertainly. “What do you need?”

Yuri laughed approvingly and clapped her shoulder. “Two more for dinner, if I can take some of—these, and these, and these. Okay?”

Callie looked for my nod first. “Okay. But—Bixie, too?”

“Always welcome. Girls!” This last was to Yuri’s daughters, who came down and out from their greenhouse work to greet Callie and Bixie like big sisters.

Yuri’s hand came down on my arm next, as Callie led the wagon to shelter, and we went into his kitchen, where meal prep was almost finished. He set another, smaller apron over my head, and pointed to the peas that still needed attention, along with the tomatoes he’d selected from our wagon, while he started cooking the proteins. One last round of bread sat on the table already—the bread his family would break together—and this, I thought, as we got to work in near and contented silence, was more than trade enough.

Anya, the middle child, protested loudest in the heat of dinner banter that followed. Maz, the eldest, had just been informing we two sluggish and out-of-touch adults about all the organizations behind this latest demonstration by the Center—but when she’d tripped into suggesting that maybe all the radicals assembling didn’t fully realize what they were supporting, Anya and Shivan had both had enough. Anya had just been quicker at the draw:

“Please! They know exactly what they’re doing. Like, it’s all they ever wanted. When they say the government’s just made up everything, the aliens, all of it, it’s not like they want government to go away completely. They want control over it. Over everything. That’s what they’ve always wanted. And this is just the easiest way to—”

“Right! Because, like, anyone with half a brain can just look to the rest of the world’s reports and see that what they’re saying about the aliens isn’t true. Anyone! But they don’t care what’s fake or not. They just care about what upsets the people around them, because if they can upset other people they can have power over them, and that’s all they’ve ever wanted. Like, seriously, anyone who goes in for that conspiracy shit is just—”

“Pass the potatoes, Shivan?”

Yuri hardly needed to look up. When his youngest, startled, glanced at the potatoes, she saw Callie on the other side of the table and flushed.

“Yes, daddy,” she said, and passed the bowl without another word.

I couldn’t tell if Callie had made the connection. There were so many different kinds of conspiracy theorist out there. And also, so many different ways to be present in another’s life. I know she still thought about her father, talked about him from time to time, but something about her surety that the aliens would come back seemed to envelop the concept of his absence as well. Dad was just gone for a little while—out of order, for a bit. He’d come back. The aliens would, too. Any other possibility made no sense, so long as they were all still alive and could make other choices, even if it took a long time.

But looking across the table, at all of Yuri’s bright, engaged, dizzyingly adolescent daughters, I felt a twinge in my arms, my chest. Admiration for who they were, and how proud Reya would have been to see them, if also dread for the perspective-shift needed to get there. The immunity that Callie might at any moment shed, to become even half as worldly-wise.

The aliens had apologized for interrupting our global concert, and congratulated us on the quality of our efforts to combat the mounting problems of our overheated world.

Then, as a child might, pouring out its pocket of treasures after a day’s wandering—a twig, a leaf, a rock, a frog, a shell, a nickel—they had made the mistake of saying they were still working out amongst themselves what they might also donate to our fundraiser.

A rummage through their shipside cupboards, as it were, for the charity case they’d happened upon along their intergalactic way.

You could feel it, couldn’t you, when it happened? Like a split-second change in the wind’s direction. Like the temperature dropping ten degrees at once, all over the globe.

All our initial awe and terror, turned at that very instant into loathing.

Who did they think they were, these sudden icons of staggering, monumental progress in our skies, to show up and offer nothing but pity, and crumbs?

Callie went to bed easily. Not like Jonas at her age, when there had still been so many devices to keep track of, and so many complicated hypocrises to work out. No, it’s not good to keep playing your videogames right up until bedtime. Yes, mommy’s still holding her phone at all times while she lectures you about yours—what of it? But so few things got upgraded these days, and kids Callie’s age were more interested in collaborative game-creation in the local makerspace, where they could blend on-site VR with an elaborate playground set-up. I still had my old phone, of course. For the parents’ group. For important updates. And for replaying old messages between me and Elias, as if they weren’t holding all the wounds open in my heart. Wasn’t there a classic writer who’d once said humans couldn’t help but keep their pain alive? That we would always press on a toothache because it felt human to hurt for a while?

I did my evening rounds to make sure the house was secure against the storm, and got Bixie through her own late-night bedtime routine. A peek into Jonas’s room gave me pause. Not back yet. Over his bed was a poster from the fateful global concert, Johannesberg edition, wreathed in pictures of the spacecrafts, along with that first interior shot—the bizarre look of those aliens that someone had quickly coined ‘pool noodles,’ to the detriment of all.

They did look rather funny, though, didn’t they? Almost like cartoon creations, with the thinnest of root systems for ‘limbs’ extending out from a mustard-yellow cylindrical core. And surely such an advanced species was no stranger to the armchair warrior phenomenon, right? Didn’t they have their own subspecies of network-dweller who’d kick into action the second they had new intel to spin into prime-time content? Their own tedious version of SNL?

I entered carefully, ostensibly to pick up the obvious trash on Jonas’s floor. I didn’t snoop, didn’t touch anything. Just—sat on the edge of his bed, taking in the heady scent of his near-adult sanctuary, and feeling the weight of his sunsetting childhood wash over me with something between grief and wonder. I played back two of Elias’s messages while I waited—the ones, I think, in response to my desperate asks about the children, about how he could just leave them even if he needed time away from me. The answers Elias had given might as well have been from an alien culture, too, for all that they seemed lost in translation. Like he was responding to a line in the script I hadn’t ever used, but that he’d expected me to use and was answering instead. How do you get through to someone who won’t see or hear you anymore?

The ‘pool noodle’ aliens hadn’t so much as introduced themselves yet, when their offhand comment about looking for something to donate set off a firestorm of responses. It was all on open channels, too, so it’s not like any one government could have controlled for or centralized humanity’s responses. While public officials were trying to go about this whole first contact business with a modicum of formality, you also had some of our loudest, most obnoxious billionaire and trillionaire residents, along with representatives for major multinationals and start-ups, clamoring for the aliens to engage directly with them instead. To trade some of their advanced tech rights solely with them, in exchange for the promise that they’d use the bounty to try to fix our world.

At the same time, you had the doomers—some from strongly spiritual groups, and some from radical prepper and conspiracy cults, like the one that had taken hold of Elias, oh, years before the aliens’ arrival. And whether they were shouting about signs of the end times, government conspiracies, or evidence of an impending, full-on alien invasion, same difference, right? They were all a version of one target demographic we dealt with often back at my office, back when marketing really mattered: the early adopters. The consumer-base we just knew would want to be first in line for a given product or service. To have the clout of being the everyday authority on the next best thing. So many of us can’t help it. It’s an itch or a rush that a lot of us will do anything to oblige. To be in on something that no one else is.

Even if that meant taking to the streets armed to the hilt, as if a show of on-the-ground force would mean a damned thing if their fearmongering about alien invasions came true.

Even if that meant fleeing to some extremist prepper base up in the mountain, to join a ‘Resistance’ convinced that most of humanity had been replaced already—including loved ones, including family—and that the only thing to do was wait out the inevitable nuclear war.

Even if that meant turning off one’s phone so that I could never, ever, ever again even try to talk some sense back into them, and maybe begin to bring them home.

 [ Sticker, © 2023 Carmen Moran ] I woke up on Jonas’s bed around one, to another neighborhood dog barking in the distance. Jonas still wasn’t back. I tried his cell—no answer. Aston’s parents? No answer either. No recent activity on their socials, either. I hesitated before texting Hetty—her status on the neighborhood group the only one showing a little green dot.

Hi sorry, are you up?

No immediate reply, which gave me time to get up and tidy myself, then sit in the front room while Bixie raised a dubious shaggy brow at me, with a soft whine from her bed.

Hey yah hi. What’s up?

Sorry, I know it’s late, but Jonas isn’t back yet.

Oh shit. You think he’s at the Center?

My heart skipped a beat—but then I remembered Fran’s worries. Of course Hetty’s thoughts would go there as well. And Yuri’s girls had been so adamant at dinner about this demonstration being different from the others. On a storm-warning night, too!

I should go check, I think. Just to be sure.

And you need someone to watch Callie?

Relief at being seen, I tell you. There was nothing quite like it.

If you could that would be amazing. I’m sorry, I know it’s so late.

Hetty sent a hug-emoji and a laughter-emoji.

Honestly I’m just up listening to the latest updates from Bangalore and Germany. I can be just as depressed in your living room as I am here.

Should I have understood the reference? Another couple of global catastrophes with hundreds or thousands of unjustly dead? No matter, for now. I told her how grateful I’d be, and how she was welcome to anything in the fridge or pantry while I was gone.

Hetty showed up in her bedtime silk head scarf and PJs ten minutes later, and after reminding me to be careful and asking if I wanted some mace just in case, she settled in with Bixie, and I stepped into a bracing night with my coat and boots and facewrap done up tight.

Other neighborhood watches were sending out demonstration notices, including reports of what the agitators were packing, how many there were, what routes they seemed to be taking, and what response was being raised by the rest. Hell of a time for the agitators to be out—usually they preferred to make grand shows of strength in the light of day—but that was probably also why the neighborhood groups were so worried. What was so important about this event that it couldn’t wait? Why were these fools gathering in the dead of night?

For no good reason, was my worry—and Fran’s. And Hetty’s, too.

I tried Jonas’s cell again, with no answer. Frustration mounting.

One of our community buses showed up after I’d been at the stop for fifteen minutes, some sort of dance-hall electronica blasting from the interior. The city had long since claimed it didn’t have the funding for late-night services anymore, so some of the region’s out-of-work longhaul truckers had decided they could pitch together and make their own alternative, which all the connecting districts supported in different ways—some tackling roadside repair, others taking on regular maintenance, others providing driver upkeep. If there were extra things the drivers needed, their requests got run through the working groups at biweekly meetings, or disseminated on our neighborhood forums, and handled case by case.

And oh, for sure, the city didn’t like any of that—but what were they going to do? If they cracked down on an indie project filling an obvious service gap, then the real motives for cutting late-night bus services would come out: To keep people isolated. To cut off their paths to protest. To maintain order without explicitly trying to impose a curfew. I still voted, mind you. Habit, I suppose. But the municipal council, the mayor… it was like looking at an object through the wrong end of a telescope: so much smaller in power and scope than I’d ever seen them before. And we can’t blame it all on the aliens, can we? It was coming loose long before.

The bus was a mixed bag of eager youth, drunk adults, and troubled souls. The kids were all right—one, I noticed, even had my son’s band patch on his backpack, maybe a friend from schooling circles or one of the youth outings our parents’ groups planned. THE POOL NOODLE ALIEN POSSE, all in jagged caps around a stylized version of the original meme, with what looked like four wobbly aliens in a huddle, surrounded by chunky gray blocks vaguely representing the surrounding vessel. Except that these aliens had little arms folded across their chests, and were sporting shades. “Too cool for our crew,” Jonas had explained, the first time he’d shown me the design. “And, like, where’s the lie in that, you know?”

Was it wrong to feel both pride and concern at his little band’s growing popularity?

The adults on the bus gave off an entirely different vibe, and I kept my distance from as many as I could. Three were wearing shirts with conspiracy theory messages—one hoaxer, two doomers. One of the doomers was tripping, too, so waves of half-coherent thoughts were sometimes punctuated with single, exclamatory remarks: Blood! Crashing down! Donuts!

At least, I think it was donuts. The electronica was loud. It was late. I closed my eyes as we rumbled on. I could tell when we’d arrived at the Center from the competing noise outside.

Once upon a time, this had been a local city hall. Do you remember? We used to have our own bazaar days and community picnics here, until the city amalgamated and administration got rerouted to a deeper downtown core. Then the building became a small claims court, and all the local businesses switched out—lunch counters for legal services, hair salons for print shops, grocers for techie-targeted coworking spaces. But mainstream culture had always run on compliance, so when enough people stopped showing up to the courts, and the city found it didn’t have the resources to hunt down all the ghosters, what use was there in holding session? When council abandoned the site, local neighborhood groups moved in. Refurbished the place as a rec center. Lent out the main amphitheater, from city hall days, for learning circles, fairs, and concerts. Even set up robust storm shelters in the surrounding plaza, for those inevitable days or weeks when the weather got out of hand.

And now there, in the darkness as I cut across the green to reach it, was a cluster of agitators strutting about with weapons in hand, some aloft. Doomers, this time. And opposite them, in a tenuous barricade in front of the Center itself, was a counter group—not engaging, not baiting, just on watch—though a few I could tell were also packing: wound vac and other dressing kits, field tourniquets, the occasional holstered gun. Ghassan among them, which made sense, considering his nursing background—though my fear doubled at the sight of him. Stay safe, please! All of you. No sign of Jonas, though. Small blessings, etc.

I hung back to review message board intel on my phone. Why here? Why now?

My daughter says it’s a planning session she’s going to. But I think it’s just a concert?

with no listing on the centers site?

Ya, I’m not seeing a concert there either. But the doomers mustve heard something we didnt.

Why would they care about a concert? They’re not exactly the type to appreciate the arts.


My neighbor’s one of them.

Oh shit sorry.

Me too :(

Is he really your neighbor tho if he’s out there with them

Still contributes to the power grid, and does tool maintenance. Just goes batshit when you talk to him about much else. We’re trying to bring him in slowly. Not working I guess lol

That sucks


I went around the agitating crowd, to see young people milling about by the main doors. Some glanced my way, but with no clear interest in holding me back. There was music playing—blasting, really—so a concert seemed more likely than a planning session after all. And when I entered, pressing carefully through a thicker throng, there was indeed a band on stage. Not Jonas’s, but in the same wheelhouse of grunge rock, with an occasional dance-club drop. Everything old gets repackaged, right? Half a dozen messy college memories wanted to surge to mind, but I was too busy scanning the crowd for my son. No sign of him, except…

Beside the stage, a massive poster board listed the night’s concert events. The headliner—now on stage—and the openers. The Pool Noodle Alien Posse among them.

A complicated wave of relief took hold, the kind laced with a parent’s revving up to be openly upset, now that they’d sighted their target. Backstage. Celebrating. That’s where I’d always found him after a show before.

2 a.m. now, without a word to me. And after that big show of being worried about what was—or wasn’t—showing up in our backyard? What the hell had he been thinking?

I had a whole speech queued up as I navigated through the throng to the corridor leading backstage. I was a pro at these by now—from years with the kids, sure, but also from the lifetimes I’d recently spent on framing messages to Elias, too.

But all of them foundered at the doorway. So many kids—correction: young adults—lingered around the room, and inside it. And there, on the arm of a couch, was Jonas, laughing with a water bottle in hand, while the rest of his band had opted for light ales. Water with a kick of something? No, that required too much forethought, and the nearby cooler clearly only had beer and water on hand. Not drunk, then—or if drunk from earlier, now working on responsible recovery. Did I really want to embarrass him in front of his friends when there was a chance he’d respond to a more measured approach?

Aston saw me first, and crowed while pointing to the door. “Jonas, shit, your mom!”

My time to shine, while Jonas’s expression went blank.

“Morning, Aston. At least—getting close to the morning, yeah?”

Aston just laughed and doubled over. Not his first ale, I suspected.

I didn’t look at Jonas yet. “Sorry I missed the show. Everything go okay? No power outages? The storm’s really going to pick up soon.”

“No, Mrs. N,” said Olive, another member of the band—tiny thing, but with a heck of a voice, and now slumped on the couch beside my son. “No problems.”

“Oh, well that’s good.” I held up my phone. “Lot of check-in messages from all over the city. You all got yours in yet? With the size of the crowd out there, all those protestors…”

“Oh shit, sorry, Mrs. N,” said Olive, sitting up and pulling out her phone. A couple other kids in the room did likewise.

“I’m sure you all were just really busy, right? Big concert tonight—right, Jonas?”

That comment got a few looks shot Jonas’s way. “Did you tell her?” said Aston.

“No! No, of course n—”

Oh, my poor son right then and there, glancing between the friend he was trying to keep vital cred with, and the mom he wasn’t sure would stay this calm in public forever.

“I think the bus is going to be back soon,” I said with a smile. “Anyone else coming with us, or should I send a note to anyone else’s parents, to tell them to expect a call?”

“Thanks, Mrs. N,” said Olive, looking uncomfortable herself as Jonas stood and started to gather his things. “I’ve got my dad coming in a few.”

‘A few.’ My smile deepened. “Okay, Olive. And Aston? You have a good night and stay safe. Lots of water, too. Jonas, you ready?”

Jonas wouldn’t even look at me. “Yeah, mom. All set. Bye guys.”

The room murmured its goodbyes. The concert crowd was still pulsing with noise. And the agitators out front were mounting in numbers. I added a few quick updates from the interior to multiple neighborhood groups, where consensus was split between sending more people for protection or letting the impending storm scatter the protestors soon enough. I named no names, though—just in case some of the kids in the Center had the unfortunate luck to have nutters for parents who happened to be among the radicals outside, or who were otherwise safer with their peers here than in going home. You could never be too careful.

Jonas didn’t say anything while we waited at the bus stop, and exhaustion had hit me too hard, once clear of the danger zone, for me to launch into any deeper conversations just yet. I never did get the hang of being around firearms brandished with such overconfident indifference to accidental discharge—so many fingers far too close to their triggers—and it usually took days for the emotional radiation of being around so many such people to work itself out of my system. If the same had rattled Jonas, though, he didn’t show it in any way that I could tell. Or did he? Once, as the winds picked up and a metal garbage can bounced through the center of the street, a sharp BANG! before it rolled harmlessly on, he looked up with such… worry? for me?… that it was all I could do not to laugh. He really did have his father’s shoulders, when they tensed up like that.

There was a light on at Yuri’s when we walked home from our stop, bodies canted forward against the wind, and Jonas must have seen me hesitate a beat on the nearby sidewalk, because he gave me a knowing smile that in its own way broke the silence between us.

“Oh, don’t even, mister,” I said through my facewrap. “This isn’t about me tonight.”

Jonas shook his head and looked away.

“It’s fine, mom. We’re all fine.”

“I hope so. I hope that’s what I hear in tomorrow’s news, too.”

But a flicker in Jonas’s expression told me that even he wasn’t so sure about this last. I tried not to leap into panic, catastrophizing about Ghassan, and Olive, and Aston, and all the rest I’d left behind, offering little more than broad updates to the neighborhood groups about what I’d seen. Should I have stayed? I should have stayed, shouldn’t I?

“You know, Jonas… I trust you. I hope you know that. But I need you to trust me enough that you can share things like this, too. Like your plan to be out this late before a big weather alert, and with… with whatever that storm of doomers by the Center is all about.”

“M’sorry mom. I didn’t mean to scare you.”

“I know you didn’t.”

He didn’t reply, and didn’t look up. We held each other against a harder gale blasting past, then ducked into the shelter of our driveway, perpendicular to at least some of the convoluted winds rising up as a pelting of rain started to come down.

“It must’ve been important,” I called out to him, as we hastened to check the latches on the garden domes and storage sheds one last time.


“I said, it must’ve been important!”

Seals secure, we went in through the back, stamped out our feet, shook off our coats, and closed up the house.

“Yeah,” he said quietly, in the already disorienting hush now of home. “It was.”

But then Hetty was on us both with big, bracing hugs and told us that tea was on.

Hetty and I listened to the radio while keeping up with our feeds. The rising storm in our region had been a blessing of sorts. In pockets all the world over, youth bands had gathered with extremely low social media co-ordination, to put on a concert at the same time without anyone else knowing what they were up to. Staying clear of mainstream media coverage. Avoiding anyone leaking the effort to neighborhood groups, or even with parentals and other teens and young adults who might’ve told. Only the doomers had figured it out, and only then because some of their clone-people conspiracists had been tracking the kids’ movements—literally, so fixated were they on finding proof that everyone else was really aliens in disguise. To their ilk, the kids’ global concert initiative had been a covert call for the rest of the fleet to arrive and wipe us all out—and so, they’d gone on the attack in some regions. Torching stadiums and amphitheaters and rec centers and band stages and any other local venues they could get their hands on. Reports all through the night now showed young people and watch-group members dying in a wide range of cities and towns, wherever the militants had the advantage. The unfathomably casual cruelty of it all. And over what? A show?

“It’s like you guys were recording your own mixtape,” said Hetty. “Special delivery, eh?” I couldn’t tell from her musing tone if she approved of it all or not.

“Did you really think this would bring the aliens back?” I asked my son, after the fourth mass death report came in. Two states over. Still, I was white-knuckling my mug.

But Jonas, hunched in a hoodie in his chair, looked at me like I was being ridiculous. “No? How would that even work? They’re gone, mom. What mixtape?”

Hetty and I exchanged baffled glances. “Okay. So, then…?”

He shrugged and looked away, working his jaw a bit first. “I dunno. I guess… maybe it’d bring us back, you know? Just, to do something for ourselves for once. And actually for ourselves this time. Not like the last one. Not to try to please a bunch of jackoffs or strangers.”

“What, we don’t do things for ourselves in our neighborhoods?”

“Well, yeah, sure, but…” He trailed off.

“It’s not big enough,” Hetty finished. “You were looking for deeper connection.”

The “we.” The real one.

My son’s nod had an exasperated wobble. Sort of. Oh, the pain of trying to be understood by adults who kept using such clumsy language for such deep and urgent things.

Hetty turned to me. “Speaking of—Sunday?”

“Sunday,” I said, yawning as I rose to follow her to the door and thank her there again.

“You think it’ll ever be enough?” she said in a whisper there. “I mean, kids his age… they saw what we had before. The last gen to see what we all threw away.”

“If they saw, then they saw how broken it already was. How helpless we already were.”

“Mm,” said Hetty—though I couldn’t tell if she entirely agreed. Broken? Yes, definitely. But helpless? No. There was always more we could’ve done. Of course there was.

By the time I’d returned, Jonas was asleep. Curled up in the kitchen chair, head turned to the wall, in one of those gangly, cluttered poses that made my joints ache just to look at. The radio was still on—rattling off more ghastly outcomes, but also stories of where the local lines had held. Where the kids and their neighborhood groups—not knowing what was going on, but showing up all the same for their own—had held the line, and pushed back. Where some of the worst extremists had been detained, broken up, and stripped of their reckless toys.

I wondered if Elias had been among any of them. Coming down from the mountains not to touch base with his kids but to terrify others. Even if he hadn’t, though, those were the groups he’d leaned into. The people he’d chosen as allies when times got confusing, and hard.

I would delete my latest new message for him before going to bed. That much I knew as I switched off the radio and watched my baby sleep in his impossible-to-be-comfortable perch—faintly snoring, too. Would I record another? I couldn’t tell. At least not for a while.

I sat and listened to the rising winds instead, the hard patter of rain on the window over the sink. Our visitors had slipped away wordlessly when media backlash and mockery overwhelmed all formal attempts to communicate. Fight us, enslave us, awe us with superior intellect, provide magical solutions for problems we could’ve solved ourselves, if we’d left our local hostage situations sooner… We’d been ready for so much from first contact. But hurt feelings and a hasty retreat? Leaving us with little but our own ugliness staring back?

Not that. Never that.

Even now, though, I knew that tomorrow’s media would find a million ways to spin the secret global youth concert. A whole new trend-cycle of commentators pinning the blame wherever it could for the night’s massacres. Raising suspicions against children everywhere. Calling for better monitoring and activity restriction. Rehashing the whole pool noodle meme to show the dangers of their free expression. Maybe even making a play for another, ‘proper’ World in Concert—I mean, wherever there was a chance to monetize tragedy, right?

Messages, we could send out in a heartbeat, in the millions.

But did we ever hear them? Really hear them?

No—don’t answer that.

I worry too much what’ll come next when you do.

© 2023 M.L. Clark

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