‘I Thought of You’, Juliet Kemp

Illustrations © 2019 Jason Baltazar

 [ The President, © 2019 Jason Baltazar ] Kath was killed on the second day after the aliens landed. She was part of the contact team. It was a terrible accident, very regrettable, many apologies all round. Sincere ones, even, as far as Nat could tell. The President phoned Nat to convey her personal condolences. There was a very ornate funeral, not quite a state funeral, but very formal.

Nat hadn’t been at the funeral. Kath had Nat down as emergency contact at work, so the police had come round to break the news (misgendering Nat twice in the process); and there was that Presidential phone call. But Kath and Nat had never formalised their relationship in any way recognised by the state, so Nat wasn’t, legally, Kath’s next-of-kin. That was Kath’s family, who had never liked Nat. Probably, given the Presidential phone call, Nat could have insisted on being involved. They could certainly have insisted on attending.

But Nat didn’t care enough about the funeral to push. Funerals were about bodies, and about mourning. Kath’s body was just a chunk of dead meat now. It wasn’t her any more. And Nat didn’t want to mourn in a vast church that Kath had never set a living foot in.

Instead, Nat huddled on the sofa, wrapped in the blanket Kath had made that first winter the two of them were together, and watched the wall-to-wall footage of the aliens. The aliens looked a lot like very large slugs, and their slime (there was a polite word for it, but it was slime) was toxic to humans.

That wasn’t how Kath had died.

Nat ignored the constant leaking of their eyes as they watched the alien landing craft, aliens meeting world leaders, aliens being shown around world cities, back to the start of the reel. The same set of thoughts kept looping through their brain: Kath died because of the aliens. Kath was so excited. Kath would have forgiven. Kath would have said it wasn’t their fault. Kath died. Kath died. Kath died.

Time, and the flat, felt very empty. Nat could, now, get rid of the huge piles of old-school actual-paper books that Kath left strewn around everywhere. They could finally get the cat that Kath had always vetoed. They could put twice as many chilies in everything when they cooked.

They did none of it. They picked up more web design contracts, working on the sort of low-paid projects that they hadn’t needed to touch for years, just to fill up time. They ignored calls and emails and texts from friends. (Kath had been the one who organised social things for the both of them. Nat couldn’t bear the idea of going out without her, not now, not yet.)

Time still stretched, elastic, bare.

At some point, Nat started bookmarking articles from the papers about the aliens’ arrival. Opinion pieces, not news reports. Nat wasn’t interested in what was happening; they were interested in what people thought about it.

Kath had been so excited.

They started saving the articles; then printing them out, in actual archaic hard-copy, piling papers on top of Kath’s book-stacks, still scattered around the flat, until they couldn’t see the books any more.

They started reading forum comments, and printing the best of those, too. Both the ones Kath would have liked, the ones talking about the glorious future in space with our new neighbours; and the ones talking about how we should blow the bastards up before the rest of their slug-like friends came to join them.

There was a demonstration, complaining that humanity wasn’t moving fast enough to grasp its new opportunities. People wore alien-face hats.

There was a rally, demanding that if the aliens were going to be allowed to stay on Earth at all, that they be corralled into specific areas.

Someone tried to blow up the alien landing craft with some home-made plastic explosive and instead blew himself up, together with a few unfortunate bystanders.

Lots of people had opinions about all of this. Nat collected them all.

They wrote down overheard comments, too, on the rare occasions they left the flat; and began to feel uncomfortable. If Kath had overheard people talking about the aliens—positively or otherwise (and it was mostly otherwise)—she’d have been wading cheerfully into the conversation, explaining why there was nothing to fear.

Nat couldn’t do that. Nat could only write it down. Occasionally it felt like they could see Kath out of the corner of their eye, watching. A little disappointed, but hopeful.

Nat couldn’t stop thinking about what Kath would have done. Kath would have looked at the fear and anxiety surrounding the aliens, and she would have done something. Nat was no good at talking to people, not like Kath had been. But—perhaps, there was something they could do with what they’d been collecting. Perhaps there was a way of using that to help explain things, to help people explain things to themselves. Maybe.

Then the alien turned up on the doorstep, its slime safely encased in the cling field around its foot.

Nat had read and watched a lot of people talking about meeting an alien in person for the first time. But they hadn’t given much thought to how they might themselves react. Because it wouldn’t happen. Kath’s funeral had aliens at it, and Nat hadn’t been there. There was no other reason for Nat to meet an alien.

If they had thought about it, they would have expected to have been tolerant, broad-minded, perhaps interested. They didn’t expect the welling-up of disgust.

“You have been collecting information, experiences, of our arrival on this planet.” The words came from a flat-voiced translator box the alien wore on a belt across its body. Nat knew about those. The aliens couldn’t manage human speech, or vice versa; but they had technology that resolved the problem.

“I…” Nat struggled with the deep wish for the alien simply to go away, be somewhere else, go away.

“I wish to see it,” the alien said. “It is available for perusal, yes?”

If Nat hadn’t been so occupied with fighting a sense of distaste and dislike that they strongly felt they shouldn’t be feeling; if Nat hadn’t had that image of Kath watching, bright-eyed and cheerful, waiting for Nat to do the right thing; if it hadn’t been for those things, Nat would have had the presence of mind to say that no, the archive was not available to the public. Because it wasn’t.

Instead, they nodded, once, mutely, and let the alien in.

As the alien looked over the folders and photos and everything else that Nat had collected, it finally occurred to Nat to wonder how it had known where Nat was and what they were doing. Perhaps it wouldn’t be surprising that some of the forums Nat frequented might be under some form of surveillance, but Nat did a lot more reading than posting. (Some posting. Some of the more paranoid and thus more interesting forums would kick you off if you didn’t post at all.) And to realise what Nat was doing with all that reading would surely require some quite full-on surveillance, unless those on the more paranoid forums were correct, and the aliens had tech or abilities that had not yet been revealed.

The alien looked up, and looked at Nat, inasmuch as its tiny constellation of wide-set eyes gave the appearance of looking at anything.

“You have not shared your own experience,” it said.

Nat shrugged, fighting back a host of advancing memories. “Not much to share. I don’t have much of an opinion.”

A ripple went across the alien’s surface. Acknowledgement? Ambivalence? Agreement? Disagreement?

“You have many human opinions here. Do you wish also our perspective?”

“Your perspective?” Nat asked, after a moment. Whatever they had expected, this wasn’t it.

“Yes. I could return, to record it.”

This thing would come back. “You could write it down,” Nat suggested.

Kath, in imagination, frowned at Nat.

“Not so,” the alien disagreed. “The translator does not write. You could not read my own written language.”

Nat wanted, badly, to say no. Not to have to let anyone back in here. Most especially not… (Kath died. Because of. Kath died.)

They remembered Kath, that last time, shoving her arms into her coat, hugging Nat in excitement, her breath warm on Nat’s neck. Off to see the aliens, unable to stop herself grinning. Promising to tell Nat all about it when she got back. Kath always wanted, so badly, to understand.

“Yes,” Nat said. “You’re right. Thank you.”

 [ Poem, © 2019 Jason Baltazar ] The alien returned, as it had said it would, to dictate to Nat its opinion of humanity. Nat expected polite formalities, diplomatic niceties—and got something rather more robust. Not unreasonably so, Nat concluded, after the initial shock wore off. Indeed, they couldn’t help but feel slightly warmer towards the alien.

It was only right at the end of the session that the alien spoke about Kath’s death. Kath asking to follow the engineers on their tour around the ship. (Nat could see Kath’s bright, curious eyes.) The hatch with the faulty hinges; the coolant leak that had gone unnoticed; the pressure build-up. The engineer in front of Kath who ducked without thinking.

A repeat of the accident report, as far as that went. But the alien’s pleasure at Kath’s interest; its horror and guilt at what happened; whether there was a sign that had been missed, whether it should have refused Kath’s request to come on the tour… The accident report had been strictly factual. None of this was in there.

Nat wrote it all down, mind numb, unable to say anything. Did the alien know?

When the alien left, the crying jag and the whisky became a poem, the first one Nat had written since Kath died. About Kath, and the alien. About how Nat shouldn't be here, Nat wasn't right for this. Kath was. It should have been Kath here with this.

The doorbell went early the next morning, pulling Nat out of a sticky, restless sleep. Finding the alien on the doorstep was a surprise. Nat, head thumping, stomach churning, couldn’t think of anything to do but to invite it in. They tried not to look towards the detritus of the night before, scattered around the sofa.

“Should have said, before,” the alien said, its foot firmly in the middle of the living-room floor. “Know who you are.” The suggestion of apology must have been in Nat’s imagination; the translation box’s flat tone didn’t change.

The alien knew. It had told Nat about Kath’s death, knowing who Nat was, who Kath was to Nat. It knew. It was here, standing here, and it knew.

Nat’s stomach rose up in revolt, and they fled to the bathroom, to throw up uncontrollably. When, finally, they were able to return, the alien stood by the sofa, examining a piece of notebook paper. Nat’s poem. It looked up and met their eyes.

“I am sorry,” it said.

Nat wanted to snatch the poem back and rip it up. They wanted to beat at the alien with their fists until something broke. Them, the alien, whichever, whatever. They wanted Kath back, wanted her here, smiling. At the alien. At Nat.

They didn’t move.

The alien stared down at the paper for a moment longer, then, with one of its small pseudopods, it removed something from its belt. A box, a bit smaller than the translator.

“I brought this,” it said, then paused for a long time. “There was an accident, on our way here, to your Earth. My—” the translator burped something unintelligible—“was outside the ship, at the time, and did not…” It stopped. “Afterwards, I… This… I thought, perhaps you…”

It stopped again. A ripple ran through it. It didn’t try to say anything more; instead it put the box down on the floor, and eased back a bit then stood entirely still, its skin tensed into ridges.

The room began to fill with colour and mist. Nat frowned. Almost against their will, they began to look more closely at the colours, the way they melded into each other. Was there a sound, too, just on the edge of hearing? The colours moved, the mist deepened, the sounds changed, fitting together, evoking…

“Loss,” Nat whispered.

They heard the lines of their own poem in their mind, echoing and merging with the alien’s colours, all of it hanging in the air around the two of them.

“Loss,” the alien said quietly.

They stood together.

© 2019 Juliet Kemp

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