by John Reed
Runner-up, MHFGA short story competition 2020
One spring morning, at a time when people still looked at blue skies and said what lovely weather to each other, a man met an alien standing on the doorstep next to the bookshop at the corner of the high street. Something about the alien’s casual demeanour made the man stop and stare. They locked eyes. The feeling seemed mutual. He followed the alien, taking the stairs two at a time into a spacious, well-appointed flat: art on the walls, a coffee machine in the kitchen; within a few minutes, they were having beautiful, uninhibited sex over the top of one of the plush sofas. When it was over, they fell into the plump cushions below and the man gazed out of the windows at the cloudless sky.
At last he said: can I see you again?
The alien looked at him with its cat-like eyes.
I have to go, said the man, picturing his daughter packing her bag at the end of the school day. He followed the alien with his eyes as it walked over to the door; watching the cool, green back, he suddenly felt that each cell in his body had started to freeze over.
He forced himself to think of his daughter again: now grasping the bars of the school gates, looking out through them, the last child in the playground. Sitting up, he willed his lips to move – I have to go, he would plead, if necessary – but instead, a harsh dry sound exploded from his throat: ek ek ek ek.
I mustn’t panic, he thought, as the alien turned back towards him. ek ek ek ek said the alien softly, intimately, while the man looked down with terror at his new body.
An unprecedentedly wet summer, the news bulletins were saying. Parts of the city were reported to be under water, but the three of them emerged as usual from their front door by the old bookshop. They walked in a line across the pavement, skirting around the puddles, the two aliens and their child, until someone else, another person or alien came the other way, when they would realign in single file. He saw that the humans were in a state of discomfort, mopping their brows and scratching red patches of skin. Since his own transformation, he had come to enjoy the hottest days of the summer and the freezing depths of the winter months the most; physical adaptability was a consolation to him. All the same, he envied the humans their sweating and their complaining. We appear to have gained control, he thought, as he did obsessively every day; but underneath, we’re still human – he/him, she/her, delete as appropriate, etc. etc. Just humans without tear ducts.
As they arrived at the bus stop, he saw that the thin plastic bench was already occupied by a young woman. Ears covered by black headphones, head bobbing, eyes heavily shadowed, she was painting her nails a shade of bright red directly underneath the screen of shifting adverts and practical information:
269, 3 minutes; 156, 4 minutes; MISSING, can you help?; MISSING, can you help?
Without looking up, the girl shifted her body along, making space. The three aliens sat, their child in the middle. He glanced surreptitiously at the profiles beside him: alien adult, alien child, human female. Was the slant of this girl’s chin familiar? His heart began to bang painfully. Underneath, we’re still human. Had his daughter and her mother really stayed in the same house all this time, had she continued at the same school with its dark Victorian brick buildings on that busy A-road? He carried on looking at her out of the corner of his vision. Could it be possibly be her, here, so self-contained and so nearly grown-up?
It was a busy morning; groups of people, aliens, shuffled past the bus stop, some poking their heads under the shelter, others slouched with bags by their feet, close by, waiting. The girl raised the lattice of her hands very slowly towards the daylight, blowing gently onto her nails. Was she…? Something in his heart seemed to be splintering, jagged ends moving towards his throat. Humans without tear ducts. He opened his mouth to cough – Ek ek ek ek – as the girl lowered her hands, pulling on her rucksack. The bus had arrived.