One Thing | A Short Story

No. 1

The family’s in trouble. I’m not supposed to intervene, but it’s becoming harder to ignore the fact they may die. I think I care.

“Hey!” the mother calls to me. “Can you help me with the groceries?”

She got her nails done again. This time she’s painted them a bright shade of blue with tiny fake diamonds glued on the tips. I can’t keep track of how many colors they have been since I arrived, but I wonder if I should have. At least 5, but it could be as much as 8. Although I did plenty of research before coming here, it’s much different seeing these kinds of things in person. I resist the urge to touch them.

“Sure!” I say.

Grabbing two brown paper bags from the trunk of her shiny black SUV, I hope I’ve gotten the tone of my voice right. I keep getting it wrong and people stare at me. There are so many nuisances to speech I simply don’t get and my time is almost up.

Peeking inside the bags as I walk up the rose-lined walkway, I take note of the contents; cilantro, bananas, apples, a bag of tortilla chips, and a loaf of sweet-smelling bread. I make a list in my head for my report. I don’t know what questions I’ll be asked when I return tomorrow. I should have been writing things down. I’ll do better next time.

“Everything okay?” the mother asks. “You seem lost in thought…well you always do, but even more so today.”

“Oh, I’m okay.”

I met her on my first day here while standing on a black iron bridge overlooking a murky duck pond. She came up beside me with a clear plastic bag of bread. She ripped the square slices into tiny pieces and threw them into the water. She had bright yellow nails and I remember thinking “banana fingers.” As I watched the ducks fight for the white lumps of bread, several large open mouths appeared. I gasped and jumped back, for a moment forgetting where I was. She laughed.

“I like you,” she said. “You are weird.”

After letting me throw the rest of the bread pieces into the water, she insisted I walk with her to a place called Freddy’s a few blocks over. Dark and smoky inside, she taught me how to drink vodka martinis. You must hold the glass with one hand and never eat the olive until the drink is gone. You take tiny sips and there’s a lot of talking about things and telling men to “fuck off” when they walk over.

“Now we have to reapply lipstick,” she said when our third drink was gone. “So we don’t look dead.”

She showed me how to pull off the silver cap, twist the bottom and draw the bright pink color across my soft lips. It tasted terrible, but she said sharing makeup makes us friends. I’ve been trying to understand what it means to be a friend and if perhaps it could be my one thing. I’m not sure I get it.

Sitting my bags of groceries on the kitchen counter, I watch her reach above the stove to put away two bottles of clear liquor. Her sweatshirt pulls up and I see the large purple butterfly tattooed on her lower back. She told me it was a stupid thing she did in college, but I like it. I wish I could get one.

The children come running down the stairs to rummage through the bags for something to eat. Twins with the same color hair as their mother, but with the fast-talking pace of their father. The speed and volume of their conversation makes me temporarily unable to do anything but stand with my human mouth open.

“Earth to Edith,” the girl says.

She taps me on the side of my head with her tiny, pudgy finger.

“Come in Edith,” the boy says.

They both laugh and I join in. Perhaps laughing can be my one thing. I lean into it more, savoring how it makes this human form feel inside. It’s a pleasant warmth I feel radiating from my chest. The more I do it, the more affectionate I feel towards those I do it with. Laughter is a bonding agent, I think.

It’s very different from the feeling I felt when the dad held his dirty black gun to my temple last night.

***

No. 4,762

Tumultuous turquoise. Trembling tempests. Throttled temples. Tactile tensions.

I shut my tiny black notebook and slip it and my gold pen back into my pocket. Other words flow and float with me as I walk slowly along the jagged water line created by the continuously flowing ocean waves. As I finish my allotted time on this jeweled planet of contraction and beauty, I’m still not satisfied I’ve captured the one thing I can share when I leave tomorrow.

A rounded bubble in the sand catches my eye and I walk toward it on human feet. It’s a dead jellyfish, a translucent blob with four brain-like pink circles inside its liquid squishy form. I kneel in the wet sand and touch it with my pale human finger.

“You shouldn’t touch that,” a little girl says.

“Why?” I ask.

“It can sting you.”

“I think it’s dead.”

“It can still sting you.”

“Are you sure?”

She digs her small toes into the sand and looks at me with watery wide brown eyes. There’s a smattering of freckles across her nose and she’s not smiling. I can tell my question has hurt her feelings and made her question a truth she thought was irrefutable. There’s trembling energy coming from her. I forget how fragile youth can be.

“You are probably right,” I say. “Thank you.”

“Here,” she says.

Opening her tiny fist she presents on her palm an off-white round seashell with a five-pointed petal shape in the center. Remaining crouched in the sand I smile at her and run my fingers along the raised rough ridges. She smiles and I can see dimples appear in her puffy pink cheeks.

“What a great find,” I say.

“You can have it,” she says. “I have a lot of them.”

“Really? Are you sure?”

“Yeah. We come here all the time and I have tons! I’m so good at finding them.”

“Thank you. I will treasure it.”

“I’m Lucille, but everyone calls me Lucy.”

“It’s nice to meet you. I’m Edith.”

She smiles and runs back to her mother who lies on a blanket reading a book under a bright rainbow umbrella. I see the mother, dressed in a black bathing suit with a pink wraparound skirt, visibly relax when her child returns and realize I’d been watched closely as I interacted with her young.

I was a suspect, a potential danger in a lineup of things this mother must protect her child from. Rolling onto her back, she pulls her child onto her, hugging her with both arms. I pull out my notebook and pen.

Protective peony. Warming waterlily. Loving lavender. Cradling chyrisanthamum.

***

No. 1

The father comes in and slams his fist on the counter. A jar of paintbrushes topples over spilling its grayish-green water across the white tiles. The mother quickly pulls up her silver purse and the children make a little squeaking sound before scampering upstairs with the bag of chips and two small cans of soda from the fridge.

The mother slinks to the father and puts her arms around his waist, pressing her body into his. She makes a kind of cooing sound, but he doesn’t notice. His lips are pressed tight.

“We are in trouble,” he says.

“How bad?”

“Bad…”

He notices me and makes a sound reminding me of the crows in the cornfields where we landed, a warning sound of alarm and distress. I try to look smaller, shrinking back into the corner of the yellow kitchen, but he’s peeled the mother off and walks with slow swaggering steps toward me.

“What are you doing here?” he says.

The mother steps between us placing both her hands on his wide chest. He takes a deep breath, swelling out like a pufferfish. She shrinks as he pulls the black gun from his waistband and points it at my face.

“I asked you a fucking question?” he says. “What are you doing here?”

“Putting away groceries,” I say.

“What do we even know about her?” he says to the mother. “She could be the one who tipped them off about us. It’s all gone to shit and she’s the only thing different around here. You found her at the fucking park. What did you think would happen?”

“Babe,” the mother says. “She’s like stupid or something. You know that. She’s harmless, you know? Like a stray pup that’s been kicked. Just look at her.”

I stare at the small circle at the end of the gun and not at their faces—his angry and hers scared. Weapons are familiar to me, although we don’t use them anymore I remember a time when our people did. I could tell him about how bad this will all go, but I say nothing. I am not supposed to intervene.

“Shit,” he says.

“Babe,” she says.

“We are fucked,” he says.

He lowers the gun but I don’t dare to move. She slips her arm around his waist and guides him from the kitchen. I’m putting away the rest of the groceries when the men come. They kick in the front door and begin shooting.

Human blood is red. 

Maybe that’s the one thing I can divinely share.

No, I think I’ll stick with laughter.

***

No. 4,762

A light green ball rolls across the wet sand and lands beside my toes. Before I have time to react, a furry brown dog snatches it up with slobbering quickness and dashes back toward its owner standing along the sand dunes in an oversized sunhat. I wave at them, but they don’t wave back. Perhaps the sun has turned me into a shapeless shadow and they don’t see my raised hand. I put it back down.

The brightness of the green orb in the dark brown sand reminds me of the dancing beauty of the fractured sky the humans call the Aurora Borealis. It happens when excited electrons release light to create a crackling show of vivid colors. It can feel violent, like an explosion, like a gun blast. I spin around the quiet beach and look for signs of angry fathers or men with guns, but see none. It was a long time ago, I remind myself. You are much older now and understand a lot more. I take out my notebook and pen.

Firestone feathers. Fatherly fauna. Festal fires. Feverish foes.

Entangled memories war within me, the past and the present swirling into and out of focus. Of all the planets I’ve been to and all the things I’ve collected, the memory of my first mission clings to me and won’t let go. I could not have saved them, yet I feel like I could have. It’s why I’ve been allowed this rare second visit to Earth—to heal. It’s to be my final mission.

I stare into the vast watery ocean and take a deep breath. In and out, like the water, like the tides, like the flow of all things. In and out.

The capacity to calm oneself on all planets has surprised me. There’s always an in and out, it just looks different on each planet and with each species we inhabit. These missions, while difficult, aid in our knowledge of the complexity of all things. It allows us to see the bigger picture. Gathering truth is our salvation and I will miss it.

A cluster of seagulls take flight squawking loudly as the little freckled girl and her mother run into the cold water holding hands and laughing. They squeal as a foamy wave crashes into their bare legs and they run back onto the dry land. I watch them do this over and over, the thrill of chasing a wave and playing tag with the icy water.

I close my eyes and savor the sound of their laughter. My first one thing.

Opening my eyes I see the mother wrapping a thick orange towel around the shivering child. She kisses her face and hugs her tight. They rock back and forth and the mother begins to sing. It’s a simple tune, a humming really, but the feeling ripples across the beach and into my arms. I wrap it into my shirt and cradle it to me.

It’s warm and big, my new one thing.

My last one thing.

Me and my babes when they were little.

Author’s note: Oh, this prompt threw me all over the place. I struggled for several days writing all kinds of ideas in my journal which all kept sounding like either Star Trek episodes or rather quite strange commentaries about society or politics. I ended up landing on the idea of an alien poet sent to Earth for inspiration and so began the lines “Tumultuous turquoise. Trembling tempests. Throttled temples. Tactile tensions.” As the alien began walking the beach, however, something shifted. I found my alien was more interested in a singular idea, as I suppose I was, than a bank of words for poetry. This led me to write what would then become the beginning. Originally I saw it as an entirely different alien having a completely different experience on Earth, but it too shifted when I figured out they were the same alien on thier last mission.

The experience of discovery when writing these stories is perhaps the biggest mystery to me. Each week it unfolds in a different way. It’s a mystery I hope I never solve, as finding my path to the tale is half the fun. While this story might have ended up being the very cliched thing I was trying to avoid, I’m happy I found it. Please let me know what you think and thank you so much for reading.


Short Story Challenge | Week 19

Each week the short stories are based on a prompt from the book “Write the Story” by Piccadilly, Inc. This week’s prompt was to write a story with an alien in disguise among humans. We had to include the Aurora Borealis, paintbrush, cornfield, cluster, lineup, overlook, suspect, bridge, dome, and dash.


Write With Us

Next week’s prompt: A young child makes a discovery

Include: Superman, ginkgo Biloba, cavern, clicker, aloe, moviegoer, stretch, fury, yardstick, makeup


My 52 Week Challenge Journey