Featured Story • August 2017

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Resistance on a Park Bench, with Stale Bread and Ducks

 

Sandra M. Odell

 
 

The aliens conquered the Earth and just as quickly left. We never saw or heard them. No sign of their conquest remained: no alien bodies or armament, no undecipherable edicts or strange pollutants, no savage governors or beneficent dictators. Nothing but the craters their impossible weapons left in the land and in the hearts of humanity.

We huddled in the ruins of our lives, waiting for the next wave. Two weeks, two months. Humanity tottered back into the light, eyes turned to the ominous blue sky. This wasn’t a science fiction cinematic extravaganza with movie posters and sneak peek trailers, but a terrifying reality that threatened everything, everyone. In those early days, all were equal in the eyes of fear. When would the aliens return?

A year, two. We began to rebuild. Slow and scattered at first, then with greater focus, infrastructure here, housing there, connect-the-dots roads. Many coastal cities regained electric power. Every town had its own armored units, a lie of preparation. We would be ready for them, for the ships that blocked out the sun and turned cities to fire. We licked our wounds and dared the next question. Would they ever return?

Three years, four. With nothing to fight, we turned on ourselves, looking for collaborators where none existed. No one was safe. The scientists caught napping. The men and women of faith, any faith, who failed to protect us. The farmers forced to abandon crops while we starved. The politicians and teachers, the press in all its forms. Friends, neighbors. We burned and castigated, destroyed livelihoods and lives. The Us and Them of global politics became an abscess of the Other, any Other, that could justify our fear. Some nights, huddled under the blankets, I wondered who had killed more humans, the aliens or humanity.

This was the world the morning I saw the alien on a worn wooden bench by the pond outside of town. He?/She?/It?—I settled on He—was dressed in a ratty brown overcoat and scuffed leather shoes, and tossed bits of white bread into the water for the greedy ducks. I can’t say how I knew he was an alien. Fingers too long, eyes too close together, hair the wrong shade of brown, a strange hunch to the shoulders? Maybe an intangible sense of alienness. Whatever it was, I knew, and he knew that I knew, and smiled when I set my bag of groceries on the withered grass and sat down beside him. “Good morning,” he said, and offered me a bit of bread with gloved hands.

I stared, fascinated by how his words kept their warmth to themselves in the crisp morning air. I exhaled through puckered lips, my breath unraveling.

Remembering my manners, I accepted the bread and made the ducks happy. Today I’d dared a quick trip to the market to barter my most recent watercolor paintings for eggs and flour, maybe even fresh apples. I didn’t make a habit of going out; anxiety and my shame at the residual nasal whine from a cleft lip and palate repair as a child often kept me sequestered in my apartment for days. Now I sat beside an alien and I wasn’t afraid. I probably should have been. Then again, he couldn’t be any more dangerous than the bigots, the marauders, the ones who insisted art wasn’t a real job and would rather watch me starve than barter with me. How do you talk to an alien? It was easier than I expected. “How long have you been here?”

The alien brushed bread crumbs off his lap. “On your planet, or in this town in particular?”

I considered the dilapidated buildings across the weed-choked park lawn, broken old men huddled together to keep warm. People went about their lives, hung laundry from lines strung from upper-story windows, hunched over garden planters with hand-rakes and trowels. Children ran and shouted in the streets, a quaint domestic scene nothing like the downtown bustle before the aliens came. Springfield had been demoted from a small city to a town. “Yes. Both.”

The alien hunched his neck, curled his shoulders back and forth in what might have been a shrug. “Not long, I suppose. Your measure of time is an odd construct.”

“Hasn’t anyone else noticed you’re . . . different?”

He clucked at the back of his throat. “No one else has bothered to look. You have keen eyes.”

I almost said “I’m an artist,” but the admission wouldn’t come. I put my left hand in my coat pocket and stroked the tattered brochure for the Louvre I’d picked up in high school. I used to fantasize about traveling to Paris to study art; then the world ended and with it my fantasies. Now I carried it out of habit as much as nostalgia.

An uncomfortable silence settled between us, at least uncomfortable to me. What could be more uncomfortable than admitting you were a failure? I could think of one thing, but to bring it up sent a frisson of fear racing up my spine. “Are you, were you . . .?”

The alien made the same clucking sound. “One of them? No. I’m one of you. The—” The alien made a sound, a color I heard.

I wished I’d brought my sketchpad to capture whatever just happened. “The what?”

He paused and stuck out the tip of his thin, purple tongue. “My apologies. Some concepts don’t translate as well as others no matter your language.” He hesitated, continued. “They, the aggressors, did to my planet what was done to yours.”

He tossed more crumbs to the ducks. “They shattered our world and left us to flounder in their wake. It was a long time ago, even by your race’s reckoning of time.”

I picked through the knot of questions. “So, why are you here?”

He gave another strange rolling shrug, an alien shrug. “I follow the aggressors to see where they’ve been, maybe learn something about the races they leave behind.”

An alien chasing aliens, like a child chasing dragonflies. Or maybe a being of immense power healing worlds in the wake of disaster, which would explain his interest with the Earth. Sitting beside him on the bench, I found both thoughts somehow comforting. “Races? How many?”

“Hundreds. Thousands. Who knows? The aggressors have no pattern that I’ve found. They never return to a conquered world. Mine wasn’t the first to fall, and yours won’t be the last.”

I don’t know what I had expected, but that wasn’t it. Had anyone else stopped to think we might not be the only victims? Probably not. We could be remarkably self-centered. I examined my sneakers, the tattered laces and grass stains, the torn bits of rubber at the toes. I remembered how sweet they fit when I tried them on in the store, the smell of my to-go coffee on the seat beside me, the canned pop music piped over the PA. Remembered the shriek of the sirens, and how the clerk rolled her eyes when she said, “Another damn emergency drill.”

I kept other memories of those first days of the invasion tucked in glass cases locked with fine keys: silver for the alien fighters spilling from the sky; black for the scorched husks of Chicago, London, Lagos, others; bone for my parents, my cats, my friends. I loved and hated the memories. Sometimes I slipped down the backstairs of my mind to visit them. I never stayed long.

The alien stared at me. “I am sorry.”

I ducked my head out of habit, then raised it again when I realized what he said. “What?”

He offered more bread. “I am sorry for all you have lost. It is a terrible thing to watch the world you know die.”

“Um, thank you.” This was the longest conversation I’d had with anyone in months. I’d forgotten what it felt like to be this vulnerable. I fed the ducks a bit at a time, once for them, twice for me. “Are your kind, um, your people, still alive?”

The alien looked to the sky, homesick and for a moment even more alien, and then the moment passed. “Yes.”

I gave a lopsided smile. “Some concepts translate better than others.”

“So it would seem.”

We sat together watching the ducks, the clouds, our own thoughts. Mine chewed on their tails. I had little experience with intimate silences; I tended to bow out of conversations before the other person grew frustrated trying to decipher my speech and made excuses to do the same. As the wind picked up, I hunkered down in my coat. “What did you do after?”

The alien tossed the last of the bread onto the grass. The ducks waddled to shore to gobble, bicker, and strut. “After?”

I motioned towards the ruined cityscape and cobbled together vehicles. “After.”

“Ah.” The alien stretched out its legs and for the first time I noticed it had two left feet in matching shoes. I swallowed a giggle; if the alien noticed, he kept his thoughts to himself. “We rebuilt and moved on. We—” He scanned the tattered skyline as if searching for a word. “—resisted? Yes. Resistance was tantamount to survival. There was too much at stake to give in to our fears.”

I snorted. I struggled to keep my head above a sudden wave of anger, hurt, and confusion. “That easy, huh?”

“No, but it was necessary.”

This was ridiculous. I was wasting my time. “You make it all sound like some great cosmic lesson. Live, endure, move on.”

The alien blinked, and tipped its head from side to side. “I do? That wasn’t my intention, though I suppose it is a valid interpretation. What would you prefer I say?”

I kicked in the direction of a duck. It ignored me and continued searching the grass for more bread. “That you came back strong enough, went after them, and kicked their asses. That you could wave some alien magic wand and make everything better.”

I never should have come to the park, should have gone back to my apartment. I didn’t need to think when I had my paints and the morning sunlight streaming through grimy windows. Was I angry with him? No, I was angry with the situation, myself, the fact that I had spent the last four years running from my failures. I hadn’t done enough, fought hard enough when it mattered. I couldn’t turn back the hands of time and save my family or the world.

The alien stared at me for so long I became uncomfortable in my own skin. I grabbed my bag of food and stood. “I gotta get going.”

“Would you have preferred that I lie?” he said as I turned to go.

I wiped at my wet cheeks. “Yeah, maybe I would have.”

“Why?”

The glass cases shattered inside me and all of the ash-covered memories spilled out of my mouth in a horrible nasal shriek. “Because we can barely hold on to what we have without killing each other! Because people still treat me like I’m a freak even after all we’ve been through! Because you’re an alien and you should have the secrets to making the world right again!”

It tipped its head from side to side: tick-tock, tick-tock. “Why?”

“Because I’m afraid!”

There it was, the truth. I’d finally said it out loud. In the four years since the attacks, I had never told a soul. I was an artist, a dreamer, and people expected me to be positive, but I wasn’t. I was afraid.

The tick-tock stopped, and the alien blinked in a not-human rhythm. “You would have preferred a lie because you are afraid? That makes no sense.”

My righteous indignation dissolved and with it my arguments. I deflated, ashes bitter in my mouth. I returned to the bench and collapsed beside the first person I’d ever let get that close. The first Other in a world where everyone was an Other. Did that matter? I took a hard look at what I’d said. “You’re right. That didn’t make any sense. I was angry, and it was wrong to take it out on you. I’m sorry.”

The alien brushed crumbs from his gloves. “Ah. There is wisdom and music in the words.”

Of course he’d say something like that.

The ducks left us to search for grubs or anything else in the autumn grass. Across the pond a chainsaw woke with a scream, momentarily drowning out the joyous shouts of the children.

“Was it hard for you?” I said when I’d gathered the courage to speak again.

The alien nodded. “It was, but my people are resilient.”

“Not your people. You.”

Another nod. “Yes. My people treasure . . . stories, you could say. After the aggressors left, I had no stories to tell. They destroyed everything, my habitation, my—” He made a sound, a pale shade that lingered in the air longer than the first. His tongue flicked out, in. “—persons of genetic relations. Family?”

It was my turn to nod.

“My family.” The alien dropped its head to the side and grew still save for its slow, strange blinking. In time, he straightened his neck and continued softly, softly, “I left to make new stories. Someday I will return home and share them with my people. They will become part of our narrative of—I think?—yes, narrative of reconstruction.”

“Ah.” The chainsaw continued to rumble; the ducks wandered the grass. “So, when you’re done here, you’ll leave.”

“I will.” He tipped his head. “I have found much beauty and music to appreciate on your world, but your wounds are still too raw, and I don’t think I would be—”

“You’re afraid I’d tell someone you’re an alien.”

He nodded and rested his hands on his knees. “I am.”

I wanted to take offense, but I understood that particular fear. “You don’t have to worry. I mean, I won’t tell anyone.”

It turned its hands palms up and touched the middle finger to the center of each palm. “I appreciate your regard, but you will forgive me for looking to my own safety.”

There was not much else to say, and that frightened me. Minutes before, I’d wanted to escape to my apartment; now, I couldn’t stand the thought of being alone. Again. Still. I took a deep breath. “Take me with you.”

The alien turned to me and blinked. “You wish to come with me?”

I sat up straight. “I do. I don’t have anything to hold me here. No family, no friends.”

The alien sighed through its nose, a strange off-key fluting. “You can’t go with me.”

“But—”

“You are not physically capable of withstanding the challenges of transport.”

“Are you sure about that? Maybe I could be.”

I remembered sitting with my mother at my Grandmother Louisa’s funeral. I was in the first grade and couldn’t understand why everyone was so sad, why I couldn’t visit my Gamma Lulu on Friday. The alien smiled at me now the way my mother had then, with sadness and an indefinable grace. “I am sure, and your narrative is your own to make.”

And there it was, another truth. I didn’t want to make my own narrative anymore. It was easier, safer, to let someone else take care of me than face an unknown future. I’d lived my life that way, afraid to turn the page on my own and see what happened next. A little voice whispered, “How could you not be afraid of outer space?” and another little voice replied, “Because sometimes the greatest fears are also the nearest.”

I studied his profile and the remnants of the only stories I had. “When will you leave?”

Tick-tock, tick-tock, his head went back and forth. “It won’t be long even by your standards. A day, maybe two.”

The chainsaw whined, sputtered, stopped. That’s when I decided. “My parents bought me my first Disney watercolor book when I was six years old, my first paint-by-numbers set when I was eight. I used to have books about Rembrandt, Vermeer, Kahlo. God, I love her work.”

I examined my hands, the wide fingers flecked with blue, and yellow, and black. “I’ve never been a very good painter. I mostly copy postcards; I don’t have what it takes to do something original. I mean, I enjoy painting, but I’m no Picasso. My speech therapist used to say I had talent, but I was always too afraid to put any real work into it. Afraid people would pay more attention to how I talk than to my paintings.” I rubbed my fingertips together. “Afraid of a lot of things.”

I pulled out the brochure. LOUVRE PARIS MUSEUM. Below that, the Pyramide du Louvre with its three smaller attendant pyramids glowed in the courtyard floodlights. A worn crease split the word PARIS in two. “I’ve heard rumors the Louvre survived the invasion. I’d love to visit someday, maybe pick up where I left off.”

The alien nodded. “May it be a pleasant journey for you.”

I took a deep breath and turned to face him. “Would you like to come home with me? I have enough food for the two of us. I mean, if you eat.”

He hesitated. “You wish companionship? I’m not—”

My cheeks grew hot. “What? Oh, no, not like that. I’m not into—anyway, no. I was just wondering if you’d like to come over for dinner and tell me a few of your stories. I won’t report you or anything.”

The alien stared at something I could not see, a color, a sound. Was that what unafraid looked like? “It has been many long times since I shared my stories,” he said after my heart stopped beating.

My heart started again, and I heaved a sigh of relief. I chewed on my bottom lip. “And maybe I could paint your picture . . . to help me remember you when I’m afraid.”

The alien looked me in the eye and smiled. “I would be honored to share in your resistance.”

 
 

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Sandra M. Odell lives in Washington state with her husband, sons, and an Albanian miniature moose disguised as a dog. Her work has appeared in such venues as Jim Baen’s Universe, Daily Science Fiction, Crossed Genres, and Pseudopod. She is a Clarion West 2010 graduate and an active member of the SFWA. Find out more at http://www.writerodell.com/.

About “Resistance on a Park Bench, with Stale Bread and Ducks,” she wrote, “Resistance is not futile. I have to believe this because I refuse to watch my world crumble and burn. This is my resistance story.”

 

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