I left in the darkness before dawn, when everyone else was still asleep. It was harder than I thought it would be. Zac and Lev looked so angelic, I wanted to bend down and kiss their foreheads. Better sense prevailed, and I just blew them a kiss goodbye before quietly closing the door. Would they miss their big sister? Would they wonder why she’d left?
Fights with Mum were nothing new. But yesterday she’d told me to leave, point-blank. She was half-drunk when she said it, but that didn’t change anything.
I slipped out of the old clapboard-and-fieldstone house that Grandpa had built, back when Sudbury was still a bustling little town. Not the empty, ghostly place it is today, with most men and women conscripted in the war with New York.
Mum was exempted from the draft because of the twins. Dad had died in Englehart along with the rest of the town when the Soliari ship first landed there. We never got his body back, or anything to bury. We were told he evaporated, but that didn’t make any sense to me. How can a human being evaporate? It’s like saying there’s nothing to a person except liquids and gases, and that can’t be true.
At the gate I turned for a last look. Mum would be relieved to find me gone. This thought was like a painful twist inside me, so I walked away fast, my eyes scanning the shadows on either side.
Nothing moved except me — nothing human, at any rate. The aliens were there, of course, but then they were always there, no matter what Mum said. Watching me with their gold-dark eyes, waiting to see what I would do. If I looked at them directly, they always vanished.
I first began seeing them a couple of years ago, just after I turned thirteen. The war had been going on for a while, and we’d settled into a routine of sorts. I’d wake early and scavenge for food. In the right season, there were blackberries and mushrooms and wild apples in the woods beyond the school yard. Sometimes, if I was lucky, I caught a squirrel or a hare in one of my traps.
By the time I got back, the twins were usually awake and hungry. Looking at them, you wouldn’t have thought they were anything special. But I could feel the gold-dark gaze behind their brown eyes. I could see the ghosts of the feelers framing their faces. It wasn’t just the twins. I’d seen the same frond-like extensions on every child younger than five. That was how long the Soliari had been around.
I’d told Mum when I first began to see them. At first she said I was hallucinating, that the Soliari could make you see things even when they were far away. But when I told her about the twins she just screamed at me — crazy bitch shutup shutup — so I stopped telling her anything after that. How Zac and Lev could move things without touching them. How they never cried, no matter how hard they fell.
What would she give them to eat tomorrow morning? There was a little leftover meat, a bunch of fiddleheads and wild onions, but when that was gone, there would be nothing. I hoped she’d be able to pull herself together and find food. It was spring; the season was in her favour. Mine too. I hadn’t fancied walking two hundred kilometres through snow and ice. That was how far it was to Englehart-that-was.
I’d heard there was nothing left of the town but a crater where the main street used to be, and the ghosts, drifting through the ruined Cinema Palace. Perhaps my father would be among them.
Englehart was the closest alien landing site to Sudbury — the only site in eastern Canada. There were more sites south of the border, but most were in the heavy population centres of Asia, Africa and Latin America.
I remembered the news, back when we still had news. Military planes had tried to bomb the crafts and the domes that sprang up around the landing sites. When that proved ineffective — the bombs decimated cities but left the alien domes untouched — people turned on each other. It was like everyone went crazy. Perhaps the Soliari had something to do with it, or perhaps the craziness was in us all along, just waiting for the opportunity to manifest itself. We had been at war with New York for four years — rag-tag bands of conscripted men and women, killing each other bullet by bullet, unless a rare drone took out an entire company.
Oddly, the Soliari never attacked people. The only direct casualties were the population centres where their craft had landed. For the rest of it, they stayed in their domes, oblivious — or perhaps indifferent — to the carnage around them.
The sky lightened and I moved off the pitted road, just behind the trees. Not that any vehicles still ran, here or anywhere else, but it was better not to take a chance. I’d had the sensation of being followed once or twice, but there’d been no one and nothing to see when I turned to look back over my shoulder.
As I walked, I thought about Dad. How we used to play chess and Scrabble and Monopoly, how he used to tell me stories every night, deepening his voice to become Papa Bear or the Big Bad Wolf.
At least I had my memories. At least I had a childhood. The twins weren’t so lucky. Or perhaps they were luckier — it was hard to tell. I felt like I was caught between generations. Sometimes I dreamed of distant suns and the dark spaces between them. Sometimes I woke in the middle of the night to find numerous eyes watching me. In the beginning I’d screamed the house down, managing to wake even Mum from her drugged sleep. Now I was used to it, more or less.
At noon I found a small clearing and decided to rest and eat a bit. I figured I’d covered fifteen kilometres and deserved a break. I had just opened my knapsack to get a bottle of water when I heard voices. I crawled behind a tree, heart thumping fit to bust my rib cage.
Two men in fatigues strolled into the clearing. Deserters? They had guns, bulky backpacks and thick boots. To my dismay, they settled on the grass right in front of me, cutting off my escape. One of them opened his backpack and extracted a stove.
If they were going to cook, they planned to be here a while. I’d have to take the risk of moving. I backed away slowly, planning to make a wide arc around them to get back onto the road.
A few metres into the undergrowth, I straightened up and allowed myself a sigh of relief. I turned around and almost bumped into the solid chest of one of the soldiers. I tried to run but he caught me, grabbing my arm.
“Hey, what’s your hurry?” he said. “Come talk to us. We haven’t met anyone on the road for days.”
He sounded friendly enough, and anyway, I had no choice. I let him lead me back to the clearing, where the other man was cooking what looked like noodles, and smoking a cigarette. When he saw me, he spat the cigarette out.
“Stan, what the fuck you playing at?”
“Come on, Dwight. Found her slinking behind the trees here. Can’t let her report us, can we?”
“I won’t tell anyone,” I blurted out. I was still thinking they might let me go.
The one called Stan grinned. “We know you won’t. What’s your name?”
“Dulia,” I said, hating the trembling in my voice.
“What a nice name.” He jerked his head toward the stove. “Be a good girl, Dulia, and you can share our food.”
The one called Dwight snorted and took the pan off the stove. “We don’t have any extra food.”
“I have apples,” I said. “I don’t need your food.”
“Great. Pretty and resourceful. Here, sit with me and you can have some of mine.”
Stan pulled me down beside him and forced a bowl into my hands. I didn’t want to eat it, but it smelled so good I couldn’t help myself. We hadn’t had real carbs in a while — no rice, noodles or bread. Supplies to Sudbury had dried up and the lone grocery store still open had nothing but empty shelves. I’d seen wild rice growing in the shallow water of streams and ponds, but was afraid to harvest it because the waterways were contaminated.
I slurped the noodles, trying to slow myself and make them last. The men watched me, and the aliens watched them watching me. It was odd: I didn’t feel scared or anything, although I knew something bad was going to happen, the way you can smell a storm in the air before it hits.
When we were finished, I offered to help wash up. Stan said, “Don’t bother. We can do it later.” He leaned against a tree trunk and yawned. “Aren’t you hot in that rain jacket? You should take it off.”
I was wearing Dad’s old rain jacket. “I’d rather not,” I said, crossing my arms. “It’s damp here.”
Stan and Dwight both laughed, and I wondered what they found funny. “Come on over, Dulia,” said Stan. “You’ll be warm and dry in my arms.”
I threw my bag at him and ran. I was fit and strong from all the walking I had to do foraging for food, but I’d covered fifteen kilometres already that morning and the rain jacket slowed me down.
Still I ran, ducking the branches that slashed my face and sucking in great gasps of air. Behind me I heard crashing sounds in the undergrowth. I had a chance, I thought. I could outrun them, especially in the woods.
Until I tripped on a tree root and went sprawling on the forest floor. The men were upon me in moments, ripping off the jacket and pinning my arms down. I screamed, not so much from fear as anger. I loved that old jacket — it was the only thing of my father’s that I’d taken with me.
Stan leaned over me, panting. “There’s nothing I like better than a chase to liven things up.”
Behind him, Dwight screamed. Stan twisted around and rose. “What the hell?”
I scrabbled off the ground and stared. Dwight’s face was melting. His gun had fused to his clothes. He fell down, arms and legs flailing. In less than a minute, there was nothing left of him but a pile of oozing flesh and metal.
Stan’s face twisted with rage and fear. “You did this. You goddamn Soliari witch!” He raised his gun and I closed my eyes, thinking of Dad. Bullets were messy. I was glad he had died clean, the time between life and death vanishingly small. I wished I could go like that too — to be here and then to be elsewhere, almost at once.
There was a gurgling noise and I opened my eyes. Stan had dropped his gun and was clutching his torn throat, eyes wide with panic. Blood poured out of the wound and dripped down his hands. I couldn’t help feeling sorry for him, even though he would have killed me in the end. But he took such a long time to die, I half-wanted to pick up his gun and shoot him.
I waited until he finally stopped struggling, and then I picked up my torn jacket and put it on.
“Okay,” I said. “Come out. I know you’re there.”
A few moments passed before the twins emerged from the trees, looking half scared, half defiant.
I wanted to scold them, to punish them. But I couldn’t. I looked at the two dead things on the ground — things that had once been human — and tried not to throw up. I had to get away from there. I beckoned to the twins and we made our way through the undergrowth, back to the clearing.
Then I turned to them and snapped, “Why did you do that? Couldn’t you have just knocked them out?”
They exchanged a look. “You did that, Dulia,” said Lev. “Not us.”
“You know I can’t,” I said. “Why did you follow me anyway?”
“Why did you leave us?” countered Zac.
“You have Mum to look after you,” I said. “I wanted to go see Da— I mean, Englehart.”
Lev made a face. “We’re coming with you.”
“You go right back home,” I said. “Mum will be worried sick.”
“We left her a note,” said Zac. “She knows we’re with you.”
“Look, you’ve got to go back,” I said. “No telling what might break in and try to eat her.”
But they both had a stubborn, set look on their faces that I knew only too well. I threw up my hands. “Fine. But it’s a long way to Englehart. Don’t whine if you get tired.”
But I already knew they wouldn’t. They were grinning like I’d just given them the best present of their lives.
We opened the soldiers’ backpacks. There were packets of noodles, rice crackers, even some tinned meat. I loaded up my knapsack and told the twins to take turns carrying it. The rest I stuffed into one of the backpacks, and hefted it on my shoulder.
“Let’s go,” I said. “Still plenty of daylight left.”
But they lingered. Zac said, “Why does Mum hate you? She doesn’t hate us.”
I tried to speak calmly. “Mum doesn’t hate me. I just remind her of Dad, of the way things used to be before the Soliari came, and how different they are now. It’s hard for her to deal with it.”
They mulled over that. Lev said, “So she doesn’t see us?”
“No,” I said. “She sees only what’s human, the bit she gave birth to. She can’t see the other bits.”
“But you can.”
I looked at them sideways, the way I did sometimes. Their features blurred and the tentacles framing their faces waved softly in the wind. For a moment they looked almost identical to the things I saw drifting across the woods and in my dreams.
But it was still them, my brothers. I reached over and hugged them. “Yes, I can. Come on now.”
It took us another nine days to reach Englehart, following the remains of Trans Canada Highway 11. I’ll never forget that walk, that desolate landscape. Ruined smokestacks stood like sentinels over blasted plains. Gigantic striated rocks brooded over poisoned rivers. Halfway through, we were engulfed by swarms of black flies. The twins didn’t complain, even though I wouldn’t let them bathe in the polluted water to relieve their itch.
Close to Englehart, even the black flies vanished. By the time we reached the glass and metal ruins on the edge of the dead town, it felt like there was nothing human left on the entire planet except us. Maybe even including us.
Rising out of the ruins, like something from one of Dad’s stories, was what I had come to see — a monstrous black dome that glinted in the sun. This was what had killed my father.
We picked our way through the rubble to the edge of the crater that surrounded the dome. I found a rock to sit on, and Zac and Lev perched on either side of me.
Zac said, “They didn’t mean to hurt anyone.”
There was no adequate response to this, so I made none.
Lev added, “I can see Dad. Can you?”
“Hush,” I said. After a while I saw him too, smiling and waving at me so my heart clenched. And then I saw them all, the ghosts of Englehart, drifting through the ruins that surrounded us. Big and small, happy and sad, just the way they were the day they died. It was a trick of the Soliari, nothing more, and yet how I longed for it to be real.
Zac said, “One day they’ll open their domes and we can go in.”
“We’ll go to the stars,” said Lev. “You’ll come, won’t you, Dulia?”
I made a non-committal noise. I didn’t tell him what I thought — that I wouldn’t be around when the Soliari emerged to show their true selves. Only the kids — the ones who could fully adapt to the aliens’ gift — would survive.
Dad and the other ghosts faded with the light. The sun set behind the dome, giving it a bright corona that almost blinded me. I closed my eyes and I could see him still, the after-image burned on the back of my eyelids.
“Goodbye Dad,” I whispered. Then I stood up. “Time to go.”
“Home?” said Lev, sounding disappointed.
I thought of Mum and her endless, black well of anger. “Not yet,” I said. “Let’s go see the world, what’s left of it.”
The twins whooped. I led them out of the rubble of Englehart, back on to the road.
Rati Mehrotra‘s short stories have been published or are upcoming at Apex Magazine, Abyss & Apex, Inscription Magazine, LampLight and Lakeside Circus. Her story “This Is Not What I Wanted for My Birthday” appeared in AE #16.”