If Ned Harrison hadn’t just been widowed, he wouldn’t have fallen for the alien.
I expect Letta Harrison knows that, in Heaven or wherever she’s gone. I hope so — I wouldn’t want her to be angry about this love story.
It’s strange to me that a spacecraft built by creatures who can travel between the stars could just crash into a hayfield, but the rest of the story isn’t hard to believe at all. According to Ned, it wasn’t much of a spaceship anyway, not much bigger than a phone booth — when there used to be phone booths. A pod, Ned called it. Not an escape pod ordinarily, if you’re imagining a space lifeboat. Who’d build escape pods for one person? Not the best strategy for survival. No, this one was equipped to explore.
To hear Ned tell it (and I was the only one who ever did) he didn’t see the crash. Never heard anything either. He just spotted a faint wisp of steam rising like a fugitive soul from a patch of ground at the far southwest corner of his property that’d always been too wet to plough. He hadn’t been down that way in a few days, so he had no way to know how long the wreckage had been there. A crystal lozenge, half hidden by dirt and hay stubble — there wasn’t any long furrow or crater. It was as if the thing had just lost speed in mid-air and come down, straight and hard. The hard landing was obvious, not so much from the condition of the phone booth as its spindly occupant. Even without ever seeing an alien before, Ned was certain the creature’s limbs included some angles that were never meant to be there. For the longest time he didn’t know if it was still alive. It didn’t breathe so’s you could notice, and if it had a pulse Ned couldn’t find it. But after pacing a bare strip in the grass, and nearly scratching a bare strip across his head, Ned realized that the eyes were open, watching him.
The imaginary spaceships I read about as a kid had force fields that would protect the pilot from hard G-forces, including sudden stops. I guess whatever failure drops a flying machine from the sky could mess up the safety features some, too. Any case, this pilot was hurting.
Ned’s not the kind of man would have opened a crashed phone booth from space, left to himself. It was open already, the lid accordioned into a small space over what passed for a pair of feet but looked like furniture casters. So he didn’t have to worry about whether or not the alien could tolerate our air. That question seemed to have been settled — it was still able to move its eyes, if not its broken body. What was obvious, even to a simple man, was that lying broken in its fallen spacecraft wasn’t going to do it any good.
Ned bent down and picked it up.
I know, I know. It could’ve been infected with any number of germs would kill a man stone dead in minutes. Ned just didn’t think of that until a lot later. He saw a person in trouble, pleading with him with eyes of liquid gold, and he did what he would’ve done for any injured waif. Or drunken lumberjack for that matter. He brought it home. Figured he’d go back later to camouflage the wreck a bit more.
The carrying was no effort at all. The creature had two arms, two legs, and a head, but the modeller hadn’t finished putting on all the clay — not by a long stretch. I’ve seen chickens’ feet were fatter than those limbs. Weighed next to nothing. Ned says the blankets on the guest room bed didn’t even dent when he laid it down. Fragile. Delicate. I think that’s the only reason he decided the alien was female. Either that or he just wanted it to be. We never found any evidence one way or another.
All the way in from the field, it hadn’t moved nor made a sound. Then, as he put it on the bed and started to straighten up, the less-injured arm slowly rose, draping a three-pronged hand like a handkerchief about to be dropped by a flirtatious debutante. The dangling fingers brushed Ned’s face and he suddenly felt weak as a new calf, his legs forgetting how to hold him up. He slumped to the floor and nearly passed out from dizziness. He swears it was an hour or more before he could drag himself through the door and over to the couch. Even that much wouldn’t’ve been possible without he’d had a big breakfast of four eggs, ham, and lots of sweet orange juice.
No question, the thing had sucked out his strength like tapping a tree for syrup. Took Ned two days to be able to stay on his feet for longer than a few minutes at a time. He’s sixty-four, but the man is in as good shape as anybody I know.
Was. But that’s getting ahead of myself.
Ned being a farmer — a man of the land, not the city — his first thought while bringing the stranger home hadn’t been to call CNN or tell about it on Facebook but to figure out what he could feed his guest. But it seemed that the question of how this guest intended to be fed had been answered in an unsettling way. He had to think long and hard about that.
You might figure if you were in Ned’s shoes you’d keep your distance from that point on. And he did for a while. Once he was firmly on his feet again he went to the guest room, half-expecting to find the bed empty. It wasn’t. The alien hadn’t moved. He did notice a change, though. The broken arm that had touched him was now straight, the stubby fingers tapping at the coverlet as if in time to a tune. Nothing like a nourishing meal to do a body good. The eyes were brighter, too, but still pleading, Ned was sure. After all, there was a lot more healing left to be done.
He still didn’t go to the cops. Instead he prepared himself a big dinner. Let his chores go for the evening. Got lots of sleep. Ate a hearty breakfast in the morning.
And went to the guest room.
This time it wasn’t as bad. Maybe the alien just hadn’t known how hard that first … feeding would be on Ned. Maybe she realized that it wasn’t smart to kill the goose that lay the eggs, golden or not. Any case, Ned was up and walking around again the next day, though a bit wobbly.
That’s when I dropped by.
See, for years Ned and I would get together maybe once a week, sometimes to play cards, sometimes just to shoot the shit. But in the month since Letta’d died of the cancer I’d tried to get over there every couple of days, figuring he’d be lonely as hell, not used to being by himself like me. Letta was his one and only love for more than fifty years. They’d started dating in high school but might have loved each other long before that, for all I know.
Soon as I saw him I knew something had changed, but he didn’t say anything about it and I didn’t press him. Finally, as we were putting the empties onto the kitchen counter, he told me about the spacecraft in his pasture and the alien in his guest bed.
I felt sick, thinking that whatever’d gone bad with his cider, I’d been drinking from the same batch. Only it wasn’t like he was hallucinating or even drunk. Embarrassed, if anything. He wouldn’t let me go near the guest room. I urged him to tell the police, but I knew he wouldn’t. So I just told him for God’s sake don’t go near that bed again.
He didn’t listen to that, either.
I dropped by a lot after that, sometimes by the front door, more often in the shadows outside one window or another. Just to check on him, you know. And he seemed to be doing OK. Gradually got more comfortable talking about the alien. He called her Astra. I’d never have figured Ned knew even that much Latin.
“Astra don’t talk,” Ned said to me.
“Maybe if some scientists got a chance to meet her …”
“Can’t do that,” he said. “They’d take her away. Anyways, I can’t take her out of the house ’cause she’s a runaway. Big spaceship’d find her and she don’t want to go back.”
“How do you know all this if she doesn’t talk?”
Ned just looked at me with a puzzled face. I could tell he really didn’t know how.
I had to wonder if she was an exile instead of a runaway. Could be her kind of appetite didn’t make her too popular among crewmates. But I don’t claim to know anything about aliens.
Ned did work up the nerve to leave her alone, once. To go into town for groceries, I figured. When he got back I was close enough to see a bag that wasn’t from any grocery store, but I didn’t find out what was in it until that night when I snuck over and saw movement in the dim light of the screened-in porch at the back of the house. Heard music, too. A waltz.
Funny how the sound of violins can soften shadows, bewitch branches into motion, and blur the boundaries between the manufactured and the natural. And there was Ned moving in stiff arcs around the porch with his arms out, and an occasional flash of royal blue below them that I had to stand on my tiptoes to see.
It was Astra. A pale head like a stretched birthday balloon atop a silky blue dress that could have been on a clothes hanger, levitated around the room by a magician. There was no shape to the dress other than what Ned must have imagined for it. He sure was smiling, though.
I stood there, mesmerized, until suddenly the balloon head swivelled and two eyes of liquid gold fixed onto mine. Ned didn’t seem to notice, but I made my exit in a hurry, the night air a relief on my hot face.
I guess maybe they did have something special between them. Only it wasn’t the kind that could last.
The next time I saw Ned, two days later, I could already tell the difference. It seems his body could stand the feedings for a while, but eventually they took their toll. He couldn’t keep doing it — I told him so. He wouldn’t listen. Strangest thing is, the weaker he got, the happier he looked.
“You’re killing yourself,” I said. “Why are you doing this?”
“Love,” he said.
“I’ll talk to her. Maybe she doesn’t realize …”
He put out a hand to stop me.
The smile on his face was joyful, his eyes the wisest I’d ever seen.
Maybe it still wasn’t too late to go to the cops. I don’t know. But I didn’t save my friend because it wasn’t what he wanted.
I said this was a love story. It is. Oh, I guess Ned felt a kind of love for Astra, or at least affection. But mainly gratitude. Because she was taking him to where he could be reunited with Letta.
Now they’re together again in death, wherever that may be.
I saw Astra standing over Ned’s still body for a long, long time. Then those liquid gold eyes found mine.
Maybe that was part of Ned’s plan, too. I’m a lot bigger and stronger and younger than he was, and there’s lots of room at my house.
Scott Overton‘s short fiction has been published in On Spec, Neo-opsis, Tesseracts Sixteen: Parnassus Unbound, Canadian Tales of the Fantastic, and a number of other magazines and anthologies. His mystery/thriller novel Dead Air was published in 2012 by Scrivener Press and shortlisted for a Northern Lit award.