A Special Providence

The mass of blue-gray shapes moved over the dusty plain with perfect coordination and seemingly arbitrary direction, like a shoal of sardines.  A cloud of thick dust rose behind them, and began to drift lazily towards a man perched on a high rock by the side of a small metal building.  The man coughed reflexively, none of the dust actually breaching his air filters, and cleared the chalky film from his faceplate.

An elevated rail line stretched out to either side of the corrugated structure, extending up to the distant mountains and out of sight towards the sea.  The seeming fragility of the white spiderwebs that supported the line was a marvelous lie, one of the few things in the landscape that belied the true nature of the creatures below.

Periodically, a breathy whistling noise rose from the undulating carpet of life.  It would sound several times from one single creature before others began to join in, but it always spread to the entire group until they were a chorus.  Always.

The man climbed down onto a small shelf in the rock, about six feet from the desert floor, and stood with his hands on the hips of his silvery environment suit as the heaving sea of leathery tentacles approached him.  There were no eyes, no hands, and no distinguishable shape to them; just an amorphous mass of appendages nearly twice a man's height.

As the creatures grew close to the rock, a few leathery tendrils about the thickness of a human finger began to brush the man's knees.  He didn't even flinch, instead leaning forward slightly to examine the faint scaling now visible on the surface of their skin.  It had a pattern like tortoiseshell.

One of the structural engineers had said that it was unique to each creature, like a fingerprint.  The man was dubious that anyone could possibly know that.

A few larger appendages brushed against his legs for a moment, and then the waving conglomeration began to ebb out into the dust.  The creature nearest him whistled, and it rippled through the group like an echo.

Several weeks after planetfall, before they had realized who or what the creatures were, some of the colonists had shot at a group who'd approached the human encampment.  The aliens had silently retreated with their wounded colleague, only to return the next day as though nothing had happened, each with a little silver box strapped to one of the thicker tentacles near its crown.  When the colonists had drawn their guns again, the boxes had spoken.  Just once.

“Don't,” they'd said.

One of the colonists had fired a shot anyway.  The bullet had slowed mysteriously as it reached the creature, sparking slightly, and bounced to the ground as if it had merely been thrown.

After that, all the creatures began wearing the little boxes, but little else changed in their behavior.  None of the humans ever shot at them again.

A harsh, piercing tone suddenly cut through the air, causing the man to scrabble at the volume on his earpieces.

The group of aliens below had suddenly spread themselves into a narrow crescent.  He peered toward where the sound seemed loudest, and saw a pool of dark liquid forming beneath one of the creatures that had knotted itself into a tight ball.

The man squinted, quickly finding the gleaming shape at the open end of the crescent.  Each alien had produced a silvery rod from deep within its nest of tentacles, and the man could hear the faint snapping of electrical discharge.  He instinctively drew his legs up beneath him as the gray aliens chased the shining creature away from their group with the rods.

The colonists called them sand crabs, and they were the only land-dwelling creature they had encountered that had shown both the ability and the inclination to kill a human being.  Like most of the animal life on the planet, the crabs had a seemingly endless number of legs of varying sizes.  Each was tipped with a razor-sharp set of pincers, the largest of which could easily snap a human torso in half.

The man fingered his own silver rod he carried in a holster at his hip -- the crabs' carapaces were like steel, and bullets simply ricocheted off them -- and focused his long-range viewer on offending animal.

Thankfully, the crab appeared to be retreating in the opposite direction of the train station.  He turned his viewer to the group of aliens who were now moving with quick purpose back over a nearby ridge.

The injured individual was easy to distinguish, both by its tight, contracted shape, and the trail of dark blood it left behind.  The group passed its wounded member around as they moved, all of the aliens seemingly eager to touch it.  As its peers caressed and held it, each would in turn join it in the strident keening noise it still made.  By the time the group reached the ridge, all of them were crying.  With pain?  Alarm?  Some combination of the two?

There was a settlement over the ridge, with honeycomb buildings made of rooms barely big enough to fit one of the creatures inside.  It had been a mystery at first, those bare and tiny buildings in which the creatures could often be seen resting.  Most of the colonists now agreed that there must be other, larger structures underground where the creatures produced their impressive technology.  No human had ever found anything like this, but it was the best explanation so far.

The man glanced back up the shining rail line, toward the human settlement in the mountains.  Someone would be wondering where he was by now.

A soft scratching noise behind the man made him whirl around as he yanked his electrical prod from its holster.  Expecting a nest of sharp claws, he was surprised by the soft tentacles that greeted him instead.  A single creature, only barely as tall as the rock, hovered next to it.

The man blinked, his mouth open in amazement.

In the twenty-six years since they had landed on this planet, nobody had ever reported having seen one of them alone.

Was it watching him?  He looked around for a larger group, but he could see nothing for miles but dust, rocks, and the train station.

He could be imagining it, but he was almost certain now that it was watching him.  The man dangled his legs over the edge of the rock, and spoke in its direction.

“Are you lost?”

The thing didn't move from its position, but he thought he could detect slightly more rapid movement among the smaller tentacles at the top of it.  The man was about to speak again when a stuttering noise began to emanate from the thing's little silver box.

“You are lost.”

The man recalled the problematic reports he'd heard from other colonists who'd had interactions with individual creatures.

“No, it is a question.  Why are you separated from your group?”

Again, there was a pause.

“You need help.”

The man sighed, and the thing spoke again.

“You need help.”

It extended a single tentacle, and touched his leg with it.  Another soon joined it.  He pulled his leg away, and the tentacles retracted.  The man huddled on top of his rock, his arms around his legs.

“What do you want?”

“You are lost.  You need home.  You need a home.”

The man could not help himself, and began to laugh.  Now you tell us, he thought to himself as he relaxed and watched the thing carefully for any further weirdness.

He should be recording this, he knew.  There was a rich bounty available in the colony for any descriptions of unusual or novel behavior exhibited by their inscrutable hosts.  It had nearly three decades, and they had learned almost nothing about the native civilization of this planet, save their nearly unrelenting benevolence.

The creatures had built the entire rail line within about a month of the colonists' arrival with vast, spidery building machines that had come seemingly come out of nowhere and disappeared just as mysteriously.  The first intrepid colonists to ride the little cars, far too small to accommodate the aliens themselves, had found a city in the cool mountains equipped with greenhouses and living quarters and medical facilities, all far superior to those they had brought from their dismantled ship, the Providence.

Everything, right down to the threading on the bolts that held his kitchen table together, was unmistakably copied from what the humans had brought with them when they landed.  The only pieces of truly alien technology that the aliens had left in the colonists' possession were the electric prods and the train, and none of the scientists had been able to even begin an explanation of how either one worked.  Both were of seamless construction, made of completely unfamiliar alloys that seemed to defy any analysis, and seemed to work via thought alone.

The alien beside the man began to move, startling him to his feet again.  It had begun to spread itself out, flattening itself into a shape he'd never seen before.  Like a giant flower.

Lower and lower, it spread itself onto the baking ground.  The man crouched uncertainly.

“What are you doing?”

“I'm sitting.  Like you.”

It had become a roiling carpet, the tentacles underneath it moving twice as fast as normal to avoid the hot ground.


“You were sitting.  I would like to sit, too.”

An outlandish set of ideas began to dance around in the man's head, still too inchoate to give voice.  It was smaller than any of the creatures he had ever seen, and was behaving very oddly.  Copying everything he did . . .

“Don't you . . . shouldn't you be with a group?  You're always in groups.  Why are you alone?”

“I want to be with you.”

The man blinked rapidly.


The alien's appendages fluttered.

“You need a group.  You will be my group.  I came alone, to be your small group.  Humans have small groups.”

The man smiled and shook his head in wonder, his hypothesis beginning to coalesce.  It was one based wholly on previous experience, but not with the aliens.

“What do you mean we have small groups?  The town over the hill has two hundred humans in it.”

“But you are not all a group.  I have seen you.  You have small groups, sometimes just groups of two.”

“Groups of two.”

“Yes.  I have watched you, in your settlement.”

The man ignored, for the moment, the more disconcerting aspects of the statement.  Since their construction, none of the colonists had ever reported seeing one of the aliens within five miles of the human settlement.

“What you're talking about are families.  These are . . . those groups . . . that is how we raise our young.  Our children.”

“You have no . . . children.  You have no group.  I will be your group.”

The man's breath caught in his throat, and he cleared the dust from his faceplate in lieu of touching his actual face as the thing continued.  It was too bizarre to be true, and drew the strangest mix of feelings the man had ever felt up from a place he had thought long sealed.

“You were in group of three.  You, and a genetically dissimilar group-mate, created a child.  Now they are gone.”

The man sat again, his breath humming in his throat.  He was beyond caring how the creature knew all this, what the implications of that were.  Instead, he found himself crippled by the thing's terse assessment of his loss.  The edges seemed suddenly sharper, denuded of any importance like some ancient skeleton unearthed by an impassive archaeologist.

He glanced down at the slate-colored alien beneath him.  It was exactly the same color as the rock he was on, complete with a fine gray coating of dust.  Perfectly at home.

When the humans had first set down, before they'd realized how toxic the metallic dust in the air was, nearly all of the members of the survey team had begun to develop severe renal and pulmonary dysfunction.  In two of the members, it eventually led to kidney failure.  They had been in the process of making their peace with the world of the living when the party of aliens had come for them.  In two days, of which the sick men remembered nothing, they were returned to the settlement in complete and perfect health.

It had happened two more times, once with an advanced case of bone cancer diagnosed as terminal back on the Providence, before the colonists finally realized the absolute and very clearly defined line that their new hosts would not cross in their benevolence.  Or couldn't cross; nobody knew which.

The man's wife had been the first to give birth on the new planet, and one of the last.  It was six agonizing months before the child died of multiple organ failure, five months longer than any of the others.

Parties were sent to the alien settlements, and ignored.  The human doctors frantically tried to at least find a cause for the deformities, if not a cure, and a thousand theories sprang up.  Tiny amounts of the cadmium and lead from the dust outside leaking into the water.  Some heretofore unknown side effect of the slightly lower oxygen levels in the air.  The strong magnetic fields of the planet.  Nobody knew. One thing quickly became clear, however: all of the women who had actually given birth had been pregnant when they had made planetfall.  As the years stretched on, it became painfully obvious that, whatever the cause, no new children were even being conceived.

The man on the rock finally caught his breath, pawing with frustration at the tears he couldn't wipe away.  He coughed inside his suit, and adjusted his air flow.

“Yes.  We were . . . my wife and I . . . we had a child.  That was our group, our family.”

“They are gone.”

The man hunched forward, wrapping his arms around his knees.

“Yes, they are gone.”

A low noise, something like a small motor, began to emanate from the alien, but it said nothing.

The man took a deep breath and glanced at the little globe the hung from the train station.  It was beginning to glow, although still a pure white color.  He looked over again at the alien, who showed no signs of moving.

"Look . . . it's been . . . nice talking to you.  And I appreciate, I guess, that you . . . want to be in a group with me?  But I need to be alone, right now, okay?  Wouldn't you rather be with your group?”

The purring noise began to get louder.  The man's head was throbbing from the congestion brought on by his tears, and the anxiety brought on by the approaching train.

“Really, I need you to go now.  Please.  Go away.”

The thing extended to its full height, taller than the man, but only half again as wide.

“You are my group.”

The man looked over at the globe.  It had begun to add the faintest rosy pink to its white glow.  The train was probably no more than three stops away.

The man gritted his teeth, choking back a sob, and pulled the electrified rod from his side, brandishing it at the thing.  He had no idea if it would even hurt it.  It backed away slightly, the noise subsiding.

“Go!  I will use this!”  he turned it all the way up, to demonstrate, “leave me alone!”

The thing backed away several more feet.  A series of trembling waves spread in the tentacles over its entire body.

“You . . .”


The man jumped down off the rock, and the thing swept back about six feet.  It held its ground, all of its tentacles shaking.

“There is space for everyone here.”

The man cried out in response to those words and lunged at the thing, a hot and complex rage pushed suddenly to the surface of his consciousness at the sound of those words.  The jagged scream of an animal rose in his throat as he thrust the rod into the gray shape.

The creature fled, and the man collapsed back against the rock, sobbing.

There is space for everyone here.

Those were the words they had heard, twenty-six years ago, when they had sent their first radio transmission to this beautiful new planet.  Just one response to their litany of questions, information, and carefully prepared statements.  Just one sentence to mark the end of over four hundred years of history and culture and memory, the search for a new planet that had slowly become, over the years, the magical answer to nearly any seemingly impossible longing.

They had trusted in the message, trusted that this little brown world was to be the destiny around which fifteen generations had built a life of dreams.

None of them had questioned their own interpretation of its meaning.

There is space for everyone here.

The man watched the creature until it retreated over the nearby ridge, and then he slowly began to move towards the train station.  He looked up at the globe -- the train was no more than two stops away -- and climbed the stairs to the platform, adjusting his oxygen supply as he wheezed from the effort.

Neither he nor Ann had been a romantic.  Neither had ever stood in the orrery and dreamt of some new paradise where the answer to life itself would be revealed, nor had either of them obsessed over the archives, sighing bitterly over images of waterfalls and beaches from old Earth.  When that message had come, although neither of them had dared speak such heresy, they had both met the news with dread.  The colonists' ancestors may have been brave and adventurous, but adventurousness didn't sustain a society of thousands.

People like Ann did.  She had attacked her work as an environmental horticulturist with the enduring passion and energy and pride of one who truly loved their little world on the Providence.  It was one of four massive ships that had literally stripped the last life from a ruined Earth, but it had been hundreds of years since anyone on the Providence felt an allegiance to anything other than the ship itself.

The man could now see the train on the dry horizon.  He mounted the platform with a sigh and glanced up at the tiny green glint of the settlement on the mountain, where the ruins of the Providence were to live out their final days.  He quickly turned his attention back to the approaching point of light down the track.

It had been twenty years since Ann had taken this same train out to the coast, walked into the ocean, and drowned herself.  Others had assumed that she had fallen into the deep depression that finally claimed her due to the loss of their son, but the man now knew better.  He had finally come to realize what Ann had understood twenty years ago.

He knew the true meaning of that first message the colonists had received.

There was room on this planet for everyone that had been on the ship when it landed, and not a single child more.  There was no room for anything new -- no room for a generation of human children who would see this planet as their home, as their birthright.

The point of light had become the round front of the express shuttle from the mountain settlement to the coast.  It was the same train that Ann had taken that day, and it did not stop at this station.

The man spread his arms, his face relaxing as a cool sense of relief spread throughout his body.  He smiled gently, and fell back onto the track.

*        *        *

Halfway up the ridge, from behind a large rock, a single gray shape tentatively emerged.

The creature hovered uncertainly for a moment, and then glided over the desert to where the man's body had been thrown aside by the front of the train's suspension field.

Slowly, it extended one, then five, then twenty of its prehensile appendages towards the body.  Again and again it touched, delicately turning the man over several times.  Finally, it carefully pulled the body up into itself, and began to carry it back up the ridge.

A high, sharp keening began to rise from it.  Louder and louder, it cried out with a new and unfamiliar pain, uncertain of how to find relief from it.

It was unable to hear and feel others of its kind nearby, others who would come and share its pain.  It felt a deep fear rising up inside it as it called out blindly into the desert, seeking any that might hear it.

But for the first time in its life, in the life of any of its kind, it was alone.


About twenty years ago, now, it all began with a nagging sense that I'd forgotten something. It's hard to believe I can remember the exact moment, the butterflies in my stomach that brought me back down the hall to my front door, back into my apartment, and down into the hell of a life I have now. But that was it; I stood with my hand over the doorknob, unable to touch it. Like after we had scooted over the new carpets, as children, and thrilled ourselves by daring each other to touch the brass clock.

My landlord coming up the stairs finally drove me to grab the thing and open the door. I was behind on the rent again, and the fear of losing my apartment was stronger than much else at that point. I would lose rent control, have to sell all my records . . . I forced my hand down onto the metal, and the cold brass slid innocuously into my palm. My landlord saw me anyway, me laughing with relief, and waved a notice at me with a scowl.

The fear returned in the darkness of my apartment, and the familiar shadows seemed to swim like the bedroom ceiling after a nightmare. I jumped at the refrigerator cycling on, and jumped again at a car outside, and spun around and into the bathroom door in frantic panic at the sight of my cat streaking past me.

My heart began to pound so hard it hurt, so that I could feel it in my eyes like a tight rubber band. Literally one step at a time, I forced myself into my own apartment and to the light switch across the room. But, of course, I never got there.

I don't remember any sound, although my neighbors report a deafening crash. One whole wall of my apartment erupted. I do remember plaster, and records, everywhere. Records flying out, towards the other wall, in slow motion . . . and the twelve-foot-tall library bookcase in front of me, a bookcase full of at least two-hundred pounds of records and books, slammed down exactly three inches from my feet.

I stood perfectly still for about ten minutes, looking down at my feet, and up at the wall. The bolts stuck out like ugly fingers from the cracked plaster, which was sloughing off in sheets. I could see the bricks behind it.

Down at my feet. Up at the wall. Although it all sounded distant, like I were underwater, I could hear sirens, and shouting, and I began to notice that the mortar between some of the bricks was loose and crumbly. That was when I finally backed into the kitchen, and sat at my table. I wasn't going to make it to work.

They kicked me out of my apartment, obviously, while they assessed whether or not the building was still sound. The police held me for about twenty minutes while they questioned me, and I got a chance to see the delivery truck that had slammed into the side of the building. The driver was killed instantly, I read later, which was obvious to me the minute I saw the twisted remains. They say the brakes failed, that he was going at least forty miles an hour when he hit the outside wall.

Shaken badly, I headed straight for the hotel room and simply sat for several hours in its dark silence. I'd snuck my cat into my hotel room, and she was asleep in my lap. By nightfall, I was finally calm enough to order a pizza and come back to life a little bit. If you were going to be evicted, I thought smugly as a I poured myself a cup of hot tea off the hot plate, you might as well be evicted from an apartment that just had its external wall knocked in.

But as I raised the cup to my lips, I noticed my hand had begun to shake. Sour bile crept up in my throat, and the tea did not force it back down. My heart began to pound, again, harder and harder, until I was sure the people in the room next door could hear it.

I switched from tea to wine, and then from wine to bourbon, and drank myself into such a stupor that I was nearly four hours late for work the next day. The hotel claimed they had called my room for a wake-up, but I remember nothing.

One of the new hires was late with me, and I managed to slink around him as he was being dressed down and make it into the locker room before the manager saw me. The new guy joined me there in several minutes, his eyes looking up at me like a bloodhound and his face as long.

I managed what I think was a smile, but I'm not sure what it looked like because my heart began to pound again. There, underneath the hangover, it was still there. I excused myself quickly, and almost didn't make it to the bathroom again; I threw up until my ribs ached. When I came out, the new assistant manager, the one who wanted that management position, the one who had caught me making lewd tableaus with the produce, was watching the bathroom door.

We only had to make eye contact for her to get his message across to me. I was finished.

“There's a cart out on the corner again. Go bring it into the parking lot. After that, come see me in my office.”

My legs shook, the room was strangely dim, and my heart was louder than anything else I could hear at this point. But not because of my impending job loss, not because I would suddenly be out of both a job and a place to live; that would have made sense, but this was a nameless fear. There was something else.

The cart had actually veered into the crosswalk, and a man was trying to wrestle one of its wheels up out of a storm drain. I headed toward them mechanically, exhausted and dizzy with fear. I entered the crosswalk just as the woman made her sharp right, and faced the grill of her enormous car with two options: down to the ground or onto the hood. My body made the decision for me, and I lost consciousness on her windshield without even seeing her face.

But I strangely, vividly remember her hairstyle. Large, dark, and frosted at the very tips. It was scalloped and pointy like a big brown and gold meringue. I was pondering this hair seemingly moments before a man suddenly shined a tiny flashlight in my right eye and asked me what year it was. I was suddenly lying down. I think I vomited on him, but I don’t know if I answered the question.

I do remember a light sense of joy, however, almost immediately. The fear was gone. Its simple absence made even a hospital seem like paradise.

My mother was the first person to inform me of my wondrous luck. Although she obviously hadn’t witnessed the accident, and indeed had not approached any closer than her usual three thousand miles since it’d happened, she had it on good information from the hospital staff that I had been mere inches from death. And in my stupor of painkillers, I had told her about the apartment. And the job.

“People reinvent themselves over less than this,” she said, taking a long drag off her cigarette, and exhaling into the phone, “you’re too lucky.” I could tell she was making dinner because I could hear her swear under her breath every few minutes at the food. A series beeps would interrupt us as she squeezed the phone between her ear and shoulder and stirred something frantically, “you're going to end up in the gutter one of these days, just dead. And I'm going to have to go down there and identify the body, and say to those people 'that's my child, and I don't know why she didn't listen to me and . . . and . . . figure her life out before this happened . . .”

She finished the sentence with the long sigh that had become a part of it at this point.

She’d given up. She was going through the motions. There had been real feeling in her speeches, at one point, but years of studious apathy on my part had killed it. She’d moved on to my younger sister and brother, and was preparing herself for their children.

“Mother, I'm fine.”

They released me from the hospital only hours after I’d been admitted, with nothing more than a mild concussion and a few bruised ribs. The doctor stressed the fact that I’d been lucky. Amazingly lucky. With the bruising on my head, she professed great surprise at not seeing more damage inside. The woman who'd been driving the car had collided with another vehicle coming out of the parking lot, and had still not recovered consciousness. Apparently, I had rolled off her hood just in time to avoid being crushed between the two cars.

“You’re fine,” she smiled and patted my shoulder brusquely, standing to usher me out, “you’ve got a hard head!”

The nurse offered to call a cab, and escorted me to the taxi stand on her way to have a cigarette. She sat by me on the little concrete bench that used to be for smoking.

She’d had a nephew my age, she told me, who’d been hit by a car in a crosswalk, just like me, and died. She described the accident in detail, emphasizing how each gruesome injury could have been mine. Two hook and ladders passing through the intersection ended the list. The nurse abandoned her story to scratch at something that looked like toothpaste on the knee of her green pants, and smoke in silence. I stared at the toothpaste stain on the toothpaste colored pants, and said nothing. Finally, the nurse sighed a long sigh.

“We all have our place in this universe, you know, and . . . he was part of that,” she sighed, “I think this is just one more sign that you’ve still got things to do here.” She leaned in a little, smelling of baby powder and cigarettes and smiled. Then she was gone, snubbing out her cigarette and returning to her shift.

The cab was warm and claustrophobic, smelling of nachos and stale beer. I had to stop five blocks from the hotel before I was sick in the back seat, but I tipped the driver generously.

And the minute I stepped outside, I started to sweat and shake. I began to look behind me, over and over again, as I walked, until my neck became sore from doing it. I stopped at a bench to stretch, trying to breath slowly and relax.

Three young women were out in their bikini tops on a balcony across the street, and they blended into the bronzy windows of the building behind them. Three young men led a class of schoolchildren down the sidewalk on a field-trip. The kids were about three feet tall, and looked like tiny postal workers in their uniforms. A clarinet floated over from some other corner, grandmothers argued in Cantonese, ten tiny dogs swarmed out from a single leash.

I stopped, doubled over, like I’d been punched in the stomach, unable to decide what to do. An old woman in gray sweats passed me and narrowed her eyes.

“Crazy,” she muttered just loud enough for me to hear. She made an exaggerated arc around a parking meter to avoid me.

I started walking again towards the corner, and looked slowly from right to left. On my side of the street was a branch of my bank, on the other side a liquor store and a dry cleaners. I waited for the light to change, my head buzzing and my fingertips tingling. It was coming.

Three people came out of the bank, looking around frantically. They seemed stunned, their legs bent and guns out in front of them. They wore balaclavas. It wasn’t funny, but I found myself laughing under my breath. Just like a movie. Something was missing. A car, maybe? A man came running to them out of the park, shouting something. We heard the first sirens, from four directions. Then the building alarm at the bank.

Five cars arrived nearly simultaneously. The first police officer out of his car was shot; so was one of the children caught in-between him and the gun. I crouched, counting gunshots with my eyes closed. I heard a scream and footsteps very close to me. I rolled to the side as a burning pain ripped into my lower back.

Eventually, I was lifted onto a stretcher, and someone was putting a plastic mask over my face. It smelled like a new pool toy. I heard the word kidney from somewhere near my head, and then something poked into my side and I passed out.

I awoke, with all kinds of tubes in my arms, in what I knew from endless hours of hospital drama shows to be the ICU.

The first thing that came to my mind was a little braid of hair, soft and dark brown, lying on the sidewalk next to a motionless face. I could see the reflection of my eye in one of the shiny, pink balls at the end of it. One of the children on the field trip.

I stared at the ceiling of the room, trying to will the image to leave my mind.

The nurse that came to check on me was the same nurse that had called me the cab. This time her face was lined with exhaustion. How long had it been since I’d last seen her? She looked like a caricature of a sleepy person, like a cartoon character who might try to prop open her eyelids with a tiny jack.

She didn’t say anything to me at first, instead attending to another patient in the room. When it was my turn, she came to my bedside and quietly busied herself with my IV drip.

“So, what’s the prognosis?”

“Well, you’ve been in surgery for several hours. Do you remember anything?”


I didn't tell her about the little girl.

“You were shot. They had to remove one of your kidneys.”

A cold sensation washed over my face and throat. She smiled a little, cool and professional, and patted my hand.

“The bullet went right through your kidney, and didn't do any other damage. I know it sounds alarming, and it's nothing to take lightly, but you'll be okay. You can live with one kidney just fine. You'll be out of here in no time.”

“Well that’s good, I guess . . .”

She interrupted me with a stern, quizzical look, and put one hand on her hip.

“You know,” she put my chart back at the foot of my bed and came to my side again, leaning on the wall behind us, “I don't want to scare you, but you were right in the line of fire. I have to tell you that most of the people around you were either killed, or very seriously injured. You must have been standing in exactly the right place, at exactly the right time.”

She fixed her large, unblinking eyes right on my pupils until I had to look down at my hands.

“I know I don’t have to tell you this, but,” she cocked a thick eyebrow and chuckled a tiny bit out of the side of her mouth as she adjusted the blinds.

“You’re lucky to be alive.”

Gold stripes cut across my legs and knees, and she left the room.

I could tell you more, but you could probably guess the details just as well. These days, I just live for the moments I don't have the fear. Let me tell you: there's nothing like a little peace when you haven't felt it in a while.

I get by. I'm not like some animal, or anything. I stay away from the city, until I need to eat. There's a man that brings me bagels, sometimes, on his way to work. He even bought me coffee, once.

Nobody ever really bothers me, not anymore. The people on the street know me, and the people at the shelters won't take me anymore. Not that I'd try to stay there; I did at first, but not anymore, not after the first few times . . . well, there's little kids in those shelters, sometimes. I've seen one child die in front of me, I just couldn't stand it if it happened again.

Mostly, I sleep out at the beach. Every once in a while, some new young cop comes onto the beat and I start getting taken downtown for a while until things start happening, and people start getting hurt. He either learns his lesson, or the other police that already have get him removed. The last thing they want to see downtown is my face.

I can't count the number of people I've seen fall from the cliffs; I used to sleep on the beach itself, but the paramedics kept having to fish me out. Now I just figure, well, there's signs posted. These cliffs are dangerous, those fool kids don't need to know why. At least the people who fall, I know they've been warned.

And, well, I wait. I wait for death, I suppose, but the creeping feeling that it's not coming for a while has taken root lately. I've been inches from it, like my mother said years ago, literally thousands of times.

They don't talk about it at the hospitals. They don't keep any files at the station downtown. But they know; we all know. When I say I have a feeling something bad is going to happen, you want to get as far away as you can.

At least, there is a thread of comfort I've grabbed onto lately. It makes me smile, as I'm drifting off to sleep. The thing is this: I have to die, someday. I've been close to it enough times, but I'm still a human being. It'll come, one way or another.

And the thing that gives me joy, where there was none before, is this:

I am certain, when my time is here, that I will never see it coming.

The Nautilus

“This inexplicable sadness will destroy you in the end,” said Nautilus to Magpie. She waved her tentacles to form the words in her mute, fluid sign language.

It was better than ‘cheer up;’ it would’ve sounded much nicer if it had made any sound. Last words should sound nice, if nothing else.

Magpie's eyes were the only thing moving as he watched Nautilus' tentacles go slack for the last time. He couldn’t have said anything even if he'd wanted to; his beak had crusted over with salt. And now, the girl held Nautilus up, in her pincers: her trophy. Magpie noticed the sticky gleam where the points began to pull her slack body from the shell, and closed his eyes.

He had come to see his best and only friend because he had been so long in the mountains. One sunny morning had drooped into slow rain, and the apple snails had started wandering around on the logs, and suddenly the years of missing her all stacked up at once. Those brown, coiled shells, wet and shiny, were her shell. The doddering little snails were nothing like Nautilus, but their shells were a sad copy. Like the little, red windflowers in the grass copied the astonishing, blue sea-anemones.

Magpie found Nautilus in the same place he had first found her. He was careful not to step on any anemones this time, and thought he had avoided getting stung, until he saw Nautilus. And his foot disappeared into the the irritable, contracting balloon. Yanking his sore leg up and out of the thing, Magpie cocked his head at the change in Nautilus. She was almost larger than him, now.

But soon, they’d chatted about next to nothing, just like always, and Magpie tried to pretend he'd never left. The tide pools, the beach, the cliffs, the water, all exactly the same. But every time he looked back down, the fantasy washed away.

So it was Magpie, looking discreetly over his friend at the strand beyond her, who noticed it first.

Just a tiny shadow crawling across the sand to the base of the rocks. It disappeared out of view as it came closer to the base of the jetty, and Magpie asked Nautilus what kind of person could possibly be out at the beach at this time of day, in this kind of weather. The sun about to set, enormous violet thunderheads rising up out of the clouds.
Nautilus said that she didn’t know, but seemed a little upset. But she always seemed a little upset. Magpie dictated each movement he saw to Nautilus, who couldn’t see up over the edge of her pool. A little girl, finally, with messy brown hair, winding and hopping slowly across the tide-pools like she were dancing. Something in her hands.

Then, Nautilus wanted to see.

Gently, Magpie tried to lift Nautilus up in his beak, as he'd done when she were smaller, but she was too big to fit. Eventually he had to stand with his mouth to the ground as she twined her soft tentacles cautiously around the sharp points of his beak. She suckered herself to it, but her shell dangled wildly off the end. Magpie watched the velvety horseshoe of her eye flap closed to focus, straining to keep his sharp beak still. He could so easily cut her soft little body like this, without even knowing it; she could fall; she used to fit so safely inside.

“It’s doubt,” Nautilus gestured emphatically with all ten of her legs pointing out from her face. She swayed and waved frantically to be let down.

Magpie put her gently into the water, stepping aside as she swam briskly to her niche between the rocks. She curled up into her shell the slightest bit, and sat very still, and neither of them said another word.

Magpie had heard of doubt, but had never seen her before; he took another look and watched the pale thing skip across one of the channels. She looked like any other little girl, but he'd heard enough to know better.

“I could carry you, and fly away to somewhere safe.”

“Your beak is too sharp for me to hang on that long.”

“I could carry you with my feet, and you could hang on to my legs with your suckers.”

The image of the seagulls taking up the sea snails and dashing them against sharp rocks to pick out their bodies came suddenly to his mind as he said it. He wondered if it came to hers. They both knew that he would never hurt her. He was not a sea bird, anyway.
Nautilus sat for a long time with her legs curled into a little flower around her mouth, watching him out of one, delicate, saucer-eye.

“Anyway, where else could I go?” she’d said, fluttering out from behind a piece of coral, “This pool has been my home since I hatched. Even when the tide is high enough for me to swim out on my own, I never want to.”

Magpie couldn't say where she should go.

He just stood and watched as the girl came closer, rubbing his head against his side as the spray needled his eyes. The tide was coming in, and the white foam that flew off it began to coat him in brine.

Doubt stopped several times to comb some of the tide-pools. The salt began to lodge between Magpie's feathers, while Nautilus drifted mutely in and out of the antler-like red coral.

Finally, as she climbed the little bluff beneath them, Magpie could see what she was carrying.
In one hand she gripped a bucket and a large net, and in the other a set of calipers. Her arms stretched out ridiculously straight to either side, balancing as she tiptoed over the slippery rocks. Her tongue stuck out endearingly in a look of deep concentration, and her pale eyebrows knit together charmingly over her snub little nose.

And Magpie shuddered. He couldn't have carried Nautilus away by then, even if she had wanted him to. The salt had weighted down his feathers, and he would be too heavy to fly. He probably could have just barely lifted himself.

So he stood, transfixed by the tools, and watched in silence as the girl closed the last few hundred yards between them. The steel of the calipers had a mirror-shine, except where it was dull at the ends from sharpening, where they were stained with the purple and black and red blood of an army of different kinds of little creatures. And the net, an odd thing to carry to the tide pools. It was long and attenuated, but wide at the mouth; the kind of net that people used to catch butterflies.

And birds.

College Life

“I think what we’re really seeing here is the loss of a feeling of connection with reality,”

The television was on in the background, but Rachel hadn’t really been watching it. She had the sound turned down so low she could only make out exactly what was being said if she concentrated very hard.

“Oh yeah?” she said to herself, and watched the images on the screen for a few seconds. The camera panned out over the bobbing sea of heads at a nightclub. Rhythmic, bass-heavy music could be heard muffled and distorted behind the newscaster’s voice. Several high-school snapshots flashed on the screen, accompanied by quick litanies of biographical information. All Rachel heard were the names.

The newscaster's face was grave, and Rachel heard just enough of the story to know that it was an exposé of some kind. The words ‘youth’ and ‘culture’ peppered the report, and the didactic graphics that were currently whizzing across the screen seemed to describe a new drug of some kind.

Someone had certainly been killed.

Rachel got up and turned the television off, looking briefly around for the remote first. Angel had probably taken it to bed with him again, she guessed, so she didn’t look too hard. Who wanted to go into Angel's room? It was the kind of place where he could easily be hiding a large dresser or a compost heap or a supercomputer console, and nobody would ever know under all that stuff.

A loss of a feeling of connection with reality my ass, she thought to herself as she stared at the blank face of the television. Just because somebody won’t swallow the plastic-wrapped version of ‘reality’ that the mass media tries to feed them, Rachel thought, all the sheep automatically assume that person is out of touch.

Rachel had been studying for her psychology midterm, and it had gotten her all stressed out because she only really understood about half the material and the test was in two days. It was time to stop for the night, before she chewed the ends off all her pencils. She didn’t feel like she was going to be getting to sleep anytime soon, however, and she needed to get to work in the morning. Maybe she could take a bath? Have a glass of wine? She went to the liquor cabinet, futilely hoping that Carlos and his girlfriend hadn’t finished the Carlo Rossi.

Rachel opened the cabinet, and found something small and gray-blue sitting in it. It looked like a little person, except that it was only about six inches high, had no ears, and had leathery wings folded up behind it. It was sitting, with its knees drawn up in front of it, sleeping.

As she turned on the light to have a better look, though, it woke up with a start. Its eyes were small, and beady, and black.

“Hi!” it said.

“Hi,” said Rachel. The two of them just looked at each other and blinked for several moments.

“I’m Maurice,” said the thing.

“I’m Rachel,” said Rachel. She didn’t extend her hand to shake like she normally would, obviously. They looked at each other again for several minutes, and then the creature stood up and dusted itself off. Himself, she corrected herself. Although it didn't appear to have any gonads, it had said its name was Maurice.

“Well," he looked around and sighed, "I suppose I’ll be going now.”

Rachel didn’t say anything as he jumped down from the liquor cabinet onto the counter-top. He extended his wings as he did so, catching enough air to glide down softly.

He puffed his chest out slightly, then looked up at Rachel and winked and smiled. He stretched his legs, arms and wings, popped his back, and took to the air. As Rachel watched, he flew to the open window nearest to her and ascended up and out of her apartment. It was the one window in the house without a screen.

Rachel stood for several minutes just staring out the window at the house next door, then turned back to the liquor cabinet. There was a sticky-looking stain where the thing had been sitting, and a strange smell that she hadn’t noticed before.

It was definitely time to replace the screen in the window.

When she woke up for work in the morning, Carlos was already in the kitchen, and coffee was brewing. That was odd, considering he went to work an hour later than she did, and usually didn’t get up any earlier than twenty minutes before his shift was about to start.

“Decided to start showing up on time?” she asked as she shuffled into the kitchen, rubbing her eyes.

“Yeah,” said Carlos. He sounded distracted. Rachel opened her eyes, and noticed that he was looking into the liquor cabinet.

“Hey, do you know what the hell this is?” he turned and held up a sticky fingertip, “it's all over in here. It smells like . . . watermelon,” he sniffed again, and made a face, “and cockroaches.”

“I found some weird little creature in there last night, I guess it had flown in and just gone to sleep. Angel must’ve left the liquor cabinet open again.”

“Where is it now?”

“Flew away,” Rachel said with a yawn.

“Huh,” was all Carlos said. He proceeded to pour himself a cup of coffee, and Rachel did the same.

“Did it say anything?” Carlos asked after several minutes. Rachel looked up at him. He must have seen it, to ask that question. He must have, and just wasn’t owning up to it.

“Yeah, it said its name was Maurice,” Rachel replied from over the top of the newspaper she was reading, giving him a challenging stare that he ignored completely. Carlos was back to inspecting the liquor cabinet. He gave one last sniff, and wrinkled his nose.

“You hear they’re bombing again overseas?” Rachel asked as she perused the story from the front page. The story was not about the bombing overseas, it was about a little girl that had gone missing from an affluent neighborhood. Snatched right out of her front yard, the headline screamed in huge letters.

“Yeah,” said Carlos, “there’s a protest at three. You should go.”

“Mmmm,” said Rachel, neither agreeing nor disagreeing.

“Hey, the wine’s gone!” Carlos said as he rummaged through the bottles. “I figured you and Stacey had drunk it,” Rachel said, and took a sip of her coffee.

“Nope,” said Carlos, reaching far back into the cabinet, and producing an empty bottle, “I left this here full.”

“Huh,” said Rachel.

Both of them peered at the wine bottle carefully, and Carlos ran his hand along the side. There were a series of tiny holes in the glass, that looked like they had been drilled into it. A strange look came over Carlos' face, and he put the bottle in the recycling hastily.

“We should really replace that screen as soon as possible.”

He slammed the liquor cabinet closed with a crack, and poured himself another cup of coffee.

Crowd Control

I always start the story at the corner, by the liquor store, where I'd gotten one of those fish-shaped ice-cream things. The ones with the red bean paste. When they were questioning me, in the place they said was a hospital, they would rush me on to the fire. But I wouldn't let them, because I think it really started at that corner.

Besides, after telling the story as many times as I have, you begin to get a rhythm. And it made them uncomfortable, to hear me talk about the man in the Bermuda shorts when he had still been relatively normal. It obviously bothered them, that I had seen him that way.

And when you're sitting in some backless gown on a hard plastic chair in some godawful windowless medical dungeon right out of some episode of the X-files, being questioned for the fifth time by a man in a lab coat who sounds he smokes five packs a day and looks like he eats limes for breakfast, it's really great to make someone else uncomfortable.

So . . .

I heard the fire-engines screaming and grunting their way through the rush-hour traffic at least fifteen minutes before I saw them. The smoke from the fire had grown into a velvety black column before the first hook and ladder even whizzed by in front of me.

I stopped just before turning the corner, while the grassy hill still blocked my view of the actual fire, and a man bumped me gently in the arm with his cold paper bag of beer. It was a Saturday, and the park was full of sunbathers and their paper bags full of beer.

“I'll bet it’s that trailer up there. It’s really going up. Man, you should take a look. Watch that thing go.”

The Bermuda shorts had been dark blue, with light blue hibiscus flowers on them, and he had been wearing a shirt that said “I love California.” As soon as the light had changed at the intersection, he jogged off around the corner.

I waited a little bit longer. The air smelled like plastic and tires burning, and the smoke had begun to fill the neighborhood with an acrid haze that stung my nose. They asked about the smell more than anything else, when they questioned me later. “Acrid?” they'd ask. Yes, acrid, I'd say. Like when I'd set my Barbie dolls on fire as a child.

By the time I began to move towards the fire, the column of smoke had become a snake, like the kind that popped out of trick nut cans. Black and velvety and bumpy, spiraling up unsteadily into the air.

I went through three more cycles of the light turning green, then red, then green, then red, then I joined a mass of people crossing. Mostly, they had come down off the hill where they had been sunbathing, leaving now that the area was thick and uncomfortable with smoke. A woman next to me carried a small baby in an orange linen sling, and was busily folding a piece of the linen up as she walked to make a little mask for the child.

But, of course, she'd been walking towards the fire. Everyone had been walking towards the fire, even me.

“Do you remember why you walked towards it?” they'd ask me; it seemed like every other question. I told them they should know, the first time they'd asked, they'd done enough tests and stuck me with enough needles to know everything about me. “Would you like us to do more tests?” had been the sarcastic response, so I answered again. And again.

No, I don't remember why I went towards it. To see what was going on, maybe? Wasn't that natural?

The fire engines kept coming. How many had there been -- five? seven? People were flushed and coughing, milling around on all corners as they gently moved towards the scene.

I didn't see any trailer on fire; it was a house that was burning when I got there. A little one-story bungalow-type house nestled in-between the larger two- and three-story Victorians. The house itself was gutted by the time I saw it, and the fire quickly spread to the two adjoining houses. I could feel the heat from the end of the block.

The car in front of the house had burned, as well, and burned completely. It must have been where the acrid smell was coming from. Not just the car, I gradually noticed, but the garden. The mailbox. It was like a wall of flames had just been sprayed over the house and the land in front of it.

The fire jumped to another roof as I watched, and a fourth house began to burn. House, car, front lawn, everything.

The fire was so furious now that it was creating a hot wind, picking up fallen leaves and tossing them in our faces. Police on the scene were herding us back away from the row of houses. I moved as they moved me, slowly and mechanically, but I couldn't leave. There was something I needed to see, I remember.

“So you do remember why you went,” they'd ask. No, I'd say. I just remember why I stayed.

A fifth, and a sixth house in the row caught fire, and the police began to shout. The firefighters were backing up, waving them to keep us away. But, there was something I needed to see. I don't remember why, I don't know if I ever knew the reason, but I know there was something there I needed to see.

The police were on a bullhorn, saying something I could only half understand, and I moved back with the rest of the people. Slowly, and reluctantly. Step by step.

A woman screamed, and the sound briefly snapped me out of the trance I'd fallen into, allowing me to catch a clear glimpse of the larger scene around us. The police were everywhere, with guns and riot shields, hastily constructing an enormous barrier between the crowd and the fire. They were pushing people back from it with batons, and the people moved like cattle. Never taking their eyes off the fire.

The fire. Somewhere in the distance, a deep, rhythmic noise began to thrum through the smoke. Seven, then eight more houses caught fire, and it quickly spread to the gardens, the cars, and the parking strips in front of them. Even the grass was burning.

The barrier wound around to me, and a police officer prodded me with a baton. I plodded backwards, eyes on the flames, until I was behind the wall and the officer moved on. They moved down the line to herd the rest of the crowd, but I stood where I was and watched the fire. I desperately needed to see.

The thrumming grew louder as, slowly, the houses were gutted and blackened, the fire hot enough that my lips became dry and cracked, and my eyes stung in the hot wind. A second voice came on the bullhorn but, by this time, I couldn't hear what it was saying.

The ninth house caught fire, which was the second from the end of the block. An enormous fist of flames shot out, through twenty feet of clear air, and ignited the huge oak tree in front of the house. The thrumming had become deafening, and a hurricane of wind blew the breath right out of me. The fire danced crazily in and out of the whirlpool of air.

More police were coming now, but these were different. In black, with large guns and larger shields, they came at us slowly. We moved slowly, backwards, eyes on the fire. Just exactly as slowly as they moved, and when they quickened, we did too. Another jet of flame leapt from the nearest house out to the large car in front of it.

They began to run at us, pushing us back. Ten: the last house caught fire, its car bright and golden, quickly turning black. The sidewalk was burning, the street was burning. I asked myself later how concrete could burn, but I remember what I saw.

Then a strange, cracking noise came from the street in front of us, from deep underground. It sounded like a dinosaur, like a giant animal groaning, and I turned to see what it was. I had to see . . .

I remember the sound of the explosion, or the beginning of it, but I remember the silence that followed more thoroughly. The sound had started deep under the street, the groaning noise becoming a roar that rattled the manhole cover above it until it finally erupted in a column of flame and broken asphalt almost twenty feet tall. The gas mains were on fire.

The silence that I woke up to, after being thrown back from the explosion, lasted nine days. And it was a strange coincidence, that I of all people found myself deaf in the middle of disaster.

Fifteen years ago, I had been there when my mother and my aunt had the argument that stopped them talking to each other for two years, over my mother's decision to have my brother learn to read lips and not learn sign language. And, of course, he couldn't just go alone into that classroom, without me. He'd been four, and I'd been six. Pee-monster, I'd called him since he was two; now he was a lawyer and spoke five different languages, including sign language. I never thought I'd make anything more of my lip-reading skills than the weed money I'd earned in high-school, spying for classmates.

“Again,” I saw three of the black-clad police officers say, “It's happened again.”

I only caught a glimpse of the crowd after I woke up from the blast, as I was being loaded onto the ambulance. They had my neck in one of those plastic braces, but I could move it a little. I saw faces, at least a hundred people, being pushed out of the way by what looked like soldiers. Their faces . . .

How long had I been unconscious? The street was on fire; the geyser of flame still at least ten feet high from the manhole, and the entire block burning. I'd woken up in the intersection, forty feet from where I had been, and I could see the true extent of the blaze. Everything was burning, down to the steel mailboxes.

Down the block, a car exploded as I watched. I, of course, heard nothing, but the crowd, just watching . . .

They moved only when they were moved by the soldiers, shuffling like sleepwalkers, and their faces . . .

I strained to get a better look as I was wheeled away, struggling at my restraints and given a threatening head-shake by an unusually well-armed paramedic. An army paramedic, I guessed, not that I knew much about it. But she was wearing fatigues. People in the army wore fatigues, right?

But the people, the spectators watching the fire . . . their faces were so . . . had I been like that? I had to look away, but the moment I did it I wished I could look again.

The people in charge spoke relatively freely in front of me, something I would regret for years later once they had researched my background and discovered I could read lips. That I had heard everything they were saying to one another. They brought me to what they said was a hospital, but everyone in it was armed. I was in there for weeks, well after I'd healed.

To this day I receive visits from authoritative strangers nearly monthly, and I have yet to fly out of the country again.

“It's happened again,” a less heavily-armed woman in fatigues said, after the blast, “the third time, and it took us this long to get here?” Moods were almost easier to gauge deaf than when I could hear, I found, and she seemed scared.

“Disperse,” had been another common word, from the actual soldiers, the ones that weren't masked. Since the gas main had begun to burn, most of the actual people near the fire had masks on, “disperse the subjects,” and “sedate.” The doctor, or medic, or whatever, who was wheeling me said “we have to stop them looking at it. We have to get them down.”

The most chilling thing was the one man I saw, right before I was loaded onto the ambulance. The man with one of those multicolored patch things on his chest like generals and dictators and dictator-generals had. At least on TV. I didn't know it then, but I'd see my fill of multicolored patches in the next few days, asking me irritating questions I couldn't answer any better than they could.

The general, as I called him, had his hand on the shoulder of one of the spectators from the park; it was the man in the Bermuda shorts. Bermuda short man's face was like the others had been. It made me sick to look at, trying not to believe I'd been just like him, before I'd been knocked out.

I looked back at the Bermuda short man's face again; I couldn't help it.

The eyes . . . all pupil, glassy . . . his mouth slack and relaxed, like he was on heavy medication. No, like he was brain-damaged. But his face was flushed, and he was breathing as fast as a cat. He stood rooted to the ground, moved only when moved by another, swaying in time to music that wasn't there.

The general herded this man over to my medic, shaking the subject's slack shoulder a little, and smiled grimly.

My medic looked concerned. I couldn't see what she said, but she gestured to me.

I saw the last part of what the general said, though. I certainly wished I hadn't in the weeks that followed, in that uncomfortable hospital gown. I still wish I didn't know anything at all, especially when I get that knock on my door every month.

The general rubbed his chin slightly, contemplating the swaying body of the man who stood before him. The general nodded a little, and began speaking behind his hand. But then, he took the hand away, and I saw.

“ . . . and he seems unusually stable, so we've prepped a fire-proof truck for him and the others. Do whatever you have to do to figure this out; you can take as many test-subjects as you need, and we have three more test areas ready. Just make it effective. Make it controlled.”

My medic nodded.

“Yes sir.”