Letter to an Alien
by Julie Carpenter
This piece was first published in The New Guard, Volume VII. (There are so many wonderful stories and poems in these anthologies!) This is a letter to my daughter, Essie. Sometimes it's hard to tell where reality ends and the story begins. I will let you make that judgment for yourself. Enjoy!
Your sister and I were talking about you yesterday. We were watching the baby play. He doesn’t cry as much as you did, but the way he gurgles and coos to his long, elegant feet and babbles to whoever or whatever he sees hovering in the corners by the ceiling reminds me of you – almost exactly. She was nine when you were born, a second mother really, and believe me, it takes a village to raise an alien. I don’t know what I would have done without her. Anyhow, you can’t blame us that when we look at your nephew, we’re a little nervous. Listen, I know you think I could have done a better job being your mother, but I have to be honest with you, sometimes it was damned hard. Sometimes it was funny, sometimes it was astonishing, occasionally delightful, but never a day that it wasn’t hard.
I don’t want to be too apologetic. What’s done is done and, by the way, I think you turned out just fine. We’re on a thin spot on the space-time continuum, as you constantly tell me. There’s not a lot of room for possibility. One choice ruptures the possibility of another. It’s why life on earth is so confining, you always tell me. Well, being able to move in only one direction on the timeline sucks as much for me as it does for you.
Anyway, your sister and I were reminiscing about how you told everyone you were an alien. Remember how it started? At the Mexican restaurant down by the mall? I think you were maybe four. Your Aunt Kate and cousin Lori were there. Lori was eating with silverware. She was maybe three and a half. You, of course, were not eating with silverware. You refused flatly to even try. Forks and spoons were a part of human life you simply refused to acknowledge until grade school. It worried me, like your ability to climb stairs. I still catch my breath when I think of you tottering on the stairs, uninhibited by gravity, forgetful of the space around you, while Lori, even at six months younger could dash up and down the stairs past you, shaking you like the wind.
We managed to get your favorite table that day, the one under the skylight by the fountain, right in the center of the restaurant. As usual, you were smashing your chips with your finger on the table and trying to form them again into small flat cakes with a variety of salsas and cheese dip. Your success was limited, but the mess sure wasn’t.
People were watching as you heaped broken chips dripping with cheese and green and red salsa into your mouth, nearly choking, and I guess I came unglued a little. Like every other mother on this planet, I spent some time worrying what other people thought about you. I kept thinking of future you, being turned down for jobs, being laughed at, living in my basement until I died, all the narratives that drive mothers to sand the uneven edges off their children, trying to slide our little weirdos into a safe spot in the world without anyone noticing. Everyone had advice for me about what was wrong with you. Your grandmother used to tell me I shouldn’t allow you to go out if you couldn’t eat with silverware. People glared at us when you talked to fountains, or had long, involved conversations with invisible people. “Dead people,” you corrected them, if they mentioned it. That’s my excuse for losing it when you started choking and blowing pieces of tortilla chip onto the table.
“When are you going to eat like a normal person?” I said, reaching across the table with a napkin, poking my fingers in your mouth and trying to dislodge the big piece of chip that seemed to be jamming up the works.
You sat with the sunlight falling on your wispy strawberry hair – hair that sincerely and devotedly clung flat to your pale little head, except for that one strand in back that always lifted itself tentatively, like a lookout. You were staring at me. For a moment, I thought you were staring past me, hearing voices in the fountain. Half the restaurant was already looking at us. Please, God, I thought, don’t let her start talking to the fountain.
Then you furrowed your brows tears sparkling in your blue-black eyes, green salsa on your chin and said, “When are you going to realize that I am not a normal person?”
“Touché!” said Aunt Kate and we ate without further discussion of your methods of consumption.
For the next three days, you were more than usually miserable. You drew dark pictures of swooning ladies, covered in feathers, heavy black x’s drawn over their eyes in marker.
“Dead?” I asked.
“Yes,” you said.
You dragged the Pre-Raphaelite art book from the coffee table to your room. I found you staring at the pictures. Ophelia softly, sweetly ceasing to float in her dusty gold skirts, mouth open. Merlin’s eyes pulled against his will to Nimue’s face. Lucretia Borgia washing her hands after poisoning her husband. You listened to opera, mostly the Wagner CDs. You occasionally drifted through the room hollow-eyed and touched me softly and said, “I’m not a normal person,” and drifted away. That’s it, I thought, I’m out of the running for mother of the year again.
At the end of the week, something changed in you. A strange lightness and uncharacteristically sunny attitude came over you. You were…happy. I hate to say it, but it unnerved me almost as much as the sadness. Your best moods usually had a quiet thread of disconsolation running through them. When we were alone you came and tugged on my shirt as I stood washing dishes. You pulled me close and said, “I know why I’m not normal and it’s okay.”
I bent down to hear you whisper, “It’s okay! I’m not from this planet. That’s why I’m not normal. I’m just not normal here.”
Of course, we weren’t inclined at the time to take it too seriously. To use a word you hated to the depths of your alien soul, we thought it was kind of cute. As cute as you’d ever managed to be anyway. But the idea lodged somewhere inside, in some dusty unused corner of my brain. It was disconcerting and yet the tiniest bit comforting. I even let myself believe it, just a little. As your sister, Evelyn, would say, “It just explains so much, doesn’t it?”
It helped when I looked back on all the things you did as a toddler. Hmmm, I said to myself, all this time I’ve just been raising an alien. It was a joke, but it still somehow took the sting out of the weirdness.
Trust me, I needed something to fall back on. You were an adorable baby, but you talked very early, with remarkable clarity, and said rude and terrible things.
Once a waiter at Casita, one of our favorite restaurants, leaned down to coo at baby-you in your high-chair, touching your shoulder, and you wrinkled your tiny nose at him and said, distinctly, frowning, “Go away.” You shouldn’t even have been able to talk.
We had to go to a different restaurant after that.
Or how about the way you always demanded coke when we went to the grocery store.
“I need a coke,” you would say, flailing your hands towards the drink case. Then you would lean forward in the shopping cart, where you were seated, and tug at my shirt, “I need a coke.”
“Nope,” I always answered, “You’re two. Besides, God knows what would happen if you were hopped up on caffeine.”
“I’m a million and sixty-five,” you always countered.
“A million and sixty-five in the body of a two-year old?”
“I can be both,” was your standard response.
Then you would spend the rest of the trip glaring at other shoppers, shaking your head, telling them, “It’s obvious I need a coke. This is ridiculous,” like a tiny middle-aged woman who wanted to speak to the manager.
And as you got older, there were the lies. Remember that time at Kroger?
I was rummaging through my wallet, counting my cash, when I heard you say, “I miss my daddy very much.”
The cashier made the mistake of sympathizing and then you said, “I’ll never see him again, he died.” A single tear leaked from the corner of your eye.
He was on a business trip, not dead. The cashier was crying, and I was left explaining that you had a somewhat iffy relationship with reality, a difficult sell because you could express yourself so clearly. For a three-year-old, the lies seemed extraordinarily well calculated and deliberate.
Let’s not forget the time you told the babysitter that you were born in Beijing, China, where your father had a job collecting scrap metal and re-selling it in the US. Of course, it was hard to convince her that the story wasn’t true. What three-year-old could come up with such a story?
Or the time you convinced the other toddlers at the park you were God? One of the other mothers suggested an exorcism as she icily removed her child from the sandbox. I think she was kidding. But I’m not sure.
After you “discovered” you were from another planet though, things got easier in a way. The story reshaped the world for you; it dug out a little burrow in reality the right size and shape to accommodate you. You told us that your “sky parents” had sent you here so that you could learn to be human, for reasons we didn’t understand. Sometimes you told us it was a punishment for something you’d done. This seemed to both make you feel better about your failure to fit in and to allow you room to correct. After announcing your purpose for being sent to Earth, you picked up your silverware and learned to use it, awkwardly at first, but eventually you came off looking pretty human. Of course, we used the story of your alien parents against you too. For instance, after demanding that your father install a carousel in the back yard, you told us that on your planet, children were given anything they asked for. We told you that your sky parents had sent you to earth to learn to be human, and human children did not get everything they asked for. Ask them, we said. The next morning, sadly, staring down at your instant peach oatmeal, you sighed and told us that your sky parents said we were right.
It didn’t solve all our problems, of course. Grandmother Abbie, nearly flipped out that day you told her your human head hadn’t been attached properly, and you were thinking of removing and re-attaching it. She offered to pay for therapy. You agreed with her that perhaps therapy would be a good idea, once we explained that it meant talking to someone about yourself and letting them help you with your head. You thought this was the most entertaining idea you’d ever heard.
The zombies also made things tough. You had just started kindergarten when you started seeing zombies at night. Aliens can see zombies you said. Even when regular people can’t. There was no sleep for anyone. How many times did we get up with you? How many mornings did we sleepwalk through breakfast and the drive to school with hollow eyes? Your father tried shining a flashlight outside to show you there were no zombies. They’re the kind that disappear in the light, you said, even from aliens. We tried telling you that zombies were made up things from stories. They weren’t part of your reality. Things don’t always stay in their own realities, you said, especially when you’re an alien. We even tried the monster spray that one of your aunts made for us. You couldn’t understand why a spritz of something that smelled suspiciously like hairspray would have any effect on the undead at all.
So, defeated, exhausted, I decided to use your own tactics against you. After we read the story – Outside Over There, I think it was – I closed the book.
“Essie,” I said, “I’m going to tell you a secret.”
You looked at me, eyes narrowed and waited. Oh, that look! I got it so often. The inky eyes, forming little slits in your porcelain face, like a doll from a horror movie.
“Yes?” you said, “What’s the secret?”
“You know how we’ve never actually been attacked by the zombies you see outside your window?” I asked, “There’s a top-secret reason for that. I have mutant zombie fighting abilities.”
You stared at me for a few seconds.
“Swear?” you said.
“Yes,” I responded, perhaps a low point in parental morality, but I’d reached a juncture where I would sell my soul for sleep. It worked, you went to sleep. I stood up, rather proud of myself and looked out your window.
For a split second, from the corner of my eye, I saw a tall dark shadow shambling sideways in the moonlight, then I heard the dog barking madly.
There were other times. Sometimes you sat in the back of our grey Windstar minivan, and had conversations with dead people. Sometimes, I almost heard them whispering back, or saw their shadows in the rearview mirror.
“Who are you talking to?”
“Dead people,” you responded, cheerfully.
“Carry on,” I said, “Tell them I say hi!”
“They know,” you sighed at the interruption.
Remember when Mrs. Sanchez called me in for a conference? You convinced Carla and Jessica that there were demons in the old abandoned building behind the cafeteria. Apparently, they were having nightmares about it and their parents were complaining.
When I asked you about it afterwards, by way of apology, you said, “They weren’t demons. They were dead people.”
“I thought we talked about that. A lot of people, especially kids, get upset when you say you see dead people,” I said.
“I doubt they even saw them very well,” you said with a protracted sigh, “They’re the ones that wanted to go into the building. I can’t help it if dead people talk to me,” you shrugged your shoulders.
I wondered about those poor girls. I wondered if your proximity caused the boundaries of their perceived reality to falter that day. What did they see?
Do you remember the terrible thunderstorm storm, the one that happened during spring break when you were in third grade? The one that took the top off the Baptist Church downtown? We woke up that morning with the rain pouring down. The world outside was dim through an ocean of wavy glass, swaying trees and the wobbly lights of neighbors’ houses. We saw lightning. You said, “Oh what a beautiful morning!”
There was a pounding metallic sound as rain poured through the gutters and you took my hand. As we stood there, a melody shaped itself out of the sound of the water, as if creatures made of metal were singing to us. You could tell I heard it and you smiled and hummed along with the melody.
“I prefer a world where water can sing,” you said, “It’s better.”
I have to agree. It is better. It was better. Your stories have started to erode the edges the boundaries of what I believe. They make this reality less confining. I’ve even discovered some of my own. I write them down. I like the feeling of possibility, of the timeline now stretching out next to me, making room for more than one story at a time, making room for water to sing.
The stories changed as you got older. You rolled your eyes, sighing if I mentioned your sky parents, and wailed, “Mom!” if I mentioned it in public. You were an alien, you told me privately, but you were trying to pass as a human and it would help a great deal if I would quit talking about it.
“Make up your own stories,” you said, more than once, stomping out of the room.
I’ve taken your advice and I tell myself comforting stories now that you’re leaving me, trailing off into the distance with a piece of my heart, the way children do. I tell myself stories about your future happiness. I’ve concocted a brilliant imaginary garden. I tell stories about fairies and monsters and all sorts of things to make the world seem sane.
I watched you leave, just days ago, your little car packed to the brim with hats and clothes, things you’ve picked up at Goodwill and from the old ladies you seem to constantly befriend. You believe that costumes are possibilities, a way to be more than one person in the confining narrative of life. It’s why you want to study opera.
“Being someone else for a few minutes makes this stupid one-way timeline more bearable,” you said.
I stood on the front porch, leaning on the column and watched your car bounce over the ruts in the drive. Your fat, ancient orange tabby sat at my feet and we waited until we couldn’t see the car anymore. I waited a little longer, until I heard the car pass round the curve at the bottom of the hill. I wonder what the rest of my story will be. Right now, it doesn’t feel as if there’s much of it left.
Somehow this ending to any story about you seems a little anticlimactic, so here’s the ending as I see it. After you leave, I walk out to the garden and sit on the bench. I watch the butterflies floating over the zinnias. A bee lands dangerously close and wobbles toward me like a tiny little drunkard, tight rope walking a dried-up stem of sage that someone left on the bench. I hear a humming sound above the strawberries and asparagus. At first, I think it’s the bee, but I realize it’s far too loud. It seems to have a melody. Iridescent ripples of light flicker in waves all the way over to the rosemary. There, hovering above the strawberry bed, is the underbelly of a ship, surely a space ship, although from underneath it looks more like a sailing ship, the hull of an oyster shell turned inside out, opalescent, pink and violet.
The dog is nervous. She sits at my feet whining. I rub her ears, “It’s okay,” I say, “I expect it’s Essie’s sky parents. They probably just want to know how things went.”
The cats skulk off into the blueberry patch, not quite liking the looks of our visitors. Two beings, roughly human sized and shaped, slide down a ladder of light into the garden, crushing a good number of strawberry plants as they make their way over to me. I stand up. I can see they have tried to accommodate my reality. They haven’t done a terribly good job of appearing human, but it’s obvious that they’ve tried. The skin tone is an off-putting shade of blue-gray and they don’t have quite the right number of fingers. It’s hard to tell if there’s any difference in their genders or if they have any at all. They’re wearing clothes of sorts, on their legs are blue pants roughly equivalent to jeans, and sandals that expose odd numbers of toes. One has thirteen toes altogether, the other nine. One of them has on a tunic, the other something that might pass for a Hawaiian shirt. All in all, it gives the impression that someone put together a pair of humans on a whim, out of spare parts.
“Erm,” says one of them, the one in the Hawaiian shirt, “How did things go?”
“Okay,” I say, “Pretty good really. All in all, I didn’t mind.”
They nod approvingly, “We really meant to come by and do the check earlier, but you know, interplanetary traffic being what it is…,” says Tunic shirt. They each have clip boards and pens.
“We have some questions if you don’t mind,” says Hawaiian shirt.
Before they start though, I have to ask. “Did you come to take her back? She’s seemed a little homesick sometimes,” my voice quavers because the thought of you being lightyears away from me is really hard to handle.
They look at each other and back at me, “No,” says Hawaiian shirt, “None of you goes back until your assignment is over.”
“In the meantime,” says Tunic shirt with a sigh, “We just need to ask you some questions about inhabiting a human body. We’ve got a lot of stops to make so…”
“I’m from another planet?” I ask.
“Certainly,” says Hawaiian shirt, “Just like she is. Another dimension if we're going to get technical. Now if we could…” he taps his pen on the clipboard.
“How come I don’t remember being from another planet and she does?” I ask.
Tunic shirt rifles through the clipboard, trying to find the pertinent information, “It’s her third deployment,” he finally says, “Don’t worry, you’ll gain clarity if you get reassigned to this sector.”
“Now can we get started,” says Hawaiian shirt, “Sorry but we’re a little behind. Do you have complaints? Suggestions?”
“A few,” I say, “This timeline for instance. It seems kind of confining, doesn’t it?”
If I’ve learned anything from you it’s that it never hurts to complain. I’ll let you know if they get back to me on it.
Your dad and I miss you. So does your cat. It peed in your bed. We’ll see you at Thanksgiving.
With all possible love,
Julie Carpenter is the creator of the Sacred Chickens website and author of Things Get Weird in Whistlestop, a collection of short stories . She is dedicated to telling stories and making sure that indie writers and publishers have a way to be heard. She uses narrative, her own and others’, to help interpret the world. She has a Master of Professional Writing from the University of Memphis, with an emphasis in Composition Theory. She wants to bend reality one story at a time. Julie’s work has appeared in Fiction on the Web and has appeared in The New Guard. She is currently working on a novel.