art by Jason Stirret
by Ken Liu
I am rooted to the ground beneath me, stationary, a statue. The rise and fall of constellations trace broad arcs against my unblinking eyes. The memory of my body in motion sometimes seems unreal.
But other memories only become more real with the passage of time.
The light. I remember the light. It swept across the fairgrounds like a muslin curtain. On one side, bustle and noise and ecstatic motion; on the other, stillness.
"What do you think they want?" she asked.
We gazed up at the silver ships in the sky, so close to us that they were like little moons. They had been there for weeks, drifting, hovering, not responding to our hails.
She was prettier than her picture. Or perhaps it was the laughter of children and bright carnival lights and the smell of cotton candy and popcorn, which seemed to make everything better than it was.
Memories of another fair from years ago came unbidden:
"What do you think they want?" Suzie asked, pointing to the children congregated around the entrance to an unmarked tent. She licked her cotton candy.
"Nothing. They just like the air conditioning," I said. I could see clouds of condensation billowing out of the mouth of the tent. The children luxuriated in them, lingering. But I was nervous, I hoped that she would not eat the cotton candy too fast.
"What's this?" she asked, and her face frowned. Her tongue moved around her mouth until she spat out a shiny metal circle into her hand.
"Will you?" I asked, my heart pounding louder than the droning air conditioner.
But this was not that fair. This woman was not Suzie.
I didn't really want things to be better. It seemed a betrayal.
"Maybe they don't want anything," I said, stalling for time as I tried to find something to say, to fill the hot, sticky air between us. "Maybe they're tired of drifting through space, all that darkness and emptiness and endless movement. They just want to stop for a moment."
The light felt like a caress, a gentle breath, Suzie's hair from all those years ago, brushing against my chest, my chin, my forehead, as she hovered over me, smiling, and the world fell silent and irrelevant.
Funny that I had noticed the quietness before the stillness. I was startled by the missing sounds--the music from the carousel, the shouting attendants at the games, the screams of the teenagers on the plunging Viking ship--before I realized that the painted horses had stopped leaping, the tossed rings had frozen in midair, the Viking ship had been suspended, forever, at the highest point of its arc.
I watched the spinning silvery disks diminish to points of light fainter than the faintest stars and disappear in the dusk, moving on, leaving behind a still moment.
My eyes would always remain open, and my lips a permanent "O" of surprise.
"Stop for a moment?" she asked.
A wave of dark memories washed over me: the smell of medicine, the beeping machines, the tubes in Suzie, around her, tying her down, her gaunt, pale face, with eyes that would never again open.
"This was a mistake," I blurted.
She did not stare at me, for which I was grateful.
"You miss her," she said.
"Yes," I said. "I'm sorry. I thought I was ready, but..."
"Moving on is overrated," she said.
She is behind me and to the left, just outside the edge of my peripheral vision.
I imagine us, the entire human race, frozen in place like mannequins in a diorama, like pinned butterflies under a display case. Did the aliens want to preserve us in this frozen state, a bubble in the stream of time, specimens warded from change?
As the sun sinks in the sky, her shadow stretches across my field of vision until its elongated head touches the base of the Ferris wheel, and it merges into the night.
I've tried to picture her in my mind a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand times. But retracing the patterns of memory has only made them lose fidelity, and with each re-imagining I erase a little more of her, until her face is a blank canvas onto which I have projected the features of my desire.