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The Alien in 36B

Jennifer Stephan Kapral is a writer of fiction, creative non-fiction, and poetry. She is also a freelance writer and public school educator. Born in the shadows of steel mills in Western PA, she moved to Houston in 2005 and can often be found exploring the bayous or at an event celebrating Houston's literary community. Her work is published or forthcoming in Fireside Fiction, The Arcanist, Flash Fiction Magazine, Art Houston Magazine, and elsewhere. She is currently freelancing and working on a series of Urban Fantasy novels. When not writing, she loves cooking vegan food, practicing yoga, and listening to podcasts. Find her on Instagram @thegreenquillwrites or sign up for her speculative fiction newsletter at thegreenquill.org.

The blood beneath the Alien's aqua skin rippled in waves. His immune system operated in overdrive, fighting all the microbes recirculating throughout the aircraft. The woman next to him in 36C kept coughing into her hand and then moving wrinkled magazines around on her tray table. Vibrant green and neon orange specs surrounded her, covered the table, and occasionally floated near him to mix with other specs in the air.
He was trying very, very hard not to create an incident.
Flying in a human airplane was not his first choice of transport. But as an experienced diplomat, he knew he had to attempt to live like a human, and today that meant traveling with the masses on a germ-infested, antiquated aircraft.
"Nice weather," said the woman in 36C.
The Alien steeled himself, anticipating an insult. "Indeed," he replied, carefully choosing each word. "Hopefully we won't have any delays."
"Were you in New York long?" the woman asked between coughs, green particles flying.
"No," said the Alien, shuddering at the thought of traveling to New York again anytime soon. The objects were way too bright, covered in layers and layers of robust bacteria. He lost his balance while riding in the subway and was forced to grab onto a rail that was sticky. He spent most of his visit disinfecting and trying to deflect all the abuses yelled at him in the street.
He remembered it was polite to ask a question in return. "How about you?"
The woman described her monthly commute to see her granddaughter in Queens and how she wished her daughter would move to D.C. The daughter has a high profile job and hates it, but won't leave. The woman pulled out her phone, and the Alien squinted through the plethora of germs on the screen to see a smiling baby. He chuckled. Human babies really were quite cute, despite being covered in a rainbow of microorganisms.
The woman smiled, though the Alien could sense her pain as tears welled in her eyes. She loves her daughter, but her granddaughter is everything to her. The Alien listened attentively as the conversation turned to her neighborhood in D.C.
"What would you like to drink... um... sir?" the flight attendant asked, interrupting 36C's restaurant recommendations.
The Alien looked at the beverage cart, then at the uncertain expressions of the flight attendant and the passengers in the rest of the row. His bones felt heavy with the weight of being constantly watched. The aroma of fresh coffee made his blood vibrate with excitement. He could taste the hot beverage on his lips, a feeling he had become a bit addicted to in his few months on Earth. But he did not want a drink served by her hands that had touched the seats and door handles and other hands that were all covered in grime the humans pretended wasn't there, that he saw everywhere in vivid, radiant colors.
"I'm OK, thank you," the Alien said in his politest tone. She nodded and took 36C's drink order.
The flight attendant held the drink out to the Alien. To touch. To pass to the woman in 36C. The plastic cup was covered with a polychromatic layer of microbes.
The Alien knew if he refused to pass the drink, it would be a political disaster. Humans were extraordinarily talented at taking small, meaningless incidents and turning them into worldwide scandals. Another passenger would confront him and there would be video and it would be everywhere, and the humans would turn it into another reason to hate the aliens, and his talks would quickly derail. He couldn't afford one single mistake.
They needed the humans to trust them.
His blood recoiled, skin rolling in waves as he took the drink and placed it on 36C's tray table. The woman smiled at him, and it was the first time any human had smiled at him in a genuine way. He wished this woman lived closer to her granddaughter, that she didn't have that dreadful cough that all humans would eventually have.
Maybe these humans weren't all terrible. For the first time, he felt a pang of guilt about what would happen to them.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, January 29th, 2019

Author Comments

The story emerged from a a prompt during a Kathy Fish Fast Flash online workshop. I was inspired by many interesting and not so interesting conversations I've had on plane rides with random strangers I'll never see again. What would an alien think of small talk that quickly evolves to a temporary yet strong personal connection? This experience must be uniquely human.

- Jennifer Stephan Kapral
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