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Out-Of-Towner

Joshua Grasso is a professor of English at a small university in Oklahoma, where he teaches classes in British and World Literature, Writing, and Comics. You can find his stories in Speculative North, Red Planet, Mythic, and the recent anthology, Welcome to the Alpacalypse. He is old enough to have seen (barely) all the Star Wars movies in theaters, and young enough to feel a giddy thrill at the opening crawl.
The sun passed behind the clouds, enveloping the buildings in shadow. The woman entered the shadows, too, pausing in front of a striking art deco facade to stare in wonder. The crosswalk began to beep with warning. Horns honked impatiently as she blocked the intersection. She didn't seem to notice, her gaze drifting from window to window to the very top. A car buzzed past, the driver shouting some obscenity in its wake. She shook her head as if shooing a fly; she only had eyes for the building.
A cop noticed her, could tell she was from out-of-town. But more than that, she seemed out-of-place, foreign. A tourist from somewhere without cities and traffic. Her faded floral-print dress and white hat set askew on her head reminded him of a painting come to life. Everything about her seemed borrowed somehow, a note-perfect copy of the original except for one thing. It didn't fit. Not here, and not on her.
"Excuse me, miss? You lost?" he asked.
Her eyes flashed over to him, clearly taking notice of him for the first time.
"This building. What do you call it?" she asked.
He couldn't place the accent because there wasn't one. The words made complete sense, but without that unique stamp of time and place. Like she was from nowhere at all.
"The Metropolitan. It's a hotel. Has a nice restaurant up top. Maybe your husband can take you?"
A cheap shot, but what the hell? He couldn't read the expression, but the eyes lit up: she took the bait.
"I'm not here with a husband. I came alone, to see this place. I especially like this building."
"A tourist, eh? Here for some pictures?"
"Yes, exactly," she said, with the faintest hint of a smile.
"I'll show you just the right spot, away from the traffic," he gestured. "It's where that one fellow took the picture of it they use in the billboards. You know the one?"
"Of course," she said, taking his arm.
He led her through layers of traffic to a spot of greenery just across from the entrance. Statues lifted their arms to the heavens beneath perfectly manicured trees, their branches swaying in the breeze. A plaque commemorated the square and the people who made it, a long list of companies and foundations. Like the remains of Ozymandias, they would probably survive the city itself: look on my Works, Ye Mighty, and despair!
"It's so beautiful, don't you think?" she beamed.
"Isn't it? You should take a picture."
"Yes, it would look perfect in my foyer," she agreed. "Would you mind getting in the shot? I'd like to remember your kindness as well."
"Oh, well," he said, flushing. "Where do you want me?"
She positioned him on one side of the shot, judging where he would look best. Finally, with a nod of approval, she removed what he assumed was her phone, but soon realized was something quite different. It reflected the sun like metal, but seemed to ripple and move in the light. She raised it before her face and judged the angle.
"What is it your people say? Macaroni?"
"Er, cheese," he said.
"Yes, say cheese!"
He said it, hand reaching for his gun. But too late: the building and the policeman vanished, tucked away in her device for the long voyage home, along with all the other buildings, mountains, animals, and children (how she adored their children!) she couldn't live without.
Now she just had to wait until nightfall to take one last shot of the Moon. It would look perfect in her bedroom.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, November 9th, 2020


"Out of Towner" is an homage to one of my favorite photographs, a work by the famous photographer Cindy Sherman (I won't tell you which one!). Since all artists are primarily visionaries, I often assume they're aliens, too, and try to see the science-fiction impulses behind their work. One of Sherman's images has as its subject a very alien-looking person; lost, yet without the timidity of a stranger. It took me 5,000 words to figure out where they were from, which I whittled down to 600 once I found the story. Unfortunately, it now bears very little resemblance to the original!

- Joshua Grasso
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