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art by Shane M. Gavin

The Time of Their Visitation

Born and raised in Honolulu, Lisa Nohealani Morton currently lives in Washington, DC. By day she is a mild-mannered database wrangler, computer programmer, and all-around data geek, and by night she writes science fiction, fantasy, and combinations of the two. Her short fiction has appeared in Lightspeed Magazine and in the anthology Hellebore and Rue, and her poetry has appeared in Strange Horizons and Star*Line. Although she is blogless, her daily shenanigans can be tracked by following @lnmorton on Twitter.

I've decided to blame the aliens for the way my petunias died without blooming this year.
Everyone blames them for something. The business journals blame their disinterest in trade for the length of this recession; the financial community is supposed to be in shock over the fact that Earth isn't "galactically competitive." The Catholic Church blames them for the precipitous drop-off in Mass attendance.
Sharon even says they're the reason she's leaving me.
Look at this. Every last one is dead. Anyone can grow petunias in the spring. An idiot could grow petunias in the spring. In his ears. In the Antarctic. But not me.
I go inside. Upstairs, Sharon is packing. She holds up a blouse as I walk into the bedroom. "Is this yours, or mine?"
Over her shoulder, a shimmer in the air coalesces into one of the aliens. It's done itself up as a scientist, complete with lab coat. Only the three bony-looking, writhing horns on its forehead give it away as not human. If I couldn't see the bedroom curtains fluttering through its head, I'd be calling the police about now.
I don't bother bringing Sharon's attention to the alien. About one person in ten can see the projections they use to observe us. Sharon isn't one of them. It upsets her to be reminded that I am, so I keep my mouth shut.
The alien sees me watching and lays a finger across its lips, smiling as if we were sharing a secret. Observing. It's all they seem to do. It's intrusive as hell.
"Debbie?" Sharon gives the blouse a shake, dragging my attention back from the alien. "Yours or mine?"
"I don't care," I say. "Take it, if you want it. Shar--"
She cuts me off. "Debbie, I don't want to fight about this. I love you. I'm sorry, but I'm leaving."
The alien mutters into its wrist. It doesn't make any sound I can hear, nor can I see anything that could be recording its words. It catches my eye and winks at me, and somehow that's what makes my eyes spill over.
"I just don't understand." I try to keep my voice steady and fail, and the next words come out on a sob. "I thought things were good."
"Oh, Deb." She puts the blouse down, comes over and puts her arms around me. "They were good."
I ignore the past tense. "If you love me--then why--" I squeeze my eyes shut, burying my head in her shoulder.
I struggle for control of myself. Crying always makes me blotchy. In my head, I'm bargaining: as long as I don't get blotchy, Sharon won't leave and everything will be great.
When I lift my head again, the alien is gone. Saw what it came for, I guess. Fucking voyeur.
Sharon sighs. "Because everything is different now, Debbie," she says, stroking my back. She said that before. I still don't understand. "Before they"--she points up--"showed up, I thought this was as good as it gets. Find somebody you love, settle down, and get a cat or something. Or have a kid. I thought I wanted to make my own pickles and go to PTA meetings."
We'd never talked about children. I take a shaky breath. "And now?"
"Now, well, things are different." She sounds frustrated. "I don't know how to explain it, it's just--there's this whole universe out there, there are aliens, and, and, life is just too short, you know?"
I pull away from her. I feel cold all over. "I guess I never thought life would be too short to be with me."
"Oh god, Deb, that's not what I meant," she starts, but I'm already out of the room and clattering down the stairs. I forget to skip the wobbly step and nearly take a header when it rocks under my foot. I stumble down the last few stairs and sit down, hard, on the last one. My heart is racing, and tears are still drying on my face. I take a couple of deep breaths to steady myself.
"Are you okay?" Sharon calls down. I don't reply. Instead, I push myself up onto my feet and rush out the door.
Outside, my petunias are still dead. Stupid aliens. I kick at the brown leaves.
"Did the aliens kill your flowers?"
I look up. At the end of the walk is the neighbor's kid. I try to remember her name. She's about six, tiny and adorable in a pink dress, with her hair in two poofy pigtails. She clutches a raggedy doll by its hair in one hand.
I clear my throat, fighting the urge to scrub at my face. "I think they did."
"They took my cat. For experiments." This last word is pronounced very carefully, a hard-won new piece of vocabulary. "I miss him a lot." She brightens. "But my mom says they'll bring him back. When they're done. She says they'll make him a kitten again, and he won't be so tired all the time."
With dawning horror, I realize that "the aliens took your cat" is the post-Contact version of "going to live on a farm." Is there anything people aren't blaming on the aliens? I glance at my petunias guiltily.
"I'm sure that'll be great," I say, at a loss for words.
She nods. "I can't wait for him to come back."
The scientist alien appears behind her. This time it's holding a clipboard in one hand and a squirming black kitten in the other. It lifts the kitten up by the scruff of the neck and grins. I wave at it to go away, and then try to act like I'm swatting a bug when the girl looks around and turns back to give me a strange look. I guess she's part of the ninety percent.
A woman's voice yells for "Jo-Ann" and I remember that that's her name. "Isn't that your mom?" I ask.
Jo-Ann nods. "She wants me to come home," she says matter-of-factly.
"Well, um, hadn't you better go, then?"
She heaves a theatrical sigh. "I guess," she says. She turns and sprints up the street, running right through the alien, who's making notes on its clipboard now. The kitten is no longer in evidence.
"I hope your cat comes back soon," I call after her. I feel dirty, perpetuating her mother's lie, but what do I know about kids? Maybe it's better if you lie to them. I wonder if Sharon and I would have lied to our kids.
I turn around. Sharon is standing in the doorway, roller-suitcase behind her. I'm suddenly glad that the house is mine. It's bad enough without being the one who has to leave.
"I'm going now," she says.
I look away. "Take care," I mutter.
Her voice turns uncertain. "You, too," she says. She slips by me and down the walk, passing my dead petunias without a glance for them or me. She pauses at the gate, and I know she's trying to remember where she left her car. Then she turns left and she's gone, striding down the sidewalk with the suitcase wobbling along behind her.
I don't watch her go. For more than a couple of minutes, anyway.
A few days later, I wander into Ladies Cabaret to drown my sorrows. It's a seedy bar of the sort I might euphemistically call a "women's club", if I couldn't just call it a lesbian joint for some reason. The important thing is, I never went there with Sharon, so there are no inconvenient memories.
Well, there are no inconvenient memories of Sharon. I walk up to the bar, slide into a seat. "Hi, Eve."
Eve is my ex, the one I might have been a little bit on the rebound from when I met Sharon. She's more butch than I remember, short-cropped blonde hair over a wifebeater and cargo pants. I won't lie; it's a hot look on her.
The TV is nattering on about the aliens. A few of them have come down to Earth in the flesh, and everyone's favorite 24-hour news network is running with the first pictures of extraterrestrial life on our planet. It turns out that they look like a cross between a floppy sea urchin and a ball of mucus, when they're not tele-whatever projecting themselves around the world wearing stolen faces. The three horns are still there, though, waving in front of what seem to be their heads.
They've refused to meet with the UN, opting instead to visit the cryogenic facility where Bill Gates is stored. There's a video on loop: one of them presses an appendage against the door to old Bill's sleep cabinet. A glow erupts from the tip; all six of the alien's eyes close in ecstasy.
I tear myself away from the TV. Stupid aliens. "What's shaking?" I ask.
Eve makes a face. "Becca walked out on me," she says.
Becca's the woman she left me for. I always expected to feel victory when this day came. I just feel surprised.
"You, too?" I shake my head. "Sharon left on Tuesday." It feels strange saying it out loud: Sharon left. I take a deep breath and steady myself.
Eve turns perplexed blue eyes to me. "It's crazy. It's the same story all over. Did she give you the line about everything being different now that there are aliens?"
I goggle at her. "Becca said that?"
Eve nods. "There's a whole universe out there, she said. And now she wants something more."
"That's exactly what Sharon said."
Eve nods again. "And it's what Kathy said to Maria, more or less. It's like the aliens have some kind of lesbian mind-control ray."
I burst out laughing. "You have to admit, it sounds pretty farfetched," I say when she glares at me. "You think the aliens came all the way to Earth, thousands of years away from home, to break a bunch of women up? And if they did, how come you and I didn't decide that everything was different in the universe now?"
Eve hangs her head. "I know, it's ridiculous," she said. "It's just so weird. The way they all said the same thing."
"It is weird," I agree.
An alien materializes at the end of the bar. It looks just like Eve, except for those three twisting horns that they can't seem to get rid of, no matter whose form they take. Or maybe they
just like them. I nudge Eve and point at it.
"There's one now. Feeling any mind control?"
Unlike Sharon, Eve can obviously see the aliens, and she's not happy about being impersonated. After a few seconds of boggled silence, she slips off her barstool and stalks over to the apparition.
"What the hell do you think you're playing at?" she demands, waving a finger in its face. The alien cocks its head and beams at her. I shudder. It's unnerving as hell to see Eve's devil-may-care grin on that horned face.
"Stop it, you--" Eve pokes her finger at the alien's face. It goes straight through; I can hear her gasp from across the room. So this is her first encounter.
With a last leer at Eve and me, the alien fades from sight. Eve stands there for a minute, head swinging left and right, trying to catch the alien aping her somewhere in the bar. Then she turns and trudges back to sit next to me.
"So that was an alien, huh?" She's trying to put on a brave face, but her voice is shaking.
"Yeah," I agree. "Creepy, aren't they?"
"It had my face." I put an arm around her. She's shivering.
"They're harmless," I tell her. "At least, as far as I can tell. That one didn't even leave its ship, physically. They can't touch us." She leans into me, and I can smell her hair. Part of me notes that she still uses the same shampoo.
Eve gives a final shudder, and then sits up straight, pulling out of my embrace. "Sorry to be such a freak about it," she says. "It was just so weird to be yelling at myself."
"No worries," I agree. "So, aside from all this excitement, what's new with you?"
Eve accepts the change of subject gracefully. The conversation turns to the old days. When she invites me back to her place, I take her up on it.
Her hands are just as clever as I remember. I keep my eyes open, and barely think of Sharon at all.
Later, just as I'm dropping off to sleep, she says, "What if the aliens are God?"
I lift my head off the pillow to look at her. "What?"
"I mean," she sits up, "it takes hundreds of years to get anywhere in space, right? And they said that when they leave they won't be back for thousands of years.
"So what if the last time they were here was like, three or four thousand years ago? Or however long ago it was. You know, Biblical times. And what if they did all that burning bushes and parting the Red Sea stuff?" Her voice turns contemplative. "Maybe that's why Christianity is so homophobic."
I open and shut my mouth a couple of times before I'm able to speak. "Now you're blaming the aliens for homophobia?"
"It was just an idea," she says defensively.
I try to remember if she's always been able to talk herself into things this way. "Plenty of other cultures are homophobic, too," I point out. "Do you think they were all visited by aliens with lesbian mind control rays?"
Eve doesn't reply. I yawn. "Sorry," I say. "I think this is one humans screwed up all on their own." I give her a squeeze and roll over. Sleep comes almost immediately.
The aliens stay for a couple of years. There are no news stories about an inexplicable wave of lesbian breakups, so I guess it was just a coincidence that Eve and Maria and I all had SOs with a yen for the universe. The aliens haven't visited the Earth before, either--someone asked. The experts predict it'll take a decade for the suicide rate to come back down. People are that shaken up about the idea that we're not alone in the universe.
There are worldwide celebrations on the October day when the cluster of ships powered by no energy source known to humans break orbit, taking their denizens on the next eons-long leg of their galactic tour. It's even possible that some people aren't celebrating the fact that they're gone.
About a week after the aliens boost for Alpha Centauri or wherever it is they're headed next, Sharon shows up on our doorstep.
It's a little after dinner when the doorbell rings. I get up, wineglass in hand, and open the door, only to blink several times at the sight of Sharon on the other side. She looks haggard, and her eyes are rimmed with red, like she's been crying.
"Sharon," I say with surprise, and then, "Are you okay?"
She stares at me for a few seconds, brown eyes wide like she's trying to take all of me in at once. Then she gives herself a shake. "I'll be all right," she says. Her voice is slightly hoarse, and she clears her throat. "Um--how've you been?"
"Who is it?" Eve calls from the kitchen, where she's washing dishes.
I watch Sharon's eyes widen. "Sorry," I say, feeling embarrassed and not sure why. "It's Sharon," I call back over my shoulder.
"Does she want dessert?" Eve asks, seemingly unperturbed by the sudden appearance of my alien-crazy ex.
"Do you?" I ask her.
Sharon shakes her head. "I'll just go," she says, but she doesn't. She closes her eyes. Opens them again. "I went down to Ecuador," she says. "To the landing site." I don't have to ask which landing site; only one of the ships sent down a landing party.
"Was it crowded?" I ask, although I don't need to. I've seen the pictures. I'd always wondered if she was somewhere in that sea of faces.
She looks confused. "Yes," she says. She shuts her eyes again. "I went down there--I don't know what I wanted. I just thought maybe they'd see me and--something would happen."
Something different, I think, but I don't say it. I'm not really bitter any more. Or not very.
"They never even looked at us. Not once," she says. "They just slithered past all of us, and into the UN plane. Every time." She takes a deep breath. "So then I came back here. I--I guess I thought--" She cuts herself off, looking over my shoulder. I turn and see Eve, standing with a dishtowel in her hand, an inquisitive look on her face.
"Just a second," I tell her. "Sorry," I say again, turning back to Sharon. "Um. If you need a place to stay--"
"No, no--it's okay. I'll go." Sharon gives herself another shake and turns to go. Then she pauses. "Take care," she says.
"You, too," I say. I lean against the doorjamb and watch her hurry down the walk. She doesn't spare a glance for my azaleas, which are threatening to take over the whole yard.
I feel an arm slip around my waist, and turn to kiss Eve, lightly, on the nose.
"So," she says, a smile playing around her lips. "Sharon."
I take a deep breath, and suddenly the absurdity of it all hits me, and I burst out laughing. Eve cracks up with me, and we stand there in the doorway, me hanging on to the doorjamb for balance, her hanging onto me, laughing for all we're worth.
When the laughter passes, I ask, "So, d'you think Becca will come crawling back, too?"
"Nah," Eve says. "She's shacked up with someone. I ran into her at the grocery store a while back."
Down the street, I can see Jo-Ann chasing after a rangy black tomcat. I smile.
"Hey," I say. "Have you ever thought about getting a cat?"
The End
This story was first published on Friday, June 1st, 2012

Author Comments

When I started to write this story, I knew that I wanted it to be about first contact, but I didn't want to focus on all the "big" ways that it would change the world. New science, new technology, and so on--that's been done to death, and I didn't feel like I had a new angle on it. Instead, I wanted to write about the lives of ordinary people in the shadow of an alien visitation--the way it would change their lives, for good or bad, despite the fact that they were just going through their day-to-day routines while world events moved around them.

One challenge I always have in writing is finding the right emotional balance. In this story, it would have been very easy to veer into melodrama with Debbie's despair over Sharon leaving, but at the same time, I wanted to convey her very real sense that her world is falling apart. I tried to use a light tone to counteract the heavy emotional elements of the story, and I think it worked out well--and I hope readers think it did, too.

- Lisa Nohealani Morton
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