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Let's Pretend

Mary Soon Lee was born and raised in London, but now lives in Pittsburgh. She writes both fiction and poetry, and has won the Rhysling Award and the Elgin Award. Her credits include Analog, Asimov's, F&SF, Strange Horizons, and 119 haiku in Science. She has an antiquated website at http://www.marysoonlee.com and tweets at @MarySoonLee. Notes on the story: Sometimes it takes me a long time before a story reaches its final form. I wrote the first draft of "Let's Pretend" way back in 2002, submitted it several times, then let it languish in my files for years and years. I liked the central idea in the story, but I wasn't as happy with how I'd written it. Eventually, I went back and revised the story. I'm glad that I did: I'm quite attached to this final version.
Let's pretend this is about two other people. Call them Ada and Jane. Ada was an overweight, sarcastic software engineer, fed up with people assuming that because she was black she must have dodged drug-dealers on the way to school. Jane waited tables in a Thai restaurant, the customers barely noticing her even when they placed their orders. But Ada noticed Jane, and ate at the restaurant every Saturday for three months before finally asking her out. Soon after, they moved in together, and everything was as close to perfect as anything ever is.
Being with Jane brought out Ada's paranoid, protective streak. She stockpiled food, water, batteries, and first aid supplies in the basement. She bought life insurance. She analyzed consumer safety reports before buying Jane a Volvo for her daily commute.
When the aliens first manifested, Ada bustled Jane down to the basement. When the diet of tuna fish and news reports palled, Jane suggested that they return upstairs since the aliens hadn't hurt anyone. They simply manifested out of empty air in pairs, lingered for a few minutes, maybe brushed a plump purple tentacle across someone's shoulder, then vanished again.
Ada liked Jane's optimistic, trusting nature, but she didn't share it. She suspected the aliens of planning a mass invasion. She imagined weapons smaller than a fingernail concealed in the folds of the aliens' corpulent purple bodies. She imagined a fleet of alien spaceships bombarding every major city. She imagined alien computer viruses infiltrating the internet. When no evidence of her fears emerged in the first few days, Jane talked her into leaving the basement.
For six more weeks, everything was nearly as close to perfect as it had been before.
Aliens manifested in thousands of places. They didn't make threats, nor offer gifts, nor ask questions. They didn't communicate at all until they recruited their first two humans: a thirteen-year-old boy from a Guatemalan village and a quiet-spoken older man from Hamburg.
The Guatemalan boy had been playing soccer with his friends. He told his friends that the aliens had asked him to be their helper. None of the other boys heard the aliens speak. None of them believed his explanation that the aliens had spoken inside his head. So it proved a surprise when the aliens manifested the following day and took the boy away. Ada found the news deeply disturbing; she pictured the aliens performing perverse experiments on their human victim. Jane merely said she hoped the boy would be happy.
The German man, recently retired, told his sister that the aliens wished him to go for an indefinite stay as a helper-guide-companion. He asked his sister if she had any objection to his leaving, and, having received her blessing, he too vanished into thin air with a pair of aliens.
Three evenings later, while Ada and Jane ate chicken tikka masala on the sofa, a pair of aliens manifested beside the bookshelves. Ada jumped up and stepped in front of Jane, and said a lot of things she didn't remember, while she eyed the living-room for possible improvised weapons--a vase? a laptop?--in case of a direct attack. Jane, sitting quietly behind her, said after a minute, "Thank you. I have to think about it."
The pair of aliens flattened their plump purple tentacles against their plump purple bodies, and vanished.
Ada grabbed Jane. "Are you all right?"
"Fine," said Jane. "They want me to go with them."
Let's pretend that Ada and Jane talked things over calmly and reasonably. Jane explained that the alien who spoke to her was sensorially-impaired, unable to see or feel the physical world. It wanted a puppet, a pawn, a human through whose mind it could navigate mundane physical reality, while its own mind consorted on an elevated mental plane with the other aliens.
Jane described this in favorable terms, expounding the alien's kindness and concern and patience, and above all how much it needed her. Jane didn't glow as she spoke, but she came as close to glowing as a person can.
Despite this, Ada voiced, with feeling, the thought that if an alien cripple wanted a guide dog it could look elsewhere.
The calm and reasonable discussion went on past midnight. At last Jane committed the unforgivable sin of saying, "You decide. I won't go unless you agree. I won't go unless you promise not to mope afterwards."
Ada calmly, and eminently reasonably, stalked out of the house, and went to an all-night bar. A few shots of whiskey clarified her mind amazingly. I think you should know that Jane's careful arguments didn't sway her. Nor did the realization that if Jane stayed she would either resent Ada (bad enough), or else would forgive Ada (worse). No, a rare surfacing of Ada's better nature undid her. She saw at the bottom of the fifth shot of whiskey that she loved Jane, and so what she wanted was what Jane wanted, which was as complicated a thought as the whiskey allowed.
Ada went back to Jane, and told her this. She threw in promises about not moping, getting on with her life, and knowing that Jane would always love her.
So the aliens took Jane away.
Let's pretend that Ada kept her promises. That she didn't mope, that she didn't get demoted, that she didn't wake up in the middle of the night to compose endless letters that Jane would never read.
Over the next eleven months, the aliens took away one hundred and seventy-three more people. The people ranged from ten years old to ninety-two. Some were rich, others poor. Six were notably clever, three played the guitar, five were nurses, one had a stutter. No one has found any statistically-significant commonality among them, except that they were uniformly described as nice, quiet, a little shy.
None of the people have ever come back.
But it's only been eighteen years. Perhaps that's not long to an alien.
Let's pretend that I will find out how to send this letter to you, together with all my earlier letters. Let's pretend that after reading my messages, you will come home. And whatever you say and however you look at me, that day will be as close to perfect as I will ever want.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, July 5th, 2019


Mary Soon Lee was born and raised in London, but now lives in Pittsburgh. She writes both fiction and poetry, and has won the Rhysling Award and the Elgin Award. Her credits include Analog, Asimov's, F&SF, Strange Horizons, and 119 haiku in Science. She has an antiquated website at http://www.marysoonlee.com and tweets at @MarySoonLee. Notes on the story: Sometimes it takes me a long time before a story reaches its final form. I wrote the first draft of "Let's Pretend" way back in 2002, submitted it several times, then let it languish in my files for years and years. I liked the central idea in the story, but I wasn't as happy with how I'd written it. Eventually, I went back and revised the story. I'm glad that I did: I'm quite attached to this final version.

- Mary Soon Lee
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