Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams




A Box, a Pocket, a Spaceman

The spaceman shows up on a hot summer afternoon, not in the dead of night when you’re crouched in the garden peering through a telescope that shows you the endless glories and wonders of the night sky. There’s no spaceship making a bright arc against a star-spangled sky. Just a man in a spacesuit, standing at the edge of your hammock. His presence reminds you school is over and relatives will be coming soon and you don’t want to see them. They will ask you who can’t see beyond the edge of your hammock about grades and ambitions and Plans For the Future. Aunt Fran is dead and there’s just no fixing it, but funerals help us move on, Mom says so, and Mom Knows Best. You don’t want to go, because going means it happened and going means something is over.

You ask the spaceman where his blue box is and he stares at you like you’ve lost your entire mind, because boxes, he tells you in absolute certainty, are no good for space flight. Boxes are not geometrically synergistic, he tells you, whether cardboard or wood or blue. He doesn’t have any kind of an accent, no bow tie, no box, and he’s lost. He tells you he’s lost.

This is just Earth, you tell him, and he says he knows that, how stupid do you think he is, he’s been here before, so many times before he knows Rubik’s Cubes and arcades and the way ugly yellow dish gloves will stick to your fingers and turn inside out if they’re too hot when you take them off. He remembers when an icy Big Gulp in a sweating plastic cup was the best part of summer—that’s why he’s here now, summer, and why it’s afternoon, and why—

He looks over his shoulder and you, who had been plucking brows into perfect and silently sarcastic arcs in a handheld mirror while the hammock made its creak-creak-creak sound against the tree trunks, follow his gaze, because you expect robots or aliens or something to have followed him. Through a portal, from the oozing innards of a crashed spaceship, Beyond the Abyss of Time. You expect something hulking and green, or slimy and black. But there’s only the quiet fence-trimmed lane that runs alongside the bayou, bushes bending in a breeze. In the tall pecan tree, the swing moves of its own accord.

This is Louisiana, you tell him, and smack the mosquito that alights on your leg. You brush away the bloody, black smear of the bug, then tuck your mirror and tweezers into the hammock pillows. And he knows it’s Louisiana, too, so you throw up your hands and tell him he’s not lost in the least bit, then, and to have a very good day indeed, don’t let the gate hit him on the way out. You don’t even think he’s a spaceman anymore, but then he’s closer than he was a blink ago. So close you can see the space dust on the shoulders of his strange suit. Space dust?

Listen to me very carefully, he tells you—and this is rather something a spaceman should say, you’ve imagined it a hundred times, right before one arrives to carry you away (away, away, away, this is all you want). Listen to me very carefully, he says to you, because they will be here soon, and time is of the essence, you understand time, and of course you understand time. You roll your eyes and there’s something of a smile on his face, the same way there was when you asked where his box was.

They will be here soon, you echo, and wriggle your fingers at him. Menacing. Can’t you do better than that, you ask. Is it hundred-foot tall robots? Is it slime-dripping, four hundred meter-tall monsters from an oceanic pit? Technically, he says, a crevasse—you can see the bayou, can you not, this is where the world is broken—and while they’ve been here all along, they’ve never come out, not until now, because of him. Right, you say, because of you. The Chosen One.

Rather not, he says, and rolls his eyes just the way you did—is he learning things from you already? He’s not chosen, he tells you—no one is ever actually chosen, are they, he says, because that means someone else wanted them, and no, he is from a place where people do not want, even if they need, and that’s when you see the lostness in his eyes—I’m lost, he had said, and you don’t get it until right then.

Okay then, you say. You’re lost, and they will be here soon, and why do you require my assistance, if that’s what you’re demanding, because this hammock is awfully comfortable, and you’ve got eyebrow arcs to perfect. But they’re already perfect, the spaceman says, and hauls you out of the hammock by your arm. Goddamn, you want to say, because the hammock was the whole of your summer plan, but in the next instant, the hammock vanishes. Every bit of fabric turns to ash in the summer air, dropping your mirror and tweezers to the lush grass that needed mowing a week ago. Oh, you say.

And then it’s running. There’s no dissolving transporter effect, there’s no miraculous ship that appears in mid-air to stymie the as-yet-unseen threat. It’s just running, and you’re barefoot, because it was hammock time, and the lane that runs along the bayou is not without prickers and branches and is it alligator or opossum poo that’s made the ball of your right foot slick? You are relieved when you hit a patch of summer-dry dirt, because it dries out whatever’s stuck to you, but then it’s lumps of dirt and you’re behind the Saunders’ place, Bret always hitting clods of dirt out of his garden with his three iron.

The spaceman pulls you into an overgrown camellia bush and smothers your mouth with his hand. He smells like hot, sun-simmered metal and in the close space, his eyes gleam like dimes under harsh southern-noon sunlight. He narrows them and looks at you, like he’s expecting a protest, despite the hand over your mouth. You say nothing, because that will teach him something, but then he smiles—a smile like a roll of dimes on their sides—and he nods, and his hand falls away.

You remembered, he said, and you don’t question that, because right then—right the hell then!—the as-yet-unseen threat walks right past your hiding place. If you had said anything, they would have heard, so you say nothing, and you watch as the things walk past. You suppose it’s walking, at least for them. They don’t have legs so much as they have tentacles. Is that possible? How is that possible? Are tentacles geometrically synergistic?

You really wish the spaceman had a box, because there, you’d be safe. You would be made to understand exactly what was going on—you would know the threat, you would have possible solutions spread before you, and all would be made well. Instead, you are crouched in a bush that has poison ivy knotted around its roots; instead, you are pressed against the side of a man who smells like metal and smiles like dimes, and your hammock has been vaporized and Aunt Fran is dead.

The threat passes beyond the bush and the spaceman looks at you. He will give you objectives now, you think; he’ll explain everything, and you’ll do what needs doing, and then he’ll put your hammock back the way it was and Aunt Fran, too, because—

It’s all just death, he tells you, and he opens a pocket of his spacesuit, because spacesuits have pockets, sure, and he shows you the thing that isn’t possible at all. The pocket opens into blackness, but the longer you look, the more stars begin to come out. Within that slit of black, pinpricks of starlight come to life, like cells dividing until they become something entirely Else and Other. The more your eyes adjust to the dark, pupils blown wide in the face of eternity, you see constellations you recognize—there’s Orion, and you know exactly where his nebula is, but how is it in a spaceman’s pocket, how is it . . .

You stare at the spaceman, not understanding. You ask if he stole the stars, if he stole the universe, and he laughs. It’s not a happy sound; it’s not a laugh like you’ve ever heard and his metal-scented fingers seal up the pocket as quickly as they opened it. Everything was bigger on the inside, of course—this shouldn’t surprise you, even as it does. People, boxes, books, you opened them, they just went on and on and on, the way Louisiana summers do.

All right, you say to him, all right. It’s all just death but right now, we’re not dead, right, tell me we aren’t dead, because if we’re dead—and here, your voice hitches the same exact way it did when Elizabeth gave you her phone number before summer break—if we’re dead . . . if we’re dead . . .

We are not dead, the spaceman says, but neither are we exactly—

He never finishes that sentence; the threat returns, slithering back up the bayou path, looking and looking, but never seeing exactly what they go past—you and the spaceman and the pocket universe—

Neither are we exactly: corporeal, human, lost, ice cream, plans for the future, living, beyond the edge of the hammock—

The summer afternoon snaps and you’re—

The spaceman has been coming to Earth longer than you know; he never tells you how long, and you never ask. He shows up three times that you remember, and each time, he tries to tell you something you never understand. Mostly, you wonder if he can solve the physics midterm you have next week. He shows no inclination toward this, more intent on the chocolate malt sitting between you and the straw that stands suspended in its frozen middle.

One day, he says.

Today? you ask.

One day, he says again, everything will make sense and you will remember.

And this is what visitors from the stars are supposed to say, so you go with it. They know things, visitors from the stars. They know that one doesn’t actually fly about space in a box; they know that bringing people back to life is impossible; they don’t know that Mentos plus Coke equals explosion and don’t know the same thing happens with vinegar and baking soda. This is why your mother doesn’t let you in the kitchen.

What day do you suppose that will be? you ask him.

Why does it matter what day, he says. The day will be the day and that’s all. Knowing ahead of time won’t help you.

You mash the paper down the length of a second straw and add the straw to the malt. You push the straw wrapper to the side, but his eyes swing to it. His eyes are ordinary, he’s ordinary, until he dips a finger into the ice water and carries a droplet of water to the straw wrapper. This water droplet falls, precise, onto the paper, and the paper wriggles like it’s a worm. Every ridge you scrunched into it comes undone. When the paper stops moving, it’s just soggy paper flat against the Formica tabletop.

Well, that’s disappointing, he says, and reaches for another straw.

You snatch it from his hands, wanting to undisappoint him.

You tear this one carefully open, pull the straw out, and set it aside. You fold the paper in half and again and again, over and around until you hold a small paper heart within your hands. You show it to him, but do not offer it.

He reaches for the malt, pulling it close enough to suck on one of the straws. He freezes his brain with the sweet chocolate as you lean across the table, open his pocket, and slide the straw-paper heart inside.

It’s no ordinary pocket—it’s not filled with lint or keys or identification, because he’s a spaceman. He has space in his pockets. He opens his pocket and it’s black as night inside. You think you see the entire universe in there.

At the least, you watch the straw-paper heart free fall into all that sky

(is it still sky when it’s beyond the sphere of earth?

is it still sky when it holds all the stars and galaxies and nebulas that ever were?)

and you know today is the day after all. You know exactly what he means and the world snaps again and you’re—

On the swing, but not swinging. You’re just sitting there, because it’s too hot to move. Your shorts are rucked up against your sweaty thighs and you nearly can’t breathe. You hate this place and it will never be home, but right now, when a breath of air moves the swing and the you and the branches above, you like it well enough, and then there’s the spaceman.

He’s standing by the trunk of the tree, his hand pressed over a pocket in his spacesuit and you think he will smell like metal. You drop off the swing, bare feet in cool grass that needed mowed a week ago, and walk toward him. You think his pockets will be filled with stars and forever, but when he lifts his hand, there’s only something like blood filling his pocket. You think he should slump to the ground, the way he’s losing blood, the way the warm summer-metal smell of him permeates the air, but he grabs you by the arm and you’re off, down the bayou path before he’s said a word to you. Slipping feet, clods of dirt, and he yanks you into the overgrown camellia while the as-yet-unseen threat slides right by again.

Hello, you say to him when the threat has passed.

If only I had a box, he says to you, and he goes unconscious and limp in the camellia. He is dead, you are positive he is dead, because it’s all death, he said so and Aunt Fran proved it, and— Your ankle brushes the poison ivy and you wince but you don’t exactly care. You’re already reaching for the spaceman’s pocket, pushing it open with your sweat-slick fingers so you can see how it’s bigger on—

There’s only ruined flesh beneath your fingers. Your skin tingles as the spaceman’s blood moves into every fingerprint; it’s not red, it’s not blue, it’s not even ghastly green. It’s no color, but it feels like hot ice burning your fingerprints away. You wipe the blood down the matte material of his spacesuit and stare at your fingers. The prints are gone, your skin as smooth as the skin that runs the length of your forearm. Oh, shi—

Sorry, sorry, he says. Other pocket, other pocket!

There is another pocket, but you don’t dare look in it. You press a hand over his apparent wound and the pocket both and you can feel something moving inside. You have never touched a pregnant woman—Aunt Fran told you how presumptuous that was—but you imagine it would feel like this, something alive moving just beneath the skin, just beneath the sky—the sky moving just beneath the skin—

If only you had a box, you think, and you watch the threat slither past outside the bush once again. Stupid aliens, why are they always so stupid, and humans so clev—

But even as you think this, the branches of the bush part, and oh, they’ve found you. They have found you and will eat you while you’re still alive unless you and the spaceman vanish the way your hammock did. But you don’t vanish.

The aliens haul you out of the bushes and they are the worst thing you have ever seen. They are the image of every pet you ever loved, mashed into one terrible thing that should never have lived. They haul you and the spaceman to the edge of the bayou and the stench and bugs are nearly enough to knock you unconscious. You almost wish for that, because it would be better than looking into your puppy’s eyes in that alien face, but all you can do is look.

The spaceman has no gizmo that will save you or him or anyone. This, you tell the aliens, is clearly a misunderstanding. You ask them if they are lost and they stare at you.

You can’t know where they got the images of your pets—there’s dogs and cats and even a gulping fish face goes by as they look at you—but you think if they knew well enough to get those faces, they know everything there is to know about you and earth and life, but mostly, they should know that everything that lives also dies. Every face they assume as their own is dead and gone and so very dead, skin long since rotted away, burned away, chewed away, and you see the flicker of the grave upon them then. If you know death, they should know death, and they do. Wet, dissolving death.

The aliens come apart in a flood. They have no form but for that which you give them; they come apart in sticky rivers of ejaculate that whiten the edge of the bayou; they avalanche down the dirt and into the water, where they are nothing but an oily sheen. An alligator passes through, slicing the slick neatly in two.

You stare at the spaceman, who stares back at you with his dime-eyes, and you have no actual idea what has just happened, only that he smiles at you, and you smile at him and say goddamn it you owe me a hammock. And possibly also Orion, he mutters before the world snaps again and you—

You are sitting in the night-dark yard, telescope aimed at the endless glories and wonders of the night sky, bare feet curled into grass that should have been mowed a week ago. The night is too damn hot, but there should be a comet, a comet crossing through Orion’s belt, but you can’t find Orion’s belt, which is impossible, but also rather happening. You pull back from the lens, to scan the night sky and it’s just not there. It’s summer, you tell yourself, so there shouldn’t be an Orion at all, but it’s more than that.

There’s a hole in the sky where the stars used to be; there’s a stretch of black that is like looking into a pocket that is like looking into a crevasse that just keeps going and going until it stops in a shine that looks like a smile of dimes turned on their sides and you think oh, spaceman, what the hell did you do, what did you do, and when can you do it again, because sometimes these glories and wonders are just too impossible to take, and you want to bundle every single star and paper heart into a pocket, seal it up, and never look at them again. If only, you think, you had a box, a pocket, a spaceman. But the night is warm and quiet around you, your hammock and aunt have dissolved, and you do not.

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E. Catherine Tobler

E. Catherine Tobler’s fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Interzone, among others. Her fiction was a finalist for the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, and her editing work at Shimmer was a finalist for the Hugo and World Fantasy awards. Her first short story collection, The Grand Tour, was published by Apex Book Company.