Only when Marlo and her mother have followed the attendants through the faux-marble foyer and into the room filled with diffusers and soft jazz and laid down on the massage tables covered in crisp, clean-smelling sheets; only when someone has placed a cool gel pack over Marlo’s eyes and set something against her skin that starts kneading, a familiar, needling motion that ignites a distant spark of recognition within her; only then does Marlo understand where her mother has taken her. She pushes back her eye mask and sits up, and the thing on her cheek disengages with a slight sucking pop. There in the dimness, she peers at the creature and yes, she recognizes it, from her time on its home planet and from various waystations thereafter.
The alien is the size of a rabbit, with a dozen scaled limbs and a narrow head devoid of features save for a long, thin proboscis that balloons into a mouth. When set against a human face, the creature unfurls this mouth like an umbrella, vibrating the tiny nubs inside to slough away dead skin as its hundreds of needle-like teeth penetrate the skin and produce a potent, opioid-like rush. The aliens may be stupid, but they are adept at this one thing. Out in space, people called them squicks or squeakers for the sound they made when you kicked them. But the display behind the counter said something about a skin soother treatment, and Marlo remembers now that this is what people call them here—soothers, not squicks.
Her mother must have heard Marlo’s rustling. “What’s wrong?” she says.
The squick’s long mouth is probing the air where Marlo’s face was a moment ago. Watching the quivering movement, Marlo remembers a hot, flat planet riddled with deep ravines. She remembers rappelling down those steep cliff walls, the sudden coolness, the giant ferns that towered overhead and filled the air with a distinctive wet musk. A strange, dissociative wave rolls over her: she was there, on another planet, and now she is here, in a dingy strip mall salon outside Indianapolis. She has been back six weeks, having finished her contract with an extraterrestrial prospecting firm and returned to fulfill the bargain she made when she fled home the day after her eighteenth birthday. Ten years of adventure, she had told herself; then home to help run the bakery and look after her mother until one or both of them was dead.
Marlo glances across at her mother, at her dark, inscrutable bulk. She pulls the mask back over her eyes. “I thought you said we were getting facials.”
“This is a facial.”
Marlo lies down, trying not to wince as the squick reattaches to her face. “I thought you meant, like, mud masks.”
“Times have changed,” her mother says. “If you hadn’t been gone so long, you’d know.”
“I was on the team that discovered these things. Remember? I made you a bracelet out of their teeth.” And Marlo sees again the long needles she painstakingly glued to a metal cuff; remembers how she had imagined them circling her mother’s wrist like fence posts, like a barricade against the badness of the world.
The kneading on her cheek hitches.
Marlo raises a hand, thinking to take off her eye mask, but a moment later the rhythm resumes, the endorphins already flooding her system, and she lowers her hand woozily. “I wish you could’ve seen it up there.”
“I’m thinking of adding something new to the menu,” her mother says. “Do people still eat donuts?”
“How come you never ask about what it was like? Aren’t you curious?”
“I could inject them with that alien liquor, what do you call it. The stuff that makes your mouth go numb. There’s a place down in Bloomington doing those now.”
“If you could see it, you’d understand. The call of it. The way it pulls you back.”
“Now why would you say a thing like that, Marlene?”
“It makes me think you’ll leave again.”
“On my first expedition,” Marlo says, “we scouted this planet.” Her mother mutters something inaudible, but Marlo pushes on. “And we saw this settlement, right? This big round hill with buildings on it. Well, the law says you have to approach new species on foot, so we landed ten miles away and walked. Everything was flat, covered in water that came up to our knees. Everything except that hill. It rose out of the water like a—like an anthill, you know? And we could see them up there, like little ants, going crazy. I guess they could see us too.” Somewhere in the telling of this story, the squick’s high has kicked in. Time has slowed; Marlo feels each word leave her mouth, float to the ceiling, and hover there like an unpopped balloon. “When we finally made it to the hill, they all burst into flame. All at once. By the time we got to the top, no one was there. Just piles of ash, everywhere you looked.”
She stops, frustrated. The story isn’t coming out right. How to convey the eerie stillness of that moment? The sudden wind that blew the ash away?
“I made donuts for your eighteenth birthday.” Her mother’s voice is slurred. “Remember? And then I woke up the next morning, and you were gone. Nothing but a note on the kitchen table.”
Marlo feels herself drifting toward sleep. She tenses every muscle in her body and pulls herself back. “I just wish you’d ask about it.”
“But I knew you’d come home.”
The words are so faint that, a moment after hearing them, Marlo wonders if her mother said anything at all. She swallows. Her tongue is heavy in her mouth. The darkness around them swells, contracts. She can’t tell if it has been five seconds or five minutes when she says, “I applied for another rotation.”
“Mom? Did you hear me? I’m going back.”
But her mother has fallen asleep, her breathing heavy and sure. I’ll tell her tomorrow, Marlo thinks. The touch on her cheek is gentle, insistent. No sneaking off this time, she vows, only half-believing the promise even as she makes it. Her thoughts are coming slow and blurred, now. Sleep unmoors her. She gives in.
• • • •
And here it was again: the squicks’ home planet, with its flat, bare surface and low-hanging clouds. Ravines crisscrossed the surface like a sunken highway system, forty feet or more in depth and filled with ferns three times Marlo’s height. Holes dotted the ravine walls, openings that led to the squicks’ tunnels and dens. Some quirk of nature had made the creatures the planet’s dominant species. But testing failed to uncover a level of intelligence that required diplomacy under international space-law, so Marlo and her colleagues were licensed to prospect for worthwhile resources. They collected a lot of samples, dug a lot of holes. When one enterprising scientist discovered that starving squicks ate dead skin, with pleasant results, the strategy changed—they were ordered to capture the squicks and bring them to home base for exporting off-planet.
What Marlo dreams of now is her last night on the planet. The other members of her squad had built a big bonfire in the middle of camp, using the last of their kerosene to induce the perpetually wet fern stalks to burn. But Marlo and Fabi had walked away from camp and built their own small fire, which sputtered and hissed as fat drops from the fronds overhead fell into it. Fabi had brought out her last bottle of aaj—to celebrate, she had said, but it didn’t feel like a celebration. Tomorrow, they would be shipped off to different assignments. They had exchanged home addresses, promised to visit, but both knew what would come of that.
Marlo raised the cap of her thermos, full of aaj, to her mouth. But the remembered boundaries of her body had gone blurry, and the cap overturned before it reached her lips.
Fabi tutted. “That was the last cup.”
Marlo touched her lips; the aaj had made them go numb. “I miss home.”
“You’re drunk,” Fabi said.
“I miss my mom’s muffins.”
Fabi buried her face in the crook of Marlo’s shoulder. “Let’s go back to my tent.”
“Did you know she still uses fresh blueberries?” Marlo said. “Supermarkets can’t even get them anymore but she has some connection, drives fifty miles to some guy’s farm every other Saturday.”
Fabi dropped the arm that had been circling Marlo. She prodded the empty aaj bottle with the toe of her boot, then gave it a kick, so that it skidded outside the meager circumference of firelight, into the darkness. She was almost a decade older than Marlo; this was her second rotation. “You only miss it while you’re gone. Then you get back, and no one gets it, and you’d give anything just to get out again.”
“You’re wrong.” Marlo shook her head, and when she stopped her vision—the entire canyon—swirled for a few seconds before settling into place. “My mom gets it.”
“Then why’d you leave?”
Marlo opened her mouth, then closed it. There was a faint sound coming from the darkness. “You hear that?”
“You’re drunk,” Fabi said again. Her words had an edge to them this time: no longer observation but indictment.
Marlo got to her feet and staggered in the direction of the sound. She could hear it more clearly now, a keening that raised the hair on her arms. As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she saw a small clearing. In it was a pulsing mass that slowly resolved into distinct shapes: a half-dozen or so squicks, arranged around another of their kind that was obviously dead.
Fabi had come up behind her. “They’re eating it.”
“No,” Marlo said. “They’re—” But she stopped, because the word that came to mind was too impossible.
The squicks raised their long mouths into the air, trumpeting that high, thin sound into the night sky.
Mourning, is what Marlo had been about to say.
The keening cut short. As one, the creatures’ heads turned toward them. They weren’t so bad, Marlo thought—like little chihuahuas, or something. She remembered the man who used to come into the bakery every Saturday morning with a bearded dragon named Norma clinging to his shirt. He always bought a chocolate croissant and fed her half. And for a moment Marlo thought she might scoop up one of the creatures, stroke it as that man had, let it nibble at the protein bar in her shirt pocket. She took a step forward.
The ends of the creatures’ mouths rolled back, revealing those clusters of needle-like teeth, which seemed to lengthen and thicken as she watched, gleaming whitely in the darkness. Marlo had to stop herself from stumbling back. She forced a laugh. The sound was reflected back by the high canyon walls, amplified, more like a shout. “You see this shit?”
“Easy, now,” Fabi said.
Marlo grasped for the weighted net at her belt. “I could catch every one of you squeakers if I wanted to.” Her fingers fumbled over nothing; she had left the net in her tent.
“Come on, Marlo,” Fabi said. “Let’s go back.”
Marlo faked a lunge, but the squicks didn’t move.
“Oh yeah?” she said, filled now with a hot, fast anger—toward the squicks, toward Fabi, toward the mother who waited, millions of miles from here, for her daughter to return and restore her to herself.
She stepped forward, and Fabi grabbed her arm. “Marlo—”
“That’s not my name.” Some distant part of Marlo’s brain registered that the squicks’ keening had started up again, but she was too focused on trying to shake off Fabi’s hands to care. “You don’t even know my real name.” And she heard it in her mother’s mouth, the flat way she always said it, lingering on the end—Marlene. And she remembered—not the good memories of home that she had worked so hard to cultivate, but the summers that baked people to death in their trailers, the dust storms that swirled across the desiccated fields, the grind of early morning after early morning at the bakery, using the same recipes her mother had used for thirty years, and her grandmother before that; her mother always at her shoulder, not like that, Marlene, like this, her voice a constant in that hot, cramped kitchen, chiding and gossiping and calling out to customers and never talking about a single real thing; how day by day Marlo had felt her world narrowing, as though there were shutters at the corners of her eyes slowly inching toward center—which was why she had caught a bus at six a.m. one morning, nothing but a note on the kitchen table, because she had felt the weight of this life looping heavy around her neck, had felt sure it would kill her if she stayed. And she knew that Fabi was right about what would happen when she went home, but that she would do it anyway. She had split herself apart such that no one would ever see her in her entirety. Part of her would always be an outsider, observing but not observed, removed and yet unable to pull away completely: orbiting herself for the rest of her life like a lost and lonely moon.
“You watch,” Marlo said, tearing out of Fabi’s grasp and lurching toward the creatures, who had hoisted the body aloft, whose wails (she realized) interwove to form a melody, and she drew back her foot and she—
• • • •
Marlo wakes to pain.
A hot, sharp sensation radiates from her cheek and lances through her bones. She staggers upright, clawing at her face, at the creature that has latched onto her skin and pierced all the way through. Its pale limbs swing this way and that as she shakes her head, trying to dislodge it. Blood floods her mouth, trickling down her throat until she cannot breathe. There is a high, tinny sound playing in her ears and a moment later she realizes it is her mother, screaming. The music has stopped and Marlo is pulling and pulling but the thing on her cheek won’t let go. Dark spots crowd her vision. getitoff getitoff someone is yelling. An attendant runs in with a broom and beats the creature, holding its limbs and whacking its middle until finally, with a great sucking noise, it lets go.
Marlo sinks to the floor, coughing. Her mother rushes to her and presses a wadded-up sheet to her cheek. Someone has switched the light on and Marlo squints in the sudden brightness. Her mother’s face looms over her own, almost unrecognizable in the harsh light, eyes and nose pooled in shadow, skin sun-spotted and slack with age.
“I’m sorry,” Marlo sobs. She jerks away from her mother’s hands, trying to see past her, to the squick. It must know this—how very sorry she is. But the squick is facing away from her, cowering in a pool of blood as the attendant advances upon it.
“Sorry?” her mother says, pressing the sheet against Marlo’s cheek, her nose, her mouth, until she can barely breathe. “There now—hush.”
“No, listen,” Marlo tries to say. But her mouth is filled with blood. The attendant tosses the broom aside, grabbing the squick with both hands. Marlo pulls away from her mother. Hot drops of blood spatter against her neck, her shoulders. “It read my mind, it saw—”
“Shh.” Her mother forces Marlo’s head back down, holding it to her breast. “It’s okay. I have you now.”
The attendant has thrown the squick over her shoulder and is carrying it through the door. It thrusts its long mouth toward Marlo, rolling its lips back to reveal bloody teeth, and although it has no eyes she feels its gaze upon her, knows that it has seen her as she thought only she could see herself.
Isn’t it strange? To feel, at last, understood?