I light the pilots on the stove and open the oven door because the furnace in the living room heats for shit, and it's a cold day. After scrounging in the cupboards and fridge for something to eat, I only find peanut butter, a roll of crackers and the twenty jars of kimchi that have been in the pantry for almost two months now. I'd kill for a casserole or some brownies, or maybe some hotdogs with cheese – all the things a warm kitchen reminds me of.
I miss my wife.
The kids are off doing what they do; probably smoking pot or having sex with their classmates. I wanted to lecture them before they bolted out the door this morning, but decided that it wasn't worth the effort. We've been holed up in this old house for months now. When the alert passed this morning, I didn't have the heart to keep them in.
Besides, I don't mind the quiet. I can't remember the last time I had the house to myself.
A low-flying plane rumbles faintly above and I fight the reaction to hit the floor and cover my head. I'm still jumpy, I guess. The Presidential Address that aired on the radio this morning said that the threat had passed. "Continue on with your lives as you would have before the . . . . incident," he said, after some pause. Yeah, right. Before the incident I was a tax adjuster for the city. My wife was alive. My kids were their normal, asshole teenager selves. Now, I'm lying on the dirty kitchen floor with my hands over my head, worried that I'm about to be vaporized. I'm worried if my kids are safe or where they're at.
Those goddamn alien pricks.
An obnoxious commercial blares from the TV in the living room and I reluctantly leave the warm floor to turn it off. I've already seen the ad once today.
"The Overlords are gone, and what better way to celebrate than to get that new car you've always wanted!" The man wields a mighty cowboy hat and cheap white suit. "So, get on down here to Tom Tally's Auto…"
The TV goes dark before my thumb hits the power button on the remote. All of the lights have gone dark as well. Another rolling blackout. Just a reminder that things aren't quite back to normal, even if car salesmen haven't lost their stride. The thought is comforting. I'm not ready for things to be back to normal.
I walk upstairs, past my bedroom door that I haven't opened since the first day of the attacks. I root around Lonnie's room, looking for his stash. I know he's got one. When we were holed up in the basement for those long weeks, he would sneak upstairs when he thought I was asleep and return an hour later reeking of pot. I didn't say anything. He had just lost his mother, and, if we were all going to die, he might as well die happy.
I look in all the places I used to hide mine. Under the mattress. Behind the dresser. It shouldn't surprise me that he keeps it out in the open, in the cigar box on his bedside table. Lonnie's the kind of kid who does what he does and rarely apologizes for any of it. At least he's honest.
The power flickers on after a few moments and I find myself propped up on the kitchen counter, smoking a pinner and thinking of my wife. It's been ages since we shared a joint. Back when the kids were still in diapers. For years I thought that we were bad parents for doing that. I don't think so anymore.
There's a knock at the front door. I think about scrambling to put out my half-smoked joint and clear the air, but then decide that I'm in no mood to change the course of my day. On the other side of the door stands a black woman, bundled in a bright blue scarf and matching mittens. I leave the screen door closed.
"Good afternoon, Sir." The woman smiles. I know from the smile that she's a religious person – that and the stack of white pamphlets tucked under her arm. "I'm from the Church of the Eminent Beings, a representative branch of the Jehovah's Witnesses. Can I have a moment of your time?"
"I don't know. I'm busy today." I take a long hit and blow the smoke at her, through the screen. She doesn't even flinch.
"I can see that, sir. What I'm passing out today is some literature that connects the coming of the Eminent Ones with the doctrine of our established faith…"
"Aren't they all dead?"
"We believe that there are a few still living out of orbit, and that's hope enough for us! According to our faith, and what has been written before, the total human death count from the Overlord onslaught is shockingly close to the number of the Promised Few that will have entrance to Heaven."
"So, how many of the people that died are members of your church?"
She pauses. "Well, we obviously don't have that information just yet. Though, we believe that number is high."
"What's your name?"
"Do you want to smoke this with me, Marcy?"
She doesn't stay long. The crumpled pamphlet lands a perfect shot into the umbrella stand.
We were sitting at the dining room table when we first heard. Lonnie and Ellen had already inhaled dinner and retreated to their rooms. My wife and I were finishing the last of the wine, chatting about all the shit married couples chat about. I don't even remember. A car for Ellen? Maybe the credit card bill. I remember what she was wearing, though. She hadn't changed when she got home from work, so she was still in her blue pinstripe skirt and a low-buttoned cream blouse. The necklace hanging from her neck with the silver pendant was the one I gave to her on Valentine's Day.
We get a call from a neighbor down the street telling us to turn on the TV immediately. Maybe it was a terrorist attack. We turn on the TV only to find that every channel broadcasted the same video footage: A hovering, disk-shaped object – like from a b-movie, like a giant disembodied tit – floated over the nation's capitol building, and, we came to find out, every other capitol around the world.
And that changed things.
What could have once been called improbable, or even impossible, was now a part of our every day norm. Non-terrestrial aliens existed. Of course, it took a while for the world to adjust to that.
There were riots. Mass suicides. Half of the country flocked to churches; the other half hit up the bars and liquor stores. Somehow, our family managed to remain somewhat calm about the whole ordeal. Janine and I aren't hotheads, and we're not ones to buy into hysteria. At least, we both did well at keeping the fear in check. For the kids, mainly, but also for each other. Those were long nights, in bed together, staring at the muted television just in case something should happen through the night. But it didn't.
After a few days, when it became clear that the aliens weren't opening fire, everyone else calmed down. The President finally addressed the nation: These are peaceful beings. He said it with certainty. And we all believed him.
And then, things in the world seemed to get really good. All the raging wars across the globe halted. Crime rates dropped. Maybe because, for the first time in our history, we were being held accountable as a race to some higher entity. Not just to a god, who we could not see or touch, but to a tangible force that seemed, in all respects, greater than us.
The beings weren't paraded around. In fact, they never left their ships except to talk privately with the leaders of the world. But their message was one of hope and peace. They were the Eminent Ones. We weren't alone in the universe anymore. It was possible for civilization to advance and not blow itself to hell. There was hope. They reinforced this message by projecting the words by laser against the night skies: PEACE IS THE WAY OF THE UNIVERSE, or THE PURSUIT OF KNOWLEDGE IS THE PURSUIT OF GOOD. Fortune cookie type stuff. The national TV stations displayed any new messages from the beings by scrolling text beneath the primetime lineup. The state allocated funding to create local community centers where the messages from the Eminent Ones could be discussed and contemplated.
And, for all that the Eminent Ones would give to us, they only asked for food in return. Each country provided the bounty of their culture, of which they graciously accepted, but it was strangely enough Chinese food that their palates craved. And, of course, the world accepted and provided no matter how strange it seemed.
I saw the changes at home as well. Lonnie and Ellen's grades improved at school. They sat with us at the dinner table, talking about all of the things they previously thought we didn't understand. They talked about the future and about hope. It was a chance for everyone to start over. To re-evaluate. Janine and I were always pretty good at communication, but now our marriage was rekindled. Our nights were filled with philosophical discussions about the new path of humanity. The chance at a peaceful future that no one thought could ever happen.
After that year, though, some eyebrows began to raise. The beings had promised to teach the world about advanced medicines. New technologies and ways to increase food production. They promised to answer whatever questions they could about the mysteries of the universe, time and space. But, with every question that was asked of them, they simply responded with what would become a token phrase throughout the world: You are not yet ready for the answer.
In the spring, we received a flyer in our mailbox. It was stamped with the presidential seal and signed by the President and State Governor. "Refrain from discussing matters of the Eminent Ones in public, on cell-phones or standard telephone lines, and on any personal electronic devices." The next one came a week later. "You are advised to begin rationing water, canned goods and any other dry goods that may be stored for long periods of time."
A few days later the city posted a mandate that all Vietnamese and Chinese restaurants were to close. Soy sauce and MSG were removed from the grocery store shelves. A few mornings later, every resident of our block opened the door to a curious box full of kimchi. Twenty-four jars of it. That same afternoon, the lights and telephone lines went down. Emergency vehicles sped down the residential streets, announcing by loudspeaker that all persons were to stay inside until further notice. The power died just after. The skyline of the city proper was soon lit up with fire and strange lights. My wife never came home from work that day.
The phone lines are back up. Lonnie calls and tells me that he and Ellen are hanging out at a friend's house down the street and are staying for dinner. I'm okay with that. Mainly because we don't have anything worth eating here. The supermarkets must be up and running again. Soon I'll be getting the usual calls from the credit card companies or from the telemarketers trying to sell me something that'll make my dick hard. I almost unplug the phone, but decide against it in case the kids try to call again.
I pause at my bedroom door after taking a quick shower. Most of my clothes are inside, but I can't seem to reach out and grab the knob. Maybe I think that Janine will be inside waiting for me. Maybe she didn't know we were holed up down in the cellar and came home and took a nap on the bed. Maybe she's still asleep, not knowing about any of the shit that's happened in the world these last few months. I reach out. I'm close. Just an inch away from the brass fucker. But I don't. I wouldn't want to wake her.
I go back downstairs wearing just a towel. The house has gotten colder and I realize that it's already evening. There's a basket full of laundry that's been sitting beside the couch for two months and a week. I dig through it only to find that most of the clothes are Janine's. A few t-shirts, underwear and socks. There's a certain pair of panties in the pile that I remember her buying. It was no special day, really. We were out running errands and we both needed to pick up a few things from the department store. I can still see her in the aisle, holding the thin, black underwear to her waist and winking at me. Our 20th wedding anniversary is coming up. I'll have to write it on the calendar so I don't forget.
With nothing left to wear but an old bathrobe, I opt for a pair of her underwear. Not any of the nice ones or anything. These are the cotton, granny-panty type that offer a bit more support than her skimpier stuff. I also pull a plain t-shirt and a pair of my tube socks from the mix. Not the warmest wear, but it's clean, and the women's underwear isn't too uncomfortable.
I give the TV another go. There's a reporter speaking against the backdrop of what was presumably once a city street. There are no fires, but smoke rises from the larger heaps in pillars. "The destruction behind me marks the final day of what has been called the Onslaught, by many. If you look closely, you can see the remnants of one of the alien ships that crashed here just yesterday morning."
The badly dressed reporter yammers on. You can see the silver bits amidst the grey, brown and black rubble – all that's left of an alien race. No photos of the alien bodies yet. I don't think I even want to see what they look like. The curiosity has left me completely.
There's a knocking at the door again. I open it to an older man, wearing an unkempt police uniform. He only has one hand. He uses that arm to prop up a clipboard, while he holds a pen with his good hand.
"Hello, sorry to bother you so late, but the community is taking a census. We need to know if the same number of residents live here as before the incident. We've got registered here a Mr. Thomas Dryer, wife Janine Dryer, and two children under the age of 18. Is that correct?"
"Almost. My wife, Janine, was in the courthouse when it was hit."
"Sorry to hear that sir."
"Yeah. It's cold out tonight. Want to come in for a minute?"
He looks me up and down. My robe is open, but he comes in anyway.
I scrounge around the kitchen again for something to offer and find an old can of instant coffee with about enough for two cups inside.
"Sorry, but it's all I have." I say, settling into the recliner across from him.
"No, it's great." The older man takes off his hat and loosens his tie. "I've been on my feet all day. Freezing out there."
"Seems like things are getting back on track."
"Slowly but surely."
He holds the warm cup up to his nose and closes his eyes. My attention falls on his missing hand. It's nothing grotesque. Not bloody, anyway. But still bandaged. Even though his eyes are closed he must feel me watching.
"I lost it a few days after the attacks started. When they sliced through the main street they hit a school. I was helping the rescue and a girder came down and crushed it."
"I didn't mean to stare."
His eyes are open now. "Nah, it's fine. I lost it doing something good."
He's angry. He's holding it back pretty well, but I can tell. Inside, he's fuming. So am I, I guess. We all are.
"Really sorry about your wife." He says, taking a sip. He doesn't wince at the taste.
"Well..yeah. I imagine it must have happened pretty quick."
"I guess I was lucky. Lost a cousin. That's still sad and all, but my wife made it fine. My kids don't live here anymore. They were safe, too."
The muted TV still flashes images of wreckage from across the world. All thirty-three of the alien ships went down. Some went down in the oceans or in fields. These are the bad instances, though. The residential areas and city streets.
"You know what I did once I heard a ship went down in old Beckman's field?" The cop continues. "Me and some of my buddies at the office drove out there. This was before the National Guard got there. We brought a case and our guns with us and blew the hell out of the thing. Never would have thought they'd be so easy to take down. Guess without the shields and all…anyway, our bullets cut through that fucker like it was aluminum. Looked like a goddamn strainer by the time we got done with it. Everyone was a little edgy about getting too close to the thing, but I didn't care. I walked up to it and whipped out my dick and took a steaming piss on it."
I laugh. So does he.
"Yeah, I figure..hell. What more can we do to it? Can't take any of it back. Nothing'll change things. But, I sure know that I feel better about all this shit now. At least a little bit."
He wipes at the moisture forming at the corners of his eyes.
"We were cheated, weren't we?"
"How's that?" He cocks his head.
"I mean…we were given hope, right? We were led to believe that things could change. That the world wasn't going tear itself apart. My kids could have grown up in a world completely different from the one we grew up in. And then…that was all taken away. We were betrayed. It was all lies."
The old cop nods absently. "I guess you're right about that. But, I mean…this still is a different world than the one you and I grew up in. We know we ain't alone in the universe anymore. We know that it's possible to travel to other worlds. And the most important thing is that we know we ain't the biggest assholes in the universe."
We laugh again. This is a heartier one, and it feels good. The cop reaches into his jacket pocket and pulls out a silver flask. He unscrews it and pours a healthy amount into his half finished cup of coffee then offers it to me. Of course I accept.
Still laughing, I ask him: "So, can you please tell me what the deal is with all the fucking Kimchi? I mean, were they really so afraid of the shit that it kept them away."
"Oh, no. They loved the stuff. So much that they'd stop whatever it was they were doing and scarf it down. Turns out it was like…I don't know what it's called these days, but it was like a drug. Like alcohol and a hallucinogen mixed together."
I almost spit out my coffee. "That's a fucking joke."
"No, no," he chuckled deeply. "The kicker is that they were already batshit nuts. They gorged themselves on so much cheap Chinese food that the MSG started to poison them or something. The military people are saying that's what drove them crazy. An allergy or something. Then they got into the kimchi and that's when things really went to hell. They started joyriding in their ships, blasting everything in their way like it was a big game of mailbox baseball or something."
"I thought it was just an attack."
"Oh hell, no. The fuckers were drunk and high. They pretty much poisoned themselves. One by one, the ships started to come down like dead birds. I mean, our weapons couldn't even touch 'em. They came down by themselves."
I don't know what to say. Somehow, it feels like even more of a slap in the face. My wife didn't die for any reason other than a master race's good time. I feel sick.
"You all right? I'm sorry if I'm laying this all on you. I'm not sure what's been said on the news yet. This is something I heard from the army people."
"No, it's fine." I take a long sip. "No, it's just…I mean. What a bunch of assholes."
The cop finishes his coffee and I walk him to the door. I never caught his name, though I don't suppose it matters. I haven't eaten all day, so I go into the kitchen, open a jar of the kimchi and grab a dirty fork that's been sitting in the sink for weeks. Printed on every jar is a message translated into seven different languages: "If Eminent One approaches, remove lid and leave on doorstep. Stay indoors." There's even a little diagram printed beside it. I'm a few tart bites in when the absurdity of it all finally hits me. Maybe it's the weed, but I start to laugh. I laugh so hard that I have to put the jar down so it doesn't spill as I double over.
Maybe it's because, for these last few months, I've been living in fear of these great beings. These Eminent Ones, who had given humanity a shot and decided that we weren't worth the effort. We weren't good enough to exist in the galactic community. I really didn't blame them, deep in my heart. We humans tend to fuck things up from time to time. And, as I huddled up with my kids in the dark cellar, living off of canned food and rationed water, I knew that our race had it coming. But, at the same time, I couldn't bear the thought of my children dying so young. Of losing them just as I had lost Janine. So we survived. And it passed. But now… the truth is sobering. We weren't being judged at all. We weren't even being systematically eradicated. The Eminent Ones were nothing more than interstellar party crashers. That's why my wife died. Because of drunk aliens.
God, that fucking sucks.
I go back upstairs and stand in front of my bedroom door. Our bedroom door. It's still part Janine's, too. After a minute, I grow the balls to open it and flip on the light.
It looks just the same as it did that morning, before the attacks. We were running late, so the bed wasn't made. The sheets are bundled and messy in the way that we left them. There are clothes on the floor. A belt hangs from the closet doorknob. The yellow post-it is still stuck to the mirror: "Pick the kids up early today for their appointments," in my wife's scrawling handwriting. Usually she took the kids to their appointments, but she had a busy day planned, and she couldn't leave work.
I close my eyes and try to smell her, but I can't. The room smells stuffy and closed up. A perfume bottle sits on the dresser, cap off. I'm tempted to spray it. I even grab it and put my finger on the pump. But I don't. Even in this sadness and desperation, I know it would be like giving a thirsty man only a drop of water to drink.
The bed is still comfortable. I curl up in it and pull the sheets around me. I want nothing more than to just go to sleep, but the sheets are too cold. The room is too quiet. Nothing feels in its place. Things feel wrong.
The front door slams and I hear two pairs of feet plodding on the hardwood floor.
"Dad?" Lonnie yells out from below.
I don't answer. I'm still a little high and I'm wearing his dead mother's underwear. I'm also ashamed for other reasons, though I'm not sure what they are.
"Dad," Ellen's voice echoes. "You home?"
I close my eyes and imagine Janine lying in bed next to me. Face to face. She'd laugh at my getup. Wouldn't get mad that I'm stoned. But she'd never forgive me if I gave up. Both for myself and for the kids. Her brows would narrow in that very specific way when she would get pissed at me. That "you should know better" look. And I should. I'm afraid to open my eyes, though. When I do she won't be there. I'll be reminded that world is still turning.
Their quick feet are padding up the stairs, and they call out again.
"Yeah, I'm here." I answer. Then, I open my eyes. The room is a mess, and I need to clean it. So is the rest of the house. I can get the kids to help me out.
"Give me a minute and I'll be down."
I pull on some proper clothing from the closet and drawers. I blow off the dust from my comb sitting on the dresser top and wipe off the mirror as well.
Jesus, when did I get old?