by Matt Hall
When the aliens arrived, they came with jobs. Offers for jobs, at least. Earth’s economy had really taken a nosedive those last few decades and because many people had all but given up, the aliens, who looked very human-like beneath those clunky helmets of theirs, were heralded as the Great New Hope for mankind, especially for those who’d majored in the humanities. The aliens wanted their citizens to acquire the languages of Earth, and were soon filling their ships with people from all around the world. Ambassadors of Language, they called them; even some folks who’d majored in Latin managed to get spots on those ships, and everyone had a good laugh and didn’t let the aliens in on the joke. This was how Donald’s niece, who you could basically call his daughter—since he had raised her these past twelve years—ended up on one of those ships destined for the alien planet that the humans called (because they could never manage to pronounce the actual name) Yoro.
Donald Williams did not trust his fellow humans, let alone beings from another galaxy. But he’d always had a soft spot for his niece, Teresa, and she eventually wore him down.
“And what will you do for food?” Donald said, on the eve of her trip. They sat at his kitchen table, the big purple and pink Iowa sky framed in the window above the sink. Teresa had prepared a roast chicken and beans for dinner, and was now finishing off a bowl of soupy vanilla ice cream—her favorite. Donald, as usual, had his tumbler of whisky.
“They have plenty provided,” she said. “More than enough. That’s in the contract.”
“Ah, yes,” he said, “the contract.”
This was a sore spot. The contract, which Donald had attempted and failed to read through, contained more than three thousand pages of fine, broken English print. Most people glanced at the first and last pages, signed their names on the dotted line, and returned the stack to their nearest Yoro representative.
Teresa ran her fingers through copper-colored hair—her mother’s, Donald’s sister’s— hair. She did this whenever she’d had enough with her uncle’s worrying. She did this a lot.
“Fine,” he said, attempting to smile, “you’ve already won, and I won’t try stopping
“But you still have no idea when you’ll be back?”
She scooped the last dregs of vanilla ice cream and brought the spoon to her lips. “No less than two years, but who knows, really. Some fellas have been gone for nearly four, and then another girl—Sandy, remember her?—got homesick and came back just shy of five months.”
Donald liked hearing this bit about homesickness, but kept his face as neutral as possible.
“Everything will be just fine,” his niece said a few moments later, wrapping long arms around him, pecking his cheek.
Teresa—his baby sister’s daughter whom he’d always protected, two years out of high school and unable to afford college or find a decent job—then headed to her bedroom to finish packing. And Donald sat at the kitchen table for a long time, sipping whisky and hoping for the best.
Five years, six months, and twenty-three days later: Donald’s niece came bounding into the living room. He’d been asleep on the old recliner in nothing but boxers and a t-shirt. Brown sauce from his dinner of baked beans ringed his mouth.
“Uncle Donald!” Teresa yelled, dropping her bags on the hardwood floor.
“My God,” Donald said, taking in the 3-D image of his niece for the first time in all these years. Then he scanned the length of his own sprawled body. And whose knobby knees and skinny legs were these? Whose wiry gray hair?
“Are you all right?” Teresa said, inching closer. Her eyes moved from his patchy white beard—he’d never been good at growing a beard—and stopped at the long, talon-like yellow toenails.
“I’m fine,” Donald said, pulling at his t-shirt, which had ridden up and exposed his wan stomach. “I didn’t know you were coming…it’s good you’re…I didn’t know.” Now he brought his legs down, returning the recliner to its sitting position. “God, Teresa, five and a half years!”
Soon he was on his feet, and Teresa wrapped those long arms around him. She held him and poked at his shoulders, chest, and back. Pinched bone and skin between fingers, as if searching for his former self.
“Are you not eating?” she said, releasing him.
“Sure I am.” He went to lift one of her bags. “Now let’s get you settled.”
“Don’t worry about that right now,” she said, using her foot to slide the duffle bag out of his reach. “There’s someone I want you to meet.”
Teresa left her uncle standing in his underwear in the living room. The screen door creaked open, then closed. Soon she was heading back with a tall Yoro—a male, Donald thought, by the size of him. And what was this? Why did he have Donald’s niece by the hand?
“Uncle Donald,” she said now, but instead of looking at him, the person she was speaking to, as any polite person would, she gazed into that tall Yoro’s yellow eyes, which were easy to see because he wore no helmet; still, he was able to breathe somehow. And this Yoro was smiling a big gummy smile, his teeth buried somewhere deep inside red folds of flesh and gums and tongue. “This is Bob—my fiancé.”
Later that night, as Bob bathed, Donald poured a third whisky and said to his niece, “How is it he can breathe?”
Teresa stood at the counter, chopping carrots and celery. “He’s a lunger.”
“When was the last time you went into town?”
Donald steered clear of town—everything was so busy down there, so different than it had been just a few years before. “It hasn’t been that long.”
Using the knife, she slid the vegetables into the boiling chicken stock. “I’m worried about you.”
“How long’s he going to take up there?” Donald said, because Bob had been splashing around in the tub for nearly an hour; he’d barely spoken two words to Donald since waltzing through the front door, his slender digits coiled around Teresa’s.
“Bob likes baths.”
At dinner, Donald made an effort not to stare. Sure, he’d seen plenty of Yoros. But sitting down and breaking bread with one—this was a first. When Bob slurped from his bowl, Donald looked to his niece, who’d become the spitting image of her mother, her red hair adding a pop of color to Donald’s beige kitchen. And when Bob’s hand disappeared beneath the table, Donald busied himself buttering a hard piece of bread. He was not going to think about where those skinny alien fingers might be probing. No, he’d butter the hell out of his bread, finish his soup, say goodnight, and then head upstairs.
“Oh my god,” Teresa said to Bob. “Remember that night out on the Bubbling Sea, when—”
“Your helmet cracked!”
“You were so worried!”
“Of course I was!” Teresa bellowed, smacking Bob’s shoulder. “I could have died!”
“No, no,” Bob said, laughing. “I never would have let that happen.”
Donald said, “Wait, what’s this about your helmet cracking?”
Now Teresa scanned her uncle’s face, and said, “It was nothing, really. The Bubbling Sea is, well—” She looked to Bob. “How would you describe it?”
“Turbulent,” Bob said, laughing still, his face reddening.
“But what’s this about your helmet?” Donald said, and maybe he was old school and had never traveled to distant worlds, but what was so damn funny about his niece almost dying, out on some forsaken alien sea with the likes of Bob by her side?
“It’s nothing,” she said. “Nothing to worry about.”
Bob continued laughing, and Teresa smacked his arm again. “Sorry, sorry,” he said, though he kept right on cackling, his pink fleshy mouth opening and closing like a heart valve. Soon, he descended into a coughing fit. Teresa, always the caregiver, rubbed his back. And when Bob hacked up a red glob right on the kitchen table, she didn’t flinch, just scooped it up with a paper towel, then held it inside her fist.
“He all right?” Donald said.
“Getting used to his lungs, that’s all.”
Bob coughed, then nodded. He gave Donald a gummy smile and wiped a bit of blood from his bottom lip.
Bob had to go easy those first few weeks on Earth—his new lungs and all—and took up residency on Donald’s sofa, his long Yoro legs stretched out, bare pale feet dangling off the armrest.
“What’s he plan on doing?” Donald said to his niece her first morning back.
She shrugged. “He can always work with Yoro Outreach or Recruiting, but I’m not sure he’s excited about either. There just aren’t many options here.”
Donald gazed into the living room, where Bob snored. “I’ll see what I can do.”
That afternoon, he planned on driving into town and seeing what work he could find for Bob. If his niece’s soon-to-be-husband thought he was going to spend day and night lounging in Donald’s living room, eating Donald’s food, daring to ask for a little spending money out of Donald’s monthly military pension—which Donald himself barely survived on—this Yoro had another thing coming. He discovered, however, that his pickup’s battery was fried, and after an exhaustive search for a spare in both sheds and the barn, Donald went ahead on foot. The sun was out, the day warm, and some exercise would do him good anyway.
Walking up State Highway 17, Donald considered that there were worse things than his niece getting hitched to Bob. She could have stayed put on Yoro, made a new life for herself—forgotten all about her uncle back in Iowa. And Bob was, well…he at least seemed to adore Teresa. Everyone did. Earlier that morning, Donald lay in bed for a long time (too much whisky and excitement the night before), listening to his niece laughing downstairs, and Bob insisting she looked beautiful even with her hair mussed from sleep. Yes, things could have been much worse. And if he managed to find a decent job for Bob, and Teresa got some tutoring work (there being more and more Yoros around, one strolling by Donald this very moment, as he turned onto Montgomery Street), they could save up for a place of their own. Despite the crummy economy and drought, Iowa remained an idyllic place to live out one’s years; if you asked Donald, nowhere in the galaxy was finer than the Hawkeye State.
He hadn’t stepped foot downtown since Teresa’s departure. Had no need, really. He still grew vegetables and had a coop of egg-laying hens, and whenever he required some other staple or odds and ends from the hardware store, he’d pay the neighbor boy, Allen, to go fetch it for him. Staying on his farm and avoiding the hubbub had always suited Donald. Crossing over the railroad tracks into town, though, he realized he’d underestimated the capacity things had for getting worse. He’d anticipated the smog and beeping horns, of course, along with the packs of out-of-work men stalking up sidewalks, badgering passersby for dollars, quarters, anything. The sewer stench and litter-strewn lots were nothing new. Nor were the boarded up shop windows and squatter-filled apartment buildings. What shocked Donald this day, as he weaved between shirtless boys who really should have been in school, was the multitude of Yoros—lungers, every one of them. Unlike some of his neighbors, Donald hadn’t protested the aliens when they first arrived. They appeared a harmless lot, they were only interested in employing Ambassadors of Language, and once their people were proficient speakers of Earth’s languages, Donald figured fewer and fewer would see much value in hanging around. But now another oxygen-breathing Yoro strolled by, and here came another, a cigarette dangling from their lips. Without clunky helmets, the Yoros blended in a bit more. They were still skinny things though, and those fleshy mouths of theirs were hard to miss. But in town, where it was wise to keep moving, to keep your head down, Donald figured that distinguishing human from Yoro had become trickier. So much so, that when one reached out and grabbed his arm, pulling him toward an alley, Donald said, “What’s the deal, pal?” Then he saw the gummy smile, the long skinny legs, and wriggled free.
“What you looking for?” this Yoro said.
“Oh, sure you are.”
Donald started moving up the sidewalk, didn’t bother turning around when the Yoro yelled, “You know that nothing makes sense here!”
No matter how much downtown had transformed, Donald counted on the Filling Station still being open. He’d spent too many nights on a stool there, especially after his baby sister, Margret, jumped off that bridge—the most selfish act Donald could imagine—and he’d taken Teresa in. He’d sit gulping pint after pint of whatever Harry poured, wondering what the hell to do next. Harry had run the Filling Station for nearly thirty years, and Donald banked on him still pouring those pints, still listening to customers’ stories of woe. Though Harry might not be in the business of hiring Yoros, Donald hoped he’d consider doing him a personal favor and put Teresa’s fiancé to work.
What a goddamn bastard, Donald thought, slamming the Filling Station’s door, the smog and racket of downtown enveloping him once again. Donald had vouched for Bob, said that if his niece loved the guy, then that was good enough for him. Harry wouldn’t hear it—acted as if Donald were just another lowlife stool jockey asking for a free pour.
He supposed it was every man for himself these days. So be it.
A fight broke out in the street—two Yoros grappling like a couple of street cats. Donald kept his head down and continued moving up the sidewalk.
That evening after dinner, Donald surveyed his property. The fields hadn’t yielded corn in nearly a decade, but there still might be some good soil out there. Potatoes might take, and hell, that would get them through the winter well enough; they could sell them, along with the other vegetables, once the back garden was expanded. They had the chickens and could save for a few hogs. If there were no jobs, they’d make their own way. All three of them working together, proving that Iowa still had something to offer the universe.
Before heading to bed, he found Teresa and Bob out on the front porch. Bob had one arm wrapped around her waist and was pointing a finger at the big night sky. They didn’t notice him standing behind the screen door. He thought about saying goodnight, about telling Teresa, again, how good it was to have her back home, but decided to leave them be, staring at the stars. And for the first time in years, Donald dared to feel hopeful.
“Collated framing nails,” Donald told the neighbor boy, Allen, three days later. “Nothing fancy, just good enough to get the job done.”
Earlier that morning, Donald had sat at the kitchen table with his coffee, making a list. First item: the north side of the barn. Entire thing would have to be replaced. He had the lumber, but only a handful of rusted nails.
“You might as well get me a hammer too,” Donald said, placing a twenty-dollar bill in Allen’s fat hand. Allen wasn’t built for hard labor—he was soft and short and just finishing up the eighth grade—otherwise Donald would have paid the kid to help whip the farm back into shape. But he had Bob now, and though Teresa had already protested Bob extending himself so soon after receiving those human lungs of his, Bob said he was up to the task.
“You don’t got a hammer?” Allen said, shoving the cash in his dungarees.
“What kind of dumb question is that? It’s not for me, it’s for Bob.”
“Don’t worry about that, just hurry back with the supplies.”
Two hours later, Allen returned; as promised, Donald gave the kid five bucks for fetching the supplies.
Bob stood on the porch, stretching his long Yoro legs. He wore one of Donald’s old Iowa State caps, looking almost like a proper farmer as he gazed out over the property.
“You got a Yoro staying with you?” Allen said, pointing toward Bob.
“You aren’t blind—you see him.”
“We’ve been studying them in school. Think I’ll head up on one of their ships when I turn eighteen. They got all kinds of cool things—”
“Send me a postcard,” Donald said, heading to the barn. Then he hollered toward the porch, “Come on, Bob! Time to earn your keep!”
Teresa appeared behind the screen door and yelled, “Go easy, hon!” And to Donald, “Don’t push him too hard now!”
“A little sweat never hurt anyone,” Donald said, though he had no idea if Yoros perspired.
He supposed the dreams started because of Teresa being back, and how much she’d come to resemble her mother. Each night he’d wake, body burning and drenched in sweat, Margret’s final words to him—”nothing makes sense here”—ringing in his ears. Teresa had even started sounding like her dead mother. But Donald knew they were just dreams, and putting too much stock in them would accomplish one thing: wasted time. Besides, he had a barn to fix and fields to sow. A thousand chores to get done before autumn.
Each morning, he’d rap on Teresa’s door and pretend he didn’t know Bob had snuck in there during the night (Bob had been relegated to sleeping in the living room till they were married proper). “Five minutes and coffee will be on,” he’d say, then head to the bathroom to pee and wash up.
Bob might have been clumsy and useless with his hammer on that first day, but a week into the barn renovation you would have thought the guy grew up nailing beams to studs. Sure, he had to take some breaks, and would make a racket coughing into a yellow handkerchief of Teresa’s, sometimes staining it red and having to excuse himself, but Donald was glad to have the extra hands and even commended Bob on his work ethic.
“You pick up things quick,” he said, while measuring out a piece of sheet metal they’d need to get screwed to the roof before dark.
“Good teacher,” Bob said, smiling.
Teresa pitched in too and had already managed to get new squash and cabbage seeds into the ground; that very morning, Donald had discovered some green popping up through the dirt. Near dark, he and Bob would stumble into the kitchen and she’d tell them to go wash up. She made beans and eggs and salad most nights, and God, could his niece cook! “Sit, sit,” she’d tell them, pouring iced tea. And they’d obey, and clean their plates in no time.
“What do your parents do up there on Yoro?” Donald said tonight.
Teresa looked at Bob, squeezed his shoulder. “Bob’s parents passed away when he was just a kid,” she said.
Donald shook his head, and said, “That’s a shame, son, really is.”
Bob gulped iced tea, burped, then said, “The War.”
“Ah,” Donald said, “I know how that goes.”
Teresa clapped her hands and stood up. “I’ve got a special treat for you two tonight,” she said, moving toward the freezer. Donald watched his niece pull out a tub of homemade ice cream, and then all the trouble he’d endured during the five years, six months, and twenty-three days of her absence seemed to vanish all at once. He’d assured her he’d been eating properly when she’d been away, that he’d been taking care of himself. He hadn’t. What was the point? Convinced that she’d never again step through his front door, he’d wallowed in self-pity and drunk too much and stayed holed up in his small house. Without Teresa, the outside world had nothing to offer. Same feeling he had when his baby sister hurled herself off that bridge on the Iowa/Minnesota border. What the hell am I supposed to do now? he’d thought that first night when Teresa slept under his roof. What did he know about little girls? About raising anything save for chickens and the occasional heifer?
Later that night, Bob and Teresa took up their spot on the front porch to gaze at the stars. Donald liked giving them their privacy, but before heading upstairs to bed he’d turn and look through the screen door for one final glance at Teresa, a reminder that things were getting better, that even when life seemed determined to pull the carpet out from under you, you had no choice but to keep moving, to keep living. The afternoon clouds had moved on, and the stars shone bright, and maybe he’d just sit here on the stairs for a bit, take a load off, enjoy the view.
The next morning, Donald was determined to get the barn finished before dark. Although Bob had become proficient enough with a hammer and power saw, his frequent breaks had slowed down their progress. When Teresa came outside with a pitcher of water, she insisted that they both take a break.
“You two are drenched! The barn’s not going anywhere. Sit down for a bit, cool off.”
“Three minutes,” Donald told Bob. “Then we’re back at it.”
Bob nodded and gulped water. When he started hacking, Teresa shot Donald a vicious look, an ugly mask Donald swore she’d never worn before. He was only trying to get the farm up and running again, for all of their sakes. Bob might be sucking wind, but that didn’t mean the days weren’t already getting shorter, that the frigid Midwestern winter wasn’t nipping at their heels. Now Bob was waving his hand. “I’m all right,” he said, but even from where Donald stood, he could see the blood.
For the next two hours, Donald had his niece’s fiancé haul lumber from the barn to the spot he’d designated for the hog pen. “Yep,” Donald said, pointing at the dirt, where Bob dropped another stack of two-by-fours. “Next summer, we’ll be knee deep in bacon.”
Bob attempted to smile, but even his face muscles must have become exhausted because all he managed was a queer lip curl.
“You see those posts in there?” Donald said, as the alien shuffled back toward the barn. “Not proper hog pen posts, but they’ll have to do. You see ’em?”
Bob started one of his coughing fits before he could respond. Hands on hips, he bowed his head and blood trickled onto the dirt.
“They’re in there,” Donald said. “You’ll see ’em.”
After Donald measured out where the posts would go, he handed Bob a spade.
“Never did get one of those post diggers,” Donald said, crouching before a stack of lumber now. “That would have made this go a hell of a lot faster.”
From time to time, Teresa would come out to the porch and yell for Bob to take it easy. Donald would holler back, “He’s doing just fine!”
And Bob would wave, then get back to digging; Donald supposed his sweat-drenched shirt succeeded in camouflaging the blood, otherwise Teresa would have shot Donald another ugly look, and Donald might have lost his cool.
No, Donald was not the sort to pop off and make a scene. Even when he knocked on the Sullivan’s door early that morning and asked to speak to Allen, he’d done so in proper neighborly fashion. He was all smiles as Allen detailed what he learned about Yoros that year in school.
“And what’s this about rules for when they’re married?” he said to the boy.
“They don’t call it married,” Allen said.
“No matter. What’s the rule?”
They were losing light fast now. “A little hard work today,” Donald said, “means an easier tomorrow.”
Bob hacked up a slimy glob, then managed a nod.
Teresa appeared on the porch again, said dinner was on and they should eat.
“Almost finished here!” Donald yelled.
Bob secured the last post in the last hole, and then helped Donald nail the horizontal slats into place. The enclosure was much too big for one hog, but Donald figured that one day they might end up with a sounder of swine.
Stars blinked up in the sky, and Donald thought back to that first night with Teresa, to how frightened he’d been. He’d spent years hating his baby sister for taking the easy way out. For saddling him with the responsibility of raising a little girl. In time, though, he came to recognize Margret’s death as a blessing—an opportunity.
When Bob collapsed in the hog pen, Donald looked toward his empty porch. Inside, he knew that Teresa would be readying their plates, her red hair swaying; even from way out here he thought he heard her singing. Now another voice found his ear—“They don’t call it married,” Allen had said. “It’s more like the word attached.”
Flat on his back in the dirt, Bob wheezed and pointed toward the house. His lips were moving, but Donald couldn’t make out what the hell he was saying.
“Speak up, son,” he said, standing over him.
“Then they can never leave,” Bob said, and though it was his mouth that moved it was Allen’s voice that came out.
Bob continued gasping for air, flapping his gums.
“You’re gonna have to speak up, son,” Donald said.
Now his yellow eyes were rolling back in his alien skull. “Helmet,” he managed, gulping air. “Upstairs.”
It didn’t take much to keep Bob from squirming out from under Donald’s boot. A little pressure and this Yoro couldn’t go anywhere. His long legs kicked in the dirt, and he said, “Helmet,” again, but then he abandoned all English. Donald understood the gist of what he was saying, just like he’d come to understand why the hell this alien stood on his porch each night pointing up at the goddamn night sky. And Donald didn’t want to believe that Teresa’s return to Earth was temporary—that she was only here to say goodbye—but then he’d sought out Allen, and had to face the truth.
Bob’s legs stopped writhing, and he stared straight up at Donald. Now a final string of breathless Yoro streamed from between his lips. Donald’s boot stayed put till he felt Bob’s new lungs gasp their last breath. He’d have to break the news to Teresa. Tell her they’d bury her fiancé under the maple tree, right next to her mom. And he’d show her—show her that while Iowa had a bad habit of taking things away, it still had plenty to give.
Matt Hall holds an MFA from Virginia Tech and currently teaches English at Monmouth University in New Jersey. His fiction has appeared in The McNeese Review and is forthcoming from Fiction Southeast. He has just completed his first novel.