They are coming for your space elevator; I will not let them have it.
You built it out of old liquor boxes and camping equipment as a present to yourself on your 12th birthday. The day you become a man, your father said. Control panels out of dresser knobs, a porthole on the starboard bow covered with Saran Wrap. Your only shield for reentry: blue sheets smattered with tinfoil and duct tape at the seams to seal in the dark.
You told me the boxes used to hold Miles Davis records, adoption papers, a slide rule your father taught you to use after your mother died, or left town, or married the man next door--you never told me the whole of it and my own mother says it’s none of my business. Suffice it to say you were both lonely and your father wanted you to be able to calculate the depth and breadth of a stranger's pity. These flowers are not for us, he said, but for the sender. Marvel at my compassion for your unfortunate predicament!
You had other plans. "I have gauged the distance to the moon," you said. "Let's go there."
You told me to keep my eyes closed, my hands and feet safely inside the vehicle, as the space elevator cranked and rattled through the roof and low hanging cumulus clouds. The air thinned and thinned, a weight on the chest like elephants dancing, till it seemed neither of us could breathe. I do not think you accounted for that. What a relief when the aliens found us miles outside our own atmosphere and gave us long tubes to suck air down like water.
The aliens were improbably wide, like billboards of indeterminate product endorsement. They were long haired and generous. They tasted bittersweet like iron.
This is only a theory; you would not let me see for myself. The alien captain looked too fearsome, you said. Like a scarecrow with arms the color of fresh eggplant skins. When he opened his mouth, wasps flew out and his voice was like the creak of upstairs floor boards when no one is at home.
You are the most beautiful earthling we have ever encountered, you translated.
I did not wonder that you spoke their language, that I could hear birds chirping in the distance. You were my Houdini; I wanted to believe.
When the aliens said goodbye, your hands pressed against my brow tighter and tighter and we were falling, fast and reckless as meteors. Finally, back in the safety of your attic you removed your hand and kissed me. My first and yours too, I think.
"Our secret," you said.
The next few days were my favorites: you blindfolded me and described our trips to the Grand Canyon, the Washington Memorial, Antarctica. We stood over the shoulders of aliens introducing themselves to the United Nations and I heard the scuttling of their limbs over desks and tables, eager to get to the microphones. You described how they learned to sail on the Mediterranean, to build towers, ride bikes. They married each other in simple ceremonies, raised children all the way to adulthood in the space of a sigh.
"They want to be like us," you said.
We were coming in for landing when the skylights shattered. The lights across the county blinked off, then on, then off again. As you walked me across the yard to my door, we saw my parents leave with guns and we followed. My hand in yours, warm sweat, and storyless silence. I confess I was too distracted to hear a word they said, only the vague hum of voices gathered in the moss dark beside the general store.
"Should we tell them" I asked.
"Tell them what?"
"About the aliens."
You left me there, in the bushes. I thought I would hear your booming voice, They come in peace. Any minute, and the world would right itself. I believed.
School was cancelled; I came over and found you in the attic with Valerie Mingin.
Her feet poked out from the space elevator in black sneakers while your voice described the alien ship, how the ambassador stood above you both, his hands clasped to his chest in awe.
"You are the most beautiful earthling we have ever seen," you said.
After Valerie it was Cindy West, Marge Banwell, and the girl with the lisp who I always suspected was easy. One by one you brought them into your father's attic and took away their fear of the unknown with the breath of exploratory longing.
The next time you took a girl into the space elevator I was there in the rafters with buckets of rocks, pelting the walls and roof of your craft so the girl would know you for a liar. Or, if she were terribly, terribly dumb, that you were under ferocious attack. My brother planted dead beetles in the spider webs so when Rebecca ran away screaming, they caught heavy in her hair and she thought my God, the aliens mean to keep me.
My mother ferried me from house to house, refusing to speak to the details of our questions. Hurricane, she said. A hurricane has knocked out the power. It'll be back soon.
"But hurricanes aren't in season," we said.
If you believe in it something hard enough, it can be true.
To pass the time my brother, his friends, our friends, and the kids down the street played war in the fields behind our houses. We divided with propaganda, forming camps of theorists to win the plains of withering tobacco.
“It's the Russian invasion!” one group screamed.
“Fight the communists!”
“It’s unpatriotic to eat your children!”
By sunset, whichever team had the most converts paraded with chants and trophies made of wild flowers. With the flush of victory on their faces, they all looked skyward as if realizing for the first time the penetrable distance between them and the stars.
“It's a migration!”
I did not wish to see you again, ever, but when your father did not return one night my mother sent me over with a Tupperware container filled with soup.
"A hurricane is no reason to stop cooking," she said, her eyes tearing from the spice of onions over the gas stove.
I will throw it in his face and burn his lips off, I thought, but when I let myself in the back door I could not help but notice the stacks of old newspapers. Dishes in the sink, boots in the corner stiff with mud. I could feel the steps your father had started to take and stop, your mother's absence filling the silence like a friend who has overstayed her welcome.
I followed the sounds of hammering and found you trying to repair the walls of your space elevator. You had dragged sheets of metal and other scrap from the abandoned cars near the highway. I tripped on fishing wire strung with bells.
"I’m making it rock proof," you said.
"What if I bring lasers?"
"There's no such thing."
"If there are aliens, then there are lasers." And for the first time I thought you were a little afraid of me. If ever I thought you would apologize, this was it. But you didn't.
I left the soup on the counter. I may have spat in it.
My mother heard a rumor that the general store had its electricity back. She sent me and my brother in a little red rider wagon with a list and more cash than I had ever seen before.
Tampax, ice, saltine crackers, shelled peanuts--but don't let your brother handle them because you know how he's allergic, one large brown egg not past expiration, beer, beer, beer, diet cokes.
She was wrong though. The general store did not have its electricity, and its shelves had been picked clean long ago. The other kids were there too with reusable bags slung over their shoulders. We bartered amongst ourselves: the wagon bought us Tommy Mingin's baseball bat and a favor to be named later. We paid cash for rumors. The Wests had a radio that still worked, though all that came through was static. TVs were out, satellite, cable. Some of our fathers were missing: bands of parents roving from town to town to town.
No one said aliens, and because we had not said it, it became what we all believed. Aliens were watching us from the roads, writing down everything we said or did. They wanted to learn our speech, our mannerisms until they could replace us: fill our shoes with their flat, dust- covered feet and sleep in our soft beds.
As one, we learned to move in stilted, unrhythmic steps. We talked in slang which had not been invented and ate grass and plain colored flowers.
The next day we walked in long smooth steps, fresh water quiet. We did not speak at all. We fasted.
When the aliens realized how complicated we were, how changing and adaptable, they would move on.
Only you refused to play along. You sat on your front porch and sipped ice cold Coca- Cola. If we had asked how you got it, you would have said: generator, below ground wine cellar, or it's not cold, but only my hand which is sweating. If we had told our parents, they would have said Leave him alone. You: the only true orphan in a town full of missing adults.
But the connection had already bloomed. He's not one of us, the others said. And the girl with the lisp, the one I now knew was easy: she told them about your elevator.
If it helps, we held a trial. Valerie, Cindy, the girl with the lisp: they all swore up and down you were an alien sent to kidnap, to seduce, to steal, to cheat at sports. My brother and I hung back as the judge, an eighth grader with a baritone, declared you had killed your mother--no, she was an alien too--all our parents are aliens. Rebecca remained silent, fingering the spots in her hair where the beetles had clung.
"Now what?" the judge asked.
"We turn him in."
"Steal his elevator—"
"Fill it with bombs!"
"Nothing. We should all go home." Rebecca sat with her arms wrapped around her legs. They stared at her and she at them. "It was just a suggestion."
My brother cried, the game turned to wet sawdust in his mouth.
"Would you like to go on a trip in the elevator?" I asked. He nodded.
It became a parade: me, my brother, Cindy, Valerie, their siblings and cousins. Rebecca brought her parents, a rare matching set. The owner of the general store too—with bottle caps and aluminum foil in his hair. I bade them leave their guns and weapons at the door. The space elevator would not work if it sensed danger in its presence.
We made an oath: what we saw was secret and the aliens could torture us, steal our beds if they wanted. They could not have this.
We didn't all fit of course, but the room had become the elevator, the house, the property. I told them to close their eyes and my brother and I shook the metal walls, rattled the bells.
Up and up we went through cumulus clouds and the alien blockade, past the asteroid belt and Pluto. We saw Alpha Centauri and the alien United Nations. We begged for refugee status, though with great difficulty as none of us spoke the language.
"This is stupid," Valerie said. "It isn't real."
We come in peace, a voice said, soft as a creaking door.
Me too, said another.
I'm just browsing.
More voices, more lilts and lisps and the rustle of bottle-caps. Whether we were speaking as humans then, or aliens, I do not know. We told stories and took more trips. Rebecca's parents showed us the Great Wall of China. My brother took us to the planet of dinosaurs, and the moon made entirely of diamonds.
We kept our eyes closed and once, then twice, a boy kissed me on the lips. His mouth was like ice and tasted of Coca-Cola.
Three times your house shook, with cracks in the distance like fireworks. We took turns at the helm until our voices turned to mush and we sat silently in the growing dark. The boy who kissed me wrapped his arm around my waist, fingers tapping on my hip to count the time.
"What should we tell them now?" he whispered.
I thought of my brother, stuffing fistfuls of grass in his mouth because for a moment he believed we could protect him. I thought of my mother, of the bitter smell of onions. I thought of Houdini perpetually disappointed by the supernatural and yet leaving a secret message to his wife, just in case: Rosabelle, believe.
"Something true," I said.
"You are the most beautiful earthling I will ever see," you said.
We are flying; we are loved; we are safe.
This story originally appeared in Shimmer.