I'm sixteen when George and I figure out the aliens will pay to watch us fight. We're leaning against milk crates in the alley behind the library and he's giving me shit about losing my waitressing job. To shut him up I bring my fist back in slow motion and plow my knuckles into the side of his mouth. He does an exaggerated, drawn-out reaction, flapping his lips out and staggering into the cinderblock. Then at the last moment he spins, catches me around my waist and pulls me in to him. My foot snags the milk crates and the stack comes clattering down.
A group of aliens are leaving the library—a family, maybe, if families are something they have. They catch sight of us—smell us, sense us, whatever—and drift over to the mouth of the alley. I feel George tense as the aliens say, What are you doing? What does this mean?
His face is drawing tight with irritation when I reach back and tickle him. My fingers dig into the softness between his ribs hard enough—maybe—to leave bruises. We topple to the pavement. He lands on top of me. His elbow jams my boob. Or, as my mom would say, the place where my boob ought to be.
"So says the weaker sex."
"I hate you."
His whisper hums against my neck. "I know."
I flip out of his grasp and my knee drags along pavement, leaving a stain of capillary blood on the faded asphalt and the tufts of grass that break through.
How thrilling, the aliens murmur. How visceral.
A moment later George lies on his stomach. His feet kick feebly, like a turtle. "Mercy, fair lady!"
Sitting on his back, I inspect my nails. Each capped with a rind of black grime. Sweat, his and mine, soaks through my Stray Cat Diner polo.
When I let him up, he picks his messenger cap off the pavement. Dusts it off. Drops his card in, and waves it toward the cluster of aliens. "Donations? Donations! Show your appreciation, whatever manner you feel is right."
Giggling, the aliens reach in and touch his card. Credit rushes into his account.
Even after they've paid him, they linger. They are fascinated by the way he grips the brim of his cap, the way I press my finger into the scrape on my knee and hiss as the sting flares and fades. George and I stand very still. Usually aliens don't leave unless you've really done nothing for a minute or two. They hate missing anything.
When they've gone, George flips them the bird. He checks the balance on his card and looks up at me, his mouth spreading into a grin. His eyes are hard and bright with opportunity. "We're rich."
I tell my parents that waitressing interfered with my school work. The thought of this is so horrific that my mother drops the dust cloth and runs to smooth my hair. "Don't worry, honey, you do whatever you need to do. Eyes on that scholarship, right?"
"Sure, Mom. Whatever."
Really, Mr. Reade fired me for not being welcoming enough toward aliens. "I don't give a damn how you feel, Damia," he said. "We need them. They want to go behind the bar, you let them. They want to get right up next to people and watch them put fries in their mouths, you let them. Anything they want, you let them. Understand?"
I said I understood, but I couldn't help it. When one of them got near me, I froze up. I could hear my heart lurching, big as a cantaloupe, filling my whole torso. I was sure they could hear it too.
Sometime before the aliens found us, they discovered a way of divorcing their bodies from their minds. In cartoons and commercials here, the alien bodies are portrayed floating in pods of translucent goo, humanoid forms with wires running into them, rows of thousands upon thousands. The reality, I'm sure, is something totally different, something totally beyond any portrayal we might attempt.
Earth is visited, then, only by alien consciousnesses. They move through air, through concrete, through steel and polycarbonate with equal ease. They speak, or rather do not speak, in streams of thought directed toward our minds. Look at one straight, it's like the sunlight that plays on the hull of a boat in a lake. Only no boat, no lake, no sunlight.
Whatever splits them from themselves is not the only technology they have. They dole progress out to us in small doses. Cheap and infinite energy sources. Cures for genetic disorders. Earth governments turn into throngs of men clustered hungrily around the alien portals. Slowly now, the aliens say. You'll ruin yourselves.
Recently, reluctantly, they have agreed to take a small number of people each year back to their ship (or wherever they come from). The people will study alien technology so that it can be more unobtrusively incorporated on Earth. They will get to leave their bodies behind and move as pure consciousness. An alien came to our school to discuss the opportunity with us. If I hadn't been taking notes so frantically, I might have been unnerved at how silent the classroom was, the lecture delivered straight into our heads. But I was too busy panicking that I wouldn't get every thought down.
Halfway through the talk something hit my hand and made me start. George's copy of the brochure on alien exchange, folded into a paper football.
George doesn't mention his new source of income to his family. His mother and his sisters, they take what they can get. No questions. George's father split a long time ago, part of a NASA division to study alien tech. Or that's what he said. He also said he'd send them funds every month, enough alien credit to take a bath in. All they get is the government checks.
We've been friends since we were seven. At the beginning of third grade, this asshole Ross Tate followed us around for a week, singing "George and Damia, sitting in a tree—"
Punching Ross Tate was how I began my long and tumultuous relationship with in-school suspension.
Two days into my first suspension, I heard from another kid in the slammer that Ross Tate's desk had exploded. Firecrackers. He and three other kids ended up in the ER. The principal found a note in Ross's cubby, saying he had a plan to blow up my desk. He spelled my name wrong—D-a-m-Y-a. Tate spent a week in the hospital, and then two weeks in out-of-school suspension, crying about how he had no idea what happened. George's extralegal career was always more calculated than mine.
The aliens have no gender. When we asked them about it, they laughed and told us it was irrelevant. But it feels so strange to call a thinking being "it." "It" is more general than one being. We use the word all the time: It was irrelevant. It feels so strange.
Just in front of the Bean in Chicago, a patch of shimmering air hangs at eye level. If you walk straight at it, you can't miss the glint. If you come at it from the side it nearly disappears. Mostly people give it some space, though you could touch it, I guess. Every now and then, a bulge appears in the shimmer. It swells and grows and finally detaches, a scrap of light that floats away across Millennium Park. It's an alien, just arrived through the portal from shipside.
They could drift from shipside all the way to the surface of Earth, but it would take a long time. Or something. We're not totally clear where they come from, or how they perceive time. At some level, we assume, they value convenience.
They have no interest in the Grand Canyon or Everest or Victoria Falls. They put their portals in places where people gather. Parks, gas stations, fish markets. When we bump into each other or high five or blow our noses, their delight is palpable. They've been here ten years and it's still unsettling. Sometimes when aliens follow George and me as we walk down the street, he will spin around. Flail his arms. Shout, "What! What are we doing?"
Those times, he might as well be talking to air.
When I was in elementary school, a fun thing to do was play alien. Little mirrors or LED screens glued all over our clothes, reflecting back our surroundings and scenes from music videos. We stood stiffly in corners, flitted down the halls. Asked everyone, Did you see me? Was it like I wasn't there?
In high school it would be grotesque to be so overt. We still try to mimic them, though no one would admit it, and maybe no one could say exactly how it's done. Starving yourself is not the answer. The boniness of an emaciated kid is completely different from the gossamer presence of an alien. It's more a way of holding your body. A way of sliding your feet as you walk. A way of knowing how the light falls on your face.
I wonder if the aliens can tell when we try to mimic them. If they coo over us in private. How flattering. How cute.
George sticks to coyer, anachronistic forms of rebellion. George grows his hair long. George wears all black. George pierces the protrusions of his flesh ("You have no idea how many aliens were in that tattoo shop") and fills the holes with metal studs. George stands in the middle of the football field and kisses boys.
One day we're sitting outside the library after a fight, holding matching ice packs to our faces. George leans back. "I don't get it. Why would anyone want to leave their body? It's part of you. It is you." He flexes his fingers as he says this, clenches his fist. As though whatever anchoredness he feels from these gestures will pass to the rest of the world. He cannot mentally separate himself from his body. I'm jealous.
"It's these stupid aliens making people think like this," he says. "They're making people go crazy."
"No," I insist. "People thought this way before. We just never had an answer until the aliens came."
"It's a new thing to do. That doesn't mean it's an answer. That doesn't mean we've got the problem right."
A few days ago, George shaved himself a mohawk. He dyed it bright green and spiked it up with a glue stick. He has gold glitter on his face. His nails are painted bright red.
"How about this problem," I say. "I can't debate you when you look like a Christmas tree from Satan."
He pushes his ice pack into my face and I bite it and condensation trickles down my throat.
My father is an insurance agent. At the same firm, his father before him. They sat behind the same oak desk and took seriously the business of keeping people safe. On one side of his desk there's a framed picture of my mother and me at the beach. Also a drawing I made when I was four, of horses.
But the aliens have made health care cheap and technology safe. And hardly anyone gets sick anymore anyway. My father was never laid off—the aliens grow stern at the idea of people losing their livelihoods. But there are mornings when I leave for school and he is frozen at the sink, bathrobed, staring out the window. There are afternoons when I come home and wonder if he's moved.
He buys cookbooks. He says he will become a gourmet chef, which was always his dream. He spends hours watching the Food Network. I come home from school and make us tomato and cheese sandwiches. I say, Daddy, how about we watch something different for a while? He nudges the remote over to my side of the couch.
My mother substitute-teaches and cleans. She pretends she cannot hear him when my father asks, could she turn off the vacuum for a while? She sets her body between him and the TV, vacuums around each of his feet in their slippers as though he were an ottoman she'd rather not touch.
At night I peel off my gym shorts and T-shirt and stand in front of the bathroom mirror. My lips, too big for my face. My breasts, too small. It puzzles my mother, who says at least once a week, I don't understand it, Damia. All the other women in our family have gorgeous bods. I think she's trying to comfort me. I guess it could be worse if she said, I do understand it, Damia. You got exactly what you deserve.
My hips are too wide compared to my waist. The pores on my nose are visible from several feet away. My hands are huge, like a man's, like a giant's. The curve of my shoulders—no, the hulk of my shoulders—is abhorrent. It's weirdly satisfying, this rephrasing of my body into something grotesque. So when I finally peel off the whole thing, it will be deserved.
I slap water onto my face and tell myself to quit wallowing. I'm lucky. Other girls born at other times didn't get my choice. Write three essays, get two teacher recommendations, take a test, drop into the goo (if we choose to believe the cartoons). You're wrong, George. We've all always wanted this. To have the doubts fall away. Everything and nothing. Reborn. Glory-blinding.
I tell George I have to make up a comp-sci quiz, and I linger after school. There's an alien in the guidance counselor's office. Is it the one who told us about the exchange program?
I am, it says. You are interested?
"Uh, yeah. Yeah, I am."
Please, sit down. Or, actually— In the fluorescent light of the office, the alien is almost invisible. A dime of dull air rather than a plate-sized shimmer. —would you like to go outside?
Under a tree in the school courtyard, the alien says, First, let me try to dissuade you.
Yes. This program—I'm not sure it's entirely a good thing. We don't fully know what the effects will be. And your way of life has been in balance for so long. It's a terrible thing to disrupt.
"You don't think you've already disrupted a lot?"
Its response is not quite words this time, only shades of discomfort, regret, defensiveness. I have to backtrack. "I'm sorry. I get it, definitely. But I've been thinking about this for a long time. I've made up my mind."
The alien's projection morphs into acceptance. Well. If you're sure. I've always said what independent minds you have. You'd be doing a great service for your planet, certainly. What's your address? I'll send you the application file.
George is smoking outside the old gas station and when I get there he says, "Jesus, that took a long time."
"Don't tell me. I'm shit at writing code." I focus on his shoes, the scar on his elbow, the cobwebby gas pumps. Not his eyes.
He knocks on my door when I'm working on my application, and I let my mother answer. I can't see her but I can picture her with her arms crossed, filling up the doorway, lips bunched into a disapproving rose. "You two seem to get hurt a lot, don't you?"
"What the fuck, Damia?" George yells through her like she's a screen door.
His voice makes the bruise on my thigh, the scrape on my knee, the split on my cheek throb angrily. My fingers hang frozen over the keyboard until he's gone.
It's the afternoon after I submitted the application, and the aliens are asking for another fight. George sits on the curb, scuffing gravel into a pile and not looking up.
"Oh, come on, guys. You're good for business. Wouldn't believe how good." Mr. Reade, my former employer. He likes us to beat each other up in the parking lot beside the Stray Cat. "They come from shipside talking about you," he tells us. "One of them called it—wait, wait, I got it—something like, 'an authentic celebration of human physicality.' That great or what?"
George snorts. "As long as they keep putting money in the fucking hat."
"Hat? They're putting you in a guidebook."
There's a sucking shrinking feeling in my chest. I edge toward George to sit down beside him, but without warning he kicks one leg out and swipes my shins. My palms smash into the grainy asphalt. The shrinking feeling is knocked out of me, replaced by something clean and pissed off. I take a deep breath and sweep gravel at George.
"Bitch!" He clutches his eye. "Rocks? Seriously?" Then he stands, brings his hands up, bounces on the balls of his feet. "Okay, cheater. Let's do this."
"What I'm talking about," says Mr. Reade.
The alien running the exchange program tells me its name is Lute. Or at least, it puts something in my head, and out of the jumble I get that word. Pretty, melodious name. Genderless as always. Lute says it came here to get away from responsibilities at home. Sometimes, when they talk about back home, the idea that fills me is "another dimension." Other times I only get "shipside." I put the two ideas to Lute. Were they different places? No, no. I feel Lute's patient smile. They are two slightly different ways of referring to the same place. Epithets. The distinction grows wider in translation.
I wonder what it's really saying. I suppose there's no way to know. "Understanding" is predicated on having the same apparatus translate things in the same way. One mouth must translate thoughts to sounds in the same way that other ears translate sounds to thoughts.
But Lute! Lute is sunlight falling on dust. Our apparatuses might not even lie in the same dimension. I am so lucky, that it can move through things as it does, bypass organs altogether. It lays down its intentions on my brain, and I give them meaning. The right meaning, I hope, though probably not. Inside the gnarled clod of my brain, something is always lost.
George shows up at my house one evening, looking like he's going to puke.
"My mother. Overdrew her card. Needed cash. Told the aliens, they could come and watch her pay bills. Watch her boil pasta." Something jumps in the soft skin under his left eye. "Those morons would tip to watch me shit."
"Maybe she deserves a break." I put my hands around his forearm. Whatever anchoredness I feel, let it pass to you. "Really. How's it different from what we do?"
"That's a performance," he gasps out. "We can shuck that off. This is who she is."
"Right. She's a broke lady."
"She's a whore." He clutches my hand. Squeezes my knuckles white.
"And you're a terrible person." I go to flick him on the forehead, and somehow my hand doesn't fall away. Two of my fingers rest on the line of his jaw. His hands have moved up my arm now. His thumb brushes the inside of my elbow. He has been staring out at nothing but now his eyes move to me. And I fall in.
"You know, I don't think you're gay." I'm trying to make a joke. Trying to find a lifeline. "At best you're an asshole." Then I kiss him.
His lips are dry and his hands move across my shoulders, down my back, over all the places where he has opened cuts on me and seen them heal and opened them again. All the places I wish different, that I do not like, gouged or no. His hands don't shy away. He never breaks away.
Then somehow my sports bra is over my head and his jeans are coming off. Oh, I think, it's so simple. Simple as throwing that first punch. These barriers between people, these gulfs, how easily everything collapses.
There's a moment, later, when I revise: Really, that was not like fighting at all.
A cross section of how we are, George and I. My blood, my skin, some air, his skin, his blood. Sometimes: blood, skin, air, wall, air, skin, blood. During sex: blood, skin, skin, blood. As close as we can get. Seeking closer. But that final, perfect closeness? Blood, blood? That's not a place we can get, no matter how deep we pull. We strain against the boundaries of skin.
Except sometimes, when we fight. My knuckle into his lip, just the right way. The gouge in his elbow knocking off the scabs on my ear. Blood, blood.
We get there.
There is the night we lie against each other, naked, when George freezes, breath trembling in his throat. "Do you think—this—would they pay to see—"
I kiss him hard, but the thought is already out. It hangs like a marble on a string between us and grows foggy with our breath. Yes.
Is the answer. We both know and the marble grows bigger and presses a red welt into my chest. Yes.
Not only would they, but they will and they have and they probably are. Just because this thing is newly discovered to us doesn't mean it isn't old and tarnished to plenty. And plenty who wanted to eat or wanted to please could so easily say: You want human bodies? You want flesh? Come this way.
Not prostitution, exactly. No give and take of pleasure. Just watching. They would take the same kind of joy in it that they take in watching cashiers scan groceries, girls play clapping games, men fix a roof. Could sex still have beauty if it took place under such bland, curious eyes? Could it still have cruelty if that horror was supplanted by the blunt horror of being observed? Meanings warp, meanings dissolve. But still we let them in. Into the most Eleusinian mysteries, even when it breaks our hearts. The marble, giant now, weighs on my lungs and makes it difficult to breathe. Why is it never us, I wonder. Why are we never the ones who get to smile, to say—No, this is not for you. It's complicated. In a million years, you could not hope to understand.
One night, my father asleep in front of the television, I hear the newscaster say, "With us tonight, Johanna DeWitt, first human to return from shipside. If you think the studio looks emptier than it should, don't worry! Johanna has undergone the splitting process. On the street you'd be hard-pressed to tell her from your average alien. Tell us, Johanna, how are you feeling?"
Johanna's responses scroll as text along the bottom of the screen. They angle the studio lights so that we can see her shimmering a foot above the couch. Another woman sits next to Johanna. The caption on the screen informs us that this is Helene, Johanna's wife. She is small, with a round face. Her eyes look straight ahead but down, maybe at the cameraman's shoes.
The Johanna scroll informs us that she and Helene met in graduate school, that they devoted their lives to alien tech, that they were both so overjoyed when Johanna was selected as an ambassador. My body is safe, Johanna assures us. And I feel so indescribably free.
Helene hunches her elbows in, as though trying not to occupy the space that Johanna's body would need, if Johanna were there. She twists her wedding ring.
George comes up to me after school, squinting, hands jammed in his pockets.
"So, do you . . . should we go on a date, or something?"
I burst out laughing almost too hard to gasp out, "No."
"Thank god." Tension relinquishes his shoulders.
"But—want to swing by the library?"
That means, want to punch me until my skull rattles, but we never say that. The fights exist in a new vicious language, modulated by the color and spread of our bruises. Since we both speak it, there's no point in translating.
If you could lay your thoughts down on my brain, George. What would I understand?
When either of us lands a solid hit on the other, there is a ripple of excitement among the aliens. My elbow goes into George's stomach, and I can almost hear the chimes of their thoughts. Like starving men watching someone eat, I think. George hears it too. He clutches his stomach, his mouth frozen in the shape of pain. After a moment he catches my eye and grins, hard and grim.
I lean into his blows. Each punch he lands unmoors me a little more. If I can turn every inch of my body to bruise. Convert the entirety of my flesh to pain. Then by default, the mysterious points of anchor will sever. I will rise into the air.
When I sit down to dinner with blood crusted around my nose, my eye puddled purple and yellow, my mother stares. My father saws at his chicken without putting any pressure on the knife. My mother swallows. "We could buy you some new foundation," she says.
Protestors grow more active in the wake of Johanna's appearance. Will we let them disembody a generation of our children? No, we will not! Protect our human heritage! There are rallies around alien portals. A protestor grows wild, shoves his arm with his middle finger extended through the rippling air. His body convulses in a shudder—delight or anguish?—and he falls to the ground. They revive him with Gatorade and Cheetos.
I want to tell George how funny it is, the protestor slurping down Blue Ice, with dangerously cheesy dust around his mouth. Protect our human heritage! But George is not in school. He's not slouching behind the library or riding the kid swings at the park and drawing dark looks from the nannies. Four days go by.
I wake up feeling the imprint of his head against my chest. Every glimpse of dyed hair or glitter makes my heart lunge. I even try his mother's house and she says, "I'm sorry, who are you?"
The Chicago portal is destroyed. An organized act of terrorism, say the newscasters. No simple firecrackers, either; they used alien technology. Set fire to the air inside a tightly controlled ring, and devoured that unfathomable field. There's nothing there in the morning, when the cameras arrive. A crowd gathers in the shadow of the Bean, unwilling or unable to believe that it is gone. For the first time in a long time, they are actually staring at empty air.
The camera sweeps across the flock of faces, and my heart flips so hard I can hear the deafening clap in my ears. There in the crowd, a green mohawk. His arms are crossed over his chest as he stares at the spot where the portal used to hang. His smile is hard and grim.
I knew something would happen, says Lute. It and I are in the park. I sit with my back against a beech, a knot digging into my spine. We should not have given so much, so quickly. You could not deal with it.
"No," I say. "It's not that. Not exactly."
Lute is puzzled but I keep silent. They get our actions. Our angers, even. But not our reasons. Not this time.
Finally Lute says, In any case we should hurry things along. I know officials shipside. They could bump you to the front of the list.
Its presence is pale, diffuse. In my mind I catch fragments of distaste, anger that softens to grief. The sun is a low yolk in the sky. There is an ant crawling up my calf. Across the park two kids are trying to ride their Big Wheel bikes down the grassy hill. At the bottom they catch, go flying off, and for a moment their long shadows leap away from their feet.
Lute says, Could I—do you think—can I touch you?
I know Lute doesn't truly mean "touch," but I know it does mean "front of the list." And the front of the list means escape. Certain definitions can be made hazy. Some lines can be blurred. The change in density that marks the boundary between my skin and the air can be bridged. Touched.
My heart races. I pick at the gummy lines of my cuticles. My wide hands with their bulging knuckles. The loaves of fat lying under the skin of my thighs. I could never have to look at this body again. I could never have to breathe.
So I say, "Yeah, sure." Lute is a patch of air in front of me, and then is not. Lute is now the length of my forearm. My flesh glows if I watch from the corner of my eye but fades if I look straight on. Lute moves up my arm and through my torso. Lute is a gentle orb of heat, or else a chill that ripples through me. Lute is saying, Wow, wow, wow.
Deep inside my head, I picture my consciousness as a hot air balloon, harlequin red and blue and gold. It strains against a hundred ropes. One by one, they are struck through with an axe. The balloon trembles. Its basket tips back and forth.
Vessel. The word jumps into my mind so derisive it scorches my hair. Vessel. Now I am open to the mockery of late night talk show hosts, politicians, mothers who gossip at luncheons. They don't know it, but when they say it, vessel, they are talking about me. Imagine it, being probed by the unknown. Being . . . occupied. Their disgust tinged with the heat of fear.
Vessels hand over not just actions but the medium of flesh. It's what all the aliens want. It gives them bragging rights shipside. They tell horror stories of their close encounters with bodies. Their friends listen raptly, the ones who would never be brave enough to come down here. They think, shuddering, of their own bodies, wherever they have left them. When they sleep (or whatever) they have dreams (or something different) of being trapped.
I tell myself that this new kind of revulsion is just a temporary burden. I tell myself guilt is just another trapping of flesh. My body senses that its time is almost up, and so it casts out wild nets of feeling, trying to trap me and haul me back in. When I wake up retching at three a.m., sure that the gentle orb of heat has returned, that it has come through my neighborhood and my walls and my sheets to slide again up and down through my body, that's just muscle memory. Not a part of me.
And when I have no container? When I am no container? I will be nothing but myself.
I get out of bed and stand in front of the mirror. I cup a hand between my legs, cover everything up. I lay my other forearm over my breasts. More acts of self-censorship. Neuter. Neutral. It. It feels so strange. This is it.
George shows up at school the next Monday. He sits in the back of class with his head on the desk and the teachers don't bother calling on him. He ignores me at lunch. I stake out his locker after school but he doesn't pass by, and by the time I've figured that out and sprinted from the building he's halfway down the street. He freezes when I shout his name.
I catch up to him and spin him around by the shoulders. It's disconcerting how much he looks the same. What did I expect, some disfiguring scar? A brand on his forehead? Whatever words I had desert me.
He speaks instead. "You applied for exchange." It's not a question. And now his face is falling apart. "All those times—you said you hated them. You said how stupid they were."
Oh, George. Oh. You are not the only betrayer here. How can I explain that yes, I said that. But more than those things, I want to fly and I want speak in the music they speak and I want to touch and be touched the way they are. He would say they had tricked me. He would look at me with pity, and when pity didn't change my mind it would change in him to disgust. But it's my right to want those things. It's a want that is in myself, not my flesh.
He's not done. His voice cracks. "How can you hate yourself that much? How—you would go somewhere you're not even sure exists. You would leave your own body. And me."
You've already left me, I want to say. Not in the same way that I would leave, but it's your way, and it's as real to you as my way is to me. You know it is.
"Day. There are other ways to escape. We're fighting them. You should join us."
Join, ha! The word could mean so much more. The meaning he intends for it is sad, inadequate.
But the impossibility of that word brings me up short, and grief bells inside me. I want to stave off that truth as long as possible. I lean forward and kiss him, clutch him to me. Suddenly it doesn't matter whether the desire is in my flesh or in my mind, whether our words are adequate or not, whether everyone on the street is staring at us. Stay with me.
He pushes me off. "For fuck's sake, Damia. Sell yourself to the devil, sure. At least stand by your own position. This is pathetic."
Words calculated to smart. Words to reach where blows cannot. Where bodies refuse to go. It digs a honed edge into my chest and all the reasons why I can't lose him spill out like organs. I clutch my stomach—the points of anchor will be severed—and turn, and flee.
I plow through my house, upstairs into my room, punch the wall. Hot tears bully their endless way out from under my eyelids. Stupid girl. Typical girl. Crying because I would lose the boy I loved. Because my body was something people looked at as an artifact, and I was trapped inside it.
My mother comes into my room, holding the computer. She sees me slumped on the rug and kneels down next to me. "So you've heard."
I have no idea what she's talking about.
"You got a letter. From the regional exchange office." She hands me the screen.
In light of recent terrorist attacks, the alien bureau regrets to announce that all scholarship exchange programs will be put indefinitely on hold. We regret the inconvenience and hope that amicable relations can be restored with all possible speed.
Postscript—Damia, I'm really very sorry about this. —Lute
Behind their words, I can feel it, really feel it, for the first time. The bafflement. The seeds that will blossom into disgust. The aliens rustle and murmur, Look at what you did. After all we gave you. After all we sang your praises. How did we deserve that? How could you?
"Honey, I'm so sorry." Mom pats my hand. "I know how hard it is to feel you have nowhere to go."
But I drop the computer and ease out from under her palm. My eyes are dry. My nose isn't running anymore. I stand up and step into the doorway.
"Actually, I think I'm going outside."
I jog into the center of town and stand outside the Stray Cat. Aliens spill out of it, following the end of the lunch rush. Aliens everywhere, following shoppers, watching toddlers drop ice cream.
"You want to fucking understand?" I scream at them. "Come here." The humans who are around look up too and cover their babies' ears. Fuck that. "Put this in your fucking guidebook."
The aliens follow me. They call to each other in their incomprehensible music and more come pouring out of shops and houses and Starbucks. They flock behind me, until I'm wearing a shimmering cloak of air that billows across the whole street.
I don't need to look more than one place. George. I know where you are.
I hope he gets my message, through my eyes and my set chin and my clenched knuckles. There are no more words between us. I will lay my thoughts down on his body, and he will give them meaning.
I round the corner of the library just as he's stubbing out his cigarette. He sees the aliens behind me, the flock, the exaltation, the avalanche. His eyes grow huge. I don't pause, just bring my fists up and heave myself into his chest. He catches me around the waist, eyes still wide. Yeah, this dance. Remember, George?
But he just pushes me back, barely any force, his lips parted in a silent question.
I slam my fist into the side of his face.
He staggers sideways, recovers. Bounces once on the balls of his feet and then lunges. Some restraint has been severed. Blows rain down from either side. He's stronger, he's always been stronger. He's a he, not an it. My head rings like a hundred aliens are screaming. A hundred aliens are screaming. There's something warm running through my hair. Lights in my skull explode. Light reflects off the sweat on his nose. I drop down, jut my shoulder into his stomach and feel his guts rearrange. He flips over my back, legs flailing, hits the asphalt with a noise of meat and wetness. I've always been faster. I'm a she, not an it.
The bar of his shin knocks my ankles out from under me and I drop. My head bounces on—softness. George's outstretched arm. My whole body peals with pain. Heartbeats flood my brain, drowning out the bray of alien projections. I can feel George's pulse through my scalp. His forearm is slickening with my blood. My body fills with the crashing of my breath, in and out and in. Dark arterial colors are leaching into my vision. I fight it, wrench my eyes into focus. Above us the sky is dazzling blue, and empty.