by Jessamyn Rains
Z was standing in her bathroom, looking at herself in a wide mirror above the sink.
It was the day before her first day at an all-girls prep school, and she was wearing her uniform, a khaki skirt and white polo with the school’s logo on it. Tears were spilling out of her eyes, which were rimmed with blue eyeliner.
“What’s wrong, Z?” her mother Marisa said, when she passed by the open door and saw that her daughter was crying. She looked first at her daughter, then around the room: “This bathroom is hideous, isn’t it. It would make me cry, too.” They had just moved into a small white house on a leafy cul-de-sac, and the bathroom was mauve with a white and turquoise seashell border. “Don’t worry, Z, we’ll tear out this wallpaper and paint it.”
But Z wasn’t concerned about the wallpaper. “I look fat,” she said. Her once straight-up-and-down, childish shape had become more rounded, and to Z, this was humiliating, even obscene.
“You do not look fat! You look healthy. You are becoming a young woman,” Marisa said.
“I don’t want to be a young woman,” Z answered, and the tears fell more quickly.
“Why not?” her mother asked. Z did not know how to answer her mother’s question. She felt her reasons but could not articulate them.
“Wanna go downtown?” Marisa asked after a silence, playing with her daughter’s hair, which was chin-length and of a nondescript color. “Rufus is playing tonight at the cafe.”
“Ok,” Z said. “But I hate the name ‘Rufus.’”
“Z,” her mother said in a reproving tone.
“He’s an ok guy, I just hate the name. It sounds like a dog’s name.” She wiped her face, smearing her blue eyeliner. “Can we get sushi?”
It was a warm summer night in their Texas suburb. “Downtown” was not a city strip; it was a suburban shopping center with a Whole Foods, a Barnes n’ Noble, a Target, and innumerable box stores and chain restaurants. It was the place Marisa and Z would go when they felt lonely, or listless, and they would wander the aisles, looking for something, or someone.
On this particular night, they went to Whole Foods. This was where Rufus, Marisa’s almost-boyfriend, was playing music. They bought a pack of California rolls and a couple of mango iced teas and took the elevator to the third floor. The elevator opened into a dim-lit bar, where the smell of hops greeted them. Rufus was sitting on a stool on a little stage in the corner next to an empty guitar stand and a small amplifier. He had thick red hair and a bushy beard, and he was barefoot. His face was flushed and splotchy; a harmonica rested in his beard when he sang.
“Doesn’t he have a great voice?” Marisa whispered to Z, who was already digging into the California rolls with a pair of chopsticks. Marisa pulled out her phone and looked at herself–turned her face to the left, then the right, adjusted her long dark hair, and inspected her makeup–-then began to record Rufus.
He was singing a Bob Dylan song:
How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
A complete unknown
Like a rolling stone.
The music stopped, and the people politely applauded. Rufus set his guitar on its stand and took his phone out of his pocket and got up and ambled over to where Marisa and Z were seated.
“What’s up, ladies?” he asked, hovering over the table.
“You can join us,” Marisa said. Rufus took an empty chair, turned it around, and sat backwards on it, facing Marisa.
“You sound amazing tonight,” Marisa said.
Z popped her last California roll into her mouth and looked around the cafe. It was about half-full. There was a middle-aged couple who appeared to be on a date. The man wore a Hawaiian shirt, open to reveal blonde chest hair and a gold necklace. The woman wore an aquamarine dress with a slit, glittery earrings, and high-heeled sandals, painted toenails. They were both tan with silver hair. There were several lone people of indeterminate age-–teens, twenties, thirties–-Z couldn’t tell–-all bent over their phones. There was one pasty-skinned young man with dyed black hair in a long green trench coat and combat boots, poring over a comic book. He looked like the kind of guy who would bring a firearm to school, Z thought.
“What are you doing later tonight?” Rufus was saying.
“Z has school tomorrow,” Marisa said. “It’s her first day.”
“That’s cool,” Rufus said, stroking his beard. “Maybe we can hang out this weekend.”
“Excuse me ma’am.” A third voice broke in. The bartender was standing at the table with a tall glass of foamy liquid. “This is our Summer’s End Ale. It’s a light ale, 5.1 alcohol content.” He put a cardboard coaster on the table and set the drink on top.
“I didn’t order this,” Marisa said, pushing the drink back toward the bartender.
“Compliments of that gentleman over there,” the bartender said, gesturing toward an angular-looking man in the corner dressed in white with long hair in a ponytail, bent over a book.
“Who is he?” Rufus asked Marisa.
Marisa looked, but she did not answer. She took a sip of the beer. “It is good,” she said. “I don’t usually drink when I’m out with my daughter, but I guess one won’t hurt.”
A few minutes later Rufus resumed his place on the barstool with his guitar. His voice was part scratchy, part smooth, and when he hit the high notes, his eyes rolled into the back of his head, and his neck became taut, and his face turned beet red. Marisa sat there watching him, occasionally glancing at the angular man in the corner. Then the man got up and left, with a brief wave and nod at Marisa, who happened to be looking in his direction.
Z’s first day at her new school was miserable. The air conditioning wasn’t working. She could barely hear the teachers above the sounds of fans, and what she did hear sounded like an endless droning about procedures and policies and standards and requirements, and not one teacher seemed to have an ounce of personality.
No one spoke to her that day. The girls already had their friend groups, and they stood around in little circles. Z looked around for another solitary person, but there was no one. She almost felt she’d rather be laughed at, made fun of, tormented than completely ignored.
She was relieved when the day was over, but the walk home–-over a mile–-was exhausting and she had what seemed like fifty pounds of books in her backpack. When she finally arrived at the little white house on the cul-de-sac, she put her hand in the right front pocket of her khaki skirt–-where she was certain she’d put her house key–- and discovered it was missing. Frantically, she emptied the rest of her pockets and backpack with all its little compartments. She checked over and over again, but she could not find it.
She put her things back in her backpack and retraced her steps about half a mile, but she didn’t see it anywhere on the ground or in the road.
She sat on her front porch, a little concrete block. Her mother would not be home from work for three more hours. She looked around in despair, her mind blank. Finally she got up and walked around to the back. There was a small unkempt backyard full of dead grass and weeds and one scraggly-looking tree. She sat down under the tree, but the grass was scratchy on her bare legs, and ants began to crawl up her skirt.
She went back to the little concrete porch and reluctantly pulled out her biology book and tried to make sense of her homework.
Then a long gold car, shining in the afternoon sun, turned onto the cul-de-sac and pulled into the driveway next to her. A willowy woman, about sixty, with smooth, silvery hair got out and went inside, smiling politely at Z as she walked. Z looked at the house she went into: it was a neat-looking yellow house with a screened-in porch and a small, carefully landscaped yard. Bright flowers bloomed near the mailbox.
After a few minutes the front door opened and the woman stepped outside, dressed in a pink leotard with purple tights and a matching purple headband.
“Are you ok?” she asked, looking at Z.
“I’m locked out,” Z said.
“Can you call someone? Do you have a phone?”
“I got my phone taken away last year.”
“Oh.” The woman was silent for a moment, as though she were processing this. “Would you like to borrow my phone?”
“No thank you. My mom won’t be able to leave work anyway.”
“OK. Well, my name’s Carol Boomer. Would you like to wait on my porch? It might be a little more comfortable for you.”
“I wouldn’t want to be any trouble,” Z said.
“It’s no trouble,” Carol said. “Come on over.”
“OK.” Z stuffed her biology book in her backpack and crossed the narrow driveway to Carol Boomer’s house.
The screened-in porch seemed like heaven after all her time on the concrete square. There was a big floral-patterned couch against the wall, facing the street. In front of the couch, there was a white wicker table with a stack of magazines on it.
She sank into the couch and put her heavy backpack on the table.
“Make yourself at home,” Carol said. “Feel free to look through my magazines if you want to. They’re mostly gardening magazines. Though you probably have homework you want to work on. That’s a lot of books you have in that bag.”
“Yes, I have tons of homework,” Z said sadly.
Carol disappeared into the house and brought back a glass of iced tea and set it on the table in front of Z.
“I thought you might like some iced tea,” she said.
“Thank you so much,” Z answered.
“What’s your name?” Carol asked.
“I go by Z.”
“Zee? Like the letter Z?”
“Well it’s nice to meet you, Z. How was your day at school?”
“Not too great, honestly.”
“Oh really? I’m so sorry to hear that.”
“It’s a new school. I’m not sure I’m going to like it.”
“Oh, just give it time. Things might work out better than you think.”
“I hope so.”
Carol opened the door to the inside of the house. “I’ll just be inside, working on my dancing. Feel free to come in if you need anything. You don’t need to knock.” Z drank her iced tea in two or three gulps and leaned back against the comfy couch. She began to look through the magazines stacked on the wicker table. Between a couple issues of Better Homes and Gardens and AARP, she found a magazine she’d never seen in a dentist’s or doctor’s office.
It was called Alienesque. It had a dark UFO on the front with beaming yellow lights and a fluorescent pink alien figure in front, staring at the reader with its large almond-shaped eyes. Z slipped off her shoes and lay on the couch with her feet up and began to leaf through Alienesque. It was full of stories about aliens, alien abductions, and a testimonial by a woman who claimed to be an alien trapped in a human body.
Z found these stories to be relaxing and satisfying and she soon drifted off to sleep with the magazine in her hand.
“Z–wake up Z–is that your mother?” Carol Boomer was standing over Z, gently touching her shoulder. Z sat up and looked out the window. Marisa was in the street, pacing back and forth in the front of the house, with the phone up to her ear.
“Yes that’s her,” Z said, and she got up quickly and burst out of the screen door.
“Mom! I’m over here! I got locked out.”
“Oh thank God!” Marisa jogged over to the house. Carol, now dressed in white shorts and a green silk blouse, came out of the house and introduced herself to Marisa. She was holding the copy of Alienesque that Z had fallen asleep reading.
Carol and Marisa introduced themselves and had a little polite chit chat. Before Carol turned back to her house, she handed the magazine to Z.
“You can borrow this if you’d like,” Carol said.
“Thank you,” Z said. “I’ll bring it back tomorrow.”
“There’s no rush,” Carol said. “It was lovely to meet both of you.”
They searched all over the house, but they could not find the missing key. Finally, they determined that Z must have lost it somewhere at school and that the chances of her finding it again were slim.
“Let’s go downtown,” Marisa said brightly. “We’ll get a copy made.”
They stopped at a hardware store and got the key copied, and then they went to Barnes & Noble. They wandered the aisles for a while, gathering books and magazines. Then they sat in the cafe, reading. Marisa was leafing through a stack of house renovation and interior design magazines. Z was poring over books on UFOs, Area 54, and real life Alien Abduction stories.
Z was deeply involved in a story about a woman who had been abducted at the age of 8 and subjected to all kinds of experimentation in some alien laboratory and finally re-deposited on Earth at the age of 32 when a voice interrupted her reverie.
“Excuse me,” the voice said. Z looked up: it was a lanky, red-haired cafe employee. “Here’s your mango iced tea.”
“I didn’t order a mango iced tea,” Z said. “Did you, Mom?”
“That guy ordered it for you and paid for it,” the worker said, pointing to a man who had just exited and was walking outside, past the windows.
Z looked at him. He had long wavy brown hair, past his shoulders. He was wearing white clothes and leather sandals. He was slender and had a kind of floating, otherworldly gait. “It’s that guy again!” Z exclaimed, pointing. It was the same man who had bought Marisa a beer at Whole Foods the night before. He glanced over his shoulder and saw Z pointing at him. He lifted his chin slightly, in greeting.
“Who IS he, Mom?” Z asked.
“Kind of a mystery, isn’t it,” Marisa said drily, watching the man as he stepped off the sidewalk and crossed the street with his hands in his pockets.
The next day at school was better. The teachers didn’t seem quite so exacting. And when Z was bored-–which was much of the time-–she read Alienesque. She read through it cover to cover at least three times.
And then, in fifth period English, a word written in black dry erase marker on the white board caught Z’s attention.
It was the word “alienation.”
“Today we are going to discuss the theme of ‘alienation’ in literature,” the teacher said.
Z sat up and listened for a moment.
“A character experiences alienation,” the teacher continued, “when she feels different from everyone else. A character can be alienated from her family, from society, even from her own self.”
“How can a person be alienated from herself?” a student asked.
“Well, someone could feel like a stranger in her own body. She could have thoughts or feelings or impulses that she doesn’t understand.”
Z stopped at Carol’s house after school to return Alienesque. The long gold car was in the driveway, but no one answered the door. She gently pushed the door open a crack. She heard strange music. She pushed the door open the rest of the way and stepped tentatively inside. And there in the living room, amid half a dozen hanging houseplants, was Carol, dressed in a pink leotard and tights, dancing. The movement was slow and fluid and meditative, something like Tai Chi but not exactly, and then it became jerky and spasmodic. Z worried for a second that Carol was having a seizure; then she realized that it was just part of the dance.
The music was bizarre–thin, wavy, and creepy. Z thought that if a ghost could sing, this is what it might sound like. Carol did some weird floaty thing and spun around and, as she did so, she saw Z standing in the doorway. She waved and smiled, and continued dancing for another thirty seconds or so, without self-consciousness. Then the music ended, and Carol stood upright, resuming her dignified demeanor, except for the pink leotard.
“You didn’t lock yourself out again, did you Z?” Carol untied a pink bandana that was wrapped around the perimeter of her silver hair and wiped her face with it.
“No, I’ve got it right here,” Z said. She reached into her polo shirt and pulled out the silver key, which hung on a chain. “I just wanted to give you back your magazine.” Z took her backpack off with its fifty-pound load of books and set it on the ground and pulled out the massive biology text. The magazine was inside it. Z took it out and handed it to Carol.
“Did you enjoy the magazine?” Carol asked.
“Yeah. A lot, actually,” Z said.
“Do you have any questions about it?” Carol asked, wiping her neck and arms with her pink bandana.
“Actually…I do, sort of.”
“Would you like to sit and talk in the kitchen? Why don’t you have a seat while I change my clothes.”
“Thank you,” Z said, and she went and sat at the little round table in the corner of the kitchen, surrounded by windows and trees outside.
Carol reappeared a few minutes later, wearing a pair of khaki shorts and a yellow silk blouse.
“Would you like some lemonade?” Carol asked.
“Sure,” Z said. “Thank you.”
The two chatted for a while about Z’s day at school. Then Z began to ask Carol some questions. First, she asked about the word “alienation” and whether it had anything to do with aliens.
“Of course it does,” Carol said. “It has everything to do with aliens. Imagine you’re an alien living on planet Earth, walking around with humans. Wouldn’t you feel lonely? Wouldn’t you feel strange? Like no one understands you? Wouldn’t you constantly be wishing for a place you didn’t think you could ever return to?”
“That’s exactly how I feel,” Z said. “Like I don’t belong. Like no one understands me at all. And like I’m always wishing for some other place.”
Carol nodded. “Yes, of course. I thought you might feel that way, after I saw you reading the magazine. I’m not surprised. Even your name–-Z-–suggests as much. You know–-I don’t talk about this a lot–-I’ve learned not to–-but I firmly believe that there are quite a few extra-terrestrials out here in Texas. Particularly in Dallas, I believe, though you’d think they’d be in Austin.”
“How do you know if you are? I mean, if you’re an alien?”
“That’s the tricky part. Because surely, the aliens among us have had their memories erased for their own protection. But there are some who claim to have had visitations.” Carol got up and walked slowly across the room and opened a drawer. She pulled out another issue of Alienesque.
“Read the story of Luanna and Sylvie Lewis.” She handed the magazine to Z. “Come back tomorrow and tell me what you think.”
Z spent three hours in the Starbucks inside of Target that night doing biology, algebra, and Latin homework, plus a 100-word report on “alienation” while her mother shopped for groceries and household items and scoured the clearance racks.
When Z was finished with her homework, Marisa had come back with bags full of purchases and was sipping a latte and fiddling around with her I-phone. Z took the new Alienesque out of her backpack and read the story about Luanna and Sylvie Lewis.
Luanna was an unmarried young woman in the 1940s who wound up pregnant. She claimed not to know how it happened and, as a result, was put in a mental institution. In the institution, she was visited by two humanoid beings who told her that she was carrying an alien baby, and that many mothers throughout earth’s history–-usually women of superior beauty and intelligence–- had been covertly impregnated with alien babies. This was an attempt by a superior alien race to improve the Earth’s population. Many of Earth’s geniuses were, in fact, half-aliens: Leonardo DaVinci, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, to name a few.
Unfortunately, the female half-aliens usually did not fare as well; they often ended up going insane, as did their mothers.
Z read Alienesque in class again the next day. She read the story of Luanna and her alien baby, Sylvie, over and over again. She was reading it during biology class, hiding the magazine inside her massive biology book, when another student spoke to her.
“Why are you always reading that magazine?” the girl said, in a loud whisper.
Z didn’t say anything at first.
“Do you think you’re an alien or something?” the girl asked.
“Maybe,” Z whispered back. She and her mother seemed to fit the pattern: Marisa had always been very beautiful and smart, and Z had always been very different from everyone else, and she had no idea who her father was.
“That’s cool,” the girl said.
Biology was the last period of the day. When the bell rang, Z gathered up her things and left. On the sidewalk outside the school, she was surprised to look and see that the girl who had spoken to her about the magazines a few minutes earlier.
“My name’s Katie,” the girl said.
“I’m Z, like the letter Z.”
“I like alien stuff, too.”
“Have you ever read Alienesque?”
“No,” Katie said. “But there are lots of aliens on tik-tok and snapchat, and I chat with them a lot, and there’s this website called Area 54. I can text you a link if you want.”
“I don’t have a phone, and I’m not allowed to go online,” Z said.
Katie stopped where she was and looked at Z with disbelief.
“Well do you have a tablet or anything?”
“I told you. I’m not allowed to go online.”
“Why? Are you like religious or something?”
“No, I was bullied really bad last year and tried to commit suicide.” She held out the underside of her wrist and showed the scars to Katie.
“Been there, done that,” Katie said. “Why do you think I’m in this school? Why do you think 75% of the girls here are in this school?”
“I thought this was a prep school for smart kids.”
“Yeah, that’s just what they tell you to make you feel better. It’s really a school for weird kids who get bullied and almost kill themselves because of it. Like I said, I like aliens and have lots of friends who are. I can’t believe you’re not allowed to be online, though. Oh, there’s my mom. See you tomorrow!” Katie stepped off the sidewalk into the grass and walked between two young pear trees toward her mother’s white SUV.
Z stood there for a moment, looking after Katie. Then she continued to walk down the sidewalk. When she came to the end, she looked up and saw–sitting on a bench—a man with long brown hair, dressed in white, watching her. It was the man she’d seen at Whole Foods and Barnes & Noble. Z stopped for a second–thinking she might say something to him. It was he who spoke first.
“Zoe,” he said.
“That’s not my name,” she said. She hadn’t gone by “Zoe” for at least a year.
“It is your name,” the man said. “It means ‘life’.”
She turned and ran away, blindly, and she didn’t look back till she had run for nearly five minutes.
She slowed down to catch her breath. When she looked behind her, there was no one there; the strange man had not followed her.
Then she looked up at the houses: the street was totally unfamiliar. Or rather, it was so familiar–-so similar to all the other streets in the vicinity–- houses, trees, sidewalks, landscaping–that she had no idea where she was.
She was contemplating what to do next when she heard the approach of a vehicle slowing down behind her. She started to run again, but in seconds, the vehicle was next to her, hovering on her right. She could see in her peripheral vision that the vehicle was large and high off the ground. She was about to dash between two houses when she heard a girl’s voice.
Z looked and saw that it was her classmate Katie with her mom in their white SUV.
“Hey Z! Sorry we scared you. Wanna ride? Where you going?”
“Climb on in,” Katie said.
Z climbed into the back of the vehicle. Tears started running down her face.
“Are you ok?” Katie asked.
“I saw a weird man outside my school. I think he’s been stalking me.”
“Should I call the police?” Katie’s mom asked.
“No, just take me home.” Z gave them her address, and after two turns, they were in front of Z’s house.
“Thank you so much,” Z said, getting out of the SUV.
“Let’s hang out sometime,” Katie said.
“Ok,” Z answered, as she made her way to Carol’s house.
Carol was dancing again, this time in a purple leotard and red tights. The music was eerie, and extra loud. Carol was waving her arms strangely, with her eyes rolling back into her head.
Finally she stopped dancing and saw Z standing there looking at her.
“Z! Are you ok?” Carol asked. “You look upset.”
“Yes, I’m fine,” Z said.
“How about some iced tea?”
“Sure,” Z said, and the two went into the kitchen. Carol mopped her face with her bandana and poured the iced tea, then she sat down with Z at the table in the corner, this time without changing her clothes. Z pulled the copy of Alienesque out of her backpack and handed it to Carol.
“So did you read the story about Luanna and Sylvie?”
“Yes, several times,” Z said.
“Well, I have something to tell you,” Carol said.
“Ok,” Z asked.
“I’m Sylvie Lewis.”
“I thought your name was Carol Boomer.”
“It is; ‘Sylvie Lewis’ is a pseudonym.”
“So you were an alien baby?”
“Have you met any aliens from your home planet?”
Carol was quiet for a moment. “No,” she said. “I’m waiting for a visitation.”
“Do all the alien children get visitations?”
“Not all,” Carol said.
They talked a while, and then Z told Carol about her run-in with the man in white. Carol thought-–as Z suspected-–that the man in white could possibly be a visitor from another planet who had come to speak with her.
Before Z left, Carol gave her a science fiction novel called Tweedlioop by Stanley Schmidt.
“I wrote this book,” Carol said. “Stanley Schmidt is my pen name.”
Z looked up at Carol in awe. “You’re a writer?”
“Half-aliens tend to have very original minds,” Carol Boomer said.
Three weeks later, Z told her mother that she wanted to identify as an alien and that her new name was Tweedlioop.
They agreed on “Tweed” for short.
The day after she changed her name, Tweed stood looking in the bathroom mirror with her mother’s razor, shaving her eyebrows.
“What on earth are you doing?” Marisa asked her, when she walked by.
“I’m doing this to look more like an alien.”
Marisa shook her head and looked sadly at her daughter. “You have such nice eyebrows, Tweed.”
“I had such nice eyebrows,” Tweed said.
That night after Marisa came home from work they went downtown and hung out at Barnes & Noble. Marisa wandered restlessly up and down the aisles while Tweed sat in the cafe alone, reading Tweedlioop for the second time. When she got to the part where the alien was seized by the government, she was struck by a disturbing thought: What if the government discovered the truth about her? Would they seize her like they did Tweedlioop and do experiments on her?
Full of these thoughts, she looked up out the window. As her eyes adjusted, she happened to see, in the parking lot, her mother having words with a long-haired man.
It was THE long haired man, dressed in white.
Marisa looked upset. She stood with her hands on her hips, then crossed over her chest. She was nodding her head quiescently, then shaking it rapidly. The man was rocking back and forth, from his heels to the balls of his feet, looking up at the sky, gesturing with large movements of his arms, and then looking down at the ground, shuffling his feet on the pavement.
Tweed left her things on the table and ran out through the Barnes & Noble doors, straight to her mother.
“Tweed!” Marisa said when she saw her daughter. “Go back inside, right now.” Her voice was sharper and more forceful than it had been in a long time. She pointed toward the building.
“No! I want to know what’s going on!” Tweed said. “You can’t hide the truth from me anymore! I know who you are,” Tweed said, looking at the man in white.
Everyone stood silent.
“You’re an alien,” Tweed said. “People from your planet abducted my mother and impregnated her with alien seed.” She said these words with a surprising amount of contempt, considering she actually liked being an alien.
“What on Earth… are you talking about, Zoe?” the man said.
“That’s not my name,” Tweed said coldly.
“It is your name,” the man said. “I named you. I’m your father.”
“Yeah, my alien father,” Tweed said.
“No,” the man said soberly. “I’m not an alien.”
“You have to be. It’s the only thing that makes sense. Mom?”
Marisa shook her head slowly. “He’s not an alien, sweetheart. He’s just a man. And not a very good one, I’m afraid.”
“Are you sure you’re not an alien?” Tweed demanded.
“I’m 100% human,” the man said. “I was born in Ohio.”
“There must be some mistake,” Tweed said. “I know I’m an alien. I just know I am. You can’t be my father, not unless you’re an alien.”
Tweed was crying now, looking from her mother to this man.
The man had a strange look on his face, as though he wanted to say something, but he didn’t know what to say. He kept nodding his head, sighing, and playing with the brown buttons on his linen shirt.
“She’s been reading alien books and magazines,” Marisa said to the man, “and she wants to identify as an alien.”
“I’m different,” Tweed said. “I don’t fit in on this planet.”
The man nodded some more. “I get it,” he said. “A lot of people feel that way. It doesn’t mean you’re not human.” The man cleared his throat, as though he were preparing to give a speech. “To be human,” he said, “among other things, is to be aware of yourself. Humans have consciousness. If you had no consciousness, you wouldn’t be able to question your identity. So the fact that you’re thinking about your humanity–-and even questioning it–-means that you are engaging in a very human process.”
“Aliens have consciousness TOO!” Tweed yelled. “Besides, who are YOU to tell me WHO I AM or WHO I’M NOT! You’re a deadbeat dad!”
“That’s fair,” the man said quietly, nodding some more. He seemed to be shrinking inside his clothes. He backed away, inch by inch, but his eyes sought Tweed’s gaze.
“Sweetheart,” Marisa said, “let’s not make a scene in the Barnes & Noble parking lot.” And then, addressing the man, she said “Stefan, we’re going now.”
The next day after school Marisa and the man who called himself her father were in the living room, sitting in somber silence. Tweed sat down on the couch and looked up at them expectantly.
The man spoke first. “Zoe,” he said, “I don’t blame you if you hate me. I didn’t come here to ruin your life. I came to see if there is anything I can do to make amends for the way I’ve failed you. I’ve been through a lot0–and I have a lot of regrets. I can’t fix the past, but I want to do whatever I can to make your future better.” He seemed relieved after he had said this, and he sank back into the recliner he was sitting on.
“Tweed?” Marisa said, “Do you have anything to say to Stefan?”
“Not really,” Tweed said, and after a few minutes of heavy silence, she spoke again. “I don’t really hate you,” she said to the man. “I don’t feel anything for you. I don’t even know you. I didn’t know you existed. I mean, I thought my dad was an alien. I was kind of hoping it was true. I don’t want to be human; I hate humans. No offense.”
“Being human is a beautiful thing,” Stefan said to Tweed. “Yes, humans are messed up–-and they can be really evil–-but humans also have an amazing capacity to love and to be loved.”
“I’m not really into love these days,” Tweed said. “Life is easier without it.”
“Tweed, you don’t mean that,” Marisa said.
“Where’d you get this idea about aliens, anyway?” Stefan asked, and Tweed told them all about Carol Boomer and showed them her copy of Tweedlioop.
“Did you say a lady named Carol Boomer gave you this book?” Stefan asked.
“Yes,” Tweed said. “She wrote it.”
“But this book was written by a man named Stanley Schmidt,” he said.
“She used a male pen name,” Tweed said.
“What about this picture? Stefan asked. It was a picture of a bearded man in a dark suit on the back inside cover, right next to the author’s bio.
“I don’t know,” Tweed said. “Maybe it’s a stock photo?” But Stefan googled the author’s name and found out all kinds of biographical information about him: where he lived, the books he’d written, his speaking engagements, the magazine of which he was editor, even photos of himself with his wife and children.
“I don’t think Carol Boomer is Stanley Schmidt,” Stefan concluded.
“Mom, what do you think?” Tweed asked.
“Sweetheart, I’m sure she believes she’s Stanley Schmidt. But it doesn’t look like she could be. Stanley Schmidt is a real person who lives in a different state with a family, and a job, and all of that. It would be a hard thing to fake. Carol’s a very nice lady, but even nice people sometimes believe things that aren’t true.”
Stefan stayed for dinner that night. In fact, he cooked dinner for them: some kind of spicy Asian noodles with all kinds of herbs that Stefan grew on his back porch. Then he and Marisa talked about old times and about all the things they’d been through in the past twelve years. Marisa told Stefan about her jobs and her relationships and her moves across town, across state, and some of her struggles as a single mom. Stefan told Marisa about his schemes and plans, his wanderings, how he almost died in a bus accident, and how he’d had a kind of awakening and a spiritual turning point in his life.
“Can I ask you something?” Tweed asked Stefan, when there was a lull in the conversation. The meal was over, and the three of them were sitting at the kitchen table, drinking wheatgrass mixed with carrot juice.
“Anything,” Stefan said.
“Why did you leave me?” Tweed asked.
Stefan sighed and looked up briefly at Marisa and shifted his weight in his chair before answering. “You ever heard that song ‘Freebird’?”
“Is that one of the songs Rufus plays?” Tweed asked her mother.
“I’m not sure…” Marisa said.
“It’s a song about a man who can’t commit to anyone or anything because he wants to be free,” Stefan said.
“That’s selfish,” Tweed said.
“Yes, it is,” Stefan said. “You know, the funny thing is, in the song, the man says he’s as free as a bird. But later in the song he says ‘Lord knows I can’t change.’ So if he’s free, why isn’t he free to change? Why isn’t he free to love someone and stick around and help take care of them?”
“Is that a riddle or something?” Tweed asked.
“No. I’m trying to say…I thought I wanted to be free…but I wasn’t really free. But I wasn’t free to do the right thing. I wasn’t free to stick around and be a dad to you.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Tweed said, somewhat irritably.
Stefan sighed again and shifted in his chair some more.
“I thought I wasn’t ready to be a father,” he said, finally. “And in some ways, I wasn’t ready. But the truth is, it didn’t matter if I was ready or not: I had a child. Therefore, I was a father. And I should have acted like one.” Stefan gazed at Tweed thoughtfully. She was uncomfortable and looked away.
“I have something to show you,” he said, “if it’s ok with your mom.” He leaned over and whispered something into Marisa’s ear, who hesitated a moment, then replied, “I guess she’s old enough,” and then he disappeared out the door. Then he came back into the house and had a black device in the palm of his hand.
“Do you know what this is?” he asked Tweed.
“It’s not some kind of alien device, is it?”
“No, It’s a blackberry. It’s an old-fashioned phone. There’s a video of your birth on this thing. Do you want to see it?”
“Not really,” Tweed said.
“Plug it into my laptop,” Marisa said, and she set her laptop on the table and he plugged it in and started the video. “You don’t have to watch, Tweed, but I want to see it.”
Tweed didn’t want to watch, but she felt compelled to look.
The video was shaky, and half the screen was covered by Stefan’s thumb for the first thirty seconds. But Tweed could see the top of her mother’s head lying on a hospital bed, on a hospital pillow. She was draped in a blue sheet, and another blue sheet hung above her chest, hiding everything beyond it.
Then she heard Stefan’s voice, low, and younger. “Well, the cord was wrapped around the baby’s throat, so we’re having an emergency C-section. Doing ok, Babe?”
“I’m Ok,” Marisa said, and her voice seemed small and scared.
“I’m going to go see how they’re doing,” Stefan said, quietly.
“You can’t do that,” Marisa said.
“Shh, I’m the baby’s dad,” Stefan said. “I’m gonna get her birth on film. What are they going to do, kick me out?”
The camera moved shakily around the edge of the blue sheet, and there was the abdomen sliced open, dark red blood oozing out, and the doctor with gloved hands inside, then pulling–tugging–pulling– and he pulled the baby’s head out, then shoulders, then the rest of her body. “Hey there, little one!” The doctor said, “It’s a girl!” The baby looked purple and blue, and it wasn’t crying. The doctor and a nurse were rubbing, rubbing the baby, manipulating the baby’s limbs, and she began to cry, to kick and cry, and the nurse clamped the cord and the doctor cut it, and this happened deftly, in a few seconds, and the baby was held up above the blue curtain and whisked away away to the other side of the room, and then the video switched off.
Tweed looked up at her mother and saw the tears streaming down her face. She looked at Stefan, and he, too, was crying.
“I didn’t get to hold you for a long time,” Marisa said. “They had to make sure you were ok.”
Then suddenly the camera came back on, and this time, there was Stefan’s face, fuller, younger, and smiling, with his hair about ear-length. He held the baby–-swaddled up and wearing a cap–-in the crook of his left arm. Her slate-blue eyes, big with wonder, looked up at the camera. “There she is,” he said, whispering into the camera. “Tiny human. Baby girl. She’s doing fine. Her mama’s sleeping.” And the camera shifted to Marisa, who lay sleeping in a hospital bed, next to a window.
Then the picture went black again.
Marisa and Stefan both wept quietly, each for their own reasons.
“Do you have any questions about your birth?” Marisa asked finally.
“Well, I’m not dead,” she said, with a slight laugh.
“Do you have anything else you want to say, Tweed?” Marisa asked, after a while.
“You can call me Zoe,” she said.