by Julie Wornan
“Whose body is it?” she asked.
“You shouldn’t have done that. It was wrong of you.”
“He was a would-be suicide. Honest. He would have died soon anyway.” The body’s borrower looked Maria in the eyes. He looked very sincere.
“I guess you would say... tourism. I wanted to see this planet. They said it was a very beautiful planet, but doomed. So this was a last chance to see it.”
Maria couldn’t have said how she had known the body’s inhabitant was not its original owner. Maybe something in the walk? Or the eyes, penetrating yet somehow vacant? The borrower had almost perfect control over the muscles. A few seconds after watching him walk across the terrace and choose a table, she had known.
Maria prided herself on her assessment of human nature. And she was curious. So she had walked over and taken the other chair. The other being had stared at her coldly for a moment, then pulled his features into a grin. She’d smiled back and he looked relieved. She knew then that she could address him.
“Would you like me to buy you a drink?” she asked. “I’ll bet you’re short of money.”
“I accept, and I thank you,” he said, after checking his pockets. “That black liquid they call coffee: do you advise me to drink that?”
He looked so sincerely perplexed that Maria had to smile — spontaneously, this time. “You could try it. It will give your body a little buzz, perk you up. It will taste bitter but if you don’t like the bitter taste, you can put sugar in it.”
While they waited for their coffee, he studied the carefree summer-happy crowd, and she studied him. Mid-40’s, she thought. Face lined, body unwashed, hair uncut. Yes, probably a drunk, as he’d said. So the being knew how to steal a person’s body, but it told the truth.
“You say our planet is doomed,” she mused. “Why?”
The eyebrows went up. Clearly, he had studied body language as carefully as he had learned English. “Don’t you know?” he asked. “It is common information. Not so much in your newspapers and television, but it’s all over your internet. Carbon dioxide in your atmosphere is 390 parts per million and rising. Hothouse effect. Ice caps melting, oceans rising. Storms, droughts.
“We figure your planet has about ten more good years. Famine wars have already begun. This country where you live is still calm — but for how much longer? There will be more refugees. Food riots. Uncontrollable energy costs. Exponential population growth, food production starting to decline.
“None of your governments knows how to stop the burning of hydrocarbon fuels — or even really try. On the contrary: you use drastic measures to squeeze the last oil and methane to burn, even from your deep rocks. This poisons your water and your air but you cannot stop. But surely you know all this.”
Maria thought. Yes, she knew it. Yes, everybody knew it, even those who denied it. But nobody thought about it much. Hearing it from this alien, suddenly, she knew it.
“Where is your own planet?” she asked.
“We have no planet. Once we did. We destroyed it. But by then we had learned to live without bodies.”
“Without bodies! So you flit from planet to planet, like moths?”
The alien concentrated on tasting his two coffees, one with sugar and the other black. Then he said slowly, “Do not think it is so great to be without a body. Without skin to feel the warmth of the sun. Without eyes to see the young leaves. Ears to hear the little people laugh.”
He finished the sugared coffee with obvious enjoyment. She ordered him another, and a slice of apple pie with it. He liked the apple pie.
“It is better than earthworms,” he said, remembering to wink. “The last body I tried was a small furry underground thing living on worms. They went down so squishily!”
He studied the way Maria giggled, as he studied everything. Then his tone became earnest, confidential. “You know,” he said, “we have a great nostalgia for bodies. We travel without end in search of bodies to wear.”
“I see,” said Maria. “Corpo-tourism, hey? What happens to the bodies after you wear them? Do the original owners get them back?”
“Alas, no,” sighed the former alcoholic. “The body can’t live again after we use it. We have to throw it away like a paper cup.”
“Throw it away. Hmm. How many of you are here, doing this?”
“Not very many. Only some thousands. We do not like to destroy bodies. We try to choose some who will die soon.”
The being leaned forward, its eyes penetrating hers. “Do you know, your doomed world is so interesting. So many kinds of plants, animals. People. Some of you are males, some females. You, for instance, are a female. You have breasts, fine hair...”
“Whoa there, mister!”
“No — it’s not what you think! I do not wish to mate with you. I am only curious. So curious. Anyway, you are all going to die soon. Just put your hand on mine a moment.”
What happened next, happened quickly and unobserved. Then, Maria stood up, steadied herself a moment, and wandered off, wide-eyed, to join the colourful throng rejoicing in the too-warm spring afternoon.
In the evening, a startled waiter found a crumpled dead body under a table. A drunk, it would seem.
Copyright © 2011 by Julie Wornan