A Solitary Man
by Margaret Karmazin
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
Perversely, Louis’ sister stopped by the next day. He had risen that morning, refreshed in spite of the situation, and not knowing what else to do, gone off to school as usual. The basement door was closed and he had eaten his breakfast normally, albeit with a nervous stomach. A Zantac and two Excedrin later, he was out the door. When he returned home at four-thirty, Lorraine was seated at the kitchen table chopping vegetables for soup.
“Bill is in Washington and the boys are at Mom’s,” she told him, “so I’m at loose ends. Why are your washer and drier in the spare room? And why did you put holes in the walls to accommodate them? Weren’t they fine in the basement?”
He darted into the spare room, took in the damage and ran back out, heart pounding and rage again building.
“You’re white as a sheet,” she told him.
“Um, there’s been some trouble in the basement,” he fumbled. “Electrical.”
“Oh?” said Lorraine, standing up and making for the basement door.
“DON’T GO DOWN THERE!” he commanded. “Very dangerous, no one is allowed!”
She backed off. “Okay, okay. You’re not looking well, Louis. Are you coming down with something?”
“I feel fine,” he mumbled, then added, “I sort of have a lot to do.”
“Don’t let me stand in your way,” said Lorraine, pulling a magazine from her colossal handbag. “I”ll just get the soup on and then settle back here with a cup of tea.”
Louis let out a hard blast of air and disappeared into his room to change his clothes. Lorraine pushed in his door without knocking and blurted, “There’s a funny hum coming from down there. Is the place going to blow up?”
“No, no,” he said, exasperated. “They’re down there working on it.”
“Oh, the electric company is here? I didn’t see their truck. Why didn’t you say so?”
The hum grew louder. Louis made a resolution to bring in the police, but he wasn’t sure how to go about it. What would he tell them? He could imagine their winks over his head and loud guffaws.
* * *
Lorraine didn’t leave till after eight no matter how many hints he dropped. As soon as she was gone, he picked up the phone to call the cops. But before he had pressed three numbers, Leegar was on the line.
“We suggested to you already not to bring in the authorities, Louis. Do not cause me to come up there.”
Louis hung up, heart hammering. Damn that horrible person, thing, whatever he was. So unfriendly, so unlike the other one... not that he liked either of them. He was seized with terror when next day he dialed the cops from school and once again Leegar was on the line. How? Louis dropped the phone as if it were poison. What would they do should he go to the police station in person? Something held him back.
They were quiet, at least he’d give them that. But what where they doing? Surely, if they were using his house, he had the right to know. Was he unwittingly contributing to the destruction of the world by allowing this to continue? Five times, he started down to the basement, determined to confront them and each time Nineed or Leegar would appear at the bottom of the steps to warn him off with some excuse or other. “Not now, Louis,” one would say. “We are at a critical juncture.” Or some such blither.
Days passed, then weeks, and soon the holidays were approaching. The only disturbance was an occasional bright light in the backyard but no one in the neighborhood commented on it. His immediate next door neighbors were in their eighties and in bed by eight.
He went to school as usual, corrected the students’ papers, supervised the math marathon, and managed to secure scholarships for his best two students. Jim Cunningham from across the street remarked on his staying up so late and what was he doing down in his basement, building a time machine? Yuck, yuck.
After his initial terror died down, Louis’ irritation was changing to relentlessly nagging curiosity. Where were his visitors from exactly? In his youth, he’d read numerous UFO books and was aware of the various theories: from planets in other star systems, alternate dimensions on Earth, or underground denizens of our own world.
What were their real reasons for being here? He doubted they were “just studying things.” What manner of travel had they used to get here? How long were they really staying? How was their physiology different from his own? They seemed somehow to thwart him from asking, as if some kind of psychological cloud emanated up the steps, an invisible barrier.
* * *
The day arrived when he worked up enough gumption to override any discouragement, however, and resolutely walked down the stairs. As soon as his foot hit the bottom step, a silence enveloped the basement. He had not realized how accustomed he’d become to the perpetual low hum.
As before, Nineed appeared out of the gloom from the other side of the furnace. “Yes, Louis? May I be of assistance?” Oddly, and Louis wasn’t sure how he could tell, the alien looked tired.
Louis pulled himself up to his full 5’9” and said, “I want some answers!”
A muffled boom emanated from behind the furnace. Nineed turned his potato head in its direction, then back to Louis. “Yes?” he said.
“Where are you two from?” asked Louise firmly.
“You have taken a very long time to proceed with this question,” said Nineed.
“Yeah, well,” said Louis. “I got the clear message that even in my own house, I was not permitted to ask! It’s not like you’ve been forthcoming on your own, is it?”
“If I told you where our home is, it would mean nothing to you.”
“Tell me anyway.”
Nineed seemed to consider this, then made a sound somewhere between a loud bird chirp and the squeak of bad brakes. Louis flinched.
“That is it,” said Nineed. “The name of our home.”
“Well, what is it? A planet or what?”
“It is on a planet, yes,” said Nineed.
“Where is this planet?” asked Louis in the tone he used with an especially obtuse student. “How many light years from here?”
“It is in (more squeak and chirps, ending with a small scream). Three hundred forty-three of your light-years.”
“I see,” said Louis. “How long does it take you to get here from there.”
“That depends on the set of the stream,” said Nineed.
“You call them ‘wormholes.’ A folding of space.”
“So that works then?” mused Louis rather happily. “Are you made of the same stuff as I am?”
“Are you referring to DNA?”
“Yes, that’ll do.”
“We are carbon-based. However, though I said before that we are animals as you are, that is only partly true. We are, in Earth terms, twenty-one percent plant and nine percent (he made one of those chirps) a form of life not present here, the rest animal.”
“Here’s the big question,” said Louis. “What are you really doing here on Earth? Don’t lie to me.”
Nineed seemed to consider this for a moment, then plunged ahead. “All right, Louis, my friend. This is what we are doing. Your kind is about to experience a great change in consciousness. That is all I will say. Do not ask more.”
“What kind of change in consciousness?” Louis persisted.
“I have already said enough,” said Nineed, crossing his arms over his chest.
“Can I see what you’re doing over there then?”
“I think not. Doing so might burn off your epidermis.”
A blast of loud squeaks issued from the other side before Leegar appeared looking haggard and annoyed. “You should be upstairs going about your life,” he snapped. “We do not have energy to spare for unneeded verbal exchange!”
Louis, though tiny compared to his captors, and yes, that was exactly what they were, nevertheless stood his ground. “Excuse me, but this is my house! My name is on the deed, I pay the bills and I don’t see either of you contributing to the expenses though you are interfering with my privacy and space!”
Leegar, with an explosion of angry chirps, turned on his heels, disappeared behind the furnace, then reappeared with his bony hand out, something lying upon it. “Take it!” he barked.
Gingerly, Louise reached out and grabbed it. It appeared to be an extremely large ruby.
“Where we live, this is a common crystal for use in our equipment. In your world, it is rare. Trade it in for currency. Possibly you can live the rest of your short human life without having to toil.”
Louis was speechless. He’d been going to ask if they were planning on leaving any time soon, but now refrained, mumbled thank you and fled up the stairs. He hardly noticed Nineed’s apologetic and queenly wave of his hand.
* * *
Someone was at the back door and from his frozen position in the kitchen, Louis thought he could make out Melissa Banks’ head through the regrettably large windows in the door. He stuffed the giant ruby into his pocket and ducked behind a counter. She rapped briskly on the glass.
“Yoo-hoo!” she called in her piercing contralto. “Looooooouis! Open up, I know you’re in there!”
He planned on letting her give up and go away, but had forgotten the door was unlocked. She let herself in. “Loooouis!”
He popped up, pretending to have been looking for something he dropped. “Can’t find it,” he muttered unconvincingly, while checking to make sure the ruby was still in his pocket.
Then he noticed that Melissa was not alone. She had with her a small, softly attractive woman with brown hair piled up on top of her head and wearing large, dark framed glasses. The woman looked as uncomfortable as he was.
“We were passing through the neighborhood and I thought I’d introduce you to May here. You didn’t answer your front door, but your car is in the driveway. She’s going to take over George’s classes while he’s on sabbatical. May Cronin, this is Louis Pickett. Louis... May.”
The woman nodded in a stiff, but not unfriendly way. Louis liked that she hadn’t forced him to shake hands as his own were in his pockets, one fondling the gem.
May said, “You teach calculus and statistics, right?”
“Yeah,” said Louis. Should he offer them something to drink?
“Well, we’ve got to get going,” blurted Melissa. “You two will see each other at school on Monday. I just wanted you to meet now. Maybe you can show May around the math department then, Louis?”
Louis forgot the ruby for a moment and took a long look at May. He liked her pointy little chin and the way she appeared so cool and collected. The very opposite of Melissa, who emoted sloppily all over the place. Her eyes were a muddy green color and lined with long, black lashes. He felt his face growing hot.
“Sure,” he said. “Monday.” Later that night, he would find himself picturing this May Cronin’s serious face and wonder why he couldn’t stop thinking about her, why he felt something prying at his heart, his very guts. It seemed as if he knew her already somehow.
The two women filed out, Melissa twirling her hand good-bye, and Louis, about to bolt the door, stopped instead to look out at the wintry yard. A crow pecked at something beneath the thin layer of snow and he noticed how beautiful and shiny were its wings. A squirrel was busily eating from the bird feeder, but for once he did not mind. He took the ruby from his pocket and held it up to the light. Was it real? Was anything real?
He thought he might store the gem in his safety deposit box at the bank. For now.
* * *
Things went on as what had become usual for one more week, during which Louis showed May Cronin the ropes at school and helped her deal with one or two exceptionally badly behaved students. Helping her made him feel unusually masculine. He noticed that he was thinking of her during his classes, which proved distracting, but pleasantly so.
One odd time, Nineed actually walked out into the backyard with him. It was early morning and the alien stood in the shadows. Nineed remarked on the cold and pleasurable aroma of the air, the delicate shade of the sky and the beauty of the dark trees silhouetted against it. Louis thought that possibly they were making friends, if that was possible.
But that night, both creatures materialized suddenly in his bedroom, once again setting his heart pounding. “What the—?” he demanded, scrambling to sit up.
“Louis,” said Leegar, “we are leaving. We have appreciated your cooperation during our stay.”
“What?” Louis almost shouted. “I thought you were staying longer!”
“We planned to,” said Nineed, stepping forward, “but things have changed.”
Louis couldn’t understand his feeling of dismay. “What things have changed?”
“It is you,” said Nineed. “You know, we have very sensitive instruments and by now, know you better than you know yourself. You are about to experience a change in consciousness. I am referring now to a personal level, not the general condition of humankind. As we explained before, we chose you and this house because you were a solitary man. We will need to move our work somewhere else now.”
Louis gasped in surprise and opened his mouth to argue, then closed it. Tears sprang to his eyes, such a mix of emotion he was feeling. An understanding of everything the alien meant filled his mind at once and his emotion, oddly, was gratitude. All these years of being alone and not understanding how to change that.
Nineed reached out his long, bony hand and touched Louis.
“Changes of consciousness are good,” he said.
Copyright © 2012 by Margaret Karmazin