He nearly came back last night. Can you imagine, after all this time? He can.
He imagines landing again, but quieter this time, the way of Mr. Wu. Depending on the time and season, he imagines hitching a ride with one thumb stuck out like a white flag, the sunrise-salmon or high-noon-bleach or bruised evening sky in the backdrop and a truck slowing before him in the foreground. It is a scene straight out of one of those movies he used to watch with Jacob; he can't remember which. He imagines tracing you through camera networks and internet billing and government intelligence. Through states and hitched rides and neatly rerouted bank transactions. He imagines finding you.
Can you imagine, Helen Benson? Can you?
He knocks on the door. A pause first, stretched wide and heavy like a wound; then one knock, two. Dust in his hair, silence in his eyes. A knock is still raised in his fist when you open the door. Your face changes. His doesn't.
A word, a whisper. Or maybe nothing at all. Your face is blurred with human emotion and it's hard to read your lips. You forget yourself; do what humans do when they think words aren't enough. You express yourself in human language. Body language.
An alien language. He has forgotten how to speak it, and stands unsmiling and still. You don't seem to care. You press on, an argument of lips. Insistent and soft. From your eyes, emotion is leaking. Water and salt. He tastes it and you exploit his vulnerability, invade his mouth. It looks clumsy and unpleasant. Why would anyone return for this?
But he has. He imagines it all. He imagines coming in, shoes by the door. He imagines imprints in the carpet, footprints chronicling his return. Your son in the living room, a gun in his hands. Aliens on the screen. The boy glances up. Freezes in frames. The controller falls to the ground, forgotten.
Shouts and accusations and hot, wet eyes ensue. The sounds of joy, like hearts breaking.
Later, there is dinner. Take-out. He remembers how to use chopsticks better than he remembers how to smile. Questions are served as the main course. Hurt as a side, forgiveness for dessert. He tries to remember the correct facial expressions, mixes them up. You are sitting too close, and your elbows bump more than once. It burns through the thin cloth of his sleeves. He smiles and frowns at the same time; then blanks his face out and starts again.
Fast-forward to deep evening. The sky is the colour of an eclipse. Painted smooth and black, like the inside of your eyelids; no moon or stars or clouds. It makes it nearly impossible to see in Jacob's bedroom, but he manages. Your son insists he is too old to be put to bed. The petulance in his tone suggests otherwise. You watch from the door as he waits patiently by the bedside as Jacob messes with his sheets. Dim fingers of corridor light mould outlines to shadows. It catches the movement of the ritual, the humanized version of it – his fingers brushing over your son's forehead while his thumb lies in the soft of Jacob's throat. The boy starts to say something – but then the picture shivers, shifts abruptly, changes. It skips ahead, another scene – outside Jacob's room, a wordless clash of eyes as he closes the door. Skips ahead, like a needle on one of your old earth discs – down the stairs; through the hall; the open front door. Skips ahead – to the deck outside the house, his shadow steady beside yours.
Skips ahead – to sitting on the deck stairs, the living darkness pressing around your bodies.
Skips ahead – to the fresh scent of cut grass, the cooling air.
Skips. Skips. Skips. Like a pulse, trembling.
Can you imagine? Watch carefully.
Skip ahead to the both of you sitting close together in the deep black. His sleeves are rolled up. Every now and then, the heat of your arm whispers against his. Neither of you ever touch. Your voices are quiet.
Skip ahead to a sudden hush in the conversation. A stillness in the air. Just black static, and the ghost glow of the moon behind thinning clouds. Still too dark for expressions to matter, but you can see him. The pale outline of his throat, the narrow angles of his face. The dark dispassion of his eyes, watching you. Only ever watching you.
Skip ahead to a silence lodged in your throat. To happiness tightening in your chest, till it feels more like heartache; skip to this. Skip here.
A shift in his gravity, almost imperceptible. A sudden tension rising, stirring him closer. Foreheads nearly touching; an awkwardness of fingers. You can tell that he is barely breathing. He barely remembers how. That stillness again, like the beat before a blow – and then a change in angle, a breath shared, and –
Did you see? Watch again.
It happens so fast. That decision. So fast.
But it happens.
He moves –
He is the one to –
He kisses you. Like a human. Can you imagine, Helen Benson? He chooses you. Can you imagine?
Because he does. Every star-burst, every sleep. And we watch him. We watch the flutter-pulse of his dreaming, watch him imagine himself travelling across the universe, back to earth. We watch him find you. We watch him love you.
You are surprised. That is an encouraging sign. We have scanned your memories, Helen Benson. But you are not our kind, and we can only see flashes of moments, like bright-edged images in a kaleidoscope without sense or depth. We see his imaginings were based on the familiarity of the earth-bound normality he used to share – the oriental take-out, the gaming console, the nightly ritual with your son, the moments of evening conversation with you on the deck. We see that you shared body intimacy, that it was only always you who initiated. We see all this, but because you are not our kind, we cannot sense what you felt in those moments, those three earth-years. Our methods of communication are worlds apart.
This is why we have shown you this, human. Our species are emotional worlds apart. The only way to show you was to bring you images from his head, explained in words from your own head. Did you understand them? He is in love with you. He is in love with you, a human.
We know you care for him, Helen Benson. So do we. When he wakes, he doesn't remember that he dreams. We don't let him. It wouldn't be caring. It wouldn't be kind. What we want to know is this: can you be kind, human? Can you be selfless? You, who are trapped by your species and brief lifespan; you, with your guardianship of that blood-stranger child that you still call son. That blood-alien child that he still calls son in every dreaming, in every ritual of touch and trust. Can you both let him go? Can you?
Don't be afraid. You are right about what we want, but it is easy enough to help him. Our biology records memories in mutual networks, in shared perceptions. If you allow us to erase certain memories from your mind, it will mute this sickness of his. He will forget what you mean to him. You will forget what he means to you, if anything at all. You will both remember the Coming, the Process, the Second Decision that saved your species; you will even remember, vaguely, that he stayed on after the process was terminated. But the precise details of those three human years that he stayed with you will be blurred, forgotten. Like a word at the tip of your tongue, tantalizing and easily replaceable. Painless.
Don't leak. Why are you crying? You have the power to end this sickness. You have the power to stop his dreaming. It has been nearly two human years since he left the earth. The process will not hurt. There is nothing to be afraid of. We would not ask – we would not insist this of you if there was no other way. His sickness is getting worse – you have seen it yourself. He is the one to kiss you now, rather than the other way round. He dreams of holding you. In terms of an alien physicality. In terms of a borrowed body. Can you imagine? Can you understand?
You care for him. You shared body intimacy, what we understand to be the current human equivalent of friendship. Don't leak. It won't hurt. You will barely notice anything – just a headache when you wake, like faint static in your temple. Is that why you are unhappy? It won't hurt.
No. Your son will not miss what he can't remember. Here. Hold this. It is better if we do this now. It is better if it happens fast, all at once, like a bad dream. But this is no dream, human. You are giving him a gift. Giving him the only thing you can give.
You are doing the right thing. The kind thing. Don't leak, human. Hold this.
Nothing will hurt after this.
Are you ready?
Don't let go. Helen Benson.
Are you ready?