Alien Phoebe wants to fit in with her human husband, but the other humans are not on her side. Desperate for work, she takes a job as an exhibit in a petting zoo, but will this be her sanctuary or her downfall?
“Look! It’s eating an apple!”
I freeze. The slice of apple suspended in limbo, half way between my mouth and the plate.
I can’t see who’s talking, since they are behind me, but I imagine a gorilla in a plaid shirt, grubby white t-shirt over a beer belly, and a cap with some humorous slogan telling the world he’s ‘The Boss’.
“What? Let me see! Move out of the way!” The second voice is higher, thinner. Scrawnier. Why can’t they all be like my Martin?
I exhale and the steam shoots from my nose, then swirls lazily in the November air, released from the warm confines of my lungs to wander among the cold molecules of the outside world.
It is bitterly cold. But inside my long, brown robes, the sweat trickles down my back in itchy lines like marching ants.
I can’t react. The advisor said, ‘Don’t let them see that they can hurt you’. Then he patted me on the shoulder – short business-like taps really – and ushered me out of the warm confines of his office to mingle with the cold strangers of the outside world.
Making money by sitting in a compound doing nothing for five days a week under a sign that says, ‘Space aliens on display’. What a glamorous job! But three years after graduating as an engineer I was still looking for work. Then, when Martin, my human husband, lost his job, well… anything which pays is fine by me.
I feel something hit my back. They throw anything: cans, half-eaten sandwiches, rocks if they can.
“Hey! Brat! Lookee here what I got!”
No! I can smell that sickly sweetness, even from here. I close my eyes. Breathe! That makes it worse. Those warm, sticky bananas call to me. Everything about Earth proved totally habitable to my people after the disaster. But a banana bread loaf proved to be dangerously addictive. Some thought it was the combination of glucose and potassium. No-one knew for sure. It was a joke. A deadly joke played by the galaxy on my dying race.
The two men aren’t going to give up.
I turn slowly and glare – not at them, but at the bread in the big one’s hands.
“Look at its eyes!” the scrawny one says.
“What we have here, is a female of species, I do believe!” The big gorilla has the hairiest arms I’ve ever seen on a human and a way of elongating his vowels which makes me feel sick.
“Come on girly!” He wafts the bread towards me. I know my eyes must have changed to purple by now. It’s a dead giveaway. The purple of desire. They will feed me that bread and I’ll be dead in a couple of days. Something in it wrecks what humans might call my kidneys.
I start to move toward it. My limber arms clamber easily up the vertical walls of my enclosure, and over the thick, steel fence. It is really there to keep the humans out. I hear someone scream far away.
“Oh no!” Scrawny yells in mock panic. “It’s coming for the bread! Help!”
Under my robes I am six feet of dense muscle. If I wanted, I could throw both these bozos over the fence with one hand. But my full attention is on that bread. I glare at it like a vampire in a B movie glares at a neck. I’m hypnotised by it. There is a throbbing in my head and my vision has narrowed to a single point of focus. It is how we hunt - how we hunted, when we still had a planet.
I could spring up… I could…
“Phoebe, it’s me! Turn your head, honey! Look at me!”
The teeth of the gorilla are stained red for some reason. I see them as he grins and breaks off a chunk of the bread to toss in my direction.
“No!” Martin screams - a strangled sound of desperation. All visitors are searched when they come in – or I would never have agreed to do this!
“Honey! Remember why we opened this petting zoo! “
The piece of bread would have landed close to my foot, but one of the guinea pigs, which we let roam freely, darts out from under a bush and runs off with it.
“Come on, honey!” Gorilla says, elongating the final word – hurnee. “Come and get this lovely bread. You know you want it.”
What do they want? Do they want to kill me? Capture me? The part of my brain which is still functioning catches sight of a hint of black metal under the plaid shirt. ‘Kill me’ it is then. This is a group which wants us gone. They want every last one of us off the planet.
My breathing is ragged. I’m losing. In a second, the ‘me’ part of my brain will be gone and these two will be piles of minced meat lying on the ground, one, indistinguishable from the other.
* * *
There was a deafening bang, followed by screeches and calls from animals nearby. I can feel rough concrete digging into my elbows and a heavy weight on my chest. I open my eyes.
Heaving sobs escape from my mouth. Martin’s face is gazing up at me, his eyes don’t move. My right hand is lying in something hot. Without looking I know that it is human blood from the smell of the iron.
“Martin!” My cry is savage. The emotion of loss is unbearable to me and my body has gone limp and heavy. The volition of staying upright is lost. What is the point if he is gone?
I hear people shouting around me and the zoo workers calling into their radios. What is the use? Between the smells of the gunshot and the iron, there is yet another smell. A sticky sweetness.
I turn my head. Just within reach, I see the slice of banana bread.
This is a story written for the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge, Round 1.
It has to be 1000 words or less and my prompts were:
Location: Boxing Gym
Item: Neon sign
Genre: Ghost story
“I don't want to be here! I've been sent here!”
This is new. Something happening.
The guy is built like a wardrobe, but he's hiding his size, hunching his shoulders. From my neon sign, I can see his t-shirt stretch as his muscles strain in unnatural positions.
Joe is taping him, but he's fighting that.
Fighting at the wrong time, my friend, save it for the ring.
He pulls his other hand away as Joe reaches for it – nearly socking Joe a belter. But Old Joe grabs it as if it is a dandelion seed he has plucked out of thin air.
Old Joe is not 'Joe'. He is Stuart. But we call him Joe, to his face and behind his back. Sounds return to the gym and it carries on as ever.
My neon sign has been, 'We are the hampions' for as long as I can remember. That sums up this place: No-one has ever fixed that 'C', and it is true, the joint is full of 'hampions' – also-rans, 'could 'a beens'. The sign is where I live, mostly. It is my haunt.
This is an old-style gym. But it is all I have known, so who am I to say? I don't remember much. I measure the length of my time here by the smells. What? You thought a ghost has no sense of smell? Ectoplasm is not all we deal in. Yucktoplasm, has nothing on the smells that used to hang around. Like the leather, seasoned and pounded. Once, to make a leather punch bag, and then forever buffeted and belted. Biffed until all the life was gone and then punched until even the ghost of the bag gave up its creaking protests. Like me. The fresh blood and old sweat are the same since Victorian times. My times.
But now there's more smells: Sometimes there is a woman. Even when boxing, she brings the aroma of flowers. Even some of the men smell like flowers now, sometimes.
Old Joe used to box. I know he is blind in his right eye. It is a scar wrought from battle: His sparring partner. That man was tiny. He barely came up to Joe's chest, and Joe is not big. But he fought like a strong little rat. Sneaky, looking for the chance to get one in. I still remember that crack of canvas as Joe hit the floor, and then the spray of sweat around him like so much holy rain.
We never saw him again. Can't even remember his name, but he took Joe's eye.
The new guy has been sparring for a month. I'm not sure he loves the smell of the ring like I do. He's scared of the ropes, scared of the middle. He cowers like a new born kitten if anyone comes near him, shiny with sweat. When they get shiny like that, they're slippery. If you dodge at the right time, the punch loses its impact. Come on Ben! That's common sense. There was another guy here for the first couple of weeks. Dark. You could tell he wanted to be ignored. Big, black coat he never took off. Kept a keen eye on Ben.
He reminded me of my Master back when this was a proper house; same eagle stare. That fly-ring followed Ben around for two weeks and never left till he was done training.Then one day, he stopped coming. But I'm glad Ben came back.
They call him Bendy Ben. Everyone gets a nickname if they hang around long enough. Behind his back, they call him Wendy. I wonder what they would call me, if they could see me?
Benjamin Fry. Its a proper, name.
A solid name for a soft little giant. He cowers. He's only just learned to hold his gloves up to protect his gurning gob. And he holds them as if he is the stooge in a circus knife show. But, the poor sod forgets to punch. He forgets to move. He gets hit so much, targets have formed on his chest and his sides. But its the bit when he closes his eyes – just before he gets hit, that tickles me. First time I saw it, I nearly fell out of my sign! I had to dangle on the 'C' till I remembered I could float. So I floated over to the ring.
George was his sparring partner that day. George was going for it, because George is in the semi-finals of the Nationals. He needs to practice and he's good, (still a hampion).
Poor George wanted to get it over with. Two men, closely matched for age, size, reach, power, and one of them standing, hiding behind his gloves with his eyes closed.
I saw George shrug! Then his steely eyes got a dead square look: He had to practice, and all he had was Bendy Ben. He jabbed, then I saw him pouring all his power into that right hook. Ben had no chance.
In that moment between one breath and the next, I remember.
My dress was too long. I said I di'n't want it. But the Master's daughter was getting a new one and I should have this pretty one. And it killed me.
I fell down the attic stairs carrying a tray for Sarah. I heard her yell my name: “Mabel!”.
The punch lands. George's right hook: full of rocks. It would have hit Ben's gloves, but for the first time in his life, he dodges. The punch hits him square between the eyes and I hear a crack like a whip and then a sickening squelch.
* * *
They're shaking me. I open my eyes. Old Joe's pockmarked nose is so near my face that he looks like an old, inquisitive anteater.
Joe looks away. “He's all right, get some water. Someone call an ambulance.”
My ears are pounding...
I raise my hand.
Labels: Free Short Story