This story is by Dominic Laing and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
He looked like every other person, and he sounded like every other person, and there was a muscle, much like a heart, sealed inside his body, which pumped fluid, much like blood. But day upon day, he would not age. Winter threaded to Winter, he would walk and never freeze. His body refused to deteriorate, and any wound would slip from his flesh.
He was from beyond, but he did not know from where. His own memory had frayed; first at the edges, then deep into the cloth. He’d imagine what it would be like to know where he was from, and where he was going, only to catch himself in the dream. It’d been so long — hundreds of years — and his own memories had dimmed to such a degree that he doubted he was from anywhere other than Earth.
On his darkest nights, his doubt turned into a dark hope — a lone wish.
“Tomorrow,” he told himself, “tomorrow is the day I begin to die.”
The alien stood outside, eyes full of stars.
* * *
Agent Randall spied the homes with front lights on amid darkened doors. He spied the passengers with their arms full of bags and goodbyes between the shuttles and taxis. He spied bare plots of land between cumulous tides.
Agent Randall spied the soil between rows of corn, each line galloping behind them, clipping against their heels. He imagined their sound as ribbon in wind — as fluttering heartbeat — as whirring hummingbird wings.
He closed his eyes and imagined hoofs as wild hammers, imagined gouged out chunks of earth flipped skyward. He closed his eyes and imagined manes of a hundred unbridled horses aswirl like churning ocean waves. He closed his eyes and imagined — and imagined — and imagined —
“Agent? Agent Randall?”
He blinked, and glanced over at the Alien, who smiled.
“Do you want me to drive?”
Agent Randall looked out at the road ahead of them. His eyes turned to the Alien’s journal on the dashboard, its contents laid bare, pages caught in arrhythmic flicker. In the windshield reflection he saw markings on the pages; what looked like constellations.
“Where do the drawings come from?”
The Alien took the journal and placed a finger on the markings.
“The drawings help me remember. They’re the only way I know how to hold everything — the only way I know how to remember what’s happened. I’ve tried other methods, but nothing held. My mind is too weak.”
“How do they help you?”
“Each page is like a set of driving directions. They’re like map coordinates — a constellation of sorts. Each point builds upon to the other and threads itself to the previous; each point is then infused with senses of a specific space and time..”
“Map coordinates? To where?”
“Back. Back…back…like bread crumbs or dinosaur bones. They put me back on the path.”
The alien took the journal from the dash, and opened it to a particular page.
“Okay. Small town in West Texas. Saleido. I’d set up a garage there, making replacement parts for trucks and trailers. Didn’t have a radio, and I wasn’t much for customer chat. The only sounds of my day were my tools at work and the buzzing of mosquitos. Whenever I heard their swell, I would stop and watch. I used to challenge myself and see how long I could watch them without speaking. Without moving.
He smiled. “…So here’s what I did. I made a map. I drew a cube, and the cube was the front yard of my shop. Then, I charted out the location of each and every mosquito; how close they were to me, how high they were off the ground. I imagined what it would be like to hold all of them in that cube, to encapsulate them in amber and hold them still. I squared my shoulders, smiled, and then I told myself, this is what you look like to me, you congregation of saints — at this particular time, at this particular place.”He showed Agent Randall the sketch on the first page.
“That is a box filled with dots.”
“That is a constellation of mosquitos. That, Agent, is August Ninth, Nineteen-Forty-Seven, Six-Fifteen in the evening, in Saleido, Texas.”
* * *
“Where’re we going, Agent?”
“I can’t tell you. Sorry.”
The alien glanced back at the journals sitting in the back seat. He caught sight of a small car on the side of the road. A man, changing a flat tire. High up above him, he spied an airplane.
“How old is your son, Agent?”
“And the day after tomorrow? How old will he be?”
“Eleven, still. And for…eighty-five days after that.”
“But then what?”
“Then he turns twelve.”
The Alien nodded. “You know these things about the ones you love, about yourself. You know when someone began. You point to a coordinate and say ‘There, Then. That’s you.’ Your birthplace. Your birthday. You progress along a certain line, secured by those coordinates; location and time.”
The alien nodded and caught sight of his reflection in the mirror. “Whose eyes does your son have? Yours or your wife’s?”
“…And beyond your coordinates, there’ll all your pretty pieces, all the materials with which you’ve been assembled. You look at your parents and say, ‘There I am, in her eyes. There I am, in his jawline, in his crossed arms and speech pattern.’ As you age and ripen, you cast a new image. But you were raised in the shadows of others. The old is made from new. Time and time and time again.”
“You’re from somewhere, too, you know.”
The alien looked over at Agent Randall. “Am I? And whose eyes do I have? My mother’s or my father’s?” Agent Randall remained silent. The alien smiled, then pulled out a knife and flayed his left palm.
The alien pressed his palm against the windshield and smeared a trail down the glass. He pointed to the crescent of blood. “Where’s that bloodline start, Agent? Who does that blood belong to?”
Agent Randall slammed on the brakes and swerved off the road. They skidded to a stop, and Agent Randall faced the Alien.
“Julian, please. Put down the knife.”
Julian balled up his left hand, still holding the knife in his right. “Surely someone made you, Agent. And yes, surely someone made me, too. Someone saw to my care when I could not care for myself. And night after night, I prayed I would remember who. A name — a face — anything.
Outline my edges, I prayed: Plot me out like one of these maps, and tell me my coordinates. Point me home. Point of origin. Point of destination. Beginning. End.
But I can’t — I can’t remember how to get back home. All I’ve got are these pages, full of memories I can’t trust. I’ve lived too long to trust anything. All these reconstructions, all these half-strands — I thought they might add up to something — I thought if I kept moving, if I pressed through — they might combine — they might, one day, mean something — but they don’t. I’ve got boxes and boxes of pieces that’ll never fit together.
Who says I haven’t made up everything? Who says I haven’t corrupted my own memory — forgotten or omitted things on purpose — changed details to make myself feel better? They’re dots on a page, a code only I can read, and why? Because I thought I could capture an alchemy of feeling — of time and place. The more I worked to recreate and build the road back home, the more it felt like a manufactured fiction — the more it felt like a lie.”
The Alien opened his fist, and smiled. He turned his palm to Agent Randall, revealing a canvas of perfectly smooth skin, like freshly frozen lake-water.
“I look in the mirror, but I don’t know who looks back at me.”
Agent Randall stared at Julian, who stared back, unblinking. Then, Julian looked out at the road ahead of them. “And please don’t call me Julian, Agent Randall. You know that’s not my real name.”