Jason unlocked the door and flipped the light on as he dragged himself into his mother’s house. It was his now, but it was hard to think of it like that—every room reflected her personality in ways large and small. The worse thing was the stillness, the quiet. He wanted to unwind, maybe catch up on the news, but felt a tremor of guilt at such liberty; it seemed somehow disrespectful to his mother’s memory. “Close the door behind you.” He picked up the remote on the coffee table. Shaking away irrational reservations, he activated the TV. The picture came on, along with a burst of voices.
Kalli immediately fell into a defensive combat stance.
Jason stared. Her memory might have become inaccessible, but her reflexives hadn’t lost a thing.
Her eyes absorbed the benign nature of the TV and she made an “Ah!” of wonder as it told her about the joys of owning her own juice maker for only nineteen-ninety-nine.
He smiled. Guess they don’t have a shopping network wherever she’s from.
After shutting the front door, his “sister” swept about the living room, stealing glances back at the plasma screen every time he changed channel. She reminded him of a wraith in need of a house to haunt, inspecting everything that caught her fancy. Ought to think of a name for her soon, he decided. Wonder what shape the guest room is in?
Yawning, he dropping lengthways onto the couch, his evening’s adventures catching up to him in rush. So tired. I’ll just rest my eyes a minute … and then … then… An untethered foil balloon low on helium, his sagging mind sank into shadowed places. He kicked off his shoes and heard a double thump as they fell.
Drifting in a gentle darkness, he sensed a comforting presence on the floor beside the couch. Warm hands wrapped his own. A head settled against his ribs, making sure he was still breathing. He thought he ought to say something, but words eluded him. Then he was gone…
…Into a strange and savage universe. The void should have been black, but it was blood red instead, with pink bars of light instead of star points. Vibrating with exhilaration, he fell headlong toward a swelling white sun with a swarm of planets. His heart pounded, quieting only a little as speed bled away.
The void shifted back to basic black. The white sun became blue. He passed the large chunks of a shattered moon, and its world jumped to catch him. Atmosphere gathered him in. Spearing through silver clouds that dazzled, friction wreathed him fire until he slowed. Finding clear sky once more, he looked down on cobalt mountains with azure highlights. The range soon sank into foothills, like unstretched wrinkled canvas.
The rolling terrain yielding to blotches of thick indigo forest. Then plains emerged, offering a new face to wonder and sorrow, for skimming lower, he found pink marble cities in ruin. Great craters were everywhere, sprinkled with rubble--still visible though the cream blue glass and shrubbery had tried to scab over ancient destruction. Shattered walls, jeweled walkways, and broken spires suggested such beauty that his heart ached. This planet had been desecrated in some ancient conflict that had left little alive.
As he approached a crystal-blue sea, he found a single city that had actually been rebuilt, standing as a statement of triumph against entropy and darkness. He noticed elegant women, flying about the city without visible means of support. They hurried with an air of urgency, ignoring him. Nowhere did he see a male. But dark-winged scavenger birds took sudden flight, as if sensing his presence.
I’m not really here. It can’t be that. No matter how real this seems, it must all be some kind of dream.
A current caught him, dragging him down. He settled on a ramp suspended between buildings, a walkway lined with vibrant blooms. A great light surged up, from the street under him, burning through the substance of the span without destroying it. The light came to his soul like a poignant refrain that didn’t know how to end. He sank through the bridge, into a firestorm, feeling no heat, no resistance.
A woman confronted him at the core of the blaze. She wore a navy gown with rippling stripes of sapphire across its field. The material fluttered around her, thin enough to be nearly translucent. Her long white limbs were thin willow branches, and her eyes were stars set in a porcelain mask, framed by ink black hair. There was sad gravity to her presence that made his heart want to break in sympathy.
The current that had thrust him here--so far from Earth-- vanished, but he didn’t want to go; the woman’s eyes flashed welcome and her sudden smile made his heart burn brighter. Her thoughts touched his own. Ah, Kalli, is the battle over?
The strange name surprised him.
Yes, Mother, the last Skath fleet has been broken and scattered. My sisters pursue the surviving ships. I have only abandoned that duty because you called.
Surprise became shock; he had answered, but the thoughts weren’t his. He didn’t know if he were possessed, or a ghost going along for a ride in someone else’s mind. It seemed that this was not a dream after all, but perhaps a memory he had borrowed, that he was living out again.
His attention returned to the woman as she continued, blind to his confusion.
I have another task for you. I have sensed a troubling darkness—possibly a Skath infestation. I want you to travel to the Sol System, as its natives call it. A GU vessel has mysteriously vanished in that area. It may be the work of our enemy.
I will go at once, Mother.
That’s a good girl…
“…Jason! Are you all right?”
His eyes opened, as he snapped out of sleep to find himself being shaken. “Ughhh, what the…?” It was his alien guest. Her face hung over his. Her eyes were wide with anxiety.
“I was afraid for you,” she said. “You where talking--but it wasn’t to me--and your eyes were moving quickly under their lids. I thought something might be wrong with you.”
“It’s nothing,” he said. “Just a dream. I was someone called … Kalli.”
“That’s your name, isn’t it? You just answered to it.”
“Why, I guess it is. Kalli. Kalli! Yes, it feels right. Do you like my name? Does it please you?”
“Uh, sure. It’s a wonderful name. Don’t change it.”
“I won’t, Jason, not ever.” She made a solemn vow.
He tried to sit up, but couldn’t budge. “Kalli, let me up, please.”
Instantly, she was off him, sitting back on her heels, but the worshipful attention was as cloying as ever, flattering and disconcerting at the same time. He pushed himself up and swung his feet to the floor. As he stood, Kalli copied him, ready to follow wherever he went.
“You stay here,” he said. “I’m going into the kitchen to make us some French toast. Since you’ve copied human physiology, nothing I fix will likely kill you, I hope.”
“You speak of ingesting organics for energy. I’ve wanted to try that since I learned of stomach function at Doc’s.”
“Well, this is your chance. While I get the food ready, why don’t you watch some TV. You need to learn more about the world. There’s no telling how long it will be until your mother ship arrives.”
“TV? Ah, the box with a glass face. It is wonderful! I watched it through most of the night. The changing of channels confused me until I bonded with the remote.” She looked at the TV and it began to flip randomly through different programs. “See?” She let the screen settle on a kids program that was resplendent with bright-hued, fuzzy, singing puppets. Their ping-pong ball eyes made them seem wired on crank.
“There is much about your world that is very strange,” she said.
“I can’t argue with you there.” He found the remote and went surfing for something a little more helpful. By-passing info-mercials, he went to the movie channels. There was a Kung-Fu flick where people jumped impossible distances and hacked at each other with swords. “Uhhh, no, can’t have you doing that.” He skipped a zombie movie, The Anime Network, and finally settled on a chick flick as the lesser evil. It was the best he could at the moment.
Kalli sat on the couch to watch the idiot box with utter devotion.
He entered the kitchen and found it as immaculate as he’d always remembered. Terra-cotta counters were thick with shiny chrome appliances. The double-sink was empty of dishes. The fridge was set flush into a wall and a hunter green dish towel hung on the door handle. The range was built into an island of cabinets with a pot and pan rank hanging over it. Off to the side, by the back door, sat a small kitchen table with two old-fashioned wooden chairs. On the green plaid tablecloth, a small vase held dead flowers, the only discordant note in the room. He gathered the dry, withered flowers, threw them in the trash.
Next, a skillet went on the stove, and then he gathered the ingredients he’d need. French toast required little attention, being just short of rocket science, so he let his body work on auto-pilot, setting his thoughts adrift. He mulled over the conversation from his dream. The words were still crisp in his memory. It surprised him that they hadn't faded.
He had been Kalli in that dream. He wondered if her missing memories had become downloaded in his subconscious from their first contact, when she had absorbed his genetic profile as a basis for her own. If so, he had no idea how to give them back. This also meant that her memory loss might be a permanent condition: she’d be starting off her life all over again, with him.
He wondered how he should feel about that.
With the skillet full of egg-soaked bread, he pulled a couple plates from a cabinet and gathered silverware. They went beside the stove. He filled two glasses with milk and set them in the freezer to chill. He’d always liked his milk extra cold. It seemed to improve the flavor, he thought. That was one of many eccentricities that had always amused his mom. He drew a deep breath and released it as a shuddering sigh. It was so hard to imagine such a vibrant personality just--gone.
He flipped the toast, and returned his thoughts to the dream. The woman Kalli had met with had sent her to Earth looking for a “Skath infestation”. He didn’t know what a Skath was, but he doubted it was a good thing.
Hearing loud grunge, Jason went to the arch and peeked into the living room. Kalli was in the exact same pose he’d left her in, but the screen now displayed a music channel. Guitar heroes were ripping out power chords and lead licks as a drummer and bass player added rhythm. A Goth-rock chick with blond streaks in black hair, wearing leather pants, mesh gloves, and a cropped black tee shirt, gyrated in front of a microphone while moaning the lyrics of an atrociously popular song.
He hurried in and changed the TV to a classic rock music channel. “There, that’s better. I wouldn’t want you to rot your brain.”
“What is the purpose in communicating with so much energy,” Kalli asked. “It seems … wasteful.”
“It’s music. You listen with your heart, not your head. It’s about feeling alive and free, in touch with beauty. Maybe later, I’ll break out my guitar and play you something live.”
Kalli’s eyes flashed with excitement. “Do it now!”
“Can’t, the food will burn. Let’s have breakfast first.”
She sigh disappointment. “All right.”
He returned to the kitchen and found the toast ready. He pulled it from the fire, turned off the stove, and filled the plates. The toast was quickly buttered and drizzled with maple syrup. The plates went to the kitchen table and he got the glasses from the freezer. A thin shell of ice had just started to form on top. The glasses went with everything else, and he called into the next room. “Kalli, it’s ready. Come and get it.”
She hurried in and stared at the meal. This is French toast? I have never smelled anything like it, at least, I don’t think I have.”
“Sit down. I’ll be back in a moment.” He crossed to the back door, went out into the chill morning air, and picked a single pink rose from the garden. He carried it back in and placed it in the vase. “There, the last perfect touch for your first breakfast on Earth. Since your old memories are lost, we want your new ones to especially good.”
Kalli turned misting eyes his way. “Thank you, Jason. You are so good to me!”
He sat down across the table from her. “That’s how friends are.”
“We are … friends?” she said the word as if she didn’t quite understand it.
“Of course we are. We are all we have, so we have to stick together.” He picked up his fork and used it to point at her plate. “Go ahead and eat before it gets cold.”
“Yes, Jason.” She picked up her fork and copied him: cutting off a corner of toast, stabbing it, and lifting it to her mouth. He chewed and so did she. Her face bloomed with a sudden smile as she discovered the purpose of taste buds. Her eyes closed with ecstasy and a moan of pleasure escaped. She swayed and swallowed. “This is wonderful!”
“Kalli?” he hesitated to spoil the mood, but he had a question he wanted answered.
Her eyes snapped open. “Yes, my friend.”
“I was wondering if you could tell me what a Skath is.” It was a word from his dream. “Skath?” Her hand tightened, snapping the fork, sending the tines splashing into her silk. “I don’t know that word.”
He looked at her destroyed fork. Yes you do. But you don’t know everything you know. Skath must be bad news. He caught her gaze and smiled. “Don’t worry about it. It’s probably not important.” He slid his glass of milk over to her. “Here, try the milk.” As she sampled his glass, he got up to fetch a new fork and to fish the old one out of her glass.
I have the nagging feeling that things are just going to get stranger from here on out. Well, I suppose that’s better than boring.
His tasks accomplished, he returned to the table. Jason began devouring his food. Kalli copied him. He smiled as she hummed in pleasure, closing her eyes to chew each bite. The alien was innocent, child-like, open to every experience. He’d have to make sure no one took advantage of her trust. Earth’s a dark place for an angel from the stars. Hmmmm. There’s a song in that concept. Think I’ll let my sub-conscious work on it a while.
He carried his empty plate to the sink and rinsed it off. Kalli wasn’t quite finished. Savoring each bite had her moving at a slower pace.
“I’m going out front to get my guitar,” he said. “I should have brought her in last night. Wasn’t thinking, I guess. Cold weather isn’t good for her. Be right back.”
She gave him a nod, stabbing another piece of toast through its syrupy heart, thrusting it into her mouth.
He went through the living room, the front door, and out to the Jeep in the driveway. He grabbed his guitar case and duffle bag and brought them back in. He set the bag down in a chair and took the guitar case to the couch. After shutting of the distraction of the TV, he opened the case and took out his black Epiphone. The case went into the floor, out of the way, and he hung the guitar on himself by a crimson strap. He formed an A minor chord and thumbed across the bronze-wound strings, testing the tuning. One string was off. He tightened it.
Kalli entered the room, summoned by the ringing tones. Her stare fixed itself on what he was doing. Pushing the coffee table out of the way, she sat directly in front of him on the floor, listening with arms wrapped around her knees.
Moving aimlessly through chord progressions, shifting key as the mood struck him, he filled the air with cascading notes and strums for counter-point. Once in a while, he tossed in a sizzling riff as well.
His mind processed the list of covers his band usually did on tour. Might as well start with a classic. He shifted a bar chord to the fifth fret and launched into the opening of Stairway to Heaven. It was the song he’d cut his teeth on when first learning the guitar, and it suited his voice quite well.
Kalli sat with the perfect stillness of inanimate matter, until tears crept down her face and she touched them in surprise.
He finished the song. A deep silence set in. Finally, he spoke, “Like the song?”
“It’s beautiful. I don’t understand all of it, but I love it.”
“That’s how it is with things we love the best,” he said. “Sometimes understanding just gets in the way.” Hmmmm, strange effect she has on me; I seem to be waxing eloquently at the drop of a hat.
“This lady climbing back to the stars,” Kalli said, “did she ever get there?”
He considered the question. “I’m not sure anyone knows. I’d like to think that she found her heart’s desire, but there’s no guarantee. That’s why you grab happiness when you can and hang on tight.” He thought of his mother and felt a stab of pain in his heart. “It can go so fast.”
Kalli nodded with a look of intense concentration, as if inscribing the lesson across her soul. “Sing me another song,” she asked.
He did, working through a selection of tunes by The Beatles, Deep Purple, The Doobie Brothers, and Foreigner. Kalli proclaimed each song the best one yet. It was definitely good for his ego. For a finale, he went with Living On a Prayer, by Guns and Roses. At last, he returned the instrument to its case. “That’s enough for now. I’m still a little tired. I’m going to hit the shower and—”
“Has it displeased you? This shower is your enemy?” she asked.
“It’s a figure of speech,” he said. “I’m going to wash up and go sleep in a real bed for a few more hours. You should watch some more TV, and whatever you do, don’t leave the house without me.” Can’t have the ‘Men in Black’ picking you up.
She looked horrified. “I will never let myself be parted from you!”
He gave her an uncertain smile, grabbed his duffle bag, and went upstairs. He found his old bedroom in better shape than he’d left it when he’d gone off to college. The bed was made. The room was picked up, vacuumed, and dusted. Even the windows were extra clean. I don’t think mom ever really reconciled herself to my leaving the nest.
He threw the bag on the bed and fished out sweatpants and a tee shirt, and carried them to the bathroom. The food he’d eaten, a quick shower, and the change of clothes made him feel much better. He returned to his room, moved the bag off into a corner, and slipped into the bed. Just hope … I don’t get anymore of those weird dreams. He yawned. I like keeping my feet on the ground, as much as possible. Sleep closed in quickly once he shut his eyes.