For a long time I dreamt that all the dead pets of my life were coming back to me, one by one. Dogs and goldfish, some rats — their resurrection was a gift, my husband’s way of thanking me for my patience while he was in space, doing the President’s work. He brought them to me and Constance with a red ribbon tied around each of their necks.
In my dreams he tracked them down to their burial places in secret and lifted them out of the earth. He took one up with him each mission, each trip into orbit. During breaks on the shuttle, he gave up his free time to revive them by way of the miraculous cosmic radiation zooming constantly through space. He held them cradled in the arms of his spacesuit while huge waves zapped their little bodies, opening the blockages in their hearts, putting fire back into their brains. I still see him drifting outside of his shuttle, tethered by an umbilical cord. Through the fishbowl of his helmet his eyes are closed. His brow reflects the rising sun like it’s the light of Christ.
Soon, I wake up.
At four years old, Constance refused to understand much about her father’s work. I read her the brief, censored letters he sent, the labelled photographs of the scientific knick-knacks that kept him alive. They were things familiar to me. This distracted her from biting through an electrical cable, or leaping from a bookshelf into our glass table, or putting a knife through an outlet and being obliterated by energy.
My sister wasn’t concerned about this. When I called about a dream journal she sent me, she said, “Constance isn’t long for this world. She’s just trying to go out in style.”
PULL QUOTE: She would tell her friends her father had an alien family on the moon, one he loved more than us, for whom he would endure the trouble of space-flight.
“What would you do?”
“I can’t think I’d do much,” she said.
“She just misses daddy, maybe.”
“She has a funny way of showing it,” I said.
Constance had a wide, open forehead, which gave the impression that she could be fooled easily. But she didn’t listen when I took her into the yard on cloudless nights to point out constellations that I predicted her father was attempting to observe, or the areas of the sky he was probably moving through. She would tell her friends her father had an alien family on the moon, one he loved more than us, for whom he would endure the trouble of space-flight.
She seemed to understand only the tremendous pressures his body went through twice a year: once being shot into orbit and once falling out of it. In the interim — those six months between the pressures, while he was talking to aliens for ninety thousand dollars a year — who’s to say what happened to him? In orbit, your heart floats free inside the barrel of your chest. The cells of your bones go into decommission, and you return palsied, too exhausted to speak about your journey, about your moon family.
I would close my eyes and imagine that feeling in my own body. I would think, What I wouldn’t give to have someone shoot me up there, all alone, into the blue eyes of god.
“Are you drinking?” my sister asked. I could hear her watching television as her husband spoke loudly in another room.
“Yes, are you?”
“Yes, I am. What’s she doing now?”
Constance sat under our heavy oak dining table and tried to pry loose the screws that kept it from collapsing on top of her. I hooked my toe into the waistband of her pants and pulled her towards me across the linoleum. Her dumb, little hands reached out for work.
“Nothing. She’s just sitting there.”
“It’s easy to get lonely,” my sister said. “You should remember to write down every dream you have.”
“I will,” I said. “I’ll remember.”
“He’s probably lonely too,” she said. “I bet he doesn’t have a dream journal.”
“I don’t know, maybe they give him one.”
The last time I saw my husband, the weekend before the launch, all the astronauts and their wives got together to barbecue meat and talk about nothing other than what aliens look like.
Drunk, he’d dragged me away from this conversation into the bathroom and turned off the lights and pulled my dress up over my hips. He kissed me in the way he did — moustache scrubbing my cheek, his small mouth closed like he’s playing a flute — but when the lights came back on I was almost surprised that he wasn’t someone else: another astronaut, or a technician from mission control, with their thick glasses and tiny office-worker’s calves.
I said goodbye to my sister and walked out to the patio to breathe. Where we lived there was a vacant field behind our yard and, in the distance beyond that, the clouds were opening up over the space-flight command centre. The night was suddenly bright with shadows. The base was huge and humming and ever-awake and somewhere inside the computers of mission control blinked endlessly, watched over by those men. But in the light there was something else, too: a rocket-ship sitting in the field. Someone was moving from it towards the house.
“Who’s that?” I called.
I could just make out its antennae twitching to the sounds of the base. It stopped at our back gate and rested its little hands on top.
“Are you looking for my husband?” I said.
“Yes,” it said. It’s voice sounded like it was coming from very far away.
“Well, he’s not here. Can I help?”
“No,” it said. “Is he back in space?”
“He flew up a few days ago.”
Inside, the table began to groan as it buckled over Constance. The stranger turned slowly around and moved back the direction it came.
“I’m sorry,” I called out after it, but the clouds had closed back up and the light dropped back to nothing. In the kitchen I picked the receiver back up and held it to my ear, listening to the tone, waiting for someone to speak.
The military families’ liaison colonel wasn’t worried. His walls were covered in helpful information for military wives regarding benefits, local societies. There was advice in the event of air attacks, or in the event of spouses returning with intimate sicknesses. The colonel’s eyebrows moved a little when I first mentioned the visitor, but then sat still.
“Well,’ he said. “That’s really something. What do you think he wanted your husband for?”
“I thought you might know,” I said.
He took a few notes and asked me to describe what it looked like and, as an afterthought, if I took any photos.
“It was dark,” I said.
“You didn’t have a flash?”
“I didn’t have a camera with me.”
“Was it frightening?” he said. “Did it threaten you, physically or verbally?”
“It seemed polite,” I said.
“That doesn’t mean it wasn’t going to try something.”
“Should I be concerned?”
PULL QUOTE: In the sunlight I could see it had the broad, sad face of a moth.
He looked up from his notes. “No, no, of course you shouldn’t be concerned. Unless it tries something. Then, who knows?”
“I need to think of my daughter.”
“Did your daughter take a photo?”
It was waiting for me when I returned, standing again beyond the gate, hands clasped on top of the gate. In the sunlight I could see it had the broad, sad face of a moth. Its antennae, too, were soft and wilting. A mother-bird from a nearby tree wheeled in and snapped at it. I told Constance to be ready to call the police like I showed her.
“My husband’s still not here ,” I called out.
“That is okay,” it said.
“He won’t be back for a while.”
“That is fine.” Each time, before it spoke, there was a leading pause, as if a spring were being wound up inside it.
The alien didn’t move from the gate, and we watched each other for a little while as, inside, Constance began smashing the phone onto the floor.
“Did you want to come in?”
“Yes,” it said.
It had to stoop to get in the doorway, blocking the light coming into the kitchen. Constance stared but didn’t stop destroying the phone.
“Sweetie, don’t,” I said. But she didn’t stop, and so we stood together and watched her, the telephone bell chiming every time her fist came down.
The alien visited us only a few times in the first month, but was soon coming several times a week to have short, quiet conversations in my living room, or in my bathroom, where it was easier to clean up the soot that shed from underneath its carapace. What it was searching for became a distant concern.
The first time, we stood in silence looking at photographs in the living-room: trips to the ocean; the two of us at flight school before Constance; my mother and father when they were young.
It took down a graduation photo and brought it up close to its face. In the photo, I was wearing my own flight-suit. My head popped out of the mouth of the suit like it was a creature swallowing me.
“Do you have photographs?” I asked.
“Where you’re from, I mean.” It was a dumb question.
“No,” it said, making a chuckling noise. “No, no, no.”
If I suspected it was coming I would lay down newspaper on the living-room carpet, but often there was no warning. Sometimes it visited in the evenings as I put Constance to bed, sometimes in the very early mornings. I would wake to find it staring through my window or waiting patiently at the back door, its black eyes shining in the patio light.
“You do not keep animals,” it said one afternoon. The day had been warm and red and we stood outside at the gate, watching the sun set over the centre.
“Not anymore,” I said. “Only Constance.”
“I found her sitting in your garbage with the lid closed,” it said.
“Do you think that means she’s depressed?”
“I can try to take care of her,” it said. “I can probably fix her. With medication.”
I shook my head. “I don’t think I want her having alien medicine. I don’t know if it’s meant to be. But I think you are helping, being around.”
The alien nodded slowly by bending its torso backwards and forwards – a movement only recently adopted. I told it about the animals I had, growing up, and the dreams of my husband resurrecting them. I found myself mentioning him less and less – soon, too, the dreams had ceased.
“I know radiation can’t do that,” I said.
“Bring dead animals back to life?”
The alien made its chuckling, noise. “Maybe there is a way.”
“I don’t want them coming back to life,” I said and it stepped towards me and pulled me close to its body. Its long arms were wrapped around my back; I could hear its insides humming like a machine. I closed my eyes. “I hope it’s just a dream.”
“Do not be concerned,” it said. “They would be too decomposed anyway.”
With the summer came news that the mission would be wrapping up shortly. The other wives began arrangements for the return of their astronauts. I declined invitations to their meetings: Constance’s birthday was quickly approaching, I told them, and I needed time to prepare.
The temperature rose and the alien began complaining about the humidity in our part of the world. It didn’t seem to have sweat glands, and so I offered to spray it down with cold water.
“This feels awful,” it said, chuckling.
In truth, Constance’s party would be a small affair, just the three of us spending the afternoon together. My sister said she would visit, too, with a gift. We walked, hand in hand, with a picnic basket and balloons to the field behind our home, under the shadow of the alien’s rocket ship.
“This heat,” said the alien. “I am going to die here.”
“No, you’re not,” I said. “None of us are going to die.”
Since the alien’s appearance Constance had lost her recklessness. She stared into space, or slept on the carpet as the alien made chittering noises at her. One morning after it stayed over she called it “Bug Daddy”.
But in the bright light of her birthday she was sweaty and alive, running in circles too fast for me to grab her and put cake into her mouth. She crawled between the alien’s legs and slapped its feet and squealed. She threw grass and stones. The alien chuckled loudly. Soot shook down onto Constance’s face, and I couldn’t help but laugh too. “It’s your birthday!” I said. “It’s your birthday! It’s your birthday!”
Soon, my sister was calling from the house.
“Where’s the birthday girl? Hello!”
We’re out here,” I called back.
I headed in to retrieve her. “I’ve got someone I’d like you to meet,” I said.
“I’ve got someone I’d like you to meet,” said my sister. “Where’s Constance? Get her in here. I’ll go get her surprise.”
But back in the field, something was happening. The alien had caught Constance and was hoisting her into the air, holding her high, extending its arms to their full length. I smiled, but as I got closer I could see that her top half was disappearing into its mouth, which had become long, like the jaw of a snake unhinging.
PULL QUOTE: After a moment of swaying it shifted its weight and, shaking terribly, began to spit Constance back onto the grass.
“What are you doing?” I called. “Are you playing?”
Constance kept going and soon her feet were gone too.
“No!” I said. “What’re you doing? What’re you doing?”
The alien looked at me as it gained its balance
“I don’t like this,” I said.
“She would not stop,” it croaked.
“Wouldn’t stop what? It’s her birthday!”
“I do not know what that means.”
After a moment of swaying it shifted its weight and, shaking terribly, began to spit Constance back onto the grass. Soot rose into the air in clouds as it crouched over her like an animal, chuckling heavily. She lay unmoving. Her eyes were open and staring into the sun and I lifted my hand to block it from her face.
“Sweetie, don’t. It’s bad for your eyes. Sweetie.”
She didn’t move. Back at the house, my sister called again. “Hello? Where’d you go?”
“What did you do, you maniac?” I said.
“I am sorry,” said the alien, rocking from side to side. “I am sorry. I made a mistake.”
“Why’re you laughing?” I said.
“This is not laughing!” Its attempts to speak were strained. Its voice came through in a rasp. “I was trying to calm her. She would not stop moving. I can fix her, I promise.”
Standing up, it lifted Constance by the legs and laid her over its back and began to waddle over to its rocket ship waiting nearby. I tried to grab her arms but it pulled her away quickly.
“Where are you going with her? It’s her birthday!”
“I can fix her,” it said again.
As it approached the rocket a hatch opened and a platform began to descend.
“Don’t try and follow me,” it called back. “You will die in space.”
“I know that!” I said.
Then the platform began to retract back into the belly of the ship with the alien and Constance along with it. The alien watched me the whole time, making some gesture with its free hand, but it did not translate. The hatch closed and they were gone.
Quietly, effortlessly, the ship began to rise. There was no movement in the air. There were no windows for me to see my daughter’s face, there were no signals. I opened my mouth to call out but before I could it was gone. It lifted away and suddenly I was alone, left in the field with the cake and the picnic blanket, my neck and arms burning in the sun.
Inside my home there were more calls for me. “Come here,” my sister yelled. “Come here, come here, come here.”
He was inside, of course. They all were: my sister, the military families’ liaison, all the other wives. They stood in the living room in a semi-circle behind my husband, their hands clasped to their chests and their eyes filling with light. My husband leant heavily on a walker. There was a gift balancing on top, wrapped in a red bow.
“Look who came home early for his baby,” my sister said, beginning to cry. “Look who came back from heaven.”
Jack Vening is a writer and bartender living in Brisbane. He has taught in the writing programs at the UQ and QUT, and in 2014 was awarded the inaugural Queensland Literary Awards Young Writers Fellowship.
This story first appeared in The Lifted Brow: Digital, Volume 11, Issue 1.