Every year in January, Cast of Wonders takes the month off to recharge our batteries, plan the year ahead, and highlight some of our favourite episodes. As part of joining the Escape Artists family, this year we’re pulling out all the stops. We’re running 10 staff pick episodes over the month, each one hosted by a different member of the Cast of Wonders crew.
We hope you enjoy slush reader Sally Gill’s favorite story from 2015, Take A Good Look by Holly Schofield and narrated by Stephanie Morris. The story originally aired August 16, 2015 as Episode 174.
Theme music is “Appeal to Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available at MusicAlley.com.
Take a Good Look
by Holly Schofield
Megan watched with dull eyes as Alan’s tendrils undulated above his head, making odd silhouettes on the garage wall. He grew more excited, his beige skin turned mauve as he finished his breakfast beer.
She rocked her lawn chair slowly back and forth in the early morning sun. She barely heard Alan as he went on and on about his most recent trip, to see the giant Easter egg statue in eastern Alberta, and the other attractions he’d visited since she’d left town last year.
“I took an, erh, hologram of the egg,” he told her gleefully, his voice thick with phlegm. “For my, erh, scrapbook.” His English was good but some things apparently didn’t translate well.
“It’s Dad,” she blurted out. “He’s dying.”
Alan swallowed several times and his tendrils jerked in agitation. His mud-brown eyes widened and he started to say something but silently offered her a bottle of Rusty Red Plow instead.
She shook her head. Some friend. Didn’t even know how to offer simple human comfort. But then, he wasn’t human, was he? Alan had learned English on his way to Earth by studying the broadcasts of old TV shows but he didn’t seem to have learned much else about humankind in his fourteen years here.
He must be imitating an old sitcom, handing her the beer. Maybe I Love Lucy or Leave It to Beaver, some show where someone was given a cup of tea as a consolation.
She should have gone to see her old friends in town instead of joining the silly old alien behind the garage. Her friends would have understood how hard it was to watch Dad hide his pain. They would have given her a hug, at least. Alan never had, and, as far as she knew, had never even spoken with anyone else.
Alan had been meeting her here on Saturday mornings since she was seven years old. He’d trundled up to her in her sandbox one day and studied the miniature Stonehenge she’d built from twigs and rocks and Legos. She couldn’t pronounce his name so she’d called him Alan. She’d never told a soul.
At that age, secrecy had been everything. She’d been fascinated by spies and puzzles and locks and keys. Dad had talked about aliens since, well, always, but she’d been slow to realize not all little kids had secret alien friends. By the time she was nine, she knew no one would believe her. Several times, she’d almost blurted it out to her parents, but there were enough childish reasons to be mad at them–well-intentioned teasing, undeserved punishments–that she never had.
Here on the edge of town behind the garage, there was no one to see them, except a couple of red foxes. Alan liked his privacy too. She puffed air out her nose, trying to blow away Alan’s odor, a strong smell–like Harvard beets mixed with rotten tuna.
“Meggie?” The deep voice startled her.
With long practice, she scooted around the corner of the garage, cutting off her father’s approach, giving Alan time to fade into the shadows.
“There you are.” His voice had lost some of its power after Mom had died in a car accident seven years ago.
“Right here, Dad.” She crossed the yard towards him. He looked frailer and the sun shone through the hair on top of his head. Either he’d shrunk or she’d grown taller since she’d left for university. She’d moved back home last week, right after the cancer diagnosis, right before final exams. Finishing her geology degree would have to wait until after–, until after–. Well, until after.
“Nice day,” she said, looking over the fence at the hay field next door and the rolling prairie beyond. The city had crowded her.
“Yeah, nice,” Dad said absently. “Listen, you have time to look at some maps? I think I’ve found the Badlands Guardian on an old topo map I dug up from a file box in the basement.”
He had continued his obsession after the doctors told him it was leukemia, after he’d decided against painful and probably useless treatments, after Megan had given up trying to get him to undergo more tests and procedures.
“Remind me which one is the Guardian?” Inside, Megan helped him unfurl a 1:50,000 topographical map on top of the clutter that was a permanent fixture of his desk. After the bright sunshine outside, the study was dim. She switched on a lamp.
Geoglyphs–large pictures only visible from the air, created by moving dirt or stones–had intrigued him for years. Lately, he’d been focusing on biomorphs: huge shapes of animals or people.
“Meggie, it’s a new one. In 2006, some amateur spotted it on Google Earth. A drainage basin to the east of here. Soft, alluvial sediments.” His voice grew stronger as his excitement rose. “Three hundred meters wide or so. Some people say it’s an image of a First Nations man in a headdress. Thing is, the Blackfoot headdresses were shaped quite differently. It’s actually more like a space helmet with hoses coming out of it.”
He bobbed his head as he spoke, his grey ponytail brushing his frayed shirt collar, teeth gleaming in the desk lamp’s glow. Now was the time. He might be hurt or angry that she’d kept the secret all these years, but he deserved to know. She bit her lip.
“Dad? There’s something I wanted to tell you since I was a little–”.
“Here!” He stabbed at the paper with a shaky finger. “More proof, Meggie, that aliens have been here. There is no Fermi paradox. They’ve already carved up the landscape. Made images in their name, teased us with their superiority. They’re toying with us really…” His voice drifted off as he traced a finger over green topographical lines she could barely see.
Alan wasn’t toying with anybody. He was just being a tourist. Maybe she shouldn’t tell Dad, it would depress him even more than the latest test results had. It would be like telling a Christian that Jesus had resurfaced as an acne-covered gamer living in Poughkeepsie.
Over the years, Dad’s interests had progressed from the Nazca Lines in Peru to the lesser-known Bunjil geoglyphs in Australia, and lately he’d been determined to find one in Alberta, closer to home. Maps, books, and correspondence filled an entire room of his bungalow, expanding into the living room after his retirement a few years ago.
Mom, a former psychologist, once told her with a smile that Dad’s obsession was a tame demon that kept him sane. On her deathbed, she’d made Megan promise that she would humor him. Megan had fled to university rather than deal with it. The prognosis had dragged her back, like a spaceship reluctantly pulled in by a tractor beam on Dad’s favorite TV show.
He chattered on, pulling out map after map. She watched his face come alive and she managed a smile and a few more questions. He had four months to live. She was going to make sure that they were good ones.
By late November, they had settled into a routine. Megan grew used to following Dad’s bobbing Tilley hat as they barreled down creek beds on their all-terrain vehicles. She forgave him as their tracks hastened the erosion of sand dunes, killed native grasses, and scattered bison on private land. Her clothes had the permanent smell of sweetgrass and thistle.
Evenings were spent poring over photos, maps, and diagrams until Megan’s eyes ached. Once, Dad chartered a private plane, a little Piper Cub piloted by a retired farmer he knew, to fly up and down the grasslands. In the early morning, the rising sun had made an orange radius on the propeller. Megan had leaned her head against the cold, vibrating side window and closed her eyes while the impossibly noisy engine pounded through her head. How long could Dad hang on?
Today, like most of their field trips, they had left at sunrise, so the raking light could bring out hidden details in the landscape. Megan drove her ATV up the hill behind Dad’s, cresting it just as rain began to fall far off in the distance. The vertical grey streaks had been a telltale of weather to come as they’d driven the twenty kilometers to Little Stone Bluff, one of the highest points around. The sunrise at her back illuminated the crevices in the river valley below and made the distant grasses gleam.
“Look, Meggie, see down there!” Dad gestured at some of the deeper clefts to the left. “Do you see it?” He stood up in his seat and nodded so hard she thought his Tilley hat might fall off.
It looked like a hodgepodge of lines to her, nothing more.
She glanced at Dad who was still engrossed in the cliffs then let her eyes drift to the valley bottom on the right. Alan’s spaceship was only two kilometers from here but the grey ship melded into the cliff base, almost invisible unless you knew exactly where to look. Alan had parked it there years ago, like a human might park a Winnebago in a Wal-Mart. By sheer inertia, she figured, he had just stayed, making occasional forays in his little transport shuttle.
Dad wouldn’t notice the ship, especially now that his eyesight was weaker. Not unless she pointed it out.
“What did the aerial show?” she asked, yawning and pulling the coffee thermos from her pack. It was too early in the morning for difficult decisions.
“It’s clearly a biomorph. Maybe a duck or goose. Cleverly inserted into the natural contours.” Dad’s weathered hand trembled as he pointed out head, wings, tail. Mom had explained to her, years ago, about pareidolia, the phenomena of perceiving faces in random patterns. Everybody saw them to some degree, like recognizing a smiling face in two dots and a curved line, but Dad managed to see faces, animals, and messages in almost everything.
She pretended to follow along and did her own nodding as Dad set up the camera tripod. He went on and on about ‘enormous terrestrial easels’ until she felt like snapping at him–she was never at her best this early in the morning.
It was bad enough that he thought aliens existed, and were full of beauty and grace. Did he really think that they would choose to help us? End war and famine? Fix our problems, shine light into our darkness, improve humanity? Even, cure cancer? She flung down her pack.
Alan was all the proof she needed that aliens were, well, nothing much. Full of insecurities, doubts, and fears. Filled with odd obsessions of their own. She’d once asked Alan why he spent his time visiting cheesy tourist attractions instead of having tea with the Prime Minister or something, and he’d looked at his feet while his tendrils turned grey, muttering about how other aliens could do all the stuff like that, if they wanted to.
“Come look, Meggie!” Dad called, bent over the camera, his jeans almost falling off his hips. When had he lost so much weight?
By the time the coffee thermos was drained and the camera was filled with hundreds of shots, Megan’s head had cleared. The brisk October wind cleansed her face and she’d evidently conveyed enough enthusiasm that Dad was grinning like a Panamint Valley giant, happy in his own little world. How could the unimposing lumpish being that was Alan add to that?
Once, Dad held the camera close to one eye, squinted into it, did a double take as he realized it was digital, then moved it away so he could see the screen. She thought he’d done it on purpose but played along and chuckled in spite of herself.
By midmorning, he had grown shaky and Megan had to make him take a break by saying she wanted an early lunch. She settled him into the shelter of a large boulder at the cliff edge, the vista spreading several miles in front of them. The spot was several hundred feet directly above Alan’s ship but, if she mentioned that now, he’d go haring off down the cliff. Looking at his pale face, that was the last thing he needed.
Megan unzipped the pack and dug around for the sandwiches. A sigh and then a thump made her lift her head. Dad was sprawled in the dust, a ghostly color against the reddish soil, the camera a few feet away.
She checked his breathing and sat back on her heels. She probably couldn’t lift him back onto an ATV and, even if she could, there was no way she could hold him there for the long ride. A few swipes and she confirmed her cell phone had no coverage this far into the Badlands. No one would look for them for at least a day. She could leave him and drive back alone, but it would be hours before he would have medical help.
It took twenty minutes to climb down to Alan’s ship. Twenty minutes of slippery rocks, pockets of snow, icy grass, and, once, a long scary slide on loose scree that dragged her cuff up her arm and took skin off her wrist.
Another precious ten minutes were wasted, trying to convince a befuddled Alan to use his shuttle to take them home.
Alan landed the shuttle with a crunch, squarely on the fence that ringed the backyard. The small craft had covered ground silently and swiftly, undulating over the hills just a few meters above the ground. After giving his console the location of Megan’s home, Alan had started to tell her about the world’s biggest chest of drawers in North Carolina but had flushed a mottled maroon and fallen silent part way through. After that, he had simply sat, a squat figure in a faded Hawaiian shirt, his hands on his knees, humming in a monotone. Megan sat, cross-legged beside her dad who was still unconscious, watching his thin chest rise and fall for the entire, endless five-minute trip, swaying in time to Alan’s tuneless song.
When Megan cracked open the hatch, too concerned about Dad to care that she was in a spaceship, for pity’s sake, cold rainy gusts blew in, leaving large drops on Dad’s sunken white face.
She instructed Alan how to help lift her Dad and together they carried him into the house. Megan wasn’t even aware Alan had left until she heard the screech of a downspout being ripped from its moorings as the shuttle rose and scraped the house. Her father lay where they had put him, pale and hardly breathing. The doctor’s warning, last week, that he was going downhill faster than expected, was sharp in her mind.
He woke up just as the private nurse arrived, and gave a brief reassuring smile, his eyes finding Megan’s before closing again.
Megan leaned against the door frame, biting her lip, until the nurse had examined him and reassured her that he had just overdone things and needed rest. She didn’t have the energy to argue when the nurse pulled the blankets taut across him in a way that he hated.
She napped most of the afternoon, then went out to the back of the garage. The rain had stopped and Alan was there even though it wasn’t their usual meeting time. He looked up cheerfully, handed her a bottle of Rusty Red Plow, and began to tell her about the giant Kielbasa sausage he’d just visited in a nearby town.
She looked blankly at him. Despite all her explanations yesterday, she didn’t think he understood Dad would really die; he seemed to think the human doctors could fix him sooner or later.
Of course, she had asked him, soon after the diagnosis, if he could cure Dad’s cancer. Surely, aliens could do that. He explained his ship’s medical unit was only for his species and, anyway, he’d never had any medical training.
By the time the winter moon had risen over their heads, she was on her third bottle of Rusty Red. Her face was no longer frozen and her hands no longer tingled. She picked off the label: a skillfully rendered picture of a wedge-shaped plow from the 1800’s. Stiff with cold, it tore apart in her hands.
She looked over at Alan in the darkness, his coral tendrils gently waving.
“Do you guys get hangovers?” She leaned back, making the ancient lawn chair creak.
“Nope,” he answered in his light, always-cheerful voice. “Just the good buzz, none of the downside.”
Figures. His species seemed to have worked out a lot of the problems that plagued humanity. Life expectancy, for instance. Alan claimed to be several hundred years old. And healthy.
She was just drunk enough to broach the question that had been hovering on her lips the past few days.
“Did you guys create the geoglyphs?” She could have asked Alan years ago; she hadn’t wanted an answer until now.
Alan’s tendrils laid down for a second, paled, then began waving again. He looked a bit embarrassed as he said, “Not my specialty”. An excuse she’d heard him use before when she’d asked what his spacecraft ran on or which star system he was from. He didn’t seem to have a specialty.
“Maree man in Australia?” she asked. Alan shook his head.
“The Blythe Intaglios in the US?” Another head shake.
“Chalk giants? Crop circles? Corn mazes?” Alan didn’t pick on her sarcasm, he just looked puzzled.
“Rats.” She slouched, the lawn chair digging into her neck.
“Have you seen the giant baseball in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario?” Alan asked after a moment. She shook her head. His tendrils flattened again. He was too polite to say it but she knew he felt she was spectacularly poorly travelled and ignorant of her own culture.
“Tomorrow,” Alan said, dropping his empty bottle in the grass. “I will leave this, erh, galaxy. I’ve got a meeting next, erh, week.”
“Meeting?” she said. Had he forgotten that Dad was dying?
“It’s in the next, erh, galaxy with the, erh, The Roadside Attractions Fan Club. It’s, erh, once a year.”
Fourteen years here and he was leaving just like that? Time didn’t seem to mean the same to Alan as it did to humans.
Megan clutched his arm. His body heat seared through her and she shivered.
He kept his head down. “I’ve seen all the attractions on Earth.”
She remembered him telling her once that he was starting with the farthest away, the world’s largest concrete carrot in New Zealand, and working his way closer to his parking spot. The sausage statue was only a few hundred kilometers away.
“Alan, I need your help.” She’d thought of the plan as she had lain in bed that afternoon. It wasn’t a very good plan–crop circles and similar creations weren’t as impressive as rock piles or carved valleys–but it would have to do. There was no time for anything else now, especially if Alan was leaving.
It took several hours and a few more beers to convince him.
“Dad,” she whispered, wincing at the morning sun as she opened the blinds. “I’ve got something to show you.”
Dad was sunk back against the pillows, too weak to rumple the blanket the nurse had kept tight and smooth.
Megan choked back tears and began the speech she’d been rehearsing for years. “Dad, I’ve been meaning to tell you something since I was a child. It’s about aliens visiting Earth.”
His eyes brightened and he struggled to sit up. She rearranged his pillow more comfortably, loosened his blanket, and leant forward to hear his raspy whisper.
“Meggie. Aliens. I’ve always imagined how they’d be. Majestic, regal, superior to us in every way, each individual a class act, a stately being.”
She’d been right all along, then. Introducing Alan to him would have disappointed him, not elated him. Sure, Alan was an alien. But he wasn’t a much of an alien–not enough of a one for dear, sweet Dad.
After sending away the nurse, she hadn’t slept at all that night, between checking on Dad and straining to hear Alan’s spaceship in the hayfield next door. She’d been surprised to learn that Alan didn’t have lasers or any weapons on his ship, any more than a recreational vehicle would. He also claimed he had no artistic abilities–‘it was not his specialty’–he’d never even done any, erh, graffiti in his, erh, high school. But still, she’d convinced him to carve a picture of something, of anything, into the hayfield next door by dragging his landing gear as he hovered the shuttle less than a meter above the ground. Alan’s navigation equipment, something like GPS, could help with making the pattern.
If, before Dad died, he could see a pattern so unique, so grand, so celestial, that it was proof that superior races existed, then she was willing to bully Alan into it.
She’d left the actual design up to Alan figuring that would make it look as alien as it could. She’d left him muttering to himself, his tendrils flopping and gray.
The morning sun was still weak but enough to give a panoramic view of the hayfield which sloped off to the south. The back and forth action of the farmer’s combine had made a pattern of its own in the snow-speckled stubble but Alan’s crooked grooves in the dark soil were clear enough. About twenty lines intersected and curved around each other. It took her a long minute to puzzle out what the image was–an antique plow, copied off a bottle of Rusty Red, quite a few wobbles near the handles.
She watched Dad closely, waiting for that gleam in his eye, wanting to be sure she committed it to memory.
“What do you want me to see? Fred plowed his field?” Dad peered out the window in confusion then dropped back down.
Her throat tightened. “Never mind, Dad. You rest.” He couldn’t see her cry. She had to get out of there.
The kitchen fridge hummed and she leaned her forehead against the cool surface. She didn’t know how much longer she could bear this. And Alan, stupid Alan, couldn’t even do one thing right.
She drank a glass of water and sat down at the kitchen table, putting her head on her arms. She’d just rest for a minute. She was so tired all the time these days.
She jerked awake, realizing she’d been hearing voices for quite a while. She glanced at the clock – past noon. The day nurse should have arrived half an hour ago. She washed her face twice, not caring where it splashed.
She sniffed. What was that? No one had cooked for days. Suddenly she recognized the rotten-fish smell. Tea towel in hand, face still wet, she raced down the hall.
Alan was perched on the bed, a watch cap on his head, one of her own parkas wrapped around him. He clutched Dad’s hands in both of his own.
Megan froze in the doorway. A small smile was on Dad’s face and his eyes were closed. His head was tilted a bit to one side.
The day nurse stood at the foot of the bed, one hand on her mouth.
“I’m sorry, dear. It’s over. Just now.” The nurse fluttered a hand. “There wasn’t time to call you.”
Megan was shaking. She’d slept through it. She hadn’t been there. Alan had. Alan was the last thing Dad had ever seen.
The nurse stepped closer as if to hug her. “That man, is he your uncle? He was here when I got here. Your father seemed so engrossed in listening to him, so pleased. And then, all of a sudden, I’d only been here a moment, and your father was gone.”
Alan’s watch cap rippled a tiny bit but he didn’t move, didn’t look up.
“I’m so sorry,” the nurse said, twisting her hands, her eyes still on Megan’s. “It’s so nice that someone was here to give him comfort in his last moments. It’s a rare skill, to know how to do that so well.” She gave a sad smile. “I’ll go make arrangements and leave you alone now, for a bit.”
Megan slid along the wall to let her by. It was odd how the room seemed so cold and dark when the afternoon sun coming through the window was so intense, illuminating everything in such harsh detail.
The nurse whispered as she passed. “Don’t worry, dear, your father had long ago lost his sense of smell.”
The front door banged and Megan squeezed her eyes shut. She didn’t open them until Alan spoke.
“Your Dad is, erh, not here anymore.”
Megan edged around to the foot of the bed, unable to look at Dad’s face again. Maybe in a minute or two.
The blankets were rumpled and several of Dad’s star maps were strewn about his feet. She should probably say something to Alan, but there was nothing to say. Nothing.
Alan climbed down from the bed, stumbling a bit on the hem of the parka, and waddled over to touch her arm. Heat seared through her. Healing, comforting heat. His brown eyes looked into hers.
“I told him where I came from. I showed him on the map. We talked about…things. He knows a lot about geoglyphs but he’s never seen the giant potato in New Brunswick.”
She sank to the floor in the too-bright sunshine, the tears finally coming, running off her chin. Alan made to move away, misinterpreting, and she grabbed at his sleeve.
Her throat ached but she managed to force the words out. “Don’t leave, Alan, stay for a bit.”
He squatted beside her, propping himself awkwardly against the bed frame, and took off his cap, letting his tendrils writhe freely.
She wrinkled her nose but didn’t let go. Still gripping the parka, she leaned into the welcome heat of Alan’s shoulder, her tears soaking into the cloth.
Alan began to hum.
About the Author
Holly Schofield travels through time at the rate of one second per second, oscillating between the alternate realities of city and country life. She is the author of over fifty short stories, some of which are used in university curricula and have been translated into several languages. Her works have appeared in Escape Pod, Lightspeed, Analog, and many other publications throughout the world. This is her fifth appearance in Cast of Wonders. Watch for new stories soon in Analog, Brave New Girls, and The Young Explorer’s Adventure Guide. For more of her work, visit her website or follow her on Twitter.
About the Narrator
Stephanie Malia Morris works in a bookstore by day and a library by night, which gives her access to more books than she can possibly read over several lifetimes. She is a recipient of the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship Award and a graduate of the 2017 Clarion West Writers Workshop. Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in FIYAH, Apex, and Nightmare. She has narrated short fiction for StarShipSofa, Far Fetched Fables, Uncanny, and all four of the Escape Artists podcasts.