“Did you hear–?”
An innocuous question. Nanette heard something similar a hundred times a day in the day spa where she worked as an Aesthetician.
It was usually asked of no one in particular, so this time should’ve been no different. She’d heard it all anyway, the daily shoptalk, the surface level stuff that she could happily live without.
None of it interested her. An avid participation in the chatty, sometimes cruel asides and innuendo just wasn’t her cup of tea, and she kept abreast just enough to converse with her co-workers and clients as they flitted in and out, dishing on the latest dirt, only as a professional courtesy.
But still, this is how she’d first heard about him, through vague rumors and giggling, conspiratorial whispers. No one’s business stayed their own for long in places like Decatur, Illinois. Not so much a small town, but it wasn’t very big either. Word of his presence then, had quickly spread once he’d shown up, seemingly out of nowhere, and it didn’t take long before it felt as though he’d been around forever, always drawing a crowd, a raucous gathering about him at some party or bar or kickback.
“Yeah, they say he got shot at the Hog Pen, of all places. Can you imagine that? Somebody like him in a place like that?”
Someone got shot? she thought, her attentions finally, completely won over.
“Yeah, there was a dice game. He got hit in the crossfire. Wasn’t even playin, just watchin, sippin his drink in the corner–”
“Who?” she finally asks aloud, looking up from the set of nails she was working on.
“Girl, ain’t you been listening? It’s El Rod. He dead–”
Nanette’s vision narrows. Blackness creeps in around the edges. It suddenly grows hot and she finds it hard to breath.
She hears her co-workers call her name. Hears the frantic concern in their voices as they rush to her side, but the darkness overtakes her.
When she wakes up, she is sprawled on the floor next to her nail station, a cold, wet compress pressed to her forehead.
“Girl, are you alright?”
“What’s goin on?” Nanette asks shakily.
“Ya’ll back up! Get her some space!”
Her eyes flutter open to their concerned questions. The one that rang loudest though, was, “Girl, what is wrong with you? You pregnant or something?”
Awkwardly attempting to laugh it off, she blames the heat while struggling to sit up, tells them that she skipped breakfast, probably should’ve drank a little more water. That it was no big deal.
“No, no. I’m fine. Just give me a minute,” she says. “No, no. I’m fine. Really.”
But she’s actually far from it. Her head reels while she struggles to smile, to put on her professional face. The one that hid away the sudden onslaught of loneliness, depression and the broken dreams that had moments before crashed down around her.
She canceled the remainder of her book for the day, though. Agreeing with the shallow concerns of her co-workers that she should take it easy.
Riding the bus home, she stops off at the corner store and buys herself a bottle of wine. Nanette knows that she shouldn’t, but gives in to the urge none the same.
Later that evening, slowly sipping the bitter red while soaking in a tubful of bubbly water, Nanette weeps disconsolately in the flickering candlelight. She cries for her own future uncertainties just as much as she does for his loss. And perhaps even more so for what everyone else had lost. What the world was losing.
In a short little while, he had touched so many lives in some little way or another. He had seemed to mean so much to them.
Nanette smiled to remember that he was always the center of attention, the instant focus of any room he entered. He was always surrounded by such beautiful people, doing such beautiful, exciting things.
So very unlike the life that Nanette, herself, had lived.
Not that she was some old hag. Nanette had always felt comfortable with who she was and invariably received enough attention to validate a shallow, aesthetic sensibility, but she was certainly no party girl. She didn’t frequent the same places or know and interact with the same people.
His circles were extensively overlapped. Hers were quite concentric.
Sighing disconsolately, sinking deeper, Nanette spends some hours refilling the tub with hot water, soaking until her fingers and toes are pruned, thinking about how they had met.
She’d heard his name, of course. The name that most knew him by, anyway. El Rod. Soon enough, though, to her he would just be Rodney, the nice guy who’d struck up a conversation in the checkout line at the corner store.
They had talked off and on for months afterwards before she was willing to allow him in completely past her guard and, even though his popularity had initially made her wary, they’d go on to spend many evenings together, watching Netflix, chilling, enjoying the naivety of a budding romance.
In those moments, he was nothing like the cacophonous Lothario eagerly gossiped about in the shop and, perhaps quite counter-intuitively, she felt comfortable with him. With her version of him. The El Rod that she kept to herself.
Soon enough, their time had evolved into a comfortable routine. He’d be there to meet her at the end of her work day and they’d cook and dine together, exchange tales of their upbringing; hers skewed more towards the mundane, his fantastical, hardly believable.
She’d fall asleep, snuggled tight in his arms, feeling comfortable, secure, alive. And, invariably, at least two or three times a week, at some point during the night, she’d awaken to an empty bed.
She never asked where he’d been, what he’d been doing, or with whom. She heard enough of that at the spa, lurid tales of bacchanalian excess. Their time together, their few stolen hours, were enough, though, so that when he said he would always come back, that he would always be there, she believed him. She had no reason, despite the reputation, to doubt him. Until now.
Absentmindedly rubbing her tummy, her free hand circling, circling her navel, sending ripples through the bathwater, Nanette imagines that she can feel the stir of life, though she knew that it was far too early for such a thing.
She’d first suspected it just a week or so ago, suddenly, frighteningly realizing that she’d missed her period, and after a numerously repeated selection of pregnancy tests, her worst fears had been confirmed.
She’d since been in shock, declining to share the news with Rodney, or anyone else, for that matter. He hardly noticed, asking in passing why she seemed so distracted. It was typical of him. Though he made her feel special, he wasn’t much for nuance.
And now he was gone. El Rod was dead. The life of the party was no more and she would have to figure out a way to raise his child all alone. Feeling incredibly sorry for herself, Nanette soon grows drowsy and her eyes slowly blink themselves shut and her empty wine glass slips free onto the plush bath mat.
As she slides off into sleep, she hears a comforting voice; “Don’t you worry, mother. We’re going to be fine. I’ve already made sure of it–”
Nanette tumbles down into a strange, disorienting dream, losing herself amid a swirl of blue sky that gives way to the deep blue black of space. The stars streak by in galaxy-long smears of light.
She floats, her consciousness carried along in an unfurling vision that plunges her down through the atmosphere of a strange, alien world and carries her along the unraveling thread of its history, the ebb and flow of a distant, ancient civilization.
Nanette bears witness as their struggle culminates in an ascension to the stars. In a journey to Earth.
She watches President and Mrs. Obama greeting the exotically garbed, dark-skinned visitors who step out from the simple spacecraft onto the White House lawn.
Her perception shifts, drifts through languid moments of passion.
The President is smitten by the lovely, gray-eyed beauty of the female ambassador; his duties, his position forgotten in the throes of love.
A time lost, a love lost, as the alien diplomats must soon enough return to their home world. But, as the strange visitors prepare to re-board their vessel, with the same lack of fanfare which had greeted them, the male ambassador is disquieted, and casts hurtful glances towards his companion, his eyes sliding down and away.
She, in turn, her pregnancy quite apparent, looks back regretfully and breaks free. Stepping towards the First Lady, she pulls her close and whispers into her ear, “I’m so sorry.”
And, with tears in her eyes, she turns to leave.
Nanette is suddenly and violently ripped from her dreams, startled awake by a cadre of armed men in Hazmat suits as they abruptly barge into the small bathroom space.
She feels acutely naked and exposed in the cold bathwater and is thrown into confusion, dazed and frightened by the men and the blindingly bright lights attached to the barrels of their weapons.
As she fills her lungs, ready to cry out, one of the Hazmat-suited men reaches down and stifles her scream with one hand while barking near indecipherable commands, his voice stifled by thick plies of protective material.
He plunges a syringe into her arm with his free hand while blithely assuring her that everything is going to be OK. Nanette’s panic ebbs away as she slides back down into a red hot, dreamless sleep.
Nanette’s eyes open wide in terror as consciousness floods back in with the thunderous shock of bright lights, the rush of clattering metallic surgical equipment and hushed, frantic voices.
She senses several people bustling immediately around her and opens her mind to them all.
All save one, who she could only feel as an absence of humanity; like a cold, black shard of glass.
The dark shadow of a man splits away from the murky gloom beyond the arc of lights and steps nearer. She wants to look away, to avert her eyes for the briefest of moments. She boldly stares daggers into his face instead, her hesitance, her passivity burned away.
Something within her had changed, was still changing, for she was to be a mother. Perhaps the most dangerous being in all the galaxy.
It took her but a moment to realize that she was strapped to a medical examination table. Her hands and feet, spread and fit into stirrups, bound by thick leather straps. She strains against them as the techs swarm around, trying to calm her, to reassure her.
“Settle down, Nanette. Before you hurt yourself. Or the baby,” the shadowy man says, silencing the technicians’ entreaties. His voice is dull, all emotion, all inflection, has been eroded away.
“Now, I’m sure you don’t know what you’ve done, nor whom you’ve done it with.” Stepping closer, looming above her, his face still concealed in shadow, he continues, “That’s ok. It’s not your fault. It couldn’t be helped.”
Pausing just a moment, he goes on, “As it is, we do appreciate your impending service to the country, and dare I say it, to all of humanity, for many generations to come–”
Nanette’s panic arises anew, her voice croaking as she attempts to speak.
“We realize that this must be difficult for you,” the dark man says.
Difficult, she thinks, continuing to struggle against the restraints. It feels as though her heart would burst from her chest. She thinks she feels the baby stir; but no, it couldn’t be that. It was much too soon for that.
The shadowy man keeps talking. Nanette only comprehends part of it. None of it was making any sense. Her stomach lurches again as she feels the baby kick.
What does he mean, Rodney wasn’t from here? Of course he wasn’t. Anyone who had met him would know that, but, what was the rest?
A diplomatic swap? Galactic treaties? Illegal Interplanetary immigration?
El Rod? No. Not her Rodney. She was certain of his logistical anatomy. He was all human. Or was he? Nanette knew that her dreams had not lied.
“The unfortunate truth, Nanette, is that you’ve entangled yourself in the intricacies of certain galactic political concerns, and because of your illegal pregnancy, recently negotiated Galactic Treaties, which have taken decades to finalize, are now in jeopardy.
“All of these problems are now compounded, of course, by the dead son of an alien ambassador who had apparently snuck his way back onto the planet–”
The look of panic and fear on Nanette’s face is slowly replaced by a stern defiance as she listens to the agent talk on in his emotionless drone, certain of himself.
“–thankfully, your condition offsets the damage. Your unborn child is unique. Perhaps even dangerous.
“And, as you can understand, necessarily, there will need to be controls in place–”
Nanette’s eyes blaze white hot, sparking with an electric anger, and the various monitors and medical equipment surrounding her start to smoke and hiss and pop, their displays gone haywire.
Ignoring the growing distress of the medical technicians in the room, the dark-suited man speaks on, “–We will, of course, want to avoid any further diplomatic provocations, especially since it has been made clear that the others will want to have access to the baby as well–”
Nanette’s hot anger turns cold with fury and she says through clenched teeth, “You won’t lay a hand on my baby–”
Panic ensues amid the din of clattering surgical trays and scattering medical instruments as the room is suddenly plunged into darkness. The doctors, nurses and technicians stumble about in a panic, thrown into uncertainty.
The man in the dark suit, though, is unmoved, looking down at the examination table as the emergency lights slowly power up, his jaws clenched tight.
The table is empty, the only sign of Nanette is a rapidly receding indentation in the thick padding. The restraints are still buckled in place.
Outside, the medical facility is situated within the center of a spreading circle of darkness as the power outage cascades outward in a widening ring that rapidly engulfs the entirety of the covert complex.
It continues to spread out to the adjacent city, nestled in a valley just beyond a rising bluff, and the night grows still.
High above the facility, a bank of dark clouds yield way as a bright, scalding beam of light snaps on, piercing the darkness, bathing the facility in cold fire, and snaps off just as quickly.
A small, unassuming spaceship rises up through the clouds, through the atmosphere, and disappears in a flash.
“You see, mother. I told you. We will be just fine–”
Image: mahdi rezaei (Unsplash modified)