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FICTION / They Will Come For Us / Joel Mak

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We had just left the chalet when Timmy asked me if I had told Myra about the aliens yet. My hand was wrapped around his, father and son on our daily visits to the lake. The owner of the chalet had nailed together planks for a ramp, leading out the kitchen onto the verandah and down via staircases. He had originally intended to plant slabs of stepping stones all the way from the base of the stairs to the lake but gave up halfway. Our sandals made prints in the damp soil as the path twisted and turned for no apparent reason other than for making the walk to the jetty more scenic. A sign along the trail warned us not to become bear food, punctuated with a smiley face. It reminded me of the owner’s demeanor when he dropped the keys in my palm. ‘You’ll have a tremendous time here!’ he had exclaimed. I looked at Myra who just nodded and smiled back at the owner. We had taken the place for as far as our finances would allow us. She was carrying a box of books in her arms, her biceps bulging slightly. 

‘Mum is very busy Timbo. We shouldn’t disturb her with such trivial news.’ I had many nicknames for our three-year-old. Tizza, Little T, Timbuktu. 

‘Trivial?’ His voice squeaked like the fauna. 

‘It means not important, ’Mo.’

Timmy started to sing a tune he had picked up from them. Looking back the way we came, the chalet was hidden behind a canopy of leaves. Five minutes of trekking separated the two worlds. In one, the comforts that lay behind walls and a flyscreen like air-conditioning, cable television, and a fully-stocked fridge. Upstairs, Myra locking herself in a poorly-lit room, struggling to stay awake to write, popping Adderall like chocolate chips. For Timmy and I, a clearing and then the lake. Water striders, singing birds, the far off sounds of hunters’ efforts. 

Our old pals lounged on the bench overlooking the water. It wasn’t hard to tell they were there. The air warped in striations where they were present, like looking at water boil up close. Sometimes, the air took on the colour of soap in a puddle, a psychedelic swirling rainbow. Staring at them for too long was like trying to keep an eyelid open in water. 

Timmy’s hand slipped from my grasp as he rushed for the jetty. The slapping of his rubber soles alerted the aliens and they both raised an arm in salute. They shifted on the bench, allowing Timmy to climb up in between them. I put the case of beer by their feet but preferred not to sit. My son started telling them about the cartoons he had watched the previous night and I helped Timmy fill in the gaps or change up the vocabulary. Meanwhile, I stood with my toes jutting off the jetty, chucking stones into the water, listening to neighbours on the other side of the lake diving into the water.

 

 

We always left when the sun went down and the sound of insect life crescendoed to a din. As we made our way back up, me two steps at a time to Timmy’s one, I wondered if Myra had cleaned herself up enough for dinner.  

The aliens stayed by the water, going through the last of the beer that I bought from the nearest shop, our hatchback slowly rolling over the potholes back into the village. When they drank, the cans tipped in the air but caused no spillage whatsoever. The golden liquid vanished into the air they occupied, the can rotating upside down until they were perfectly empty. They couldn’t do the same with food, the pieces of sausages and broccoli I wanted them to try. The leftovers hung in the air and dropped to the floor, some rolling over the edge into the water.  

Myra was standing by the stove, her shoulders rounded forwards, watching baked beans bubble in a little pan. She didn’t move or say a word when Timmy ran up to her and hugged her legs. As I came over to her, she said something like mmh

Dinner was accompanied by a channel that played Billie Holiday and Stevie Wonder. The crackle of the radio took us back twenty years in time, when Myra and I would still pretend to dance. 

Our forks and knives played arrhythmically on the ceramic plates. Bacon, beans, macaroni and powdered cheese. After Timmy had been excused to his pre-downloaded cartoons, Myra said ‘I’ll start tonight. I promise. I’m okay now.’  

The eaves of my hair hid my furtive glance. She said something to this effect every night. She had taken a shower and powdered her eyes. You wouldn’t guess she had been crying over her desk where books, paper, and pens that were as full of ink as the day she bought them lay scattered. We hadn’t taken a computer. Too distracting, she had said. A cork board pinned with layers cakes of notes, receipts, and other items that might inspire her stood next to a calendar from our church. She had meant to use the calendar as a progress counter, filling it with the number of pages that she wrote each day. 

The second I said ‘of course, dear, I know you will’ I knew it was a mistake. Any response would have been. In the dim lighting of the kitchen, her hand became a blur as it swatted her plate off the table. Timmy stopped laughing in the adjacent living room. Our pulses reverberated off the walls as adults voiced talking animals on his iPad. 

 

 

The aliens were our secret, the high points of our father-son moments as we left Myra alone in the house. Whereas he had wanted the comforts of his electronics on the first day, later trips down from the chalet were bereft of boredom; the aliens captured his attention better than any touchscreen could. 

Initially one, their numbers grew with each passing day, the air around us as hazy as an excursion through the Sahara. Seemingly unable to engage in oral communication at the start, they nevertheless made Timmy giggle, levitating pebbles and twigs, tickling the area around his armpits, shaping our hair into mohawks. They helped him beat me in stone skipping competitions, bouncing them further than mine. Their favourite trick was to inspire a jet of water to shoot up into the skies, after which Timmy would jump and clap uncoordinatedly. 

Once, he looked at me with eyes bursting with glee and squealed ‘again! again!’ as if I had any such power at all. I nodded at the aliens, saying the magic word in my head. Do it one more time, please. They obliged, sending up ten times what they’d done, turning the tranquil summer holiday lake into the Fountains of Bellagio. I cradled Timmy’s head close to my legs as he waved like a conductor. Around us, overnight tourists and retirees went on fishing and paddling, oblivious or unappreciative. The spectacles were so awesome, in the original sense of the word, that I soon stopped picking from the pack of cigarettes I brought down with us.

I underestimated the trustworthiness of kids. Timmy kept his head down at dinnertime, eating whatever was asked of him. Not a word of the aliens to Myra. She needed to dig deep into fantasies and legends, better for her to be spared from what she would take as another confabulation she often accused me of. The reward for his silence was always more trips back to the lake, even as I didn’t necessarily enjoy being outdoors; neither he nor I could swim. My son accepted the bait and changed his attitude accordingly. Rarely did he annoy me or Myra anymore, not even at night with his nightmares, sleeping in an unfamiliar bed. Before tucking him in, I would read him a story. More talking cars and moralistic animals, beings of unlikely sizes and varieties of paradises. Falling asleep, he’d mumble something and I would lean in. Smacking his lips in anticipation of sweet dreams, he’d tell me that he hoped we could bring Myra to see the aliens. Maybe then she’d stop crying. Someday Timbo, I replied.

 

 

Day by day, the aliens learned how to make sound. No screeching or guttural noises I had been conditioned to expect. Instead, the aliens borrowed the voicings of instruments to carry their language. One whistled like an ocarina, another connived with a tuba, a couple sang with violins that I could tell were of different makes. I would ask them how they were going and they played over each other, each as masterfully as any virtuoso, except without a score, like the philharmonic tuning their instruments to different notes. Timmy asked me if I heard the music and I said yes. ‘They’re learning how to play, T2.’ The leaves rustled, the water slapped the jetty, richer folk sped past in boats while the aliens experimented. It was the sound of an orchestra scheming, a chase scene in a heist movie, a volcanic eruption. As the sun climbed the hills, I used my ears like a radio’s receptor, latching onto a particular instrument and following the alien’s learning curve.

I fell asleep on many such occasions. Timmy would lie with his head on my stomach, turning over to show that he, too, was in dreamland. If I woke before him I lay perfectly still so as to not stir my boy. The sun baked my face while I my hovering hand shadowed his. If the aliens were present I would talk to them, always in my head, never with my mouth. Soon, they learned how to stop playing whenever I was speaking. 

Starting off easy, I named things that were around us. That is waterThis is a leafThis is my son, Timothybut you can call him Tizza. I addressed the aliens by the instruments they picked. I had no way of knowing but I was sure that they stuck to what they chose. As I injected the sentences with more complexity, they showed off their grasp of scales and arpeggios.I have a wife too. Her name is MyraShe writes. Over time they responded with slurred triplets and flattened chords. I praised them for their virtuosity and told them to keep it up, as though I were the master supervising the apprentices. 

More of them arrived, each picking up a new instrument. Drinking didn’t affect their ability. A tinkle of a xylophone there, a flutter of a cornet here. String instruments I’m sure I didn’t know the names of. I called and they responded, though I never knew if they were attempting to convey meaning. Did they play funeral dirges to indicate disagreement? Was Dixieland an attempt to cheer me up? 

One gloomy afternoon, after a late breakfast that Myra kept postponing, I told them I didn’t think she would ever finish her book. They’ll take back the advance. The bank will reclaim the house. We’re in so much trouble. The wind made the trees chatter and Timmy’s locks kept getting into his eyes. Thunder grumbled over the region. As drops of rain started to darken the jetty, they hovered around us, creating a protective dome. Starting gently and then ascending louder than the weather, they carried my frets and fears, whisked them away on the tails of their arias. When that happens what will we do? 

At dinner, Myra didn’t notice we came in from the pouring rain completely dry. Her eyes were swollen and cutlery trembled in her hands. She left the night’s pesto spaghetti barely touched and went back up to her study. Late at night, waking me up as she came into bed, she draped an arm over me and pulled it back a second later, turning the other way as though forgetting the deals we had made.

 

 

The splash woke me up. A father’s instincts kicked in and I knew Timmy was in the water. Pushing myself up, I knocked over a pyramid of beer cans. I’d been teaching the aliens how to build. I was relieved to see Timmy hovering above the water. The aliens were holding him by the foot, dipping him into the water as though drying off a noodle to taste. Everytime his head poked out of the lake he spit out water and giggled.   

It was dry and hot but I told them I didn’t want to go into the water. I leaned back on my elbows and watched my son. They played something jazzy and light, adapting erhus and ouds as though the Marx brothers weren’t pure American. Whenever they finished a song I said bravo, encoreand mentally clapped. After their final piece which coincided with sunset, the aliens dropped Timmy back on the jetty with the twirl of a clarinet. I imagined it was their conductor’s bow. I took his hand, asking him to say thank you for the fun times and good night. 

On the way back up, Timmy complained about feeling cold. His tee shirt and shorts stuck to his bony frame. I rubbed his chest and tried to dry his hair by tussling it up in my hands. When he started sniffling, I picked him up in my arms and kissed him on the temple. 

After I slid the flyscreen shut, the smell of fresh water from Timmy’s hair met the aroma of steak and corn. Pop music filled the kitchen, clear and devoid of crackle, as though our house had magically moved within coverage. Myra had her back to ours but she was shaking her hips to the beat, fussing with a pot over which steam was making its way up into the vents.

She gasped as Timmy’s cold wet body came into contact with her legs. She collected water from his head like plucking cat hair off a couch. A gong struck as she turned to me, pointing with her ladle, borsch spilling onto the tiles. We were always making a mess in that place. There was no way we would get our deposit back.

‘What the fuck did you do to my son?’

There was a colourful salad in a big bowl and shiny cutlery set on dining table napkins folded into hats. The plates were so white they made my eyes throb. I was dry to the bone. I spotted ten or so full pages on the kitchen table, the somewhat pitiful result of more than a month of being in the middle of nowhere. 

‘Look at me you son of a bitch. What did you do to Timothy?’ 

Timmy was tugging onto Myra’s skirt. I remember his eyes. How they creased around the edges when the aliens flipped him over in the air like a gymnast and made him walk on water like a prophet. I had said to myself that he would grow up to break hearts with that smile but in the dining room his lips were quivering. Tears started to pool around the corners of his eyes as they darted from Myra to me. The radio had gone back to playing snaps and pops. Myra kept growling and snarling. 

‘You fuck. How much have you been drinking? Is that why you keep driving into town?’

‘Mum. It was the aliens, mum.’ 

I had to give them credit; the aliens really knew their minor from their major. I heard them coming up to the chalet, now playing a marching song, in tune and in time with each other. A full repertoire ofbass drums, crashing cymbals, and sousaphones, they numbered more than ever before. They were all here. I smiled at my family. I was positive they would help me, Myra, us. There was no more need for secrets. I slid the flyscreen open again, beckoning at the darkness of the night, at the way the air shimmers as they come. 


Joel Mak's stories and essays have been published in carte blanche, ARNA, Writer's Edit, and other places. He is a local in Sydney, Montreal, and Ipoh. He occasionally writes at www.joelmak.com.