Nussia by Michele Tracy Berger
Nussia… I said her name like a wish.
All Lindsay Fields has ever wanted was to have a best friend–someone to share all her likes and dislikes, who would truly understand her. When she enters a competition to host Nussia, a teenage alien from a different planet–and wins–thirteen-year-old Lindsay is ecstatic. Now, the Fields’ are not only the first ever humans to host a Fike alien, they are also the first African-American family to do so.
But Nussia is not quite what Lindsay expected. And Lindsay’s family, home, and entire life changes because of Nussia’s arrival… but not in the way she imagined.
From the author of Reenu-You comes a brand new novelette of being careful of what you wish for.
Nussia. I said her name like a wish.
I was elated that our family was chosen to host Nussia, an alien child. My family was this regular black family that owned a house in Parkchester, in the northern section of the Bronx. Nussia, well, Nussia was Fike (pronounced Fīkē).
The Fike landed on Earth in 1975. In 1976 the President announced a contest to build good relations between humans and Fike. The winner of the contest would get to host Nussia (pronounced Nōōsīä). Sixth graders had to write why their families should be chosen. The Fike and the President chose the host family. Nussia came to live with us toward the end of spring in 1978. I was thirteen. It was at a time when “firsts” for black folks still mattered.
When my family found out that we’d won, my sister and I ran around the house shrieking. My Dad put on some George Benson, and my Mom opened the 1972 Burgundy. That night my family toasted me, Lindsay Fields, and my sixteen-year-old sister, Virginia. We were each allowed to have a glass of wine. Mom wound up drinking several glasses that night.
It’s strange how things work out: Even though Virginia helped me write the essay that won the contest, it was all my idea to enter it. We said sophomoric things like the Bronx is a fun place, and that we would take Nussia roller-skating at Skate Key, and to the Botanical Gardens where she would be astounded by the variety of flowers. I also said that Mom made the best baked pork chops and potato salad. It was the kind of potato salad that’s real sweet ’cause Mom used Miracle Whip, and put sliced green apples in it. I put in that our grandmother had been a “hoofer”—a dancer at the Cotton Club in Harlem in the 1930s (as she would say, “When Harlem was Harlem”)—and was one of the adventurous black expatriates who still lived in France.
I argued we were a family of pioneers, so hosting Nussia would fit right in. Maybe we were the best family chosen out of those that applied. Maybe not. I was, however, a sincere child when I wrote the essay. I wanted to have a best friend very badly.
My sister and I sat up all night preparing and rearranging our dolls, games, and toys. We did everything over again as if to familiarize ourselves with who we were. I couldn’t wait for Nussia to experience the newest craze, video games. We made lists of things our parents would just have to buy us in order to host Nussia properly. I wanted to play The Game of Life with Nussia, though I figured it’d have to be adapted for the Fike way of doing things.
I proudly hung up the acceptance letter in the midst of an ever growing collage of photos, articles, and pinups of Michael Jackson, Rod Stewart, and Shaun Cassidy that cluttered my room. I wanted to look at the acceptance letter every morning and evening.
Later that night, I sat in the foyer next to the phone anxiously waiting my turn to call my favorite person in the whole world—my grandmother. I waited for what seemed like an eternity while my parents broke the news over the phone while it was also being broadcast on TV by the White House. First, they called the pastor of our church. After that, they called Dad’s lawyer, a reporter from the Amsterdam News, our doctor, and then all their white friends. Dad talked the longest; he paced back and forth with his hands wrapped around the snaky, yellow telephone cord. He said, “My daughter, this family, an alien… can you believe it? Uh-huh, Lindsay’s going to be able to write her own ticket. Maybe I’ll even stop going to the race track,” he said with a chuckle.
When I finally got through to Grandma it was very late. For at least five minutes, I didn’t give her a chance to speak. She finally broke in with, “I’m so excited for you, baby. This is a big first for the family… for America… for America,” she said. Her deep voice crackled and several words echoed. The connection to France wasn’t so great.
“I know, Grandma. I’m going to try to make Nussia real happy.”
“I bet some white folks are eating their hearts out,” she said, giving a real hearty laugh. Grandma was an “uplift the race” type of woman.
“But… you don’t worry about that, you hear?” she said.
“Okay,” I said.
“Those Fike are a good-looking group. Even the French are saying that. God knows we got enough ugly people in the world. We don’t need anyone or anything else that hurts the eyes.”
Nussia. I said her name until it became a song.
Soon after the decision, the exchange committee sent us pictures and information about Nussia and her people. I had read a lot about the Fike already, so I skipped most of the background on them being humanoid aliens. But I studied Nussia’s picture. She was beautiful.
In the picture they sent of her, Nussia stood against the backdrop of the Black River Ridge, majestic mountains in the background and the sky dusted with yellow clouds, on the southern tip of her planet. Her blue tunic played off the deep amber color of her skin. Flipping to customs and traditions, I found more about their surricille, or head covering in English. The most striking characteristic of the Fike was the contrast between the iridescence of their surricilles and the darkness of their eyes. The surricille was made of thick cartilage, which covered the top of her head and came down to just above her eyes—the place where we humans have eyebrows. When I looked at her surricille, a peacock eye shimmered back at me.
Fike surricilles fall off in adulthood, and is replaced by less luminous skin. This phase was called the Time of Awakening because Fike went out unprotected into their world. Their physical self was biologically and literally changed; they took on a different identity within their community.
Although our ages didn’t correspond directly, Nussia was considered an adolescent by Fike standards; that is, an age when she was to practice under guidance from elders for the Awakening. She was making a great sacrifice by coming to Earth. I should have thought more about this fact, this price. At the time, I had no idea what she was giving up.
Most Fike had some telekinetic powers. I was hoping that when Nussia came she would be able to make me levitate like I had seen other Fike do on television. They also could manipulate matter on a small scale. In the packet sent to us there was a letter attached from Nussia that I spent time reading over and over, especially the lines that said, “When I come to you, it will be as if Fike and humans had always known of each other. We will create a lasting friendship for us and our peoples.”
The letter went on to talk about how much fun she was going to have on Earth, and how she was looking forward to meeting me and my family.
Mom helped me put together a care package to send back to Nussia with jacks, Betty and Veronica comics, and Tiger Beat magazine. I hoped she would love all the items in the package and know that I was taking care of everything on my end. My new friend was going to be great! Her coming to stay with us was going to erase how invisible I felt. Yes, I had one or two friends at school, but I never was first on their (or anyone else’s) list for parties or teams. I faded into the background easily. And, lately, Virginia and I weren’t getting along so well. Teenagers can be mean.
We only had two months to prepare! So much to do, including setting up Nussia’s special sleeping chambers (a domed tank elevated on a platform, called a floatbed), get training in the eating habits of the Fike, and meet the Secret Service team that would be working with us. My mother put the calendar on the fridge and I marked off every day and task, closing in on Nussia’s visit with big red ‘X’s.
No one told us how tiring it was going to feel being the first family, the only family, a black family, hosting an alien. Photographers camped out at the house. Soon my family appeared on every magazine cover in America. Within a matter of weeks our hopeful faces were splashed across the world.
There was Dad at his job as Bronx Lebanon’s hospital administrator. Click. People. There was me at school answering a question. Click. Time. There was my sister helping Mom in the kitchen cutting up green peppers. Click. Good Housekeeping. There was my mom with her telephone headset on, plugging into the switchboard. Click. Life. The Click. buzzed in our ears, and the flashes blinded us for days, stealing our lives away from us slowly. We lived through the negatives they left us.
I saw so many photographs of myself that I never had to look in a mirror. From every magazine cover, every newspaper article and news program, a short flat-chested girl with a crooked smile and sleepy eyes always stared back at me. My mom would fix my wiry hair the same way—a part down the middle and two buns on either side of my head. I use to think of them as idiot dials. It was a different story when I looked at Virginia’s picture. A tall, shapely sixteen-year-old with a small well-groomed Afro, perfect teeth, and high cheekbones smiled back at me. Every picture made her look like a model.
If it wasn’t the press people that we tripped over, then surely it was the nest of Secret Service men who were stationed in our house and around our neighborhood. Their head of operations was a large man with the complexion of spit up grits, ears smaller than most rodents and mean shovel gray-colored eyes. I always thought of him as “Mean Grits.” Whenever he said my name, he drew the “Lind” out for an unbearably long time. Liiiindsay. I immediately disliked him and avoided him as much as possible.
The press picked up and promoted every scrap of information about us. We moved like shadows in our own house. My sister said she wanted to be a doctor, but I knew the thought hadn’t occurred to her until some pinched-faced reporter asked. Reporters portrayed us as an all-American wholesome family—a good old fashioned popsicle that had been surreptitiously dipped in dark chocolate. We were so much more than that, both good and bad.
Mom played right into their hands. First, we needed a better vase for the living room, then a new recliner, then better china. Next, Virginia needed to go to the hairdresser more often to get her Afro shaped. I kept to myself while waiting for Nussia, not sure of what we were becoming. Were we just hosts for Nussia, or something else?
The editorials started showing up just a few days after the announcement. These were pieces in The New York Times, Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal, mostly tirades about how the Bronx wasn’t a fit place for an alien child to visit. Even beyond the OpEds, the phrases “Affirmative action” and “charity case” were heard everywhere on the news and in radio shows.
My parents told Virginia and me not to open the piles of mail that greeted us after school, but I was into mail. Mom should have known that. I’d been mailing myself letters since I was six years old.
I only remember one letter. A manila envelope arrived with cheerful animal stickers of giraffes, monkeys, and lions on its outside. The envelope was addressed to me. I pulled out a poster board collage from the envelope. On the poster board there were ripped out pictures of monkeys from National Geographic magazines. The makers hadn’t been very concerned with accuracy. They had different types of monkeys, gorillas, chimpanzees, marmosets, and baboons cavorting together who would never live together in real life. Even I knew that. The primates had enlarged lips and genitals drawn over their bodies in red ink. The primates’ penises jutted upward, and the scrotums were intensely swirled red circles.
Each of the monkeys in the middle was named after someone in my family. These monkeys were placed around a picture of Nussia being boiled up in a big black pot. The forks in some of the monkey’s hands were so big that the tines reached the top of the page. The speech bubble over Nussia’s head read, “Help! Get me away from the niggers!”
A bubble over one of the other monkeys read, “You suuuuure gonna taste gooood.”
I pulled the picture of Nussia up from the crude monkey collage and put her on my collage in the room. I threw the rest of it away, and I didn’t tell anyone about what I saw. I stopped wanting to go to the mailbox after that.
Nussia. I said her name like a prayer.
I asked God to please keep us all safe so we could welcome Nussia.
When she came back to the States, Grandma became the spokesperson for the family. She took a hiatus from her traveling, finding that it was great to be back in the limelight. No matter what my Mom did, she could not drag Grandma away from the reporters. Her height and commanding presence made people pay attention. Grandma was the calm in the midst of our storm. She’d never change. I took great pleasure in spending every moment I could get with her. And, although she never said it, I always felt like I was her favorite grandchild.
That day, she took me out to a restaurant. Grandma wore sharp black trousers, a man’s crisp white shirt, and a blue and white scarf tied around her neck. The colors of her clothes accentuated her powdered ginger-like complexion.
After we ordered, she sat erect and very still, focused on my current observations and questions about life.
“Grandma, when am I going to get… y’know?” I ran my hand over my chest, hovering over two significant places.
“Oh those? Don’t be ashamed, Lindsay. You’ll get them when it’s time. All in due time. Just like you got Nussia.” She winked at me.
Grandma was good at answering questions so I asked her what I should say to reporters because I often sat tongue-tied and close to tears. I usually wound up repeating what I had written in my essay.
“Well, you know what kind of ice cream you like, right?” she said, bunching up a napkin.
“Yep, butter pecan. Chocolate is also right up there, too.”
“You can think of a question as asking you what kind of ice cream you like,” she said. “Go ahead now and close your eyes.” Her face turned serious. “Get comfortable with the question. Take it apart in that mind of yours. Think about how much you like butter pecan. You know how to describe the taste of the ice cream, right? That’s how you can approach any question, really—break it down into something manageable. That’s not so hard now, is it?”
I opened my eyes and, smiling, shook my head. I never have quite figured out what ice cream and questions have in common, or how thinking about butter pecan would help me, but I got better at talking to reporters anyway.
With all the talk of questions, ice cream and breasts, I forgot to ask Grandma the question that scared me the most: What if Nussia doesn’t like me?
That night I wandered into my mother’s bedroom. My mother and father had kept separate bedrooms since I was six. Hers was the cushy and comfortable one. She once told me they had separate bedrooms because she worked all the time, being a telephone operator and all. Most often her shifts were from twelve at night until nine in the morning, and Dad didn’t like to be woken up in the middle of the night.
The vanity table where she sat held all of the magic she used to get her through the evening: a bottle of wine, bath oils, Lindt chocolates, and a variety of perfumes including Enjoli, Charlie, and Chanel No.5. Her eyes looked tired.
“Do you think she’ll like me?” I asked. I sat down on the edge of her bed.
“Lindsay, now don’t go worrying about that.” She pulled a few bobby pins that held her hairpiece, styled like a large French roll, in place.
She added, “You know she won’t know any better. You’re going to be her first real human contact.”
Giving me a quick glance over her shoulder she said, “Oh, I’m kidding of course. If you like her, she’ll like you. You are going to make a big impression on her.” She came over and squeezed the top of my shoulder twice. Her squeezes always came in twos—never more, never less—and were always very tight.
I watched her walk back to the vanity table in her slip and stockings; the stockings were too light for her complexion. Silently and deliberately she pulled the hairpiece off; bobby pins falling everywhere. It was a spider’s nest of blackness tumbling to the floor. She winced slightly. Her nightly ritual nearly complete, she poured herself a glass of wine, put her robe on and shooed me off her bed.
“Can I sleep with you tonight?”
“You’re too big to be sleeping with me, Lindsay.”
She was probably right, but it would be nice to be next to her. I could close my eyes, and the apple-y smell of Enjoli, baby powder, and sweat would carry me off to sleep.
I moped back to the room I shared with Virginia. My sister was on her back staring off into space. Virginia’s enthusiasm over Nussia’s visit had ground down to nothing. She preferred experimenting with pot and hanging with some of her rowdier friends who lived in the neighborhood, rather than generating excitement for our visitor. Pot had made her moodier than usual.
“Virginia, do you think we should take Nussia to the movies?”
“I don’t know,” she said.
“Well, what about the Botanical Gardens?”
She rolled on her side. “Whatever.”
“Come on. We need to have things planned,” I said, whining a bit. “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could take her to France to see Grandma’s place? We haven’t been since we were little.”
Virginia sat up and shook her head. “Little sister, did you ever think that she might not want to do any of the stuff we’ve planned? She’s an alien.” Her lips pressed into a red slash.
“Forget you. I’ll plan things on my own,” I said, cutting off the light. I lay there thinking about how things will be different when Nussia arrived. Like Christmas every day.
I woke up to the sound of hammering, drilling and a loud beeping sound.
Virginia lifted her head, “What’s that?”
I jumped out of bed and opened our door. My grandmother popped her head out of the guest bedroom and looked at me. “What’s all this commotion? On a Sunday no less?”
“I don’t know.” But I did know it was only one month to go and I was eager to check off another ‘X’.
As I came downstairs, I saw two large men, carrying a big green box, walking through the living room toward the kitchen. A quick peek out the window revealed the source of the beeping. A large white truck was parked out front.
In the kitchen Mom stood talking to Mean Grits. She didn’t look awake, her hair had been thrown together in a hasty French braid and wisps of stray hairs framed her face. The clock on the wall said 7 A.M. Too early for breakfast. Sundays weren’t guaranteed family time because often both my parents worked during the weekend, but recently they were making an effort to be at home.
“What’s going on, Mom?” She ignored me, continuing her rant at the large Secret Serviceman in our kitchen.
“I don’t appreciate you smoking in the house. I’ve told you that before,” she said pointing her finger at Mean Grits.
“Sorry, Ma’am.” The apology didn’t change the coldness of his eyes, though. “We’ve acquired a house down the block and will be there around the clock for the next several months.”
“Great,” she said flatly.
With a shake of her head, she finally looked at me and smiled wearily “Nussia’s floatbed is being put together downstairs, hon.”
Floatbed! I zoomed down the stairs toward the basement.
The basement was crowded. Boxes leaned against the wall. Mechanical looking parts like dials and levers covered the floor. Three men were moving furniture around.
My father stood in the middle of the chaos. “Christ, this is going to take all day.”
“The engineer’s late, Mr. Fields. I’ve already called him twice,” one of the Secret Service men said.
“Hi, Dad,” I said.
He gave me a curt nod and then moved to open another box.
The main table against the wall was covered in instructions for assembling the floatbed. I looked at the Polaroids that accompanied the written materials. The floatbed was a domed tank, elevated on a short platform. Notes next to the pictures said, “Ideal construction—five feet wide and eight feet long.”
“What I don’t understand is why this couldn’t have been done any other day,” my mother said as she walked down the steps. She stood on the last step, arms crossed and her jaw clenched. “You couldn’t have asked us about our schedule?” my mother said, locking eyes on the nearest Secret Service agent.
No one said anything.
“We cleared it with your husband,” someone in the room said. I swear, the temperature in the already-cool basement dropped another ten degrees as my mother turned and glared at my dad.
“You neglected to mention that detail, Rodger,” she said. I shivered. That was my mom’s you’re in BIG trouble young lady voice and I wanted absolutely no part of it.
“Not the right moment, Jesse,” my father said in a carefully controlled tone, every syllable clearly pronounced. This was his familiar I-don’t-want-to-fight-in-front-of-company voice.
I practiced staring at the ground and making myself as inconspicuous as possible.
“I suppose I should just be glad you’re gracing us with your presence. You’ll have to make the racetrack wait today, huh?”
Ouch! I didn’t know much about Dad’s gambling, except that he liked to do it. Maybe he was doing it more now?
My head snapped up. I saw my father’s nostrils flare and how the veins in his neck bulged though he said nothing. Instead, he inspected the box he held and said, “This is what I was looking for earlier.”
My petite, easygoing mother sniffed and fixed all of the men downstairs with her stare, “For the record, gentlemen, my husband didn’t clear it with me. And since I run this house, in the future, I’ll thank you all to clear this kind of information with me.”
I just stood there stuck in place like a barnacle.
As my mother turned, red-faced she pointed at me, “Lindsay, get upstairs and get dressed like a proper person!”
My mother’s anger was rare but powerful and unpredictable, coming and going like a tropical storm.
I slunk off, but still secretly excited that Nussia’s bed had arrived.
With just two weeks to go and still much to do, none of us were in a good mood by the time the xenobotanist, Alton Cruse, arrived. He was a young white scholar from MIT, and the most knowledgeable man in the world about Fike eating habits. Parading around wearing light blue rubber gloves on, he inspected our kitchen while he spoke in terms which included the gastrointestinal rise and fall of the dorba, aka the Fike’s stomach. He was here to teach us how to cook for Nussia.
It was mandatory that our entire family attend the session with Mr. Cruse. We stood side by side, crammed against the back wall of the kitchen, as he lectured us and paced back and forth. His red hair stuck out in puffs on his head.
He listened and took notes as Mom proudly spoke about the meals she most often fixed for our family.
“Mrs. Fields, this all looks good. Not too much pork—I was worried about the possible pork intake. You haven’t mentioned any southern dishes like salt pork, chitterlings, pigtails, and that kind of thing,” he intoned gravely.
My grandmother made a grimace. “Mr. Cruse, first of all, our family is not from the South. And, second of all, what are you trying to imply? My daughter is an excellent cook.”
“Dr. Cruse,” he corrected her, then shrugged, arms opening wide, “I had no idea what I was going to find in your diet.”
“It’s fine, Ma. Let the man do his job,” my mother snapped.
I bit the inside of my cheek. I didn’t like it when they fought.
“If he’s going to teach us something new and help us prepare for Nussia then that’s fine, but if he is going to insinuate and speculate about what we eat then forget it.”
My father, who had been impatiently tapping his fingertips against his leg while Dr. Cruse was talking, cleared his throat and moved toward the door. “Look here, it may be the weekend and time off for everyone else in this house, but I have to go into the office today.”
“Yes, Rodger, we all know that,” Mom said. Then, aside, in a low voice, “It’s not like you ever help out around the house anyway.”
Dad swung back around on his heel, his face contorted with anger. “And what is that supposed to mean, Jesse?”
I noticed a throbbing vein on the left side of my mother’s neck.
“I can call all of this off anytime! Right now if I want to!” he said, bits of salvia spraying my mother’s face.
Call it off? It felt like a crater opened in my kitchen and was going to swallow us. Why was he always so upset lately?
“Dad?” I said.
“Now, Rodger… that’s a bit dramatic. Don’t you think?” Grandma said, moving between them.
Dr. Cruse was watching us as though observing animals in the wild, then cleared his voice and said, “I haven’t even got to the part about how the Fike eat.”
Dad was still standing close to the door. I looked at him, my eyes pleading with him to stay. He sighed and then waved his hand at the scientist.
“Well, get on with it, man. This is all for my Lindsay’s future.”
Virginia sucked in a deep inhale through her teeth. I elbowed her to be quiet.
Dr. Cruse continued, “The most interesting part of the eating processes is the way in which Fike digest their food. They cover what they eat with a substance, which is similar to what oysters in the mollusk family do with bacteria and dirt—”
“I haven’t had good oysters since we all went to the Cape,” Grandma interrupted.
“Ma, will you let him finish?” my mother said.
“For oysters, the result is a pearl. For Fike… Well, Mr. Fields, about a third of their digested food particles then take on special importance. Hardened food debris is then regurgitated, and are called monunis. Fike feel the monunis are part of them, extensions of their Fike spirit if you will. Fike like to have their monunis where they can see them. They often build community shrines.”
He paused and then chuckled. “Now, the young tend not to be quite so reverent, so we’ll have to wait and see what Nussia does with her monunis. I’m not an anthropologist, but monuni worshipping is very culturally significant.” He pulled out a Polaroid picture and passed it around.
“This picture gives you an idea of what monunis look like,” he said.
“My God, Mr. Cruse, you’re telling me and my family that they revere their excretions?” Mom said.
“It’s not excretions to them. The monunis are still part of them—they just take on a different form.”
“Why didn’t anyone say anything about this before? Is there anything contagious about these monnis?” Mom shifted her weight and pulled at the back of her bun.
Virginia and I studied the picture of an adult Fike with slender hands holding up monunis, which looked like hard purplish balls. Cruse didn’t mention that each monuni had a stringy curlicue tail of gray matter attached at the end of it. “Ewwww,” Virginia said. “That’s nasty.”
“That is monunis, Mrs. Fields, and no, it is not contagious or harmful to humans. I personally have been studying the Fike and their monunis at MIT for the past three years and there has been no discernible dangerous effect on the researchers.”
“Mrs. Fields, there is no need to worry about these aliens. There’s no possible harm that can come to your family,” Mean Grits said with his hands clasped behind his back. He had been so quiet in the kitchen that I had forgotten about him. “Our government wouldn’t let anything in your home that wasn’t safe.” He gave a stern look to Cruse.
“Are we done here? Jesse, you can fill me in tonight,” Dad said, rushing out the kitchen door.
Mom rolled her eyes.
“It’s vomit. Vomit balls are going to be rolling all around our house!” Virginia shrieked.
“Hush, girl,” Grandma said.
I hadn’t bargained for monunis either, but I figured I could get used to it—we all could get used to it.
The big day finally arrived. Our whole family turned out, and many people from the neighborhood crammed themselves into our house. Mr. Alvarez, the Puerto Rican baker, was there, with a big T-shirt that said, Welcome Nussia! The Willacys, our Jamaican next-door neighbors, were present, looking regal in their Caribbean colored clothes of reds, greens and yellows. Mrs. Willacy’s hair was done up in a high bun. Kids from school and their parents were there and flashed smiles for the news crew and waved at loved ones watching at home. I thought people only waved and said, “Hi Mom,” on television shows, but people were doing that everywhere.
I wanted to be on our doorstep for the greeting, but Mean Grits said no. For security reasons, Nussia would be escorted to the front door.
And, before I knew it, Nussia stood in the middle of my living room.
She looked different from the pictures, and from what I had imagined her to be like. Her eyes took up an enormous amount of space on her face, and they possessed the calm, inky darkness of a dream. She didn’t have any eyebrows, but had deep groves right where her surricille ended. She was bald and golden all over, except for her palms which were a leathery bell pepper green.
Nussia wore a loose orange and white tunic. Her shoulders were exposed and her family markings, or acraeturas as the Fike called them, were visible. The markings told of her family’s history for the last three generations. She was large, too, about two of me across—definitely someone Mrs. Willacy would call a “wide gal.” Her surricille was even more luminous in person. I felt transfixed by it, and I imagined that it called out to me. I wanted to touch it, but restrained myself.
She came toward me with me, like a glowing amber wall of energy and swept me into a hug.
I forgot everything. All the anxiety, the nasty letters, the fights between mom and dad. My new friend was here!
Her hug was full and made me feel like everything was going to be all right. She was taller than me, so I fell a little to one side in her grip. She smelled of apples—I wondered if she really smelled that way or if she got that smell while staying at her top secret location.
When the hug finally broke, I bounced back on the balls of my feet, exploding with energy and ideas of things for us to do. Then she spoke.
“Lindsay, I greet you with the highest welcome from me and the Fike.” I wasn’t prepared for the sizzle-sound in her voice. It reminded me of when it was like when a hot comb is left too long on a stove and then pulled through hair. An overheated hot comb touching fresh hair almost ignites it—that’s how her voice made me feel. I could taste the burn in her voice and for the very first time, I was a little scared of the alien girl in front of me.
But then I remembered that this was important, and that she was just as nervous as I was and I shouldn’t be scared of my new best friend. “Nussia,” I said remembering my rehearsed words. “We are so proud to have you here with us.”
As I started speaking, Nussia’s large tubular shaped retractable mouth, kind of like an elephant’s trunk, puckered outwards. She leaned down slightly and I felt the briefest kiss land above my eyebrows.
My heart almost froze for a moment and then pounded. An undignified squeal escaped my lips. The room swam around me. I pressed my hands to my cheeks. I felt so light for a moment like I would float away. That was one distracting kiss! I sucked in my breath and calmed myself down enough so that I could speak.
“I have so much to show you. You will get to know us.”
“We will make both Fike and humans proud,” she said.
I hugged her again, feeling the warmth of her skin. The apple smell reminded me of Christmas. I smiled up at her and nodded.
But that moment shattered as all the adults crowded in with their cameras and their questions and swept Nussia away from me.
Mom brought out a large bowl of candies to set on the dining table. She tripped over a TV camera cord that had snaked its way into the dining room. The bowl flew out of her hands with candies scattering everywhere. Press people eagerly caught the misstep.
“Damn it, Jesse,” my father muttered. He bristled, then bent down quickly, grabbing fistfuls of candy.
“I’m sorry. I’m just a little nervous, I guess,” Mom whispered to no one in particular.
Nussia noticed this commotion. She walked into the dining room. She looked at my father on his knees. With her eyes closed she brought her two hands out in front of her. The candies came up from the floor swirling in the air. They made a colored tornado over to the now floating bowl. The press moved in closer. Click.
“We might need you around all the time with Jesse being so clumsy,” my father said. He came over and patted Nussia on the back.
“Isn’t that sweet?” someone cooed.
“Thank you, Mr. Fields… Dad,” Nussia said with only a little bit of hesitation, returning his gesture by patting him on the back.
Nussia nodded as if she confirmed something she had been thinking about.
People clapped. Everyone was laughing again, and animated conversation burst out across the rooms. The crush of bodies descended around Nussia again. This was getting me nowhere.
Grandma had yet another reporter cornered between the grandfather clock and wall.
“What do you think it says about America in this century that your family, a black family, was chosen to host Nussia?” the reporter asked.
Grandma took a deep breath. “Everyone’s harping on the fact that we’re black, from news folk like yourself and others that have been obsessed by this one detail about us—and not in good ways. And to be honest, I am pretty tired of hearing about it.”
The reporter’s face tightened and puckered like he had sucked on a lemon. He was about to respond but my grandmother continued.
“It is a fact we’re black, but the aliens don’t really care now, do they? Why shouldn’t we be the first family to host Nussia.”
I had lost Mom in the crowd. I squeezed my way past Mrs. Willacy, who was telling Dr. Cruse that goat meat was just as natural to eat as any other kind of meat.
I went into our kitchen, where Mom stood looking out the window with what looked and smelled like a rum and coke in her hand.
She turned to look at me. “So much going on, baby,” she said absentmindedly.
“Yes, Mom. It’s okay.” I put my hand around her waist. She patted it and then smoothed away a tear from her face.
I was tired by the time everyone left, and where tiredness left off, my frustration caught hold. I couldn’t find Nussia anywhere. I hadn’t had a chance to spend more than two minutes alone with her.
I went upstairs. There was giggling coming from our bedroom. Nussia’s giggle was like a slap—quick, loud, and sharp.
I pushed opened the closed door to find Virginia and Nussia sitting side-by-side. “Hey, you guys disappeared,” I said, a little hurt that they were becoming friends without me. Virginia picked nervously at her bracelet.
“We have to get up early, Lindsay. Mom told me she wants you to take your shower,” Virginia said quickly.
They were both quiet and sat looking at me.
“Nussia, do you want to sit on the porch for a little while? There’s nobody around. You’re probably sick of all the fuss,” I said.
“No, Lindsay. Virginia and I are talking fine.”
“You’re probably tired. Little sisters do need their sleep,” Virginia said, rising. “Nussia, why don’t we go outside and let Lindsay get ready for bed? There’s a big day tomorrow, too, with the block party and all.”
“Every day will be a big day. Big day,” Nussia said.
Before I could object, they were making their way out of the room.
As she closed the door, Nussia flicked her tongue out. I remembered reading that the gesture was the equivalent of a human waving good-bye.
I told myself I had the rest of my time with Nussia. What was the first night? Before getting undressed, I fingered the collage on the wall. I wondered if Nussia had noticed her picture there.
Later in the night I awoke and I crept downstairs. The whole house was quiet, dark, and asleep. I could hear the stray, sad sounds of Roberta Flack on someone’s stereo floating in from our neighbor’s house next door. The door to the basement was unlocked when I pushed on it, and padded down the wooden stairs.
I hadn’t spent much time in the basement since the workmen were there. It was still the same place—though a bit brighter and cleaner than usual. It had been repainted in coats of specially formulated gold paint that was considered soothing to Fike. My mother’s homemade curtains of bright red stars against a black background hung in the windows.
The floatbed under the stairwell we had set up for Nussia to sleep looked sturdy; Dad and the Secret Service men had done a good job installing it. Nussia floated vertically in the little chamber. She slept soundly with her arms folded on her chest. This time I was able to gaze at her undisturbed. I was so happy that she was here. Now I would have something that I never had before—a best friend.
I woke up the next morning feeling excited all over again. It felt like Christmas. Nussia was in my house! Downstairs, Mom was getting ready to make a batch of eggs.
“I bet you couldn’t sleep last night,” she smiled at me, seeming more like her usual self without all of the reporters and Secret Service men in the house.
“I may never sleep again with Nussia here, I’m so pumped up!”
“Go set the table. Use the special dishes.” My mother shooed me on.
I did as she wished, running around to get the dishes and silverware in place. I then went and got the special things I wanted to show Nussia.
Then I waited and waited for everyone to get up and join us. It took forever!
Nussia arrived last.
“How’d you sleep, Nussia?” My mother asked.
She paused before speaking, looking to the left and right and then nodding, “Quite comfortably. Is that how you say it?”
I pulled out a chair for her and she walked over and sat down.
“Yes, very good, Nussia. I’m glad—” my mother began, but I was done waiting on pleasantries.
“Nussia,” I interrupted, “I want to show you some things.” All around the table, I had assembled small and large boxes covered in gold wrapping paper.
“Presents!” I said.
“Presents?” she looked at me, her dark eyes searching my face.
I felt time speeding up, just like during Christmas. I pushed one of the bigger boxes next to her.
Her hands touched the outside of the box.
I opened it and pulled out the item.
“I got you a pair of roller skates.”
“Let her open them,” my mother said. “Lindsay’s a bit excited. Nussia, would you like orange juice or cranberry juice?”
“I didn’t quite know what size your feet are, so if they don’t fit, we can take them back,” I babbled.
“Take back?” she looked at my mother and me.
“We can get you another pair,” my mother said.
I pushed another box toward her.
“She hasn’t eaten yet,” Virginia cautioned. I looked at her as if she were crazy.
Mother laid a hand on my shoulder and whispered, “Your sister is right. Nussia might need a bit of time.”
I shook my head in disbelief. Who wouldn’t have time for presents?
Then Grandmother walked in the back door. “Good morning, everyone! Good morning, Miss Nussia. I was just putting the finishing touches out back. Did they tell you that’s where your shrine will be?”
“Yes,” Nussia nodded.
“Ma, sit down. We’re getting ready to eat.”
My mother set down a platter of eggs, bacon, sausage, grapefruit (a Fike favorite), pineapple slices, and blueberry muffins.
“And you know besides roller skating, we want to take you to the zoo. Do you have zoos? I think I read that you do, but on Fike, you can spend the night in them or something like that. We have a big zoo. The Bronx Zoo.” Now that she was here in front of me, I couldn’t stop myself from talking.
“It’s time to say grace,” my mother said holding up her hands.
We held hands while my father said a rather long-winded grace. Instead of keeping her eyes closed like everyone else, Nussia looked around the table, taking each of us in. When she came to me, she shut them quickly.
I kept staring. I wanted her to look at me. Virginia opened her eyes for a moment and winked. I smiled.
“Nussia, hand me your plate,” my father said.
She did and gave him the first smile of the morning.
I stopped talking, took a breath, and buttered a muffin.
Nussia took a little bit of everything, then began eating.
Now that I had stopped talking, Grandma kept the conversation going. I tried not to stare at Nussia, but I couldn’t help being fascinated by her retractable mouth as it extended and nibbled the pineapple slice on her fork.
Although we were all smiling, eating, and Grandma was still talking, I could feel the tension in the room. We really had an alien at our table. I was pretty sure all of the humans were wondering when the monunis were going to start.
After a few bites of food, Nussia rose. “I can’t eat here,” she said. “I have been told it is impolite to create monunis at the eating table. I will go.”
The wait was over! I felt a fluttery feeling in my stomach, like the moment you are on a roller coaster ride and are climbing up the first hill.
“We understand about the monunis,” my mother said holding her hand out. “It won’t bother us.”
“No, I will go outside.”
Virginia wrinkled her nose, but no one else saw.
“You do whatever you need to,” my father said.
Nussia nodded her golden head, and walked out to the garden.
“That went well. At least she’s not going to make those things at the table,” Grandma said as soon as Nussia was out of earshot. “A relief, if you ask me.”
“No one asked you,” my father said.
Nussia joined us about fifteen minutes later. My mother had brought out her much loved French toast casserole and we were digging in.
“Excuse me, family ones. I am tired and will go to rest,” Nussia said.
“Of course,” Grandma said. “It’s been a lot to take in, hasn’t it?”
“Going back to bed? Don’t you want to open up presents?” I asked.
“No,” she said walking to the basement door. She closed it and I heard the new lock clicking into place. For privacy, Nussia could lock the door from the inside. The key hung on a little hook next to the door.
I looked at the unopened presents and ate the rest of my meal in silence.
The neighborhood had planned a massive block party that day to celebrate Nussia’s arrival. Folks wanted to show off and show out. On this perfect June day people milled about. My sister was still upstairs getting ready.
I took Nussia by the arm and tried to talk with her. She sure wasn’t acting friendly, even for an alien. Maybe she was shy.
We walked along the length of the cordoned off blocks. I pointed out the street gallery of the block party. Over here were the Dominican and black men sitting like brown griffins playing dominoes; there in another corner were girls jumping fast in the crisscross ropes. Baby oil glistened on their quick legs. Some lanky teenagers were playing Steal the Old Man’s Bacon. There were long tables of food, each platter and main dish sectioned off by pitchers of city champagne—Kool-Aid with ginger ale. I wanted her to see it all. I talked too fast, my words coming out like bullets.
At the other end of the corner a new rap group called the Sugar Hill Gang was setting up speakers and deejay equipment. I was looking forward to hearing them later. Yep, Nussia was going to get a real Bronx welcome.
I pointed out cool people like Peter Newport, my friend from school, who always smelled like cocoa butter and had freckles and legendary dimples. He was there with his sixteen-year-old brother Jake. People in school joked about how good-looking they were, calling them the “L&L” brothers, long and light-skinned.
“Peter’s going to be my boyfriend one day, I hope.”
Nussia barely said a word, politely nodding and declining to eat anything. Not even one nibble from the table.
“So, did you like the comic books?”
She stared back at me.
“I sent them to you along with the jacks and…”
“I didn’t have time to be instructed on human games,” she said, interrupting me.
“What about the letter you sent?” I asked.
“Do you know what I have left back at home?” she burst out. “This is the most beautiful time of year. It’s the time when Fike my age get to walk in the forests of Per and practice for when we will be Awakened. And instead, I have this. And you.” Nussia flung her arms wide. She rocked her head from side to side.
“I’m sorry. I guess I thought… I didn’t know how important the Awakening was. I mean I do know how important that is.” I rushed, trying not to seem like a complete idiot. My head was beginning to hurt.
She muttered in her native language; angry sizzling sounds escaped.
I fought back tears. This was going all wrong. She was angry with me, and I didn’t know how I could fix it.
“You remind me of my sister, the minnos a minnos,” she spat out. She pointed to a small spot on her shoulder that had dense words and symbols on it. The dye surrounding the spot was a deep maroon.
“You have a sister?” I said. What was she talking about? I didn’t remember reading anything about a sister!
Virginia came outside and Nussia bolted toward her.
I stood shaking, wanting to chase after her. To call her name.
Nussia. I said her name like a spell that I could use to bring her back to me. A spell that didn’t work.
Later that night while we were getting ready for bed, I told Virginia about Nussia’s revelation.
“That’s strange,” she said.
“Shouldn’t we tell Mom and Dad?” I said pulling my pajama top over my head.
“If it was that important, they would already know, right?” Virginia said. “Let her keep her secret,” she shrugged. “Sometimes older sisters need their secrets.”
I looked at her and felt my whole body tense up. I turned away because I didn’t want to cry in front of her.
She came over, sat on my bed and gave me a hug, “Stop worrying like it’s your hobby.”
I leaned on her shoulder. “What do you think of her?” I whispered.
“She’s cool. Mysterious.”
More like you than me, I thought while soaking up the warmth of her body. She gave me a quick peck on the cheek as I snuggled under the covers. I felt sneaky, competitive with Virginia. Ick! It was wrong, I know, to feel jealous of her. But this didn’t stop me from happily fantasizing Virginia being shipped off to a camp for the summer and being unable to hang out with Nussia as I drifted off to sleep.
A few weeks after Nussia arrived, my mother threw a surprise birthday party. It wasn’t a total surprise. I overheard Mom talking about it on the phone the week before. My mother talked loudly when she drank. On the day of the party I thought about how different my life was with Nussia around. She came the first few days to school as was planned and then after that, she was whisked away by the Secret Service men to various places that we didn’t know about to get more instruction on human culture. She spent most of her free time with Virginia. They called me Elkouri. It was a name that Nussia made up for me. It sounded like a curse, though I never found out what it meant.
She wasn’t even trying to be my friend, let alone a best friend.
I didn’t feel like seeing people from school. They all just wanted to see Nussia anyway. Most had made that clear just days after her arrival. They crowded around her when they could, asking her about Fike, questions they could have easily asked me. Often they begged to touch her surricille, and she usually consented.
I walked into the house and smiled as people with colorful party hats on shouted, “Surprise!”
Fourteen. Would it be special, I wondered? I tried to get into the party spirit. The house was packed. Most of the furniture in the living room was moved to create a dance floor. There was even a deejay setting up his equipment. Peter was talking to Virginia. He was looking cute as ever, in his black warm up suit and red sneakers with big fat laces. My attention turned to Mom as she walked out with a huge five-layer ice cream cake, from Carvel’s famous store, with little blue roller skates on the top layer. She set it on a long table with my gifts. I went over to admire it.
“Dad sends his love. He’s sorry he couldn’t make it but promises he’ll take you and Nussia both to do something together. Okay, baby?” Mom asked.
I nodded. Typical for my dad. He’d already missed two of my birthdays in a row.
Virginia, looking great in a tight white peasant shirt and her hip designer jeans, pulled out an envelope from the stack of presents and handed it to me. She had gotten me subscriptions to Tiger Beat and Teen. More photos of Michael Jackson and Shaun Cassidy for my wall. She could be so fucking cool! I gave her a big hug.
My friends clamored for records and the DJ started spinning. This was my cue to retreat to the dining room—I hated dancing. I have two left feet. My sister, of course, didn’t—she requested the most popular song of the year, “Le Freak” by Chic and started grooving on the dancefloor with the rest of the party.
I sulked quietly in a chair off to the side so that I could watch Peter. Everybody, Peter included, was doing the freak: bending their knees and swaying back and forth.
Peter caught my glance from across the room and ran over to me. “Come on, Lindsay. Didn’t Virginia teach you the freak?” Peter said, breathless and all dimples.
He caught me off guard. He had never asked me to dance before. “I can’t do it,” I mumbled, stuffing potato chips in my mouth. My palms were sweaty and greasy—I tried to wipe them off on my jeans.
He leaned over and said in my ear, “I don’t want to dance with no one else.”
I broke out in goosebumps. Well, how could I refuse that?
I peeked at the dance floor. Everyone did look like they were having a great time. Even my mom was showing off in one of the groups. She was doing the Mom thing, staying planted in one place with her arms raised in the air, every once in a while snapping her fingers and shouting, “Woo woo!”
“Come on,” he said, pulling me out of my seat.
A crowd cleared out a space for us. This was exactly what I was afraid of—too much attention. I tried to follow Peter and Virginia’s lead. I felt sweat sliding down my back, but I think I was blending in OK. I hoped.
Toward the end of the song, Peter danced in front of me. He then improvised on the freak with different arm movements, and it was just… cool. I couldn’t believe I was dancing with Peter Newport! I didn’t want this moment to end.
“Uh, yeah. Go ‘head,” Virginia said, from another corner.
Nussia moved over to us. I didn’t want Nussia to see me with Peter. Something inside me clenched. My scalp prickled. I shouldn’t have told her anything about him. I should have kept him a secret. But, why would I want to keep this from my best friend?
Nussia put her hand on the small of Peter’s back. Peter turned, and in an instant the two of them rose at least seven feet off the ground.
“Wow! Mrs. Fields, do you see that?” exclaimed Lila, a Jamaican girl from around the block.
I couldn’t believe it. I stared open mouthed. We had seen Fike levitate themselves and humans on television. We’d seen Nussia levitate the candy on that first day. I mean, that’s what the Fike did, and I had come to accept it but not like this. Not now, at my party, with Peter.
We stood under them in a circle. Peter looked a little unsteady as he kept kicking his left foot out like that would balance him. Nussia was above him, and she held him by his forearms. Nussia then let him go, and he bounced on the air. She dipped, and bobbed, almost to the beat of the music. Peter, getting more confident by the moment, strutted in the air.
Everyone was laughing and pointing. Within a few minutes, she had half of my friends off the ground; she didn’t need to touch them. I waved to Nussia and kept my hand up. Nussia looked down at me and then away quickly. My arm just stood up in the air, waiting, like a little brown flag with no wind. I pulled it down and lowered my eyes. Maybe no one had noticed.
“You kids are so crazy,” Mom said from the dining room. “Nussia, please, please be careful. You be careful with them.”
Nussia nodded, still not coming down. The deejay put on another popular record, and soon half of the party was in the air with Nussia.
“Oh, Nussia, this feels so good. You are so cool,” Virginia yelled above the music.
As I watched people, I could see that their excitement was about more than the thrill of being up in the air. Something that I had never seen before was happening up there. Some of them had their eyes rolled back in their heads and their bodies alternated between a joyous limpness and then a powerful surge of energy. My airborne classmates had a kind of feverish look about them. It looked like scenes from a documentary on revivals I’d seen on TV. Sometimes, Nussia floated over to them and held their arms, patted their faces and wiped their sweat onto her face. They looked as if they felt safe and protected with her tending to them. Peter freely stroked her surricille, back and forth, it shimmered. Virginia’s eyes were now redder than if she was smoking that stuff she wasn’t supposed to smoke. It hit me—they were high. She was getting them high!
They sure didn’t need me. I looked up at Peter, and motioned for him to come down. Peter shrugged his shoulders. I guess that he couldn’t get down unless Nussia allowed it.
Although the Secret Service guys were not in the air, they too were mesmerized and caught up in the drug-like atmosphere. I couldn’t stand it any longer. I moved through the crowd, mostly adults that were left on the ground and went to my room. No one stopped me.
Virginia found me later as I finished wiping my tears away.
“Mom asked me to find you. People are still here, you know.”
Her eyes were still glassy and her face looked softer. She pulled the chair out from our desk and plopped down on it. “It wasn’t any fun watching everyone else have a good time,” I said, my throat raw.
Virginia sighed, leaned back in the chair and looked at her fingernails.
“I can’t believe you’re in here feeling sorry for yourself,” she scolded.
“Nussia just ignored me. You did see it, didn’t you?”
Virginia tutted and shook her head. “You’re being such a spoiled brat. Nussia was doing all that for you! Don’t you see that? She made your party! Your party was the best.”
I felt slapped. She sure didn’t see things the way I did. What was Nussia doing to my sister to make her act this way?
My fists clenched. “I’m not going back out there,” I said, hitting the bed.
“Suit yourself! Stay in here and rot for all I care. You’re acting like you’re ten instead of fourteen anyway!” she said, getting up and slamming the door.
After the birthday party, I called Grandma and she came and got me for the weekend. (When she wasn’t staying with us, she visited with old friends in the city.) She assured me that everything would be fine with Nussia, that maybe she was being a bit rebellious and that I should try to get to know her. Try to find common interests, she had said. I thought it good advice.
The day after I returned, while my parents slept, I went out to sit on the porch. Nussia joined me. A bowl full of peaches and nectarines sat in my lap. Nussia took a peach and moved it across her surricille, seeming to enjoy the soft fuzz. Her retractable mouth took small bites from the peach. I tried to ignore her. But I still found her eyes absorbing, and I still wanted her to like me.
“Nice feeling,” she said.
I nodded. Our block was quiet. Bits of gray and red firecrackers, pre Memorial Day celebrations dappled the black tar.
After sitting in silence for a while I blurted out,
“Do Fike girls get a period?”
“We don’t have vaginas like human females do,” she replied without the barest trace of embarrassment.
I laughed nervously. “You should be thankful for that fact. Periods can be so nasty and sticky. They’re a pain. Dad says that Mom gets evil when she has her ‘friend.’ I think that’s why they have separate bedrooms.”
It was Nussia’s turn to laugh. Then she said, “During the Awakening we have what humans would call convulsions. We can wander around ill for days if someone is not there to guide us. The elders must give us our new name. They must help us remove the old surricille, and care for our newly exposed head. My father said that my mother suffered during her Awakening. But the Awakening only happens once in our lives and it’s not, as you say, sticky.”
“Nussia, what you said before, about your sister and the Awakening…”
“Let’s not talk of it. There’s a saying on my planet that when one speaks out of turn, the mountains frown.” She put her hand over mine, her hand feeling of comforting worn leather.
“Tell me more about periods.”
She stared at me so I blabbed on. “Susan, a girl in my class got her period when she wasn’t expecting it. The stain got all over her dress. She tried to play it off like she sat in some Pepsi. My period is not real regular yet. I get bad cramps. Grandma says my body hasn’t ‘settled’ yet.”
“Does Peter know about your periods?”
“No.” I squirmed a bit. “Boys and girls don’t talk about stuff like that. Earth boys are always saying stupid stuff about periods.”
“Oh.” Casually examining another peach, she said, “Next time you are with your period and feel bad, I could bring you up in the air. It might make your time go better.”
“Oh, really, Nussia? Really?” I got so excited I sprang up and did a little dance around the porch. “I’d be so happy if you would.”
In that moment, she made me forget everything that came before. I thought maybe that we could be friends after all. She had just needed time to warm up to me.
Two Fike representatives visited to socialize with Nussia. Mom used it as an excuse to host a formal gathering for friends and local officials. Before they arrived, my mother frantically ran around the house asking if Virginia or I had seen her favorite scarf. “I’ve looked everywhere!” We hadn’t. Then she turned, slapped her forehead and said, “Oh, I bet Ma borrowed it without telling me. She’s always doing that.” She shook her head and raced off to check on last minute details. After smiling and faking the answer that Nussia and were getting along great I excused myself to get a glass of juice and headed for the kitchen. The door leading to the basement was unlocked. I entered, sure I had slipped away unnoticed. Now that I was down here, I decided to do a little exploring. My curiosity and boredom lead me underneath the stairwell to the floatbed.
Hearing my mother’s constant refrain in my head, “Don’t mess anything up”, I carefully opened the dome of the floatbed and with some effort climbed in. It was heated and made me immediately feel sleepy. I imagined what it would be like to sleep without pillows, slowly floating up and down the whole night. Fike go into a mini-hibernation each night; they sleep deeply.
I suddenly heard noises from upstairs and panicked. I would get in so much trouble if anyone found me in her bed. They were already coming down the stairs. Who could it be? Mom looking for something from the freezer? No, the meal was catered. Dad? Mean Grits? No, I ruled him and the other Secret Service agents out as they rarely came inside the house anymore.
They stopped at the second set of stairs leading down to the basement.
I crouched, frozen, in the tank.
“Here, here… there are probably no wires here.” I recognized Nussia’s slightly grumpy voice. The other belonged to one of the visiting Fike, a high ranking diplomat.
“Practice English?” Nussia said.
“It is terrible in my ears,” another voice, also Fike said.
“I have to hear it every day,” Nussia said then paused. “Humans like levitation. Much.”
“Jerrgil, they like it more than anything else. It makes them feel like a drug… No, like they have been drugged. Better than you thought,” Nussia said.
“My monunis gives me power here. Different. Not like on home.”
There was a pause. “We have no other reports of this power. Continue to monitor. Your father does not need to know. Other Fike representatives do not need to know. Your sacrifice is so great akesshhhh-No more English. I part with practice.”
Then all I heard were the sizzle sounds. No one had offered to teach me any of the Fike languages and I regretted that now. They talked for another five minutes and went back upstairs. I stayed perfectly still, wondering more and more about Nussia.
We were due to be interviewed on Sixty Minutes in less than an hour. This was our big exclusive TV debut.
Thank goodness, Mom had packed an additional shirt for me as the one I wore now smelled funky and you could see a ring of sweat stains. I could barely concentrate as I was so stressed about being interviewed on TV without anyone else there besides Nussia. I kept repeating the words ice cream and butter pecan to myself. They had refused to send the questions to my parents, so my father made us practice the kinds of questions the interviewers might ask us. I soaked my T-shirt on every round.
The makeup woman was dabbing foundation on Nussia and even dusted some powder across her bald head, which made Nussia frown.
The assistant producer, a young white man with strawberry blonde hair, walked in and reminded us that we were up in less than an hour. “You both look great!” he said and made the OK symbol with his fingers.
Nussia was more talkative today and I carried on our conversation that began on our ride over to the studio.
“Does Mean… I mean Mr. Johnson ask you questions?” I almost referred to the head Secret Service agent by my private nickname for him.
“No, he never says anything.”
The staff had set up a snack table for us and I got up and grabbed a soda.
“Where do you go?”
“It’s what your people call top secret,” she said. She paused and smiled, “But it is nothing so fun, Lindsay. I would rather be at home. I am mostly meeting with core diplomats—many are considered elders on Fike.”
Nussia made herself a plate of fruit and cheese.
“Do you tell them about us?”
She smiled, dipped her head. “They let me know what is going on back at Fike.”
The alien girl struggled with eating strawberries. In a moment, three fell down her front and left stains on her white and gold tunic.
“Oh no,” I said. She responded in kind with an angry sounding unpronounceable Fike word.
“You might be able to get it out quick, if you go to the bathroom and run it under water,” I said. She nodded and headed for the bathroom.
“I’ll get the wardrobe person,” I said.
Before I went to get to find the wardrobe person, I thought I should check both of our duffle bags for other clothes that Nussia could wear. I ruffled through my bag reminding myself of what my mother packed. I hastily pulled out a peach ruffled shirt—probably too small for Nussia and also a blue cotton dress that might work. I looked in Nussia’s bag, too, and discovered a white skirt and two pairs of sandals. A flash of color caught my eye from one half-zipped inner pockets of the bag. I pulled out my mother’s scarf that she had been looking for a few weeks ago.
Nussia entered looking frazzled. The stain hadn’t come out and her tunic was wet.
I held up the scarf, “Did Mom give you this to you?”
Nussia looked away and pushed past me, “I need help getting this stain out, Lindsay.”
“This is her favorite scarf. What is it doing in your bag?” I could feel the color rising in my cheeks.
Just then, the assistant producer entered, a clip chart in his hand. “Ladies, fifteen minutes,” he said. Then taking one glance at Nussia’s outfit, he barked, “Christ, we’ve got to get you into some new clothes. Come with me.”
“Yes, thank you,” Nussia said.
She left me there holding my mother’s scarf. I wasn’t thinking about ice cream or the interview anymore.
Despite everything the interview went well for both of us. Nussia refused to talk about the scarf or anything except the interview during the ride home. When we got home, I caught Virginia, in our bathroom, while she was getting ready for a date. She asked about the interview and I told her about the scarf.
She shrugged. “If Mom didn’t give it to her that’s wrong. But, we don’t know that, do we?”
“I don’t think she did,” I said.
“But, maybe taking things that don’t belong to you is different for Fike. I don’t remember reading much about their moral code.”
I watched her apply several coats of mascara. She looked great. She wore a black blouse and black pants that were all the rage. The pants looked like exaggerated bell-bottoms and when Virginia stood with her legs close together, it looked like she was wearing a long skirt or dress.
“Will you talk to Mom about it?” I asked.
“Sure,” she said. “We’ll keep an eye out for anything else that goes missing.”
“Yes. Glad you have my back.”
I noticed something was happening between my parents. Sure, they had always had separate bedrooms, ate their meals at different hours, and had different friends. And that hadn’t changed. But Nussia had somehow inserted herself in the natural rhythms of my father’s life: he now ate with her, and even talked with her in the monuni shrine. When she first came, Nussia asked my father to expand the shrine in the backyard, which he happily did. They spent much of their time there. Their laughing voices often carried all the way to the front porch. I’m sure he even asked her for gambling tips.
One evening I heard laughter coming from my father’s bedroom. I opened the door. My mother sat in a chair holding an almost empty glass of red wine against her face. I looked up and saw Nussia and my father floating up at the very edge of the ceiling in the far right corner, to the left of the light fixture. They smiled and held on to each other’s hands. They were higher in the air than people were at my party. Their positions were also more horizontal than what I had seen at the party; they really looked as if they rested on air.
“Hey, Nussia, take me up. I really want to go flying. I know what you said before, but I can’t wait. Now seems like it would be so fun,” I said.
“Forget it,” Mom said. “She won’t bring me up there either, Lindsay.”
Her eyes stared straight past me. Nussia and my father ignored both of us.
The way that Nussia was playing with my father suddenly made me very angry. I wanted her to either stop this game, or bring my mother and me up into the air. Nussia and my father continued to ignore us. There was a sound coming out of his mouth; it was a sound that I hadn’t heard from him in a long while. I realized that it was pure laughter.
My father pointed to a corner.
“Look, here’s a big old spider web. It doesn’t have a spider in it, though,” he said to no one in particular. He laughed again.
“Curl up in a ball, Rodger,” Nussia coaxed.
Immediately he pulled his body together tightly. Then just as quick he stretched out of it. He stretched his arms and legs as far out from his center as they would go.
“This… being up on the air. It’s like being held by someone who loves you. It’s magic.”
No, it’s a drug, I thought to myself. Nussia had a drug like no other.
My mother held her glass up to them in a mock toast, downed the rest of her wine, and walked out of the room. I followed her, slamming the door.
I went looking for Nussia the next day and I found her tending the shrine of monunis in the back yard. She went out every day after dinner and spent some time with them.
The shrine was decorated with stargazers and purple and pink zinnias. My grandmother had planted her favorite shrub, gardenias, around the borders of the shrine. On closer inspection the monunis were hard yellow and purplish spheres, about the size of kiwis, and they were arranged along the back of the lean to.
I stood away at a distance until I saw that she was finished.
“Hi,” I said. “I wanted to, uh, talk with you. I haven’t been able to see very much of you recently. You and Virginia have just been doing so many things together. Anyway, I’m still very happy that you’re here. But,” I continued with a nervous laugh, “I feel, Nussia, that something’s not right with us.”
“My sister wanted to come here, not me,” Nussia said quickly.
“What do you mean? Will you please just tell me about your sister?” My anger spilled out so fast that I accidentally bit my tongue.
“You really don’t know about me, Lindsay.” She pressed her green palms against my chest, pushing me back forcefully, causing me to fall down flat on my behind.
“Owww! What’s wrong with you? Why’d you do that?”
“My parents sent me to Earth. I was told to go. My sister, Lillandra was supposed to be here,” she said, pointing to the house.
I got up and brushed the dirt off me. “No one told me anything about your sister, you have to believe me.”
She looked away from me, her voice dropping to almost a whisper, “My sister is beautiful, by Fike standards, and is what humans call charming, and we call meenill. She became very ill and she could not come here. In her condition, Lillandra would not have survived the trip.”
I was stunned by this revelation. No, not only stunned. I didn’t want to hear it.
“But you’re here now. You’re here—that’s what matters. We’re friends. It will be all right,” I said and reached for her hand.
She backed away from me. “You remind me of my sister. She talked endlessly about having a lulla, a human friend. But I’m not like her. I’m not like you, either. I’ve always been different.”
“I’m different too, not everybody wanted an alien,” I said. I could hear the whininess and the desperation in my voice. I felt my neck and ears flush red. I looked at the ground.
“‘Humans are not hard to deal with,’ my mother said.” Nussia mocked. “My father, the diplomat, pushed and pushed to get me to come, though he could have sent many other Fike my age.”
“So now I’m stuck here. Stuck, stuck, stuck. You brought me here, Lindsay! It was your essay and your needs. I will miss all the preparations and training for the Awakening. I might never be Awakened now, and my parents don’t care.”
“I don’t believe that,” I said, shaking my head. I couldn’t imagine her parents doing this to her, making her give up everything. “Please, don’t be mad at me, Nussia. I didn’t know any of what was going on behind the scenes. I wouldn’t have—”
“Tell me, what can I go back to?” Nussia said and stomped her foot. “I’m not one of you. I’m on my own here. Do you understand? I can’t be fully Fike anymore. I’m a sacrifice. I don’t care about the Awakening now! I hate my parents for sending me. This garden is the only thing I ever want to remind me of home. I have a new family. Virginia and Rodger are the best things about this place.”
My brain felt fried trying to understand all that she was sharing with me.
She turned her back to me and walked toward the house. “You’ve seen how I can do things for them that no one, not even you, can do. My powers through my hands are strong here and I don’t know why.” She smiled and jutted her chin out, “Even the Elders can’t explain it to me. My mother was right about humans being easy to direct, she just didn’t go far enough.” With a pause Nussia said, “Humans can be controlled.”
She couldn’t mean that. A numbness spread from the center of my belly outward. Deep inside, I felt a piece of myself falling away.
I grasped Nussia’s hands, looking at her deeply, directly into those dark eyes. “Is there someone else on Fike that might take care of you? I have my Grandma and if anything happened to my parents, I’d stay with her. Do you have someone else besides your parents? Let me help you. Let’s try to figure this out together?” I asked, my voice cracking some.
She twisted away from me. “No, and I don’t want to see my family again.”
“You’re still special to me.” Though I said the words out loud, they felt hollow inside of me.
“I don’t need you to have myself,” she said pushing past me.
After I had the argument with Nussia I decided to look over my essay. I was shaken and had forgotten why I had even wanted Nussia to stay in this home. My eyes caught this passage:
There is something in each of us that makes us special. It is not the obvious things. For my grandmother, it is her sense of adventure. For my mother, it is her cooking. For me, I have a burning desire to connect with something larger than humanity. “Alien” is a relative term. My neighbors are Jamaicans, and some people in my neighborhood think they are aliens. When we can see that what is alien is something that is also in us, then we can live without fear of the word. When the word “alien” can mean friend in all languages, even those yet to be discovered, we will have made something new.
After reading that I knew what I had to do.
“Absolutely not!” my father shouted. My parents were uncharacteristically enjoying a night together in Mom’s bedroom. The television blared a chase scene from Starsky and Hutch.
“Send her home, Dad. She is unhappy and doesn’t belong here. Can’t any of you see that? Mom?”
“If Nussia was as unhappy as you think, she’d come to us.”
“No, she wouldn’t, Mom. She’s told me some things.”
“Speak up, Lindsay. Now, just what did she tell you?” Dad asked.
I didn’t want to tell what an awful conversation I had with her. Maybe I wanted to protect her. I could see now that she hadn’t come of her own free will. I hedged a little.
“If she leaves now, what will people think of us?” my mother interrupted. “She’s just a little homesick. And besides you and Nussia are scheduled to go to the White House, an event it has taken months to plan for. How would that look if she didn’t show up?”
“Do you know what being Lindsay Fields means now?” my father asked, rising up out of his seat.
I shook my head. Right then I wasn’t sure anymore what Lindsay Fields even thought.
He stood up shaking his finger at me. “It means that the whole world knows you, Lindsay! It means that the whole world is open to you! It means that someday you’ll be able to go to any college or university you desire. That includes Virginia, too. Anywhere. Anywhere at all. It means a goddamn shortcut in a world that doesn’t want to give us anything.”
“But, Dad, I didn’t write the essay for future plans.” My parents always talked about college and my future at the most inconvenient times.
“Lindsay, I would know if she’s unhappy.” His words rang with finality.
“Would you, Rodger?” Mom’s face hardened.
They excused me from the room. As I walked down the hall I could hear Mom crying, her voice indistinguishable sobs.
It was a broiling, humid August day. I had to go to the store because I had started my period, and I had only two maxi pads left. Mom sent Nussia with me.
“I need some paprika, butter, and some frozen spinach. It would be real sweet if you could pick those up for me while you’re out. I’ve got to run to an early meeting at work soon,” she said. “Come right back, you two.”
She called after us again when we got to the porch. Stuffing more money in my hands, she said, “Get some orange juice, too.”
It was going to be a long fifteen minute walk each way. Nussia and I hadn’t talked in days. We walked in silence, with the Secret Service men following in their car behind us. We could have taken a ride with them, but I didn’t want to. When we reached the block of stores, I left Nussia outside next to the discount meat market while I went into the supermarket. She stood, fascinated, by the legs of lamb, pig ears, and the fat burgundy cubes of goat meat displayed for sale in the window.
On the way out of the store I saw Peter and his older brother Jake sitting on the hood of Jake’s car. Peter wore shorts showing off his freckled legs.
“Hey girl. We just came from playing ball. We saw Nussia and stopped,” Peter said.
“Get in.” Jake said. “I’ll give you a lift home. Can’t be walking in this heat.”
“That’ll be great,” I said. My stomach was feeling queasy because of my cramps. I ran over to the Secret Service car and told them I was getting a ride from my friends. Over the last few months, they had worked through our list of family friends and acquaintances, clearing almost all of them. Mean Grits had sunglasses on and gave me a lazy nod.
I walked back over and clutched the grocery bag closer to my chest.
“What’d you get from the store?” Peter asked.
“Just stuff,” I said.
“Oh yeah? What kind of stuff?” Peter playfully grabbed at the bag.
“Stuff,” Nussia repeated from behind me. Before I knew it the bag flew out of my hands and rose over my head.
“Don’t, Nussia!” I pleaded, but Nussia ignored me and kept them levitating in midair.
“Cool,” Jake said. He sat on the hood of his car.
“How long can you keep things up in the air?” he asked.
“For a long time,” Nussia replied.
I screamed, “Stop it!”
Most of the contents of the bags dropped to the ground in one heap. The white and blue maxi pad box, however, hovered and then opened. The contents flew out of the box. The maxi pads fluttered in the air. They twitched and flapped like white mythic birds.
Nussia, Jake and Peter laughed. Peter laughed so hard he held his stomach and slid off the car’s hood.
I ran until I could not hear Nussia’s laugh, like a slap across my face, anymore.
From my mother’s room, I heard drawers close. I inched closer to the door, which was cracked open. I hadn’t come out of my room for almost a day. Finally, my grandmother had arrived.
“Ma, Lindsay has always been a fanciful child. God knows she’s the one that brought Nussia here.”
“Fanciful my ass, Jesse. She called me up hysterical last night—while you were at work, of course. Something is just plain wrong about that thing living in this house.”
How could Mom say that about me? I knew she had been under a lot of stress lately and very busy, but couldn’t she see how wrong things were between me and Nussia?
“How would it look to everyone? She’s just different. That’s what aliens are.”
“Everyone? Who the hell is everyone? Your daughter—my granddaughter—is very upset. I don’t care if Walter Cronkite calls us a pack of raving backward ass niggers! That alien needs to go back where she came from. Look at you. You’re a mess.”
“What do you want me to do? Call it all off? Say that we can’t deal with this—that our family can’t deal? Nussia is not the problem. Lindsay is.”
“Do you hear yourself, Jesse? When did keeping up appearances become more important than listening to your daughter?”
“You have no right to tell me how to deal with my children.”
“Look, I can call a spade a spade. Maybe we were all a bit too hasty about this arrangement,” Grandma said.
More drawers slammed.
“Jesse, I’m an old woman and I’m tired. If anything happens to my granddaughter… If I get one more hysterical phone call while I’m over at Maggie’s house, I will personally ship that little tyrant back up to her planet my goddamn self.”
“Ma, I’ve got to finish getting ready for work. I’m on an early shift!”
“You think about what I said. I’ll take Lindsay with me to France if this mess keeps up. She needs to feel loved. Safe,” Grandma said.
I moved stealthily down the hall and then back to my room. I heard the basement door close.
Good, I thought. I hoped Nussia heard every word. My grandmother was no one to mess around with—ever.
In my bedroom, I tried reading a book, but quickly put it down. I couldn’t focus. I couldn’t stop replaying Mom’s words over and over again. Feeling her words pound in my head made me want to shrink away into nothingness.
After my mother left for work, Grandma called me downstairs for dinner. Virginia and Nussia were nowhere to be found. Virginia was probably out with friends. I tried Nussia’s basement door but it was locked and the key was not on its hook.
“I’m going to talk with Nussia before I leave tomorrow morning.”
“Good, Grandma,” I said.
“If that doesn’t help Nussia get her act together, we’ll have to figure out another way. Don’t you worry, sweetie.”
She got up to get dinner from the kitchen.
Nussia walked into the dining room. I felt her dark eyes sweep over me, but I just looked down at the table. I didn’t want to be alone with her. I didn’t want anything to do with her.
“Now, this isn’t my recipe for liver and onions, but it will have—” Grandma began as she came through the kitchen door.
“May I have some dinner?” Nussia interrupted. She sat in the chair next to me.
Grandma rolled her eyes. “Nussia, we called for you.” She placed the two dishes on the table.
“I’m sorry. I was outside.”
Grandma went into the kitchen and brought out another placemat and plate of food.
“I want to talk with you, now, tonight. We need to talk about you and Lindsay.”
I watched out the corner of my eye as Nussia nodded.
“Nussia,” she said and began coughing.
She wiped the back of her mouth.
“I want to talk about your conduct regarding my granddaughter. Do you understand me?”
“You want to send me home.”
Grandma sat down at the table and shook her head. She took a bite of the liver. After a pause Grandma said, “Nussia, your actions have been unexpl-”
“Yes, unexplainable. Grandma.” Nussia dragged the edge of the knife back and forth across the edge of the plate.
“Stop that!” Suddenly my grandmother stopped talking and started coughing hard. I was on the edge of my seat, warily looking back and forth at the two of them. Nussia just stared ahead calmly.
“Grandma?” I got up from the table. “Do you need some water?”
She waved her hand at me. “Not now child. I’m fine. I’ve just got some sort of tickle in my throat.” Authoritatively she cleared her throat and resumed, “We’ve all been patient in waiting for you to adjust to this home—Lindsay’s home.”
Abruptly, Grandma started gagging and coughing. I’d never heard coughs like that before—it was like something was rattling around in her chest and throat. She started shaking, her face becoming blue-tinged and panicked.
I jumped from my seat and ran to the kitchen, frantically pouring tap water into a glass. I ran back almost spilling it.
But as soon as I crossed the threshold into the dining room, Nussia’s power lifted me up into the air. I started screaming. I kicked and fought, tumbling in the air—all I could see was my Grandma collapsing on the dining room floor.
The air held me tight and pressed into my back, it burned against my body. Her hold on me gave me the feeling of being smothered in a hot bubble. With all my might, I threw the glass, aiming for Nussia. But, with another wave of her hand she averted it. The glass hit a spider plant on a nearby table before shattering against the wall.
“Stop fighting me, Lindsay,” Nussia said, calmly.
Slowly, my limbs started tingling. It was as if all my limbs had gone to sleep at the same time, but then were being wakened quickly. All my fears were draining out of me, and being replaced with a sweet numbness centered at my core and spreading outward like a spiral of warmth and calm. I watched my grandmother as her tongue lolled out of her mouth a mottled brownish red. This sweet numbness located itself in my tongue. I could not resist. I sucked that sweetness even as I watched my grandmother’s eyes bulge.
I screamed with all my heart, pushing against the numbness, kicking listlessly at the air, but it was no use. The overpowering sweetness moved across my neck and shoulders making my head loll from side to side. I couldn’t resist any longer as the feeling invaded my newly forming breasts, underarms, torso, privates and legs. Everywhere. I was defeated.
Grandma coughed one last, horrible rattling breath. With one hand, she grabbed the back of the seat. The other hand pulled off her scarf. Her eyes rolled up in her head and then she stopped moving.
Nussia dropped me hard. I landed on my butt. The sweet numbness died away. My whole body trembled. Silence pervaded the house. Taking advantage of my slowness and fear, Nussia ran to the basement door and locked herself in.
I picked up my grandmother’s hand. It felt rubbery and cool. Her ginger colored complexion was turning a subtle gray. I had to get help. Hysterical, I ran over to Mr. and Mrs. Willacy’s house, sobbing, willing away the tingling that still resonated in my body.
“Mommy, you’ve got to believe me. Nussia did it!” I cried over and over to my parents. There was no real reason for them to understand. Everyone wanted this whole thing to work. I had wanted it to work more than anyone else. I thought that she would save my family and me.
“Girl, you’ve got to pull yourself together. Do you hear me, champ?” my father said, holding me. “Your grandmother choked on a piece of her food while having a stroke. What you saw was probably awful. However, there’s no need to blame Nussia. You’ve got to be strong for the family.”
My room was crowded. My parents were there, Mean Grits, Secret Service agents and a man named Dr. Richards that said he was called in to assist. I didn’t know where Virginia was.
“Lindsay, now you know that what you are telling us is preposterous. Don’t you?” Mean Grits stood over my bed with a tight face. “Do you really think we would let a violent, unruly alien child stay with you?” He turned to my parents and put his hand on my mother’s shoulder. “I know that this is a time of trauma, but the Fike have never displayed any significantly violent behavior toward humans. Never.”
“Where were you?” I screamed. “Why didn’t you stop her?”
“She’s in shock. Death is a difficult experience for anyone to undergo. Kids will look to other things to validate or understand what is happening,” the government doctor said casually, preparing a syringe intended for me.
I caught him by surprise as I slapped the needle from his hand.
“You’re not the family doctor, where’s Mr. Connelly?” I hollered.
“Lindsay! Have you lost your mind?!” my father said.
Mom said through her tears, “Baby, this is a special doctor just for you.”
“We are going to have to hold her down if this behavior keeps up,” the doctor said.
“Is that what you want, Lindsay?” My father said.
I couldn’t stop myself from crying long enough to get words out. My throat hurt and though there were no burns on my body, my skin felt hot to the touch and as if I had been rubbed with a giant loofah sponge.
“Grandma tried to tell you, Mom,” I said clutching at her hand.
The doctor signaled to one of the other Secret Service men and before I knew what happened they pinned me, putting the needle in my arm.
Turning to my father, Mom said, “We’ve got to see what Nussia says. Rodger do you hear me? Suppose Lindsay…”
“Yes, in the morning, we’ll talk to Nussia,” the Secret Service man interrupted. “By then Lindsay will be able to remember what happened to her grandmother. She will see things clearly.”
My mother rolled her eyes and looked away.
“Being in the air with her, it’s not like being held by someone who loves you at all, Dad,” I said as he was leaving the room. He did not turn around to answer.
I needed to get up and warn my family, protect them. Nussia’s powers were much more developed than anyone knew. Would she kill us all in the middle of the night? I had to stop her! My stomach felt like a rock and I felt feverish. I shook in agony and frustration, but then everything went fuzzy and gray and blank. A different kind of numbness settled over me.
I woke up in the middle of the night, disoriented and scared. Then, I remembered what had happened to my family. My body was wobbly, but my heart was clear. I tried to run through everything that had happened on this horrible afternoon in my head. Where were the security people while that thing was killing Grandma? They must have been at their headquarters, or taking a food break. Maybe Nussia had done something to them and that’s why they weren’t around earlier, I thought soberly.
I knew what I had to do to make things right. Quietly, I slipped from my room and gathered the things that I needed for my task from around the house in the darkness. I crept downstairs and tried the doorknob to the basement, grateful when it opened without protest. I made as little sound as I could pulling the door open. I paused once on the other side and then gently locked the basement door behind me.
“All in due time” are the words that I heard when I stood next to Nussia’s floatbed. Nussia was perfectly still, asleep. Her body levitated a few inches from the bottom of the floatbed. Every few seconds the top of her surricille gently bumped the top of the tank, and then she’d float down again. I quietly opened the top.
I waited until she floated back to the top of the tank. When she reached me, I carefully grabbed one her right hand and put one of my mother’s gardening gloves on. Touching her made my stomach queasy. While I had her hand, I took the strips of masking tape that I had pulled off and left at the end of the tank and wound them around her gloved hand. I held her right shoulder and reached across to get the other glove on her hand and taped it, too. I released her and she floated to the bottom of the tank, thankful for the depth of her sleep. I knew she would hover for at least a minute before floating up again.
The next part was going to be much harder. My father had long ago stopped working out at home. He had abandoned the cast iron plates to the back of a closet in the living room. I couldn’t lift his twenty-five pound plates, so I settled for carrying two ten pound plates. Breathing heavily, I put the first plate on her forearm. Her body tilted sideways. I got the other weight into place on her other side, pinning her how I wanted, so that when she woke up, she wouldn’t be able to use her hands—at least for a few minutes. Next came the shears. I stabbed at her surricille, sloppily making two large gashes. Then I used my hands, tearing pieces of it back—it was soft under my fingers, and gave way easier than I expected. I had never touched or rubbed Nussia’s surricille before. She didn’t deserve to be Awakened. She didn’t deserve my family. She didn’t deserve to live. Nussia’s eyes flew open and her tubular mouth stiffened. She was screaming now, writhing on the bottom of her float bed in pain. Her screams weren’t at all like the sizzle of her normal voice—this was a jumble of ancient alien sounds merged into an overpowering eruption of emotion.
The sedative had made me weak—weaker than I should have been for a task like this. She twisted violently and when my hold was broken Nussia shot up through the floatbed with the force of three people and physically threw me back against the basement wall.
Dazed and hurting all over, I tried to get up but the room was spinning and all I managed to do was lay on my side. I touched the back of my head and my fingers can back slick with blood.
“I’m not going back! This family is mine! Not even the Elders can make me stop.” Blood flowed down from the angry-looking wound, streaming down over her lips and chin. She stood upright in the now levitated tank.
“No! You’ll never be a part of this family. You’re a murderer!”
“They need me. Your father needs me. All humans need me, they want me.” Her retractable mouth snapped open and closed over and over.
“You’re drugging them or doing something. But soon they will figure it out or it will wear off or something,” I shot back.
“Will they?” Nussia said, as her eyes crinkled and a hideous smile crept across her face. She bit at one of her restraints.
“You’ve done terrible things, Nussia.” I wanted her to stay focused on me and not the bag that I needed to get to.
“No one knows what I want. The Elders think they can control me,” she shook her head from side to side. “They can’t. They want me to spy and report to them, but here I will do what I want. They wanted me to be an experiment—well, I will be one that no one ever forgets!”
In the distance I heard a ferocious banging on the door, and Dad and Virginia’s voices.
Her dark eyes pierced me. The strips of blue tape floated down from one of the gloves.
With my breathing coming in shallow gulps and my back in pain I got up and used my last bit of strength to reach the bag laying on the float bed’s platform. I dumped the monunis on the floor and stomped on them. Many of them cracked easily under my feet.
“No more ways to hurt us!”
Nussia was pulling off the gloves.
Nussia gaped at me in shock and horror, throwing her power at the monunis that weren’t crushed, levitating them into the air. I snatched at them but they were already above my head.
“You stupid human child,” she spat.
“I don’t need you. Not now. Not ever,” I said.
These were the last words I remember before I started to choke, and entered darkness.
Nussia. I said her name like mine. It is a nightmare, which has come to pass.
The doctors say that I suffer from debilitating paranoia and extreme depression. The room I’m in is large with a TV and paintings of bright yellow flowers. It has a desk and a small couch. The door is always locked except when I get to go outside which is twice a day. Most days I don’t want to walk, but stare out of the window. The doctors say I’m in a special kind of hospital, but as far as I can tell, I’m the only one on this part of the floor. When I recovered from the concussion, my father decided that I needed some time away from the family. He told me that even if everything that I claimed about Nussia were true, it was still not a good enough reason to hurt her. He said I should have come to them. On TV, I saw him telling the press that there had been an “adolescent disagreement” between Nussia and me. I haven’t seen my family in a long time and have been given no way to contact them.
No one knows where Nussia is. The night that I attacked her, she ran out of the house before my father could restrain her. Mean Grits and his team slipped up on their job. From the TV I learn that The Fike are upset and the President believes that diplomatic relations are strained. The National Guard had been called in to New York City to try to find her. Lynne, my private nurse, updates me. She’s a slender, red-headed black woman. She thinks I have set back civil rights by 100 years and tells me so daily.
Everyone thinks that I fucked up. That I’m the ugly, unpredictably violent American from the Bronx. Click. They don’t know Nussia like I do. Anchormen say that I am a maladjusted and jealous young girl. When the camera zooms into the average person on the street and a news reporter asks for an opinion, they say things like, “What do you expect? That’s the way they are. They can’t control their own, let alone an alien. Choosing that family was a mistake.”
When I try to sleep, I hear Nussia’s sizzle sounding laugh and wake up screaming.
Lynne brings my breakfast in and says with a triumphant smile, “They’ve found her.”
“Alive?” I ask, hoping for the opposite.
“Yes, and you’re the luckier for it,” she says.
She turns on the TV. She keeps the remote with her and when I don’t take my medicine, she takes it away. Watching TV is the only way I have to keep track of the days.
“She’s such a trooper. Twelve-hour surgery with intergalactic communication from the Fike. A miracle,” Lynn chirps, handing me a cup of orange juice.
I drink my juice and say nothing as I watch Nussia on the screen.
The news clip shows Nussia looking peaceful with her head bandaged.
“… extensive surgery on her surricille. But the real question is whether Nussia, our brave visitor from another planet, will be allowed to return to the Fields’ home,” an anchorman declared.
The next news clip shows how in wake of all these problems three families are fighting to host Nussia. None of the children or the families had entered the original contest. The families describe themselves as “concerned citizens.” One little white girl named Susan Raffety from New Hampshire says in a cultivated voice, “I’ve always wanted my own alien.” Her father, a slim gray haired man adds, “Yes, Nussia could ride horses here, swim… they do swim, don’t they?” he questions his daughter. She nods affirmatively. “Yes, Nussia could enjoy the fresh country air.” Aiming right for the camera and America’s heart, Mr. Raffety says, “Should we let this family have another chance given the unusual circumstances that have surrounded Nussia?”
Lynne boos at this.
Then it cuts to Dad. My throat tightens.
Standing erect and with lips tight, he stands on the front porch of our house pointing his finger declaring, “I will fight any family that tries to take Nussia away from this family. I will fight them all the way to the Supreme Court!” Men in black suits that the anchorperson identifies as Dad’s legal team stand next to him. Mom and Virginia stand behind my father. Virginia looks tired, dark rings bordered her eyes. Her hair has lost its sheen and her face looks older. I wonder if she misses me, or if Nussia’s effect on her (and my father) is still strong. Is it chemical? Does it work long distance? My mother is stiff with glazed-over eyes. Is she so deeply ashamed of the way things worked out that she drinks herself to sleep? I miss her the most. Sometimes I dream that I lie in bed next to her and that she smells of Charlie perfume and peaches.
“There is no reason why we can’t provide a loving home for the rest of the time that Nussia remains on Earth,” Dad drones on. “We need to keep Nussia with people that she knows, at least until she recovers. Anything else will be traumatic for her. Our daughter Lindsay has been under a lot of stress following the death of her grandmother. We’ve only recently learned how unstable and ill she actually is. She’s being treated by the best doctors available and will return to us as soon as she has made a full recovery.”
The news segment jumps quickly back to Nussia, who says she wants to stay with my family when she leaves the hospital.
I watch her carefully. Her dark eyes are alien and dangerous, yet familiar.
“This opportunity for myself and my people I will never let go,” Nussia says.
When I wrote the essay I hadn’t realized that my understanding about aliens should have worked both ways. Nussia made me see that I should have written, “When we can see that what is human is also sometimes what is alien, then we can begin to understand ourselves and them. All the good and the bad.”
One never knows what they might desire, until they are here with you, breathing the same air, sharing your family, and your life. No one knows it about Nussia but me.
Lindsay. I say my own name for myself.
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