The thin gray webs stretching across Aunt Melissa’s hand hadn’t been there the night before. Her condition wasn’t supposed to be contagious, but I went to the kitchen for some latex gloves anyway. If these webs were a new stage, all the procedures might change. There was still so much we didn’t know about the alien microbes now living in her body.
Aunt Melissa stared out the window at the mountains, wincing slightly as I cleaned her fingers. “Is this anywhere else?”
She didn’t answer. I bounced my leg—a nervous tic that passed the time and soothed my chronic muscle aches. After a full minute passed, I tried again.
“Aunt Melissa, are you with me?”
She didn’t turn her head to me, and her lips barely moved. “Yes.”
“You had sticky stuff between your fingers. Do you have it anywhere else?”
Another mumbled word: “No.”
“I’m going to check, is that okay?”
A long sigh. “Okay.”
I hated the downswings, though they were certainly easier than the active hallucinations that sometimes accompanied upswings. It worried me, though, that the former were becoming more common than the latter. She placidly allowed me to check her armpits and thighs. Her toes curled as I pulled off her socks to inspect her feet. Nothing else out of the ordinary, except for a little more muscle atrophy. She was only forty, but exposure to the alien microbes during the war had aged and transformed her. The broad-shouldered soldier I remembered had been steadily withering.
I peeled off the gloves, then turned on some music and left her alone to go call Dr. Acacia. Except, when I picked up my phone, she was already calling me. I tapped the device against my living room wall to transfer the call there. Her face filled the wall screen.
“I’m glad you picked up, Erin,” she said. I could tell she was working hard to keep worry from bunching her forehead, but she wasn’t succeeding. “How’s Melissa?”
I paced the living room as I told her about the webs. She nodded.
Her lips pressed together in a tight line for a moment before she spoke. “This complication has appeared recently in many of the Exposed. We’re asking all caretakers to bring their charges to the EERF.”
My throat tightened. The Extraterrestrial Exposure Research Facility was halfway across the country in San Diego; this wasn’t going to be a casual checkup. I sat on the couch, grabbed a throw pillow, and clenched it in my lap. I couldn’t stand the thought of her being locked up in that laboratory. They’d said they wouldn’t as long as I was willing to take care of her. “She’s doing just fine here in Denver.”
“Erin, your home care has always been fantastic, but we’re seeing rapid accelerations of this webbing you described and we need to act quickly to counteract the complications.”
“With some of the Exposed, its come close to encasing the whole body.”
It took another moment to choke out the word, “Fatal?”
“That remains to be seen, but our researchers here can certainly slow down the process. With time, maybe we can even reverse it.”
“And this isn’t something local facilities can handle, is it?”
I knew the answer before Dr. Acacia shook her head. Civilian hospitals refused to work with the Exposed, and the Denver VA was overbooked with vets dealing with the more familiar repercussions of war: brain traumas and prosthetic limbs and PTSD. The VA was fine for routine appointments and prescription refills, but they gave no priority to the Exposed in their lengthy appointment waitlist.
When I was younger, Aunt Melissa used to show up twice a year, always stirring my otherwise mild-mannered family into a party, defeating my father in arm wrestling matches, challenging my grandfather to whiskey shots. She’d once driven all the way to Denver from the base in Missouri where she was stationed so she could beat the crap out of my ex-boyfriend who had given me a bruise.
Once she was discharged from service and we learned we were the only ones in our family who had survived, Aunt Melissa came to live with me. The first signs that the war had changed her were subtle: laughing at a joke that no one else could hear, starting sentences in the middle or trailing off before the end, yelling at service workers for even the smallest perceived slight. She stopped driving after spacing out at a stoplight for a full ten minutes, completely unaware of the car horns and the people banging on the windows. She was diagnosed with PTSD, then later with Bipolar, until the pattern became clear among all the Exposed and the true cause was revealed. Over the last few years, she had weakened and started swinging between nearly catatonic downs and vivid hallucinations—I assumed they were war flashbacks, but she’d never been able to describe them in a way that made any sense to me. Many vets were sent to the EERF by frustrated family members. I never considered it for a second. We adapted.
I stared down at the throw pillow and tried to unclench my fists, slow my breathing. “She’s all I have left.”
“I know,” Dr. Acacia said. “That’s why you need to get her here as soon as possible.”
Abstract shapes swirled on the wall screen long after Dr. Acacia hung up. Aunt Melissa hummed along with the soft music playing in her room. That was good, usually a sign she was coming back up from the downswing. For a while, anyway.
In the movies, aliens always attack the significant city centers: Los Angeles, New York, London, Hong Kong. But when these aliens landed, they showed up right in the center of the largest land masses: the border of Russia and Mongolia, the deserts of Chad, and the plains of Kansas. They drove massive machines with twenty-foot metallic legs and whining motors. We never knew where they’d come from or why.
Militaries met the threat in the rural areas, but the invaders eventually headed toward the cities. Though Denver had fared better than some, civilian casualties were high and much of the infrastructure still hadn’t recovered. After everything that landed had been defeated, the orbiting ship had disappeared.
The bodies of the alien pilots were always burned beyond recognition by the time the pods at the top of the machines were broken open, but the microbes from those alien bodies lodged themselves into the cells of the soldiers unlucky enough to explore the wreckage.
I had never understood why they’d put the research facility so far from any of the landing sites, though I supposed I was glad we wouldn’t have to go overseas. Still, it was going to be a long and difficult trip, for both of us.
My neck began to ache from sitting still for too long, so I stood and went back to check on Aunt Melissa before going to the gym early for my evening swim—movement was the best relief for my chronic pain. The smart home system would alert me if anything happened, but I knew her downswing would last a few more hours, and I’d likely find her in the same place I left her. I waited until after dinner to book a flight, hoping there would be none available for a few days, but there was one the next morning. I called the vertical farm where I worked, hoping they would tell me they couldn’t possibly approve the time off this week, but they had always been understanding when I needed to leave to take care of Aunt Melissa. Of course they didn’t need me.
Tomorrow it is, then.
In the morning I found Aunt Melissa cooking breakfast. She’d even pulled her hair back into a tight military bun and opened the windows. An upswing should make travel easier, if she didn’t slip into a hallucination. I hobbled toward the table, pain flashing up my spine. I’d meant to get up early so I could swim before the flight, but I hadn’t slept well.
“We have to take a trip today. They need to do a few tests,” I told her.
“I’m not a goddamned lab rat,” she said, but her tone and face were cheerful. She flipped a pancake. “Where to?”
She hesitated for a beat, then flipped another pancake before it was ready, splashing batter against the side of the pan. “Oh, my good friends at the EERF.” She pronounced it as one slurred-together word: earf. “Must be serious. Unless they’ve finally discovered my miracle cure?”
I winced at a twinge in my neck that almost felt like a muscle slowly tearing.
“There’s no such thing.”
She humphed. “Says you.”
She started telling me about a rare plant in Madagascar she’d read about, and how “experts” were saying it could completely eliminate downswings for the Exposed. I half-listened while I ate the undercooked pancakes, as I always did when she started on this subject, but encouraged her to pack as soon as breakfast was finished. All of the supposed cures she listed had been proven false months ago. She never believed when they were discredited.
We’d gotten into a big fight about this once: I wanted her to stop obsessing over a cure and make more efforts to adapt to her condition; she told me she wasn’t willing to give up and accept it. I realized afterward that our perspectives were entirely opposite. She had suffered a severe trauma only a few years ago, whereas I had lived with chronic pain my whole life. We shared the psychological pain of having lost our whole family to the aliens, but our physical pains were quite different. My pain, as much as I hated it, was part of me. Aunt Melissa’s had taken away who she used to be.
The airport security line wrapped far past the roped queues and practically all the way around to the baggage claim. I took an extra dose of my pills while we stood in line, knowing that the two-hour flight would aggravate my pain. The best explanation I’d ever gotten was that the fibers surrounding my muscles were extra tight, prone to hardening when not in motion. This was a normal process for everyone, but mine callused faster than usual, and my nerves overreacted to the pressure.
Aunt Melissa had kept on about the supposed miracle cures the entire rail ride here, and now she was looping back over things she’d already said. To distract her, I pointed out a man in a Hawaiian shirt like my father used to love to wear. It worked. She started on a family story instead, one I’d heard a thousand times, but would be happy to hear a thousand times more.
“And your grandmother never even knew. She always insisted we were at that game the entire time. Erin, I don’t think I can do this.”
“What? What do you mean?” We inched closer to the TSA agent who scanned IDs and directed people into the various screening lines.
“I’m having a heart attack.” Her eyes darted from the ID scanner to the X-ray machines to the flashing advertisements to the line of people pressing us forward.
“You’re not having a heart attack. What is it? What’s triggering you?” Sometimes, if we identified the triggers and faced them consciously, we could keep an episode at bay. A couple had even been eliminated by repeatedly confronting them.
“It’s…” Her breath was fast and audible. Someone behind us told us to keep moving, and I shot them a look of annoyance and gestured for them to go around us.
I held onto her shoulders. “Aunt Melissa, we’re in the airport. Look at me.” Her eyes finally settled on mine. “It’s okay, we’re in the Denver airport. Do you know where you are?”
She exhaled. “The airport,” she said. “Going to San Diego.”
The TSA agent waved us forward. I wasn’t sure Aunt Melissa was completely present, but I encouraged her to go in front of me. The agent scanned her ID, and the machine blinked red.
“I’ll need you to go to the line at the far right.”
“I’ll need you to bite my ass,” Aunt Melissa said.
Oh good, she’s back. “Look, it’s a shorter line,” I told her, hiding my own irritation at the discriminatory procedures under an encouraging cheerfulness.
“I’m sure he’s really looking out for me,” she said, her voice rising. “I’m sure he really cares if we make the flight.”
“Let’s go.” I pulled her toward the line.
“Ma’am, I need your ID too.”
“I gave you my goddamn ID!” Aunt Melissa yelled.
“He means me.” I kept one hand on her sleeve and fumbled for my ID and boarding pass with the other.
“To the left, ma’am,” he said as he handed it back to me.
“No,” I said firmly. “I’m going with her.”
The security agent in the far right lane was dressed in full Hazmat suit and helmet. Aunt Melissa balked. Seriously, did these people understand nothing about the kinds of things that were triggers for the Exposed?
“We’re at the airport.” I reminded her.
“If you say so,” she said.
We set our bags on an x-ray conveyor belt. The agent waved her toward a machine that resembled a revolving door.
“It’s not contagious, you know,” I snapped at the suit. They ignored me and just gestured more urgently for us to keep moving. Aunt Melissa had grown very tense now, her eyes focused, unblinking, on the suit.
“It’s okay,” I said. “Just do what they say and it’ll be over in five seconds.”
She tolerated the machine, standing with hands over her head like a fugitive, but the second the agent in the Hazmat suit touched her, Aunt Melissa executed a flawless Krav Maga move that I was shocked she had the strength to do and pinned the agent to the ground. Two others rushed to restrain her while she kicked at them. I watched in shock for about ten seconds before I flung myself into the fray too, screaming at them not to hurt her.
At least they gave our bags back before they kicked us out of the airport.
She calmed down on the rail home, though my mind was racing and my leg bounced even more than usual. I wished for the hundredth time that I knew more about what she saw in moments like those. I couldn’t help her fight her demons when I didn’t know the shape of them. By the time we reached our stop she had slid into that inevitable downswing and was barely able to carry her own bag.
At home, she slumped at the table. “I’m sorry.”
I dropped the bags in the middle of the kitchen and rubbed my neck. “Airports are infuriating.”
“We have to drive now.”
I shook my head. “Maybe we don’t even have to go.”
“Yes.” She held up her left hand. It was completely covered in gray webs. “We do.”
There were three problems with driving. First, I, like most people, had an electric car that was not designed for distance. Roads in the West were long and charging facilities were far between. The second was the weather since it was early spring and the Rocky Mountains were currently wrapped in blizzard conditions. The snow wasn’t affecting the city yet, but it meant we’d have to take the farther route, down through New Mexico and Arizona, skirting the Mexico border. The third was my pain. I’d been concerned about a two-hour flight, and now I was facing a two-day drive.
Before the war, I’d been a teacher, but the long stretches at desks and screens were excruciating. After the war, I decided life was too short to hurt all the time. I worked at the Denver Vertical Farms now because it kept me moving: cleaning and climbing, spraying the produce that filled local groceries. Increased movement meant less pain.
Various exercise regimes always worked for a while, then lost their effectiveness. After running stopped helping, I did Tai Chi, and when that brought no relief, I switched to dance aerobics, etc. Rinse, repeat. Swimming was what worked right now—not very practical for a desert road trip. I had been thinking of switching soon to yoga, a fast-paced power vinyasa I’d done before. If I could remember some of the sequences, I could start it on my own, and that might alleviate the last of those three problems.
To address the first, I had a row of commercial solar panels installed on the car’s roof, old-fashioned ones with big purple squares that they fit onto the ski rack. Not nearly as efficient or sleek as the ones embedded right into the roof of newer models, but they were supposed to provide a reliable backup charge. I kept checking the forecast and looking up at the clouds that engulfed the mountains. The snow only seemed to be getting worse. Nothing to be done about the route.
Twice more before we left, I cleaned webs off Aunt Melissa’s hand. The second time, they reached halfway up her forearm.
We left Denver at sunrise. I stopped to do sun salutations in Colorado Springs, a warrior sequence in Pueblo, some lunges and twists in Raton. At each stop, I plugged the car into a charging station to keep it topped off.
She stared out the window as I drove and stayed in the car each time I stopped. She would hum along with the music for a little while, then be silent for an hour, then hum again, sometimes starting up with the same tune she’d left off before readjusting to what was actually playing. We talked a little bit, but she continued to slide down, leaving stories half-finished, or not responding to my prompts at all.
Somewhere in northern New Mexico, I exited off the highway toward what the car’s computer claimed was a charging station, but it was only a boarded-up old gas station and I couldn’t find a way back onto the highway. The frontage road ran parallel to it, with a ditch and barbed wire fence separating them. The car shuddered over potholes; the asphalt crumbled along the sides, sage, and cactus growing through the cracks. With each bump, the ache crept higher up my neck and into my jaw and head. I’d have to stop soon, charging station or not.
“It’s just like that, isn’t it?”
I startled at the sound of Aunt Melissa’s voice. Her head was turned toward me, leaning back on the headrest and jarring with the movement of the car.
She pointed toward the highway, and I noticed the webs were growing again. “That’s the way it’s supposed to be. That’s the easy road. But you take one wrong turn and it’s not there anymore. You can still see it, but you can never get back to it.”
“We’ll get back there eventually,” I said, but I knew she wasn’t actually talking about the highway. I wasn’t sure whether or not I was.
A few miles later, the highway disappeared behind scrub oaks, and a little adobe restaurant appeared to the right. I pulled into the driveway. There was no charging station, but the sun was strong enough now that the panels were supplementing fine. A small herd of free-roaming goats grazed along the edge of the parking lot.
“Do you want to go in?”
Aunt Melissa slowly shook her head. I stepped out, stretching my arms to the sky.
The restaurant turned out to be more of a bar, sparsely populated with hard-faced locals who all turned toward me as I blinked my way into the dark room. I negotiated two non-alcoholic drinks to go and gained assurance the highway ramp was only a few miles down the road.
Outside, I carried the drinks back toward the car, rolling my shoulders to work out the ache. A black goat with a white beard trotted up to sniff at the cups I held. The rest of the herd had wandered out onto the road, picking at the tufts of greenery growing in between the asphalt cracks.
I set the cups in the car and dug in my bag for another pain pill. The sudden growl of a gas-powered engine drew my attention back to the road. A rare sound for the last decade, it split the quiet afternoon like a scream. A massive black truck sped down the road in the opposite direction we’d come from. The goats scattered to either side, tramping into the ditch or darting between the trees. One spotted goat darted in a confused circle until the truck’s grill stopped its dance. The truck screeched to a stop and I shut my eyes and turned away as the goat sprawled.
Aunt Melissa’s door snapped open. By the time I turned back, she was already halfway to the road. I left the car door open and ran after her, calling her name. If she’d switched to an upswing, she would surely get into a fight with the driver.
The truck door opened and a man stepped out: hat, boots, the full cowboy getup. He saw us running and yelled, “These damn goats were in the road again!” I swiped at Aunt Melissa’s back but only brushed her shirt with my fingertips.
But then, rather than confronting the cowboy, she dropped to her knees beside the dead goat and let out a mourning wail that stopped me in my tracks. The cowboy and I exchanged a confused glance.
I’d never seen Aunt Melissa cry before. Even when we’d gotten the confirmation that my parents, grandparents, sister, and so many others had been lost in the Denver attack, I had blubbered on Aunt Melissa’s shoulder while she kept her hard soldier face.
Now, her back heaved with sobs over an unfamiliar animal in an unfamiliar place. The bartender came out of the restaurant and stood beside the cowboy. I hesitated before approaching them.
“She fought the aliens,” I said, keeping my voice low. “She has…hallucinations, sometimes.”
“Flashbacks?” the cowboy asked.
“Sort of, yeah.” It wasn’t that simple; the few times I’d managed to get her to describe her experience, it was as nonsensical as a dream. Still, the hallucinations usually seemed to include some elements of the war, some bits of memory.
I knelt beside her and rested a hand on her back until her wails subsided.
“All the tissues are in the car,” I said.
She sniffled and choked a laugh. The gravel crunched behind us as the cowboy approached. Aunt Melissa stood, rubbing a hand across her face. “Can I bury it? Please?”
The men glanced uncertainly at each other. In rural high desert like this, with hard ground and large predators like bears and mountain lions, I imagined they probably preferred to burn bodies rather than bury. After a moment, the bartender nodded and retrieved a wheelbarrow and two shovels from behind the building.
Four strangers buried a goat in the woods in silence.
Aunt Melissa tired halfway through, so I finished the job for her while she sat cross-legged and slumped between a patch of prickly pear and a piñon tree. I would ache later from the effort, but that was a different kind of ache than my usual pain, and far more tolerable.
I wanted to wash the dirt from my hands and the sweat from my neck in the bar bathroom, but it was an effort just to get Aunt Melissa back into the car, and I didn’t care to linger there any longer. The men were certainly ready to see us leave.
Once we were back on the highway, I asked, “Can you tell me about what happened back there?”
She didn’t answer. Her forehead pressed against the window. I had always avoided asking about her experiences in the war, to avoid triggers or reopening old wounds, and the gulf between her experience and mine now felt bigger than it ever had. I’d always assumed that someday, after time had softened the immediacy of the trauma, she’d be able to tell me about it. For the first time, I began to worry that she would never be able to tell me. Or that we wouldn’t have that time together after all. The webbing had grown across her hand again, all the way up to her wrist. We’d need to stop again soon so I could clean it, but we also needed to keep moving to get to San Diego as soon as possible.
We made it well into Arizona before I stopped to find a room. I had to practically carry Aunt Melissa inside, then came back for our bags and plugged in the car. The motel had a pool, but it was a vacant, dusty pit with a sign citing seasonal water rationing, so I settled for doing all the yoga stretches I could remember on the coiled motel carpet. After showering, I pawed through my bag looking for my nightshirt, but realized I’d accidentally opened Aunt Melissa’s bag instead. My fingers brushed cold metal, and I knew what it was before I pulled it out.
A pistol. How long had she had this? They were hard to come by, and nearly impossible for an Exposed. Had she brought it with her to the airport too? We both could have been arrested if security had found it.
Her head rolled in her sleep, muttering incomprehensible strings of words. I stuffed the gun into my bag instead.
I woke up to Aunt Melissa yelling my name. Groggy and disoriented, I groped for a light switch.
“Erin, I’m stuck!”
“Hold on, it’s okay.” I found the switch and winced against the brightness.
“What’s happening to me?”
She stood on the bed, wrapped tightly in a sheet. Then, my eyes adjusted. It wasn’t a sheet. The webs from her hands had spread across her upper body, pinning her to the wall above the bed. I scrambled to my feet and dug in my bag.
“Erin, help me!”
“I’m coming.” I pulled the gloves onto my shaking hands. There was only one pair left.
The webs were tougher than I expected, but I managed to rip down one side and pull her out. She stumbled toward the shower, while I bundled the webs in a blanket and tossed it out the front door. I ripped off the gloves and dialed Dr. Acacia. It was only after her voicemail answered that I glanced at the clock and saw it was just after three AM. I left a brief message, then turned my phone over and over in my hands until Aunt Melissa came out of the shower.
“I’m not going to make it to San Diego, am I?” She rubbed a towel roughly over her arms as though she still felt the webs there.
“Of course you are.” Tears bit at my eyes, but I held them back. I needed to be the strong one right now, even though it wasn’t me at all. “We should get a head start on the day, though.”
I couldn’t imagine sleeping again, and if the webs came back in the car, I would see before they pinned her to the seat. Keep moving—that had always been my solution.
The car had only half a charge, but the sun would be up in a few hours. Aunt Melissa was alert enough to carry her own bag to the car, but she fell asleep almost as soon as I started driving.
I had never seen dark like Arizona dark. Even the blackout following the Denver attack had been punctuated with the glow of fires and the spotlights of helicopters. With only my headlights and the swath of stars overhead, this felt like the depths of space. I kept glancing over at Aunt Melissa, watching for the webs to return. I had mostly made my peace with the alien attacks, had even tried to listen to the pundits who claimed we may have provoked them, but now, driving through the pitch dark of nowhere, while an alien parasite tried to consume my last living relative, a fresh new wave of anger and fear surged through me. What the hell had been the point of any of it? Why had they traveled so far through the dark just to hurt us?
The miles until San Diego ticked down on the car’s display screen, but so did the available charge. I looked up at the still-dark sky. We had to keep moving. The charge was low, but I convinced myself it was enough to last until sunrise.
The car came to a dead stop at the edge of a wind farm. The sky was just light enough I could see the outlines of the white turbines staggered across the hilly desert. Their propellers whooshed in slow circles, red lights blinking in unison through the whole field.
Electricity, electricity everywhere, but not a spark for me.
Aunt Melissa was still asleep, so I quietly shut my door and walked behind the car to face east. Any minute now, the sun would be up. All I had to do was wait until the world turned. I raised my arms overhead and began a sun salutation on the silent, empty road.
I didn’t hear the passenger door. I didn’t hear her rummaging through the bags. I didn’t hear the crunch of her feet on the desert dirt. But I did hear the shot as I stepped into a warrior pose, and my heart nearly seized with the sound. Then a second shot. By the time I spotted her outline, she was over the fence and halfway up the hill toward the closest turbine, with the gun aimed at it. I vaulted the fence and ran toward her. The third bullet ricocheted off the turbine’s tower and zinged past me. I dropped to the ground as she fired off several more.
Peeking up in the half-light, I could almost see what she saw: the great stilt-legged machines the aliens had used to crash through our cities.
“They’re only turbines!” I yelled when she’d emptied her clip. “The war’s over!” Except I knew the war wasn’t really over. It still raged in Aunt Melissa, and in the cells and minds of everyone who had been Exposed, everyone who had been affected, everyone who had lost something important because of it.
Brushing dust from my clothes, I got to my feet and looked around for her, but the dips and mounds of the uneven land, the towering saguaros, and the thick turbine towers made it difficult to see where she’d gone. The sky was paling, but the sun still lingered below the horizon. I wandered beneath the turbines, a blubbering mess, shouting her name.
The sun reached a single ray across the horizon, and then a second, and a third. But to what purpose, now? I wasn’t leaving without her. When the top rim of the sun appeared and I still hadn’t found her, I wandered back toward the car. At the base of the turbine she’d fired at, I found the gun in the dirt beside a creosote bush. I bent to retrieve it, and blinked up into the sunlight.
That’s when I saw her.
The webbing had grown across her whole body, attaching her to the side of the turbine. Her face looked serene behind the thin veil, as though she were asleep.
I was too late. The only thing to do was call Dr. Acacia and tell her I had failed.
The phone was already ringing when I pulled it from my bag. The doctor’s face appeared on my screen. “We almost made it,” I told her. I smeared the tears and mucus off my own face as best I could, and then walked back over to show her Aunt Melissa in the chrysalis.
“The location is inconvenient, to be sure, but the process is identical to what we’ve been seeing for the last couple of days.”
She put me on hold for a moment, and when she came back on screen she assured me an emergency team would be there to meet us in about an hour and a half.
“Is she dead?” I croaked.
“There are several here at the EERF currently encased. We’ve been monitoring their vital signs and they are alive. They seem to be undergoing some kind of transformation. It is possible they could break free of the chrysalis when it’s complete.”
“As…an alien?” I could think of no crueler irony than her emerging transformed into one of the very beings who had attacked us. My eyes flicked toward the car, where I’d tossed the gun onto the back seat. I didn’t know how to use it, didn’t even know how to check if it still had ammunition. Could I bring myself to use it if she came out transformed?
The doctor’s frown deepened. She ran a hand across her face. “I wish I could put your mind at ease, Erin, but the truth is we don’t know.”
She encouraged me to go to the closest town to eat and rest, but I shook my head. “I’m not leaving her. Especially now.” She was still my last living relative until I had definitive proof otherwise.
The wait was excruciating. I walked in circles for a while, then jogged half a mile down the highway and back, stretched quads and calves against the side of the car, but none of it brought me any relief. So I sat cross-legged on the ground, and tried to embrace the one part of yoga class I had never enjoyed or understood: silent meditation.
Movement had meant healing for me, but I knew that wasn’t always the case. Bones needed to set, blood cells needed to clot. My shoulders ached, my hips begged me to get up and walk around, but I stayed. All around me was movement—the hot desert air spun the propellers of the turbines; the world turned, sending the sun across the sky. I sat, as still as the rocks, as rooted as the cacti, watching Aunt Melissa. She appeared still as well, but if what Dr. Acacia said was true, there was movement happening beneath those webs: blood pumping, breath flowing, perhaps cells growing and rearranging.
I heard the helicopter blades beating the air, but I waited until the engine dulled and boots crunched on the earth before I stood to greet them.
The pain was a tight fist gripping my upper back like an animal carried by the scruff, radiating down through every nerve in my body. I stood, stretching, twisting, and rolling to bring it back down to a tolerable level. My head, aside from the base of my skull, was surprisingly spared.
Eight soldiers in full Hazmat suits formed a half circle around the turbine, rifles clutched in gloved hands. I turned away, hands on my knees, suddenly sure I was going to be sick. A hand gently touched my back and I looked up. Dr. Acacia’s eyes were full of sympathy. She led me toward the helicopter. I reluctantly followed, and after a moment, the nausea passed.
She handed me a fresh orange. I peeled and ate it while she ran tests on me, checking to see if I had been Exposed. The citrus tasted sharp. It was an effort to swallow, but when I was finished, I craved another.
Dr. Acacia held up a vial, squinting at it in the light. “You seem to be clear.”
I jutted my chin toward the chrysalis. “How long will she be like that?”
She tucked the vial into a case and snapped it shut. “Some of the Exposed at the EERF have been encased for several days.”
“And when they break free, the war starts over again.”
“We have almost all of them under EERF supervision,” she said, as though that was supposed to be reassuring.
She gave me a list of nearby places I could stay, but I waved her off, unwilling to leave until I absolutely had to. I hobbled toward my car. I dry-swallowed one pain pill, and held a second between my fingers for a moment before putting it back.
The soldiers yelled, and I nearly hit my head on the car door turning to see what was happening. I raced toward the turbine. The webs stretched from the inside. One of the soldiers pushed me back.
Then, an arm broke through. A distinctly human arm. I let out my breath, bounced on the balls of my feet. A second arm appeared, and then a bald head. I was too far away to make out facial features, but she was human, and that was a victory in itself.
The soldiers lowered their weapons. I tried to rush forward, but they blocked me again and let through the doctor, suited up now.
“Several days,” I called after her with a laugh. “Aunt Melissa never was the patient type.”
They took me back by the helicopter to wait. The air grew warm, but it wasn’t the unbearable heat I had expected from the desert. After nearly another hour, Dr. Acacia returned and sloughed off her suit. It had been enough time for my joy to have cycled back around to fear.
“Is she alive?”
“Yes, alive and human. In fact, the chrysalis appears to have been a healing process, initiated by the alien microbes.”
“Healing?” I nearly choked on the word.
“She has almost complete cell regeneration.” Dr. Acacia sat on the helicopter steps, peeling the suit off her legs.
“That’s great, right?”
“It is,” she agreed. “But, Erin…” She paused, eyes darting back and forth in thought. “I have a hypothesis. I need you to come with me to test it.”
She headed back toward the turbine, motioning me to follow.
I jumped up from my seat and hurried after. “Can I take her home?”
“Let’s reserve that decision for a little while.”
The soldiers moved aside to let us through. Aunt Melissa sat on a folding chair, wrapped in a silver shock blanket that reflected the sun so sharply it was nearly blinding. This close, I could see the slightly uneven bone of her skull beneath smooth skin, and stubbled tufts where her eyebrows had been. Her bare feet were crossed at the ankles, swinging below the chair. She looked about ten years younger.
“We need to get you a hat,” I said. Her eyes turned to me, but her expression was fearful.
“More new people,” she said.
“Um.” I swallowed hard, my stomach sinking. I knelt in front of her. “Aunt Melissa, it’s me, Erin. Don’t you recognize me?”
She stopped swinging her legs and shook her head. “I’m sorry. I just woke up. Everything’s new.”
I stumbled away as though she had slapped me. I ran until I reached the car, and leaned my head in my arms, heaving great, shuddering breaths.
“I’m sorry.” Dr. Acacia’s voice came from beside me a few moments later.
“Does she remember anything?”
“She has basic language and motor skills, as you saw, but she doesn’t appear to remember details about her life or the world. I thought your presence might trigger her recall, but…”
I turned around, leaning my back against the car. “Her memories will come back, though, right?”
“We don’t know. Erin, she’s the first person to emerge from the chrysalis. We think the direct sunlight may have accelerated the process. But if the cell regeneration occurred in her brain too, all her synaptic pathways may have been rewritten.”
“So she’s not even herself anymore.”
Dr. Acacia didn’t reply. The aliens had taken everyone from me now. She was still here, but without the experiences that had shaped who she was, without our shared past, she would be someone different. There was so much I had never asked, so many stories now unrecoverable. I would never know what had happened with the goat, I would never hear all the war stories I’d been waiting to ask her about, waiting until she’d…healed.
I had always depended on others to be the storytellers—Aunt Melissa, my father, my grandmother: they had all told their stories to me, and I had received them gratefully, but rarely given any back. Now I would have to tell them to her, decide which parts to include, which parts to leave out, how to paint the life and history she didn’t remember. How to decide which parts I wanted her to know. But hearing the stories isn’t the same as living through them, and unless her memories returned, telling them to her wouldn’t recreate who she’d been.
I wanted her back—I wanted them all back—but I knew that this was a good thing for her. She’d finally found that miracle cure she’d been looking for. Perhaps with all her physical and emotional pains forgotten, the war could truly be over for her.
“Can I take her home?” I stared straight ahead.
Dr. Acacia studied my face. “We need to do some tests at the EERF, but after that, if nothing else changes, you should be able to take her back to Denver and check in with us regularly the way you have been.”
“Okay,” I nearly whispered.
They loaded her into the helicopter, and it thunked noisily into the western sky. I slid behind the wheel of the car. It had a full charge now from sitting out in the sun for half a day. The computer showed the route and the time left to San Diego, only a few hours to go.
I started the engine and pulled onto the long, empty road. A few hours before I could rendezvous with them at the EERF. A few hours to be utterly alone with my grief. Not enough time to mourn what I had lost, but I wanted to do my best once I met up with Melissa—the new Melissa—to leave the past behind and move forward together.
Copyright 2018 Sarena Ulibarri
About the Author
Sarena Ulibarri is a graduate of the Clarion Fantasy and Science Fiction Writers Workshop at UCSD, and earned an MFA from the University of Colorado, Boulder. Her fiction has appeared in Lightspeed, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, Weirdbook, and elsewhere. She edited the anthology Glass and Gardens: Solarpunk Summers, and manages World Weaver Press. Find more at SarenaUlibarri.com, or on Twitter @SarenaUlibarri.