James Daniel Walsh
TAPIO OPENED his eyes. There was only darkness, and the distant hum of a strange engine. He sat up on the hard metal slab he called a bed and rubbed his eyes. A yawn stretched his mouth, his jaw clicking painfully. He could taste his breath. His teeth were coated in his last ten thousand meals, the rotting bone slimy and soft. He ran his tongue over his teeth in a vein attempt to clean them, but his tongue was just as disgusting. Next time he was abducted by aliens he should remember to bring his tooth brush.
“What time is it?” he moaned, his voice swallowed up in the huge metallic room.
“There is no time in space.”
Tapio groaned in frustration. Every time. “Earth time,” he clarified. “Pacific Standard.”
“Lovely,” he said with a further yawn. “Turn the lights on.”
The room was suddenly flooded with an intense illumination that blinded Tapio. The light cut through his eyes, seared his still drowsy mind. He hated this goddamn literal minded machine. No matter how many years passed in this cold metal room he never adapted to it’s way of thinking.
“Too bright!” he growled, and the strange buzzing light dimmed and quieted.
Tapio’s eyes adjusted to his all too familiar environment. Nothing had changed. Nothing ever changed, only the content of his food bowl. The creatures that kept him here never emptied his bowl until he had polished off every last morsel. The odd shaped metal bowl sat beside his bed, still half full. Flies buzzed around its contents, putting him off the thought of eating. How did flies get up here with him? Were they alien flies? Or perhaps distant descendants of an earth fly that may have been sucked up into the ship in the same beam of light that captured poor Tapio?
The rest of the room never changed. The walls were spherical, and surrounded him in a great circle that stretched for exactly nine-hundred-thirty-eight of his foot steps. The metal was not cold but radiated a low grade heat. The color was not one found on earth, nor did it even resemble one. One could not say the color was “greenish” or “reddish” or “brownish.” This was an entirely new color which defied description. There were no rivets in the walls, no scratches, no break from the monotony of shiny metal. There wasn’t even a door. The creatures, when they brought him his food, passed through the metal like ghosts. They too defied description, their forms utterly contradictory to his eyes. Tapio chose not to look at them any more when they entered, lest his mind reel from what he saw and slip away from him again.
“Are you hungry?”
“No,” Tapio said.
“You should eat something, you have not eaten in three days.”
Tapio gave a sideways glance to his food bowl. A bold fly was crawling across the rim, unsure about the contents inside.
“I’m not hungry,” he said with a curled lip.
“Your body requires sustenance for it’s survival,” the voice said, no hint of worry in it’s tinny voice, no inflection of emotion whatsoever. “If you do not eat you will perish prior to your arrival on Alpha Centauri Prime.”
“Yeah, what a goddamn shame that would be,” Tapio laughed. “I would hate it if you missed out on the chance to torture me to death.”
The voice did not respond. He supposed it didn’t see the logic in furthering the conversation. These beings, whatever they were, were oh so logical. Everything was literal for them, concepts like sarcasm escaped them no matter how long they observed him for. The first night they had him aboard the ship they poked and prodded him, drew blood and spinal fluid. Since then he spent every day like a bug in a jar, their eyes always on him, observing but never understanding.
Tapio hummed a tune he half remembered, tapping his fingers against the cold metal of his bed. “So,” he wondered out loud, “what’s on the agenda for today?”
“You have asked this every time you wake up for the last three-thousand-five-hundred-sixty days,” replied the cold, metallic voice. “My answer is always the same.”
“I know, I know,” Tapio sighed, then repeated back the same answer he always got from the formless voice. “Observation and study of human specimen while en route to Alpha Centauri Prime.”
Tapio smirked. How could he ever hope to explain to his incorporeal friend why he asked this question every day? He didn’t even really know himself. Maybe it was just to remind himself that this blank, empty room he was kept in wasn’t, in reality, a padded cell in some hospital. Maybe it was. Maybe he was insane, talking to himself. Would’t that be a lucky twist of fate? A hospital would have no plans to experiment on him, to, as the voice referred to it, test the limits of human endurance. A hospital wouldn’t dissect him, leave him in pieces on a cold metal slab to be picked over by curious creatures from another world.
The voice once told him that he was not the first alien life form these beings had snatched up for study, simply the first human. Lucky him, he was the big winner. Of the seven billion people wandering around the planet earth, he gets the close encounter. He never even believed in aliens as a kid, never watched science fiction movies. That was always his younger brother, Juho. When they grew up in Finland it was Juho who ran around in his Star Trek uniform, quoting the opening lines of the show verbatim, much to Tapio’s embarrassment.
Mom moved them to the American midwest when Tapio was fourteen, relocating he and Juho so she could work in her firm’s main office. Life wasn’t easy, being the new kid not only in school but on the continent. Juho found it particularly difficult after he came out as bisexual. Tapio got into more fights with backwards Nebraska rednecks fond of the word “faggot” than he could remember. The two brothers had each others backs, never let the kids who giggled at their accents get to them. Well, not outwardly, any way. Inside Tapio’s confidence was shaken, and though he would never admit to it he doubted himself more than anyone could know.
That all changed when he met McKenzie. He joined a dating website when he was in his early twenties. She sent him a “wink.” The two spent the next week speaking all night till dawn would break up the conversation. He was never so tired in his entire life, yet never so energized. For their first date he went all out, buying tickets to see David Bowie, her favorite musician, in concert. They met up before the show, had coffee, made small talk that was far more awkward than anything they ever said on the phone together. Seeing each other face to face after such intimate conversations was like seeing each other naked. Yet sometime between coffee and Bowie’s second chorus on “Starman,” McKenzie worked up the courage to take his hand, and he worked up the courage to kiss her. That was the first greatest night of his life. Every night after that with the woman who became his wife and the mother of his child was better than the one before.
Tapio smiled and hung his head, looking at the tattered T-shirt he wore. McKenzie bought it for him at that concert. He asked her not to, a macho need to pay for everything on the date leading him to almost beg her to put her wallet away. She insisted. He rarely wore the shirt, wanting to preserve it as a memento. Thank God he ran out of clean clothes the day he was abducted. The image on the gray shirt, of a slick-haired Bowie with milky white eyes, was faded and old, but wearing it made him feel as if McKenzie wasn’t so far away.
The smile on Tapio’s face faded as a thought entered his mind. “Wait, go back a second,” he muttered. “How many days did you say I’ve been here?”
“Jesus Christ,” Tapio gasped, his poor math skills trying to add up those days into years. “How long is that?”
“I mean in earth years,” Tapio demanded.
“Nine years, three months.”
The number hit Tapio in the stomach like a baseball bat. “Ten years,” he muttered in disbelief. “You’ve had me in this goddamn room for ten years.”
“Nine years, three months,” the voice corrected.
All this time, Tapio had no idea how long had passed since he was taken. His watch broke long ago. There was nothing to mark the time passing, and it never occurred to him to ask the computer what year it was. Maybe he was afraid to know the answer.
“I’m thirty-six-years-old, aren’t I?” he asked, more to himself than to the computer. “I don’t know what month it is.”
“On earth it would be January.”
“January 18,” he repeated. “My birthday was just a couple of weeks ago. I’m thirty-six. That means my son is going to be ten next month. Ten-years-old.” Tapio chuckled and shook his head. “Jesus, when I was taken my wife was just three weeks till her due date. She was so big, always complaining, Get this kid out of me!”
Tapio laughed hard and loud. In mid laugh, with no warning whatsoever, a mighty sob over took him. He fell out of bed, hitting the hard metal floor with a thud. His eyes flooded and spilled down his face sideways, more tears than he knew it was possible to shed.
“Why are you doing this to me?” he wept, the words barely passing his lips. “Why can’t I just go home?”
The voice answered him with a familiar string of words. “Mission priority one: Observation and study of human species while en route to Alpha Centauri Prime. Mission priority two: Upon arrival on Alpha Centauri Prime test the the limits of human endurance. Mission priority three: Upon termination of human specimen, collect and preserve all vital organs, fluid, and bone marrow samples for further study.”
The words passed over Tapio like a cold gust of wind. No feeling in them. No remorse. His tears meant nothing to this computer, nor did they mean anything to his captors who were undoubtedly watching him. He suddenly felt more isolated than he knew he ever could, and all the more so because he was not alone.
“I want to go home,” he balled, the words almost lost to the choking tears. “Why won’t you let me go home?”
“Mission priority one: Observation and study of human specimen—”
“Shut up!” Tapio screamed, bolting up right, wet eyes suddenly ablaze. “Shut up! Shut the fuck up!”
The room was silent but for the slightest echo of Tapio’s rage. Tears fell down his trembling face, soaking his beard, but he did not make a sound. He just waited. Waited for the computer to say something. What was he expecting? An apology? Some sort of angry response? Nothing came. Nothing ever came.
“Ten years you’ve studied me,” Tapio growled, breaking the silence. “What have you learned? Nothing! Not a fucking thing! What, you know my sleep habits? You know how much of that flavorless paste you call food I can stomach? You know the consistency of my shit? What does that tell you about my species? You know nothing more about us than when you snatched me off that road.”
“Studying you has provided terabytes of data on humanity,” the computer replied. It was as close to an argument as Tapio was likely to get.
“I’m not a relative sample of the human race. No such thing exists. We’re each different.” The room was quiet again as Tapio’s breathing steadied, his mind racing for an example. He found one and spit it out like bullets from a tommy gun. “You know, most of the time parents find out the gender of their babies and give the kid a name before they’re ever born. Not me. I insisted that we not name the baby until we held him for the first time. McKenzie wanted to, but I kept saying, ‘No, we have to see him first, look into his eyes. We can’t just decide he’s a William or a David or a Michael, not without meeting him first.’”
Fond memories gave way to further bitterness. He was so fucking stupid. Ten years on and he didn’t know his son’s name. Bad enough he never got to see him, never got to hold him, but Tapio didn’t even know what to call him.
“My whole life,” he said, sniffing back tears, crawling back to the bed where he slumped down. “You took away my whole fucking life. I had a dog, he’s probably dead by now. McKenzie is probably re-married. After ten years why wouldn’t she be?”
The thought made Tapio blush with anger. Some other man lying in bed with McKenzie. What did she say to him? Did she say she loved him more than any other man? She used to laugh at Tapio’s dumb jokes, does she laugh for this new fella now? Does she say he’s the sweetest man? She used to call Tapio that. Is he better in bed? Does he make her cum the way Tapio did? Does he…?
Tapio beat his fists against his head, howling in hellish agony. The thought, once conjured up, was inescapable. McKenzie’s moans. Her taste. The way her nipples hardened at his touch. The way a kiss to just the right spot on the back of her neck was a sure fire way to get her in bed. All these intimacies and a thousand more, reserved, she promised, just for him. Was there someone else enjoying them now? Someone, perhaps, that she loved even more?
“You want to know what she said to me?” Tapio muttered in hushed tones. “She told me she would love me for the rest of her life. She told me she would die without me.” He laughed bitterly. “I’m sure she hasn’t. Here I am, hating myself for having the nerve to continue breathing without her, and I am willing to bet that she’s forgotten me completely. We always say shit like that on earth, that we love each other and could never love another and couldn’t live without one another. We say it because it’s pretty, because that’s what people say to each other in movies. Then we just move on and forget, as if those promises were never made.”
Tapio lowered himself back down onto the slab. His insides felt as if they were tearing, shredding, caught in the turbines of some great machine. Maybe he was wrong. Maybe McKenzie never gave up on him, and there was a candle burning in the window where his son watched and waited every night, hoping for his father’s return. Not likely though. That’s not how people work. If he was lucky McKenzie carried a scar from the loss of him—songs she still couldn’t listen to or places she avoided because they went together. Even that was wishful thinking. The two of them weren’t even together three years, they were now apart more than triple that time. While Tapio had nothing to move on to, McKenzie had work, friends, and their child. Why give a second thought to someone long gone?
“My boy probably has a new dad,” Tapio said to himself, then sighed bitterly. “What am I saying, new dad. The only dad he ever would have known. Probably even calls him dad. I wonder if McKenzie keeps a picture of me out. Probably not. Wouldn’t want to shatter the perfect little life they’ve built, where she’s mommy and he’s daddy. Better to just pretend I never existed. My son might not even know about me. Maybe McKenzie lied to him. Maybe she met this new guy right away and they raised my boy together and he was never even told about me.”
There was no response from the computer. What response could it offer? It had no idea what Tapio was feeling. This cold, uncaring, unfeeling thing. How could it ever understand him, or people? How could it ever understand that these thoughts he had, these truths he now believed with no other evidence than his jealous heart, could feel as real to him as whatever instruments of torture they planned to use on him when he reached their home world.
Tapio rolled onto his back and starred up at the ceiling. “Are you observing this?” he asked angrily. “Are you paying close fucking attention? Are you taking notes? This is people. This is humanity. We’re petty and jealous. We imagine the worst even when we have no reason to. You looking close? Look in my eyes and you’ll see what I’m all about. I’ve lost everything. Everything was taken from me, my whole life. Everything I loved, the future I had planned. All I have left is this ratty old Bowie shirt.”
No response, only his final words faintly echoing back to him. Ratty old Bowie shirt.
His mind suddenly ground to a halt, and he looked down at the ragged remains of McKenzie’s gift to him. “What will happen to this shirt once you’ve killed me?” he asked.
The voice responded, “We have no use for earth garments. It will be incinerated.”
Tapio swallowed hard. “No, wait, don’t do that,” he said desperately. “Look, this is my favorite shirt. I took my wife to see Bowie live on our first date. This shirt… This may be all that’s left of me. Please don’t burn it.”
The voice responded, “We have no use for earth garments. It will be incinerated.”
Tapio sat up, wrapping his arms around himself as if to protect the shirt. “You people must have museums. Maybe you could keep it there, like in a glass case. You could have my name on a little display card next to it. People could come see it, learn how earth people dressed.”
The voice responded, “We have no use for earth gar—”
“Stop! Wait!” Tapio interrupted, increasingly desperate. “I can’t just vanish! I can’t just disappear without a trace! Jesus Christ, please God, just don’t burn my shirt! Please! It’s the only proof I was ever here, it’s all I have left. You took my wife, you took my son, you’re going to take my life. Just don’t burn my shirt!”
The voice responded, “We have no use for earth garments. It will be incinerated.”
The rage returned, and Tapio was on his feet. “Fuck you!” he screamed, his fists balled up though there was no one to strike. “Fuck you! I fucking hate you! I fucking hate you! I fucking hate you!”
Just as suddenly as the rage seized him it melted away into further tears. He sank to his knees, head hung in submission, hands holding tightly to Bowie’s face.
“I fucking hate you,” he sobbed. “Please don’t burn my shirt. Please, God, I fucking hate you, please don’t burn my shirt, please.”
There was silence in the room but for Tapio’s sobs bouncing off the walls and washing over him. He waited for a response from the computer, some shred of mercy or compassion. However, as these things so often go in life, the simplest of wishes from one lonely man was ignored.
“You should eat something,” the voice said to him with utter indifference. “You have not eaten in three days.”
Look for this story and others in Manic Expression: A Collection – Ghosts now on sale.
Copyright © 2017 by James Daniel Walsh. Library of Congress Control Number: 2008903178 ISBN: 978-1-5215-0387-4 (Softcover)
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the copyright owner.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to any actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.