The aliens landed outside his hospital window. He had been staring out the window, unable to sleep, when the blue light atomic-blasted the sky. It cast a conical spotlight, widening, descending.
Is this it? he thought. The end result to all this senseless cruelty?
He had been in the hospital for a week. Three months earlier, his skin began yellowing and he wasn’t able to eat. He suspected hepatitis, having just been to his daughter’s wedding, where a hundred people shared close quarters in the woods for three days. But the doctor’s visit revealed pancreatic cancer. He had two to four months to live at its current progression.
There were a few things to be done. Nothing would save his life, but he could prolong it and stave off suffering. An immediate necessity was to insert something called a stent in his bile duct, where the tumor had obstructed passage and was causing the poor digestion and jaundice. The operation was a success, and he felt better.
While inserting the stent, the surgeon was able to examine the tumor and decided it might be operable. This, she said, would add at least two years to his life, and in some cases, as many as five. At sixty-eight years old, this felt like an enormous blessing. For the surgery to be possible, he would need to undergo a short round of chemotherapy—just enough to shrink the tumor: three to four weeks. Though he didn’t want to grasp at miracle cures, it sounded promising. He agreed, if mostly to appease his wife and daughter.
After the chemo, he was one week away from having surgery when his temperature spiked and he began vomiting. The area around his stent had become infected with a form of strep. The surgeon cleaned it out, but the infection had spread to his heart and lungs. He would have to remain in the hospital until it cleared. His surgery was postponed.
His wife stayed the first night with him, her body curled kidney-bean-like in an armchair. It was good having her there, hearing the regular high wheeze of her snore, but the comfort was somewhat negated by an awareness of his selfishness. Hospitals are not places for the healthy.
The next night he told her to go home.
“What if something happens in the middle of the night?” she asked. “I feel so useless at the house. I’m cleaning all the time. And the bed is lopsided without you.”
His hand rested in her lap. She massaged the skin between his fingers.
“Let me at least wash you before I leave,” she suggested.
“That’s what the nurses are for.”
That was a wounding thing to say, but necessary. There was an ascetic pleasure in the emptiness of the room after she left. He was alone with his suffering. He imagined monks in mountain temples felt like this—the bitter joy of renunciation.
So here he was. The fever had abated, but he was not entirely lucid. The shadows and light of his room undulated like sea-phantoms. He was constantly thirsty. The blankets were starchy and too-thin-too-thick. Tomorrow, his daughter would fly in to visit. But he was alone now.
Outside his window was a big field. He thought it was odd that there was an empty field so close to a hospital. Did the hospital own the property? Did they plan on expanding their facilities? At night, the woods beyond jutted with toothy menace. He asked the nurses about the field, but they didn’t know and lacked his curiosity.
The alien ship landed in the field. When it shut off its landing lights, which until now had been dazzling him with their blue cone, he was confused. What kind of alien vessel was this? With its curves of ethereal white, it looked more like a giant egg than a spaceship. How did such a thing fly? But he decided he liked it, sitting there in the exact center of the field, asking nothing, demanding nothing, answering to no one.
These aliens could stay as long as they wanted.
He spent the rest of the night—until dawn illuminated the flat brown nothing of the field—staring at the egg, hoping for the aliens to emerge. But the shell remained unbroken. He drifted off to sleep and was woken up two hours later by the nurse changing an IV bag. The thing he missed most about being healthy: uninterrupted sleep. Whether it was a family member visiting, one of his dozen doctors explaining something, or simply his physical discomfort keeping him awake, it was difficult to get the eight hours he needed.
He considered telling the nurse about the aliens, but as he was opening his mouth, something remarkable happened.
DO NOT TELL HER ABOUT US.
The thought was not his own. It came through his mind and in the cadence of his interior voice, but with a brassy and sudden violence. His thoughts had grown fuzzy, but this was emergency-broadcast-system-clear. The nurse stopped attaching the IV to scrutinize him. A thin woman with a pointy nose and pretty light-brown eyes.
“Feeling all right?”
“Given the circumstances,” he managed to reply.
“I can get you something. Don’t let pride make you suffer. We all know you’re a big strong man.”
A feeble imitation of a smile. “Now that you mention it, I do have this tumor inside me. You wouldn’t be willing to pop in there and take it out, would you?”
She patted him on the arm, an acknowledgement of his sporting attempt at humor. She finished hooking up the bag with shaky fingers.
“I would if I could,” she said.
“Yeah, yeah. That’s what all the ladies say.”
When she left, he returned to looking at the spaceship. The eggshell—or more precisely, a previously invisible door in the ship, perfectly circular—had opened. He sat up straight, careful not to pull out his new IV line. He was too weak to stand, otherwise he might have wheeled the whole contraption with its bags and tubes to the window.
bsp; There was a flicker inside the ship, and three large shapes emerged. As they stepped out of the shadows, the mid-morning sun rising behind them, their features became clear. He was disappointed, almost offended. What kind of aliens were these?
They were doctors—or rather, aliens dressed as doctors. They were at least three times the size of normal doctors, but they wore white medical coats. And their heads… there was no getting around it—they had the heads of giant roosters. Their bright red wattles gleamed in the precise winter light. Their combed skulls made long, sock-puppet-like shadows on the wounded gray earth.
Space roosters, he thought. I never would have guessed.
GREETINGS, the outside voice said again, ripping tidally through his skull. WE HAVE COME FROM AFAR.
The voice was layered, with a jaggedness at its edges that made him certain that all three space roosters were speaking—or more accurately, thinking—the same words at him.
WE WISH TO OFFER YOU AID. AID AND SUCCOR.
Yes! he communicated back. That is precisely what I need.
DO AS WE SAY, AND IT SHALL BE YOURS.
Anything, he thought at them.
The roosters re-entered the egg, the door closing behind them aperture-like. He was upset by the blankness it left, both on the egg’s curve and in the crevices of his mind. He had so many questions. He thought long and hard at the ship, asking the aliens please to return, but they did not.
Later, his wife and daughter visited. His daughter brought pictures of her wedding, which was just before he was diagnosed. It had been held at a campsite in the mountains of Georgia. The guests stayed in rustic cabins surrounded by late-fall foliage. Looking at the photos, he saw the wedding as the last good moment of his life—as if the torch of happiness and health had been passed along to his daughter and her husband via this ceremony of adulthood. That seemed right to him, though also sad.
There was one photo he looked at longer than the others: he and his wife were dancing in the gazebo, the moon peach-colored above them. Perhaps the color of the moon was an illusion created by the multicolored lights of the gazebo. His wife’s silver-braceleted wrists rested on his shoulders, and she gazed up at him in mid-laughter. There was an adulation in her face he hadn’t seen in years.
“What is it, Daddy?” his daughter asked.
“I was just remembering. I was young. Your mom and I. Everyone was young.”
His wife’s face pulled tight. Please, no. He didn’t want anyone to cry for him; it reminded him of the depth of his helplessness. Out the window, the eggshell reopened. The three space roosters emerged, shoulder to shoulder in the late evening light. His wife, perhaps because of her tears, did not see them. And his daughter was busy consoling her.
He remembered their promise: aid and succor. He wanted to tell his wife and daughter the good news.
YOU MUST NOT.
“I’m feeling much better today,” he said to his daughter, who was looking at him in the eager dependent way of children everywhere. “The doctor says it might be possible to reschedule the surgery.”
Both statements were true. A day later, the infection fully in check, he was able to leave the hospital. He did so with a twinge of regret, wondering if the aliens would still help him.
Now came the good time, the blessed time, the lull before surgery. He played board games with his family, he worked on his memoir. His goal was to write down everything, no matter how trivial. There was nothing trivial. Everything had value in its concrete actuality. He thought almost not at all of space roosters.
This is a rare state, his intuition told him, and he felt almost lucky. He went into the surgery with a superstitiously muted hope—believing that if he looked at it too directly, it would evaporate like dew in the morning sun. The anesthesiologist listened to his concerns, acquiescing to his desire that she use his pre-existing pick-line to administer her knockout drugs. She asked him questions about his life and family.
Her daughter lived in his neighborhood.
“She’s about your daughter’s age. Maybe we can all get together sometime for dinner.”
“Surgery tends to make me nauseated.”
“When you regain your appetite then.” She smiled at each of them, at his wife and daughter in nearby chairs and then him. “We’re all rooting for you.”
As she said this—such an apparently well-intentioned statement—her head elongated. Her chin drooped, and her mouth grew sharp and beaklike. She was one of them, but instead of the promised aid and succor, she meant menace. He flailed in his sinking ship of a bed, unable to fight his way out.
“It’s okay, Daddy,” his daughter said.
His mouth gaped, helpless and fish-like. He was wheeled into pre-surgery, and a coppery fluid was applied to his pick-line. The anesthesiologist towered over him, a flash of red waddle and strutting movements, a bobbing of head and limbs.
BE AT PEACE. WE ARE HERE TO HELP.
Once he was awake and lucid, there was a different normal-sized doctor. His wife and daughter were brought into the post-op. The doctor had bad news: the cancer had metastasized to his liver. The potential benefits of the surgery were now outweighed by the risks and recovery time.
“We feel, given the circumstances, that there’s little utility in pursuing the surgery,” the doctor concluded.
“So that’s it then?” his daughter said. “There must be something else we can do. There just has to be.”
“Honey,” he said.
Though he comforted her, he felt the indignation of betrayal. These aliens had come to him; he had not asked for them. He had done as requested, and what had they given him in return?
Two months later, he was
back in the hospital. In the interim there had been more chemo—palliative instead of curative. He had good moments. Once, he was able to spend an entire afternoon in the garden, shoveling compost and admiring the red worms turning inside. The sun leaked through his ashy skin, illuminating the blue veins where blood still circulated. He shaved his beard, wanting to admit his physical changes instead of hiding them.
But soon he was unable to eat again. They suspected an adverse reaction to the chemo and scaled it back to twice a month instead of weekly. They checked for another blocked stent. Eventually they discovered the cause: his pyloric sphincter was obstructed by a tumor. Food could not exit his stomach in its path down his digestive tract. His body sent it back up, but not without hours, or even days, of misery first. He tried a tablespoon of sugar, held it in his mouth, hoping to absorb a few calories. He vomited bile and blood. There was nothing to do. Intravenous feeding would ruin his lone working kidney. His face became a carnival mask, his body a scarecrow. Everyone around him acted like nothing had changed, their sorrow and fear apparent only through the circumspection of their words.
When he checked into the hospital, he was surprised to be given his same room. But he was not surprised at what he saw out the window. He dug in deep, seeking the strength for a final confrontation.
You promised me! he yelled without speaking.
The roosters had gathered in the wide field, numbering in the hundreds now. Their white lab coats were removed, and there was no longer the pretense that they were doctors.
WE OFFERED YOU AID AND SUCCOR. WE HAVE PROVIDED AS MUCH AS WE CAN.
What have you provided me? A moment of false hope?
LOOK AROUND YOU, their infuriatingly steady voice said. WE HAVE GIVEN YOU EVERYTHING.
He thought back on his life, considering whether this was true. His daughter was outside the room, talking to a nurse. Her husband, a kindly young man, had arrived. His wife had left to get the three of them—the healthy ones who could still eat—something from the cafeteria. Now, ten years from now—did it ultimately matter? Of course it did. As much as he was suffering, he wanted to live.
A last weak gasp: it was not enough. It would never be enough. Not for him, not for anyone. This was their secret, the purpose of their visitation.
WE ARE WITH YOU.
DO NOT BE AFRAID.
The egg’s smooth shell began to crack.