Leland Neville’s “Ravenous Particles”
Leland Neville is a writer from upstate New York. Some of his stories have been published in: Sobotka Literary Review, STORGY Magazine, Space Squid, and The Barcelona Review.
Without further ado, and with both great pleasure and honor, we present you his story:
Mia was conceived inside a reconditioned two-seater spacecraft midway between Terzan Four and Earth. Mom and Dad, more bored than impassioned, were still gray spume beings, formless, limitless, and immortal.
“You were this tiny and frothy dollop of wonder,” said Mom. “You sparkled. Dad couldn’t keep his eyes off my belly.”
“Don’t get full of yourself,” said Dad.
Mia loved the story about their journey to Earth and insisted on it being recited at least once a week during her childhood.
(When Mia, however, began identifying narrative discrepancies during her seventh year on Earth, Mom and Dad reproached her for asking too many questions and steadfastly refused to ever tell the story again.)
“I really like the part about the crash and then the cave,” said Mia.
“For some crazy reason your Dad took it upon himself to neutralize the autonomous pilot,” said Mom. “Maybe it was space fever.”
“We agreed to stop talking about that,” said Dad.
“Here comes the exciting part,” said Mia.
“If we had been human beings instead of spume beings we probably would have died in the crash,” said Mom.
“You’re being overly dramatic,” said Dad. “We just skidded in the mud.”
“We found ourselves six miles east of Batavia, New York near a dairy farm. And we didn’t know cows from buses.”
“We knew what cows were,” said Dad. “We had brushed up on Earth trivia before we left Terzan Four”
“Most of our spacecraft ended up at the bottom of a cow pond. We started walking. It was tough going. There were sharp rocks and cow dung everywhere. We needed shelter. We began mutating into humans. I was becoming a pregnant Earthling, as if I didn’t have enough to worry about. Think about that for a minute.”
“Batavia was nice,” said Dad. “Very welcoming.”
“Did it hurt to become human?” said Mia.
“It was mostly itchy,” said Mom. “No one itches on Terzen Four.”
“The rain was warm and gentle,” said Dad.
“Is that when you found the cave?” said Mia. “I love this part.”
“Yes. We hunkered down for a week. We completed our transformation into human bodies. I gave birth to you in that muddy cave surrounded by strange Earth beasts.”
“Did that hurt?”
“It did, Mia. Since there is no physical pain on Terzan Four, I had no idea how painful pain could be. But then, suddenly, I was the mother of the most beautiful spume baby ever.”
“Yes,” said Mia.
“But then you started changing, right before my eyes. One minute you were this perfect gray translucent spume tot and the next minute you were a loud, helpless, chubby poop machine. We even called you stinky. And did you ever cry. But at least you kept the beasts away from the cave.”
“Was I a pretty baby?”
“I think average,” said Mom. “I’ve always had trouble distinguishing between humans, especially the little ones.”
(Mom, Mia realized years later, had inexplicably transformed into a facsimile of Greta Kaufman, the Olympic soccer standout. Dad transformed into a smaller copy of the New York Mets backup catcher Mack Mays. Neither Mom nor Dad ever recognized the resemblance, even when remarked upon by affable strangers. Indeed, they both struggled to distinguish between all humans, including neighbors. This consistent inadequacy did give some credibility to their alien roots narrative, although prosopagnosia, a neurological disorder characterized by the inability to recognize faces, cannot be ruled out.)
There were no angry farmers with sharpened pitchforks on the trek into the town of Batavia. A friendly old man driving a pickup truck did transport the naked strangers to a Goodwill box where Mom and Dad found appropriate clothes. (Dad frequently wore the Buffalo Bills sweatshirt for years to come.) As the new arrivals traversed the crumbling brick sidewalks of Batavia, more than a few gregarious women stopped to adore the infant Mia and even give the unkempt family handfuls of coins.
“They didn’t seem to mind your stink,” said Mom. “These women would eagerly inhale your fumes.”
“One woman offered to buy you,” said Dad. “She had one hundred dollars.”
“We were tempted,” said Mom.
(Mom and Dad had acquired passable conversational English by listening to Poe, Dickins, and Conrad stories during their Earth-bound journey. They had also learned 28 other Earth languages — just in case. Dad’s navigational skills were always questionable.)
When the bedraggled little family strayed into the public library, a gracious and approachable woman presented Dad with a book. (The Cat, by Georges Simenon remained prominently displayed in the Brooklyn apartment the family would soon occupy. The blue stamp on the inside of the front cover read: Richmond Memorial Library. Batavia, New York. Above the stamp was the black handwritten word: Discard.)
Their next stop was the Pok-a-Dot diner. They sat on the curb and experienced their first pangs of human hunger while smelling fried eggs and bacon. Mia suckled Mom’s breast.
“You were an angry eater,” said Mom. “You always seemed annoyed.”
They were approached by yet another hearty Batavian. “You just missed the bus to Buffalo. But the bus to New York City will soon be here.”
“Is that near Brooklyn?” Dad said.
“It’s pretty close.”
“That’s very fortuitous.”
(Both Mom and Dad mysteriously spoke English with a Polish accent, but the Batavian was undaunted.)
“I like your sweatshirt,” said the man, who then bought them two one-way tickets to New York City. “You’ll be better off in Brooklyn.”
“I knew it,” said Dad. “Brooklyn was our primary destination. We did some research.”
(The Pok-a-Dot diner sounds fabricated, but like the Georges Simenon novel and its Batavia pedigree stamp, it does exist. Mom and Dad did a good job at keeping the details of their past vague, sensitive to the fact that when planting questionable clues, it is always best to relate a simple narrative.)
It’s okay to love or hate your parents, but you should never feel sorry for them. And extraterrestrial parents are preferable to human ones who did a stint inside a Buffalo psychiatric center. Was Mia’s mental health just so much collateral damage in Mom and Dad’s obsession with death and the afterlife? They certainly convinced themselves that their invented otherness did not affect an innocent child.
Once Mia caught Dad unawares. He was reading The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. He had smoked his special evening weed and was also drowsy after having worked a double shift at the bodega.
“Dad, what do you miss most about Terzan Four?” It was a considerate question, not to personal or probing. Dad tilted his head and looked upwards, maybe towards where he imagined Terzan Four was orbiting a dazzling star.
“It was comfortable,” he said. “There was none of the bad stuff that is here. No ravenous particles. No foul odors. It was laidback. There was total nothingness. There was no sense of urgency, which is the way it is when you live forever. I don’t like urgency. I didn’t think about urgency until I came here.”
“Terzan Four sounds like a good place to visit for a weekend,” said Mia.
“I hate the ravenous particles that are here,” Dad said. He was becoming louder and more animated. “They perpetually prick my skin. It’s hard to concentrate. It’s like someone is trying to talk to me, but my brain is incapable of understanding the language.”
“Maybe it’s your hair growing.”
“And the particles explode inside my ears.”
“Do you have an answer for everything?” He staggered to the bedroom.
His complaints, easy at first blush to dismiss, were illuminating. Mia was a natural detective, an expert at filling in the blanks. Dad believed that if Terzan Four had come with the possibility of mortality, elegant and fluid, the journey to Earth would have been unnecessary. One day you just magically found yourself in the afterlife, a place unfathomably better than the suffocating contentment experienced on Terzan Four. Mom and Dad’s home planet was, in short, just plain boring. (Mia’s classmates were always complaining about their empty lives. Maybe sex would help. Maybe the right kind of drugs. Probably the right mixture of both. Mia, miraculously, seemed immune from the malady of boredom. There was, after all, an abundance of secrets to be unearthed and mysteries to be unraveled.)
Mom and Dad, like the American pioneers, were summoned to emigrate to Earth. Mia envisioned the spume beings on Terzan Four, living in the visionary present, dispirited world-weary creatures burdened by the collective guilt of their immortality, too jaded to devise substantive sins. “For the wages of sin is death.” (Romans 6:23) And without death there is no afterlife.
Mia’s mind never failed to distract her.
There were, of course, other ways to fill in the blanks. Mom and Dad were anti-establishment types, repelled by society’s stifling classifications. Earthling or alien, human or nonhuman, why get hung up on definitions? Eccentric parents were a major demographical component in Brooklyn and their tales about college insurrections were prosaic. But falling in love inside a mental health hospital in Buffalo was a more compelling narrative. The daring escape! The birth of Mia while Mom and Dad were on the run from sociopathic authorities! Now that’s a heartwarming story.
But conceiving a baby while inside in a spaceship should only be interpreted as a selfish act unless there were persuasive mitigating circumstances.
Midway between Earth and Terzan Four Mom and Dad began to metamorphose into humans as they adeptly navigated their way around cosmic omens. There was the onslaught of human adolescent sexual urges. Their brain matter, however, was still primarily impassive spume. They couldn’t stop themselves. They resisted stopping themselves. Mom and Dad were too overwhelmed by lust to consider the consequences of sentencing the future Mia to the life of a mortal on a noisome planet. Would there be adequate daycare centers on Earth? What are the schools like? Eluding the FBI, Interpole, and mental health care professions was excusable. Freedom is a universal desire. But convincing yourself that a spiritless quest for immortality on a backwater planet will not interfere with parental responsibilities was just impetuous and selfish.
Sorry Mom and Dad.
It should also be mentioned here that Mom and Dad were never particularly bad parents, just preoccupied with the afterlife. Many of Mia’s classmates at St. Mary’s spoke proudly about the toxicity of parents who were captivated by consumerism and status. Mia’s Mom and Dad at least believed in the more substantial calling of philosophy and truth-seeking. They remained blissfully oblivious to current fashion and popular culture. Mia’s schoolmates regularly shared internet news about parents who enjoyed mentally and physically torturing their offspring. The Daily Mail specialized in stories about chained and starving albino children who had not seen sunlight for years.
(Were the proffered photos and lurid stories an opening gambit? Were her classmates trying to befriend Mia? Was Mia, pale and thin, being afforded an opportunity to acknowledge her own abuse? Mia had little interest in acquiring friends.) The parents in the Daily Mail stories were inevitably victims themselves of execrable backgrounds awash in drug and alcohol abuse, but Mia quickly discerned from their empty eyes a malicious innate nature that had been germinating before that first sip of cherry vodka. Mia’s father enjoyed smoking weed, claiming it was one of the few pleasant Earthly delights, but neither Mom nor Dad indulged in any grave chemical vices that approximated those used by the deviants in The Daily Mail stories.)
Mia’s parents suffered from phantom spume body syndrome. On Terzan Four sex was illimitable. Orgasms were potentially deadly if not for the immortal nature of spume beings and the low gravity. Mom and Dad’s lack of affection towards Mia was a vestige of their imperfect metamorphosis into humans. (Mia never realized that the need to be touched was indispensable to human emotional development until an illuminating lecture during a mental and physical health class in tenth grade. Were all her classmates biologically programmed to pursue the pleasures of the flesh? That explanation made sense as a successful reproductive strategy, but Mia never mourned its absence in herself.)
Mom and Dad never loved Mia, but they did like her, and that’s acceptable. (Those Daily Mail throwaway children would have sold their souls just to be liked.) Although Mia was an occasional source of amusement to Mom and Dad, her role as a specimen was indispensable. Was Mia fully human? Did she feel the ravenous particles? If Mom and Dad died as imperfect humans, having insufficiently struggled with evil and spiritual suffering, would they be denied salvation and a consequential eternity? Mia imagined Mom and Dad wandering Earth as ghosts, living in the damp shadows, neither human nor spume begins? Would their itchy and nasty pause on the waystation Earth have been for naught? The universe is spattered with Purgatories where inmates yearn in vain for the promise of transmigrations.
Mia liked but did not love Mom and Dad. Most of her classmates loved or hated their parents (the love/hate dichotomy wildly fluctuated from day to day) but never showed signs of actually liking them. Liking someone is harder than loving them. The need to love or to be loved is genetically assigned. Liking someone is too often regarded as a transitory afterthought. (A Jesuit brother once talked about the oppressors and oppressed during a History of Religions class. Was Mia oppressed? How did love fit into the mixture? “The oppressors assail you with wave after wave of hatred,” said the brother. “Pray for strength.”
Mom, Dad, and Mia were a content family. Mom and Dad just wanted to become adequately human. Was that asking too much from Mia or society?
(Mia’s parents remained a source of interminable fascination. The more they came to believe that their transformation into authentic humans had been flawed, the more interesting they became. Their fervent laments also provided conditional evidence to Mom and Dad’s identity as aliens.)
“Something is wrong,” Dad said yet again while smoking pre-dinner weed on the tiny balcony overlooking the black and gray alley. “I can actually feel Terzan Four cells inside my body. I’m doomed. My soul, if I have one, is imprisoned inside a decaying piece of worthless human meat.” He coughed and then patted his expanding belly. “Every day I feel heavier and more sluggish. That should not be happening. Earth has a lower gravitation force than Terzan Four. I’m plagued by internal body rumblings and my odors are increasingly pungent. I could be dying from a disease. That happens quite a lot on this planet. Time moves too fast here.”
“You’re fine,” said Mom. “You’re describing the way I feel and smell. We’re still devolving into humans. And you eat too much of those bagged snacks at work.” Mom never said a word about Dad’s weed habit.
Dad looked at Mia, who was studying the Good News Bible. Religious History had become her favorite class. “Do you feel trapped in your own body, Mia?”
“I feel comfortable in my body,” said Mia. It’s something I don’t think about.”
“I knew it,” said Dad. “I don’t feel comfortable because I’m an extraterrestrial.”
“But my classmates don’t feel comfortable. They are always anxious about their bodies, and most of them are human.”
“Well, that’s reassuring,” said Dad, frantically searching for another blunt. “Bodily discomfort is almost certainly a human trait.”
“But we still care about you,” said Mom to Mia. It’s not your fault you are an unpredictable hybrid.”
“My classmates — they’re not exactly friends — worry about the size of their breasts. They also want to add piercings and tattoos to their skin.”
“I could spring for a tattoo,” said Dad. “I saw a man with a compass tattoo at the bodega. I could relate.”
“Mia doesn’t worry enough about being human,” said Mom. “She was only a spume baby for a very short time, but there still might be a sufficient amount of Terzan Four antibodies to muddle her hybrid body. It’s hard to say if we really love her or are even capable of love because the concept of human love is complicated and unstable. Before the ravenous particles began contaminating Earth, love was about blind passion. Today it is about harmonized brain waves. But we do care about Mia. It doesn’t seem fair that the question of love should keep us from a proper afterlife. We are, after all, responsible parents.”
Mom and Dad often talked as if Mia were a spirit whose presence was only infrequently sensed. They were, oddly enough, on to something. This ghostlike ability allowed Mia to flow unshackled through the days. Mia, a ripe target for potential nasty slurs, went unseen by the popular girls. Mia glimpsed the occasional Daily Mail story and counted her blessings.
(Did Mom and Dad fall in love on Terzan Four? Was there anything that resembled an Earth-style romantic connection? Did male and female spume beings pair off despite what Mia assumed was an expansive all-inclusive bohemian lifestyle? Mom and Dad were probably brought together by a computer dating service that detected their shared desire to find mortality and then the afterlife. Mia was conceived while their bodies were in a chaotic hybrid state, sexually robust but not yet encumbered by their eventual lumpish forms. Or maybe Mom and Dad met inside the Buffalo Mental Health Center. It was more and more likely a difference without a distinction.)
“There’s too much subjectivity going on,” said Dad.
“We need to keep our eyes on the afterlife,” said Mom. I already learned enough from my reading to know that humans must incessantly struggle to accept their limited nature. There will be doubts and temptations. That’s to be expected. It might even be a requirement.”
“I don’t think there will be enough time to prepare for the afterlife,” said Dad. “Linear time doesn’t exist on Terzan Four. I didn’t take into account the restrictedness of linear time when I planned the trip here.
This was the longest conversation Mom and Dad ever had about Terzan Four. Mia closed her Bible.
“It will be all right,” Mom said. “There will be enough linear time to study. We are, after all, speed readers.”
“We don’t have a choice,” said Dad. “And the ravenous particles are getting stronger every day. Why didn’t the Terzen Four space probes that scanned Earth highlight the abundance or ravenous particles?”
Mom moved closer to Dad. Mia’s view of the proceeding was partially obstructed by a large Lazy-Boy lounger and smoke.
“The information was out-of-date,” said Mom. “Earth is pretty much a no-go zone.”
Dad coughed or sobbed. Mom touched or almost touched the back of his neck. When the smoke finally cleared, Mom and Dad were gone.
“Do you only experience linear time?” Dad said.
“No,” said Mia.
That was their last conversation. It would occur many years in the future.
“Are you finally suffering from the agonies of ravenous particles?” Mom or Dad would ask Mia from time to time.
“Not yet,” said Mia. “Life is still good.”
“I was thinking it would kick in during puberty. Maybe it has something to do with sex. Your Dad and I, mercifully, bypassed human puberty.”
“What about on the spacecraft?” said Mia. “Something must have happened there.”
Dad ignored Mia’s question. “Maybe the human part of Mia makes her oblivious to ravenous particles. That could be a blessing.”
“Or a curse,” said Mom. “Maybe she’s not sufficiently human to attain a satisfactory afterlife. She will just go merrily through life while avoiding the important questions about transience.”
“Thanks Mom and Dad.
Her parents increasingly treated Mia like an unpredictable biological specimen. She never took it personally. There were rare flashes of parental guilt — maybe imagined by Mia — but the self-imposed timeline of obtaining a passable level of humanity steadily consumed Mom and Dad.
Tick tock. Tick tock.
“No buzzing in your ears?” said Mom. “No disturbing prickly sensations in your genital region? These things usually begin in the genital region.”
“Health is more important that mortality,” said Dad. “If we were back on Terzan Four Mia would have been spared living a deprived life.”
“You shouldn’t talk that way,” said Mom. “We gave Mia the gift of mortality and the opportunity to obtain a fabulous afterlife if she puts her mind to it. It’s not our fault that she doesn’t care. Parents can only do so much.”
Sam Fang, the sole owner and operator or Fang’s Mostly Used Books, was Mom and Dad’s spiritual advisor and only friend. He also sold quality weed to Dad at a deep discount. Mr. Fang was an alien.
(Mia’s ability to detect alien qualities in ostensibly mundane human beings had been inherited from ancient humans who lived during the halcyon era of extraterrestrial visitations. The gene, dormant in modern humans, was resurrected during Mia’s transition to a hybrid.)
Dad, his cognitive dissonance on full display, once inadvertently revealed his exotic Terzan Four origins to Mr. Fang.
“I’m having nothing but doubts, Sam. You must feel the ravenous particles. They weren’t present back in my world. I’m constantly under assault. I can’t get spiritually centered. I can’t locate my essence, if I even have one.”
Mr. Fang, gray and small, nodded. Perhaps he attributed Dad’s shocking and pitiful confession to the potent weed he had been selling him, but Mia perceived a shared brotherhood of two lost souls from distant realms. There was openness without pretense. (Mr. Fang undoubtedly came from a moribund planet of vicious mortals. His escape must have been astounding, unlike Mom and Dad’s minor crash — a fender bender — and unexceptional resettlement in Brooklyn.)
“I believe the ravenous particles that overwhelm you are radio waves,” said Mr. Fang. “I too have had some regrettable experiences. Every year the radio waves grow exponentially. They hurt. They smother the spirit. Sometimes life is nothing but radio.”
“Yes,” said Dad. “How have you survived?”
“You must teach yourself to think like a human. Your body is pretty much human, but not so much your mind. You are suffering from a variation of the mind-body problem. You must harmonize. You have no choice.”
“I’ll do anything,” said Dad. “I am desperate.”
“Then begin by being. You must take up and read. Train your brain to think like the authentic human brains that existed before the radio waves. It is the only way you will achieve your destination.”
Dad began to sob. (Mom was not present to inject a reality check. Mia remained invisible next to Dad.)
“Avoid philosophy and religious books,” said Sam, ignoring Dad’s tears. “You don’t have time to contemplate the unanswerable. There is no time for semantic game playing.”
Dad haltingly told Mr. Fang the story about how the librarian in Batavia had given him a novel by George Simenon at a “very critical time.”
(Mia was surprised that Dad related a story she had long considered suspect.)
“Librarians are wizards,” said Mr. Fang. “It was a very auspicious gift. Simenon gets to the heart of the human instinct. The weak pretend to be strong. Everyone pretends and everyone is terrified of being exposed. The inauthentic brains of today are incapable of recognizing their own artificial nature because of the radio waves. Simenon does not indulge in word games. When you have absorbed Simenon you will be almost human.”
“This makes sense,” said Dad.
(Neither Mom nor Dad hypothesized about the possible wonders and pleasures that the afterlife would ultimately deliver. There was simply no time for wish lists.)
“The world is a book,” said Mr. Fang. “The answers you seek will be found between the covers of books. Your brain will be regenerated into a fragile human one.”
Stacks of books accumulated at home, rising unsteadily to the smoke-stained ceiling. There was no classification system, but Mom and Dad always located an obscure book in a matter of seconds. (They read while working at the bodega and they read while they ate takeout food, usually General Tso’s chicken.) As the plots became predictable and the stock characters instantly recognizable, Mom and Dad assumed that they were acquiring human empathy. They were invariably only a few books away from achieving the essence of mankind.
Only a premature death would prevent them from achieving a rewarding afterlife.
“Sin and the afterlife were a big deal in the old books,” said Dad, “but I never hear anyone at the bodega even talking about it. No one cares anymore.”
“Maybe we came to Earth to help these humans,” said Mom. “We subconsciously received a message from a higher power and should engage the natives and talk about the pursuit of faith. Maybe that’s the missing ingredient to attaining the afterlife.”
“Stop the crazy talk,” said Dad. “If anything, we need to avoid contact with humans. Try not to even breathe the same air.”
Mom stared at Mia. “Have you at long last begun to feel the ravenous particles? Are you experiencing any genital discomfort?”
“I never feel anything,” said Mia.
(Unlike almost all Earth children, Mia was beginning to realize that she had been born without the knowledge of love.)
“That’s what I thought,” said Mom. “Your human nature is taking control of your brain. Unfortunately, you are an adolescent human. The customers at the bodega dislike your type. Some say it is because your prefrontal cortex had not matured, but I don’t know about that.”
Once Mom and Dad mistook a boy who lived in apartment 3B for Mia. (To be fair, they both had similar builds and short thick brown hair.) Mom and Dad’s lack of curiosity about their daughter and humans (not a bad thing from Mia’s perspective) was a symptom of a severe psychotic break from reality.
Life inside the mental health institute was intense. They had pleaded repeatedly with their captors. “There is nothing wrong with me,” said Mom or Dad. “I’m not a danger to myself or others. I come in peace from Terzan Four.”
They were harmless, but there is no money to be made by discharging patients — or are they called clients? — from a hospital. Mom and Dad escaped in the middle of the night and had a child. They fed and clothed their child and enrolled her in an excellent school with tolerable classmates. They worked and probably paid their taxes. Mom and Dad found it easier to survive by pretending to be extraterrestrials who were pretending to be humans. Everyone on Earth pretends to be who they are not. (Read Georges Simenon.)
As Mia grew older she began to observe too much of herself in Mom and Dad. Insanity does run in families. It’s not fair, but it is true. Was if possibly that Mom and Dad were performing an extraterrestrial act for Mia’s benefit? “Don’t worry, Mia, you’re too human to be as crazy and we are. We do still care about you, however.”
Mia’s future was unconstrained by any shared genetic roots. The ravenous particles she occasionally felt had been planted in her subconscious by Mom and Dad. Her parents were adept at planting false clues. Mia was either a hybrid or peculiar enough to believe she was one. Her life was confusing.
Mia grudgingly admired Mom and Dad.
Mia began writing mystery stories soon after Mr. Fang gave her a bag of tattered Nancy Drew novels. “Smart little girls can learn a lot from these books,” he said.
The previous owner(s) of the Nancy Drew novels often revealed the solutions to the mysteries (using azure blue ink) chapters before Nancy herself explained it all. The ploys to undermine Mia’s anticipated joy at uncovering riddles — with the steady guidance of Nancy —herself were unsuccessful. Reading Nancy Drew was never about unravelling some negligible mystery that rarely rose to the level of a minor misdemeanor. (Murder, rapes, and armed robberies occurred on other planets.) Reading the novels was all about observing the girl detective confronting the omnipresent corruption that relentlessly beset her pleasant neighborhood. Nancy Drew lived in a world of unstable realties and slippery principles. (Why were realtors so disgruntled with their status in the world?)
The explanation to a mystery depends upon what (overabundant) clues you decide to pursue. Being a detective is not about making brilliant deductions but about making choices. Mom and Dad were awful at making decisions and Mia feared that their tentative Terzan Four nature had seeped into her marrow. Before the spoilers in azure blue ink there had inevitably been a plethora of ignored evidence and lost opportunities. That was regrettable. The alternatives would have inevitably produced more satisfying narratives and more provocative novels. There were always more appealing suspects with more extraordinary motivations. There are always more hidden staircases and damp basements to explore. Nancy just needed to get out of the neighborhood.
Mia’s parents avoided details from the past whenever possible. Terzan Four was simply described as a “nice place where the days and nights were endlessly pleasant.” Mom and Dad didn’t have any specific memories since specificity didn’t (or doesn’t) exist on Terzan Four. Pleasant events overlaid pleasant events. Terzan Four is a smear of pleasantness.
Mom and Dad never alluded to a pre-Batavia television show or movie. They never hummed an old show tune. (They never hummed.) There were, of course, a few tantalizing clues concerning Mom and Dad that were not based on their own words. (Arrest records and mental health incident reports figured prominently.) Mia remained determined to never second guess herself. (Mom and Dad’s stay in the mental health facility possibly occurred soon after they landed on Earth. Perhaps their odd post-transition behavior had warranted their involuntary confinement, but their superior intelligence made escaping a foregone conclusion. (No pregnancy, by the way, was noted on Mom’s medical exam.)
The last Nancy Drew novel Mia decoded was The Mystery of the Neighborhood Vampires. As the bloodless corpses of dogs and cats appeared on well-manicured lawns, the neighborhood busybodies began suspecting an elderly man who dressed in black and spoke with a Romanian accent. Just as the proceedings were about to take a nasty turn, Nancy Drew learned from an insomniac woman who regularly took late night walks that the animals had accidentally fallen from a white Pfizer Inc. van. (The lab animals, by the way, had been instrumental in curing a rare form of childhood leukemia.) Vampires, of course, don’t exist. But what if the man who drank the blood of dogs and cats totally believed he was a vampire? The truth about there being no scientific evidence about vampires was clearly irrelevant. For all intents and purposes that man was an actual vampire. The solution to the mystery of the vampire depended upon believing that the man was a vampire. The truth is often unattainable unless predicated on an unverifiable premise.
For all intents and purposes Mom and Dad were extraterrestrials and Mia was an unclassifiable hybrid.
Mom and Dad lost interest in Mia when her value as a specimen vanished. But the extraneous Mia was still nice to have around.
“Your Mother and I have concluded that you are just another modern human being,” said Dad. “You don’t feel the ravenous particles. You had sex with a boy, so you are apparently not repulsed by the human form. Should I continue?”
“Don’t deny the sexual intercourse,” said Mom. “A mother knows these things.”
Saint Augustine believed that sex, the greatest human pleasure, was never performed without evil. How would Mom and Dad ever make it into the afterlife without confronting an onslaught of problematic human lust? (How, for that matter, would Mia?) Mom and Dad had made denial into science. They continued to believe that their quest for the afterlife was proceeding smoothy.
“I never questioned the existence of ravenous particles,” said Mia. “I just don’t let them bother me. I am not into denial. It’s about mind over matter.”
“Don’t take this conversation personally,” said Mom. “We’ve given it a lot of thought. Your being human is reflexive. Having sex is reflexive. But you’re also secretive, although that might be due to you being an adolescent. But then again you are too self-satisfied. You don’t have any significant issues and the proper amount of angst. You have never sinned or loved. You don’t fear for your soul, if you even have one.”
“We will double down on reading the pre-ravenous particle books about pre-ravenous humans,” said Dad. “The ancients understood sin, redemption, and a good death.”
“Modern humans like Mia now cover the Earth,” said Mom to no one in particular. “They are just one small step away from being machines. Mr. Fang told us that most modern humans think they will soon be able to upload their consciousness into an immortal robot.”
Dad retreated to the balcony where he began inhaling one of Mr. Fang’s special blend digestive blunts.
Mom touched the back of Mia’s neck. “It’s not too late. Instead of reading modern trash you should study the early humans and learn how to emulate them. You’re old enough to consider the afterlife.”
Mia brushed Mom’s hand away from her neck. “I’m just fine. And, for your information, Ayn Rand is not trash. She wrote about the role of the human mind in existence.”
“You are not fine,” said Mom. “After a meaningless and lonely life your destiny will be nothing but empty eternity. You’re smart enough to know that you do not want to be like all the humans around you, but you don’t know what to do about it. Here’s a little secret: There is no universal human nature. There is no shared reality.”
Mom and Dad picked up too much new age nuttiness at the bodega. (Mom and Dad both insisted their the customers were unrecognized geniuses who, feared by society, were force-fed psychotropic medications by the medical industrial establishment.)
“There are only controlled human identities,” said Mom. “Your Dad and I are now capable of transitioning into authentic humans. We’ve got a real shot at making it into the afterlife. The ravenous particles make it hard, but we’re real close. And you know what?” She didn’t, of course, wait for Mia to reply. “Being a real human is complex. There are so many feelings to navigate. There’s no emotional stability. When I read Madame Bovary, I was Madame Bovary. I was bipolar. The experience was painful, but I am successfully constructing a genuine human identity. I briefly felt a divine spirit. A peacefulness.”
“Was it God?”
“I don’t have a capacity to believe in God, but I am now prepared to die. That’s what counts.”
“What’s holding you back?” said Mia.
“The ravenous particles keep happened. They obliterated my temporary grasp on spiritual power. Your father has been having an extremely hard time of it. He gets frustrated at his lack of progress and just re-reads George Simenon.”
“Do you have to be in a human state to get into the afterlife? Does it have to be permanent, or would a few hours suffice?”
“Do you believe in God?” Mom said, ignoring Mia’s question. “Do you believe in Jesus and the saints?”
Mom touched the handcrafted wooden cross that hung from Mia’s neck. Danielle, an alien classmate at St. Mary’s, sold them for five dollars apiece. Danielle and four other girls at St. Mary’s were from distant galaxies. The girls rarely spoke to each other.
“Is this cross some kind of lucky charm?” said Mom.
“I don’t think Jesus was lucky.”
Mia attended St. Mary’s because of its nearness to her apartment. Sister Superior kept her tuition at a deep discount after assuming financial need based on Mia’s observable refugee deportment. The school, like the adjacent 19th century church, was dark, cool, and quiet. Mia would miss it.
“What did Jesus have to say about the afterlife in the Bible?”
“He said it was nice and everyone was always welcome.”
“That makes sense.” Said Mom. “The old books, especially the novels, offer the ways to the afterlife. They are sacred texts. The new books are contaminated with ravenous particles and self-pity. I’m going to put the Bible on my reading list.”
“What if the afterlife turns out to be Terzan Four?” said Dad. A cloud of marijuana smoke trailed him from the balcony. “What if we end up back where we started?”
“Then we will have learned that there is no place like home,” said Mia, who once read a graphic novel inspired by The Wizard of Oz, a movie Mia had never seen.
Mom hugged Mia. It was quick, soft, and awkward. The beings from Terzan Four had long ago transcended the limits of physical contact, and despite Mom and Dad’s best effort to transform into human beings, the old ways were difficult to unlearn. Mia experienced a transient dollop of compassion.
“You have a good imagination and sense of humor,” said Mom. “But I don’t think that’s a good thing to have on Earth.”
The red and white plastic container, not much larger than a coffin, had been unsuitably placed in the center of the living room. It was surrounded by dozens of 50-pound Morton salt bags, four ropes, three bungee cords, and a Yale combination lock.
“It’s a sensory deprivation tank,” said Mom. Warm water, salt, and silence. The essence of life on Earth. We bought it at a yard sale.”
“It’s almost new,” said Dad. “Luxury model. Surprisingly roomy. Some friendly men helped us get it up here through the balcony door. The salt bags were free. It had to be locked because according to the New York State law sensory deprivation tanks are considered attractive nuisances, just like swimming pools and refrigerators. Children could crawl inside them to play spaceship and get trapped.”
Mia approached the tank, opened the lid, and touched the warm and frothy brine.
“When we are in this tank we’ll be protected from the ravenous particles,” said Dad. “This is one giant step toward attaining human sensibilities and securing the afterlife. Why didn’t I think of this earlier?”
“I’m the one who saw the tank at the yard sale,” said Mom.
“We’ll be able to experience memory transference,” said Dad. “We will actually feel what the ancient humans felt. We will understand the fear that grips weak and fallible creatures desperate for forgiveness and redemption. I don’t think that is asking for too much, do you? Your Mom and I have grown wise since our escape. We’ve studied.”
“Mia, you can take a turn in the tank,” said Mom. “It’s not too late. Perhaps you do feel the ravenous particles but are in denial. Perhaps you are more like us than you care to admit. That’s the way teenagers operate. I think we could all squeeze inside the tank together. It could be a pleasant family affair.”
“Maybe all modern humans are inside a bubble of denial,” said Dad. “You’re one of us, Mia.”
“I’ll have to think about it,” said Mia.
“Fine,” said Mom. “Suit yourself. You and your attitude couldn’t possibly fit inside this tank anyway.”
“Are you two planning on living inside this thing?” said Mia. “Are you going to eat and drink in there? Are you going to smoke weed in there?”
Mom tossed another handful of salt into the brew. “No food, drinks, or marijuana. Nothing must distract from the nothingness.”
“I’ve got homework,” said Mia.
For the next three months Mia rarely saw Mom and Dad together. “Mom’s in the tank,” said Dad. “She’s fine. She sends her best.”
“Dad’s in the tank,” said Mom. “He’s never been better. He hopes school is going okay.”
Occasionally they were both inside the tank.
Unsolicited and irregular progress reports were attached to the refrigerator with a T-Rex magnet, an Earth Day gift from Mr. Fang.
“Father is making remarkable progress. When he closes his eyes inside the tank he can actually visualize the George Simenon novel he enjoys so much. He has learned empathy. He feels the pain and loneliness the ancient humans endured. It’s really happening, Mia. Father is beginning to embrace mortality, something he deep down feared. It won’t be much longer. Death is homing in. The journey to Earth was not for nothing.”
“Your Mom has attained a new level of existence. I am jealous. The sensory deprivation tank repels at least 90 percent of the ravenous particles. It works as promised. You should give it a try.”
Mom and Dad claimed to have finally uncovered their latent souls. Existence, they said, was its own expression. Sin and love were and always would be nebulous constructs. Mom and Dad were, of course, unmistakably delusional. They were incapable of accepting their preordained nature. They would always fear death. They would always be on the precipice of redemption. They would always be aliens.
They rambled incoherently about self-creation. On and on they rambled.
Mom and Dad left for the afterlife during the first Wednesday of Mia’s junior year at St. Mary’s. Although the exact time of death is difficult to pinpoint, their earthly demise probably occurred during English classics or after school when Mia and Jimmy, a boy she met at the library, were watching the final episode of Space Mysteries Decoded at his apartment.
Space Mysteries Decoded farewell words were spoken by Leonard Nimoy. “The clues to the existence of aliens are everywhere. Humans need to believe in the others and the others need humans to believe in them. Fear not.”
No one ever asked about the disappearance of Mom and Dad. Humans are preoccupied with their own problems, which is a sin graver than lust.
No one cared when Mia quit school after All Saints’ Day. “We’re moving upstate,” said Mia to Sister Superior. “Western New York. Near Buffalo.”
Sister Superior nodded. No one would ever make up a story like that.
(Jimmy, bless his heart did make two attempts to contact Mia, but she never answered his persistent knocking at the door.)
Mom and Dad left behind an envelope thick with $100 dollar bills. Mia paid the rent six months in advance and began working evenings at Mr. Fang’s store. Mr. Fang never asked about the sudden absence of Mom and Dad. He also didn’t question the return of hundreds of paperback books Mom and Dad had purchased or borrowed from him. (Mr. Fang did begin to project a sad vulnerability. He realized that as an alien he too would also disappear.) The one novel Mia briefly considered keeping was The Cat by George Simenon, the same hardback book that bore the Batavia Public Library stamp. When she picked up the book a Polaroid photo, discolored and brittle, fell from the back page onto the parkay floor. A young couple were holding a baby. The images were indecipherable. There was a month and a day written on the back of the photo, but no year.
After reading the first 50 pages of The Cat, Mia tossed the book and the photograph into the garbage. Who had taken the photo? What is missing is usually more important than what appears to be obvious.
The apartment, except for the locked sensory deprivation tank, will be empty and clean.
Within 24-hours the media will lose interest. Then the police will lose interest. The ravenous particles will work their magic; truth and belief will conflate.