Two women who have been friends since they were children—one a recovering alcoholic brought up by parents who believe they’re alien abductees, the other an orphan with an eating disorder—contend with a secret that might doom their friendship.
So here’s the thing. You’re scared shitless, because you know something heavy’s going down tonight, and you may be the only one who can stop it, but that will be dangerous in ways you can’t stand to think about. Your friend Vanessa—your best and oldest friend—is all about patterns, and today’s a doozy. It’s her twenty-eighth birthday, and also the tenth anniversary of her parents’ disappearence, and also her first anniversary of sobriety or anyway of not drinking, and also—not at all coincidentally—the day when, at midnight, her parole will end.
Vanessa plans to drink again no later than thirty seconds after twelve. You can see it in her scowl; you can smell it on her. You know that her AA sponsor, Minta, knows it too. Vanessa hasn’t said so, of course, but this isn’t Minta’s first rodeo with angry alkies, and it’s not your first rodeo with Vanessa.
So Minta, who has the kind of money you and Vanessa can only dream about, invites both of you out to dinner, her treat, to celebrate Vanessa’s birthday. She chooses a trendy vegan place on the Upper West Side that serves neither alcohol nor anything that Vanessa, who always calls herself the ultimate carnivore because her parents were exactly the opposite, would ever want to eat. You’re the vegan; animal products do very bad things to you. If Vanessa had her way, she’d be at a steakhouse tearing into a filet mignon. With scotch.
The restaurant’s all glass and chrome and blond wood, and the patrons are self-consciously beautiful: men with neatly trimmed beards and Birkenstocks, women with black pencil skirts and Tevas, everybody wearing that expression that says, I work out more than you do, and I’m more enlightened, and I have more money. A side salad costs half your weekly food budget.
“Vanessa, you want to drink right now, don’t you?” Minta swirls her fork to capture a clump of sprouts, as if they’re spaghetti. She has to shout to be heard, even across the tiny table, and you think this has to be some kind of breach of anonymity, but it’s doubtful anyone at the other tables can hear, or would care if they could. They’re probably all in twelve-step groups too.
“I always want to drink.” Vanessa pokes cautiously at her own dish, a tofu stir-fry with unidentifiable vegetables. You’re choking down one of those exorbitant salads, another in an endless series of meals that won’t satisfy you, that will give you only enough to keep going. As soon as you’ve absorbed what you need, you’ll lose the rest in the bathroom. “I know I’m supposed to be over it by now.”
“Some people never get over it. Dry drunk’s better than wet drunk, girl. Take what you can get. Anyway, a year is about when most people fall off the cloud-nine newly sober high.”
“Which I never had.”
Minta laughs. “Maybe you have something to look forward to, then. Vanessa, you have to admit that this is better than where you were a year ago.” You nod vigorously around one of the recalcitrant lettuce leaves.
A year ago, on her twenty-seventh birthday, Vanessa woke up in a jail cell with a bandaged head, the great-grandmother of all hangovers, and no memory of the night before. Her boyfriend was pressing assault charges because she’d thrown dishes at him. The judge gave her a year’s probation with mandatory AA meetings. “Flying saucers,” Vanessa says now, and you wince. “This is another anniversary, you know.”
Minta nods. “I know. But don’t use it as an excuse to drink.”
You swallow the lump of lettuce, wondering how long it will stay down. “How often have we talked about this?” you ask Vanessa. “It’s not like they were there for you even before they left.”
Vanessa’s nostrils flare, and her gaze goes steely. “I want dessert.” Alcohol converts to sugar in the bloodstream; for the past year, sugar has been Vanessa’s drug of choice. She’s put on seventeen pounds.
“Cake at the meeting.” Minta checks her watch. “In half an hour.”
Vanessa groans. “No. Please? Let me go home. Kat will keep me safe.”
“Meeting. I know that Kat is the world’s best roommate, but you need to be with your tribe right now. It’s not fair to dump all of this on Kat.”
You and Vanessa are each other’s tribe, or at least the closest either of you has ever found. You gnaw more lettuce. “Is it an open meeting? I’ll come, you want.”
Vanessa grimaces. “Why would you want to sit through one of those?” You’ve told her that you love meetings, all those stories of misery and rebirth—stories about how to be human—but Vanessa’s always and only bored. “Hell, Kat, why are you here? Why do you even put up with me?”
You wonder that yourself, but you don’t feel like feeding Vanessa’s endless hunger for sympathy, and you need to lay the groundwork for what you may need to do later. Your backpack, with its secret weapon, hangs on the back of your chair. “I was abandoned too, Van, remember? And I’m not exactly easy to live with either.”
After everything fell apart a year ago—Vanessa’s boyfriend fleeing in a storm of fury and boxes—you packed up your tiny tenement apartment and moved your books and your ragged collection of all-black clothing into Vanessa’s minute condo. You even fork over a chunk of rent when you can, although the place is paid for from the sale of Vanessa’s old house; or, more properly, from the sale of the three-acre lot it sits on, which is as desirable now—to beautiful people with BMWs—as it was isolated and inconvenient when you and Vanessa were kids. For all her rage and self-pity and endless self-sabotage, Vanessa has never complained about your own oddities: the green shakes and protein powders crowding the fridge and counters, the fad-diet books piled everywhere next to stacks of anthropology and folklore, the hours you spend puking in the bathroom.
You know Minta thinks you have an eating disorder. She has no idea.
On Vanessa’s fourteenth birthday, she tells her parents she won’t go to AA meetings with them anymore. She won’t know anything about the First Step for another thirteen years: this AA stands for Alien Abductees. Vanessa’s parents are notably humor deprived, and this is about as close to a joke as they ever get. Anything normal people consider funny just makes them stare in bafflement. Their weirdness might be taken as evidence that they really have been kidnapped by aliens, but Vanessa thinks they’re just jerks. You aren’t so sure.
They bought their house, on its bucolic three acres, when Vanessa was seven, right after her father inherited a shitload of money from her grandfather, who’d invested in oil. Vanessa thinks it’s the worst thing that ever happened to them. That’s when they dragged her out of the suburbs, away from birthday parties and swimming pools and sleepovers. She tells you long, involved stories about these things, about cake and ice cream and balloons, diving boards and giggling in sleeping bags. She’s as nostalgic as the elderly people one of your former foster families made you visit in nursing homes.
Vanessa’s parents bought the house both because it was cheap and because this area is an epicenter of supernormal activity, a hotbed of chakras and auras, hippies and get-rich-quick gurus. Everybody’s got some secret to eternal life; the entire county’s awash in crystals, cleansing enemas, and detox diets. Vanessa’s back porch looks out over a meadow, facing away from town and any risk of light pollution. Every night, in all weather, her parents go outside to hold hands and stare up at the heavens with the other AAs, nearly as diverse and improbable a group as the one Vanessa will be court-ordered to join as an adult. Either people come to her parents’ house or her parents go to someone else’s. They don’t talk much. They all know each other’s stories, because it’s the same story: the searing light, the levitation, the anal probes. Denial and government coverups. Massive conspiracies. The only ideological differences revolve around whether the aliens are benevolent or evil, but this bunch believes that the abductions enlightened them, that even the anal probes are healing interventions.
You aren’t so sure about that, either.
Vanessa’s parents have always made her attend these gatherings, but this morning—after they sang “Happy Birthday” and gave her a hundred bucks, because they never ask her what she wants and don’t have a clue what she likes—she told them she’s had enough. If aliens come, let them walk upstairs and knock on her bedroom door while she’s doing homework. If they can fly across the universe, they can find their way into the house.
She tells you about this while you sit on your log in the woods, where you come to have important conversations. “They didn’t yell at me,” Vanessa says, and you laugh. Vanessa’s biggest complaint about her parents is that they never yell at her.
“Let me guess,” you say. “Your mom told you that everything you need to know is already inside you.” This is wisdom Vanessa’s mother claims to have gotten from the aliens, but it never helps. It just makes Vanessa feel crazier. You know how much she hates her mother’s hushed, reverent Abductee Voice, how much she hates not having chores or a curfew, like the kids at school. As far as either of you can tell, Vanessa has no special New Age knowledge of how to talk to boys or solve algebra problems or write English papers. Her parents have delegated their parental responsibilities to the aliens, who don’t seem to be coming.
Because the house is so far from the nearest school district, your social life is each other. Getting to school means a forty-five minute bus ride each morning. It’s not a school bus—there aren’t enough other kids out here for the district to send one—but an ancient county commuter bus. You know Vanessa’s ashamed for other kids to meet her parents or see her house, which is full of star charts and posters about ley lines and magical pyramids. You—the girl who lives up the road with her seventh set of foster parents—are Vanessa’s only friend out here. She doesn’t have to be ashamed of her parents with you, although you know she’s ashamed of you at school, where the two of you ignore each other. Vanessa tries to ingratiate herself with the cool kids, which never works because they can smell her desperation. You hang out with the other geeks and nerds, the kids who are as fascinated as you are with those new personal computers none of you can afford. Your crowd talks about Commodores the way the cool kids talk about Corvettes.
You’ve only recently started going to school again, after years of homeschooling. You don’t do well with doctors, which means you don’t do well with immunizations. You’ve gone through six previous foster families because whenever they tried to take you to the doctor, you ran away. The current set is lenient about rules, willing to lie to CPS and the social workers. They’ve cooked up a deal with a local doctor who forges immunization records, and supplies pain pills to your foster mom, in return for a modest cut of what the state pays to people who take in particularly difficult foster children.
“Difficult?” Vanessa says when you tell her this. “You’re a total brainiac and goody-two-shoes. All the teachers love you. Anyway, maybe you should see a real doctor about that eating problem.”
“I hate doctors, Van. I’m scared of them.”
“That was when you were a baby. How can you even remember it? And they won’t give you shots if they think you’ve already had them.”
“I’m good,” you say.
You and Vanessa are both fourteen, but you look older—or, rather, look so odd that no one’s quite sure how old you are—and the latest foster dad just scored a fake driver’s license for you “because in the old days, kids were driving when they were twelve” and he doesn’t want to bother taking you places. The evening of Vanessa’s birthday, while her parents and the other AAs stare up into cloud cover, the two of you drive the twenty miles to the mall and split the birthday money. You buy a book of fairy tales and a pricy computer programming manual at Barnes & Noble. Vanessa, in her endless quest to get a rise out of her parents, buys makeup and sexy clothing and pigs out on burgers and fries and ice cream at the food court while you nibble a fruit salad. You get about halfway through it before you have to rush to the restroom.
The two of you stay at the mall, window browsing and people watching, until it closes at ten. On the way home, Vanessa asks you to stop at a 7-Eleven and buy some beer. “We still have money, and I’ve never had beer. Do you think my parents will notice if I come home drunk?”
“No.” This plan strikes you as fifty-eight kinds of terrible. “Don’t get drunk just to be rebellious, Van. That’s stupid. You already bought all that slutwear.”
Vanessa pouts. “That feels like playing dress-up. Beer’s real. And you’ve got the ID. I’ll drink while you drive, so we’ll be safe.”
“You’re not supposed to drink in the car. Open-bottle laws.” You swallow panic. You don’t think the police have any records from all those foster families, but who knows? “Vanessa, I really can’t afford trouble with cops.”
Vanessa scowls. “Do you have to take the fun out of everything?”
“I drove you out here, didn’t I?”
“Come on, Kat. It’s my birthday. All the kids at school drink.”
“Not the ones I know.”
“The ones you know are freaks.” She’s angry enough to be mean now. Then her voice softens into wheedling, and she says, “It’s, like, an initiation rite. You’re into those, right? Like all that folklore crap you read?”
She’s not going to let you talk her out of it. “Okay,” you say. If she can tell how miserable you are, she doesn’t care.
You go inside, and Vanessa picks out a sixpack. “You could buy a single bottle,” you say, and she pouts again.
“It’s my birthday.”
The guy behind the counter squints hard, but shrugs at your fake ID and lets you pay. Back out in the car, you check the road for cops, and then—coast clear—Vanessa uses her house key as a bottle opener and sips, narrating like this is some kind of nature documentary. “It’s fizzy. Kinda yeasty. It tastes okay, but I’m not feeling anything.” She finishes the first beer, too quickly, and reaches for another.
Halfway through the second bottle, she lets out a whoop. “Peace! Joy! All’s well with the world! Kat, you gotta try this.” Giggling, she props the bottle between her legs and reaches to hug you. “Best. Birthday. Ever.”
Your hands are clenched on the wheel, and your stomach’s threatening to empty again even though there’s nothing left in it. “Vanessa, don’t do that when I’m driving!”
Vanessa frowns. You never snap at her. But she’s drunk and magnanimous. “Aw, poor Kat. You feel left out. You gotta have some beer too! Three of these are for you.”
“I’m driving.” You stare straight ahead, your entire body aching with anger and hunger and loneliness.
“Well, when we get home. We’ll sit on the log.”
She sips her third beer all the way home. You see her eyeing the other three and know she’s trying to save some for you. At her parents’ house, you turn off the headlights and cut the engine to coast to a gentle stop—although Vanessa’s parents probably aren’t here, and wouldn’t pay attention if they were—and then you grab the flashlight from the glove box, and Vanessa grabs the remaining beer, and you make your way into the woods. Vanessa has to lean on you even though it’s a clear path; you walk it a lot, and so do deer and stray dogs and the raccoons who raid the trash.
The log’s in a glade, eerie in moonlight. You hear owls, wind rustling in the trees. Vanessa thumps down on the log, and you fold yourself cross-legged on the damp ground. Vanessa laughs. “Man, you look skinny. You look like a stick insect with huge eyes. Why do you look so sad, Kat?”
“I’m just tired. Okay. Give me that.”
Vanessa opens the fourth bottle for herself. “You’ll only need two, because you’re so skinny.” You doubt you’ll get that far. She gives you the fifth bottle and sighs at the sixth, alone in its cardboard case. “Gotta get more.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.” You carefully remove the top, sniff at the opening, and take the tiniest of sips. “Ugh.”
Vanessa laughs. “Drink more! Drink enough for it to work!”
Anger surges in you. You’re tired of being bossed around, tired of being used, tired of being careful. You make a face, hold your nose, and chug down the entire bottle. Vanessa blinks. “Damn! How’d you do that? I want to be able to do that.”
And then she stares at you. You watch your hand, resting on your knee, turn green and mottled, feel your limbs assuming strange, painful shapes. Your vision has changed, which means your eyes probably have too. You’re acutely aware of every small rustle in the woods, every heartbeat, the warm smell of Vanessa’s flesh a few feet away. Hunger grips your entire body. It’s hard to think clearly.
But you do. You force yourself to. You shove your green, serrated fingers down your throat and turn to vomit the beer into the darkness of the woods. Your hands resume their old shape; your vision’s normal again. You shove the bottle back at Vanessa, although it’s almost empty, and tell her, “I don’t want any more.”
The AA meeting’s a blur, permeated with the smell of coffee combined with church-basement mildew that Vanessa always says should be packaged as AA Air Freshener. Hang one in your car and voila, instant meeting. The first speaker’s a dreary drunkalogue, listing every bar he ever went to. Vanessa, who’s heaped a paper plate with cookies and cake—sheet cake slathered with frosting, so sweet that you wonder how even she can eat the stuff—keeps her head bent over her food. The second speaker’s a sarcastic marketing exec who wears chunky silver jewelry and curses every other word. She gets the room roaring; you laugh so hard your face hurts. You whisper to Vanessa, “This is better than cable. I should come to meetings with you more often.”
Vanessa scowls. You wonder if she’s heard a word the woman’s said. “This is fucking field research for you, isn’t it?”
You took courses from the Electronic University Network, paid for with your programming and graphic-arts skills. You couldn’t go to a real college, because you’d have needed immunizations there, too, and the crooked doctor was in prison by then. You took every class you could afford in computer science and anthropology. You aced all of them, and Vanessa—who never went to college at all, who may have gotten through high school only because she was having a very suspect relationship with her math teacher—resents the hell out of it.
But she’s right. This is field research.
The advertising exec is telling a hilarious story about one of her blackouts. That’s one of the AA staples, like vomiting and DTs. All alkies worth their salt have blackouts, periods of amnesia from which they emerge to discover that they’ve done horrible things. Vanessa’s had a ton herself. Identify, don’t compare, people always say at meetings, and on this point, you know that Vanessa’s happy to comply. She hates blackouts. She hates not knowing what she’s done.
The morning after Vanessa’s fourteenth birthday, you wake up with a pounding headache and stabbing dread. You changed; you barely kept yourself from doing more. Vanessa will never talk to you again. She must hate you now.
You stagger into the bathroom, where you empty the contents of your stomach. The foster parents have left for work. You’re alone. You think about running away, but you’ve done that so often that the idea exhausts you. You think about telling Vanessa that she was just seeing things, but that’s dishonest and would make you a terrible friend. You think about not going to school, but that’s delaying the inevitable. You have to have the conversation sometime.
You spend so much time dithering that you almost miss the bus. You usually get to the bus stop long before Vanessa does, but today you race to hop on just as the bus is leaving. You grab a seat near the front, only to hear Vanessa calling you. “Hey! Hey, Kat, I saved a seat for you.”
You hesitate, and she calls again, “Kat?” She’s crying. Vanessa hates crying. She hardly ever cries. In a flash you’re beside her, thinking that she must be terrified of you now, that she must be very brave to have called you over. You feel a surge of affection for her. Courage isn’t Vanessa’s strong suit.
She sobs and hiccups, and you wonder if she’s still drunk. “Kat, what did I do? I did something awful, right? Last night? And that’s why you tried to ignore me?”
You blink. You hand her a tissue. What she did last night isn’t the issue. You can’t look at her. “You got drunk, Vanessa,” and then, “You scared me.” You think that if she remembers what happened, maybe she’ll blame herself for scaring you, and as soon as you think this, you feel abject shame. Yes, she bullied you into drinking, but you’re the one who pulled the idiotic stunt of chugging the entire bottle.
She sniffles. “Look, Kat, you have to tell me what happened. I don’t, I can’t, I don’t remember everything. I mean, I remember sitting in the car with the beer, drinking it. And I remember starting to walk into the woods. That’s all.”
You draw in a long breath and look at Vanessa, finally. “Really? That’s all you remember?”
It’s Vanessa’s turn to look away. “Yeah. That’s all. So what did I do?”
“Nothing,” you say, dizzy with relief. “Nothing bad. You just got drunk. Are you okay? Are you sick? You don’t look so good.” But you’re the one who’s shaking. The idiotic stunt could have—should have—broken everything wide open, but it didn’t. You got away with it. You vow to yourself, then and there, that you’ll never do anything like that again.
At this meeting, as at every one you’ve ever been to, people talk about their blackouts with shame and terror: learning third-hand about humiliating scenes at parties, about insults shouted at soulmates and damage done to children who’ll be paying for a lifetime of therapy to get over it. Or not learning, never learning. Losing that time forever.
Most of Vanessa’s own blackouts appear to have been sordid messes filled with shattered dishes and anonymous sexual encounters. You know she picked up chlamydia and herpes during those adventures, and she told you once, with a sigh, that she can’t say for sure there was nothing anal.
But you also know she wants to forget most of the previous year, and you can tell, from how she’s staring at the clock, that she’d love to lose the three hours until her parole’s over. There’s a bar near the apartment. It’s open until two, which will leave plenty of time for disaster if she gets there at midnight.
A group from the meeting always goes out for coffee afterwards. Minta pressures Vanessa to come tonight, and you tell them you’re happy to tag along. “More fieldwork,” you tease Vanessa, but you and Minta both know it’s more than that. After all of you leave the diner, handling Van will be up to you. Minta, who’s a fierce and confrontational sponsor, is also a firm believer in the First Step. Ultimately, she’s powerless over Vanessa.
She’s told you that you are, too. She’s told you that you and Vanessa are badly codependent, that you need to get to meetings of your own. The meetings you really need, you can’t find.
A few weeks after the beer incident, your health teacher begins a substance abuse unit. This is one of the few classes you share with Vanessa, because most of yours are Honors and none of hers are. “We’re going to talk about drinking today,” the teacher says, and everybody snickers. School drug education is completely lame, a set of horror stories in which people who party always wind up dying with their heads in toilets.
Vanessa, sitting across the room and trying to impress a football player, isn’t paying attention. You’re the only one who is. The teacher puts a list of alcoholism red flags up on the board. Family history. Craving. Drinking until you’re sick. Going to places where you know there will be booze. Blackouts.
Blackouts. Despite the unspoken rule of ignoring each other in this building, you glance at Vanessa. She’s looking back at you, wide-eyed. Maybe she’s recognized herself in this list. Maybe she’ll avoid beer from now on.
After class, Vanessa catches your eye again and ducks into a stairwell. You follow her. “Blackouts!” she says, and, “Alcoholism’s genetic! Kat, my parents? And the AAs? They were all just drunk! That’s why they have those memories of seeing weird shit and losing time. Aliens are their version of doing embarrassing things at parties! There aren’t any aliens at all!”
She’s desperate for any connection to her parents; you know that. But even for Vanessa, this is nuts. You shake your head. “Um, Van, have you ever seen your parents drink? Or any of those people? You’re the one who drinks.” And has blackouts, although that’s so obvious you don’t want to point it out.
“Of course I haven’t seen them drink, but that’s the point! That’s why they don’t! What I thought was my parents’ joke about AA wasn’t really a joke at all! The other AA is where they should be, but it’s too embarrassing, so instead they invented the story about aliens and started their own group to stargaze, instead of doing whatever drunks do at those meetings.”
Vanessa clings to this theory for years, while you bury yourself in academic tomes about folklore. You develop your own ideas. You believe that changeling stories, all those tales about goblins and faeries left in cradles, about human babies spirited away and returned only years later if at all, are the earlier versions of alien abduction stories. Lost time. Elf Hill. Exotic beings with overly large eyes and pointed ears. Being returned to the wrong place with your clothing on backwards. People have been telling stories like that as long as there have been people.
You’re looking for your parents, too.
Vanessa scoffs at your theory as much as you scoff at hers. “Do changeling stories have anal probes?” She asks you this one summer evening when you’re both seventeen, sitting on the log in the forest while you watch Vanessa down a sixpack. You haven’t repeated your own mistake, but you come out here with her to keep an eye on her.
“No anal probes. Sex, though. Tam Lin was basically a sex slave to the Queene of Faerie.”
“I don’t believe in UFOs,” Vanessa says. Neither do you. You don’t believe aliens are coming back; you want to find aliens who are already here, passing. You gaze into the darkness between the trees, listening to the tiny night rustlings, yearning for kin.
Vanessa shakes her head. “Seriously, Kat? You don’t think that if there were green pointy-eared kids around, somebody would have noticed? Those stories are just how people explained kids who were born sick or disabled.”
“They’d have to be able to blend in,” you say quietly.
“Then how would you find them? Nah, it’s all nonsense. Everybody who went through that shit, with elves or grays or whatever, was just high. My parents must have been lushes in their youth and turned their blackouts into fairy tales; if you can’t remember, that means you were sucked up into a flying saucer and anal-probed. If they’d been born earlier, they would have been sucked into fairyland, and they’d be spending their time looking for crop circles and tromping around in the woods instead of gazing up at the sky. Either way, they won’t find anything.”
She’s slurring by now, badly. Alcohol’s a disinhibitor. Drinking usually makes Vanessa smarter, or anyway more willing to say smart things, until she falls off the cliff of incoherence. You’d tell her that the mere existence of the stories is its own evidence, but she becomes abruptly and violently ill, and when you get her back to the house she falls asleep, and the next morning she doesn’t remember the conversation.
The after-meeting gang crowds into a diner booth and orders milkshakes and burgers and coffee. You buy Vanessa an ice cream sundae for her birthday, and she thanks you, but she barely touches it. She checks her watch every two seconds. People chat about their holiday plans, the nightmare of dealing with family, the stress of the first sober Christmas. You dig in your backpack for a legal pad and pretend to research a folklore paper. They’re all fascinated, flattered that you’re writing an ethnography of Twelve-Step culture. You tell them that you’re focusing on how they used drinking to fit in when they drank, and how they use the program to fit in now. You’re looking at definitions of belonging. What did that look like in childhood, and during the drinking years, and in sobriety?
Since AAs love nothing better than to talk about themselves, you get more material than you could possibly use even if this weren’t just a ruse to keep Vanessa in the diner. You scribble furious faux-notes as Vanessa takes slow, deliberate bites of her sundae and fidgets with her watch. She only snaps to attention, frowning, when one of the AAs—a thin brunette who teaches yoga—says, “My parents left me when I was a kid, and after that I never felt like I fit in anywhere.” There’s a collective sigh. Everyone, including you, can identify with that one.
On Vanessa’s eighteenth birthday, you buy her dinner at a barbeque place in the city. She chows down on ribs; you, as usual, choke down a salad. You’re living in a tiny, decrepit loft, working at a graphic-design firm and taking online classes. Vanessa’s doing temp work and brooding about her latest boyfriend. You’re tired of listening to her obsess about him—he’s as much of a loser as all the others, and why can’t she see it?—so you try to distract her with stories about the jerks in your office and the tribal initiation rites you’re studying in your anthropology class. You have a complicated theory about how photocopying at work serves the same function as vision quests in certain Native American tribes, but Vanessa, who’s on her fourth beer, isn’t even pretending to follow this. After dinner, you take her to the Italian bakery across the street for dessert, and then you go home, claiming a work deadline instead of admitting that you can no longer stand to be around Van when she’s drunk. You know she plans to hook up with the boyfriend, a bouncer at an East Village club who only likes her when she’s drunk.
She calls you the following afternoon, static crackling on the line from upstate, and tells you everything that’s happened. Over the years, she’ll retell the story obsessively, repeating it until it’s hardened into a translucent amulet, her identity in amber.
After you left, she called Tom but got only his answering machine. “I’m coming over,” she told him, and on the way she bought a quart of gin because she intended to get well and truly hammered in the company of somebody who’d drink with her. But he’d already started drinking with somebody else; when he answered the door, Vanessa saw the half-naked blonde behind him, and she cursed him and ran out of there.
And wound up on the street, on her birthday, with nothing to show for it but a bottle of gin and the aftertaste of cannoli, and it was dark and raining and she thought about finding a bar, but she was out of money and too tired for the buy-me-a-drink-for-sex hustle.
There was nowhere to go but home, so she did: dug out the return bus ticket she hadn’t planned to use until the next morning and headed ten blocks up, to the huge glass and steel bus station with its kiosks and filthy restrooms and bays full of humming behemoth vehicles, and got on one of them for the two-hour ride upstate. Her parents and the other AAs would be stargazing, even in the rain, but she was pretty sure they’d have left her a card and some cash, the standard birthday gift. She’d go up to her room. She’d listen to music and drink gin. Tomorrow she’d wake up with an awful hangover, but she’d have the birthday money. She’d figure something out. She’d find a new guy.
She went home. Nobody was there. They were undoubtedly stargazing at somebody else’s house. A card and a thick envelope sat on the kitchen counter—sometimes her parents gave her, like, a few hundred dollar bills—but she didn’t even touch them. She went upstairs and drank until she passed out.
The next morning, her parents still weren’t home, which was weird. Wearing her old plaid robe, Vanessa made herself coffee and, yawning, opened the card, a photo of some galaxy or other. Inside she saw her mother’s handwriting. “Goodbye sweet girl you are of age now and we are going home. Love.” They’d both signed it.
Goodbye? Vanessa squinted at it, blinked, and then reached for the fat envelope. The bills weren’t singles; they were hundreds. Her parents, she’d later learn, had left her the entire contents of their bank account.
She made phone calls. She interrogated the other AAs. Where were her parents? When were they coming back? She was met with gasps of awe. They’d finally done it! They’d finally ascended! They’d been talking about it, saying they thought it was close! “Oh honey,” said one woman, “they aren’t coming back. They’ve been picked up. They’ve been recovered. You should be excited for them.”
At which point, hysterical and ranting, she called you. “This can’t be happening!” You were glad that she was upstate, that she wasn’t in the same room, because you were nearly as upset as she was, and you couldn’t tell her why.
“You’re right,” you said, your throat tight. “It can’t be happening. It’s nuts. You just have to look for them, Van.”
A few months later, the cops gave up. Vanessa hired private investigators, who also gave up. Her parents had never been smart enough to pull off a WITSEC-level disappearance.
Vanessa already felt abandoned by her parents, and when it was clear that they weren’t coming back, she set about filling the black hole of her life with booze. You, meanwhile, were going through your own agony, which you couldn’t share with Vanessa. You couldn’t share it with anyone at all.
The aliens had picked up Vanessa’s parents and left you here, again. Alone.
The coffee-shop group finally disbands. It’s 11:00. Minta suggests a late movie, but Vanessa pleads headache and says she just wants to go home. “Don’t worry,” you tell Minta. “I’m not going to let her do anything dumb.”
You mean it.
Until that horrible night ten years ago, you hung out with Vanessa not just because she was the only other kid in your neighborhood, but because she, or rather her parents, might have helped you find your people. You have no idea why, aside from sheer habit, you’ve put up with her since then. If you ever went to a therapist—which you’ll never do—that would be your presenting issue.
You and Vanessa take the subway downtown. The closer you get to your stop, the twitchier she gets.
“Van,” you say, over the rumble of the number 1 train, “You’re not going to do anything dumb. Right? You’re not going to throw away this entire year?”
She turns and glares at you. “This year? This year of feeling shitty and just wanting to drink and block everything out? This year of feeling like I don’t fit in anywhere, like you and Minta are watching everything I do and just waiting for me to screw up?”
She goes on like this for another minute or so. She’s on such a roll that you wonder if she’s already managed to sneak a drink. But you don’t smell it, and you can always smell it.
You wait for her to wind down, and then you say, “Van. Come on. You want to block everything out? You hate blackouts. You know you do.”
“Yeah, well. Now I want them. The less I have to remember, the less it hurts.”
“You hated being in jail. You hated being on probation.”
“That won’t happen again.”
“How do you know that? You can’t know that.”
Vanessa waves her hand dismissively; she can’t know, but she doesn’t care. She just wants to feel the booze sliding down her throat. She’s ruled by her craving. You know the feeling. There’s nothing you can say, and the train’s at your stop anyway. The two of you get out and trudge up the stairs, Vanessa a few feet ahead of you because she’s so much taller. You glance at your watch: 11:30.
In the apartment, you ease off your backpack as Vanessa hurls herself into her bedroom and slams the door. You hear her rattling through her closet, hear bureau drawers opening and closing. When she comes out again, she’s wearing a slinky red dress and high heels.
“It’s 11:45,” she says. “It will take me five minutes to walk to the bar. So I guess I have to listen to you lecture me for another ten minutes, right?”
“Right,” you say, and hold up the can of beer you’ve been lugging around in your backpack all day. Vanessa blinks, clearly startled. She forces a smile. You’re her surrogate parent now; she’s relying on you for the disapproval she could never get from her actual parents. You wonder why you’ve never realized this before.
She stares at the beer. “Is that for me, Kat?” Her voice is shaky. “You shouldn’t have.”
“I didn’t,” you tell her, and pop the tab and down the can in one gulp, the same way you did on that night in the woods fourteen years ago. Vanessa gapes.
Alcohol’s a disinhibitor. You let go, unclench, and watch yourself reflected in the apartment windows. You’re seeing what she sees. Your limbs turn green and knobbed; your signature black cotton clothing distorts because now it’s draped over too many joints; your eyes expand, huge and faceted. That’s as far as it’s ever gone before, but tonight, hoping you’ll still be able to call it back, you let it go a little further. You grow mandibles. Your hands become claws.
“You’re not drunk yet,” you tell her, forcing English words through this new anatomy. Each syllable blends with clicks and chirps. You hope she can understand you. “You’re really seeing this. It happened on your fourteenth birthday too, when I chugged that beer, and I was so relieved when you didn’t remember it, because I was afraid you’d hate me if I showed you that you were wrong about your parents. Aliens are real. I don’t know if I’m the same kind who picked them up. I don’t even know if that’s really what happened to them. But it’s certainly possible, okay? They weren’t telling those stories to hide drinking, and you don’t have to drink to feel connected to them.”
Vanessa, who sat down very suddenly on the couch at the beginning of this speech, whimpers. You take a step closer, every part of your body screaming in pain, yearning to transform further. You don’t let it.
This is the hardest thing you’ve ever done.
“Now you know why I’m so fascinated by changeling stories. You think you don’t fit in? Cry me a river. I’d give anything to have a group like you do. I’d give anything to be able to say, ‘My name’s Kat, and I’m an extraterrestrial who got left here by my parents and left behind again when they picked up my best friend’s parents and couldn’t bother with me.’ You think you’ve got abandonment issues, Vanessa? Get in line.”
You take another step, and Van shrinks into the back of the couch. “And you know why I’d love a group like that, aside from the fact that I’m horribly lonely? You know why I always eat salad and fucking protein powder even though they make me sick and I hate them? You know why they make me sick? They make me sick because you aren’t the ultimate carnivore, Vanessa. I am. I’ve wanted meat every second I’ve been aware, and not just any meat. Not cow meat. Human flesh. You. My parents must have loved me, because they left me somewhere with lots and lots of food. And the whole time you’ve known me, I’ve never let myself eat it.”
A third step. Vanessa’s eyes are almost as big as yours now. She fumbles in her bag for her phone, and you force yourself to start turning back. “Van,” you say, and she looks up. “Van, I’m changing back. I’m going to be the Kat you’ve always known. Don’t call anybody, okay? I’m not going to eat anybody, and I don’t want to be dissected. That’s why I never told your parents or the others what I was. I didn’t want them to worship me. I didn’t want them to put me in a lab. I didn’t want to eat them.”
She blinks. You force yourself back into fully human form, or as fully human as your form gets. You know she’ll never look at you the same way again. You know there’s no going back from what you’ve just done. You take a deep breath. “So, listen, you think you have trouble with your cravings? Well, so do I, and I have a lot less support than you do, and I’ve stayed vegan one lousy second at a time because I don’t want to hurt people who’ve tried to help me, because this is where I live. Okay? If I can stay abstinent, so can you. But if you drink, I will too. We both fall off the wagon together. Deal?” You see her swallow. “So do the right thing, Van, because now there’s a lot more at stake than your individual life. For all you know, you could be saving the entire planet.”
She nods jerkily. The beer’s churning in your stomach. “I have to throw up now,” you say. “Excuse me.” You run into the bathroom, certain that you’ll be left behind again, that Vanessa’s fled the apartment, that she’s calling someone even now—as you heave and puke—and that you’ll live the rest of your life, however long that is, as a science experiment.
But when you emerge from the bathroom, she’s waiting for you, standing with crossed arms, and once again you’re amazed by her courage. “You must have done it sometime,” she says. “Eaten, the, you know, meat. The whole time I’ve known you, you said, but you must have before that. Or you wouldn’t know. Would you?” Sometimes Van’s smart even when she’s not drunk. You look away, and she says, “Fair’s fair. You know everything about me.”
You stare out the window over her left shoulder. “The first pediatrician. And that foster mother. And the nurse in the room. Of course the exam turned up abnormalities, so I acted in self-defense. I was just a baby. It’s a pretty famous unsolved case: four people, three adults and an infant, missing from a clinic, never seen again. You can find it if you do an internet search.”
Vanessa shakes her head. “If you were just a baby, how—”
“I grew. That’s what eating meat does. I was a baby and then after I ate I was what I am now, more or less. I haven’t changed much the whole time you’ve known me, right?” She shakes her head. “Yeah, so. I got into the hall—no one saw me leave the room—and then I just walked out of the building. I used the money from my foster mother’s wallet to hop a bus east.” You look back at her. “I have no idea what I’d turn into if I ate more.”
“Vanished,” she says, her voice tight. “No bodies?” You can’t answer. All that blood and bone and flesh; you ate it all. Not a speck of any of those three people was left in the room. Vanessa shudders. “My parents vanished. Do you think—”
“I don’t know,” you tell her, although you’ve thought about it. “I don’t think so, Van. I mean, they’d had some kind of contact before that, right? They knew it was coming. We don’t warn our meals.”
Vanessa lets out a long breath. After a moment she says, “Well, I hope you’re right, even though I figured they had to be dead.” And then, cautiously, “It wasn’t you, right?”
You recoil. “God no! No, Vanessa! I was the same before and after your parents disappeared, right? I’d have changed.”
She nods, seems to accept this. “Do you think they came in a spaceship, or—”
“I don’t know. I figure if it or they were still here, if they were meat-eaters like me, we’d have heard a bunch of horror stories. More missing people. So maybe a spaceship, if they were meat-eaters. Either way, they wanted nothing to do with me.”
“Shit,” Vanessa says. “That hurts. I’m sorry.”
“I’m not. I mean, I kind of am. I was. But now I’m glad. Because I like people.” You’re embarrassed, but it’s true. Those sincere alkies at the meeting, the geeky students in your classes, the checker at the grocery store who frets over how thin you are and keeps asking you whether you have a warm winter coat. Vanessa. “It sounds corny, but I love you guys. I don’t want to eat any of you. I just want to go native, even if I have to live on salad and throw up all the time. I just want to belong.”
You realize, right then, why you still hang out with Vanessa. You want to save someone, to be the hero instead of the monster. And maybe you want to give her the chance to be a hero, too. You swallow. “You’ll help me, right?”
A tear slides down her cheek. “Hell, Kat. I’ve never helped anybody. But I will if I can.”
That was years ago. So far, both of you have kept your promises, one lousy second at a time.
Text copyright © 2018 by Susan Palwick
Art copyright © 2018 by Jasu Hu