Paxton and the neighbor’s kid are inseparable—sweethearts, even, and Paxton barely six. He doesn’t mind her antennae and clicking mandibles at all….
We’re excited to share Abbey Mei Otis’ “Sweetheart,” originally published on Tor.com in December 2010 and collected in Alien Virus Love Disaster: Stories, available now from Small Beer Press!
Otis’s short stories are contemporary fiction at its strongest: taking apart the supposed equality that is clearly just not there, putting humans under an alien microscope, putting humans under government control, putting kids from the moon into a small beach town and then putting the rest of the town under the microscope as they react in ways we hope they would, and then, of course, in ways we’d hope they don’t. Otis has long been fascinated in using strange situations to explore dynamics of power, oppression, and grief, and the twelve stories collected here are at once a striking indictment of the present and a powerful warning about the future.
Paxton is your baby boy, born just after you got out of the army, your peacetime child. He turned six last month but already he’s got a sweetheart who lives next door. He makes her crowns out of dandelions and shares his FruitBlaster cups with her. She brings him marbles that hum and lets him position her antennae into funny shapes. He has a lisp that the speech therapist has given up on, and she has clicking mandibles, but in their invented language of coos and giggles they are both poets. They sit out in the yard and very seriously lay grass on each other’s arms, and the sunlight cocoons them.
You and Denise watch them through the kitchen window. Denise is an old army buddy and she gets it. All of it.
You say something like, No surprise he’s got a sweetheart already. Just look at his daddy.
Denise laughs rough and loud. Regular little Casanova, isn’t he? Regular little intergalactic Casanova. Damn. And I can’t even get a date.
You want to date an ET?
She shudders. Lord, girl, don’t joke. Then she bites her lip. Nothing against Pax, of course. It’s super cute.
You nod. They’re just babies, I figure. Sweetheart’s a good thing to have. And he’s a good kid.
She agrees with you and pours the dregs of the margarita pitcher into your glass.
* * *
You take Paxton and Sweetheart to the water park and lie in a chaise while they jump off the foam pirate ship. Only ten minutes before Pax runs up sobbing.
She won’t come up! I yelled and I yelled, but she won’t!
You fly to the edge of the pool terrified the little alien has drowned on your watch, but then you realize she has gills.
Paxton crouches next to you, wiping his nose. Come up, stu-pid, he shouts at the water. Stupid stupid stu-pid.
Don’t say stupid, Pax. Hush. She’s okay.
You buy them hotdogs and try not to be disgusted when Sweetheart pincers hers into bits and tucks them into pouches on her sides. Pax trumps her by mashing his entire dog into his cheeks and opening his mouth to display it.
They whisper to each other the whole bus ride home. You realize you don’t even know if Sweetheart is a girl.
* * *
At night with his voice full of sleep Pax asks you what love is, and you blather some nothing about caring for someone very very much. He gets serious in the darkness.
Okay, so then, I think I love Sweetheart.
You don’t know why, but you whisper to him, Congratulations.
* * *
Things start to change. On the radio, on TV. Human Pride turns into a big deal with advertisers. Coke does a whole, One People One Planet campaign. The news pundits start asking why so much tax money still goes to the army. It’s been years since there was a conflict, hasn’t it? And don’t we all know where the real threat is? Their voices purr with suggestion, and their eyes flicker toward the sky.
You don’t think Paxton would get what Strategic Containment and Deportation means, but you hide the newspaper headlines from him anyway.
Jesus, says Denise, it’s happening. Just like that. We over there, look at the ones with the tentacles! She wipes her mouth with the back of her hand. And I know the ones next door seem okay, but I mean, really. You know?
You do know.
One night police come banging on Sweetheart’s door. Some of the neighbors go out in the street to watch, but you take Paxton into your bedroom and turn the TV up loud. He falls asleep with his head on your stomach. In the morning you say, What the heck, huh. Let’s take a day off school.
It works until seven that evening, when he gets two Italian ices out of the freezer and says, I’m going over to Sweetheart’s.
Why don’t you stay in with me tonight? You try to say it real nonchalant,but he catches on. His chin starts to shake.
I’m going over to Sweetheart’s.
Aliens are in some trouble right now, okay? It’s not safe for you.
Is Sweetheart safe?
Something about his look makes you feel guilty, and feeling guilty gets you a little pissed off. Look. Sweetheart went away for a little while. You can make some new friends, how about. You want to go over to Shira Allen’s? Shira Allen just got a trampoline.
Pax makes a wordless noise and flies to the front door, but it’s locked and with an Italian ice in each hand he’s stuck. He flings himself against the window and leaves snot prints on the glass.
You spout something like, You’ll understand when you’re older. Bullshit, and you both know it. He stiffens and turns, tear-bright eyes spearing through you. I don’t understand now, he screams. His voice so full of rage it’s like music. I don’t understand now.
He flings an Italian ice at you, and melting strawberry sucrose bursts across your chest.
Love explodes in you, how smart he is, how he was once a part of you but is no longer. You step up so close that the red syrup on your shirtfront smears on him as well.
Get in your room this minute, you hiss. You never talk to me that way again.
He slams his door but doesn’t get it quite right and opens it and slams it again. He’s going to hate you for a couple of days; that’s okay. Hate is nothing, hell, you’ve known love. It stampedes through your veins. You could tell him about it. You could tell him you had sweethearts, you had cocoons of sunlight too. You could tell him about his father. You could tell him about the long nights in Delta, the dreams and the grit that never came out from under your eyelids. But you won’t.
In the silent hallway you stare at his closed door. I’m sorry, Pax, you think. I’m sorry, Sweetheart. But you’re not. You’ve seen humans killing humans, and if something can stop that it’s worth it. It’s worth tantrums. Worth a first crush. Worth all the aliens in the universe.
You’d do it even if meant Pax never trusted you again, but he will. He will dry his eyes and open the door. He will grow. He will take Shira Allen to school dances and eat waffle fries with his friends and make JV football. He will hear talk on the radio of uniting against the alien menace and change it to Top 40 without thinking. He will love the feeling of sun on his limbs.
Once in a while, he’ll remember Sweetheart and freeze on the sidewalk, but after a moment he’ll shake his head and keep walking. He will know without knowing, the one thing greater than love. He will live in a world at peace.
Text copyright © 2010 by Abbey Mei Otis
Art copyright © 2010 by Greg Ruth