AUTHOR: Celeste Hollister
NARRATOR: Amy H. Sturgis
HOST: Mur Lafferty
- Cherry Squid is an Escape Pod original.
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about the author…
Celeste Hollister is a novelist, a mom, a travel writer, and a teacher. She writes characters who struggle with racial identity and LGBT+ representation. She graduated from Texas State with a degree in writing, taught in the public school system for a decade, and lived in Korea for a year. She loves wine, cats, cookies, and fanfiction. She currently lives in San Marcos, Texas, with her lovely boyfriend and fabulous daughter.
about the narrator…
By Celeste Hollister
It was the cherry squid that did him in.
Outside his window, seventy stories up, the advertisement bloomed, melon yellow, racecar red. A shoal of squid rippled across the holo, a tangram pattern that morphed into a human face. Almost human, but with a Vrellan’s ruby eyes. Then a blush of shimmer-pink as the slogan scrolled onscreen: “Let’s All Share a Cherry Squid” in all caps like a scream.
Fresh cherry scent wafted on the air. Then the ad faded to black before replaying, an endless loop of fragrance and light.
“A stupid, looping nonsense,” Adam called it.
The Mobius-strip of cherry squid peeled out from its backlit blue. I said, “I think it’s pretty.”
“They try too hard to be like us,” Adam said.
I edged onto the oval of his windowsill and watched the sun plait silver into the spillways. I said, “They are like us. The scientists say we share a common ancestor. We just evolved differently.”
Adam crooked a three-pod stool against his vid-wall. He popped open a can of Dr Pepper, one from his dwindling cache of Earthly goods. He said, “You don’t believe that crap, do you? The whole Selkie Evolution thing?”
The Vrellan face floated into view, its mouth wide as it chased the squid across the screen.
“How can you not?” I asked. “His face is like ours. The eyes are the same shape. Even his teeth–”
“–One,” he said. “You don’t even know if he’s a He. And two. They don’t have bones, Barbara. It’s all cartilage. Like a cuttlefish.”
“So?” I said.
“Really?” he deadpanned. “That’s your grand rebuttal? So?”
I said, “I still think they’re pretty.”
Adam sipped from his soda can. He said, “You think everything is pretty. Besides, you’re near the uptake land, tree-lined parks and all the quiet you can stand.”
“Yep,” I said. “My neighborhood wins, and you know the reason why.”
Adam’s nose twitched. “’Cause of Mercy,” he said.
“They put families in the Sheon-ho,” I said. “You could’ve joined us. Mercy and me get the hive dome. You get the pod-apartment.”
“For now,” Adam said. “We’ve been through this. Once they sort your daughter’s visa and she finally gets here, she’s gonna have to acclimatize to a whole new culture. Us all living together — major complications.”
“Mercy’s 17,” I reminded him. “After moving to another planet, the living together thing is not that big a deal.”
The ad splashed us yellow-white. Adam ground out a sigh.
I said, “I did not ride all this way to hear you bitch about your view again.”
Adam crushed his empty soda can. “Yeah,” he said. “Whatever.”
Weeks crawled by with no news of Mercy. Adam and I ambled along the tramway struts, fanning to cool our faces. Dense heat huffed from the tram tunnel, smelling of fresh fish and fry oil.
Adam said, “My landlord gave me packets of shinkworms.”
I skimmed the vid-wall, searching for the name of our tram.
“Shinkworms, Barb?” Adam said. “They smell like yogurt?”
“Not really worms,” I answered. “They’re a kind of a plant. Like… renewable pasta.”
The tram schedule scrolled up. I chewed my lip, fighting to untangle the words. But my mind drifted. I missed Mercy. I missed her bubbly chatter and the rainwater scent of her hair. I’d received textbursts from the sat-relays, quick blurbs from my family back home. Nothing of substance, just the standard “How you holding up?” thing.
I was fine, though. More than fine. After classes, my co-teacher, Yayi, had started taking me for honey foam. We practiced my Vrellan, and I could now order my own drinks. In the neighborhood, the Vrellish younglings treated me like a celebrity. They shouted and bowed, their round faces glowing. Literally glowing. The Vrellans are bio-luminescent.
And while I did miss Earth, I found new marvels to puzzle over. In the park, fringed lilies burst with the scent of buttered popcorn. Feather-flies hummed around them, collecting nectar on their forelegs. I watched them for hours while the sunlight sifted down through the hazy planet rings. My mind thrummed with wonder, like a kid seeing snow for the first time.
In the tram station, lines of text aligned with the corresponding English. Beside the swooping scrawl of the Vrellan characters, the English looked strangely stilted, a Vermeer alongside stick figures.
Then with a sudden click, I recognized a Vrellan word: Casion. Street.
I spoke it aloud, turning the syllables on my tongue. Meeyadega Casion. Dog Street. Myeond Casion. Main Street. A startled laugh spilled from my lips.
“It’s not funny,” Adam said. “I’m starving. The food here stinks, like it’s all on the verge of rotting.”
I said, “Adam. Look. I figured it out. Casion. It means street.”
Adam scuffled away. “Brilliant, Barb,” he said. “You now have the working vocab of a toddler.”
My pride deflated. He was right, of course. We’d been on Vrell a month, and I could read one word. My students could read over seventy English words, and they were all first years.
The station’s lights glimmered, signaling the tram’s arrival. Adam braced himself as the cars hushed to a stop. The doors parted, and a flood of Vrellans poured out, a mass of swinging arms and smiling mouths.
We pressed into the throng. Adam looped his arm through a fiber-strap, his face pinched against the smell. Steamed roses, I decided on our first day here. Steamed cabbage, Adam had said instead.
The tram’s vid-screens winked through a series of ads. This time, when the tagline for cherry squid popped up in Vrellan, I found that could read it.
I bit back my smile.
Three weeks. Thirty words. Functional words like: Shop, Park, Family, Welcome.
Yayi shared the Vrellan alphabet, and I practiced it on my daily commute to Adam’s. The Vrellans nodded encouragement over my shoulder while I wrote. I practiced my greetings on them: Balm balm, brr-oi b’nay. Good good, how are you?
They practiced their English, too.
“Let’s all share a cherry squid,” one Vrellan said. His friend joined in, crooning the jingle. They mimed the action of eating the squid: “Omp, omp, omp.”
We laughed so hard that tears streamed from my eyes. Distressed, both Vrellans rushed to dry them.
“It’s okay,” I explained. “Sometimes humans cry when we are happy.”
One said, “No sad?”
“Balm balm,” I answered.
The second traced tear tracks down his cheek. “Cry?” he asked.
“No cry,” I assured him.
But the words failed us. The Vrellans enveloped me, burying their bristly heads against my shoulders.
Then I did cry.
I missed Mercy. I knew that she would understand.
During Eighth-night, Adam and I went to a pool hall on Dog Street. Vrellans have this affinity for dogs. They import dozens of breeds from Earth, from Irish wolfhounds to teacup poodles. Pet shops and dog cafes line the Meeyadega, and Vrellans go to great lengths to care for their canines. Expats pack to Dog Street, too, in spite of its pervasive wet-dog stench. Human breeders make their homes in the Meeyadega, bringing Earthly staples with them, like Starbucks and pool halls and karaoke bars.
In his college days, Adam made sly money sharking pool. He racked up a set with a groomer named Jadir while I crowded into a booth with two fellow teachers, Jack and Willa.
Jack was from Jersey; Willa from Wales. They’d received textbursts from home that afternoon, and we shared the messages between our phones: Pineapple memories from Hawaii, a savory London stew. We inhaled it all, closing our eyes to let the memories unfold.
At the pool table, Jadir struck up a debate about Vrellan evolution, a topic Adam could rarely resist.
“—It’s because they breed externally,” Jadir was saying. “They evolved as a collective. That’s why they’re more advanced.”
Adam set up his shot. He said, “So you think we’re behind the evolutionary curve because of sex.”
“Precisely,” Jadir answered. “Our sexual urges are self-serving and primitive. It’s why we’ll never assimilate the Vrellans into human culture.”
Adam fired the cue, scattering balls across the felt. “We don’t have to have sex with them to assimilate them,” he said.
Jadir moved around the table, eying the spread as he walked. “It’s impossible to have sex with them,” he said.
Adam gave an imperious laugh. “Not impossible to have sex with them,” he corrected. “Impossible to conceive with them.”
Jadir’s face squinched at the idea. His shot went wild, and he stepped back to re-chalk.
Adam sited down his stick. He said, “How old were you when the Vrellans arrived on Earth?”
“Too young to remember,” Jadir answered. “Maybe two or three.”
Adam grunted. “I was nine. And terrified. An alien invasion? Please. We all thought we were toast. Imagine our joy when we learned their true intent.”
“Expansion,” Jadir said. “Commerce.”
Adam moved with practiced quickness. “They rode in like knights on white horses.” Adam said. “All that miraculous tech–”
“–Dude, that’s what I’m saying,” Jadir cut in. “They didn’t waste centuries at war, so they adapted in better ways–”
“–Not better,” Adam bit out. “Different, not better. And if you think so, ask yourself this: Why do they want to be like us?”
“Curiosity.” Jadir said. “Y’know, like little kids. I mean, they’ve never even heard of an orgasm.”
Beside me, Willa groaned, “Can Earth guys go one night without sex talk?”
I sipped my cocktail. I wanted to disappear. I said, “I know, right?”
Jack nudged me. “Hey, Barb,” he said. “Your pocket’s glowing.”
Excitement sparked inside me. I tugged out my phone and swiped it. We leaned in close as the photoburst uploaded.
Mercy smiled in freeze-frame, her fingers raised in a V. She’d dyed her curls bright blue, which meant no more dress code. She was free from the academy.
We put our heads into a huddle as I clicked play:
“Hey, Mom,” Mercy said. “Bandwidth is limited, so I’ll keep it quick. My visa’s approved, and I’m heading out right now. Like literally about to board.”
She panned to show the silver boost ship hissing on the launch pad.
She said, “I’ll see you in twelve weeks. The details’re in the files, plus some vids from Pops and Me-Maw. Oh my God, I miss you so much. I love you, and I’ll see you soon! Brr-ill bin oi-yay!”
The chat-vid looped back, and I shrieked.
Jack shouted, “She’s coming.”
Willa shouted, “She’s on her way.”
We collapsed into a kind of noisy hug-fest. Jack looped an arm around my shoulder as we watched the video replay.
When Adam strode up, his face was ketchup red. He pulled on his jacket in quick, jerky movements. He said, “Barb, we’re leaving.”
I stammered. I said, “We’re not ready, Adam. I just… We just received–”
“–Really?” Adam spat. “Well then fuck you.” His fists clenched, he thrust out his middle fingers and shoved them into my face.
And then he left.
At street level, a glazy rain glistened into dew. Vrellans buffeted around me, parting to pass but not to give space. I drifted along the scale-walk, sending frantic texts to Adam, which he ignored.
Ferns and grasses tendriled from the buildings’ crenellations. Opalescent clouds gushed in long, dripping filaments, spilling pastel smears into the streets. Massive holo-ads hovered above me:
Yoda Potato House: Do or do not, there is no fry!
Saint’s Shampoo, for humans who want to get ahead.
Let’s All Share a Cherry Squid
In my excitement over Mercy’s news, I’d lost track of Adam’s conversation. I picked over the argument with Jadir, trying to pinpoint Adam’s outburst. They mentioned sex, I knew, and Adam had a tendency to go overboard.
In Adam’s estimation, the Vrellans’ great failing was their lack of ownership. They didn’t own stuff. They didn’t covet. They didn’t fight for land or partners. Without conquest, they lacked pride. Without struggle, they had no story. That made them uninteresting and safe. According to Adam.
I saw again his jutting fingers. Such an odd gesture. So human.
I dammed back my tears and scanned the sky. I found the Saint’s Shampoo ad glowering down at me.
A human woman dived into a pool to emerge with lustrous curls. A coruscating sparkle lit into a million pixels, resettling again to the model’s face. Then the tagline: For humans who want to get ahead.
A human ad with a human target audience. Vrellans didn’t long to get ahead. They lacked the language for winning and losing.
We’d researched cultural idiosyncrasies before we took our jobs with the Fellowship. But real life and reading, it seems, are two very different things.
On the aerial home, I listened to the lilting, languid speech of the Vrellans. I studied their faces, so doll-like in their similarity, though humans were wrong to dismiss them as ‘all looking alike.’ They all wore their hair cropped close to their scalps, but they differed in a thousand other ways. Their eye color varied, as did the freckling patterns of their skin. And while they dressed in simple robes, their complexions glowed in a myriad of honey-gold shades.
I found an empty aerial bench and took out my vid-phone. I re-watched Mercy’s videos, a summer panorama: Mom and Dad waving from a boardwalk; My nephew tearing strips from a cloud of cotton candy; Mercy, off-screen, stealing little nips of it; My brothers lobbing a football; Fireworks flashing across the sky.
The Vrellans hunched in. I ran the video back so we could watch together. They breathed in the cotton candy scent, their scarlet eyes closed and exultant.
One of them pointed. “Who… is…her?”
“My daughter…” I began.
Furrows etched the Vrellan’s forehead.
Words like ‘my’ and ‘daughter’ made no sense to them. I tried again. “Our… child,” I said, pressing a hand to my heart.
“Ooon,” the Vrellan said. The rest nodded, taking up the sound to show their understanding.
“Blue hairs,” one said. “Pretty.”
The group bobbed their heads. “Ooon, ooon. Pretty.”
Another gestured as the fireworks filled the screen. “What is?”
“Independence Day,” I said. The group gave me a collective shrug, and I smiled. “It’s a celebration. A… party.”
“Party,” one said, eyes wide with connection. “Happy, happy, balm, balm.”
The recording of Mercy waved at the screen. The Vrellans all waved back. They pressed tight around me. I breathed in their paraffin scent, the oil of their hair, the sweet-damp of their robes. They started to sing, then, and the passengers melded their voices to the melody. The aerial hummed along its cable while the Vrellans sang me home.
Adam would have hated it. Their singing made him sick. Embarrassing, he called it. Childish. Lame.
I was glad he wasn’t there.
My off-worlding neighbor, Pol, crouched on the floor of my apartment, Relmini reeds piled between his feet. My apartment was a three-story walk-up surrounded by a floating market, a park, and a fish pond. Pol had made a career out of teaching in the out-rim colonies before coming to Vrell. He was culture-smart and spoke Vrellan like a native.
He said, “So what we’re gonna do, is we’re gonna pull them til they’re spaghetti thin.”
“And we’ll catch the juice in this?” I drummed my fist on the basin and placed it on the floor.
“Righty-o,” he said.
I knelt across from him, mirroring his posture as he passed me one end of the reeds.
Pol rubbed his nose with the back of one hand. He said, “You know, during the seeding cycle, whole collectives perform the Relmini ritual. The Vrellans mix the tea with honey-foam and spread it over their nests. They make sure every seedling gets the same amount, so they’re all equal strong when they hatch.”
I tightened the reeds. Runnels of juice rippled into the tub.
“Imagine if humans did that,” I said. “If we ensured that every child on Earth had the exact amount of food and water. Adam would say I’m naive, that there isn’t enough to go around. There are eleven billion people on Earth. It’s impossible for everyone to have the same.”
“There’s forty-eight billion Vrellans here,” Pol said. “They make it fine enough.”
I said, “You know what else? Back home, Mercy was the top of her class. That means nothing here. Years of work and struggle, for what?”
“Eh, she’s got her knowledge, her experience,” Pol said. “She doesn’t lose that once she drops planetside. Only the number loses importance.”
I twisted the reeds until a viscous paste oozed out, smelling of grapefruit and oatmeal.
Pol asked, “You thought any about the daily bathe? Yayi’s taking a group down to the Somerlan shrines. You guys could join us.”
Our hive-domes boasted the standard human accoutrements: stove, fridge, washing machine, sink. We had alcoves fitted with a sat-access, a holo-bank, and bunk beds. We had a shower cubicle and toilet, but no tub. It was the one household fixture I missed.
Since water covers ninety percent of the planet, Vrellans bathe in communal waters. They start each day with a trek to the nearest shore, where they scrub each other clean with coral sand.
Few humans engaged in this routine, but Pol swore by it.
I said, “I don’t know. I haven’t shaved since the crossing. I’m giving Chewbacca a run for his money, and the Vrellans are bound to notice.”
Pol said, “Adam must be thrilled.”
“Uh oh,” Pol said. “I know that look. You wanna talk about it?”
I wrenched the reeds a good half-turn. Juice dripped from my fingers. I started speaking, and the story flowed out, starting with the game of pool and ending with the aerial home.
Pol said, “So he flipped you the bird and went off, just like that.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Exactly like that.”
The reeds made a plucking sound, like a tightening guitar string. Pol said, “Almost done. Lean back and pull.”
The reeds grew pale between us. There was a moment of perfect balance as we waited, breathless, before the reeds twanged apart, spilling us to our backs, where we sprawled, laughing, with the exhilaration of children.
We cleaned up the reeds and rinsed our roughened palms. We poured the pulp into a pot, where it would simmer overnight. Once it reduced into a doughy paste, I would cut it into cubes to share with my students.
Pol and I reclined on the window seat, watching the younglings in the grass-yard below. I thought of the view from Adam’s window, the advertisement we thought so funny upon our arrival. The very idea of a squid-flavored cherry… or a cherry-flavored squid.
I said, “Adam hates it here. He hates the food. The way they smell. Their lack of personal space.”
Pol said, “Eh, give him time. Some guys got the Macho pretty fierce. It takes a while, ‘specially for a big alpha lunk like Adam. But he’ll get it. One day he’ll have the moment, and it’ll click.”
“What?” I said. “Like an epiphany?”
Pol swung his legs over the ledge. “For me, it was in class,” he said. “You know, they tell us our Earthly teaching stuff won’t work here, all those tricks and briberies… But I thought I’d try.”
“Like we all do,” I said.
“Like we all do,” he agreed. “So I designed this quiz game. I divided the kids into teams. And I explained the winning team would get a treat.”
Pol fell quiet. Below us, the younglings passed a reed hoop over their heads and beneath their feet, going faster and faster until it blurred around them.
I nudged. “What happened?”
“They took turns,” Pol said. “When the last team came out one point ahead, I declared them the winners, and I gave them their prize.”
“They shared it, didn’t they?”
“They divided four cookies into thirty equal shares,” Pol said. “They even saved a piece for me. That was my ah-ha moment, when I began to understand them. It happened for me. It’ll happen for Adam.”
“And what about me?” I asked.
Pol squeezed my shoulder. “M’dear, we just threshed the Relmini reeds. You have done gone native.”
Two days later, my phone vibrated: Adam’s number, his vid-screen blanked.
Anger blistered inside me. Five days had passed, and now he couldn’t face me onscreen? He didn’t know about Mercy, hadn’t even checked to see if I had made it home.
And there was a joke. I never worried about muggers or rapists here. Not unless I happened through a human district, which I avoided.
My phone continued to buzz.
And I thought, It’s Adam. We’d crossed to Vrell to start a life together — him and Mercy and me. I had to answer.
So I thumbed the screen lock and pressed the phone to my ear.
On the other end, Adam whispered, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
I held my breath.
He said, “Please, I’m freaking out. Can you please come over? I’ll cook for us. I have some wine and American food. Please, I’m sorry.”
My anger drained into pity. I wasn’t ready to forgive him. But I remembered Pol’s words, about how this was harder on men like Adam.
I said, “Will you tell me what upset you the other night?”
A sniff. Then, “Yes. Can you please just come over?”
I said, “I’ll be there in an hour.”
Adam’s neighborhood reeked of people, of urine and beer sweat and sausage. He lived near the military base, among the tourist dens of Lau-Ori, where people thronged together for human things like gambling, and racing, and ping pong. Vape parlors and strip clubs huddled along the scale-ways, their neon signs wavering garishly above the pavement.
Adam occupied a corner pod of his building. Salt-grass and wild rice grew up the steep tower, giving it a furred appearance in spite of the harsh holo-ads that sailed through the alleys.
I wedged in at his card-table, watching the colors surge. The light splayed across his rumpled sheets, painting tri-colored shadows in the folds. I thought of healing bruises and fresh-fallen snow. I thought of fireworks and Mercy’s smile. I thought of home.
Oldies piped from Adam’s holovid, a mix of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden. He plunked down two plates and went to work on the wine cork.
“I call it Spam-ghetti,” Adam said, his eyes red-rimmed and hopeful.
I poked at a gelatinous meat cube swimming in watery red sauce atop a tangle of gray pasta. I said, “Where’d you find Spam?”
“In the Yong-Shin-Ae,” Adam said. “They have Dr Pepper, and Tillamook cheddar, and white bread. Actual white bread, too, not that spongy kelp crap.”
I twisted a noodle between my fingers, testing the Vrellan technique my students taught me.
Adam put down the bottle with a thunk and passed me a fork. “You don’t have to eat with your fingers here,” he said. “I have proper cutlery. I’m surprised they didn’t confiscate it at customs.”
“Why would they do that?”
“Uh, because a fork’s a fucking weapon,” Adam said.
I lifted the utensil, testing its clumsy weight in my hands. I said, “Adam, I’m… concerned.”
He jabbed his fork into his pasta. He said, “Look, I’m sorry about the other night. It’s just, Jadir and I were talking, and I look over, and you’re practically draped over that Jack guy–”
“–And Jadir goes, ‘Your girlfriend’s really excited about something,’ and I–”
“–I’d received word from Mercy.” The calm in my voice surprised me. “Adam, she is on her way here.”
Adam rocked back in his chair. “Mercy’s on her way?”
“Yeah, I would’ve shared the news, but you were too busy flipping me off.”
Anger flared across his face. He said, “You’re not seeing what I saw, Barb. From where I stood, it looked like you and Jack were gonna go at it, right there on the pool hall floor.”
I shoved back from the table. “I came to Vrell with you, Adam. To be with you. We left all that jealousy crap on Earth.”
Adam rolled his shoulders. “Jadir saw it, too,” he said. “You’re my girlfriend, but you were drooling all over that butt scrub from Jersey. It was embarrassing.”
“You were embarrassed?”
“–My daughter is on her way,” I said. My voice seemed to swell, to reverberate in the paper partitions. “I ache for her with every breath. She’s crossing half a galaxy to get here. And you’re so concerned with your precious ego that you don’t even care what that means to me.”
Adam placed his fork on the rim of his plate. He said, “Do not yell at me.”
The light from the ad ruptured pink and blue and yellow. Let’s All Share a Cherry Squid. Let’s All Share…
Tears pearled in his eyes. He said, “I’m sorry.” His broad shoulders shook, and he crumbled like a tectonic plate, his anger dissolving into slow, sobbing waves.
Weeks elongated into months. Mercy’s ship, the Archimedes, finally came within sat-range, which meant I could track its path among the stars. I began each day with an update on the ship’s progress. My students hmmmm-ed and ahhhh-ed as we watched it. We learned new words like Rocket, Orbit, Moon, and Daughter.
After classes, I boarded the tram for the hour-long ride to Yong-Shin-Ae. I practiced reading the street signs. I watched the advertisements. I recognized one word, over and over, in the Vrellan ads and PSAs.
I repeated it like a meditation each evening as I approached Adam’s place.
Adam adjusted his sunglasses against the backsplash gleam of the Shallows. Sunlight flooded the marshy tide-flats, bouncing in broad arcs from the tidal pools. Scads of Vrellans skimmed with their dogs along the shoreline, poking for stray kelleli crabs.
We kept to the scale-way, where the tide foamed up between the tiles. The path snaked through lattices of Relmini reeds, leading over a soft shoulder to a grove of Somerlan trees.
From where we stood, we could smell the toffee-sweet scent of the fruit. My mouth watered at the thought of it, and I dragged Adam along, anticipating its sugar-sand texture on my tongue.
“What are we doing here again?” Adam asked. We crested the ridge and scanned the treeline. Dozens of people scuttled beneath the branches, gathering the knobbly fruit into baskets.
“Somerlan groves,” I told him.
His nostrils flared. “Smells rotten.”
“It’s not,” I said. I took his hand and pulled. “You know, this grove is all one plant. Connected at the roots, like those Aspens in Colorado–”
“–God, I miss Colorado,” Adam moaned. “I miss driving. My car. My freedom.”
I said, “They say the fruit has healing powers, that one bite can heal your soul.”
I felt the weight of Adam’s smirk as we entered the shadows. He said, “What a load of crap.”
He stuffed his hands in his pockets, but he followed me. Water lapped around the roots, spangling sunrays against the underside of the canopy. Leaf-shadow shimmered so the whole grove seemed to be alive and awake and listening.
We minced among the roots until we came upon the shrines. Silken strips draped from the branches, twined with beads and bits of shell. The Vrellans tied colorful sashes around the tree’s trunks, scrawled with names of those who had gone before. The ribbons lilted like lolling tongues, like the whole grove laughed at the idea of death.
“Do Vrellans believe in heaven?” Adam asked. He kept glancing around, looking out for humans who might hear him.
“They believe in reincarnation,” I said. “Their bodies return to the sea, where they begin to re-assemble into themselves over the course of centuries.”
He was quiet a while. We continued, leaving all that might have been a path behind us. In the closeness of the grove, I pressed my way along, caressing each smooth trunk beneath my palm. I thought of what Mercy would say, for I knew I would bring her to this place. She would appreciate the connectedness of the trees, and the concept of ‘going before.’
Adam said, “They return to themselves?” An edge of despair serrated his words.
“The ones who go before will one day come again,” I said. “Vrellans believe they cross paths with each other throughout their lifetimes. That way, they can fulfill every role for every Vrellan–”
“–That’s dumb,” Adam said.
I said, “No more dumb than our notion of hell.”
“No, look,” Adam said. “When we die, our bodies decompose. Flesh and bone disintegrates, gets consumed by other organisms, gets converted into energy.”
I pulled away. I said, “I am aware of how a food chain works, Adam.”
He trailed after. He said, “There are trillions of cells in the sea. When something dies, its body becomes part of this…soup.” He glanced at his feet, his lip curling in a sneer. “The cells get scattered. They get gobbled up or swept away. They settle on the sea floor to become part of the stone. To think that an individual could somehow re-form into itself from this goop? It’s beyond impossible, Barb. It’s idiotic.”
We came then to the edge of the grove, where the Shallows sheered off into a fathomless pool. A glistening reef hemmed in its far border, beyond which long breakers unfurled like shimmering ribbons. Vrellans and humans darted through the clear water, chasing up glitters of tiny colored fish.
I sat on the pool’s edge, dangling my feet over the rim. Adam crouched down and covered his eyes. I heard his sob and placed my hand on his shoulder.
I said, “This is culture shock, Adam. We learned about it in training, remember? Everyone says it gets easier.”
Adam shook his head. His body tremored as he lost the battle against his tears.
Beneath us a spiral of scarlet fish churned, catching the sun so that they seemed to disappear with every odd turning.
Not fish, I realized, but a shoal of baby squid.
Adam said, “I hate it here. I hate it.”
“You’ll get used to it,” I told him. “We’re humans. We adapt. It’s what we’re best at.”
“We’re best at ruining things,” he said. He sat up, sharply, and wiped his eyes.
“Don’t say that,” I said. “That’s Earth thinking. We’re here because we wanted something else.”
“I thought I did,” Adam said. “I really thought… But it’s too much. I can’t do it anymore.”
Cold trickled through me. “What are you saying?”
Adam said, “If I didn’t catch it now, I’d have to wait another four months. You wouldn’t do that to me, would you? You wouldn’t ask me to wait?”
I let my hand drop. I said, “Wait for what?”
“I bought a ticket on the Hippocrates,” Adam said. “I’m going home.”
I sat, blinking. The squidlings turned and turned, a mosaic that seemed, from so high up, like a single, spinning creature. I said, “Mercy will be here next week.”
“I know,” Adam said.
“We came here to be a family,” I said. “To start over.”
“I know,” Adam said.
“And you’re leaving?”
“I’m going home.”
I stood up. I paced. I stretched my arms over my head. And though a hollow ached inside me, I closed my eyes… and dived.
His pod-apartment began its life as a dorm, fitted with twin beds for military personnel. We lay in opposite beds, staring across the small void while bursts of vibrance lit the room.
He said, “I know what you’re thinking.”
“That black-out curtains could have saved you countless hours of complaining?” I tried for light-hearted and failed.
“It’s the principle of it, Barbara,” he said. “Everything that’s wrong with the Vrellans can be summed up with that one human-wannabe advertisement.”
I said, “They don’t want to be like us. They want to include us.”
He said, “Well, I don’t wanna be a part of their fucking Borg collective.”
“Fine,” I said. “No one’s forcing you.”
And he said, “I did the best I could.”
I flipped to face the wall. I pretended to sleep, pretended not to hear him packing, pretended not to hear him leave.
Later, Jadir told me that Adam booked into an American hotel, that he stayed there until the Hippocrates departed.
Whatever. He left us. It was done.
The next Fifth-day, I perched on the polished steps of Intergalactic Embarkation, waving a hand-lettered sign above my head. Mercy bounded down the dais, trundling a suitcase behind her. When we met, we caught each other and spun in a wide circle while the Vrellans pressed around us, tousling our hair in greeting.
When we parted, Mercy stood on tiptoe to scan the crowd. She said, “Where’s Adam?”
“Well,” I said. “He left.”
Mercy gripped my arms. She said, “Mom, are you serious?”
I took up the handle of her suitcase and clasped her hand. We joined the smooth, swift motion of the tram-bound traffic, and I explained everything.
“But it’s all right,” I said at the end. And that felt mostly true.
We stepped onto the central platform, with its cantilevered facade overlooking the city swell. Mercy gaped, as most humans did, as the Lau-Ori streets softly pulsed with its opaline glow. The sandcastle skyline waved its coral fans against the sweep of the planet’s rings. Those, the sun blushed to a plummy aubergine. Beyond that dusky ringscape sparkled a scatter of new constellations crafted from our same, familiar stars.
And in the foreground, sailing along the promenade, bright holo-ads flared like fireworks.
Perfect Day for Bananafish
Happy Safety Shoes — Protect those toes!
Let’s All Share a Cherry Squid
“Cherry squid?” Mercy said. “Are they squid that taste like cherries? Or cherries that taste like squid?”
I said, “Maybe they’re just shaped like cherries?”
Mercy mimicked the face, her mouth stretching into an O. She went, “Omp omp omp.” She tucked her wild hair behind her ears. “So cool. Can we try some?”
I squeezed her hand. “You bet we can,” I said. “Anything in the world.”