fiction

Après nous le déluge

by Katherine Crighton

Originally published on tumblr, January 26, 2015

============

it starts

“I feel like a stupid American,” Ben says, staring up at the glass pyramid in front of the entrance to the Louvre.

“That’s because you are a stupid American,” says Alyssa, or at least that’s what he thinks she says, because she says it in perfect French and while beating some insane level of Candy Crush on her phone, which is completely unfair, she’s not even looking at what even he knows is kind of a big deal in terms of art, okay, Ben is not the philistine here. 

The rest of the Albert Finch Memorial High School language club is scattered around the wide courtyard along with the other tourists, snapping pictures on their phones (except Lucas, with the DSLR), running their hands through the shallow water in the fountain that surrounds the pyramid. The sun is high overhead, though some clouds are in the distance, sweeping closer, and it’s summer-warm. The light, though, is still somehow brighter than the light they had in New Hampshire – which doesn’t make a lot of sense, because it’s the same sun, isn’t it? Then again, Paris smells weird, too, like Boston stink and the perfume Alyssa likes to wear, all at the same time.

Ben looks around, at the too wide, too Rococo buildings, and the sudden breath of modernity the glass pyramid represents. He isn’t really here for France, when it comes down to it. His French is limited to bonjour, merci, and combien? Which, so far, has been good enough.

Ben studies Spanish. He’s saving his phone’s available memory for the Sagrada Família.

“I’m going to get my revenge when we hit Pamplona,” he says mildly. He scratches his fingertips over Alyssa’s screen, messing up her level. She looks up and scowls at him. “I’m going to order squid for you and tell you it’s chicken.”

“They are related languages, Ben, it’s not as if I can’t–” She stops, suddenly, her mostly put-on annoyance dropping from her face as she looks over her shoulder. “Ben,” she says. “What the hell is that?”

He’s been fooled by her before – distraction is a well-worn tactic – so he sidesteps her before he turns to look.

It’s–

The sky is boiling.

The clouds that had been skimming in the sky before are roiling closer now, faster than any natural thing should be. They’re dark, and suddenly the air peels away, and they’re not clouds, they must not have ever been clouds, they’re huge, sleek ships painted striated patterns coming across the sky. Bigger than a plane, bigger than anything in the sky should be, making the world seem suddenly like it’s caving in, with the fear that gravity will strike now and one of those ships will start to fall and–

The ships blot out the sun above them. Ben grabs Alyssa’s hand, swipes at Lucas’s shirt, hits Jesse, tries to reach for whoever he can, as they run for the closest shelter. There’s not much, out here in the open; Ben’s aiming for the street across from the Louvre, where there are some shops, buildings, maybe basements they can hunker into. Lucas is half-turned, the camera running over his shoulder, the red light of the DSLR’s video function turned on. Ben has to grab him around the waist to pull him into the doorway of the patisserie before he gets trampled by the crowd.

Above them, smaller ships release from the larger ones. They move fast. And– they shoot things. Ben can tell, because the pyramid explodes sideways, the shards of glass invisible without the sun to make them glitter. The front of the Louvre is strafed with something that makes the structure groan, the bricks and mortar and ancient stonework underneath shifting, breaking. The ships move on, unconcerned with whether the destruction will actually occur – or maybe already certain that it will. The front of the building collapses, like a giant falling on its knees, before the whole façade cracks to the ground.

The small ships are still moving. Water starts to flood the streets. And– people. Falling. There’s a lot of noise. In the distance, Ben can see more of the giant ships. Even very, very far away.

Alyssa pulls Ben, Jesse, and Lucas further back into the patisserie, which is growing crowded as more people seek shelter inside it. “Is anybody else from our class in here?” she says. She’s shorter than all of them. Ben is the tallest, but if there’s anyone here, he can’t see them. He shakes his head. “Okay,” she says, “okay, I’ll just– god damn it,” she says, her phone shaking in her hand. “My battery’s out. Anybody got their phone?”

They all reach for theirs. Everybody’s battery is dead.

“Shit,” Lucas says, looking down at his camera. His glasses are crooked on his face. The video screen is black. The camera is dead. “I don’t know when it turned off.”

“Other problems,” Jesse says. He’s not much taller than Alyssa, but stockier. His family has a dairy farm back home. “We’re stuck in a French bakery with a bunch of strangers while aliens attack. What the hell do we do now?”

***

There’s a problem, when it comes to people, and panic, and crowds. It means that everyone stops thinking quite right.

The remaining members of the Albert Finch language club had wedged themselves near the back of the store, but there were strangers in the street who were willing to do anything to get away from whatever they were seeing outside. And that apparently meant shoving their way into spaces where they was no more room, through doors that couldn’t shut anymore. It meant screaming things in French that Ben didn’t quite understand, but that made Lucas and Jesse freeze up a little and made Alyssa start to shake worse than she already was.

They were slowly being pushed close – too close – to a wall. And that wall wouldn’t have any more give to it, no matter how many people wanted to get inside.

“We’ve got to get out of here,” Ben says.

“Oh yeah?” says Jesse. “Because outside is so much better?”

“Here isn’t working,” Ben shot back. “Come on. I can see the back door. Nobody’s tried to get in through there yet – I bet it leads to some kind of enclosed garden or something. We get there, we get under cover, we have a second to think of something else.”

“We should do it,” Alyssa says.

“Of course you think we should do it,” says Jesse.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Shut up, guys,” Lucas says, his voice tense with something, and there’s a man who’s back is being shoved into Lucas’s shoulder, and Lucas’s other shoulder is being shoved into the wall, and the crowd is moving, like a wave cresting high to break against a cliff, and–

Ben turns Alyssa so that she can walk in front of him, and then starts shoving people to either side, letting them swear and shift into the wake of space he leaves behind him, heading toward the door just a few feet away.

Alyssa’s the one who opens it. Ben follows, and Lucas and Jesse stumble out after. The woman who stands by the door, just inside, stares at them, then glances fearfully at the sky and slams the door behind them.

They’re not in a garden.

It’s an alley, one of the little ones that still has shops and homes lining either side. Stone cobbles. Water running wild down it. At either end, people running. And things, things that don’t move quite right, stalking after.

A dozen feet away, a man is raising a sewer lid. He is stopped, mid-move, staring at them. Then he lets out a sudden gusting breath, and speaks rapidly in French.

Ben doesn’t understand. He looks automatically at Alyssa. “He says he thought we were them,” Alyssa says. “He thought–”

The man looks over his shoulder, and then looks them over. Ben knows what they look like, compared to him. He’s maybe thirty. Rough beard. Working hands. And they’re– eighteen. He thinks Lucas might be seventeen. They must seem like kids to this guy.

The man says something, and then makes a quick gesture. “Come on,” Alyssa says lowly. “Everybody, come on.” She runs over to the man, and Ben has to follow.

“What’s happening?” Ben asks.

“We’re going underground,” Alyssa says, and lowers herself down the manhole.

============

and it doesn’t stop

The first time he ever imagined kissing Alyssa, he was in seventh grade, and she was yelling at him about cats.

It was during a school trip to the dairy farm Jesse’s family owned, because that’s what kids in rural New Hampshire did for school trips, you went to where the school district could afford to send you, and Ben wandered off because he hadn’t really been interested in looking at the magnificent herds of bovines and their resplendent barns full of concrete and cow shit. He’d been kind of angsty back then, which was hilarious to think about now, because Jesus, what did he have to angst over? Oh no, my favorite band is changing their sound. Damn, coffee tastes terrible, how will I ever become the hipster I long to be.

He basically moped himself around a corner and found himself looming – all five-foot-four in skinny jeans, thanks to a puberty that hadn’t quite hit its stride – over pretty blonde Alyssa Batencourt, who was been kneeling in her patterned leggings on the filthy ground by a wood pile, and who turned on him like the wrath of God.

“If you make a sound I’ll cut your eyes out,” she hissed, which was specific in a way Ben found himself uncomfortably impressed by. He held up his hands, and after a moment she nodded. She didn’t really get less tense, but she did let him shuffle a little closer, until he was close enough to look over her shoulder to see what she was watching over.

In a shadowed hollow between some of the logs, an orange and white barn cat watched the two of them with glittering eyes. She was curled defensively around a small pile of kittens, some of them orange and white, some of them calico, all of them rooting against her trying to find a space to nurse. Alyssa watched them silently for a moment, and then leaned back, almost knocking into Ben’s knees before he realized what she was doing and took a hasty step back.

She got up and stalked a few feet away from the wood pile and the cats before crossing her arms and rounding on him. She lifted her chin. “Well?” she spat.

Unlike everybody else in their class, she hadn’t grown up in their town. She wasn’t even from New Hampshire – she’d grown up in Virginia as some kind of Navy brat, or so he’d heard. She’d only started coming to school a couple of months back. So – the point was, she wasn’t like everybody else he knew. Everybody else was– he’d grown up with them. They were all assholes, but they were ones he knew inside and out. Knew all their buttons. Knew why they did shit.

Alyssa was– he didn’t know what the hell was going on.

He stuck his hands in his pockets. It made his shoulders hunch up. “Uh,” he said, which, classic. “You like cats?”

She stared at him. After a second, during which he was pretty sure she was trying to figure out whether he was stupid or, like, criminally stupid, she just slowly said, “Yes.”

“Oh. Um. Cool,” he said. Because he was a master of words.

She stared at him some more, and then turned her head away sharply. She was pretty, he thought. He’d thought it before, too, when he’d seen her by the wood pile. And– okay, he’d been thinking it for a while, too, during class, walking the hallways, eating in the cafeteria. A sort of low-level there’s Alyssa Batencourt.

She said, “Are you going to tell?”

It drew him up short. “Tell what?”

She darted a look at him. “About the–” She let a hand out from crossed arms, waved it at the wood pile, and then quickly brought it back into the fold.

“Would it matter if I did?” he asked, and she turned red and opened her mouth like she was going to threaten him with more bodily harm than she already had. “I mean– I’m not– if you don’t want, I won’t, I’m just saying, it doesn’t matter.” Alyssa closed her mouth, breathing heavily. Ben had no idea what was going on. “She’s just a barn cat who comes around,” he said helplessly, not sure what he was saying. “I think I heard Jesse talking about her earlier. She just showed up a few weeks ago. Getting more mousers is always kind of a good thing on a farm, you know?” He dug his hands harder into his pockets, feeling a little guilt starting to gnaw at him. “I mean, it’d probably be a better idea if we let him know where they are, just because that way he could get them to the vet, make sure they’re okay, get everybody spayed or neutered, you know, but I said I won’t tell, and I won’t, but– I won’t.”

Alyssa had started staring at him again – she stared a lot, back then, like she wasn’t sure if she should close her eyes – and then something in her seemed to relax all at once, even though what actually happened was just her arms uncrossing from her chest and her chin lowering from its hard angle.

“What’s your name?” she said, which was kind of a kick in the balls, but it was one Ben was used to. There was more than one reason he was angsty back then.

“Ben Allin,” he said.

“Do you have cats?”

He’d blinked. “A couple of old ones. They’re, like, twenty or something. Old man cats. Made of kidney meds and rage.” Half of Alyssa’s mouth curled up, like a smile she was trying to keep from making. “I have a dog, too,” he said, hoping to keep that look on her face. He looked back at the wood pile. “She, uh. She just had puppies. It’s kind of– very loud at my house. My mom has a thing for basset hounds, which I’m hoping she’s regretting now.”

The half-smile didn’t become a full one, but it didn’t leave either. And now Alyssa’s eyes, dark against her blonde hair, sparkled. “Cats. And puppies,” she said. She took a step forward, suddenly eager. “Can I come over and see?”

What?

“What?”

She dulled a little, moved to step back. “I mean–”

“Yes,” he said. “Like. Of course.” He tried like hell not to dig his toe into the dirt. “Puppies for everybody.”

Alyssa gathered back her dignity, shook her hair back. “Cool,” she said. “And I’ll bring Mario Kart or something if you don’t have it already. I’ll kick your ass.”

So maybe it wasn’t true that he’d first wanted to kiss her when she’d yelled at him about the kittens, threatened him, been scared of him and what he could do. That was fucking creepy anyway.

It was really when she’d decided that they were friends. Had invited herself into his life and, suddenly, he wasn’t lonely anymore.

***

She never did say what she’d been afraid of, when it came to telling anyone about the cats.

***

The aliens are human-sized. They stand on two legs. They have faces. They look a lot like people.

They also look like cats.

Not, Ben thinks, a lot like cats. There’s just something about them. The way their eyes reflect the light. The way they move their heads. The soft noises they make, like humans murmuring indistinctly, just like a cat will chirp to make a bird come closer.

He’s only seen them a couple of times. Always from a distance. They don’t do well with sunlight. It blinds them a little, he thinks. Or maybe they’re just nocturnal, so it seems like they can do more damage at night than during the day. It’s hard to tell. There’s been a lot of damage.

Ben’s not sure what the big thing going on with the world is – what the big, horrible invasion thing is. What’s happened to Paris, or America, or his mom and dad. It’s hard to think about something that big. It’s hard to think beyond the next five minutes, the next place they have to go. All he really knows is his small part of the alien invasion. Because there is a very small part of the invasion that is very particularly looking for the four of them.

There are patrols of aliens quartering the country, in small dark ships that float a foot above the road, that skirt a hair above the treeline, all of them looking for a certain item of interest. Ben knows this because Alyssa heard the cell members talk about it, had translated it for him under the curtain of her hair. Lucas and Jesse don’t have the same facility with French, but they’re better than Ben – he can look at them and know that Alyssa isn’t lying.

(Not that there’s any reason for her to lie. But everything is different now, and he–)

The people, cell members, they end up with – La Resistance, Alyssa says at one point, and the Albert Finch kids laugh, and the French people don’t – the people talk in hushed whispers about what the aliens have done to find the “item”. Done to other cell members. Done to regular people they’ve caught on the street, if they were holding anything that looked, just a little, like the camera Lucas now keeps tight against his chest. It’s how they piece together, eventually, what it is the aliens wanted.

It all comes down to the camera.

The aliens want it. No one knows why. Maybe it has a secret to their defeat. Maybe it’s evidence that whatever they’re telling the outside world, they’re not here to help mankind.

Maybe it just shows their true selves, what that is, and they can’t stand that.

There’s something there, and they have no idea what, because the camera is dead and they’ve got no way to read the memory card.

And now – the four of them get passed from one small, tense cell to another, through sewers and Metro tunnels, over midnight streets and into secret rooms, from suburb to farmland, always heading toward some goal that no one wants to tell them in case one of them gets taken.

And sometimes, someone will ask for Lucas’s camera. Just for safe-keeping. Once, right at the beginning, before they realized just how valuable the camera was – to France, to the world, to the four stupid kids from Albert Finch Memorial High School – he’d said no and they’d all thought they didn’t need a lookout afterward.

(Ben has nightmares about that, now. There were knives. He’d never hit somebody that hard, never done it like he had to mean it. The other members of the cell had come back in the morning, and looked shocked by what their compatriots had tried to do to the American kids. Maybe it was true. Maybe it was a lie. Maybe the family the cell sent them to next wasn’t the right one, and now everybody is out to steal the camera instead of– whatever the real goal is.)

(It’s been two weeks of this, and his nightmares are on rotation.)

Alyssa listens in on the cell members when they think the Albert Finch kids have gone to sleep. She whispers translations of their words into his ear. Every cell the aliens have caught, they’ve burned.

Tonight they’re in the lower level of an old castle – it’s a keep, really, small, except even a small castle is big and real compared to anything America has. There’s a terrible wax museum on its main floor, just to keep the tourists coming. They’d had to pass through it to get to the back door leading downstairs, and even though the faces had been misshapen, the clothes hanging unnaturally off the poorly bent limbs, he’d kept seeing them move out of the corner of his eye, turning to watch them as the Albert Finch kids walked single file behind the middle-aged caretaker and her husband, a pair of electric lanterns guiding them through the displays and finally, finally, down the stairs.

They end up in a room blocked off by crates, with enough space for the four of them to lie down and sleep if they don’t mind being close. The caretaker has cheese, bread, soup, fruit, beer, some bottles of water. She sets one of the lanterns down beside them. “We won’t be the ones to get you tomorrow,” she says, as Alyssa translates for Ben under her breath. “There will be another man. He will take you to the next place.” She takes a breath, and then she sort of pats the crate beside her, in lieu of any of them. “Take care, little ones,” she says, and turns quickly.

“Wait,” Ben says. In English, but the woman turns.

“Yes?” she says, her English accented, only slightly hesitant.

“How are you doing this?” Ben flicks his hand around. It’s a smaller movement than he used to make; all his movements are smaller now. “All of this. How do you know what to do, where to take us? They haven’t been here that long. How can–”

“Child,” the caretaker says, “we have been occupied before.” She pauses, her face going blank, and says something quickly in French before she turns and leaves, her husband a silent ghost behind her.

Ben stares after her. The lantern casts strange shadows around them. It’s Jesse who says, “What did she say? She said it too fast for me to tell.”

Alyssa lies down on the outer edge of the open space, her back to them all. “She said, Our soil will be watered by the blood of those who would try and take us.

***

In the morning, a silent young black man comes during Lucas’s watch, and takes them from the castle. They climb into the back of a van, which makes a clunking noise as it moves. There’s a small window in the back.

The road is straight for a long time, through a forest where the trees seem too evenly spaced, and there is no undergrowth. In the distance, through the window in the back of the van, they can see a plume of smoke begin to rise.

The smoke grows darker.

The van seems very loud.

***

“Maybe I should get rid of the camera part,” Lucas says in the dark one night. “Just keep the memory card. It’s smaller, you know? Easier to hide.”

“Or it’ll break, asshole,” Jesse breathes. They’re all silent for a moment after that. If it breaks – if someone finds out its broken – then they’re not worth anything anymore.

“Keep it in there,” Alyssa says, her words whispering against Ben’s throat. “If they can see it, they know we still have the information. That’s what matters.”

Ben is the best at keeping watch. He draws away from the huddle of Alyssa’s body, leaves her to turn her back against Lucas’s instead, and makes Jesse lie down on Lucas’s other side. He watches them all fall asleep. And then he watches the basement door.

***

The only time Ben had actually kissed Alyssa, they were sophomores in high school. Except, no, he didn’t kiss her, she kissed him. And it turned out nothing like what he imagined.

It was after school, in Ben’s mom’s basement, and they were lying on their stomachs while some stupid rerun played on TV, doing their homework and bitching at each other about teachers and classmates and the weather and whatever else came to mind. There was snow at the window, and the heat was turned to tropical, and Alyssa said, “My mom doesn’t like you.”

Ben froze, staring down at his calculus assignment. He’d met Mrs. Batencourt a handful of times – Alyssa didn’t like hanging around her house, so they mostly spent time at his, but there’d been a couple of times when he’d gone over to pick her up, or she’d needed to get some stuff and it’d just been easier to go with her than to meet up again later.

He didn’t know much about Mrs. Batencourt. She’d been in the Navy, and had retired before moving to New Hampshire. Alyssa had said something once about how her mom had wanted to get as far away from the ocean as she could, and the mountains had seemed like a good way to do it. Ben didn’t quite get it, because it wasn’t like New Hampshire didn’t have a coast or anything, and it seemed like it’d make more sense to go live in Kansas or something, but Alyssa had just shaken her head and asked him if he’d ever been anywhere truly flat. When he still didn’t get it, Alyssa had dragged him over to a computer and showed him endless youtube videos of rippling waves of grain, stretching far into the horizon like a sea on land, until he’d finally figured it out.

Mrs. Batencourt had short blonde hair she kept in a bob under her chin, and little gold earrings that she never changed, and even though Ben knew for a fact that Alyssa absolutely adored his cats, there were no pets at all in the Batencourt house.

Ben rolled his pencil in his hand. “Um. Why doesn’t she like me?” he said, and tried not to sound weird about it.

Alyssa scratched something into her English textbook with the cap of her pen, leaving an indent without the ink. “I think you remind her of my dad,” she said. She never talked about her father. Mr. Batencourt had been another officer. He’d died, when Alyssa was five. She darted a look over. “Or maybe she thinks you’re a bad influence on me.”

He swallowed, and went with the easier question. “How could I remind her of your dad?”

Alyssa rocked back and forth on her elbows, her hair swinging around her face. Her face dropped into a mournful expression. “Maybe she senses a recklessness inside you,” she intoned. “Maybe she sees the candle burning at both ends, and knows I’ll only have my heart broken by you.”

Ben blushed, and felt stupid for doing it. “Shut up,” he said, “Jesus, you’re so full of shit, oh my god.”

Alyssa laughed like a hyena and rolled over onto him, her back splayed out over his. Her head thunked against him, and her hair was ridiculously close to getting in his mouth. “Oh Ben,” she said, breathlessly, “I want you to know that I’m never gonna give you up. I’m never gonna let you down, never gonna run around, and–”

“Oh for fucks’ sake,” Ben said, and twisted so that the giggling Alyssa was off his back and lying, instead, on the carpet. “Nobody serenades me with Rick Astley, I can’t even believe you did that, god,” he said, glaring down at her.

Alyssa’s laughter hummed to a stop as she smiled up at him from the floor. He was still– he was leaning half over her, breathing heavily from the sudden movements, and. She was there. She lifted her hand, bit her lip, and touched his hair, spread her fingers through it, drew his head down, and kissed him.

And it– he’d kissed people before. Been kissed before. Felt that moment of holy shit and yes and more, now.

He’d expected all that, and more, with Alyssa.

Instead, it was just… mouths. And Alyssa. Who was his best friend. And he loved her, and he knew he loved her, and this was– not the right thing.

He drew back, and hoped this wouldn’t be terrible.

Alyssa looked at him carefully for a moment, her breathing shallow, and then, very slowly, she crossed her eyes and made a face.

“You asshole,” Ben said, and Alyssa crowed.

============

even when you wish it would

It’s been a long time. They’re in a cave. “Aven Armand,” their guide whispers, a small smile on her face. Stalagmites creep up from the floor in spinal bursts, and the air smells like rock and water.

Alyssa laughs a little. They don’t get to wash that often – her hair is a flat braid against her head, slick and darker than it normally is. It makes her face look sharp. She looks at the rough walls. “I wanted to see Lascaux before I died, not this,” she says, making a face like it’s a joke. Except Ben’s not sure which part’s supposed to be funny.

There’s been a lot of gallow’s humor lately. 

They’re led to a flat-ish area and left with several sandwiches and cans of soda. Before the woman leaves, she says, all in a rush, “Marseilles. We’re taking you to Marseilles, and then you’re going where they can’t get you.” She talks like an American, like she could be from Boston. Before they can ask her for more, beg her to stay and just, God, talk to them, she’s gone with the second lamp, promising as she retreats that she’ll be back in a day, two at most. 

They wait until her footsteps are completely gone. There’s something different in the air between them all – something different with the knowing that there’s an end point. A goal. Then Lucas snorts a little, hands the camera to Jesse, and walks further in the darkness of the cave. After a few minutes, they hear the soft sound of piss.

Jesse lets out a breath, turns the camera over and over in his hands. His hair is dirty too. His hands don’t shake, though. “Would’ve thought London would be closer.” It’s almost like small talk. It’s not something they do.

Alyssa sits down, holds out her hand until Ben sits down beside her. Jesse joins them a hairsbreadth later. “Paris was a big city,” she says. “And it got hit. Maybe London did, too. Marseilles, though.” She shrugs. “It’s on the coast. Not near anything too important. There might be a boat.”

“A plane,” Ben says. His voice croaks in his throat. It’s been– he doesn’t remember when he’d last said something to anybody. Or what he’d said.

Alyssa shakes her head, then shrugs. “Maybe,” she says. “But they’ve got those ships. I’m not sure anything would be safe in the air.”

“I’m not sure anything is safe anywhere,” Jesse says. He puts the camera in his lap, and then leans over to the sandwiches and starts eating the first one he finds. “I didn’t think,” he says, around a mechanical mouthful, “that I’d be one of the ones running away when the aliens came to take us over.”

“Yeah?” Alyssa says. “Because you really put thought into an alien invasion.”

“Sure,” he says, lifting a shoulder. “Zombies, too. The farm just seemed out of the way, you know? Like a good place to make a last stand. God knows we have plenty of hunting gear for it. Instead, I’m…” He looks up, around. The cave has tunnels that twist in directions that the light can’t follow. Lucas comes back.

“What about you?” Alyssa says, looking at Lucas. “Apocalypse plans. Did you ever?”

Lucas carefully takes the camera out of Jesse’s lap. He flicks open the memory card lid, checks for the card, closes it again. It’s become something of a nervous habit, over the last few weeks. Makes sense, though. “Not really,” he says. “I was too busy making my portfolio.” He looks up at all of them from under his eyebrows. His glasses glint in the lamplight. “College,” he clarifies. He looks back down at the camera. Flips open the lid. Closes it again. “I bet I can get anywhere I want, now that I have this,” he says, huffing a laugh.

Jesse gives a shadow smile, and Alyssa laughs too, and Ben wonders what the hell is wrong with him that he can’t join in whatever’s got them recharged again.

“And you?” says Alyssa, turning to him. Her shoulder knocks into his. “I thought I knew everything about you, but you keep surprising me. Vigilant guard. Knock out fighter–”

“Cock block,” says Jesse, and Alyssa gives him the finger even while she laughs.

“–like I was going to say,” she continues, “a very protective pillow. So– did you have some secret plan you always practiced in your mind, in case of alien attack or world-ending scenario?” Alyssa nudges his shoulder again, her body a pocket of heat beside him. “Come on, Ben, lay it on us, give us all the details. You’ve got to have something, I mean–”

Ben stands. He feels Alyssa catch herself against him as he moves, pulling away. Good. “I’m going to keep watch,” he says, and climbs the same path their guide did, until he’s just out of sight of the lamp, until he can breathe again.

***

Alyssa comes to take the watch from him. He can tell it’s her – her footsteps are lighter than the other guys’.

“Ben,” she says. He feels her hand on his back. He leans into it, can’t help it. “Ben,” she says again.

He reaches blindly behind him, and she comes, curling her arms around his shoulders while he clings to her waist. He doesn’t know why this is so much harder for him than the others. It shouldn’t be. They’ve all gone through – are going through – the same thing. But they’re surviving. He’s not sure he is.

“Ben,” she says. He can feel her hand in his hair. He looks up into her face. Very slowly, keeping her eyes on his, she moves her head down and kisses him.

It’s not a– it’s not a kiss kiss. It’s just. People. A person. Alyssa. Here, in the worst possible world. Here, with him.

He holds her tighter, and she keeps her touch on his lips light, and she runs her fingers through his hair over and over, her other arm gripping him hard in the darkness.

***

They sit together, looking outward.

“My father killed himself,” Alyssa whispers. Ben doesn’t move. “It was the day after I found a box of kittens abandoned on the base. I brought my dad back to the box so we could take them home. He didn’t see a box of kittens, though– he saw an IED.” Alyssa takes a breath. “It wasn’t really, obviously. I mean, I’d played with them already. They were little, all black and white. Looking back, though, it was stupid. It could have been a bomb. I shouldn’t really blame him for what he did.”

“You were five,” Ben says. “Don’t call yourself stupid.”

It’s like she doesn’t hear him. “Maybe he was stupid too, though. You call a bomb squad for an IED. You don’t– you don’t break the box. With everything inside it.”

He can picture five-year-old Alyssa.

She says, “I don’t think he realized what was going on until he heard me. I was– making a lot of noise.”

He takes her hand. She lets him.

Which is when they hear the voice of the American girl echoing, almost too soft to hear, from the mouth of the cave.

***

There are no windows in the van this time; it’s a closed box. When the door opens, an interminable while later, they’re on a pier. It’s night again, the moon bright, and the water laps the concrete pillars. The air smells like salt and wet canvas, and there’s a dark shape floating by the ladder below.

The shape has a hatch. The hatch is open. It’s like the man with the sewer lid all over again.

Their guide this time had been a very old woman, and her driving had been slow and filled with frequent stops. She is not the one who had opened the van. There’s a younger man instead, someone Ben doesn’t recognize. He hurries them out, and Ben doesn’t like this, doesn’t like this feeling, because the old woman hadn’t said anything about a new person helping them. The cells were usually pretty good about that, about handing them off with warnings of who would come next, but this–

He looks at Alyssa. Alyssa slides her hand down his arm, and then drifts, just slightly, over to Lucas. Jesse moves next to Ben, hides Lucas and Alyssa. They all, all of them, move just slightly backward, toward the ladder. 

Ben whispers, too loud, in English, just a stupid American, “What are we doing here?”

The young man flinches, stares at Ben, then looks over his shoulder– not at the silent submarine in the water below, but at the pier behind them. “We are just waiting, okay?” he says, and Ben can’t tell if it’s his accent that makes the words come out uncertain and strained. 

There is a quiet zip of sound in the air, and the man closes his eyes. “I’m sorry,” he says in French, because that’s a phrase Ben has heard often enough to have learned by now.

There is a little black ship, floating a foot above the pier. It has a door. Out of the door an alien climbs out, with its soft sounds and its reflecting eyes. 

The alien doesn’t move very fast, not like its ships do, but it makes its soft sounds. The young man stands still and doesn’t run while it pets his head with its strange fingers. He doesn’t move at all when it breaks his neck.

The alien turns toward them. 

It makes a soft sound, like a human murmuring in the distance. 

Alyssa, pretty blonde Alyssa, slowly steps forward.

She doesn’t look at him.

She’s holding the camera. 

No. 

Ben feels Jesse and Lucas on either side of him, pulling at his arms, shoving him backward toward the edge of the pier, toward the open hatch and the escape that might be nothing and might be everything and it doesn’t matter because it’s Alyssa and the camera and Alyssa, Alyssa–

Jesse smashes his fist into Ben’s gut. He can’t move, but the others can move him. They push him over the pier. The last thing he sees is the alien, with its delicate fingers, take the camera from Alyssa’s hands. Her hair is shining in the moonlight. 

The water is cold. A pair of large hands grabs him beneath the arms, hauls him up, bundles him through the hatch of the submarine. Jesse and Lucas are there already, water pooling on the metal benches where they sit. The hatch closes. It’s dark. Around them, in the tight space, small lights flicker and the air smells like diesel gas. There are men speaking what sounds like Russian. Beneath Ben’s feet, an engine rumbles. 

They’re all shaking.

Lucas holds out his fist. Opens it. Inside is the camera’s memory card. 

Ben covers his eyes and cries.

end

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