Mia flung her phone to the couch and turned the television to KTLA 5. The news ticker crawled across the bottom of the screen: Alien Invasion Day 90.
“In local news, sightings and encounters with the extraterrestrial objects, or what scientists are now calling ‘survey drones,’ are being reported in Orange, Los Angeles, and Ventura Counties. Mapping continues across the world —”
The television blinked off.
Mia turned around just in time to see Gavin clutching the TV remote in his tiny fist before he hurled it against the wall. The device exploded and clattered, bits and batteries skittering across the wood floor and bouncing off the baseboard. Gavin giggled and grabbed purple and red markers, one for each hand, and began scribbling furiously on the wall.
Despite six months of babysitting, Mia still found herself astonished at the speed and fury of a three-year-old child.
When Mia finally heard the familiar crush of gravel as Celeste, Gavin’s mother, pulled into the driveway, she almost wept with relief.
The alien drones approached Hud, casting long shadows down the western ridge of Baldwin Hills Overlook. They were coming for him. Maneuvering like a flock of geese in a tight V-formation, their dark, elongated silhouettes rippled across the chaparral, producing an almost fleeting Japanese effect. Cloaked and invisible, only their fantastic spherical shadows were visible against the sward of low sagebrush and manzanita. A petrichor emanated from the thick evergreen leaves and small white blooms, glazed from a gentle late afternoon rain. Hud stood still, legs shoulder-width apart, and stretched his arms out.
The Vitruvian Man waiting for first contact.
With sudden swiftness, the drones outlined his body. A thrill shuddered through him. His skin thrummed and vibrated; his hair buzzed as they zipped and zigzagged around him. Yet no more disconcerting than the feeling of static electricity. A low hum accompanied the tiny air currents as the drones fizzed up and down his limbs, across his chest, down past his waist, and up around his head. They encircled him, a gentle whirlwind; he the eye of some alien cyclone. Up and down his whole body, from his earlobes, caressing his face and even the tiny hairs lining his nostrils.
His skin thrummed and vibrated; his hair buzzed as they zipped and zigzagged around him. Yet no more disconcerting than the feeling of static electricity.
Unexpectedly, with his blood pulsing and skin tingling, Hud became sexually aroused.
He laughed. Embarrassed and amused at his body’s reaction, he glanced around, but there was no one to see. A prickling traveled down his body to the tip of his toes as if he were conducting electricity. The sensations were, in a word, sensational.
Human contact with an alien or at least alien technology.
Hud rotated his shoulders, swiveling his arms, watching the shadows, a squadron of drones, slip around him maintaining remarkable precision. Like Blue Angels performing aerobatics in the air.
Then they were gone, the shadows melting away, the low hum dissipating with a sough.
Hud rubbed his temples. The experience left him limp, with a slight headache and dry eyes. Disappointment replaced his initial awe. He wanted more. He had wanted the drones to land on his clothing, and perch on his arms like a flock of exotic birds.
Reluctantly, Hud ambled down the hill along the dirt path and across Playa Bridge before circling back to Jefferson Boulevard. He craned his neck, peering into the emptiness of the sky, searching in vain for the alien drones, willing them to come back.
From where or for what purpose, no one could say for certain, but the drones seemed to be surveying, mapping all living organisms. Which made sense to Hud. Why did everyone always think aliens would invade earth? Kelly had always accused him of being an idealist, as if he had committed some crime. Maybe the aliens came in peace to seek community and to offer solutions to common problems of resource depletion and pollution. It was an interesting train of thought — out of the ordinary, like the survey drones.
Extraordinary, he concluded.
Mia sweated and her quads burned as she pushed herself up the stone steps to the top of Baldwin Hills. It had stopped raining, but everything was still wet and steamy. Mia needed to work off work and the news and Chris’s Instagram post and…
She raced up the last set of the steps, arriving at the top just as the sun was setting. She passed a large hot-pink poster board with “Scan Party” written in black lettering with a long black arrow pointing toward the open shelter on the east side. A large group of people gathered in a circle holding hands, staring up at the sky, yelling and screaming, “Come and get us!” and “Woo-hoo!” and “Beam me up, Scotty!” Coolers and opened snack bags littered nearby tables with another hot-pink poster board, “Scan Party Here!”
Two women ran past her, sweating and panting. “You coming?” they asked in breathy, excited voices.
Mia shook her head and watched as the two women joined the growing circle, high-fiving and fist bumping. She wasn’t about to join in some wacky circle jerk–alien scan party.
Mia held her hands up, shielding her eyes, and peered into the sky.
What did the drones want, anyway?
In the beginning, expert opinion was divided on whether they were from the United States or Asia, but later, they all concluded it was an alien presence surveying the planet and its life-forms.
How would they know?
Mia thought everyone was applying human intentions to alien intelligence. She didn’t think anyone, including aliens, would do anything without a purpose. Humans were trashing the planet, and everyone knew it, but kept doing it anyway, and that’s why billions of dollars were being spent. So, one day, humans could go forth, conquer, and trash the shit out of somebody else’s planet.
Just a bunch of toddlers grabbing at someone else’s toys because they broke their own.
Mia gazed westward through the haze across the sprawling city to the Pacific Ocean, the wind whipping her hair up in a witchy nest. She sank to a cross-legged perch on the stone bench and watched the ocean swallow the sun. Even the sunset seemed greedy, stretching its glittering orange and gold fingers across the water toward her.
High-pitched squeals and a volley of outbursts erupted from the scan party a hundred yards behind her. She closed her eyes and tried to ignore the commotion, sitting up straight and rolling her shoulders back like she did in yoga. Mia could do this for two breaths before her monkey brain bounced up and down, swinging from the branches, leaping and flitting from one thing to the other.
Crappy job living in a crappy apartment.
At least she didn’t have a crappy boyfriend anymore — especially since crappy ex-boyfriend was now engaged to be married.
God, her life was shit.
And the whole world seemed to be coming to the fucking end. The thick smog blanketing Los Angeles was only getting worse with climate change, glaciers melting and calving into the oceans, rising sea levels, unpredictable weather patterns, countries at war, and on and on.
And now, on top of it all, there was this alien invasion thing happening.
Mia tried to focus on her breath again, being mindful of the breeze on her face and the fluttering of her hair.
That’s when she felt it.
The static electricity was as if all the hairs on her head were standing up. The skin on her arms tingled. She opened her eyes, jumped up, and whirled around in a circle, yelling. “Okay, little fuckers. Where are you?”
Her skin fizzed as if tiny insects were marching up and down her arms and legs. She stomped up and down and twirled around in place. The survey drones locked on to some biological or physical signal, so no matter which way she moved, they followed. But she would not make it easy for them.
Her skin fizzed as if tiny insects were marching up and down her arms and legs. She stomped up and down and twirled around in place.
Surrounding her, the blurred shadows of round balls moved and flitted, never hovering long enough for Mia to get a good look. They encircled her head, her eyes suddenly dry and stinging. She swatted at them as if they were a swarm of bees. A dull ache began at the base of her neck and spread up her skull.
“Motherfuckers! Cowards! At least show yourselves!”
Without warning, the drones melted away as quickly as they had appeared.
She had dreaded this moment. But now that it had happened, it was gone in minutes. Like bad sex. Everything wrung from her in one quick, inevitable minute, then her body chucked aside.
A drag of disappointment clung to her. She felt empty. She had wanted it to hurt. Had wanted to rage. Or at least to feel something wild or memorable and long-lasting. But all she got was a low-grade hangover. And this hollow feeling.
Nothing extraordinary, after all.
On her way home, Mia stopped at the base of the hill on Jefferson Boulevard to purchase a smoothie from The Juice Wagon. The air was close and humid, and cars revved and honked their way toward the 405 Freeway. A dog barked at something up the hill, straining against its leash.
“Dogs can always tell those things are coming,” a guy said, standing in line directly behind her.
He looked to be around her age. He was tall, and she had to look up to meet his eyes. Sideburns furred the edges of his cheeks, and he hadn’t shaved in a day or two. He wore a faded and frayed plaid Western shirt untucked with small round snaps instead of buttons. His whole appearance was just this side of unkempt.
“What?” The juice cup was cold in her hand.
“The drones. Animals can hear or detect them,” he said before placing his order. “They came for me this evening,” he added, lowering his voice. He made it sound like an abduction.
Her head pounded. She took slow sips of her juice through the paper straw, and her stomach soured, noticing her twelve-dollar manicure from Tuesday night already chipped. As she tucked a stray lock behind her ear, she pulled an animal cracker from her hair.
“Yeah, I’ve heard animals have a sixth sense or something. I just got scanned a while ago, too,” Mia said, jamming the animal cracker into her pocket. “The whole thing was weird. Pretty anticlimactic, really.”
They lingered next to the juice cart. The more they spoke, the more animated and excited he became. He went on about the survey drones — what it all meant — and spoke of the universe, alien intelligence, and somehow circled back to saving the planet and achieving world peace.
Mia let him do most of the talking. He kept running his hand through his hair and sending up faint puffs of his musky man smell. She studied his lips when he took a sip of his juice. They were plump and moist, and they reminded her of Gavin’s mouth stained with cherry Kool-Aid.
She studied his lips when he took a sip of his juice. They were plump and moist, and they reminded her of Gavin’s mouth stained with cherry Kool-Aid.
Would sex with this guy be good or bad?
The question just popped into her mind, seeming to come out of nowhere. Her thoughts were remote and far away from his easy banter. She hadn’t been with anyone since Chris broke up with her six months ago.
“Is this the new fashion?” He pointed out the red and purple ink on her shoulder. He was chuckling, his fingers hovering over but not touching her skin.
The conversation suddenly felt like too much work. She didn’t want to talk about the stupid drones or her job. Didn’t want to admit she babysat for a living or why she had magic marker tattooed on her shoulder. Or why she had animal crackers stuck in her hair, and why her manicures couldn’t last more than a few hours because she had to open juice packs, sippy cups, and packages of Goldfish ten times a day. She was tired of trying to explain she was only babysitting until she got a real job — whatever that meant — and the scraping by and constant teetering on the edge of indigence was only temporary.
But what if it weren’t?
A wave of panic convulsed through her. “I need to go,” Mia said abruptly. She dashed across the street, leaving the guy midsentence, then ran home following Duquesne Avenue to Venice Boulevard, giving a wide berth to three men carousing in the crosswalk.
In her apartment, shadows deepened as dusk turned to night. Gavin, debt, alien objects, and Chris’s impending marriage buzzed around as if the drones had entered the inside of her head. She felt the walls closing in on her, crushing her.
Mia buried her face in a pillow, muffling deep, gasping sobs. Outside the windows, backyard parties began with music and shouting. A neighbor’s door slammed. She lay with her heart heavy with something that felt like longing and regret — something more than just money troubles, crabby toddlers, and even more than strange alien encounters — but for what she could not have said.
Much later, after petty squabbles turned into drunken brawls, Mia finally surrendered to sleep, dreaming strange and mixed-up dreams.
Hud lay awake and stared up through the skylight in his apartment. Not typically prone to sadness or melancholy, the encounter with the drones and the conversation with the woman had kindled a loneliness that still lingered. No stars were visible through the permanent haze. His disquietude kept him from sleeping.
Tonight was one of the rare times he missed Kelly. Missed the heat of her body next to his.
He wished for a friend, a girlfriend, by his side. Perhaps like the woman he met tonight. He had meant to get her phone number to text her. But she seemed distracted, distressed almost. He had suppressed the urge to touch her skin and run his finger along the map of red and purple on her shoulder.
The memory of the survey drones, now only a curious dream. The sensation from the drones had provoked arousal. Still amused by the unlikely and slightly embarrassing response, but it had not been erotic. So, what then? He searched for the right words. It had been part of a whole-body experience, something beyond just pure physiology, something more akin to complete wonderment.
Long into the night, his restless hands roamed across his body, trying to replicate the strumming electricity of the alien drones.
Mia woke to glaring sunlight pouring in through the slats of the window blinds. Her sleep had been shallow, with lustful dreams fraught with confusing images coalescing, then dissipating, like storm clouds. Her sheets seemingly held the musky scent of the guy from the night before.
With her eyes closed, the sensation from the survey drones returned. She imagined the drones’ puckish hum as they swept across her body, scanning every crevice, creating disturbances of air invading every pore in her skin.
How did they work?
Did the drones have X-ray vision? Could they see under her clothes? Were they recording the size and dimensions of her breasts and other private parts? Could they penetrate inside her and see her organs, her heart, her brain?
Her heart raced, but she tried to dispel the worries.
On Monday morning, Mia turned on KTLA as she made coffee. Officials were asking everyone to report their drone encounters and any symptoms or problems on a website. Mia logged on and skimmed the responses. Low-grade headaches, dry eyes, mild discomforts. But no injuries, nothing serious.
Oddly, the thought of the day ahead with Gavin did not fill her with the usual dread. Mia knew she was good with Gavin, and she gave herself over to looking after him. But so much so, she felt she was living someone else’s life, caring for someone else’s child. She had little time or energy left to focus on herself. Chris had mocked her lack of focus.
You’re not going anywhere with your life, Mia. I can’t be with someone like you.
Chris accused her of not having any ambition. What he meant was she didn’t have a career commanding a high income or influence. His plan was to go to law school. But Mia had no idea what she wanted to do. Certainly not law school. Mia hated most of Chris’s friends. They were all puffed up and snotty — like Chris, she realized at the end. When Chris accused her of not having ambition, it was like he had been pointing out some huge character flaw. I can’t share a life with someone like that.
The words had stung. More than she wanted to admit.
“I’m a nanny. It’s what I do,” Mia said, the words hollow and tinny in her little apartment.
She had told Chris babysitting was only what she was doing right now because it was the only job she could get right now, which, in fact, wasn’t exactly true. She could have gotten a job in a coffee shop or as a cashier. But she had seen the ad for a babysitter:
Working single mother needs a full-time sitter.
Maybe it was the word “need” that had attracted her. Someone needed her. It made a difference somehow. When she called the woman, Celeste, Mia instantly felt more like a partner than the help. It was a small matter and maybe it was all in her head, but it felt good. The right thing to do. Celeste had been so grateful.
“A babysitter? You’re going to babysit someone’s kid? What the fuck, Mia?” Chris had been so indignant.
It’s just days like last Friday that got to her. She blamed it on the whole alien drone business, then Gavin’s tantrum, but, if she were honest, it was really Chris’s Instagram post.
Marrying the woman of my dreams.
He had posted a selfie with his fiancé. The girl had a gummy smile with teeth so unnaturally white they must be bleached. Chris’s social media update included vaccination status and, most recently, “scanned.” Triple vaccinated and “had the scan.”
An alien encounter reduced to a social media status.
What was Mia looking for? It wasn’t money or power like Chris, but she couldn’t have said what. Right now, all she felt was regret for losing her shit Friday night and yelling at the top of her lungs like a lunatic, then blowing off the guy from The Juice Wagon.
“What the fuck, Mia?” she asked, but the girl in the mirror didn’t answer.
Gavin was already waiting at the front door when Mia arrived. As soon as she walked in, Gavin wrapped his arms around her legs, crying out, “Mimi’s here!” His rage and tempest from Friday long forgotten.
“Morning, sport,” she said, her hand automatically smoothing down his unruly cowlick. She moved stiff-legged toward the kitchen, with Gavin standing on her feet, his arms still wrapped around her waist.
“He’s been waiting all morning for you. He knows it’s Monday,” Celeste said, then adopted Gavin’s sing-song voice, “Mimi’s coming!”
She continued, “The drones scanned us this weekend. Saturday at the Farmer’s Market,” Celeste said, slathering a piece of bread with peanut butter. “It didn’t hurt at all. Gavin waved his arms around like he was swatting at mosquitoes.” Celeste chattered, packing her bag and lunch, describing the experience almost as if she and Gavin had been on some carnival ride.
Mia told her about being surveyed on the ridge.
It struck Mia as odd how quickly the invasion had become normalized. Postings on social media, scan parties, conversations with strangers, the news, blogs, and now Celeste talking about her three-year-old child being surveyed by alien drones as if she had simply taken him to the doctor’s office for an annual check-up, reporting “it hadn’t hurt one bit.”
Celeste squatted and enveloped Gavin in her arms, giving him an elaborate kiss goodbye. “Bye-bye. Mommy loves you,” Celeste crooned.
Gavin squirmed and wriggled away, eager to play with Mia.
Hud strode into work, the whoosh of the automatic doors of the organic market a welcome sound. The loneliness that had pervaded his weekend uncharacteristically persisted. Hud took this job as a cashier, intending it to be temporary until he figured out what he really wanted to do. Two years at Santa Monica College didn’t bring him any closer to a career or a real job, as his previous girlfriend liked to remind him.
But then Kelly had an opinion about everything. She was driven and ambitious, the kind of high-octane personality that had attracted him to her in the first place but then, ultimately, had driven him away. Kelly began every sentence with “Hud, you need to…”
At first, Kelly was the kick in the butt he needed. He needed to get his act together, having slipped into a confusing and uninspiring post–high school lethargy. But with Kelly, it never ended. An endless litany of activities, chores, and workouts he must do to achieve some level of success as defined by Kelly.
He must eat this, not that. Watch this, not that.
Eventually, the only thing he really needed to do, Hud decided, was get away from Kelly.
He’d left Kelly eight months ago and taken the first job he could find. No one, least of all himself, would have predicted that five years after graduating high school, two years after obtaining an associate’s degree at community college — in which he obtained no essential vocational job skills — he would be happy working full-time and earning barely above minimum wage at an organic grocery store as a cashier.
When Kelly had unexpectedly come through his line two months ago, she had said, “Oh my God, this is so you, Hud,” taunting him out of the side of her mouth.
He had replied truthfully. “Yeah, it is, actually.” And in an instant, the kernel of regret he had carried since breaking it off, wondering if he had made a colossal mistake, disappeared. He was free of her and the voice in his head that constantly questioned and edited everything he thought or did.
And in an instant, the kernel of regret he had carried since breaking it off, wondering if he had made a colossal mistake, disappeared.
Someone laid yogurt, almond milk, lemons, a kale salad, and Muesli on his conveyor belt. It was the girl from Friday night, and his heart skipped. He could smell her floral shampoo. As she bagged the items herself in a cloth sack, he fibbed and said he was going on break. “I’ll carry this out for you.”
Without giving her a chance to say no, Hud slung her bag over his shoulder and walked her outside. He would at least get her name.
Blood crept up her neck. It was the guy from Friday night. Mia normally shopped at the budget grocery store closer to her apartment. She briefly worried he might think she had come to see him.
Hud carried her bag outside and walked with her to her bicycle. He was the same as last Friday, chatty and a bit goofy, perhaps. But he seemed nice and earnest — nothing like Chris. Hud talked about the survey drones and aliens again. He didn’t ask what she did for a living or where she went to school. This time she could tell he was just making conversation, trying to find the right moment to ask her out.
No, not like Chris at all.
Hud rambled again when she asked him if he really believed aliens spied on earthlings, making little antennae with her fingers.
“It seems to be true if the experts are right.” Hud set her groceries inside the basket on the back of her bicycle. “It’s kind of cool, don’t you think?”
“More scary than cool. I mean, we don’t get a choice, do we?”
Hud considered. “No, but we don’t get a choice when the sun shines or when it rains, either. It happens and we deal with it. Better to just embrace the weirdness.” She agreed to go out with him that evening after work if he promised not to talk about drones, aliens, or world peace.
A hike up Baldwin Hills. He’d take it slow. She seemed health-conscious in an understated way, not in some preachy, hippy-dippy way.
Mostly, she didn’t act like she was too good for him.
Mia and Hud came to the top of the hill and looked west across the city. Four women were working out in the parking lot, hip-hop music drubbed as they did squats and push-ups. The ocean was visible in the distance, and the white-tan line of the coast zigzagged north.
“You know, from up here, I think the city is kind of beautiful. A kind of circuit board. Hieroglyphics with concealed meaning,” Hud said.
The city lay before them, a collage of buildings, apartments, houses, and parks with zigzagging streets and freeways like one of Gavin’s scribbles. Her eyes traveled from Santa Monica east to Beverly Hills to West Hollywood, a mass of concrete, white-washed adobe, and glass, and the endless stream of cars sparkled in the afternoon sun. Above the fray of honking horns and rumbling buses, Mia agreed it was almost beautiful.
Above the fray of honking horns and rumbling buses, Mia agreed it was almost beautiful.
The first time she’d been to the top of the overlook was with Chris. He’d complained the entire time about law school and how he’d suffered some slight from a professor during class over some vague point of case law Mia couldn’t recall. Chris complained about the smog, traffic, and overcrowding, ticking off the problems on his fingers one by one. She doesn’t even remember looking out at the view, too distracted by Chris’s diatribe.
Conversation with Hud was easy. He inquired about her job, asking for details about Gavin and what a typical day of babysitting was like. She told him about Gavin’s tantrum on Friday and how she wound up with magic marker all over and crackers in her hair.
Hud laughed spontaneously, from his belly, as if the antics of a toddler were high comedy.
“Oh, and another thing. I play the ukulele, too,” Hud said. “After Kelly, it was either a cashier job or busking full time.” He strummed the air in front of him, looking at her to gauge her reaction. “But then I realized I would probably have had to duke it out with the guy on the corner in front of the Village Well. Besides, the organic grocery market offered better hours.”
“So, you were being practical.”
They talked this way for a while, teasing one another, watching the sunset turn the sky to a riot of yellow and orange.
“There’s one thing I should tell you if we’re going to be friends.” He gave her a sly look. “I’m adopting a dog on Saturday,” he said with an exaggerated sigh.
“Very optimistic of you,” Mia said, only half teasing. “What about the alien drones?”
“What about them?”
“Just because nothing has happened doesn’t mean it won’t.”
“All the more reason to get a dog. Seriously, an earthquake could happen tomorrow. An asteroid could fall from the sky. There are no guarantees, aliens or no aliens. All we get is today.” He was quiet a moment before adding, “Besides, I know where I can get a lot of organic dog food.”
He gently knocked his shoulder against hers, unexpectedly sending a little thrill through her. “So, you’re a live-in-the-moment kind of guy?”
“Pretty much.” Hud leaned over and murmured in her ear, “I was only kidding about busking.”
Mia said, “I know.”
“I’m driving up the coast to Montecito on Saturday to pick up my dog. Do you want to come?”
The next morning, Gavin took her hand and led her to the sunroom. Already spread out across the low table were crayons and sketch paper. Gavin held up a picture for her. “My drones,” he said in his high, fluty voice. The picture showed a lopsided purple circle with two orange lines extending downward. Within the circle, he had drawn two eyes and a mouth. “That’s me.” Outlining the head and legs, Gavin had filled in multiple black circles.
“Your mommy said you guys got scanned this weekend,” Mia said. Gavin babbled incessantly, already busily drawing a larger person next to himself with the same large purple head and long, skinny orange legs.
Celeste, Mia supposed. Gavin began drawing black circles around her head and along her legs, too.
Gavin thrust the drawing up to her face. “Look!” Beside the figure of his mother, Gavin had drawn another person with a yellow head and two red legs. He began outlining the yellow head with black dots, too. “Mimi’s drones,” Gavin said. When he finished drawing, he turned to her and said, “My family — me, mommy, and Mimi.”
“Oh,” she said, gathering the little boy in her arms and holding him tight, feeling his rapid heartbeat next to hers. As his little body sagged against hers, her lingering sense of unease or loneliness left her.
Gavin grabbed her face with his chubby hands and whispered his made-up language. His breath smelled like milk and cereal. And when he kissed her cheek, it felt as if a butterfly had landed on her neck.
At a loss for words, she planted a kiss on the top of his head, smoothing his hair with both hands. Mia closed her eyes and buried her nose in the mop of thick hair on top of his head, inhaling deeply the fresh baby shampoo scent. Something shifted deep inside her that began as a lightness in her chest, an effervescence bubbling up and spreading through her.
This moment — right here, right now — was really something quite extraordinary.
Carol Willis received an MD from Texas A&M College of Medicine and completed her residency at Vanderbilt University. She obtained an MBA from George Washington University and is currently a candidate for an MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her short story, “Laws of Attraction,” was recently named first-place winner in the first round of NYC Midnight’s The Short Story Challenge. Her stories can be found in Crimeucopia: Tales from the Back Porch, Unlikely Stories, and Cowboy Jamboree Magazine.