“Billings, you’re a square peg in a round hole, aren’t you?”
“No, sir,” Ben replied honestly. That implied that he would have belonged somewhere. He saw himself more as a peg without any hole at all.
Mr. Collins held up his hands. “Relax, son, this isn’t about your job performance. You do great work, in fact. It’s just that you seem like a fish out of water sometimes as far as the other guys are concerned.”
Ben didn’t need him to elaborate. He knew that he had precious little in common with his co-workers. It wasn’t that he disliked his fellows; he simply shared no common ground with them and thus kept to himself as much as possible. “Have they complained about me or something?”
“No, not complaining. They just want you to loosen up some. I don’t think they quite understand you.”
Rats, Ben thought. If one of them had understood me, maybe he could have helped me figure myself out.
A shadow hung over him for the rest of the day, largely due to his conversation with Collins. Ben had always been aware of his outsider status, but never had it been so acute. He always felt as if he was on the outside looking in, but he usually tried not to think about it. Today he could not.
Forced to examine himself, he realized that his life was as bland as a plain piece of bread, especially compared to those of most twenty-year-olds. He worked at the construction site five days a week and then spent the rest of his life in his one-bedroom apartment. There were few friends and absolutely nothing in the way of a girlfriend. Ben simply didn’t fit in anywhere or with anyone. He desperately needed a change, he realized, even craved one, but he was at a complete loss as to how to accomplish that.
As he pulled into the parking lot, he immediately noticed a stunning redhead about his age, clad in jeans and a t-shirt, struggling toward the dumpster with three enormous bags of garbage. Although she was easily the prettiest girl he had ever seen, she seemed almost oblivious to her own beauty. She captured his attention instantly.
Ben shocked himself by he rolling down his window. Ordinarily talking to girls scared him silly, but this time he could not resist the urge. “Need some help?”
The redhead looked up at him with big green eyes that sucked him in instantly. “That would be wonderful.”
He wasted no time in parking in front of his apartment and coming back to grab the two biggest garbage bags. “You’re so sweet,” she said as he tossed them into the dumpster. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” Ben replied, suddenly panicking. This couldn’t be the end, could it? Say something, quick! “Uh, so, are you new here?”
“Just moved in,” the girl giggled. She then extended her hand. “I’m Denise.”
“Ben. Ben Billings.” He shook her hand, overwhelmed at how tiny and soft her hand felt in his. He opened his mouth, but no words came out. This was a time for thinking fast, not for letting his mind turn into mush!
“Have you lived here long?” she asked.
“Only as long as I can remember.”
The girl giggled again, an infectious, intoxicating laugh. “Maybe, if you don’t mind, you could show me around at some point?”
Answer her, you idiot! “Uh, sure.”
She looked at him coyly. “Ok, so when might that be?”
This wasn’t a good time for sweating bullets, either. “Um, how does tomorrow night sound, maybe seven?”
“Sounds wonderful. I’m over in 1703. But there’s just one thing, Ben.”
Another giggle. “I think I’m gonna need my hand back at some point before then.”
Embarrassed, Ben quickly released his grip, unaware that he was still holding it. Was this how it felt?
“See you tomorrow. Thanks again for your help!” With that, Denise turned and walked back to her apartment, leaving him almost paralyzed in her wake. She had shut the door behind her before he realized that he was still standing there.
Who was this girl? Was she a hypnotist or something to make him act so out of character? He chuckled at himself. Maybe not in the traditional sense, but she had certainly left him spellbound. Then the realization hit him.
I have a date. Tomorrow night, and it’s with a knockout at that.
Ben fought the urge to pinch himself more than once over the course of their date. Ordinarily he was awkward and fumbling around girls to whom he felt attracted, and usually they seemed repulsed by him. After a while, he had lost the urge to try. However, Denise was quite the opposite. Something about her demeanor immediately put him at ease, evaporating his nervousness and allowing him to be himself.
Over tacos at El Mongol’s, Ben asked, “So, what brought you to a town like this?”
She chuckled nervously and took a sip of her cola. “Work,” she replied simply.
“OK, so what do you do?”
Denise played with her straw. “I guess you could say I do computer and communications work for an independent contractor out of town. We do a lot of work in the industrial park, but it’s pretty complicated.”
That was good enough for Ben, since computers were out of his league anyway. He changed subjects without a second thought.
At eleven-thirty, they were back at her apartment door. He had insisted upon parking in front of his own apartment and walking her across. He desperately wanted to grab her hand, but he couldn’t work up the courage. “I had a great time, Ben. Thanks for everything.”
“Uh, sure.” Come on, you moron, say something! Ask her for another date!
“So,” Denise began, nervously shifting her foot, “would you like to go out again sometime?”
“Yeah!” Ben exclaimed, wincing at how overeager he sounded. Fortunately for him, Denise seemed pleased with his response.
“I don’t ordinarily do this right away, but you’re different,” she said. Before he could process her words, she had leaned forward and kissed him on the lips. “Well, good night,” Denise said after she pulled back, disappearing behind her door.
Ben walked back across the court to his apartment without ever feeling his feet touch the ground.
One month later, Denise had become an integral part of Ben’s life. They talked daily, usually in person, and they had at least a couple of dates a week. Most of the latter tended toward the lower budget variety out of necessity, but Denise didn’t seem to care. With each passing day Ben learned more about her, and he became more acutely aware that he was falling for her.
Perhaps the most captivating thing about her was that she seemed tailor-made for him. Like him, she was also markedly unlike their peers. Whereas most girls their age used the summer heat as an excuse to flaunt their bodies, Denise stood out by steadfastly refusing to follow suit, despite having the figure for it. Sometimes it frustrated the more “normal” side of Ben—he would have gladly traded his big toe to see her in a bathing suit just once—he did respect her desire not to conform. After all, it did lend them an automatic kinship. He felt more comfortable around her than he ever would have dreamed possible with anyone.
However, he was definitely uncomfortable tonight. Ben was grilling steaks, having rolled his grill over to her patio, and butterflies swarmed madly in his stomach as he cooked. He was acutely aware of the box in his pocket and the ring that it held, and he prayed that he had hidden it well enough by not tucking in his shirt.
His biggest fear was of her reaction. The topic of marriage had never even come up in conversation, making this a huge gamble on his part. In his mind, Denise would be equally likely to jump for joy or run away screaming. Despite his apprehension, however, he felt certain that he was making the right decision in proposing. He had always heard that sometimes a man just knew, and Ben knew.
“Hey, sweetie,” cooed a voice from behind him. Ben turned to see Denise, who immediately greeted him with a kiss.
“Wow, you look great,” Ben said, immediately wishing he could have better articulated the thought. His butterflies began to do double time in his churning stomach. When was he planning on asking her, anyway? He hadn’t even thought about that yet!
After dinner, he decided. I’ll ask her then.
The dishes were in the sink, leaving Ben with no other excuses to stall. Just like you planned, he told himself. Tell her to close her eyes, then you pull out the ring and get on one knee before you let her open them. He sat on the edge of the couch beside her, took a deep breath, and then opened his mouth to speak….
“Uh, Ben, I’ve got something really important to tell you.” Had Denise seemed this uneasy a few minutes ago? Was he too caught up in his own nervousness to notice?
“Sure, go ahead.” Great! And I had just worked up the nerve! Now I have to start all over again! If I hadn’t stalled so long in the first place….
Denise nervously fingered the upholstery on his couch. “Okay, so you know I’m not from around here, right?”
“Haven’t you ever wondered where I’m from?”
Surprisingly, the thought had never crossed his mind. “Well, you don’t have any kind of accent, so I just sort of figured you had to be from this part of the country if nothing else, right?”
Denise chuckled softly. “Well, that’s what you were supposed to think, anyway. But no, I’m not from this area, or this state.”
“Okay, so one of the surrounding states, then?”
“Nope. Not from anywhere in this country…or from anywhere on this planet.” She looked at him, and in her eyes he saw complete vulnerability mixed with utter seriousness. “I’m an alien, Ben.”
Her declaration hung in the air as Ben tried to wrap his mind around it. For a moment he wondered if he had heard correctly or if her speech had suddenly shifted over to some foreign tongue. It took him a minute to realize that she was staring at him anxiously, awaiting some kind of a response. “Uh, okay,” he said, more as a stalling tactic than anything else.
Denise raised her eyebrow incredulously. “So I tell you I’m an alien, and all you can say is ‘okay’?”
Ben’s mind reeled. He had precious little experience with women anyway and was still learning the ropes of dealing with the commonplace in a relationship. Expecting him to handle a curve like this was like expecting a second-grader to do college math, but she seemed quite serious. Good grief, she actually believed….
“You don’t believe me, do you?” Surprisingly, there was no accusation in her voice. Denise had obviously expected him to have his doubts. That was wise on her part, given the circumstances.
Knowing of no other way to answer, Ben probed, “How would you convince me?”
“I saw that coming, too.” With that, Denise crossed her legs, pulled off one of her tennis shoes, and started on the sock beneath it. Ben suddenly wondered if he had ever seen her barefoot, or even with sandals. Immediately he realized that he had not. Given most females’ proclivity for flip-flops during the summer months, that seemed unusual. Then again, such was consistent with the rest of her wardrobe.
“Check this out,” Denise directed as she pulled off the sock. Ben’s eyes widened as he surveyed her exposed foot.
Denise had seven toes.
“See,” Denise was saying, “that’s one of the differences between my planet and Earth. I showed you that because it’s the most obvious one. Everything else I would need an X-ray to show you.”
“Like what?” Ben struggled to pull his gaze away from her foot.
“The third kidney, for instance. Our hearts have six chambers. We don’t have as many ribs. You get the idea.”
Ben sat speechless for a long time, struggling to process this revelation. Much to her credit, Denise waited patiently, doing nothing to break the silence.
Unfortunately, it didn’t help him much. At last he said, “I’ve got to go,” and bolted from her couch before she could say a word. He didn’t even take the time to kiss her good-bye.
As 2 A.M. rolled around, Ben was still awake, his mind reeling. A carousel of recurring themes rotated through his mind, robbing him of any chance of sleep, and all of his thoughts were variations of the same ideas. Is she just trying to get rid of me? Is she lying now, or is she telling the truth after lying for all this time? Doesn’t it just figure - I finally find a girl, and this happens?
For the umpteenth time he looked over at his silent phone. He had stormed through his apartment door at 8:15, and the phone had rung every five minutes, like clockwork, for some three hours before Denise finally gave up. Ben shook his head at the irony. He had come to think of her as the perfect confidant; now when he most needed to talk to someone, she was precisely the one to whom he could not turn.
Groaning, he flopped down on his couch and turned on the TV. Sleep wasn’t going to happen tonight, and he couldn’t stand to think anymore. He propped his feet up on the ottoman and immediately regretted it. Fourteen toes stared back up at him, mocking, defiant. Explain us if you can, the extras might have said if they could speak.
I always knew that was weird, he thought, but I thought I was the only one. To know that she has them, too, and to hear her explain it as alien….
Enough. Forget what it is. With a trembling hand, he picked up the phone and dialed her number. “I was wondering how long it would take you,” served as Denise’s greeting.
“We need to talk,” he stammered.
“Yes. Can you meet me at the old textile mill in fifteen minutes?”
“Good. See you then.” With that, the connection terminated.
The old textile mill sat a mere mile away, next to a forgotten railroad track. Abandoned itself for decades, the mill was a decrepit, crumbling structure that only survived because the city didn’t think it worth the cost of demolition. Ben couldn’t help but wonder what this place must have been like forty or fifty years ago, back when the textile industry was this area’s lifeblood and this mill would have been one of its vital organs.
He also wondered why Denise would have chosen this for their meeting site. Mentally he rifled through a succession of possibilities, none making much sense, until he finally gave up. Ben had never been able to understand the females of this planet, so what made him think he could understand those from outer space?
Because I’m one of them, he thought, remembering his feet. But how?
“Hey,” Denise called. Ben was immediately struck by how small and vulnerable she now seemed. Considering how she had been the prime mover in their relationship up to this point, it seemed completely out of character for her.
For an uncomfortable moment, they said nothing. Just as Ben could feel himself beginning to squirm, Denise said, “I need to show you something.”
She led him to the aging water tower. A chain-link fence surrounded it and the decaying wooden shed beneath it, and a combination lock held the gate in place. Denise moved her fingers deftly over the lock, which obediently popped open. Beckoning for Ben to follow, Denise entered the shed.
Ben hesitated, for the shed looked as if it would collapse under the slightest of breezes. Then Denise reappeared, her eyes plaintive, almost begging him to join her. Drawing an uneasy breath, he hurried through the door before he had time to talk himself out of it. He had not expected to see much inside. Unless the shed housed old tools or equipment long forgotten by the people who stored them here, he only anticipated seeing darkness and emptiness.
Nothing could have been farther from the truth. A short, steep stairwell led him down into a room reminiscent of the interior of a UFO. Myriad lights blinked at him in a rainbow of colors from an array of panels lining the walls. For a moment Ben could do nothing but stand transfixed, his mouth hanging open. Somewhere in the darker corners of his memory this place seemed familiar, but he was at a loss to explain how.
“Does any of this ring a bell?” Denise prodded hopefully.
“You’ve been here before, lots of times. See, Ben, you’re not really from here anymore than I am.”
“I suppose that would explain my toes,” he commented. “But why do all my memories…?”
“You were sent here as an observer from our planet, a researcher, you could say. In order for you to fit in here, you had to have a cover story. That constituted your identity as Ben Billings. But then you had an accident with the memory recorder here.” Denise motioned toward a large chair with a helmet attached to the headrest. “Rather than recording your observations properly, the helmet malfunctioned and wiped out all your memories of who you really are. Simply put, you began to believe that you really were this Ben Billings.”
“And that’s why you’re here?”
Denise nodded. “In reality, you and I are married. I had to finish some business on our home world before I could join you. Then our headquarters detected the malfunction - it made quite a powerful signature on their instruments. Since I was to come here anyway, I volunteered to be the one to come help you.”
Ben’s head swam. “We’re married?”
She smiled. “A mere month before you met me here for the first time. That’s why I was so glad that you showed interest in me again, even though you did not remember me.” Here Denise paused, biting her lip. “That’s also why your reaction last night hurt me so much.”
“Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”
“Honestly, Bejar - your real name, by the way. Think about how you took it last night, after you had gotten to know me. If I had told you that right away, what would you have thought?”
Slowly he nodded. “I see your point.”
“Besides,” she admitted with a coy smile, “it was fun courting each other again, especially since I got to play the pursuer this time.”
“So, we don’t really belong here?”
Denise smiled. “Believe it or not, none of these humans really belong here. They’re all aliens and strangers, passing through to their ultimate destination. Those who know the Creator are aware of this, while others are not.”
He rubbed his temples. “It’s all so confusing, Denise.”
She took his hand. “You can call me Dajana now. I know it’s a lot to handle, but I can help you.” Then she looked at the floor. “If you’ll let me,” she added, her tone full of vulnerability.
He put his fingers beneath her chin, tilting her head up. “How could I refuse my bride?”
© 2008 Stoney M. Setzer
Original fiction debuting at Residential Aliens.
Discuss this story at ResAliens Forum at SFReader.com.
Stoney Setzer is a middle school special education teacher near Atlanta, GA. In addition to spending time with his family, he enjoys writing, reading, watching old movies, and cheering for the Atlanta Braves. Stoney's works have appeared in Dragons, Knights & Angels and ResAliens among others.