The kind ones, who call him Mark, are pleased. They have a party, with foods from his planet. He chews the edge of a gray leaf so bitter it closes his throat. He’s used to coke and animal crackers. You’re going home, they say. No more soda, no more sweets. No more rooms with white walls and bright toys. No more needles, treadmills, tests. Home.
They won’t tell him what home is, only what it isn’t. He pictures a toyless, colorless, cokeless expanse. He pictures fields of bitter gray leaves growing beside silver pools. He tries to picture others like himself, but he is the only one he knows. He populates his imaginings with mirror-reversed copies of his own face. Pale blue fur and liquid black eyes.
At night, he wraps his arms around his chest and makes low choking noises as he tries to cry. He’s never quite gotten the trick of it.
The unkind ones, who call him The Subject, whisper about missed opportunities, invasions, and autopsies. They tell each other, we civilized The Subject, but who knows about the others. They’re probably savages. What if they eat their own kind?
He dreams of teeth.
His favorite among them, the woman who wears silver bracelets and paints his nails in rainbow colors, cries as she leads him to the shuttle.
“We thought it was best.” She makes a sound he knows isn’t laughter, because her eyes show no light. “That’s always the defense, isn’t it? But it’ll be better, there. You’ll be yourself.”
He wonders who he’s been so far.
The shuttle is a sleek, black cylinder that hums as they approach it. He clings to her side, twining his fingers in her black hair and hiding his face in her sleeve.
They climb the ramp together, and explore the emptiness inside.
“It’s okay,” she tells him. “It’s automated. We’ll put you to sleep, and it’ll drive you home.”
He has never been alone.
“Oh, Mark.” She untangles her hair from his fingers and takes both his hands. “It’s part of the treaty. No more contact.”
She leads him to a bed that yields like putty under the pressure of his touch, and straps him in.
“When you wake up,” she says, “You’ll be home.”
Above the bed is a poster covered in dense, looping swirls. If it’s art, it isn’t beautiful. If it’s language, he can’t read it. Either way, it feels like an accusation. He closes his eyes against it and sleeps.
When he wakes, there is no one. It takes him a long time, just to get out of the bed. He has to unbuckle the straps himself and his fingers are clumsy and weak. His nails show dark circles below the rainbow polish. He finds a strand of black hair, and wraps it around his wrist. He waits for instructions. The door to the shuttle stays closed.
Maybe they got rid of him on purpose. Maybe they don’t really want him back.
Maybe they eat their own kind.
He combs his fur as best he can, leaving piles of shed on the steel floor. He buttons his shirt, the nice one he wears when visitors come to look at him. He met a president, once.
The door panel flashes. He ignores it. Time passes. No one comes. There are no toys, no treadmills, no needles. No animal crackers, either.
The hunger forces him to act.
He presses his hand against the panel, and the door opens with a quiet whir. A ramp extends to the ground.
This, he tells himself, is home.
Home is a wide expanse of green glass with low black buildings in the distance and air smells like grapefruit juice. It is five beings, who are not his mirror-reverse selves. Their fur comes in silver, in brown, in the bright pink of his favorite keeper’s flower dresses. They speak, but the words are static, meaningless. Their teeth, like his, are very sharp.
He cringes back into the ship and presses the door panel. The door stays open.
“Child,” says the silver one, in a throaty, elongated version of his keepers’ speech. “Be not to fear, child. Come.”
Obedience is the first lesson he was ever taught. He shuffles down the ramp, his head low.
“They hurt you?” it asks.
He doesn’t know the answer. He shakes his head.
“You fear,” it says. “Wait. Fear goes.”
“Is this home?” he asks.
“Home is time,” it says. “Home comes.”
Fear goes. Home comes. He wonders if it’s true. He’s used to being lied to.
“Who are you?” It isn’t quite the question he wants to ask. He knows a little about families. Enough to want one.
It pauses. When it speaks again, the words are clearer, more rehearsed. “I am the one who waited.”
“I don’t belong here,” he says.
It takes his hand. “That too, comes.”
Kelly Sandoval lives with her fiance in beautiful Seattle, Washington. In 2013, she attended the Clarion West Writer Workshop. Her fiction has appeared in Esopus Magazine and Daily Science Fiction. You can find her on twitter as @kellymsandoval.
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