We first met in a school gym at 6 pm; the budget wasn’t what it used to be. I found Asher seated at a folding table with all the posture of a corpse. He glanced up, affirming he wasn’t one, but I’d never seen a grown man look so lost. Guess visiting Earth after his people hadn’t seen it in 300 years could do that. Not that he came vacationing. He was, by our best guesses, an explorer — as shocked to find us as we were to find him.

The gym floor was glitchy and shifted from polished wood to Astroturf when I approached. I slid into the chair opposite Asher and placed my hand beneath his. His palm felt dry, his fingertips rough as an old-fashioned typist’s.

“Hello,” I signed.

Understanding did not miraculously flood Asher’s face. As if I’d expected it would. All he’d tried to do in newsfeeds was poke reporters’ foreheads. I’d told Boss that wasn’t tactile signing, wasn’t any language I knew, but got called in as Ms. Obscure Language Expert anyways. Now I was in charge of Asher whether I liked it or not.

I ground my feet into the Astroturf. So what if he didn’t know tactile signing? He could learn it. It was better than teaching him English or Chinese when he hadn’t uttered a sound since his arrival.

I repositioned his hand, feeling my class ring scrape the table. “Show me,” I signed. “Show me what you want to say.”

His eyebrows furrowed, and he tilted his head. But I pressed my finger into my open palm and repeated the sign. Next, I removed his hands, twisted my ring off onto the table, and spread my hands out towards it. Show. My lips pursed. Demonstrate. Come on, now.

To my shock, his face relaxed. Then he reached forward, bringing two fingers towards my face.

“What?” I signed. As in, “What the hell are you doing?”

He cocked his head and repeated my sign from before. “Demonstrating.”

Demonstrating, huh? Well, he’d tried to do whatever-this-was to everyone else. No reason I’d be exempt. I exhaled slowly and nodded my acceptance. He leaned in, so close I could smell sweat and pressed his fingers against my forehead.

I flushed. Embarrassment? I didn’t feel embarrassed, though I probably looked ridiculous. Then the flush was gone. Asher’s eyebrows furrowed, and my cheeks warmed again.

Was he causing this? At the thought, my fingertips cooled. My arms, too. But the heat from my cheeks spread across my chest. It felt like entering a warm house on a winter’s night. Welcomed. I felt welcomed.

I gasped, pulled back, and my skin returned to normal.

By Dario Bijelac
By Dario Bijelac

Was that… a greeting? In his language?

If it was, I had to answer. I repeated “hello” in standard ASL, and Asher mimicked it.

We’d greeted each other. First communication. The language nerd in me had the ultimate high. Sure, genetic engineering could do lots of wacky stuff. And sure, far-off colonies probably did much different wacky stuff than Earth. But those colonies hadn’t lost communications with Earth within weeks of settling. Those colonies told us all the wacky stuff they’d been doing the past three centuries. Those colonies didn’t have anything like this.

Asher reached towards me again, and I leaned in. My body changed faster now; my lower legs burned. “Fire”? No, the burning wasn’t severe, and it came from inside my muscles, not outside. Then I recognized it as the burn of lactic acid after a workout. So this was Asher’s phrase for “running”? Or maybe “going”?

I stood to demonstrate my understanding. When I jogged around the table, the Astroturf shifted to concrete halfway through, and I almost fell on my face. Asher’s grin could’ve spanned galaxies.

“Run,” I signed. He repeated it and eagerly stretched out his hand again.

I sat and closed my eyes, barely thinking straight. A language. A whole new language. Asher’s rough fingertips touched my forehead. This time, my heart sped up, and my mouth watered. My best comparison was a child facing mounds of chocolate. No impulse control, only desire. “Want.” This means “want.”

Well, that was easy. I opened my eyes and demonstrated my understanding by snatching my class ring and stroking it like a miser. Asher smirked at that. Confident I’d interpreted correctly, I showed him the sign — a curved finger eagerly pointing.

Asher copied it, then beckoned me closer. I leaned forward, eyes already closed. But instead of a new sensation, I felt the same two from before. My legs burned while my mouth watered.

Is this a sentence? “Want run”? My nerdy euphoria ebbed as I debated. He wanted to run? Didn’t make sense. But for all I knew, I’d only gotten a blurry image compared to his fellow colonists. Maybe he didn’t mean “run”, but “go” after all? In that case, he would’ve been saying, “Want go.” I looked around the gym with its scratched walls, its glitchy floor, its lack of even one window to the huge, exciting world.

“Sure, we can go,” I signed. “We can go anywhere you like.”