by Stephen Graham Jones
If his own wife Marissa hadn't been dying, Sai never would have seen the aliens.
What happened was that, ten minutes into the funeral for Dava's husband Mark — the friends Sai had made in Group were closer than family — the sky opened with a crack, all at once. One of those sudden peals of thunder your body responds to before your mind can, so that all the mourners, Sai included, flinched and ducked.
Of all the people seated in rows and standing at the edges, Sai was the only one looking back to the parking area at that exact instant. Because Marissa was back there, propped up in the passenger seat. Because she'd insisted, just as she'd insisted Sai come up to the grave to see Mark off for the both of them.
Sai hadn't heard anything the priest said, and hadn't looked at Mark's casket for more than a glance.
Marissa. He had to keep watching the car.
For the last ten months, ever since the diagnosis, if he didn't have a clean line of sight on her, panic welled up in the back of his throat.
This wasn't the farthest he'd been from her. But it was far enough. And the clock, it was definitely ticking. His plan was to hug Dava for a three- or four-count and then scurry at right angles across the cemetery to Marissa. After lunch there was another specialist, and then after that the next thing would happen, and then the next, and if he tried to think too far into the future, he'd stop thinking altogether.
Moment-by-moment. It was the formal greeting at Group. And the farewell, each meeting, each phone call.
Or — Sai could still function, anyway. Life had become a series of discrete tasks instead of an avalanche he was trying to wade into.
And soon enough, if the specialists were right, there would be the task of selecting Marissa's casket, of boxing up her life —
Sai had told Marissa he didn't want to come to Mark's funeral. That it was the wrong place. That it would be like walking through shadows for him, shadows of an event not happening quite yet.
Marissa had laughed and told him a funeral was a celebration, silly, and how could he argue? What if he won that argument?
It didn't mean he couldn't watch her the whole time, though.
Which was why he was the only one to see.
When the thunder cracked and all the mourners did that thing where they covered the back of their necks from this gunfire or out-of-control truck or crashing plane or whatever that sound was, Sai flinched too, he couldn't help it, but, unlike everyone else, he kept his eyes steady on where they'd been.
It was training. Conditioning. Over the past ten months, the world had become a negotiation: if he could catch this door in six steps, then maybe the specialists were wrong; if he held his breath until that commercial was over, then there might be some good news later in the week; if he could remember the singer on the radio before the song got to the chorus. If if if.
Not looking away from Marissa in the parking lot, it was a way to keep her alive.
In a straight line between Sai and the car were the three mourners who had crept in during the eulogy. They were wearing standard-issue funeral attire: overcoats, black gloves, ties, sunglasses. Two men and one woman.
In that instant between the rest of the crowd ducking and the sound registering, everyone looking sheepishly up to the sky, smiling at themselves, unfurling their umbrellas, these three . . . didn't.
It was a simple as that.
When the thunder cracked, not one of them flinched or had any kind of response. Or, Sai told himself, time moving past him in still frames, that wasn't exactly it. It was more like when they did finally fall into this human response, it had already rolled back across the funeral. Like they needed time to see it, to take their cue from the crowd, and adjust appropriately.
The thunder was already dying when two of the three did their exaggerated pantomimes of flinches, and the third — the waveringly tall man — only jerked his shoulders up when the woman pinched his sleeve, gave a sharp tug.
Then the alarm on Sai and Marissa's car went off. From the storm.
The rest of the cars chimed in, their headlights flashing in the daytime.
Where the rest of the mourners unholstered their key fobs, aimed them at the parking lot, Sai broke formation, ran hell for leather across the dead, to make sure Marissa was all right.
The woman at the back of the funeral placed her hand on the chest of the tall man and guided him back, out of Sai's way, and for two weeks Sai completely forgot about them, and how they hadn't understood what to do with the thunder.
• • •
The next funeral was for Dava.
It was suicide, but everyone in Group knew better.
Just like Mark, she was a victim of the disease. At the last meeting, Sai had tried to recast it, say that Marissa — and Mark, and the rest — they weren't so much victims of the thing in their blood as they were victim of being born when they had been. Were Marissa being born now, Sai argued, or in five years, then, thirty years later, when her genetic alarm clock rang, there would probably be a cure, right?
It wasn't rationalization, Sai told himself, enduring the polite applause. It was true. It was obvious.
Marissa insisted on being wheeled graveside, for Dava.
Sai had two umbrellas, just in case.
The sky was clear, though. The sky was perfect.
The funeral went off without a hitch. It wasn't a celebration, but still, they were together now, maybe, Dava and Mark.
Their guest speaker at Group had told them not to think like that, that if they allowed themselves to think like that, then that made the rest of the steps easier to fall into, but still. It made a certain kind of sense, Sai knew.
After Marissa was gone, wouldn't he want to join her?
It didn't matter. After the news about Dava, Marissa made Sai promise. And because he was still in negotiations, Sai had made the promise real in his head, not just a placating group of random words.
Marissa's argument was that, wherever she went after death, if it was in fact eternal, then that would also mean it was timeless, wouldn't it? As in, all the moments are the same moment. One big long moment, a now that goes forever. So, whether Sai showed up five minutes after her death or fifty years, it would be the same to her.
"Probably," Sai had said. "Sure."
She hadn't made him promise anything about accidents, though.
Maybe he was going to get into base jumping the week after her funeral. Maybe he was going to become an alligator-feeder at a second-rate carnival. Maybe spelunking alone was how he would manage his grief.
When the preacher — Dava had been vaguely Baptist — shut his bible, the meager crowd dispersed, trailing away to the rest of their lives.
Except Group. Except the Survivors.
They held their own ceremony. It was just clasped hands around the casket, each of them saying something nice for Dava to take with her if she was listening, but it was right, and it was good, and Sai found his eyes heating up in spite of his efforts.
He was supposed to be the strong one. For Marissa.
He shook his head and looked away, to find something to center on, to suck his attention away for a five-count.
What he saw were two tall men standing behind the folding chairs.
Sunglasses, ties, overcoats. Those black gloves in the heat. No sense of protocol whatsoever.
One of them was leaning over to whisper something to the other, but when Sai looked back, he stopped. He kept his hand up, his mouth still covered, like the instant Sai looked away, he was going to continue.
Sai had to chuckle.
"You," he said, too quiet for either of them to possibly register.
Except they did.
"Wait, wait," he said, turning down to Marissa in her chair, to make sure the wheels were locked. When he turned around he was already breathing deep, for whatever this confrontation was going to be.
Except they were gone.
"What?" Marissa was saying, craned around in her chair in her awkward way.
Sai panned across the whole of the cemetery, the parking lot, the street beyond, the buildings past that.
The two men were gone.
"Nothing," he said back to Marissa.
It was his first lie to her in ten months.
• • •
There was no way to research the interlopers, Sai finally figured out. After three nights of thinking on it. On them.
Interlopers was the right name for them, too.
The problem was, funerals were made for interlopers. Death guilted distant relations and tangential connections out of the woodwork. There was usually a guest book to sign, but if you chose not to, nobody pressed you. Whereas at a wedding you'd get asked if you were there for the bride or the groom, at a funeral, you were just there for the dead. And, if you didn't want to talk about it — of course, of course. We understand. We miss him too.
And, though Sai imagined there were probably photographs of funerals, he couldn't think of any obvious repository for such photographs. And he could hardly imagine a grimmer photo album.
Of course nobody videotaped. People recorded births, sure. But cemeteries were different. Cemeteries were private. Your grief was a wall, your anonymity a given, if you needed it to be. There were no strangers at funerals. Everyone was a past lover, a childhood friend, a coworker from three jobs back. And everybody was just there to say goodbye, anyway. There weren't champagne flutes on circulating trays, there weren't cookies to abscond with, there was no shiny pile of gifts to pilfer.
Still, Sai knew.
Those three from Mark's funeral, and then the two from Dava's, they didn't belong.
He could feel it.
Maybe they had a fetish, maybe they were doing a study. It didn't matter. What did was that they were stealing. They were sneaking in and taking something.
Just to be sure, Sai called the groundskeepers at Mark and Dava's cemeteries and had them check on their graves, to make sure they hadn't been disturbed.
Everything was normal, the groundskeepers said. Why?
Sai thanked them and hung up.
The next call should be to the police, he knew. To report a crime. To report that three and then two people probably not connected to the deceased had stood in the back of the funeral and observed, yes. Very maliciously. With bad, bad intent.
He didn't make that call.
Instead he called the priest who had officiated Mark's funeral.
Just to talk, Sai said. About the future. About his wife.
"Are you Catholic?" the priest asked back.
"I just want to talk," Sai said.
• • •
"What happens to her when she — when it's time?" Sai said the following morning, Marissa asleep in their bedroom, the baby monitor flashing a line of red dots on the coffee table.
The priest watched it and considered the question. Or something.
"Where does she go, I mean?" Sai added. He'd been practicing.
The priest looked up to Sai.
With his white hair and black collar and sensible shoes and lanky frame, he was so cliché that Sai had almost grinned when he opened the door.
The priest for Mark's funeral had been young, dark-haired.
Just like at a car lot, Sai figured, at some point in the deliberations they send the manager in, to close the deal.
"You're telling me you've lived to be thirty-five," the old priest said, wiping at his lips with his gnarly fingers, "and the basics of Christianity have somehow escaped you?"
"Thirty-two," Sai said.
The priest just stared.
"You're still trying to save her, aren't you?" the priest said. "You want me to be part of that bargaining, is that it?"
"The — the last shall be first," Sai said.
"And the first shall be last, yes. It doesn't matter when you believe, in the cradle or on your deathbed, at the recruitment table or in the fox hole. It's not about how much credit you've built up, the world still doesn't owe you. Blah blah blah." The priest leaned forward, boring his eyes into Sai. "Pretty shitty system, isn't it?"
Sai nodded, afraid not to.
"Flipside, though?" the priest went on. "It also means that, if your wife's dying in the other room, then it's not because you ran over a squirrel when you were seventeen. Or didn't help some lady across the street last week. Each moment, the world washes its hands of you, starts all over again. Easy as that. Wonderful as that."
Sai watched the red line of Marissa's breathing on the baby monitor.
"And when you die, when she dies," the priest went on, palming the monitor away, "then what that leaves you with is regret. That you didn't do more while she was alive. But, you know what? That's so the next person you meet, maybe you can do more. Because now life's got an expiration date, right? And if you work hard enough, if you're good enough, you can work off all the regret you can see coming. This is how the world becomes a better place."
"I just wanted to know —"
"What happens after she dies, yes," the priest said. "Maybe what happens, it depends on what you believe. What do you believe?"
Sai swallowed, squinted his eyes as if studying something on the far wall. "That we bury her," he finally said.
"Well, good," the priest said, standing. "That was easy enough. Now, if you don't mind, I've got some serious —"
"That we bury her and that people who aren't people come to her funeral," Sai said.
The priest kept standing, but he wasn't leaving anymore.
"Demons, angels," Sai said. "Ghosts?"
"Strangers," the priest said, staring down at Sai.
"Are they real?" Sai asked, his voice almost cracking.
The priest turned away. "Are they real?" he repeated, huffing it out like it had been a punchline.
"They are," Sai said.
"We don't know the world as well as we think we do," the priest said, and Sai looked up into that weathered face. The one that must have looked across the heads of five hundred funerals, into the eyes of . . . of what?
"I don't want them at my wife's — when she —"
"Then don't have a funeral. Don't invite them like that."
Sai studied this tall white priest.
"Cremation," the priest said. "Scatter her ashes. Strangers don't care about that. Throw a funeral, though —"
"And they come," Sai finished.
"Like flies," the priest said, lowering his head to take his hat, his eyes never leaving Sai. "And, what's the thing about flies?"
"They're not human?" Sai said.
"There's always more," the priest said. Then he let himself out.
When Marissa asked through the monitor who that had been, Sai didn't know what to say at first. Or how to say it.
• • •
Two weeks later Marissa checked into the hospital for what the specialists said was the last time. Her lungs, her counts. The disease.
"I wish she'd been born later," Sai said to them, his lower lip trembling, his eyes pleading.
They had no reply.
In the bathroom, for the third time in his life, Sai got down on his knees and prayed. He tried to pray to God, to any god, but all he kept seeing when he shut his eyes was the white-haired priest ducking out the front door, the brim of his hat lowered against the sun.
To make the transition — the nurses' word — easier, they kept Marissa's IV line swimming with painkillers.
It meant she was conked out for days at a time.
Sai lived on vending machine food and coffee from the gift shop on the first floor.
He wished he smoked, so he could stand out of the wind in the courtyard with the rest of the families and slit his eyes at the grim future, but smoking just made him cough. So what he did was walk the streets at nervous right angles, still making deals with the world. Just offering whatever he could.
The world answered by delivering him to a cemetery. To an afternoon funeral.
Sai looked down at his clothes, to see if he was somehow wearing the tie, the overcoat, the black gloves.
Maybe we're all strangers, he told himself, using the priest's word.
The way he could tell was that the real strangers were there already, standing at the back of the group of mourners. Just watching. Whispering to each other.
Sai thinned his lips, balled his fists.
There were three of them again, the two men, the one woman. To anybody else, they wouldn't stand out. Except they were so normal. Except they fit in so well.
Except, the whole twenty-two minutes Sai watched, they never shifted their weight from foot to foot, or tracked a bird floating above the trees, or turned to a car, honking. And there was no thunder this time to give them away, and Sai didn't know how to fake a backfire in a tailpipe, and he didn't think he would have anyway, because that would have disturbed the whole funeral, not just the three interlopers.
What were they doing? Sai asked.
Also: what did it matter?
It wasn't like them standing there actually hurt anything. It wasn't like the person being buried was floating above the casket, counting heads, separating them into groups. Not like the wife or husband or mother or father would have the presence of mind to identify strangers and have them removed.
The perfect crime, Sai knew. Made all the more perfect in that it's not a crime at all.
Still, when the funeral broke up, he followed.
In his hand was a neatly folded twenty. He was going to tug on the sleeve of one of them and apologize, say he saw it fall from their pocket. The whole time, he was going to be taking mental snapshots of their faces. And probably screaming inside if those faces were blank. If the eyes were solid black. If the mouth opened onto a void.
Stupid, Sai told himself. It was stupid, all of it. Stupid enough that Sai started to turn around, go back to the hospital.
The three had stepped into a post office, though.
Not a diner, not the subway, not a taxi.
A post office. Like the funeral had just been another errand. One all three had to run. And now all three had to visit their mailboxes, or mail a package.
Sai shook his head no, no, and lunged ahead all the same, catching the door just before it would have shut.
Later he would think that that was probably why he was able to see them. That, if the door had closed all the way, they would have just been gone, nobody the wiser.
As it was, he stepped into the cool blankness of a thousand aluminum mailboxes.
The strangers were standing beside each other at the front window. He would have thought they were watching people pass on the street, except they were facing slightly away. Like they were looking at something in the glare of the window?
Sai looked too, and when he came back, the one closest to the door was looking directly at him.
The woman of the three.
"What are you doing?" Sai said, his voice harsher than he meant. Either that or he'd only heard his nurturing voice for ten months now.
The two men turned his way. With their whole faces. All of their praying-mantis attention.
"Where are you from?" Sai asked.
Still just the staring.
A postal customer walked in front of the three and never saw them. Either he was looking at his clutch of mail or he couldn't see them.
"Was it part of the ceremony?" the woman said.
To show what she meant, the two men moved in around the woman. She held her hand up to the tall one's chest and guided him out of the way, making room for the Sai from Mark's funeral to run past.
"The noises from the transports," the tall man said. "Was that intended, or was that happy circumstance?"
"Happy circumstance," Sai repeated, realizing it was a not-quite-there translation. "Who are you?" he said.
"It was unhappy circumstance," the other man said. "Otherwise it would have happened at other —"
"Why do you care?" Sai said.
"That we could look away?" the woman said, incredulous, and when she tried to affect a grin, Sai finally saw the vertical line at the back of her jaw.
"You're a puppet," he said, stepping back, reaching for the wall. Just to be sure it was still there.
"Puppet," the third man said, and after processing the word for a moment, the tall man moved his arms and knees as if he were a marionette on strings.
Sai had his back to the wall now, his fingers spread wide against it.
"What are you?" he said.
"Visitors," the woman said.
"To . . . to our funerals? Our post offices?"
"Post office," the tall man said, looking around as if seeing it for the first time. "Tiny sleeping chambers."
"Funerals," the third man said, not wanting to lose this line of inquiry, it seemed. "Do you think — do you think that they will grow, if you plant them deeply enough?"
"It's almost too much to believe," the woman added.
"That you don't know their names," the third man said.
"That you leave them there," the tall man said.
"That it really and truly does happen here like that," the woman said. "The legends are true."
"About what?" Sai said, a postal employee sliding past, between him and the three, adjusting his gait slightly to avoid stepping on a wide black shoe but never quite registering the man standing in that shoe.
"You just discard them," the woman said. "As if you're done with them. As if they have already served their reason."
Sai was breathing hard now. But not screaming.
"Their reason?" he said. "Their purpose, you mean?"
The three looked among themselves, as if for confirmation. And then back to Sai.
"Everywhere else you travel," the woman said. "After the first calamity —"
"What you call final death," the third man slipped in.
"Final?" Sai said. "How many calamities are there?"
"Eight," the third man said, in a tone evidently reserved for children.
Sai studied him.
"After the first," the woman went on, "everywhere else you can travel, everywhere except this place, the loved one will have whispered their secret name to their most trusted."
"We don't —" Sai started.
"But only right at the end, when the calamity precipitates," the third man said. "Otherwise, they might say it beforehand, in anger, or in their sleep —"
"Or even say it after the calamity, at the least proper time," the tall man added, his voice hushed.
"Whole worlds have been ravished," the woman said.
"Ravaged," the third man corrected.
"Ravaged," the woman repeated, agreeing.
"From saying a name at the wrong time?"
"They rise then, but not as their former selves," the tall man said. "As — as animate husks."
Sai looked up and up to him.
Was he taller than he had been before?
"But what if — what if you say it at the right time?" Sai heard himself say.
"Then the cycle continues unabated," the woman said. "As intended."
"You're saying," Sai started, then started again: "You're saying that if you say someone's secret name after they're dead, then that person —"
"Continues," the tall man said.
"Otherwise it all becomes madness," the third man said. "Otherwise there is no reason to —" but the woman touched her palm to his chest, shushing him.
"Apologies and forgiveness," she said to Sai. "He doesn't mean to offer description of your world."
"He does," Sai said.
"You just throw them away," the tall man said, amazed. "Nowhere else does this happen. We had to see for ourselves that the legends were —"
"We bury them."
"You don't have to," the woman said, and smiled her remote-controlled version of a smile.
It made Sai look away, to the dead space their forms were leaving in the glare of the front window.
When he looked back to them, they were gone.
• • •
At the hospital, instead of waking Marissa for her secret name, Sai held her hand. For eight days.
On the ninth, she squeezed his index finger once and died.
The nurses let him have twenty minutes alone with her. He kept the side of his head to her sternum the whole time, his eyes closed.
At the funeral four days later, there were no interlopers. No strangers.
Walking away after everyone was gone, though, there was something.
A white cardboard box for mailing packages. The free kind from the post office.
There was no address on it. The flap wasn't even closed. It still had the strip of paper on it, protecting the glue.
Inside, a phonebook.
Sai held it, looked all around, and left it flapping on the curb by his car with the white box.
He hadn't really followed anybody, he told himself.
It was wishful thinking. He'd needed the universe to be large enough to accommodate the remote possibility of Marissa surviving, and so had invented alien tourists who could divulge the secrets of the universe.
It was wishful thinking.
Feed anybody days of vending machine cookies and complimentary coffee, let them breathe the second-hand antibiotics of a hospital, then load them with enough worry for the rest of their life and usher them out into the city.
Of course Sai had seen meaning in every interaction. Even to the point of walking through a haze of his own making, fabricating those interactions.
It was all a way of putting off the inevitable, wasn't it?
It was all a way of not dealing with what he was going to have to deal with.
That the interlopers had conveniently disappeared after Marissa's death only confirmed that they'd been coping devices all along. Defense mechanisms. A way to avoid, to stall.
Still, for four nights in a row, Sai didn't go to Group. He did answer his phone, though, and assured each worried caller that he wasn't going to pull a Dava, no. That Marissa had made him promise, "she's still saving my life," at which point his voice would crack and he could escape again.
He just needed some time alone, he told himself. To cope. To find new tasks, new moments.
Most days he ended up at the curb by Marissa's cemetery.
Twice he staked out the post office, but that's all it was. That's all it had ever been.
When people die, they're dead, right?
What other option could there even be?
The world didn't work on magic, on fantasy.
And of course, at the cemetery, he wasn't alone.
There was a woman, a completely human woman, who visited a headstone some four times a day. She would collapse, lie there for minutes, then gather herself and leave, only to come back three hours later.
Sai felt sorry for her, but knew better than to approach.
What she needed, he knew, were some imaginary alien tourists, to give her hope.
He smiled to himself and went home, and stayed there for a record two days.
On the third, he was back.
It was dusk.
He had asked the aliens all the wrong questions, he knew now.
How was he supposed to know the right time to say the secret name? Was it pre-ordained, or different for every case, every death, every — he chuckled, saying it — every calamity.
Except it was the right word.
And, if you did whisper someone back with their secret name, if you said it at the right time, would they remember you, or would they be starting all over? And would they be decomposed, embalmed?
Or, no: other worlds, they wouldn't embalm, of course. That was stupid.
And they wouldn't bury, either. Rather, the dead were probably laid out on a table, their loved one vigilant, always there, waiting for that right time to say the secret name, bring this one back for another round.
It wasn't fair.
Sai knelt by Marissa's headstone and slammed the sides of his hands into it.
When the groundskeeper on duty approached, Sai ran away at right angles, so as not to step on anybody.
He wound up in the subway entrance. At a bank of phones nobody used anymore.
Four of them were shiny new. No gum, no graffiti, no grime. They even still had phonebooks.
Sai felt his way there, opened one of those phonebooks, his lips moving over the names, and, turning a page, he looked three blocks down, to the cemetery, could already see himself hunched over Marissa's grave this night or the next, reading all these names to her.
One of them was going to be right, he knew.
One of them was going to be right and, down there in the darkness of her casket, her eyes were going to roll open, and the world, it wouldn't be different at all after this, it would just be exactly the same as it had been, as it should be.
Sai knew. And he pulled at the phonebook until it came free.
This is how it started.
Copyright © 2014 by Stephen Graham Jones