The Parenting of Extraterrestrial Boys

Leigh gives birth to a slimed, wriggling baby, just like the aliens said, a creature dredged from the deepest, darkest ocean.

Want to hold him, Mom? The nurse thrusts the screaming infant out, loose, presuming a cradle, a second set of hands. The magnet of the boy drawing Leigh close but repelling her just at the end.

Leigh shrinks, cringes at mom, deep down, uncontrollable. Never has she wished for this moment, woozy in a hospital bed; never has she wanted a being outside herself to be responsible for, to clothe and feed and love.

Although the Greys said nothing about love. They came to her in a dream nine months ago and she can still taste the air in it, waxen and gummy and melting, as they told her, you are our vessel. You are the carrier of the new human race.

I don’t want it, she said, in the dream that maybe was not a dream because she sees the colors of the sky when she closes her eyes, the staccato of clouds against oily pastels.

Leigh watches as if through a video camera, filming a different woman’s happiest moment: the nurse places the newborn in her arms, its skin cat tongue-pink, and it burrows against her, screaming so hard it coughs every few seconds, a strangled furious hack. She thought it would be stronger, silent and watchful and understanding—he will be old beyond his years, the harbinger of a new era, the Greys said—but the starchild is so delicate, constructed from the dust of the universe. There is difference in this body, she wants to feel it, a difference in the way he is knitting together.

The alien boy becomes observant as he grows, calculating, wearing an ancient expression; Leigh has the sense he is absorbing knowledge through his skin, stroking everything with the pillows of his fingertips, and are they growing longer every day, becoming brittle, diseased branches, long and snappable? The memory has not faded, the way the Greys rested their hands on her, spidered their skeletal fingers.

The alien boy pats Leigh’s arm when she’s tired or sad or annoyed and says, you’ll be okay, like something otherworldly and wise, but sometimes she cannot stop his tantrums, sudden as spring storms, and this is what she carries at the end of the day: the sinking feeling he will be normal, a regular boy growing into a regular man. She wishes the aliens would map out his life, help her, anything.

Leigh is always looking for free activities, checks them off a mental list as she fails at them—Costco for food samples, the boy flailing when Leigh reminded him just one cheese cracker, just one; playing in the park, where he tried to commandeer the smallest slide, hissed at a girl who came too close—but the activity that seems to hold him is the weekly wild animal series at the nature center, where naturalists bring woodland creatures for kids to learn about, sometimes touch. The boy loved the red hawk, giggled at its claws, mimicked its beak’s lethal fishhook curl. Leigh found him killing his stuffed animals later that afternoon, tearing the stuffing out slow and mechanical, ripping their heads off with a deepsea calm. He stalked squirrels in the yard for weeks.

The aliens had said, we will make him heartsick for others. We will make him love so deeply.

Today the animal is a tarantula, its pulsing walk along the twiggy enclosure, its primal fuzzed body with each hair electric.

Did you know, says the employee, scooping up the spider, letting it rest on the back of her hand, its legs spread over her fingers. Did you know that Missouri has tarantulas? We found this guy in the woods out back.

Leigh does not have to edge the alien boy closer. He marches over himself, reaches to stroke the creature. It scurries up the employee’s arm and she backs away. Woah, she says. Hold up, kiddo. We’ll pet the spider in a minute.

But he is still jumping, staring at the spider, saying mine, mine, and Leigh has grabbed his arm when the spider drops, thuds to the ground and scrambles, tries to find the shade of a table, tries to find the dark, and the alien boy is staring, walking after it, and Leigh cannot get there and he raises his foot and brings it down slow, crushing, not on the spider’s body but on two of its legs.

The boy’s action was so deliberate, so smooth, that there is no sound at all. As the spider drags itself away, trailing smashed legs and gore, the boy sits. He watches it go.

In second grade, the alien boy has favorite letters of the alphabet, capital M because of the way it acts out a mountain range, z with its tornadic skeleton. At recess he stares, pensive as a cat, at his classmates on the blacktop or monkey bars or swings. More than once he watches a little girl from behind the slide, follows her from afar.

Leigh invites one of his classmates over; the two boys often partner up at football practice, wave goodbye at the end of the schoolday. Maybe friendship will dull the boy’s edges, will mingle the alien and human parts of him into some kind of harmony Leigh can comprehend.

Leigh and the other boy’s mother, Andrea, sip coffee while the boys play outside. Andrea fixes her hair continuously, smoothing the back, scrunching the sides.

Well, says Andrea. Maybe this is sacrilege, but I’m not thrilled about the football.

So violent, Leigh agrees. He will usher in a new age, the Greys had said, an age of love.

What does your partner think? Marc is absolutely thrilled. Andrea’s nails, clicking against the mug, are the same color as the Greys, the sun rapid-shifting off them.

Oh, Leigh says. I’m not married.

Everything clusters in the back of her throat, the boy’s provenance, where he came from, how she thinks about the spider all the time. The boy didn’t move as it struggled away, stared like a grown man at what he had done.

God, Andrea says as she laughs, what an idiot I am. I’m so sorry.

It’s really fine, why would you know.

Marc’s always saying sports will toughen him up. So whatever, I guess football’s happening. Boys have to do boy stuff, right?

A scream. Winging hummingbird-sharp through the air.

Andrea sprints through the door. Her son, arms outstretched, trellises of red blooming up.

What is this, Andrea scolds. What are you doing?

The alien boy drops a whippy branch.

What is this? Leigh echoes.

The alien boy—eyes too human-dark, jaw set like men she has known—tries an explanation. The older boys, he says.

The other child joins in. They said this is what grown ups do. This is what men do, Mom.

Who? What men? What older boys?

Leigh’s son says, we’re being brave. His arms striped red, too, like a beach towel.

Andrea sighs, a great huff, the unloading of some unseen burden. My God, she says, when you scream like that I think something is wrong.

Leigh tends to the wounds and Andrea says, they’re shallow, just slap a bandaid on there.

Yeah, says the alien boy and his friend in chorus. We’re tough.

Whose idea?

The alien boy is so human, eyes darting from Leigh to his friend, puffing out his chest as she smears ointment on the cuts. It swivels something in her.

The older boys at school, he says. That’s what they do, fighting and stuff.

He’s special, she tells herself. They promised.

You don’t have to do that, she says to both of them. Somebody could get hurt.

His hand is so delicate, bones like schools of tiny fish. When she hugs him it is quick and wild and uncontrolled, a bird careening into waves, a choking emotion she shoves away as he struggles and whispers, Mom stop, ew. She frees him and the two boys race inside. The marks on his arm like the bloody ooze trailing the tarantula, like scarlet clouds melting into the sky.

The alien boy is turning twelve and wants a video game birthday party. He asks Leigh for a new game, one where you play a space assassin.

She grimaces. She can’t help it.

He tweaks his mouth into a sneer, says almost affectionately, Mom, that’s why it’s fun.

A pack of boys come to the party, and Leigh stands in the kitchen with the moms who all seem to know each other, communicate in a language that Leigh, even after years, cannot translate.

One of the moms asks if Leigh’s husband will be joining them. She says, mine was a little jealous he couldn’t play with the boys.

Marc wanted to come too, says Andrea, swooping in for a handful of cashews. He and Bryan play for hours.

The sounds from the living room continue. Not one of the moms peers into the living room, not one of them seems bothered by the constant stream of gunfire. Leigh says, I’m going to peek in real quick.

As long as you hear gunfire you know they’re fine, Andrea replies.

Leigh forces herself to smile. The boys ignore her, eyes pinned to the TV where a man throws a grenade at a woman. She explodes. Green numbers cascade across the screen. The boys erupt in laughter.

Oh dude!

I have to try that, shouts one boy. He reaches for the controller.

The alien boy tightens his grip on the plastic.

The other kid laughs again, says, how’d you figure that out?

The alien boy shoves him away.

Dude, let me try, you’re hogging it.

The alien boy’s hand stretched back, ready to strike, the other boy leaning.

Leigh knows this motion (the spider, always the spider), the pent up deep ocean wave of it crashing forward. She steps in front of the TV, into the bubble of tension, bungee cord-taut. Cake, she says. Who wants cake?

After eating, the boys go back to the video game. Their laughter infects everything, the sound of them saying, blow her up again, do it again, holy crap, let’s see who can make the biggest fireball, did you see how far her arm went?

The boys do not look up to the woman clearing away the sodden napkins, red that blooms darker and more scarlet with wetness, and when she reenters the kitchen, Andrea holds out a trash can and says, it’s great to hear them having fun.

In the other room, a woman explodes.

The Greys said nothing about how the alien boy would take to football, how the violence of it would stir him.

Leigh watches every game, does not cheer but mouths the form of a cheer, remembers the rolling hills of the Greys’ smiles, the airy lift of their mouths, as the boy screams with his teammates, smacks their helmets, slaps their backs. He always looks like he is daring the other team to hit him, to take him down.

At one game his sophomore year, just after he has turned sixteen, he misses a catch from the endzone that would have won the game. Afterward, Leigh meets him by the sidelines.

I’m such a goddamn idiot, he huffs. I lost the game.

You are not, Leigh replies, automatic by this point. She strokes his sloppy wet hair, feels like a mother cat. That was a great run in the second quarter, no wonder coach started you.

Hey, a voice calls.

Jessie, the alien boy replies. He flushes. Can’t decide how to stand, hands on hips, then rubbing his face.

You did really great.

Thanks. Kind of my fault we lost.

You’ll win next week. The girl tilts her head, grins with teeth.

I don’t know.

Leigh looks away but peripherally clocks the motions of her son, something in her (those legs, the blood) always wanting to know where he is.

Well, the girl says. I’ll see you Monday?

Some of us are going to Steak n Shake later. You should come.

The alien boy leans into the girl’s orbit, body taking up the space in front of her. Leigh straightens.

I wish. Early soccer game tomorrow.

C’mon, just burgers. The alien boy steps forward, frowns.

Jessie smiles again, soft but fast, lips thinner than before, paler. Maybe next week?

We’re away next week. So tonight?

He steps forward. She steps back.

I can come by around nine.

The girl twists, searching for someone to make eye contact with, finds Leigh. Um, I don’t think my parents will let me.

I’ll text you when I’m almost there.

He is still stepping forward.

We have to go, bud. Leigh waves to the girl. It’s great to see you, Jessie. Good luck at your game.

The girl scrambles away, a creature finding a place to hide.

The boy throws his helmet against the door once they’re inside the car. There’s a crack, damage done. Leigh raises her voice: Hey. You know better.

She’d come if she really liked me, the boy says, massaging his wrist. Leigh knows it, that look, that jewel-toned longing.

She has a game tomorrow. That’s that.

The boy, ten minutes later, says, I’m sorry about the door.

It’s okay, Leigh says. She is saying it to herself. It’s okay.

By his senior year, the alien boy has read everything by Chuck Palahniuk, watched American Psycho and True Detective, plays Grand Theft Auto and whatever video game shows soldiers blasting the guts out of one another. Girls never stay around long—there is still something about him, a distance from emotion, the air of the boy who ripped the legs from that spider. It reminds her not of the aliens, whose faces crinkled, dragonfly-wing glinting when they smiled, but of men, men who want and do not stop.

Leigh is called to the school one afternoon. The alien boy will not meet her eyes when the principal asks him to wait outside, please.

The man is careful, starts slow: There was an incident. With a younger girl.

Leigh’s body is pulsing. Come back, she thinks, speaking to the Greys. Come back. She has told the Greys in her mind so many times that she did not want him, him and his human eyes, too crystalline dark blue, dark like the dark of objects as they cross the crisp sheet of sky.

It wasn’t violent—at this Leigh shudders so far down in her core her body is the recoil from a gun, the way the air vibrates after firing—but it’s certainly a learning opportunity.

Come back, Leigh pleads in her mind, come back and claim him, open the sky and take him.

There was this young lady, this girl he was infatuated with.

Infatuated seems too frivolous for the alien boy, too youthful, too exuberant and uncontrolled.

Anyway, he asked her out repeatedly, and she kept saying no. So he followed her into the girls’ bathroom this morning, cornered her in a stall, and tried to kiss her.

Oh, she says, oh. And the world is rippling, and the aliens lied, and her boy is not special.

Luckily, one of the teachers was outside and heard her shouting.

What about the girl, she asks.

The girl? The man shakes his head, as though jarring a memory loose from a shelf.

The Greys could seal off the sky behind them, they could close it tighter than closed eyes.

She’s okay. She’ll be okay. He goes on: I’m glad you understand. But he will receive in-school suspension.

She thinks back to the spider, dragging the limp black horizons of its legs.

Leigh asks the boy about it on the way to the car and he does something he has not done since childhood, folds himself into her arms and squeezes and says, I’m sorry Mom, I didn’t know, I’m sorry. And she remembers what it was like to be bell-hollow, ringing with emptiness. The fetus took up everything during the ultrasound; her body was like the vacuum of space, cold and dark and airless and spent, like absolutely nothing at all.  

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