AN INTRODUCTION BY DEREK ASKEY
Suppose for a moment you live in a small, quiet American town: small enough that you know the names and proclivities of most of your neighbors. Suppose, also, that your town becomes a containment location for a group of blue extraterrestrials who have crash-landed their spaceship nearby and need a place to live. Your town is low on assets (factories, storefronts, everything) and its main street was shuttered quite some time ago. You don’t really have the resources to welcome these aliens — who, it should be noted, emit a mist from their pores and starve their children and laugh like donkeys and beat their women. Still, you do what you have to: You throw a little welcoming parade with balloons and popcorn. You build them refugee apartments. You keep an eye on them.
Urbanski’s stories are notable for their unflinching gaze into the uncomfortable aspects of domesticity, marriage, and community.
This scenario is the basis of Debbie Urbanski’s “When They Came to Us.” It’s a story with many speculative elements, but most of its memorable passages describe the behavior of humans: Some people think about hitting the aliens with their cars. Some offer them clairvoyant services. Some lift their shirts and show off their bras. It’s a challenging situation, and it clearly doesn’t bring out the best in everyone.
Using unusual circumstances to explore the foibles of being human has been Urbanski’s modus operandi since we first published her work in 2003 — an enigmatic, fictionalized journal excerpt titled “The Life of Alice Peters, as Told by Herself, the Blessed Alice Peters.” We’ve printed five of her pieces since then, many of which are notable not only for their use of science fiction and fantasy, but also for their unflinching gaze into the uncomfortable aspects of domesticity, marriage, and community: couples who don’t want to have sex, neighbors who don’t trust one another, children who push against the confines of authority with surprising consequences.
Urbanski’s characters may be perverse or xenophobic, but they’re not completely irredeemable. Or maybe some of them are. It’s hard to know when you’re reading a story like “When They Came to Us,” which can make you feel like you’re looking in a mirror. Are you beautiful or are you ugly? We’ll let you decide.
How an Alien Invasion Became a Xenophobic Massacre
When They Came to Us
by Debbie Urbanski
They Arrive On A Warm Summer Night With No Breeze
We went to sleep, and in the morning they were here. We saw them on our screens as they emerged from a grove of trees a hundred miles west of us. Their ship had crashed. It was made of a rose-gold metal and looked like a claw with a broken tip. Within hours the government had moved these beings — the “blues,” we eventually came to call them — to a holding station outside the nearest city. There we could watch them whenever we wanted, because of the cameras in each room.
We assumed they would have special powers, like mind reading or levitation, but apparently they couldn’t do such things. What they could do was spray a fine white mist from their pores. Although this wasn’t what we’d expected, it still seemed amazing to us: White mist! Coming out of an alien’s skin! Mostly they just sat there in their rooms. There was a big to-do about how nice their accommodations were: the pricey organic grains they were fed, the high thread count of their sheets, the multiple down pillows, and the room dividers for privacy. The blues spent hours hiding behind those partitions. This became frustrating because we couldn’t see what they were doing; we could only hear them, and the sounds were unrecognizable to us.
They Weren’t Supposed To Look Like Us
Science teaches us that creatures adapt to their unique environments. Surely the aliens’ home planet must have differed from our own, yet the blues did look almost like us — or like imitations of us. They looked as if they had done their best to look like us. They even began to mimic our speech, though their voices were pitched ridiculously high, higher than a human child’s. Their skin, of course, was blue, as were their nails and hair. Mrs. Durand, who has lived here in town for many years, was disappointed. She wanted the blues to look like her dead husband, like in that old sci-fi movie about aliens who took the form of people’s deceased loved ones. That was useful, what the aliens in that movie had done.
Grace Madden, Who Also Lives In Our Town, Tells Us About Her Dream
In the dream she went inside the blues’ ship. They took her up into the air and welcomed her with circular motions of their arms. They touched her neck and her back and her stomach. The ship’s interior was soft and warm and painted with light. The walls seemed to pulse, Mrs. Madden told us, like a heart.
That’s the picture we had in our minds: an enormous heart going whoosh, whoosh, whoosh through space.
Our Town Is Named A Relocation Site, And We React In The Following Ways
Ms. Mueller began the rumors that our water had gone bad. Little Rita Oh refused to sleep, and her mom had to take away her screen at night and lock Rita in her room. Mr. Lucas’s hands began trembling. (From fear? Anticipation?) Roger Gibson put on a sandwich board declaring, “The Emperor Has No Clothes!” and he stomped around the train station in a menacing way. Dana Fisher moved up her wedding to Jeff Campbell, even though nobody thought they should get married at a time like this. At their backyard reception Mrs. Fisher laid out somber plates of mashed beans and skewered tomatoes, and a lot of people left early. Young Tom Durand tied a red bandanna over his mouth and stormed into the Pizza Palace waving a water pistol. The Lucases decided to try for another baby, like Mrs. Lucas wanted. Suzie Breton raised her hand in homeroom and let everybody know that she thought the blues were beautiful; they made us less alone in the universe, she said. Somebody kicked in the head of the homeless guy who begged at the interstate on-ramp. Jessica O’Brien complained of cramps. Certain people stopped drinking our town’s tap water. Jeff hit his new wife, Dana, in a place where he thought nobody could see it, but we saw it and took note. At our annual summer parade the children dressed up as aliens, or how they imagined aliens should look, wearing grotesque masks and walking around with lurching steps. We were unsure whether this was appropriate. Mr. Lucas forgot his bedroom windows were open, and we heard him tell Mrs. Lucas, “If you just lie there with your legs open, I might as well go fuck a cow. Should I? Should I go fuck a cow?” Many of us felt on edge. Ordinary things appeared unfamiliar or even vulgar.
The Blues Arrive In Buses, And We Stand On The Sidewalks To Greet Them
The whole town came out. All morning we waited, keeping the mood festive and light. Johnny Reynolds strummed his guitar, and Mr. Sullivan gave blue balloon swords to the children, because it was the only shape he could make out of balloons. We drank lemonade and ate popcorn and played word games to pass the time. We wore our best clothing. Our children were well-behaved and patient.
At noon the three school buses appeared in a cloud of diesel exhaust. Dana Campbell threw white confetti left over from her wedding, and the children sang a song about sunshine. We tried to catch a glimpse of the blues, but we couldn’t see through the white mist inside the buses. The drivers didn’t stop; they continued on to the refugee apartments that had been built east of town, where the blues would live eight to a room. This arrangement was OK because, from what we could tell, the blues enjoyed living close to each other. They were like animals that way. The relocation agency made sure the blues had what they needed: their closets were stocked with used clothes, their pantries filled with donated food. In each apartment hung a video camera.
After their arrival, if we spotted a blue in town — which was rare, as they were skittish in the beginning — we were supposed to treat them kindly. We weren’t to call them “aliens,” because of the word’s connotations.
When We Ask How Far Away Their Home Is, They’re Oddly Vague
They said their planet was beautiful, but it didn’t sound beautiful. It sounded cold and dark and wet. (The blues themselves smelled like damp wool and spoiled citrus.) They were only one of many tribes on their planet, and none of the tribes were particularly kind to each other. Apparently there were seasons, because at certain times of year heavy fruits hung from the trees, and herds of grunting animals wandered around, offering themselves up for meat. But other times the blues were hungry. Before leaving, they had sold off everything they’d owned, which is why they’d brought nothing with them. “What did you have? What did you sell?” we asked, wanting specifics. They mentioned animals, mainly livestock, and some kind of cloth in which they had wrapped themselves.
Many of the words the blues used to describe where they’d come from we couldn’t understand. We shook our heads, and they sketched the object in the dirt: a square box, perhaps, with lines radiating from it. We still had no idea. This is how conversations went with them. We asked if they had been to planets other than ours. The blues said yes; there had been other planets. Honestly they didn’t like to talk about it much. If we asked for a story about their home, the blues waved their hands in the air, as if the gesture itself were a story.
Our Children Are Understandably Puzzled
Such a change in what was possible: Aliens! Spaceships! New worlds! It didn’t seem healthy for a child’s development.
“What color are their penises?” little Jess Mueller asked her mother.
“I’m not sure they have penises,” her mother said, blushing. How was she supposed to know? Children should not be thinking about such things. They asked what the blues’ poop looked like, how they made their babies, whether they went to hell or heaven when they died, why blue boys were so skinny, and what were those marks on the blue women’s faces? We steered the conversation to more-suitable topics.
We Don’t Tell Our Children That Those Marks Are Bruises, And It Looks Like The Blues Are Starving Their Boys
Once, a blue female wandered from their group, shrieking and tearing at her eyes with her nails. Eventually she collapsed, and a blue male strode toward her. We assumed he intended to help her up, but instead he hit her with the back of his hand, then with his fist. We heard the male’s fist hitting the female, and her whimpering. The sounds made us sick. “Those fucking barbarians,” Ms. Mueller said. We expected the beating to stop, but it went on for a long time. We’d been told not to intervene, out of respect for their culture. If a blue male brought out a leather strap that left welts, we were told not to stare, but also not to avoid looking. We were to act like what they were doing was normal and accept them as they were.
The blues did not hit their children, as far as we knew, but they behaved as if their boys were worthless. At meals, for instance, a blue mother gave each girl an enormous bowl of gruel — seconds if the girl asked for it — along with a chunk of dark bread, while the boys received no bread and were given only a few spoonfuls of the gruel. “They do not get hungry!” a blue female insisted when we asked, though the blue boys looked at us with starving eyes.
To be fair, the blues weren’t brutal all the time. They had a playful side to them. Even the adults appeared to enjoy a childish prank. They were known to hide in alleyways and jump out as we walked by. If we feigned surprise — “Oh, my!” or “Look at that!” — they made clicking sounds in their throats, which meant they were satisfied. When they laughed, they sounded like donkeys.
Better To View The Blues From A Distance, We Begin To Think
Through the cameras in their apartments, we could watch the blues on our screens whenever we wanted. We watched how they ate (with their hands), whether they used the toilets, how they prepared their meals and nuzzled and mated and fought. It was fun studying them like this. It made us feel like amateur naturalists. There was none of the usual awkwardness we felt in their presence; we didn’t need to worry about what to say or how to act. Their violence toward each other continued to strike us as bestial — the males biting the females’ arms; the females’ apparent pleasure — but we eventually came to expect it. In private, by ourselves in our unmonitored homes, some of us discovered that such peculiar and brutal scenes held an erotic charge.
Most of all we liked to watch them sleep. They looked the most like us when they slept, and we felt compassion for them as their chests rose and fell under the thin blankets.
Despite many such hours of observation, we still had unanswered questions. We wished we could understand what kindness looked like to them, and how they described cruelty, and what they thought love meant.
Our Lives Don’t Stop Just Because The Blues Are Here
Winter came, a very mild winter. By February’s end the trees were budding, and there were yellow daffodils in Mrs. Durand’s yard. We were glad for the pretty flowers, no matter when they decided to come. All around us the trees bloomed spectacularly, fragrant and white.
In March we put on our spring festival to celebrate the longer days and shorter nights. As happened every year, we got sick on Ms. Mueller’s fried dough, and we dressed Jeff Campbell up as the spring maiden and made him dance. Not one blue came. They could have come — no one was stopping them — but they didn’t, and in a sense it was better that way. Things were as they should be.
Part of the festival is an art contest, and the theme that year (Mrs. Gorski picked it) was the blues’ home planet. A dozen fine entries came in: paintings of an arctic landscape, an underwater city, even a terrifying vision of spindly legged machines that set trees on fire with their eyes. Only one painting sold, a watercolor of a monochromic desert purchased by Mrs. Lucas. She hung it in her family room, then sat on the sofa and stared at that painting for a long time, entranced by the blowing blue sands and the multiple suns. Perhaps she was trying to imagine herself on the blues’ planet.
“What the hell is this?” Mr. Lucas asked when he saw the painting hanging there.
The Blues Decide They Don’t Want To Be Watched Anymore, As If It Were OK For Them To Decide Such A Thing
First they misted up a few of the cameras. The other cameras they covered with their dirty sheets. So Johnny Reynolds marched right into their apartments — he was caretaker of the building, the master keys jangling at his belt — and he wiped the cameras clean and took down the bedsheets. “Don’t you touch these again,” he scolded.
Within a week the blues had broken every camera. Now that we could no longer watch them, they grew stranger and more savage to us.
They began leaving their apartments more often — swarming out of their apartments, is how it felt. We saw them at the bus stops in the morning, and in the afternoons they crowded us out of our parks. We ended their food donations — we had to, because of the shortages — so they dug through restaurant dumpsters and went begging beside the on-ramps. It was unpleasant for us to see all this and also unpleasant for our children, who began asking uncomfortable questions, like why the blues were stuffing rancid food scraps into their mouths. “Run them over,” Jeff Campbell said whenever he was in the car and saw a blue beside the road scrounging through a garbage bin. It’s not as if Jeff actually ran a blue over; it was just something he said. The point is they weren’t trying to act like us, or even to be likable. Though this shouldn’t have mattered, privately it did matter: their unpleasant smell, how close they stood to us, those guttural noises they sometimes made in their throats instead of using English. Best to leave them be, we instructed our children. We believed the blues must be going through an adolescent phase from which they’d soon emerge more fully formed and useful to us. Until then, we told our kids, stay away.
To Be Honest, The Blues Have Not Come At The Best Time
The mansions along our once-grand boulevards were falling apart, our children were roaming the streets with their pit bulls, and few of us had jobs — or, at least, not jobs we wanted. There were deserted retail spaces left over from the boom and also some ruined factories. It wasn’t just us. The whole world seemed to be in crisis, with riots and strange weather and war. You know how wars are, even if they’re far away: The fiery levels of alert. The panicked glow. The paranoia over everything.
We Advise Each Other Just To Ignore The Blues, But Do All Of Us Listen?
Mrs. Madden got it into her head that she could predict the blues’ future. She met them in the dimly lit back room of her house, where she sat across from them at a card table. They believed whatever Mrs. Madden said. When she told a blue female, “You hide your pain behind a curtain, but somebody will lift up the curtain,” the blue said, “Yes, yes.” When Mrs. Madden said to a blue male, “Everything will be OK for you,” he nodded, even though things obviously were not OK. She traced the patterns on an older blue’s hand and said, “I see darkness up ahead for you, but in your darkness there is a light.” Who knew what that meant? We were impressed when Mrs. Madden touched their hands like that. Sometimes, in return, they gave her a bucket of forest greens or a bowl of ripe tomatoes.
Generally she met with a single blue at a time, but one day she brought a group of them into her back room and said, “I have good news. You thought you were alone here, but you aren’t.” She said that she saw their deceased loved ones roosting near the ceiling like happy birds, and the blues believed her, as always.
If Mrs. Madden said these things in order to be beloved by someone or something, it worked. She was beloved by the blues. They held her hands. They held each other. They fell onto her soft brown carpet, weeping and squawking. Why not? If believing something makes your life that much better, then, by all means, go ahead and believe.
We Tell Our Children To Leave The Blues Alone Until They Start Behaving Better, But Do Our Children Listen Either?
Suzie Breton and Rita Oh began bicycling past the blues’ apartments before school. The girls stuck out their tongues at the buildings and spit on the blues’ lawn — all innocent enough, until one day Suzie and Rita climbed off their bikes and peeked into a first-floor window. (This is what we were reduced to, window peeping, because of what the blues had done to the cameras.) The girls were gazing into a bedroom, which was more nest than room — food scraps on the floor mixed with newspapers and old sheets. On the wall was a photograph of a grove of oak trees. Who knew why it was there?
“I dare you to knock,” Rita said.
“No,” said Suzie.
Rita made whimpering noises at her. “Are you afraid, you big baby?” She grabbed Suzie’s hand and slapped it against the window. Then a blue boy entered the room.
He didn’t see them at first. He removed his shirt and faced a mirror on the back of the door. The girls were awed by the deformities of his body: the too-long back, the emaciated legs, the severe angles of his bones. The boy licked the mirror with his tongue. This made Rita giggle.
Suzie jabbed her in the ribs. “He’ll hear you.”
Rita mimicked the blue boy, sticking her tongue to the window glass.
“Come on. Quit it.”
“Dare you to take off your shirt,” Rita said.
Suzie blushed and refused.
“God, I knew you wouldn’t.” Rita pushed Suzie into the window, and the blue boy heard and turned around. Suzie had no idea how to read the expression on his face. Was he sad? Angry? Curious? Pleased?
Rita unbuttoned her shirt to reveal the petite cotton bra her mom had bought her the week before.
“We’re late for school,” Suzie said.
“As if I care,” Rita said, and she flaunted her chest at the blue. The bra had stupid pink flowers along the seams, but Rita showed it off anyway. As the blue boy approached the window, Suzie studied his fingers and the narrow muscles of his shoulders. He raised his hand as if to press it gently to the glass, where she could see her reflection, but instead he slapped his palm against the pane. Both girls stumbled backward. He hit the glass again with his hand. Then he used his head. An animal sound — a goat? a horse? — came out of him as he stared at the girls. He pressed his open mouth against the window, exposing his terrible teeth.
The girls arrived at school that day shaken. They had thought — wrongly, as we all sometimes did — that because the blues had two arms, two legs, and a head, they would act like us. But they were not human. They were something else. So this assumption — we had to keep reminding ourselves — was untrue.
The Blues Force Us To Ponder Some Ethical Questions
Such as: If something is not human, can we expect it to be bound by human laws? Do civil rights apply to these creatures? Do we need search warrants to enter their apartments? Can they be handcuffed and arrested for scaring our children?
What does justice mean for a being who often appears more animal than human?
In the winter, when some of the blues began starving due to the continued shortage of food, there was the question of whether we were under any ethical obligation to feed them, especially the children. If something happened to the blue adults — and, by this time, things were happening to the adults — what were our obligations, exactly, to the children, and how long did these obligations go on? At what point were we allowed to wash our hands of them and focus on the needs of our own families?
We Finally Find A Use For The Blues
They turned out to be trainable. They could wash dishes or drive a truck or clean our houses.
“You can’t just make them work; you need their permission,” Mrs. Gorski told us. “And they’ll need wages. They aren’t indentured servants. They didn’t come here to be our slaves.” For that matter, nobody could think of any good reason why they had come.
They Are Even Entering Our Fantasies
Mrs. Lucas told Ms. Mueller over coffee and danishes that, when she closed her eyes in front of that painting she’d bought, “it’s like I’m there.”
“Like you’re where?” Ms. Mueller asked. “On their planet. And they’re all around me.”
In Mrs. Lucas’s mind, the blues’ planet was a desert, like the one in that painting — never mind what the blues had said about their moldy dwellings and their flood plains. And in this desert Mrs. Lucas stood barefoot on the sand, which was similar to the sand here on Earth, only light blue and softer. The sand went on all the way to the horizon, but the landscape didn’t feel barren or dead. There were huts to Mrs. Lucas’s right: charming and rustic, eight of them in a circle around a dwindling fire. Above hung lovely, fat clouds.
“Also there are two suns,” Mrs. Lucas continued. “You’d think it was this lonely place. I mean, I’m in the middle of a desert, all by myself, on a different planet. You’d think I would miss home, but I never miss anything when I’m there.”
Next she saw beings approaching in the distance. It was the blues. They were coming toward her carrying baskets of fruits and colorful cloths and flowers, kicking up sand with their feet and singing brightly.
“So you ran away from them, right?” Ms. Mueller said. “Tell me you ran away from them.”
“I didn’t run. Nobody was afraid.”
One of the blue females broke away from the group and brought a cloth to Mrs. Lucas, who touched the fabric — “It was softer than anything I’ve ever felt” — and the whole time the blue female chattered in her rough, throaty language. She must have been saying something about getting undressed, because she began to unbutton Mrs. Lucas’s shirt. The blue female helped Mrs. Lucas out of her clothing with no sense of shame. They laughed together at the scratchy fabrics of her old clothes. Then the blue woman wrapped Mrs. Lucas in the clean new cloth and tied the ends in a knot at her waist.
“This is getting rather wild, Maria,” Ms. Mueller said.
It turned out the blues were headed to a lake — a very important lake to them, one of the only lakes on their planet. Mrs. Lucas followed them there. On the way they began to sing again, and though she had no idea what the words meant, she found herself singing them, too. When they reached the lake, the blues removed their cloths and leapt naked into the clear water, but Mrs. Lucas remained on the wet sand, waiting to see what would happen next. A blue male began to watch her. He climbed out of the water, dripping, and took the edge of her cloth in his hands and tugged.
“Oh, my God,” Ms. Mueller said.
Mrs. Lucas held her cloth tight with both hands, suddenly shy. The blue male slapped her face and neck.
“He did what?” Ms. Mueller said.
The blue male let Mrs. Lucas look into his face as long as she needed to until she let go of the cloth. Then he unwrapped her slowly.
Ms. Mueller attempted to change the subject to the ongoing drought. On their screens they’d seen dusty refugees and ranchers standing beside their dead cattle. But Mrs. Lucas returned to the dream, because she wasn’t even halfway through it yet. She needed Ms. Mueller to understand the way the blue unwrapped her by forcing her to turn. Soon she was as naked as he was. Then he pushed her into the lake.
“That’s enough, Maria, please,” Ms. Mueller said, standing suddenly and taking Mrs. Lucas’s half-eaten danish to the kitchen.
Things May Get Better, Mrs. Gorski Says, If We Welcome Their Children Into Our Schools, So We Try
At the school there was little interaction between the blues and our kids. The blues sat in a far corner of the lunchroom. No one made them sit over there; they just did. And they ate nothing. In classes our children sat as far away as possible from them. The teachers tried their best, even working the blues into their lesson plans: the art of “savage” cultures, for instance, or the physics of space travel, or the portrayal of aliens in fiction. There was a lot of material there. Dana Fisher (she used her maiden name when she taught) asked students in her world-history class to give five-minute presentations on the blues’ home planet, drawing on both primary interviews and their imaginations. Suzie Breton went first, standing at the front of the room and describing something like the Amish farms of the past: the horse and buggy, the obedient children and enormous families. Who knew where she’d gotten this idea? Halfway through, a blue boy stood up from his desk and said, “Wrong.”
“You sit down,” Ms. Fisher ordered.
The blue boy did not sit down.
Suzie Breton began crying, her face red and ugly. “I did my best,” she said.
Ms. Fisher told the boy, “Look at what you did. Do I need to write you up?”
The blue boy closed his eyes, and soon his expression, his entire unattractive face, was lost in that infernal mist of theirs.
“You stop that right now,” Ms. Fisher demanded.
The mist spread throughout the room. It touched the students. It wrapped itself around Suzie Breton’s hair and neck. (It felt, she said, like someone was breathing on her.)
“Get it away from me!” Jessica O’Brien shrieked, grasping at the air, as if that would do any good.
The mist crept up the walls and covered the flags and the model of Monticello on the top shelf. Finally it drifted out the open window and dispersed.
If Mrs. Madden Means The Following As A Warning, The Blues Don’t Get It
“I’m not doing this anymore,” Mrs. Madden told the blues lounging on her front porch in the sun, waiting their turn to hear her predictions. “Not today, not next week, not next month. Go away. Get out of here! Get! Don’t come back!”
Was she having a vision of what we would do before we did it?
The blues shrieked, pounded on her house, tore her flower beds apart, and uprooted small shrubs with their teeth — their teeth! — but she would not open her door to them again.
We Pull The Blue Children From Our Schools
After months of the blue children sulking in the corners of classrooms and being bullied — our teachers were not body-guards; they could not form protective shields around each blue and still be educators — we moved the blues to another building. An old warehouse, actually. To be honest, all the blues had done was distract our kids, and we had our children’s futures to consider. Better to teach those creatures separately, in a special environment where we could focus on topics more vital to them, like how to bathe, or speak clearly, or patch a roof.
You have to understand, none of us hated the blues. We just didn’t want to be around them after a certain point. The fact was, we could already imagine them gone. We imagined the sorts of things we might say once they were gone: Oh, do you remember how they danced? Do you remember those songs we heard drifting out of their apartments at night? As if we hadn’t hated their music and their dancing.
Mr. Lucas Hears About His Wife’s Crazy Fantasies
“No human being can fuck you like you need,” he said — or, rather, shouted — to Mrs. Lucas. We think he then tied Mrs. Lucas to the bed. Even with the windows shut we heard them, but we pretended not to hear. It became clear to us that the blues were ruining certain people’s lives.
Life Cannot Continue On As It Is, Can It?
Look, we studied the same textbooks as you. We knew all the dark secrets of history, just as you do. When we discussed dark times in the past and the things people had done to each other then, we talked as if such acts had been committed by a different species. But these were dark times, too. And dark things happen in the dark. You don’t always have the luxury of sitting there and figuring out who did what to whom. Nobody should walk around acting like they have a golden light inside them, because they don’t. The blues were a disappointment to us, and disappointment can breed anger. We wished to be rid of them.
So we got rid of them.
The Morning After, We Wake Up, And It’s Over
The whole nasty business seemed like something we had watched, not something we had done. Already the air felt different: lighter or, rather, clearer. Something about the sky — though it was still the same sky it had been the previous day — wasn’t the same. We opened our windows for the first time in a long while. The charred smell of the fires still burning east of town drifted in, but we soon got used to it. Littered about our lawns and the streets were the rocks and bricks and ropes, looking obscene now in the daylight, like something it was best not to talk about. We got out trash bags and cleaned up. It was not by any means a joyful day. None of us were throwing confetti or kicking our heels together. In fact, we did not look each other in the eye. For the most part we kept to ourselves, raking our yards or organizing canned goods in the kitchen — the sort of tasks you think you’ll never have time for, so there is a great satisfaction in doing them. There were a few scenes, a few hysterics, such as Mrs. Lucas running down the street in her bloody dress, which she should have changed out of by that point. Anyone visibly upset was ushered inside and soothed with chamomile tea or something stronger. Though we knew the blues’ apartments were empty, Johnny Reynolds went over there just to be sure. He didn’t tell us exactly what he’d seen. All he said was that he’d checked every apartment, even looking in the closets and under the mattresses, and there was nothing worth saving.
Toward sunset a few cardinals in the trees of Mrs. Durand’s yard began to trill in the most extraordinary way, as if to say that certain things did not have to go on forever, and it was OK that they ended.
Can We Blame Everything Bad That Happens Afterward On The Blues?
Such as Suzie Breton’s eventual suicide, or the things Mr. Lucas later did to his wife, or Mr. Sullivan’s vodka binges, or the way our children seemed to lack a moral compass?
Take what happened to Donny Mueller. When he disappeared, we didn’t worry at first. He was only a sixth-grader with chubby legs; how far could he have gone? We searched the schools, the library, the woods. Then we searched the homes and basements of his friends. Finally we found Donny locked up in the Durands’ garden shed, a dog collar fastened around his neck. The collar was attached to a chain, which was locked to the floor beside a bowl of water and a pile of rancid meat. The shed smelled of something burnt. There were scars. Tom Durand and Donny were in the same grade. Apparently Little Tom had wanted Donny as his pet.
There are other examples, but it’s better not to go into them. We found ourselves wondering: If the blues had never come, would we have been better people?
The Blues Long Gone, We Build Ourselves A River Walk
The river walk has lights that turn on at night to keep us safe. The lights get rid of the shadows, and they’re also solar powered, which people seem to like these days. It shows we care about the planet’s resources. Already tourists are strolling along the river, holding hands and buying beverages from the carts, just like we predicted they would. The river walk ends at our town’s park, where there are benches under the oak trees and a rose garden and a pond. Autumn is by far the most popular time to visit. The leaves turn orange-red as if they were on fire, though they’re obviously not on fire, and after they fall we build enormous leaf piles for children to jump in. At Halloween there are pumpkin-carving contests and a costume parade. The tourists find such traditions charmingly old-fashioned.
Only the rare visitor bothers to ask about the blues. You can spot these people easily. They’re the ones walking around with their frowns and notebooks, looking for plaques or some sort of memorial fountain — anywhere they can get down on their knees and make a scene. They’re the ones who expect us to look haunted. One woman, clutching an open notebook in which she has thus far written nothing, asks, “You were a relocation site, were you not? Yet it appears you’re trying to forget this very fact!” As if forgetting were something to be ashamed of. It’s too bad that certain people can look at a town like ours, where nothing is missing anymore, and still see something missing.
When a visitor asks, we don’t deny that the blues were among us for a brief time, but there isn’t a lot more to say. That was many years ago, and most of us have moved on, because that’s what you do. There are only a few people left who’ll talk about the blues’ time here as if it were important: Mrs. Gorski, Mrs. Madden, Johnny Reynolds, Mrs. Lucas. We feel bad for them, because it means that what followed — i.e., the rest of their lives — must have been a disappointment. Mrs. Gorski will ramble on, if you let her, about what she was wearing the night they came (her fluffy red robe), and the style of her hair (in braids), and what she heard (a whistling in the air), and what she saw in the sky (a burning orb like a small, sad sun). Sure, at first it sounds like a big deal — ooh, beings from another planet, a spaceship landing — until you think about how we hadn’t asked them to come. They weren’t what we needed.
About the Author
Debbie Urbanski is a writer living in Syracuse, New York. Her work focuses on aliens, relationships, cults, belief, and family, or some combination of those themes. Her stories have appeared in The Southern Review, Terraform, the Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy, Nature, and elsewhere. “When They Came To Us” is being adapted for the stage by playwright MT Cozzola. The play is being workshopped at Piven theater in Chicago, with public performances on January 29 and January 30, 2018.
About the Recommender
The Sun is an independent, ad-free magazine that for more than forty years has used words and photographs to evoke the splendor and heartache of being human. Writing from The Sun has won the Pushcart Prize and been selected for numerous anthologies, including Best American Short Stories and Best American Essays.