Argan was able to look at her for the first time with the kitchen light shining on her delicate face. She was perfection. He wanted to watch her eat an apple with her perfect little teeth.
Annie sat there while he attached what looked like a pair of earphones to her temples.
Argan found his hands shook now that he was this close to her. “I need you to think about all the things you heard, every conversation.”
“Are you connecting it to a screen or something so you can hear it too?”
“No – do you have a machine like that?” He looked suddenly very excited and Annie felt a twinge of guilt for letting him down.
“Oh. No. I thought you might have brought one…from space.” Annie was pretty sure he’d said he was from space, or something. He used a lot of words she didn’t understand, but she’d got the gist.
“So how long have you been watching me for?”
“Ten years ago we lost communication with them, they became trapped in a time loop.” He sat down in the chair opposite, watching her closely.
“A time… loop?”
“A time loop, yes. Once the planet was no longer viable, hundreds of craft were sent up into orbit. Theirs was the final one to not crash-land or malfunction. The loop meant that we didn’t know where or when they were trapped.
“A couple of years and nothing, then we realised they were still sending out a signal but we’d just not been receiving it. And there was no way of untangling the message since we didn’t know where it was going. It took a couple more years until we realised that the messages were being received after all.”
He was still staring at her teeth. “You’re not how I thought you’d be.”
Annie gave a little laugh, covering her mouth and surreptitiously feeling for any remnants of trapped food. “Said the alien to the crazy girl.”
“Ah, well technically my ancestors have been on this planet longer than yours, so – uh.” He paused.
“Five years,” he said suddenly, now staring just above her face.
“You’ve been under observation for five years.”
“Five years,” she repeated.
He was watching her carefully like she was speaking another language and he was having to lipread.
“I just didn’t notice, that’s all.”
“You’ve been under close observation the past eighteen months, by me.”
“I’ve been waiting to hear from above whether they’ve worked out the best way to translate the signals you receive so we can understand them too.”
“And have you? – is that why you’ve come here?”
Argan decided he wouldn’t reveal the original plan, to harvest her brain and work out how to unscramble the messages later. “Not yet. I’m still waiting.”
He didn’t tell her he’d heard no communication since being deployed here, or that he was starting to think they’d forgotten about him.
“Why today then, why the big reveal?”
“You, er, you were in danger. Those men looking for you.”
There was a hammering at her front door. She had a horrible sense of foreboding as she answered it, like someone was about to stick a corkscrew into her arm, but this time Argan was there, backing her up. He stood very close behind her so that she had to shift away to avoid feeling the warmth coming off his corduroy covered body.
“Have you seen Alan? He’s missing and I’m starting to worry.” It was Nutmeg Jones, looking bedraggled from the steady falling drizzle.
“We’ve had this conversation already, remember?”
“Yes, but this time he’s really missing. Is he here?” Nutmeg nudged the door open with her elbow. “Who’s this then?” She cocked her head to one side.
“He’s not here. Alan came round a couple of hours ago and then he left. Look, we’re a bit busy Nutmeg –”
“Sure, sure. I just thought he might be here and –”
“We’re currently in the middle of something,” Argan said looking at Nutmeg strangely, then he bared his teeth in an almost smile. She backed away slowly, nodding her head.
“If you see him, you let me know ok?” She was peering round them as if to check he wasn’t hiding in the hallway.
The two of them returned to the kitchen and Annie realised she still had the headphones attached to her face. She told Argan everything. All of the ghost conversations she could remember. A lot of it was Roger’s search for his lost pork pie, that had gone on for days. Then there was the whole debacle with whoever had taken the cover off that grate, the dust was starting to make Miryam sneeze.
The longer she talked, the further Argan’s face fell, until it became a grotesque mask of disappointment.
“I always thought it was just like sticking my ear against a random wall where the people didn’t know I was listening. Is any of it useful?”
“No. None of what you’ve said sounds useable.” Argan was no longer meeting her eye.
Annie wondered if he was about to start crying.
“We thought, well, I thought they would be sending out a distress message. But it sounds as though they left their comms box switched on.”
“I’m sorry.” Annie felt somehow responsible.
He looked so forlorn and miserable, the silence was starting to weigh on her and Annie was putting off mentioning the fact that her mind was the clearest it had been in years.
“If you were too late right now, if it’s already over, you can go back, right? Rewind a couple of years and you’ll find them.”
He shook his head. “That’s not how it works.”
“And, er… is the song Happy Birthday significant for something in the future? Apart from the usual – making birthdays awkward for everyone.”
He eyed her sharply. “Why do you ask that? They haven’t been singing have they?”
She didn’t answer and there was a long heavy pause that filled the space between them.
“Have you heard anything since?”
Annie shook her head slowly.
“It’s over then,” he said dully.
“But we’re all still here. Maybe things will change, the future might be different. I mean a lot can change in what, fifty thou–”
“Eighty thousand years. Exactly. That’s forever.”
“Eighty years,” he said again, not meeting her eye. “They probably knew we were too late. They just didn’t want me around anymore.”
The fact he was still sitting in her kitchen was starting to make her feel awkward. Finally he stood up and Annie looked up at him and met his eye for the last time. She didn’t know what to say, so she squeezed his arm and said, “Don’t worry about it Camellia.”
The next morning. Annie stared down at the body that lay on the stretch of open grass opposite her house.
Taking a long slow breath in, she tried to focus on not puking all over Alan Jones’ body. His glassy eyes were still staring up at the sky. Maybe he was looking for dead civilisations too.
Annie caught a glimpse of her forearm and saw that, scratched deep, more words had formed.
‘Don’t worry about it Camellia’.
The scars of those words didn’t fade, not like the others. No more messages appeared after that and she didn’t heard from the ghosts again.
Annie didn’t know whose words they were, whose message, but she found when she looked at them she felt oddly comforted, like the ghosts and their voices were still a part of her.
A few minutes to spare?
If you’re interested in reading more flash or short fiction:
5 minutes short stories
The Virtual Body knows everything that’s on the internet: it’s a science exhibit that can’t feel. That is until a visit from a mysterious stranger changes all that.
“Once, we walked on the land with them, treated almost as equals. That ‘almost’ gave a fierce sting. When the time came, we chose the Dolphins… ” The Mermaid’s Tale.
Immortal You: A grieving mother’s struggle between the past and the future.
10 minute stories
Clarice is trapped inside a garden party, when all she wants to do is escape from this life and become a bloodthirsty pirate. That’s until a murder gets in the way of her plans.
A little longer
A three part urban fantasy romance about a werewolf and water-nymph in “The Woman By The Lake”:
Geraint is miserable, until one day when the mysterious Lila comes into his life, with her beautiful brown eyes and the faint aroma of wet dog. But is she all that she seems? And will embroiling himself in her life introduce him to a whole new, dangerous world.