The thing nearly takes his hand off. It comes out of nowhere, bounding across the Wild Pony’s parking lot where Michael’s loitering at a respectable half-past eight, snapping sharp canines, growling. The teardrop shaped bottle of nail polish remover tumbles into the dirt, spilling everywhere: his boots and jeans, soaking into the fur of the mangy coyote. His skin’s hot, then suddenly cold, and he waves his arms, yelling hey, hey, get! because he heard once that’s how you scare off a bear. He figures bloodthirsty canines are probably similar. There’s a whistle, absolutely eardrum-shattering, and it freezes. It bares its teeth, giving a high-pitched warning whine, then trots off into the bar like it owns the place.
“Have you ever even seen a coyote,” says Maria, pouring his double well whiskey. The creature is barricaded in Maria’s “office,” which is little more than a broom closet with desk crammed in it, good for sex in a pinch and also for locking up rabid wolves for animal control to dispose of. Michael has some fond memories there, before -- well, before Michael happened to both of them. Life happens. It’ll probably have to be sanitized now.
“What is this, California,” says Michael. Dogs in bars. Running around in little sweaters in-manicured, sunny malls gnawing on forty-dollar filets.
“That’s my niece you’re shit talking,” says Maria, which is how Michael finds out Alex got a dog.
Michael isn’t really in the mood for whatever Alex is going to dish out when he pulls his SUV into the autoyard. Michael has learned, even if his idiot heart hasn’t, that Alex rarely comes by with good news. He’s even less thrilled when the mongrel barrels out across the driver’s seat, jumping all over everything, giant clouds of dust, dirty paw prints on Michael’s clothes, needle-like sharp teeth grazing his skin. “Jesus Christ,” says Michael, jumping about a foot, catching air, his pulse suddenly ricocheting away at a million miles an hour beneath his skin.
“Ripley,” says Alex, firm. It loses interest in Michael immediately, bounding back over as Alex is apologizing, she’s still kind of a puppy, like that means anything. The thing is huge and gangly, giant paws and eyes, shaggy hair. Fur, whatever. If that’s what it looks like as a baby, it’s going to be a monster.
Alex gives him a look like Michael has lost his mind. “She’s thirty five pounds.” Michael shivers, adrenaline response going nowhere. Danger: averted. Alex holds the dog by its collar, half bending over, grip firm, even though it's just sitting there, looking up at him beseechingly. “I didn’t know you were afraid of dogs.”
“I’m not afraid of dogs,” says Michael. He just doesn’t get the human obsession with them: loud, dirty, dumb, always getting into everything. The way humans lavish all over them: toting them around in little pink purses, special beds and organic food, meanwhile turning their backs on actual people. The dog paws at the dirt, digging some hole Michael will break his ankle tripping over later.
“I, uh, brought these.” Alex is holding a paper file like someone out of an eighties movie, because it’s “insecure” to text like a regular person. Inside are a few grainy photographs, a photo of a photo of a photo originally taken circa 1947 with unsteady drunken hands of --
“A ship?” Michael looks up at Alex, whose jaw is a tense line. He looks like he’s holding himself very still.
“Maybe,” says Alex. “Part of one. Or, I don’t know, an intricate vacuum cleaner.”
Even though ostensibly Alex is combing through the Project Shepherd and Caulfield files, looking for clues of varying degrees of horror, Michael’s only seen him in passing, tail lights when he’s pulling out of the Pony’s lot as Michael’s pulling in. It was probably dumb of Michael to suppose even for a minute that it had anything to do with him, with them, except -- he had. It was gratifying in a way: Alex avoiding him, except it turns out he’s been militantly teaching a street mutt to sit and roll over and shake.
“Ripley, stick ‘em up,” says Alex, making a gun out of his hands. Alex even makes finger guns with a safety check: two hands, one fist cradling the other to steady the mime shot. The dog obediently sits back, front paws up in the air like it’s begging for its life, one insane milky eye tracking Alex’s every move. “Bang,” says Alex. It keeps looking up at him until Alex drops his hand to the dirt and the dog goes too, missile-like, rolling over. “We’re still working on some.” Alex’s tone is rueful, fond. We. He’s not even looking at Michael.
Ripley the alien killer. The dog perks up when Michael says its name, then tracks right back to Alex. Alex shrugs. “She already knew it. The theme was badass babes of sci-fi or something.” The others were Leelo and Furiosa. The dog has huge Dumbo-like dark droopy ears and roany gray-white speckles bloom across its body. It looks up like Alex is the most interesting thing in the world. A point of commonality.
Dogs don’t like aliens. Maybe it’s a pheromone that they give off or just regular old alien BO, but Michael’s never met a dog that liked him. They always give him a wide berth or lunge or bark, snapping. Liz, budding xenoanthropologist, gives him an interested look, musing about electromagnetism or frequency of brainwaves, something integral that dogs might pick up on. His people may never have domesticated animals, which is why none of the three of them ever had pets growing up.
The guy next door in Albuquerque kept dogs: three massive barrel-chested pitbulls. Earless creatures that bared their teeth and tore at their choke chains, hurling themselves against the fence whenever he walked past. Michael used to cross the street or walk all the way around the block to avoid having to pass them. They were probably fighting dogs, poor dumb bastards, half starved and terrified, just like Michael himself, but as a kid he didn’t know that. He didn’t know anything. His foster family, strung-out junkies not even as old as Michael is now, used to call Michael dogmeat whenever he pissed them off, which was pretty much all the time, simply by existing.
“Max begged our mom for a dog,” says Isobel. “But she was worried about the furniture.” The first time Michael went to Max and Isobel’s house, in seventh grade to watch TV after school, he acted like he was in a museum: touch nothing, don’t linger. He sat on the floor in front of the couch while Isobel and Max sprawled across it, practically on top of each other.
Valenti had dogs growing up, a pair of shaggy golden retrievers that they replaced, Thing 1 and Thing 2, as the Things grew old and died. They named them cutesy paired names: Pancho and Villa, Bach and Beethoven. “That was half the reason I dated him,” says Liz.
They kept dogs at Foster ranch when Michael worked out there, but those weren’t normal dogs, they were working dogs: shaggy colleagues that Michael ignored, herding cattle in and out of pastures. They were indifferent to Michael, who they seemed to view as an extension of the horses he rode. They separated humans into nobodies, like Michael and the other ranch hands, and useful, like Foster himself, who fed them and counted them off each morning, like a marching band. Years ago, as a kid newly returned to Roswell, Michael hitchhiked out to the ranch. The dogs chased him off the property in the dead of night, hysterically barking behind him as he cleared the fence. The chicken wire caught his shirt and ripped a giant gash in his shoulder, taking out a chunk of flesh. Years later, when he went back for a job, he was terrified they’d remember him -- it’s you -- and take off his hand, but they didn’t.
The first day Isobel meets Alex’s dog, on the sidewalk outside the Crashdown, the thing makes a beeline for Isobel, sharp teeth flashing. Isobel collapses to her knees so suddenly that Michael’s heart jumps in his throat. It takes a second, maybe five, for him to realize that Isobel is rubbing her nose into the dog’s ear, willingly letting it take off half her make-up with its tongue.
“Guess it’s just you, huh,” says Liz, voice mild.
Michael rolls his eyes but bites his tongue. He hasn’t seen Isobel smile like that in ages, not since -- well.
On Sundays the autoyard is closed, which the denizens of Roswell never fail to complain about to him in the unlucky event he runs into someone around town. Michael likes to use the day to Work, capital W, meaning he holes himself up below ground and takes a magnifying glass to the photos, feeling both dumb and exhilerated, like those heady seconds after you’ve screamed in a canyon, waiting for your voice to return to you: hello, hello. Maybe it is just a vacuum cleaner, but maybe, just maybe there’s something he can use. He loses track of time and space in their immediate applications to earth. When the hatch opens, Michael freezes, blinking into the screaming white blinding him, his blood rushing in his ears, until he hears a bark, chipper, and Alex’s face resolves above him.
“Never,” says Michael, making a big show of looking around him, where nearly every surface is covered with graph paper and blown up photos, and then immediately feeling like an asshole when Alex climbs down the ladder with hardly a hesitation. He goes down smooth, without trouble; if you weren’t watching eagle-eyed you’d have no idea the leg is hardly two years old. If you weren’t Michael, basically.
“You can’t leave it open,” says Michael, looking up where the light is shining down on Alex, creating a perfect gold-tinted spotlight like a gag designed specifically to mock Michael.
Alex looks up, haloed. “She gets sad if she can’t see me.” Right on cue, a long snout appears, huge sail-like ears drooping, extra long, and the dog lets out an entreating doggie whine. Dogs basically evolved to take advantage of soft human hearts, perfectly if Alex’s expression is anything to go by.
“Well if it makes the dog sad, by all means expose the secret bunker.”
Alex gives him a look. There’s a dribble of grease on his shirt, like he spilled food on himself shoveling it into his mouth too quickly, which seems strangely normal and unlike him. Even when they were kids, Alex was always put together -- at least with their clothes on. “Guerin, half the town have fallout shelters. Anyway, it’s Sunday.”
Alex is here though. He cuts the banter short, more’s the pity, asking if Michael found anything. He’s trying to narrow his own search. The files from Caulfield are vast: mostly unintelligible fragments, and, although Alex is loathe to admit it, better encrypted than he bargained. Alex’s gaze keeps drifting to the half-constructed console, draped in in painter’s cloth so it’s almost ghost-like in the corner. Watching Alex look at it makes Michael feel like his heart is trying to escape his chest, so he shows Alex some rough sketches he’s made, trying to reverse engineer the vacuum from the photos. Ripley sits up above, resting her jaw on the lip of the hatch, head poking halfway in the bunker, keeping an eye on them. She whines when Alex moves far into the reaches of the bunker, so they hover near the hatch, so close to each other that Michael can feel the heat from Alex’s body, can catch faint hints of soap and detergent.
There’s a curved piece of glass in the photos with a double shadow indicating that it may be translucent, like a windshield or maybe the trash receptacle of an interstellar Dirt Devil or just a shaky hand with a shitty camera from decades ago. Without a scale, it’s almost impossible to tell. It’s frustrating, which Michael is used to, two decades of looking for a needle in a haystack the size of the universe, but more than that he can feel how Alex is frustrated, which makes it worse.
“I don’t want to waste your time,” says Alex, shifting from hip to hip, like maybe he’s itching to leave or his leg is bothering him. He refuses to meet Michael’s eye. Above them, the dog sticks half her body into the hatch, paws scrabbling at the rungs of the ladder, canine patience worn thin.
“You’re not,” says Michael. No minute with Alex, however painful or idiotic or fruitless, is ever wasted. Not for Michael. He holds them all dearly, precious, even the worst moments, even what came after.
He follows Alex out into the sunlight, blinking, shielding his eyes. The dog sniffs around his boots, sticking her nose right in between Michael’s legs, hello. He pulls his hands out of her needle-teeth reach and she sits down, right in the dirt, kicking up a dust storm like in a cartoon. Her mouth hangs open, in what a human might interpret as a smile, because humans are largely self absorbed idiots conditioned to apprehend everything around them through their own prism of emotions.
“They lick their assholes,” says Michael. Alex levels him with a look so opaque, so utterly poker-faced that Michael freezes, caught in a coughing fit, his skin breaking out in gooseflesh.
“The dream,” says Alex. Alex Manes making Michael blush.
Isobel loves Ripley, who sprawls wantonly in the dirt for belly rubs, legs splayed, while Iz, the traitor, mumbles absolute nonsense in a baby voice. She buys the dog’s affection with fancy organic treats she keeps stashed her purse, feeding it by the handful like a puppy pill mill. Through cunning or mind control, Michael isn’t one hundred percent putting it past her, she negotiates a custody arrangement for Michael’s ex’s dog. Even though it’s out of Alex’s way to run into Roswell most mornings, she convinces Alex that the animal is better off with someone for company rather than cooped up all day, crated, waiting for Alex to get home. In theory, when Alex has long days at the base, Isobel will cart Ripley around her to meetings, like a mangy mascot. In practice, Michael’s trailer develops a distinct dog stench and he starts finding long speckled hair clinging to shirts and sweating beer bottles, floating in his coffee.
It’s annoying, except Isobel seems happier suddenly, or, if not happy, then less delicate. It’s as if she’s been in shadow and stepped out into the light, planting two feet on solid ground. She’s almost like old Isobel, swinging by for lunch or dinner, dragging him to the Crashdown for burgers, curling up under a blanket in front of the firepit, except there’s a core of iron in her that Michael never noticed before. When Isobel cries, she does it silently, tears catching light of the fire as they streak down her face, like a holy statue in a state of miracle. She buries her face in the dog’s neck and Ripley holds still, as if instinctive, like a nanny dog from a cartoon, taking up a jawful of Isobel’s hair.
The dog is a mutt (“Like me,” says Alex), and Alex refuses to pay for dog DNA testing even when Isobel prods him. Michael endures dozens of photos of various dog breeds (part hound with her long, droopy ears and high-pitched howl, mixed with shepherd). Privately, with that long snout and curved comma-like tail, Michael guesses it’s probably part wolf.
“Have you ever even seen a wolf,” says Isobel, blissfully interrupting her own dog eugenics monologue.
The lord is your shepherd but the devil is a wolf. They used to tell him that when he was living outside of town with a couple of fundamentalist nutjobs who took in stray kids like collecting fireflies in a jar: keeping them tucked away and suffocated until their lights went out forever. Some days it wasn’t so bad. They took Michael out to junkyards to haul scrap metal, which is how he discovered his talent for fixing stubborn things that resisted fixing. On good days, that kept him out of harm’s way.
When he was a kid he didn’t know anything, only that he didn’t belong anywhere. Maybe every child secretly suspects they’re an alien, but even Michael wasn’t dumb enough to believe it. He fell asleep every night dreaming about Max and Isobel, the long lost siblings he didn’t even have names for, feeling them missing like vital organs had been ripped out of his body. Sometimes the bright lights of the semi that picked them up, or the ethereal glow of what he later learned was the pods. Everything else: blank, black, empty. Like space itself. It came back to him later, bits of ash gleaned from a dream: the cave, the highway, the scratchy wool blanket in the cab of the eighteen wheeler, pressed against Isobel, shivering. He remembers the group home, too. Or maybe he doesn’t, but he’s imagined it so many times that it forms the impression of a memory.
He has no memory of realizing that they weren’t coming back, that the stiff-looking strangers had taken his only family away, for which he’s almost grateful. He wasn’t controlled or quiet as a kid, his file lists him as: emotionally disturbed, volatile. He does remember the emptiness inside him that would stay with him always, every day like an open wound, for three long years.
He ended up back in Roswell after he threw his foster dad through the aluminum siding of his trailer. Hank was a derelict old drunk who used to black out and take whatever he had, his fists, his belt, an old chair, to Michael. One day Michael was cowering, thinking go away, go away, go away, and then Hank was away, blown clear through the wall out into the yard, dead grass yellowed and littered with empty beer cans. Michael abruptly had a splitting headache, blood running down his nose into his mouth, and the knowledge that he’d done that. He’d made it happen. It would be a year before he could move more than a pencil. Hank staggered around, unhurt, a miracle. Even the Santa Fe police couldn’t ignore a giant hole in the wall, a bloody eleven year old, and the incoherent, booze-addled ramblings of a foster parent.
He felt them the first night in Roswell, falling asleep in the trundle bed set up near the kitchen while they sorted out beds for everyone. Michael was trying to stay awake because he was no stranger to group homes and knew the first night could become a nightmare of hazing if he let his guard down, but he felt them, pressing up against his consciousness like warm balm, hands pressed against the glass of his cage: hello, it’s you, where have you been, we’ve been waiting. I got lost, he tried to say, or feel, if being lost is a feeling. An empty, lightless desert covered in looming shadows.
He could feel them, except he didn’t know what he was feeling, just that some hole inside him had been patched, like an animal not even aware of its missing limbs suddenly given one of those prosthetic legs: joyful, skipping around, heart full. It was as though he had inhaled something warm and golden and it traveled through every inch of his bloodstream.
In the end, Isobel found him. He saw her and he knew, knew in his bones, in his strange iridescent cells. He thought it might be a trick, until the very moment she threw her arms around him, her face buried against his neck, the warmth of her skin and her tears. She was shaking, full body sobbing. It’s okay, it’s okay, you’re safe now, and he could feel, just behind his breastbone, Isobel thinking it too, like something in his heart knitting together, the ragged edges of his soul smoothed over. Max appeared, saying, “Isobel?” which is when Michael learned their new names, Max and Isobel, and then Max said, “it’s you,” sounding awed. Max pressed his face against Michael’s and his face was wet too. He thought his bones might be crushed in Max’s embrace. That was the happiest moment of Michael’s life.
It was Max who told Michael the truth about them, or at the very least reminded him, and it was Max that led Michael into the boarded up mines and showed him the pods that had kept them safe for fifty long years. And Max who made the rules for how they were going to live, to keep themselves safe. No one had ever given much thought to how to keep Michael safe before, and for that, he was grateful. It was only later, when the truth of Max and Isobel against the world, even if that world included Michael, became apparent, that he started to chafe, feeling like something he didn’t even know he had was being taken from him. When his powers showed themselves, in anger, and Isobel’s, in dreams, before Max’s did, he thought Max’s little rules were more about keeping them yoked to Max than anything else. Then of course Rosa died and it all changed, forever, until it didn’t.
It’s complicated but it goes something like this: Isobel calls Michael to come pick up the dog from the Crashdown, where the sprinklers are going off from a grease fire, because Liz is obviously busy and Maria is out visiting her mom. There are three fire trucks outside, which is two more fire trucks than Michael was aware of existing in Roswell, and Ripley took off running as soon as she heard the sirens. “Alex will kill me if something happens to her,” she says, by which she means it will kill Alex.
“She’s probably scared,” Isobel tells him, with the minor hint of quiver in her voice, and Michael takes a deep breath, resting his head against cheap siding of his trailer.
It turns out Michael doesn’t need to go very far, because he’s not even buttoned entirely into his jeans when he hears wet snuffling and sad whining from under his trailer. The dog is dirty, huge clumps of mud stuck in her fur, making pathetic sounds designed to elicit sympathy from humans and force them to spend hours coaxing her out of her self-imposed exile. Michael is not human and has no interest in being one, so he moves the Airstream and lets her climb her muddy body all over him, leaving gross wet paw prints until she stops shaking. It turns out soothing a dog isn’t so different from soothing a person, in that Michael’s idiot heart aches when he touches her soft fur. She buries her cold wet nose against his neck and he pretends not to notice.
Ripley smells like, duh, wet dog, and a little like fear, sticking close to him, crowding around his his feet. He picks out the giant clumps of dirt when they dry and runs his own comb through her fur, which she submits to even when she makes little sounds like ow in dog language. In Albuquerque, his hair grew out long, almost to his shoulders: wild, raucous curls that matted after he showered so he resembled one of the Lost Boys from fairytale. They had a neighbor in the trailer park, the matriarch of what seemed like a huge family: kids, cousins, nieces and nephews running around. She’d comb out Michael’s hair sometimes, line him up with all the others, melding into their family. She pulled painfully, merciless, rats’ nests of knotted hair coming out. Eventually lice broke out and Michael’s head was shaved along with all the others’.
The dog doesn’t seem to want to be further than a few feet from Michael. She’s still tense and uncertain, whining when he locks her out of the airstream. A big rig leans on its horn when it barrels past the autoyard, probably scaring off some animal from becoming roadkill, and she presses her warm shaggy body against his legs.
Michael is not, by nature, a quiet person. As a kid he learned to fade into the background, the superpower of those who live in fear, but left to his own devices he dislikes the raucous cacophony of his own mind, his thoughts moving constantly, sometimes colliding like electrons, producing ghostly energies. He discovered playing music, and then when he lost that, he’d fill up the silence with radio, falling asleep to old movies and awful laugh track sitcoms, low budget infomercials. He finds himself filling the silence with Ripley, explaining parts of an engine to her, how to change brake pads and refill coolant, how to tell if she’s ever fleeced by a mechanic, not that Michael has ever stooped so low himself. She listens with rapt attention, head cocked to one side, one floppy ear turned inside out over her head.
Isobel brings by carne asada for dinner and he feeds Ripley pieces of chargrilled steak, trying to buy back her happy puppy smile and cheerful tail thumping. Isobel watches him, saying everything she needs to by remaining stubbornly silent, as loud as if she’d screamed in his ear.
When Isobel leaves, she wraps the three of them -- two aliens and dog -- into a long hug that Ripley endures heroically, licking against the side of Michael’s face, chewing on his hair. She gives him a long look when Michael says he’ll keep her. “I’ll text him,” she says. Chilling, the idea of Alex and Isobel on a friendly texting basis. Isobel keeps in touch with people from their class. She used to regularly update him on Alex’s whereabouts, her tone even and innocent as she showed him a photo of Alex leaning into the caldera of a volcano or visiting the pyramids at Giza or drinking a beer in a crowded Turkish market, gleaned from Facebook or whatever, until one day he said, “Iz, please,” almost begging. She said, “okay,” soft, and put her head on his shoulder. The days of Isobel turning a blind eye are long over, it seems. Michael guesses he had a good run while it lasted.
Ripley’s sleeping, totally KO’ed on Michael’s leg. He touches one of her silky ears and her leg twitches. She’s warm and solid, still. Her slightly wheezy breaths are comforting. She goes nuts two minutes before Alex arrives, darting around the smoldering fire pit, putting her paws up on on Michael’s chair as the headlights sweep over the airstream.
“Hi honey,” says Alex when he reaches them, down on one knee, touching his nose to the dog’s, or some equally incongruously un-Alex-like pet name. He once called Michael baby, during sex, a little wild-eyed and Michael shot off instantly, primed for endearments, but Alex immediately went red and stiff, ducking his face into Michael’s neck and, after, Michael never brought it up.
“Thanks for taking care of her,” says Alex.
“I taught her how to change the oil.” Alex doesn’t know shit about cars, or at least he claims not to. He has one of those newer models, basically a computer with wheels, that shits out on him at every bump. The dog probably is a better mechanic than he is. “She’s a good listener.”
Alex looks at him for a long time, as though until this very moment he’s been looking through a fog that’s suddenly dissipated, breaking out into an empty azure sky. “Yeah,” he says. “She is.” He looks down, then meets Michael’s gaze, decision made. “She knows all my secrets.”
Alex is wearing slacks and a dress shirt, the sleeves pushed up to his elbows and the top button undone. No tie. He was at a wedding. Kyle’s aunt, fourth marriage. Her husbands keep dying, but they’re hoping the wife sticks.
The only wedding Michael’s ever been to was Isobel and Noah’s, which was picture-perfect and private, small, just the Evans family and their closest friends. Noah said his family were overseas and couldn’t manage the trip. He had people there, friends from law school, colleagues, distant family members, people Max must’ve spoken to while Michael was busy hitting the open bar. The feat of Noah’s deception staggers him. Is it possible to fabricate all those people simultaneously or was even an inkling true?
“I like weddings,” says Alex. He looks down at Ripley, where she’s resting her chin against his leg like he’s the only person on earth. “People are happy. Dancing.”
“You? Dance?” says Michael.
“I dance,” says Alex. He waltzes Ripely around on her hind legs for a few seconds, ungainly, humming something Michael recognizes but can’t place. It’s only later, once Alex and Ripley are gone and Michael is scrubbing dried mud off his jeans that it comes to him: the light of the clear blue morning, everything’s gonna be all right, it'll be okay.
In some ways it’s strange to have Alex in the bunker, craning his neck to critically examine the light fixtures, gaze skimming over Michael’s notes, aborted projects in various states of disrepair. Above ground, it’s different: public use. Even his trailer has few hallmarks of Michael’s heart, mostly his star charts and notes that come to him in dreams, incomprehensible to outsider eyes. He learned as a kid in group homes that anything he wrote down would be read, so he developed a shorthand, a language only he can decipher. It’s almost funny that Alex went into intelligence and cryptography, as if a secret hand were designing their lives in tandem.
Sometimes, though, Michael feels like of course Alex would be here, stepping into a space in Michael’s inner heart excavated for him. He feels less uneasy with Alex poking around into things he probably shouldn’t, picking up some of the strange artifacts Michael has collected over the years and turning them over, almost reverently. Michael will get lost in his work and look up, unerringly finding Alex exactly where Michael knew he’d be, usually on his laptop, sometimes staring off into space, lost in thought, face so open that Michael’s heart stutters.
He shows Alex the symbol, Max’s map, although technically it’s all of theirs, but for some reason Michael feels like it belongs to Max; he doesn’t feel the same unconscious connection to it that Max seems to. He has tried to remember drawing it obsessively, but those days are still so foggy, his child’s brain protecting him, maybe. It’s all over Jim Valenti’s notes, carved creepily into a hand in an old photo Alex shows him. The alpha, omega, frustratingly meaningless.
It’s almost certainly a bad idea, not that Michael is known for other kinds, but he finds himself cajoling Alex into lingering, staying for a beer, or letting himself be wheedled by Alex to cajole him -- Michael has lost the thread of where the cycle starts and stops. Settling down on either side of the firepit to blow off steam or discuss increasingly unlikely theories. He had forgotten about Alex’s sharp humor, his careful observation that lends itself to wit. They stick mostly to the future or present, tired or afraid of rehashing the past. At some point, beyond an alien miracle, you have to accept the scars.
Ripley is more comfortable at the autoyard now. She’s dug a bunch of insane holes under piles of junk and she likes to lie in the shallows, shaded, dreaming of steaks. When they emerge from the bunker it’s to a small pile of trash. Ripley proudly displays her wares, tail wagging, like a hen over a nest: look at the treasures I found for you. She finds: a boot that Michael was certain he’d lost one drunken night, a paperback romance novel that she chews into a gummy mess and pukes up into the dirt, a y-shaped copper dowel that Michael admits is useful for patching a wiring problem he’s been having, and a bobble-headed plastic alien in boots and a ten-gallon hat that Michael puts in a place of honor on his drafting table. It makes Alex smile.
Michael wants to know, because it’s been bugging him, why Ripley, of all names. “Didn’t feel like yelling Die Alien Scum across the dog park?” The thing about names is that you mostly get used to them. He can’t imagine her as a Fido or Spot now.
Alex doesn’t quite roll his eyes, but it’s close. “There are no dog parks in Roswell,” he says, the ghost of a smile playing around his mouth, a ghost that Michael would do almost anything to bring to life. It’s funny how you can live for something like that. “She already knew it anyway.” Dogs don’t actually know their names. They just recognize the tone a human uses to call them.
Alex laughs. Michael knows he’s being laughed at, but instead of being defensive, he finds himself laughing too. “They really do, Guerin.” A pause opens up, ticking one-two-three, marching along into uncomfortable, but Michael almost see Alex internally hemming and hawing. He waits, even though it kills him. Sitting around doesn’t really come naturally to Michael: his instinct is to fill up a room before it can bowl him over. For Alex, he’s had to learn to wait.
“She knew it,” says Alex again and he takes a deep breath, the way he does before the words come tumbling out of him. “But-- yeah Ripley killed the alien,” which was evil, he reminds Michael, but basically she’s with this hostile crew who never listened to her, even though she was right, because they thought she was weak. And then she goes through a bunch of horrible shit and she survives. “And then it happens again and she still survives.” Alex peels the label of an empty beer bottle, careful and even, so it comes off in one big postcard. “She survives,” he says again. He looks at Michael like he wants to look anywhere else. Michael wants to take him in his arms and breathe in his scent, his skin, climb inside his warmth.
“You don’t know the alien was evil,” says Michael. “Maybe it was just misunderstood.”
“Just a facesucking puppy trying to say hello,” says Alex. “I think you’re safe from this one,” he says, gaze tracking toward where Ripley has her head on Michael’s thigh, wet tongue lolling out, eyes closed, blissed out from Michael scratching her head, which he barely realized he was doing. Petting a dog is weirdly comforting, like a hug that has no intention of letting you go.
“For now,” says Michael.
Michael’s entire life, pretty much, is just grasping at straws, but sometimes even he gets a break. He’s always loved staring up at the sky, picking out shapes in the stars and the clouds, even before he really knew the truth about himself. He’d lie on his back in the dark and pick out the faintest glimmers, the stars beyond the stars, their light so dim they felt like an optical illusion. The galactic tide rising and falling, day after day, year after year, was something to count on, time his own life by. Old things can become new if you stare at them long enough.
A dark spot he thought was just a developer distortion becomes a shadow becomes the most minute of reflections, a human head holding a camera, the flash illuminating the symbols. From there he can work backward, using the average size of a human head to determine the angle of the flash and come up with an approximate size. The vacuum cleaner is much smaller than expected, definitely not large enough for, at the very least, four dozen pods, probably much more, even if they were stacked on top of each other like glass ornaments packed in straw. Michael explains quickly, plunging headlong into it, thinking, please don’t leave this time. Alex throws a tennis ball for Ripley, easy child-like lobs that she catches out of the air. When she misses, she pauses and looks at Alex, aghast, as if betrayed: you fucked up.
“It was never a vacuum,” says Alex, like alien dustbuster wasn’t Alex’s own idea . And it’s not really a terrible one, as far as spaceship theories go. You can’t have dust in space, that’s what took out the Challenger. “I think it was an O-ring,” says Alex, dry.
“Well anyway that’s why they don’t use pencils,” says Michael. The point is, unless they had some kind of shrink ray, which Michael supposes isn’t totally beyond the realm of possibility, this is likely not a spaceship. Or at least, not the spaceship. If there’s a ship capable of crossing the galaxy filled with desperate refugees, this is a liferaft.
“You got all that from a shadow?” says Alex, looking at the photo, ghosting his fingertip over the surface. Michael can’t tell what he’s thinking. Michael been making do with much less for a long time. A photograph, even one that’s grainy and poorly developed, feels like an embarrassment of riches. Real proof. “I shouldn’t have -- I should’ve waited until I knew more.” Alex swallows, his jaw working, shaking his head almost absent, as if at himself. Michael can tell he’s thinking about Caulfield, leading them in blind. Michael knows, even though Alex has never said so, that he wishes he could take back that awful day, had never asked Michael to come along. Alex, more than anyone Michael knows, hates surprises.
The thing is -- Michael wouldn’t take it back. He thought about it, once the fog of rage and heartbreak began to thin, but the thing is, he would rather have that one moment, his mom -- even in the comfort of his own mind he can barely process it -- than have never had it all. In a terrible way, he gave her the only thing he could offer: himself and a kind of grim mercy.
He pitches the ball hard, winding up; it careens overhead directly into the rusted out body of an old El Camino. Ripley goes nuts, barking, scattering aluminum siding and hubcaps everywhere with a clatter. The past is -- it’s unimaginable. In a way Michael is grateful at Alex’s fruitless tenacity digging through his cache of stolen horror, forcing himself to bear witness just to glean the barest, useless kernel of information. He knows, or he guesses from the way Alex’s gaze drops sometimes, that he’s sparing Michael some of the worst. Michael can’t understand why it’s so important to Alex, why he pushes himself at this atonement, a bleak accounting
“Because it’s important to you,” says Alex, as if Michael’s an idiot. He’s not even looking at Michael, he’s watching Ripley topple half of Michael’s actually very organized shit, thank you, into the dust, making an enormous mess before she returns, streaked with dust and grime, a glimmer of triumph in her one good eye, like, you have to do better than that.
He heaves the tennis ball, damp and slimy with dog saliva, arcing into the far reaches of the junkyard, then holds it, frozen in the air. Ripley loses her mind, running in circles, yapping at ghosts, checking back and looking at them. Are you seeing this? “Michael,” says Alex, urgent, slipping up, looking around, but there’s no one out here. He lets it drop, almost low enough so she can jump and catch it and then banks a hard left, an illegal physical turn. Ripley scampers off into the shadows after it.
“Michael, huh?” says Michael, breathless. Alex shakes his head, caught. He’s blushing, pink gathering up his neck and cheeks, as if wind-kissed. “I knew it was an O-ring.”
“I know,” says Alex, a smile playing around his mouth, voice fond.
Alex stops by wearing his serious face, rather than his friendly chat face, which are only shades apart from each other. He doesn’t let Ripley out of the car, which Michael is absolutely not disappointed by, and anyway she shows her displeasure by barking madly at the cracked driver’s side window until Michael comes to say hi to her. She meets his gaze through the glass like can you believe this guy? Sometimes Michael really can’t. Like Michael dreamed him up.
Alex shows Michael a spot marked on a folded up map. Red lines in permanent marker snake across the map at odd angles like misshapen tributary rivers or spiderwebs. “This is where the vacuum was,” he says, tapping a circle in navy ballpoint pen. It’s about forty miles out west, closer to the Mescalero Reservation, from the crash site but back in the day he guesses plenty of onlookers might have showed up to scavenge parts or maybe even some klepto-happy military officer liked the idea of a close encounter with alien technology.
Alex unfolds the map. The red lines are mine shafts from the twenties and thirties: coal, silver, turquoise, whose extraction was interrupted by war and then depression and then another war. Unstable and prone to cave ins. “The pods,” says Michael and there, behind the fold, is another circle, unremarkable, right where Michael climbed out onto this planet. “So--”
“A liferaft,” says Alex.
Noah said they were special, which Michael can barely believe any more than he believes any of the other lies Noah spouted because if Michael’s so rich and famous how’d he end up with a one-way ticket to shitsville prison, sentence: life, no parole. If it’s possible someone smuggled them safely out before their doomed Titanic met its iceberg -- well, then where are they. Every time Michael learns something new, he runs up against it: at the end of the day, they were abandoned. Whoever -- one, maybe a small crew -- nestled them in the caves and then walked out into the desert, forever. But maybe it’s not so simple. Maybe the only way to save them was that long, fifty-year sleep. The feeling of his mom’s fierce joy in his mind, warming part of his heart he thought was so degraded and scabbed over as to be dead: my love. It’s you.
He squints down at the map. The pods are huge, Alex has seen them, oh, apparently not, well then -- “I’ll show you sometime,” says Michael. Ripley barks, shoving her nose through the cracked window, a streak of doggie nose slime in her wake. Michael opens the car door. She dashes away, a mad escape, probably rustling up rats and prairie dogs dozing in the heat.
Alex hesitates, a long single moment stretching between them. Michael can see him weighing his options, a minute balance in his brain. “I could stay, if--”
“Yeah,” says Michael, his throat feeling hot and thick, his mouth coated in sawdust. He’s got beer somewhere, nothing fancy but actually cold not that Michael cares either way, but he guesses Alex does. It’s not that Michael hates the comforts of a cozy house or whatever, it’s just that he likes being outside more. He likes being able to see the horizon, that liminal space where the earth dissolves into space.
Alex is apparently a drill sergeant about dog training, which Michael decides is in his best interest to never comment on. He keeps a fastidious list of how quickly Ripley responds to cues and apparently spends hours going over new tricks with her, setting up weird dog obstacle courses in the autoyard for her to leap over and through. He taught her to hug, not that a dog understands the concept of a hug, but when she does it, resting her fast-pattering heart against Michael’s chest, breathing into his hair, he’s charmed anyway.
It’s funny and not a little pathetic to love an animal before you love a person. “She gives me something to take care of,” says Alex. A traitorous part of Michael’s heart, that dumb hopeful kid who used to hitch rides out to the ranch and fall asleep staring up at the stars, thinks: what about me? “I didn’t think I’d love her so much. I didn’t think I could.” Alex’s voice shakes.
Michael thinks of that day, so long ago, in the shed, before everything, when Alex gave him his brother’s guitar. He found freshly laundered bedding and he was dumb enough to convince himself the Manes family just happened to keep a set of spare sheets out there. When Alex kissed him, not the first time, but later, so soft, trembling all over, and rested his forehead against Michael’s. It’s you. Michael knew.
“She’s not going to leave,” says Alex. “She’ll die but -- by choice.” He glances at Michael, quick, then looks away. “You know, my mom, my -- my family,” he says, stumbling. Alex can never quite get it out on the first try. “It’s dumb, but, I don’t know, it’s comforting.”
Michael tosses a treat into the dark, disappearing past the flames of the firepit. Barring the probably tens of thousands of dogs who run away from their owners every year -- what about, well. “I’m always around,” he says, tipping his head back. He can’t bear to look at Alex’s profile in the firelight. When he was a kid he used to scan the sky and think if he tried hard enough, maybe he’d just know. He could turn that homesickness for a place that existed only in dreams into knowledge. He worked out a grid system so he could cover every inch of the visible night. But they all looked the same. Pinpricks in the dark. “Seventy years and counting.” There are times when air between them turns thick, stupefying and magnetic and Michael has to hold himself still, waiting for -- something. A meteor to strike him dead. Alex to reach for him.
“Ripley,” says Michael. “Stick ‘em up.” She swings into motion, immediately alert, up on her back feet like a jackrabbit, her paws pointed straight up. Michael draws on her from the waist, wild west style. “Bang.” Ripley dies dramatically, perfectly, of course, even jerking her head to one side from the impact of the bullet before falling in slow motion to the dust. She lies there, motionless, paws up like a dead cockroach. What a terrible, glorious trick. Humans are so weird.
Imagine what strange, useless things his own people might do. Strange alien idiosyncrasies, like compulsively peeling the labels of beer bottles, or teaching a dog to get its head blown off, or preferring flour tortillas to corn, or obsessively organizing things large to small (“Are you just listing my bad habits?”). But the things he comes up with, even digging deep into himself, are terribly, painfully human. It’s all he knows. In the privacy of his own mind, he wonders, in some great cosmic twist, if he met another alien, would they even know what he was.
“You’re building a spaceship,” says Alex, abrupt. “You want to leave.” He looks away, swallowing, like the words bubbled up of their own accord.
First of all, it’s a console , which Michael has told Alex at least four times. Second, even if Michael could build his own spaceship, he has no clue where he’s going, even if the console’s intergalactic GPS is intact, not even discussing the possibility of creating a, wait for it, wormhole because despite Han Solo’s charm, there’s no careening through the galaxy faster than the speed of light. Even if he could come close, by the time he checked out the nearest habitable planet he’d probably be dead a few times over. Michael lives for the off chance that maybe, one day, they’ll find a sliver of a clue that points him somewhere in the general direction.
But that, all of it, is beside the point. “I’m gonna take you with me!” says Michael, which he didn’t realize until this very moment but as he’s saying it, it settles deep into his body, like the alien tech knitting together: seamless, right. The pieces want to be together. One day, when all this shit is over and they’ve screamed and cried and yelled each other hoarse, when they’re both exhausted and sit down and figure it out, they’re going to set out to the edges of the galaxy, spinning through nebula, watch stars burst into existence. They’ll get a little space helmet for Ripley like in the Jetsons.
“Yeah?” says Alex. Michael has never thought of himself as an optimist, but here it is, his fool heart beating out a prayer: this enduring faith that leads him back to Alex, the certainty, that, in spite of themselves, the day will break and light them anew.
“Yeah,” says Michael, exasperated, crying. You idiot. He tries to wipe his face but Ripley beats him to it, appearing out of nowhere with fetid dog breath, black soot smeared across her snout, licking all over his face, like a human salt lick, letting him hold onto her, her body warm.
He takes Alex out to the pods, because he said he would and he wants Alex to see it all. Even if he already knows, to truly know everything. They get into an argument about whether (Alex) or not (Michael) Alex should be blindfolded, just in case, like a hostage in a war zone. Michael wins through force of laughter and sarcasm; Alex spends the drive sulking and pretending he isn’t. It fades in the face of the strange hallmarks of Michael’s biology: those huge glowing pods, ethereal and otherworldly, no joke. Alex’s face gets soft and thoughtful, the pods reflected in double in his dark eyes, dreamlike. When he was a kid, Michael would sneak out here sometimes, gather all his courage and press his ear against the cool, smooth surface, thinking please, please. Nothing ever happened. Alex holds one hand out, almost touching. “I thought it’d be warm.”
On the road, Alex digs under his seat for -- whatever, a water bottle, but probably just snooping, irrepressible curiosity getting the better of him -- and comes up brandishing a half empty bag of dog treats that Isobel or Alex himself probably stashed here to incriminate him, Michael admits nothing. “Those are mine,” he says, digging in. In for a penny, a pound, the rest of his idiot life, when it comes to Alex. “Alien biology is different.”
“Yeah?” says Alex. He shakes the bag: peanut butter molasses flavor USDA organic rattling around like a maraca. “You’re so full of shit.”
“Maybe,” he allows.
The sun is setting low, directly into Michael’s eyes when they pull into the autoyard. It’s quiet, almost too quiet, and Michael realizes he’s gotten used to the canine presence that seems to accompany Alex everywhere. Alex doesn’t seem to notice, he’s talking about caves and mining as he’s jumping out of the passenger seat into the dirt, light and easy. He comes around the side of the truck, rattling off ancient history and the price of copper in 1939. Alex can be single-minded and oblivious when he’s focused. Michael shifts from foot to foot. “I guess you’re going,” he says.
Alex breaks off. “What.” Not a question. Just a word.
“I’ll see you,” says Michael, getting this out of the way now, quick and easy. Just pull off the band-aid. Heal that old wound.
Alex’s mouth moves a couple times like a dying fish, cycling through indignation and irritation and disbelief in the span of a second, like watching a beam of light refracting. “You stubborn asshole.”
“Yeah, you.” Alex holds out the dog treats. “Have a cookie.”
Michael kisses him. He kisses him once and then twice, taking Alex’s face between his hands, thumbs against his cheeks, into his silky hair, opening his mouth to taste him, to breathe him in. It feels normal to kiss him right in the middle of the late afternoon, as the junkyard grows sundrenched and golden around them, just because he wants to. He feels Alex sway a little, his breath hitching. He lets Alex touch his neck and shoulders, feather along his waist, as if afraid to settle, and Michael draws Alex in more firmly, unwilling to cede any part to dream or fantasy. Alex’s mouth is warm, opening up to Michael, easy.
“Um,” says Alex, his breath warm against Michael’s mouth. Michael creeps his hand under Alex’s shirt, smoothing over the warm, soft skin of his waist and back like the needy, desperate teenager he used to be. Sometimes still is. “I need to let Ripley out.” He sounds chagrined.
“Oh my god,” says Michael. He rests his forehead against Alex’s, holding him close, close enough to keep. “I’ll come with,” he says, finally, and Alex nods against his forehead.
They take Alex’s car, leaving Michael’s truck. Alex can drop him back in the morning or the afternoon or whenever, next week, as far as Michael’s concerned. The air crackles with something like electricity. Joy, maybe. Michael typically hates being driven; Isobel and Max forever accuse him of backseat driving the way a snotty teenager might: could you possibly drive slower? It’s not just that Michael is a better driver than most people, although he is, but Michael feels most in control and weightless when he’s careening down the highway at a hundred miles an hour, just a hair’s breadth away from launching himself directly into the stars.
He’d like to say he’s better with Alex, but he keeps haranguing him to pass, mostly because it’s fun, giddy and breathless. “You’ve got room,” Michael argues, then, “floor it.” The honk of the tractor trailer reverberates in his ears as it screeches past, missing cleaving them in half by the space of inches.
Alex pulls over at a lone gas station where the desert begins to give way to the scrubby foothills of the mountains. There’s a little restaurant-cum-panderia attached, with colorful, painted picnic tables under a corrugated tin roof outside, closed for the evening. On Sundays they sell barbacoa by the pound. Alex picks up eggs, beans, and fresh tortillas, the bag warm and filled with steam. “How do you take your coffee?”
Alex grimaces. “Really?”
“Lots of sugar,” Michael admits. The woman behind the counter knows Alex by name. Alex fishes a handful of sweetener out of a bowl. They have a lot to learn about each other, a whole lifetime’s accumulation of bad habits and preferences (or personal crimes, in the case of coffee for Alex: Nescafe; fake creamer; no sugar).
Around the side of the restaurant an elderly woman and a teenager stand over giant smoking hole in the ground, brushing aside ashed out kindling, as if with great strength and effort. They’re silhouetted against the low smothered light, two figures moving in the dark. The air seethes with the heat, redolent with the sweet, astringent scents of mesquite and agave. Ochre and iron sparks fly into the air, pieces of smoldering ash floating away, burning out into nothing, innocuous. “Maybe we can stop here tomorrow,” says Michael, trying to sound like a regular person and not at all like his throat is parched, his voice feeling thick and weary.
“That’d be nice,” says Alex.
Back on the road, he lets his mind skip ahead, like scenes in a film: the sex, probably a few rounds knowing the two of them, falling asleep with Alex curled against his back, nose pressed against Michael's hair, their breaths matching, coming awake with Alex's body warm and heavy against his, drinking sweet coffee on the steps of the porch in the early morning chill and throwing a slimed-out, ratty tennis ball, feeding Ripley bits of barbacoa at those painted picnic tables when Alex isn’t looking. He shakes himself, almost physically, back out of space into his mind, his own body. Here, with Alex, the headlights illuminating the road in front of them. Everything else: black, shadowed, mysterious.
There’s a badge on the dashboard attached to a lanyard that reads UNITED STATES AIR FORCE. A grainy picture of Ripley with a doggie smile and below that a printed paw print; she’s been deputized: Security Paw-fficer. “My boss made that,” says Alex. “So when I take her to work, she’s official.” His coworkers get a kick out of her, plying her with treats and making every excuse to stop by Alex’s desk with a tennis ball or some cheap toy she immediately eviscerates.
Michael turns the badge over in his hand. There’s a faint hologram over the photo and a black bar at the bottom for Top Secret clearance. Agent Dog. “But--” It makes very little sense to drive into town almost an hour to drop her off with Isobel when Alex has clear permission to bring the dog to work. Michael’s trailer smells like dog. His hair, his clothes.
Alex is quiet for a minute, headlights from an oncoming semi sweeping over his face. “It seemed like she really wanted to,” he says finally. “If she made Isobel happy, then -- yeah,” he finishes. Alex is almost never done after the first pause. Michael watches him while he ticks through a variety of responses. “It took a long time after -- after I left, to realize people cared about me,” he says, quiet and even. Sure. He’s still watching the road. Michael blows out a breath he barely realized he was holding.
“Me too,” says Michael. He lets himself catch Alex’s gaze when he glances over, eyes wet. Alex reaches out across the gearshift, to take Michael’s hand in his. He strokes his fingers over the miracle-healed knuckles, his fingers soft, skin dry and warm. Michael can feel everything.
When they get to the cabin, Michael lingers, tipping his head back to survey the night sky. It’s dark out here. Quiet. Clear. The stars twinkling in the velvet night. His planet is up there, maybe orbiting one of those winking lights. Maybe not. The universe is huge. Ripley tears out of the cabin, down the steps, skidding across the dying grass. He can hear Alex calling her name. She bounds up to Michael, barking, happy yips: hi, hello, it’s you. Finally.