Better

The Leader (Alex)

We’re in a new hidey-hole, and as usual we’ve lost half a dozen things we really need: toothpaste, butter, even coffee. And now half asleep, feeling like I’ve got fur on my teeth, I’m supposed to figure out whether we can take a mother on our team.

Someday, when I get my chance, I’m not gonna kill Them. (To be honest, I don’t even know if They die.) It’s going to be torture, and it’s going to be slow.

I know that it’s my fault. My bad decisions got Pete killed, and since every team needs at least three people, I need to pick somebody. And because I’m no superstar of the resistance, they sent me somebody’s mother. I can’t even start to deal with that without coffee.

So I’m whining. Taking it out on Davidica, who stomps out of the stupid hole we’re using for my office. Whining, whining, until I’m just as sick of me as everyone else is. This is why They always win, you know—I bet They don’t whine when They run out of whatever it is They use instead of coffee. “Well, I’m trying, Dava, and if you’d just leave me alone for five minutes”—yeah. I can’t really imagine Them pulling that shit. I heard Davidica warning Ann that “Alex is in one of his things again,” and I wanted to kill her (Ann isn’t even on our team yet!). I bet They don’t do that.

Fine. I tell myself, I tell myself every stupid day, that I must be okay as a leader just because we’re not all dead yet. Dead or rejiggered. They twiddle with your brain if They catch you, and if that doesn’t work out They just kill you. I really hope my brain doesn’t make it easy for Them. I can’t believe They haven’t caught us. I wonder a lot—I’m paranoid, yeah, but I figure I need to be—whether we’re all still here because we serve some purpose for Them. I wonder if They’re just letting us get away with it, thinking we’re so smooth. I can’t think what the purpose might be, but then, that’s the point, isn’t it? They are always a couple jumps ahead.

I get my notepad and start coming up with “pros” and “cons” for this woman. But I don’t surprise myself: The pro is just, She exists, and wants to help you, and the con is exactly what it was yesterday, She’s a mother, and that’s just not something we should have to handle.

So I rummage through the bags and swayback cardboard boxes until I find some things I keep to cheer me up. I have a stuffed penguin holding a Valentine’s heart that says, in white stitching, I would fly for you. I have a set of shot glasses with the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World in blue-and-white etching. I have a “midlife crisis dice set” (with faces saying “Porsche,” “mistress,” “liquor,” “Jesus,” “safari,” and “Vegas”), and a set of red and green Christmas lights shaped like jalapeno peppers. I have a little plastic figure of Wile E. Coyote at the drawing board. These things always make me smile—so useless, existing only for themselves, and making me happy just because they’re so gratuitous. We don’t talk about these things, but all of us have a little collection. We don’t complain about hauling the useless things around when we run. We all know that toothpaste, coffee, and even personal safety and the success of our missions are negotiable but these useless things are not.

Pete—one of his things was a deck of cards with 1940s pin-ups on the backs. “The Forces’ Favourites.” I didn’t much care for those. Fleshy static females with bland pink skin and obviously fake curvature. I hate this, I hate it so much, but sometimes when it’s really late and I’m tired and things are going badly, I’ll go to one of Their sites—not porno, obviously, They don’t let us get away with that. Just pictures of Them doing ordinary things, walking around, standing in line. News sites, that kind of thing. And I’ll stare for hours, until my eyes feel blue and achy and my fingertips are tingling from running over the touchpad. I could look at Them for days. (People do.) That silver shifting look, that elsewhere beauty. They pretty much always shape Themselves to look like us—but They don’t look anything like us. The shape might be human but the glow, the captivating shiver, and the easy grace, that isn’t human at all. They are like a dream, like what all those glamour queens of stage and screen strove for and pretended to be, like words made liquid flesh.

There are some underground sites where humans pretend to be Them, skin-dye jobs and all that crap, and do porno. They kill anyone They find doing it or looking at it. And I have to say on that count I agree with Them. It’s obscene. I saw one of those places once—the little freaks who ran it wanted us to protect them from Them—and it was all I could do not to torch the place myself.

We’re not like that. We blow things up just to show we still can—fighting for the right to make war, after decades of Their perpetual peace—and we try to disrupt Their politics (even though we don’t really understand it), and we for damn sure try to evacuate and destroy Their crèches. Evacuate where possible, destroy no matter what. We try to destroy or damage the trinkets They use to keep us in line: Their labs and Their medical complexes and Their paradise resorts. We approach people and try to recruit. We’re about as successful as the average resistance group, from what I can tell. I’d give us a D-plus. That’s about average.

I wonder sometimes what it would be like if we won. They would go away and take Their art and Their music, and what would we do? What would we listen to? I wonder how many of us even want to win. I mean beyond the fact that it’s almost certainly impossible.

It’s not worth thinking about. I don’t want to miss Them or long for Them.

But I’m convinced, like everyone else, that we too are just useless things. Do we take Ann Morgan on our team? I don’t know—does she know she’s useless too?

It’s a tribute to the perversity of the human spirit that this thought calms me and helps me hunker down into the day.

The Scientist (Davidica)

I’m surprised that I want Ann.

I thought she would be like my mother. I thought she’d have power; I thought I’d cringe the instant I heard her voice.

But instead, of course, she has nothing. I worry that I only want her on our team as a form of revenge. Ever since They came I think I’ve been learning things about myself, and, you know, the things I learn are never good.

I need to figure out whether I can use my experience to “bond” with Ann, or whatever. I mean, we were both on Their side for a while. For me, it was a relief when They came. I guess They were just what I needed in my life. Maybe it was like that for her.

They arrived in those pretty retro spaceships—funny ships, making us feel superior to Them and Their silver ’50s fins and blinking lights—at the end of a decade I’d spent systematically wrecking every aspect of my life. I was unemployed and living with this completely repulsive junkie and spending all day hiding under unwashed blankets on a stained secondhand mattress in his kitchen. There was nothing new in my life until They changed everything.

So I loved Them for a while. Most people did. I got antidepressants (I can get them sometimes now, but it’s chancy, and I’ve worked really hard to move off them over the years, with limited success), and I got an entry-level job in one of Their medical labs. It was, honestly, great. They were so much better than any of my previous bosses. I didn’t have to deal with customers—my prior low-wage jobs had all been retail, a.k.a. Misanthropy for Beginners. At my last job before They came, I’d been fired after I spent two full hours sobbing in the employees-only bathroom after dealing with one particularly hideous woman and her, I swear to god, Pekinese that she wanted to bring into the gift shop. A dog.against the rules, and I could have been fired for even letting her do it!) The lab was a little fluorescent paradise compared to that. We got dental coverage, okay? (I’m allergic, but more to the point, it’s against the rules, and I could have been fired for even letting her do it!) The lab was a little fluorescent paradise compared to that. We got dental coverage, okay?

We ask so little. And never got it until They came.

I started pulling myself back together again. Thinking I might go back to school.

This had been such an incredibly intimidating thought, because I was supposed to be, you see, this super-genius. Newsweek cover story on “30 Under 30″ kind of thing. I was the top-ranked biochemistry student in my department. Not the top-ranked girl. The straight-up valedictorian. I was slated to participate in the graduation ceremonies, carrying a college flag. I’d spent my summers ensconced in research labs making decent money and getting lovely thick slabs of praise from all my supervisors. My parents were still on my back about everything (normal stuff like are you eating okay, and just creepy neurotic things like warning me that there was no way I’d be able to find a husband if I spent all my time in laboratories, and had I submitted my work for that award, and why hadn’t I won it?), and I was convinced that I was happy. I told myself it was normal to avoid having friends because they would take time away from my work. Besides, everyone knows people can be complete cats if they think you might outshine them, so you might as well not bother trying to be close to people who will only stab you in the back in the end. I told myself it was normal to live on cigarettes and ephedrine. Oh, and Snickers bars. I was big into Snickers bars. I figured every college student has bad days. My bad days involved locking myself in my closet, screaming, banging my head against the wall and ripping out my hair. And crying. But crying is normal.

The climactic action should have come as no surprise. I had a full-throated, Katie-bar-the-door, Technicolor nervous breakdown during an exam. I don’t even know how to explain it: My mind just slipped into this completely other, wrong place. I stood up, and I remember thinking I was just going to stand and stretch my legs, and then I would be okay, and I could settle back down and finish the exam. Instead I went up to the front of the classroom and started pulling my clothes off (why do people do that? I’ve now read scads of reports of people doing that during four-color freakouts, and I really don’t understand why anyone would think taking your clothes off would make things better, but apparently I did), and writhing around like an old-time snake-handlin’ Christian. Gabbling at the top of my lungs, obscenities and chemical formulae.

I know, I know, I even had to go for valedictorian in the department of psycho. Overachiever to the bitter end.

(I think I resent Ann. I went completely bats crazy, you know—and I didn’t have her excuse! Why did I go all Fourth of July when she’s so steady and okay? …But maybe that’s why I want her on our team. I want to feel like someone can get through this. I want to feel like there are still some humans left.)

I took some time off. Obviously. The idea was that I would “rest.” But there’s nothing less restful than “resting,” especially when you’re resting with my parents. So I moved out and tried to get job—and I got jobs, lots of jobs! None of them for very long, though.

I embarked on a series of idiot actions. I kept feeling like if I could just find the right thing about my life to change, then that would change me, would make me someone else. So I explored my old love of painting. That was a joke, and a financial disaster. I got born again—accepted Jesus into my heart. And that was a bad joke and another disaster. I dated this hippie chick. And that was a dull, dull joke and a pitiful damp squib that didn’t even rise to the level of “disaster.” And then the welfare office and the hideous junkie.

You can see why an alien invasion would seem like such a great idea.

But my problem (…one of my problems) is that I can never tell what I’m really thinking. I have no introspective ability at all. Events occur, and I think things that are just startling. And so after I’d been cleaning up messes in Their medical labs for a good five years, a resistance group blew up a wing of the building. And I saw one of Them, actually on fire! —really very lovely, like a sunset on the ocean. And the They (it feels just as wrong to say “he” or “she” as it does to say anything else) was making this noise like an emergency klaxon crossed with television static. Definitely a bad noise. And then the They fell down. The human form broke up, and that silvery beauty kind of spilled out into thick living ropes, possibly tentacles, snapping and collapsing.

I laughed out loud. And thought, It serves you right! I hope you die!

Which was distressing. I did my job on the emergency cleanup team, and went home wondering if I would be fired. I sat in front of my screen, watching pretty pictures of pretty aliens and trying to figure out why I had reacted that way. I’m still not totally sure I know. I tell myself I had the reaction of any citizen of an occupied nation. My resentment was natural, a necessary and good human cry of protest: This is our world! Get off!

I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe I just didn’t like how much They had given us. They had given me my life, and I hated Them for it. They were beautiful, so alluring, and I was left with my old self: no longer “30 Under 30″ material, overlarge breasts, a stocky figure, and a face that showed all the crap I’d put myself through. Maybe the nerds just don’t like the cheerleaders, even when the cheerleaders are aliens. Honestly, who knows? But as soon as I’d started hating Them I found I couldn’t stop.

I am at home here, on the run. I make bombs. I relay messages. I try to recruit other scientists. This is the closest I’ve come to real research since I left school. It’s not that close!—but it’s okay. I know Alex eats himself up wondering if we’ll ever beat Them. I really couldn’t care less. I hate Them, and I want Them gone, but I can live like this, too.

I spent the next several months trying to contact the resistance. By the end of the year, I was in the underground. Alex, who I swear is an absolute child, is almost as hard to deal with as customers, but for whatever reason I am able to handle it now. Maybe the real pressure of risking my life to fight off aliens (is this really what I do now? this bizarre thing?) has made it possible for me to stop applying all the old fake, self-imposed pressure. Maybe I just became more laid-back as I got older. Maybe the excitement and the way we all need one another so much makes it okay. Maybe horror brings out the best in some people—Ann, of all people, seems to me like an actual kind, calm, forgiving human, the kind you thought they didn’t make anymore.

And then—no matter what, she’s one of us.

I told Alex that. “You know what we are. You know we’re all failing—you lost Pete. She isn’t any worse than us.” He yelled at me; I don’t know if he really gets it.

It’s comforting to remember that we aren’t any more failures than she is.

The Mother (Ann)

I know Alex doesn’t want me on this team. I don’t think I’d disagree, if I had his responsibilities. I hope I’ll never have responsibility for others, again.

There are very, very few mothers in the resistance. Few young people—this is one of our biggest obstacles, that most young people who survived idolize Them—and few mothers. The only other one I know is much older than me; her children were already grown when They came, and so it was very different for her.

Not me. I worked in the crèches. I still dream about Them, so often—much more often than I dream about my own babies.

They have a long period of dependency, because Their minds develop much more quickly than Their bodies. Apparently it’s even longer now that They are on earth, where They have to adjust, and require what I suppose must be surgeries (although I’m not sure if that term applies to Them) and a long period in a tightly-controlled environment, with outside elements introduced only gradually. So They use humans to care for the little ones after the first few months. They like mothers best. We offer a personal touch.

Even now, I don’t know if I can talk about it. When I joined the resistance I was so ashamed. I couldn’t explain it to anyone. And they all looked at me—I understand why, of course; it must seem like the ultimate betrayal—but they looked at me with so much anger. I wonder how many mothers have made overtures to the resistance, met that baffled and resentful rage, and backed away.

The little ones were so wonderful. Their skins shine, Their eyes are bright, and They are so helpless—They shift and change and lose control of Their physical forms and start to look very alien and frightening, but if you hold and calm Them They are able to regain control and turn again into sweet silvery babies in your arms. They are so grateful for your help. They sing to you, and tell you stories and jokes, full of imagination and invention and desire to please. They do not pitch tantrums. They do not whine. They aren’t stiff and unsure and self-conscious like polite human children. They just love you and want you to be with Them. You’re able to feel, fleetingly, superior even to Their parents, because the little ones love you so much. (Although, of course, this is an illusion. I’ve seen crèche workers killed for making mistakes with the little ones, and their charges immediately transferred all that sweet affection onto Their new caretakers.) Their eyes are full of wonder, and They listen when you talk. Many of the crèche workers would even ask the little ones for advice—and after about the first year of Their lives, the advice is usually worth taking. Their minds develop so quickly! Our little miracles, as we thought.

I don’t think all this makes it any easier to understand why the crèche workers behave as we do. I left my own small children alone at home while I cared for Their little ones. After several months I remembered my son and daughter. By that time, they were already dead. My colicky baby son and my babbling, frenetic toddler daughter. Some days I can’t even remember their names, but today I remember: David and Catherine. I called her Katie. I didn’t nickname my son because I liked how “David” sounds.

I think about them, and it’s like a huge black wave is sweeping toward me, over me and through me, coated with sickly yellow foam. And it happened all the time.What I did was normal.

I don’t expect that the resistance will ever recruit many mothers. It’s impossible to admit to yourself that you abandoned your own babies to care for Theirs. You must either find some way of justifying your actions or drown in the black wave. Or, as I am trying to do, maintain as much distance as possible from the facts. I believe in doing what is necessary.

I was so overwhelmed by motherhood. Both times it was the same utterly worthless man, and I did things I shouldn’t have done, and I failed to assert myself. Self-assertion isn’t one of my skills. And so I had two children, suddenly. David and Catherine. (I write it down sometimes, so I won’t forget, but I find that I lose the papers.) I don’t think I was a very good mother. I slapped Katie. Once in public. She used to cry for hours, until I was so exhausted that I screamed at her or locked her in the apartment while I went out for a walk.

Maybe that’s why I was able to join the resistance, when so few mothers have: That black wave is hiding something even worse. Maybe I blame my children. If you had been better, I would have stayed!

I can’t even think that, or I will be useless. I have to believe that I loved them—no, I know I loved them, it’s just that it’s so hard to understand what that could have meant, given what I ended up doing to them—I have to believe that I was simply awestruck by Them. Almost brainwashed. That’s comforting. I didn’t jump, I was pushed.

I tell myself other people’s judgments don’t matter. I try to be useful. I try to make up for it. I wish I could tell them, Look what I am doing for you. So no more children will suffer as I made you suffer. I talk myself into this, again and again, and I almost believe myself by the time Alex comes out to see me.

“Can I ask why you’re even trying to help us? Do you have any skills?”

This part, I’ve rehearsed. “I know the typical structures and security measures of Their crèches. I won’t,” and oh, there it is, choking tears again, “I won’t ever choose Their children against ours just because we’re weaker.”

But then I say something I never expected to say: “But I won’t—Their children are children too. If you don’t want someone who will evacuate the crèches entirely—not just human children—then you don’t want me for a team member.”

“…Why?”

As if our reasons mattered. “Because They’re helpless.”

“No, I mean—why help us, then? Why not just Them?”

He’s exhausted, aggressive, but listening for now. I’m not sure what I’ll say until I say it: “They’re stronger. Not better.”

He quirks his lips like he doesn’t agree. I don’t know what else I can say. I don’t know what I bring, other than another body, another life to be used in the service of the resistance.

–Eve Tushnet is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. She blogs at eve-tushnet.blogspot.com.

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