Leah, upon returning home from a business trip, discovered an extraterrestrial sitting on the living room couch. It slowly turned its head toward her, meeting her indigo eyes with its obsidian ones. The alien was humanoid in form, the rough, hairless skin the color of old pennies. Flaring slits existed in the place of nostrils.
Kicking off her heels, Leah showed no hesitation as she walked across the room and stood directly in front of it. “Daniel, what in the hell do you think you’re doing?!”
Unintelligible sounds passed between its paper-thin lips.
“Don’t give me that crap,” Leah replied, her voice rapidly fluctuating between anger and fear. “What if one of our neighbors had knocked at the door? What if the blinds had been open? I could have had someone with me!” She ran into the bedroom, quickly returning with a pillow in her right hand. She threw it at the alien’s face. It missed, bouncing off the couch before coming to rest on the carpet. “You’re not invited into my bed as long as you’re like that!” Leah marched back into the bedroom and slammed the door behind her.
The creature reached down with its three-fingered hand and picked the pillow up off the floor. As the sound of crying began to carry through the bedroom door, it grasped the pillow with all its strength. The fabric tore apart like tissue paper.
The next morning the couple sat across from one another at the kitchen table. In place of the alien was a young man in his late twenties. Frosty blonde hair topped a round face and light hazel eyes. He sipped coffee while Leah read the news on her laptop.
“About yesterday,” Daniel said, running his fingers up and down his cup. “When you were away, I had a lot of time to think. At first I was glad, grateful really, for everything we’ve done here.” His eyes darted between the possessions in their kitchen and the connected living room. “But as hard as I tried, I couldn’t…I couldn’t remember what you really looked like.” He gazed up at Leah for her reaction.
Leah closed her laptop, and took her husband’s hand. She did not speak for several seconds. “This is what I….we look like, Daniel. This is who we are. We agreed. Do you remember the alternative?” There was more, so much more, but the rest was long since repressed, words of it never having been spoken by either of them.
“I remember,” Daniel said, intertwining his fingers with hers: five against five. “I’m sorry.”
“Good.” Leah stood, nodding her head slightly. Heading towards the bathroom, she added, “You can come back to bed tonight.”
No surprises awaited Leah that evening when she arrived home from work. A scribbled note from Daniel lay on the kitchen counter. “Went out to pick up some vegetables. Be back at six.” Leah checked her wristwatch. She had an hour to herself.
Leah mechanically performed her evening routine: shower, sweat pants, glass of white wine, and feet up on the couch. Taking a sip from her glass, she leaned back onto the couch’s armrest and closed her eyes.
After a few minutes and mouthfuls of alcohol Leah began to trace the outline of her face. “You’re beautiful,” she whispered, repeating Daniel’s words the first time he had seen it. How long ago had that been, she wondered.
“Five years.” Leah sighed, finally understanding what Daniel had told her: she could not remember her old face. She would have been hard pressed to describe his if she had not just seen it the day before.
Never in that time had she changed back. Curiosity had not once prodded her to even consider the option. But now, lying there, she wondered if she still knew how. Racking her memory, she began to tap the fingers of her free hand, one at a time, against her bare stomach. 1 2 3 4 5. 1 2 3 4 5. 1 2 3 4. 1 2 3.
Leah’s eyes shot open. She stared at her hand. It was normal. Did it, had it changed? A chill running through her body, she quickly finished her wine before heading back into the kitchen to pour herself another glass.
Though Leah was certain nothing physical remained of the lives she and Daniel once led, for the rest of the evening she could not shake the urge to search their apartment and destroy any evidence she might find.
Sleep did not come easily that night. Hands hidden under the covers, Leah rubbed her fingers together, counting the digits like sheep. It did little good, and when her knuckles began to ache, she balled her hands into fists.
Her body perfectly still, the thoughts grinding through Leah’s mind became all the louder. They were words, but ones her throat, tongue, and mouth lacked the ability to speak. She began to whisper them aloud, but what came out was a poor imitation.
Groaning softly, Leah stood and walked into the bathroom. She turned on the light only when the door was shut behind her.
The medicine cabinet lacking any sleep aids, she splashed some warm water on her face before reaching for a hand towel. She dried herself in a single slow motion. The cotton cloth just below her eyes, Leah finally saw her reflection in the mirror.
Inky blackness stared back.
The scream, more of a shriek, had Daniel in the bathroom within seconds. Catching his breath, he found his wife sitting on the edge of the tub, hands covering her face.
Body trembling, Leah slowly raised her head. Her eyes were shut tight. “What do you see?” She opened her eyes. As her vision cleared, all she saw was Daniel looking at her in confusion.
“Nothing’s wrong,” he said, kneeling next to her. “Did you have a nightmare or something?”
Leah shook her head. “My eyes…they were like…before.” She only mouthed the last word.
Daniel turned her face to the light for a better look. “You’re fine. You said it happened just now?” Leah nodded. “I think you’re just tired, maybe half asleep. Come on, let’s go back to bed.”
“Okay.” Leah took a deep breath before standing. Daniel leading her back into the bedroom, she quickly glanced at her reflection, just to be sure.
“Yes, she’s not feeling well today. A twenty-four hour stomach bug, she thinks. I’ll let her know. Thanks.” Daniel set Leah’s cellphone on the nightstand. Sitting on the edge of their bed, he placed a hand on his wife’s shoulder. “You get any sleep after what happened?”
“Maybe two or three hours,” Leah whispered, turning over on her back to look up at him. “Nightmares.”
“It’s not your fault,” she added as the characteristic signs of guilt came over Daniel’s face. “Can I ask you something?”
“Daniel, how do you deal with it?”
Daniel sighed, and though he was dressed for work, lay on his side next to her.
“Probably not as well as you think. And since I’m being honest…the day before yesterday wasn’t the first time I changed back.”
“How many times?”
“I’ve lost count. I didn’t do it at all the first few years. I was just so relieved that we got another chance. But then it was just like I said. I began to forget. First it was my sister’s face, then my father’s…my mother’s. And then when you started to fade away, I couldn’t stand it.” Daniel paused to wrap some of Leah’s shoulder-length hair around his index finger. He examined the strands as if they were a strange curiosity. In a soft voice he added, “What’s the point of surviving if we’ve already buried ourselves?”
Leah pulled her knees up to her chest. “I know, but what if we…” She trailed off, exhaustion overcoming any possible answer.
“Think of something,” Daniel said, kissing her on the forehead. “Are you going to be okay by yourself today?”
“Go to work.” Leah had already closed her eyes.
Daniel made sure the room was dark before leaving the apartment.
Daniel, upon returning home from work, found the apartment in pitch blackness. Resting his hand on the light switch, it took him a moment to realize what had happened: their spare sheets were hanging over the living room windows, each tightly secured by long strips of duct tape.
“Leah, are you okay? Where are you?”
“Are you alone?” Leah’s voice called out from the bedroom.
“Make sure the door’s locked and don’t turn on the lights.” Her voiced wavered with hesitation. “Wait there.”
Still standing in the entryway, Daniel took off his sport coat and loosened his tie. He was about to speak again when the bedroom door creaked open.
Though his eyes had not yet completely adjusted to the dark, he could make out her figure in the doorway. It was not the woman he had told “you’re beautiful” for the first time five years prior, but the woman with whom he had bonded, the woman who had fled with him, and, most importantly, the woman he had almost forgotten.
It took Daniel only seconds to completely disrobe. Leaving his clothes in a messy pile, he took long strides across the living room. With each step his body became more like hers. Standing in front of one another, they were nearly identical in appearance. The only difference was her slight advantage in height.
For a long time the two simply looked at each other. He made the first gesture by holding out his hand. Their fingers intertwined: three against three.
He spoke her name.
She spoke his name.
That night, for the first time, they mourned all that was lost, and cherished the little that remained. They lived as who they were, rather than the people they became.
A writer living in Middle Tennessee, THOMAS BRODERICK has had his fiction appear in Curbside Splendor, Jersey Devil Press, and Prole, among other publications. A forthcoming story will appear in Space and Time later this year.