The alien was covered in translucent goop like raspberry jam when we walked into the clearing. Not covered the way a body might be covered in blood, we thought, but covered the way a body might be covered in clothes, even though we surmised that the alien was extruding the goop from somewhere inside itself, under the leaf-green skin.
My brother stepped up and introduced himself, offering his hand in friendship. Len was always very forthright, blunt, unafraid no matter the circumstances.
The alien stood there, staring at my brother as if in apology. It blinked its large, liquid black eyes slowly. It had hair: what looked like a fuchsia Party City wig, tangled and ornamented with splintered twigs. Behind the alien we could see a camping tent, spotless yellow nylon except for the seeping blotches of raspberry jam goop around the open flap. Maybe a person had transformed in there. Someone ordinary, like us, a hiker carrying a canteen of water, a pack of hot dogs, a pack of beer, a Swiss Army knife, extra underwear.
“Hey there, stranger,” said Len.
We were both hoping for a transcendent connection, a miracle moment of E.T. contact.
Then goop oozed out of the alien’s eyes, ears, and mouth, out from between its legs. The alien leaked like a filled donut squeezed hard in the middle. Its face was impossible to read.
Translucent, glistening red covered up all the green. It formed mounds at the alien’s bare, four-toed feet. The alien knelt in the long grass, and retched, and spasmed. More raspberry jam burst forth in a great splatter.
Some of it hit Len smack on his forehead. He shrieked and windmilled backwards into me. I lost my balance and dropped my backpack, all the gear attached to the backpack. I landed on my ass in the mud. A smell like fried, heavily spiced pork filled the clearing. Drool welled like a new spring in my mouth.
As I grabbed Len, I took one last glance at the alien. Its skin looked deflated. The Party City wig had fallen onto its shoulder. I could no longer make out the shape of its head. One black eye stared at us— mournfully?— through a wet gel haze. The pork smell was definitely coming from the jam stuff, and I put thoughts of shoveling it into my mouth barehanded firmly aside. I would not be disgusting.
Len and I ran back down the mountain. He clutched that spot on his forehead the whole way, rubbing it and moaning as he stumbled on the trail. “It has a taste,” he kept saying. “I feel it in my sinuses. I feel it in my mouth. Some capsaicin shit.” His tongue seemed thicker, his voice blurrier every time he repeated the words.
“Hold on,” I said. “We’re gonna get back to the car and I’m gonna drive you to the hospital. Acid sloshed in my stomach; I felt scared and hungry at the same time.
“We’ve been seeing a lot of this lately,” said the ER nurse as she shined a light into each of Len’s eyes. “An alien up in the woods, huh? They must be spreading.”
“Spreading from where?”
“Out in the western part of the state.” She began to dab at the small burn the raspberry jam had left on Len’s head with a gauze pad of alcohol. “They’re such a nuisance. Your brother’s gonna be fine.” She stepped back from the examination table. “We get that mess off your skin, you go on home, you never come back. Healthy as horses. Same every time.”
“Thanks,” said Len.
“Just hang tight here. Dr. Carpenter will be in to look at you in a minute. I’m going to check your insurance.” The nurse squeaked away on thick rubber soles and scarred linoleum tile.
Len lay back. “I feel very strange, Joey. Were there always aliens? Do you remember ever hearing about them before? Is this normal?”
“I don’t know,” I scratched up and down my arms through the sleeves of my sweatshirt. I felt phantom lumps of jam writhing slimily against my biceps. I knew they weren’t real. I imagined them squeezing themselves into hair-thin worms and diving down the manholes of my pores. I scratched harder.
Dr. Carpenter came in and smiled at us with a lot of pale gray teeth. “I heard you boys had a run-in with our local aliens!” He snapped a pair of plastic gloves onto his hands. “This is a formality, really. You’re fine. You won’t even need antibiotics.”
Len seemed on the verge of falling asleep as Dr. Carpenter commenced prodding him in all the same places the nurse had, and then some. His eyes dulled and his mouth hung slightly open. I wondered if his tongue was numb from the capsaicin shit. I wondered if the rest of him was numb, and if it had come on all at once. Maybe it progressed in pieces: the tongue, a toe, an ear. Navel, asshole, knee. Len’s pupils were dilated, and I imagined them spreading out to cover the iris and white entirely.
I was careful not to touch him on the way back to the car, in the car, at home. For the first time in many, many years, I wished we didn’t share a bunk bed. But the apartment was small, a studio.
Len reached out and brushed my leg hair with his fingertips as I climbed up to the top bunk.
“Fuck off!” I shouted, vaulting myself onto the thin mattress.
“What’d I do?!”
“Your hand feels all sweaty.”
“Sorry.” I heard Len’s sheets rustling as he rolled over on his side in a sulk. “I still don’t feel well.”
“Yeah?” I lay back. I stared at the popcorn ceiling, its surface the surface of some desolate alien planet. “Well, the doctor said you were okay.”
“Right.” Was his voice clogged with phlegm? Tears? Something else?
“It’s so weird that we’ve lived here almost our whole lives and never known about the aliens,” I said. My voice sounded so reasonable I almost believed it myself. “But it really wasn’t a big deal. We were so dumb, freaking out like that.”
“We’ll wake up tomorrow and everything’ll be normal. The same as before. We can pretend nothing ever happened.” I closed my eyes. The alien planet disappeared.
Len didn’t answer. I heard him breathing, though, in a quiet kind of wheezing, bubbling way.
I kept my eyes shut and made my own breath deep and even. If I pretended to be asleep long enough, eventually it would be true.
Everything was fine, and everything would be fine.
Strands of artificial silk-shiny hair the color of Hawaiian shirt hibiscus. Abandoned backpack. Beer cans rolling down the side of a hill, past the abandoned yellow tent. The smell of spicy pork. The saliva surging in my mouth. The peppery sting on my tongue. The dream of flesh torn open, deflated, spreading contagion, full of something shiny, amorphous, and brand new.
Briar Ripley Page grew up in Appalachia and currently lives in London with their spouse, cats, and a friend or two. Their second ever publication was in beestung #1, sometime after which they wrote the novel(la)s Corrupted Vessels and Body After Body. Briar has two new books forthcoming in 2022-2023: A Chrysalis For the Emperor, a collection of short stories, and The False Sister, a dark novella for teens and adults. You can find Briar and their work online at briarripleypage.xyz.