Albert sat in his deck chair and watched the small green dot approach his nephew’s house by the banks of the river. The lights had gone out earlier that evening and now the wind was up, the dry air pregnant with static electricity. His nephew’s kids were scrubbing their feet against the acrylic doormat and zapping each other, screaming their delight.
The sounds cut off.
Trembling slightly, Albert reached up to check his tin-foil hat. Still there. He stood and turned to the chairs where his family should be. Gone. They were all gone.
“You,” he said, pointing to the empty seats, “you didn’t get ready. Ha-haa. I told you… I told you, but you didn’t, did you?”
The hats he’d made them lay scattered across the table, rocking gently in the candle-scented breeze. Untouched, like always. His gaze moved through the foil shapes, past the half empty wine glasses, over a cling wrapped salad and all the way to the silver top-knob of the pepper-grinder out at the far corner of the table. A white napkin fluttered against it. Waves on the sea against a lonely lighthouse.
“Haa.” Emptiness hollowed his chest and his arm dropped to his side. “So what now, what now? I’m all alone again, aren’t I?”
He clutched himself tight and gnawed at his knuckles. He was used to being lonely, but it was so much worse when he was on his own.
His eyes darted to a movement under the table–a piece of squirming blue. Sally, in her new blue dress.
The plastic tablecloth bunched together as little fingers tried to pull it to the ground.
“Sally? What’re you doing?”
“Jason keeps trying to zap me,” she said, voice sinking to a groan.
Albert eyed the electrifying carpet mat with distrust, but it lay dormant without a child to goad it.
“Well, he’s stopped now,” he said. He listened to the evening again. No neighborhood voices, no doors banging, no cars driving by. “It’s all stopped.”
He walked over and poked the carpet mat with his toe. No response.
“Um. It’s okay–you can come out, if you like.”
Sally’s head appeared between the large wooden chairs, blonde hair rumpled and askew under her tin-foil pirate hat. She dragged herself upright, pulling at her frock to unravel the twists spiraling around her torso. Albert watched her, his mouth twitching in and out of a smile. He liked Sally. She liked his hats.
“So where’s Mum and Dad?” she asked.
“Umm,” he said, voice lifting a little. “Ba. Bar-be- No! Next door.” He pointed, keeping his eyes on her. “Jim and Lorraine’s.”
“Oh.” She glanced at the tall fence between her and the neighbors’ place and chewed her lip. “Okay, I guess. But when–?”
“Ummmm.” His voice rose a bit more, along with his pulse. He wasn’t ready for questions–the answers might scare her and then she’d just leave.
But she sighed and took his fingers, her palm small and warm against his rough old hand. His murmur faded away and his eyebrows inched up, like hopeful, hairy caterpillars.
“It’s okay,” she said, patting his hand, “we know where they are. We can get them if we need them.”
The shaggy caterpillars shot skyward and a wordless mutter sputtered through Albert. His body shook and his voice rose higher and higher, like a humming kettle. The edges of his world curled in.
Sally squeezed his hand tight and dug her little fingernails hard into his palm. She stuck out her tongue, waggled it, and went cross-eyed.
“Ha,” said Albert, and his screwed tight muscles collapsed. “Ha-ha! Sally, you’re funny.”
She clutched his hand in both of her own and grinned.
“Come on,” she said, pulling him towards the edge of the deck. “I don’t want to go back inside. Jason was being mean. Tell me a story.”
Albert followed, distracted now by a slight buzzing over his left ear–no, his right. No. It was over his whole head. He looked at Sally who’d walked on ahead. Her hat was dancing with sinuous squiggles of blue light.
“Okay, okay, okay,” he said to himself. “This is it. This is really real.”
“It’s real?” she said. “I don’t need a real story, you know.” She stepped up to the edge of the deck and stood tall, to make an announcement. “I think you make up quite good ones.” She waved her hand for emphasis. The queen.
Albert huffed out a laugh. This was a good sign. A good one. An opportunity, even.
She plunked herself down at the top of the stairs, which led into the further darkness of the yard. The glow of the candles didn’t reach very far out here.
“Oh I like those made-up stories too,” said Albert as he sat next to her, “but this is real.”
“Hey!” she said looking at him, face round with a smile. “Hey, how’d you do that? Uncle Albert? Your hat’s all full of lightning. It’s all blue and sparkly.”
“Yours too,” he said, eyes wide and true, caterpillar eyebrows half-mast and happy.
“Is it?” She reached to take it off.
“Oh no, no, no. You can’t take it off. No, no… Ummm… It breaks the transmission. Or something. Ummm. How about we just sit here and, sort of sparkle-warkle at each other? Hmm?”
He grinned at her. She nodded.
“Lovely,” he said, leaning a bit sideways, the better to see her. “Two peas in a pod. Two peas. The only two… Umm.”
A black shape stretched under the silent bug zapper. Nero, the cat.
“Ahhh. Ah-hah! Hold on, hold on.”
Albert raced over before Nero could leave the apparent safety of the zapper. The cat butted his leg heftily, purring like a hero. Albert tweaked a piece of foil from his pocket and bent down to tuck it around Nero’s collar. Then he leant back, finger on his lips, and studied the effect.
“Well, okay. It’s not on your head, Nero lad, but okay, it’ll do. That’ll keep you safe. Hmmm.”
He picked up the big floppy cat and carried him back to Sally.
“Here he is, Sal. Nero–safe and sound.”
“Okay,” she said, accepting the placid purring weight into her lap, “so now we’ve got him can I have a story?” A fluffy head bashed into her chin. “Ow. Nero!”
“Hmmm. Righto. A story.”
Albert took two steps down the staircase and sat next to her. He rested his chin on his hand, his elbow on his knee and gazed out over the Brisbane River lapping lazily at the bottom of the garden. The mighty river. Well, mighty it must have been once, before it grew all old and fat and curly. He held his mouth wide and tapped an irregular rhythm on his front teeth with two fingers. The story he told would keep her here or not. He had to give her the truth but not scare her.
“Alright. So. Once upon a time… Actually, maybe I could work out when. It was before you or I or any of us were here–”
“Okay,” said Sally, “so then, once upon a time…”
“Yes, okay, I suppose. So. Once upon a time, when the earth was just a land of boiling mud, a little spark of glittering light fell to the ground. Hmmm.”
“Really? Where abouts?”
“Um. Just over here. Where the Graceville Cricket Club is. That used to be a swamp.”
“Ah well, swamps are okay. They’re good for losing things in. Like a little ball of light. It fell into the swamp and sank to the bottom.”
“Did it go out?”
“Er, no, it didn’t as it happens. But just listen to the story, hmmm?”
She sat mute and stared wistfully at him. He waited a moment.
“Righto. So it plopped on into the swamp with a little splash and slid to the bottom–which wasn’t very far down because it was a swamp–and there it sat and waited. It was a homing device-”
“Yep, for aliens.”
Sally sighed. “You know you’re not supposed to tell me the alien stories. They get Mum all riled up.”
“Wellll,” said Albert, scrabbling up a thought before going on in a rush, “Mum’s not here and this is important tonight.”
“O-kaaaay.” She pushed her face against Nero’s flank and her voice came out small. “But will it give me nightmares?”
“Um, no. This isn’t a nightmare story.” Albert peeked into her eyes. “Really.”
She sighed again. “Okay, I guess. But you know I’m telling Mum if I get scared.”
“Alright,” said Albert, “that’s alright. That’s alright tonight.”
“Okay. So. This homing device. Well, they left it here so they could easily come back and, you know, check on the place. Check on who lives around here every now and then. They started out just seeing microbes and wallabies and stuff. But there’ve been people here for forty thousand years, so now they look at all of us too. Like doing a survey of intelligent life.”
“Right. And every now and then they do come back. The last time was 1984.”
“That’s before I was born.”
“Yep, that’s right, but I was here.”
Albert stared off into the darkness, watching the moon glisten on the river, its shining silver path to them broken in the lapping water. He remembered the last time, how beautiful it was and how lonely. How the colors of the world had grown so sharp, as if they’d been painted on. And it was starting again.
“So,” he said, shaking his head to clear it, “the aliens come back and they… they check how much cleverer we’ve all become. They give everyone a test so they can see what we’ve learned.”
“That sounds boring.” But she stiffened, eyes growing large. “Is that where Mum and Dad are now?”
“Ahhhh. Ah, yep,” said Albert. “They’ve taken everyone who’s clever to umm, a classroom in the sky to, um, do a test.” His heart ratcheted up. Where had he gone wrong?
“Hold on. So why aren’t we there? I’m clever!”
“Oh! Oops! Well yes, we’re both clever. It’s just that we were wearing our hats when they came to get us. They don’t take people in hats. Tin-foil hats. Come to think of it, I’ve no idea why they didn’t take Nero–he wasn’t wearing tin-foil…” Albert’s voice trailed off. He peered at the docile cat, whose purrs rumbled like marbles in a bag. The cat stared back, bug-eyed and vacant.
“But it’s okay, he’s got his tin-foil on now. He gets to stay with us.” Albert’s eyes softened as he stroked Nero’s silky black fur.
But now Sally’s breath was different–shallow and fast. Albert looked up. She stared back at him. Her voice, when it came, picked up speed and altitude.
“So, um, Uncle Albert? When do we get to go do the test? When do we see Mum and Dad? Uncle Albert? When?”
“Oh! It’s okay, we want to stay here. Definitely. Absolutely. Mum and Dad will come back, but we want to stay here and see, um, the magic while they’re gone. Sally! It’s like another land when they’re all away. See? Look down there–look at the edge of the water.”
Sally looked. The broken pieces of moonlight had hardened into silvery stepping-stones, bobbing gamely in the river, glinting in large, flat gleams and pinging off each other whenever the curling water tickled them together.
“Oh!” she said.
Albert clasped his hands under his chin and gazed at the scene. Then he glanced up behind them.
“And look there–look at the candles on the deck.”
The flames had transformed into glowing ribbons of gauze; sparkling organza, rippling light far into the night in a slow arching dance. Sally’s face shone with wonder, her joy visible and bright, about an inch beyond her skin. Albert giggled, his laughter going off like a sparkler, in fizzing stars.
“Oh, Sal. You should see your smile–it’s beaming light at me. You’re glowing like the night-light in the hall.”
She giggled back, showering Nero in sparkles of her own. The cat’s eyes grew round and his ears pricked up. He snapped at the sparks, ready to play. They laughed aloud and bright bubbles drifted out over the stairs, hardening one by one until they fell and clattered off into the darkness. Nero stalked after them, fascinated but wary.
“C’mon,” said Sally, pulling herself up by the stair rails, “can we follow him down? Let’s look in the garden.”
But two steps down she stopped, smile fallen. “Mum and Dad–you said they were next door. And everyone else? When do they come home? How long are we going to be all alone for?”
Her hand fluttered towards her hat, which was starting to fall over one eye. Albert’s breath caught. He batted her fingers away and adjusted the headpiece for her.
“Okay, okay. It’s okay. Let’s walk toward the moon-stones on the water. You’ve got to listen to the rest of the story.” His smile became earnest. “It’s important, Sal. Real important.”
“Alright. I’ll listen.”
They continued down the stairs which, eager to help, offered each new piece of themselves with a flourish. But the grass was a different matter, detonating itself back from their feet in alarm.
“Okay, Sally. So. Here’s what’s what. The aliens, well, it’s like they just take the ordinary out of the world for a little bit. And once all the ordinary people with their ordinary thoughts have gone for a while, then the real world is ready to reveal herself. And she’s fun, Sal, she’s playful and the people, they do come back, and then everything’s normal again.”
“But how long does it take them to get here? Don’t they know they’ve been away?”
“Well, no. See, when they get back, we’ll all start again. You’ll be under the table hiding from Jason and I’ll be sitting in a chair on the deck. We’ll be back exactly the way we were.”
Sally stopped and turned. She looked at her shocked-grass footprints.
Albert sighed. “Hmm, yes. It gets a bit insulted when people walk on it.” He lifted his head and scratched at his stubble, fingers rasping. “It’s just too polite to say that to the ordinaries.”
“So you mean this isn’t even real?”
“Oh, yes, Sal! Yes, yes, yes this is real. This is the realest real of the world you’ll ever see.”
“But how do you know?”
“Sal, how can you not? Look. Here comes the path of the moon.”
The pontoons of silvery moonlight were spreading from the river’s edge, cobbling up through the grass as solidified puddles of metal.
“Come on, Sal. The moon is perfectly safe. It’s beautiful up close, and not made of cheese after all. It ping-poings its gentle way through the stars, but you can’t hear it from down here…” Albert broke off for a moment, just to look. “There’s no cow either.”
“But the aliens… Do they know? Do they know what happens to the world?”
“Uncle Albert. What if they take the other people away so they can watch us?”
“But they can’t. We’ve got our tin-foil, Sal.”
Her eyes widened with quick fear.
“Sally. Sal. You can go back, you know. If you want. You can. But you’ll forget all this. You won’t remember, and unless you keep wearing your tin-foil everyday, you might never see it again. Sal. All you have to do is take the tin-foil off. Drop it to the ground. Just let go of it and you’ll forget. You’ll wake up with the rest of them, oblivious. Or babbling of aliens, but only a few do that. The partially awake. But Sal, why don’t you stay here with me? Sal! There’s so much to see, and when we come back we’ll remember it all. Oh Sally, come and share it with me.”
Albert’s caterpillar-shaped eyebrows pulled their plaintive tips together high on his forehead before he dropped his gaze and scuffed his way through the exploding grass to the hardened puddles of moon. He looked back to her again and held out his hand, forlorn. “Oh Sal, won’t you come too?”
Her hand rose toward her tin-foil hat, and in that moment Nero streaked by on his way to the river, cat-madness upon him. His motion turned Albert’s head, then his body and then his lurching knees as he gave chase. She stood and watched blank-eyed as they reached the water. Nero dipped his curious paw into the sparkling river, then flicked it to get the wetness off. The droplets left him as tiny plopping fish and swirling dragonflies. The cat was astounded, not knowing what to chase first.
Albert stood on the first pontoon to the moon, hands on his knees, laughing out loud. The moonbeam’s voice pinged darker and deeper under his weight. He turned the searchlight of his joy onto her and lifted up his creased old hand.
“Come on, Sal. There’s nothing else to know.” He shrugged, his arms spread wide. “In the end it’s just the two of us, wearing our tin-foil hats by the light of the moon.”
Sally looked at him. Then her giggle sparked inside her and her face glowed bright with her slow-spreading smile. And in a flurry of glittering laughter, she jammed her hat on tight and chased after Albert. Without another ordinary thought.
Nero watched them go, his black fur silvered tin-foil by the moon.
Albert sat in his deck chair surrounded by the laughter and chatter of his family. The tablecloth bulged in front of him and Sally crawled out. She gazed at him and patted her tin-foil hat, her mouth in an ‘O’.
“Oh, Uncle Albert,” she said, “your eyes are still all twinkly.”
A cat-shaped weight pressed against his legs then jumped up to sit on his lap.
“And so are Nero’s,” he said, as the cat purred up at them both.
“Nero,” she breathed, reaching forward to scratch his ears.
Nero smooched her hand with his face. Then his pupils widened and his head darted forward to look into the dusk. Their eyes followed his stare to a receding green light.
“Well, that’s that then,” said Albert. “There they go.”
“Oh,” said Sally, fitting her little hand inside one of Albert’s own, “but they’ll come back, won’t they?”
He glanced at her, smile twitching at how snugly she’d pushed her hat onto her head. “Yep, for sure,” he said. “They’ll be back, and we’ll be ready again.”
He squeezed Sally’s hand and stroked Nero’s fur as together they watched the little green dot step out over the horizon and disappear.