Cynthia Toms clung to her bed like a life raft sinking in a sea of chaos. Maybe if she didn’t open her eyes, the world would give up and go away. Trying to do the right thing, over the course of the last three weeks, had turned her existence into a hot mess. First, she was fired as assistant barista second-class from a downtown San Antone Starbucks. Then Herbie, the expresso guy, dumped her for the cold-brew girl- because Cynthia was “smothering his bliss.” After that, the cat she tried to rescue ran away, presumably to a better home two streets over; and to top it off, last night just before bed, she stepped on her glasses. They now had a lightning crack over the left eye that made her look like a crazy woman.
She exhaled and rolled over into a crucified position. “At this point,” she said out loud, “crazy would be easy. I’ll just stay in this heap of an apartment, gorging on cheese doodles and talking to myself until social services arrive.”
Trouble was, her bladder was about to burst. “Pain! The great motivator,” she moaned.
With tremendous effort, she righted herself and searched with her toe for her slippers. She found the left slipper and while groping for its partner, she hit upon her broken glasses. Wearing her broken glasses, her WWF t-shirt with the spaghetti stain over the panda’s face, and one slipper, she shuffled into her cramped apartment bathroom. Once finished with the commode, she summoned the gargantuan effort necessary to confront herself in the mirror. She sighed. Brown curls fought for control of her forehead, while several renegade strands of hair reached upwards as if possessed. She leaned in. “So, this is what hair looks like when it has given up on life.”
It caught her by surprise- the loud “Pop!”- followed by the “Bang!” And then the whole room reverberated. Out of sheer self-preservation, she crouched and squinted into the mirror. Plaster trickled to the floor from the wall behind her as a jagged hole appeared. It was dark, and no bigger than a nail-hole, yet the insides swirled with a strange purple light.
She spun around just as an object the size and shape of a pumpkin seed sailed out of the hole. Four similar shapes followed it. “Great. Flying termites. Just what I need.” She raised her hand to swat them then stopped. They were humming. “What type of termites hum?” She peered through her cracked glasses. The things reflected off the bathroom light, like they were made of metal. She ran a hand across her cheek and stepped back, “I’m losing my mind.”
Her doorbell chimed. She jumped at the sound of a man’s voice. “Ms. Toms?”
“Oh great! The landlord,” she said to the little buggies, then shuffled out, clicking the door shut.
“Mr. Bukowski,” she said, opening the front door. A gangly man in his mid-seventies, sporting a long hipster beard, stood impatiently on the bright sidewalk leading to her apartment.
“Woe!” he said when he saw her. “Didn’t think it was that early.” His beard yo-yo’ed up and down on his chin whenever he spoke. The motion reminded Cynthia of a ventriloquist’s dummy performing one-liners. “It’s about the rent,” he said, his beard yo-yoing. “You’re past due. If you can’t pay by tomorrow. You’ll find your stuff waiting for you on the curb. Sorry- young lady.”
Not so young anymore Mr. Bukowski. She wanted to say. Instead, she said, “Look at this place. The water comes out as brown as the Rio Grande, the AC has two settings- frostbite or arctic blast, and if I’m not losing my mind there seems to be some kind of insect infestation in my bathroom. It may lay vacant a long time if you boot me out.”
“Nevertheless, you have until tomorrow. I’m sorry,” he repeated and he lumbered away, the tools on his work belt clanging with each step.
“What I need, is a little diversion,” she said in a huff. She found the bottle of gin under the sink and poured two shot glasses. One for the Cynthia who used to give a damn and one for the Cynthia who was determined to never get a job, never fall in love, and never set foot in the real world again. She raised her glass in a toast. “Here’s to my new motto. If you don’t try, you don’t fail.” She downed both shots and followed them with several more. It was 11 AM.
By two o’clock, she was swinging the bottle low and circling her cluttered dinette table reciting her new motto. Wasn’t repeatedly talking to yourself the first sign? Maybe she actually was losing her mind. Not unlike the poor homeless woman out front of the store standing in the rain she had given a free coffee too. Or the crazy brown cat she rescued from the rain and hid in the supply room. Events, that eventually got her fired.
She tip-toed to the bathroom and eased open the door.
The insects were building some kind of a nest. It hovered a good five feet from the middle of her bathroom floor with a lot of bugs buzzing about it. They really were amazing. She peered closer and whispered, “Hovering nests?”
She set down the gin and staggered back to a kitchen drawer. She found the huge magnifying glass she used to read microwave cooking instructions with and patted back to the bathroom.
A line of pumpkin seed bugs seemed to be commuting between the nest and the hole in her wall, which had now grown to the size of a quarter. She held up the magnifying glass. The hole was very dark but the seeds were spewing out of what looked like a purple-blue funnel worming its way out of the blackness.
She moved to the nest thingy. It floated at maybe four inches square. The insects frantically filled it with weird webs of scaffolding and platforms and oddly colored oblong structures. “Incredible!”
She zoomed in closer. There were minuscule doors and windows, with tiny, tiny creatures scurrying to-and-fro as they worked. The creatures were kind of pleasant to look at, like happy yellow dust motes with arms and legs. This wasn’t a nest at all. It was some kind of metal frame. She could see that now. The seeds too, they were more like tiny ships, filled with busy yellow dot people, moving back and forth inside.
She let the heavy magnifying glass clatter to the tile floor. She slowly leaned against the far wall and slid down onto her haunches. “Okay, it’s official. I’m bat-crap crazy.”
True to her new motto, she did the only thing she was capable of doing at the time. She stumbled back to bed, and slept until five forty-five A.M. the next day.
She woke. Without thinking she headed to the bathroom.
The four-inch square structure floating in the middle of the room had now doubled in size. It had grown to roughly the dimensions of a toaster. With an impressive complex of intricate buildings and miniature spaceports, haloed by an entire regatta of seed-ships in various holding patterns. “Oh. My. God!” Cynthia said, “They’re building a little city! A city, with a spectacular view of my toilet!” It was almost flattering. But if she got evicted…
She hopped back to her bed and sitting cross-legged against a pillow, fired up her laptop. It was now up to Google. Before dropping out, four months of community college had taught her how to perform a perfect keyword search.
“First,” she said, “we have to find out who you are.” She typed: “What are tiny little holes in your bathroom that have strange flying seeds buzzing out of them?” Yeah…no good. She tried: “Swirling holes.” Then, “Bang holes.” Then, “Popping, banging swirling holes.” Which brought up a whole slew of graphic images she’d likely never forget. Next, she tried: “Appearing holes,” which lead to the Big Bang theory, which lead to the controversial, Little Bang Theory, derived from the work of Hawking in 1971. This proposed that lots of small black holes could have been produced by the Big Bang or possibly through subsequent phase transitions.”
She frowned, and read on. Currently, the Little Bang theory was being explored by an associate professor of physics at the University of Texas named Heart. Evidently, Heart and his hypotheses had been unanimously dismissed by many of his fellows. “Poor guy,” Cynthia said, glancing at a photo of a young man in a plaid suit sweating under hot camera lights. “He looks sweet. A little goofy, but sweet.” She tapped the screen. “Hurts to have your hypotheses judged, doesn’t it, cutie?” Then she stopped. The proposed rendering of Professor Heart’s tiny bang hole was a dead ringer for hers. The caption read, “Could be a possible means for interstellar transportation.”
“Hot damn,” she said, smacking herself on the forehead. “I don’t believe it. They’re aliens! Little, tiny, aliens living in my bathroom. And I’m not even allowed to sublet.” She shook her head, and said, “Now who’s gonna look out for them?”
At the bottom of the site was a link to Heart’s email. “What the hell.” She dashed off a description of the tiny-tot-dots and the hole in her wall. Five minutes later she was surprised to hear the “ding” of a response. It read:
“Your description is incredibly detailed. Do you have any physical proof?”
She jumped up, took a picture of the hole with her phone and then, against her better judgment, took a picture of the structure. She sent them both off to him in an attachment with the reply: “How’s this?”
He responded: “Either a great job of photoshopping or world-shattering proof that life exists elsewhere in the universe. In any event, I am intrigued. If this is legit, it must be documented immediately. Please forward your address.”
“Sure.” She sent her address. Then she sat back, ran her fingers through her hair, and panicked. “I don’t know this guy, what if he ends up hurting them? The whole scenario of her screwing up yet again, rushed toward her like an oncoming bus.
She emailed back, “You can’t come. The address I sent you was fake. Sorry.”
“Fake? Wait. Listen, you seem like a nice person and this is quite important. Let me investigate. Or at the very least allow me to communicate with them before it’s too late. In theory, tiny holes of this type should eventually evaporate.”
“Forget it. You can’t come here. And don’t ask me to meet you cause I’m never leaving my apartment again, except to buy gin.”
“Gin? That explains a lot. LOL”
“What? That explains nothing. You nerd!”
“Agggghhh!!” she screamed and slammed down the laptop lid.
Something professor-nerd had mentioned pecked away at her for hours. When she nudged open the bathroom door, the amount of construction the tiny-tot-dots had accomplished astonished her. It wasn’t that the thing was bigger, just more complex, more dazzling. Intricate avenues bisected miniature skyscrapers one built atop the other and all adorned with twinkling lights. They were like seven-year-olds with a subatomic Lego set. Maybe, as Professor P.H.D. Smartass suggested, she should get to know her guests.
In a relaxed, friendly voice, she said, “Tiny-tot-dots? Yoo-hoo? Aliens? Can you hear me?” They froze. She hadn’t bothered with the magnifying glass and it was difficult to see. She moved in closer. She scrunched shut the eye behind the cracked lens while crinkling her nose. They scrambled away helter-skelter. It occurred to her that until now, she must have been nothing more to them than a giant, blurry, foreign object, hovering in the background. Like a cumulus storm cloud, you might be too preoccupied to notice. She pictured a humongous head moving ever closer, with uncombed hair and a funky nor’easter blast of morning breath. Not to mention an earth-shattering voice. Louder than a Christina Aguilera concert.
She backed off and whispered as softly as she could, “Welcome to Earth. I hope you like it. I know it’s a mess but you have landed in my filthy bathroom. Can I get you anything? Cappuccino? Gin?”
Tinkling alarms sounded all over the structure in rapid succession. Tiny-tot-dots scattered in terror. “Oh, God, I’ve made it worse,” she stepped back. “Didn’t mean to frighten you guys. Don’t zap me or anything.”
“Hey! Keep it down!” Small flakes of plaster flittered onto the top of the alien structure as the super-sized, hairy guy who lived upstairs, pounded on his floor. “Sorry!” Cynthia shouted at her ceiling.
A second wave of alarms joined the first. “Oh my, oh my. Hang on.” Cynthia ran to her kitchen and returned with three white paper coffee filters. She draped them carefully over the structure to protect them from the falling specks of plaster.
One by one the alarms grew silent.
“Phew!” she pursed her lips and clutched her chest. Caring for them was going to be harder than she realized. She took a seat on the toilet lid, resting her chin in her hands and watched as they set immediately to work incorporating the make-shift filters into their design. Studying them made her feel good. Like some kind of scientist. Like Jane Goodall with, what was it? The leopards? She observed how they worked continually, and always together. If an arrangement collapsed or for some reason didn’t suit them, they tore it down and rebuilt. If a structure was off-balance, they constantly enhanced it, always rebuilding, always rethinking, and always together.
For no apparent reason, Cynthia thought of a waterspout and a song she learned at summer camp. The one about the itsy-bitsy spider. No matter how hard it rained or how many times the spider was washed out of that spout, eventually the sun would come out, and that sucker would try again. Even when any other self-respecting bug would have given up and gone home… it didn’t. It kept going. Just like the little-tot-dots.
“Huh…” she said out loud. She stood up, careful not to distract her ambitious little visitors and looked hard at herself in the mirror. “Shit!” she sighed. “I don’t even recognize myself.” She gripped the edge of the sink and leaned in, looking herself straight in her one good eye. “Cynthia Mora Toms, You’ve got to get a hold of yourself. If buggy alien dust motes can build, and keep building, a thinga-ma-jig in your bathroom, you can at least get your ass together.” In a grand, dramatic gesture she yanked a cheese doodle bit out of her hair.
Grabbing her brush, she carefully combed out the rat’s nest of knots. She washed her face. Not wanting to risk a shower, she wiped down with a washcloth and slipped on a pair of clean jeans, along with a nice blouse. She set to work picking up the apartment. In her clothes hamper she found her spare eyeglasses. Next came the kitchen. The dishes alone took close to an hour. At last, she was able to sit down with a hot cup of chamomile tea. And it felt good. It felt right. I’m gonna be okay, she thought.
Then there came a knock at the door.