The Saints of Bell

I originally wrote this story for The Scribblers’ Club, a short story challenge I took on with my friends. Long ago, I was inspired by dictionary definition of “saint” cited at the top of the story, from which the phrase “capable of interceding for people on Earth” stuck with me as a science fiction concept for many years.

——

saint: n. a person officially recognized, especially by canonization, as being entitled to public veneration and capable of interceding for people on Earth.

My mother is a Saint. No one would recognize her as my mother, if she ever left the house, but they’d know her as a Saint right off. Nobody could miss her iridescent skin or her saucer-sized black eyes. They’d know without asking that she chose the aliens over the humans.

That’s why I never let her leave the house. I can’t bear for her to suffer the judgment of the near-strangers who live in Bell. She’d wither to nothing and leave me, like Dad and the boys, and I’d be truly alone. I’ve kept her with me this long. I don’t intend on losing her now.

The extraterrestrials have only been gone a week—to be exact (which every lucky human on the face of this planet is right now), it’ll be seven days at 6:35 p.m. tonight, the 7th of April. We’re all counting, tallying up our precious seconds of good fortune.

A few aren’t feeling so blessed. I can feel my mother wilting away with each hour that stretches between her and her half-people. She begs me to take her outside, to let her walk, even though she can barely pull herself up off the floor and onto the couch. I tell her, No, we can’t, you’ll burn in the sun, it’s too hot, Mama.

I call her Mama when I want her to remember who she was, before Contact. My mother was always a little funny to the others in a tiny town like Bell, a little lost in the clouds, something Dad loved about her. Growing up, I remember the house full of crystals and dreamcatchers and charms. I guess all things considered, it wasn’t too big a leap for her to go from believing in humanity’s connection to all things in the universe…to believing her place in the universe was to fuse herself with an extraterrestrial lifeform.

That belief made her leave her three young sons and husband just four months after the aliens landed, to seek out hearts like hers on the other side. Before she left, she told us that Contact promised a truly connected life, a bright future for her whole family: humanity.

Instead, it turned her into this husk of a woman who naps fitfully and constantly, and whose deformed fingers can no longer bring food to her mouth.

Today, I make us a familiar breakfast of toast and eggs from Funny’s chickens, ‘cause Funny’s the only one I trust to buy food from; she’s one of the few round Bell who managed to keep things growing and living during the eight years of war. My mother slumps on the couch, curled into herself, staring at the TV without seeing it. They’re still broadcasting the warnings, the same grainy clips of blood and fangs and expert opinion, the same call to arms that started playing when an alien first attacked a human a few days after Contact. Out this far, we don’t get much else for television. Nevada was never good for that even before Contact. Network executives don’t care if the people in Bell get their pictures.

I feed my mother, one slow bite at a time, and we don’t say much. She can still talk, but what would we talk about?

“Let me go outside,” my mother finally says, breaking an hour’s silence with her earlier refrain.

I feel myself relenting, sluggish from the eggs and bread. “Alright. After it’s dark. I’ll take you out on the road.”

We both jump at the sharp knock on the door. No one visits us—at least, they haven’t in years. My heart pounding, I pad silently on feet trained by years of guerilla warfare and press my eye to the peephole.

I catch my breath, recognizing the dusty, dusky face instantly. It’s Matéo Hernandez, Bell’s hometown military hero, a Marine who graduated from the class before mine. The week before Contact, the town threw a party to welcome him back from his first tour of the Middle East. These last eight years, at the cost of his youth and his left eye, he’s defended Bell and its 300-odd people from alien snipers, swords, and teeth.

He’s still as handsome as he was in high school. I remember what he looked like, bent over his physics homework in the classroom across from mine, catching my eye and smiling a secret smile. I remember blushing ‘cause his hair was so perfect and his smile so charming.

But right now, outside my childhood home, he’s sweating and he looks like he’s going to be sick, shifting from foot to foot. He’s crunching an envelope into a bowtie in his right hand, and somehow that takes all the power out of his crisp Marine uniform and the tiny grey streaks in his hair. He looks 22 again.

He raises his fist to knock again and I open the door. We stare at each other for a long moment. Matéo is blinking really fast, but he looks me in the eye, steadfast.

“Holá, Stefan.” He’s always said my name the same way, stay-fawn, lingering on that first syllable. “I have not seen you in a long time.”

“No,” I say. “Not in a long time. Eight years.” That’s not strictly true—I’ve seen him around Bell, and I know he buys eggs from Funny too. We’ve made eye contact throughout the long months, but nothing more.

He nods. “Sí. Too long. Much too long. Stefan, I have—” I watch as Matéo draws himself up and squares himself up to do something I can tell he doesn’t want to do. “I have a letter from the government.” He thrusts the compressed envelope in front of him.

I take one corner, never looking away from his face, though he’s looking down at where our hands are almost touching. “Do you know what it says?” It’s the only question I can think to ask over the roar of terror rising in my head.

Matéo swallows. He knows. He nods again. “Sí.”

I look at the envelope, which is speckled by dust. In the corner is the unmistakable lion logo of the Bureau of Extraterrestrial Affairs. I have to wipe my palms on my pants before I can turn it over and tear it open.

“Who’s there? Who is it?” calls my mother from the couch.

Matéo’s eyes flick to the darkness behind me, then up to my face. “I did not want to give this to you, amigo. They are sending these to the home of every Saint. Stefan, if there is anything I can do to…”

If he keeps talking, I don’t hear him, ‘cause the words on the slim sheet of paper inside the envelope consume all my attention.

EXECUTIVE ORDER 151-01 – INTERNMENT OF SURVIVING EXTRATERRESTRIAL AND QUASI-EXTRATERRESTRIAL BEINGS IN BLAINE COUNTY, MONTANA. EFFECTIVE ON THE 9TH OF APRIL, 2041, AND ENFORCED BY THE UNITED STATES MILITARY.

There’s more, but it’s blurred on the page.

Clutching the letter to my hip, I close the door in Matéo’s face. I stand in the cool, dark house and stare into the shadows.

“Let me go outside,” my mother says softly.

——

Long after dark, I wrap my mother in a sheet and we slip out the back door to my two-seater bicycle. She weighs so little, I can pedal for both of us. I keep to the trees until we’re far out of town, and then I turn onto the dusty road that wanders down from Bell to Shrill Creek Canyon.

The moon lights up sun-bleached campaign signs as we roll past, the bike’s tires growling on the gravel. VOTE HEARST FOR EARTH FIRST! MARTINEZ WORKS FOR HUMANS. SEE THE WAR THROUGH—RE-ELECT GUPTA.

My mother doesn’t say a word. She’s interlaced her misshapen fingers around my middle so she can’t fall off the bike, and I can feel her heartbeats thudding on my back. That was the first thing I couldn’t get used to, when my mother staggered through the doorway after a year and a half, and I held her on my lap for two days straight as she went between sobbing and sleeping. I’d looked past her huge eyes and her disproportionate head to see my mother, and I’d held her crooked hand as often as she would let me—but I’d tensed every time her three hearts beat rat-tat-tat against my thighs.

But tonight, half a decade later, there’s an odd comfort to the rhythm against my spine.

Soon the campaign signs are sparser and the squat tree shadows are thicker, and I can smell the aptly-named Shrill Creek, which shrieks down a narrow canyon at a speed most wildlife fears. I turn the bike off the road, which is just a couple of dirt tracks now, and climb off in a tiny dust cloud. I lift my mother off and lean her and the bike against a huge, flat boulder.

I rest my back against the boulder, too, and stare at the moon for a while. I can hear my mother’s breath rattling in her lungs—organs gone wrong in the fusion, ‘cause the aliens breathe nitrogen, not oxygen.

Two days from now, she’ll be on an Army truck bound for Montana, and I’ll never see her again.

Frustrated tears fill my eyes, making the moon watery. All this time, I’d kept my mother inside so people wouldn’t judge her for being a Saint. Now she faces the ultimate judgment, and because of me, she has no sweet memories of me and her and Bell these past eight years to lean on when she’s all alone in the camp.

All ‘cause I couldn’t stand the thought of being judged for being a Saint’s son.

“Stefan,” she says, and I’m 21 again for a moment, because she hasn’t said my name since she returned to me. She speaks so gently I almost sob.

“I’m here, Mama.” I reach out and twine my fingers with her knobby ones, a guilty knot in my gut.

“I miss James. I miss Greggy and Adrian.” She hasn’t said any of our names until now. She’s certainly never spoken like this. “I know you don’t understand why I left you all. I’ve spent the last six years trying to make peace with the fact that no one understands why I did what I did.” She isn’t crying, ‘cause she doesn’t have tear ducts anymore, but her voice shakes. I squeeze her hand. She pauses to catch her breath, and I lift her up onto the boulder so she can lay on her back and look up at the stars. I don’t know if she’ll get to see stars much where she’s going, and I know how much she always loved Nevada for its clear desert skies.

She tugs on my hand and I crawl up on the boulder beside her. It’s still warm from the sun, and when my mother begins to speak again, her unplaceable accent lulls me dangerously close to sleep.

“I’m your mother still, Stefan, but I’m also Irikan, a raasheen who follows the teachings of the Great Sa Sella. Through Irikan’s extra-human senses and religious training, and my innate oneness with the life on this planet, together, here on Earth, we can feel exactly where we belong in the fabric of the universe. It’s everything I longed for my whole life. It’s exactly what I believed in with all my heart. And yet…”

She trails off and her grip on my hand goes slack. She finishes in a much softer voice, “I don’t know that understanding was worth losing everyone.”

I bite my lip. I’ve always wanted to ask her why she went, but I was afraid of the answer.

“The raasheen believe I betrayed them,” my mother says. Her words are swallowed up by the emptiness of the desert and the trill of the creek. “I was trying to act as intercessor between a human merchant and a raasheen civilian group when I came in contact with a peanut. I had never been allergic before, but I went into anaphylactic shock, and the merchant rushed me to a government hospital. That’s how they found out about the allergy. That’s how they knew how to kill the raasheen.” My mother’s voice catches. I sit up and hug my knees, looking down at her face, which contorts in grief. Her massive eyes are closed.

“Then the government sent me home, told me never to go near the raasheen again, or they would make sure my family suffered for my second treachery. I came home to Bell, and…it was just you. Just you and our house and my big, empty purpose.”

I look up at the moon again. My mother’s story bounces inside my hollow heart. I can’t find the nerve to tell her about the internment. But maybe, because of what she is, she already knows.

“I know,” she whispers, as if reading my mind. Maybe she can read my mind.

My mother is a Saint now, but she was a saint long ago, when she gave up her career at a prominent California laboratory to marry my father and raise her first son, me, in James’s little hometown of Bell. She gave me and my brothers everything as a mother, her energy and her brilliance and her radiant soul.

I understand now that I took it from her for a long time, but I’m going to give her freedom.

I slide off the boulder and reach my hands up to her. She props herself up on a long elbow and stares at me. “What is it? Do we have to go home now?”

“We’re not going home, Mama. We’re going away.”

“Away?” she asks, pushing herself up to a sitting position. Her silhouette is strange and familiar, blacking out a portion of the stars.

I catch her around the waist and sweep her off the boulder. “Yes, away. Hold on tight.” I load her onto the bike again, then fling my leg over and pedal with all my strength.

I put the sound of Shrill Creek behind us quick as I push back up the dusty path. The slope is hard on my calves, but my mother’s heartbeats are a drumline that drives me onward, onward, onward. Canyon walls rise up sharply around us, then give way to flatter scrubland, with the road broadening and deepening. The bike’s tires are more sure on the well-packed dirt, and we fly across the desert.

Then a pair of bright headlights cuts through the thick 4 a.m. darkness below the horizon, pointing straight at us. My mother tightens her grip on my waist. I gently ease the bike off the road, pedaling along the edge, slowing and swerving to avoid cacti. I don’t pray, but I whisper a wish that the truck will turn off on one of the endless private driveways between us and it.

The truck keeps coming, and fast. My breathing is so shallow that I wish I hadn’t left my inhaler at the house. When the truck is close enough that I can hear the engine, I lose it and bolt, pushing the bike off the road entirely, trying to make it to the safety of shadows.

The truck turns too, bouncing wildly across the tiny sandhills and resistant bushes. Its lights create a wide swathe of brightness in the desert in front of us. I wonder how long it took the BEA to guess that we’d run. It wasn’t even an hour ago that I’d figured it out myself.

Then I hear a voice so familiar and sweet to my ears that my exhausted legs immediately stop working as relief washes over me.

“Stefan! Amigo! It is me!”

“Matéo!” I cry, slumping over the handlebars of the bike, my chest heaving. My mother slides to one side and I rush to catch her even as I tumble into the sand myself, the bike sprawling in the opposite direction. Matéo is beside us in seconds, gathering my mother up in his arms and carrying her to the back seat of his truck. I watch him set her down tenderly and then walk back to me.

“Amigo, I am sorry I did not tell you right away. I know a place you can take your madre, somewhere safe. My sister has a shed in the desert, a place to stop over for those who should not be here, comprende?”

He takes my hand and helps me sit up, and then he doesn’t let go of my hand. My skin tingles where he’s touching me. I do understand what he means. He means his sister helps illegals once they’ve crossed the U.S. border. The Saints are a kind of illegal now. I’m sure I’m not the only family member of a Saint who’s wrestling with treachery today.

God damn the Bureau of Extraterrestrial Affairs.

“Take us there,” I say.

Matéo nods and pulls my arm so I can get to my feet. I lean heavily on him as we walk to the truck. He smells good, like Bell smells right after school gets out, earthy and heavy with possibility. He helps me get into the passenger’s seat and then straps my mother in before revving the truck’s engine and tearing back onto the road.

We fly down the dirt track in silence. I see Matéo’s fingers digging into the steering wheel. I want to ask him why he, a loyal Marine, is helping us commit treason, but I think I know the answer. I don’t know if I’m ready to hear him say it, yet.

But I reach out and brush the side of his leg. And he drops one hand off the steering wheel and catches mine. My mother sighs softly from the back seat.

The road curves upward and heads to higher ground as the sun glows on the horizon behind us. Matéo drops my hand and starts to scan the land around us constantly, shading his eyes as the sunlight grows brighter. I turn and look at my mother, whose eyes are half-lidded, watching me.

“I love you, Stefan,” she says quietly.

My throat tightens with compassion for this woman, this being, who has always loved everything and everyone with her whole heart. That’s never changed about my mother. She’s been my example and my saint all my life. “I love you too, Mama.”

“There,” Matéo barks, pointing. I follow his finger to the dark spot on the horizon and we exchange a look. I nod, and he puts his foot down. The truck lurches and bounds across the desert while we hang on for our lives.

I think about what I’ll leave behind by escaping with my mother. Bell isn’t much of a town, but it’s the home I’ve known my whole life. Once upon a childhood, I thought I’d find a sweet boy in Bell to love, and we’d buy a house above the shops on Main to spend our days polishing rocks we found in the desert to sell to tourists. That dream died on Contact, but I’d saved a seed of hope to replant, someday.

I look down to see my right hand balled into a fist. I rest my wrist on the windowsill of the truck and gently open my fingers, throwing that seed into the wind.

The dark spot of the shed looms closer. Matéo slows the truck to a crawl and fumbles for a walkie talkie in the pocket of his door. “Ana! Ana, Matéo aquí, y dos amigos.”

The walkie talkie crackles, and then a woman’s voice: “Ana aquí. Bring them in.”

My throat thickens with emotions I can’t name. “Mama,” I say, twisting around to gaze down at her on the back seat, “we’re going to travel for a while.”

“No,” she says, blinking up at me. She rarely used that word with me when I was young, so I’ve always obeyed it. But I can’t this time. Not when doing so would shatter my world.

“Ma’am, I am afraid you need to leave. My sister is safe, and your son will go with you. The BEA is rounding up aliens. Ana will find you a place to live.” Matéo has his best gentle soldier voice on, and I can’t help but study his face as he stops the truck and turns to face my mother. “I promise I will watch over Bell for you.”

I see my mother’s eyes fill with tears. “I know I have to go,” she says. “I don’t belong here now. But Stefan can’t come with me.”

Something passes between her and Matéo, an understanding so keen it slashes at my heart.

The next few moments are a blur. Matéo and my mother get out of the truck and he supports her gently as she struggles to walk to the shack. I realize I’m pounding on the window and screaming, and I fumble with the handle and fall out of the seat. “Mama! Mama, you can’t go, you can’t leave me again!”

Somehow I’m on my feet and stumbling through a growing cloud of dust, reaching for my mother. She leans into Matéo and stretches her arm behind her without looking. Our fingers touch, gnarled alien hand against my smooth human skin, and then I trip and fall to my knees in the sand. I can only watch as my mother the Saint hobbles unaided across the lightening desert. The cacti and the stones and the mesas and the roads glow pink and gold as the sun crowns the hills, and I see clearly how beautiful my mother is. She stands silhouetted in the doorway of the shed for a moment—bowed, warped, beloved.

Matéo stands halfway between me and the shack. He raises his hand to a woman who appears briefly in the doorway after my mother; the woman moves her fingers in a tiny wave and closes the door.

The desert morning is so quiet, I hear the click of the latch and the thud of the lock sliding into place. That sound of finality echoes against the boulders standing sentinel for the sunrise.

Just yesterday I was planning another trip to Funny’s to get us fresh eggs, and my mother was begging me to take her outside. Just yesterday I knew what my life was, and why I bothered to live it each day; I was the son of a Saint, bound to care for her forever, to protect her from the cruel world. Now my mother is gone, and I’m alone again.

Only, I’m not. Footsteps make me raise my head and I shade my eyes to look at Matéo. “Gracias, amigo,” I manage through cracked lips. “Gracias.”

He drops beside me and takes me in his arms. For a long moment, I’m too surprised to do anything, and I let him hold me. I feel the rhythm of his single heart against my chest, and something in me that’s been tight and angry for years loosens.

“You are very brave to give your madre her freedom, corazón. And she was very brave to give you yours.”

Insects begin to drone as they awaken and swirl the plants and our faces. I breathe in Matéo’s earthy scent and I wonder what I’ll do with the life now spreading ahead of me, full of possibility.

The answer comes to me almost immediately. In my mind’s eye, I see the aliens and the Saints, crowded together behind bars, cut off from every world they’ve ever called home.

“Matéo,” I say, pulling away to search his handsome face, “we have to give them all their freedom.”

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