By Antony Buonomo
One morning, two Friends that she didn't recognise came to her while she was reading quietly.
One of them was a man, he even had the new hair beginning to emerge around his chin and top lip. He was at least one hand taller than Lena, and as she put her book down and stood, she had to look up to him.
The other Friend was a woman with a fully curved body, strong and vital, nothing like Lena's slim and fragile frame. The woman was shorter than the man, but still much taller than Lena.
"Will you help us, Lena?" Said the woman, smiling.
"Yes. Helping you is helping all of us, I know that." No hesitation, but not glassy-eyed rote, just earnest and thoughtful.
"Good. Thank you. Don't you want to know how you can help us?"
"Yes, I would, but why did you pick me?" Lena said as she looked around at the others in the soft light of the Peaceful Room. Some were so small they had to be tended and fed constantly by Friends almost as old as the two standing in front of her. Some, with their gleeful first steps, stumbled around exploring, indulgently watched over and protected. Others, like Lena, read or chatted or played games.
The two Friends indicated that she should sit down again. As she sits, they take two seats close to her, at an intimate but not oppressive distance.
The woman has an open expression, and looks directly at Lena as she speaks. "We've noticed, we've all noticed, how good you are at keeping calm. Two weeks ago, when the First Friend got very angry… A lot of the younger Friends got scared, but you tried to talk to the First Friend, and then when she was taken away, you comforted the little ones."
As the woman speaks, Lena sees that some parts of the woman's skin, around her forehead, the tip of her chin, and a little on each cheek, are red and a little shiny, almost blotchy. For some reason this fascinates Lena, and she almost misses what comes next from the man.
"It's important, because what we want to show you is probably going to frighten you very much. It really helps if you are the type of person that can make a distance between what you see and what you feel. Do you think I'm describing you well?"
Lena sincerely weighs the question. Her small face crinkling in thought. Eventually she says "yes, I think you are describing me well."
The man continues, "We need to be sure you understand, Lena. You have never seen anything like this before, and although you may be very scared, please remember that you cannot be harmed, that we would never allow you to be harmed."
The woman smiles, "is that clear? You will be completely safe."
Lena looks at the intelligent and benign faces. "Yes, that's clear. But what do you want to show me?"
"We can't tell you…" The man says.
"Is it something alive?"
"Even if we tried to explain, it wouldn't make sense to you anyway, not properly." Said the woman.
"I'm clever, maybe…" Lena says, gently moving from curiosity into an area she didn't recognise. Something like an itch that she couldn't reach. A blemish hanging in crystal clear liquid. The beginnings of discomfort.
"I'm sorry." Said the man. "It has to be your decision."
Lena hesitates. With slight surprise she realises that one of her hands is clenching and unclenching.
"All right," says the woman looking at Lena carefully. "We can tell you this: we can tell you that we have something… alien. Something we've never had before. Something we can't announce to everyone. Something we want to show to the calmest and cleverest Friends."
Lena looks at her. Her little fist still moving.
A short time later, she is sitting in a comfortable chair in a small room with a doorway at either end. Gentle light coming from above. A small table sits against one of the walls.
"Are you ready, Lena?" The soft voice of the woman comes from somewhere. "Remember, you can't be harmed. Just don't get too close. Understand?"
Lena nods, blinking a little too much.
She sits and stares at the far door. Clearly seeing how, very soon, a slight tremble of the door will be the signal to its opening. Seeing how the dark crack will suddenly yawn open to reveal something that she cannot imagine. Knowing that this will all happen in the next moment, her breath is shorter, hands gripping the chair.
And while she is thinking this the door opens and the blackness looms and then the alien is in the room.
Without any conscious awareness of movement, Lena has backed herself into a corner of the room, as far as possible from the creature.
The alien sits in some kind of wheelchair. Slumped really. It seems to have legs and arms, but they are bony and angled. Its skin is pockmarked, with many folds and sags. Some parts of it have a fine dry fur. It looks scared and confused, it's dark eyes searching the room.
"I want to go." Says Lena.
At the sound of the voice, the alien's eyes snap to the small figure in the corner. When it sees Lena, its eyes widen and the skin on its face slackens. Its pink and toothless mouth begins to open. It's trying to make a sound. It slowly raises a wavering and bent limb out towards Lena, but the effort seems to be too much and the limb starts to shake and then collapses back down.
But the alien's eyes never leave Lena. And Lena has never seen such sadness in a living thing.
Lena looks up, "please… I want to…"
Then she sees tears. The alien is crying. Its mouth is moving but only a low pleading moan emerges.
Lena had only ever seen tears in the very little ones. She didn't know that anything else was capable of crying. Hesitatingly, she starts moving toward to the alien.
"Not too close Lena." The voice of the woman.
Lena stops a few paces from the alien, almost within arm’s reach. The alien seems to refocus, and see Lena clearly for the first time. Its face widens into something like astonishment. Lena has seen expressions like this before in the faces of the little ones when they are shown something new and wondrous, pure and unfiltered, but now, seeing this in an alien being, confuses her.
Then the alien's face twists into what Lena would call a smile. A desolate, lonely and faraway smile.
A smile of such profound sadness that Lena only has one thought, that of comforting this creature. She steps closer.
"Lena." The woman.
Then there seems to be an urgent and whispered conversation between the man and the woman.
"It's all right, Lena," the man says eventually, "our testing has been thorough, toxicity is zero. I promise, you are safe."
Never breaking from the alien's deep dark eyes, Lena reaches out and places her hand on the end of one of the gnarled limbs. The skin is warm, dry and rough, and she runs her fingers over what could be bony white knuckles. The alien's eyes close softly, and bigger tears start to fall. Lena puts her hand on a curved hump, somewhere between the alien's head and a shoulder. She can feel a trembling, a soft sobbing motion. Its breath is uneven, catching and hanging.
The alien opens its eyes. It's definitely a smile. Then, with massive effort, it raises its limb again. Lena fights an instinct to move back. Shaking, the limb comes towards Lena's face. As it gets nearer the end of the limb opens, and with utter shock, Lena can see that the creature has fingers on a hand. It even has nails similar to hers, but much thicker and yellowing.
The alien's fingers reach Lena's soft face and the girl closes her eyes. She feels the soft caress of the fingertips on her cheek, gently stroking her smooth skin. It is a feeling she has never known before. A feeling of deep connection, joy and sorrow, comfort and longing, all at once. Lena's breath stops. And then releases into a huge sob. She starts crying, and opens her eyes.
Still with the faraway smile, and with trembling fingers, the alien carefully wipes away Lena's tears. It starts to make a shape with its mouth, it says "Shhhh…" and pushes a few stray hairs away from Lena's face.
"Shhh…" it says again, softly, as its arm falls back.
Lena can't stop crying as she looks at the grey, hunched and shrivelled figure in front of her. The fragile frame wrapped in a blanket. At the infinitely kind face and eyes looking back at her, full of a wisdom never before revealed to her.
Lena steps forward and buries her face in the softness of the blanket and the warmth of the creature. The alien slowly and tenderly wraps an arm around Lena and rests its cheek against the girls head.
The alien's mouth moves silently for a moment and then manages to form some sounds, scratchy and slurred. "You… are… the most… beautiful… thing… I have ever seen…"
Lena holds the old man tightly, crying freely now, with huge wracking sobs.