Mr. Erick Dyer, a Quaker man from an old Quaker family, found the pod in his farm’s back forest on Saturday, July the fifth.
It had landed, by luck, in a clearing, so that the grass around it withered black. And, sure, the pod itself did seem a thing from another world—a metal cylinder, the size of Mr. Dyer’s newest calf, etched with unintelligible markings. For better or worse, he touched it; a black, shimmering dust, like gunpowder, stuck to his hand.
Sighing, he wiped the palm on his threadbare jeans, cocked his ball cap on his head, and walked back home, cutting through the brushing green of knee-high cornfields.
Mrs. Tabitha Dyer did not take to their interstellar visitor so calmly as he, though that’s hardly a surprise; she always did have a string or two too tight, and all these pod landings had weighed quite too heavy on her. When Mr. Dyer told her about it—the pod, that is—she was cutting coupons on the living room couch, and she almost sliced a three-for-a-dollar tomato soup deal right in half, that’s how seriously it shocked her.
“God in heaven!” she cried. “Erick, you must be joking!”
Franny Dyer, their 15-year-old daughter, heard all this from upstairs, and she came running down like a freight train. Her baby brother, Michael, stumbled along behind her. Still, they were kids, and they lingered, hesitating, at the bottom of the stairwell; they couldn’t interrupt, not with their mom’s voice harsh and scared like that, but they could listen in.
“Call the hotline, Erick,” Mrs. Dyer begged. “The Sunday Star’s on the kitchen table. The governor’s printed out the number big, there on the front page. It’s a crime not to call.”
Mr. Dyer hesitated. “Well . . . .”
“Someone will come right in and take care of it.”
Franny couldn’t help herself then, because she was 15 and a spitfire and too much like her father was at her age, if you asked him. “Mama, we can’t call them! You know what they do!”
Mrs. Dyer startled. “Frances, don’t you take that tone of voice with me.”
“But you know they’ll come in with flamethrowers and destroy the whole thing. Whatever poor creature’s inside gets burnt up right away.”
“And good riddance!”
Mr. Dyer spoke up now. He’d been thinking of what he felt led to say, and just then had figured it out. “Now, Tabby, let’s be reasonable here. Franny’s right. And who are we to call ourselves Friends if that doesn’t give us pause?”
Michael piped in, proudly—“It’s like Levi Coffin and the Underground Railroad!”—for Mrs. Whittard had just that year taught his second-grade class about the Civil War.
Mrs. Dyer hissed at him. “No, it’s not like that at all!”
And Michael, barely seven, started to cry. Franny pulled him close, and he hugged her.
Sighing, Mrs. Dyer apologized. She’d been born with three or four strings too tight, and she knew it.
“But please, Erick,” she said, looking up at her husband with tired, shining eyes. “We have no idea what is in those pods. On the news, they were showing them . . . these vicious creatures . . . .”
Mr. Dyer bowed his head. “We can’t know how exaggerated the stories are.”
“But why risk it?”
Mr. Dyer said nothing. Neither did Franny. Michael sniffled loudly.
“Please think of our children,” Mrs. Dyer whispered. She, too, wiped a tear from her cheek. “Think of their safety.”
For Mrs. Dyer, as everyone well knew, would do anything for her children.
Illustrations by 3000ad
The conversation ended, and the rest of the Saturday passed tense and silent. Mr. Dyer worked in the barn most of the day, bottle feeding his calves and asking himself whether something needed to be human to be cared for. Mrs. Dyer made the mistake of watching the news, but the footage of incinerated pods and hysterical interviews frightened her, so she turned off the television and sat silently on her porch, watching the hummingbirds buzz to and from her feeders. Michael and Franny tossed a baseball in the front yard, because the summer day settled unusually cool, and after lunch Michael sat in Franny’s room while she drew; he got clingy when he was scared, and normally that annoyed her, but today it didn’t.
All day, Franny felt she saw something, some horizon, that no one else could see.
Dinner was potatoes, green beans, and meatloaf. After silent prayer, Mr. Dyer brought it up again. “So the pod?”
Franny gripped her fork. “Keep it.”
Michael emulated his sister. “Yeah, keep it.”
And Mrs. Dyer, who had learned more from her hummingbirds than from a whole hour of network news, sighed. “I think we can keep it, if we’re careful.” She shuddered. “But I don’t want to see it. I don’t want to be near it. I don’t want to hear anything about it.”
Mr. Dyer nodded, and passed the mashed potatoes to the left.
And that was that.
Franny was alone on the morning the pod seal broke. To her, that felt inevitable. Mr. Dyer had always tried to join his children in the forest when they checked on the pod, but he had a sick calf that morning, and Michael was picking wild raspberries, so Franny was alone. She had come there, to the clearing, knowing she would be alone, and had sat down right beside the pod, as if to keep it company.
What a strange thing to see in this sunny glade, where insects buzzed and birds chattered: with a hiss, a crack, the pod split open, and lavender clouds spilled into grass and wildflowers.
Franny shot up as if settled on a tack. Her legs shook as mists curled around the tops of her tennis shoes.
Insects stopped buzzing. Birds stopped chattering.
Through the clouds, she could see it—the creature inside. It lay there, that same lavender. It wasn’t like a slug, or like a spot of putty, but it was something like both.
Franny couldn’t guess what it was, really. But it looked so tiny in that pod, and so helpless, like Michael had when her parents brought him home from the hospital. She’d been eight then—young enough to fear this crying, wrinkled thing invading her life, but old enough to know better.
Now she was 15, and she knew better.
Franny did not tremble when she reached into the pod. She did not tremble when she scooped the creature into her arms, held it tight the way she had her baby brother. It recoiled, at first, and when she pressed it against her chest, its viscous body shuddered, but then it relaxed against her, spreading out warm and soft at the spot where her tee brushed her throat.
And in that moment, she understood. She understood something she could not possibly have understood. But she understood it, and she welcomed it. She welcomed something she could not possibly have welcomed.
But she did.
The creature inched its way up her throat, toward her face. It reached out a single delicate feeler and pried, gently, at her lips, as if asking permission.
Franny opened her mouth, wide.
The rest felt like a nightmare. The rest felt like a dream. For Franny, it was warmth, slipping smoothly and delicately into the pit of her. Then a buzzing, like a purr, and one sharp and dizzy moment of pain.
Oh!, she thought, horrified. What have I done?
But in that throb of fear something rose to comfort her, though it didn’t speak: it hummed within her, close as her own thought, and it calmed her body, too, as if it was her own will.
And she wasn’t afraid.
She laid down in the grass, and she leaned back her head, and she . . . they . . . they closed their eyes . . . and they . . . .
“Erick Dyer, I cannot live under the same roof as that thing!”
“That thing is our daughter.”
Michael and Franny sat at the top of the stairs, listening. Mr. and Mrs. Dyer never fought as viciously as this. Michael whimpered, and Franny held him in their arms, stroked their fingers through his downy hair.
“That is not our daughter!”
“They are!” Mr. Dyer never yelled. But he did tonight. “Franny’s still our daughter, she’s just . . . they’re just something else now, too. Something more.”
“Don’t you see how horrible that is?”
A fist slammed on the kitchen table. “Damn it, Tabby! Franny was always something more than our daughter! What if they had grown up to be a lesbian? Or an atheist? Is this how you would have reacted?”
“You careless father!” Mrs. Dyer screamed. A glass shattered. “You useless, careless husband!”
For Mrs. Dyer, as everyone knew, would do anything for her children. Absolutely anything. But it was infinitely harder for her to accept that her children, one day, would do things for themselves.
And as much as he tried to understand, Mr. Dyer slept in the barn that night, and cried and cursed God.
“It’s like Moses,” Franny said. They were tossing a baseball with Michael in the yard, because the weather still was laying cool for July. “You remember Moses?”
Michael thought, throwing back the ball. “Like when his mama put him in a basket and sent him off on the Nile?”
Franny nodded. “Because Pharaoh wanted to kill him.”
As time went on, it was harder and harder for Michael to know whether it was Franny or Franny’s friend talking. He didn’t think it mattered. “Is that what happened? Where you’re from?”
Franny looked away. “Awful things happen everywhere.” But they didn’t think about it, because it still hurt too much; and when they’d attempted to explain it to Mr. and Mrs. Dyer, everything had come out so wrong.
They turned back to Michael, trying to smile. “Didn’t Mama have some ice cream for you, in the freezer?”
Michael clapped his hands. “Um, yeah!”
So they scooped Michael his ice cream, adding extra chocolate syrup, and the brother and sister nibbled sweets in afternoon sunlight.
All this Mrs. Dyer watched from the porch, where hummingbirds flitted to and from her feeders.
Next week, the government arrived. Their AI had tracked a pod falling on the Dyer farm, and all night men with flamethrowers combed the back forest, looking. And they found it, for Mr. Dyer had done nothing with the empty pod but leave it in the clearing.
“Y’all are lucky,” said the chief officer to the family the next morning at breakfast. “Those devils die in minutes without a host body. That pod opened up weeks ago, so the thing must have shriveled to dust in the forest. Perfect ending, if you ask me.”
Franny closed their eyes, feeling nauseous.
“I appreciate your vigilance,” Mr. Dyer said.
“Of course!” The officer helped himself to a piece of bacon. “You’ve got a lovely family. Gives me hope that there’s something in this horrible world worth protecting.”
So the men with flamethrowers made to leave, packing their equipment into big black vans. As they worked, the officer turned again to the Dyers.
“It’s just odd,” he said. And he studied the family, up and down. “Those pods make such a fuss when they land. Big sound, big lights. But y’all say you didn’t know you had one come down back there?”
And Mrs. Dyer stood tall, because even though she was a tight ball of strings, she would do anything for her children, and she would have put Moses in a basket, too.
“No, sir,” she said. And she reached for Franny’s hand, squeezed it. “We didn’t see a thing. It must have landed the night of the fourth.”
“Fireworks!” the officer said, understanding.
Mrs. Dyer nodded. “We probably saw it and thought it was fireworks.”
That satisfied the officer. The vans drove off, down the dirt road. The family watched them leave, until they were only specks of black, kicking up dust in the July sun.
And then, before the food got cold, the Dyers went in and finished breakfast.