The Outer Planets

Shortlisted, Overland Wine Prize, 2014
This story is based on an oral history interview with a friend and colleague.

M Watercolour

 

aris snaps when Felix tells her he was beamed up by aliens. She waits until her son, Allan, leaves the room and tells Felix to get in the car. She doesn’t give him time to grab anything or put on a belt. His pants hang loose around his hips, the elastic of his Y-fronts showing. She drives out to an empty car park at the back of a half-built hospital, the cranes unmoving on the weekend, the scaffolding visible through the unfinished rooms.

She flings herself out and slams the door. The car rocks on its suspension. She opens his door and stands with her forearms on the roof.

‘How dare you say that in front of the kid?

‘He’s got a right to know.’

‘You have to leave,’ Maris says, and pulls her arms down.

He slams his hand into the dashboard and the glove box springs open.

‘Don’t be such a child,’ Maris says.

‘You can’t make me.’

‘No. But I can make your life hell. You weren’t bloody beamed up by aliens.’

‘You don’t understand anything,’ he says.

‘When?’

‘What?’

‘When were you beamed up?’

‘What does it matter?’

‘Because I want to know when. I’ve slept with you each and every single night. I’ve lain awake listening to you snore and wondering what I’ve done with my life. When would the aliens have had a chance?’

‘Don’t be so literal.’

‘Answer the question.’

He sighs. ‘They don’t operate on the same time frame. You could’ve blinked and they’d of inspected me and sent me back.’

‘Inspected you?’

‘They take human subjects and use a kind of non-invasive surgery.’

‘You’re so arrogant.’

‘What?’

‘Why would they want you?’

‘Has it occurred to you that someone might see something in me? Just because you can’t.’

‘Is that what this is about?’

‘It’s bigger than you, Maris.’

‘Why’d you have to bring Allan into it? He’ll think you’re a nutter.’

‘I wanted him to know.’

She turns away.

‘I’m leaving you at a hotel,’ she says.

Back in the car, he starts saying something, holds his hand in his lap like he’s cradling a puppy.

‘My mother won’t understand,’ he says at the door to his room.

Maris leaves a bundle of Felix’s clothes at reception. The manager pulls at his ear and says he hopes she isn’t going to cause any trouble, lovey.

Maris looks him up and down and says, ‘Over my husband? Not worth it.’

She’s only gone for ten minutes, but the next morning morning, she finds that while she was away Allan scribbled in her notebook. Round, multi-eyed extra terrestrials with spindle legs pile one on the top of the other. The creatures criss-cross the lesson plans she’d spent the weekend piecing together. In the classroom, she reads around the aliens and skips over the parts the antennae obscure. Her day feels fragmented, the children sullen. She tells herself she was imagining things—they’re always like this.

Felix turns up just on dusk and stands outside the kitchen watching her make dinner. She throws a plate at his head. It misses him and he stands there, mournful and unmoving. Later, Allan gives him a cup of tea on the verandah.

When Allan comes back in, he says, ‘Did the aliens get you too?’

‘No.’

‘Why won’t you let dad in then?’ says Allan. ‘The aliens brainwashed you.’

‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ she says.

She wakes up in the night to Felix’s clammy body next to her. She sits bolt upright.

‘No,’ she says into his ear.

He twitches the blanket, shakes his head. She shoves him in the shoulder, can’t budge him, gets her feet into it. Once she maneuvered him to the edge of the bed, gravity does the rest. He hits the floorboards, yells, but all the air is knocked from him, so it comes out as a grunt.

‘Get out,’ Maris yells.

In the darkness, she hears his feet scuffling down the wooden hallway.

She listens for him for the rest of the night. She once goes to the verandah, but can’t see anything in the dark. In the night time breeze, the palm trees form a canopy of sound above her head, the moon touching the edges of the leaves. She’ll need to change the locks.

Next afternoon, turning into their street, Maris sees Felix standing in the garden. She pulls up on the verge opposite and bellows at him in her best teacher voice: ‘Get out!’

He very deliberately leans over and pulls up a paper daisy from the garden and holds it with the roots in the air, the tough little heads of flowers still fully open. It’s meant to scare her but has the opposite effect. She always knew he was capable of something like this, but he seemed so meek to everyone else.

‘I can sit here forever,’ she says. ‘Let’s see who gives up first.’

She watches him uprooting the garden. He knows she won’t ring the police. She never has before. When he pulls up the vine and reveals the pumpkins under the mildewed leaves, she puts her hand on the door. She didn’t realise there were so many. She thinks of Allan’s excitement when she taught him how to tear the male flower’s petals and fertilise a stamen. She’d felt a bit sorry for the female, the miniature pumpkin growing behind it, randomly selected, then compelled by biology. When Felix puts his foot through the pumpkins, she drives off.

Allan starts watching episodes of Dr Who, searching for his dad on the outer planets.

Image: ‘Planet and Nebula’ by Matt Hendrick.
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