“Seth,” Ginny hissed, waving at her husband’s wrist, “put that down!”
Seth put down the fork he had picked up. “What’s wrong with eating now?” he asked. He pushed his dentures back in his mouth with his hand. Ginny bit back a sigh. “Pastor’s done talking. We brought the mac and cheese, anyways, so we can eat it whenever we want.”
Ginny frowned, tucked a strand of white hair behind her ear, and settled her purse back into her lap. “That wasn’t your fork,” she pointed out, quietly.
Seth glanced down at the fork he had set down, then at the one next to his plate. He glanced around the room; the church potluck moved on around him, bustling with all the voices and bodies in the little cafeteria at once, and he apparently considered himself safe to replace his utensil. He nudged the former fork closer to his neighbor’s plate. Unfortunately, said neighbor saw the movement and turned to him.
“Seth,” said Thomas, Seth’s self-proclaimed arch-nemesis, leaning back in his chair. He looked smug, like he was remembering the last Harvest Fair, when his biggest hog beat out Seth’s. Seth’s face was pinched, like he was remembering the exact same moment. “My man, I didn’t notice you there.” He clapped Seth on the shoulder. “You still on that old farm of yours?”
“Yup,” Seth, ever the charmer, said. Ginny glared at Thomas.
“Ahh, well,” Thomas said. “You’ll move on up someday. Take me, for example,” Thomas began to say, but Ginny was distracted: Seth started turning a little hazy.
“Honey?” Ginny said. Seth turned to her; Thomas scowled.
“I was talking,” Thomas said. “I was saying, ‘Take me,’ and—”
Seth blurred in and out of his chair. Ginny blinked at him, then grabbed his wrist. The whole of the church cafeteria blinked out of existence, then back in, then out again, before completely blending into darkness. When Ginny rubbed her eyes, then opened them again, a silver-and-chrome room had replaced the darkness.
“What the heck?” Ginny said, turning to find Seth still seated beside her, looking pleasantly confused, but not quite concerned yet.
“Where’d Tom go?” Seth asked. Ginny’s brow furrowed.
“Where’d the church go, honey?” Ginny said. Seth seemed, momentarily, surprised by the unfamiliar room around them. A chime at a door-like apparatus distracted Seth fully, and he got up off the steel bench they had been transported onto.
“Sit down,” Ginny whispered, but Seth was already walking over to two towering green creatures, offering his hand.
“Pleasure to meetcha,” he said, arm still out. The absolute moron. He’d say hello to the Devil if he saw him in the cereal aisle. “I’m Seth Bradbury.”
The creatures stared down at him with many eyes, examining his body, then his extended arm. They, too, reached out many slithering hands, wrapping around Seth’s arm. He shook, then withdrew, looking only mildly surprised. Ginny clutched her purse.
“What can I do for you fellas?” Seth asked. The things stared down at him.
“I am Mark,” said one of the monsters. Ginny stopped being frightened for a moment to be baffled. The monster motioned to the one beside him. “He is Ted.”
“Pleasure,” Seth said again. He motioned back to Ginny. “That’s my wife, Virginia Bradbury.”
“Wife?” Ted asked. Seth spun his hands a little bit. “What is… wife?”
“Uhh… like, a girl. Mate?” Seth offered. “She gave me kids. I love her a lot.”
“We have only male offspring,” Ted explained. He motioned to Mark. Ginny stared at them, dumbfounded. “Mark gave me kids. He took them from Blaison 12.”
“Sounds nice,” Seth said. “So, what can we do for you folks? I’m guessing you’re not from round these parts.”
“We are not,” Mark said. “We are from Ranawk 6. We came to find a human of high intelligence to communicate with us. We heard a man boasting of his high intelligence, one whom you referred to as… ‘Tom.’”
“Oh, Tom!” Seth exclaimed, happy. Ginny glared daggers at the back of his head, but he kept talking, still standing in front of the writhing beasts and their many legs. “Yeah, Tom’s an alright guy. Not much of a farmer, but he went to college for accounting I think. Was it accounting, baby?”
“No,” Ginny replied, before she could stop herself. “It was marketing.”
“Yeah,” Seth said. “Marketing and management.”
“Just marketing,” Ginny said.
“Exactly,” Seth agreed, turning back to Mark and Ted. “But he’s not the boss at the Grab’n’Go, so I’m not sure what that was for.”
“What language is she speaking?” Ted asked, motioning to Ginny with seven arms. Seth glanced back at her again.
“Uhh,” Seth said. “American.”
“English,” Ginny said.
“See, I don’t understand that,” Mark told Seth. “What does she have there, anyways?”
“Her purse,” Seth said.
“What’s it for?”
“Holding things,” Seth told them.
“I have mace in it,” Ginny said.
“How do you communicate with her if you don’t speak the same language?” Ted asked Seth. Seth glanced back at Ginny, shrugged, and turned to Ted again.
“We manage,” Seth said. “To be honest, I never noticed that she spoke English and I spoke American. They sound really alike.”
“They don’t to us,” Mark said. “Regardless. We heard this intelligent human, Tom, assert his own strength of mind, and also request to be taken. We figured, with his advanced intelligence, he must have known we were there, and attempted to take him.”
“We took you by accident,” Ted added.
“And your wife by super-accident,” Mark continued.
“Sorry,” Ted said.
“That’s alright,” Seth said. “Maybe I can help anyways. Did you need Tom for anything in particular?”
“We wanted a prime example of humanity,” Mark said. “The best of the best. Are you a suitable stand-in?”
“Are you sure you don’t want Tom?” Ginny asked.
“What’d she say?” Mark said, to Seth.
“She asked if you want Tom instead of us,” Seth told them.
“No, we don’t have the juice for another beam-up,” Ted said. “We only meant to beam up one of you. Two of you took up a lot of energy.”
“Do you have enough energy to beam us down?” Ginny asked. Mark and Ted both looked at Seth.
“She asked if you had the juice to send us home,” Seth translated.
“We will shortly,” Mark said, “but we do not want to send you home.”
“Ahh, well, the kids’ll be disappointed,” Seth said. Ginny reached, slowly, into her purse, but three of Ted’s eyes landed on her.
“What’s she doing?” Ted demanded. Seth glanced back at her.
“Oh, she’s got snacks in there,” Seth told them, before Ginny could tell him to be quiet. “Baby, you got any of those fruit bars in there? The ones Junior likes.”
Ginny hesitated, then said, “Yeah.”
“You’ll love em,” Seth told Mark before motioning Ginny forward. “Give em a couple. A real taste of human culture for Cesar 4.”
“Ranawk 6,” Ted corrected, as Ginny dug a couple of apple-cinnamon fruit bars out of her purse and held them out, hand trembling. Several of Ted’s tentacle-fingers wrapped around her hand to take the crinkled plastic from her, and she barely repressed a full-body shiver.
“Those look like apple,” Seth told them, before showing them how to unwrap the bars. The aliens followed Seth’s instructions and took bites with one of their four mouths: not the ones that spoke, but ones with many sharp, black teeth. They both looked repulsed.
“You said to eat these, right?” Mark asked.
“Yeah,” Seth said, frowning. “You don’t like em?” He turned to Ginny. “How long’ve those been in your purse, baby?”
“Couple of months,” Ginny said, hand wrapped around her mace in her bag.
“Well, those should still be good,” Seth said. “Don’t got apples on Ranawk 6, then?”
“Apples? No,” Mark said. “What’s this… what’s this flavor?”
“Apple cinnamon,” Ginny offered.
“She said apple cinnamon,” Seth told them.
“We need cinnamon,” Ted said, opening a chute in the wall and dumping both fruit bars down the hole. “We use it for our energy.”
“You use cinnamon for energy?” Ginny asked. Seth relayed the question.
“Yes, and ginger,” Ted told them.
“And other spices,” Mark said. “You have them here?”
“Must be imported,” Ted commented, out of the side of a mouth.
“Your cinnamon, it is like… your gasoline to us,” Mark explained. Ginny furrowed her brow.
“I don’t think I have any cinnamon,” Ginny said. “Just the apple cinnamon fruit bars.”
“Oh, shit,” Seth said, and both aliens appeared shocked.
“What?” Mark demanded.
“Oshit has been dead for years,” Ted told them.
“Has it?” Seth said. “I’m not up on the trends.” He turned back to Ginny. “Peggy say anything about that one being out of date?”
“We are so sorry,” Ted continued. The gleaming room around him reflected off of him like so many tiles on a disco ball when he moved towards Ginny; it produced a disorienting glare on the eyes, and Ginny involuntarily inched away. “Tell her we mean her no harm, Seth. We just want to help you get home.”
“What?” Seth asked. “I thought you needed us.”
“They may have the last knowledge of a dead galaxy,” Ted said to Mark. “We have the excess energy now.”
“We’ll trade them,” Mark said. Ginny’s hand loosened around her mace, but Mark turned towards her anyways. Another eye opened high on what Ginny supposed was a forehead. “What does she have there?”
Seth motioned for Ginny to lift her hand. “Whatcha got, Gin?”
Ginny slowly lifted her hand, revealing her can of mace. Seth looked disappointed.
“They’ve been nothing but kind, Gin. Come on,” he said. He turned back to the aliens. “I’m so sorry about that. She’s just a nervous nellie. Always has been.”
“Can we have that?” Ted asked, pointing several hands at the can. Seth frowned.
“Uhh,” he said. He turned to Ginny. “Can they?”
“Uh-huh,” Ginny said, holding it out. Ted’s fingers left slimy trails up her wrist again. She wiped it off on her dress. Ted chucked the can into the chute again, and a few green lights lit up around the room, a small chirping emanating from all corners.
“Perfect,” Ted said. “Tell her thanks.”
“He said thanks, baby,” Seth said. Ginny nodded, staring at one of the flashing green lights.
“You’re welcome,” Seth told Ted. “What’d that do?”
“We have enough power to reclaim Tom and take him home for examination,” Mark explained. He extended many arms, and Seth extended one, shaking again. “It has been a pleasure, Seth and Virginia Bradbury. Thank you for your snacks and phenomenal intellect.”
“Oh, thank you,” Seth said. “Real pleasure. Glad to help.”
“Me, too,” Ginny offered.
“She said her, too,” Seth translated. The aliens, Mark and Ted both, slithered over and wrapped themselves briefly around them. Ginny closed her eyes and held her breath; Seth tried to hug them back.
“Send our regards to the people of Earth,” Ted said, as Mark escorted Ginny and Seth back to the shining chrome bench. Ginny sat as close to Seth as she could manage without climbing into his lap.
“The boys back home won’t believe this for a second,” Seth told them. “I can’t wait.”
“Tell your friends we said hello, too,” Ginny said. They blinked many eyes at her.
“She said to tell your pals hi, from us,” Seth said. They nodded, Ginny assumed.
“Of course,” they replied. “We will exchange you for your friend, Tom. Thank you again.”
“Anytime, fellas,” Seth said, and the two of them began to blur out of existence once more. Ginny felt herself fading, then becoming reinvigorated, and she was back at the table at the church potluck, staring down at the roast beef on her paper plate once more.
“And another thing—” Thomas was saying, as if he hadn’t stopped talking since they left. Seth scooched his chair closer to Ginny’s.
“Have a good one, Tom,” Seth said, watching Thomas’ bewildered face as he faded out of existence, leaving behind a vacant chair. He glanced to Ginny. “We should put in a bid for his land when it goes up at auction. Junior’s been looking for a place to settle down with that girl of his.”
An awful truth dawned on Ginny. “Seth… did you, um…”
“Yeah, baby?” Seth asked, starting to eat his mac and cheese with Thomas’ fork. Ginny stared at the goodly man she had been married to for thirty-five years, then at the empty seat beside him. Then, she remembered the times Thomas had interrupted her while she was talking, taken the last cookie from the dessert tray, and cut her off in traffic, among other things.
“Never mind,” she said with a smile. She turned back to her roast beef. “Yeah, we should. Be a nice gift, if we can afford it.”
“We’ll give it our best shot,” Seth said. “New position open at the Grab’n’Go. Junior could help us pay off the land if he wanted.”
Ginny stared at her roast beef slice again, then took a bite. “Thanks, honey.”
“Anytime, baby,” Seth said, shoveling mac and cheese in his mouth. “Anytime at all.”