It was first spotted downtown, near Monument Circle, in the middle of the intersection at Maryland and Illinois. The size of a small elephant, skin like green and pink pebbles, glistening in the sun. Short, fat tentacles shlopping across the asphalt.
Its capture was not difficult. A steel box was used, and a crane. No coercing was necessary.
No one knew what to make of it, though, naturally, plenty was made. Questions flashed across every television screen, across the front of every paper, across the faces of world leaders everywhere. Was it an alien? Some sort of mutated animal? Could it spread disease? Were there others like it?
Debates ensued and tempers flared. If it was a new species, why weren’t there any others? If it was a mutant, what had it mutated from? And if it was an alien, why had it come to Indianapolis, of all places? Why not New York or LA or Washington D.C.? Some place that mattered?
No one would say where it was being kept. That was a matter of National Security. But within a week, important information was released. Like the fact that it had no blood. No cells. No amino acids, and thus no DNA. There was really nothing to analyze. Many people decided that it was time to cut it open. Others insisted that, since it was clearly not of this world, greater care should be taken. If it was harmed, who knew what the consequences might be?
So they made the decision that Jaesong Hwang had been hoping for—the decision he’d been praying for, sitting in front of his ten-year-old push button TV, for nights on end, emptying bottles of rice wine and wringing his hands at the static-y news footage. They had decided that this thing “belonged to the world.” They were going to give mankind what they wanted. They were going to pick a zoo. Jaesong’s phone rang at 7:34 a.m. on July 16, three weeks after it was first seen.
They told him that it would be a delicate endeavor. Everything had to go smoothly. They were afraid to transport it too far, in its steel box, and that was the only reason his zoo, the Indianapolis Zoo, had been chosen. Turned out the thing had never been transported to Washington, or Area 51, or rural Idaho, as the media had speculated. They’d been keeping it in Indianapolis, at an old underground bunker beneath the State Museum, no more than three blocks from where it was first spotted. Scientists had had to fly in from all over the planet, just to have a look.
But once it came to the zoo, the press would descend, along with thousands of people, they warned Jaesong. Everyone would want a piece of it—a picture, or perhaps more. Jaesong would have to be vigilant. He would be provided with extra security, for a time. But everything else was up to him.
He hung up the phone, barely breathing, and stepped outside for a smoke.
Jaesong’s eight-year-old son, Min, who had been listening from behind the sofa, peeked his head out when he heard the screen door close. He walked across the living room and sat, cross-legged, on the floor. The apartment was still new, yet the carpet smelled dingy to Min. He missed his old house, which had always smelled like kimchee, or squid bulgogi, or whatever his mother had been making on a given night.
Too quickly, the screen door whooshed open, and Min crept back down the short hall, into the tiny room that he had almost shared with his brother.
Jaesong wished that the zoo was open for its arrival, but they’d insisted on moving it at night, in case they “encountered any unforeseen problems.”
More than anything, though, Jaesong wished that his father was still alive. He wished it as the steel box was lowered into the enclosure, as the door popped open and the thing bumbled out onto the grass, quivering like an enormous lump of jelly.
When Jaesong had left Korea to study veterinary medicine at Cornell, his father had called him a failure. He was supposed to be a real doctor, his father had said; Jaesong was the eldest son and he could not afford to waste his life looking after people’s dogs. Jaesong had assumed that getting yet another degree, in zoology, would appease his father. But it hadn’t worked, especially since Jaesong had failed to get a job at a prestigious university, or even a prestigious zoo. St. Louis, Fort Worth, San Diego and the other Top Tens…they had all turned him down. And now the one zoo that had accepted him would become the envy of all others. Yet his father couldn’t see it, and neither could Eun Mi, nor the child she’d been carrying…
Jaesong tried to put it from his mind and focus on the present.
From inside Jaesong’s dilapidated truck, where he’d been ordered to stay, Min watched the thing cross its enclosure, then turn and aimlessly cross again. He cracked open the door to hear what his father was saying to the two men in suits, who had been standing close by Jaesong all night.
“…it won’t be a problem.” Jaesong was feigning a smile and nodding.
“We’ll need a name for it,” one of the men said.
“I’ve thought of that,” Jaesong answered, obviously trying to impress the man with his foresight. “I was thinking of Howard.”
The two men looked at one another.
“We should call it Bae.”
Jaesong’s ears turned red at the sight of his son, standing beside his truck. But the two men smiled.
“It means inspiration.” Min tried to go on, but Jaesong’s gaze pierced him silent.
“Wonderful!” The bigger of the two men said, “Simple, but exotic.”
Jaesong cringed at the word, and Min climbed back into his father’s truck, wishing he hadn’t spoken.
“We don’t speak Korean any longer!”
That is what Jaesong said, as he smacked his son’s backside with the carved oak cane he’d inherited from his own father. Even as a small boy, Jaesong had never cried when his father used the cane on him. But Min began to wail almost immediately, and Jaesong’s insides twisted at the sound. Eun Mi’s face flashed across Jaesong’s mind, her enormous black eyes wide and sad, her peach-colored mouth twisted into a frown. Jaesong’s eyes suddenly stung with tears, and as quickly as he’d started, Jaesong put the cane away and rushed off to bed, frustrated with himself.
Once the door had closed down the hall, Min got up from the living room floor and sat on the sofa, wiping at his face. He didn’t know what had made him name it Bae. He knew that Jaesong hated when he used Korean words. Yet his mother had used Korean words, and Jaesong had never gotten angry with her. Min remembered his smiling mother standing in the kitchen of the old house, a hand over her protruding belly, telling Jaesong, “We’ll call him Kyu. It means star.” Min knew that she had died in that same kitchen, less than a week after naming his unborn brother. Though he still didn’t understand what a pregnancy-induced aortic aneurism was.
Min laid his head on the arm of the sofa and closed his eyes.
The next morning, on the drive to the zoo, Jaesong gave Min a pair of oversized, yellow rubber gloves.
“Everyone in the Pit is required to wear them,” Jaesong said, “but that does not mean you get to touch anything. You stay back and keep quiet.”
Min wished that he could stay home by himself, but Jaesong would not allow it, even though Jaesong was always insisting that Min was old enough to take care of himself.
Jaesong had taken his son to the Pit before. It was an area under the zoo, where the animals were kept after hours, in holding pens. Min liked the Pit. Especially the zebras that stuck their black, velvet muzzles through the bars for Min to pet when Jaesong wasn’t looking. The Pit was normally empty—concrete and echo-y, but noiseless except for the restless rustling of the animals. Today was different. When Jaesong opened the big, cement door, he was met by a volley of overlapping voices.
“…just have to figure out what it wants…”
“What it wants? What do you mean, what it wants? “
“This isn’t the time to be arguing…”
“This entire project could be in jeopardy if we don’t find an immediate solution!”
At the sound of Jaesong and Min’s footsteps, the three men in suits fell silent and turned their heads. Their faces were set and stony.
“What is the problem?” Jaesong tried to sound calm.
Instead of answering, the shortest of the three men motioned, with one yellow gloved hand, to Bae’s holding pen. Inside, Bae was not moving aimlessly about, as it had been every other time Jaesong had seen it. Now it stood in one spot, quivering in waves, from the top of its smooth head down its pink and green pebbled skin to its tentacles. Bae’s large, eyeless body jiggled soundlessly, again and again.
“What’s wrong with it?” Jaesong didn’t bother hiding the fear in his voice.
“We were hoping you could tell us,” the shortest man said. “You’re the zoologist.”
“It could be ill,” the only man with facial hair murmured, looking grave.
“Or hungry,” the last man added. “We’ve still got no idea how or if it eats.”
Jaesong walked to the bars of the pen, peering through with narrowed eyes. He was furious. Furious at Bae, who might die now before the public or the press even had a chance to see it. Before he or his zoo could reap any benefits from the incredible stroke of luck they’d been afforded.
Min’s voice was small, but everyone turned to look at him. He stood blinking up at his father, the adult-sized rubber gloves gaping from his arms.
“It’s calling out,” Min said, “it’s probably vibrating like that to make sound. Sound that’s too low for us to hear. You know … like a kakapo.”
Kakapos were an endangered species of flightless parrot. When they were ready to mate, male kakapos attempted to attract females by vibrating their entire bodies, making deep, thrumming sounds, so low that humans could only hear them with specialized equipment. The zoo had received a male and female kakapo last year, as part of a breeding program. But the birds had failed to mate.
“He could be right,” Jaesong said, after a moment.
“So what are we supposed to do?” The shortest man scoffed, “So far as we can tell, it doesn’t have ears. We can’t just tell it we’re here.”
“Someone should touch it,” Min answered. “If it can’t see or hear, then it probably thinks it’s all alone. But if someone touched it, it would know it’s not. And it might be okay again.”
Jaesong’s heart sank as the three men turned to look at him. He knew that they expected him to be the one to do it. Just like he knew that if something awful happened when he touched Bae—if it dropped over dead or suddenly quivered into bits—he would be the one that they blamed. There was only one way to spare himself.
“Why don’t you touch it, Min?”
Min looked up at his father with wide, disbelieving eyes.
“Go ahead, young man,” the shortest man said, already sticking a silver key into the padlock on Bae’s pen. “It’s been touched before. It’s harmless.”
Min took a deep breath. The door of bars swung open, and he stepped gingerly into the pen. It was coated on the bottom with springy Astroturf and smelled somehow different than the area just outside. Except for the constant quivering, Bae did not move as Min approached. Closer and closer Min drew, until finally he was an arm’s length away. He suddenly felt more nervous than excited.
“Go on, Min,” Jaesong said, trying not to sound forceful.
Slowly, Min extended his gloved hand and laid it, palm down, on Bae’s strange, pebbled skin. The quivering continued. After a moment, Min stepped back and peeled off his gloves. Neither Jaesong nor the three men protested. Then Min tried again. And this time, the tremors slowed immediately. After just a few moments, they stopped entirely. Bae rotated lazily around and began moving across its pen again.
Min walked out of the pen, gloves slung over one arm. Jaesong smiled.
That afternoon was Bae’s first day in the open zoo. Cameras jammed around the lips of the enclosure. Members of the public, many of whom had camped outside the gates all night, jostled for position as Bae’s pink and green form became visible. There were cheers and shouts. A few people cried. Though the scientists had never conclusively proved anything, public opinion was that Bae was an alien—proof that humans were not alone.
At two hours before closing time, Bae froze in the middle of the enclosure. It began to quiver again. Jaesong rushed Min down the stairwell that led to the zookeepers’ entrance and sent his son out onto the manicured grass, into the flashes of the cameras. Again, Min laid his hand against Bae. And again, after just a few moments, Bae began to move normally. The crowd went wild.
The next morning, Min’s face was on every paper, and footage of him laying his hand on Bae was the feel-good story of the day. “Min is a little boy with a best friend who’s out of this world!” one pretty News Lady with gold earrings gushed.
Min was excited to go back to the zoo. And when he arrived, he was almost glad to see Bae quivering in the enclosure, making the new crowd murmur with concern. He felt like a hero as he stepped onto the grass, as he laid his hand against the oddly smooth skin.
Three times that first day, Min had to perform his trick. By the time he got home that night, Jaesong noticed his son’s feet dragging.
“Go to the kitchen,” Jaesong said. “I’ll make us some rice.”
Min couldn’t ever remember his father cooking. Yet Jaesong made good rice, fried in his mother’s old wok, with peas, fish sauce, and bits of shredded chicken. Min devoured the meal.
“You getting sick?” Jaesong asked as he ate. Min was wiping at his nose with the paper towel that was meant to be his napkin.
“Only my nose is runny,” Min said. “I feel fine.”
In truth, Min felt better than fine. He felt famous and full, like someone in a movie.
The following day, Min was asked to give an interview to a journalist from New York. The slender woman asked Min where he went to school, how old he was, and what Bae’s skin felt like. Then she put away her camera and handed Jaesong a check.
Min had to touch Bae three times that day, and the crowd was ready. Children tossed stuffed animals to him. Women tossed flowers and cards. Men tossed money. It took Min plus three other zoo staff members to clean it all out at the end of the day, and Jaesong was forced to announce that objects were not to be thrown into the enclosure. The men in suits decided that a net should be installed.
That night, on the way home, his seat piled high with teddy bears and roses and stuffed versions of Bae, Min began to cough. When they got home, Jaesong gave him the purple syrup that Eun Mi had always used and sent him to bed, hopeful that things would clear up by morning.
But they didn’t. If anything, Min’s coughing was worse than before, and his head was burning hot. Jaesong didn’t know what to do. He certainly couldn’t take an entire day off for a doctor’s visit. Min needed to be there to touch Bae for the crowds—it would not have the same charm and appeal if he did it himself. He told Min to get dressed.
“Don’t feel good,” Min croaked.
“You can sit in the pit for most of the day,” Jaesong said. “You’ll only get up when you need to touch Bae. I’ll let you pet the zebras.”
At the zoo, the crowds could not tell that Min was sick. It was too hard to see through the mesh netting that the men in suits had put up. The men stayed by Min that day, in the pit, trying to converse with him despite his swollen throat. Every so often, they scribbled on a small pad of paper and passed it back and forth amongst themselves, glancing from it to Min.
Bae only had to be touched twice that day. The crowd left its offerings at a designated drop box beside the enclosure. The zoo closed at six, and Bae was led into its holding pen. As Jaesong prepared for the drive home, piling gifts into the back seat of his truck and onto his son’s lap, Min turned his head and vomited on the gearshift.
Jaesong drove home quickly and carried Min inside, dressing him in loose pajamas. He laid his son on the couch and placed a cold rag on his forehead. Did he need medicine? Did he need to go to the emergency room? What if they kept him in the hospital too long, and Min didn’t make it back to the zoo in time? Maybe staying home and getting rest would be best. Is that what Eun Mi would have said? Jaesong knelt beside the couch and stared at his son. Min blinked slowly as if his eyelids were sticky, and spoke in a quiet, raspy voice:
“Can’t go to the zoo tomorrow.”
“I know you don’t feel well. But you still need to go.”
“Go without me. Let me stay,” Min croaked.
“I can’t,” Jaesong said.
“Why? Why don’t you ever let me stay by myself?”
“Because…” Jaesong paused. “I’m afraid something will happen.”
“Like with Mom?”
Jaesong looked away. His chest felt tight.
Min closed his eyes, and Jaesong stood up slowly. He walked down the short hall into his room and closed the door behind him.
The next morning, Jaesong stared at his son, still asleep on the couch, for several full minutes before writing him a quick note (“There is soup in the kitchen. We’ll go to the doctor when I get home.”) and quietly leaving the apartment. He could not keep his hands from shaking as he closed the door behind him. As he tried to assure himself that letting Min stay home and rest that day was the best thing for him. Jaesong took care to arrive at the zoo an hour before opening time, so he could cancel the interviews he’d set up for his son. His heart skipped a little, knowing that he would be the one stepping out into the cameras. He would be the one touching Bae.
Jaesong entered the pit full of purpose, ready to begin the day’s work. He was immediately met by a strange stillness. It was strange because there were now six men in suits, standing outside Bae’s pen, yet none of them were talking. They only stared as Jaesong drew closer, until he was finally forced to speak.
“Is there a problem?”
The men in suits passed glances amongst themselves. Jaesong leaned forward and peered worriedly into Bae’s pen. He was relieved to find it quivering but otherwise normal.
“We … just got some lab results back.”
“What?” Jaesong was confused. Hadn’t they stopped all testing on Bae weeks ago?
“Some of the tests conducted, up front, took time to show results. The last of those results just came in.”
“So…” Jaesong spoke slowly, glancing from stony face to stony face, “what? Did you figure out how it eats?”
“No,” the tallest man said. “We figured out how it reproduces.”
For a moment, Jaesong waited for the man to go on. But he did not go on. Then Jaesong’s palms turned cold, and his breath hitched. Something in his stomach constricted and squirmed. It was a feeling he’d felt before, the day that the hospital had called him. The day that they told him about Eun Mi’s aneurism. The day that his pregnant wife had died, alone at home, chopping cabbage in the kitchen, Jaesong’s youngest son with her. Both of them lost forever in a moment that should have held no consequence at all.
Jaesong whirled away from the men in suits, away from Bae’s pen, and ran from the pit, through the thick cement door, across the staff parking lot to his truck. He raced up Washington, across downtown, and into the parking lot of his apartment building. Covered in sweat, he fumbled with his keys and unlocked the apartment door. He flew to the couch.
Min lay where Jaesong had left him, quivering from his head to his toes in the patch of sunlight glaring in through the broken blinds. His eyes were closed and sunken, his mouth already sealed shut. Jaesong gasped for breath, not wanting to believe it, refusing to believe it, as he had refused to believe on the day of Eun Mi’s accident, and so many days after.
With one hand, he jerked his son upright. Not bothering to yell into the tiny, shrunken ears, Jaesong lifted the blue pajama shirt in which Min had fallen asleep.
From the nape of his son’s neck, straight down his spine, was a line of skin like green and pink pebbles, glistening in the sun.
Maria Cook is a 2010 graduate of Butler University. In 2013, she earned her Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing, also from Butler. She is currently working on a fantasy novel and running an Etsy shop where she sells handmade plush animals—including the occasional alien.