aliens childMichael saw aliens everywhere. They hung like monkeys from telephone wires and sprung like giant grasshoppers down the highway. They stood as motionless as statues on Widow’s Walks and burrowed under the yard like smiling moles. They posted themselves by Michael’s bed every night and filtered out the bad dreams.

The dark camp used to torture Michael every night. It happened when his eyes began to droop, when the smell of ashes and burnt flesh came to his nose. The scent came from the inside out, so every exhale made it worse. When the smell whispered in his nose, Michael would jerk himself awake through the vapors and sit straight up with wet eyes and raspy breathing.

But he could only rouse himself so many times. Around midnight, he always succumbed to the smell and fell into a black place. The black place wasn’t so bad. It was peaceful and dark as a mausoleum; it was giving up.

But there were levels to the black place. He was sucked back through the rubbery womb of each one, farther and farther down. Now images appeared in the darkness, pedestrian little movies about his day, his classamates. About eight levels down, the smell began to waft out of his nostrils again and a deep pit of panic began to form somewhere above his stomach.

Level 11, and he could feel the dark camp getting closer. It anti-glowed beneath him, twisting the images of his classmates from the little movies, creating dark reasons in all the normal things they did.

Then level 11 would trick him. Someone from one of the movies would offer him a cup of Juicy Juice or an Oreo and he would consume it hungrily, forgetting that this is how they did it; the offering always contained a green liquid jewel that made him drop another level down.

Level 12 and he was right above the dark camp. He could see other children down there, frightened to hysteria. But the womb-skin between 12 and 13 was very thin and whenever Michael moved (and he couldn’t help moving) his feet stretched the skin below, crushing and mangling the children in the dark camp. Here, he was the overseer of the camp, and he cried each time his giant feet mutilated a little leg or ruptured a playmates torso. He felt horrible doing this, couldn’t stand it, so when a needle-toothed clown offered him a cookie that glowed green, he always took it.

Now he was in the lowest level: the dark camp. You couldn’t stand all the way up, so Michael had to stoop the entire time like a chained slave. The entire camp was ruled by figures that were only drifting clouds of smells. He couldn’t relate the smell to anything in the world above; it was something preternatural, or perhaps something that he had smelled once, and would try to avoid the rest of his conscious life. The figures shoved him towards the feet smashing down all around him, and he cried when other children were snuffed out around him as he stumbled over corpses smeared into the ground.

The dark camp lasted forever. He was down there for years, trying to avoid making friends with the other children because it hurt so much when they were extinguished. The routine of dodging the figures and the feet became so horrifyingly natural that he forgot about the world above, his whole existence becoming a death-buzz. It was always a surprise when he was jerked upwards, shooting though the 13 levels in an instant, and awaking, stunned in the early morning light.

This went on for years in Michael’s childhood. He would fear sleep, and whine to his mother in a panicked voice whenever she announced bedtime. He couldn’t tell her why, though. The fearful emotions of the dark camp stayed with him, but what actually happened down there was forgotten soon after Michael awoke. This just made it worse. He didn’t remember the horror and smells of the dark camp until he was six or seven levels down, then the memories would come rushing back, and the fear conquered him afresh.

But one day, when he was about to be sucked down to level 12, he heard the chimes of his neighborhood ice cream truck. A green, long-fingered hand poked through from above. He grabbed it without hesitation, as though it was his mother, and the hand pulled him up, sweet and clean, to level two. He could see his savior here. It had friendly, foreign eyes that Michael couldn’t read, so it expressed itself through comical, looping gestures. It made it known that there were many like him, and they were only there to help.

Now he felt nothing but joy in his dreams. The aliens spread the middle levels wide and he frolicked with them in the dappled-green light of rainforests, the hay-yellow light of the savannah. They played hide and seek and catch and tag, Michael squealing with faux-fear and delight as the aliens loped around trees to catch him. The sky was always changing, like the images of Northern Lights he saw in his picture books, whispers of purple and green diminishing and regenerating above his head. It never got dark, but the sun rode below the horizon for days at a time, fiddles playing ancient ditties in the dusk. Michael always woke with a dumb, happy smile on his face, the memories of his playmates fading into the background for his waking hours.


Michael didn’t have many friends at school. He preferred to play alone in the sandbox, making intricate castles with defensive towers and moats and parapets. Even though he wasn’t supposed to, (and with great guilt) he took army-men into the sandbox and hid them in the center of the castle, where they were safe from whatever the outside world could throw at them.

Sometimes Michael was so involved in protecting his army-men that he didn’t hear the bell clang for the end of recess. Michael never wanted to be the last back into the classroom, because the last child was chided for being slow and didn’t get an end-of-recess cookie. Michael loved cookies, but was more concerned about the towering teachers looking down at him with disappointment in their eyes. Mommy always told Michael to be good.

One day, Michael was working on the last pieces of a popsicle-stick bridge when he looked up and saw that the other children were already lined up outside the school’s door. He quickly shoved himself to his feet and glanced around. His heart started to flutter around in his chest as he saw that he was the only one left on the playground. But wait—Donnie, the big kid who liked to stomp on frogs, was running from the far fence to the classroom door, cookie-lust in his eyes. Michael quickly started running towards the door, edging out Donnie for second-to-last.

Donnie turned towards him with squinty eyes and a mean mouth.

”You cheated! Cheater!”

“No!” Michael’s response was a defensive plea. “I got here first!”

“So? You’re stupid. Your dad’s in jail!”

One of the towering teachers swooped down and led Donnie to the time-out corner by his sleeve.

Usually children sat in the corner for ten minutes when they did things like that. For some reason, Donnie had to sit in the corner for forty-five.


Sometimes Michael got rides from his Mom to school, but the next day, he rode the bus.

Donnie plopped his backpack down on the vinyl bench in front of Michael and immediately swung around, resting his glowering face on the top of the seat-back. He stared with a child’s uninhibited rage into Michael’s perplexed eyes (what did I do?) for a full minute before speaking.

“My mom says your dad is bad. He files people.”

“No!” Michael’s voice burst forth with confusion. He hadn’t seen his dad for two years.

“Yes! My mom says he’s bad and no one wants him around.”

Suddenly, the smell started coming out of Michael’s nostrils, the smell of pus and babies baked crisp in parmesan cheese. Michael started breathing faster, but that only made the smell come out faster until it wreathed his head like smog. Donnie might have still been talking, but the sounds came to Michael’s ears across the depths of the oceans.

Michael turned his head to the window to try to break himself out of the smell, but what he saw came down on him with crashing horror. The smell was visible now, a black and slime-colored vapor leaking out of the plants and trees and ground and rising in death-vines to the air.

He turned away from the holocaust outside to face Donnie. But, with delight, Michael saw that an alien was kneeling right next to Donnie with a playful grin on its face. He could read the joke in the smile: “Look! I’m here, and Donnie doesn’t even know it! What a silly!”

Michael squealed with delight and clapped his hands together. Donnie looked confused, and this only made Michael laughed harder. When he looked outside, all the vapors were gone, and the forest glowed friendly.


Ms. G stood at the bus door as the children filed out, keeping a head count. She saw Michael hop off the bus-steps with a rare smile of joy on his face.

“Good Morning Michael. You look happy today.”

Michael laughed through closed teeth, barely able to contain his ebullience.

“I love my friends.”

From there, the seal between sleeping and consciousness was broken, and the aliens came out whenever Michael was scared.  They played with him, chasing him rambunctiously through the forest behind his house, then traveled with him through the levels of his dreams.

Sara saw trouble everywhere. She saw it in cars with potentially-wasted drivers barreling crazily down her street; she saw it in high-tension wires spewing carcinogens above her supermarket; she saw it in the searching eyes of old men as they passed her son Michael on the sidewalk.

She loved Michael with all her heart, and knew she knew what was best for him. He was hers’ to raise alone—not ideal circumstances, but certainly better than the alternative. Her husband was in jail, for good reason, and it was her job to protect Michael from whatever damage his craziness had done, to protect him from the world.

So she had enrolled Michael in a private school as soon as her husband left, even though she couldn’t afford it, even with her second, humiliating job as a cashier at the supermarket—she scraped and she saved, and had made the tuition payment for the last two years without fail.

Her friends had encouraged her to date after her husband had gone, after the divorce papers came back with a Federal Penitentiary stamp across the envelope. She wasn’t about to throw herself back into that maelstrom, though. It was her and Michael against the world.

Michael was a smart child; Sara knew this with her heart. She was more concerned with how Michael was interacting with other children, whether he was being socialized properly. She didn’t want him to turn out like his father, the loner.

She approached Ms. G regularly with this question on her lips, and Ms. G usually gave the same answer: Michael tended to play alone, but not to worry; some children just developed social skills later than others.

One day, when she asked the question while nipping nervously as her fingernails, she received a different answer.

“Well, Michael seems to be happier recently.”

“Oh. Oh, that’s good.” Sara’s voice burst open with relief and excitement. “Is he playing with the other children? Does he have a new friend?”

Ms. G was used to the neuroses of over-protective parents, but Sara’s constant apprehension about the well-being of her child was difficult to deal with. She thought of how to word her next statement before speaking.

“No, no, new friends at the playground, but he has some special friends of his own.”

“What do you mean?” Sara thrust her tense face uncomfortably close to Ms. G’s, causing the teacher to defensively step backwards.

“Imaginary friends. I think they’re some sort of alien. He plays tag with them and builds sand castles.  Your son has an incredible imagination.”

Ms. G could see halfway through her response that Sara wasn’t going to take it well. She was one of those parents, the kind that wrote letters to toy companies demanding they make their products safer, who made passionate speeches to bored town council members about ‘the sulfur issue’ in the town’s drinking water.

“Do you think that’s healthy? Shouldn’t he be interacting with other children at this age?”

Ms. G had to take another step backwards.

“It all depends. Children develop at different ages. And some are happier playing alone. There’s nothing wrong with that, is there?”

There was. Michael’s father couldn’t interact with peers. She and Michael would have to have a talk when they got home.


Michael’s castle was almost finished. He had been working on it for three days with the help of the aliens, stacking muddy sticks and big, flat rocks in a rectangle that slowly closed around him. With a puckish grin, one of the aliens handed Michael a special stick. It throbbed with a lovely purple light like a homing device, and Michael saw that it would fit perfectly on the top of the final tower. He laughed as he slopped some adhesive mud on it and stuck it on top.  It fit perfect, just like the alien said it would.

At the end of his chuckle, Michael turned and saw his Mommy walking across the yard with a worried look on her face. This made Michael worried, but that was silly. He wanted his Mommy to cheer up, so he yawped across the lawn:

“Mommy! Look what me and my friends made!”

This only made his Mommy look more worried. He wanted his Mommy to be happy, so he turned to one of the aliens. They always knew what to do.

“Tell a joke to Mommy!”

…but the aliens had gone.

Sara sat down next to Michael on the grass. One of the parenting books she kept by her bedside told her that it was better to put herself on her child’s level when having important conversations.

“That’s a nice castle, Michael.”

“Yeah! It’s BIG!”

“Yes, it’s quite big. I’m impressed that you made it all on your own.”

“No….(silly Mommy) my friends helped me.”

Sara thrust a ragged nail to her mouth as she continued to speak.

“I talked to Ms. G today….” Michael excitement stopped in its tracks and he looked up at his Mommy with frightened, liquid eyes.

“Did I do something bad?”

“No…no, not exactly…I just think that you made that castle all by yourself…didn’t you?”

“No…” Michael was confused. “My friends helped me.”

“But I’ve been watching you build the castle all afternoon. It’s just been you out here.”

“Nooo….” Michael giggled a little. “It wasn’t JUST me. You just can’t see my friends.”

“What do your friends look like?”

Michael leaned forward in excitement, happy that someone was finally taking an interest in his playmates.

“They have REALLY big eyes, and REALLY long fingers, and they’re green, and they can’t talk out loud, but I know what they mean.”

“Michael…” Sara leaned forward, trying to mask the tension she felt with a beguiling smile “…wouldn’t you rather play with REAL friends?”

Michael could feel the tension behind the smile with his child’s intuition.  What had he done wrong?

“But my friends ARE real!”

Sara’s tension ripped through the surface-smile, and she raised her voice.

“No, Michael. No they’re not. They don’t exist. The other children out there, like Thomas and Luke and that nice boy Donnie from down the street, they exist. That’s who you should be playing with.”



Michael felt scared. He swung his head away from his Mommy’s, left and right, looking for one of his alien-friends to reassure him and give him strength, to offer him a supportive hand. He thought he saw one of their legs in the forest, but it was only a sapling sticking out of some tall grass. He thought he heard one of them rustle in the yard, but it was only a small, dead-eyed bird hunting for worms to rip apart and consume. The bird stared back at him, and he suddenly saw the green and black vapor beaming and drifting out of its marble eyes. He heard a dull roar behind him, like the beginnings of an earthquake, and he turned around to a wall of the vapor moving towards him, consuming the forest in sections, closer and closer. The aliens were nowhere.

Michael screamed, and nothing in the real world, not even his mother, could comfort him.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s