This week's story was suggested by Meg:
She twisted the brand new shoes in her hand, half from excitement and half in an attempt to soften them. Reed had been studying ballet with her grandmother since she was three and she started doing pointe just after her twelfth birthday. Her grandmother had given Reed a pair of her old pointe shoes and it had hurt, but Reed was determined. She had grown and strengthened her feet and eventually outgrew the pointe shoes, but her grandmother always seemed to have another pair.
Yet a week ago, for her sixteenth birthday, the pair her grandmother had given her were not hand-me-downs at all. These were brand new pointe shoes. Her heart fluttered at the thought.
It fluttered again at the low growl that rumbled through the underbrush. Reed paused and looked around her. The leaves of the dense foliage on either side of the path rustled ominously and she felt a shiver down her spine that had nothing to do with the weather. The trees above were whispering to each other in anticipation as they watched the solitary figure far below them. The sound intensified. Reed’s eyes widened and she broke into a run. The air felt thicker; she began to struggle for breath, but fear pressed her forward. Her eyes watered.
The trees seemed taller in this section of the forest and the sense that she was lost took root in her gut, but still, she forged onward. The whole of her surroundings rumbled with the low hum of something waking up and it was climbing into a fevered howl. This was echoed by another howl. And another. The sound was overpowering and the ground itself shook.
Reed tripped over an unseen root. Her elbow hit the ground, sending shooting pain up her arm. Her hand spasmed, the shoe flying from her. She cried out, more at the loss of the shoe than at the pain, and struggled to her feet. The air grew heavy with static and she saw sparks dance in her vision. The sparks converged upon her and penetrated her skin. There was no feeling as they entered. Without warning, there was the creak of metal and the ground beneath her opened to reveal a dark hole twenty feet in diameter, yet she did not fall. Her feet dangled beneath her. Terrified anew, she shrieked and beat against the air, but it was no use. Slowly, she descended into the earth, one shoe still clutched in her hand.
Reed could hear screaming on her way down and it took her a good five minutes to realize that the sound was coming from her. As her mind twisted to accept the new reality, she was able to calm it long enough to shut her mouth and observe her surroundings. She seemed to be entering a long, metal mine lit by luminescent liquid running up and down in tiny tubes. They gave off an eerie blue-green light. She tried to float closer, but whatever kept her from falling to her death also kept her in the middle of the shaft. She looked below her, but it was too far away to make out any details and the distance made her feel nauseated.
Down and down and down. It felt like forever, but time held no meaning anymore. She idly wondered whether she would actually fall through to the other side of the Earth. She considered that she might burn up in the center of the Earth. She imagined being preserved for ages and coming back out again in the distant future. Reed thought many silly thoughts during that fall.
When she landed, it was not a hard landing. She gently touched the ground, which obligingly lit up under her feet. Sparks emerged from her body and appeared swirling before her as if to say, “This way.” Reed was afraid and when she got afraid, she became angry. She stood her ground.
“I’m not going anywhere,” she said to the electronic will-o’-the-wisp.
The sparks swirled faster and turned a shade of red.
Reed shook her head.
The sparks swirled into a complete blur and raced down a corridor, leaving Reed by herself. For a few minutes, she celebrated her victory, but soon the anger and defiance melted to reveal a cold core of terror beneath. She sat down on the metal tile. She was in an alcove, and there were three corridors before her. The sparks had vanished down the left one. Reed was curious, but she wasn’t about to blindly follow an unknown entity down an unfamiliar hall. Her mother had taught her better than that. So she waited.
It couldn’t have been more than ten minutes later when Reed heard something stomping her way. She leapt to her feet, shoe held above her head as a weapon. She realized the ridiculousness of such an action and considered the two other tunnels as escape routes. Her heart was pounding, but her mind told her to stay put. This way, she had a defendable position with a wall behind her.
The will-o’-the-wisp came shooting out of the tunnel and swirled around, crimson. It stopped in front of her, pulsating deep red. She raised the shoe higher.
“There’s no need to hurt him; he’s only doing his job, you know.”
Reed gasped and whirled around where a… creature was coming through a door in the wall. It looked like a hairy snake with a bald head and elephant ears. It had six limbs, three of which were extremely thick and used for walking. There were two thin arms on its right side and one fat arm on its left side. Its nose was a button, similar to a koala’s and it had no eyes that Reed could see. A long tail trailed behind it with a pincer on the end. It used this to close the door as it opened its arms toward Reed. Reed waved the shoe at it in a threatening way.
“Don’t touch me!” she screamed.
“We mean you no harm,” said the creature, lowering its arms.
“Who’s ‘we?’,” Reed demanded. “Where am I? What the hell are you? What happened?” She backed away from the creature and the will-o’-the-wisp, slashing the shoe first at one and then the other.
“I will answer all of your questions, but you have to believe that this was an accident. We had no intention of bringing you down here.” The creature spoke in a quiet voice. It retreated to the far side of the chamber to show that there was no danger.
“An accident? Bring me down where?” Reed hollered.
“If you insist on being unruly, we will have to restrain you. Is that what you want?” Reed said nothing. “Why don’t you put down your weapon and we can go somewhere and talk?”
“I just want to go home!” Reed said, still holding the shoe aloft.
“You can go home,” said the creature, “but this is an opportunity not to be wasted. We’ve never had one of your ilk down here.”
“A little girl,” said the creature.
“I’m sixteen,” Reed told it.
“Do you have a name?”
“Do you?” she asked it.
“My name is Sleofje. That is Menochi.” The creature pointed to the sparks, which dipped in greeting.
“I’m Reed,” she grudgingly offered.
“It is a pleasure to meet you, Reed,” said Sleofje, proffering one of its thin, hairy arms. There were only three fingers on the ends, she noted.
“I’m not touching you until you explain to me who you are and where I am,” said Reed.
Sleofje sighed. “Will you at least consent to join me for a meal? I was on my way to the dining hall when you made your unexpected appearance.”
“Trust me, I didn’t plan to come here.”
“Yes. We know,” said the creature. “That was Wodithe’s fault.”
“It was an accident!” a voice echoed through the tunnels. Reed jumped and raised the shoe above her head once more.
“Sorry; these halls are monitored and with someone like you on board, I’m afraid everyone has taken an interest,” Sleofje apologized. “Perhaps we can go somewhere more private?”
Reed was still looking around for the source of the voice. “Huh?”
“I would be honored to have you join me for a meal,” said Sleofje.
“I know better than to go somewhere private with a strange man,” said Reed.
“I beg your pardon?” the creature said in confusion. Then, suddenly, Sleofje’s body rippled, the fur standing on end. Reed stepped back, afraid of what it might do. “Oh! You think I’m male!” Sleofje rippled again and Reed realized the creature was laughing. Menochi had turned yellow and was bobbing up and down in mirth.
Reed blushed. “You’re a girl?”
“Of course! I have two appendages on my right side, don’t I?” She waved them. “If I were male, I’d certainly have them on my left!”
“I didn’t know,” Reed stammered.
“Oh, I know you didn’t,” said Sleofje, her laughter subsiding. “It’s just that no one has ever mistaken me for a male before! I’m said to be a rather beautiful specimen of womanhood, even though I am still quite young.”
“How old are you?” Reed asked, interested despite her caution.
“In your terms, I am just sixteen years of age.”
“Sixteen? That’s not a woman.”
“By your standards. Among my people, a Kosjem matures at seven.” A small ripple went through Sleofje. “Male,” she muttered in amusement.
“Well, I suppose I can go and sit with you while you… what do you eat?”
“Not humans, if that’s what you’re wondering,” Sleofje assured her. “Our diet consists of oxygen, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, helium, and hydrogen.”
“Those are gases,” said Reed. “How do you eat gases?”
“Perhaps you’d like to see?” Reed slowly nodded and Sleofje beckoned with one arm. “Come along then. I promise you that no harm will come to you while you’re here. You are far too precious.”
Reed kept a tight hold of her shoe as she followed Sleofje and Menochi through the corridors. The tiles lit up under her feet as she stepped on them. Finally, they arrived at a hall of doors. “These are our dormitories. My room is on the end.” They passed another Kosjem on the way, this one was male, Reed noted as she saw the two arms on the left side of the body. Sleofje raised her tail and her pincers clacked together and the male did the same.
“What was that?” Reed asked.
“That is how we greet each other.”
“But you’re speaking with me.”
“You have many languages on Earth, but we do not have the capacity for forming most of them, so we have been crafting translator devices that are implanted to enable us to communicate when we make contact,” said the Kosjem. “The human language is very difficult.”
“But different people speak different languages!” Reed pointed out.
“It is all part of one language,” said Sleofje. “Have you not realized that yet? The languages all influence each other and they are made with the same body parts.”
“Some of your Earth languages are easier than others. The sheep language is quite easy. Grass was easy to learn as well. Shrimp is extremely difficult. There are so many nuances. We are still working on the translator devices for them.” Sleofje opened the door and stepped inside. The room was sparsely furnished. There was a circular raised dais in the center of the room and what looked like a trapeze hanging in the corner. Sleofje turned to Menochi. “Go tell Wodithe that I’m taking a meal with Reed and to let me know when the transporter is recharged.” The sparks bobbed once and sped off.
Sleofje laid down by the dais, leaning on her right arms and gestured for Reed to do the same. She tapped the circle and different colored cubes rose from it. The Kosjem raised a green one and rubbed it against her nose until it vanished. “Nitrogen,” she sighed.
So this was food, Reed realized. “What do you want with me?” she asked.
“We weren’t supposed to make contact with humans for another hundred years at least,” said Sleofje, devouring a blue cube. “Wodithe accidentally activated the transport. Unfortunately, we cannot return you to the surface until it has recharged. Still, his mistake is a wonderful opportunity to talk with you.”
“How long have you been here?”
“As long as the redwood trees that grow above. Those aren’t real trees, you know. They are just a façade for our operations. Why do you think they’ve lasted so long? Of course, we had to plant real ones to cover it all up and redwoods can last for thousands of years. It’s what makes them the perfect cover.”
“Why are you here?” Reed asked.
“We are scientists,” said the Kosjem. “We have been observing worlds since long before your kind crawled out of the primordial ooze and became a dominant species. We are fascinated by your ability to evolve and adapt. Still, there is one thing that draws us here more than anywhere else.”
“What is that?”
“Your desire to entertain and be entertained. Despite the fact that your planet is dying, that people are starving, that murders are committed… humans feel this incredible need to create entertainment. Television, music, books, films, theatre… there is no other species that places a high value on such things.”
“Animals play,” said Reed defensively.
“Play, yes, but not at the expense of their own survival,” said Sleofje, an orange cube in her hand. “We don’t understand the fascination with it. You yourself take time out of your week to dance.”
“You could spend that time in schooling, in learning, or working toward something productive.”
Reed bristled. “I am working toward something productive.”
“I don’t understand. We don’t understand. We listen to your music, we watch your television, we read your literature. None of it makes any sense.”
“It’s about happiness,” Reed tried to explain. “It’s about the feeling we get when we listen or watch or read. We feel joy. We forget for a while that the world sucks.”
“But the world ‘sucks’ as you put it whether you forget or not,” said Sleofje. “Wouldn’t it be better to face that and try to do something about it?”
Reed thought for a moment. “I guess, but we can’t handle that much stress all the time. We need to release it. Everyone has their own way, I suppose. I like to dance. Doesn’t your culture have dancing?”
“There is a mating dance…,” Sleofje began.
“No, I mean dancing just for fun,” said Reed.
“Dancing for fun? If something has no purpose, why do it?” Sleofje said.
“It has a purpose! I wish I could make you understand!” Reed exclaimed.
“I wish I could understand,” said Sleofje.
Reed got to her feet. She took off her boots and stood before the Kosjem. She began to dance. She danced her passion and joy. She danced her fear and sadness. She danced her curiosity and wonder. She danced her anger. She whirled and leapt and grunted and sweated and, when she had finished, she stood still once more, breathing heavily. The Kosjem was silent.
“I do not understand,” she said. Reed felt defeated. “It looks so painful.”
“It is painful, but that’s a part of it. You have to push through that. It shows you’re dedicated.”
“Dedication. I understand that. I would like to know more,” said Sleofje. “Would you consent to visit and teach us about arts?”
Reed paused. “For how long? My grandmother must already be so worried about me.”
“Perhaps for an hour a week? Saturdays after your dance class? You could show us what you’ve learned.” The Kosjem sounded hopeful.
“I… I suppose I could do that,” Reed agreed.
“Excellent!” There was a sound outside the door. Sleofje jumped to her feet to answer it.
It was Menochi. The sparks flashed through a series of colors.
"Oh, wonderful!" Sleofje turned to Reed. "The transporter is recharged. We must get you on your way.”
“I thought you wanted to learn more!” said Reed.
“Well, now that we have an agreement to do so, we will want to do as little as we can to arouse suspicion. As you said, your grandmother will be worried." She added, "Can I trust you not to say anything to anyone about this?”
“Of course, but how do you know that I will keep my word?” Reed asked her.
Sleofje paused. “I don’t know. Among the Kosjem, if you say that you will do something, you do it. It is a promise. Do you think you will break your promise?”
“No,” said Reed. “When I make a promise to a friend, I keep it.” She held out her hand. Sleofje took it in her three hairy digits and shook it. She led Reed back to the point of the three corridors, Menochi floating ahead of them. When they reached the alcove, the sparks swirled around Reed and entered her once more. She began to rise. “Goodbye, Sleofje. I will be back next week!”
The Kosjem lifted her tail and clacked her pincers. “Goodbye, my friend!”
Reed’s grandmother was waiting at the studio, phone in hand, as Reed came running up. “Where in heaven’s name have you been, child? I’ve been beside myself. I called your mother! I called the police! I was so worried!”
“I got a little lost, Grandmother,” said Reed. “I’m sorry.”
“You should be sorry, young lady!” The grandmother’s stern expression melted into relief and she hugged Reed close. “I’m just thankful you’re okay! Let me call your mother and the police to let them know and then we’ll have our lesson for today.”
Reed went into the studio and took off her boots. She wrapped her feet and slid them into the new pointe shoes. She got to her feet and tested the shoes, raising up onto her toes. As she knew it would, it hurt, the ache of it sliding up her body to her brain, but Reed smiled. It was familiar pain. It was the sting of dedication, the ache of ambition, the agony of passion. It was art.