Fear drenched Simon Clark like the sweat that covered his body. The wooded path made it look like a morning in early Spring, but the reality of the brutal August heat and the hazy smoke of a dozen wildfires across the west belied the scenery.
“I can’t do this. It’s too hard.” He wasn’t muttering to himself, but to his unseen companion.
“You have to, Simon. Too many people are depending on you.” She always sounded like a young woman, but there was something slightly mechanical about her tone.
“I just want to go home.”
“You are home.”
“I don’t mean that. I want to go someplace where I can be safe. Someplace where it’s cool and dry and I can relax.”
“You don’t have time for that right now. You have a job to do.”
“Why does it have to be me? I didn’t ask for the responsiblity.”
“You did when you married and raised a family.”
“My children are all grown. They don’t need me anymore.”
“What about your grandchildren. They adore you. They would be devastated if you died or disappeared.”
“I know. They’re the only thing that keeps me going right now.”
“You can’t just do it for them.”
“Who else is there?”
“Everyone who loves you, Simon. Your wife and your children. Your mother loves you. Everyone depends on you.”
“I just want to get this over with.”
“You’re doing this for your own sake, too. Remember, you are a very intelligent and capable person. ”
“I wish I could believe that.”
“If you have one flaw, that’s it.”
“I have many flaws and you know it.”
“The price you pay for being human, but one of the benefits is that you can always choose to improve.”
“Easier said than done.”
“I never said it was easy, just worthwhile.”
“You’re right. I just wish I wasn’t so scared.”
“Everybody is afraid.”
“It always feels like I’m the only one.”
“You’ll do fine. Even if you don’t get everything you want, at least you’ll have preserved yourself and your family.”
“The forest is thinning out.”
“Yes, the trail ends in just a few hundred meters. Good luck, Simon.”
“You’re not coming with me? I thought…”
“This is one journey you and I cannot make together. I’ll be waiting here for you when you’re finished.”
He stopped, looking at the empty air where his mind told him her voice was coming from. “I really appreciate you walking with me. I wouldn’t have made it this far without you.”
She giggled, which was rare for her. “Silly. The trail is clearly marked.”
“I meant this far in my life.”
“I’ve always been with you, Simon and I always will be, no matter what happens in the next few hours.”
“Thank you for everything.” He felt like he wanted to touch her or hold her, but of course, he never could.
“Get going, Simon. It’s time.”
He looked at his watch. 8:58 a.m. Clufilor’s message said to be there no later than nine.
“See you later.” He smiled and imagined she was smiling, too. Then he turned and hurried to the end of the path.
A hundred years ago, this had all been a high desert brush land, and the mid-sized city of over a quarter of a million people to the east, barely held 20,000.
Simon stepped onto the school playground, let out a deep breath and smiled. He still brought his grandchildren here to use the slides and swings, but they usually drove rather than take the trail. This was where Clufilor met his great-grandfather, and this is where he would meet him today.
“I commend you on your punctuality.”
Clufilor stepped, or rather half-crawled, half-slithered down the largest slide from the top of the jungle gym. Simon had read the description of the alien in old Ethan Clark’s journal, so he wasn’t completely shocked, but its appearance was still unnerving.
Its voice was the most human thing about it (the journal said its species required five distinct members to reproduce, and the personal pronouns were impossible to pronounce). The rest of him looked unreal, like a plush toy or a soft sculpture.
“Your message said nine sharp.”
“Indeed. I would like to conclude our business with all possible haste.”
“In case someone sees you. That would be pretty awkward.”
“A refraction field surrounds this area so neither one of us will be visible to the casual observer. Rest assured that we will not be disturbed. Now to business.”
The extraterrestrial sat or squatted at the foot of the slide and Simon eased his aging frame down on the concrete edge of the wood chip filled playground area.
“Very well, Clufilor. A hundred years ago, one of my ancestors met you on this very spot and saved your life after your transport device malfunctioned and you were wounded.”
“Out of gratitude, I granted certain favors, such as the AI assistant who I assume remains your companion today.”
“She’s waiting for me not far from here, but don’t forget, my ancestor provided you with other benefits besides your life.”
“The key part of our arrangement is that I swore to forego my race’s tradition of aggressive colonization of new territories, which would have resulted in the extermination of humanity. That agreement is up for renewal. Although I will continue to forego tradition, either you or your family will be forfeit if we do not come to another century-long agreement.”
Simon clasped his hands together to keep them from trembling. “Okay, here’s what I propose.”
I wrote this for the Thursday photo prompt: Track #writephoto challenge hosted at Sue Vincent’s Daily Echo. Every Thursday, Sue posts one of her original photos as a prompt for participants to craft a poem, short story, or some other creative work.
I had planned to use Sue’s prompt in combination with the Tale Weaver prompt at Mindlovemisery’s Menagerie. But the Tale Weaver theme is “Strange Things in My Neighbourhood,” and I couldn’t think of anything strange around me.
So I put a forest in between my real life backyard and the elementary school that sits right behind my house, and started writing. This is what came out.