Herewith, another previously unpublished tale, this one dredged up after 18 years in the trunk. I’ve dusted it off and trussed it up just for you.
From a distance, and without his glasses, the grass and scrub growing atop the dunes looked like creatures from a distant planet. Their single rank along the edge of the tide-piled sand resembled contorted pawns from an oversized chess set. Mark sighed. The image would be wasted on his sweet companion. He glanced at the child-sized form beside him. Lissa’s world contained neither sea nor chessmen. For her, it ceased to exist.
“Hungry?” he asked.
She faced him, neither afraid nor comprehending.
He mimed the act of eating, chewing on imaginary food and rubbing his stomach. Her pale brows dipped momentarily before she rewarded him with a smile. He kissed her forehead, then stood up, leaving her alone on the sofa in front of the glass wall of his beach house. He backed toward the kitchen just so he could keep her in sight. She watched him retreat, too weak to do more.
He blamed her frailty on the extended space flight that brought her to him, and while it had surely taken its toll, he knew the greater truth. And like all the others who sought the company of such migrant souls, he had ignored it.
Pushing a plastic cup under a pour spout built into the refrigerator, Mark pressed a button marked “Other” and waited while the appliance dispensed a pre-measured, pre-mixed dose of Lissa’s “food”—a low-protein liquid containing none of the vitamins and nutrients he consumed at every meal. For Lissa, Earth-spawned foods were toxic. Mark prayed the scientists would find a way to modify the components so that Lissa and her kind could eat like normal people. Sadly, their efforts to change the food had been no more successful than their efforts to modify her ability to digest it. Whatever the stuff was she ate—and the agency had come up with a variety of healthful-sounding names for it—barely fit the definition of food.
But it was all he had, and the only thing she could safely consume, so he smiled at her as he delivered the cup. She took it in both hands and sipped delicately. When she set it down, she revealed a thin ribbon of a pale blue liquid that outlined her upper lip. Looking straight into his eyes, she licked it off slowly with a single languorous sweep of her tongue.
Mark reacted instantly and turned away, embarrassed. How could she transform herself so easily from an innocent to a temptress? How could she so easily skirt his pledge of celibacy and arouse him?
He returned to the kitchen, chastising himself for being foolish. Lissa might be child-like, but she most definitely was not a child, and though her digestive system operated on a wholly different set of rules than his, her reproductive organs were close enough to Earth human that procreation was nearly possible.
His libido had increased in the years since Peg’s death, but he’d repressed it reasonably well, at least until Lissa arrived. Her uncanny resemblance to his late wife, though rendered at half scale, was no accident. The adaptive technique worked well for most, and in Lissa’s case, proved extraordinary.
Mark recalled the day he’d claimed her at the spaceport. Bundled and tagged like perishable freight, she and roughly a thousand other adoptees had been loaded into a transport vessel bound for Earth. The first shipments had contained only orphans, survivors of the windstorms and other natural phenomena which substituted for biological predators on her world. Lissa’s shipment, like most others recently arranged, may or may not have contained just orphans. Mark chose not to be too inquisitive. Her arrival made up for it.
He fell in love all over again.
Lissa’s broad, almond-shaped eyes, snowdrift hair, and milky blue skin looked fairy-like, yet completely natural, especially on her petite frame. In the first few weeks she’d been with him, her coloring had gradually changed, conforming somehow to a mental image he wasn’t consciously aware he projected. He had been warned to remove all traces of his late wife—holos, mementos, clothing, anything she might have touched, but he made no effort to comply. He wanted Lissa to look like Peg.
He knew she wouldn’t be Peg. The best he could hope for was a strong resemblance. But what if Lissa could do more? What if she could reflect some of Peg’s humor or mannerisms—the way she tossed her hair or giggled when she mixed up her words? Peg had done that a lot at first, self-conscious about the way her illness made her speech clumsy. As the disease progressed, however, she found less humor in it, or maybe she just lost the ability to show it.
None of which mattered anymore. For every day that passed since Peg’s death, the cleft in Mark’s heart grew wider, the void in his life more acute. Until Lissa.
He took her to the beach house as soon as she was healthy enough to travel. The journey through space had been difficult for everyone from her native planet, but the agency assured him she’d thrive at his summer home on the beach just as well as anywhere else. They were the experts—easy to believe as long as one didn’t examine their words too closely.
Most important, at least to Mark, was the knowledge that the beach house had been special to Peg. She always seemed healthier there, or at least content.
Lissa seemed to like the beach, too, though her ability to communicate was limited to smiles and frowns. He quickly recognized their nuances and learned the difference between riotous joy and mild good humor, fear and discomfort. But despite his many efforts to provide care and comfort in the ensuing months, her frowns outnumbered her smiles.
Mark called the agency, and they told him Lissa’s condition was entirely normal. As long as he maintained her diet he could expect another good year, possibly longer, and with any luck, there would be a breakthrough in the synthesis of her native foodstuff. He didn’t inquire about the consequences in the event no such breakthrough occurred.
He would have liked to explain it to Lissa but couldn’t, obviously. Such concepts were beyond her. Peg would have understood his need to explain everything, in detail. She would have reassured him. He cuddled with Lissa, drawing her thin frame close as they sat watching gulls feed in the shallows. She liked that, or seemed to. According to everything he’d read, there were no birds where she came from.
During the summer he took her for short walks along the beach. She held his hand as they explored the ever-changing shoreline and laughed at the frothy, magical fluid which washed over their feet then crept away, teasing the sand from beneath their toes.
Mark recalled similar walks with Peg. At first, they spoke of the future, later, of the past; ultimately they spoke not at all. He regretted Lissa’s inability to talk. He might have felt cheated, but with one look at her sweet face—Peg’s face—such thoughts quickly faded.
The agency called in the autumn to tell him about a new program to care for adoptees as they reached maturity. They sent him a list of things to look for, signs that he would need help to meet Lissa’s needs. No new foods had been synthesized, but according to the caller, “that could change overnight. Modern science often made astonishing progress, leapfrogging the pedestrian, inch-by-inch processes of the past.”
Mark wondered how much the agency had paid for a marketing consultant to compose the caller’s script.
By the time winter released its frigid hold on the coast, Mark no longer dared take Lissa outside. She made no protest, but her health continued to fail. In this way, too, she seemed more like Peg every day. And with that, a new chasm opened in Mark’s heart.
One early spring day as they watched the cormorants dart into the water, Mark made up his mind to take Lissa back. If he timed it right, she might have a chance to survive. There had to be something beneficial she could eat on her homeworld. The agency was wrong and had been from the start. Lissa could no longer afford to wait for Earth science to solve the problem.
But after a flurry of calls, he gave up and sat dejectedly once again beside his tiny charge. The next scheduled departure would not occur for months. Lissa wouldn’t last ’till then. Besides which, she’d need a reserve of energy for the trip she no longer possessed. Even if he had the means to charter a flight, which he didn’t, he’d waited too long. He felt a desperate need to apologize and stumbled through the effort knowing Lissa had no idea what he meant.
In the end, she went quietly, sitting beside him on the sofa, looking out to sea. One moment she gazed quietly at the breakers with him; seconds later, he watched them alone. He saw the waves pouring out their lives on the beach in a futile attempt to reach the grass and scrub which, from a distance, and without his glasses, looked like creatures from a distant planet.