“Okay, Gina. Relax. I’ll tell Belud what happened.”
Pete hung up, turned to face his neighbour, and saw on Belud’s blue-grey features the familiar expression of any concerned parent. The universe threw up many constants, but the more time he spent with Belud, the more he realised the rules didn’t end at laws of motion and matter, but emotion and what mattered.
“It’s Little Belud, isn’t it? What’s he done?”
“Relax,” Pete said, though he felt strange saying it to someone with the skin and pretty much the dimensions of a rhino on its hind legs. Belud’s eyes were creased with worry. All five of them. “There was just a little misunderstanding during one of the party games, is all. Everything’s fine now.”
“Tell me. I need to know. If my son has broken something?”
“It was nothing.” Belud’s raised voice was attracting attention from others in the bar. It was enough for the regulars to have a refugee in their local. One that started raising his voice and getting agitated… “Kids will be kids. They get over-excited sometimes is all. Remember, this is a boys’ night for you too.”
Pete tried a smile. Despite it meaning he’d left Gina to run their son’s birthday party single-handedly, it had actually been his wife’s idea for him and Geoff to use the opportunity to get Belud out of the house. Single-father, long way from his home planet — it was Gina’s best option to meddle, since there was no way any of her single friends were going to accede to a date. There was desperate, and then there was going out and advertising the fact. Pete gave his best friend a nudge.
“Back me up on this one, Geoff.”
“What? Oh, right. Pete’s correct. My daughter Beth once swallowed half a bottle of toilet cleaner. Spent the whole night throwing up. Won’t touch lemonade anymore. But she was fine… Eventually.”
“Gee. Thanks, Geoff.” Pete gave him a withering look.
“Tell me what happened,” Belud said in that solemn way his species had.
“Okay, but it was nothing. Absolutely nothing. They were playing Pin the Tail on the Donkey, and Little Belud just got the wrong end of the stick.”
“Pin? Donkey? Wrong end?”
“Way to go, Pete.” Geoff laughed into his beer.
“Sorry. It’s a kids’ party game. You blindfold the kid whose turn it is, spin them around. They have a paper tail with a pin stuck through it and they have to stick it in a picture of a donkey. The kid who gets closest to where it should go wins.”
“Wins,” repeated Belud, the word causing leathery lids to slide down and quiver over his eyes. “I should have explained to you.”
“What’s to explain? Little Belud just didn’t understand the rules or that the game had finished. Went round trying to stick things in everyone’s behinds.” Pete swallowed, not mentioning the ‘thing’ had included the first item to hand, which had been the carving knife brought out to cut the birthday cake. Gina had caught him just in time, there had been tantrums, but not-so-Little Belud had eventually been disarmed.
Things, she’d said, were quieter now.
“We are known by you as a peaceful planet, but that is a surface illusion in many ways. One we ourselves maintain through daily prayer and rigid self-control. Such control was necessary to allow us to advance as a species rather than just wipe ourselves out of existence. In truth, we are fiercely competitive by nature. Ruthless, in fact. It is why we never indulge in any game or activity which includes any element of victory or loss.
“We have no restraint,” Belud finished and Pete shivered when he thought about the knife. Better Gina didn’t hear all this until a week hence.
“I had no idea,” Pete said. Belud’s people had been accepted on Earth when the floods had hit their homeworld. The advanced nature of their technology had, of course, been a major sweetener. When more had passed through Earth’s lengthy — and currently log-jammed — screening process, more would be placed into human communities. Until then, Belud was very much a lone alien, and an alien alone.
“I hope there was no… unpleasantness. On our planet, all of society was designed to instil and reinforce that restraint from the earliest moment. Since coming here, Little Belud has only had me as his teacher.” There was shame there, and Pete was reminded of Belud’s single-parent status. “I should go. Be there. Just in case.”
“C’mon, Belud!” Geoff said, but Pete had recognised responsibility beyond mere fatherhood.
“Okay. We’ll all go.”
“No. That would make me feel terrible. Please. Enjoy the rest of your evening.”
“I see why he didn’t want to play darts now,” Pete said when Belud had gone, pulling his own set out and readying his throw.
“Just as well they weren’t planning on Murder In The Dark,” Geoff said. “It’ll be all right. As you said: just wrong end of the stick.” Pete’s throw nearly took his ear off. Geoff turned to protest and saw his friend was frantically dialling. “What is it?”
“Just the cake left,” Pete said with an agonised expression. “And the piñata…”
His eyes widened at Geoff. Gina wasn’t picking up.
Jez Patterson is a British teacher and writer, currently based in Madrid. Links to other things with his name at the end can be found at jezpatterson.wordpress.com.
This story is sponsored by
Clarion West — Apply now through March 1 to attend our 2014 six-week workshop for writers preparing for professional careers in science fiction and fantasy.