I’m twisting together the brass wires separating the intermaxillary and the upper mandible on the skull of the northern saw-whet owl I’m disarticulating when Arly bangs into the cabin, the door practically careening off its hinges. I jump at the sudden noise and drop the pliers; it’s been a long time since I’ve heard anything but the sound of my own breathing and the creak of the wooden floor as I lean forward in my chair.
Arly starts laughing uproariously. I look up at him, my fellow castaway, and take in the woolen plaits of blond hair on his head, his skin brown with sun and sand. “Whatcha up to?” Arly giggles, but the answer is obvious by the line of Beauchene mammal and bird skulls on the floor all around me.
I rub the back of my neck, and vainly try to figure out what day of the week it is. Hell, I can’t remember if I ate breakfast this morning. Or yesterday morning, for that matter. Guess I lost track of time. “You got something to eat?” I manage to creak out of my unused vocal cords. Arly’s good that way. He brings me food he’s cooked out on the beach — crabs or rock cod, mollusks that I don’t bother identifying because their anatomy bores me.
“Of course,” he says breezily, as he unslings the canvas bag from his right shoulder and dumps the contents on the table next to the owl’s skull. I eyeball the cache. It’s a mound of wild rocket, spruce tips, grey-blue juniper berries, and shaggy mane fungi.
Arly plops himself down in a chair and divides the spoils with grubby fingers. “You know, the spaceship buzzed us again last night,” he says conversationally as we dig in.
I give him a long look. He’s still going on about those aliens, then. About a month ago, he came in all in a tizzy because he had seen a UFO the night before. I thought he’d been spending too much time out there alone on the beach, just him and the stars and whatever hallucinogenic he found to ingest. “You watched too much X-Files when you were a kid,” I admonish.
“You know it,” he grins. “Scully was a hottie, after all.” We fist-bump like twelve-year-olds, but his eyes are serious. “I mean it, though. They know we’re here. They’re looking to make first contact.”
I snort in disbelief. “There’s no such thing as aliens. And if there were, why on earth would they choose to visit us? We’re on an island in the middle of nowhere.”
“The universe is a big place,” Arly says. “Everyone’s just looking for a friend or two.”
I’m surprised by his poetic profundity. “And we’re good candidates?”
He winks. “Nah. Their GPS is probably broken.”
Darkness falls early these days, I’m thinking as I head to the latrine a few hundred yards from the cabin. I’m suddenly feeling guilty about Arly, down there alone on the beach. I probably don’t spend enough time with him, I realize. I’m vowing to change that after I complete my next project — a vole I found a few weeks back in a cavity under the crumbling cabin stoop — when I hear it, an intense throbbing thump that reminds me of a helicopter, the noise so loud my body pulses with shockwaves. And then the light comes, a sweeping beam as brilliant as the brightest sun, and I can feel heat coming off of it, my skin and my eyes pinking under the burn.
The very ground beneath my feet sucks upwards like it’s in a vacuum, the tree roots straining against my sandals, making me stumble. I’m gulping air that feels like sandpaper in my throat. And then suddenly, there is silence. And darkness.
I begin to run for the beach, watching for the flames of Arly’s bonfire. It’s guttering weakly, nearly extinguished by the siphoning air mass. “Arly!” I shout hoarsely, but I can’t hear him, I can’t see him, and then I trip over him.
Or what’s left of him, anyway. There are still a few tufts of warm, wet scalp and familiar knotted hair clinging to the skull. I grit my teeth and head back to the comforts of my cabin. The vole will have to wait.
Sheryl Normandeau is a Calgary-based writer. She spends an inordinate amount of time at the public library (mostly because she works there). Her work has appeared in several North American publications.