The spaceship crashed into the last, barely working water tower of the small rural town of Goldville, and the ensuing flooding and water damages done to the surrounding buildings made the news before the bit about the spaceship did. It was just as well, really, because by the time the world’s craze over the clear proof of extraterrestrial life was mostly over and done with, Marigold had managed to slot into normal life in town and no one except the townsfolk was any the wiser as to her true nature.
It had helped that, when her ship had crashed, she had dove out, headfirst, and saved the lives of four children, two dogs, and an elderly couple who had stubbornly kept to their beds even as the rising waters came rushing towards them, intent on dying together, in comfort. It helped also that Marigold looked human, remarkably so, though she was remarkably tall and remarkably fast.
But she differed from most of the townsfolk with her colorless skin and hair, pale veins, and near-white eyes. If you looked at her too long, your eyes went a little crooked; but aside from that, the townsfolk really liked her and when she requested that no one tell the authorities that she had been the pilot of the ship, they all complied, even the mayor. Old Jackson forged a birth certificate for her; Samantha, who ran the grocery store told everyone, excitedly, about her and Marigold’s trip together to Nepal five years ago, and the small library was more than happy to install her as their cleaning lady.
“It’ll give you time to read all about life here on earth!” the librarian, Michael Sawbone with the fifteen golden teeth, told Marigold excitedly. “No need for much cleaning; the books like a bit of dust to nap under. But you can help me put up new shelves! I’m getting too old to lug around heavy things nowadays.”
And so Marigold piled up heavy books and re-shelved the sections Mike had long ago given up on, and when there wasn’t anything to do—which was often—she would pick up a book, seemingly at random in any language, and sit down to read it. Her brow would furrow, and she would confess, when asked, that she did not understand half of the words; but she trudged on ahead, getting up to fetch dictionaries and asking Mike when he wasn’t napping or experimenting with brewing yet stronger coffee, what did this word mean, and this, and how about the both of them in a sentence. She had an inherent sense and talent for learning, had Marigold; she’d had that since she was a child, though she did not often speak of it. The townsfolk of Goldville had quickly learned that she would rather not answer private questions, though she was quite happy to talk about where she was from generally.
“A bad place,” she would say, in her deep, solemn voice, accented with a dialect none of them could place because they had never heard of the place to begin with. “The military controls everything. The Commander is our supernatural lord.”
“She means supreme,” said Angela, the young teacher at the school that’d had half a water tower and all of a UFO crash into its roof. When Mike did not have time and when Marigold got a headache, it was Angela she would seek out. Angela, who she had shoved crying children into the arms of, depositing them quickly because there were still others in the buildings, crying, drowning, crushed.
Angela, who had told Marigold where she was, what the town was named. Angela who had let her stay in her guest-room, hiding in the deepest recesses of her walk-in closet when the police and the federal and the international agents came by to ask around, had anyone seen a pilot, passengers, what was that ship, where had it come from, did anyone know anything. Marigold had been terrified at first, of course she had, but the townsfolk had not let her down. All as one, they had said nothing, had said it was so very fortunate that no one had been in the buildings when the tower fell, that old Mr. and Mrs. Perry had found the strength to jump from their beds and out a two-story window, no bones broken.
It was six months and four days before Marigold had built up the courage, not to mention the language and proper understanding of human culture and law, to ask Angela why.
“It was my fault,” she said. They were in Angela’s kitchen, small and crammed full of keepsakes and children’s drawings, essays ready for marking, coffee-stained surfaces, chairs with threadbare cushions, and an old, fat cat that snored louder than an earthquake.
“You weren’t aiming for the tower, Mari, you were crashing.”
“But it was still my fault. Everyone should be blaming me. None of it would have happened if it wasn’t for me. So why is everyone being kind?”
“Maybe they’re—maybe we are—just kind.”
“No,” Marigold said, with the same confidence a toddler uses upon seeing an adult cross when the light is red. “No, you should be angry. Humans get angry, at disasters, at loss, at the unfamiliar. You experienced all of that the day I got here.” And for good measure, she added, “No human is that kind. That is not what the books say.”
Angela was tempted to tell her that, sometimes, the books were wrong, but it felt like sacrilege. And they weren’t, in this case, as it so happened.
“It was the last water tower,” she explained. “We were trying to have it torn down, because it really wasn’t safe. At least have it drained of water. But it would cost too much money, so the government said no, kept postponing our requests, said it was illegal if we did it ourselves, even if we tried to raise money for it… If you hadn’t come and crashed into it, it would have fallen eventually anyway. And there would have been no one to rescue us out of there.” She reached over and gently took her hand. It had been weeks before Marigold had let her touch her hands. “Plus, you’ve brought a lot of tourism to town, or your ship has at least. Everyone flocking over to see the crash-site. Amalia’s building that diner there now, and I think it’s gonna be great.”
“The Marsman pancakes are a little stereotypical,” Marigold said, stumbling only once over the last word. “But I am not from Mars anyway, so it does not matter.”
And that was that. Marigold came to understand, slowly, why the townsfolk would accept her, and she kept living and learning, day by day. There developed a routine to her days after a while, once the pressure of government suspicion had worn off; verdict declared that the pilot of the craft must have been thrown from it or launched an escape shuttle or simply evaporated upon entry into the hemisphere. Marigold would wake up early, eat breakfast with Angela who was always morning-happy, rested and fully awake, humming to herself and drinking tea. She would drive Marigold to the library and then drive to the building serving as the current school while a new, better one was being built on much safer ground than where it had stood before.
Marigold would spend most of the day reading, eating the packed lunch Angela had made for her, and drinking increasingly stronger cups of coffee while Mike scribbled down her reactions, muttering ‘fascinating’ and ‘would you like to try the hazelnut syrup next?’ all the while.
Once the day was done and the library closed, Angela would come pick her up, and they would, most days, drive to the small diner downtown. This was Amalia’s first restaurant, smaller than the big diner she was building. It was run only by her, with her two boys doing the waitering. It was no secret that the place was Marigold’s favourite. The dim light inside hid her slightly too-pale colouring and the food was good, the coffee almost as strong as Mike’s brew. The place would make her feel welcome, now just another customer, sitting there with Angela enjoying her dinner, enjoying the late afternoon and the early evening. It had not been so from the start; once the craze had started dying down, once Marigold had to be introduced into society starting with trips to the diner, the townsfolk had come, in increments, small groups growing bigger and bigger. They had come to peek or outright stare, but most of all they had come to question. Marigold would explain as best she could.
“We don’t have many children, no. Four to five per family.”
“No, I am not a princess. We do not have the concept of one where I am from. I am a normal citizen. I worked at an assembly line.”
“Yes, it is not unusual that I know how to pilot a ship. It is mandatory that all citizens in my home-country learn how to do basic tasks related to the military, in case of war. No, I do not know what conscription means, I’m sorry.”
“I need eight hours of sleep, yes. I do not eat as much as you do, I’ve found. No, we do not lay eggs. That is a very private question. No, in other countries it is different. In mine I was not allowed to marry. I could not have gotten a job at a level above the one I had.”
It was Angela, finally, who broke the bubble they had all been sitting in. She had grown too curious, and it made her burst at the seams.
“Did you steal the ship?”
It grew deadly silent in the diner. Theft was not something that happened often in the small town, and when it did everyone knew how and when and where. Usually, within a day or so, they knew who the culprit was and had made them return the taken goods. Thievery of this kind was a foreign fellow, and far worse.
“I did,” Marigold said. Her voice was low, but it carried to everyone gathered there, though her eyes were focused on Angela, as if she was speaking only to her. “I had to get away. They were hurting me.”
The questions eased off after that, though at least a few times a week someone would approach her with another. Quietly, to herself, Marigold would call these questions softer. She enjoyed using the word that way; she had learned, early on, that fur and satin and grass could be soft. She had not realised that words and tone of voice could be as well, not until she had arrived here.
“People speak harshly on your world? Or in your country particularly?” asked Angela when Marigold brought it up to her.
“There are as many different people on my world as there are people,” said Marigold. “But to me, they often spoke harshly.”
She was sure that Angela would ask why, but instead there was silence. They were on her porch; the house Angela lived in was small but comfortable. It had been her mother’s house. Her childhood home.
“I got treated harshly when I was young,” Angela finally said. “I was very closed-off, shy. Or rather, anxious, because I wanted to make friends and I had a knack for it when I got the opportunity. I was just anxious all the time. Other kids picked up on that. Adults picked up on it too. It would make them uncomfortable, and they would be harsh with me because they were uncomfortable.” From the trees, a bird sang. “I left for a while. But I came back eventually.”
Marigold went tense beside her. “I don’t want to go back, not ever.”
“You don’t have to,” Angela said, but there was a sliver of doubt within her, one she hoped did not show in her voice. “I went back because I wanted to be with my mom. I ended up staying because I worked hard and got a job here and… well, everyone leaves Goldville. All the young people. This town is slowly dying. So, everyone was grateful that I came back, even if they did think me strange. We need people here to stay.” She gathered herself up, pressing her knees close to her chest. It was getting cold out on the porch. “I suppose that’s a very selfish way of being accepting.”
Marigold reached out slowly and took Angela’s hand. Two days later, exactly eight months to the day when Marigold’s ship had crashed into the structurally unsound water tower, the guest room was no longer in use. They shared a house, their mornings, their evenings, and a bed. The visitors that came by noticed, of course. It was Mike for the most part, stopping by almost every weekend to enjoy Angela’s cooking, or it was parents stopping by to speak about their children’s performance in school outside office hours, or it was Samantha dropping by to press pickled onion and boysenberry jam into their hands and staying for tea after. All of them would ask to use the bathroom, and the path to the bathroom lead past the guestroom, the door slightly ajar, clearly showing an unused, unoccupied space.
No one said anything about it, save for the one comment Samantha made when ringing up Amalia’s groceries one day and being asked how her evening had been.
“Quite nice, I swung by Angela’s with some beets. They are so nice at her place. I know we’ve always said Angela was a mite strange, but I just think it’s lovely they’ve found each other to be strange with.”
Amalia took a moment to consider that, groceries in hand. “Yes,” she finally said. “That might be the best anyone can hope for. Spots of strangeness that fit you, even in this unknowable world.”
“What was that?”
“Oh, nothing, wasn’t there a sale on apple juice? My receipt doesn’t show it.”
“Oh dear, I’ll get that fixed right up for you.”
And so a year passed in relative quiet, in what amounted to something like peace. Marigold expanded her vocabulary in various earthly languages. Angela taught the children and brewed tea and visited her mother’s grave to say I’ve found someone, you said it wouldn’t happen, but she’s here now and we’re happy. It was not perfect happiness, because there is no such thing, but Angela thought it came pretty damn close. Content is what she was, and she had not truly been that ever before. Marigold felt rather the same, and they each had an awareness of it in the other, without it needing to be spoken aloud.
And then the day came, a year and two months after her crash-landing, when things fell apart. It started in Amalia’s newly finished diner, tacky UFO-shaped roof blinking in neon colours during the night, the mugs all painted with slanted eyes on a green surface, the décor advertising movies such as E.T. and Lilo and Stitch. The place was tacky and wonderful and had quickly become a tourist hotspot for any and all passersby. As such, Marigold, and by extension Angela, avoided it like the plague. It was a surprise, then, when Amalia’s oldest son, Max, caught the glimpse of a tall, pale form out of the corner of his eye, walking into the shop.
“Oh, Mari, I’m sorry we’re not open ye…”
He stopped short, because it wasn’t Marigold standing in the open doorway. It was an easy mistake to make at a glance though: the two looked so eerily similar they were undoubtedly related—unless, Max thought, with the part of his brain not short-circuiting from shock, unless everyone on Marigold’s planet looked roughly the same, just like all the Marsmen in the movies, or perhaps it was just that they all looked the same to an outsider, unused to their features. The man had the same pale, almost translucent skin, the same clear veins and pale, pale eyes. He wore a long, beige trench coat that only made him look paler, not to mention very much like he was up to something. The hair on his head was a sandy colour. He was staring at Max. And blinking too much.
“Hello,” he said. “I am looking for my friend, have you seen her?”
Max was in no doubt that he definitely had, but everything about the man struck him as creepy; and he remembered what Marigold had said. “Depends, who’s your friend? Lots of people come through here, I might have seen her.”
“You would remember her,” the man said. Max could not place his accent. Or, he thought, he could if he’d known the name of the place. “She looks a lot like me.”
“Oh, she your sister?”
The man smiled, or rather, he bared his teeth. “No?” It was a question, Max realised. The man did not know what the word ‘sister’ meant.
“I’m sorry, I haven’t seen anyone who looked like you pass through here.”
“Oh, well.” The man was still trying to smile. Max really wished he would stop. “I will go and seek her elsewhere. I might be back to check.”
Heart pounding, Max waited until the man had left, gently closing the door behind him, before he quickly walked to the backroom to get his phone.
“Hello, Mom? Yeah, we have a problem.”
It was the talk of the town in a matter of hours. Others had seen him: old Jackson down by the lake while he’d been fishing, startling the hell out of him and whatever pike he’d been about to reel in, Samantha outside her shop while she was opening up, and Mike…
Mike Sawbone had taken one look at the man approaching his library and swiftly walked inside to ask Marigold to please go downstairs to the archives and make herself busy until he got her.
When the man had left and Mike had gone down there, he’d found the archives empty.
“But where could she have gone?” Amalia asked.
“To Angela’s,” old Jackson answered, not a moment of doubt.
“I panicked and told him I didn’t remember if I’d seen anyone at all!” Samantha bemoaned. “He knew I was lying for sure!”
“Well, what do we do?” asked Max, who had given his little brother the later shift so he could go and panic with his mother and the others.
It was the mayor, Helena Aurum, who spoke. “It should be up to Marigold to decide.”
Helena was a large woman, as fat as she had been in her younger days and, though not as beautiful, she was still as commanding, as breath-taking. She had taken over the post ten years prior, after the former mayor, her brother, had unexpectedly gone and drowned himself in the lake. She had lobbied hard for the removal of the water tower, endless nights of terrible visions haunting her sleep: tsunamis and floods, a broken tower and a broken town. When she had gone to Angela’s home to personally thank Marigold for saving them all, she had asked her for her name. With none forthcoming, she had simply said; “I’ll ask Jackson to put in ‘Marigold’, if you don’t mind it.” It was truly worrying how quickly this woman, this mayor, was ready to commit extreme fraud for the sake of one person; but in their refusal to help, the government at large had clearly stated to her that they did not give a damn about Helena and her town. And so, Helena would not give a damn about them either.
“If Mari’s even here,” said Max. “She might have booked it entirely.”
Old Jackson shook his head. “Angela’s still here, I saw her at the old diner.”
“And? I’m talking about Marigold.”
Samantha, dear, over-eager Samantha, leaned forward. ”Marigold wouldn’t leave without Angela.”
“You don’t know that,” Mike said. “If she was scared enough, she might. If I was scared enough I might’ve left my wife too, maybe if I thought it was safer for her as well.”
“They’re not married,” Samantha quickly said, while Amalia said, “Mike, you’re not married,” perhaps completely missing the point.
“I might have been married once, you don’t know,” Mike said to Amalia, who let it go. Everyone silently agreed to ignore Samantha’s comment.
“Again,” Helena said. “All we can do is what we have already been doing. Tell people to keep an eye on their children, make sure they don’t blabber. No one is to tell this man anything about Marigold. We give him the same story we gave the feds.”
It was decided with that, and the makeshift council uneasily adjourned their meeting, each leaving to go home or to work. Helena got into her car, almost too small for her, and took a deep breath before turning down the road, heading for Angela’s house. No one was home, as expected, but Helena knew where the spare key was. Angela had shown her.
She helped herself to some tea, waiting for someone to come home. She had duties to attend to, of course, and Helena took them seriously. But it was not every day that an alien dropped into town. In fact, it had only happened once before; Helena was starting to think it was rather enough of that.
Night fell outside before Angela’s car drove up. Helena saw her step out of it alone, but she was not surprised when Marigold walked in beside her. They stood as close as they could, both of them huddled; neither turned on the lights inside, leaving only the small table-lamp Helena had lighted.
“Hello, Madame Mayor, welcome to our house,” said Angela.
“Angela. Marigold. Please sit down.”
Marigold was close to shaking; Helena did not need more light to see her worry. Angela kept a hold of her hand as they both sat down on the other side of the small dining table.
“You’ve both found out that someone has come here looking for Marigold, yes?”
Angela nodded. Marigold did not move a muscle. Helena stared at her, wishing, not for the first time, that she had an easier time reading her. She could usually read people like an open book. She had excused her new difficulty with the thought that Marigold wasn’t people. She had never spoken the thought aloud. Now she was sorry she’d had it.
“Do you know him?” she asked Marigold. Beneath the table, Angela squeezed her hand. She was sweating, their skin almost merged with how warm it was between them, but right then it did not seem worth it to let go.
“I do,” Marigold said. “He is…” she stopped, out of words. The language had not failed her in a while, but now it seemed she could not speak the words. Helena waited for a heartbeat, two, then carried on.
“You do not have to tell me who he is. Just tell me: if he finds you will he hurt you?”
“Yes.” Marigold’s lips twitched, the clearest expression Helena had seen on her face. “But if, if he finds out I am here and you keep me away from him…”
“Marigold…” Angela said, but she carried on.
“If he finds out, he is likely to hurt someone in town. One of you.”
“That is a conundrum, isn’t it.”
“We’ll leave,” Angela said immediately. “She doesn’t have to go with him, she shouldn’t, we’ll just leave, me and her.”
“Yes, that will likely be necessary.” She sighed. “Honestly, we should have thought of this happening sooner.” She glanced at Marigold out of the corner of her eye and was shocked to find her staring boldly back.
“I was hiding my coordinates when I crashed,” she said. “He should not have been able to trace me via the ship. It must have been luck that he came here.”
“Luck and the media I imagine,” said Helena. “I suppose that’s Amalia’s fault for rekindling interest with her new diner.”
“No, it is not her fault. It is mine for coming here.”
“No one blames you,” Angela hurried to say. Helena disagreed.
“I am sure someone in town does. But what’s done is done; if you hadn’t crashed here, if we hadn’t helped you hide, if you had left, if we had asked you to leave. There are lots of things that could have been done, but they weren’t, which leaves us only with what to do now.”
“We will leave town,” Marigold said, repeating Angela’s words. “As soon as possible. Tonight.”
Helena nodded. “It is a shame you cannot say goodbye. Will he give up?”
“I do not know.” At Helena’s look, Marigold relented. ”No, he’s come this far. He will keep chasing me.”
“He seemed the persistent sort.” Not like the agents she’d paid off or threatened. Helena had honestly hoped that would do the trick, but if Marigold was hard to read, that man had been impossible. And frightening. “I agree, leaving tonight is for the best. We’ll have some people over to help you pack the essentials and figure out the rest from there. Angela, where was it you used to hide out before?”
Angela looked startled to have the conversation turned to her, but soon she was bristling. “I was not hiding!”
“Your gay commune you lived in then, where was it?”
“Forgive an old lady, I do not know the lingo. Home of Homosexuals?”
“Those would mean roughly the same thing,” Marigold agreed, a little nonplussed at the distressed laughter escaping Angela.
“Let us stop being coy then. You have friends who would help you, far away from here. Friends, I imagine, who will not question having a tall and unusual woman hanging around. I rather think they might enjoy it actually.”
Angela rubbed at her face with her free hand. “I don’t want to put them in danger either.”
“You won’t be. You two have to leave because this place is about to become a bit of a hotspot again.” She got up slowly, gathering her clothes around her. “I don’t know if we’ll ever speak again, so I’ll say this, because I see you both gaping at me like fools: I’ve not forgotten what you did, Marigold, and I do not imagine our debt to you is repaid. Nor will I let you two go off with the notion that I am naïve enough to believe things will be easy for you. We have tried hard to make this town the place it is today, and there are few other places like it. I have never claimed moral superiority, though many have called me conceited and stubborn in the same breath they have titled me such. I only hope to live my life seeing what is just rather than what is lawful and common. I am helping you because I know both of you strive to do the same.” She gave them a smile, wrinkles slotting into places they’d occupied many times before. “I do hope we meet each other again, but if we don’t, I wish you both all the luck in the world.”
“You as well,” Marigold said, still parsing through the mayor’s speech. Angela stood.
“You sound like you have a plan,” she said. “What are you about to do?”
“Oh, just make a phone-call really. There’s some agents and officials itching to get back here, I’m sure. It’s time they got off their asses.”
By the next morning, Angela’s house stood just a little emptier. Helena drove by on her way to work to check and then decided to take a different route to her destination. It was only a little ways around anyway; she parked by the old school and dug her phone out from her bag, dialling the number she’d had in her head since yesterday. It picked up after only a few beeps, and in that time, Helena had a moment to feel downright giddy, a thing she had not felt in many years, not since she was younger and much bolder.
“Yes, hello, it’s me. Wouldn’t you know it–I do think the alien you all were looking for last year has turned up in town. How quickly can you be here?”
The call lasted only a few seconds longer, after which the mayor of Goldville put her phone away and took a moment to just sit in her car, staring at the flickering lights of the diner put in the place where an old water tower used to sit. It was, Helena thought, a rather good day for some Marsman-themed pancakes.