4,000 Words

Listen to the audio version of “Penelope Waits”

Penelope waited for Odysseus. A whole house full of suitors, some of whom had to be pretty hot, and she gave none of them the time of day, weaving a shroud of all things, unweaving it at night. Meanwhile, Odysseus is boinking goddesses, having adventures, going to hell and back, bragging about it all to dinner parties packed with swooning admirers of his bullshit. That’s the way the story goes. Course I’m no Penelope, and Ralph’s certainly no Odysseus.

He is a cheating little rat, however. I could give you a list, but that’s sort of beside the point of this story. Point is, I’ve learned not to believe a word he says, so when he goes camping for the weekend with a buddy, I’m thinking, right, and when buddy comes back without him saying Ralph “just vanished,” I’m thinking right again, and then when he surfaces a whole week later with totally new clothes saying he’s been abducted by aliens, I say, “What’s the bitch’s name, Ralph?”

But he sticks to his story, even goes to the authorities and whatever, and they’re about as into his bullshit as I am. One of these agent guys, kind of cute actually, asks me where I thought he was, and I tell him my theories which don’t include any aliens, lotus eaters, Cyclops, or hot goddesses, only some hillbilly bar bitch with a purse full of condoms that turned into a week at a Red Carpet Inn. Once burned, twice cautious, as grandma used to say, but with Ralph I’ve learned to wear oven mitts. The agent laughed at that one, and gave me a sly look in case I was looking to even the score, but I’d already spotted the ring on his finger and didn’t consider him suitor material.

You may be wondering about all the Odyssey stuff. I just did a paper on it. One of the reasons Ralph took off on his extra-long weekend was so I could work on it without him bugging me, but when he “just vanished,” that proved to be a major distraction and I turned it in late anyways. Mr. Branson, the instructor, said it was so good and imaginative he didn’t count any points off. Mr. Branson is definitely suitor material, but only if you’re a guy. Some girls in the class tried anyway, but that’s just one of many shortcuts to heartache, and I’ve had enough of those to last me.

I’m trying to get a little education so I can get a better job that pays more and has benefits and all that, though I like working at the dog wash, and someday, if we ever open a second location, I could, like, manage or something, especially if I pick up some bookkeeping skills and stuff, but those classes bore me to death, and the stuff I dreaded like Literature of the Western World they make you take for no good reason I can see turned out to be the best ones. I like Spanish too. ¿Qué tal, Pablo? Consuela, one of my puppy scrubbing mates at the Waggy Washateria, helped me out, even tried to explain the subjunctive to me, which I never got, but she told me my accent is pretty good. She’s illegal and should know, though she went home to visit family for Christmas and never came back. I don’t think Ralph’s aliens took her either.

But Ralph, who says he loves me, who says I’m the one, who says I’m all he thought about when he was in alien captivity, has begged me to give him a chance to prove it to me, to return to the scene of the crime where the beam of light came out of the sky and whisked him away, and I said okay, not because I believe him for a second, but if he’s willing to go to all this trouble, he must care about me, right? Right. Besides, it’s spring break, and I like camping. And Ralph won’t take the meds. You think you can talk this kind of shit without getting put on serious meds?

But he believes it all, so he doesn’t think he needs any meds. He has to keep his wits about him, he says: There are aliens among us.

§

Okay, I’ll confess. I had hopes for the sleeping bags thing. Naked bodies snuggied up in a big warm sock might ignite a little passion. But it wasn’t warm enough. The aliens left a chill that lives in Ralph’s spine. Ralph’s been coming here for years, he says. It’s a pretty spot. Now every little noise in the night he thinks is them. He says the aliens told him there’s a portal close by where they come and go to their home planet dozens of light years away.

Why can’t he be afraid of bears or mountain lions like a normal person? But when something like that’s real to someone, as crazy as it may seem, you have to respect their fear. You can’t judge, seems to me, but what do I know?

So to say I’m not expecting to meet aliens is the understatement of the century. I don’t even believe in ancient astronauts and haunted houses and all of that nonsense on the History Channel. How do they get away with calling that stuff the History Channel? So I’m trying to get a fire started, and Ralph’s out gathering firewood supposedly, though he’s probably just smoking a joint. I’m more worried about bears than aliens when they just show up, materialize like they do on Star Trek, three of them, tall and skinny and not quite right so there’s no way you can think they’re just some of Ralph’s buddies in alien suits. Nobody that Ralph knows is 6’4” with a 24-inch waist and arms as long as my legs.

“Don’t be afraid,” one of them says, like that’s an option, like it’s not twice as scary because his little round mouth barely moves, and he’s the color of a cantaloupe. “We mean you no harm.”

“Holy shit!” I say, and they look at one another like they know what that means, and they’re trying to figure out where to take the conversation from there since the no fear message obviously didn’t take.

A different one says—you can’t be sure since their mouths barely move, but he sounds different—“We just want to understand your kind.”

“Did you abduct Ralph?” I ask, thinking these guys aren’t very good at picking out their test subjects.

“Ralph proved inadequate,” the first one says, and I can’t argue with that.

“What is your name?” the third one asks me.

“Penelope,” I lie because … I don’t know why. Maybe I’m not such a good test subject either. “What’s yours?” I ask, because that’s just what you say, right?

“Serene,” the first one says.

“Enlighten,” the second one says—more carrot colored.

“Happy,” says the third—winter squash.

“You’re kidding,” I say. It just comes out. Kind of rude, I suppose, but they don’t seem to mind.

“We’re translating,” Happy says.

Makes sense. “So, what do you want to know?” I ask.

“Everything,” Enlighten says.

“Oh brother,” I start to say, but then I remember Mr. Branson’s opening lecture where he laid it on thick about how literature opened vistas of understanding and all that, and I just happen to have the huge lit. book with me since I’m supposed to read Oedipus before we get back from break, so I haul it out of the tent and hand it over. “You guys read?” I ask. If they can manage English so well, I figure reading’s not a problem.

“With pleasure,” Serene says, with a smile? The round mouth goes oval for a second.

Then they vanish, just like they showed up, dissolving into twinkly nothing. Ralph comes stumbling into our campsite a few minutes later smelling of pot with an armload of wood and dumps it by my smoldering excuse for a fire.

I don’t tell him about my aliens. I’d have to tell him he wasn’t really great abductee material, and he might get his feelings hurt, and he’s still acting totally afraid of them, while I thought they were kind of sweet for aliens. How can you be afraid of guys with names like Serene, Enlighten, and Happy? They took my book, so I won’t be able to get the reading done, but I figure Mr. Branson likes me and will let it slide this once, since I’m the best student in the class. I’m not bragging. The competition isn’t too steep.

§

Penelope’s name means web-face or something like that, and I say in my paper she’s like a spider who unweaves her web, the shroud she’s supposedly making, to not catch anything, and that she and Odysseus are two peas in a pod who don’t let others see who they really are in order to survive with their identities intact, so they’re, like, made for each other.

I’ve always hoped I’d find someone made for me, but lately I’ve been thinking that’s not happening. I’m okay-looking. Guys hit on me all the time, at least for now while I’m twenty-six and not too fat, but sooner or later I won’t look so good and I will have missed my chance. Not that the guys are worth pining for. I’m with Ralph because he was so persistent it was just easier to go out with him than make up excuses not to. He works for UPS and makes deliveries at the dog wash and used to hang around while I was blow-drying some Lhasa Apso or something, saying I had a gentle touch or some bullshit. Now he just talks football with Mike, the owner who’s a big Cowboys fan.

I hate football.

Lately it’s been the aliens. Ralph won’t let it go, which is another reason I don’t say anything about mine. Mike asks him if they inserted anything into his orifices—Mike watches all that stuff on the History Channel—and Ralph says no.

“Well, what did they do?” Mike wants to know.

“They showed me pictures,” Ralph says.

“Pictures of what?”

“Buildings, paintings, statues—all sorts of stuff. I don’t know. They wanted to know what I could tell them about them.”

“Maybe they were terrorist targets.”

“They weren’t terrorists; they were aliens.”

“Maybe they were terrorist aliens.”

When Ralph leaves, Mike suggests to me that Ralph needs to get help, and I tell him he already has. Mike’s just fucking with him, since he doesn’t believe any of it, which I don’t think is very nice, but I don’t say anything since Mike’s my boss, and I don’t want to piss him off. I love dogs, and I only took the job because I can’t have one where I live and I can’t afford a nicer place.

§

It’s about a week since I met them, when Enlighten, Serene, and Happy show up at my place. I was getting worried about my book, but I was able to find everything on the internet I was supposed to read without all the annoying footnotes which are mostly useless ain’t-I-smart stuff they throw in there to justify charging an arm and a leg for the book. I told Mr. Branson I lost my book, and he told me where to go online. I can’t help noticing how the lies are piling up, just like Odysseus and Penelope. Oedipus was totally depressing, but kind of cool anyway. I said he was like some detective trying to find out who done it when he’s the guy who did. Mr. Branson really liked that. I think the other people in the class are starting to hate me, but what can you do? You have to be yourself, right? Back in high school I never read anything I was supposed to, but I wasn’t paying for the classes either. The story was guys didn’t like smart girls, but the guys who did like me weren’t worth being stupid over.

“How did you guys find me?” I ask the aliens.

“You wrote your address in the book,” Serene says and points at it in case I forgot. There’s my name, Cindy Slidell, but they don’t ask why I told them I was Penelope, like they already know and don’t want to embarrass me. I find this touching. A little consideration goes a long way with me. Maybe if I’d met these aliens back in high school, my life would’ve been a whole lot different.

“You want some tea or something?”

They like that idea, so I give them some green tea because that’s supposed to be good for you, and I don’t want to be responsible for making a bunch of aliens sick, and I want to make a good impression. I wonder sometimes if that isn’t something started by the tea companies to sell more tea, but I have a suspicious nature, which is one of the reasons I liked Odysseus and Penelope so much.

I explain all this to the aliens while I’m making the tea and serving it. I run off at the mouth sometimes when I’m nervous. I don’t do a lot of entertaining. I feel bad I don’t have any good food to offer them, but I have a tube of Oreos left over from when Ralph was missing and I was stressing, and they like those just fine. I show them how you can take them apart and eat the filling first, and they really get into that. Laughing maybe? It sort of sounds like a drain backing up. It occurs to me they might be getting a sugar high. Their little round mouths are crusted with cookie crumbs, but the green tea washes most of that off.

They have lots of questions about the book, they say, and I have to confess I’ve only read the first part, which is kind of too bad since they have a whole lot of questions about Dante’s Inferno. Serene says it frightened him, and Happy and Enlighten totally agree. I make a mental note to ask Mr. Branson some of their questions when I get the chance.

I tell them all about my paper for Mr. Branson, and Serene asks me why I like Penelope so much. Is it that she waited for Odysseus? I figure these guys might have somebody waiting for them back home, or wish they did.

I think about this real hard because that’s not it exactly, that she just waited, until I finally say it’s because she knew Odysseus was worth waiting for, that he could’ve just stayed in what most guys would regard as paradise but came back home to her because she totally got him. Happy points out that he had a lot of help from Athena who’s always showing up as some random guy or even some little kid in pigtails.

“There you go,” I say. “Athena’s the goddess of wisdom, right, so she should know, and Odysseus is smart enough to listen to her even when she looks like nobody.”

Enlighten says, “We suspect Athena might’ve been one of our kind.”

“Do you guys watch the History Channel or something?”

This gets a big laugh from the three of them, but it was a perfectly serious question. “So are you guys going to abduct me like you did Ralph?”

Serene says, “That didn’t seem to work out so well with Ralph, and you’ve been so willing to help us, it doesn’t seem necessary.”

This makes sense of course, but as I’m nodding my head in agreement, like you bet, I’m one helpful human, no abduction necessary, I can’t help noticing deep inside—like some part of me just drowned—how disappointed I am.

Enlighten leans forward, the faint smell of Oreos on his breath. “Do you want us to abduct you? We could show you countless other worlds.”

I panic, lose my nerve, like I’ve always done on the high board at the pool and say, “Of course not.”

They all nod, smiling? Like they know I just lied to them a little bit, but they’re aliens, in my apartment out of the blue. What do they expect?

“I have to get ready for work,” I say, and they all stand up like they’re going to head for the door, and vanish.

When I get to the dog wash, I have a brindle pit bull waiting to have his anal glands expressed and a bath, plus a labradoodle who needs the whole wash, cut and fluff treatment. The pit’s a sweetie pie who won’t quit licking my face, and the labradoodle’s three kinds of frisky waiting for her turn. I suspect they’re into each other. Everybody’s fixed here, but you’d be surprised how little difference that seems to make.

Right when things are at their stinkiest, Ralph shows up and says he’s got some news that won’t wait, and for a moment I’m afraid the aliens have told him I’ve been seeing them behind his back, but it turns out to be the opposite. He says he can’t sleep nights knowing the alien portal is right here in the county, and he has to move on like his shrink says, and so he’s put in for a transfer, that he’s moving to Roanoke, and he wants me to go with him.

The pit’s watching us, back and forth, one to the other like he’s following the conversation, wondering what I’ll say. The labradoodle’s yodeling for her freedom. I swear half the time it’s like dogs know exactly what we’re saying and there’s no point lying to them or yourself either, and I tell Ralph no.

“Won’t you even think about it?” he asks. “It’s not like they don’t have dog washes in Roanoke.”

That’s kind of mean, which only confirms my decision, but that’s not it. It’s not even that I know Ralph’s not the one for me and never will be. I mean there’s probably a hell of a lot more going on in Roanoke than here, where if it wasn’t for Mr. Branson and the dogs I would’ve lost my mind a long time ago. It’s that I want to stay for the very reason Ralph wants to leave:  I don’t want to leave the portal. Right then and there I realize I’m living for the next time I can see Happy, Serene, and Enlighten again. There’s something in the look I give him, I suppose, but he doesn’t try to talk me out of it really, though he gets all weepy and says he’ll never forget me, which I kind of doubt is true, but I’m much too nice to say so.

§

I hang around waiting for the pit’s owner to show. He’s late. I don’t mind. I like hanging out with Butch, the pit. I tell him my troubles, and he listens, giving me a reassuring slurp on the face. I give him a big hug. Looks like he’s had troubles of his own—some scars on his muzzle, and one of his ears is pretty chewed up. I figure he’s a rescue.

When the owner finally shows, he turns out to be a total asshole. He looks and smells drunk, and he’s wearing a confederate flag t-shirt with a skull in the middle.

I tell him how much I like his dog.

He scowls. “Useless dog. Stinks. A total pussy. How much did he cost me this time?”

I tell him, and he starts arguing, though I know Mike must’ve told him up front what it would cost. He finally gives me a credit card that gets turned down, so he pulls out a roll of bills that says “dealer” to me, and peels off a few, throwing them on the counter. I make his change, and he drags Butch out to his truck, throws him in the back, and roars off. The last thing I see is poor Butch skittering around, banging into the sides. Butch wasn’t a rescue. He still needed rescuing.

§

That night I stay up ’til all hours reading Dante, and I see exactly what the aliens are talking about. Dante must’ve been one angry guy. Gets me to thinking about who I would put in my Hell. I picture Butch’s owner looking like a fireplug, dogs lined up for eternity to piss on his ugly face.

I’m waiting for Mr. Branson outside his office first thing for his office hours. It’s not like there’s a line or anything. I’ve got the aliens’ questions and some of my own, and he talks to me for a long time, until he says he has to go to class, but he wants to know my future plans.

I tell him I don’t know, that I’ve been thinking a lot about that myself.

“You should continue your studies,” he says. “You are very smart and insightful,” he says. “You should get a degree, go on to graduate school. You are the brightest student I’ve ever taught.”

By the time he’s done, my head’s too big to fit inside his tiny office, and part of me’s saying, where do I sign up, but this other part avoids the question about future plans, saying I can’t afford it, that I can’t just up and leave, that I don’t want to leave this dumpy little town. He’s got all the answers—scholarships, stipends, grants, opportunities. I tell him I’ll think about it even though I know I won’t.

“Don’t sell yourself short, Cindy,” he says.

Outside his office is a box full of books with a sign that says FREE BOOKS. On the top of the pile is the book for the second half of World Lit. “Can I have this?”  I ask him as he’s about to go to class.

“Of course,” he says, smiling big. “It’s the old edition, but they don’t change much. Help yourself.”

Help yourself. I’ve always liked that expression. “Thanks for everything,” I say, picking up the thick book and hugging it to my chest, imagining a bright future.

§

The tent and everything Ralph and I went camping with is still at my place, and I load it in my car. On the way out of town, I swing by the address Butch’s owner gave Mike, and it turns out to be right—you never know with a guy like that—and there’s Butch in the yard, on a chain, naturally. I abduct him, and we head for the hills. I roll down the windows so he can smell some freedom; so we both can. Odysseus had a dog who recognized him after twenty long years when he finally made it back home, licking his hand and wagging his tail. Then the dog up and died.  I cried buckets when I read that. Leastways that won’t happen to Butch.

I’ll miss the dog wash. I’ll miss my friends. The Earth. But I keep thinking about all that must be out there, other worlds like Enlighten said. Looking through my new book I found a poem about Ulysses a few years down the road that says exactly how I already feel at twenty-six:

Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’

Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades

For ever and forever when I move.

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,

To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!

“ ’T is not too late to seek a newer world,” he decides. How many chances do you get?

So I’m waiting here, drinking a big mug of coffee I picked up at the 7-11—maybe my last, who knows?—waiting for Happy, Serene, and Enlighten to show up so I can answer all their questions about Hell and then some. I’ve got insights like Mr. Branson says. Butch is leaning up against me, his ears perked up, his eyes on the stars, waiting. He’s got some insights too.

Abduct us, guys. We’re ready.

Dennis Danvers has published eight novels, including NYT Notables Circuit of Heaven and The Watch, and Locus and Bram Stoker nominee Wilderness. His eighth novel, Bad Angels, was published in 2015. Short fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Intergalactic Medicine Show, Space and Time, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, F & SF, Realms of Fantasy, Electric Velocipede, Lightspeed, Tor.com; and in anthologies Tails of Wonder, Richmond Noir, The Best of Electric Velocipede, Remapping Richmond’s Hallowed Ground, and Nightmare Carnival. He teaches fiction writing and science fiction and fantasy literature at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia, and blogs at dennisdanvers.com.

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