Mr. Wright had always been a bit peculiar.
His hair was a mass of snow atop a rosy complexion, blue undertones seeping into his cheeks, reaching his eyes, grey orbs reflecting more than they absorbed. His skin was paper-thin; I feared to touch him, lest I reduce him to nothing.
He dressed in white.
He dressed in white suits with white ties and white shoes. His cufflinks, too, were stained in a terrifyingly pure white, whiter than the clouds, whiter than salvation. I was sure his breath would blow white if I could have seen it. Perhaps the force of his breath would be sufficient enough to have blown him away.
He rarely spoke; instead, he opened his eyes wide, surrounded by little valleys of dried river beds, and stared, unblinking. He would stare for minutes, eyes trained, quick to focus. He would stare, and I would hide my face behind my hair until he blinked. His paper skin crinkled; the crisp valleys around his eyes would quickly disappear, then reemerge with urgency.
I visited Mr. Wright three times.
The first occasion, I was asked to play for Mr. Wright. I hastily accepted.
I kept a box under my bed, filled with dollar bills and quarters and pennies. I treated my box as if it were not my own, rather the possession of a great king in a great kingdom. I would only add to the box; I would never take away.
They told me I would receive adequate payment to play for Mr. Wright; they told me I could add to the box.
I hastily accepted.
Mr. Wright lived in a sterile building, with ivory floors and ivory walls. He was cared for by men and women in white, with milky skin and bright smiles. The building was surrounded by roses, white roses with white centers. I wondered if the absence of color was intentional, or simply a forgotten detail. The garden was covered with a cage of snow. I had chosen to wear a yellow sundress, to compliment my yellow hair. I wished I hadn't.
The building was too large and too symmetrical to navigate alone. I was confronted by three separate corridors, all too long to see to the other side. Perhaps if there had been two, I could have taken the one less traveled by. Alas, the identical halls filled me with panic. My cello trailed behind me as I searched for a map, a guide, a route of any sort. The walls were narrow; I wanted quickly to be rid of them.
A woman in white behind a white counter directed me to room B-612. She smiled a brilliant smile and returned her attention to the paper under her pen. I followed the B corridor, surrounded by walls I feared would taper to restrict the passage of my wooden voice, to a room filled with those awful white roses.
Room B-612 was smaller than the other rooms.
I was greeted by a man whose dark skin made his uniform even brighter in contrast. I asked him why Mr. Wright needed a musician.
"Why do they need anything? They're all the same. All of them."
Then he sighed, shrugged, and departed.
Mr. Wright stared at me as I entered, a vulture. His eyes were large and menacing; they followed me across B-612 until I reached a chair suitable for performance. I was locked in his focus every second I spent in his room. He did not say a word. Neither did I.
When I opened the case to my voice, Mr. Wright scoffed. He shut his eyes.
I was rather hurt by his reaction but continued to dust the strands of the bow with white. His eyes remained closed until I placed my bow atop hard strings. The sound must have been sufficient to return him to some semblance of awareness.
"You're all the same. All of you," he whispered. Then he released a shrill cough.
I did not speak.
I do not remember what I played for Mr. Wright that day.
I did not speak.
But I remember his breath, as feeble as it had been. I remember the fog he created in the chill of the room, intangible and yet present in front of me. I wondered, for a moment, at least, if Mr. Wright himself would vanish as his breath had. If so, would he have been real?
The melody asked if I should stay. Mr. Wright cried in response. I did not know humans could cry.
I stayed with Mr. Wright. I said nothing. I played, and Mr. Wright spoke.
"Why do you play?"
Mr. Wright coughed again, this time deep and guttural. It was a sound I could never achieve with my wooden voice, a sound that I could never replicate. And if I could, I would have found a way to sell it, for the sound was something else entirely. I would put the money in my box.
"I didn't know aliens could play."
He told me it was okay that I was an alien. We all were.
He told me stories about old Grecian warriors, warriors who fought for love, warriors who fought for pride. He told me the story of a great immortal warrior, with strong arms and a menacing aim. The River Styx surrounded him and clothed him in glory.
"His mother gripped his heel too tightly - his only weakness."
Mr. Wright told me of the warrior's misfortune, how angered he had become and how ruthless he delivered punishment. He told me the warrior reduced a man to blood and pulp and fed him to the dogs, having dragged him around his kingdom in the presence of a hysterical wife. It was a violent story, and I could feel a strong grip on my heart, but I chose not to believe it. Reducing another person to simple flesh could not be justified; humans simply could not act upon such blatant cruelty. Surely, some barrier existed to separate the savage desire to degrade from the decision to effectuate such an act.
And yet, here I was, standing before Mr. Wright.
I was confused, a bit frightened, but I pitied the shell lying before me. He was the farthest from human I had ever seen.
When I placed my instrument back in the case, Mr. Wright closed his eyes once more and sighed.
Mr. Wright had played the flute in his youth, before the war. He had played with long, crooked fingers and unkempt fingernails. I believed he would still if he had the ability. Now he was a mess of shakes. I could tell he despised it. He filled his long hours with whistles, shrill and piercing, ever so off-key that one was constantly reminded of its existence in the thick air. He reminded me of a bird, in that way. Calling, calling. Waiting.
And as I began to leave, Mr. Wright winced. Another tear dropped from his vulture eye and stained his white lapel. It made my skin crawl.
He whistled. My father never taught me to whistle. I could not call back.
His large eyes remained closed, concealing the grey orbs; he was naked under his skin. My breath stuck in my throat. I would not blow him away.
I again unzipped the coffin in my hands, revealing the neck of my cello. The pad of my finger hooked around a string and sounded a note. I thought I saw his intangible breath once more, though the chill was absent.
Mr. Wright opened his eyes, his vulture eyes nodded at me, then nodded away.
During the second occasion, I was less hesitant.
They called me again, asked me to play for Mr. Wright. I thought of my box; I thought of the animal surrounded by roses.
I hastily agreed.
I followed the whistles to room B-612.
I arrived at the small white room with the white flowers and the pallid shell. His eyes were wide. They traced me. He did not recognize me.
I smiled meekly.
I chose to wear my cream dress on this occasion, a frilly little thing of lace and satin. Perhaps he struggled to see me, absorbed by the white walls and white roses and white air. I melted into the room.
I removed my cello. Mr. Wright smiled.
He sat up slightly, tense. I feared the bird perched in front of me. He was anything but human.
"I was a virtuoso, once," he said. "But you aliens wouldn't know what that means, would you?"
He chuckled, whistling as he wheezed. I said nothing.
I do not remember what I played for Mr. Wright that day. I did not speak. The melody asked if he would like for me to say. He sighed in response.
He did not tell me stories. Instead, he closed his eyes. I played; he breathed.
It seemed to me that Mr. Wright barely slept; his eyes were sunken, held up by dark crescents and infinite wrinkles. He was always so tense, and I truly believed he would vanish one day. Perhaps he would run, relying on that tenseness like a lifeline; perhaps he would ease, and in that calmness simply evanesce into the pale sheets.
At this moment, I believed the latter. His muscles relaxed, his breathing slowed. His snores, albeit high in pitch, were rhythmic and soft.
But as I sounded the final note, a melancholy little chord resolving a melancholy little piece, Mr. Wright startled.
His vulture eyes darted open, revealing the yellowest whites I had ever seen. He frantically attempted to move, rolling about unnaturally. I was afraid he would strain himself too hard, that his reaction was unnatural, unhealthy. Insane.
He truly was an animal in those moments, and I held my breath.
No, animals integrated too soundly into their surroundings.
Mr. Wright was something else entirely.
Then the dark-skinned man entered briskly, pinning Mr. Wright to his cot as another nurse worked hurriedly at the sink. She pressed a white fluid into his veins. As he wilted, they departed.
It was then I noticed the alien beneath the sheets. I traced his face with my eyes, his paper face, paper arms, paper robe.
My eyes stopped at the waist. There was no more of him.
His body just stopped, ending just where his legs should have been. I searched the sheets, then the floor, then the walls. There was no more of him.
Where I believed man could be reduced to flesh, I was startled to find he could be reduced to nothing.
I held my breath once more. I feared he had been blown away.
I feared he would never leave.
He silently glanced at me, with his yellow eyes. I froze. After a moment, he coughed, drool pooling around his chin, and spoke to me.
I expected another story, a continuation of wars and battles, or perhaps of his life. I wanted to be rid of him, if only until the next call. He was no longer a warrior.
Instead, he whispered, and for a brief moment, I wondered if it was the wind speaking to me, rather than the thing under the white sheets.
"What a lovely dress, Ms. Alien."
Then he nodded away.
When I returned to my home, I placed my dollars in my shoebox and refused to think of them again.
The third occasion startled me the most.
Time had passed quickly after the last incident; I dismissed any thought of Mr. Wright. I played my wooden voice often, sometimes for an audience, sometimes for nothing. I dusted my bow in white each time, coughing, wincing, as the dust thickened the air. I cried when I played; I kept my eyes closed. I wore my white dress.
At one point, I played with such vigor the strings of my bow snapped. They dangled from the ends in acquiescence, limp, thinner than any hairs I had seen before. I was perched under a draft, and yet the hairs remained still. They taunted me with their lack of life. Just moments before they were the chords of my voice, the ropes that dragged the poor lump of flesh around his kingdom. No longer had I the ability to speak.
There was a strong grip in my chest, pushing the air from my lungs in fervent desperation to sound a note. It may have been the broken strings crawled up my arms, under my skin, into my chest, and around my heart.
I did not speak.
How could I? What would I say? The real power of my thoughts had been lost in the battle of string against string, where the strongest emerged victoriously and the weakest diminished into a limp mass of nil.
I did not speak for weeks. Instead, I learned to whistle.
I received a call from the ivory building and expected another invitation to play. Perhaps I should have been panicked, knowing I would never play again. But I had my whistle, and surely it would have been enough.
When I answered, however, I learned Mr. Wright was gone. I asked where he had gone. They didn't know.
I asked where his family was. His wife, as I knew, had already passed. She was a virtuoso, too.
His daughter was in Europe, training athletes and working with football warriors like Ted "the Arrow" Madison and Mac "the Hill" Lee.
Only the aliens knew. "That's where the big bucks are at."
So when I asked where his family was, they replied, "He has none."
I went to collect his things, a notebook, and a cello bow. How odd, that he would keep only those two possessions with him. Maybe he left them behind. I thought of my box, then, the dollars I let collect on its floor. Who would take my box, if I disappeared? There was no owner, no one person to purloin its contents. I wondered how much I had left inside it, how valuable that paper would be if it lacked an admirer.
I followed the corridor to room B-612. The smell of the white roses assaulted me, and I chose to breath through my mouth, filtering the taste with the tinge of my own disgust. The only mirror in the room, the mirror I used to fix my hair after arrangements, to glance at Mr. Wright when he was asleep, to reposition my yellow dress, was covered in white. The room itself, if possible, was much smaller than I remembered. The walls surrounded the bed and left little space to maneuver, though I digress there was not much prompting me to move. The sheets had been cleared from the cot, and I saw underneath the stark contrast of a black rail.
It matched my dress.
The dark-skinned nurse told me I could spend whatever time I needed. I did not speak.
I flipped through Mr. Wright's notebook and noticed the emptiness of each page. I scanned the notebook multiple times, searching for any sign of his thoughts, his scribbles, his gibberish. There was nothing.
He was nothing.
I held the cello bow in my hand, thoroughly evaluating its worth. The strings were taunt, dusted in a pale rosin that clouded in the air with the slightest of movement. I wanted to play.
I moved the ivory knob on the ivory door and was stunned to feel resistance. It was fastened shut, completely locked. I could not leave.
I knocked and received no answer. I called out and received no answer. I banged my fist against the metal vigorously and felt a cold panic fill my veins. I received no answer.
I let out a wailing shriek, so loud I believed my ears would begin to bleed, continuing to bleed until I was completely empty of substance and laying in a pile on the tile floor.
There was no answer. Maybe the men and women in white had forgotten about me; maybe they didn't care.
Maybe the great warrior was not cruel in his intentionality, but rather cruel in the absence of intention. The barrier between his vicious tendencies and moral obligations had come down slightly in his victory, and he had forgotten to reinstate it. I sympathize with the warrior, and his ignorance of the torture he performed. No, not ignorance. Justification.
There was a dull ache in my heel.
I could feel the room becoming colder, and I searched for heat. There were no sheets, no blankets, no clothes. I tore a piece of paper from the notebook and realized I had no pen.
I had a tool without an instrument and an instrument without a tool.
I slid both the bow and the paper under the door, hoping they would be seen and knowing they would not be, and curled myself into a ball at the foot of my cot.
I could feel myself nodding away.
As my vulture eyes closed, I glanced at the notebook I left open on the floor. There was something inscribed on the page, despite the findings of my copious scans before, in an ink darker than my dress, darker than salvation.
"They're not like you and me."
I reached my arm down, down off the side of the cot and brushed the tips of my fingers on the gelid floor. My breathing slowed, as did my heartbeat. I turned the page.
"They're all aliens."
I could feel the length of my arm stiffen, an intense pain shooting down my shoulder to the edge of my blue fingers. I struggled to keep my eyes open, to turn to the next white leaf. I swept the room, noticing only then the stygian demeanor. Perhaps it was night; I did not care. I could feel myself relax, and I sighed, wondering how many more breaths I had before my inky dress and I melted into the room. As my fingers grazed the edge of the page, I allowed my eyes to close, and let my hand lie limp.
In the moments before I vanished, I thought I heard a whistle.
I peeked through my lids at the engrossing black and barely glimpsed the last page.
"You believe me, don't you, Ms. Alien?"