Chapter 1: Charley

“Please come out of there, sweetie.” Ryan knocked on trapdoor of the basement for the sixth time. His knuckles made a loud metallic rap on the smooth grey surface, a shiny square that stood out against the cement floor of the cold dark underbelly of the house. Just being down here gave Ryan chills. A muffled sob came from below, and Ryan laid down and pressed his ear to the door. “I’ll stay here all night if I have to.” He was momentarily startled when a soft vibrating mass rubbed past his leg, before recognizing the small black paws of their kitten, Vader. The cat was even worried now.

After twenty minutes, Ryan heard a loud clanging from below, and knew it was the sound of the trapdoor being unlocked. He got up and backed away from it, squatting a few feet away and petting underneath Vader’s chin. Slowly, the door opened and a woman emerged. Ryan was struck by how fragile she seemed, tiny and pale, in stark contrast to her jet black hair, which was currently half-covering her eyes. What he could see was red and blotchy. She smiled sheepishly as she rubbed her tattooed forearms with her palms and sat next to Ryan.

“It’s so cold in here.”

“It would be, compared to that tiny greenhouse of a bunker down there.” Ryan laughed, admittedly a little forced.

“Blame my grandfather, he’s the one crazy old coot who built it.” The girl came and sat next to Ryan, putting her head on his shoulder. They sat silently for a few minutes, at which point Vader began mewing and pawing their legs insistently.

“It must be dinnertime,” Said Ryan, checking his watch. He stood up, pulling the girl by the hand to the stairs leading out of the basement. She hesitated before them, and Ryan turned around and looked into her eyes.

“Are you with me, Charley?” The girl sighed and closed her eyes for a moment. She looked so fragile, so delicate, in this moment of weakness.  

“I know it seems like I’m being irrational, but I know we aren’t alone here. There are aliens among us, manipulating us like puppets, I just know it.” It was Ryan’s turn to sigh. He had heard this argument before; she used it to defend her actions whenever she was having an episode like this one.

He knew what she wanted him to say; that she was making total sense and that he believed her. But he knew this was just a paranoid delusion. They had been living together for two years and still, when she got like this, he didn’t know what to do. He was trapped between lying to her and hurting her feelings. There was no way to win. He just had to wait it out.

“Let’s feed Vader before he starts going after the hamster.” Charley chuckled and they headed up the stairs. Crisis averted, at least for now.

******************************************************************

“Keys?”

“Check.”

“Wallet?”

“Che- oh crap I left it in the living room.” Charley smiled smugly as Ryan ran to grab it. She always insisted on this routine before they went out, and he usually complained that they were wasting their time. However, as she never hesitated to point out, one of them usually did leave something behind. What was implied but tactfully never mentioned was the fact that it was usually Ryan.

Wallet recovered, they finished the checklist (animals fed, windows shut, etc.) and climbed into Ryan’s silver sedan. Charley had completely calmed down from a few hours earlier, and Ryan smiled to himself. It was good to have her back. When she was having a paranoid episode, he felt as though he were talking to a stranger, and it terrified him. But now Charley was singing along to Macklemore in the passenger seat, pretending to hold a microphone in her right hand. Moments like these, when Charley was full of happy silliness, reminded Ryan of the first day they met.

Some kids were trying to bully him in kindergarten. Then Charley arrived on the playground, a tiny little girl in a frilly blue dress and pigtails. She licked her hand, then shoved it in the bullies’ faces, shouting “I have cooties! I’ll infect you and then you’ll die.” They promptly ran away and Ryan & Charley had been friends ever since. The progression into a relationship had been so natural they hardly noticed it; they shared everything already, falling in love just sort of happened. Charley had been there for him during the times no one else wanted to be seen with the chubby kid with all the acne, and, later, in high school, when all the shit went down with Charley’s family, Ryan stuck by her side. On days like today, it was tough to be Charlie’s boyfriend, but he loved her and knew she felt the same. His friends were sometimes skeptical, but it had always been worth it to be with her, despite everything she did. It didn’t hurt that her episodes were few and far between though.

“Hey! Earth to Ryan. Anybody home?” Charley laughed and tousled his hair, and he realized he must have been driving this whole time and yet remembered absolutely none of it. Nevertheless, they were parked at the diner, safe and in one piece. Charley sprung out of the car, ran around to Ryan’s side and basically pulled him out of the driver’s seat. Social events were always her forte and she absolutely adored being with as many people as possible. They made their way inside and were immediately greeted with catcalls and kissy noises from their loud friends at the corner table, on account of they were holding hands. It was a rare moment of physical affection in public and the gang made sure to capitalize on it. The couple wasn’t big on PDA usually; in fact it was a running joke among the friend group that, even though they had been together for years, no one had ever seen them kiss. Ryan and Charley glanced at each other and rolled their eyes before sliding into the red plastic booths on opposite sides. They quickly noticed a new person, and the obligatory introductions were done.

“Hey, I’m Lauren. I just transferred here for work.”

“Oh, awesome.” Charley flashed the girl a bright smile.

“What do you do?” Ryan pitched in.

“I’m a nurse at the new hospital that just opened on Birch Street.” Charley, who was shaking the girl’s hand immediately stiffened. Ryan clenched his hands under the table, although the rest of the group remained blissfully unaware. Charley paused mid-shake and the girl shot her a quizzical half smile, trying to be polite while clearly noticing Charley’s strange reaction. Charley dropped her hand and forced a smile. For a heavy moment, Ryan worried that Charley would say something odd, and his breath held in his throat. But the moment passed, and Charley seemed to settle down. The physical tension seemed to leave her body and her smiles began to seem authentic. In fact, it appeared she and Lauren were becoming fast friends; Charley was asking all sorts of questions about the other girl’s life and the attention put her at ease within the group.

Ryan found himself relaxing among his friends, enjoying a good meal and good conversation. The rest of the night passed by in a blur, and Ryan was grateful for a fun, stress-free evening out.

As soon as Ryan and Charley had said their goodbyes and climbed back into the car, Charley’s mood changed. She who had been bubbly and talkative just a few minutes earlier sat in silence the entire ride home, and Ryan took her lead and let her have her space. He knew she would talk when she was ready.

“I’m going to bed,” Charley mumbled as she got out of the car. Ryan knew he was supposed to hold his tongue but he couldn’t stand it any longer.

“What’s wrong?” Charley bit her lip thoughtfully.

“You’ll think it’s stupid and crazy.”

“No I won’t. Come on, you can tell me anything.” Considering her calm, if subdued demeanor, Ryan was pretty sure she wasn’t having an episode, so he didn’t expect her to say anything crazy. Charley took a deep breath and sat down on the sofa. Ryan followed suit.

“I think Lauren is an alien.” Ryan blinked. Then he licked his lips. Then he blinked again.

“I’m sorry, could you repeat that?”

“The new girl. Lauren. I’m pretty sure she is an extra-terrestrial of some kind.” Suddenly Ryan wanted very much to bolt out of the apartment, away from her. Annoyance and anger reared their ugly heads, but he subdued them as best he could and tried to think of what to say.

“What makes you think that?” He tried to make it sound concerned instead of irritated. “Look, I know you don’t believe me, but I kept grilling her, and she couldn’t tell me anything about where she went to school or how long she had been a nurse.”

“Maybe that’s because you literally just met.” Ryan could feel the hard edge creeping into his voice.

“Yeah, I thought that, but I also noticed the way she looks. Absence of any superficial flaws. No moles, birthmarks, freckles, scars, acne; I mean everybody has blemishes on their body.”

“She was probably just wearing makeup.”

“I know this is hard to believe, but here is the kicker. I asked her what she does at the hospital, and she gave me some vague thing about patient confidentiality. She’s a nurse, not a doctor. And I was like, jeez, im not asking for names, just like, general tasks, and she changed the subject on me.”

“Maybe she just doesn’t want to talk about work while she is out trying to have fun.” His voice was gradually getting louder, but he was beyond caring at this point.

“Just listen, ok? There have been all of these hospitals suddenly springing up, and it is like, where is the money for it? The population has been growing at a steady rate, so why double the number of hospitals in less than a year? It just doesn’t make sense. There hasn’t been any government legislature on this, and my taxes haven’t gone up, so how on earth are these hospitals being funded?”

“Charley do you hear yourself? You are complaining about more people are getting medical care? And blaming it on, of all possibilities, aliens? What are they gonna do, cure us to death?” Ryan’s voice had amplified into full out yelling.

“Yeah, I know it sounds insane, but I looked up these records when I started noticing the new hospitals and what I found was-here look for yourself.” She tried to hand him some papers that had been lying on the kitchen table but he wouldn’t take them. She held them up and began to point to statistics and try to explain them and Ryan listened for a few seconds before impulsively slapping the papers out of her hand. They spread across the living room floor, and neither Ryan nor Charley said a word as the pages fluttered to the ground. Ryan stared at what he had done, then was jolted back to the situation by the bedroom door slamming. He groaned inwardly as he realized he would be sleeping on the couch tonight.

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