The sound increased in volume each time someone opened the glass door of Joe’s Diner, a cacophonous emphasis to Lois that she had to make a decision. Does she choose the fate of her life, or of the entire planet? She gritted her teeth, and kept working, her small frame flitting between the tables of the small Diner as a hummingbird dips from flower to flower.
The notes which make up the song of history are played on the instruments of prejudice and fear. Lois knew this, had lived it as a brown-skinned woman in snow-white Idaho, but her situation had become impossible. She knew what no one else did, but to say it would give her secret away, so she stayed silent. She touched her Grand Mothers necklace, an intricate gold medallion with jade stones, and hoped for an answer.
The noise, along with the stink, a smell of rotting flesh combined with ammonia, flowed in with each new customer, reminding everyone of the presence of the most recent and significant visitor ever to their city, Idaho Falls.
The alien spaceship, arriving just a week ago had changed everything. Two miles north of town, this extraterrestrial immigrant, a huge ship with hundreds of small and large protrusions, like some complicated industrial boiler, had destroyed miles and miles of farmland along Snake River in its rough landing.
Blackened and charred from entry through the atmosphere, the ship was a physical sign post exclaiming, ‘we are not alone in the universe.’ That message was easy to read. The other, sonic message seemed unknowable. Obviously some type of communication, the loud tones broadcast from the ship repeated on a loop, filled with jarring, ‘che’, and ‘kik’ sounds. Translators analyzing the message were getting nowhere, while the dissonant, blaring sounds had everyone on edge.
But Lois knew the meaning, and couldn’t tell anyone or would never get what she desperately needed, acceptance as just a regular person.
The sole waitress of Joe’s Diner, Lois had to be everywhere at once. Several customers called out, and Lois efficiently refilled a coffee cup, delivered two plated meals, and returned the exact change from three different checks. Handing out napkins like candy to children, she did all she could to keep the place running.
Lois had taken to just switching between her two waitress uniforms each day, as she didn’t have time to get it washed. The spots of coffee, pie and other spills were turning the dark green to a greasy black. She had just taken the order from table 10 and added a strawberry jelly stain to her uniform when Joe appeared in front of her, his protruding greasy apron stopping her short.
“Lois- I need to speak with you.” Joe held an opened envelope in his hand, an ominous sign of trouble, even if she didn’t know exactly what it meant.
She turned away, looking out into the Diner. She did not want to talk to Joe. Every table was full, with customers waving at her, and even more people waiting at the front. She remembered before, when just the regulars came in, the old farmers in the back booth, or Ms. Betty and the church ladies, recruiting her to their Protestant faith. Chaos ruled the Diner now, constant demand for breakfast, lunch, or just a place to sit inside, away from the noise and smell. The media, and the military officials have been the real invaders of the town, destroying the peace.
At first the government had assumed the alien ship landed in Idaho to target the Idaho National Laboratory, the huge nuclear testing site only 50 miles away. That fear had brought the military, with huge tanks and equipment to surround the spaceship and wait. But other than the constant blaring message, nothing had happened. Local residents, excited at first at the attention, lost all enthusiasm, many having left town entirely, renting out their homes to the visitors.
“Is it important Joe? I mean-” Lois gestured broadly to the Diner.
“Later is fine. But I’m going to need to talk today, I have to submit payroll and I don’t understand this letter.” Joe waved it once more, then dropped his hands as he cleared his throat. Lois grabbed her order book in both hands and waited, resigned to listen. Joe called the staff ‘his family’ and tried to show it through his long monologues.
“I’m sorry I have to ask you to work again tomorrow Lois, but you know how it is. I couldn’t get anyone to answer the Help Wanted ad before this mess started, and now…” Joe gave a sorrowful smile.
“The kids today just want to sit behind computers, not do real work. And now with everyone out at the alien site-”
“-I’ve been working 14 hour days Joe.” Standing still, Lois’ feet throbbed with a dull ache. “I haven't had a day off since before this started.”
Joe’s sweaty palm reached out and rested on her shoulder, his grip holding her in her place.
“I hear you. As soon as I can find somebody to hire, I’ll get you a break. Did I already ask if you know anyone- family, or friends? I blame the millennials. No one wants to work anymore.” Joe shook his head.
Despite his protests, Lois knew Joe loved the attention, and the money coming in, even if the staff were stressed, and the supplies of food almost gone. Lois pushed past Joe to submit her order, and pour more coffee.
A stern man in a dark brown uniform walked into the Diner, out of place amongst the customers in tee-shirts and jeans. He stopped short, looking through the crowd until his eyes caught Lois’. He smiled.
Lois’s hand slipped, coffee spilled in a woman’s lap.
“So sorry!” She wiped the table with her waiter’s cloth, and then stood up, her hand raised high to the man to follow her. Lois pulled an industrial-sized box of paper cups off the last chair at the counter.
“I saved this for you, General Smith.”
Nodding, the man gingerly took the chair, then slowly his whole body slumped, elbows on the counter.
“I needed a chance to sit.” He rubbed his eyes with both hands, and yawned. “You know what I like,“ he said, “with the green sauce.” He pulled out a phone and concentrated on typing.
Lois put in the order and then moved to other customers. Once ready, she collected General Smith’s order and placed it in front of him.
“Enchiladas verde con pollo.” She said with a smile. “I taught the cooks the recipe.”
He stopped typing, and looked down, a grin forming on his face.
“This.” He looked up at Lois, his eyes bloodshot, “This is what we are trying to protect, America, our culture, our traditions.” He gestured to the room, his square jaw lifted up like the front of a tank.
“These- monsters- have come here to destroy it.” His clenched fist slammed on the counter rattling the dishes. Customers turned toward them, eyes following the noise. Lois’s smile and gentle wave eased them back to their plates.
Lois leaned in, “You should be quiet, not to scare people.” She leaned sideways on the counter, blocking the rest of the Diner’s view of General Smith. Her necklace fell out of her uniform.
“What is that?” General Smith pointed at the medallion. “That’s strange, the ship has markings just like that-”
“Have they translated the message?” She hid the necklace back in her uniform, holding her breath, hoping.
“No.” General Smith shook his head. “Now they are saying it is based on a human language, being repeated back. The translators think they are close, but they have been saying that for days, and nothing.” Lois breathed out. They could solve this without her!
“But what does it matter when, if they learn it says, ‘Surrender earthlings, or die?’ And today there was movement on the ship! Several of the projecting arms are starting to turn, looking a lot like gun barrels preparing to fire.” His face twisted into a sneer. “I don’t trust it.” General Smith kept speaking even as he shoveled the enchilada into his mouth, splattering salsa stains added to Lois’ uniform.
“Some of the President's men are finally starting to listen to me though.” General Smith mumbled. “The scientists have identified several parts of the ship as potential weapons. Weapons that are far more advanced than anything we have.” He twisted his nose. “And god they smell. Do we really want anything to do with a species that stinks that bad?”
General Smith scraped his fork along the plate getting every last bite. “It might take some time, but we need to nuke ‘em. This situation has asymmetric risk. Maybe they are friendly, if so, what do we get, a new friend? But if they are our enemy, and I think they are, they will replace us- wipe us out. We need to solve this problem before it gets worse.”
Lois nodded along, but her stomach had fallen. She could stop this right now, explain what she knew and why. But could she trust this man? General Smith’s crystal blue eyes stopped her heart when he looked at her. She had never even been near someone so powerful, and with movie star looks.
Joe looked over to her, and jerked his head, signifying her to get back to work. Lois nodded, but only moved closer to General Smith. Joe wouldn’t say anything more as long as she kept the General happy. All the military men were on an expense account which Joe inflated with double and triple orders.
“The ship looks broken, with pieces off.” She repeated comments she had heard others say. She still had not seen it. “Do you think they crashed here?”
General Smith looked up sharply, his index finger stopping her.
“Looks broken?” How do we know what it is supposed to look like?” He leaned in and she felt his rage rise off him in waves.
“That ship is just waiting for our leaders to get close, or for us to show a sign of weakness- then Ka- boom!” He raised both his hands, waving his salsa verde covered fingers.
Lois carefully handed him a napkin.
“We can’t trust them!” He turned toward his phone as it rang. “I have to go. On the tab? Add in a good tip.” He stepped away, wiping his fingers, then tossing the napkin on the floor.
“Lois." Joe called out, gesturing for her to follow him. She looked around for a plate to be cleared, a customer who needed her, anything to delay. But a lull had come over the Diner and no place for her to go.
She followed Joe through a maze of narrow hallways to his tiny office behind the store room. She wiped her hands on her uniform over and over again, the damp feeling in her palms would not go away.
“Lois- I have this letter, maybe you can help me understand it. It is from the state employment office. Your social security number doesn't exist.”
Lois stared at the letter, as if it alone was her problem. “Maybe you put in the wrong number-”
“That is what I thought too-” Joe’s fat fingers pulled a paper from his desk and pointed to a line- the numbers she wrote just over a year ago on the employment application.
“Can you explain this?” Joe crossed his arms.
Lois looked down at the chipped paint on her nails, in green, verde.
“I do not have a social security number, that is the one I use, for taxes.” Lois felt herself shrinking, falling into the familiar hole of not being wanted, not being allowed.
“You don't have one- you’re illegal?” Joe said, abruptly pulling away from Lois. “But you went to high school here, you speak English?”
“I was born in Guatemala.” Lois said, her accent growing stronger. “My parents-” She touched the medallion around her neck for strength.
“My parents passed when I was six. And after, I got on a bus with my cousin, and we traveled, forever, until we ended up at a tent camp. My aunt and uncle picked me up to wait out the immigration hearing, and then, we ended up here in Idaho. We were headed to Texas, but got off track and just crash landed here. We have been here ever since.” Lois
“We can make it work, right Joe-” Lois blinked away tears.
-I can't believe you lied to me!” Joe’s face flushed red, his crossed arms squeezed himself even tighter.
“You stole this job. There are Americans who need work, and you stole it!”
Joe’s lips quivered. “Your kind is driving this country down the drain.”
Joe’s forearms flexed, veins popping out. “I believe in helping those who need it, but you have to follow the law! You have been cheating, stealing from God-fearing Americans.”
Joe’s arms were out now, raised above his head like the preacher at the church Ms. Betty took her to. And Lois felt the same fear now as she did then.
“Is your name even Lois?”
“Lourdes, my name is Lourdes.”
“Well Lord-es, get the hell out of my restaurant- you’re fired.” Joe’s face glowed red, spittle collected at the corner of his mouth.
Lourdes stood up, then turned back.
“Joe, what about my paycheck, you owe me for this last week.”
“You are illegal- don’t you get it? I don’t have to pay you anything. Get out of here before I have you arrested.”
Lois grabbed her purse and walked out, her head down as she ignored the cooks, and other customers. She stepped outside and began walking, scared to think of how she she would live. Her worst fear had come true, she was found out as undocumented. She was worthless, and without a job, soon to be homeless as she was country-less.
“Hey, waitress!” General Smith’s voice interrupted her thoughts. He leaned out of the front seat of a military jeep, the engine running. “You need a ride?” He smiled from ear to ear. “It’s going to be quite a show!”
His bright blue eyes and smile lifted her spirits. She decided to trust this man, and she had nothing else to lose. She ran up to the jeep, the door cold and hard. “General Smith, I know what the message is saying! It is in the language of the ancient Mayans.”
The words poured out of Lois, released finally.
“These aliens have visited the earth before, hundreds of years ago-” The General’s face turned from a smile into a grimace. She started again, speaking faster to get him to listen, to understand.
“-I know because I’m from Guatemala, my first language is K'iche, it’s very similar. At first it was hard to understand but now I have it, I know what they are saying-”
General Smith turned away.
“They followed a signal to come here, in Idaho, some important icon, I don’t know what...”
The jeep’s window began to close. “Tell the translators-”
Lourdes hit the window with her hand. “Wait! The message says…”
The tires spun before they caught, and Lourdes had to jump back as the jeep tore off down the road, pebbles flying around her.
Lourdes kept walking, her eyes not leaving her feet on the pavement. She kicked at a stone in front of her. She could only trust herself. She held the medallion in her hand, giving her strength. All she had of her Grand Mother and her true heritage, the heirloom had been in her family since since before memory.
She has to fight for herself, as no one else will. She will work with her Aunt and Uncle to start her own restaurant, making her Mexican and Guatemalan recipes. The General might fear her, but he likes her food. She will start the process to apply for citizenship.
Sometime later, a tremendous boom echoed through the streets, rattling the windows on the building near her. She looked north and saw a cloud of black smoke trailing up through the atmosphere.
“They did it- they blew up the aliens!” Someone shouted. “We’re safe!”
“God bless America!” Another voice cried out.
A new scent of dark and acrid smoke filled the air.
The sudden silence almost had its own sound, thick and menacing. Lourdes heard in it the drumbeat of fear and prejudice.
She repeated the message to herself, in K’iche;
“Friends, we have returned. We come in peace, we have the answers you seek…”