He was circling the cigarette between his fingers, watching the embers that slowly drizzled onto the pavement. In one swift swipe, the cigarette was hovering vertically in his palm like a candle, the smoke rising upwards slowly. Just as quickly, Devi flipped his palm down, and the cigarette danced above his knuckles before landing perfectly between his index and middle fingers. Lifting it up to his mouth, he let the skinny tobacco stick part his lips.
“You know you’ve got to leave town.”
It wasn’t a question. He took a long drag off the cigarette and then offered it to me.
Before I could take it from him, a large semi-truck sped by, blaring its horn. Involuntarily, I jumped and ducked slightly behind the side mirrors of the car. “Shit!” I felt the familiar tingling sensation course beneath my skin quick as fire to gasoline. Humans know this as fear, but instead of flushing rose pink and drawing sweat, I was instantly and momentarily invisible; one with the car, one with the market, one with the parking lot. Camouflaged.
Devi just inhaled deeply from the grit and stared at me, completely unfazed.
“How can you do that?”
“I’ve been here longer than you. Simple as that.” He inhaled longer than before, gazing out at the dark road where the truck had just made its appearance. “That’s how I know what they’re like. They will kill you.”
A bell rang from the market doors, a reminder that we were still surrounded by them. In their world. I quickly straightened up, felt my disguise shed off into the wind, dust particles floating in the air, destined to cause some unsuspecting human a moment of déjà vu, or for some, just a temporary shift in body temperature.
“I didn’t hurt anybody,” I offered meekly, reaching my hand out for the cigarette. I was desperate to feel like one of them in this moment, and starting to realize why humans were so fond of these things. The smoke did nothing for Devi and I, of course. You need lungs for that, I suppose. But we figured it helped us fit it. Passed the time. It did calm my nerves, doing something with my hands.
“Don’t matter if you did or you didn’t. They know you’re different. They can’t handle different. Won’t tolerate it.” He was leaning against the car now, legs crossed, watching a fly that was resting on his boot. I could hear it cleaning its legs, stretching its wings.
“If I leave town, it’s just going to happen again.”
“Not if you keep a low profile. Stay away from them. At least until you can control it.”
“What kind of life is that? Hiding who we are? It’s not like we’re bad, we’re just as good as these beings!” I handed the cigarette back to him; I could feel heat rising in my body. Anger, I think, is what they call it. I hadn’t understood this one just yet, but I could tell it was powerful. I looked down at my hands just to check they weren’t changing color. Sometimes I could feel it undoubtedly, and sometimes I wasn’t sure. I remembered the looks on the humans’ faces the last time I wasn’t sure… The looks that Devi were so sure meant death for me.
“Hiding is the only kind of life we get here. Don’t you get it? We aren’t from this planet, but we still have to live by its rules.” Devi watched the fly flutter off his boot, following its flight path with his eyes. “They have a saying, ‘Wouldn’t hurt a fly.’” He chuckled lightly. “Don’t believe it,” he said somberly, taking another long drag from the fire stick.
“Is that how you’ve survived here all this time? Hiding yourself?” I was desperate to know what my future would look like here…if I had a future here.
Devi’s eyebrows pulled together grimly. “My experience…was different than yours.” He looked up at me with something behind his eyes, a story, a memory. “How I came to be…I wasn’t put here—”
Our eyes locked onto each other, wide. My skin gleamed a thousand colors in a millisecond. We both heard it.
“You have to go now. They’re closer than you think.” Devi’s skin didn’t change at all, but his eyes, there was something in them, something like fire and crashing water existing together. How humans learned to read each other was impressive.
Before I could react, a trembling sensation erupted like waves through the concrete beneath us, and sirens vibrated through my ears, shook my clothes. I heard my shoe laces slapping the tops of my feet to the rhythmic winds that now whirled above us like a hurricane colliding with land. A bright cone-shaped light zig-zagged along the ground in the distance, heading in our direction. Voices boomed commands from the sky, directing the light source to continue forward.
“Go! Cassie, you have to go! Now!” In an instant, Devi became hands; on my head, on my shoulders, pushing me down, concealing my head within his leather jacket, and shoving me into the car. Despite the alarming noise of all the commotion, a blunt sound surrendered a moment in time, drawing my attention to a trivial sight: the cigarette striking the pavement, bouncing twice, and scattering its ash before rolling beneath the car. A small detail from this night quickly discarded; and the last thing I saw before the door was slammed shut in my face.
In that same instant, separated by two milliseconds at most, the blinding light was directly above Devi; police cars piled into the parking lot, screeching one after another to a stop.
“Stop! Put your hands where we can see them!” a voice boomed. From the cab of the car, I saw Devi freeze, a portrait of stillness, his hands dangling by his side. More police car doors slammed shut as several officers stepped out of their cars. I didn’t need to see them to know their firearms were drawn and pointed right at him.
“Hi, Dad,” Devi’s voice.
Lukewarm, orange – confusion, is the word they use — tingled the surface of my skin. Dad? An inaudible murmur floated through the crowd of uniformed humans, and confident, slow footsteps revealed a single male at the frontlines. Submission reflected in the other humans’ bodies. This must be their leader.
“I’ve told you once before, and I’ll tell you again, the Devil ain’t no son of mine.” The officer spit, and I heard the wad of saliva thud onto the pavement. No human would have noticed the small flinch in Devi’s hand.
“I actually go by Devi now, Dad, but it sure does remind me of old times hearing you use my family-given name.”
“You ain’t got any family here, Devil. You made sure of that when you killed your mother.” Some of the officers gasped, some of them cursed in disgust, some whispered, Murderer! My body was flaring crimson; I was trembling within the car. It felt like this body could not contain all this energy at once; how humans managed this seemed impossible to me. Devi’s father…a human? What the hell is going on?
“I didn’t kill her.” Devi’s voice was a crack of a mountain, a star bursting in the ethers. I heard his knuckle bones contracting into a fist.
“Well, you’re here and she ain’t. What do you make of that?” the officer grimaced.
No words left Devi’s mouth, but the sound of his teeth grinding together was loud in my ears. The officer let out a low chuckle, pleased by Devi’s silence. Then a sweet scent entered my nostrils like fog slowly filling a bay: a peppery bourbon laced with applewood-smoked honeycomb. The scent of what was to come: a death…lingering on the horizon.
A growl from Devi told me he smelt it too. Of course, we both knew it was beyond the human senses. It’ll take more than bullets to kill us, I assured myself.
“What, Devil? You done denying it? You ready to admit what you’ve done?” Behind the officer, the other uniformed humans cheered; more weapons raised, ready to take fire at any moment. Devi’s father spit through his now smiling lips, and looked back at his followers. “Settle down, boys. We ain’t here to settle his debt. At least not today.” The humans lowered their metal.
“Just hand the other one over, and we’ll call it a night, huh?”
Another growl from Devi. Oh shit. They’re talking about me.
Devi took a step forward, both fists clenched, the small bits of gravel beneath his feet crinkling. No! I reached for the door handle of the car, but stopped when I heard a familiar buzzing. A flapping of wings, then a stillness. Devi stopped, too, and we both honed in on the source of the sound. The fly, which had landed on the officer’s arm. Devi’s father noticed, delayed, of course, but didn’t hesitate. Lifting his opposite arm, he executed the fly in one swat. I heard its body drop to the ground; I cringed at the carelessness, the thoughtlessness, and the ruthlessness that accompanied death on this planet. Cool blue stripes streaked down my arms like raindrops on a window.
It pushed Devi over the edge. He went lunging, arms stretched, and the scent of burnt honey was overwhelming. More death was coming, and soon. The uniformed humans drew their weapons again, too slowly for Devi. He already had his father’s neck in his hand.
I thrusted myself out of the car, recovering and standing up quickly. While Devi’s skin remained a united white color that matched the humans in front of us, mine was shifting like sunlight reflecting off the ripples of water. The humans gasped and redirected their aim at me.
Through pinched vocal cords, Devi’s father managed, “Get…her!” I heard the crunching of his neck beneath Devi’s tightening grip. No bones cracking…yet. The sweet scent was now burning my eyes. I had just milliseconds to act, to do something. To prevent Devi from killing his father, or worse, everyone here.
I heard the pull of a trigger before the loud boom registered – a bullet from the left of Devi and his father was flying in my direction. There was no choice to be made. My fingernails sprung out like daggers, and I dug them into my chest, easily tearing through the clothes I wore.
“No!” Devi shouted, releasing his father, whom took the moment of freedom to grab Devi’s wrists. Quicker than his father had swatted the fly, Devi snapped his wrists and ran towards me. My chest was already torn at the midline, and I was howling a song of the stars as I pulled my ribcage apart. My human form peeled off effortlessly, like an oak tree shedding its leaves in winter.
My release was even too much for Devi; the hybrid that he was dropped to his knees along with the rest of the humans as my disembodiment took place. To some of them, I was a luminating warmth that covered every inch of their vision. To others, I was a dark canyon decorated by trillions of distant stars. To some, I was a flock of butterflies, an aerial stampede of songbirds, a gently trickling waterfall, a mother’s lullaby.
I appeared differently to them all, even Devi. But what I was commonly to each and every one of them was the absence of the previous moment. I was a wash of every feeling, every memory that they associated to Devi, myself, and our kind. I was a frozen slice of time; a blank slate. A thing with no name, but maybe one the humans had misunderstood for so long: peace. Some of these beings spent their entire existence on this planet looking for this one thing – a thing that exists around them and within them simultaneously at all times – and I gave it to them in a fraction of a second.
Before I left this planet, Devi, and the awestricken humans before me, I took one more shape. With small clear wings, I buzzed slowly over to Devi’s father, landing on his knuckle bones. I placed a soft kiss onto his skin, and gifted him a lifelong passion for insects. I hoped it would prolong this experience he was having now. While his physical body was still paralyzed, I swore I saw a tear leak down his cheek as he watched me take his son’s advice, and flew myself away into the night, right out of town.