“Yeah, my grandfather was a bit of a photographer,” Carson said, shrugging his shoulders. He tried not to blush at Scarlett’s scrutinising gaze while he removed ‘Illustrations of a Broken Man’ from his rucksack. “This is his book.”
“Someone you’re related to wrote a book?” Scarlett asked, raising a plucked eyebrow. “Sorry if I don’t believe it, Carlton.”
“It’s… it’s Carson,” Carson said, but Scarlett ignored him and snatched the book from his hands. Carson kicked his legs together as she stared at the cover. It wasn’t the prettiest book, he knew. On the front was one of his grandfather’s worst pictures. It was blurry, with a shadowy blob covering half of the right side and the rest obscured by a bright white flare from a lamppost. He hadn’t been surprised when his mother had told him that his grandfather had only ever sold one copy. A pity buy from Carson’s father.
Scarlett chewed her gum as she flipped through the pages. Carson knew she wasn’t studying the photographs in depth. It wasn’t a surprise. He’d never been the most popular kid in school, and his grandfather's photo collection was his last attempt at making friends.
“It’s not very good,” Scarlett said, voice flat, but she didn’t laugh. Carson winced and took the book back from her, holding the dusty spine.
“I thought it was alright,” he said, refusing to meet Scarlett’s eyes.
“Yeah, well, he was your grandad, right?” Scarlett said. “You have to say that. We’re indoctrinated to think our ancestors are amazing. I don’t think my ancestors are, though. My great great great grandmother was a murderer, you know.”
Carson paused, and lifted his eyes to meet Scarlett’s, who was staring at him with a neutral expression. “Oh. I’m sorry?”
“Don’t be,” Scarlett replied. “I was joking. She wasn’t a murderer. She was a ballerina.”
“Oh,” Carson said, rubbing his nose. “That’s cool.”
“Yeah, it is,” Scarlett said, tossing her brown hair behind her back. “Ballerinas are cool. Do you know how strong you have to be? That woman was an inspiration, unlike your grandfather. I guess I’ll see you in History?”
“We don’t have that class together,” Carson whispered.
“What?” Scarlett asked, but Carson just shook his head, and Scarlett frowned. “Okay, whatever. And, by the way, your grandfather would have done a lot better if he’d written stuff in his book. That’s what books are for, you know. Writing.”
“I’d tell him that, but he’s been dead for seven years,” Carson responded, as Scarlett walked away. “Also, it’s a photo book. You don’t need many words in it.”
He sat in the empty classroom and stared at the book in his hands. His last attempt at fitting in with the popular crowd had failed. Worse, he’d made a fool of himself in front of Scarlett, who was bound to tell everyone. There was no chance he’d find friends now. He’d already been at Woodley Secondary School for a month, and none of his attempts at making friends had worked. He’d tried everything; joined the football team, worn trendy clothes, copied the popular kids. The result was always the same; nothing but more bullying.
“I bet you didn’t have this problem,” he said, stroking the cover of the book. “I know grandad was popular. He told me often enough.”
He opened the book at a random page and stared at the photo. Carson hadn’t really studied the book before. Photography wasn’t his thing. He liked to think of himself as more of an artist. His mother had told him his work was amazing, while his father had called him a mix of Malevich and Pollock. Carson had taken it as a compliment, honoured his work was comparable to two well-known artists. He smiled as he thought of his most recent painting. Thin lines of blue paint made up the background, enriched with splatters of yellow paint. He would leave an impression with his art, he knew. He’d be different from his grandfather.
Carson glanced back down at the photograph. It was different from the others he’d seen as he’d skimmed through the book before packing it this morning. The photo he’d landed on was actually in focus. There was a beautiful pink dusky sky, and the sun was peeking from the very bottom of the page. Rows of yellow songbirds flew through the sky and Carson felt like he could see them in motion, despite the stillness of the photo. The songbirds flew high over a sandy beach, which looked soft and inviting, and faded into a turquoise sea. He lifted the photograph closer to his face, and that’s when he noticed the figure.
The blurry figure stood on the left-hand side of the photo, ruining the picturesque quality of his grandfather’s photograph. Carson frowned. At first glance, the figure seemed human, but as he examined the image, he noticed they seemed to have four legs. Trick of the light, Carson decided, but that didn’t explain why the figure was a dark orange. He shivered as the blurry figure seemed to move, flowing like the waves in the sea, but that was impossible. He blinked three times before looking back down at the photograph.
“I’m going insane,” Carson said, shaking his head. “I need a mountain dew, like, now.”
“Subject 917090 ,” a booming voice said. Carson dropped the book from his hands while letting out what he thought was a dignified shriek. A bright light flooded the room, blinding him. He held a hand up to shade his eyes from the demanding light, but he could barely make out anything. All he could discern was a formless blob about two feet away from him. He felt the hairs prickle on his arms as the figure came closer. “Document 779101 has been found. Prepare to be shipped for delivery.”
“What?” Carson asked, still terrified. The booming voice attached to the indiscernible figure had to be one of the scariest things he’d experienced in the past year. Which was saying something, because he’d seen a man dressed as a clown steal a 12-pack of beer. It had been horrifying as Carson hated clowns above all else. His mum had told him he might have coulrophobia, but he’d shut her down, told her that was the fear of bright colours. His mum had laughed at him, but Carson knew she was wrong. He knew everything, and his mum was old. He lost his train of thought as the figure made a loud screaming sound and Carson promptly fainted.
When Carson woke, he was sat on a chair in a dark room. His backpack still sat comfortably on his back, and he was being offered a bottle of what appeared to be water. He frowned as the strange figure thrust the bottle into his hands, but his fingers still closed around the bottle. It was reassuring, holding something familiar. He almost wanted to kiss it, but he knew that would look weird. Instead, he held the bottle close to his chest, and stared up at the figure who he could finally make out due to the dim lighting.
“You’re an alien,” Carson said in disbelief, glancing up at the creature. The alien looked more humanoid than Carson was expecting, with green eyes and a thin nose. There were two stripes running down the alien’s face, one black and the other white. Carson knew the creature was an alien because of the constant jiggling of its flesh, its four legs, and the yellow hue that covered its entire body.
“To me, you are an alien,” the creature responded, voice still loud. Carson wanted to cover his ears, but he thought the alien might take offence to that. Plus, his mother had always told him not to be rude, and not listening was one of the rudest things a human could do. “Now, please drink. Our studies have taught us that homo sapiens must drink eight glasses of water a day. That’s two litres. Your statistics show you have only managed half a litre today, which is inadequate.”
Carson frowned, but removed the bottle lid and started drinking as much water as he could. Anything to get himself away from the alien as soon as possible. He didn’t even care that the alien might have drugged the water. He just wanted to go back home and cry himself to sleep, as he did every night.
“Thank you for your cooperation,” the alien said, voice quieter now Carson was following his instructions. “This will help prevent any headaches during our interview.”
“Interview?” Carson said as he finished the water, wiping the droplets from his lips. “What, like, an interview to decide whether to eat me, or an interview to decide whether to dissect me?”
The alien made a noise that sounded halfway between an alarm horn and an angry goose. Carson jumped in his chair; grateful he had finished his water. It would have been embarrassing to go to his death with a wet patch on his grey trousers.
“We are the Honesgraslon,” the alien scolded. “We have three rules. One, be honest. Two, be lawful. Three, never eat homo sapiens because they taste like uncooked meteor.”
“So, you’re not going to eat me?” Carson said, slumping back in the chair.
“No,” the alien said. “You’re here for an interview. Now, your name is Carson Pollard, correct?”
“Yes, sir,” Carson responded, still shocked at the fact he was talking to a real-life alien.
“Very good,” the alien replied, skin bubbling as he spoke. “I’m M-DEF30D. I will be leading your interview with my colleagues, F-53B639 and F-1E2CBC. Now, if you’d please follow me.”
Carson sat motionless for a few seconds before he realised that M-DEF30D had already left. He scrambled to his feet, chasing after the strange alien. He’d never thought aliens were real, let alone that he’d get to see one. Still, the excitement was wearing off. Carson had thought, if aliens existed, they’d be clever and have tentacles crawling out of their eyelids. To his disappointment, the Honesgraslons, although definitely smart, seemed rather normal.
M-DEF30D unlocked a door with a strange groan, and Carson looked around in awe as he walked into the room. He was grateful for the light M-DEF30D emitted, as he realised that he would be blind without it. He hadn’t known where he was before, but the glass windows let him see what was outside. Carson realised he must be on a spaceship. Outside, several stars gleamed, dotted across a black blanket and enshrouding the room with shadow. Carson could hardly breathe as he took in his surroundings. He was in space, miles away from earth, from home. It was the most wonderful thing he’d ever seen.
“Is Subject 917090 ready, sir?” one of the other creatures asked. Carson turned to look at it, shielding his eyes. The alien was as unusual as M-DEF30D, with the same black and white streaks running down its face. This alien, however, was as green as a Granny Smith apple, and had a wide smile on its face.
“Yes, he has had the required watering, thank you, F-53B639,” M-DEF30D replied, sitting on one end of a table. F-53B639 sat beside him, humming a tune with a bored expression on her face.
“Subject 917090, the interview is about to begin,” the last alien said. She, too, sat next to M-DEF30D, but her flesh was a deep Persian blue, the darkest flesh Carson had seen aboard the ship so far. Her features were harder to make out, but Carson could see the bright streak of white on one side of her face. “Please, sit.”
Unsure what else to do, Carson sat. He’d never been one to fight, and meeting these aliens had amplified his flight response. He crossed his arms as he waited for the aliens to address him.
“Carson Pollard, born 20th September 1997,” M-DEF30D said. “That is your name and earth arrival date, correct?”
“Correct,” Carson said, rubbing his nose. “We call it a birthday on earth, though. Sir, sorry, sir.”
“Take your time,” F-1E2CBC said, and Carson smiled at her gratefully. "It’s come to our attention that you have an object with alien qualities in your possession.”
“I have nothing alien at home,” Carson replied, frowning. “I didn’t know aliens were real until you kidnapped me!”
“Silence,” M-DEF30D told him, gleaming as he took command of the situation. “Are you in the possession of Document 779101?”
“I don’t know what you’re referring to, sorry, sir,” Carson said, eyes flicking between the aliens. “Honest. All I’ve got on me is my schoolwork and my grandfather’s book.”
“Interesting,” the green alien said, leaning forward and resting her face on her wobbling hands. “Your grandfather, what kind of book did he write? Fantasy, horror, naturalism?”
“Oh no, no, it’s not that kind of book,” Carson laughed. “It’s like a photo album.”
“Oh, the still pictures!” F-1E2CBC exclaimed, voice tinny and ringing through Carson’s ears. “I loved those. Homo sapiens can be so creative sometimes.”
“Do you have this book on your possession, Carson Pollard?” M-DEF30D asked, green eyes alight. “We believe it may be the document we’re seeking.”
“You want my grandfather’s ratty old photo collection?” Carson questioned, but still removed his backpack from his shoulders. He ignored the aliens as they gasped. They had clearly believed that the backpack was part of his body, and he thanked God that they were limited in their knowledge of human behaviour. He didn’t want to think about what they would have been like if they knew how easily humans crumbled under pressure. He unzipped the bag and found the book, handing it over to M-DEF30D, who snatched it from his grasp.
The aliens flipped through the book as Carson sat in silence, oohing and aahing at the photos inside. Carson wondered what they saw in it. The only decent photo he’d seen while looking through it was the sunset one right in the middle of the book. To his surprise, the aliens seemed enraptured by every image. Carson had just decided to make a run for it when the aliens landed on the pink sunset photograph he had been in love with earlier that day. He paused as they all let out a collective gasp of happiness.
“What? What’s happening?” Carson asked, eyebrows creased.
“This is the last image that exists of our leader, F-FBC3E2,” M-DEF30D said, stroking the photo with a finger longer than any human possessed. “After this photo was taken, she got swept into the sea, and never returned.”
“We lost all our documents to do with F-FBC3E2 after she disappeared,” F-53B639 said. It shocked Carson to notice there were tears in her eyes. The aliens had been so stoic since he’d met them, he almost felt like he was in an alternate reality for a second. “We don’t know how. Someone wiped them out, removed them, took her memory from us.”
“And now we have found the last known image of her,” F-1E2CBC said, blue skin glowing. “Thank you so much for holding on to such an important part of our history. To whom do we owe the existence of this image?”
“Emerson Pollard,” Carson said, taking the book from the aliens so they could read the name printed in bold on the cover. “He was my grandfather.”
“Does he have any more books like this?” F-53B639 asked, staring lovingly at the blurry figure on the cover.
“No,” Carson said, scuffing his feet. “He was never known for much, my grandfather. He just liked to keep his head down and take some photographs. You know, it was a hobby.”
“Well, from this day forth, Emerson Pollard will be known as the greatest Honesgraslon photographer that ever existed,” M-DEF30D declared. “We will celebrate his name every Hones year and call it Emerson Day. And you, Carson, will visit us on that day each year. Any relative of Pollard is worthy of Honesgraslon respect.”
“Thank you,” Carson said, trying to process what had just happened. People had laughed at his grandfather, mocked his hobby, but not the Honesgraslons. His grandfather, who had never amounted much to anything when he was alive, was now being celebrated by a whole different species. A species grateful to him for taking a photo of their dead leader, a species who were honourable, a species who Carson knew would remember his grandfather for years to come.
M-DEF30D nodded at him and let out a loud booming sound that echoed throughout the interview room. Carson fainted. He woke up and frowned as he realised Scarlett was talking to him once more. The Honesgraslons had sent him back to earlier that morning.
“And, like, do you have anyone interesting in your family?” she asked, staring at her bright purple nails. She barely paid attention to Carson as he moved a stray hair from his forehead.
“Yeah, I do,” Carson said, smiling at her. “My grandfather was one hell of a photographer.”