By P.A. Cornell
By the time the emergency broadcast confirms the alien invasion, I imagine government officials worldwide have long been in their bunkers. Likewise, preppers—who’d seen this day coming—get the last laugh as they hunker down with their supplies and weapons.
The rest of us must fend for ourselves.
We’d seen the flashes in the sky. Heard weapons going off—both ours and theirs. We saw our landmarks go up in flames. But we hadn’t been certain about what was happening until the news footage. Huge crafts of alien design descending through the clouds, and tentacled creatures like something from a sci-fi B movie, but no less terrifying for their appearance.
I’d been glued to the TV until the power went out. Now I watch from my balcony, the streets below choked with cars attempting escape to a soundtrack of sirens, screams, and explosions. I won’t be joining them.
This is where I’ll be at the end of the world, for better or worse. My apartment at 440 Broad Street. I don’t even own a bike, let alone a car to add to those lodged in the unmoving mass that fills the streets. I turn my back on the view and head inside, shutting the sliding glass door to muffle the noise. But the quiet doesn’t last. I hear pounding, a pause, then pounding on my door this time.
I open it to a man dressed in a police uniform, clutching his lower abdomen as blood seeps through both fabric and fingers. It’s my neighbor from across the hall.
“Adriana Foster,” he says, nodding toward his door.
Another nod. “Did she come home? She’s a nurse at the clinic three blocks down.”
“Do you need help?”
“Don’t worry about me. I need to know she’s okay. There’s an evacuation coming.”
I’m skeptical. Merritt’s a small city, of no strategic interest to the aliens, so not a major focus for military defense. We’re on our own.
“I haven’t seen her. If she’s a nurse she probably has her hands full. You need help though.”
He waves me off, and as he does, more doors open down the hall. Across and to my left, a man pokes his head out of 4C. I’ve seen him a few times while picking up mail in the lobby. He gets a lot of mail from the Philippines. If I remember the name on the mailbox correctly, it’s Prudente.
Further down the hall is another man, with a little girl peeking out from behind his legs. I think of them as “The Mexican Family” though truth is I’m not even sure that’s where they’re from. I’ve heard them speak Spanish, but they could be from any Latin American country, or even Spain.
Finally, from the apartment next door, I see the teenage boy I know as Adam. I’ve heard his dad say it enough times, usually followed by “go get me some smokes.” Not sure how the kid’s able to get them. He’s not old enough to buy them legally. Maybe a sympathetic clerk who doesn’t want some kid getting an ass-kicking on his conscience.
The Hispanic man shoves his daughter back into their apartment and rushes down the hall, just as Foster starts to fade and I find myself holding his considerable weight.
“Needs doctor,” my Hispanic neighbor says, pronouncing the last word with the emphasis on the second syllable, the way it’s done in Spanish. He helps bear Foster’s weight and together we ease him to the ground.
I agree Foster needs help, but 9-1-1 stopped working a week ago, and even though the clinic’s just blocks away, he’d never make it. The blood’s coming fast and I doubt even a surgeon could do much for him now.
“The evac,” Foster whispers. “Find Adriana. It’s at Arrowhead Park. They leave at seven a.m. Only shot.”
He loses consciousness.
“Did he say we’re being evacuated?” Adam asks, coming over.
I don’t answer as my Hispanic neighbor and I struggle to lift Foster. Seeing us, Prudente rushes over and together we get Foster into my apartment and onto my couch. Blood stains the upholstery.
Prudente lifts Foster’s shirt and we get our first look at the wound. He looks at me, then at our Hispanic neighbor and finally at Adam who’s followed us in, then shakes his head.
He doesn’t last long. We stay with him until it happens. No one speaks. Adam goes pale but that’s it. Takes it like a man, as they say. A man of what—maybe fifteen?
We sit in silence until a tiny and impossibly wrinkled woman appears in my doorway. She’s part of the Prudente family. Seeing Foster, she says a few words I can’t understand. Prudente says something back. She considers whatever he said, then gives us a beckoning wave and without waiting for a reaction, leaves.
“My wife’s mother, Amihan,” Prudente says. “She wants us to go to our apartment. You are all welcome.”
Adam’s on his own and I have no intention of staying in my place with a dead man, so we stand. The Hispanic man says something about “niños” and heads past us, I assume to his apartment. By the time the rest of us are making our way to 4C, he joins us with three kids, the eldest no more than eight. I know there’s a wife but considering the circumstances, I don’t ask about her.
“Ramon Novoa,” he says, patting his chest. “My English…just okay.” He emphasizes this by adding the ‘so-so’ gesture with his hand.
I may not know where he’s from but at least he has a name I can pronounce. Ramon. Like the band. He goes on to introduce his kids, and I force a smile for their benefit.
“Kevin,” I say, as we enter 4C.
The Prudente’s apartment’s bigger than mine. I make out two rooms down a hall to the left and wonder if the grandmother shares with the boy.
There are more introductions. Adam gives his name and Ramon repeats his for the rest of the Prudentes. We learn our host’s first name is Fermin, his wife is Divina. Their son and the other kids run off to play so no one bothers with their introductions.
We stare at each other, unsure what to say, then Ramon raises a finger in the universal gesture for ‘one sec’ and leaves. He’s gone long enough I worry he’s not coming back and we’re gonna have to comfort his kids through the end of the world, but then he returns with a cardboard box. I see a package of lentils, drinks, toys for the kids. Then he smiles and pulls out a pack of Oreos, opens it and passes it around. We each take one. Without exception we all pull the cookie apart, eating the cream first. Oreos: the great unifier.
“I have a gun,” Adam says. “Well, my dad does.” He sticks out his thumb and forefinger and says “bang, bang!” for anyone who might not have understood.
“You know how to use it?” I ask.
The kid nods.
“Go get it.”
He leaves, no doubt convinced a gun can help defend us from the invaders. I think if they made it here from another world, then projectile weapons won’t be much threat. But if it comes to it, a gun could at least bring us a quick end.
When he returns, I tell him to put the gun where he can get it fast, but where none of the kids can get to it. He places it atop a shelf that he and all the adults can reach, except maybe Amihan who can’t be taller than 4’9.
Ramon retrieves a tape player from his box of wonders along with some cassettes. I haven’t seen their like in decades.
“You telling me this thing works?”
“Si,” he says. “Jes,” he repeats for my gringo ears.
He selects a tape, puts it in and presses play. An unfamiliar voice croons in Spanish. I don’t know what he’s saying, but I don’t care, the guitar’s nice. Not my usual music, but at the end of the world you’re a lot less picky about stuff like that.
“You ever seen one of these before?” I ask Adam.
He shrugs. “In old movies.”
Fermin and Divina start to dance. The music drowns out the sounds from outside and if we watch them dance instead of looking out the windows, we can pretend things are normal. I can’t help but smile.
“Where are your parents?” I ask Adam.
“They went out when they saw the news. Probably to loot the liquor store. That was yesterday though. You think it’s true…about the evacuation?”
Fermin and his wife stop dancing, and Ramon either understanding or noticing the change in body language, turns down the music. They seem to be waiting for me to have the answers. God help them.
“Foster seemed sure, but I have doubts. If they’re gonna risk that. it would be for someone important.”
Amihan sniffs and shakes her head. I haven’t heard her speak English but she seems to have caught enough of what I’ve said to indicate she’s not buying what I’m selling.
“If there’s a chance we could be evacuated, we should try,” Divina says. “For the children.”
“We’d still have to survive the night,” I say.
No one says a word as we listen to the ongoing sirens and explosions that cheap windows do little to block. Morning’s a long way away, and we’d have to reach Arrowhead Park. It’s only five blocks, but five blocks of Armageddon.
“To even consider this, we’ll need to eat and sleep first. And we’ll need weapons. Even then it’s a longshot.”
“You can sleep here,” Fermin says. “Together we are safer.”
Divina nods. “We can manage food. There’s not much fresh since the power went out, but we’ll come up with something.”
“Leave that to me,” I say. I head back to my apartment and directly to my kitchen, avoiding looking at Foster. Bachelors buy a lot of canned and boxed stuff. When the power went out all I had to worry about was a six-pack that would gradually go warm in the fridge. In my cupboards I find enough non-perishables to fill a laundry basket. Then I dig through my hall closet and find my old camp stove and two small gas canisters. They probably aren’t full but they might let us heat up a meal or two. On my way out I can’t help but glance at Foster. It seems wrong but I put down the basket and go to his body. He’s a cop. He has weapons.
I remove his belt with care. I leave the gun in its holster. I don’t know what I’m doing around firearms so why risk having one go off in my hand? Hopefully someone other than Adam can use it. I look instead in the pouches and find extra magazines and those zip-tie cuffs.
There are other things we can use. His baton, a flashlight hefty enough to double as a weapon, a canister of mace. A bulletproof vest would’ve been nice. If Foster had been wearing one, he might still be with us.
I add the belt and its contents to my basket and give Foster a final nod before closing the door as I exit.
Back in 4C, I hand the belt to Fermin and let him handle who gets what. The food I bring to the kitchen where I set up the camping stove and ask Divina for her largest pot and a can opener. Then I set to work making a blend of stew-like substances: Irish stew, meatball stew, chicken stew, steak and potatoes, and something with a hint of curry in it. I don’t care. I add them all and when I’m done, I give it a stir with a wooden spoon I find in one of the drawers. Amihan watches wide-eyed, then laughs a musical laugh with a hand pressed to her mouth as if she can’t believe what this world’s come to. There are no rules governing alien invasions.
“Bachelor stew,” I say, and shrug.
Divina looks dubious but pulls a stack of bowls from a cupboard as I heat the concoction.
When it’s done, we feed the kids first and they eat without complaint. The situation outside has them subdued, so they even forget to be picky. I scoop the rest into bowls that Divina hands the adults. I’m counting Adam among us now, since he’s so much older than the other kids. The stew’s weird but edible. All that’s missing’s a piece of crusty bread to dip in the sauce. Bachelor stew. I should’ve been making this for years.
Over dinner I learn Ramon’s from Venezuela. His wife’s Mexican though, so I was half right. I don’t ask where she is and he doesn’t say anything else about her. I’ve seen her leave the building wearing a grocery store uniform and wonder if she was working when the looting started.
As night rolls in, flashes of light and fires outside keep things bright, but Divina still puts out candles and I keep the flashlight close.
Fermin and Ramon put the kids down in the master bedroom and set up a cot for Amihan too so they have an adult there for comfort when she joins them a little later. The rest of us will take turns sleeping and keeping watch in the living room.
As we settle in, I think of my six-pack and how good it would be to share lukewarm beer with these people right now but I don’t want to see Foster again. Besides, it’s better we stay sharp.
Ramon starts quietly singing, to pass the time, or calm our nerves. I don’t know. He sings in Spanish, and I’m enjoying his voice far more than whoever was singing on that old cassette tape earlier. The amazing thing about music is you can tell a song’s about sadness, longing, love, or joy, despite not knowing the words. The last song’s a sad one. A farewell to the world we’ve known. At least that’s how I take it. When he finishes, I catch Divina wiping away tears. Next to her, Amihan nods sagely as if the song spoke directly to her soul.
Then, amazingly, Adam starts singing. He sings a Beatles song old enough to have been a favorite of his grandparents. It’s a song about places remembered throughout a lifetime. About things and people loved. In a way, another song bidding farewell to a dying world. The kid’s good. I wonder if his parents knew this side of him.
“Shit kid, where’d you learn to sing like that?” I ask when he’s done.
He shrugs and gives a shy smile. “In the shower, I guess.”
After this, we plan. Fermin draws a route to the park on the back of a flyer. I tell him to make sure our route takes us by the clinic. We owe it to Foster to at least try to find his wife.
I don’t know when we finally go to sleep. I remember Amihan regaling us with a story involving expansive hand gestures and enthusiastic words that made her laugh, but somewhere in there I closed my eyes and never found out how the story ended. When Ramon nudges me awake, she’s gone to sleep with the kids.
I stay awake the rest of the night, even when Fermin takes over. There’s too much going on. Too much stress. Too much noise. Too much on my mind. When the sun rises, it takes me by surprise. It seems out of place. Shouldn’t the end be dark and ominous?
The sirens are continuous and the explosions seem closer. The others don’t need us to wake them. Even Amihan joins us with the children, a couple of whom are crying. The mood has darkened even as the sky grows brighter. No one mentions breakfast. They look to me and I nod. It’s now or never. We have to go, while we still have some darkness for cover. And while we still have time to stop by the clinic.
We take only our weapons. If this doesn’t work, we won’t be needing anything else anyway. Adam and Fermin each have guns; Ramon the baton. Divina wears a backpack containing the stove’s gas canisters and supplies for lighting them on fire if it comes to it. Amihan carries the spare magazines in Foster’s belt, which she wears around her waist, leaving the others’ hands free. Me, I have my trusty flashlight.
“Ready?” I say. Fermin nods.
I lead the way into the hall. How I wound up leader, I’ll never know. As we pass my apartment I think: It should’ve been you, Foster. But here we are. We’re not even halfway to the elevators, when the door to the adjacent stairwell whips open and a man runs out. He shoves Divina out of the way and enters 4C. I run after him and reach the apartment in time to see the open sliding door, and the man leaping over the balcony railing like a hurdle. He doesn’t scream as he falls. We’re only on the fourth floor. Not high enough for him to die, but just high enough to break both his legs. Whatever his end, it won’t involve a daring escape.
I notice the Prudentes’ son approaching and close the door on 4C.
“Let’s go,” I say.
“But the man.”
“He’ll be okay,” I lie. I put my hand on the kid’s shoulder and lead him back to his mother.
Without power, the elevators are out of the question. That leaves the stairs. But that man was running from something. Will that something be there when I open the door?
I stand in front of it, then give the others a look through which I try to convey the need to prepare for anything. There’s an explosion and I see one of the elevators’ doors shudder. The invasion has come to 440 Broad Street.
I turn back to the door and open it. There’s no boogieman standing there, so I lead the others into the stairwell. We descend at a steady pace, Amihan at a slightly slower one, bringing up the rear.
Adam joins me. He holds his gun, index finger to the side of the trigger so he doesn’t accidentally fire it. He gives me a look.
“This won’t help, will it?” He lifts the weapon a little.
Not a lot of bullets, I think, and it’s anyone’s guess where you’d shoot one of them.
“Probably not. Though if it comes to it, I can take you into one of the hallways and…make it quick.”
He gives it a moment’s thought then shakes his head.
“I don’t want that. We face whatever comes together.”
I nod. I’d considered that way out yesterday, not anymore. A lot can happen to change a man’s mind in less than twenty-four hours.
As we reach the second floor, the door opens. Out step three creatures, the likes of which we’ve only seen on TV. They seem fake. Like bad special effects. I wish that was all they were.
Adam raises his gun, but before he can fire, it slips from his sweaty grip and goes off into the wall. The children cry and the women push them back the way we came. Up where there’s no hope for evacuation. I have to do something.
I’m about to rush these monsters when Ramon pushes past me, raising his baton even as Fermin begins firing. Adam hasn’t retrieved his gun which now lies too close to the aliens. He sits on one of the steps, covering his ears. Just yesterday I thought him capable of helping defend us, but now I see him for the scared kid he is.
One of the aliens raises a fine tentacle-like appendage. It has more than I care to count, extending from a rounded body that gives it a passing resemblance to a jellyfish. Unlike a jellyfish, it walks on several of them. Somehow the aliens are blocking the bullets. I watch them bounce against nothing and fall to the floor until Fermin’s out of ammo. Then he turns back to where the women and children went. I remember Amihan had the belt with extra magazines.
“Go!” I say as I raise my flashlight, swinging so the aliens move back.
Fermin runs up the stairs and I focus on the aliens. I see Ramon move closer. Too close. A tentacle touches his shoulder and he vanishes in a spray of mist. I’m grateful his kids aren’t here to see it.
I look back hoping to see Fermin. Instead I see Amihan coming down the stairs at a faster pace than I thought her capable of. She pauses and pulls Adam up while I continue swinging my flashlight. I doubt I could hurt them. They’re probably just confused by my tactics, but if it slows them down, good enough.
Behind me Amihan speaks to Adam. I risk a look and see her waving him up. He hesitates, then breaks into a run.
The old woman turns to me.
“Kevin,” she says. It’s all she needs to say.
I give her a nod and she goes for the baton Ramon had been holding and starts swinging it with surprising agility. The aliens move back against the door. I don’t know if they’re communicating. No sound comes from them, so if they are, it’s not the way we do it. But we keep them there.
In that look she gave me I knew the plan. We buy them time. We make sure the kids get out. Fermin and Divina will get them to the park. If they’re lucky, they might even save Foster’s wife. But whatever happens, we have to hold the aliens back until they get out.
I’m barely aware of my own movements as I watch Amihan waving the baton in what seems like slow motion. Then she pulls out the mace and sprays away. The aliens really don’t like that and try to block it like they did the bullets. Still, it pushes them further back.
I keep swinging the flashlight. I should be terrified but feel strangely calm. I think of Adam working on his perfect pitch. Of Oreo cookies. Of Ramon taking such good care of an old tape player, and of how good bachelor stew would taste right now. I think of Amihan’s stories, and how I wish I’d understood them.
The stairwell door opens and more aliens appear. Amihan reaches into the belt she wears and removes the zip-tie cuffs. I somehow get her meaning. We yell and scream and swing even more aggressively as we drive them back into the hall. They move slowly but they go and suddenly the door closes behind us. Amihan turns and secures it with the cuffs, making sure the latch won’t budge.
She looks at me and I smile. The stairs are clear. Team 4C has a chance. As if on cue we hear footsteps, heading down the stairs at a run. There’s the crying of children—frightened but alive.
I’ve stopped swinging my flashlight without noticing. Amihan leans against the door, her energy spent. She smiles even as one of the aliens approaches her. She’s still smiling as she vanishes into a cloud of mist.
I turn just as one of them reaches me. I have time to think that Foster’s evac better be legit, and then I’m not me anymore. I drift into the air, lighter than I ever was. More idea than person. I drift through the building’s walls and move higher and higher, tossed by the wind. Below me, 440 Broad Street shrinks away, but I can still make out two adults, a teenager and four little kids running up the street toward the clinic, and Arrowhead Park beyond.
© 2023 P.A. Cornell
About the Author
P.A. Cornell is a Chilean-Canadian speculative fiction writer who penned her first science-fiction story as a third-grade assignment (for those curious, it was about shape-shifting aliens). A member of SFWA and graduate of the Odyssey workshop, her short fiction has appeared in several professional markets. Her novella Lost Cargo was published in 2022 by Mocha Memoirs Press. A complete bibliography can be found at pacornell.com.