By Tim Stephens
Ben’s head began to shine. Not a “Brylcream” shine, and not because he was bald and began to oil his noggin. He saw it one day in October; the first faint flakes of an unseasonal snow lazed their way to the ground.
It was very soft and faint at first. Looking in the mirror, he attributed it to cataracts in his eyes (‘tho he was only thirty-nine), to headlights or the Sun casting a glow behind him… but most days he could — not forget it, but accept it.
“Is my head shining?” He finally asked his wife.
“Only to you,” Rebecca said without looking up. She was watching porn. She had read that women should do this to “catch up.” It was a Democratic thing.
At work they took it in stride, even joked about it. “Hey, Shinerola!” At first they were surprised, even astounded (after they looked closely and could discover no source) but after a few days they treated him casually again. Ben seldom had the presence of mind to lie, so he just stood, speechless, although he could have said he’d been to the doctor and everything was okay.
“It’ll go away soon,” he muttered. By now it was as strong as ocean phosphorescence. In the sunlight, it disappeared.
So he took to standing in the Sun, and cringed mildly at grey days.
But after awhile the light showed even in sunlight.
People began to follow him, at a distance, hesitantly, but he could see them if he turned around quickly.
After a few days of this, he went home and, his stomach ballooning with fear and nausea, he lay on his bed. “God, are you doing this to me?” (For he believed in God.)
There was no answer, so he rose from bed and stood at the window, clutching the sill.
“Am I supposed to do something? Have I done something wrong? Why are you doing this to me?””
Then a huge yet silent voice filled the room; he could see it filled the landscape outside, too. It filled the curling clouds, as if the universe breathed, spoke: YOU ARE NOT ALONE.
But what did that mean?
One day, having shaken off his silent pursuers, he sat in an urban stairwell, just off the sidewalk. A man stumbled by. He obviously had a neurological illness: his head trembled uncontrollably, and his steps were jerky. Ben suddenly sensed that he could cure this poor man. All he had to do was catch up to him and touch him. He knew it in his heart, his intuition, his gut. But he hesitated: it was an irrational act. People, even the poor man, would think he was crazy. What if it didn’t work? Even if it did, Ben’s head was filled with visions of electroshock, forced coma-like drug regimes, extraction of his teeth, nuthouse windows with steel bars… So… he let the man go.
At home, his wife complained about the light. How can I sleep with that light in my eyes? How can we make love if that light’s watching?
Now on the bus no one would sit beside him. In the street, people stayed back and gawked. Wherever he went, 10, now 20, now 100 people surrounded him. At work, they locked the crowd out, but once the whistle went, a gathering was there still, standing outside the warehouse.
But now there was a thousand, even thousands, filling the streets in all directions, watching with a sort of astonishment. Ben tried to walk home, but they surrounded him, and even filled his yard and the entire neighbourhood, like frogs at mating time.
He sat on his front stairs, amazed. Suddenly, he began to weep. Vendors crawled through the crowds, selling water bottles. Down at the corner, 2 hot dog stands muscled into the crowd.
“Say something,” one or two in the crowd began. “Tell us!” “Give us the word!” “Miracles! Miracles!” The crowd began to chant.
He shook his head sadly. “I have nothing to tell you.”
He stood up. “YOU ARE NOT ALONE,” he shouted, though he began almost in a whisper, and didn’t reach full volume until “ALONE.”
A sigh or murmur eased through the crowd.
“What did he say?”
“What did he say?”
“Oh my God. Oh my God.”
A wave pushed through the crowd, pressed toward him. Then the reason for the push revealed itself: a priest showed — actually, two priests, Catholic, with a third, a higher-up, someone with embroidered robes and a satin cap — pushed through the crowd, and brought the bishop or whatever he was, before Ben.
The satin-capped priest, not an old man, really, thought Ben. He began to ask Ben, loudly, so the “congregation” could hear, a series of questions.
“I don’t know,” Ben said, perhaps twenty times. The priest, exasperated, sighed and turned toward the crowd, as if for an explanation.
Finally he turned angrily toward Ben and said, “Don’t you have ANYTHING to say for yourself?”
“YOU ARE NOT ALONE,” Ben shouted angrily, more loudly than he had intended, jumping to his feet, ready to sock the damn priest. It was as if someone else lifted his throat. The crowd surged forward, grabbed the priests, and pulled them into the crowd just as helicopters began to circle the event.
In the weeks that followed, Ben became a world phenomenon, his shining head featured on every tv station. Hopeful tv pundits and political campaigners and simple influencers tried to adopt him, everyday offering him gourmet meals with wine, and 5-star hotel suites befitting someone of such fame. Ben was naturally shy, so he turned down most of these invitations — he sensed there was something “extra,” or unnatural about them. He asked his wife to accompany him to all these places, these huge cities and strange countries. (Yet in every country, he looked into the brown, firm eyes of the men, and the blue, open eyes of the women, and he couldn’t separate himself. When he looked at an Arab, for instance, he thought, felt, Arabian. Just as easily, a week later he was Chinese.) But his wife refused. “I’ll be here when you’re finished,” she said. “But I can’t sleep with that light on.”
Almost nightly, the news carried live footage of the crowds that coalesced around whatever hotel he was in — crowds, in the sense that half of New Yorkers left work and homes to see him, filling hundreds of city blocks; the other half scoffed and tended to their trading platforms.
Always, they wanted a speech, but he didn’t know what to say, and thought if he started rambling, he’d just say stupid things. So he just repeated the one phrase that seemed to work; ‘YOU ARE NOT ALONE.”
On Christmas Day he was shot by a religious fanatic, and died. The coroner told his cop buddy: “The weirdest thing, he had a smile on his lips.”
Still two centuries away, the aliens floated toward Earth.