Hapdorn, 20 Thirdmonth 459D
It started out as one of those lovely, invigorating fall days that makes even the most mundane chores seem pleasurable, but we were lucky to have finished all our house cleaning the day before. Today was a special outing: a shopping trip in downtown Hapdorn. Harshan, Darryl, and I strolled down the sidewalk through the downtown crowds, thoroughly enjoying the breezy, cool day. It was just barely cool enough for a sweater, yet the air was so crisp and clear that everything was transformed into loveliness. We drank in the vista of blood-red leaves on all the trees and gawked at all the displays in the store windows, and for good reason: I needed a new pair of shoes, Harshan needed a new green suit for formal wear, and Darryl had outgrown everything except his enthusiasm and his appetite!
“Hey, space cadet!” Harshan called out. We had stopped to look into a shoe store window, and hadn’t noticed that Darryl had wandered ahead. “Wait for us old folks, now!”
“Whoops!” Darryl called as he realized how far ahead of us he was, “I thought you guys were right behind me!” He raced back to where we were, “Why didn’t you tell me you were stopping to look at some dumb old shoes?”
“Now honey,” I chided him gently, rubbing him fondly on the head. “We figured you could see us!”
“Stop that!” Darryl demanded, pushing my hand off his head, “I’m not a little kid anymore, and don’t tell me I’ll always be your little kid, ‘cause I’m bigger now. Anyway, it messes up my hair.” In mock irritation he pulled out a pocket comb and peered at his reflection in a store window as he combed his hair back in place.
Harshan and I chuckled and promised to watch ourselves in the future.
I took a deep satisfying breath of the fresh fall air as we walked along. There was even a slight smoky flavor to it. “You know, Harshan,” I said expansively, tossing my hair over my left shoulder, “This reminds me of my childhood back on Earth.”
“Goodness!” Harshan exclaimed, “and here you had me fooled all the time! I thought you were having a wonderful time!” He suddenly looked at me as though his entire world had shrunk until it included only me. He didn’t even notice Darryl tugging at his pants leg.
“Oh, I don’t mean it that way,” I giggled, “There were good times in my childhood, too!” Harshan looked almost disappointed that he couldn’t in some way come to my aid. “What I meant was that this wonderful crisp weather reminds me of the times my mother used to take me shopping for my school things in the fall.” We happened to be walking past a music store, which had a sale on skritches today. I idly wondered if I should tell John Anderson about it, but he already owns a very nice skritch. “The school year in Illinois begins in the fall,” I explained, “and hard as it is for some people to believe, we did have some beautiful weather in Chicago in the fall.”
“Dad,” Darryl called, still tugging at Harshan’s pants leg, “Can we go to Thorgel Park today? You promised!”
Darryl nodded his agreement, and Darryl literally jumped for joy. “You don’t have to tell me about Chicago weather,” Harshan answered me defensively. “Unless you forget that we lived in Chicago for nearly a year back when we adopted Darryl!”
“Of course I remember that!” I said, giving Harshan a playful jab in the side. “It’s just that today, for some reason, all the good memories come flooding back.” He slipped his arm around my waist as we began to walk down the sidewalk, and I snuggled up as he held me tight.
Darryl stopped dead in front of us and turned around with his hands on his hips. “Don’t tell me you guys are going to get mushy on me again!” he protested.
“Now you watch your manners, young man! “Harshan chided, then swooped down on him and tickled his tummy, reducing him to a pile of giggles.
Despite all these shenanigans (not to mention several delays for Darryl to put his jacket back on) we managed to pick out my shoes and Harshan’s suit, and we patronized a number of street vendors who were selling seasonal delicacies. In spite of Darryl’s allergy to trying on clothes, we even managed to buy him a whole new wardrobe for school, which he desperately needs since he’s outgrown practically everything he has. He may be an Earth kid, but Homelander groceries and Thorgelfaynese cuisine seem to suit him just fine.
“Don’t forget,” Darryl reminded us as we left the children’s clothing store, “You promised me we could go to Thorgel Park!” Well, you are probably wondering why he was so interested in that park. As you know, Hugmups are wild creatures that migrate into the mountains during the winter where they somehow manage to figure out which ones of them are male and which ones are female and have their young. Then they hibernate for the winter, returning the following spring to befriend hapless Homelanders. Lucky for us, they like Humans too! John, Darryl, and I have all benefited from the joys of Hugmup friendship. (Of course, Harshan has too, but he’s a native, so that doesn’t count.) Thorgel Park lies right in one of their major migration paths, so in the fall people like to come to watch the bittersweet spectacle as the beloved Hugmups leave. For many people it is a catharsis; a way of steeling themselves against the long, Hugmupless winter. For Darryl and other small children like him, it’s just a big show.
“Wait a second, space cadet,” Harshan warned gently as we approached the end of the block. “You can’t go into the intersection until the light turns blue!”
“Oh, I forgot,” Darryl said, stepping back onto the curb. He bounced up and down impatiently.
Just then there was a commotion behind us. People were shouting, but I couldn’t make out what they were saying! All of a sudden, cars were stopping and dozens of people ran by! If I were back on Earth, I would think that there was a general panic.
“Hey, neat-o!” Darryl hollered, obviously enjoying it all. “This is just like in the movie when Godzilla stalks the streets and the people flee!” I momentarily marveled at his memory for old movies.
“Darryl, get back here!” Harshan ordered sharply, and Darryl complied with robotic alacrity. Harshan pulled him back from the curb and shoved him in my direction. I grabbed on to Darryl, while Harshan stacked up our purchases next to the wall. Then Harshan stationed himself by the curb to see what was up.
“What’s going on, Harshan?” I called through the passing crowd.
“I don’t know,” Harshan confessed as he lifted himself up on his tiptoes to see, “I can’t quite make it out.”
Finally my disbelieving ears heard shouts of “Stop the thief!” I surmised, and it presently turned out that I was right, that some sort of robbery had taken place, and that the thief was trying to make his getaway by running down this street. The crowd was trying to aid the police, who were apparently in pursuit, by shouting out the thief’s location everywhere he ran. It must be very frustrating to be a thief around here!
“I don’t believe this,” I shouted to Harshan excitedly, “I didn’t think that things like this could happen on Homeland, of all places!”
“Well, they do,” he replied in a matter-of-fact voice. “There are unbalanced people in every society, however advanced it is. What makes a society civilized is not whether it has unbalanced people, but how it deals with them.”
Harshan’s little sociological lecture was cut off by a sudden rush of people who ran between us and to my right. Darryl and I were pressed against the building, which was probably a very safe place, but Harshan was still clinging to the sign post near the curb. “Stay there!” he shouted, “I’ll tell you all about it when it’s over!”
Just then the thief came running up with a half-defiant, half-desperate look on her face. It was a woman! For some reason I had just assumed that it would be a man. The police were in close pursuit. The thief slipped in a puddle and skidded to a halt right against the curb at Harshan’s feet, where she sat stunned, covered with perspiration and breathing hard! She quickly snatched up her booty, whatever it was, and pressed it possessively against her heaving chest. The police officer stood his ground, raised his gun with both arms, and aimed it straight at the thief.
“Don’t move!” he ordered calmly. The other policemen took their positions behind him, and the crowd formed a wide circle around the scene.
The woman’s eyes darted around wildly, but the crowd formed a solid circle leaving her no avenue of escape.
“I don’t care what happens,” the woman screamed. “You don’t know what I’ve had to put up with! You don’t understand!” With that, she threw her package defiantly at the police officer, who fired his gun out of reflex—but he must have missed. Maybe that was deliberate, I don’t know.
“Okay, you win!” the woman said dejectedly, rising slowly to her feet with her hands on her head. “I guess it doesn’t matter what happens to me now!”
How exciting! I never thought anything like this could happen in my beloved Duchy of Thorgelfayne or anywhere else on this lovely and serene planet of Homeland! My mind was racing with a thousand questions about the woman and her predicament, and I wondered how the police would deal with the aftermath of this situation.
Just then I looked over at Harshan. His eyes were dull, and he looked like he was going to faint. Then in panic I noticed the small red splotch on his left shoulder! I let go of Darryl and ran to Harshan, just in time to catch him as he fell.
“I’m so sleepy,” he complained in a little-boy voice. “I want to go to sleep,” he said.
“My husband has been shot!” I announced in a tortured, disbelieving voice, but no one seemed to take notice. I turned to a nearby woman, “My husband has been shot!” I repeated with growing hysteria, but she just shrugged her shoulders and walked away. Behind me I heard a man say, “What’s wrong with her? So what if her husband has been shot? Big deal!”
The people in the crowd went back to their business, one by one, leaving us practically by ourselves. I just crouched there, holding Harshan in my lap and stroking his hair, trying desperately to think of the right thing to do or to say. Where was Darryl? I thought wildly.
“Melissaleoma, I love you so,” Harshan whispered, and then he slipped into unconsciousness.
And I screamed a scream so loud and so long and so desperate that I could imagine my mother hearing it all the way from Earth. As I fathomed the distance, my loneliness and terror grew.
No one seemed to be paying much attention to me; the crowd had dispersed, and there were only a few passers-by from time to time. Darryl just stood at the curb and looked in the direction that the police had taken the thief.
“Help me, Darryl!” I commanded. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what was wrong with everyone; why were they ignoring Harshan?”
“Yes, ma’am!” he said, crouching down to look at his father. He looked up at me slowly with tear-filled eyes, and asked in a quavering voice, “What’s happened to Daddy?”
“Never mind that now,” I said, trying to keep him from panicking, “Help me drag him out of the way!” Together we pulled him out of the center of the sidewalk and propped him up against the side of the building. He looked so angelic, as if he were asleep. I felt a lump gathering in my throat and I suppressed it, since I knew that if I didn’t, I’d completely lose control of myself.
While we were busy putting Harshan into as comfortable a position as possible, a little man came out of the shoe store and peered down at us.
“Is something wrong here?” he inquired.
“I should say there is!” I answered indignantly. I had been kneeling, so it was painful for me to rise to my feet. “The police officer who shot at the thief missed and hit my husband,” I wailed, “and no one seems to care!”
The man brightened. “It’s not that they don’t care,” he smiled mirthfully, “it’s just that there’s nothing to care about!”
“Nothing to care about!” I very busily began revising my previously flattering opinion of Thorgelfayne. “My husband has been shot as an innocent bystander, and there’s nothing to care about?”
“There’s no sense fussing about it out here,” the little man said as he looked around, “Let’s get him inside the store.” So he grabbed Harshan around the shoulders and somehow managed to drag him into the store. It took all three of us to get him properly situated in a chair. All the while I was steaming! Here my husband has been shot and all this man can care about is how much of a fuss I’m making!
The shoe salesman made a phone call. A police officer arrived almost immediately and listened patiently as I told him what happened. “Now let’s tend to your husband,” he said. He took a small handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped away the small splotch of blood on Harshan’s shoulder… at least, I thought it was blood, but when he wiped it up I could tell there was very little blood. Then the man gently felt Harshan’s shirt until he seemed to find something.
“Ah, here it is!” he announced triumphantly, displaying what looked like a little splinter between his forefinger and his thumb. Then he carefully disposed of the splinter in a wastebasket behind the counter. Then he seated himself next to me and took my hand in his.
“You must be the Human woman,” he said gently.
“Yes, I am,” I said awkwardly, but how do you know that?”
“I recognize you from a television program a couple of years ago,” he said, “they interviewed you when you first arrived, don’t you remember that?”
“Of course I do,” I said.
“Well, you must be in considerable distress,” he said as he sized up Harshan’s unconscious body. He stooped and picked Harshan up, throwing him over his shoulders the way that firemen do. “Do you live far from here?” he asked, and then he added almost as an afterthought, “I am a police officer, you know; I can help.”
The next few moments went by in a blur: we had a short ride in a police car, and before I knew it we were home.
“Darryl, go get a washcloth and wring it out in warm water,” I shouted over my shoulder as I put Harshan into what I hoped was a more comfortable position on the sofa. The police officer who had brought us home lifted up Harshan’s feet and placed them on a pillow.
“Are you going to be okay, now?” he asked, “You seemed to be in quite a lot of distress back there in front of the shoe store.”
“Oh, that’s just my silly side,” I apologized. I did feel a little foolish now. “It was all a mistake on my part.” I looked the police officer in the face. “You do realize that my son and I are both from Earth, don’t you?”
“Yes, we already discussed that,” he said, scratching the back of his head. “What’s your point?”
Darryl walked up and handed me the washcloth.
“Well, if this had happened back on Earth,” I explained, “the police would have bullets in their guns and Harshan would be badly wounded, if not dead by now.” I wiped off Harshan’s face. “I momentarily forgot where I was; that’s why I was so upset. I’m okay now.”
“You’re kidding!” The officer was startled, almost to the point of shock. “You mean they would shoot at people with the same bullets they would use to kill wild animals?” He settled down onto the arm of the sofa to steady himself. He shook his head as if to clear it, then he slowly smiled, “Oh, you’re just joking! No civilization could be that backward!”
His smile faded as he noticed that I didn’t smile. “I’m quite serious,” I said, wiping the rest of the red stain from the dart off Harshan’s sweater. Then I turned to Darryl and handed him the washcloth, “Go put this in the dirty laundry, honey.” Darryl nodded and scooted down the hallway.
The officer located his tongue. “But they could kill the fugitive without apprehending him!” he asked, “How could you have a trial?”
“You can’t,” I said. “Once the suspect is dead, the issue is moot.” I patted Harshan gently on the cheeks to see if there was a sign of consciousness yet, but he was still sleeping off the tranquilizer. “How long does this tranquilizer last?” I was a little frustrated that he wasn’t awake yet.
“About forty-eight minutes, but it varies from individual to individual,” the officer replied, glancing at his wristwatch. “I’d say your husband is a little overdue.”
“That sounds about right,” I said, “He tends to overreact slightly to drugs that make him drowsy.”
The officer had still not contained his astonishment that his counterparts on Earth were using deadly metal pellets to ‘apprehend’ fugitives, and I don’t think he really quite believed it. “About those bullets,” he said quietly, “What happens if an innocent bystander is hit, like your husband was today?”
“Then the innocent bystander dies, I suppose.” I turned my attention to Harshan who was beginning to come to. At least his eyelids were beginning to flutter, and either he moaned softly or I have an extraordinarily vivid imagination.
Darryl came in the room and sat on the floor near his father’s head. “Is Daddy going to be okay?” he asked in a trembling voice.
“Yes, Darryl,” I reassured him, “It was only a tranquilizer dart.”
“Are you sure, Mommy?” he asked.
“Yes, Darryl. You don’t see a bullet hole do you?”
“No,” he said.
“Well, there you have it!” I said triumphantly as I hugged him. Darryl appeared to be glad for the reassurance but embarrassed by the fact that the police officer was present while his mother hugged him. Meanwhile, the officer’s eyes grew wider and wider, as if he had found himself in some surreal place where the normal rules of the universe did not apply. Darryl and I were very calm about the prospect that Harshan might have been hit by a bullet, and that unnerved him even more.
In a few seconds, Harshan woke up from his involuntary nap. He was a little groggy, but we filled him in on the details of what had happened, and within a few minutes he sat upright on the sofa and shook his head from side to side. “I have had more refreshing naps,” he remarked, “and I do prefer to take my naps on purpose!”
“My apologies,” the officer replied. “The officer didn’t intend to shoot you, surely you understand that. Perhaps you will be comforted to know that this won’t happen again—at least the police department is taking steps to make it less likely.” He rose to his feet, and if he had had a hat, he would have been holding it apologetically in his hands. “The officer who shot you will be required to improve his score at the shooting range before he is allowed to carry a gun again.” He said this painfully, almost in a whisper. “Is there anything else I can do for you?” he asked.
“No, I don’t think so,” Harshan said. He was obviously back to full wakefulness. “You have discharged your duty to me and to my family; we’re all just fine now.”
“Oh, thank you!” the officer replied in obvious relief. “If you should change your mind, just let me know…”
“Everything’s fine,” Harshan repeated, “Just take care of that poor woman you were chasing!”
“Don’t worry about that!” the police officer announced with pride. “She was apprehended and is being examined by the proper doctors!”
After the usual pleasantries, the police officer left. Our shopping trip was cut a little short, so we will have to finish things up tomorrow; but other than that, it was a normal day.
Of course, Harshan had trouble sleeping that night.
Your very relieved friend,