Melissa Calls for Help


Hapdorn, 11 Thirdmonth 45B1

Dear Ken,

After all her relatives and friends on Earth died out, Mother finally decided to come to Homeland and settle in our beloved Duchy of Thorgelfayne so she could be near me, my husband Harshan, and our adopted son Darryl. She has her own apartment a few blocks from us, and she manages to get along quite well on her own. Quite a lot of that has to do with the congenital niceness that Homelanders have, but Mother does have her charm. She has friends, she goes shopping on her own—she’s very independent, especially when you consider that she barely speaks Thorgelfaynese. Without her around, I wouldn’t have any way to keep up my English-language skills except by corresponding with you.

One day last week she called me and told me triumphantly that she had acquired a cell phone.

“A cell phone?” I asked incredulously. “Whatever are you doing in jail? And how did you get them to put a phone in your cell?”

“It’s not that kind of phone, Melissa!” she said. “I guess you just don’t know the word. When you left Earth, cell phones weren’t as common as they were when I left. It’s just a portable telephone that I can carry in my purse wherever I go.”

I realized then that she was talking about a personal phone. I guess my English was rusty. I asked why of all things they called it a “cell” phone, but she had no idea. Well, I can’t figure it out either. On Homeland, personal phones have been around for a very long time, but people are so neighborly, they aren’t very necessary. I have one only because I had to drive through the mountains and over the border to attend a conference in Fjarn a while back, and I don’t speak Fjarnian. With a personal phone, I was equipped to call a translation service for help—but as it turned out, I never needed it. I was never at a loss for someone to translate. I was amazed at how many Fjarnians had gone to college in Thorgelfayne and were proud to practice their Thorgeflaynese. I keep forgetting that it is a prestigious intellectual language abroad.

Oh, I have to get to the real point of this letter. It’s bad news, I’m afraid. You remember Panu Maksimak, John Anderson’s friend? He died in an accident at the observatory a couple of months ago. It had something to do with the telescope swinging around too quickly and knocking him in the back of the head. The investigation isn’t over yet, but he was demonstrating the telescope controls to John, so probably he was showing off and got careless.

I don’t know how they figure these things out, but apparently when you get hit in the back of the head that hard, death is so quick you don’t have time to feel the pain. That was little consolation for John. John and Panu had become very close friends. They were like a set of salt and pepper shakers. Like all Thorgelfaynese, Panu was black, and like most people from Herlup Province, he was slender and tall. John is white and medium-sized with a regular build. Since John has no relatives on Homeland, they took their vacations together, traveling to Herlup Province to visit Panu’s relatives and old friends. So Panu’s death really hit John hard. It didn’t help that John was there at the time and watched helplessly as it happened.

I didn’t see much of John after that. He didn’t show up for work at his job at Snodgrass University for a while, and when I called to invite him to dinner, his voice was flat, as if all the life had gone out of him. He just didn’t seem to have any motivation to do anything. I was worried, so I went over to his house on Foliage Lane to make sure he was okay. The house was neat and tidy as always, but he walked around as if it were a museum.

John wasn’t himself, but he seemed to be okay, so I am ashamed to say I put the whole thing out of my head for the last week or so.

Then last night, I went for a walk around the block because I had insomnia. Earth’s day is twenty-eight hours and twenty-five minutes long by Homelander reckoning; the Homelander day is thirty-two hours, so my waking and sleeping cycle doesn’t come out even. Harshan was sleeping soundly. He didn’t stir when I got out of bed. I slipped on my shoes and my coat, left the apartment, and went down the stairs to the street. It was a blustery, chilly night, so I decided to limit myself to a quick stroll around the block. I walked up to the bank on the corner, where I planned to go to the left, but I saw a white man sitting on a bench in the park across the street. It looked like John! I had forgotten my watch, so I looked up at the bank’s sign. It was sixteen after thirty-two o’clock; a quarter after midnight.

I decided to cross the street to see if it really was John.

The traffic light cycled through red-yellow-blue, but there weren’t any cars. Everyone with good sense—and with a Homelander sleep cycle, I might add—was home asleep in bed. Since there wasn’t any traffic, I didn’t really have to wait for the light, but out of reflex I waited for it to turn blue. I ran across the street, up to the park bench, and sure enough, it was John.

“John!” I said, “Where is your car? How did you get here?”

“I walked,” he said flatly. He was staring at the ground.

“But that’s quite a distance, why didn’t you take the bus?”

“I have time,” he said, not even getting up to give me a greeting-hug.

“But what are you doing here so far away from home?”

Then John seemed to be himself for a moment. He looked up at me and smiled; or more correctly, his mouth smiled but his eyes did not. He said that when he first arrived on Homeland, he used to go on long walks at night because of the insomnia, but he had gotten out of the habit. He figured it was high time for a walk.

“Why here of all places?” I asked, “There’s a nice park near your house.”

He spat out the words. “Oh, you just don’t get it, do you?” Then he apologized. “Of course you don’t get it. You probably don’t even remember it. After the initial euphoria of arriving on Homeland, I had culture shock, and I came here to this park and sat on this bench to think things over.”

“Oh, I do remember,” I said, sitting down next to him. “Ken wrote that up in a story, and I read it.”

“I had forgotten about that,” he said.

“I went through a spell of culture shock, too,” I said. “Everyone does. When you arrive in a new country, let alone a new planet, everything is wonderful at first, but then all the subtle differences get to you, because you have to second-guess yourself about everything.”

“Yes,” he said, managing a small grin, “I remember the problem you had with light switches. You kept us all entertained for a while!”

I blushed. “I was trying to forget about that,” I said.

He took a deep breath. “Back then I was living in the city center. I came here to think things over, and I sat right here on this bench under this umbrella tree. There was a light rain, but the leaves kept me dry, for the most part. It was windy, like tonight. I remember looking over at Mountain Home Bank, Fargnon’s Shoe Store, that women’s clothing store, and back then there was a little restaurant next to it where the newsstand is now.”

“Yes, I remember it,” I said, “It was called the Happy Lunch Bucket, or something.”

“The Happy Lunch Pale,” he corrected. “It just came back to me.” John leaned back pensively.

I’m sorry to say I yawned. I was getting pretty sleepy, which was the purpose of my walk, but bad timing. I apologized to John, saying I was tired, not bored, but he waved it off. “It is pretty late,” he said.

“So why did you come here?” I asked.

He didn’t answer right away. When he did, he spoke in a calm voice, but you could hear stress in it, as if he were straining not to get emotional. “I came here because it brings back painful memories. My counselor told me that if I go back to all the places where I have painful memories and savor them, they won’t hurt me as bad.” Then he added sarcastically, “He said it would ‘facilitate my grieving process.’”

“I suppose it would,” I said, “but what painful memories do you get from sitting here?”

“Shortly after I met Panu, I was out of sorts,” he continued, “I came to this park and sat on this bench to think things out,” John said. “Panu was helping me adjust to Thorgelfaynese life, and since he was an astronomer, he could explain all the questions I had—I was quite a science-fiction buff back then, and I felt like I was living in a science-fiction story.”

That took me back. “I know, I had the same feeling.”

John continued, as if I hadn’t said anything, “This bench reminds me of Panu, because he is the one who figured out that I just had culture shock, and he told me that the feelings I had that night were only natural and that they would go away in a few days. He turned out to be right.”

I didn’t know what to say.

“And sitting here, I feel the same way I did that night long ago.”

“Lost and disoriented,” I guessed.

“Yes.” John’s voice began to waver, “Imagine an astronomer with that much insight into psychology, and on top of that, he was able to adapt what he knew to an alien species, namely me, and get it right.” He paused. “He was every bit as intelligent as he was compassionate.” He looked at me with a hurt little-boy face, and said, “Or should I have said that the other way around?”

“You miss Panu very much, don’t you?” I said.

John didn’t answer. He just sort of coughed. He looked straight ahead, his eyes looking at memories, not at the lawn or the grass or the buildings across the street. He said firmly, “Melissa, you had better go home now. Harshan will wake up and think that something happened to you.”

He was right about that, so I reluctantly got up to leave. I walked down the slope to the curb, waited for no particular reason for the traffic light to turn blue, and then crossed the street. I turned around to get another look at John.

He was trying very hard to cry, but he couldn’t do it.

So that’s why I was rambling on and on about the personal phone. While I was standing there that night wishing the Hugmups weren’t hibernating, I suddenly remembered that my personal phone was still in my coat pocket. I got it out and punched the emergency number. That was the first time I ever used that phone.

I waited for the ambulance to arrive. It didn’t take long. They took John home. One of them sat with him all night and they talked.

Fenap θorgelma,
Melissadoma