I’m not sure why aliens would choose Reservoir to land. There have to be better places in Australia to visit than the suburbs of Melbourne. But the message was clear. They are coming. Here. And I’m to wait.
The sky is on fire, the bits I can see through the curtain of pink blossoms. A column of smoke raises from old man Salvatore’s incinerator, the stink blowing across the fence into our yard, competing with the perfume of the plum blossoms I’m hiding in. I should have set up the roof, but Mother would have heard me no matter how quiet I was. The old crystal set radio is strung up with some twine on a small branch I’ve snapped off to make a hook. It isn’t the best set up, the aerial stuck to the tree trunk, but you make do. That’s what Dad always told me. Making do, whatever the situation is what marks a dedicated communications officer. That’s why the Germans killed him. He was too good.
Samuel says Dad was a code breaker – it was his job to decipher the secret messages the Germans sent. He says Dad showed him some of the secret codes, but I don’t believe him. He says Dad was real smart and that’s why the Germans killed him.
I pat Dad’s cast-off notebook. It fits perfectly in the pocket of Samuel’s old overalls. They’re patched at the knees and soft with wear. I stole them, months ago, from a bag of clothes Mother was giving to Mrs Thomas at Number 18. They’ve been hidden under my mattress waiting for a special occasion like this.
Dresses are useless for climbing trees and while I thought long and hard on what I should wear if I was going to be meet an alien for the first time, I was certain they’d appreciate practicality over pretty. That’s what Dad said when we set off on our last adventure together, hand in hand, with Mother saying everyone in the street would talk. “Let them talk,” he said and smiled at me. I guess he doesn’t have to worry too much now about what people say. Mother says he is a Hero and no one should say a bad word against him. But they still stare at us at Church. When I go to Heaven they can say what they want about me. Sticks and stones and names can’t hurt you there.
From the tree I can Mrs Thomas unpeg sheets folding them into a wicker basket before the night air settles. The smell of Widow Grenville’s apple pie wafting out her back door is torture. And then Mother appears and the real torment begins.
“Lucy, come down out of that tree.”
“Don’t tell me you can’t.”
“The aliens – they’re waiting for me.”
“LUCY, enough of this nonsense. Come down now. Dinner is getting cold.”
I stick my head out of the barricade of blossoms. The motion knocks some free and they drift like winter drizzle around Mother who has her hands riveted to her hips. A few land in her hair and for a moment I can imagine her as the beautiful, young smiling bride in the silver frame on the lounge room mantle piece.
“The aliens sent a special message. Just to me. They said, Lucy Malone, aliens are coming. Stand by.”
“No they didn’t,” says Samuel, coming into sight. “I sent you a message saying Lucy Malone, dinner is ready.”
I refer to my notepad. I write down everything. Samuel transmissions are always full of mistakes, so I’d know the difference between one of his and an important one from aliens.
“You still get ‘d’ and ‘b’ mixed up, Samuel. Why would I get out of the tree for a message about ‘binner’ being ready. You really should do yourself a favour and just tap ‘tea’ instead.”
I’m angry with Samuel because he was given Dad’s collection of straight keys and antique telegram machines. Mother says Samuel will follow in Dad’s footsteps, even though there is talk telephones will soon be more popular and cheaper than telegrams. Next year Samuel’s allowed to leave school and become an apprentice at the Telegraph Office. Mother says Mr Hardy has promised Samuel won’t have to start off delivering telegrams like the other boys. I tell Mother I’m going to get an apprenticeship at the Telegraph Office too just like Dad and Samuel. She says no I won’t and turns her back on me when remind her I’m better at sending code than Samuel.
Dad wrote to me and told me I could do anything I wanted to. Told me he was proud of the progress I was making at learning Morse Code. I’m not going to make sandwiches in Coles and wait to get married, even if Mother says that’s all I can rightly expect as a girl. I don’t want to have her “realistic expectations.”
She comes closer to the tree to hiss her commands through her teeth, that way Widow Grenville wont pop her head over the fence to ask if Mother’s having a bad day with me again. Widow Grenville is my greatest ally. Mother thinks Widow Grenville is a busybody, but Widow Grenville says someone’s got to be my champion now Dad’s gone. She gives me chunks of Edinburgh Rock and tells me my Mother wasn’t always so mean. Widow Grenville says all the goodness and light in Mother went to the grave with my Dad. She shakes her head every time she says that and for a moment I want to ask her all the questions welling up inside me. But never do.
I thrust the note book out of the tree and shake it. “I chose to ignore your message. According to my watch you sent the message about dinner at 18:27 a good hour after the message from the aliens arrived at 17:13. I could not have made the mistake of thinking one was the other.”
“Lucy Louise Malone, you will come down out of that tree or I will tan your backside so hard you won’t sit for a week.”
“But the aliens, Mother. If I’m not here to greet them, it could be a diplomatic disaster of intergalactic proportions. Do you want that sitting on your conscience?”
“Have you been lending her your comic books again?”
“No, Mother. I learn from my mistakes, Mother.”
“This has nothing to do with his comic books.” I hang myself a little further out the tree. “How about you send my dinner up and I’ll have it in the tree. Then you will be happy because I’m eating dinner and I won’t offend the aliens.”
“Get out of the tree NOW!”
The words hit me as hard as if she’d actually slapped me. I fall back into the tree, into the safety of the world behind the pink curtain. The fire is fading in the sky. My stomach growls loudly. A shank of hair falls in my eyes and smells of old man Salvatore’s smoke.
But I’m not going down. A dedicated communication officer remains at his post until the last. The aliens will send me another message. I know they will. They told me to stand by.
When they land they’ll invite me to come on board and live on their planet. And I’ll say yes in a heart beat, knowing the only person who’ll miss me is Widow Grenville. But she’ll understand.
“I’m counting to ten. If you are not down by the time I get to ten, you are going to wish you’d never been born Lucy Malone. One… two.”
I stare at the radio willing to squeak to life.
There’s a squeal and the tones tumble out. Dots and dashes fly from my pencil onto the page.
L-U-C-Y M-A-L-O-N-E (stop)
A-L-I-E-N-S T-H-I-N-K (stop)
S-U-C-K-S T-O B-E Y-O-U (stop)
Authors Note: This story was inspired by [Fiction] Friday Prompt #160: A signal is misinterpreted. Photo by Becx5 via Photobucket.