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Human Subjects

After I’d eaten her lamb chops and mashed potatoes and briefly boiled broccoli, I decided it was time to spill the beans.

“Evangeline,” I said. “Everyone is a science project.”

She dabbed delicately at the corners of her mouth with her napkin and then looked up at me with startling blue eyes. Whenever Evangeline looks at me, really looks, I’m split into who knows how many pieces, and I become the particle or the wave in the classic double-slit experiment of quantum mechanics.

I had to glance away or lose my train of thought.

She’d served dinner in the kitchen, which meant either she’d soon pour the wine and ask me to spend the night or she’d hold open the front door and lean in for a peck on the cheek as I left. I wanted to delay her decision. Until she picked one, I was both delighted and disappointed at the same time.

“We all have aliens watching us,” I said, “studying us, poking and stimulating us, running experiments. I have an alien. You have an alien. Everyone on Earth has an alien.”

“Oh, come on,” she said. “All of us? Why so many?”

“Well, consider the size of the universe,” I said, “and consider what good experimental animals we make. We’re in big demand. Actually, there’s a shortage of human subjects, which explains our recent population explosion.”

“And you know all this exactly how?”

Okay. This was the moment of truth. I could tell her and if she believed me, our relationship might move up to the next level. Or I could tell her and she might not believe me and our relationship would move back down a level. Up or down.

Or I could just laugh it off, but I was pretty sure down that road waited a peck on the cheek. I took a deep and dramatic breath.

“I know these facts because my alien wants me to know them,” I said. “Me knowing exactly what’s going on is his project. He tells me how the universe works and then steps back to watch the fireworks. Will I make a hat out of aluminum foil? Will someone throw a butterfly net over me? Maybe I’ll end up in a cave on the outskirts of town eating squirrels. Anything might happen, and my alien likes to watch.”

“Is he watching now?” she asked.

There was something desperate or frightened or maybe pleading in the quiet way she asked that question and then turned her face down to her plate. I got up and took my chair around the table and put it beside her and sat down and took her hands and said, “Yes, he’s right over there by the refrigerator.”

She looked at the refrigerator, and then she looked back at me. “I don’t see him.”

“I think I’m the only one who can see him. Like I said, me seeing him is part of his project. But if you look closely you’ll see the tiny ants that are feeding on the invisible slime that drips from his body.”

“I’ve always had ants,” she said. “Sometimes I think maybe this house is one big ant colony and I’m living inside it.”

“Yes, but these are different,” I said. “My alien’s slime is intoxicating to ants. Look. Look. See how they stumble away in ragged little conga lines?”

“Yes!” she said. “I do see that. Well, aliens would explain a lot of things around here.”

I squeezed her hands. “Not just the ants?”

“No,” she said. “Something else.”

“Tell me.”

“Well, lately,” she said. “I’ve had this unnatural urge to shine my big flashlight out of the kitchen window into the back yard at night.”

“Just shine it?” I asked. “Are you looking for something? Do you sweep the landscape?”

I could feel her trembling a little, and there was a thin line of sweat on her upper lip.

“No,” she said. “I flick it on and off into the darkness. Off and on. On and off. Sometimes I do it for hours. If you weren’t here tonight, I’d be doing it right now.”

“What happens when you do it?” I asked.

She looked away from me again. “I get this delicious tingling feeling all over my body.”

I didn’t know what to say to that. Ours is not to know the science behind the projects our aliens perform on us.

The silence must have gone on too long for her. “Sometimes it lasts for hours,” she said.

“Some kind of reinforcement,” I said.


“Your alien,” I said. “He must be conditioning you to shine your big flashlight out the kitchen window at night.”

“But why?”

“Let’s see if we can figure it out,” I said. “Do you just turn the flashlight on and off randomly and then you get the tingling?”

“Funny,” she said, “that’s the way it worked at first but now I have to be very deliberate in my turning it on and off to get the desired effect.”


“That’s the best way I can put it,” she said. “I turn it on and wait a moment then turn it off and wait and then turn it on again.”

“Those moments are of different lengths?”

“Why, yes,” she said. “It works a lot better if there are long and short periods of light and darkness.”

“Morse code?”

“Hey! Maybe,” she said. “I hadn’t thought of that. I wonder what I’m saying to whatever’s out in the back yard?”

“You don’t know Morse code?”

“No. Of course, I don’t know Morse code. Who knows Morse code these days?”

“As it happens,” I said, “I know Morse code. I did ham radio as a kid.”

“Of course, you did,” she said.

“Look,” I said. “Why don’t I go out in the back yard, and you do your flashlight routine, and I see if I can decode the dots and dashes and then tell you what you’re saying?”

“I’m not sure I want you to see me like that,” she said.

“Like that?”


Was she saying I’d never seen her all tingly before? I chose to think she didn’t mean that. She was talking about her flashlight and her alien and nothing more.

“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “I’ll be outside anyway.”

I let go of her hands and stood up.

A moment later, she got up, too. She put her hands on my shoulders and pulled me in for a quick hug, just a squeeze, really. There was a warm and dizzy smell of anticipation radiating from her.

“Okay.” She turned away and moved toward the refrigerator. My alien stepped aside for her, but that turned out to be unnecessary, because she was actually heading for the big flashlight on the counter between the kitchen sink and the refrigerator. It was the perfect spot for the flashlight if you wanted it to be always within easy reach of the window over the sink.

She grabbed the flashlight and stood at the sink with her back to me. If I expected some kind of sign that we should begin, she was not the one to provide it. She just waited for me to make the next move.

So I moved to the back door and opened it and stepped out on to the porch, or maybe you’d call it a stoop. It was somewhere in between because while it was covered and you could stand there without getting wet in the rain, it wasn’t big enough to lounge around in a lawn chair drinking lemonade.

Evangeline had a generous back yard with a tall wooden fence at the back and five big trees scattered about. Tonight they were hulking shadows, but I already knew they were two apple trees, a pear tree, and a couple of nut trees. I also knew just where the badminton net was, because one night I’d run right into it like a fly into a spider web. A swing made out of a tire hung from one of the nut trees.

I could see the broken trampoline. I remembered when it broke, and Evangeline tumbled off onto the ground and hurt her shoulder. She never did get the trampoline fixed after that. Whenever I mentioned it, she’d say, “And it was such good exercise!” She was permanently spooked when it came to bouncing on a trampoline.

I positioned myself to one side of the trampoline so I would be directly in front of the kitchen window, not so close I’d be blinded by Evangeline’s light, but not so far she couldn’t hear me if I had things to shout to her.

And there she was peering through the window. I was pretty sure she couldn’t see me, but I waved anyway. She just kept peering.

“Go ahead,” I shouted. “I’m ready.”

She pulled back and then a moment later appeared again with the flashlight. Nothing else happened for a long time. She just stood there pointing the flashlight out at me. I thought maybe she’d forgotten what we were up to, and I was about to shout again when she made her first flash. Just one flash and then nothing. I had no way of knowing if that first one was a dot or a dash until I had others for comparison.

A few moments passed and then there was a series of flashes.

Short short short long.

Dot dot dot dash.

The letter V?

Would she spell my name?

No. She sent the same series again, but this time aimed a little to the left. Short short short long. Then she did it again only aimed a little to the right, and it hit me she was doing the opening notes of Beethoven’s fifth symphony.

Ba ba ba Boom!

The oddly named “Fate motive.”

She grabbed the theme and ran with it, and I got lost. I couldn’t tell if she was sending letters or just playing the music. Horn calls and modulating bridges. A musical statement of purpose I could not interpret. The flashlight beam played all over the back yard in a frenzy pulling the trees and swing and oh look a birdbath in the rock garden from the darkness and then abandoning them. The trampoline. The badminton net with birds (surely not real birds) stuck into it like notes on a staff.

C minor wrestled with C major until one of them came out on top victorious.

It was glorious.

The flashlight flickered out and there was a deep quiet in the darkness.

Then she directed the beam at my face and began sending slowly, as if she were making an extreme effort to communicate with someone who could not keep up with her.

“Evangeline doesn’t realize I’m talking to you,” she signaled.

It was true she didn’t even seem to be paying attention to what was happening out the window. Her eyes were closed and she was swaying slowly from side to side. There was a dreamy smile on her face.

“Who are you?” I shouted.

“Evangeline’s alien, of course,” she signaled.

But why would Evangeline’s alien be talking to me? Did this mean my alien was collaborating? Was there some kind of joint experiment going on with Evangeline and me?

“What do you want?” I shouted.

“I want to know you,” Evangeline’s alien signaled. “I want you to come clean with me, tell me who you are, spill your guts, tell me what you’re feeling.”

“I feel watched,” I shouted. “Everything I do is being recorded by aliens!”

“No,” she signaled. “How do you feel about Evangeline?”

Hey, wait a minute!

I took a few steps closer to get a better look at her. But it was easy to see she was somewhere else. Besides which it was too much to believe that Evangeline had learned Morse code for this occasion. How would she know the evening would progress to this point? No, I knew I could be mistaken, but I was pretty sure I really was talking to her alien. Or at least some alien. I suddenly suspected this could all be a trick of my own alien.

“How would I know how I feel about her?” This question was designed to confuse my alien. I hoped he was flipping through his notes trying to figure out if humans are supposed to be able to know how they feel about one another.

In point of fact, however, maybe I didn’t know how I felt. No, that wasn’t quite right. I did know how I felt, but I couldn’t put it into words.

“Come on,” Evangeline’s alien signaled. “Quit stalling. Cough it up. Step up to the plate. Blurt it out!”

“This is too much pressure!” I shouted.

“Oh, never mind,” she signaled.

The flashlight went dead.

It suddenly hit me that whatever was going on here might have nothing to do with the aliens and their worldwide science projects. I saw clearly that this could be the most important turning point in my life.

“Wait!” I shouted. “I’m crazy about her! She’s a symphony, all lightening and thunder and wind, but then she’s warm rain and flowers blooming and birds singing! I can’t go more than a few minutes without thinking about her, and I can’t stop smiling while I’m thinking about her, but then I feel afraid that she’ll suddenly snap out of it and come to her senses and realize she doesn’t even like me. I’m afraid she’ll tell me to just go away.”

The flashlight came on again.

Ba ba ba boom!

“Okay,” she signaled. “You can come back in.”

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