Christopher had never seen something more magnificent in his entire life.
Even the circus that came last spring with its colourful tents, the tigers in cages and fairies on stilts, could not compare to the portable radio sitting in his hands. It was by pure luck that he had found it after rummaging through his grandad’s boxes in the attic, despite the fact that his mother had looked him sternly in the eyes and said, ‘Stay out of the attic Christopher, there are rats.’
He’d laughed at that. Rats. He wasn’t afraid of rats. He wasn’t afraid of anything.
Until she added that they’d eat straight through his shoes and nibble on his toes.
It had taken him minutes to stop the shiver that kept creeping down his spine.
By this point Christopher had vowed to never enter an attic ever again. Sworn against it, actually. That was, until his cousin, David, had challenged him to a game of truth or dare as soon as his mum was out of earshot. David was a whole year older than Christopher, towering over him by a whopping inch and a half as he munched on one of those fruit snacks his grandmother had cut up.
‘Truth or dare?’ It had gone. Christopher had to wipe off the droplets of spit that had landed on his lip when David spoke.
Only wusses picked truth.
David’s resulting grin was enough to set him on edge. Christopher remembered the last time he saw that grin and flexed his fingers, trying to ward off the phantom pain which had seized hold of his entire left arm. The last time he saw that grin he had ended up in the hospital.
And so, here he was. Disturbing years of dust among the rats which were undoubtedly watching him and his toes as he studied the radio carefully. It was small, just slightly bigger than the size of his hands, and covered in some sort of sticky residue. Scrunching his nose, Christopher wiped his hands along his overalls and began fiddling with some of the knobs. He half expected a gentle buzz to fill the attic like magic, yet the air remained still. Unbroken.
Disappointed, Christopher allowed his gaze to search the room. There were posters everywhere—all of which seemed to curl in on themselves as if the air up here was heavier than usual. Drawings of figures with sunken eyes and long-limbed bodies surrounded him, their eyes as piercing as Jupiter in the night sky. Bright and unfaltering.
The eyes. There was something about them.
They scattered the walls around him. Hiding beyond the posters themselves.
Everywhere Christopher looked he could find them. Between the wooden panels of the attic, the artifacts strewn across the floor, on journal covers which his grandad had long since discarded, and in family portraits.
It wasn’t necessarily the eyes themselves, Christopher thought, that were beautiful. Rather, it was the naked honesty behind their gaze. A strange familiarity. They weren’t bound by human motivation or emotion. It was like nothing he had ever seen before.
It was in that moment that Christopher suddenly recalled the countless conversations he’d had about otherworldly creatures with his grandad. His mum had always been careful about shutting those conversations down when they came up.
‘Dad, not again.’ She would say. Christopher always thought there was something sad floating around in her eyes when she spoke to grandad. He had never understood why – grandad always had the best stories.
But in stolen pockets of time, when mum was gathering groceries, or he was off sick from school and mum had to go to work, grandad would come and feed him stories about the creatures which lived out in space.
‘It’s a vast thing, Christopher, the universe. Do you understand?’ He would say, ‘Bigger than you, bigger than me, bigger than our whole planet, the moon, the stars.’ A strange glaze filled his eyes each time he spoke, his arms flailing about wildly.
Of course, Christopher had been far too young to understand any of this at the time. Bigger than the planet? Impossible, and yet, his grandad would persist. ‘These creatures, Christopher, they are all around us. They play tag between the rings of Saturn and weave in and out of the Milky Way in their spare time. They are beautiful, romantic, even.’ He said, ‘Savage too. They know no mercy.’ His smile disappeared.
Christopher didn’t understand.
‘You see, it is a game, dear boy.’
‘Like snakes and ladders?’
‘No, Christopher. Not like snakes and ladders. It’s far more dangerous than that.’ Christopher rolled his eyes. His grandad said the same thing every single time.
‘It’s like hide and seek.’ His grandad’s eyes sagged with a heaviness Christopher was yet to experience in his lifetime.
‘Every civilisation, every creature, every organism is at war, my dear boy. We are at war for resources we don’t have. Food, space, technology, armies.’ He said, ‘The only chance we have at survival is to hide, to have a bigger army than they do, to be more advanced than they are. To be the strongest. The smartest. The quietest.’
His grandad swallowed. His shirt was stained with sweat, the dark marks mirroring the bags under his eyes.
Christopher had never seen him scared before.
‘I thought it was a game?’ Christopher asked. It didn’t sound very fun; he didn’t want to play anymore.
Hid grandad waved a hand, dismissing him.
‘We are hiding right now Christopher. Right here on Earth. Building our armies and advancing our technologies.’ He said, ‘If their army is bigger than ours? We die. If we make a sound? We die. God forbid, if they find us–’
‘We die.’ Christopher finished the sentence for him.
‘Yes.’ His grandad paused after that, thinking for a while. At the time Christopher had felt the heaviness in the air. It reminded him almost of a funeral.
‘The only hope we have of surviving until the next round is to take what we need, to be ruthless, to be brutal. To be just. Like. Them. It is kill or be killed, dear boy. A game of hide or seek. Do you understand?’ His grandad went quiet. Still.
Christopher shifted, suddenly aware of the attic where he stood. The radio still in his hands. His eyes glued to faded old posters, and the hairs on his arms standing with him– almost in defiance. Most likely with fear.
He shifted his weight back onto one leg and the floorboards creaked loudly. Christopher looked back down at his hands again, he swore the radio was leaking something. His hands were covered in the same sticky residue as before. Turning it over, he examined the back compartments. Maybe a battery exploded? The residue seemed too dark to be battery acid. It was pitch black, like car oil that hadn’t been changed in months.
He stifled the gag sitting at the bottom of his throat. It felt like blood.
Christopher wiped his hands over and over and over until he was completely sure that they were dry again, a slight fire filling the bottom of his chest. He didn’t want to be here in the first place.
There were rats.
This was stupid.
He turned to leave, muttering under his breath about how he was going to tell on David for making him come up here when his eyes caught on an opened journal inside one of the boxes.
It was flecked with what seemed to be the same black residue that coated the back of the radio. He crouched and flicked through some of its pages. It was all in his grandad’s writing. There were pages and pages filled with hundreds of coordinates and radio frequencies, each of which had been carefully crossed out. He kept flicking. Faster and faster. With every page he flipped, he thought he saw those eyes again. They were following him.
He didn’t understand why, but he continued to search, not entirely sure of what he was looking for, until—There. Circled three, four times in bright red ink was a radio frequency.
He picked up the radio, its sludge staining his hands again, and twisted until the dials matched the scrawny writing in the journal.
The hiss of static filled the attic, rushing in like a tidal wave. Rushing and rushing and rushing, the sound filled his ears, his mouth, his throat. Christopher tipped his head back and laughed and laughed and laughed.
He had never heard anything more magnificent in his entire life.
That was, until Christopher was able to make out words between the hiss and splutter of radio static. His heart dropped.
A stain spread across the crotch of his overalls.
‘I can hear you.’
Bianca Stone is a queer, Brisbane-based writer posing as a full-time psych student. She values the impact of connection in everyday life, and often finds ways of incorporating this into her writing through her focus on characterisation.