Chapter 3

Jon drifted through his house, hardly recognizing the place. He’d had it built in a human style both to blend in better with his new community, and to enhance his experience of Earth culture. Perhaps in time it would come to feel like a home to him, but tonight it only felt artificial and foreign. Strange humans sprawled on his new sofas and beanbag chairs, their conversations dropping to whispers as he passed. Alien music thumped at him from the back yard, where more strangers filled his soaking pool and spilled across the lawn that stretched toward the tree line and the small lake beyond. Tomin was out there dancing with a pack of human women who were clearly fascinated by his forearm fins. Chance leaned against the refrigerator with a rapt expression on his face, listening as Rachel enthusiastically explained the various items of unfamiliar food that filled the platters and bowls covering the kitchen counters. A knot of human men picked over more food in the dining room, arguing energetically about some kind of sporting event. Jon felt like an intruder in his own house.

On the front porch, the music was more muted, but Jon was glad for the acres of forest and fields that separated his house from those of his neighbors. Except for Hanna. Did Hanna resent him for erecting his new house across from her little patch of dead-end road? He had chosen the site partly for its privacy, without thinking how he would be intruding on the privacy of his new neighbor. He remembered her face as she hesitated on his porch, brown eyes wide and startled, cheeks flushed most becomingly. She was small, even for a human, with pale skin kissed only slightly golden by the sun, and ash brown hair that escaped in wisps from a braid that fell to the middle of her back. She was afraid of him, but that was only to be expected. And she had smiled at him anyway—a brave, defiant smile.

He’d liked that smile. He’d liked her smile at lunch even better.

He lowered himself to the top step and sat staring out into the night. It was full summer at this latitude but compared to the humid swelter of his last duty station, the air here felt dry and chill, and Jon was glad he’d put on a jacket.

The tiny white cottage across the street was dark except for a dim, flickering light in the front window.

He heard the door behind him open and close, and Tiffany plopped down next to him on the step. “Chance said he thought he saw you go out here,” she said. “Look, Jon, I’m sorry if we went overboard. If it helps, everyone is having a great time. And Rachel hired a cleaning service to come in the morning.”

Jon attempted a reassuring expression. “Not at all, Tiffany. I am grateful for your assistance. Tomin was right about this creating a friendly relationship with our new community. It is only that I find this sort of gathering somewhat . . . overwhelming. I hope I have not offended you.”

Tiffany laughed merrily, “You sound just like Hanna. She’s not a party person either. Look at her over there—best party of the year, and she’s sitting on her couch, alone, watching sappy movies.”

Jon’s brows rose. “Does she not have a date?” His gaze shifted back to Hanna’s house.

Tiffany was silent, and Jon watched from the corner of his eye as she studied his face intently. After a moment, she leaned closer. “I’ll let you in on a secret,” she said in a half-laughing stage whisper. “A date with Mr. Bickles is code for sitting at home alone watching sappy movies. It’s what she says when she wants to get out of doing something without offending anyone.”

Jon studied the house across the street. “An interesting strategy.”

“She’s an interesting person,” Tiffany said, her voice more subdued. “Please don’t be angry with her for avoiding your party. It really is nothing personal; she just needs to be alone sometimes.” She paused, and again Jon felt her scrutiny. He turned to look more directly at her, and she met his eyes for a moment before turning away, brow furrowed slightly, lips compressed. All laughter was gone when she spoke again.

“Listen, Jon.” She hesitated again, looking sideways at him. “Since it seems like we’re all going to be friends, I’m going to tell you another secret about Hanna. But this one is serious, and you can’t tell her I told you.”

“Then perhaps it would be better not to tell me.”

Tiffany chewed her lower lip and studied his face again. “I think maybe you should know. At least, someone in this house should know, and you seem like a man who can keep a confidence.”

He frowned.

Tiffany swatted at a small flying insect that landed on her arm and brushed its tiny corpse off into the night. She’d managed to hit it, even without finger webbing. “Aren’t these mosquitoes bothering you?” she asked.

Jon shrugged. “Perhaps they do not like Talessanin blood.”

“Lucky you!” She was thoughtful again for a minute, her face solemn. “I’ve known Hanna since second grade,” she said finally, “and she’s amazing. She made that cake herself, you know, from scratch.”

“Scratch?” his brow furrowed.

“Sorry,” she said. “That’s not really the point. The point is, she’s my friend, and I don’t want her to get hurt.”

“Tiffany,” Jon said solemnly, “No one in this house would ever hurt Hanna.”

“Of course not!” Tiffany exclaimed. “At least, not on purpose. But the thing is . . . well, as I said, Hanna and I grew up together. When we were little we had the most amazing adventures, always getting into one kind of trouble or another. And Hanna always thought it up; she was fearless. But . . . something happened to her when we were in high school. She never talks about it, and I’m not really even sure what it was, except that it was bad. Really bad. She quit coming to school and stayed in the house all the time. She had terrible nightmares. She actually tried to kill herself once.” She shivered, remembering. “Her parents sent her to a residential treatment place for a while, and she came back a few months later with . . . well, with Mr. Bickles. She’s been a lot better ever since.”

Jon frowned, confused. “A moment. I thought you said Mr. Bickles was a fabrication.”

Tiffany shrugged. “Mr. Bickles is a big pink teddy bear. He’s probably watching the movie with her.”

Jon’s frown deepened. “Tiffany,” he said carefully, “I like to think my English is adequate, but occasionally a word I hear does not quite make sense to me. I have been given to understand that a teddy bear is a child’s comfort toy. Is there another meaning with which I am not familiar?”

Tiffany studied the house across the street. “Nope. You heard me right. Mr. Bickles is a large, pink, plush bear, like you might give a four year-old for her birthday. Some kind of therapy thing, I guess. I don’t really understand it, but he makes her feel safe.” She was quiet again while Jon processed this. Then she continued. “This is actually the third Mr. Bickles. She replaces him every few years when his eyes start falling off and he has too many holes. The first one was purple and named Fred.”

“I see,” Jon said, musing.

“Anyway,” Tiffany went on, “Hanna’s a little strange sometimes, but there’s a reason for it, and she’s really coping very well under the circumstances. But Jon,” she turned to look at him, her face deeply earnest, “whatever happened to Hanna, it left her terrified of men.” She let that sink in for a moment. “And what we have here, Jon, is a house full of men—intimidating alien men—moving in across the street from her home at the end of a dead-end road outside of town, where she lives all by herself except for Mr. Bickles.”

She looked sideways at him and shrugged one apologetic shoulder. Then she sighed heavily. “I’m only telling you this so you and your friends will give her some space. She hid it well at lunch today, but you make her very nervous. Please don’t tell anyone else what I’ve told you. It’s really none of my business, but she’s my friend, and I don’t want to see her hurt. Just, if you could maybe keep an eye out for her, and don’t let your friends get too . . .” She paused, searching for the right word.

“Enthusiastic?” Jon suggested.

“Exactly.” Tiffany sounded relieved.

Jon frowned, looking over at the cottage again. “I believe I understand. I am glad you told me. I will respect your confidence.”

“Thanks, Jon.” Tiffany smiled at him. “I thought you seemed like the kind of guy who’d get it. Why don’t you come back inside and eat some of that food you’re paying for?”

Jon groaned softly. “I mean no offense, Tiffany, and I am sure your friends are all very nice people. But I think I would prefer to watch a sappy movie with Mr. Bickles.”

Tiffany laughed. “No offense taken. Some of my favorite people would rather hang out with Mr. Bickles than go to my parties.” She studied his face again soberly, hesitating before she added, “She might let you, you know, if you’re serious about that.”

“What do you mean?”

“She might let you watch the movie with her, if you asked nicely and behaved yourself.”

His brow furrowed. “Would it not frighten her for me to arrive at night, unannounced?”

“You do understand!” She beamed at him. “Yes, it probably would frighten her a bit. But sometimes she does this thing where she intentionally walks right into things that scare her, just to prove to herself that she can handle it. She already brought you a cake and went to lunch with you today. She might be willing to let you sit on her couch and watch movies for a bit.” She held up a dainty, warning finger. “Just don’t make any trouble.”

“I never make trouble,” Jon said, with mock indignation.

Tiffany giggled. “That’s not what Tomin says.” She stood to go.

“Thank you, Tiffany,” he murmured. “You are a good friend.”

Tiffany hesitated, looking down at him, her pretty mouth pressed into a slight frown. “Don’t hurt her, Jon.” Then her mouth shifted into its habitual coquettish grin. “And if you do go over there, watch out for Mr. Bickles. Hanna is the nicest person you’ll ever meet, but there’s more to that bear than meets the eye.” She winked at him and went back inside.

Across the street, a light came on in the front room.