Standing, his tall frame hunches to peer from behind the only curtain in his bed-sit. Joel occupies number five. There are nine in total, with four opposite, three to the left and one to the right. The two rows are divided by a gravel driveway. Whenever a car enters the cluster of tiny abodes his entire nervous system stands to attention. The arriving car seems excessively loud. Those who can afford cars have them parked outside their flats. Most of the vehicles are in a state of disrepair.
The young man surveys one of his neighbour’s activities. They’re watching him, this he is certain of. The two young guys next door pretend to patch a rusty car door, but really, he knows they’re choosing the most advantageous position from which to observe his flat. They’re monitoring his actions: what time he goes out, whether he takes the car or his pushbike, who, if anyone, visits, what groceries he brings back from down the street. His shopping varies little. Everything is inexpensive, dry biscuits, powdered milk, paper towels, soap and shampoo. He never buys conditioner, that would be frivolous. There are always tinned beans, whatever the variety. Anything that’s non-perishable is on the list.
The watchers have friends working in the supermarket, so he tries to resist the urges of the commercial world by not frequenting stores. However, the shopping centre is only a short walk away, and is always open until midnight. This gives Joel the chance to sneak out with his friend, the night, if he should suddenly crave a four-litre tub of ice cream, choc chip, it must be choc chip.
The kitchenette contains his non-perishable goods. Joel dislikes cooking, so the can opener is all he really needs, except for a spoon. Cold baked beans straight from their no name can are his favourite. Tealeaves are a must have, he likes it black, no sugar and never strains the leaves. With Internet banking and a well-stocked cupboard he can stay put for weeks at a time. Joel figures that he should be out looking for work, but as long as he continues to save up whilst receiving unemployment benefits, then why should he? It’s not as though it costs him a lot to live.
Frank, the older man living on the other side of Joel is in charge of monitoring his telephone conversations and those he has with visitors. There is no commotion from next-door yet, he’s probably still sleeping. Frank listens more intently at night, and can probably hear each individual stroke on the keyboard. It is so noisy, can Frank tell which keys he strikes and in what order? To be safe, Joel taps away wildly for a few minutes every hour or so.
Satisfied that no one is prying too closely this morning, Joel showers, but the feeling that a gaze is still penetrating the bathroom skylight lingers. Accepting that there is no such thing as privacy, he likes to keep his showers brief. As he steps out of the grimy shower, more long hairs entwine themselves in the drain. Many more stick to the once-transparent shower screen. Joel doesn’t clean the shower as it would be a waste of money, and maybe they can’t see through the begrimed glass.
Apart from the shower the compact bathroom contains a tiny hand basin without handwash, another unnecessary expense. A putrid toilet with a stack of paper towels beside it occupy the remaining space. Paper towels have bigger sheets which last longer making them very economical. The toilet is by far the dirtiest object in Joel’s habitat. The bowl has black stains from the water level downwards, perhaps it will obscure any observation from outside, although he’s unsure if their vision can penetrate sewage pipes.
Whilst pulling on a pair of worn out track pants Joel stops to listen. There’s the sound of knocking at his front door, at least, he thinks it’s his. He hesitates, waiting to see which door it is coming from. It echoes through his head as though he had been out drinking most of the night, but he stayed home last night. He only drinks when he goes out because sometimes it hushes their voices.
Checking the curtains once more, Joel realizes that a friend, Saul is standing on the doorstep. Deciding to answer the door, he moves the mattress, sliding it from its position of door-and-window-barrier. Next, he removes his only chair, jammed under the door handle, and finally the piece of wood stuck under the door. Joel can go out when he has to, but he’s very careful of who or what enters his space. His friend Saul, doesn’t seem to be one of the watchers. In fact, Joel suspects Saul has voyeurs too, but doesn’t realize it. Saul would be perfect for them to monitor, he has a solid routine. Trying to explain the dangers to Saul is a near impossible task, the silly boy refuses to have anything to do with the idea that aliens could be watching from their vantage points in the minds of humans, leaving their hosts unaware of the reasons for their actions. Just like the two guys patching the rusty car door. They think that they’ve decided to tackle this job because it needs doing, but they are wrong. They do it so they can watch his behaviour which allows
the aliens in their minds to compile their reports. The same goes for most of the humans who have been taken over by aliens.
Joel had seen them once, in the corner of his room. They were talking about him, his role in their project on Earth, and how well the infiltration and observation process was going. He had yelled at them to shut up. The aliens looked shocked, as he had never uttered anything above a whisper before. Frank had banged on the wall and yelled back, “keep it down, before you wake the dead.” The dead don’t worry Joel. Sometimes they talk about him as if he isn’t there, They can be rude at times. Occasionally he sketches their images. But, they don’t like it. In fact, they tell him that he is no artist.
Paintings cover the walls, boxing in their creator. Despite being on cheap paper which curls at the edges, the images are clear- sunsets, horizons, animals, and buildings. Although the faces of people are distorted. Joel sketches people he knows, but their visages keep changing, and his mind cannot work out which is the real face for each person.
He puts on his sunglasses, even though they won’t protect him from the sun’s brightness. It is far easier for them to see in broad daylight than in the half-light of dusk, the cover of night or through sunglasses.
Joel opens the final barrier between his sanctuary and outside, to greet Saul.
“Hey, Joel, wanna listen to the tune I worked on last night?”
He checks behind Saul, then allows him to enter, locking the door tight behind them.
“I’ve been up all night,” Joel whispers. Saul is used to him speaking so quietly.
Joel’s stayed awake all night as part of the aliens’ experiment. He knows they watch him at night, so sometimes he tricks them by staying up all night and then sleeping the next day away. Its not like he’s trying to anger them, he just wants to make it more interesting for them.
Saul quickly takes in any changes to Joel’s bed-sit. “Nice artwork,” he comments noticing a picture which he thinks looks like a sunset with black shapes. But the aliens know that it’s a painting of Joel’s happiness which has been clouded and blocked by their presence.
Saul plugs his tape recorder into a powerpoint. Joel leans over to check that the volume level is low enough. The music is barely audible, yet Joel is concentrating hard on the music, taking in every note. To him the music sounds louder than it actually is. Speaking louder as Frank’s toilet flushes, “Tune’s good.”
Obviously, Frank is not listening, so Joel feels safe to converse. “I like the melody, Saul. I’ll try to bring my guitar down to your place later to help you work on it.”
Joel would like to be in a band; if only they hadn’t talked him out of it, he could have played bass guitar at weekends with a local band at the pub, Free drinks and a little bit of cash. But, Joel sensed that his keepers were always present at his public performances. As for the money, well, it’s not as if he desperately needed it. His frugal ways and reclusive habits allowed him to save every fortnight.
They observe Joel wherever he goes, even at his parents’ ’place. In fact, one of his parents is on their side, he’s just not sure who it is. The neighbours can see straight into their backyard, noting everything he does, even rolling a cigarette. The neighbours seem familiar, but they aren’t the friendly faces which had watched Joel when he was younger. He hates visiting his parents, but would hate it even more if they visited him.
After Saul leaves, Joel reconstructs his barrier to the outside world, testing its sturdiness with both lean arms. Nothing is strong enough to keep them out, but he tries. His escape plan is, to run into the bathroom, shut the door and lock it [Joel has installed a $5 slide bolt]. Then, stand on the toilet seat to hoist his lanky frame up through the skylight and onto the roof. Having tested this plan, he knows it works, but he’s never had to use it, not yet, anyway.
Joel opens the solitary kitchen cupboard and takes out a box of savoury crackers. His long feminine fingers poke around inside the box before securing two biscuits. He eats one and a half of them prior to crumbling the remaining biscuit half onto the floor. Feeling sorry for the ants around the bin, he ensures that they don’t go hungry.
Ants are great pets, ants come and go as they please and he doesn’t have to worry about them. Joel wonders if his observers find it peculiar that he keeps ants, unconfined ants, as pets rather than a bird, cat or dog. As a child, Joel had owned an ant farm. Birds are out, they chirp things that he prefers not to hear. He hates cats, they harbour secrets. Dogs are better, but they require daily walking. He simply cannot commit to that while he is under surveillance. If his parents got a dog, he might visit them more often. He could play with the dog whilst having a smoke out the back. But it would never happen, not since his parents had found him having an in depth conversation with Barney, their last dog who had died a few months later. Then there was goldfish, but their bulbous eyes make Joel feel uncomfortable. Anyway, he knows he would either over or underfeed them. Especially on days like yesterday, when he can’t remember whether he ate or not.
The telephone, or what was left of it since he’d disassembled it to check if the aliens had interfered with it, rings. It is now a strange contraption that he will never reassemble. The phone’s skeletal form makes it much easier to determine if it has been violated.
The turned down ringtone is barely audible. “Hello?” he whispers, suspicious of who it might be.
“Hi Joel, what are you up to?” It’s a friend, they don’t follow her, well at least not yet.
“Shh, don’t talk too loud.”
“Can I ask why not?” She plays this game every time she calls. She likes to hear what answer he’ll give.
“Next door is up, and he can hear whatever we say.”
“Sorry, didn’t realize the walls were so thin. I’m thinking of heading out soon and thought you might like to join me.”
“Just for a drive, I’ll pick you up. Maybe we’ll get some food while we’re out.”
“Okay, I’ll be ready in a few minutes.”
“Catch you in ten.”
He’d told the other residents that Melanie was his girlfriend. This was something normal that he missed from his past, Joel thought. Rebecca and he were childhood sweethearts, he still longed for her. They had set up house together. He worked selling burgers whilst she studied at university. Marriage was out, neither of them believed in it. But, kids were definitely in.
It had all seemed so definite until, the night he had accused her of unthinkable things: secretly having babies then murdering them, working as a spy instead of going to university. Joel couldn’t blame her for calling the police after he started smashing the possessions that they had taken pride in collecting together. “It’s over, Joel! You’ve been acting strange for months now. At first I thought you were sleeping with one of the girls from work, but it’s something else..” Rebecca couldn’t stop crying. It was around that time that Joel had first seen ‘them’. They always brought trouble with them.
Years later, the words still reverberate inside his head. Joel wishes that he had told Rebecca he loved her. Instead, he’d made vile comments about the girls at work, and screamed so loudly that he couldn’t hear anything the police officers said. As soon as Joel was discharged from hospital he headed straight for Rebecca’s, hoping to patch things up. A strange man, the lover he’d feared, answered the door, it was real. Joel’s mother told him that Rebecca had moved, but he refused to believe that. Rebecca was definitely there, making plans for the future with this guy. He knew she was, people turn on others all the time. ‘You scare me, Joel.’ They were Rebecca’s last words to him as she clung desperately to her father’s arm.
What did he, a pacifist who doesn’t even believe in fly spray, do to cause the woman he loves to yell those words at him? Joel even scares himself sometimes. They must be right; he doesn’t deserve anyone, as he would only end up scaring them away.
Joel prepares to go out into the full brightness of daylight. He wears a cap advertising Rebecca’s former university, sunglasses, black Levi jeans, a singlet, a zip-up jacket commemorating a concert he went to once, and his Reebok runners. Nothing is ironed, just another electrical appliance he can do without, but they are clean, despite being well worn. Joel waits inside for Melanie’s car to pull up in front of his digs. There will be the deafening crunch of tyres on the gravel, followed by the car door banging shut, the cue to dismantle his barricade. She insists on talking to them, the spies, not comprehending the danger. Then he’ll ask her in, just for a second to check if she’s still the same, that they haven’t gotten into her mind, and then it will be ok to leave.
Melanie has seen Joel through some interesting times. Twice she has recommended hospital admissions to his doctor. Often she has felt uncomfortable, but most of the time she simply wonders why society can’t leave him to his own devices. After all, he’s pretty much harmless, well, most of the time.
As she drives to Joel’s unit, she wonders if today will be an ‘alien’ day, a ‘communist’ day or a ‘back to nature’ day. These are his three main obsessions and topics of conversation. One day ‘they’re’ watching, the next he has answers to the world’s political problems, then on another he will not allow her to have an opinion without challenging it and referring her back to nature and the purification of the body and respect for the earth.
Noticing that the curtain is closed, Melanie knows it must be an ‘alien’ day. She says hello to the two young men working on the car. “How long before you’ll get it on the road?”
“Maybe three more weeks, if we can get the funds and the work done,” the large blonde answers.
“Got your license yet?” she asks the smaller, younger man.
“Not yet, a few months to go, but Nick’s got his now.”
They’re a bit rough, Melanie thought, but nice. They always talked to her and if Joel was in hospital, they kept an eye on his place, including his old car. It no longer had a stereo, the speakers and antenna were missing. Joel checked the sound system like he checked the telephone. At least if he’s got to drive anywhere he won’t hear voices from the radio that no one else is privy to.
“Frank, you’re up early.” She greets the man nextdoor to Joel. So many unfortunate people thrown together.
“Couldn’t sleep, got thirsty,” Frank grins over his first can of the day. He’s wearing dirty slacks, joggers and a once-white singlet. How long since he saw a shower, Melanie wonders. She knows he’s prone to alcohol fuelled unruly behaviour and black outs, but Melanie can’t quite convince Joel not to take it personally. Just as his parents can’t be convinced that Joel’s problems aren’t something that they are responsible for. Sometimes Joel would like to move back home, but his parents find him hard to handle. Though Melanie’s job is to see Joel establish himself as an ordinary community member, living independently.
Melanie doubts that she will ever have Joel off her books, unless he moves to somewhere new without telling her. So far, he hasn’t taken off for any longer than a week. Usually he is trying to flee the aliens, and pursue his dream of a ‘normal life.’ Joel continually rejects the things he needs, friendships, community and family.
Melanie stands at Joel’s door, knocks and prepares herself for their fortnightly trip to the gardens and shops. Melanie hopes that
In time, With her assistance Joel will become part of his neighbourhood.
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