Being an aspiring cartoonist living in a small town meant that Martin had lived his entire adult life working jobs that had absolutely nothing to do with cartooning.
He was working at a call centre right now, which seemed to be the default position for people that are trying to figure things out. He had been there for a year and a half, and this was easily his most tenured position.
In the 12 months leading up to the call centre, he had 11 different jobs. He had been a produce clerk, a house painter, a drywaller, a door-to-door salesman, a pool installer, a newspaper packer, a factory worker, a romaine lettuce washer, a wooden lattice maker, a construction site runner, and a donation sorter for the Salvation Army. One day, he acted as a model of sorts, pretending to be a young offender for a photoshoot at a camp for troubled teens. That last job had been the strangest, until today.
Today was his first day as, well, an alien’s tour guide? They had given him a more formal title, but he had forgotten it. A Something-Something Concierge, or something like that. The title didn’t matter right now. All that mattered was that he was sitting next to a smiling alien wearing human skin in a taxicab. His job was to show “Earth’s guest the unfiltered human experience.” Whatever that meant.
Martin smiled at his alien, who he was apparently supposed to call Gideon. Gideon met him with an even bigger smile. Either Gideon was getting used to the intricacies of human facial expression, or he was already all-in on this experience. Alien or not, there was definitely a sense of child-like wonderment behind his eyes, and a dash of innocence that bordered on naivety.
“I am really looking forward to trying racism,” said Gideon.
“Come again?” said Martin.
“Racism. They told me about racism. I want to try it! Being persecuted because of the colour of my skin. Which is something widely out of my control. It sounds amazing!”
Eddie, their black cab driver, raised an eyebrow at them in the rear-view mirror. Martin mouthed “Sorry” to Eddie and tried to get Gideon to lower his voice.
“Shhh. I’m sorry, Gideon. I’m not sure that will be possible.”
“I’m afraid they gave you a white male’s body.”
Gideon’s pigment was as Caucasian as it gets. He was very thin, with long blonde hair, and blue eyes behind wireframe glasses. Martin thought he looked the way that the members of the 90s band Hanson probably looked today.
“And?” asked Gideon.
“Well. White males. They’re the ones who usually do the racism-ing.”
“Oh no,” said Gideon, pinching and pulling on his skin. “How do I change it? I’d like to be black please.”
“I’m afraid you’re stuck with it. Stop that.”
“You can trade with me if you want,” said Eddie, looking into the rear-view mirror again.
“I’m sorry. So sorry, my friend is… different,” Martin told Eddie. He then turned his attention back to Gideon. “Please calm down and keep your voice down. You’re white. I’m sorry. We’ll just have to figure the rest out later.”
“Martin. Are you a white male too?” Gideon asked.
“Yes, I am.”
“Does that mean you do a lot of racism-ing?”
“No! I do not.”
“Ah. I see. You must have a lot of black friends then?”
Martin briefly locked eyes with Eddie in the mirror, who was clearly looking forward to this answer.
“Yes. Yes, I do. Just, none of them live around here… Let’s talk about something else, please.”
Gideon fidgeted in his seat. He pulled on his facial skin a few times. Martin gently grabbed his hand and guided it back down to his lap. Gideon resumed smiling and reached into his pocket to pull out a phone. “Allow me to check my itinerary. They have sent it to me to read on this human smartphone.”
“Just call it an iPhone. Or just a phone. Nobody calls it a human smartphone. And nobody actually calls it a smartphone. Besides cell phone companies.”
“Good feedback,” said Gideon, making large and demonstrative flicks with his entire upper arm to scroll through what he was reading. He mumbled through the text until he found what he was looking for. “Oh. Here it is. It says I will be persecuted because I am Jewish.”
Martin looked at Gideon and shook his head. “Yeah, no. I’m afraid you don’t look Jewish either.”
“Are you sure? Is this not the correct penis?” asked Gideon, opening his sweatpants and staring down at his genitals.
Martin smiled an awkward grin at Eddie in the mirror and then reluctantly peered down Gideon’s pants. “Mmmm. Nope. I’m afraid it’s not.”
“So, I won’t be persecuted because of this penis?”
“No. I dare say you’ll be rewarded for it,” said Martin. He then stared back at Eddie, as if to say, “What?” Eddie returned his eyes to the road, shaking his head.
“It must be my head injury,” said Gideon, making sure both Eddie and Martin heard him.
“What?” asked Martin.
“That’s what you are to tell people,” he whispered back. “As a means of explaining my strange behaviour as I acclimatize. You tell people I am seriously concussed.”
“That. That’s actually pretty good.”
“Yes, I’m told it leads to the lowest number of follow-up questions.”
“Ok, well, let me check to see what we’re supposed to be doing today.” Martin pulled out his own human smartphone and checked his notes. “It says we should start at your house. Wait. You have a house? How do you have a house… I don’t have a house.”
“It’s my host’s house.”
“Right. Human beings renting out their actual bodies out like an Airbnb to aliens. It’s a concept I’m still getting used to. I’m going to be honest with you, Gideon. You’re my first client. I was actually only hired 90 minutes ago.”
“And this is my first trip! Aren’t we a fun pair,” said Gideon, patting Martin’s leg.
Martin scrolled through his notes. “I guess we’ll learn from each other. It says here you signed up for the Premium Pain Package—”
“— Which was supposed to include the racism upgrade.”
“Right. Again we’re sorry about that and I’ll see if we can do something to credit you. So, basically, you are open to all types of pain.”
“Yes! I am very excited to try all of the pain the Earth has to offer. We don’t have it on my planet.”
“You don’t have pain on your planet?”
“No, we do not.”
“So what do you feel when you bang your head on an open cupboard?”
“Oh. We don’t actually have physical bodies. We exist on a plane of existence without physical manifestation. It’s my first time in one of these. How am I doing?”
Gideon made some erratic marionette puppet-like movements.
“Not bad actually,” said Martin.
“Excellent. I had to take a simulator course before I got the body. Or I would have to put down a rather large deposit. Or course, the simulation was only slightly less than the deposit.”
“Yeah, that’s how they get ya.” Martin flipped through his notes some more. “It says I’m supposed to take you to your house, which you share with your girlfriend. It says she pays all of the rent and all of the bills. Ok, I’ve been there. That’s a very unique form of pain right there, you should really enjoy that.”
“It also says that I’m supposed to act like your PSW, who is monitoring you for signs of a concussion after your head injury. Ok. Well, I’m not sure that is something that happens in the real world. But whatever.”
“You will do great, Martin. I have a good feeling about all of this!”
“Thanks, man. You too. Oh, I think we’re here.” The cab stopped in front of a lovely 3-storey Victorian house with a sprawling front deck. It was covered in wholesome Christmas decorations with a well-maintained driveway. “Wow, not too shabby, bud.”
Gideon leaned over to look out the window and put his face uncomfortably close to Martin’s while doing so. “This is nice then? I don’t know earth homes.”
“It is, yes.” Martin checked his phone again. “Oh but you’ve only got the granny suite on the top floor. That makes more sense.”
Gideon opened the car door and slid across Martin’s lap even more uncomfortably to exit the cab. Martin smiled at Eddie, awkwardly.
“He has a concussion,” Martin told Eddie.
“Yeah I heard,” said Eddie, still only speaking into the rear-view mirror. “That’ll be $8.50.”
Martin handed him a 20 and said, “Thanks, keep it.” He stepped out next to Gideon, who was once again making strange faces.
“What is this feeling on my face?” asked Gideon. “It feels like 10,000 tiny daggers!”
“That would be a Canadian winter wind, right off the lake. It’s cold, eh?”
“Agree to disagree. Let’s get you inside.”
Martin carefully looked both ways before allowing Gideon to cross the street with him. Martin was in the lead and walked up the driveway to a narrow shovelled path. Like all walking paths in late December, it was treacherous and seemed to be falling inwards. Martin walked slowly with deliberate steps and motioned for Gideon to do the same.
They came to an icy patch. A leaky garden tap on the side of the house had slowly flooded the path overnight. Martin briefly lost his balance and caught himself. But he still slid down about 8 feet on a gradual slope, muttering “fuck fuck fuck fuck” while he glided.
He turned to warn Gideon about the ice, but it was too late. He saw two feet straight up in the air and Gideon’s human body came crashing down on the ice, then slowly slid to Martin’s feet.
“Magnificent,” groaned Gideon. “I seem to be in so much pain that I am not even certain which part of my body I hurt. Which part did I hurt, Martin?”
“You’ll know by this evening,” said Martin, pulling Gideon back to his feet and dusting the snow off.
“I do not know if I will make it that long. I am joking, but I am also not,” said Gideon.
“You’ll be fine. Just be careful and look for shiny patches on the ground.”
Gideon and Martin slowly made their way to the back of the house. The path led them to a monstrous set of wooden stairs. If you’ve ever rented an apartment on the upper floors of an old home, you probably know these stairs. And you probably hate them.
They were competently built 25 years ago, but the bare 2×4 boards had greyed and they creaked with every step to reveal their age. The steps twisted and turned as they crawled up the back of the house, all the way up to a 3rd storey door to the attic apartment. There were footsteps in the snow on each step, but it looked like the actual stairs had not been shovelled in weeks.
Gideon stared up at the steps. “Are all Earth homes so dangerously situated?” he asked.
“Nope. But there are a lot of these in this neighbourhood. I guess you just got lucky. You ordered the Premium Pain package. And there it is,” said Martin, motioning upwards.
Both men laughed. Martin laughed at the ridiculousness of the situation and Gideon laughed while trying to be a good sport. However, it was clear he was apprehensive about the climb and Martin padded him on the back encouragingly. “It’s Ok, you can do this. Your human host probably does this every day.”
“I hope you are correct.”
“I know this may seem counterintuitive, but try not to walk in the existing footprints. They look icy as hell. Make new footprints with your feet and you will probably have way more traction.”
“Good feedback. Thank you, Martin.”
The two men made their way up the steps. The cold wind seemed to increase as they made their way up each flight. They had the gait and the caution of two exhausted climbers making the final push for the peak of Mount Everest. They each stumbled and grabbed the wobbly handrail a few times, but they made it to the top.
“That was truly, truly awful,” said Gideon, struggling to catch his breath.
“Yup. That’s as bad as it gets.”
They laughed again, taking a second to rest before going inside.
“Martin, I believe I have figured out what part of my body was most injured from my fall.”
“Yeah it can take a minute or two.”
“I think I have pulled something in my lower body. I believe your people call it the asshole. It’s possible I am bleeding from my asshole.”
Martin stopped Gideon from putting his hands down the back of his pants to check. “I’m sure you’re not. It sometimes just feels that way.”
“I have already experienced so much pain, so early in my journey. I believe I could use a brief break. If we could—“
They were interrupted by the front door swinging open. A woman in Goth make-up and a pink bathrobe stood there, staring at them. “Gideon, what the hell are you doing out here? And who the hell is this dink?” she asked.
“You are my mate! Goodness me. I was not prepared for this,” said Gideon.
“Hello there!” Martin yelled, unsure of why he was yelling. “I work for St. Joe’s Hospital. Your boyfriend took a pretty bad spill on the ice. I’m a PSW and I’ve been assigned to watch him for any signs of a concussion for the next 24 hours.”
“Because that is something that actually happens in the real world,” added Gideon, smiling and nodding encouragingly.
“He’s not my boyfriend,” said the woman.
“Am I not?”
She rolled her eyes and opened the door. “Jesus, Gideon. We’re not doing this again. Just shut up and get in here. Both of you dinks.”
Gideon walked in and gave the woman a very mechanical-looking hug. He looked exactly like an alien attempting his first-ever hug. He said, “I need to inspect my injuries. May I use my bathroom?”
“Yes, you friggin’ weirdo. Just go!”
This left Martin alone with the woman. The situation and her apathetically tied bathrobe left him feeling uncomfortable.
“Sorry, I didn’t catch your name?” he offered.
“Stardust,” she replied.
“I see. Family name?”
“Cam girl name. Stardust68. Be sure to like and subscribe,” she said, with a finger gun bang-bang motion and a wink.
“I definitely will,” said Martin, reaching a new level of discomfort. “So. I gather you and Gideon are not quite official yet?”
“Not really. I mean, we live together. But I’m waiting to see how his first album does before we get serious.”
“That Gideon?” said Martin, motioning with his head to the bathroom. “That guy sings?”
“He raps. It’s fire. You should check him out on SoundCloud.”
“I definitely will.”
Gideon burst out of the bathroom. He threw his hands into the air and yelled, “I have thrilling news! I am not bleeding from my asshole!”
“Told ya,” said Martin.
“And why did you tell him?” asked Stardust, raising an eyebrow.
“He fell on the ice.”
“Oh goddamn it. You’ve been telling me you’d shovel those steps for a week, Giddy! Get out there and do it right now, before someone actually rips their shitter. Then, come back in here and show me that massive cock of yours.”
Gideon kept smiling, but turned his head toward Martin and whispered, “I do not care to do any of that.”
“I’m not sure he should be shovelling in his condition,” Martin offered. “Maybe I could shovel and Gideon could supervise me?”
“Whatever. Here,” said Stardust, throwing her car keys at Martin. “Do my car too. But be careful, the windshield is already cracked.”
“I definitely will.”
Martin guided Gideon outside, who was more than happy to leave. They stood on the upper deck, which was really just a little more than a small landing. There was barely enough room for the camping BBQ and the recycling bin, both covered with a frozen layer of snow.
“Martin, I feel I owe you a great debt for this temporary reprieve. I know I signed up for maximum pain. But I fear I need to get my bearings and just breathe for a moment.”
“No problem at all. It’s a lot to take in. I know.”
“Thank you. You are very good at this.”
Martin’s phone buzzed. “Oh, that’s from the agency. There’s been an update to your trip.”
“Yes,” Martin scrolled through the message and winced. “Oh. Oh no.”
“What is it?”
“It, uh, says. It says they’re having technical difficulties. Your stay here will have to be extended for longer than the single scheduled day.”
“I see,” said Gideon, starting to sound concerned. “Extended for how long?”
“One… year. I’m afraid.”
“And how long is that? I don’t know Earth time.”
“I don’t know. A year is a year to me.”
“Well. How long have I been here?”
“Like, half an hour.”
“And how many of those are in a year?”
“I don’t know. About 10,000? No, that seems like too many. But something like that.”
For the first time today, Gideon stopped smiling and yelled, “I am going to be here for 10,000 more half an hours!?”
Martin kept scrolling on his phone to avoid making eye contact. “Maybe not the full year. They’re working on it now. Maybe sooner! But they said to expect… The full year, yes. Sorry.”
Gideon looked light-headed and stumbled backwards. He sat down in the snow-filled recycling bin to ponder everything.
“I hope you take no offence from this statement, Martin. But I came to this place as a tourist. I am not sure I can handle living here. I have already suffered so much.”
“I know it seems like a lot. But I’m sure you can handle it.”
“I suppose I have no choice. I am here now and will have to try to adjust.” He stood up out of the recycling bin. “I suppose I could start by shovelling these stairs. How do I do it?”
“Like this.” Martin picked up the small and cheap yellow shovel, drove it into the snow, and tossed a load over the side of the railing. Gideon tentatively took the shovel and inspected it. He did his best to mime the motion of what Martin did a few times before trying it. Martin nodded approvingly.
After a few more practice attempts, Gideon tried to pick up a load. However, the shovelhead broke as soon as it hit a hard patch of ice and then slowly fell down the stairs, one step at a time until it was out of sight.
“A whole earth year, of this?” said Gideon, staring down the icy steps.