BYSTANDING By Jonathan Laidlow


By Jonathan Laidlow


Dave sits on the roof of the old Ford out by the farm gate with a beer. It hasn’t been a working farm for nearly a decade, but the yard and outbuildings were why he bought the place, and they’re filled with the broken-down vehicles he collects and occasionally repairs.

The Ford Cortina, though, is beyond restoration, and with the engine stripped out it’s just a place for the kids to play, or for him to go sit with his thoughts in the night. Hot summer nights like this he’ll sit up on the roof, or lie on the bonnet, fulfilling all those moments of cool that he grew up with in the movies.

There! Another flash up in the sky, somewhere around the middle stars of the Big Dipper. He waits a few seconds and then the light of its bloom is visible. He wonders if this one will fall to Earth, like the one that took out Venice. It’s only the ones fighting in orbit that drop, and only those big enough to survive re-entry that cause tsunami. Everyone thought that it was good if they crashed in the ocean, but they didn’t appreciate the sheer size of the battleships.

He’s waiting for his daughter Carol to show up. She moved out into town when she got the job waitressing at the Italian place, but things have been deteriorating in urban areas of late, and when she rang to see if he was home he knew that she wanted to ask if she could move back. He doesn’t mind at all.

Another flash. Then three more. With the naked eye it’s difficult to tell whether they are orbital or further out. He could be seeing explosions that occurred light-seconds or minutes earlier. Television news reports what the scientists have found, and there’ll be an update on the conflagration on the ten o’clock bulletin. Unless the wrecks collide with the broadcasting studio.

He opens another bottle of beer and sips it slowly. A vehicle passes by the field, then slows, and turns into the lonning that leads to his farm. Its lights are bright and the engine sounds old and powerful, like engines used to, so it’s not Carol. He doesn’t move to see who it is.

The farm is too quiet, really. It will be good if Carol comes home for a bit. It’s too big for him, and the cars and the furniture and the stuff are just getting a bit much to keep on top of. Maybe Carol wants him to move in with her?

That would make sense. He could fix some things up in her apartment – do what dads ought to do – and just get away from everything for a while.

It’s the police. Constable Braithwaite, Bob, as Dave knows him, because they’ve both lived around here forever. Bob is in his uniform, but not his hat or his stab vest. He walks carefully through the clutter to the Cortina and coughs. Then he waits, without speaking. He’s holding a folder in his hand.

Dave slowly swings himself round so that his legs are dangling down. He looks at the police instead of the sky.

“What’s that you’ve got there?” He says.

“The report.” Caitlin. His wife. The city.

“Anything new?”

“I’m sorry, but no.” He knows she is gone. So many pieces have fallen to Earth this last year, so many places and people are just… gone. It’s good of Bob to do this personally, but Dave doesn’t want to talk about Cait, about the debris that came down while she was at the supermarket.

Instead, he says, “Grab a beer. Watch the show. Carol will be here soon.”

Bob nods, and takes one from the cardboard tray, takes the cap off with his bare hands.

Dave lets Bob climb up next to him, slightly uncomfortably because he is still in uniform. What use is the law when pieces of shrapnel from an alien war fall from the sky?

“Have you heard the latest?” Bob asks.

Another burst of light, red this time, and then one of the rare shooting stars.

“Oh! That one is close! That’ll hit home!” Dave says, and Bob doesn’t seem to know how to react. It’s awkward, given the news he is delivering. Dave feels for him. Bodies are vaporized, usually, so identifying the victims is a thankless and pointless task. There’s no body, but it doesn’t mean she’s still out there, selecting cans of beans and soup, boxes of cereal, and bringing them home in the SUV.

They drink companionably. The beer is weak and so he doesn’t feel that drunk. He knows that kids— well—young people the age of his daughter—play drinking games, taking a shot with each flare, a double when there’s a shooting star, but he’s past such things. He likes the easy oblivion that beer brings him, not the harsh morning-after with spirits.

There’s another engine coming up, and this is the tinny purr of his daughter’s banged-up old Mini.

“Carol’s here,” he tells Bob, and they both wait for her to park. The battle above abates for a time, and they just watch the stars like people have done since time immemorial.

Carol bustles up breathlessly. “Dad!” She notices the police and pauses for a second, but her news is too good.

“Dad! They said on the news the translators think the two sides have announced a ceasefire for tomorrow. Isn’t that brilliant?”

It is brilliant, he supposes but will make no difference. No human is involved in this war, there is no capability to intervene, or defend themselves. The fact that they have finally learned to translate the chatter that dominates the radio frequencies is, ultimately, useless. Nobody has yet worked out whether the two factions in this war have even noticed life on Earth.

They could all be snuffed out while shopping, like Caitlin, like Venice, Portland, Moscow and Taipei.

Until then, he supposes, life will continue as normal.

Carol helps herself to a beer and climbs up next to them, clinking bottles first with Bob, then with Dave.

“What did I miss?” She says, and he wants to reply, nothing worth seeing. He swallows it down instead.

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