Jernard Meets The Walters Family by Patricia Gilliam

“When I said I wanted to host a foreign exchange student, I meant from Italy—not Ursa Major.” Carol Walters shut the dishwasher door, and glasses and bowls rattled inside it. “I can’t believe you agreed to this without discussing it with me first! How—”

“I agreed to an introductory meeting—one dinner.” Her husband Myles washed his hands and then held them over the sink as they dripped. Carol sighed and tossed him a hand towel. “The hosting stipend is fifty thousand dollars for three months—renewable up to a year. We could pay off Libby’s law school loans and the rest of our mortgage. I don’t expect a raise anytime soon, and it would be crazy to pass on this.”

“Did you ask why it’s so much? Did the alien eat its last host family—or just their dog?”

“Director Rossetti showed me reports, and you’ve seen the first-contact videos. They could pass for human except—”

“They?”

Myles smiled but took a few steps back. “The agreement is for a family—a couple and their son. With Libby not using her room, it won’t be a big deal.”

“We’ll be outnumbered in our own home, Myles. That’s a big deal.”

“IBI agents will discretely patrol the area.”

“So they’ll hear our screams of terror two seconds sooner than our neighbors?”

“Carol…”

“Look, I’ll go through with the dinner so you can save face with Director Rossetti, but you need to explain that they should find someone else. If you don’t, I will.”

***Two hours later…***

“Hi! It is so great to meet you!” Carol slowly enunciated each syllable as she shook Jernard’s hand. He cringed but forced a smile. “I thought your wife and son were coming, too.”

“We didn’t want to pile in and overwhelm you,” Director Rossett replied before Jernard could answer and then glanced behind them. “Let’s get inside before we talk about anything else.”

“You’re the same guy from twenty years ago, aren’t you?” Myles asked. Jernard gave a reluctant nod and waited for him to shut the door. “Can you understand us now?”

“More than I tend to let on—at least with most people.” Jenard’s English was almost perfect, and both Carol and Myles seemed startled. “We don’t have time to go into everything tonight, but you can talk to me as if I’m human. To be honest, I’ve missed having normal conversations.”

“I’m not sure I understand.” Myles gestured for everyone to move to the dining room but focused on Rossetti. “You said you contacted me because of my anthropology background, but he doesn’t seem to need any help acclimating. Why—”

“I’m not alien enough, Mr. Walters.” Jernard sat at the table and then took out his contacts. Even with limited control over their bioluminescence, his eyes still appeared an unnaturally bright blue. “I’m aware of the term ‘uncanny valley’ in relation to robots and digital figures, and there’s a similar situation with us. I’ve acted human for so long that everything is a habit. When I’ve tried to back off at public meetings, it’s awkward for me and unsettling for everyone else.”

“So, wait—you’re asking me to coach you on how to be a better alien?” Myles laughed and shook his head when Jernard nodded. “Wow…this is crazy.”

“If money is an issue, we can go higher,” Jernard replied, looking annoyed when Rossetti nudged him to keep quiet. “Rhaynan and I won’t run out—trust me.”

“You seem nice—very normal compared to what I was expecting, but we—” Carol started.

“Just wait until you get to know him,” Rossetti replied, which resulted in Jernard elbowing him back. His voice came out strained at first. “Sorry—what were you saying?”

“I can’t do this,” Carol replied. She glanced at Myles and then walked out of the dining room. “I’m so sorry. Feel free to finish eating and talk. I’ll be upstairs, Myles.”

“Was it something we did?” Jernard asked once she was gone. Myles frowned but shook his head. “We can leave. I just thought—”

“It’s not your fault.” Myles stood and pushed his chair to the table. “We lost our son a year ago—car accident. I realize you’re not a kid, and you don’t resemble him. It’s just our daughter moved away earlier this year, and I think we’ve both been trying to deal with it. Wait here and eat. I’ll try to talk to her.”

********

“You all right?” Myles stepped onto the roof carrying a maroon comforter from Libby’s bed. Carol nodded as he sat down beside her. “Clear night tonight.”

They sat in silence for a minute and looked up at the stars.

“If there was no money involved, would you still want to do this?” Her breath fogged the air, and she accepted half of the comforter. Myles moved closer to her, and she laid her head on his shoulder. “I’m not saying they’d be any more trouble than a human family, but this is still a big commitment. I don’t know if we’re clear-headed right now.”

“They need people they can trust,” Myles replied. “Rossetti isn’t saying it, but I don’t believe they have an alternative. I have the qualifications and the security clearance, but I won’t do this without you.”

“Let’s sleep on it, okay?”

“Okay,” he replied, and he held her and kissed her forehead.

********

“Your humans won’t like this…” The Yorkshire terrier wagged its tail and barked until Jernard relented and gave it a piece of turkey. It ate it quickly and then barked again, putting its front paws on his leg. “Come on—that was almost half the size of your head. You can’t be all fur and stomach…and you just peed down my leg. You’re welcome.”

“Could be worse,” Rossetti replied. “The other potential family has a Saint Bernard.”

“This will wash—no problem.” Jernard glanced up at the ceiling. “I just hope the rest of this works out.”

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