I trudged up the sidewalk with the sort of heady determination that I’ve rarely felt. Here I am on an alien planet at last! The dream of my science-fiction reading youth has finally been fulfilled. It’s only my second day in Thorgelfayne; in fact, my second full day on the planet Homeland, but I am not about to let a single opportunity slip by. Today is an ordinary workday; Melissa and Harshan are both at work, Darryl is at school and I have the entire day to myself. There is no way I am going to spend it cooped up in that apartment!
So I decided to head out for a short walk and see the city of Hapdorn—or at least the small portion of it that lay in the immediate neighborhood. I resolved to keep it simple, so that I wouldn’t get lost. I was just going to walk around the block, a route I was familiar with from one of Melissa’s letters.
My enthusiasm was fueled by the full return of all my memories the previous day. Now, everything seemed right again. I clearly recall the moment, three years ago, when the Homelander physician visited my house to treat Bobo’s broken leg. At my insistence, he checked me over too, and told me the sad news that space travel wasn’t in the cards for a ‘star-bound’ person like me. I would suffer a transient memory loss, and there was an insignificant but intolerable chance that the loss would be permanent. Viewed in the proper perspective—it isn’t every day you get a chance at an interstellar vacation—I didn’t think the risk was worth sacrificing the opportunity. It took three years of arguing to do it, but I finally convinced the overly cautious Homelanders to let me travel.
What a glorious day! I thought, as I breathed in deeply. The air was fragrant and the neighborhood was very tidy. It looked like the inside of a shopping mall on opening day, not a thing looked out of place! I walked along a tree-lined, urban street; I was disappointed that nothing looked particularly out of the ordinary aside from the strange writing on all the signs. I marched up the sidewalk in time to an unheard Sousa march. At this pace, I’d wear myself out in a half hour or so, but how could I resist? There was so much to see!
As I walked by, a small child reached out and pointed at me, but her mother pulled her arm down and scolded her. I couldn’t understand a word she said, but I could imagine a motherly lecture about how rude it is to point at people. I passed by the mailboxes for an apartment building, and stopped to look at the nametags on each one. I couldn’t read them, of course, but I could admire the lovely, flowing script in which Thorgelfaynese is written. As I continued my walk, I realized that this was a first for me: as a linguist, I have never been in a foreign country where I couldn’t at least puzzle out the signs if not speak the language to some degree. It was quite a novelty, and I enjoyed it.
At the end of the block was a traffic light intersection, and across the road was, if I’ve deduced it correctly, Thorgel Park. This is the same park in which John Anderson became the first non-Homelander to be mugged by a hugmup! I waited at the crosswalk, impatient for the light to change. While I was standing there, a group of pedestrians gathered at the curb with me. I had the distinct impression that some people behind me were talking about me, but when I turned around to see, there was nothing there but friendly faces. Finally, the red standing man icon changed to a blue walking man, so that we could cross the street. Although all native Thorgelfaynese are black, there were a number of other white people crossing the street. From that I gathered we must be near one of the universities, an area of town where there would be a lot of foreigners. And aliens! I thought giddily, but of course today I am the alien from outer space, these other people belong here.
I walked across the cool grass to a park bench, and sat for a while. Is this where John sat on that fateful night? I have a good view of the buildings on the other side of the street. The one on the end was evidently a bank, maybe it is the Mountain Home Bank; I don’t know, I couldn’t read the sign. Next to that was a shoe store, a women’s clothing store, a lunch counter, and some sort of office building. When John described this street, he was sitting here at nearly thirty-two o’clock on a rainy night. But today is bright and sunny, it is closer to noon than to midnight, and the streets are full of bustling, orderly traffic.
I got up from the park bench and decided to stroll through the park. What a panorama of delights spread out before me as I walked! There were older people reading on park benches; there were wading pools filled with happy, splashing children; there were groups of people debating furiously on topics that would remain forever a secret from me. Here and there someone pointed me out, usually a small child, and received a reprimand from a companion or a parent.
As you can imagine, I became quite uncomfortable after a while, and at first I thought that meant that I would have to cut my walk short and return to the apartment; however I soon discovered the public restrooms in the park. They were in a short, white building in front of a clump of huge trees. Though I couldn’t read the signs, the purpose of the building was obvious: there were only two entrances, and men and women used different ones. Having thus refreshed myself, I decided to retrace my steps and walk through the city for a while, but I immediately realized that I had a problem: there were three pathways through the woods, and I couldn’t tell them apart! So I took my best guess and forged ahead.
It wasn’t long before I discovered that it was the wrong path. I came to a little pond, which I had not seen on my way into the park. Young people were sailing model boats on it, and tourists were taking each other’s pictures in front of a small statue nearby. No problem, I thought, I’ll just head on back to the public restrooms and try another path; but that didn’t work. I couldn’t find the restrooms again! After several unsuccessful tries, I decided to pick a path at random and follow it out of the park. Then, I theorized, I could just walk around the perimeter of the park until I saw a familiar intersection. It was a good theory, and I suppose it would have eventually worked, but Thorgel Park is quite large. It was nearly dusk. Even though Melissa and Harshan live only one block away from the park, I couldn’t find their street. At every intersection, I look for a bank next to a women’s clothing store and a lunch counter, but in vain.
It was getting dark. I was exhausted. My legs were aching, and my feet hurt. I needed a restroom, and to add to my discomfort, I was horribly thirsty. I despaired that I would ever find my way again and imagined every sort of untimely end for myself. On top of all that, people kept pointing at me, and I couldn’t figure out why. Did my clothes look funny? Was I doing something rude? I cursed myself for thinking I could take a walk without serious consequence. I’ve been lost in cities in my own country, where people speak my language; whatever caused me to delude myself that I could stroll through Hapdorn without getting lost?
I crossed the street to walk along the other side of the street for a change. There was a small clump of people ahead, staring into a store window. At this point, the last thing I wanted to do was mingle with people: I couldn’t understand anything anyone said, and besides that they might point at me again. I overcame my feelings to poke my head through the crowd to see what was going on: it was a television store. There was an announcer on television making what appeared to be some sort of special announcement. I pressed my way through the crowd to see what they were looking at, but I was disappointed to find that it was just an announcer, reading from a sheet of paper. From that, and from the faces on the people, I realized that it really was some sort of special announcement. By this time, the sound of Thorgelfaynese was beginning to get on my nerves: how foolish it was to wander around in a country whose language I do not speak! I couldn’t make up my mind: should I walk further, or should I turn back? Maybe I walked past the intersection without realizing it. About two streets ago I saw a bank. I turned and faced the other direction, not knowing what to do. No, I thought, it wasn’t the right bank. The bank I wanted had a reddish stone exterior, and the one I just passed was silver and white.
I started to leave when I heard something familiar. It sounded almost as if the announcer had said my name! No, that can’t be true, I thought, it’s just a coincidence. My frustration and my fervent wish that I would suddenly find myself back at Melissa’s apartment must have worked together to conjure it up in my mind. I started to press my way out of the crowd, when suddenly a very tall man grabbed me and hugged me!
“Ah!” he said as if making a great discovery, “Lask-do Kenneθa Collinssa!”
I was frankly too tired to be astonished at this. I mustered up what little Thorgelfaynese I knew. “Laskeo,” I affirmed wearily. Then he and several other people hugged me so tightly and jubilantly that I was nearly asphyxiated. He shouted out to the rest of the crowd, and since in his tight embrace he had my ear pressed against his chest, his voice was overly loud and indistinct. Then he and several of his friends persuaded me through elaborate gestures to get into a nearby automobile.
Memories of childhood admonitions against getting into strangers’ cars flooded my mind, and I my face felt hot with guilt. I am an adult now, I reminded myself, I am hopelessly turned around not just in a foreign country where I don’t speak the language, but on an alien planet twelve light-years from home. I have nowhere to go, nothing to eat; what could I lose? So I squeezing myself into the back seat, between two giggling women.
We seemed to drive endlessly in circles through the city, in fact, I even began to get a little car sick, but that was probably my apprehension working overtime. A light rain began to fall, which made it even more difficult for me to see out the windows; as if I would have recognized anything. My abductors chattered happily among themselves, and tried to communicate with me as one does with a small child: with loud, slow words and gestures, but of course it didn’t work. Panic built up within me, but my fatigue overcame it and smothered it like a heavy blanket. I had already played through every so many panicky scenarios that I became indifferent to my fate.
Just as I gave up hope, I thought I recognized the neighborhood. I sat up straight in the back seat and studied the passing scenery. Even in the rain I could recognize the small bank I walked past this morning! Hope stirred within me, maybe everything will turn out fine! A few seconds later the car stopped, and we all disembarked in front of the building where Melissa and Harshan live!
There was a happy tumult as everyone got out of the car, lots of excited conversation and despite the weather many hugs. Before long, I was inside, safe, sound, dry, and very relieved that my adventure was over.
“I’m so glad to be back,” I told Harshan, as I put my feet up on the hassock. “And I promise you that I won’t be going on any more unsupervised excursions.”
“I’m very glad to hear that,” he smiled, “You’re very lucky that you were found so quickly. You might have had to spend the night in the park!”
I thought that over for a moment. Although from a human point of view, Hapdorn has absolutely no crime rate all, sleeping on a park bench in the rain wouldn’t be much fun. “One thing puzzles me,” I asked slowly, “How did those people know who I was?”
Harshan chuckled to himself. “There was a bulletin on television,” he said, “practically everyone in town must have been looking for you.”
“Well yes, I know that,” I protested, “but that still doesn’t explain it. I don’t look any different from any other Homelander that’s white. For all they knew, I could have been a foreigner from Fjarn or Halakan. Anyway, I saw the news bulletin. They didn’t even show a picture!”
“That’s true,” he conceded, “We didn’t have a picture to give them. Yet your description is quite distinctive. We knew there wouldn’t be any problem with people recognizing you, even without it.”
“I still don’t get it,” I said. “There’s nothing unusual at all about my appearance.”
“Yes there is,” Harshan laughed, “Not unusual for a human, of course, but very unusual for a Homelander.” I gave him a puzzled look while he paused. “We just told them to look for a handicapped man wearing an optical prosthetic device.”
I took the glasses off my nose and stared at them. “Of course,” I whispered. “I’m the only person on the entire planet that wears glasses!” So that’s why all the pointing today!