I was born on Earth, I was seven when we left. I remembered playing in the dirt under the backyard canopy of trees. I remembered waiting in line to sit on Santa’s lap and being afraid of the crowds. I remembered cars, the lunch lady, and hitting a blooper over the shortstop’s head and booking it for first. I remembered crying when my parents sat me down and told me that we’d be going on a very long trip to a very strange planet and I wouldn’t see any of my friends again for a very long time.
My sister was born on the Polixaci liner. Elle was still a baby when we reached Friktik. Where I had trouble adjusting, she flourished. As a toddler she was less afraid of being picked up by a Frik than I had been of Santa. Friktik is a major trade hub, and there must have been two dozen different species living in the city. Elle could name them all before she was six. By the time she was eight she was leading us around the labyrinthine alien city without an e-map. The Frik are crazy good at maths, and they teach them well, so Elle is crazy good at maths too.
Her effortless assimilation wasn’t without it’s drawbacks, even then. When she was little she almost poisoned herself to death by taking a huge bite of the green paste her Chul nanny ate. Later, she came home one day from school and asked mom what caste we were and why Daddy worked also. That set off a whole discussion about whether it was a good idea for her to be raised on an alien world.
I remember wondering why that hadn’t occurred to them before then: it’s not like it had been easy for me. The sense of adventure had worn off in a couple weeks. We were on Friktik ten years.
There were no more than fifty humans on the entire planet, and so I had few or no friends, and spent most of my time shut in my room, watching whatever selection of human media had come in on the latest Polixaci liner. I spent all my allowance on them. Sometimes they weren’t even in English: Bollywood movies with no subtitles, Chinese sportscasts, German soap operas. It didn’t matter. Just seeing people do human things, in a human environment, was a lifeline to my own culture.
When we finally returned to Earth, I was eighteen. I had money of my own by then (for five years I’d been writing a column about life offworld for an online teen magazine) and I didn’t bother unpacking at my parent’s house. I got a place of my own and set about re-immersing myself in New York life. The magazine wanted a column about that, too, so I was pretty well set.
I threw myself back into humanity. I went to rock clubs, museums, tried new foods, traveled. I met a nice girl while watching the running of the bulls, and she followed me when I went diving on the Great Barrier Reef and gave me, at nineteen years old, my first kiss. I wrote columns about all of it, and they were fairly popular. I never wrote about my sister.
Elle hit a wall. Earth was alien to her. She was almost run over and killed twice because she didn’t understand how traffic works. The second time I think really scared her, because the car actually hit the bag she was carrying, and the force of the impact spun her around and back onto the sidewalk into my mother.
Children her age seemed especially strange. They couldn’t keep up with her hobbies, most of which were math games, and their own pursuits seemed shockingly juvenile. “They’re so stupid,” she would say. Meanwhile, she was put in a remedial English class: she was reading at a level two years behind her age. But she was fluent in a thoroughly alien clicking and hissing language that no one on Earth spoke. To this day, when she’s red faced, steam out her ears angry, she swears in Friktish.
Adults found her creepy, and were visibly uncomfortable around her. I shouldn’t need to tell you the effect that has on a child.
My parents decided to home school her, as if they hadn’t done enough damage. They had money, though, and could afford tutors and psychologists, so that helped. It took years, but Elle can function in human society now. She earned her GED at sixteen, and also went to work at the U.N., albeit in a different Bureau than our parents.
Elle came to our wedding, mine and Anne’s. I don’t think she really got it, what was happening, the ritual part of it. And I think she stayed at the reception for maybe fifteen minutes. But she’s really warmed up to Anne, who is the only person who can really get a straight answer out of her about anything.
I see Elle once a week. My wife and I take food over to her apartment and visit. Other than that, she doesn’t really socialize. Anne is convinced that Elle is having a torrid affair, though she doesn’t know who with. Apparently Elle won’t say one way or another. I have no idea what Anne’s talking about, but women have a sense about these things. The only person Elle talks to on a regular basis that I know of is the Chinese food delivery guy. Though, he’s there four or five times a week so I guess it could be him. I suppose it could be someone we’ve never met, for that matter. If it’s really happening at all.
There’s no television or computer in her apartment. There are usually dozens of library books, mostly about math, most overdue. She saves all her money. She says she’s going to buy a ticket on a Polixaci liner as soon as she can afford it, and “go back home.”