Lots of my friends went swimming in whiskey after the election, and I may have taken a quick dip myself. Some of them were still swimming — going for distance, I guess. But deadening the pain like that didn’t help me cope very well. I rediscovered hiking, going out to see with my own eyes the kind of happy little trees and mountains that Bob Ross used to paint on public television. His landscapes had always been so remarkably free of fascists, and I found that Rocky Mountain National Park was the same.
It was not, I discovered, free of lost children. Five miles away from any trailhead or shuttle stop, high up in the peaks, a young girl examined a carefully picked dandelion in the puffball stage. The park isn’t a meat-grinding abattoir like, say, a Los Angeles freeway during rush hour, or the unavoidable Thanksgiving dinner with my racist in-laws, but neither is it completely safe for kids to wander around in all alone.
Dressed in jeans and a pink button-up shirt hanging loose, and barefoot, I estimated her age to be only eight or so. Her dark hair blew idly in a summer breeze announced by the whispery crackle of aspen leaves, framing a heart-shaped face and skin that might be Mediterranean or a sign of mixed heritage. She beheld the puffball with a pair of large eyes, deep limpid pools of the sort you might see in anime. She heard my boots crunch around the bend in the trail, looked up, and gave a tiny smirk when she saw me stop in confusion.
Instead of saying hello or asking for help, she tried to reassure me. “Don’t worry, Mister, I won’t eat you,” she said. “I’m not hungry right now.”
It took me a few beats to respond. That’s not a normal greeting to a stranger.
“Are you lost?”
“No. This is Earth, right?”
A fully-developed sense of sarcasm already. “Where are your parents?”
She laughed. “Ha ha! You’re funny.”
“No, seriously, where are they?”
“They’re waiting. They’ll pick me up when I’m ready.”
“Oh. So they’re close by, I hope?”
The girl shrugged. “Depends on what you mean by close. May I ask you a question?”
She grinned at me, teeth unusually pointed, I thought, and tossed the puffball over her shoulder before clapping her hands together. “Excellent. This planet appears to be suffering massive extinctions, especially through the acidification of the oceans. Would you say it’s because of cyclical natural forces or because of climate change spurred by the short-sighted behavior of your species?”
“My species…? What?”
“Did I not speak clearly? I merely ask because I haven’t the time to conduct long-term studies. Our decision-making process would be helped by knowing the answer.”
“You spoke clearly, just… not like a child.”
She squinted at me. “That’s because I’m an adult. Oh, I see! My voice and appearance prevents you from taking me seriously and that’s why you asked about my parents. I chose it to be nonthreatening but perhaps I miscalculated. How old do I appear to be to you, Mister?”
“Eight or nine, I guess. How old are you?”
“Forty of your years in subjective time. But I was born centuries ago. Relativistic travel, you know.” She smiled at me with those too-sharp teeth.
I started to back away and her face fell.
“Hey, where are you going, Mister? Help me out, here. I promised I wouldn’t eat you, remember?”
“I, uh… thanks for that. Really kind of you. But I should probably get back.”
“Oh, you have schedule to keep! I understand that completely. But will you answer my question about species extinction? Is it a cyclical phase or your fault?”
“Scientists say it’s our fault.”
“Ah! Interesting. My brother met someone who said it’s natural and self-correcting even though the data doesn’t seem to support such a conclusion.”
“Well, some people are stupid.”
She laughed again, genuine, high-pitched girlish peals bubbling out of her that would have been delightful to hear were she not so clearly something other than a girl.
“Seems like most of you are if you let things get to this point. You’re doomed to a corrective die-off. But there should still be plenty of you left to eat when we come back, and then we can set up a breeding program for you and probably solve most of the climate problems with carbon traps. It’s a beautiful planet and worth cleaning up. Really the jewel of this arm of the galaxy, you know?”
“Well, I— yeah. So, uh. When are you coming back?”
She snorted and waved a dismissive hand at me. “Oh, don’t worry, Mister. You’ll be dead by then. Enjoy your life and let us think in the long term. But hey, wait, before you go—what do you call these things?” She gently picked another puffball and held it up.
“Those are dandelions.”
She blew on it and scattered the seeds in the air, giggling as she watched them float away. “Dandelions are great! I hope they’re still around when we come back.”
“May I ask… who are you, really?”
“Me, personally? You can call me Emily. That name is supposed to sound friendly. Is it?”
“Friendly? Yes, I suppose it is.”
“Perfect. What’s your name, Mister?”
“Dennis. But what I meant to ask was, who are your people?”
“Aw, Dennis. You wouldn’t be able to vocalize it; I’m sorry. But I can tell you that we’re from a yellow sun like yours, except ours is going to expand soon. Yours has seven billion years left, and you guys are so delicious. I’m really glad we found you!”
“Right. Super lucky. Well. Gotta go.”
She beamed at me and waved. “No problem. Bye, Dennis!”
I sweated and stumbled downhill to my SUV, cutting my hike short. I dropped my keys twice before I could get the door open, my hands shook so much.
“Fuck hiking,” I said, my voice broken.