The Anikai of Alpha Centauri carry their wounds on their skin for all to see. They bleed blue when they are sad, flame red when they are angry, and fester yellow and brown with despair. Before the sickness took her, my Anabel used to think this show of vulnerability was grotesque. But she was fascinated by the changing colors on the Anikai peoples' skin.
It is unheard of for an Anikai to come to our shelter for aid. They usually deal with their problems internally, in their own way. So when Olet-click-kana's name shows up on my roster, I do not know what to think. Olet's skin is open and raw and bleeds blue with misery. Anikai do not have defined sexes; they shift between different roles fluidly, freely and mysteriously, but I know that today Olet wishes to be treated as female, from the metal bands that decorate her claws.
I do the customary physical exam, trying to recall what they taught at Academy regarding Anikai anatomy, stepping out to reference my textbooks. Olet studies me like she has rarely seen a human, as if she does not fully understand the concept of us and our intact, perpetually healed skin. Her four eyes blink, sweeping over my body as though searching for tears in it.
"Need... stay here," she says. "My people... send me away."
Her English is broken, stilted, tinny through the translator the intake staff gave her earlier. Anabel used to laugh at the translators, say they made everyone who used them sound like androids.
"I'm sorry," I say.
Two of Olet's clawed hands strike the ground and then relax. Her skin bleeds harder, and a hint of red appears, fading to blue. "Turn of... two moons," she says.
Twenty-six days. The months on our shared planet are short. "We'll prepare a room for you," I tell her.
She seems in good health, although my fingers twitch over her bleeding wounds. I know I cannot cover them. To cover the wound of the Anikai is taboo. This much, at least, I retained from the Academy.
"Do you want to know... why need to stay?" Her claws strike the ground again.
"Only if you want to tell me."
Her skin flares, then bleeds so blue with sorrow I fear she might need a transfusion.
"My partner's mother sent me away. She says... I caused my partner to die. I did not cause my partner to die. Mother says lies. But he is dead. I leave home to grieve him."
The translator churns the words out in flat monotone, completely at odds with the violence playing out over the Anikai's body. She has curled into the tiniest speck of herself, ringed claws tucked tight against the place where beats her six-chambered Anikai heart, her other limbs coiled round her.
My back is stiff, stiff like my face. For some reason Anabel's face comes to me, the moment of her death. It has only been two months.
Olet's eyes dart over me. I realize she waits for my skin to change color, for my body to bleed out my misery like hers – or, barring that, for some kind of physical reaction. But I'm still. Silent and frozen, like my body contains glass, and any movement, any shift, might suddenly cause it to shatter.
"How are you not unhappy? I just told you a sad thing." She comes uncurled a little; her claws scrape against the floorboards. "Stories are true? Humans feel no sadness?"
"We... do feel sadness." I swallow. "We just can't show it like you do."
"You do not feel sadness if you do not show it. Not real sadness."
"That's not true," I tell her. "If I were Anikai, right now, I be..."
Blue. All over. Something builds in my throat, wells up sharp and thick and heavy, and I want to shove it back, but I can't, I can't –
"You are sad."
She extends a claw, touches my damp cheek wonderingly. "Your blood is clear, odd tone for blood, but you are sad."
Her claw on my face is cool, smooth and soothing. I think about wiping my eyes, but then I leave them there, the tears, the redness I was never able to muster at Anabel's funeral. It all rises, comes leaking out, like a soda bottle too tightly shaken.
"How do you humans... turn off your sadness?"
I shake my head, the urge to laugh suddenly pouring out amidst the tears. "It never turns off," I say. "Never stops. We just hide it, pretend it isn't there, and eventually it fades."
"I don't understand. Why bother hiding sadness?" She shifts, adjusts her four limbs upon the chair. "Partner's mother knows I didn't cause him to die. She knows I bleed blue with grief now. Because of this... someday she will forgive me. She'll let me back home. Soon, not yet."
She leans toward me, and a color I haven't seen before appears on her skin, a soft pinkish hue that momentarily overwhelms the blue. "We have grieved together," she says. "We are friends in common sadness now."
Some call the Anikai weak, repulsive. Before today, I might have done the same, but now truth beats into me like a wound pulsing blood. They are not monstrous, nor grotesque, nor pitiable. Their skin is different, but in their skin lies their strength.
Later I visit Anabel's grave. Flowers sprawl around the gravestones: irises, phlox and wild violets, tiny forests of the bluebells she so loved in life.
I kneel by her headstone, rest my hands on freshly-turned earth, and finally give in to my grief.
This story was my entry into the Sci Fi short story contest on Wattpad a few months ago. The prompt was "Alien friend." The story actually won first place, which surprised me greatly.
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