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Story 2

Brynn MacNab

Brynn MacNab has been reading speculative fiction since before she knew there was any other kind, and writing it for almost as long. You can find links to more of her work at

"Speaking Up started with only Hannah's narrative voice, with her first sentence about clouds like steel wool. Although she's reluctant to make herself heard in her own world, she spoke quite clearly to me from the start."
-- Brynn Macnab

A little girl who doesn't like to talk plays a critical role in saving the world in this well-crafted tale of interstellar mis-communication.


Speaking Up

By Brynn MacNab


The clouds look like steel wool. But they're made of black magic. That's what my mom says.

Those clouds scrub you out, you're gone. Mark told me that. "You touch that rain, you're gone." He lives down the street. He's older, almost ten. He saw a cat in this rain. He brags about it. My mom says probably he needs therapy. But he tells us stuff. Steel wool might clean dried-on casserole. These clouds take your heart right out.

And when they rumble, we all run. In the house we watch out windows. The neighbors are stuck in their car. They wait for the storm to pass. Maybe it'll be all night. They'll wait. Nobody walks through this rain.

My dad says the rain is poisoned. "By pollution," he says. "Years and years of it. Generations of waste." He talks about generations a lot.

"This is more than pollution," Mom says. I am between them at the window. Mom sighs. "This is something else, Dale."

Dale. That's his name. She used to call him, "Special Agent." She used to laugh. We used to run screaming through rain. The screaming meant laughter, too.

"Will you stop?" He's exasperated. His voice tilts. "You're scaring Hannah."

"Someone has to tell her the truth."

"And what exactly would that be? What's causing this? You have all the answers?" I stare outside. I don't look at either of them, so they won't know I hear them.

"Well it's certainly not acid rain."

Sandra lives next door. She's my age. I don't see her in the car, but I see her little brother, Kyle. He has his face against the window.

Dad is glaring. I don't have to look to know. He pauses to glare, almost every time they argue. "Did I say it was? All I said was pollution."

Mom walks away. "I'll make lunch."

Sandra's dad is in the driver's seat. Her mom is next to him. They sit there, not talking. Watching the rain, they don't move.

These clouds are spreading. They had them in Ohio first. Soon they'll cover America. No one will have good water. Food will all come by airplane. That's what the news says. The President is very worried. I'm worried, too.

Sandra's dad says aliens sent the clouds to punish us for not believing. He says they want an apology. On national TV would be good. They want the President to apologize personally. I don't know how he knows that.

At night my parents watch the news. It is still raining outside. There's a scientist on tonight. He says this rain has chemicals. He's never seen these chemicals before.

"See?" Dad says. "Chemicals, not some voodoo thing."

"See?" says Mom. "New one's they've never seen, not some industrial binge."

I know what Sandra's dad would say if he weren't stuck in their car. "See?" he would say. "Alien chemical warfare."

Another man comes on the news. The government made the clouds, he thinks. "It's a conspiracy," he says. He says it over and over again. My dad turns off the TV. He works for the FBI. He's not really a special agent, but still, he knows things.

"Crackpot theorists," he says. "I don't know where they get it."

"People are scared," says Mom. "They want someone to blame. Washington is an easy target."

I don't look up. I'm playing with a doll. It's not alive and I don't care about it, but grown-ups think I do. It lets me listen and not talk, because everyone thinks I'm busy. That's why I like dolls.

Mom looks at me. I can see her, from the edge of my eye. She sees how busy I am. "Maybe it's the end," she whispers.

"What do you want from me?" says Dad. "How am I supposed to answer that?" His voice is like a seesaw. "No, Marion, it's not the end. I have the scientific proof right here, up my wizard's sleeve."

Mom's angry voice is low, maroon. "I'm going to do the dishes."

After she leaves, Dad is quiet. I move my doll around. Mom named her Edna one time. It's a good name: Edna the decoy. Edna goes to sleep under Dad's chair. Lying half-under, I tuck her in. I'm right next to Dad's legs. We're both quiet. Only the rain keeps talking.

In the morning, the rain has stopped. The world dries off. Sunlight gets open lines through the clouds. By noon I play in the driveway. Mom doesn't like me touching the grass anymore if I can help it. "Stay out of there," she says, "you'll get cancer."

I don't know what cancer is, but Mom doesn't want any in the house.

Sandra's dad is in his garden. He's not worried about cancer. He told my mom, "They'll cure us after we learn our lesson." My mom tells my dad.

"Nobody can cure him," Dad says.

Sandra doesn't come outside today. Her mom comes out with lemonade for Sandra's dad. She gives some to me, too. When she's back in their yard, Sandra's dad points at me. "What do you think about that kid?" I pretend not to notice.

"I think she's very sweet."

"Fine, but I mean, she's strange. She never talks, did you notice that?"

"Some children are just shy." Sandra's mom has a teacher voice. Sandra's dad was probably a bad kid. At least, that's how her mom talks, like he's a bully or a whiner.

"She could be telepathic or something," he says. "Or maybe she's an empath."

"I doubt it."

"Meghan, please." It's not a real please. He's annoyed. "This could be important." I've been drawing flowers and suns and clouds on the pavement, but I'm done now. I don't want to listen anymore. I clean up my chalks.

"Francis, we're not doing this." Her voice is flat. Like a wall, or a floor. I want it to be a wall.

On the news, things are getting worse. The clouds are spreading, and the newsman calls it "apocalyptic." Afterwards, Mom tucks me in. "Don't look so worried," she says. "It'll be all right." She kisses my forehead. "Such a serious little girl," she says. She isn't looking at me now. If she were, I would say, "I can talk," and she would say, "Of course you can talk, Hannah, you talk beautifully." I talked in school. They made me. I still can, but it's summer now and I get a break.

She's not looking at me, though, so I keep quiet. She's looking out the window. It's open just a crack. No rain will come in, just air. Outside it's getting dark. Our backyard is always the same but she still looks at it, not at me. She likes nature.

In the night, I see Sandra's dad. He's in my room. He's just a dream, though. Maybe a nightmare. That's mean, but it's true. I ignore him and dream something else. I see aliens, with big heads and glowing eyes. They want to take me apart, to find out how I work. "She might be an empath," they say. "An empath." I still don't know what that means. "She can't talk," they say. I'm afraid they're going to open me up. "I can talk," I try to say. "I just don't." But no words come out. The aliens shake their huge heads. "Such a serious little girl," they say. "We'll fix her." They reach down to me. Their fingers are long and thin and they glow, too.

I wake up screaming.

"Shh, shh." I must be at school. A teacher's voice is shushing me. She hugs me, which isn't allowed. "Shh," she says. "It's not that bad." I quiet down. I'll be good. I thought there were aliens. I thought it was summer.

The teacher lets go of me. "That's a good girl." But when I look, she's not a teacher. She's Sandra's mom. I don't scream again, but almost. We're not at school. We're in a very little room with metal walls and no windows. In the corner, Kyle is playing with blocks, but the room keeps shaking and his blocks keep falling over.

Sandra's mom smiles at me. "You'll have fun," she says. I don't know why she says that. She doesn't believe it. Her eyes are funny-shaped with tears. "You get to go see Sandra. Will you tell me how she is?"

It's too cold here for my pajamas, but Sandra's mom has a suitcase with some of my clothes. While I change, she keeps talking. "You'll be very important. You'll make the clouds go away, and everyone will be glad. Sandra went already, but she needs help. You be brave, now. Be good. Your parents will be so proud. Clear skies will make them so happy. And the trip will be fun. It's an adventure."

One of the walls opens, and I have to step down out of a big van. It's probably the middle of the day. The clouds make it a little hard to tell. We're in a field, with cows. I've never been here before. There are a lot of people, men in dark glasses and jackets, and Sandra's dad walks up to us. "What did I tell you?" he says. "We've contacted the aliens." He steers me by the shoulder toward a little airplane. Sandra's mom picks up Kyle and comes with us. "The President doesn't believe us, but we don't have time to wait."

Another man lifts me into the plane. There's just one seat. "You said she's got some kind of powers?"

"She does," says Sandra's dad. "She definitely does."

"What about the other kid?"

"Different powers. Don't worry about it. They'll work together."

The man shakes his head. "I hope you know what you're doing."

"I do." He sounds like he's the boss.

"All right." The other man turns back to me and takes his glasses off. He has a friendly smile. "Okay, kiddo," he says. "Now this is all automated. Do you know what that means? Probably not. Okay, you don't have to do anything. The plane will do all the work. It's got a plan already. You're going to see the aliens, right? So this'll take you there, through a wormhole. Know what that is? Well, it's the route you're taking. It goes to the alien world. It won't take long. Don't be scared."

My dad says aliens don't exist. I should tell this man that, but he talks too fast.

"The aliens are friendly," he says. "They'll look weird, but they're nice."

Sandra's mom whispers, "You don't know that." She doesn't think I hear her. Her face is all red.

"So be nice to them. Listen well and pay attention. We don't know how they communicate, but--" He looks back at Sandra's dad. "Well, you'll figure it out." He smiles again and buckles me in. "Good luck, kiddo." He shuts the airplane door and slaps its side goodbye. I can see him through a window. The motor starts, and everyone steps back. Sandra's mom makes Kyle wave.

I don't wave back. I shut my eyes. The plane moves, but I keep my eyes shut.

When I look again, I'm in clouds. Everything outside is thick and dark, darker in some places than in others. Black strands run by. The plane is getting cold. I can see my breath. I should have a coat. Mom will be angry. I tuck my hands under my armpits.

Then the clouds are gone and everything is suddenly bright again, so bright that it hurts my eyes and I close them.

The man said that the aliens were friendly and nice. But Sandra's dad said they sent the rain to punish us for not believing in them. I don't believe in them. What if they want to punish me?

The airplane jerks, and begins to go backward. I open my eyes, and watch metal walls grow forward around the plane. It's still in the sky, but not as high up. I can see a green horizon. Then a big metal door closes in front. I unbuckle and wait. I can take care of myself. My mom tells my dad sometimes, "Dale, she can take care of herself. Stop worrying." They're usually talking about something else, but I just come up.

The door to the airplane pops open by itself. The air smells like lilies and car exhaust, and I feel sick. When no one comes, I stand to get out and I throw up all over the controls. I climb down into the metal room, taking care. My head hurts from the smell. The room is empty except for me and the plane, and it's getting darker. And blurry. I'm tired. I sit down to wait for the friendly aliens.

Later on, my eyes are closed. Sandra is singing a song we learned in school, about a ladybug. Sandra likes anything with animals, even bugs count.

I must have moved, because Sandra stops. "Are you awake, Hannah? Can you get up?"

I open my eyes and try to sit up. I can, but it makes my head hurt again. We're in a pink and orange room, and we're not alone. "It's okay, Hannah," Sandra says. "They're not hurting us. They're nice." They don't look nice. There are two, on the other side of a glass wall. They have eyes all over them.

"They don't talk, either," says Sandra.

I talk. I talked at school, every day. Sandra should know, she was there. I don't know why she says that.

There's a door in the glass, but I only notice it when it opens. I have to pay attention better. The man told me to. I don't want the aliens to leave me out in the rain. They're coming in through the door now. They have long, wobbly arms. They pet Sandra's head, but they don't touch me.

After a while they go away. I'm thirsty. Sandra sings some more songs.

When the aliens come back, they bring a plant that babbles and another thing on a leash. It has five long legs, and makes clicking noises when it walks and whining noises from its mouth. Sandra likes the company. "Come on," she says. "Come play with me, Hannah. We have to make friends."

That's not what they told me. They told me to listen and pay attention. I'm doing that. I don't have to make friends.

"Hannah, you're creeping me out." Sandra talks almost as much as the plant, I think. She wants things to be normal, even here. "Hannah, come on."

I try to be normal for Sandra. I pet the plant. I run around with the animal, even though the sound of its feet makes the hairs on my arms stand up. Sandra seems happier, but the aliens keep watching us. When Sandra stops worrying, I go back to watching them too.

When I stand still, with all those eyes on me, I can notice something weird. They watch harder than anybody I know; it's like they're watching into me, like they're poking around in my thoughts. I think just a little differently. My thoughts are just a tiny bit jumbled, like they've been picked up and moved around, or looked at and put back.

A third alien brings us water and something like bread. Sandra says, "We have to eat it. They'll be insulted if we don't." I don't think that's smart, but I'm still thirsty and I'm getting hungry too. We drink and eat. It all tastes strange, but it doesn't seem to hurt us. "See?" Sandra says. "They're trying to be our friends." She stands up and tries to talk to them: "We come in peace." I bet her dad told her to say that. "We apologize for Earth. Please accept our apology. America is sorry."

The nearest alien wants me to pay attention to it. I can just tell, but I don't know how. Then, when I look in its eyes, I know what it's trying to say: Welcome, it's telling me.

"I like your dog," Sandra says.

We did not know about you, thinks the alien.

I don't know if it means me or people in general.

We didn't know there were any who Spoke on your planet. How many are there?

"Thank you for the food," Sandra says. "It was delicious." She's lying.

About what is she lying?

I don't know how it knows that. But I meant about the food; she hated it.

I am sorry. We tried to replicate the food you remembered.

I realize I'm being rude, and for once it's not because I'm not talking but because I'm thinking rude things. I don’t like them listening to my thoughts, but I have to be nice so I try again. I think very clearly: No Problem. It Was Probably Very Healthy.

"This room is so comfortable, too," says Sandra.

Are you the only one who speaks on your planet?

No, I Am Not. Most People Talk A Lot More.

The alien is laughing at me, silently. Its eyes all wiggle.

"And your plant is adorable."

The other alien isn't laughing. Lids drop over all of its eyes at once. No, it thinks. This is no good.

I'm Sorry, I think. Maybe You Should Talk to Sandra Instead.

The aliens stare at me for a long time. Sandra looks like she's going to cry.

No, says the nice one after a while. You don't understand us. Not the noises. We mean, does anyone else Speak. Speak. Um...think?

Everybody thinks.

Does Sandra...think?

Of course she thinks. We all think.

How many on your planet think?

Dad says there are billions of humans on the earth. He says there are way too many.

The aliens seem to agree. They wobble their arms at each other. Then they both leave. They take their plant and the scuttling animal with them.

Sandra starts to cry. "I tried everything," she says. "I was so polite. Why didn't you help me? I even complimented their crummy food. I don't know what they want. You should have said something. You could have at least tried."

It's not my fault. My dad didn't send us here in the first place. But I'm too tired to want to fight with her. I leave Sandra alone, and lie down on the other side of the room.

Later, she says, "I'm sorry. I know you can't help it. I shouldn't have yelled at you."

It's okay, Sandra. Go to sleep and don't cry anymore, I think. But I guess only aliens can hear me thinking. She sniffles some more. But after a while I hear her snoring.


Wake up. One of the aliens is there again. Sandra is lying nearby, with a blanket on.

I can't tell which alien it is. But it seems like it's in a hurry. Pay attention to me. The babblers, how do you know they think? We have not noticed it.

I rub my eyes. How do I know? They talk to me. They’re not just babbling. They're saying their thoughts out loud.

It is not possible. A being either thinks or talks. Not both. You think, she talks. That's the way it is. We sent our clouds to your world because we thought there were no Speakers there, no thinkers. We have been searching a long time for a good planet for them, and yours is so far from anything. Listen. You can live with us. No one at home understands you, do they?

No, they don't. I'm weird.

It is because they do not think. You will stay here with us and never bother with babbling again.

It would be like summer forever. No more school.

Like summer forever. Yes. Our ways are not difficult. You are mistaken about the others. There is no one else.

The door opens again, and there are more aliens, four more of them.

Little one, thinks one of the new aliens. We are told that you Speak and that there are others on your planet who do. We never would have sent out clouds had we known.

They're going to take the clouds away. It wasn't a punishment, but they are going to get rid of them. I forgive Sandra and her dad, even, for being mean. The rain will be gone.

Don't be in such a hurry. Maybe we can reach a compromise.

And the alien that was with me thinks, She's the only one. She was confused. Tell them.

But I won't. Humans think and talk. We can do both. That's how it is. Just because people are different doesn't mean they don't count.

The alien that woke me up is angry. All its eyes snap away from me at once. She is a fool. She's lying, or she's stupid. Maybe she's crazy. No one can talk and Speak.

The other one wavers. That's true. No one can. We'll keep you here, and cure you of your confusion.

I can talk myself! I just don't much. I just... "No!" I say out loud. I hate the sound of my voice, echoing in this quiet room. Sandra twitches and sits up. "You have to take the clouds back."

I say it, lisping, and I glare at Sandra, waiting for her to call me a baby. I can't talk right, I know it. But the aliens don't seem to notice, wobbling their arms at each other, and Sandra just looks scared.

Then something jabs into my back, a sharp pain like a needle, and everything goes dark again.


I wake up at home, outside, in our yard. Sandra's parents are there, and mine. Mom is holding me. Dad is saying, "I'll have you arrested, you nutcase!"

"Sky's blue, isn't it?" says Sandra's dad. He's right. All the clouds are gone. "And I tell you what. You lay a finger on me, or call the cops, and all those clouds'll come back. Rain alien judgment on your house."

"He can't do that," I say. Everyone turns to look at me. "He can't."

"Of course he can't," says my dad. He turns back to Sandra's dad, and my mom takes me inside our house.

"Did they hurt you?" I shake my head. "Were you scared?" I nod.

Mom doesn't know what to say. She stares at me, but she can't read me. I like it better that way. I go and get my doll Edna, so Mom won't ask me any more questions. I play near the window, and watch Dad yell. Sandra's dad is in big trouble.


That night, all the newsmen are confused. "Vanished! All the clouds have just vanished away!"

They try to be levelheaded and sound smart. "Of course, there are many remaining factors. There are a lot of chemicals that have to be purged. It's not over yet," they say. But they're wrong.



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