"Have you seen my hat?"
Yolanda pushed the knife through the cantaloupe, neatly cleaving the fruit down the middle. "How should I know?" she replied. "Did you try looking on your head?"
Travis snickered at the joke. "Very funny. I'm serious. I left it right on my dresser, right inside its case."
"So, just go without it."
"Whatever," Yolanda replied in a bored tone. Her husband's eccentricities annoyed her so much. She had better things to do than cater to his foolishness.
But Travis didn't let up. He strutted into the kitchen and planted himself opposite his wife, intent on staring at her until she agreed to help him find his hat. "I need that hat," he continued. "It's very important, more than you'll ever know."
"I'm sure it is. Now why don't you go look for it someplace else, unless of course you think I'm hiding it in this cantaloupe."
Travis at first grew irritated, and then angry. He stepped up to the table, fire in his eyes, and promptly swatted the remains of the cantaloupe onto the floor.
The knife dangled in Yolanda's hand just above the empty, wet cutting board.
She felt like using it on her spouse.
"I told you it's important," Travis growled. "Without it something might happen, something bad." His hands clenched into burly knots, hardened fists that hung at his sides like weapons.
Yolanda stared at her husband, a mixture of anger and pity racing through her mind. She didn't know whether to slap him or embrace him.
Movement outside the window above the sink caught her eye. It was vague, like a fleeting insect in one's peripheral vision, but was there nonetheless.
Her attention switched from her husband to the window.
Nothing moved outside the glass.
"I'm not kidding, Yolanda," Travis cried. His face had grown flush. "I really need that hat."
"Why, Travis? Why is it such a big deal?"
Travis forced himself to calm down. "Yolanda," he said while running his hands through his already-thinning hair, "If I don't find that hat, things could go bad very quickly."
Yolanda felt fear slide into her gut. It festered there, rooting itself to her soul. "What are you talking about?" she asked warily.
Travis stared at her. He felt a strong urge to confide in her, but quickly dismissed the notion. She would never understand.
"Tell me!" Yolanda screamed, startling her husband with the suddenness of her outburst.
"It's not a hat."
Her expression swiftly changed from one of anger and impatience to disbelief. She simply couldn't believe what she heard. "What?" was all she could muster.
"It's not a hat. It's a..."
"Travis, have you lost your mind? It's a hat. It's your dingy, red hat that I've seen you wear every day."
And then a strange thought slipped into her head. Though only a vague recollection, it still demanded to be recognized.
A week earlier while walking by with a basket of dirty laundry she noticed the case the hat was in sitting on top of Travis's dresser. She decided to toss the hat into the wash so she unlatched the box and removed it from its seat.
It slipped from her hand.
At the time, being tired of housework and anxious to read more of the mystery novel she was involved in, she merely continued on her way to the laundry room.
But now she couldn't shake the feeling that the hat had somehow moved by itself, trying to avoid her grasp. That raggedy, faded, old red hat did not want her to touch it.
Travis continued staring at her. With each passing second his expression seemed to lose some of its humanity. His brow thickened then, bulging out over his eyes, causing the sockets to shrink accordingly. His mouth tightened, becoming little more than a slit, although easily still capable of housing numerous sharp teeth. And his skin took on a soft, waxy texture, like a candle left out in the sun.
"It's important, Yolanda, that we find the hat," Travis drawled through tiny gaps in his teeth. "If we don't, they will come. Humanity won't be safe."
Yolanda stood perfectly still. She wanted to simply run out of the house, but the thought that she'd have to live with the nightmares for the rest of her life kept her in place. It was preferable to stand her ground and discover what her husband really was instead of spending her remaining days in therapy.
"Who are you?" she forced out. It was all she could think to say.
"I'm not your husband," Travis replied with no hint of emotion. "I was assigned here to protect Earth's inhabitants." The words seemed to float in the room. "It wasn't a hat, it was a device specifically designed to disrupt the emissions of hydrocarbon radiation that your species naturally gives off." His face pinched into something akin to anxiety. "If we don't find it there won't be a square inch on this planet that will support life. They will systematically wipe everything clean, right down to the smallest microbe."
Yolanda recoiled from not only the creature's unsettling appearance, but also from what it was saying. She sensed her entire world crashing down around her. Her marriage was a lie, and she felt as if her life suddenly had no meaning. Just the thought that she had actually loved the thing standing before her made her feel sick.
But, if what it was saying was true…
"Well then," she said with as much composure as she could, "I guess we need to find your hat."
A loud thud shook the house then. It came from above, as if something heavy had settled (or landed) on the roof. The ceiling cracked in the center and rapidly spider-webbed in all directions, raining dust and bits of drywall down on the occupants of the room.
Travis didn't waste time. He rushed out of the room in an instant, pulling a curved blade out from his waistline. The metal gleamed deep blue in the fading daylight.
Yolanda forced herself to move. If she didn't it sounded like the whole house would come crashing down on her. Her husband had left her, presumably addressing whatever was on the roof, and she was left alone in the house, vulnerable and scared.
But also determined to survive.
Her husband. The words almost seemed comical to her now. She didn't have a husband. The creature that had masqueraded as her better half wasn't her husband, it was something else, something apparently not from this planet.
But it had tried to protect her. It warned her of the threat, and was now trying to confronting it for her.
Yolanda heard additional sounds coming from above the house, great heaving noises that shook the building to its foundation. More drywall cracked and rained down, forcing her to cover her head with her arms. She ran from the room, although she didn't know where to go. Surely staying in the house wasn't safe, and going outside might prove equally dangerous. But she had to go somewhere.
She decided on the latter. If what Travis had said was true then maybe she'd be able to help him somehow.
The air outside was thick with noise of the commotion on top of the house. It stung Yolanda's ears. She stumbled onto the lawn and swung around to face her house.
A colossal being, pale blue and gelatinous and sporting numerous pseudopods that flailed above its bulk, was tangling with Travis. He was somehow managing to keep the beast at bay however, swinging his blade in a flurry of movements too fast to discern easily. Every time he struck the monster a thick black substance oozed from the wound. Its numerous red eyes glared in all directions.
Yolanda stared at the spectacle. Travis had been telling the truth, he was trying to protect her. The hat was some type of device he used to keep monsters like the one on her roof from attacking.
The hat!? Where was it?
Forcing herself to move, Yolanda ran around the house to the back yard. She flung open the door to the shed and pulled a folding extension ladder out. It only took a minute for her to drag it over to the patio and set it up against the house. The battle on the roof still raged, and she found herself hesitating to climb the ladder. The beast was furiously swinging its tentacles around in a mad effort to strike Travis down, who much to her relief was successfully dodging each attempt. He was slashing at the monster with his blade, occasionally making contact, but it didn't seem to affect the creature. Its sheer size alone allowed it to remain mostly unharmed.
Despite being made of high-strength aluminum, each rung of the ladder felt like it would snap under her weight, and overhead, the sky had darkened, further adding to the horror of the situation. Yolanda pressed on however, ignoring the fear that threatened to send her toppling down to the unforgiving concrete of the patio.
"Travis! Hang on! I'm coming!"
Just as she reached the top of the ladder Yolanda noticed something: a small piece of fabric that was stuck to the side of the beast. It was faded red and wedged in the slimy folds of the creature's hide.
"The hat!" she cried.
Travis, hearing Yolanda's revelation, immediately shouted: "Where? Where is it?"
"Behind it! It's stuck to its body in the back!"
Travis slid around the monster in one quick motion, slicing at the hide as he went, and in a few seconds he was behind it and managed to yank the hat out of its skin.
Yolanda stood at the top of the ladder, staring at the thing that was her husband. She watched as he held up the hat, slick with goo, and slipped it into his head.
"Tehike, hofff'reth…durlexx ks emok."
The monster instantly frozen on the spot. Tentacles, which had until a moment before been thrashing, were now motionless against its sides, and the glowing eyes had become nothing more than inert orbs nestled deep within the cowls of their sockets.
Yolanda forced herself to move. She crawled onto the roof, being careful to avoid touching any part of the abomination, which was by then starting to liquefy.
"It's called a Luiqt," Travis said between pants for breath. He sheathed his blade, sliding it into an exposed section of his skin.
It vanished from sight in the flesh.
"What? How did it... What is..."
Travis silenced Yolanda with a gesture of his hand. He could see her relief when his physical characteristics reverted back to those of an ordinary human: her husband Travis.
"The race is called the Deeart, and they dwell on the event horizon of a supermassive black hole located in a distant galaxy. They have been mostly unsuccessful in moving away from the rim, but have managed to locate one habitat suitable to their needs: this planet, which they have been able to periodically infiltrate with one of their kind. We have monitored their activities for some time now and have created the means to block their intentions: this device that to you appears as an ordinary clothing accessory." He pulled the hat from his head and carefully slid it into a slit on his arm.
Despite all she had seen, Yolanda was still speechless. She opened her mouth but nothing came out.
"Come, Yolanda," Travis said quietly, "let's go back inside." He gestured to the ladder still leaning against the house.
After she closed the back door, Yolanda turned to face Travis. She was no longer at a loss for words, and before she could stop herself, a torrent of anger spewed out of her mouth.
"Travis! What was that thing? Why are you really here?"
Travis simply stood there, a cool look of indifference on his face.
And then he broke into a smile. He didn't know where it came from, other than a small, nearly imperceptible feeling that started deep within him and festered there, increasing in both size and relevance.
Her tone had softened. Her words were now laced with caring and compassion, with love. She was genuinely concerned about her husband. "What's the matter with you? That thing is dead, right? Please tell me it's dead."
Travis could only nod. A strange feeling was overtaking his body and soul, and he knew he was helpless to stop it.
"What is it?"
He looked to the floor. "I love you." Immediately, he covered his mouth with his hand.
Yolanda just stared at him, her face pinched in both confusion and understanding. "What did you say?" A part of her wanted nothing more than for him to say it while looking into her eyes. But another part didn't care how he said it, as long as he meant it.
Travis looked up. He now felt bolstered by his revelation, both to Yolanda and to himself. He had come to realize there was something else that was just as important as keeping the Deeart in check. Love was just as important, for without it life was simply existing, nothing less, nothing more.
"I said that I love you."
Yolanda didn't know what to say. She was unaware of her mouth hanging open.
"I know it doesn't make sense," Travis said quietly, "but seeing you in danger gave me a new perspective on things, on us. I hope you understand, Yolanda." He braced himself for what he had to say next. "But I have to leave now. We cannot afford emotional attachment to the ones we protect. It is against the rules. Another will contact you shortly to replace me. I'm sorry."
And then Travis faded into thin air, leaving behind a wife who was still struggling for words. She was unprotected now and that fact was not lost on her. She prayed that Travis's replacement would arrive soon.
Yolanda felt sick to her stomach. So much had happened so quickly she didn't know what to do or think. She stumbled into her bedroom and collapsed onto the bed, her mind swirling in a hundred different directions.
Then she heard a loud thud shake the house. It came from above.