the shirleys

They emerged from the city itself. You could either be for or against. I hid as long as I could in my parents’ house, until they came to the door and ordered me out. I complied, but only to save my life. 

They took us downtown. We were escorted into an abandoned casino and separated into abandoned conference rooms. The room I entered had only women. Some of them were taking the circumstances better than others. But no one could believe it: that this was an alien invasion. 

 “Where are the aliens?” I asked a woman, who wasn’t crying. 

 “I don’t know,” she said. “They made me remove my earrings.”

 “Me too,” I said. 

 “My cartilage wasn’t even pierced,” she said. “But I knew if I didn’t take it out, I’d just keep wanting it and wanting it.”

Our captors, the aliens’ human co-conspirators, kept guard by the door. Should I run away? I wondered. Should I ingratiate myself? Before I could decide, a new person arrived—parting the captors with a wave of her hand.

 She said her name was Shirley. She was a human woman. She had medium-length dyed blonde hair and taut pale facial skin that could only be achieved at her age by plastic surgery. She was of slight build and short stature. Her large eyes, made up with glittery shadow and bold liner, were the most prominent feature of her face. 

 She also wore a pair of glasses with blue frames. She told us not to be afraid. 

 “We take care of each other,” she said. “The new world will be better than the old one.”


Our days were spent building an inventory of simple tools for the aliens. We did not see the aliens, but they provided the parts, and we assembled the tools in great quantities. I could not decipher the tools’ use and the materials were unfamiliar. A soft metal arm with fingers like flexible cigarettes. A round object with appendages like cilia, that had to be attached carefully one-by-one with tweezers. 

 Shirley told us we had a special responsibility. 

“You won’t be forced to do anything,” Shirley said. “But you might want to have a baby.” Shirley smiled. “One day, we’ll have a school here.”

Shirley had a husband. He sometimes visited us while we worked. He looked waxy; his skin polished, his teeth whitened beyond a natural sheen, his eyebrows sculpted in straight edges. His hair was gray and lying naturally, no pomade or grease. 

The woman without earrings and I sat next to each other every day, making tools. Shirley’s husband stretched his waxy face into smiles. The woman without earrings smiled back at him. 

No one was coming to save us. 


Shirley gave us all blue glasses, just like hers.

 “The aliens provided the technology, but it was a design of my own,” she said. 

 The glasses healed my nearsightedness. Not just while I wore them—permanently. Other women reported that the glasses had healed various ailments and injuries. 

“These will help us see each other better,” Shirley said.

After the glasses, the women became more amenable. I heard some of them speculating about the future. I heard some of them speculating about a school. 


A rectangular, ambulatory device about the size of a shoebox, equipped with a shovel. The woman without earrings and I made five each. By that time, we had constructed at least twelve different types of tool. We began to have private meetings with Shirley to determine our potential.  

 “What did you do in the old world?” Shirley asked me.

 “I was an entertainer,” I said. “Like juggling. Balloons. For kids’ birthday parties.”

 “So juggle something,” said Shirley.

 I cast my eyes over the available objects. Shirley’s table was scattered with miscellany but nothing I could use.

 “I don’t have the balls,” I said.

 “Clearly,” said Shirley. 

 I began to laugh. 


Shirley invited me into her private rooms more and more often. I wondered if she was pumping me for information about the woman without earrings. Lately, the woman without earrings had been acting inconsistently. She was not as diligent in tool-making as the rest of us had become. We wore our blue glasses every day, but sometimes I noticed the woman without earrings wearing them on her head, or hanging them from her shirt collar. 

 I didn’t mind telling Shirley what I saw, because she gave me information too. 

 Shirley said we needed to do something about her husband. He was in charge of the men, but it wasn’t going well. The men couldn’t complete even half of the tools that we made in comparable amounts of time. The aliens needed to know about this crucial deficit. Shirley wanted the aliens to see who their true ambassador was. 

 “I want a different world, just like they do,”  she said. 

I was entertaining, so I could help in this matter. Shirley’s husband loved his sycophants. Exploiting this flaw would be simple, Shirley said, and the rest would be very humane; better for him, really. 

 “But first,” Shirley said. “Can you tell me where that woman goes at night?”


A trial was held for the woman without earrings. Everyone was angry with her for one reason or another. Shirley let each woman in the group air grievances until the room was humid with anger. The woman herself was cold and implacable. She did not look at me. She knew I was the one who had betrayed her—after sitting next to her for months, cultivating her trust, I had told Shirley everything. What did she expect? We could not get to Shirley’s husband otherwise. 

“There’s nothing out there. Would you be so cruel?” the woman without earrings said to Shirley.

“I can’t let your actions go unpunished,” Shirley said. “We have precedents to set.”

Finally, Shirley took back the woman’s pair of blue glasses. And so the woman without earrings left with nothing, entered the world of nothing. 

“She would have made a terrible mother,” Shirley said. 


The women were happy and productive. Output of tools was high. They worked to meet their potential. Now it was my turn.
Shirley’s husband was not difficult to talk to. He wanted attention, especially after the woman without earrings was expelled. The waxy man complained that the aliens had chosen them both as human liaisons, but Shirley overstepped her duties. He derisively referred to the women as the Shirleys. Wearing our glasses and recreating ourselves in his wife’s image. He derided us as he touched my hair and said but not you, of course, you’re different. He must have said the same thing to the woman without earrings—except he was right about her.  

I wanted attention too. Shirley and her husband doubled my dosage of that particular drug. Shirley and I eventually doubled her husband’s dosage, of another kind: to make sure it would kill him. 


The death of Shirley’s husband sent the men into confusion and blind rage. The casino where we had lived in relative harmony erupted in violence. Shirley said it was okay, this didn’t matter, it was time to appeal to the aliens. She had earned her place, and because I was so loyal, the two of us would have new roles. 

 “You won’t make any more tools,” Shirley told me. “You will be much more than that now.”

Shirley and I ran. I saw men and women bludgeoning each other with the contraptions we had built for the aliens. No one knew how to use them. We ran to our escape: a van Shirley had kept secret for this moment. 

I had not been outside the casino in nearly a year. The ruins of the landscape did not remind me of the city I remembered. To me there had never been anything but these blue glasses, the daily quota of simple machinery, and Shirley. Even the woman without earrings was a vague memory. Her cartilage had not even been pierced. What did she say? She let the earring go, because she would have kept wanting it and wanting it. Shirley drove recklessly down the empty boulevard. At the same moment, we saw two men clinging to the back of the van in the rear view mirror. She shrieked like a child, we scraped the concrete median, and she lost control. 

We spun. I was still thinking about the woman without earrings. I suddenly understood why she gave up the fakes. She wanted to be struck through completely, a needle out the other side, and it was too much to want in a world like this. We crashed into a streetlight.

Dazed, I forced open the passenger door and collapsed on the asphalt. I crawled as far from the scene as I could, and when I was brave enough, looked back. 

The men chasing us were nowhere to be found. I watched Shirley emerge from the van. She was ragged and beaming. She even stood up and went on ahead of me, searching the sky. She raised her arms, bruised and bleeding, and opened them in supplication. Gratified, victorious. Her dyed hair blew in the hot wind. I was proud. 

 Then, a flash of light. I could not make sense of it. A flash of light, and Shirley was gone. Or, not gone: degraded. Disintegrated. A heap of ash and soot was left in her place. The top layer of ash was scattered by the hot wind. 

Silence, except for the sound of nearby burning. My injuries began to scream. I had complied, but only to save my life. What now? I looked up at the sky. Should I run away? Should I ingratiate myself? 
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