The birdfeeder hanging from Nathan’s apple tree mostly attracted cardinals and black-capped chickadees, so the alien’s arrival was a little bit of a shock. For forty years Nathan had lived in the little rambler next to the small wooded park on what was once the northern edge of the city. As the suburbs expanded around him, he’d struggled more and more to attract anything more exotic than an American goldfinch.
His wife, Meg, had appreciated every bird at the feeder, no matter how common or rare.
He sat at the kitchen table and watched the creature—like a thousand-limbed octopus—scoop seed from his feeder. Long ago he might have considered posting a picture of it on social media. The burst of attention would have given him a heady rush. Now, the thought of it exhausted him. Everything exhausted him. He sipped his coffee and ate his buttered English muffin. By the time he finished, the alien was gone.
A downy woodpecker visited the apple tree later that morning. Nathan remembered when he and Meg had planted that tree. It had grown tall and strong and produced dozens of sour apples every year until the cancer took Meg. Three years and no apples. The woodpecker rattled the tree until thin bark fell off in flakes. Nathan waited for the bird to leave before going out to refill his feeders.
Millet was scattered across the lawn, but the sunflower seeds were gone. The alien was worse than a squirrel, Nathan decided. At least the squirrels would eat everything.
The creature sat at the edge of the woods and watched him with two of its three eyestalks, tracking his movement as he crossed the lawn.
“I see you, mister,” Nathan muttered.
The alien skittered across the lawn to the birdfeeder. It scrambled up the tree and perched on the edge of the feeder. With a furious flurry of appendages, it undid his morning’s chore, flinging millet across the weedy earth.
The alien disappeared back into the woods.
“Fine,” Nathan said. He rummaged around in the back of the garage until he found his old squirrel-proof feeder. It was the only one that had worked until Meg had taken pity on the little gray critters twenty years ago. He filled the feeder and hung it far out on the branch, where the creature wouldn’t be able to reach the feeder from the trunk of the tree. The feeder used a pressure spring. Light birds would perch with no trouble, picking seed as they liked. Heavier creatures would close the gate, cutting off access to the food.
“Cruel,” Meg had always said. “Let the little furballs eat.”
Nathan watched from inside and sipped a second cup of coffee as the alien struggled with the new feeder.
And struggle it did. It tried reaching down from above. It tried jumping from below. The only place it could reach seeds was from the perch, and whenever it sat its little clawed feet on the perch, the gate closed, cutting off its access to seeds.
A wave of satisfaction bubbled in Nathan’s belly as he reheated his coffee in the microwave. By the time he returned to the window, the squirrel-proof feeder was a collection of disassembled parts. Nathan gathered the pieces and carried them back to the garage. There, he found the bag of seed torn open and millet scattered across the garage floor. He dumped the broken feeder in the trash and picked up the broom.
The alien watched him from the open garage door. Nathan jabbed the bristles of his old broom at it.
“It’s all I have,” he said. “I feed the birds. Every day. You won’t ruin that for me.”
Meg had been the social one. Their circle of friends had revolved around her. She had taken him on adventurous vacations to different continents. Since the cancer, Nathan had rarely left the property. First there were fears for her immunocompromised system. Then she was gone, and why go anywhere if not with her?
The alien skittered back, putting a little more space between itself and the broom-wielding maniac. It was all limbs, even its eyestalks were the same not-tentacle that made up its hundreds of fingers. The limbs met in a central junction, but it didn’t look like there was any kind of body in the center of that great squirming mass.
“Git, then,” he hollered at it. “I don’t have anything else for you.” He dumped the swept-up millet back into the bag.
The alien didn’t leave. Instead, it watched him with one of its eyestalks while the other two scanned the yard. What did it want?
Anger ached in Nathan’s chest. He didn’t need strange things to come into his serene life. All he needed was—
All he needed was his grief.
And peace. Why couldn’t this thing just let him exist in peace?
The little creature wasn’t actually so terrible. When it was at rest, the hundreds of tiny limbs slicked back into a pompadour.
Meg had long ago convinced Nathan to stop fighting the squirrels.
“What do you do with all those sunflower seeds?” he asked.
The alien skittered away a few steps. When he followed, it continued. Nathan hesitated at the forest edge.
“No,” Nathan said, pulling himself short. “I don’t care. I’m fine here. I don’t need to know.” He turned away to leave.
The alien climbed a tree and stared at him with all three eyestalks. Its many limbs fluttered in the nonexistent wind.
Nathan didn’t know what he would find in the forest. Would it be an alien ship powered by sunflower seeds? A squalling mass of baby aliens? A massive creature bent on consumption?
“Experience new things,” Meg had told him before she died. “Live a life worth living.”
He followed the creature into the forest.
About the author:
Anthony W. Eichenlaub’s stories appear in Daily Science Fiction, Little Blue Marble, and numerous anthologies. His novels range from scientifically irresponsible space operas to pulse-pounding Minnesota technothrillers. In his spare time, he enjoys landscaping, woodworking, and long walks with his lazy dog.