This story was shortlisted for Reedsy’s Writing Contest — Superpower. You can also find it on Reedsy’s site.
We all knew there was something a little bit off about Hugh. He was a single man who collected comics, for a start. He called them his “research”. He also had black silvery skin, purple eyes which he kept perpetually hidden behind a pair of oversized pink glasses, a ridiculous fake white moustache and no nose. Oh, and the glasses he tried to hide his eyes behind? They were regular glasses — not sunglasses, not the kind with mirror lenses, just plain old glasses. Hugh didn’t seem to be aware of his error, however.
I’m not quite sure exactly where he was from, but it definitely wasn’t Earth. I remember the first time I met him quite clearly; a blundering supervisor who’d stumbled their way into middle management introduced us.
“Got a new member for your team,” said Fred, taking a sip out of his mug of tea, resting an arm on my cubicle door and giving me a lovely view of his sweaty armpit. I thought it was incredible that he was sweating so heavily at three minutes past nine in the morning on an overcast day. And he always had a mug of tea in his hand and was always wandering back and forth to the kitchen — to either top up his empty mug or to take his now full mug with him on his wanders (and occasionally with him back to his desk). I sometimes thought that Fred only drank tea because he could procrastinate and waste time by making the beverage. And if others wanted tea? Brilliant! The whole process of boiling the kettle and brewing the tea could be stretched out even longer! Still, he was a nice enough guy and he almost never pushed us to work hard or criticized anything we did, really — so nobody put in a complaint. The office was pretty relaxed with Fred in charge. “Name’s Hugh.”
I nodded pleasantly. “Hm, Hugh,” I said, just to say something. You didn’t need to try to hold a conversation with Fred, he could hold one by himself. Whether you had an interesting response or not had almost no bearing on the direction, topic, or length of conversation. Fred would natter on about this and that — taking anywhere from fifteen minutes to an hour up of your time. His record was an hour and forty-three minutes. That was with Dave, two cubicles down.
“I could’ve watched a movie in the time it took him to tell me about his car insurance,” Dave had joked. All in good humour, mind you.
Fred nodded and continued talking. “Seems like a decent enough fellow, this Mr Manbeing. Little bit odd. Got a good reputation, though.”
I stared at Fred for a second, coming out of my daze, unsure if he was pulling my leg. He wasn’t known for his witty humour. I don’t think he had the intellect for it. “Hugh… Manbeing?” I asked, incredulous.
“That’s right,” confirmed Fred with a nod. “Brenda in HR is clearing up his paperwork with ‘im at the moment, he should be up in—” Fred glanced at his watch “—oh, I dunno, ten, fifteen minutes? I’ll send you his CV over to have a quick looksie before he heads up. Got an impressive history.”
“Does he now?” I pondered, wondering whether we were going to be treated to a convict in the office. “Well, you best send it over, hadn’t you?” I said, gently nodding in the direction of Fred’s desk.
“On it like a car bonnet,” said Fred firing finger pistols at me with a laugh. That was Fred’s favourite joke, although to call it a “joke” might be a bit of a stretch.
I was surprised when Fred actually managed to send me this suspicious character’s resume before he actually appeared in the office. Must’ve been an office record. With haste, I glanced over the document, which was fairly unassuming. Hugh seemed adequately qualified for a start, which was good, and had enough experience listed to signify he wasn’t a complete idiot. I did raise an eyebrow at his “hobbies” section, however. His listed pastimes included “consuming the required quantities of Earth food to sustain life” and “standing upright on leg” and “frolicking with my fellow Earth bipeds”.
When he eventually came up into the office, I was taken even further aback by his clearly evident non-human features (or lack of human features, such as a nose between the eyes), but Fred seemed undeterred. “Ah, here he is! Hey there, Hugh, how’re you settlin’ in?” he said, pumping the shiny ink black hand that had six elongated fingers. “Need a cuppa?”
Hugh smiled but looked puzzled. “A cupper?” He rolled the word around his mouth, as if getting the full flavour and texture of it.
“Right you are, I’ll get right on it!” said Fred who promptly marched to the kitchen, not before ushering the alien in my direction. “This is your team leader. I know you’ll get along like a house on fire!” And then he left us to it.
We promptly made our introductions as Fred disappeared in search of a large enough teapot, after I had reassured him that there was, in fact, no fire to be concerned about. I noted how Hugh had no fingernails, and his hands had a slight suction to them. Like a lizard. “Hugh Manbeing,” said Hugh, shiftily, as if he feared someone might cotton on to the fact that he wasn’t from around these parts.
“Nice to meet you, Hugh,” I said, already taking a liking to the extra-terrestrial. His hopelessness and helplessness were endearing. “Let me show you the ropes.”
And I did.
Despite being from another planet, Mr Manbeing proved to be thoroughly competent in his job, although he was rather clumsy when it came to socialising. I won’t bore you with the precise details of our work, just know that we work in an office, there are computers and an ever-present lingering odour of stale coffee, and everyone dresses rather formally — to an extent; business casual, I believe it’s referred to as. So, Hugh did his work on time and to an excellent standard, there can be no doubt about that — I’ve worked with people who I’m ninety percent sure were human beings who weren’t half as useful as that otherworlder.
Ask anyone who’s worked for more than two weeks, they’ll tell you that your work life is so much more than the work you do — it’s also about who you work with, and how you interact with them. We in the office are a close knit bunch, and having an oddball like Hugh thrown into the mix was a bit of a shock.
When the rest of us have lunch in the rec room, Hugh stands off to one corner, not eating anything (I’ve never see him eat, although he did eventually develop — in part thanks to Fred — a rather fond attachment to what he called a “cupper”) whilst scribbling frantically in his notebook, glancing up at us every now and then and observing us closely with an almost Attenboroughesque curiosity. When we ask him what he’s doing, he usually responds with, “Nothing. Research. Notes. I’m writing an Earth novel about fellow mammals. They fall in love, much dopamine and other neurotransmitters are released. They die at the end. A real tour de force. Please, resume inserting sustenance into your faces, fellow carbon-based lifeforms. I have photosynthesised more than my fill on this fine planetary rotation.”
And it’s not just our lunch breaks. It’s how he starts and ends the working day.
Work for the day begins at nine in the morning. People usually arrive five to ten minutes earlier, but Hugh apparently arrives way before then. As team leader, I often have to be in at around eight, and each time I pull in to the office, I find Mr Manbeing stood there outside the door, fervently flicking his way through a superhero comic, scratching his alien chin and muttering to himself about “the vexing physiological properties of these oxygen-breathing bipeds”. When I say hello and ask him how his weekend was, how long he’s been stood there, and if he’s enjoying his comic, Hugh almost always panics and seems to be caught off-guard, like a man sat on the toilet who’s forgotten to lock the door and now some unsuspecting person has strolled on in. “The end?” he asks, one non-eyebrow raised. “No, no, that’s not for another hundred years, I’m sure of it. And, naturally, I’ve been here since the cessation of operations on—” he’d then pull out and open his notebook, squinting his bug eyes at the text, scrutinising “—Fryday,” he’d say, carefully, as if the word were a bomb in his mouth and mispronouncing it would trigger detonation. “And this?” he’d say, glancing at the comic book with feigned wide-eyed surprise, be it X-Men or Superman or Spiderman or whatever, “I—I found this! Yes, found it! This isn’t mine! One of your, er, I mean, one of our fleet’s commanders must have left it around by accident. I am now returning this most top-secret documentation, which I most certainly have not perused, to you, so that you may return it to the correct facility.” He’d then pause, before adding: “Wherever that may be.” He’d then hand me the comic, fold his arms behind his back, and smile inconspicuously whilst waiting for me to unlock the office door. We went through this dance on several occasions — I’m fairly certain he thinks humans have no memory retention, like goldfish.
And once the working day is done and quittin’ time is upon us, Hugh claps his shiny six-fingered hands together and cries jubilantly: “Another axial rotation well done! Tremendous work, my fellow Earthlings, I’ve never seen so many different combinations of these twenty-six letters, or such recklessly sedentary behaviour!” He then pats the chairs and commends them on their hard work throughout the day, too. As far as I’m aware, he congratulates everything in the office, be it animate or inanimate, for the day’s events. I’ve even seen him giving the watercooler a highly-motivating pep talk. And I’ve never seen him go home, either. He leaves the building, sure, but he just hangs around outside or lingers in the car park, waving at us enthusiastically as we all drive away. Strange chap. I wonder where he thinks we go each night. I have no doubt there are some fantastically entertaining speculations on the subject in that little notebook of his.
I’ve kept all of the comics Hugh’s given me. Maybe he’ll want them back, some day. He’s got quite the voracious reading appetite — he’s raced through multiple series. I love seeing how much he enjoys reading them, so much so that I haven’t the heart to explain to the alien the difference between reality and fiction. I wouldn’t want to hurt his feelings; the very thought breaks my heart. Mr Manbeing might be an alien, but I find him quite endearing, as do the others in the office. His big bug eyes are akin to those of a puppy. Telling him that humans aren’t that exciting feels a bit like telling a small child that there’s no Santa Claus. (If there are any small children reading this, there is a Santa Claus — that was just a test. Well done, you passed.)
And so what if he’s an unknown, sent here to investigate and report on our humble little planet? What will he tell them? These Earthlings sit around all day inside, staring at electronic screens and bashing away at keyboards, making various combinations of the same twenty-six letters? These carbon-based lifeforms have a penchant for warm and caffeinated beverages? I think they’d hardly consider us a threat, let alone a viable opponent. And so what if he’s an adult (or at least, I think he’s an adult) that likes to read comic books? He’s not hurting anyone. Let him be, I say. Let him enjoy what he enjoys.
After all, haven’t we all got that one friend who’s a little bit off?
2nd July 2020
Shortlisted for the ‘Superpower’ Reedsy Writing Contest