On rating: PG (Includes a curse word. Deals with death, grief, and decomposition.)
For a full sun cycle, Alphonse has sat within his human's reach, where his indentation has worn into the carpet. He does not move. Neither does she. She has been much slower lately than before, but Alphonse does not mind their new pace of life. After all, she always waited for him to catch up when she was so much quicker. One sun cycle is hardly a long time for him to wait. Still, he has never seen her remain so still for so long. Gradually, he begins to worry.
This is their routine: at first sunlight, she opens her eyes and puts her hand to his capstone, fingertips slipping into the groove worn smooth from repeated touch. She sometimes describes to him what she calls her dreams (he never understands these accounts but listens patiently all the same), and other times she only groans as she moves her body one piece at a time. After a while, she pushes to her feet, leaning against him, and together they shuffle across the floor. When she is close enough to grab her metal exoskeleton, she lowers herself into it. Then they take their daily tour of the cave, his human rolling on wheels and Alphonse hovering alongside her.
Perhaps they will do this every other sun cycle now. He will follow her lead—he has no reason to hurry.
Alphonse does not need to eat every day, but she likes when they eat together. He consumes a portion of the scrap metal or rock that is delivered once every seven sun cycles. (He never eats the toaster—that only happened once, and he'd been very sorry.) His human eats yogurt and fruit from a plastic cup. When she's finished, she lets him move her metal spoon to the sink. He can't actually wash it—he can't lift the soap bottle—but he can twist the knobs to make water come out and then twist them again to make it stop. Then she says, "I just don't know what I'd do without you, Alphonse," and he's pleased.
Sometimes she sits in front of her picture box and taps her fingers—chatting with her friends, she calls it. Alphonse cannot pass near the picture box without disrupting the display, so he is always relieved when she closes it up. Sometimes her friends visit their cave instead, bringing flowers, food, and books. For many sun cycles, she has not asked him to battle the humans that visit, but he's always alert for a command, just in case.
Invariably, she spends the largest portion of each sun cycle reading in the wicker chair overlooking the back garden. Before she began using the exoskeleton, she tended the flowers herself, calling Alphonse over to smell the hydrangeas or to help her rearrange the path stones. Now another human comes to water and prune the plants, pausing to wave at Alphonse and his human.
She reads aloud to Alphonse—she likes mineralogy, and so does he. If she comes across a photo, she turns the books so he can see and says, "This one is almost as handsome as you." He doesn't understand why she chuckles each time, but he likes that it's something he can predict. When she inevitably falls asleep, he keeps a watchful eye on the tailow and pidgey that flit around the feeder. They never come close, but he is ready if they do.
When she is too tired to wheel herself, she instead asks Alphonse to push her where she directs. She always apologizes for troubling him, which makes no sense. Her exoskeleton is magnetic—easy for him to move—and she weighs nothing.
She has always been delicate, his poor human—even at her best, she could create no light screens to protect herself and could only lift the smallest stones—but now she has shrunken and become as lightweight as pumice. He knows why. Humans are one of the strange sorts who carry their minerals on the inside, a layer of pulpy stuff covering the rock underneath. It's strange rock, but rock nevertheless. Her rock, already porous to begin with, is hollowing out ever-faster—he can detect it with his electromagnetic waves when he's at her side.
The erosion itself doesn't surprise him. It will happen to him someday, too. His magnetic holding force will derate bit by bit until, at last, he no longer has the strength to draw in the minerals to repair his body. Then he will begin to wear away. One day, every speck of him will be absorbed into the body of another probopass, and the cycle will continue. What surprises him is how quickly his human is eroding—and despite her protective outer layer.
She has slowed down, but she still does everything too fast.
One morning, between waking and rising, she addressed him in a soft voice. "Do you remember the camerupt at Stark Mountain?"
Alphonse hummed, filings bristling. Of course he remembered. She's always saying lately that her memory isn't what it used to be, calling him her external hard drive. He hasn't sorted out the complete significance of this new nickname yet, but he understands that she means he forgets nothing, which is true.
"That was a long time ago ..."
He disagreed but didn't argue.
She lifted her hand, and he raised a satellite to meet her, nuzzling its nose into her palm. Her hands have always been his favorite thing about her—so spindly yet deft, always moving. They have become knobbly and shaky, but she still manages to pick bits of lint or a loose paper clip off his satellites, which he has no way to do himself.
"I still feel terrible about the one we lost," she said, pulling his satellite into her arms.
With a grating sound, he drew his remaining two satellites closer. He remembered ... but he did not like to.
Losing a satellite happened from time to time when they had battled often—a solar flare or a powerful opponent could destabilize his holding force enough for him to drop a satellite he'd sent too far away. Sometimes he'd found them again and pulled them back into his orbit. Other times they'd simply been lost. It was an inconvenience, but he always assembled a new one with time. The lost satellite would roll downhill until it came to a dark, safe place where it would eventually grow into a nosepass. The cycle continued.
But at Stark Mountain, there had been no safe, dark place—the very rock had glowed red, the floor sloping to pools of spuming lava. The camerupt had made the walls tremble until rock crumbled from the ceiling. When Alphonse had risen to shield his human, a boulder had knocked his satellite into the lava pit—where it had been instantly atomized. Not lost: gone.
His human said, "This time I have a chance to warn you first. I'll be gone one day, too, Alphonse. Eventually, I will ... not be able to be repaired." She paused to rub at a scratch on the satellite's surface, seeming not to want to look at him. "You'll have to go on without me. What do you want to do when that happens? We have to decide, so I can add it to my will."
Alphonse waited for more, as he always did when she said something he didn't understand.
"Do you want to return to Granite Cave? Do you want to fight for a new trainer?"
Alphonse turned his body from side to side, a gesture he'd learned from her. He did not want to go.
When she'd left the gym, the others had made those kinds of choices. In addition to the satellites she'd assembled from her own body, she used to have many pokemon in her orbit. It's the one way he has to acknowledge humans are more powerful: he can hold no more than three satellites long-term, but she could at one point hold more than twice that many, despite her negligible magnetic field, and send them as far away as she liked. Her human satellites can vanish for many sun cycles and still return again and again. They have adopted Gloria, the golem, who returns with them now when they visit once every seven sun cycles. He supposes adopting satellites of their own means her satellites are fully grown now, though it's difficult for Alphonse to tell when it comes to humans. His human has lost her holding strength, and she sent away all of her satellites at once. Now there is only Alphonse.
For many turnings and many fluctuations of the magnetic poles, long before he knew what a sun cycle was, he'd had no name. He'd been himself, and that had been enough. She had given him the name Alphonse. He had accepted it, puzzled but amused. She has a name for humans to call her, too. He recognizes the name when he hears it, listening for danger or malice in the speaker's voice, but he has never used it. But after many turnings spent with her, he has invented his own nickname for her. He turns toward her, and she guides him forward: she is North.
No, he would not go. Why would he leave if she was here? She was North, and he would keep his face to her. If her holding force was failing and she could no longer hold him, then so be it. As best as he could, he would hold her instead.
His human smiled and finally met his eyes. "It doesn't have to be now. I wanted you to start thinking about it ... but we can decide later." She squeezed his satellite one more time and then released it, leaving it to drift back to his side. "Well, I can't stay in bed all day. Here we go, Alphonse. Slow and steady."
Every other sun cycle, a wigglytuff and a human called Melissa come to prepare meals, polish Alphonse, and clean the cave. At the beginning of each visit, Melissa takes measurements and administers minerals to his human, and Alphonse watches her closely. At so much as a moan or a sigh from his North, Alphonse snatches Melissa's tools out of her hands and pulls them to his body until his human gently tells him to let go.
When Alphonse hears Melissa at the door, North has not stirred in one and a quarter sun cycles, and he doesn't know what to do. Opening the door for Melissa is his job, but he doesn't like to leave his human unattended when she is behaving so peculiarly. Humming, he considers. Finally, he brings one of his satellites up to nudge his human's shoulder, wanting her to tell him what to do. She still doesn't move.
Melissa knocks again.
Satellites whirring around him, Alphonse lets out a grinding sound. Finally, he turns and glides for the front door, leaving one satellite behind with his human. He's made it no further than halfway down the hallway when he hears the satellite crash to the floor, too far outside his radius to continue levitating. He hesitates again, coming to a complete stop in the hallway—until Melissa knocks a third time, spurring him on.
Even thrumming with anxiety, Alphonse knows to untwist the two locks before trying to turn the knob. For a glimmering moment, he remembers to feel proud he can do this for his human. Her hands are more precise than his magnetism, but she can't reach the locks when she's sitting in her exoskeleton.
"Hi, Alphonse," says Melissa when the door swings open. She does not pat his capstone as she sometimes does—her arms are loaded with grocery bags. "You had me worried for a minute there."
The wigglytuff waddles behind her with another bag and a self-satisfied look on its face.
Alphonse wants to follow her, to make her check on his human right away, but he has to close the door behind them first. He never forgets to close the door. When he spins around again, Melissa is putting down some of the grocery bags. He tries to yank the bag from her hand with a pulse of energy, but there's nothing metal in it for him to pull.
Melissa speaks without looking at him, unpacking the bags. "Where's Ms. Roxanne? Outside already?"
He butts a satellite against the bag in her hand, and she swivels out of its way.
"Thank you, Alphonse, but I don't need your help. Waffle and I have it under control."
She opens the refrigerator to load in the yogurt cups his human likes. Before she can reach in, Alphonse pushes against the metal handle and slams it shut. Melissa whirls around to glare at him. "Alphonse, I have to get these into the fridge."
He hums his disapproval.
"What's gotten into you?" she whines, pushing away one of his satellites. "Go sit with your trainer."
He nudges her with all three satellites now, trying to move her towards his human. When she pushes one away from her legs, he bobbles another up between her shoulder blades. The wigglytuff puffs itself up and momentarily swats down one of the satellites, but Alphonse doesn't stop. The air vibrates with his humming.
Melissa cups her hands around her mouth. "Ms. Roxanne? Can you call Alphonse?" She waits then tries again. "Ms. Roxanne?"
Grumbling, she ignores his efforts to push her in the opposite direction and moves instead towards the back door. He trails along behind her, humming and keening.
"Ms. Roxanne?" Melissa stares first at the empty wicker chair and then the empty garden. Then she looks at him. "Okay, Alphonse, where is she? Did something happen?"
Finally, she follows Alphonse down the hallway to the chamber where his human lies in her nest, pale and unmoving. Melissa gasps and stops in the doorway. "Oh no ..."
Alphonse nudges her forward, and she moves to sit in the nest beside his human. The wigglytuff toddles to her side, shaping a bubble of pink light between its paws. But Melissa waves him away, saying, "That's a nice thought, Waffle, honey, but I don't think it'll help."
He watches Melissa take his human's hand in hers, then touch her neck, and then lean down over her face as if listening to a secret. After a while, she sits up, looks at her watch, and says, "Time of death is 10:23 A.M."
Alphonse does not understand, so he waits.
Melissa comes back and crouches to meet Alphonse's gaze. "I'm sorry, Alphonse. She's gone."
This is nonsense. His human is obviously lying right in front of them—she's not gone at all. But he can sense Melissa's distress, so he does not argue with her yet.
She remains crouched for a few moments and then begins to fidget. At last, she stands straight again and pats his capstone. "Poor guy. I can never tell how much you understand." With a sigh, she says, "I guess I should try to find your pokeball ... I have to make some phone calls first, though. You can come and sit with me if you don't want to be alone, okay?"
He lingers near North a little longer, spinning his satellites in place as he watches her. She really is very still. If he couldn't also feel the terrible softness under her surface, he could almost mistake her for a creature of stone. There's a new smell around her, but he doesn't know what this one means. It's not a fear-smell like sweat or a sadness-smell like salt water. Maybe an injury, a blood-smell, but not quite that either. Melissa didn't comment—maybe it's just a human thing. He hates to leave his human alone, but he finally hovers down the hall to join Melissa—she's responsible for his human's maintenance, and he wants to know what she'll do.
Melissa sits at the table where North normally eats her yogurt. While the wigglytuff finishes putting away the groceries, Melissa talks into a stone. Alphonse decides it's not a satellite, even though it's abuzz with electromagnetic waves, because when she eventually sighs and lays it on the table, it doesn't move again. He's never sure with humans.
She turns and frowns at him. "I sure hope one of the kids takes you. Doesn't seem right to dump a pokemon like you onto the market like a used car. You really did take good care of her."
Yet again, she sighs. She's been doing that a lot. "They said they'll meet us at the funeral home, so I guess we'll figure it out then. It really is a shame, though. They should be here. I suppose they're doing their best—not easy getting here from Rustboro in the middle of the workday."
When he doesn't respond, she stands up and announces, "Well, it's time to take care of Ms. Roxanne."
She carefully cleans his human, lays her arms at her sides, and slides a sheet under her. The wigglytuff passes her supplies. Alphonse is puzzled but doesn't see the harm in this activity, so he watches. When Melissa is done, she moves down the hall and talks to her stone again.
"Someone from Peaceful Passage is on the way," she tells Alphonse when he hovers near and hums a query. "I'd better collect all the paperwork. And your pokeball."
Alphonse trails behind as she moves around the cave, gathering pieces of paper and handing them to the wigglytuff. Then, hissing and muttering under her breath, she begins opening and closing drawers and cabinets. She starts near his human's nest, but she does not return to North to administer the usual minerals or poke and prod with her tools. This is not part of the routine at all. He floats a satellite next to Melissa, trying to see around her, and she nearly catches its nose in the cabinet door when she bangs it shut. "Sorry, Alphonse. Do you know where Ms. Roxanne kept your pokeball?"
He turns his face from side to side. It's been many sun cycles since he saw the plastic ball, and he's grateful. He needs to stay out here so he knows what's happening.
Melissa sighs and continues her search. Alphonse watches her for a while, then checks on North, and then returns to watching Melissa.
He's with his human again when he hears the knock at the door. This time he doesn't hesitate—but when he arrives, Melissa is already opening the door without him. He hums his displeasure and then hums louder when an unfamiliar human male steps into the doorway.
"Morning, ma'am. My name is Darren—with Peaceful Passage. Are you all ready for us, or do you need a few minutes?"
Ignoring Alphonse's satellite vibrating against her back, Melissa answers, "Everything is ready for you. Thank you."
Alphonse's hum becomes a high-pitched whine.
The male glances down and catches sight of Alphonse, pressing up behind Melissa with his satellites jangling against the coat rack and key hooks. "That's not your probopass, is it?"
"No, he belongs to the deceased." She gestures for Alphonse to bring his satellites down. "The wigglytuff is hospital dispatch though."
"That's what I thought. You'll have to recall it, I'm afraid." The male points, not at the wigglytuff, the guest, but at Alphonse.
"I know, but I couldn't find his pokeball." Melissa casts a look over her shoulder at Alphonse and adds pleadingly, "He's very well-behaved though."
"I'm not crazy about—"
"Alphonse, it's okay. Go sit in the kitchen."
The wigglytuff inflates its chest and narrows its eyes at Alphonse, which he ignores.
"Go on, Alphonse."
Out of habit more than anything else, Alphonse complies.
The man leaves and then returns a few moments later with a medicham. Between them, they roll a cart, like North's exoskeleton except larger and flatter. As the cart rattles down the hallway to his human's chamber, the medicham turns to shoot Alphonse a meaningful look, eyes rimmed with purple fire. Melissa and the wigglytuff follow the male and the medicham. Then Alphonse rises up and glides down the hallway after them.
When Alphonse comes to the entrance of his human's chamber, the male is sliding his hands under North and lifting her. Alphonse freezes and his filings prickle with a burst of static. The only thing that stops him from barreling into the chamber is the sight of Melissa standing calmly with her hands folded in front of her.
She catches his eye. "It's okay, Alphonse. No one is hurting her. We're taking her to a place where her family can see her one more time."
The white glow around North tells him that the medicham is helping its human with the lifting. Alphonse whirs in consternation at the thought of another pokemon touching his human. He doesn't like how they smell—something strong and chemical that's meant to hide other smells.
The male lays North gently on top of the cart. "Can you help keep the probopass out of the way?" he says to Melissa. "The hallway isn't big enough for both of us."
"Of course." She moves to lay a hand on Alphonse's side—he's levitating high enough that she doesn't have to bend down to touch him. "Alphonse, let's go back to the kitchen, buddy."
But then the male is drawing dark fabric over North's body. With a stab of alarm, Alphonse remembers his satellite disappearing under the surface of a pool of fire. Gone, Melissa said—but Alphonse won't let that happen.
"I said let's go to the kitchen, Alphonse." Her voice is far away.
As the fabric closes over his human's face, Alphonse shoves Melissa aside and hurtles into the room.
But the medicham is ready for him, catching Alphonse with an open-palm smack that sends him spinning across the room. He crashes into a shelf. North's books and trophies tumble down, thumping and clanking against Alphonse as they fall. The medicham glowers down at him, daring him with its eyes to get back up.
He's not hurt, but he whines and turns toward North, ignoring Melissa's screams and the male's growls. If his human is upset about the books, she gives no indication. For a moment, he waits for her command. He would stop if she ordered him to. But she doesn't order it, so he doesn't stop.
As Alphonse rises, the remainder of the bookshelf splinters around him. The medicham sways towards him, fire cracking from between its fingers.
"Serenity, no! Not inside the house—!"
Alphonse knows he's the slower one, but he knows he can take a punch—he doesn't waste his time trying to avoid its fists. Instead, he sends his satellites buzzing around the medicham's head and—while it's busy striking them down—gathers a charge, pulling static to him from the carpet, from Melissa's hair, from North's fabric nest.
"Hang on, hang on! Just give me a chance to—!"
When the medicham slides through a gap between the satellites and drives a fist into Alphonse's face, he releases the charge. The medicham staggers, limbs jerking. Alphonse's ears are ringing from the blow, but the pause is all he needs—he reaches out for the metal frame that holds his human and yanks it from the male's grasp.
Alphonse pulls the cart to himself, pausing only long enough to raise two satellites to block an incoming blow.
"I've got earbuds! Get ready, Waffle!"
Alphonse pivots and then swerves into the hallway, shoving the cart with his human out ahead of him. He'll figure out how to release her later, but first—
The sound in the room goes liquid. He can't even hear the vibrations of his own satellites. Something smells … pink? Without meaning to, he slows. The carpet seems to ripple under him. For a moment, Alphonse can't tell which direction is up. He smashes his satellites into the ceiling—no, the floor—and he careens into the wall, lodging there.
Grating with the effort, he turns and sees the wigglytuff framed in the doorway. Its mouth is moving, but the sound oozes away from him. Alphonse knows he needs to lift himself, to move, to get his human somewhere safe. But he can't move. Then all he can think about it is a cavern deep beneath the earth, the cool stillness, and he sinks into the darkness ...
"—even the best-trained pokemon can behave erratically when upset."
"Again, I'm so sorry. I really didn't think he'd do that."
A door shuts.
Alphonse begins to stir. He realizes first that he doesn't know where North is, then that he's still embedded in a probopass-shaped crater in the wall. He rips free from the drywall and wheels toward the front door.
The wigglytuff waits in the open doorway, squeaking in surprise at Alphonse's approach. It puffs up and opens its mouth—Alphonse fires an ion beam from his satellites, and the wigglytuff falls limp. Without pause, he jets past it out the door.
Outside, there is a white van. The one that takes North for repairs when her internal rock is damaged is smaller and silver, and she never goes in with her head covered. She never goes without telling Alphonse. The male and the medicham stand to one side of the rear door, Melissa to the other. He does not see North—she must be inside.
He does not know where or why they are taking his human, but he knows it's not right.
"Alphonse! Wait!" Melissa cries. She has betrayed his human, but she poses no immediate threat.
He turns instead to face the medicham, already sidling towards him. "Knock it out, Serenity," says the male, and the medicham breaks into a run. Its movements are twitchy and faltering, but it's still faster than Alphonse. The medicham is already on him, pummeling him with fists of flame, while Alphonse strains—
With a crunch and a burst of alarms, the van door tears loose. Alphonse brings it smashing sidelong into the medicham, sweeping its legs out from under it. He lets his satellites drop, instead holding the car door between himself and the medicham and reaching for North.
The male dives in front of the cart, but he can't stop Alphonse from pulling it up and out, bowling the male over with it. The medicham shrieks and turns to look, giving Alphonse an opening to shove it to the ground, smashing the van door on top. Melissa makes a grab for the cart handles, but not fast enough. Alphonse yanks it out from under her, leaving her stumbling.
Pulling the cart close to him, Alphonse hums his concern and confusion to North, still somewhere inside the fabric. He brings up his satellites to shield her, keeping his body near what he assumes is her head. But now that he has her, he's not sure what to do. He wishes she would tell him what to do—she's so smart, so good at seeing solutions he can't.
The male is sitting up, gripping his head, and the medicham throws off the car door. So Alphonse shoves the cart forward. When he comes to the curb he has to lift to get them over it, but it's not difficult. And then they're on the road, wheels clattering—moving away from their cozy cave, away from the cacophony of the car alarm, away from the traitorous humans.
By instinct, he moves west towards the mountains. He glides along the road, ignoring the blare of horns. Cars either screech to a stop and allow him to pass or he shoves them back. He does not stop, not even when a vehicle flashing lights pulls alongside him, sirens screaming. The side mirror clips his satellite, knocking it out of sight and out of reach.
A second vehicle skids across his path, and a human male and a mightyena jump out. Alphonse does not stop. He pulls the metal frame tight to him and pulses out energy, launching himself up and over. A shadow whips across him, and he feels another satellite fall away. But when the cart wheels hit the ground on the other side of the vehicle, Alphonse keeps hurtling forward.
When he comes to a road where the burnt rubber smell and traffic are too riotous even for him, he wrenches the cart off the road, crashing through the underbrush. Weeds eventually snare the wheels, so he draws the cart up with him, whining at the strain. But he pushes on and on, towards the smells of granite and limestone, until at last there is solid rock underneath him. With a final thrust of energy, Alphonse shoves his way up and over a slope and stops to rest in a natural bowl sheltered by boulders. Traffic rumbles somewhere under the mountain, but it's far away. He notices then that his last satellite is gone, but it doesn't matter. His North is with him, and all is quiet.
He sits for a time, regaining his strength. Again, he waits for his human to offer insight or issue a command. She does not. He's a little disappointed, but he pushes ahead, sniffing for wet earth.
Among the rocky crags, he eventually finds an opening big enough to squeeze through with the cart: a tunnel that opens into a cavern. As an extra precaution, he collapses the opening behind them. Then there is only Alphonse, the dark cavern, and North.
He manages to pull open the fabric—the fastener is metal—but can't sort out how to get her out. In his effort, he upends the cart, scattering dirt. He keens for a while, hovering in place. Unbelievably, she still says nothing and does not move. Surely now she ought to thank him for keeping her safe and tell him what he should do next. He waits.
After a while, he realizes her magnetic force is too low—she will not stir again with any amount of waiting. He reflects on all the things she must be thinking and cannot say. She won't chuckle again or touch the spot on his capstone that perfectly fits her fingers. At this realization, he sinks to the floor and does not move for a long time. He finally decides that it's good that she can trust him to protect her when she is so vulnerable, so near the end. He can see that she's there, and she's not upset. That's enough.
There are no more sun cycles, only the earth's slow turning. Alphonse is in no hurry.
He feels naked with no satellites, but he thinks perhaps this is best for now. He understands North better than anyone else would this way—when he loses his holding force, when he no longer has the strength even to levitate, he imagines he will seem much as she does now: inert, helpless. He is glad she does not have to be alone while she waits to erode. She wouldn't like that.
First he eats the cart and then begins to leach the minerals he needs from the surrounding rock. Eventually, the fabric that covers North wears away, and he can see her better. Then her soft outer layers wear away, exposing her true self. The color surprises him—not blue but whitish. One more of her oddities. For a while, there are many interesting smells. Occasionally, a sableye skitters down the wall to investigate, and Alphonse drives it away. Mostly, Alphonse sits and remembers, and he imagines she does the same.
Eventually, even North's rock begins to break down. Her rock is structured so strangely—he could never lift or reshape it like other rock—but the basic mineral components are the same. He could pull those into his body now, he realizes, and build new satellites. For a long time, he does not. He circles the rock fragments, moves away, and returns over and over. If he consumes her rock, she will disintegrate faster, and then she will at last be gone. Forever.
But he promised himself he would hold her as long as he could.
So, he begins to create new satellites, speckled with white. He remembers her sudden laughter, her insight, and her trust—he hopes he can hold those things in the structure he builds. As long as he lives, so will she.
And the cycle continues.
Notes: I was inspired by the short story "The Stone" by Louise Erdrich, which appeared in The New Yorker in September 2018. This story picks up where that one leaves off ... sort of. Plus or minus a few pokemon.