By R. J. Russell
“Unless she’s a Gar, aliens don’t kill people,” Buldry said to himself as he stood outside an ancient-looking bungalow on a forgotten dead-end road. The door swung open and an old face poked through and peered down at him.
“So you’re here.” Her voice sounded like gravel. “Do you remember me?”
Her eyes were red-flecked and watery, and what was left of her silver hair wisped in the wind.
“No,” said Buldry.
She smiled. Her front teeth were missing, and in their place, a gummy hole. Then she cocked her head toward the domecar where Buldry’s mother idled. “He’s fine, Margareta,” crowed the old woman. “You can go.”
His mother’s countenance remained unchanged as she watched the two of them through sunshades.
The old woman grabbed his shoulder with a knotty hand and guided him through the doorway while she shooed the domecar away with the other hand. “Does she expect me to thank her for letting me visit with my own grandson?” she mumbled.
Buldry allowed himself to be guided into the house, and the large, wooden door closed behind them.
He peered around the room, and once his eyes adjusted, he realized he stood in a somewhat human-looking living room. The wallpaper had patterns of yellow sunflowers, but the room buzzed with electricity.
The noise came from one of the many stacks of electronics in the room, the buzzing one a collection of old battery alarm clocks and stereo equipment. So much stuff, thought Buldry, as he followed his grandmother between the piles littering the floor.
“Don’t mind the mess,” said his grandmother.
Each pile had a theme. Old digital cameras. Antique video game systems. Columns of CDs. Why? Human technology samples, thought Buldry.
“Follow right behind me,” said his grandmother, and they walked, single file, along a solitary path that weaved through the room. The floorboards creaked underfoot, and the air became increasingly thick with the smell of dust.
Buldry immediately regretted coming. He could have easily told his mother he’d rather have stayed home–his mother would have canceled immediately. His parents had fought about it just last night.
“I don’t want him to go,” Buldry’s mother had said. The tick-tock of her heels echoed in the empty space as she paced up and down the engineered oak flooring.
Buldry took extra care to remain silent as he hid just out of sight on the stairwell, but he could still see his father on the couch, scanning his holo-feed for news.
“I think you’re reading too much into it,” said the man as he peeked over the Saturday edition. “Let the boy go. He’ll be fine.”
“She’s a bad influence, Charles.” Buldry’s mother held a teacup close to her body as if for warmth. She tapped on it with a manicured nail. “I’m going to cancel.”
His father took a deep breath. “Buldry did his homework early for this, Margareta,” he said.
She sat on the couch with her back straight and knees together. “I just don’t think he’ll understand.”
His father chuckled. “You talk as if your mother is an alien.”
She pushed the holo-pages down and gave him a stern look. “She is, Charles.”
Buldry remembered how his chest thumped then, and his skin goosed up in ripples across his shoulders and down his arms. An alien? A real-life alien?
“It will be fine. Grandparents should see their grandchildren,” his father replied in a disembodied voice, revealing that the holo-feed had won over his attention again. “Not that we need to make it a habit.”
Buldry knew a lot about aliens–they were in the news all the time–but he never imagined his grandmother was one of them. “Mind blow. Mind blow,” he said to himself over and over as he crawled into bed that night.
As he stared at his grandmother now, in that small house on a dead-end street, he had so many questions. Which kind of alien was she? What planet? Most importantly, if she was an alien, what did that make him? Part alien? Did he have any special powers he should know about? Did this have anything to do with his unnatural appetite for pork rinds? His stomach panged with equal parts nervousness and hunger.
He passed a dozen old desktop computers, a glass cabinet full of physical hard drives, and four large mounds of flat-screen televisions that reached the ceiling. Buldry had only ever seen flat-screens at the museum, and he wondered if his grandmother was a wealthy alien to afford such relics.
“You have a lot of stuff,” said Buldry.
His grandmother wheeled on him and put her face next to his. “I’m a collector.” Her breath smelled like domecar exhaust, and Buldry took an unintentional step backward.
“What’s the matter?” she said.
He didn’t want to offend her. If there was an alien inside that human suit, who knew what she was capable of?
Buldry couldn’t help but recall yesterday’s headline that poured out of every media projector in the city: PEACEKEEPER EATEN OVER GRAVE MISUNDERSTANDING.
Earlier that month, astronaut Osias Myron brought flowers to place at the tomb of a recently deceased Gar ruler, Felmore Gimish. Osias didn’t know that flowers—in Gar culture—symbolized the most severe form of cowardice: betrayal. One of the grieving Gars reached into Osias’ mouth and ripped off his lower jaw, while the rest beat the astronaut to death.
Buldry didn’t want to find himself in that kind of trouble, even if it meant smelling his grandmother’s ozone breath.
She looked at him from the reds of her eyes. “Are you scared of me?”
“No,” he said, but he’d replied a little too quickly.
His mother certainly was. She hardly ever mentioned his grandmother, except to say that she would not be attending this or that family holiday in her practiced “yet again” voice. However, the smirk on his mother’s face always said she felt secretly relieved.
“Follow me,” said his grandmother. She made her way slowly through the room until she reached a bookshelf filled with antique computer tablets. She grabbed one, powered it on, and scanned through a group of photos until she landed on an image and enlarged it.
“There. Some of these people will look familiar.” She was right. The people in the photo looked oddly recognizable, though Buldry couldn’t quite place them. The yellow sunflower wallpaper in the background, however, was unmistakable. It was the same room, minus the piles.
Four adults sat along a blue couch.
She pointed to a woman. “That’s me.”
Buldry scowled. In truth, his grandmother had a more current resemblance to melted wax than she did the woman in the photograph, but Buldry assumed that human suits wore out over time. In the scene, she sat with a straight back on the arm of the couch. Her cheeks were full, and she had beautiful, white teeth. Even though she was sitting, he could tell that his grandmother was once quite tall.
“Your dad,” she said as she pointed to one of the two men in the picture.
Now Buldry recognized him. He had a black beard back then.
“That’s your mom, and that little guy is you.”
Buldry hadn’t even noticed the small, wrapped, bundle.
“You look different now,” she said, and his grandmother touched Buldry’s cheek. Her skin felt like dictionary paper, and Buldry couldn’t help but shudder.
“Who’s that?” Buldry pointed to a tall, goofy-looking man who had failed to unbutton his blazer when he sat down, causing his shoulders to puff out. His arm wrapped around his grandmother’s waist.
“My husband,” she said matter-of-factly, and she quickly closed the picture and continued to walk down the path with the tablet underneath her arm.
She meant his grandfather. Buldry’s mother had pictures of him. For as much as Buldry’s mother disliked his grandmother, she loved his grandfather. Buldry didn’t remember him, but he sometimes said he did when his mother would ask so she wouldn’t get upset.
“Next stop, the kitchen,” Buldry’s grandmother announced. “You come from a long line of collectors. This next collection is my great grandmother’s. She would be your great great great grandmother, if you can believe it.”
“Pretty great,” said Buldry.
“She was pretty great.”
Before he stepped foot in the next room, he heard a distinct sound reminiscent of rain—thousands of drips and drops—as if the kitchen had a hole in the ceiling and rain poured in.
As he stepped through the doorway, he realized that the countertops, the cabinets, the stove, and even the sink, were filled with all kinds of small, moving robots.
“What are they?” said Buldry.
“These? They’re clocks, of course,” she replied.
Buldry found that hard to believe. They didn’t look like any clock he’d ever seen. Each had its own shape and size. They sounded like they were leaking fluid from their bottoms, each competing to be louder than the next.
“Pendulum clocks,” she said, pointing to one of the robots with a giant, swinging arm. There were so many covering every inch of the kitchen that all the pendulums made the walls move.
Aliens had a different way of keeping time, thought Buldry. He was learning so much.
“Is each clock connected to a different planet?” said Buldry.
“What?” His grandmother’s face twisted into a frown, and Buldry decided to back off his question. Too soon, he thought.
“Sit,” she said as she led him to a small kitchen table where two cups of tea were already laid out on the only open surface in the room. “Let’s talk. I’ve always wanted to learn more about my grandson. I hear you’re very good at baseball.”
Buldry took a sip from the cup. The peppermint was too sweet and the tea already cold. “Lots of kids are better,” he said.
“Modesty at such a young age? Modesty takes social intelligence.”
“I’m not really that smart,” he said, because he wasn’t. He didn’t get good grades or anything. In fact, he often got bad grades.
She peered at him with a stern eye. Buldry half expected her to scold him, but then one of the clocks stole her attention. “Hold on a second,” she said. “Something amazing is about to happen.” She laid a pointer finger over her mouth. “Shhh.”
Buldry held his breath. This was the moment, he thought, when his grandmother threw off her human suit to reveal the creature underneath. He hoped she wasn’t slimy. Slimy aliens grossed him out. If he had his choice, he wanted her to be a Wink. Their bat-like features and gigantic wings were awesomer than any other alien, and they had good hearing too. She could teach him. It would help him hear all the nasty things that the kids at recess said about him.
They sat there in silence, anticipation buzzing, listening to the storm of clocks until an unexpected bird emerged from one and gave an enthusiastic, “cuckoo.” A moment later, another clock gonged. The rest of the clocks thundered in bells and chimes. An alien orchestra. The big gongs vibrated against his chest.
His grandmother clapped her hands and laughed. “Isn’t it amazing?” she cried.
Then the clocks trailed off, and finally, the very last gong went back to dripping.
“Another hour passed,” she said. “What do you think?”
“Cool clocks,” he said.
“Humanity’s greatest invention.”
“Time. You know why?”
He shook his head no.
“When the railroad was built, keeping time kept the trains from crashing, and that’s when they started making clocks like these. Their lives depended on it. Time was their survival. That’s why my great grandmother collected these.” She gazed around the room. “I think she thought if she had enough of them, she could turn it all back.”
“Time travel,” said Buldry.
“That’s right,” she replied.
“Did she?” Buldry’s skin tingled. He had no idea he potentially had a notable time traveler in his history.
Buldry’s grandmother eyed him. “In a way,” she said, suspiciously. “She was a different sort of person, or so I hear.”
“Different like you?”
She chuckled. “I suppose.”
His grandmother was indeed different. Her fingernails were abnormally yellow and cracked, and her neck had too much skin. If her goal was to blend in, her disguise was failing her.
Buldry must have been looking a little too hard at her.
“You look like you have a question,” she said.
He did have a question, but he knew it wasn’t appropriate. Then again, why else was he here if not to find out? He placed his teacup down. His heart pounded like one of his grandmother’s big clocks, and he looked her square in the face with brave eyes.
“Are you an alien?” he said.
His grandmother threw her head back.
Buldry squeezed his eyes shut, waiting for her to rip off his jaw.
Instead, she roared with laughter. “Oh my,” she said.
Buldry chuckled too, but he didn’t know why.
“My, my. What makes you say that?” she asked. She cackled and put a hand against her chest like she was trying to keep the creature inside from laughing its way out of her body.
“That’s what my mom said,” said Buldry.
Her wide smile quickly disappeared as if that dark, gummy hole sucked it right out of her face.
She stopped looking at Buldry and instead, her eyes stared at the delinquent clock that started all the noise earlier.
The room went quiet, and even the clocks seemed as though they stopped their dripping.
She cleared her throat and wiped a little dribble of tea from her chin. Her face had turned grey. Now her disguise really did look obvious. He wondered if she realized.
“I suppose I am,” she said in a voice mixed with gristle. “But what’s wrong with that?”
Excitement fluttered in Buldry’s chest. He knew it. He absolutely knew it.
“You won’t tell anyone, will you?” she said.
Not tell anyone? He wanted to tell everyone he knew, especially the kids at school. What could it hurt?
She took another sip from her cup. The coldness of the tea seemed not to bother her, and her hands shook a little—a clear sign that her electronics were shorting out. She would need to fix that.
Why didn’t she want anyone to know? Was she in hiding? Maybe the government was after her. Regardless, Buldry could tell by her expression that this was serious.
“Not a soul,” she said.
He wrapped his arms around his stomach to calm himself. “I won’t tell anyone,” said Buldry, and he meant it. Maybe he wasn’t that good at baseball, but he could keep a secret.
“In that case, I have a present for you. Something to take home.” She swept her hand around the room. “Any one you want.”
“Seriously?” She was going to let him take a piece of her technology? He immediately knew which one. “Can I have that one?” He pointed to the delinquent bird clock. Buldry thought it was the coolest.
“That one?” His grandmother hesitated. She scratched the bottom of her chin with her pinky, and Buldry thought he had made a mistake.
He shifted in his chair. “I can choose a different one.”
“No,” she quickly replied. “I want you to take it.”
“I hope my mom lets me keep it,” said Buldry. He could only imagine what she would say when he brought home a piece of alien tech.
“She will.” His grandmother downed the rest of her tea. “It’s a present.” She placed the cup on the table and patted his hand. “And remember to keep my secret.”
“I will,” he said, and he knew he would.
Aliens had to stick together, after all.
About the author: R.J. Russell is a science fiction and horror author who teaches writing in Minnesota. He holds an MFA in fiction, which he is pretty sure stands for Moderately Functional Android. His work was recently published in Etherea. When he is not writing or teaching, you can find him using one of his dogs as a pillow. You can also find him at www.rjrussellauthor.com.
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