Tourists

Tourists

illustration by goni montes

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They pushed me out of the portal, dumped me into the sage and manzanita. The great orb’s pastel colors glowed against the clear night sky. As I backed away she rocked, then lifted into the air, the only sounds a scrape and rattle as dirt and pebbles rolled into the hollow she’d left. I saw the sparkle of distant flashbulbs from the perimeter of the landing site, like stars on waves.

I wondered if it was my fault the aliens had stolen my grandmother.

This happened back in the eighties. Like everyone else, Grandma and I followed the story on the news. I remember the first time we saw the ship on television, a soft globe banded in edible-looking shades of pink, orange, and yellow that floated down through the atmosphere and settled lightly on the ground.

Over the next months we watched as they guzzled psychedelic herbal brews in the Amazon basin. We saw them at the pyramids and Machu Picchu. We heard an interview with them when they visited the south of England to marvel at the crop circles.

I even read the book they’d published to finance their tour. It was one of those big-type/wide-margin/one-platitude-per-page deals. “Beware of rationality—it is an enemy of the spirit,” seemed weird coming from a space-going culture. The rest of it was the same kind of thing.

They’d spoken to the Pope and the Dalai Lama and had made an absolutely baffling appearance on The 700 Club, so it shouldn’t have surprised me when they cozied up to my grandmother.

* * *

Since Amy dumped me, I’d gotten in the habit of drinking on weekends. She’d been my first girlfriend. Her sharp mind and soft body, the unexpected sight of myself through her eyes, had given me the first real feelings of joy I’d known, and now I needed something to fill the time I used to spend with her. That Sunday I was sober. Grandma had promised to introduce me to her new friends. I was excited for the first time in months.

Grandma was a small woman with hair that had gone white when she was young. She kept it in a disciplined bun and wore a blouse, skirt, and jacket that hid her body, reduced it to a piece of furniture. She preferred to live from the neck up. Age had taken most of the individuality from her face. From a distance I recognized her by her glasses and bright red lipstick.

We drove to church in her oxblood-and-silver Buick sedan, a four-door with power everything. It was early spring, and the light of the wine country cast a tawny color over vineyards that curved with the slow roll of the land. Grandma was repeatedly startled by the behavior of other cars or the sudden appearance of stoplights. She should have had her license taken away at least a year ago.

“It’s called Christian Science because when you apply the principles you get predictable results,” she said.

“Then why don’t they work on cars?” I hated these discussions; they brought out my mean side and it always made me feel like a jerk when I teased Grandma. But she was the one who started it. “You know what you ought to do? Get a garage next to a reading room, do Christian Science auto repair.”

I glanced over, scared for a second that I might have hurt her feelings. There was a faint smile on her lips.

“You know,” she said, “that’s not a bad idea.”

Affection and irritation had a quick tussle. In the end I felt a little pride in the invincibility of her faith. No one pushes buttons like family; they installed the buttons in the first place.

We had to walk a roped-off passage through the crowd to get into church. Grandma had been complaining about this for weeks. I’d expected more news people, but I suppose they’d covered this part of the tour already. Inside, the back two rows were full of aliens. A cross between a palm tree and a jellyfish bobbed like a fishing rod with a bite on the line. A licorice-black man turned pointillist on close inspection, his flesh a swarm of insect-sized machines. A trio of six-limbed fliers the silver-green of sage leaves fluttered around each other, then settled down in one of the pockets where the hymnals were stored. Church had been the place where I’d found out that I hallucinated when sufficiently bored, but there was no need for hallucinations around this crowd.

“Dear,” Grandma said, “I’d like you to meet Mrs. Outerbridge-Horsie.”

A gleaming blob like a six-foot chrome slug flowed out from under a pew and extruded an antenna toward us. The tip of the antenna swelled and winked open to reveal a monitor that displayed an older woman, the simple richness of her dress set off by a string of video pearls. Mrs. Outerbridge-Horsie’s icon was a wealthier version of Grandma.

“Your grandmother has told me everything about you,” Mrs. Outerbridge-Horsie said. Her voice came from a grille just under the monitor. I wanted to touch her; I couldn’t tell if she was hard like steel or soft like mercury. “You know we all love her very much. You’re very lucky to have her.”

I wondered what the word love meant to an organism that didn’t use serotonin and oxytocin as neurotransmitters, but I didn’t say anything. I read the brass letters shining on the wall behind the pulpit.

GOD IS LOVE.

* * *

A couple of days later Grandma and I were in the kitchen of her mobile home. We’d finished supper and gone through the ritual fight over who was going to do the dishes. She won, as always. She wouldn’t let me do the laundry either. She said it was women’s work. It drove me nuts—she was putting me through school, even giving me pocket money, and the only thing she’d let me do for her was cook. It was bad enough that I let her do all that, but the worst part was that I liked being cared for.

“I’ve invited Mrs. Outerbridge-Horsie to bring some of her friends over for dinner on Wednesday.” She dabbed her lips with a napkin.

I looked down at the willow-pattern plates, the celluloid handles of the silver, the cut-glass tumbler with the faded red band at the lip. All the things that I’d known since I was a child. All the safe things. “You want me to take care of it?”

“Why don’t you make those things you make,” Grandma said, “those Spanish enchilladees.” She made a gesture with her mouth as though she’d just taken a bite. “Oh, those are so good.”

“Sure,” I said. “Enchiladas, dirty rice, green salad, three-bean salad, and whatever you want for dessert. But do they even eat?”

“Well, they can at least try it,” she said. “I think they’d like some of that nice Spanish food.”

* * *

Mrs. Outerbridge-Horsie brought two friends. Skipper was star-shaped, about fourteen inches across. A row of blue eyes the size of BBs twinkled under the lip of a shell gnarled as a walnut and spotted with patches of yellow and maroon moss. A fringe of hair-like legs spun him as he moved. At dinner he’d crawled over his table setting. When he was done eating, a lovely radial pattern was left in the enchilada sauce that clung to his plate. He was the only one who ate. That was because he occupied his real body. Mrs. Outerbridge-Horsie and Doodad were simulacra. Their real bodies, if they had any, couldn’t live on Earth.

Doodad had me on edge. Like Mrs. Outerbridge-Horsie, she’d chosen to model herself on a human female. She was something out of a Japanese cartoon, a sexy cat-eared space girl with thick purple hair, eyes three inches across and cleavage that looked like it had a grip. The combination of manifest inhumanity with calculated sexual cues was exactly what I did not need.

When dinner was over we sat in the living room. The room should have been crowded, but Grandma had arranged it in a way that made it feel roomy, as though it was a real house. She’d chosen the convenience of the mobile home, but still felt it was shabby to live in one.

I’d always loved her living room. The little sandalwood table, square and red and fragrant, carved with figures from the Ramayana; the spinning circular brass table with its elaborate filigrees and scalloped lip; thick glass bowls of cookies and candy; the lamps and Chinese lacquer boxes she’d brought back from the Philippines after the war. . . .

Grandma held the coffee cup that was never more than a foot away from her. She had a small filter-drip machine and went through ten or fifteen little pots a day, easy. When she spoke to Skipper I could hear the frustration in her voice.

“No,” she said. “I work for people, I don’t heal them.”

Skipper lifted one edge of his shell and looked at Grandma. His voice came from Mrs. Outerbridge-Horsie’s speaker grille, a vocoder baritone. “So God does the healing?”

Grandma closed her eyes and pursed her lips, exaggerating her expression. “No,” she said. “There isn’t any healing. It makes me so mad when people in the church say that. They should know better.” She opened her eyes and relaxed her face. “It is simply a matter of recognizing God’s perfection. We are made in his image and likeness, and all of us are perfect. Imperfection is only a matter of mortal error, a belief in physical reality. Man is not material; he is spiritual.” She straightened up, adjusted her glasses, and took a sip from her cup.

“Maybe you should give them an example,” I said.

Grandma sipped her coffee and thought for a moment before speaking. “Back around 1969 I was driving back from Bodega Bay when I saw a roadside stand selling wild mushrooms. It was run by some of those hipsies or whatever you call them. They had the greasiest hair I’ve ever seen hanging down over their faces. The girl was barefoot and her feet were just filthy.” She shook her head. “Well, I bought a basket of mushrooms from them and they were so rude to me. They laughed as though buying mushrooms was the funniest thing in the world.

“I had those mushrooms with my supper that night, and about an hour after that I started to feel awful. Those people hadn’t known what they were doing and they’d sold me poison mushrooms. So I sat down with my Science and Health—” she held up the black-bound volume bookmarked with neat rows of metal tabs “—and I did my work.” She looked seriously and deliberately around the room, held us silent with her gaze. “I sat there and recognized the perfection of all God’s creations, even those mushrooms, and before the night was over I felt fine again. Perfectly fine. And when I looked in the newspaper there weren’t any reports of people eating poison mushrooms. Not one.” Her face softened and her voice grew gentle. “When I was doing the work, when I should have been dying, I felt God’s presence more than I ever had before. I will carry that with me for the rest of my life.”

I’d heard that story when I was a kid but this was the first time I understood that she’d bought psychedelic mushrooms. That was a rotten trick for a bunch of greasy hipsies to pull on an old lady. I wished I’d had the opportunity to lay hands on them.

“That’s wonderful,” Mrs. Outerbridge-Horsie said. “Truly marvelous.”

“But it isn’t,” Grandma said. “It’s simply a matter of recognizing the divine principles that underlie all existence.”

“That’s what I mean,” Mrs. Outerbridge-Horsie said. “Our people need to hear exactly that message. I’ve been trying to figure out how to ask you this and I hope it isn’t too awkward, but would you consider coming home with us?”

I sat up at that. “So you’re going to take people with you when you leave?”

“Not people,” Mrs. Outerbridge-Horsie said. “I mean your grandmother, or at least her teachings. There’s an audience for spirituality, and they are endlessly hungry.”

Grandma set the coffee cup down in its saucer. “Well,” she said, “I wouldn’t try and force it on anyone.”

Doodad put her purple-nailed hands on my Grandmother’s arm and looked into her face.

“That is so wise,” she said, then turned to Mrs. Outerbridge-Horsie. “Isn’t this exciting? Isn’t this just perfect?”

“Truly,” Mrs. Outerbridge-Horsie said, and curled a little closer, making the floor groan and shift. The metal in Mrs. Outerbridge-Horsie’s simulacra must have weighed a quarter ton. I was waiting for her to go through the floor.

Skipper flattened himself against the carpet.

“I don’t understand,” he said. “If God is perfect then why would He make us capable of imperfection?”

“He didn’t,” Grandma said. Her voice got louder, and she sketched figures in the air with her hands. “We are perfect reflections of God. That kind of thinking is mortal error! You need to think this through because it all makes sense. It’s just like one and one is two.”

Skipper made a moaning sound with his actual body, puckered his eyes shut, and ground himself into the floor. I knew just how he felt.

* * *

The next weekend Mrs. Outerbridge-Horsie and her entourage showed up unannounced. I was three drinks into my Saturday routine. I’d get eight tallboys of malt liquor, which made a nice even gallon, and a half-pint of whatever vodka or tequila was the cheapest. I’d crack a can, take a slurp, and top it off with the hard stuff. Mrs. Outerbridge-Horsie asked Grandma to take her to the Christian Science Reading Room. After they left, Skipper and Doodad crowded into my bedroom.

My room was actually one end of Grandma’s office. The bed was too short for me so I’d packed some foam camping mattresses between the foot of the bed and the wall. That was the worst part of my living situation: I did not fit.

Doodad leaned forward to put her hand on my leg and wave her stiff plastic boobs at me the way a real woman wouldn’t. I didn’t like her, but something in my pants was convinced of her fertility.

Skipper was perched over a soup-bowl with about an inch of tequila-laced malt liquor in it. “Image-and-Likeness says your grandfather died from drinking,” he said.

His voice came from a silver blob that Mrs. Outerbridge-Horsie had stuck on his back before she left. His tone was a little more mechanical than it had been before, his English a little rough around the edges—running translation on a smaller processor was my guess. It got on my nerves when they called Grandma “Image-and-Likeness.” They used Christian Science jargon without understanding it.

“She’s never given me the straight story about that,” I said. “Did she tell you how it happened?”

Skipper rotated a bit, looked at me with fresh eyes. “Fell off a boat when he was drunk. Got into a fight with two merchant marines when he was drunk. Walked into a hurricane when he was drunk so he could get more beer. Fell off a dock when he was drunk.” He crouched and slurped. “Asked an engineer if she was seeing alternate timelines and now they laugh at me.”

“Yeah, I totally bought the first couple of versions she told me,” I said. “Now I don’t know if she’s lying or if she’s really crazy.”

Skipper collapsed on top of the bowl and splashed on the newspaper I’d laid down over the carpet. “I’m crazy. Crazy with mortal error. It makes everything my fault.”

“That’s because you think too hard about it,” Doodad said. She turned to run her hand over the moss on Skipper’s back, and in the process park her cool silicone buttocks against my thigh. I let her and hated myself for it. “You need to feel the truth inside.”

“No, I feel feelings inside,” Skipper said. “Image-and-Likeness doesn’t like drinking but it helps me evade the snare of rationality. May I have some more?”

“Sure,” I said, leaned over and poured from my can into his bowl.

“Image-and-Likeness is worried about you,” Doodad said, turning back to me. “She told us about Amy. You know it makes Image-and-Likeness sad to see you this way.”

“What did she tell you?” I must have sounded a little defensive. I wondered how sophisticated their translation systems were.

“That she was just a girl, that she didn’t know what she was doing.” Doodad stared off into the distance, face gone blank. “What did Amy do?”

“She went to school,” I said. “I was going to follow her in a year, but she found someone else. I wish she’d just let me go, but she won’t. I’ve been demoted from boyfriend to house pet.” I took a gulp from the can and another, wiped my mouth with the back of my hand. “She says she didn’t start things between us because she thought I was asleep the first time she touched me. She says she didn’t dump me because she figures she can take me off the shelf when she wants me again. Maybe she’s right.”

Doodad’s face came back to life and formed an expression of sympathy. She patted my thigh. Camera eyes and microphone ears; I wished I’d kept my mouth shut.

“What does Image-and-Likeness mean when she talks about sensuality?” Skipper asked. “She said that was what you and Amy did. She didn’t approve.”

“That’s her word for pair-bonding behavior,” I said. “Sex stuff. There’s a lot more to it than sex, though. Grandma doesn’t want people to be primates. She likes to think we’re solid all the way through, like potatoes.” I gulped the last of my malt liquor. Time to grab the next one. “When I was a kid I thought that was how she was: simple, straight, and honest. I had no idea how weird she really is. How complicated. She wishes she was just a brain in a bucket so she could cut out all that sensuality.”

“That’s not true,” Doodad said. She arched her back and turned her shoulders, displayed the exaggerated flow from waist to hips. “She says God is love. I know what love is.”

Skipper slurped up a little more of the slop in his bowl. “I don’t have to worry about sensuality. No potato sex until I’m grown and rooted.”

“Consider yourself lucky,” I said and crushed the can flat between my palms. A trickle of booze dribbled from a sharp-edged rupture and soaked into my T-shirt.

* * *

When Mrs. Outerbridge-Horsie asked me to come talk to her on board the ship, I was excited and wary. The luminous curves of the spaceship made me think that it had been cultured rather than built. Once inside, the uneven surface under my feet had the texture of a sand dollar—porous, slightly yielding. Good traction. The air was warm, humid, and it had a spicy musk blended from the body odors of fifty or so different kinds of alien.

I felt a sudden wash of self-pity, and wished I had been the one invited to go into space. It wasn’t like there was anything for me on Earth.

Mrs. Outerbridge-Horsie’s simulacrum slumped like a dot of solder touched by the iron; silver rivulets ran across the floor and soaked in until she’d vanished.

“Aaah,” came a voice from all around me, not deafening but so forceful I felt it like the weight of a duvet. Mrs. Outerbridge-Horsie’s icon appeared on the wall in front of me, twenty feet tall.

“Let me guess,” I said. “Is the ship your real body?”

Mrs. Outerbridge-Horsie smiled at me, lips barely letting her teeth show. “Image-and-Likeness said you were a bright young man.” The smile flattened and vanished. “So why are you feeling hostile right now?”

“Yeah, you can read my heart rate, you’re probably giving me an EEG and a CAT scan and who knows what else,” I said. “If you really want to know, I’m bothered by the way that you’re trying to establish a position of dominance here.”

“I wouldn’t call it a position—calm down. Calm down. I need to talk to you about Image-and-Likeness.”

“I don’t think she wants to go with you.”

“We aren’t going to take her, she’s going to come with us.” Mrs. Outerbridge-Horsie’s image shrank and her voice softened. “I don’t want you to make this decision any harder for your grandmother than it needs to be,” she said. “She feels bad enough without you moping around like your life was over.” Next to her face she displayed a caricature of me, spine slumped in a depressive question mark, shuffling forward as if on a treadmill.

“Oh, brother,” I said. “So how did I get to be your business?”

“And I don’t know what you said to Skipper but he’s become quite unmanageable. He’s stopped reading his Science-and-Health-with-Keys-to-the-Scripture-by-Mary-Baker-Eddy, and now he spends all his time talking to off-duty engineering staff. When I tried to explain to him about fraternization he was quite rude and I believe he learned some of those words from you.”

“Oh, brother,” I said.

* * *

Grandma and I drove through the high country, a quart thermos of coffee resting on the back seat. I looked out the window at winding mountain roads lined with evergreens set against the perfect porcelain blue of the sky, dusty nettles, blackberry bushes and Queen Anne’s lace in the sunny patches.

Since Grandma couldn’t hike anymore she drove when she was restless, sometimes for days at a time, just to be in motion. When she asked if I wanted to go north with her, I knew something was up. She may have refused to believe in mere matter, but she took her greatest consolation from the natural world.

“It just seems ridiculous,” Grandma said. “A trip into space.”

“I’m jealous,” I said, and shifted my legs. The car was too small. Everything was too small. “You’ve been everywhere from Kodiak Island to Tierra del Fuego, and now you’ve got a ticket to the stars. If I were in your shoes I’d go in a minute.”

“I’m not saying I won’t go and I’m not saying I will.” There was a wistful tone to her voice. “I just can’t believe—” A shadow lurched across the windshield. We looked up, and Grandma cried out.

She had drifted into the wrong lane. As we came around the curve a lumber truck came toward us. She twisted the steering wheel. The car squealed across the other lane and spat up a cloud of dust as we slid onto the unpaved shoulder. The sound of the truck’s air horn disappeared into the distance as we came to a stop.

Grandma leaned forward, rested her head against the steering wheel. I pressed the button to raise the windows against the dust, then sat still and panted. I braced my hands against the dash. It was minutes before either of us could speak.

“Oh, my goodness,” Grandma said. “We almost had a head-on conclusion.”

I giggled.

“It’s not funny,” Grandma said. “We could have died.”

“You said head-on conclusion.”

Grandma shook her head and smiled. Then she laughed, which set me off again.

“Oh,” she said, and pulled a tissue from the sleeve of her sweater. She wiped her eyes and blew her nose. “Oh, my.”

She turned to me, still smiling.

“You’re right,” she said. “I’ve made up my mind. I’ll go with them.”

“Good for you,” I said. “You deserve another adventure.”

“Yes. One more adventure.”

* * *

Doodad led me through the Jordan-almond colors and textures of Mrs. Outerbridge-Horsie’s corridors.

“Now remember you’re just here to say goodbye,” Mrs. Outerbridge-Horsie said. “Don’t upset your grandmother. She’s having some difficulties adjusting and I don’t want you making a fuss.”

“What do you mean, difficulties?”

“She’s had some problems with her breathing. We’re working on her diet. She keeps asking for coffee, but I thought it best if we avoid the use of drugs.”

“Of course she’s having trouble breathing,” I said. “Do you have any idea how much coffee she drinks? It’s addictive. She’s hooked worse on that stuff than anyone I’ve known has been hooked on anything and you’re making her go cold turkey. Coffee has chemicals in it that relax the tubes that go into her lungs. Think of what the opposite of that means.”

Mrs. Outerbridge-Horsie’s image glared at me from a wall monitor. “Your grandmother strongly disapproves of intoxication,” she said.

“Yeah,” I said. “Other people’s intoxication. Enough caffeine to give a rhino a cardiac arrest every day, a little cream sherry or crème de menthe at night, give me a break. Just give her some caffeine and see what happens.”

“I assure you we know perfectly well what we’re doing,” Mrs. Outerbridge-Horsie said as I stepped through an arch that looked like a model of a coral reef made from frosting. “We’ll have her fixed by the time we get home. Now come say goodbye. She won’t be able to say much, but I know she wants to see you.”

Inside the room was a tub filled with a thick clear fluid. Grandma floated in it, her face barely above the surface. Doodad sat on the edge of the tub and put her feet in the liquid, short shiny skirt showing off her crossed legs.

“She’s been waiting for you,” Doodad said. “She wants to say something to you.”

I wasn’t sure about that. Grandma seemed unconscious. She wore a shift that clung to her and showed me the outlines of her body for the first time in my life. The intimacy of the sight made me nervous, made me want to bolt. Her hair drifted free—she’d always kept it bound up, and I was amazed at its length, its wildness.

I went to the side of the tub, leaned against its thick yielding rim.

“Grandma?”

Her eyes went wide and she sat upright, wet hair sleek against her skull. She grabbed at my arm and stared at me, her eyes strange without glasses. Her voice was a goose’s gobble.

I put my free hand on hers and let her talk. She didn’t blink as she kept her eyes locked with mine, and I finally made out the word she was repeating. “You—you—you . . .” It wasn’t me she was talking to; she looked at me and saw someone else. Was it my grandfather? I waited until she grew quiet and fell back, exhausted but still clutching my arm.

“Grandma,” I said. I didn’t think she could hear me but I needed to say the words, needed to make a pretense of being a decent person. “I love you and I always have. You’ve done so much for me and I have no way to tell you how much I owe you. I can’t even understand it myself. If I can ever give to people the way you have. . . .” I held her hand, slick with the fluid from the tub, but she was already a million miles away. “The only time in my life I’ve ever felt safe was with you.”

Doodad tilted her head and stared at me until I had to look away from Grandma and meet her eyes. She smiled. “That is so sweet,” she said. “What a beautiful moment.”

Grandma’s hands loosened. Her eyes half-shut, not seeing anything. She lay there and gurgled.

“Come now,” Mrs. Outerbridge-Horsie said. “You’ve gotten her excited enough.”

As I walked behind Doodad I realized that she was guiding me deeper into Mrs. Outerbridge-Horsey. I passed through a constricted section of corridor into a chamber whose walls were rows of translucent waxy-pink hexagons like the cells of a giant beehive. There were shapes dimly visible inside them, shapes that looked human.

“I hope you don’t find this upsetting,” Mrs. Outerbridge-Horsie said, “but it’s important for me to hear your opinion on this. Please, be honest. Don’t be afraid to be critical.”

The membrane sealing one of the chambers started to melt, and a thick fluid like that in Grandma’s tub ran down to the floor and was absorbed. The shape inside shuddered and squirmed like a grub. A pair of smooth, pale hands spotted with a pattern of tan ovals gripped either side of the opening, and the thing pulled itself out of the chamber.

It looked a lot like Grandma, an enameled Grandma whose wet clothes grew from her flesh, whose hair was a smooth silver mass without strands, whose eyes were glossy green surfaces without iris, white, or pupil.

I clenched my hands and stepped back. I didn’t know what to do.

The thing walked up to me, blank eyes wide. A smile showed smooth white strips where her teeth should have been. “Don’t be sad, dear,” it said. “God is love. God is love. God is love.”

“What the hell is this?” I drew back.

The Grandma-thing smiled and followed me.

“I know she needs work,” Mrs. Outerbridge-Horsie said. “How do you suggest we improve her?”

Doodad clasped her hands together under her chin.

“Oh, I want one, I want one,” she said, and rocked from side to side.

“We can work something out, dear,” Mrs. Outerbridge-Horsie said. “But she’s still in progress.”

“I don’t care,” Doodad said. “I think she’s perfect. She’s God’s image and likeness.”

“Wait a minute,” I said. “You’re going to sell knockoffs of my grandmother? Like she was a purse or a pair of shoes?”

“Don’t be vulgar,” Mrs. Outerbridge-Horsie said. “This is the best way for Image-and-Likeness to touch as many souls as she can.”

“Well, this thing isn’t gonna do the job. It’s nothing like her.”

“All right,” Mrs. Outerbridge-Horsie said. “I think I understand. Let’s try something more involved, shall we?”

Overhead, a row of projectors blinked their eyes and cast an image on the wall in front of me. It showed handwriting on blue-ruled binder paper, perfect little calligraphic loops with no capital letters. Amy’s handwriting.

I shook my head. “Where did you get that?”

“I found it in your room,” Doodad said. “It was under the bed.”

“Please, work with us,” Mrs. Outerbridge-Horsie said. “Just let your grandmother help you.”

The Grandma-thing set its hands on my arm, its wet touch slick as mucus. “God is love,” it said. I froze. It looked up at me, blinked slowly and repeatedly. Its head sunk so its chin rested on its chest. Then it lifted its head and its eyes met mine.

“Oh, my,” Mrs. Outerbridge-Horsie said. Her voice filled with static.

The Grandma-thing reached up and touched my cheek with the tips of her fingers. They left cool tracks. “It’s you,” it said. There was something different about its voice. “For a minute I thought you were . . .”

“Grandma?” I asked.

“I know you think you’re the first one who’s ever had their heart broken,” the Grandma-thing said in a tone of flat anger that I’d never heard before. “Well, you aren’t. When I was your age I fell in love with a young man. He was a pilot and that was when pilots were something new, when they were heroes.” I could hear its voice warming at the memory. “He had a mustache and he was . . . Oh. I loved him so much, and when the war came he went to England to volunteer in the RAF. That’s when my hair went white. When I found out that he’d died. After that I let your grandfather marry me.”

Mrs. Outerbridge-Horsie groaned. The floor tipped a couple of degrees, then righted itself.

“That’s what life is like,” the Grandma-thing said. “Everything good goes away and you feel sad and angry and it never, ever stops. All you can do is try and be nice. That’s all there is.”

I felt a sensation of pressure. The world constricted around me like shrink-wrap around a box, airtight and closing in. Grandma wasn’t supposed to be like me.

Doodad’s face had frozen. “I don’t like this,” she said without moving her lips. “This isn’t love.”

The Grandma-thing froze, off-balance and rigid. As it tipped I grabbed at it, but it slipped through my hands and bounced off the deck with a muted thump.

There were dark spots of fluid on the fronts of other cells. More Grandma-things were ready to emerge.

I looked at the ceiling and raised my voice. “Did you tell her you were going to do this?”

“You need to leave, dear,” Mrs. Outerbridge-Horsie said. “Now.”

“You’ve got your whatever-it-is,” I said. “Give me my grandmother back.”

The fresh Grandma-things crawled down the wet honeycomb wall. The chorus of soft voices formed a buzz as they said, “God is love.”

They grabbed me. They were strong and I couldn’t bring myself to struggle with Grandma’s image. They pulled me through the ship, murmured God-is-love-God-is-love, and pushed me through the portal.

Mrs. Outerbridge-Horsie rose slowly and silently. I pinched a spray of sage and held my Thanksgiving-scented fingers under my nose. I watched the glowing shape diminish moment by moment until Grandma drifted away and was lost in the stars. I stared up and let the tears flow.

. . . goodbye, goodbye.

Goodbye.

Copyright © 2010 Sean Craven

24 comments
Ethan Glasser-Camp
3. glasserc
Um, wow! Very unsettling. Very bittersweet.

Ethan
jefff
4. N. Mamatas
Hilarious! Great to see writers otherwise below the radar on Tor.com as well.
jefff
5. seancraven
Thank you kindly, folks. You know what's hilarious? I've been planning on spiffing up my site for what I can only imagine will be a tsunami of new visitors. Not only did I totally procrastinate on that chore but my current post is really, really disgusting. I can't even figure out a way to euphemize the subject matter. Ah, well.
jefff
7. AndrewF
Damn MoFo! You really can write.
jefff
8. shineboyy
Awesome, touching and unique. A great read.
James Goetsch
9. Jedikalos
Great story! I'm not quite sure how to respond to your touching memories of the elephants on you website, though :)
jefff
10. Carrie Laben
Nice. Reminded me of a few people I've known.
Linda Frear
11. tanguera
Great writing. Reminds me a bit of Connie Willis (I love her writing by the way).
jefff
12. soberloki
WOW. I don't even know what to say, that was amazing. I hope to see more from this author.
jefff
13. HMorison
Nice job Sean, wonderful and strange story. Just the stuff I like on Tor.com
Write on
jefff
14. scifan
Excellent! Just what meeting aliens should be like. I'm really doubtful we could ever learn anything from aliens or they from us because otherwise they wouldn't be alien. By definition communication between alien lifeforms should be characterized by complete miscomunication just when we think we have reached an understanding. Otherwise human beings wouldn't have such a hard time communicating between mother and daughter or woman to man.
jefff
15. tardisintime
Great story. Thanks alot for sharing it.
jefff
16. seancraven
Oh, dag. Y'all are being so niiiiice. I can't deal with it.

Got to say. Connie Willis? She's great and I certainly am gratified by the comparison. You know what I want to steal from her? She's the queen of irritation. Her protagonists tend to be unmercifully pestered and vexed, to great narrative benefit.

Andrew -- the prose on my blog wears greasy sweatpants and a Dolomite T-shirt. In my fiction, I make sure the buttons are buttoned and the boots are polished.

And Scifan. When I think about how to use aliens in fiction, I think of them as 'the other.' A different social class, an unfamiliar gender, a fresh culture, an animal whose wiring is different from mine. That doesn't preclude understanding, though. As an example, so far as I know, dogs are much better at reading humans than humans are. Distance is frequently associated with perspective.

Of course, understanding is highly overrated.
jefff
17. celticfrog
Great story. I loved the total cross-up of the communication. BTW I was at your blog first and some of that material was just alien musing of a different kind.
jefff
19. Morva Shepley
I enjoyed this. Thank you. I've put link to it from my blog.

I like the parody name, "Mrs Outerbridge-Horsy", which sounds like a not-quite-right name reminiscent of Thelwell. Had to laugh at the idea of asking these aliens for the truth about how his grandfather died.
mm Season
20. mmSeason
What N. Mamatas said @4, ditto. :0)

Any story that can contain a line like 'As I walked behind Doodad I realized that she was guiding me deeper into Mrs. Outerbridge-Horsey' is fine by me. But the depth (the pilot hero), added with just a light flick of the brush, just makes it.

Sorry it's taken me a whole week – i did read it the same night i said (i was 'mand' when i said that), but running too fast around the internet makes it look like i run v e r y s l o w l y back wherever i've promised to return. :0|

Personally, i thought your elephants very interesting. But then i don't shock easily.
Julia Rios
21. Skogkatt
Delightful! Excellent mix of hilarity and thoughtfulness.
jefff
22. scifan
I have a dog now so I know what you mean about them reading us. But I can't imagine my dog being able to explain to me the need or satisfaction of smelling and eating cat poop, even if a universal translator was invented. First, that is just gross and I will never get it. 2nd her sense of smell is beyond what I could ever get. I can imagine that there are nuances like me being able to see the green in a shade of red because as a painter I have mixed green into red and gotten that change in intensity, but try and explain that to a dog who is color blind to colors we can see. Then imagine if a war gets started over us offering an alien dog something that smelled threatening or insulting (like a flower that to us smells just faintly sweet).
Women get insulted when their husband makes a backhanded compliment "I like your jacket, the cut is very slimming" The same thing from a woman would be seen as helpful. It's cuse we need our men to see us as completely attractive. It's a sick cultural thing because we have been conditioned to believe that if our man doesn't think we are the best looking woman they are going to leave us. But it isn't an empty fear. Look at all the trophy wives. They are almost always younger and prettier than the first wife. And dogs seem to read us emotionally better than humans because they have bonded to us and depend on us to stay happy with them or they get punished or ignored. In a lot of ways, they are our slaves and their very existance is dependent on us staying satisfied with them. I wonder what they would be like if they had credit cards and opposable thumbs. Would they be so eager for us to come home if they could order fried chicken delivered and an endless supply of new shoes to chew. What if they could invite their dog friends over to chew up the couch or stay out late cruising the neighborhood for cats to chase down in a humvee. They kind of sound like they would be horrible teens that would make rude comments about how we smell. I know my dog would love to tell me to go jump in a lake cuse she hates to stay. She has a need for speed. I can get her to do a lot for treats and her williness to submit. Take those two things away and I see my cat with a whole lot more energy. Cats may love us but they don't admit to needing us.
Francesca Forrest
23. Asakiyume
I loved this! I loved the very clear, very different personalities of each of the aliens, especially Skipper, poor guy. And I loved Skipper's way of eating.

I loved the remark "No one pushes buttons like family; they installed the buttons in the first place," and I loved the alternative timelines remark, too. Also (though the situation was also both poignant and terrifying), I liked the surreal, focus-group quality of the scene where Mrs. Outerbridge-Horsie is trying to get her knockoff Grandmas just right.

Great tale.
jefff
24. Lauda
Of course I like this - homespun and unsettling are a great combination (I nodded with the Connie Willis comment) but wasn't going to post a comment.

But then I went back to the Tor page to read something else, and blinked as your title caught my eye again.

Tourists.

I'd forgotten the title while I was reading the story (sorry, I started reading in the middle of the night, fell asleep to the netbook's purr beside the bed and finished it in the morning). The title torqued the story one more turn.

@scifan - I get what you're saying. And I'd like to see you writing it out in fiction - if you already do, can you share?
jefff
25. seancraven
celticfrog, anyone who knows me would probably agree with you.

Morva, Mrs. Outerbridge-Horsie's name was actually swiped from the letter column of an old Gourmet magazine, probably sixties vintage. As I recall, she deplored current trends in china. The table settings, not the country.

mmSeason, I stand in contrast to you. I'm shocked by pretty much everything.

Thank you kindly, Skogkatt.

Scifan, you remind me of the old joke -- the dog says, "They feed me, house me, love me -- they must be gods!" The cat says, "They feed me, house me, love me -- I must be god!"

Asakiumi, thank you for your generous praise.

Lauda, I went to my wife and asked her why people would say I wrote like Connie Willis. (I regard that as a high compliment, but one that puzzled me.) She said, "Well, you both get pretty depressing sometimes." I swear, I went into this with no intention of writing anything but monster fights.

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