by Michael Chin
It was the fall of 1993. I was twelve, my sister Clara was eight, Grandma was dead, and The X-Files had just started airing on TV.
Everything was changing. We’d spent afternoons after school and Grandma’s house. She gave the best hugs. Just the right combination of soft enough to say we were loved and firm enough to say she wouldn’t let us go. She made the best chocolate chip cookies, too, soft and chewy, and while we ate them she told us stories. Stories that spiraled and interconnected. Stories that always linked back to a particular night at Unlucky Ned’s when the aliens abducted a bunch of people.
But Grandma was gone. Mom and Dad decided that, since I was twelve and all, I was old enough to look out for myself and for Clara, so they gave me a house key. We were on our own for two hours after school each day. In Shermantown, New York, the last vestiges of summer temperatures faded in early September, and each day the sun went down a little earlier. Still, before the snow settled in, we made the most of our outdoors time, which usually amounted to playing in the woods down the street from our house. We climbed trees. I built stick effigies of the dickheads from school and stomped on them while Clara collected leaves. The woods transformed into Endor and we looked for Ewoks. It became Hyrule where we scavenged for rupees and dueled with Moblins.
Then, one Monday, it became Oregon. The site of a series of small town alien abductions. The site of the pilot episode of The X-Files.
I scooped up Clara in my arms and looked to the skies.
“I don’t get it,” she said.
I put her down. She was too heavy anyway. “Of course not. You’re too young.”
That’s what Mom had told me as I salivated over the first X-Files commercial and as I ripped out the black and white ad from TV Guide to tape to the wall in my room. As I removed the plastic wrap from a blank Memorex VHS tape to record the first episode while I watched it live. Because I was certain it would be good. Because I was certain I’d want to watch it again and again and again.
“It looks scary,” Mom had said. “Don’t let your sister see it, or she’ll have nightmares.”
Mom was probably right. Clara was smart—she’d skipped a grade and read books for fun—big books I’d been gifted when I was her age and never bothered opening. But it came with a price. An overactive imagination. She couldn’t sleep after we watched The Wizard of Oz for fear of the cackling Wicked Witch—for Clara’s resulting obsession that had her drawing the witch’s face over and over again whispering I’ll get you my pretty to herself.
For all our games in the woods—it was all make-believe for me. And given the way no one at school ever wanted to play cops and robbers anymore, I knew that, I, too, would have to leave it all behind before too long. But Clara, with that look in her eyes, in the thick of her imagination—I wasn’t sure what she might see between the trees.
Mom was probably right to keep The X-Files from her.
But that afternoon, when it had grown unseasonably cool and we still had an hour before Dad would get home, I went against Mom’s wishes. What made me do it? I’m still not sure. Maybe to scare Clara. Maybe some sense that if we watched it together, we’d both be able to follow the script when we played. I rewound the tape, already loaded in my bedroom VCR, and introduced Clara to the least-known branch of the FBI. To Fox Mulder. To Dana Scully. To a pair of bumps on backs that indicated extraterrestrial experimentation. I fell silent for the scene when Scully stripped to her bra and panties—not pausing it this time, because Clara was there and all—and studied her body. The curve of her rear end. Then it was back to the woods. The chase. The discovery. The Cigarette Smoking Man stashing the evidence in a hidden storage room in the Pentagon where it would never see the light of day.
The final scene faded. “You see?” I said. “Aliens. And the government knows about them.”
Clara shook her head slowly. “They’re not real.” I thought she was petrified. In denial about what she’d seen, and about the subject matter that that was sure to color at least our play and perhaps her nightmares for months to come. But then she went on, and I wasn’t so sure. “Moldy was so obsessed with the way time stopped.”
“Mulder, right. He thought time stopped when his sister went missing and he thinks time stops again in the car. But I think it’s all in his head.”
“You saw it on the screen.”
Clara had a discomfiting habit of being right about these things. For guessing the ends of movies, and deciphering meaning from subtext in ways that would make Grandma open her mouth wide in delight and hug her very tight and tell her what a bright girl she was. I couldn’t let Clara have this one, though. This was mine. “Scully saw it, too. It wasn’t his imagination.”
“Scully was there and she heard what Mulder had to say. She saw the flash of light, too.” She spoke like a teacher. Running through a lesson. Speaking slowly to be sure her pupil followed along. “But Mulder’s trying to make the connection about time stopping because he needs to. Because time stopped when he lost his sister. One part of his life ended and another began. And he wants to connect anything he can to that incident. To find a reason,” she said. “It’s like the poster in his office says—I want to believe.”
And so, as the leaves changed to yellows and reds, our roles for the games to follow were clearly established. I was Fox Mulder. Chaser of the supernatural. Believer. You know, besides being a boy and all. And she was Scully. The scientist. The skeptic. We chased aliens over dirt and between sycamores. Deep Throat joined our cast, an imaginary figure who only appeared to me. When Clara read her book next to the heating vent at night, I warned her against sitting too close. Warned her because she never knew if Tooms—a character capable of squeezing his way through the slimmest of gaps—might be coming to get her. Warned her until she had tears in her eyes but stopped, in my practiced manner, before she would scream for Mom.
I had asked Grandma why no one thought to stop the aliens.
“It’s a good question.” She sipped from her glass orange soda at her kitchen table. Always orange soda. That little bit of sweetness without the caffeine. I loved the stuff, too, but Clara preferred chocolate milk or RC Cola. “Afterwards, some folks said they were too scared, or they knew they wouldn’t be any match for them and their technology. But that’s all revisionist history. The truth is, whatever combination of magic and mind-control did it, none of us even thought of getting in their way.”
Clara nibbled around the perimeter of her cookie.
I took a big bite out of mine. “Why not?”
“Close your mouth to chew, sweetheart,” Grandma said. “It was like we were watching something on the television. Like it wasn’t real and if you talked they couldn’t hear you and you couldn’t dream of touching them. But then, the older you get, you’ll see how many things there are like that in this life.”
Now and again, I’d see what she meant. I’d be sitting at school while the teacher wrote equations on the board and asked for our input, and even though I knew the answer, I couldn’t bring myself to say anything. Not unless she spoke directly to me. It was the same thing when I watched the bus driver steer us home from school, or Mom chop up lettuce and tomatoes for salad. Nothing traumatic. Nothing big. No aliens. Just the world going by and what part was a kid supposed to have in it?
The only thing I could control, that I could contribute to, was my play with Clara, based week-to-week on the premise of the latest X-Files episode. I stopped in her room to tell her about the ghost in the house when I found her in the dim of dusk, sitting cross-legged on the floor looking up at her bed, her back to me. I stopped and watched while she nodded and giggled and said, “I know he’s there.”
I felt a chill at the realization she was talking about me. “Who are you talking to?”
She scooted around, so her body pointed to the space halfway between the bed and me, toward the window where the last rays of sun caught her face. She turned to face me and said, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, “Grandma.”
She was flipping the script, I knew. Turning my game on me, and she was better at it. My tales depended on her gamely playing along. Enduring my exposition and letting her imagination craft a more frightening image than anything I so bluntly described.
Clara turned right back around, looking upward, talking to nothing and no one.
“It was the strangest thing,” Grandma had said. It was Christmastime, and I remember watching the little white lights threaded through silver tinsel so they reflected off every glossy little strip of it. Lighting everything. I worried it would catch fire. Clara told me not to. “The alien—the tallest, slimmest, greenest of them, stalked toward John-Joe, the bartender, leaned over the bar and wrapped its arms around him.”
We had heard this story before. But as she told it this time, I eyed the Christmas tree, so tall and green itself. Aliens might not look like men at all, the way I had imagined them. They might be more like trees, or like hills, or like dinosaurs. They could be anything at all.
“And they disappeared.”
Clara snapped her fingers. “Like that.”
Grandma shook her head and put on her cardigan. She was always cold in the winter, no matter how high she turned up the heat. “No. It wasn’t sudden at all. It was gentle almost. It just happened.” She spread her hand, palms down, across the space in front of her. “They were gone.”
I thought about that part of the story—that telling—a lot after Grandma was gone. How she’d been hospitalized. Very sick, very suddenly, but not dead right away. She was in the hospital for weeks, for so long that it became the new normal. Just as I accepted not seeing her at home after school, she was gone altogether. Quietly. In her sleep. Mom told us about it in the morning and we didn’t have to go to school that day.
But now Clara had introduced the idea that she wasn’t gone. I wanted to play along—it wasn’t’ the first time she had suggested a game, and sometimes she introduced very good pieces I wouldn’t have thought of—a Blade Runner/ Indiana Jones crossover fantasy in which I got to play both Harrison Ford parts; a fantasy in which ninjas attacked us and we used roundhouse kicks to clear them away.
But adding Grandma was different. Like it was disrespectful to bring her back from the dead, like it made me miss her worse to be reminded of her. Like if Grandma’s ghost really were here, why would she show herself to Clara and not to me?
Besides all of that, it wasn’t a very good game. There was nothing scary about Grandma herself, and Clara didn’t do a thing to make her scary, like she was coming back to tell us something, or because she had unfinished business, or because she was angry. Day by day, she talked and played and shared snacks with Grandma, as if she really was there.
I watched, over the top of my Social Studies textbook, for a break in character. For the moment when I could end the ruse and transition us to some other game.
“I don’t know why he doesn’t talk to you,” Clara said one afternoon in the living room, apropos nothing. She’d been pantomiming eating cookies and sipping something. Even belched loudly like she really had been digesting something. “I’m not sure he can see you.”
She waited a beat and then looked to me, and I’d had enough. “You’re not talking to Grandma.”
“Would you like to join us?” Clara asked.
I threw my text book like a discus into the space in front of Clara. It landed on an edge and sprawled on the carpet, half open with pages bent inward. “Sorry, did I ruin your tea party?”
“We weren’t having tea. We were having soda and cookies.” She looked at the ground, not at the book, but where I supposed the mess would have been had the book crashed through a plate of chocolate chip cookies and against a glass of cola.
“There’s nothing there.” I crawled to the space she was staring at, stood and stomped my feet. Fired a series of punches at the air where Grandma might have been. “See? Honestly, you ought to grow up, Clara.”
She looked very sad and I suspected she might cry, but she didn’t. She mumbled something.
“What was that?”
She looked me in the eye then, a dulled look I’d never seen on her before. “I said it looks like you’re the Scully now. You don’t even want to believe.”
Grandma had bought us each a twenty ounce bottle of soda from the corner store on our walk back from the playground, on the promise that we not tell our parents she had given us so much sugar. “The next morning, they were all back. Unharmed. Healthy and rested.”
She was talking about the abductees—John-Joe Parks the bartender, Mairead Jackson the pregnant pharmacist’s wife, George Fogelberg the lush, and Donald Witham the pediatrician. Four people, vanished and gone. Four people who woke in their beds the next morning. I knew my part, though I’d heard the story a dozen times, and knew the answer by heart. “Did anyone ask them what had happened to them?
“They asked.” Grandma stood still to sip her soda, not like me and Clara who didn’t care when we spilled a little over the sides of our mouth, in motion. “But four of them—The Unlucky Four, the newspaper called them—couldn’t remember a thing. They remembered the aliens coming to hug them, just like everyone else, and they remembered waking up in their beds. Not a gumdrop of in between.
“There was an investigation, of course, but the police didn’t find a thing and eventually it was like everyone forgot about the whole business. Life went on, like it always does.”
After she was gone, I wished that just once I’d made a recording of Grandma telling us about the aliens at Unlucky Ned’s. I know the story by heart, but remembering it isn’t the same. It’s like trying to play a song in your head instead of listening to it. You can’t remember little pieces of it, and after long enough, you don’t know if it’s even the same song anymore. You lose it.
Weeks passed and Clara went on talking to Grandma that fall. By herself, when she couldn’t have known I was watching. In front of Mom and Dad. In the morning before school. One time in public, a Saturday afternoon at the grocery store, in front of a beautiful high school girl with curly red hair who was stocking the iceberg lettuce. Clara started talking to herself, and for whatever reason picked up Red Delicious from the pile to hold it out in front of her, as if Grandma had asked to see it. The red-haired girl smiled at her, and I could read it in her eyes—that she was lumping the two of us, brother and sister together, playing make believe. I’d never been so embarrassed in my life and I snatched the apple from her to put it back with the rest, and walked away, ahead of Mom, ahead of Clara.
And then there was one Friday night when Mom and Dad went out to dinner and ordered a pizza for us and told us to put ourselves to bed by ten. I’d been munching on slice after slice from my half of the pizza–pepperoni and green pepper–and working very hard on an English essay about “The Cask of Amontillado” so I wouldn’t ruin my weekend trying to get it done then. I got it printed on the Inkjet just in time to watch X-Files.
I found Clara already in the living room, with the TV already on, sitting to one side of the sofa. She’d only eaten one slice from her half of the pie—pineapples and extra cheese—but she was still chewing.
It didn’t’ take long to register the game. She reached into the empty space over the middle cushion. She bent her fingers into a claw shape, the way she always would around a cookie and began her nibbling process.
“Grandma’s joining us for X-Files?” I asked.
Clara focused her eyes on her hand. “I told her she would like it.”
“She probably would.” I sat down on the far cushion, leaving the middle open. “I was wondering if Grandma could tell me something—it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while, since she died.”
Clara stopped chewing. She put the cookie down on her lap. Maybe she had an invisible saucer there.
“It’s about the alien story at the bar.” On the TV, there was a commercial for Beverly Hills 90210, but it looked like in this one one of the guys had a gun. He pointed at his door. His hand was shaking, out of his element, in over his head. “There’s a part that never added up to me. Grandma always said she was a little girl, but then why was she out at night? And at a bar?”
It took a second for me to realize Clara wasn’t looking up at me, but at Grandma in between us.
“And besides that, I don’t even know if Unlucky Ned’s would have been around when she was girl. It doesn’t look that old.”
Clara nodded and her eyes landed back on me. “The window says it was established in 1951. Grandma would have been in her forties before it even opened.”
“You knew that?” I asked. “You knew that the whole time and you never asked about it?”
“I didn’t want to ruin it for you.”
I wondered what Grandma would have said when the time came that I figured out for myself it was all just a story. If she would have fudged bits and pieces. If she would have made me believe a little longer. Or if she would have apologized. If I would have cried and called her a liar and ran away from her like I did when I was seven and she slipped up and put out the presents labeled from Santa Claus a week before Christmas.
I forgot when I got over that. Not that afternoon, I know. But before that Christmas.
But maybe it wasn’t all fantasy. Maybe Grandma did live it, and it was just the facts that she’d jumbled. It hadn’t happened at that bar, but some bar before it. Or a restaurant. Maybe she heard grown ups talk about it enough that she imagined the scene over and over until she really thought she had been there.
We reenacted the scene a few times. Grandma playing the alien. Clara playing the pharmacist’s wife. She wanted to be John-Joe, but I always called that part. I wanted to be first, besides which I was a boy. When Grandma hugged Clara, Clara hugged her back and I told her she was getting it all wrong. Why would she hug an alien? Grandma rubbed a hand over Clara’s back and told her it was all right. She told me to play nice.
I could hardly pay attention to that first segment of the show—all the darkness and the jump cuts, leading into the gray smoke over the black screen, the X-Files logo.
Clara was back to nibbling.
“Are they chocolate chip?” I asked.
She finished chewing before she answered. “Macadamia nut, tonight.”
I kept my eyes on the screen, reached out and grabbed a cookie of my own. No one made cookies like Grandma. That sweet. That soft. I took my first bite, and it was magnificent.
Michael Chin was born and raised in Utica, New York and is a recent alum of Oregon State’s MFA Program. He won Bayou Magazine’s Jim Knudsen Editor’s Prize for fiction and has work published or forthcoming in journals including The Normal School, Passages North, Iron Horse, Front Porch, andBellevue Literary Review. He works as a contributing editor for Moss and blogs about professional wrestling and a cappella music on the side. Find him online at miketchin.com or follow him on Twitter @miketchin.