Carol says: “I’m a deaf writer working in a traffic-jammed world, dreaming of different places to explore. I’ve won one On The Premises mini-contest, and I’ve been published in Daily Science Fiction and Enchanted Conversation Magazine.”
The Pieces That Bind
by Carol Scheina
The first thing Georgia knew for certain was that the woman rummaging through the canned beans and peas in the pantry was not her grandma, even though she looked exactly like her, right down to the nasty black cigar in hand.
Except that Georgia had just plucked the cigar out of Gran’s hand, for it was 2 p.m. and time for the older woman’s afternoon siesta. In the other room, Georgia could hear the television cheerfully offering a miracle knife that could be hers for just three easy payments. The teen glanced through the doorway, and yes, indeed, right in front of the television was Gran, resting in her chair like rising yeast, filling every nook with her body’s slow breathing.
Gran often fell asleep to the sound of infomercials with her lit cigar dangling loosely between her fingers, ready to set the house on fire. Georgia imagined the smoke snatching their lives away with a puff, so she was always on the alert for falling cigars. The one in the teen’s hand still felt warm.
In the kitchen, the not-Gran turned and puffed her cigar, sending out plumes of smoke smelling heavily like laundry detergent. Eyes locked on Georgia.
The second thing Georgia knew for certain was that not-Gran was an alien.
Mom had warned Georgia that an alien would come. Well, not really Mom, but rather, the being who took Mom’s form after the accident.
“Another will come looking for me,” Mom 2.0 had said before her body wisped out of this world like a dandelion puff. “She’ll be like me, and I don’t think she’ll understand why I stayed here.” Mom 2.0 had looked hard at Georgia. The teen shrank under the gaze, which decreed one mustn’t dare ignore the following words: “If someone comes, go to Gran. Talk to her. She’ll help you.”
Mom 2.0 had been right about another one coming. Georgia stared at the alien, so like Gran as it puffed and blew the clean scent into the air. It still hadn’t spoken. Georgia put the real Gran’s cigar down on the counter and moved slowly alongside the kitchen drawers. Second one on the right. She opened it carefully.
The alien’s eyebrows rose as Georgia pulled out Grandpa’s old ivory-handled pistol.
Georgia knew a third thing for certain: she wasn’t going to obey Mom 2.0’s decree.
Maybe at one point in the past, Georgia would have crawled into the dough-soft lap and hugged her Gran. Maybe at one point, she would have asked for help, but not now. Grandpa had died years ago, and both Mom and Mom 2.0 were gone. Now, Georgia watched the old woman turn her lungs black with cigars and stare into the emptiness of the television.
The woman had suffered enough, and there would be no more aliens causing heartbreak.
Georgia willed her hands not to tremble as she raised the ivory-handled pistol. She hoped holding it would be threat enough, for she wasn’t sure she actually knew how to fire it.
The alien in the kitchen blew a puff of freshly laundered smoke. “Is something wrong, Georgie?”
Georgia cringed. Another sign this was definitely not Gran. No one ever called her Georgie. “Out. Please.” She tilted the gun toward the screen door.
“Why would you say that to your grandma?” the alien smiled.
“You’re not Gran.”
“Well, I look like her, right?” The alien patted down her soft hips.
“Yeah,” Georgia admitted. “But you’re not her.”
The alien scoffed, and it was strange to hear that sound come from a Gran-like mouth. The jowls didn’t wiggle a bit. “Oh, come on! You’re a planet of duplication! How can you tell?” The alien waved to the cans in the pantry. “Look at that. The same can, the same green beans, over and over.” She danced to the kitchen window. “Look! Trees! One is the same as another. And don’t get me started on the H2O molecules. I swear, your planet is positively dripping in them, it’s disgusting. Do you know how much liquid this body uses? Then there’s every single one of you humans with the exact same form. Exactly the same, with just minor variations. I studied before I came so I could be a perfect copy. How do you know I’m not her?”
Georgia shrugged. “You kind of just told me.”
The alien-Gran rolled her eyes up to the cracked ceiling and sighed. “I really tried to do this nicely. You know, I’m not trained for this, the whole ‘pretend you fit in’ thing. I’m a soldier, not a scientist. That was her thing. My thing is—”
Alien-Gran’s body flew into the air, stubby legs spreading under the green housedress, body vaulting across the kitchen. A whirl of plump body, then an arm shot out, and…
…the gun was gone from Georgia’s hands. “Holy shit!” Georgia’s mind tried to rationalize that she’d just seen her grandma perform moves better than Bruce Lee. But it’s not Gran, remember?
The alien held the ivory-handled pistol casually. “Humph,” she said. “It’s not even loaded.” She tossed it into a corner, where it clattered on the linoleum. Alien-Gran held her hand out, and small pieces from the hem of her green housedress began to fly off and reform into something new, stacking together like Lego blocks.
The final pieces clicked into place in alien-Gran’s hand, and Georgia thought it resembled something out of those bad 1960s sci-fi movies Gran sometimes watched between infomercials. It was green, it didn’t seem to be cotton anymore, and it was pointed right at Georgia’s heart.
The alien smiled again. “This one’s loaded. I take it you have some experience with my kind. You know what this does, right?”
Georgia really didn’t, but she figured it was something bad. Her eyes shifted toward the other room, where the real Gran’s chest gently rose and fell in the chair. Things were heading toward something worse than an oily smoke death, but there was still Gran to protect. She decided to try talking. “I only ever encountered one of you. I called her Mom.”
“I called her the love of my life. She died here.”
“I know,” Georgia said softly. It had been the second time she’d seen her mom die.
The alien-Gran kept the weapon pointed. “I want her soul piece, and I’m not leaving without it.”
Georgia frowned. “Her… what?”
The first time Georgia saw Mom die, everything became a whirl of spinning car and jolting seat belt. In the end, there was only one thing she saw.
The world was a package wrapped in silence, and she wanted to tear it apart to find a single sound.
“Mommy? Talk to me! Mommy? Please!”
The answer never came.
The world was still bundled in silence as Georgia watched her mother’s coffin sink into the ground. She wanted to cry out, “Why did this happen? Why did the other car lose control? Why my mom? Why?” But the words stayed packed inside.
She looked to Gran, wondering if the older woman had answers. Above all, Georgia wanted to wrap her arms around the soft midsection and feel a hand wipe away the tears, hear a voice reassure her. But the silence slipped around Gran too, and the only thing that came out of the woman’s mouth was a puff of smoke.
Gran had never smoked before. The old woman stared into the distance as the coffin lowered into the ground, then she slipped the cigar into her mouth. Georgia watched the smoke curling into nothingness above their heads, and her questions and tears stayed boxed up inside.
Neither Georgia nor Gran said a word when Mom walked back into their lives three months after her death. It was right at the end of spring, like the season wanted to surprise them with an unexpected flower. Georgia’s legs nearly gave way upon the sight of her mom growing larger in the distance, but they kept strength enough to sprint down the driveway. To her mom.
She wasn’t really Mom, Georgia suspected right away. It was hard to say exactly what was off, though the hug sent the first doubts into her mind. Georgia held onto her mom’s torso, feeling the solid weight in her arms, the scent of lilac filling her nose. Mom had never smelled like lilacs before.
“Are you okay?” Mom had said, standing awkwardly as the hug stretched on.
Mom would never have asked a question like that. Mom always said hugs should last forever. Georgia shoved hard at the doubt that creeped in along with the relief and disbelief and joy. Her mom was back.
Georgia didn’t see Gran’s reunion with Mom, but just like that, they were three again. Gran put the cigars away, and the lilac scent of this new Mom permeated the house.
She became Mom 2.0 in Georgia’s mind, rising from the ashes of the accident somewhat different, but still Mom. She looked exactly like the person who had raised Georgia as a single mother, even if she seemed to have forgotten all about their life together before the accident. Mom 2.0 didn’t go back to work, and even the old jokes were gone. Still, Georgia never missed a chance to squeeze a quick hug and reassure herself that Mom was still there.
Gran made elaborate (for her) meals, her jowls disappearing as cheeks raised in a smile. Mom 2.0 poked her fork at the roast chicken or meatloaf, and nobody mentioned the fact that Mom 2.0 never ate. The three of them talked about safe subjects at the dinner table, like the greedy squirrels stealing the birdseed or the soaring summer temperatures. Georgia hid her doubts inside because if she spoke, the magic might end, and Mom 2.0 might disappear.
At the end of summer, Mom 2.0 broke the spell.
“Have you ever noticed this universe is full of different pieces coming together in the strangest ways?” Mom 2.0 said as she and Georgia walked through the wooded paths behind Gran’s home.
Georgia looked at the woman next to her and said, “Huh?”
Mom 2.0 raised her eyes to the treetops. “Your body is made of pieces that will one day break apart then go on to form new things. Maybe an atom in your elbow will become a part of a tree or a mushroom.”
“What are you talking about?” Georgia frowned.
A sigh, followed by a gentle glance at the teen next to her. “Where I’m from, we’re constantly shifting the pieces of our bodies. We take atoms, a small bit from a piece of skin or a scale, something like that, and build a new form. Then we release everything and build something new.” A walnut-sized piece of her left shoulder flew up into the air, scattering like dust. The gap into the shoulder didn’t bleed but seemed covered in a kind of sandy flesh-colored substance.
Georgia blinked, uncertain what she had just seen.
Mom 2.0 brushed Georgia’s hair, as though it was perfectly normal to lose a piece of your shoulder. “I study other ways of life; that’s why I came here. When I landed on this planet, I had a form I was supposed to take, a cover story, and I began to pull atoms together to form my shape. But pieces of your mom’s atoms found me. Instead of becoming my designated cover, I found myself forming a shape like your mom.”
Part of Georgia knew that this was the truth, that Mom 2.0 wasn’t really her mom, but her brain fought it. That would mean Mom was really gone. Her head pounded.
Mom 2.0 continued. “I didn’t realize that the pieces of your mother would shape me so much. We’ve never encountered this before, not on any other planet. Maybe we just took the wrong atoms, I don’t know. But I can feel that your mother loved you; a love wrapped around every atom, and it surprised me that such passion would shape so many of my choices here. You and Gran have become part of me too.”
The woman continued to lightly stroke Georgia’s hair.
“I wasn’t meant to have stayed so long, but I couldn’t leave. Your mom never wanted to leave you.”
Another piece of her left shoulder flew off.
Georgia stepped back, her heart now pounding like her brain. “Mom?”
Mom 2.0 muttered under her breath. “I knew before I took this assignment that I had early symptoms of disintegration syndrome, but I thought I had more time.” Two pieces of her right shoulder floated off, as did a small piece of her forehead and hip. “Damnit, it’s not supposed to go this fast. This planet… Things are different here.” Her face looked broken with emotion. “The pieces that form me are drifting apart. It’s harder to hold myself together. Oh, Georgia, I’m so sorry.”
Georgia tried to inhale deeply, but her lungs wouldn’t fill properly.
A breeze tickled Georgia’s hair, and a few pieces of Mom 2.0’s hair flew off with them.
“We need to get back to Gran,” Mom 2.0 said. “This is happening too fast. But first, another will come looking for me…”
They half-ran home as Georgia listened to Mom 2.0’s words, uncertain how to respond. She wanted to stop, hug and breathe in the lilac, but pieces were flying off Mom 2.0, and Georgia’s brain seemed five steps behind in trying to understand what was happening. Sandy particles sparkled around Mom 2.0, and the teen didn’t hear the final words the woman spoke:
“You and Gran are so alike. You never talk.”
Stumbling through the woods, they made it to Gran’s backyard, where the dissolving frame of Mom 2.0 fell to the ground.
“Gran!” Georgia screamed.
The screen door slapped wide open. She’d never seen the old woman move so quickly.
“No, no, no!” Gran cried as she ran and dropped to her knees, hugging a body now missing too many parts. Georgia knelt as well, at a distance, watching.
“I want to stay,” a voice sounded on the wind. Only the smallest of pieces remained, rising into treetops that accepted the offering with a gentle wave of green leaves. Gran fell to the ground, hugging empty air, hiding her face.
“Mommy?” Georgia whispered.
For the second time, Georgia watched her mom die.
“There was nothing left of her,” Georgia explained to the alien-Gran who stood in the kitchen with the weapon pointed at her. Even as Georgia kept her voice steady, the withheld tears threatened to unravel her voice. “Mom 2.0 just drifted into the air.”
“No!” the alien said. “Don’t you understand? It’s easy for us to shift atoms around.” With a shrug, pieces of the being began to float off. Georgia cringed at the sight of Gran, even an alien-Gran, twisting and re-blending like a kaleidoscope of shapes and colors, and she closed her eyes.
“There, see?” the alien said.
Georgia opened her eyes to see… herself: an alien-Georgia blowing out puffs of smoke still smelling like detergent, cigar in one hand and weapon in the other. It didn’t seem like a good time to mention she was too young to smoke, so Georgia kept silent.
Alien-Georgia continued, “We can rearrange the atoms however we like, but you saw my soul piece just then, right?”
It also didn’t seem like a good time to mention that she’d closed her eyes and hadn’t seen anything resembling a soul piece, so Georgia didn’t respond.
The alien sighed and waved her cigar. “We all have a core, our soul piece, that never changes. It’s all that remains after we… disintegrate. Now I want her soul piece.”
“I’m sorry,” Georgia said, though there were more to her words. She really wanted to say, “I’m sorry for your loss. I’m sorry I don’t have the soul piece. I’m sorry, but I really want you to leave before Gran wakes up because our lives are messed up enough.” She couldn’t form all those words, though.
The alien frowned, and in one downturned mouth, Georgia recognized anger, frustration, and heartbreak all blending in the face identical to her own. She knew her own expressions. The weapon remained pointed. Georgia’s heart knocked too hard at her rib cage, her eyes still felt the itchy remains of withheld tears, and she wondered why the worst messes always found her.
Gran’s voice broke into the quiet of the kitchen. “I’ll thank you to leave my granddaughter alone.” She held an ivory-handled pistol tight in her hand, pointed right at the Georgia who wasn’t human.
Alien-Georgia turned and pointed her green weapon at Gran. “Your weapon’s not loaded.”
Gran smiled. “We’re a planet of duplication. My husband had two of these, and this one’s nice and loaded.”
Georgia and the alien-Georgia both glanced to the corner of the kitchen where the ivory-handled gun the alien had tossed earlier still lay on the linoleum.
“Now,” Gran continued, “why don’t we both put our guns down and I’ll give you what you came for.”
“The soul piece,” the alien whispered. “You have it?”
Gun still raised, Gran held out a rock, clear like quartz and speckled with various colors inside. “Is this what you want?”
Georgia almost asked, “How did you get that, Gran?” but she knew the answer. Gran was the last one to hold Mom 2.0, and that must have been a piece that didn’t vanish into the wind. The soul piece.
The alien lowered her weapon and dropped the cigar, empty hand reaching out with urgency. “Give it to me!”
Gran lowered her gun. “It’s yours.” She placed the rock into the outstretched hand. “She said to tell you she’s sorry.”
More words surfaced that Georgia couldn’t get out. Like, “Gran, how long did you know about Mom 2.0?” And, “Why didn’t we ever talk about her?”
The alien-Georgia’s face turned red and freshly formed tears left pale streaks. “There’s no cure for what she had, but she thought she had more time. She died doing what she loved.” The alien touched her eyes, feeling the wet. “She loved exploring new forms like this.”
Gran’s voice was scratchy, like an interrupted nap. “I never learned why the rock was so important.”
Gripping the soul piece close with one hand, alien-Georgia whispered, “Even as our atoms break apart and reform, soul pieces stay together. And inside them, we carry pieces of those we love. Part of me is in here.” The alien looked at Gran and Georgia. “Parts of you are here too. I guess that makes us family, so it’s probably best I don’t shoot you.” The lowered weapon dropped to the floor and scattered into greenish sandy pieces.
The alien continued. “It’s our tradition to put soul pieces someplace safe, where they’ll stay till the end of time. So there will always be a piece of us together.”
Georgia remembered how Mom 2.0 spoke about forming herself from pieces of Mom. Memories came in short bursts, from the time before the accident. Mom’s kisses, smelling like bitter tea and oranges. Mom’s high-pitched laughter. Shoulder nudges after a bad joke. Then, after the accident was Mom 2.0’s lilac scent. The way she’d smile at Georgia at dinnertime. The awkward way she hugged. Mom and Mom 2.0 blended into one mother, and Georgia’s heart ached with the void left behind.
The teen finally spoke. “Are pieces of Mom in there?” and she knew she meant both moms.
The Georgia-alien wiped her nose on her hand and examined the snot. “She would’ve loved studying this.” A bitter laugh coughed out with the tears. “And yes, there’s my kind and your kind in here. Three of your kind, to be exact.”
“We’ll always be together?” Georgia asked.
“Yes.” The alien patted the soul piece gently.
The words were like a string the alien pulled, and Georgia felt a package inside her unraveling, opening up the hurt and pain she’d pressed hard inside, and for the first time, a bit of comfort seeped into the feelings. The words she’d wanted to speak but never did came out in a steady stream of tears.
She wasn’t alone. In Gran’s kitchen, two humans and one alien cried in silence. The tears dotting her grandma’s face spoke more than Georgia had heard in a long time, for she’d never seen Gran cry.
Georgia looked up at the stars that night and thought about how somewhere in the universe, there was a bit of Mom, Mom 2.0, Gran, and even the other alien. And herself too. They were all together, even if only fragments inside what looked like a quartz rock. They’d be together when the universe ended, maybe even longer. Who knew how long a soul piece could last? Georgia wasn’t even sure she understood how a soul piece worked, but she didn’t really want to think too hard about it.
Gran coughed next to her, and Georgia looked at the atoms that had come together to form her grandma, soft and round, wearing a shapeless green dress that hung flat around her mid-calves.
Questions didn’t seem to stick in Georgia’s throat anymore, and she blurted out her thoughts. “How’d you know which one was me? Are you an alien too, Gran?”
“Heavens, girl, no,” the woman replied as she raised another nasty black cigar to her lips and flicked a lighter. “Me, an alien. Tsk. And I will always know my granddaughter. You don’t smoke.”
“You know, smoking’s really bad for you. It causes lung cancer.”
Gran looked at the cigar. “All right, then.” She stamped the cigar out on the ground. “Let’s go inside and sit down. I think it’s time we talked. About your mother. About the aliens. And about you. We’ve got to think about what’s coming up for you. School, maybe college. We’ve got to talk about the future.”
Georgia felt another sealed package in her heart come undone, and a warmth extended all the way to her fingertips. She couldn’t stop herself as she reached out and hugged the old woman.
Georgia knew one thing for certain: “I’d like that, Gran,” she said. “I really would.”
Copyright 2020 by Carol Scheina