Cindy Cramer is a novelist and short story writer living in Gig Harbor, Washington. She has won awards in the Pacific Northwest Writers’ Association and Pierce County Reads writing contests. Her work has appeared most recently in Short Story Substack and CP Quarterly.
by Cindy Cramer
I finally figured out they were aliens.
It’s the only explanation that makes sense. First, there’s the physical transformation—the fingers turning inward like claws, the stooped shoulders, the snowy white of their hair. It must be so hard trying to move in an unfamiliar atmosphere. They weren’t made for our gravity. That’s why they fall so often, and their delicate bones shatter so easily. The invasion was slow, over years, very cunning of them, because I hardly noticed it happening. Now their take-over is complete, and the beings I am facing are not my parents.
My sister Joan says this is just aging and I’m an idiot. I know about aging. I see my own hairline receding and my paunch growing. This isn’t the same thing. I’m still me inside this dumpy middle-aged man, but it’s not my parents inside those old bodies. The aliens are cranky, fretful, hard to please. They get angry when the cost of their prescriptions goes up or when I try to teach them how to use their smartphones. My real parents would never scream at the bagboy for putting their bananas in the same bag as the eggs.
It’s easier now that I know the truth. I am more patient with them. Everything must be so overwhelming on a new planet. They don’t seem like an advanced life form. I don’t think we’ll ever be able to have a conversation about why they came here or what happened to my real parents. They are easily confused and may never master our civilization.
They still answer to Mom and Dad, so that’s what I call them, but I miss my parents.
Joan takes me out once a month to talk about Mom and Dad’s situation. She’ll spring for coffee or lunch. Today, it’s lunch. She’s either feeling flush or she wants something. I study the diner menu, then order the double bacon cheeseburger—rare please, despite the menu’s warning about the dangers of undercooked meat—with fries. She gets a salad—hold the dressing.
“You just ordered a heart attack for lunch,” she says, the lines on her forehead deepening.
“I do it just to annoy you,” I tell her. The funny part is that she thinks I’m joking.
“When are you going to start taking care of yourself?”
I shrug. “I’m middle-aged. I have a cardiologist.”
“I’m middle-aged, I have a colorist,” she snaps.
I grin, which annoys her further.
She gets down to the business of our lunch and starts listing things she thinks I should know about Mom and Dad. What they’re eating, signs of their continued decline, arguments they had with their doctors, why they should be in assisted living.
That last one is the real reason she took me out today. She’s been pushing for that for a while. My parents adamantly refuse—the aliens certainly do not want to have to learn a new living situation. I have a feeling that meeting new people and telling their story over and over would make them vulnerable to detection. Joan and my parents have been arguing about this for months, and each side needs an ally to break the stalemate. My opinion has become a valuable commodity. I kind of like that.
“You should look at Evergreen Acres with me,” Joan says. “It’s close to my house and they have a great list of activities. I can’t get Mom and Dad to even take a tour, though. They claim they’re perfectly happy holed up in that huge firetrap watching reruns on Nick at Nite.”
“See, this is exactly why I think they’re aliens and not Mom and Dad. Our real parents would be spending their golden years doting on your kids and taking long walks like they do in those Viagra commercials. These two never want to leave the house.”
Joan groans. “Not this stupid theory again!” She hates my alien theory. It makes her crazy. But then, everything pisses Joan off. Her kids. The line at Starbucks. Participation trophies. “They’re not aliens! They’re just elderly!”
“Isn’t my idea better?” I ask. “I mean, we’ll never prove it one way or another, they’re too smart for that, but my idea has hope.”
“Hope? What hope?” Joan’s eyebrows shoot up, a sure sign the conversation is about to go south.
“If they’re not aliens, then the same thing could happen to us.”
“The same thing is going to happen to us, you moron!” Joan shouts. She looks around the diner and then lowers her voice. “It’s called getting old and it sucks!”
I think my theory allows me to treat them better than she does. She thinks Mom and Dad are still in there, and she gets frustrated when she can’t get them to respond the way they used to. I think these are new beings, unfamiliar with our ways, and I am more tolerant.
I guess I’m also more patient because I’m less involved. Joan put herself in charge a few years ago, when it became clear the aliens were having trouble navigating daily life. She visits them weekly, arranges their healthcare, and manages the checkbook that no longer makes sense to either of them.
Joan was always the responsible one. She tore through college and then law school as if she had blinders on. She got married to an accountant and had two children, a boy and a girl, of course. When the accountant developed a drinking problem and refused treatment, Joan summarily dispatched him through divorce court. Now she’s an efficient single mom machine—everything scheduled, no detail overlooked.
Me—not so much. I’m the slacker little brother. Nobody ever expects me to step up and take care of anything. I have a mutt named Murphy, and I’ve managed to keep him alive for five years now, but that’s the apex of my responsibility pyramid. I still manage to kill houseplants on a regular basis. So when you try to decide which one of us should take the lead in our aging parents’ care—well, you wouldn’t even ask the question, would you?
I am happy to help Joan with Mom and Dad. I just don’t want to be in charge. I’ll take them to the movies once in a while or stop by unexpectedly with fresh bagels. I’m like the fun uncle who brings presents and leaves before the sugar rush wears off.
I’m the one who suggested an outing to the Natural History Museum. I told Joan it’s to stimulate our parents, maybe remind them of the Saturday afternoons we whiled away there when we were young. She buys it. My ulterior motive is to get them to the planetarium show. It’s about exoplanets, and I’m hoping they’ll recognize their home. I don’t know what we’ll do with that information, but it seems important.
The day we pick is clear and bright, with spring finally shedding its chilly dampness and seducing us with pre-summer warmth. Ahead of us, school buses line the entrance and kids pour out of them, screaming and laughing.
I lift my face to the sun and wait as my father’s walker inches up the sidewalk.
“This didn’t used to be such a long walk,” he complains.
“Yes, it did, Dad,” my sister says with a sigh. “It just seems longer now.”
This is the wrong tactic. He stops dead in his tracks, his watery blue eyes angry. Now our walk to the museum entrance is indefinitely postponed. The aliens hate to be contradicted. I wonder if it’s taboo on their planet.
“Why would it seem longer now? That makes no sense. If it were just as many steps as it always was, there would be no difference. It’s longer, I tell you. They must have redone the parking lot. Set it further back.”
“Fine,” my sister says. She shoots me an exasperated look. I shrug. Joan takes Mom’s elbow and tries to regain some forward momentum. Mom moves more slowly than Dad, often with one hand pushing on her hip, as if all it needed was a little support.
Everything takes twice as long as it should, like we’re moving through Jello. It’s the opposite of when I used to come here with Joan’s kids when they were preschoolers. Back then, the whole trip seemed to be set to “Flight of the Bumblebee” as we careened through the hallways. I remind myself that aliens move slowly, and it helps me adjust my pace.
We start in the Stone Age hall. This room always transports me back to my childhood. I love the smell of musty dioramas. Outdated exhibits with caveman mannequins. The quiet over-air-conditioned atmosphere. Most of that has disappeared as the museum struggles to stay relevant and compete with video games, but this wing has escaped modernization so far. I will kill them if they ever update it.
Dad takes it all in. He looks like he is hearing a familiar strain of music. “My God. I haven’t been here in, what? Forty years? I don’t think it’s changed a bit.”
Mom doesn’t say anything, but she studies each of the placards. I wonder if she was given this memory, too.
“Hey, Mom, remember bringing me and Joan here when we were kids? You always let us stop for ice cream on the way home,” I say.
She ignores my question as if she hasn’t heard me. The alien inside of Mom is cagier than Dad’s. When he’s caught in a memory lapse, he’s likely to get upset and insist you are wrong. She gets quiet or changes the subject. It can be hard to tell what she does and doesn’t remember. Today, she’s playing it close to the vest. She says, “Isn’t this so very interesting?”
Joan sidles up next to me and whispers, “We might be here all day. When’s the planetarium show?”
“On the hour, I think.”
Joan nods, all business. “Let’s go see what’s out this way. David says the planetarium show is really good and we shouldn’t miss it.”
“David, do you come to the planetarium often?” Mom asks, showing some surprise. Clever alien, trying to catch me in a lie.
“I love the planetarium, Mom. Always have,” I answer. I take her arm and steer her toward the hallway.
We discover all the school kids at the planetarium entrance, still celebrating their field trip by screaming and hitting each other. They look to be about twelve or so, but I’m bad at judging ages. I’m sure this is supposed to be an educational experience, but the only things I learn are that Jason is slaying it on the game on his phone and Jordan is so not going out with Trevor. It pains me to realize these are my people. Joan would have been in the group of studious girls at the front of the line, waiting quietly with their tickets in hand.
Mom leans into me, as if looking for protection from the tweenage onslaught. The aliens are uncomfortable with crowds and noise.
“How long is the show?” Dad asks. He’s yelling over the kids.
“Maybe an hour? Hour and a half?” Joan shouts back.
“I can’t sit that long without a bathroom break. David, where’s the men’s room?”
I point in the right direction. He turns his walker and begins creeping forward. Joan looks at me and raises her eyebrows.
“What?” I say. I hate this shorthand Joan thinks she has with me. I never know what she’s trying to tell me.
“Go with him,” she hisses. “He could fall in there.”
“Okay,” I say with a shrug.
Dad makes it through the sea of kids and his restroom stop without needing the paramedics. We get back to find the kids have mysteriously disappeared and Joan is arguing with a bored museum staffer, waving our tickets at him. “But we just bought these twenty minutes ago.”
“Yes, but our noon show is full. It’s for the field trip group only. Your tickets are good for the 2 p.m. show.”
“I don’t want to see the 2 p.m. show!”
I see her dilemma, but I also spot a bigger problem. I tug on her sleeve. “Joan, where’s Mom?”
Joan whirls on me with all her fury showing on her face. “She’s right over there!” she says, as she gestures toward an empty bench. “Son of a bitch!”
We look around, bewildered. Panic rises in Joan’s eyes. I try to calm her. “It’s okay, she can’t be far. She doesn’t move that fast. Maybe she went into the theater.”
The staffer says, “That’s not possible. We collect a ticket from every patron.”
Joan counts the tickets in her hand. “Could she have slipped in with all the kids?” she asks. “Maybe there’s been a mistake.”
Or maybe she beamed herself back to the mothership. It makes about as much sense as my slow-moving mother running out while our backs were turned.
With a dramatic sigh, the attendant pulls a walkie-talkie out of his pocket and mutters something about checking for an elderly woman without a ticket. I hear a squawk of static in return. “They say it’s just the kids and their teachers in there and the head count and the ticket count match. She’s not in there.”
Joan lets out a high-pitched squeak.
“Okay, one step at time,” I tell her. I have rarely seen Joan rattled like this.
We sit Dad down on the bench, instructing him not to go anywhere. “Where’s your mother?” he asks.
“We don’t know,” Joan admits.
“What?” he shouts.
“We’ll find her,” I tell him, in what I hope is a reassuring voice. I’m not really sure I have a reassuring voice.
I turn toward the planetarium attendant. I smile at him, playing the part of the good cop. He’s a pale, nerdy kid, whose nametag reads “Blaine.” “We need your help, Blaine. Our mother has wandered off.”
“She has Alzheimer’s!” Joan shouts, as if she is blaming Blaine. If he had just let us into the noon show, none of this would have happened.
I look back at her, wondering if that is true. “Has she been diagnosed?”
Her anger seems to have focused her. She brushes by me. “Call security. Make sure she doesn’t walk out the front door, or I swear I will sue this museum for every cent in its endowment.”
Blaine’s eyes widen as if my sister has threatened his own personal bank account, and he picks up the phone.
“Okay, calm down,” I tell my sister. “Go check the bathroom.”
“Keep an eye on Dad,” she says, glaring at me.
Dad’s sitting on the bench, breathing hard after his bathroom break. “I got it,” I assure her.
I turn to the problem of Mom. It’s strange she made it out of our sight so quickly. Where was she heading?
Before I can figure that out, I hear a clacking noise behind me. It’s either a horse or high heels. I turn to see two museum staffers charging toward me. The high heels belong to a brisk woman with no nametag. I figure she is a high-level staffer who is concerned about my sister’s threat of legal action. The man trying to keep up with her looks like a mall cop.
“Uh oh,” Blaine says softly.
Brisk Woman stretches her mouth into something like a smile as she nears. “Sir, I understand your mother is missing?”
“Yeah, she seems to have wandered off. She gets confused sometimes.”
She looks annoyed that this has happened on her watch. I can sympathize.
Joan comes out of the bathroom and spots Brisk Woman. She makes a beeline for her, already talking about security and liability and irresponsibility. Brisk Woman talks over her in a soothing voice about how great the museum’s emergency protocols are and how sure she is they will find Mom within a few minutes. Clearly, Joan and Brisk Woman are evenly matched. I back away.
Where would an alien go? I figure she’d be amused by our primitive understanding of the solar system, so I head to the space exhibit. No Mom.
I hear footsteps and turn to see Joan rushing toward me. “The security guard is sitting with Dad, and they’ve promised that no one will let Mom out the front door.”
“Okay,” I say. I’m not always sure what kind of response Joan wants. Sometimes, I think she’s just reciting her to-do list out loud.
“Why aren’t you panicking?” Joan demands.
“I never panic. You know that.”
“She could be anywhere.”
“But she’s probably wandering the museum, happy in her own little world.”
Joan’s forehead crinkles. “Let’s split up,” she says. “You take the old wing, and I’ll look through the new one.”
“Sounds good,” I say. Any plan Joan comes up with sounds good, because it means I don’t have to have a strategy. I especially like this plan, because if we split up, Joan won’t be critiquing me the whole time. I head towards the older part of the museum.
I start in the dinosaur exhibit. Right away, I realize Joan has made a huge mistake. I should have taken the newer exhibits. I don’t feel any emotional connection to them. I could have zipped through them quickly.
The old exhibits are a different story. I am home. I wanted to live in this room when I was a kid. I wander by the T-Rex skeleton, the delicate, bird-like arms at odds with the enormous skull filled with jagged daggers. “Hello, old friend,” I murmur.
This was the only place where I could outshine my sister. She loved school and reading and the classics. Science wasn’t really her thing. She wasn’t bad at it, but she couldn’t tell you “brontosaurus” meant “thunder lizard” in Greek, or the stegosaurus was a herbivore. I used to bury her with factoids when we came here. I was going to be a paleontologist, right up to the day I flunked high school biology.
I go to the mammals next, studying the taxidermied specimens. I love the feeling of nostalgia, but I miss the sense of awe I used to feel here. It all looks so much smaller and shabbier than I remembered. There is a jaded wall between me and the past.
Still moving slowly, I head to the minerals and gems. I wonder how long I would have to be gone before my sister reports me missing.
I marvel at how far Mom got on her bum hip. I don’t feel the same urgency Joan does. The only danger would be if Mom left the museum, and I think it’s unlikely she got that far before the mall cop and Brisk Woman were alerted. She’s here somewhere and we’ll find her eventually. Unlike Joan, I believe most things work out all right. Sometimes I’m wrong, but I don’t waste energy worrying about that possibility in advance. Joan says it’s a gift, but she says it in a way that implies that it’s not.
The oceanic exhibit is the last one in the old wing. I walk through blue-lit exhibits of fish and sea creatures. Finally, there’s Mom, sitting on a bench, right in front of the life-size killer whale model.
“Hey, there, we’ve been looking for you,” I say gently. “You okay?”
She shakes her head. “David got lost. We came here with the preschool and he disappeared.”
I let out a low whistle. I haven’t thought about that day in decades. Those crafty aliens. I sit down next to her. “Yeah. I got bored with the lady telling us about rocks. I wanted to see the fish.”
“We looked everywhere. We finally found him here, taking a nap underneath the whale.”
We sit and study the whale a moment, picturing that curly-haired boy asleep underneath.
“I remember that,” I say.
She takes my hand. Hers is dry and gnarled, so different from the soft hands I remember my mother having. She turns to me, her eyes wet. “I’m sorry. I should have been holding your hand. I have always felt so guilty about that.”
“It’s okay, Mom.”
“No, it’s not. Were you scared?”
“Just a little bit, at first. But we had been here so many times. It was exciting wandering through this hall by myself.”
She nods. “It was always your favorite, I remember. No, your second favorite. You liked the dinosaurs best.”
“That’s right,” I say.
She smiles. “You used to carry those little plastic dinosaurs with you everywhere. I remember getting so mad at you when I’d forget to check your pockets before I did the laundry and they’d melt in the dryer. Isn’t that a silly thing to get upset about? It all seemed so important at the time, but looking back, I wish I had just let it go. I wish I had just enjoyed you.”
“I could be hard to enjoy sometimes,” I admit.
She shakes her head. “It goes so fast. And now it’s all disappearing.”
“Yes, it is. I know I’m forgetting things. Sometimes it’s a word, sometimes it’s the way to the grocery store. The absolute worst is the memories. Why can’t I remember taking you out for ice cream after the museum? You said we always did it. How much of my life have I forgotten?”
I shift uncomfortably. This is really Joan’s area of expertise, not mine. “Is this something we should talk to your doctor about?”
She closes her eyes and shakes her head. “No. I’m so tired of doctors. I just want you to understand I am still in here somewhere,” she says, tapping her head. “All of me. I want you to know I’m still your mother and I still treasure all those memories of you, even when they’re locked away from me.”
“It’s okay, Mom. Everything is okay,” I tell her.
I text Joan and get a screaming face emoji in return. I slip my phone back in my jacket and reach for Mom’s hand again. We sit looking at the whale in silence.
A few minutes later, she squeezes my hand and says, “I think I’m ready to go. But this was a treat today. I haven’t thought about that preschool trip in years. I was so scared, but you looked like an angel sleeping under the whale. I miss that little boy, and I got to see him again today. It’s enough. That has to be enough.”
She turns to me and the years melt away. I can see the younger woman in her—the one with the dark brown hair and sparkling eyes. The one who always made me feel safe when she was around. There is no alien. There is only my mother, getting older. Older, diminished, but completely my mother. She blurs as my eyes unexpectedly fill.
It takes about a half hour to get out of the museum, negotiate the walk back to the car and get my parents settled and buckled up in Joan’s SUV. As Joan walks around the back of the car, I meet her there. “You were right. They aren’t aliens,” I say.
“Did you honest to God think they were?”
I shrug. “It was the way I had to explain it. To cope with it.”
Silence falls between us. She makes no move to end it. I dig my hands in my pockets and finally say, “I think maybe you and I should go look at assisted living places next week.”
Her eyebrows lift, but she smiles. “I’d like that. Thank you.”
“Okay. Let’s get them home. I call shotgun. And I want ice cream. Your treat.”
“Idiot,” Joan mutters.
Copyright 2023 by Cindy Cramer