A Short Story
by Jonathan D. Scott

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an ominous figure in a helmet

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If there’s one thing that grown-ups can’t handle, it’s death. I’ve seen my mother a stone-faced martyr, I’ve seen her a cold-hearted bitch, but I never saw her in weepy hysterics until the day my Grandfather died. My old man, too, acted like a complete jackass, hanging around the house, yelling at us to keep quiet, like he thought that was going to make Mom feel better. But for me death is no big deal. I mean, the sooner I get out of here, the better I’ll like it. And I don’t just mean this crummy town either. I mean the whole damn planet.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure it out. You come into this world screaming and crying, and you grow up just in time to find out that life stinks. Then, before you can do anything about it, you turn old and decrepit, and that’s the end of it. For me, I think it should be different. Don’t ask me why. Pop calls me a spoiled brat, but he never has time to think about stuff like this, being too busy worrying over the bills, and if we can afford a new car and more clothes for Mom. But I say, who cares?

Well, the thing is, practically everybody does except me. I guess that’s why I spend a lot of time by myself. It’s not that I’m a loner or think I’m better than anybody else. I’m just different. I guess you could say that I’m sort of a person of mystery and secrets.

As far back as I can remember I’ve been different. My whole life I’ve had crazy dreams at night, not that I ever told anybody about them. They’d probably say it was because I read too many books, but I had those dreams even before I could talk. But what’s really strange is how even now something will happen and make me remember them as clear as if it were happening all over again.

Take the time when we went to see Grandpop in the hospital. Right off I knew something big was up, because all of us went, even Pop, who called Grandpop "that old coot," and used to say he needed about three lobotomies just to make him normal. I didn’t know him too well, myself, since Pop thought he was a bad influence on us and wouldn’t let him in the house.

Now, I’m old enough to go up into the hospital part, but Amy and Jeffery aren’t, so I was volunteered to stay with them down in the lobby. I didn’t mind too much, being pretty sure that Mom didn’t want me to see her go berserk when she saw Grandpop lying the re with tubes up his ass, or whatever it is that people look like just before they die.

After about five minutes I realized there wasn’t too much to do down there except look through some magazines, mostly old copies of Consumer’s Digest, which didn’t hold my interest too long. My tastes in reading, as everybody knows, go more toward science fiction and fantasy. In fact, I don’t think there’s a book in the whole sci-fi section of the school library that doesn’t have my fingerprints all over it. Mom says she can’t figure out why I don’t do better at school since I like to read so much, but what she doesn’t know is that all that crap we’re supposed to read is about life on the planet Earth, and like I said, I’m just not interested.

So, after making Jeffery promise not to pound Amy on the head, I decided to cut out for a while and told them I had to go to the bathroom. Instead, I went outside to have a smoke. I usually keep a cigarette rolled up in some aluminum foil in my inside jacket pocket just for times like that. I lit up and took a drag.

It was kind of late in the day, and there were lots of cars going around in the parking lot, and I started thinking it would be just my luck for one of Mom’s friends to be on her way into the hospital for a face lift or something, and see me out there smoking and, bam, there would go my chances for getting a telescope for Christmas. So I boosted myself up on the wall outside the parking lot, walked around behind the hospital to make sure I was out of sight, and sat down where I could look all the way up to Montgomery Avenue. I knew that everybody from school was probably up at the Greek’s. I don’t hang out there myself much anymore, not that anybody would miss me. Pinky Detweiller might miss me, but that’s only because I was nice to her once after Gregg Miller called her a fat douche bag. I get a lot of crap from everybody for ever being nice to her, but I couldn’t care less. Those guys aren’t real friends. Not like the Bird People were to Olor of Cygnus in Flights of Destiny.

It started to get cold so I chucked my butt and went to head back. When I stood up on the wall I could see that the sun was just going down over the train station, and the hospital and the parking lot and the street were covered with this eerie gold light that kind of froze everything like a Polaroid picture. All of a sudden it made me think about those dreams I used to have, like I said, when I was a kid. It was like I could remember standing there just like that some other time, only I couldn’t remember when. I sort of had this feeling that something was going to happen. Don’t ask me to explain it because I can’t. Not even if I wanted to.

It started to get cold so I chucked my butt and went to head back. When I stood up on the wall I could see that the sun was just going down over the train station, and the hospital and the parking lot and the street were covered with this eerie gold light that kind of froze everything like a Polaroid picture. All of a sudden it made me think about those dreams I used to have, like I said, when I was a kid. It was like I could remember standing there just like that some other time, only I couldn’t remember when. I sort of had this feeling that something was going to happen. Don’t ask me to explain it because I can’t. Not even if I wanted to.

By the time I made it back to the lobby, Pop was down there looking for me, but instead of being mad and yelling, he just told me to go up to Grandpop’s room. I took the elevator on up, and let me tell you, if ever there was a room where somebody was dying, it was this one. The room was about completely dark and quiet, except for this machine that sounded like when you leave the phone off the hook. Mom was just where I thought she’d be, in the corner going to pieces while a man in a white coat patted her on the shoulder. I figured he was either an undertaker or a scout from the mental ward, either way, waiting around for some new business.

Grandpop turned his head when I came in. He didn’t look too good, which was just about right under the circumstances, but then again I can’t say I knew what he was supposed to look like either, because I never did know him too well. You might say we were practically strangers.

Mom always told us he was jolly and loved practical jokes, but Pop just said he was goofy. Well, he didn’t seem too goofy or too jolly at the moment, but he did look at me and move his mouth like he was saying "Michael." Since that’s my name, I figured he must have meant me, so I kind of sauntered on over to his bed.

I wasn’t quite sure what to say to him, so we both just looked each other over for a moment, me hoping he wasn’t going to make me promise on his deathbed to give up smoking or something. He pulled out a bony white hand from under the covers and sort of waved it around, and after a second I got the idea that he wanted me to pull up the shade on the window.

The man in white was looking at his watch, and I couldn’t see any reason not to, so I gave the thing a yank, and the last of the daylight poured in over the old man ‘s bed. He smiled at me, and I saw that he was lit up by that same gold light I had seen outside. For some reason I started to get scared.

I watched as the light seemed to fill up in his eyes, and I had a feeling something was going on. There was something about that old man’s face that made me think of all those dreams, and they all rushed into my mind like I was getting dizzy. I knew I had seen that exact same face before in my dreams.

Then the busy sound stopped, and the man in white rushed over and pushed a button, and about twenty people swooped in and took Grandpop away, and that’s the last I ever saw of him. And I’m really sorry because there’s a lot now I’d like to talk to him about.

* * *

I guess a couple of weeks was all Pop could take, because it was just about that long after the funeral that he left to go to Detroit. He said it was a business trip, but I knew it was mostly to get away from Mom’s idiotic behavior for a while. It was getting where she couldn’t get up the energy to cook even a half-decent meal for us, and if it wasn’t for me and my famous spaghetti, I think we all might have starved to death.

It was just about then that Grandpop’s lawyer kept calling all the time, bitching how he had to sell Grandpop’s house, and if we wanted anything out of there we’d better get it in a hurry or he’d get some colored guy sand have it all hauled off to the dump. And with Pop out of town and Mom staying in her pajamas all day, it looked like you might as well could write off whatever Grandpop had left here on Earth.

Normally I couldn’t have cared less about the whole thing. It was only that something about that old man kept coming up in my mind.

Two nights after Pop left I had another dream. I’m climbing up these dark stairs, and suddenly I see Grandpop standing up at the top in a space helmet and he says to me, "Hello, Michael."

I start thinking this is crazy. "You’re supposed to be dead," I say and he laughs and starts to walk away.

"I’m going back home now," he says. "I want you to look through what I’ve left behind." And out of nowhere he climbs into a flying saucer. "Is this a dream or what?" I holler, but I just hear him laughing as he blasts off into Outer Space, and I start bawling, wishing I was on that saucer, too.

The next morning I tried to get that dream out of my head, but I couldn’t. So by the middle of fourth period I decided that I was just going to have to do something about it. The only thing was, I was pretty sure that Mom wouldn’t like the idea of me going over to Grandpop’s house by myself, and there was no way she’d go with me now that her butt had gotten frozen to the sofa. So it looked like I’d have to handle it like a secret mission, like when Malik of Roterra had to bust into thc Temple of Mystery to recover the power source for the Andromeda Galaxy. The only thing was, Malik had help from the Guardians of the Universe. The only help I got was from Pinky Detweiller.

Pinky had come up to me at lunch and asked if I was feeling okay and how my family was since she knew my Grandfather had died. I told her that, if she really wanted to know, some guys from Hollywood were coming over to make a disaster movie at our house. And when she asked if there was anything she could do to help, I said, "Sure, you can help me break into my Grandfather’s house and get his valuables out before they’re trashed," just sort of being sarcastic. But she said, sure, she’d love to. I was surprised at first, not thinking that somebody like Pinky would want to go on a risky mission like that. Later I guessed it was probably because she had the hots for me, and that’s the way girls can be about those things.

So after breakfast Saturday I got Pop’s toolbox out of the basement and took a hammer and a couple of screwdrivers and wrapped them in a sweatshirt and told Mom I was going over to Steve Hoft’s to play darts and make a few phony phone calls.

I met Pinky behind the Greek’s, and we rode our bikes over to the Blood Bank, which is what Pop calls the liquor store, and got as many boxes as we could pile on and managed to get most of them out to Garret Hill, a couple of blocks past that pizza place that burned down, which is where Grandpop’s house was. I hadn’t been there in a long time, and for some reason it didn’t look as big as I remembered it, but it might have been because the last time I was in it I had been a lot smaller.

We stashed our bikes behind some garbage cans in the back and brought the box of and tools up to the front door.

"Well?" said Pinky like she didn’t think I knew what I was doing.

"I know what I’m doing," I said.

"You’re going to have to open the door from the inside like they do on TV," she said.

Well, I’m not too up on most of what they do on TV, except for maybe Star Trek or Sci-fi Theatre, but I took the screwdrivers out of the sweatshirt and stuck one of them in the lock.

"No, not like that, Michael. Don’t you know anything?" She grabbed up the hammer and put the sweatshirt up on a pane of glass and started tapping until the whole thing shattered. Then she reached her hand in, and the door popped open.

"I hope your Grandfather doesn’t care you had to break his front door," she said.

The switch inside didn’t work. It was dark and reeked of the smell an old man makes when he’s sick, but Pinky went right on in, pulled the curtains, and opened a window.

For a small house there was an awful lot of junk in it. Not even Jeffrey’s bedroom on a bad day ever had as much stuff as was strewn around in there. It didn’t look like he had bothered to clean up before he left, which I wouldn’t have done either, if I knew I was going to die before I had to come back.

"Why is it that men can never straighten up after themselves?" asked Pinky like I was supposed to give her an answer. She picked up a book from off the floor and started thumbing through it. "Where was your Grandfather from, Michael?"

I told her I couldn’t remember anybody ever saying.

"I don’t think it was from America," she said.

I went back outside for just a second to get the boxes and by the time I got back she had already started poking around, pulling open drawers and sticking her hands into cupboards. The way she did it kind of bugged me. It seemed a little rude or something. So I asked her if she had never heard that rats liked to make their homes in the drawers in houses of dead people. But she didn’t answer me and kept nosing around, eyeballing the bottoms of old glasses and the handles of silverware like she was looking for a big find.

"You better start boxing things up, Michael," she said to me in a way that made me wonder who had made her the boss. "I’m going to see if I can find the key to that china closet." Of course that gave me the raw end of the deal, but I decided not to say anything about it.

The only thing was, I wasn’t too sure what I was supposed to be boxing up. There was an awful lot of stuff to choose from. Over the fireplace were six clocks, a couple of radios, and a painting, of a place with a red and yellow sky. There were bookshelves with little statues and about a hundred old pictures all over the walls. The people in the pictures didn’t look like anyone I knew or would ever want to know. Except for one picture of Mom as a little girl looking so nerdy, I felt a little sorry for her, and it made me wonder if she got as much shit when she was in school as Pinky Detweiller.

Pinky finally found some old keys, none of which fit the china closet, and by that time I had boxed up some of the statues and one of the clocks that looked like it might have had some gold in it. I felt like the whole mission was turning out to be a big bust, and I was ready to bag it, but Pinky kept wanting to go and see what was upstairs. I told her there wasn’t much point in it, and besides, it was pretty dark upstairs and the lights didn’t work.

"Are you scared?" she said. I thought it sounded like one of the stupidest questions I had ever heard.

"No," I said.

"Well, let’s go," she said. And up she went.

Even though I wasn’t at all scared, there was something about the shadow that the railing made on the wall that bothered me. It looked just like the entrance to the Secret Vault on the cover of Planets of Mystery.

I heard Pinky let out a kind of squeal, just the sort of thing that Gregg Miller would say made her sound like a pig. "Michael, come look! A canopy bed."

I followed her into the bedroom. It was just about as slobbed out as the rest of the house. "Don’t you think that canopy beds are the most romantic thing?" she asked me, plopping down on the quilt. I hoped she didn’t think I was going to start making out with her. Even though she’s not too bad, she’s a little too chubby for my tastes and besides, she chews her fingernails.

"I wouldn’t sit there if I were you," I warned her, reaching to pull her up. "There are probably billions of my Grandpop’s germs all over that quilt."

She just kind of pushed me aside and made a beeline out the door. "What do you think’s in this room, Michael?" she called from the hall.

I asked her what made her think I knew. "It’s locked," she said.

I went back out in the dark hallway and found her twiddling the knob on the door by the stairs. I was starting to get one of my funny feelings. Pinky pulled out the keys that wouldn’t open the china closet and fished through about five or six, and sure enough, one of them opened the door.

"You go first," she said. "It’s your Grandfather’s house."

I didn’t want to, but I pushed the door open.

"Goddamn," was all I could say.

I mean, how can I describe it? It looked like a planetarium or something. It was just a little room, but painted all black with little white stars. There were star maps on the walls and model rockets hanging from the ceiling, and even a silver space suit. But the most unbelievable thing of all was an old telescope set up on a stand next to the window, just looking up at the sky.

"What’s all this?" said Pinky, shoving her way in. She gave the room the once over. "What was your Grandfather, an astronaut, or what?"

I had to touch the telescope to make sure it was real. It was. "I don’t know what he was."

She went over to the space suit. " If your Grandfather wasn’t an astronaut, why would he have all this stuff around?" Her eyes started popping out of her skull. "Michael, " she said, grabbing at my sleeve, "maybe your Grandfather was really an alien!"

I got a cold shiver down my back. "What do you mean?" My voice kind of cracked.

"I’ve seen it on TV, Michael. Beings from another world come down to Earth and live with human beings, and no one suspects that they’re really illegal aliens. Until after they die, when somebody comes and destroys all the evidence. Think about it!"

Well at first I didn’t know what to think. It seemed pretty incredible. But when I started thinking about everything — the old man’s face, the planetarium, the scope and those dreams—it all began to make a little sense. Everything started to come together, just like when Olor of Cygnus left the Planet of the Duck People, and looked into the Mirror of Truth at the end of Flights of Destiny and found out he was really the Prince of the Swan People.

"Pinky Detweiller," I whispered so low I could hardly hear myself. She looked at me, and I looked at her, and we both sat there looking at each other. I took her hand, and I put it on my heart. "Do you solemnly swear to keep this a secret for as long as we both shall live?" Her eyes started looking wet, and in a second she was acting blubbery. "Oh, Michael. Oh, Michael," she sobbed and reached over and kissed me on the mouth. I took it that meant yes.

* * *

So that’s all I know about the whole thing. I decided to leave all the clocks and stuff behind. Pinky and I took the telescope down, wrapped it in a blanket, and put it in a box. I did stick in the picture of Mom just to fill up a little left over space. I got it home all right and set up the scope in my bedroom. I said I got it from Steve Hoft’s brother, which is a big joke on everybody because Steve Hoft doesn’t even have a brother.

When Pop got home and saw it, he raised a big stink because he thought I was going to use it to spy on the neighbors. But Mom somehow talked him into letting me keep it, and she even went out and bought me a couple of books on astronomy.

Last weekend I went back up to Garret Hill, but there was a big pick-up full of trash in Grandpop’s driveway and a FOR SALE sign in the front lawn. Over the front door was a piece of plastic. For a while I was kind of sad about it, but I’m over it now.

Oh, I’m doing all right. I still have a lot of crazy dreams. Some of them are nice, but sometimes they wake me up so bad I can’t get back to sleep, no matter how hard I try. But I don’t sweat it anymore. Nowadays I’11 just get out of bed, and if it’s a clear night, I’ll sit down at the scope and check out the sky. And, you know, after a while I start feeling pretty good, just looking at all those stars and thinking about where I belong.

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