My grandfather died the day the aliens landed.
They pulled Katie Couric out of retirement just to cover the news; I thought it was pretty unfair, since I was sure that Katie Couric was older than Grinpa. I used to call him “Grinpa” when I was a little kid because he was always smiling, and now everybody called him that. Then he got sick and he stopped smiling all the time, but we still called him that because it made him happy.
We were all at the hospital when the news came on, because the doctor had called Mom to tell her that Grinpa wasn’t going to be around much longer. She came by the school to pull me and Keith out. My teacher, Miss Willauer, got a note from the principal. After she read it, she told me to go to his office.
Mom was waiting there with Keith. He was already there because he was only in the first grade and their room was closer to the principal’s office than the sixth-graders’, where I was. I knew why Mom was there as soon as I saw her. Her face was sad like she was going to cry, but she didn’t cry, because Grinpa had been sick for a long time.
While we were driving to the hospital, the aliens were orbiting the Earth about fifty miles above the ground. The Air Force was going crazy and the president was being taken to an underground bunker. Nobody else knew what was happening yet.
We met Dad at the hospital. Mom must have called him at work. He stayed with Keith and me in the hall while Mom went in to see Grinpa, because he was her dad. Our dad told us to sit on a couch that was too soft and felt cold, and he told us in a quiet voice that soon Grinpa was going to go live with the angels. Keith’s lower lip started shaking, but I didn’t cry. I told myself that I was going to be like Mom, and I wouldn’t cry.
Mom stayed in Grinpa’s room for about ten minutes, just looking at him. He couldn’t talk to her, because was in a coma. He was never going to wake up. The Air Force was launching jets all over the place.
Mom came out of the room to stay with Keith and Dad took me into Grinpa’s room. Keith cried because he couldn’t go in too, but Mom said he was too young. I wasn’t supposed to go in either, since I was only eleven, but Dad had his lawyer look on his face, and usually people who saw that look got out of the way fast.
Grinpa’s face had caved in. It was all wrinkled and creased and kind of gray, not round and red like I remembered. I hadn’t been allowed to see him since he got really sick; the last time I’d seen him, he’d still looked like he did in his picture from the navy shipyard where he helped fix the ships after Pearl Harbor, with red, round cheeks and wise eyes with round glasses. When I was a little kid, I used to think that maybe Grinpa was really Santa Claus, and he was hiding his secret identity like a really old Clark Kent.
But now he didn’t have round cheeks; he barely had any cheeks at all. His skin was all spotted, and I didn’t need to ask my dad to know that Grinpa wasn’t going to tell me the joke about “the Englishmen who flew to the Sun at night so they wouldn’t get burned,” any more. I’d heard that joke from some of my friends, but when they told it, it was always an Italian or a Polish spaceship. I guess since Grinpa was Polish, he thought somebody else should take the blame.
Grinpa told me that joke a hundred times, but he always laughed when he said it. Before he got sick, he’d started telling it to Keith too, and Keith always laughed, even though I don’t think he got the joke.
I almost started crying looking at him, even though I promised myself I wouldn’t. Now I knew it was true, that he was never going to tell me any more jokes or put cherries in our 7-Up at Christmas so we could watch our drinks turn pink. I was just about to start crying when I heard the door open.
I turned around. My mom had a really strange look on her face.
“Jack, you’d better come out here. You should see this.”
Mom looked at Grinpa, then back at my dad. It was like I could read her mind: He isn’t going anywhere.
“To recap,” Katie Couric was saying, the way they do when they don’t have anything new to say, “What appears to be a spacecraft has landed at the UN plaza. We say ‘appears to be’ based on unconfirmed reports that NORAD and Air Force radars have been tracking its signal since soon after it entered our atmosphere. As you can see from his amateur video, shot before the police cordoned off the area, the ship appears to be about 120 feet long, tear-drop shaped, and exhibits no landing gear whatsoever. In fact, although it is difficult to tell from this video, we have reports that the spaceship is not resting on the ground at all, but actually floating several inches above it.
“The police have cordoned off the area and we understand the army is on its way. There has been no activity in or around the ship since it landed, and no reports of any injuries. The situation inside the UN building itself appears to be normal. The General Assembly was in session this morning, but we do not know at this time if that is still the case…”
She went on and on while we all stared at the picture on the TV. I thought it looked just like when Klaatu landed in that old movie, The Day the Earth Stood Still. I thought, “Grinpa would like this,” because he was the one who watched that movie with me on cable. Then I remembered his fallen-in face, with his eyes closed, on his hospital pillow.
“Mom, can I go back and see Grinpa? If he wakes up there won’t be anybody there.”
My mom looked down at me for a second and started to say something, then she stopped. She didn’t want to tell me Grinpa wasn’t going to wake up.
“He should see this,” my dad said, pointing at the TV. “He’ll remember this for the rest of his life.”
Just then, the anchor started getting excited.
“We’ve just received word that something is happening at the spaceship. Melanie Sackett is live at the scene. Melanie, can you hear me?”
“Katie, the spaceship is opening up,” said the woman on the TV. She was trying to talk into the camera and watch the spaceship at the same time. “We can’t see anything inside just yet.”
“Just a minute, sweetie, something’s happening.”
In the crowd that had come into the waiting room, nobody saw me let go of my mom’s hand and leave. I wasn’t supposed to be wandering the floor by myself, but everyone, the doctors and nurses, the visitors, and the patients, was glued to the TV. It was kind of funny—whenever I watch TV like that, Mom always tells me to go outside, but when grown-ups want to watch, everybody has to watch.
Grinpa hadn’t moved when I got back to him. I pulled a chair over and sat down next to him.
“I’m sorry I had to leave, Grinpa, but there’s something important going on, on TV. A spaceship full of aliens has landed! Nobody knows what they’re gonna do. Mom and Dad and Keith are all watching down the hall. I wanted to come back here and be with you, but Mom said I had to wait because they were all watching the news.”
He didn’t say anything, or move, or do much of anything but breathe, and even that was mostly being done for him by a machine. The Sun went down, and the room got darker, but I just sat there next to Grinpa. Sometimes I talked to him, and most times I didn’t. Once I prayed with him.
Outside, the first alien came out of their ship. She walked right into the General Assembly. Her name was A’a Tondr and she was the first extraterrestrial ambassador to Earth.
Occasionally, somebody would make a noise in the hallway, and once the door to Grinpa’s room opened, but nobody came in. After a while I heard some noises from the street, sirens, shouting, and what sounded like cars backfiring. That went on for a long time. And late that night, like maybe ten or eleven o’clock, Grinpa died.
Our lives were never the same again.
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