In the summer of 1950, in a secret research laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico, at the table in the back of the canteen, a balding professor named Enrico Fermi throws his fork onto his tray and sighs, “Where are they, then?”
Seventy-five years later, halfway across the world, hidden beneath his astronaut duvet in Utrecht, in the Netherlands, and with his hands wrapped around his lightsaber, eight-year old Yuri knows without a shadow of a doubt that “they” are under his bed, gnawing on his math book.
On his way to his weekly swimming lesson Yuri puts on his goggles and imagines he’s on another planet. The car becomes a spaceship, his mother swerving in traffic like she’s avoiding meteors.
“You weren’t to call any more.”
Mom makes a lot of calls for her work, and if Yuri tries hard enough, the telephone is a communication panel connected to the Earth by satellite.
“So what? Call someone else! Listen Dad, I…”
Dad? That’s new. He never sees his Grandpa.
“Why did you think that was a good idea? Just stay put until I get there.”
She yanks on the steering wheel. The car makes a sharp turn. Yuri leans sideways in his seat, suspended momentarily in his seatbelt. He’s Captain Moonstone, on a mission for the mysterious Grandpa Zap.
“Sit up straight, Yuri. Otherwise you’ll get car sick, and I don’t have time for that right now.”
The car stops in front of a house he doesn’t recognize with a front yard like a jungle. Mom looks up through the windscreen.
“Thank goodness, he’s at the back.” She turns and points her finger at Yuri’s nose. “Stay in the car. I have to open a window for Grandpa. Just read your book or something.”
As his mother leaves the car, Yuri takes a book out of his bag, but the strange house plucks at his attention. Upstairs a curtain moves. A bright blue light bounces off the car, and for a very brief moment, Yuri feels something look at him. He unfastens his seat belt and holding his bag tight like a shield, he sneaks towards the front door.
Inside it’s dark. For a couple of moments, his world consists of the smell of cigars and something Dad calls “odourclone”. Then, slowly, the shapes in the hallway reveal themselves: the coat stand hung with jackets, a large clock, the bannister of the stairs, and, stuck to the ceiling, luminous stars glowing in the dark.
“Mom?” Yuri whispers. “Grandpa Zap?” Loud enough to hear whether they’re nearby, but not loud enough to alert them if they’re not. He doesn’t really want them to find him. Grandpa’s house is a whole new planet. He takes the stairs, up to the mysterious light.
What if Mom finds him here? That’ll cost him a whole week of screen time. Or an extra sheet of arithmetic exercises. He can already see himself banished to his bedroom with a pageful of sums, while three blocks away, Thomas waits in vain for him to log into Roblox.
He clenches his jaw and pulls his swimming goggles back down over his eyes. Never mind screen time, nothing can stand in the way of discovery.
A computer screen illuminates the room. SETI@home, reads Yuri, Track alien life forms from your own home! The rest of the space is dominated by stars, planets and aliens. There are books all over; scientific publications with words that Yuri doesn’t understand, and old science fiction books with brightly colored covers. The walls are hung with classic movie posters: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and E.T.
Grandpa's desk is covered with cut out newspaper articles. Next to them, a photo of an elderly woman in a floral dress, smiling mischievously at the camera.
On top of the pile of papers is an eyewitness report of a UFO sighting. He picks it up and reads: “Two lights in the sky, white in color. As if someone is playing with lamps above the clouds.”
He absorbs everything like a little, seven-year-old black hole.
Next to the desk, atop of a cabinet, there is a scale model of a flying saucer. Yuri gasps. It’s incredibly detailed, and even more beautiful than Thomas’s space shuttle (with its fully functional heat shield).
The sound of his mother’s voice yanks him back to the study. She’s still angry.
“What on earth got into you? You could have fallen and broken your neck!”
A soft rumbling voice, belonging to cigars and odourclone, answers: “Valentina, the skylight fell shut. That’s all.”
“And if you hadn’t taken your phone with you to photograph that stupid thing?”
Yuri quickly stuffs the spaceship into his bag. He looks for a place to hide, but it’s too late.
“Hello my boy,” says Grandpa. His shirt and trousers are too large for him, bought when he was of a sturdier build. He has bushy eyebrows, a cloud of white hair, and a huge mustache that defies gravity.
“Yuri!” snaps his mother. “What did I tell you?”
“But nothing. We’re going.”
His mother grabs him by the arm and pulls him out of the room.
“I saw something moving through the window.”
“Probably the cat.”
Along the corridor, and down the stairs they go. Back to the car. Over his shoulder, Yuri sees Grandpa Zap in the doorway. When Yuri waves, Grandpa waves back.
That night, Yuri can’t sleep. In his bookcase there are no books with emerald landscapes in which strange women stare soulfully at distant galaxies. Instead, there is Learn to Read Safely 3 and I can do Math: The Bumper Holiday Activity Book. Instead of a sun, his lamp is pear shaped and boring, and his walls are conventional off-white. There’s only a calculator on his desk, and even that should be in the drawer; he forgot to put it away after making words out of upside-down numbers.
He retrieves the flying saucer from its hiding place under his pillow. A feeling of shame flares up in his chest, but he hasn’t stolen it, he reassures himself. Just borrowed it.
“Captain Moonstone,” he says, “Are you ready for take-off?”
“Commencing countdown: five, four, three, two, one…lift off!”
The UFO swoops through the air as he flies it back and forth above his head. Downstairs he hears his parents talking about Grandpa. He lands the flying saucer and crawls out of bed.
“Mission Control, this is Captain Moonstone. I have landed on Planet X.”
“On the roof?” That’s Dad.
“Yes, he wanted to take a photo.” Mom.
Captain Moonstone slides down the first couple of steps of the stairs to better observe the two alien parents. They’re sitting across from each other at the kitchen table, a half bottle of red wine between them. Alien Dad looks annoyed, as if the conversation is a plateful of Brussels sprouts.
“That’s exactly what the world needs–another blurry photo of a weather balloon.”
“Jack,” Alien Mom frowns.
“What do you want me to do about it? So you had to open a window for your demented father. After Judith you should've put him in eldercare…”
Yuri resolves to look up “dee-men-ted” in his Illustrated Junior Dictionary (for Cool Kids) as soon as possible.
“Jack!” hisses his mother. “Yuri was there.”
Below, next to the staircase, Yuri can see Mom’s phone. If he tidies his bedroom and brushes his teeth for two minutes after each meal, he is allowed to go on it to practice school subjects by playing games. But the Forbidden Three are also on there–YouTube, Candy Crush and WhatsApp, the latter of which he uses to chat with Thomas, who’s had his own smartphone since he was five.
Carefully he descends the stairs. The alien parents haven’t noticed him. He reaches for the phone.
Father: “So what? It didn’t get to him, did it?”
Mother: “I’d rather he didn’t fill up my son’s head with that rubbish. Perhaps you could talk to him about it.” She sighs. “As a father.”
Dad laughs off her suggestion. It’s not a nice laugh.
“Soon enough he’ll see he’s just another lonely old man.” Softer now, he adds, “It’s called growing up.”
Yuri has heard enough. He grabs the smartphone and hurries back upstairs. Perhaps Thomas is still awake.
He scrolls through the chats looking for Thomas’s name. For a moment his finger hovers above the icon of two astronauts giving each other a high five. The preview only shows the last message. Thomas: Dis is U [GIF] He doesn’t need to click on it to be reminded of what it is: a picture of children laughing and pointing, with a caption above it, saying, “me: I want to be an asrtonaut–yur friends who kno u r retarted:…”
He keeps scrolling. All the way down at the bottom he finds “T. Zapata”. Grandpa? There’s only one message in the chat–a thumbs-up from his mother. Next to it are two blue ticks. Yuri looks at the contact information, and then before he can stop himself, he presses the green button.
He hears the ring tone. Once. This is stupid, he thinks, old people go to bed early. Twice. What am I going to say anyway? I stole your spaceship? Three times.
He still has time to hang up, take the telephone downstairs and go to bed the way he’s supposed to. Four times. Okay, that’s enough. Yuri quickly presses the red button. His heartbeat thunders like a kettledrum in his head.
Then his mother’s ringtone shatters the silence. He has no time to think.
“Hi,” he says in a tiny voice, “Yuri speaking…”
“Hallo lad,” says Grandpa, “Shouldn’t you be sleeping?”
“I took your spaceship.” He squeezes his eyes tight shut.
“I know,” says Grandpa. Not angry, not disappointed, not even surprised. “They can stay over with you for a while,” he continues. “But you have to take good care of them.”
“Yes my boy?”
“Thomas says there are six thousand stars.”
Grandpa laughs. “Six thousand? My boy, there are so many that you would never be able to see or count them all. Some of them are huge and others are very small. Some of them are so far away that we are still seeing their light even though they are no longer there.”
A silence falls. Something in the conversation has changed, and Yuri feels sad all of a sudden. He hurries to fill the silence, but the feeling doesn’t go away.
“Dad says you believe in crazy things.”
“Your Dad believes in boring things. Now, go to sleep. It’ll help you grow.”
Yuri ends the call with a trembling finger. Could Grandpa really be crazy? He fetches his junior dictionary, climbs back into bed and starts searching. It takes him a little while, but once he realizes that the word doesn’t start with d-double-e, he finds what he’s looking for. And as soon as he reads the definition, he understands where the sad feeling comes from.
demented adj. Pronunciation: [/dɪˈmɛntɪd/]
Suffering from dementia; the loss of the ability to think and remember
Example: 'Older, demented patients forget where they live and who their children and grandchildren are.'
Synonyms: mad, insane, senile, feeble-minded
If that is growing up, then the grown-ups can keep it.
Putting the book away, he notices a strip of blue light on his ceiling, and when he looks over the edge of his bed, the door of the flying saucer is open. There are two tiny silhouettes in the opening. Without taking his eyes off them, he reaches for the plastic lightsaber hanging neatly above his bed.
One being resembles a fat flower on little feet, with five green eyes flashing at the tip of its leaf-shaped head. Feelers covered in tiny hairs emit a sound that reminds Yuri of a snoring cat. The being has five tentacles like branches protruding from its round belly; these sway slowly back and forth. The other creature resembles a blue marmot, but not plump or furry; instead, it consists of a hundred thousand minute angles.
The flower creature swings one of its tentacles and launches a glowing sphere the size of a bead into the room. The shining object bounces across the floor and rolls under the bed. For a moment nothing happens, then the flower-being barks and the marmot charges after the ball.
Quick as a flash, Yuri dives under the covers and presses the ON button on his lightsaber, just in case. Under his bed he hears the sound of paper being gnawed upon. Stay calm, he thinks to himself, breathe in, breathe out. Perhaps if he lies extremely still, they’ll go away. He counts down silently. Ten, nine, eight. By zero they’ll be gone. Seven, six. And if not, then he simply won’t be afraid of them any more. Five, four…
Suddenly the covers are yanked off him, and towering over him like a thundercloud about to burst, is his mother.
“We had an agreement,” she says, holding out her hand.
For a moment Yuri has no idea what she’s talking about, but then he remembers the phone. As he hands it back, he glances past his mother’s legs to the spaceship on the ground. It is dark. The doors are shut.
“You do realize that I can’t let this go unpunished,” says Mom, swiping the screen with her fingertip. Her eyes are red, as if she’s been crying. She quickly realizes what he’s used the phone for.
“Yuri,” she says, and swallows. “You can’t call Grandpa. It’s not good for you.”
Why? He wants to ask, but instead he says, “Sorry Mom.”
She runs her fingers through his hair and sighs.
“He’s very old. And Dad and I are going to take him to a place where they’ll make him better. And once he’s better, then you can see him again.”
“Yes. But sleep first, now. And we’ll talk about the consequences tomorrow, all right?”
Yuri nods. A postponed punishment is often less severe than the one administered immediately.
“Mom,” he blurts out, “Who is Judith?”
When she answers, her voice sounds like broken glass. “Another time, sweetheart. You have to sleep now. Tomorrow is a school day.”
The next day at school, Yuri can’t concentrate. During English class, he gazes out the window and wonders what’s happening with the aliens in his bedroom. During math, all the plus and minus signs turn into X-wings and TIE fighters from Star Wars, zipping across the white pages of his exercise book, chasing the creatures’ spaceship. Even during break he keeps away from the rest of his classmates, especially Thomas. For some reason, Yuri doesn’t want to tell Thomas about his discovery.
Perhaps it’s because he doesn’t want to share the beings with anyone, or perhaps he’s afraid that Thomas will be jealous of the spaceship (which is much nicer than his space shuttle). Perhaps it’s something else. Yuri doesn’t know, but he is relieved when the bell goes at the end of the day and he can go home.
He hurries out of class and runs to the bike rack. The place where he left his Gazelle is empty. Did someone steal it? It has new galaxy glitter stickers on it, after all. But then he spots his mother in the carpark, wrestling his bike into the back of the car.
“You’re going to stay put,” she says once they’re under way.
Yuri is wedged into the passenger seat next to a pile of empty packing boxes. He has an unpleasant feeling. Mom looks tired, and she smells of coffee.
“It’s nice that he can get in somewhere so quickly,” she says.
With that Yuri knows where they are going. And what the boxes are for. He thinks about the aliens. Grandpa said they could stay with him, but if Mom found out, she would never allow it. She’d call the police and they’d come with the army, just like in a movie, seal the house in sheets of plastic and take them away. There’s no way Captain Moonstone will let that happen.
That’s why, when Grandpa opens the front door, Yuri pretends to be reading his history book. He ignores him when he waves from the threshold, and he refuses to help his mother unfold the packing boxes.
It’s only when his mother has returned and they’re driving away that Yuri dares to look back. Behind them, standing in the middle of the street, is Grandpa. They catch each other’s eye, and a smile appears on the old man’s face.
“The thrift shop is coming tomorrow,” says Mom, but Yuri isn’t listening.
After dinner–mashed potatoes and carrots with extra gravy, from which he crafts a Martian landscape–Yuri shuts himself in his bedroom.
“Doing homework,” he says, receiving an approving grunt from his father. Mom is doing the washing up and hasn’t heard him. Her shoulders shake.
Once upstairs, he takes the flying saucer and sets it down next to him. The door is closed, and if he didn’t know better, he’d think it was nothing more than a beautiful toy. He bites his nails.
“Hello?” he whispers.
For a moment nothing happens and he wonders whether he was imagining things the previous night. Daydreams too much, says his teacher; It’s time for him to leave childish behavior behind. Were his parents right? Is Grandpa crazy? Perhaps he is also going crazy himself? Seeing things, Captain. Not a good sign.
He’s about to push the UFO off his bed, when he sees the little door open. The blue marmot squeezes through the gap and starts running around in circles on the bed. A moment later the flower creature appears too.
Yuri raises his hand and waves. “Hi,” he says.
The being unfolds two very thin, membranous wings, and yellow dust swirls from the hairs on its head. It flaps its wings until the dust gathers into a cloud, and with a final flap, it blows the dust into Yuri’s face.
It happens so fast that Yuri doesn’t realize what’s going on until he’s coughing and rubbing his eyes. His stomach is churning and black spots float across his vision. Then he feels as if he’s falling backwards into a deep pit. Images rise up, thrown at him like a dodgeball.
A tiny blue spot. The earth? Smoke coming from the space ship. Trees. Green. Grandpa’s back garden. Grandpa himself. Huge fingers that fiddle with tiny parts. The little lake near Grandpa’s place, and then space. Black and stars. The colors of a spiral galaxy. Unknown planets. And then, as clear as on television, there’s the face of the woman in the floral dress on Grandpa’s desk. She smiles. Then Grandpa again. A piece of dark metal. And then Grandpa. The dark metal. Grandpa. The dark metal and Grandpa.
The next moment, Yuri is back in his room, on his bed, and the world stops spinning. His thoughts gradually fall back into place.
“You can’t go back,” he says softly. “Grandpa is moving.”
The little creature’s eye-leaves droop, and it folds its wings. It whistles, high and shrill, and its blue friend, which was chasing its own rectangular tail, hurries to its side. Together, they return to their ship.
“Wait!” yells Yuri, “I can help you.”
The little being shrugs its five shoulders and glides into the UFO.
His voice trembles, he has stolen Mom’s phone again. Downstairs, his parents are arguing about money. Yuri has written down the word inheritance to look up later. First, however, he has more important things to do. Two little alien life forms are counting on him. He can’t be afraid.
“Hallo little rascal,” answers Grandpa. “Are…”
“They want to go home,” he says.
He doesn’t have to explain who “they” are or which “home” he means; Grandpa understands. His voice changes, sounding less like toffee and cocoa, and more like grown-up things like secret meetings in the park and the 8 o’clock news.
“I know, but…” he begins.
Yuri interrupts him.
“I know where to find the missing piece.”
Grandpa sighs. “That’s great, my boy, but…”
A silence falls. I’ll come tonight, Yuri wants to say, but he doesn’t. Grandpa doesn’t sound as enthusiastic as he’d hoped, and Yuri is afraid that he doesn’t want to do it. That Grandpa will say he has to stay home, listen to his mother and go to sleep like a good boy. Just like the teacher. Just like Dad. No more daydreams, time to grow up.
“Grandpa, where is Grandma?”
The line crackles and there is a very long silence.
“The world is as big or as small as you make it, Yuri,” Grandpa says eventually. “You can choose to see other worlds, or not. Your Grandma…She was so curious. Full of wonder. Like you. So when they gave her the chance to…”
“Give me the telephone. Give it here. Now.” His mother snatches the phone from Yuri’s hands and hangs up.
He scrambles backwards, afraid of her anger. He watches her close her eyes. Her face softens. She sits down next to him.
“Grandma isn’t here any more, Yuri. Do you understand? Grandpa misses her really badly.”
She has wrapped her arms tightly around herself, as if bracing for a launch. Or for a fall. Yuri would like to hug her, but that’s not how they are with each other, so he sits quietly next to her instead.
He waits until everyone is asleep, until he hears his father’s snores, like Darth Vader’s breath. You’re going home, he thinks as hard as he can, while he places the spaceship in his bag. The beings reply with images of their kind, dancing. The powder is no longer necessary.
He creeps down the stairs, through the kitchen to the back door. Barefooted and in his pajamas, he goes to the shed.
“Captain Moonstone, ready for launch,” he says as he rolls his bike out to the street and pushes the dynamo against his wheel. He pulls his swim goggles down over his eyes.
“Ten…Nine…Eight…Ignition…Six…Five…Decoupled…Three…Two…ONE…” He’s trembling from nerves and the cold, but he doesn’t look back. Gagarin was scared, and Armstrong too. It’s part of the adventure.
“Launch successful. We are on our way…Captain Moonstone over and out.” He kicks off into the dark towards his first stop.
He avoids the main road, and each time he sees vehicle headlights in the distance, he hides behind a parked car as if a Star Destroyer is on the hunt for his little rebel ship.
Shortly afterwards, Captain Moonstone contacts his base once again. “Landing zone detected,” he whispers, parking his bicycle against a tree under the window of a corner house.
Thomas is always bragging about climbing out of his window at night to set off fireworks. Something that Yuri would never dare do, even if he had a tree next to his house. Thomas must be an excellent climber, because it takes Yuri all of his strength to clamber up to the window. The last branch bends alarmingly as he slides along it.
He’s in luck. The window stands ajar. Silently Yuri climbs inside. A dinosaur night light in the corner casts a faint green glow over the room. Thomas is curled up at the very top of his bed, a stuffed toy mouse under his arm and his thumb in his mouth.
“Where are you…” Yuri whispers to himself, scanning the rest of the room. The PlayStation, three remote-controlled cars–one on-road, one off-road, and a third…just because. A bright yellow drone and the whole Minecraft Lego collection. There’s a photo on the desk of Thomas and his father, who lives with his new family in France and has an annual ticket to EuroDisney. And on the floor, next to a pile of Donald Duck comics, the space shuttle. With a functioning heat shield. Yuri smiles.
He yells at the top of his voice as he rides through the forest towards Grandpa’s house. The mission is going great. He doesn’t feel guilty. Thomas will get a new one anyway.
It’s a long way–an hour and a half by bike–but Captain Moonstone is no quitter. He knows that space travel requires long journeys. What is an hour for someone who thinks in terms of light years? He perseveres, even though his eyes are watering from the cold, his stomach rumbles at the thought of the biscuits in his rucksack, and he can no longer feel his fingers.
When he reaches Grandpa’s house, Yuri throws his bike to the ground, runs through the jungle, and bangs urgently on the front door.
The hallway light comes on. Yuri hears boxes being pushed aside, and then the clattering of keys. When Grandpa opens the door, his hair is even wilder than before. He is wearing pajamas printed with stars.
“Yuri?” says Grandpa. His voice crackles like old paper. He wipes the sleep from his eyes. “Your mother…”
Yuri thrusts the space shuttle at him. Grandpa takes it and turns it over, confused. If he calls his mother, then it will all have been for nothing. Yuri holds his breath. Then it dawns on Grandpa. His eyes sparkle.
“Quick.” He grabs Yuri’s hand and leads him to the shed. He takes a toolbox and throws it into the old cargo bike leaning against the wall.
When he notices that Yuri has no shoes on, he raises his finger. “Wait here,” he says, and hurries inside. Only now Yuri realizes just how cold he is. His fingertips are blue-purple and his toes feel like little blocks of ice.
Yuri sits at the front of the old bike, dodging meteors again. He’s wearing a pair of old boots and has an even more ancient blanket wrapped around him. Every now and again he glances at Grandpa Zap, who is smiling broadly. They ride towards the little lake, with the moon and an occasional street lamp lighting their way.
When they get there, Grandpa leans his bike against a tree and they walk to the water’s edge. The geese keep a sleepy eye on them.
Grandpa unfolds a picnic blanket and lays it on the ground close to the water. While he fetches his toolbox from the bike, Yuri sets the space shuttle and the spaceship down on the rug. The aliens stand in the open doorway, cooing, and send a constant stream of images to Yuri’s mind: fireworks, a kaleidoscope of colors, stars racing past and more dancing aliens.
“That’s enough now,” grumbles Grandpa, “I can’t work with all that going on.”
He kneels next to the space shuttle, his knees cracking like kindling, and takes out tools that Yuri has never seen before. He watches as his Grandpa gets to work.
Once the ship is ready, Grandpa Zap and Yuri stand together at the water’s edge. Grandpa has his arm around Yuri’s shoulders.
“And then what happened?” asks Yuri.
“We sat here,” says Grandpa. “In this spot. Until we were cold to the bone and our bottoms were numb. I’d wanted to go home long ago, but she said we had to wait a little longer. She had a good feeling. And I never could refuse her anything.”
A strange little smile plays on his lips. He stares ahead, as if he’s no longer seeing the lake now, but the lake then. Yuri stares too.
“Did Grandma go away on a big spaceship?”
He snuggles up to his grandfather’s scent of cigars. The aliens look up at them. The blue marmot has curled up next to the flower creature.
“About as big as a school bus,” says Grandpa. “I can still remember exactly how she looked at me before she went. So full of life.” He falls silent for a moment. “It landed right in front of her and when the door opened, so much light came out that I had to shield my eyes with my arm. She’s one with the cosmos now.”
“Do you miss her?”
Grandpa hugs him closer. A tear rolls down his face, but he is smiling.
“Every day. Dreams are the most beautiful thing you can share with someone.”
Grandpa isn’t crazy, decides Yuri. He’s just alone.
He smells her before he sees her. Lavender and soap. The smell of scraping out the old jar of chocolate spread before starting on a new one. Of going to bed on time and washing your hands after going to the toilet. Mom.
She comes and sits with them. Her eyes are damp and she looks younger than she does at home. Yuri hugs her, buries his face in her jacket and feels her sob in his small arms.
“We’re almost ready,” says Grandpa.
Yuri gives her a crumpled piece of old paper and a pencil.
“Do you want to say something to Grandma too?” he asks.
Mom takes the paper and pencil from him and writes shakily: Sorry. Then she crosses out Sorry and writes LOVE YOU in big, bold letters above it, gives the paper back to Yuri and kisses his forehead.
The aliens have disappeared. Yuri takes the paper holding their wishes, folds it very small and pushes it in through the door. Then he gives Grandpa the spaceship.
“They need a boost,” says Grandpa.
A glow appears above the forest on the other side of the lake. It is sunrise. Grandpa Zap stands up, leans back, and then hurls the spaceship into the air like a discus. Yuri follows the ship’s path, from his grandfather’s fingers, across the water towards the rising morning sun. There is so much light that he has to shield his eyes with his arm.