Most families experience drama from time to time. But aliens don’t usually play a part in said drama. That is not the case in Mike Chen’s
That all sounds like quite a ride with plenty of complex family issues to untangle. And
Space. A home. Returning to that home via an unfamiliar path. That’s what the cover says to me.
But let’s dig in deeper. The below excerpt from
Kass tried to hide her sigh as Mom repeated the words for a third, then fourth time. Because she knew Mom wouldn’t put her through this if she could help it.
“It moved,” Mom insisted, pointing in the general direction of the dresser under the window. Kass didn’t need specifics to know what Mom referred to. She looked over to the object nestled between a dusty wooden jewelry box, stack of yellowing paperback novels, and Bluetooth speaker that somehow Mom managed to unpair without even trying.
Mom meant the closest thing to a Shao family heirloom: a small, seemingly innocent tube-shaped object.
An heirloom or family curse.
Kass’s entire jaw clenched, the pressure building up to an intensity that she had to consciously let go. The last thing she had was the time or energy to deal with a cracked tooth. Maybe Mom’s failing memory could work to her advantage, allowing Kass to sneak out for a quick smoke break. Five minutes away was usually all it took to reset Mom.
No. How dare she. How dare she even
thinksomething that cruel.
The Shao family, once a model nuclear unit in tech-driven Silicon Valley, now whittled down to this. And
thiswas something she would hold onto. Not exploit. Compassion, she reminded herself. The last three years or so had worn out Kass, so much so that she’d recently brought in hired help in the form of a caregiver named Lucy. And of course Mom didn’t want that, not even when Kass and Lucy framed it as needing help to get through Kass’s workday in a home office. Kass looked over Mom, unable to tell if her eyes were the sharp eyes of the quiet-but-fierce woman who’d raised her or the lost stare of someone whose dementia symptoms got exponentially worse over time.
That was the problem with Mom. None of the Shao kids could ever tell what she was thinking until she opened her mouth. Years ago, Mom explained that her quiet exterior worked to an advantage in an industry filled with loudmouths. But now it just put her family—her whole, only family—in limbo.
The clock read 11:43. Or about an hour and forty three minutes later than Mom’s usual bedtime. The onset of dementia made many things unpredictable, but at least administering medications at set times created a rhythm with sleep schedules. Except for tonight. Lucy’s early departure had affected her, and despite being surprisingly lucid for most of the evening, the divergence threw Mom off, causing a ripple effect that pushed her mood further and further off the rails until now they were debating something wholly impossible.
“Okay, I believe you,” Kass finally said after fifteen minutes of circular arguments. She craned her neck to look at the thin object sitting on Mom’s dresser, the thing that looked like a combination of polished stone infused with metal —the Key, going by Dad’s nickname, as in the key to getting Jakob back. That detail seemed to have evaded Mom in her current state.
She assumed Mom meant that thing, and the lack of naming the object was
notan attempt at irony, since Kass had always simply referred to the fucking thing as “It.” Dignifying it with anything further simply gave the thing power over their lives, gave Jakobpower over their lives.
And Jakob had done enough damage.
“So It moved,” Kass said, “and—”
“You see? I have to tell Arnold. Your dad’s been waiting for years.”
Kass knew the power of routine for someone with dementia, and how the most subtle shift might echo out for the rest of the day. She
knewthis, both as a mental health professional and simply Googling the hell out of the topic when Mom’s first blips of confusion and forgetfulness came three years ago. But despite every effort to use her training, give things the proper framing, and all of the other nuggets Kass spouted every day to her clients, tonight found her teetering on the edge of losing her shit. Maybe it was sheer fatigue. Or the fact that the conflict involved It. Or the fact that Evie had texted earlier about visiting, a message that she’d promptly deleted.
“I have to show Arnold.”
That would be a problem, given that Dad died years ago. Kass bit down on her lip, trying to consider the moving target of Mom’s mind. She didn’t mention Dad often enough for Kass to have an effective strategy given that the context changed each time. And the only attempt at explaining “Arnold Shao, your husband, my dad, is dead” didn’t go well at all.
Tonight came with an extra unique challenge: no prior time involved It.
“Mom, you can’t show Dad.” Kass glanced around, scanning for any inspiration to bring the discussion to a close. The framed photo of the family at Evie’s high school graduation, its corner faded from catching too much of an afternoon sunbeam. The stack of DVDs, various TV medical dramas from the 80s and 90s—things that Mom still remembered in frightening clarity despite losing the space and time of where she was. The printed sheet that listed a daily schedule to regulate her day and memory. The business suits in the closet never to be worn again. The notebook of pencil sketches, some as current as this week—somehow the lack of memory hadn’t eroded her artist’s hand.
None of those would help right now. “Fuck,” she whispered, the curse word slipping out too easily.
“Language, Kassie,” Mom said, as if Kass was a teenager.
Kass nodded, resetting with a soft smile while she looked for a way out. The clock. Maybe it was as simple as that. “It’s too late. Look at the time.” She pointed at the glowing blue LED numbers on the nightstand.
“Oh. Oh Kassie, you’re right. It
There was movement in the right direction. Kass looked at her options here, playing off Mom’s fix-it tendencies. “Remember how he went to bed early because he has a cold?”
Mom nodded, then sat down on the twin-sized bed’s flannel sheets.
“Maybe we should all go to bed,” Kass continued. “As early as possible. So our bodies are all rested and we don’t catch Dad’s cold.”
“When did you get so wise?” Mom said with a short laugh. She crawled under the covers, pulling the sheets up to her. “You know, I always worried about you.”
This bit, however, was standard. At first, it annoyed Kass, but now hearing Mom say it for the umpteenth time in months brought in a certain level of comfort. They’d been through so much together, a life built around only them since Dad died and Evie ran off to Buffalo. Hearing her say that meant Mom’s mind lived in a place where none of that happened, where Kass was still on the verge of failing out of UC Davis and Evie was the one with her shit together.
“I know, Mom. I’m just getting better at listening.” Mom’s hands rested upon her chest, and Kass put one palm over them as well.
“You know, I think I’ll get up early and make Dad waffles for breakfast. Real ones, not the frozen ones he puts peanut butter on.”
“I think Dad would like that,” Kass said. Dad’s favorite breakfast—that was a new one from the timeless ether where Mom’s mind spent most of the days. The mention brought up a flash of images, smells, sounds, a collection that hadn’t been activated in her memory in years. She worked so hard to push her sentimentality aside, and now god damn waffles with peanut butter made her teary.
“You look upset,” Mom said, reaching up to caress her cheek. “We’ll be better soon.” Kass nodded and before she could reply, Mom looked straight up and opened her mouth. “Hush little baby don’t say a word,” she sang quietly. “Mama’s going to buy you a mocking bird. And if that mockingbird won’t sing…”
“Mama’s going to buy you a diamond ring,” Kass joined in on the last line, the way she did when she was so little that Evie was a toddler. She watched as Mom stared straight up, seemingly no longer aware that her eldest daughter was kneeling next to her, and then just like that, Mom closed her eyes.
Kass hesitated for a moment, waiting for any sudden outbursts or rash words. But none arrived, and the circular arguments from earlier evaporated. She stood up, as quietly as possible, then crossed the room, only stopping when something caught the corner of her eye.
All of the sentimentality and affection, the pain of watching Mom devolve into a collection of memory fragments tied together by fraying coherence, something surged in Kass, and she did something she never dared to do before, something she promised Mom she’d
She grabbed It, the cold textured surface tight against her palm as she snuck out, closing the door in near silence. Seconds passed, then minutes. Enough time that it meant Mom was safely down and Kass could move forward. Her fingers curled and she gave herself a small fist pump, a private gesture marking the day’s milestone, then she stepped away from the door.
Kass set It on the kitchen table, grabbed the adjacent chair, and stared at the textures and details across the surface, all while keeping one ear tuned to the floor above. Several minutes passed with no creaks or footsteps, allowing her mind to dwell on the
thingin front of her.
Not so much formation or color or the textures, but how the object landed in their family’s lives. Of course Mom connected It to Dad.
Dad had brought It home on
The feel of the dew-filled air, the cool mountain breeze, the aroma of pine trees, they all lit up Kass’s mind like she was still there, still in the moment when the Placerville County sheriff called her and Evie.
Some three days after Jakob and Dad had disappeared, the sisters returned to that same main road before veering off toward a picnic area on the far side of the lake, the path changing from smooth pavement to the grind of a dirt path, yellow tape gradually coming into view beyond the clearing. A single police cruiser sat parked, and at one of the picnic tables stood a uniformed officer.
Next to the officer sat a person huddled in a blanket.
“Dad!” Kass had yelled even before she fully unbuckled her seat belt. She sprinted over to her father, and behind her, Evie took more measured steps.
There was Dad. But where, they asked, was Jakob?
Dad barely moved, even when Kass threw her arms around him. They jolted as a single unit when Evie did the same, but Dad returned to a silent upright pillar, like a bowling pin that managed to reset its balance. He stared ahead, random tremors rippling through the emergency blanket draped over his shoulders. Evie knelt down in front of them, shoes grinding into the dirt. She angled to see him face to face, to look him eye to eye.
The relief that Kass
shouldhave felt immediately was counterbalanced by the dread of missing the other half of the equation. “Where’s Jakob?” she asked, harsher than it should have been.
Still hugging her father, Kass craned her neck over to meet Evie’s gaze. Any stoic resolve melted away, and for a minute, Kass had wondered if she needed to put a brave face on for her younger sibling. They were both legal adults during that time, Evie a freshman starting at community college to save money and Kass digging deep for her fifth year after nearly taking Jakob’s lead of failing out, but a big sister was still a big sister despite a lifetime of being out of step.
Except Evie took the lead, standing up and putting her hand on Kass’s shoulder. It lingered for several seconds, both sisters waiting for something to break Dad’s mute expression.
The officer leaned over, voice just above the rustling of leaves. “We found him on the bench. He matched your missing persons report, so we called you. He hasn’t moved. He was shivering so I put a blanket on him. But that’s it.”
Kass tried again, searching to make eye contact with him. Despite being in his line of sight, his stare passed her, landing somewhere beyond. “Dad? Dad? It’s us. We are right here. We found you.”
She repeated herself, switching up words and phrases but with the same intent, a rolling urgency gathering momentum. Several minutes passed, and the officer’s hand landed on her shoulder. “Miss?”
“DAD!” Kass yelled, loud enough to scatter a pair of nearby birds searching for their morning meal.
Whether through sheer volume or coincidence or dumb luck, something triggered and Dad’s eyes finally shifted. His whole demeanor, in fact, shifted. His shoulders relaxed, he blinked several times, though his mouth remained a grim line.
Evie noticed right away and joined Kass’s side.
“Girls?” he asked, his voice cracking with dryness.
“Dad. What happened?” Kass asked. “Where’s Jakob?”
“Jakob. Jakob…” his voice trailed off, vacant eyes gradually shifting to…something. Anger? Sadness? Confusion? Maybe a little of everything. Kass stared at his face, trying to decipher it. But the trembling continued, and so the emergency blanket shifted ever so slightly, just enough to expose Dad’s hands.
In between his fingers sat something that looked like it belonged in a mall novelty store sitting next to neck massagers and wireless headphones. It may as well have been a fancy video game controller with its contoured shape, grooves and notches embedded into the underside of its shell. On the top, light bounced off what appeared to be minerals, like someone cut out a granite countertop and jammed it into a game console. Dad shivered, his fingers showing the same small bits of condensation that dotted the device.
That was the first time Kass saw It.
And now, she could make this the
lasttime she saw It. She couldn’t reverse what It and Jakob and that night had done to their family, but she coulderase the one last physical reminder of everything.
Kass stood up, the seat legs scraping the laminate flooring beneath them, and marched to the other side of the house, over to the sliding glass door to the back patio. She walked over paving stones and patches of moss to get to the large black garbage bin, her only company the sound of passing cars and the dots of starlight above.
It, a mess of metal and plastic and stone and whatever else, represented so much more, not just to Kass but to her entire family, like all of the confusion and pain and anger arrived in the form of a hand-held object, probably a child’s toy or a novelty device lost while camping. The wrong place at the wrong time for the wrong person: Dad, who needed somethingto believe in when a body was never located rather than just accepting that Jakob—flakey, unreliable, selfishJakob—probably just ran off to travel the world while trying every drug in existence. .
Because Jakob was a dick. He always had been.
Several years ago, Kass told Evie that Mom had thrown It away. That was the easier path, with Evie wanting photos and details about the stupid thing for her deranged alien web show. She’d held onto It, of course, since Mom’s sentimentality was one of the few remaining parts of her cognition.
Part of her wanted to bury It in the garbage bin
right now, under cigarette butts and used napkins and granola bar wrappers. But another part of her wanted to go further—find a rock or a brick or something to smash the device, as if destruction might undo the last fifteen years and restore things.
The hunk of junk deserved that. Mere disposal would be too easy.
She turned and took several steps, maneuvering the dark backyard by muscle memory until she was inches from a paving stone, the one that refused to sit flush no matter how many times they dug it out and reset it. She placed the device as flat as possible, kneeling for so long that her joints ached and the circulation to her feet cut off.
In the dim light, It only existed as a faint outline, ridges and detail were absorbed into the evening’s darkness. She reached over to grab a cold smooth stone, evening humidity making the porous texture slick, even needing some effort to jar the stone from damp soil. The stone’s weight seemed strangely heavy, and maybe fatigue was getting the better of her on a draining day like today.
Or the weight just meant she’d grabbed the right rock.
With two hands, she held the stone about a foot above the device. Her breath danced out into the cold night, rolling into a cloud before disappearing, and Kass thought about this moment, like the ritual that deserved more than a single swing and smash. Thoughts failed her, and instead, years of pent-up emotions bled into too many memories, and she hesitated long enough that a tremor ran through her arms from holding the weight up.
Then her back pocket buzzed, interrupting everything. Kass put the rock down and pulled out her phone: a text from Evie. She didn’t even have to read it; Evie’s mere digital presence shifted her thoughts, dissolving any intentions of destroying It. Instead, she returned the stone and picked up the device. She hesitated, her chilled fingers grasping onto It’s smooth texture.
She should return It. The stupid thing was property of Sofia Aguilar-Shao, not her impulsive daughter. Kass started back, fully intent on sneaking into Mom’s room and replacing It, but paused at the patio’s plant stand, reaching down for a small wood box. She flipped open the lid and felt her way past pens and scraps of paper and other bits of miscellaneous bullshit for the emergency pack of filtered cigarettes stored there in case she forgot some on her way home.
Or, in this case, the momentum of It and Evie’s late-night text proved to be too powerful and she just
neededa smoke. The cigarette came alive with a burning glow, a single orange dot in the dim backyard, at least until the phone screen lit back up. Never mind on money. My friends threw in for this, heading to airport for super early flight. But I could use a place to crash. You mind? I’ll stay out of your way. Hey, maybe I could even catch up with Mom. I’m such a bad daughter, I think it’s been years since we had a real convo LOL.
Kass studied the message from Evie and let out a single powerful “fuck” before taking in a cigarette drag and silently pondering how she’d explain Mom’s condition to her sister.
Excerpted from Light Years From Home by Mike Chen, Copyright © 2022 by Mike Chen. Published by MIRA Books.