My grandmother always said that every planet in our galaxy was an atom, and that our entire universe was but a single cell in some megastructure we could never conceive. She theorized that the cosmic revolutions of Mars, Mercury, and even the Earth were little more than subatomic twitches inside some universe-sized leviathan. And as a worm burrows desperately into the innards of a dog, she theorized, we cling to our ignorance and the pitiful limitations of our senses.
Whenever grandma started whispering about the monsters, my mother got very quiet and fixed her gaze upon the wall. It usually took a few moments for her to snap out of her trance, but when she did, her disquiet would boil into a sedated smile. She’d babble something about how the scariest monsters never leave the walls of the human mind, and how I shouldn’t listen to grandma’s nonsense because she wasn’t thinking straight anymore.
But my mother’s eyes always left me wondering if she was running from some truth that I’d never know.
Sometimes, when mother was working extra-late and we had nothing to eat for dinner except plain bread and yesterday’s macaroni and cheese, I would ask grandma about the monsters. She would always smile and say “Our stars are but dead macrophages in another universe’s smallest worm.” Every. Single. Time.
That is, of course, until the night of the accident.
When I answered the phone and heard my mother had died, I dreaded telling my grandma far more than I feared contending with my own grief. I expected her to wail, and to cry, and to scream until the sun rose. But to my dismay, her smile was as true as it was in the picture from half a century ago that hung over the fireplace, where her and my grandpa were reunited at the end of the war.
“Now,” she whispered into the most bone-chilling, sick draft I’d felt all winter, “We can finally talk about the monsters in peace.”
Three weeks later, we were sitting at the dinner table, like we had every night for as long as I can remember. After my mother’s passing, grandma suddenly developed a passion for cooking that I never saw coming. When my mother was alive, grandma could hardly manage to make herself a grilled cheese sandwich in the microwave without complaining—but now, we had a different dish every night of the week.
“Did you know, Sylvie, that every time you take a bite of chicken without chewing it fully, you’re taking a gamble?”
“No, grandma,” I mumbled, my mouth still full of sesame sauce and overcooked meat. “What do you mean?”
“Unless you chew your food for thirty seconds, you could choke. But when you eat your food faster, you enjoy it much more. Is that joy a worthwhile trade for your life?”
I raised an eyebrow at her, my gaze drifting over to the empty seat at the head of the table where my mother used to sit. I knew if she were here, she would have scolded my grandma for her endless, senseless fear mongering.
“I don’t blame you,” she finally conceded, still gripping her fork so roughly I wondered if she was trying to bend it in half. “After all, gambling is in your blood.”
I smiled weakly, remembering how many times her and my mother had dragged me to the casino-mini-mall on the edge of town. “Yeah, I guess it is, grandma.”
After that, the silence lingered for three more of her bites and nine of mine. And just as I thought the conversation had died, she rasped across the table once more.
“Did you know that monsters aren’t that different than humans, Sylvie? They love to gamble too.”
I let out a long, deep sigh, already completely worn out on the topic of monsters from earlier. While I was trying to watch my favorite movie of all time, The Last Glacier on Mars, she’d rambled on about how the smallest claws of some of the monsters from “beyond the dark” were larger than all the spiral arms of our galaxy combined. How did she know so much about astronomy, I wondered? As far as I knew, she never even finished high school.
“Is that so?” Since I was getting full, I decided to humor her. Maybe if I got her talking enough, she’d wear herself out and I wouldn’t have to hear about monsters during the entire first screening of Ermine’s Bite Part 3.
“Oh, yes. They took a gamble on your mother, in fact.”
As I went rigid and dropped my fork, my eyes drifted back to my mother’s empty seat. I tapped my foot impatiently on the floor, forcing myself to bury the harsh words I desperately wanted to spit back at grandma. It was one thing to talk about the monsters nonstop, but to drag my mother into her delusional lies? The two of them had never gotten along, but this was absurd.
“Don’t be a brat,” grandma hissed, reaching across the table to rest her withered, leathery paws on my arm. “Don’t you want to know the truth when the universe dies?”
I rolled my eyes, reaching for the fork and focusing all my energy on chewing my last bite of sesame chicken. This was the third time this week grandma had brought up the heat death of the universe, and I’d heard far too much about it earlier while we were making lunch.
“Fine,” I snapped, knowing it was pointless to argue when that weird, wild fire came to life in her eyes. “Tell me, then: How did the ‘monsters’ take a gamble on mother, grandma?”
“They didn’t,” grandma smiled, her chipped yellow teeth jagged enough to excise my brain from the inside of my skull. “They took a chance on us all: They thought they could eat us without getting sick, and they were right. Every time they swallow up a helpless little world like ours, a new macrophage is born in the midnight sky: Most people call them stars, but they’re really just the corpses of a thousand eaten planets just like Earth.”
I sighed again, determined not to entertain her illness any longer. I could practically hear mother snickering at me from beyond the grave, eternally rubbing it in my face that she was right. See? You should have never let her get going on the monsters. Once she starts, she’ll never stop.
I stood up and walked around to the other side of the table to grab her plate. I pretended to be unaffected by her latest ‘revelation,’ but as I carried our dishes over to the sink, my hands began to tremble the slightest bit. Something about grandma’s rants was really getting to me lately.
“Do you know, Sylvie, what’s your most valuable possession in all the world?”
My chest grew the slightest bit less tight as I laid the plates to rest in the sink and turned to face her again. Had she finally moved past the monsters for now?
“No, not really,” I chirped frantically, desperate to divert the conversation in a different direction now that I finally had the chance. “Um . . . My doll collection?” I guessed. “Or maybe the old ice cream truck in the barn? Grandpa always said I could sell it, right?” I joked. We all knew I’d never get around to it.
“No.” She ignored my joke as she smiled that necrotic, twisted smile. I half-expected a family of maggots to crawl out from between her broken teeth. “Your most valuable possession is your life: And your life is a war between positive and negative ions that spans centuries and generations, so the monsters above can live.”
There was nothing more for me to say. I have no idea what an appropriate response would have been, or what she even expected. So I muttered the first words that came into my head.
“The scariest monsters never leave the walls of the human mind. Drink your water and get ready for bed.”
To my great surprise, she reached for her glass and allowed the house to fall silent for the first time since I turned off the TV before dinner.
Sweet, serene quiet: I could get used to this. So I wandered over to the drawer beneath the kitchen counter and fished out my pack of Camels.
“I’m going for a walk, alright? I’ll be back at midnight for Ermine’s Bite.”
“Are you going to town tonight to see the boys?” She replied, her eyes glassing over with that corpse-grey emptiness that chilled me to the bone every time. “To dance?”
“What?” I muttered, shaking my head and staring back over my shoulder in confusion as I headed for the foyer. I didn’t even know what the hell she was talking about. I’d never even kissed a boy, much less snuck out of the house to dance with one at 11 PM on a Wednesday.
“You see, Sylvie, now that your mother’s gone, the monsters are free to do as they please. Just like you.”
“I’m just going for a little walk, grandma. I’ll be back in soon.” I sighed for the final time, pushing open the front door and abandoning her for the cold October night.
Something about the conversation we just had sucked the life out of me like a monster swallowing down the last world in our spiral arm. She was so old, and so out of it, and now she was all I had left.
I lit my cigarette and craned back my neck to look up at the stars, as if they could give me the answers that the doctors could not. I didn’t even feel like going for a walk anymore. Everything was exhausting and nothing made sense. I was so drained that when I squinted my eyes and let the midnight fog catch the stars just right, for the very first time, I saw what grandma was talking about: They really sort of did look like blistering cells scattered across the night, the corpses of dead worlds engulfed by something greater than men or gods.
Maybe grandma was smarter than my mother gave her credit for. Maybe the entire human race really was nothing more than a gnat drowning in the veins of a worm swimming through space, making its way to another universe far greater than ours.
I’ll never forget that moment, suspended forever in time, drowned in a perfect balance of positive and negative ions beneath those stars that could have been cells or liquid fire. It was then that I finally realized that although my grandma’s monsters were absurd by conventional human wisdom, I really had no way of proving her wrong.
And to this day, thirty years later, every time I look up at the stars all I see are macrophages.
Erica Ciko Campbell is an Active Member of the SFWA and an Affiliate Member of the HWA. Her stories have appeared in many magazines and anthologies, most recently the “Through Other Eyes” collection by All Worlds Wayfarer. She’s the Editor-in-Chief of Starward Shadows Quarterly, and a First Reader at Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores. If you’re still craving the whispers of war-torn, dead galaxies, check out her website: http://starless-imperium.com/. You can also find her on Twitter at @ECikoCampbell.