Cruel Replacement, a Short Story
Scifi Story by Tamara Wilhite
"John?" my wife asked the alien sitting at the table, a note of uncertainty in her voice.
It sat at our son’s place at the table, and her mind struggled against the idea of an alien. Then again, humanity was struggling with First Contact, too. Unfortunately, my wife’s mind has been fading for years. So she defaulted to the assumption that its strange appearance was the result of cataracts long since removed, or a Halloween costume or the side effects of drugs we gave her for the dementia.
Her voice echoed through the room when she asked him again if he was John. I hated dementia. I hated aliens. And, God help me, both were cruelly at play today.
"I am Jo-Na," the alien finally replied. The alien voice was a neutral baritone, designed to be utterly inoffensive. Their language sounded like car crashes set to music.
"Are you a friend of our son?" she asked.
"I am a friend of everyone." I wondered which psychologists had defected to the aliens’ side and what they were paid to come up with such answers.
"He really needs to come join us at dinner."
"That would please me."
I wanted to scream at her to shut up. He's dead! John’s dead! Don't you remember? No, she doesn't remember. She doesn't remember much new information at all, and her clear memories go back a decade or two.
"Miriam. Please. Sit down." My wife did as I asked, thank God. Her cataracts had been fixed before the War by humans. The damaged retinas had been fixed by aliens. Her mind, though, was the same, untouched by events. Dementia. Not quite Alzheimer’s but not quite right.
Aliens had not yet figured out how to alter human neurology. I was glad for that, too. They couldn't make me like them, though they couldn’t fix her, either. My wife would be hysterical for a moment when they entered, unable to process what she saw, though we'd seen them in the skies and televisions and tablet computers for months. Then I'd try to calm her down. We ended up going into the study and waiting for her to take a nap. She awoke, forgot the prior day and resumed our daily routine, though life after First Contact became increasingly bizarre.
The alien craft and exploration teams passed by, eventually approaching all houses seeking to gain universal acceptance and approval. Sometimes she assumed it was Halloween and offered candy. Sometimes she thought she was hallucinating and demanded drugs. Once in a while, she failed to even realize they were there and provided an interesting study in human nature, which they’d stay and watch. Now the aliens demanded complete "tolerance". You couldn't just agree not to kill them and stay out of their way. They had to be allowed into homes, to do as they wished, at any time and place.
This one came in and sat down at the dinner table. I sat there, trying to ignore it. And my wife, sun-downing behavior of the demented, couldn't decide what to do with this latest intrusion. Like a confused computer, she reverted to early behavior and asked him its name. As she had the last time it had shown up.
"Honey, where is John?" she asked me.
"He can't make it today." Please, please, let a noncommittal statement be enough.
The alien's voice box asked, "Where is John?"
My wife echoed the question, "Where's John?” A moment of thinking. “When will he be home?”
An alien demanding complete compliance, up to and including sitting at the dinner table to demonstrate compliance. A wife who wants her dead son at dinner with his friend. "Honey, he can't make it to dinner. I'll explain why to Jonah after dinner. Can we please just eat right now?"
"Yes, dear. If he won't be here on time like his friend, he will just have to eat cold leftovers."
"Your mate is fully compliant with the edicts." It wasn't a question. "What would gain your full compliance?"
"Give me back my son."
"Where is your offspring?"
The alien was silent. Computing, I guess, the best answer. Or communicating telepathically with technology I couldn’t comprehend. I knew what the technology could do. John had been vaporized exploring the effects of their barriers.
My wife returned with food and sat back down. "Should we say grace?" my wife asked.
"Grace," the alien said.
My wife giggled like a little girl. " That's close enough. It's better than some of the ridiculous prayers some boys say. Honey, do you want to add anything?"
There was so much I wanted to say. I chose to say nothing at all. I shook my head and stabbed a fork into the food. The demented acceptance of the alien as human felt like a cruel boon - like long life to a blind and crippled man. If I had my wife healed, she'd be grieving with me. Was her happy ignorant acceptance better?
"If only John were here -" she said, I guessed in response to something the alien asked.
The alien was such a cruel replacement for our only, lost child. I briefly wished that I, too, was suffering from dementia that I could forget the war and his loss ... then he'd live on in my memory, unencumbered by today's reality.