Macrophages, by Erica Ciko Campbell, will appear in the upcoming Aggregate anthology.
Erica Ciko Campbell made her writing debut on backwater internet forums in the early 2000’s. Since then, she hasn’t been able to resist tormenting her friends and family with the occasional sci-fi horror story. Her greatest accomplishment to date is To Be Young and Whole Again, the unpublished first novel in the Tales of a Starless Aeon series. She lives with her husband Jeremy and sheltie Charlie in the wilds of upstate New York. If you’re still craving the whispers of war-torn, dead galaxies, check out her website, Written Constellations: https://writtenconstellations.com/. You can also find her on Twitter at @ECikoCampbell.
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 speculated, 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.
“Grandma Angie’s grip on reality is fragile,” my mother replied from the driver’s seat. It was one of the rare occasions when she found time to pick me up from varsity softball after school. “Getting old has been rough on her. I know the stories she tells are fascinating, but the doctors said you mustn’t encourage her.”
“So she hasn’t been like this forever?” I found it hard to imagine a younger version of my grandma doing normal, everyday things like going to work or having a polite conversation over dinner in a restaurant. Somehow, it never occurred to me that there was a time when she wasn’t one with the monsters.
My Mother squinted the way she always did when she was lying to herself. Her face twisted into a surprised scowl as a truck blew through the light only a few feet in front of us.
“Not this bad, no,” she continued, determined to pretend she hadn’t been about to push down on the gas without looking. “Grandma Angie was always a bit of a character, but all this talk of… I don’t know, space worms and oceans of blood and all that? That only started after you were born. I mean, after the illness got worse.”
“Which is it?” I asked, tilting my head. Suddenly my stomach felt off, like I’d drank a cup of sour milk and run in circles for an hour straight.
“D-don’t spend so much time worrying about your grandmother, honey,” Mother finally stuttered. “You already have enough on your plate. And like I already told you, the doctors said dwelling on the delusions will only make her condition worse.”
“Enough,” she cut me off with the same frenzied, desperate tone that had killed so many conversations before. “How was practice, dear?”
Sometimes, when my mother wasn’t around, I would dig up enough courage to ask Grandma Angie about the monsters. She would always smile and say “Our stars are but dead macrophages in another universe’s smallest worm.” Every. Single. Time.
By the time we finally got to phagocytosis in AP Bio a few weeks ago, I felt like laughing at the irony. The teacher breezed by macrophages as if they were some insignificant grain of sand in the fully-functioning immune system, and no one in the room had any idea how they’d someday swallow up my entire life, and maybe even everyone else’s—that is, if Grandma was right.
After school, the conversation I’d had with Mother about Grandma Angie’s so-called sickness was still wearing on me, even though it was over a month ago. So, later that night, when Mother was working extra-late and there was nothing on TV except reruns of some old sci-fi show called The Bastion of Despair, I decided to sate my curiosity once-and-for-all.
“Grandma Angie?” I asked, transfixed by the Quasar-Powered Eternity Ray on the screen for what felt like the hundredth time. Grandma’s weird old shows were usually a bit too nerdy for me, but something about this one always got my attention while simultaneously creeping me out. Somehow, it was far too fitting that a show depicting the death of a million worlds in one silent implosion would be on the screen the moment I decided to finally ask about the sickness.
“Yes, Sylvie?” Grandma smiled, turning to me and resting her hand on my shoulder. It was clear she was far more interested in me than the dissolution of whatever imaginary universe had managed to steal our attention this time.
“I…” I paused, suddenly losing my nerve. We were having such a nice evening, and it seemed like a shame to ruin it just to find some answer I was probably better off not knowing. “I just—”
But then, my thoughts were cut short by a loud “thump” from across the room. “Was that a bird?!” I exclaimed, glancing with wide eyes towards the window. Whatever smashed against it only seconds before had left behind a perfect spider web smack in the middle of the glass. Mother was going to be so pissed.
“Did you know, Sylvie, that when a bird hits the window, someone you know is going to die?”
I spun back to face Grandma, the ‘thump’ resounding through my eardrums over and over, faster than my own racing pulse.
“Y-yes, Grandma Angie,” I whispered with awe, my heart pounding as violently as the imploding stars on the screen. For all I knew, the old wives’ tale could be as true as the monsters beyond time: Despite what Mother claimed, I had no way of knowing.
All I knew for sure was that I suddenly felt as sick as I had back in the car when Mother told me about Grandma’s delusions.
“I hope it’s your Mother,” Grandma giggled, smiling like she did 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. “Then, we can finally talk about the monsters in peace.”
The phone rang. Before the officer delivered the worst news of my life, I was already crying: Somehow, I knew grandma’s wish had come true.
For the next few days, I channeled all of my energy into little things, like finding the perfect repair company to fix the window, or perfecting my softball swing. I organized all my rocks several times a day, pausing only to tell Grandma Angie to lay off when she talked about how Mother had been recycled back to the higher realms and was “one with the worms now.”
From the second I heard about Mother’s accident, I couldn’t stand to hear a word of Grandma’s delusions anymore. Every time she rambled about the moon being a key component in cosmic phagocytosis, or how the rain was just drool trickling down from the jaws of the Watcher, I felt like screaming.
After two weeks, the window was fixed, and I got so tired of moving around rocks that I threw them all in boxes and shoved them under the bed. Grandma watched reruns of The Bastion of Despair all day while I refused to look at the TV and stared at the wall instead.
“Sylvie, did you know this TV show is based on a true story?” She smiled, forever transfixed by the planet-shattering spines lashing across the stars.
“No it’s not, Grandma.” I bet these lame old shows were where she got all her crazy ideas from. Why didn’t I realize it sooner? I resisted the urge to add, “Mother really must have been right about you.”
“Oh, but it is,” She replied, her tone placid and bemused as always. “I’ve seen it. The Bastion of Despair is as real as the eternal war between protons and electrons that rages between your fingertips as we speak.”
On the screen, the behemoth spine had finally won. Its master tossed a planet back and forth between a gnarled pair of hands, and I knew what was coming. I flinched as the Overlord swallowed the entire planet like a grape for the thousandth time.
Grandma, however, remained unfazed. “The creators of the show heard the whispers from outside time, but they didn’t tell anyone because they knew they’d be scorned.”
That was the moment I realized that no matter how many rocks I organized, or how many walls I stared at, nothing would ever be the same. I missed Mother more than I ever missed anything in my life, and I would have given anything to hear her tell me that the monsters weren’t real, even one last time. I wanted someone to talk to who could see the world clearly: Someone who wasn’t too fixated on all this made-up, delusional crap to see what was in front of them.
But as much as it disgusted me, I couldn’t help but stare back at the screen one last time, to catch one last glimpse of the million-billion souls evaporating into the Overlord’s throat all at once. He sort of reminded me of my grandma a little bit, but I couldn’t put my finger on why.
Maybe The Bastion of Despair wasn’t so bad. There was nothing else to watch on a boring Wednesday afternoon. And if I was going to suffer anyway, might as well stay amused in the meantime.
After three weeks, I couldn’t eat anything but sesame chicken and plain white rice. Everything else tasted like cardboard mixed with blood.
A month had passed since we’d gotten the phone call, and 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 Angie 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. Now, she was more than happy to indulge my new love for sesame chicken. Every. Single. Night.
“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 she and my mother had dragged me to the casino-mini-mall on the edge of town. “Yeah, I guess it is, Grandma Angie.”
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 suddenly 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 Hyperion’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—but I soon found the anger melting away into something I could only describe as resigned acceptance. I didn’t have the energy to fight anymore, and I couldn’t deny that it might be exciting to learn why the monsters took a gamble.
“How, then?” I muttered weakly, knowing it was pointless to argue when that weird, wild fire came to life in her eyes. Was it that, or was it the ever-gnawing truth that I couldn’t deny?
“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 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 about the monsters. Once she starts, she’ll never stop.”
But it was easier not to care. It was easier to ride the cosmic death waves wherever the night took me.
I stood up and walked around to the other side of the table to grab her plate, not nearly as callous as I always dreamed of being. 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.
“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? More importantly, did I even want her to?
“No, not really,” I chirped frantically, desperate to divert the conversation in a different direction now that I finally had the chance. “Um… My rock collection?” I guessed.
“No.” 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. We both know that.”
To my great surprise, she reached for her glass and allowed the house to fall quiet for the first time since I turned off the TV before dinner. The silence unsettled me so much that I wandered over to the table and began leafing through the ever-present TV guide.
Out of habit, I decided to double-check and make sure Hyperion’s Bite was on at the same time as always. I rifled through the pages until I found the Midnight Movie network wedged in between News 9 Now and the Fantasy channel. As usual, between the hours of 11 PM and 6 AM, the guide was marked “OFF AIR: TEST”. I don’t know why they always misprinted the schedule for Hyperion’s Bite, but it had been happening for several months now, so I was used to it.
“Looks like Hyperion’s going to be on at the usual time, Grandma Angie.”
As Grandma nodded with her usual satisfaction, I wandered over to the drawer beneath the kitchen counter and fished out my pack of Camels. I’d dropped out of varsity softball not long after my mother died, so over the past few months I decided that lung capacity didn’t matter much anyway.
“I’m going for a walk, alright? I’ll be back at midnight for the show.”
“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.
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.
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.
And to this day, thirty years later, every time I look up at the stars all I see are macrophages.