Eat Cosmic Jello by Emily C. Skaftun
~3000 words, 15 minutes reading time
Issue 1 (Winter, February 2023)
According to Mom, she started her life on this planet as a chipmunk. It was about the right size for her, fresh out of her “larval stage.” She quickly cycled through roadrunner, dinnerplate tarantula, armadillo, and chicken, as she roamed the American Southwest, before becoming a human infant.
“That’s not even a lateral move,” I’d tease her. “Why not an eagle or a river otter? Or a treasured housecat? I’d rather stay an armadillo than be some stinky baby.”
Mom wanted to belong. She wanted to be rocked in Gramma’s cushy bingo arms, have nonsense syllables cooed in her face. “After all,” she’d tell me. “I had to learn English the same as any baby. Nobody in Oklahoma spoke Galactic Standard.”
Of course they didn’t.
She stayed friends with the chickens, the hens anyway. For the longest time, she thought their eggs could hatch into anything they wanted, just like she had done. So she went out to the henhouse and read to them, fantastical stories, to give them ideas. But the eggs all ended up scrambled anyway. Still better than what became of the roosters. She’d shudder, then launch into the tale of how she almost became an entrée instead of a daughter.
I don’t know what real-world trauma Mom’s confabulation was meant to cover, but it did stop me when I started feeling sorry for myself. At least I’d been adopted within a few days of birth by parents who wanted me. And, if Dad had stopped wanting me a few months later, well, that was okay. I had Mom. And she knew what it was to be different.
As a young alien stranded on this planet, she’d chosen to look like the woman on whose doorstep she left herself. She allowed herself to grow and age, always mimicking those features. “How else could I look so much like her?” she’d say, pointing to a picture of her mother. Adjusted for age, they could have been twins. The resemblance only deepened the older Mom got.
I thought that with Gramma dead, and me alive, it would only be fair for Mom to shift to look more like me. If she really was a shapeshifter, that is.
“I can’t risk blowing my cover,” she’d say.
Mom’s devotion to “not blowing her cover” extended to copying her own mother’s weird fingernails. They had thick and thin vertical streaks in them. Some chipped easily and some were too thick for the strongest clippers. Not that I ever saw Mom clip her nails. She probably would have eaten the trimmings, just to “prove” that they were a living part of her she couldn’t do without.
Her ugly fingernails were all the proof I needed that Mom was human, through and through.ss
She told a good story, though.
The army men who’d discovered the wrecked alien spaceship back in the 40s didn’t even notice Mom. She was just a little waxy sphere at the time, in “larval stage,” and blended in with the rocks when the stasis chamber burst, freeing her and the other “message spheres.”
The army men had been more concerned with the dead bipedal aliens—“Yusofors,” Mom called them. They were stereotypical aliens. Big eyes, little bodies; you’ve all seen the cheesy autopsy footage.
To her, they were slavers. All aliens were, but it wasn’t their fault. They didn’t know any better. No alien suspected the message spheres were alive, any more than the army men did.
See, Mom’s race of aliens had been subjugated for use as a communications system because they could control where they’d reincarnate—and therefore so could the comms machine. Because reincarnation was instantaneous, Mom’s species could deliver messages across distances that the speed of light rendered impassable. Now that she was free from the machine, next time she died Mom could be reborn on her species’ secret home planet, and stay there for the rest of her eternal lives.
Because that makes a lot more sense than my theory that her (human) bio-mom abandoned her on Gramma’s doorstep. Or that Gramma really was her bio-mom.
Before Mom died, I tried to get the truth out of her. I was a 40-year-old woman, with my own life and my own (biological) daughter, and I argued that I could handle hearing about whatever early-life trauma Mom was repressing better than I could live with her lies.
She stonewalled. Worse. She became irate for one of the only times I’d ever seen in my life, thrashing her weak limbs and yelling and finally weeping and clawing at my clothes and begging me to remember the thing she’d always told me.
The thing. A song. Some stupid jingle from some stupid product midwestern housewives fed their children in the 50s. “Eat Cos-mic Jell-o; the taste is out-ta this world!” That was what she wanted me to remember while she was shrinking into her deathbed, diminished by her own stubbornness. “I’m going to be singing that when I die,” she told me. “Even if it’s only in my head. Remember it. It’s important.”
But it was, to her. She’d always been a decent pianist, always kept a piano. Before she got sick, she’d wander past it several times a day, idly tapping out that stupid jingle on the keys. Her piano was in my house now, and the first thing Mom taught Ronnie to play on it was that tune. Ronnie, pest that she was, learned she could reliably get a reaction out of me with those 12 notes. So now it was my daughter tapping out “Cosmic Jello” a few times a day.
Ah, the cycle of life.ss
When Mom grew up, she became a nurse. “I needed to learn human anatomy,” she claimed. Not, it was one of the only options available to women at the time and I didn’t want to be a teacher or a nun. Surely it had nothing to do with her older sister and mother both being nurses. “My outsides looked human, but I had no idea how to structure the inside.”
I never understood why she’d bother. So what if she was indeterminate alien goo inside? That would only matter if she got cut open.
Sometimes she’d get sad. “I wanted to have a baby. Not that you aren’t the best daughter I could have hoped for, biological or otherwise, but everyone wants to pass on their genetics, to leave a legacy.”
Mom’s biggest regret was scampering off as a chipmunk without checking to see what the other message sphere aliens were becoming as they came out of larval stage, where they were going. She’d been so focused on the escape, she hadn’t thought about the loneliness that would follow. Had they even survived? She didn’t know.
She was lonely for others of her kind. All adopted kids know that feeling.ss
When Mom got sick, it made her delusions worse. Despite her long career as a nurse, she was pathologically averse to seeing a doctor. “They’ll see what I am,” she said.
It didn’t explain why she’d never taken me to doctors, not even when I thought I broke my leg falling off a skateboard. “You’re fine,” she’d told me, forcing me to look away. “And anyway, I know as much as the doctors.” She’d been right. She sang me extra songs to distract me from the pain, and before I knew it, my leg felt good as new. Barely even bruised.
But between me and Mom’s nurse friends and her doctor friends, and a brilliantly employed guilt trip from Ronnie, we forced Mom to get checked out. It did take the various specialists a curiously long time to come to a diagnosis, but in the end they agreed she had a rare and hereditary form of lymphoma.
The same rare and deadly lymphoma that had killed Gramma.
Of course, medical science had come a long way since Gramma’s death, but also of course, Mom had waited too long. By the time they diagnosed her, the oncologists agreed that only palliative options remained. Mom refused even these, on the grounds that any medical intervention risked exposing her kludged-together fake human body.
She really did sing that song while she died. “Eat Cos-mic Jell-o; the taste is out-ta this world!” She sang it for the better part of her last week, just to be safe.
“Remember the song,” she told me. “If you sing it, you can come home too.”
As though I could ever forget it.
Mom passed away peacefully enough, a smile on her seemingly human face, the word “Cosmic” lingering as her last breath dispersed into the room.
And for months I jerked awake at night with that cursed song echoing in my head, my heart having skipped a beat.
I’d catch myself humming it, then ugly cry until my face ached.
Ronnie still tapped it out on the piano, but now only when she thought I couldn’t hear. I didn’t have the heart to tell her to stop. We all grieve in different ways.
The things I didn’t know about Mom’s life felt as vast as the galaxy she claimed to have criss-crossed as a message sphere.
I threw myself into the task of going through her things, the more personal the better. Maybe she’d have a journal in a shoebox in the back of a closet that would tell the true truth of her origins. Maybe she’d written me a letter with all the things that for whatever reason she’d been too afraid to tell me outright.
If those things existed, I never found them.
Instead I found evidence of strange obsessions. Astronomy correspondence course materials, star charts, letters from SETI researchers. Scrapbooks full of conspiracy-theory clippings about aliens, including an entire three-ring binder full of news stories from Southwestern states that to her indicated the presence of a shapeshifter. FOI requests from Roswell and Area 51, heavily redacted.
She’d also kept a collection of horrifying food ads from the 1950s. I was sure I’d see something about Cosmic Jello in them, but though many of the recipes used gelatin, the brand was never mentioned by name.
I sifted through these nonstop, feeling the dried-leaf brittleness of each sheet of decades-old paper. My hands desiccated until my skin felt just as brittle, and my fingernails started to crack and snag on the weirdest things.
I dug through box after box of photos.
The silvery portraits of Mom as a little girl made me cry. The almost psychedelic Polaroids of her as a young woman made me smile. The ones with my dad in them made me shake my head. Shaggy-haired and bellbottomed, the pair of them grin in front of natural wonders, Route 66 roadside oddities, and the Very Large Array back when it was only medium-sized.
And then, in a blink, Dad had put on a suit and shaved all the shagginess away and stopped smiling, as though that other life had always been a disguise. And then he’d gone. A very small part of me wondered what had become of him, why he hadn’t returned, even now. Mom’s adopted siblings had died before she did, which left Dad as the only one who’d known her before I was born. He might have had the answers to some of my questions. But if so, he’d taken them with him wherever he’d gone.
The picture that made my blood run cold was labelled October 1978. It was taken in Farfar’s old house, and Farmor was in it, so the date couldn’t be off by much. She died in January 1979. Two months after I was born.
In the picture, Dad is making goggle-eyes at a woman’s very pregnant belly. The woman’s hands are folded primly atop her shirt, which is bunched into one hand to display the unmistakable fleshy fact of the bun in her oven. Her face wears a perfect Mona Lisa smile.
And the woman is Mom.ss
I considered the possibility of photographic fakery, but it appears to be a genuine Polaroid.
I thought maybe the date was wrong, but there are other snaps from that day, with the same cast of characters in the same house, wearing the same clothes, all labelled October.
It’s real. Real proof that either:
Mom lied about me being adopted.
Or she really was a shapeshifter.
I flipped photo album pages furiously, looking for something, anything. Evidence. Some last piece that would explain her to me. I dug through her desk drawers and clawed fragile documents off the bottom of an antique trunk.
My fingernails cracked and split.
Which is normal, right? Except one of them, my left middle finger, the one Mom had called the “driving finger,” split in a weird way, vertically up into the nailbed. On closer examination, it had split along the divide between a thick and thin band, an almost imperceptible striation in the keratin of my nails that I’d never noticed before.
I checked my other nails, and several were starting to show the same patterns. They didn’t look like Mom’s had before her death. But I couldn’t recall what her hands had looked like at my age, and it was easy to imagine these small differences in thickness becoming more pronounced over the next decades.
I had the same weird fingernails as Mom and Gramma, even though officially none of us were related. What were the odds?
Because we lived, even then, in a modern age, I sought an answer from science. I learned that testing someone’s DNA from hair without roots was still considered science fiction. It took weeks to find a lab willing to give it a go, and they wouldn’t guarantee the results. I reluctantly packaged up the lock of Mom’s hair I’d kept and shipped it off along with a sample of my own saliva.
In the meantime, I made a halfhearted attempt to find my bio-mom. Mom had always wanted me to meet her. She said all I had to do was to ask the doctor who delivered me; they’d worked together and remained acquainted after his retirement.
But I’d waited too long, and he’d already passed away. Maybe there was a trail through his closed private practice or government records, but honestly I’d never wanted to meet my bio-mom, and that hadn’t changed.
Mom was always Mom, and that was all I needed. And maybe I really was her biological daughter. I alternated, sometimes several times a day, between being certain that it was and wasn’t true. The evidence suggested it was, but my heart couldn’t quite believe it.
Why would Mom lie about something like that?
But then again, why had she clung to her “I’m a shapeshifting alien” story?ss
Inconclusive, the lab said. That was to be expected with poor samples like Mom’s hair, but the woman who called me added that both samples had shown irregularities.
“The same kind of irregularities?” I asked.
Similar. Not similar enough that they’d go on record as saying it was a genetic match. But of course that’s what I inferred.
Concern was evident in the woman’s voice. Along with curiosity. She strongly encouraged me to have more tests done.
“Is there something wrong with me?” I asked.
“That’s not for me to … I’m not a doctor,” she said.
I hung up the phone fully intending to get right on another call with a doctor. I guessed I could start with the GP we’d sent Mom to at first, since I didn’t have a regular doctor. I doubted Ronnie’s pediatrician would see me.
Why didn’t I have a doctor? Why hadn’t Mom ever taken me to a doctor?
I had been an unusually healthy child, but that wasn’t a good enough explanation.
I looked out into the front yard, where Ronnie was sitting with her sketchbook, drawing the people, cars, and animals that drifted past our house.
Mom had shared a lot of opinions on parenting before and after Ronnie was born. She was horrified by my choice to deliver in a hospital, and hovered like a vulture until the nurses handed our new little Veronica back to me. She was adamantly against me taking Ronnie in for checkups and getting her vaccinated, but of course I did those things, because, not being a lunatic or a cult member, that’s just what you do.
What was Mom’s problem, anyway? Her own aversion to doctors was part of her “I’m not human” story, but if I was adopted then neither I nor Ronnie have any secrets to hide from medical science.
If I was adopted.
I put the phone down.ss
For the first time since Mom died, that night I told Ronnie a bedtime story of intergalactic aliens. Or, more accurately, she told it to me. I’d long ago tuned out what I thought of as Mom’s delusions, but Ronnie had been listening. She reminded me of the beauty of Mom’s mythical homeland, a planet whose location no one knew, a place safe from the slavers who’d use them to send their instant messages. A place where they could always return, if they knew the right frequencies to direct their rebirth. A place where death wasn’t the end.
“Do you think Nana is there?” Ronnie asked me.
And what else could I say? “Of course she is. She’s waiting there for us.”
I never did go in to see a doctor about whatever the lab had detected. I never did find out conclusively whether Mom was my bio-mom. But I knew what I believed.
I grew older, as we all must. When my health started to fail, Ronnie urged me to get it checked out. But when I refused, she understood my qualms and didn’t press the matter. She had always understood more than I did. She just made sure I never forgot those 12 notes, singing “Eat Cos-mic Jell-o; the taste is out-ta this world!”
I can’t say I wasn’t scared to die. I can’t even say I believed in Mom’s afterlife, not totally.
But I could see that Ronnie did. She wasn’t afraid, and she’d get along without me, and that made it easier to go. And if there was a chance we could all meet again on some distant, safe planet?
I sang. I sang with all my soul.