1 One: After School Special

My breath caught the moment I looked out the window; there was an object floating between the trees.

I hesitated—at first—to call it a ship. Even the term "UFO" seemed reckless for a first glance. I didn't want my mind to suddenly veer off toward an adventure that would lead to disappointment. So, I did what any rational kid would do while home alone after school: I went out to get a closer look.

Haha, yes, I'm white. I know there's a joke that only some white idiot would go out and look at something dangerous. Only someone with naive privilege would think they'd be safe. Welp. I suppose that's a check-roger. Plus, there's always that sense of invulnerability when you're young. I was too stupid to be cautious. Too eager to hesitate.

Anyway, at the time I lived out in the woods on the edge of town. Getting home was an affair on the best of days. It was a two-hour bus ride from school, and I hadn't bothered getting a license. None of my friends lived in my direction toward nowhere. Hell, I had a car, but it was still on one cinder block and needed a new clutch.

Which is to say that I was all by my lonesome. The parents were off at work, and big brother dearest was probably screwing around with his boyfriend. So, yeah. Alone.

I jogged downstairs and threw on a hoody. It was early spring, and the air still had that chill of lingering winter. My mind was preoccupied with the random sky object, but I still had some sense left in me. I didn't like being cold.

Except, the hoody was no match when I actually stepped outside. Instead of the normal spring chill, it was like stepping into an icebox. I had a weekend job at the local Chick'n'Eat, and it was like stepping into their walk-in freezer. The outside was cold-cold. I could see my breath and everything.

Maybe, with some other choices, I would've avoided changing my whole life. If I'd turned around to get a heavier jacket. Delaying for a few seconds might have been enough. I think. Then again, maybe Jess would've been taken all by herself. Maybe that would've been worse.

Yet, the floating thing was mesmerizing. I couldn't stop looking at it. One foot out the door, I had to get closer. It was fuzzy at the edges, and getting closer felt like the only way to see it clearer. To know.

My house—well, my parents' house—was in a wooded clearing at the end of a dirt road. The parents called it a driveway, but it was honestly a whole road. No driveway is two miles long. If you turn off the pavement, go through a rusted gate, and then drive through the woods for several minutes? That's no longer a driveway. It's an excursion.

Across the clearing at the end of our long-ass driveway, this weird shimmery orb was hovering between two of the taller trees at the edge of the woods. It was stretched like a balloon, except the pointier end didn't have a balloon's normal tie-off. It was just pointed with a few silvery markings reminiscent of passenger jet cockpit windows. I had to squint to understand even that much. It took effort to look at the ship. Like it was trying to avoid my attention and only half-failing.

But, yeah. It was a ship. I was over doubting myself. It had to be a ship. Getting closer only magnified the understanding of its scale. I'd thought, hey, maybe it'd turn out to be like, a pie plate stuck in a branch. Maybe my brain was playing perspective tricks on my fragile human mind. Nope. Ship.

My skin had goosepimples, though it wasn't from the cold. I had stopped noticing the bite of freezer-like air. With each step, the floating orb took more of my attention. Something like tunnel vision was blocking out the rest of the world.

I was at the far side of the clearing when the sound of an engine broke my fugue. Someone was coming up the driveway. Slipping my phone from my pocket, I glanced at the time. Nope. Not the parents. Still too early. Somehow, that felt wrong. Like more should've passed. My sense of time felt broken. I felt suddenly tired and irritable. The world was an annoyance.

A ratty red Honda from the 90s pulled into the clearing. Jess was driving with one hand on the wheel and the other holding her phone. She was only half-looking at the road, which, understandable. That "driveway" was boring as hell. A tunnel of old-growth trees made it a dark corridor of sleep-inducement.

She caught sight of me and turned off the dirt road into the clearing. Slowing to a stop, she grinned and waved with the phone in her hand. Of course, then she realized what I'd been staring at. Then, she slammed on the brakes. "What the fuck!?"

I raised my hands toward her like she'd scare the big orb thing out of the sky. Like, I don't know. I still don't know. Maybe we did spook the thing. Maybe we should have been quieter. Maybe the thing would've ignored us. That might have been enough. Yet, at the time I wasn't thinking of safety. I was just curious. I didn't want it to leave. I wanted to get closer.

Jess practically exploded from the car, engine still running as she rushed to my side. She grabbed my hands. "Trae, what the fuck is that!? What the fuck is going on?" She kept looking to me, then up to the ship, then back to me.

Uneasy laughter bubbled from my chest. "I do not know." I turned around. "What the fuck is this thing?"

We shuffled through the frost-tipped grass toward the edge of the woods. The ship was giving off the faintest hum. A whirring sort of thrum. It was above us. Looming. It was practically nestled in the treetops.

"How long has it been here?" asked Jess.

I shook my head. "I didn't even look up when I got home. Maybe it was already here?"

She stooped and picked up a rock. "This is insane. Is it... Do you think?"

"Hey, what are you doing? You're not going to throw that?"

All she could do was give a nervous giggle. She shrugged one shoulder and stared at the small smooth stone.

We both looked up toward the hovering visitor.

I took the rock from Jess. "Let me. I have a better arm." Raising my hand, I clenched my fist around the smooth surface. "Knock knock..."

But then, before I could even give it a toss, it was like we were hit with an extra-hot sunbeam. The world became too bright. My bones felt like they were vibrating.

Jess grabbed me and hugged me tight.

I hugged her back. Some primordial part of my brain was telling me we were doomed. That was all she wrote. We were gonna die. We closed our eyes.

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