They came out of the sky the day every single person on earth was looking. They brought their promises, and their hopes, and every single last dream there to the dust of a world too ruined to ever be saved. They came to take what they knew could never belong to them, and they took it without a fight. When they left, they took perfection with them back into the stars, back into the inky darkness of eternal night.
Danni Pearson read over the words she had scrawled across a crumpled loose leaf page in a sleepy hand, and scowled. Dumbest opening to a novel I’ve ever read, she thought, tearing the page neatly in quarters and dropping it into the waste basket. No more three A.M. bursts of inspiration from dead sleep for me. Out loud, Danni called down the upstairs hallway, “Mom! This summer class is gonna be the death of me!”
She heard her mother, Nancy Pearson, let out an exasperated sigh, followed by soft footsteps down the carpeted hall. The smile that appeared around Danni’s bedroom door was a patiently amused one.
“Honey, you are the most creative person I know! I’m sure you can make it through a creative writing course just fine. Besides, it’s going to look fantastic to already have college courses under your belt as a high school senior!” Nancy kissed the top of her daughter’s head lightly and straightened a canvas hanging above Danni’s desk. “You should just…write a story about one of your paintings. A picture’s worth a thousand words, right?”
“Mom, novels are just a little longer than that.” Danni rolled her eyes, brushing a strand of honey-colored hair out of her face impatiently. “Anyway, painting just…comes to me. Writing…I don’t know. It’s different. I don’t have to force my brush like I do my pen. I’m not even making sense. I didn’t get much sleep last night.” The last words out of her mouth were quiet, almost guilty, and Danni’s mother picked up on the change in tone immediately.
Nancy turned to her daughter, brushing her cheek with a concerned thumb. “Are you having nightmares again, sweetheart?”
Danni had always thought her mother’s cerulean eyes were the most beautiful eyes on the planet, and she couldn’t stand the worry she saw in them now. “Oh, mom…no. That’s not what I…no. No nightmares. I’m just excited! You know…been looking forward to Colorado for a while!”
Nancy perched on the edge of Danni’s bed, guarded for a moment as she scrutinized her daughter. At last, she let out the tiniest of sighs and smiled. “I know the move has been hard for everyone, but we’ve had a whole year now to settle into Santa Fe.”
“It’s just not the same, Ma. We’ve moved so many times…I thought Minnesota was supposed to be the last. But…but Colorado will be almost like going home. I’m glad we didn’t get rid of the house out there when Louie—”
“Yes! Speaking of Louie…” Danni’s mother cleared her throat, turning abruptly to the door. “Can you wake him up, please? We’ve got the car almost packed! Colorado, here we come!” Nancy flashed her daughter an overly excited grin and scurried out the door.
Danni bit her lip, debating with herself whether she should call her mother back. She had touched a nerve again, and she knew it. But then, Danni figured it was every seven-teen-year-old’s job to get under her mother’s skin every once in a while. The move had been for the best of the family. That’s what her parents had said every single time. But that didn’t mean Danni had to like it, or get used to it. One more year of high school, and she would be headed to a destination of her choice for once, for college—maybe closer to Grant in Colorado Springs, or—
“Danni?” The sleepy voice of her little brother snapped her back to the present. She realized she was hovering in the seven-year-old’s doorway. “Is it time to go?”
Louie sat, bleary eyed, in the midst of Power Rangers blankets, a stuffed monkey from Build-A-Bear that Danni had made him a few years ago clutched to his chest. She smiled at her baby brother as she came to sit on the edge of his bed.
“Hey, kiddo! It’s 7:30! How’d you sleep?”
Louie laid his little head in Danni’s lap, playing with a strand of golden-blonde hair that had fallen out of her sloppy pony tail. “I had that dream again.”
His face scrunched up in a mixture of fright and annoyance, but his voice was calm.
“The one with the moose?” Danni stroked his red hair gently, sticking out her tongue and crossing her eyes.
“No!” His face lit up as he giggled, sitting up to push her shoulder playfully. “Not the one with the moose, the one with the hospital!”
Danni knew that was the one he had meant, but her heart sank at her brother’s words all the same as a pang of helplessness twisted her stomach. She pulled Louie into a tight hug and whispered. “Don’t worry, kiddo. Everything’s gonna be just fine.”
“I know,” he said with certainty. He cupped Danni’s face with his small hands and planted a kiss on her nose in his usual gesture of comfort to her. “Momma said so, and she doesn’t make up stories. That’s Dad’s job.”
Danni ruffled her brother’s hair before standing up. “You got that right,” she agreed. “You ready to go? We’ve got a long drive.”
Louie jumped down from his bed and strapped a Spiderman backpack over his shoulders, a broad grin spreading across his freckled face. “Let’s go!”
Danni let Louie get a head start down the hallway before chasing after him, laughing as she rounded the corner to the stairs at his heels. She grabbed the handle of his backpack to hold him back and edged passed him, her brother’s high-pitched accusations of cheating only making her laugh harder. She let him beat her to the kitchen, feigning breathlessness.
“You’re getting too fast, kid!” She winked at their mother.
“One day, I’ll beat you for real,” Louie responded through a mouthful of pop-tart.
“Okay, so you’re also getting too smart. Mom, Louie’s too—”
“Danielle!” Her father Frank’s voice interrupted her. “Come quick!”
Danni frowned, her good mood quickly fading. “What, Dad?” she groaned, throwing her head back as she dragged her feet into the living room where the news was on T.V.
“Another UFO sighting nearby,” her father responded, smirking at her. “Thought you’d be interested.”
Danni was interested, but not if her father was sitting there watching with her. She knew the only thing he found interesting about UFO sightings and alien abduction stories was the reactions he could get out of her by mocking them.
“I’m tellin’ you—” a man in a flannel shirt with far too few teeth for his age was saying to the local news reporter, “—them were aliens outside my window! Ain’t no other answer ain’t nobody can gimme!”
Danni leaned closer to the TV set, doing her best to ignore her father’s disbelieving snort. This round of mocking was going to be a bad one, she could already tell.
Frank chuckled and crossed his arms, leaning back on the couch. “If aliens were really visiting Earth, why would they bother with trailer parks?”
Before Danni could cut in properly, he had started with his impressions—this time a crude southern drawl and a vacant-yet-dumbfounded expression on his face. “Bobby-Sue, get your coveralled butt in here! Bring Billy Jean and Jim Bob! There’s aliens in the backyard!”
“You never hear, ‘Beverly darling, have the butler phone the FBI. I believe there are extra-terrestrial beings in the garden!’” This one was a snooty, English accent.
“Dad!” Danni was on her feet, glaring at her father with hands on her hips. “Would you please quit it?”
Frank laughed, shaking his head. “All I’m saying is—”
“All right you two, that’s enough!”
Danni heaved a sigh of relief as her mother popped her head around the living room entry. “Car’s officially packed, and Louie’s officially had his fill of sugar-covered carbs. Frank, try to behave yourself, please. I wasn’t aware I had three sons.” Nancy gave her husband a stern look, but Danni could see the amusement in her eyes.
“Behave myself? That’s no fun, Nan. You know my immaturity is the very thing keeping you so young!” Frank jumped off the couch and missed the television’s power button on the way to bear-hug his wife, who was already squealing with laughter. Danni took that as her cue to leave, and leave quickly.
She took the stairs up to her room two at a time, and made her way down the hall. She scanned her room carefully, making sure she hadn’t forgotten to pack anything she couldn’t do without for the next eight weeks. The idea of a six and a half hour car ride from their year-round home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to the summer home they’d had for as long as she could remember just outside of Denver, Colorado, made her cringe.
Danni’s father had such a fantastic knack for getting on her nerves. It seemed to be his biggest aim in life to make Danni as frustrated, as embarrassed, or as genuinely ticked off as humanly possible. At almost-eighteen, and the middle of her parent’s three children, Danni figured her father would have already gotten the hint. Grant never admitted that it was because of Frank that he had left, but Danni knew better. Her older brother by four years, Grant had joined the Air Force the same day he turned eighteen and had never looked back.
I guess that isn’t fair to Dad. Danni sighed guiltily to herself. Dad wasn’t the only reason Grant left home…
She shook herself away from those thoughts and shoved her sketchbook and summer-school assignment binder into her backpack. Her hand hovered over a small photo album full of old family pictures. Danni usually brought it everywhere she went. It was a sort of security blanket for her. They had moved ten times in the past seventeen years of her life. She wasn’t frightened of her future as long as she had her family’s best moments with her in those pages. She bit her lip and wrinkled her nose, debating inwardly. Sometimes, the memories in that book just hurt. But you know you’ll regret not bringing it some rainy day this summer. With a groan, she relented, and let herself throw the small album into the front pocket of her backpack. Well…see you in two months, room.
Ten minutes later, the family van was officially packed with everything they’d need for the next eight weeks. Danni checked her backpack for her homework assignments for the fifth time, and settled back into her seat, mentally preparing herself for the next seven hours minimum of unavoidable family time.
They stopped about three hours into their drive at a McDonalds in Starkville, Colorado, for lunch. It was around 11:30, and they were making great time. Danni was more than happy to escape the van and the bouts of sing-alongs generally led by her father.
Louie, who had been playing with a loose tooth for the past week, bit into an apple slice and yelped in pain and surprise. His blue eyes, an exact replica of his mother’s, widened as he spat the little tooth into his hand.
“Oh, sweetie, here!” Nancy shoved a balled-up napkin into the seven-year-old’s bleeding mouth as she simultaneously plucked the tooth from his hand and tucked it securely into an inside pocket of her large leather purse.
“Hey, way to go, kiddo!” Danni cheered, ruffling Louie’s hair. “That was a molar! You’re gonna get big bucks from the Tooth Fairy for that one!”
Louie’s eyes went wide at his sister’s words, and his voice was high with concern through the napkin wad in his mouth. “Ha ‘ill a oof airy ind meh—”
“Whoa, there, son.” Frank puffed out his cheeks and made muffled talking noises in imitation of Louie. The little boy laughed and removed the napkin from his mouth.
“I said, how will the Tooth Fairy find me if we’re not at our home to put my tooth under the pillow? It’s really important for the Tooth Fairies to get the big teeth! They’re the most useful, and if they can’t find me, then…then…” Louie’s eyes were brimming with tears.
“Don’t worry, kiddo,” Danni said quickly, rubbing his back. “The Tooth Fairy has secret tracking devices implanted in all of our teeth! That way, if we lose one, even if we can’t find it, the Tooth Fairy still can. She’ll be able to find you just fine at the Colorado house. She always found me there!”
“Really?” His eyes were wide again, this time in excitement rather than concern. “They’re so smart! Those Tooth Fairies! Maybe I’ll finally see one tonight! You think?”
“Maybe,” Danni answered.
“I don’t know why you’re so concern about that creative writing class, hun,” Nancy whispered to her daughter while Frank imitated a Tooth Fairy who’s Tooth-Tracker was malfunctioning. “Thanks for watching out for him.”
Danni shrugged, smiling with bashful pride. “Anything to keep Louie happy. But that was easy. Can’t exactly write an entire novel about the Tooth Fairy, Mom.”
“Yeah!” Louie jumped in. “Besides! She needs to write about something that isn’t real, momma.” His entire head rolled with his eyes.
The drive after lunch went by pleasantly. Both Louie and Frank fell asleep, leaving Nancy to drive in peace and quiet while Danni doodled absentmindedly. Her cell phone had been buzzing excited messages from her Colorado friends for the past few hours, now. Most were generic, though heart-felt can’t wait to see you’s or so happy you’re on your way back’s which Danni mostly ignored. And then a text from Aubrey Moreno, Danni’s “Best Summer Friend” as they called each other, caught her attention.
“Party 2nite, chica! Tell ur folks it’s a welcome back thing 4 u! Gonna be saweet! Call when u get here, BSF!”
Aubrey wasn’t the only one to mention the party to Danni, nor was it the first she had heard about it. The Colorado Crowd on Facebook had been chatting for the past three weeks. For most of them, this party was a giant, joint-graduation party and the kick off to their lives as official college kids. For Danni, whose birthday was the second of September and the day after the cutoff date for kindergarten classes, it was just the first party of her Senior year of high school. But that definitely didn’t mean she wasn’t excited. Danni didn’t drink. She didn’t do drugs. She rarely ever snuck out, or did anything without her parents’ knowledge, and they trusted her. But she still liked to have fun, and Aubrey’s parties were always over the top. And leave it to Aubrey to think of a convincing story for Danni’s parents. She figured the cover story may actually come in handy this time, considering the party was the same night they would be arriving in Lafayette, Colorado.
Danni popped an ear bud out and was about to tap her mother on the shoulder for permission to go to the party when the radio caught her attention.
“UFO sighting in the skies over Colorado Springs,” the radio DJ was saying. “Thousands of people across the city witnessed three mysterious purple-colored lights appear to hover over the mountains this morning. The Air Force Academy has made no official statement about what the lights may be, but they have assured worried citizens that the craft is not of extra-terrestrial origins.” The DJ cleared his throat and laughed. “Guess we’ll see about that one. In other news—”
“Mom, you think Grant saw whatever it was?”
“Hm?” Nancy startled, glancing over her shoulder at her daughter. “What’s that, hun?”
Danni sighed. Her mother was not a believer in any sort of supernatural experiences--ghosts, Bigfoot, and UFOs included--and she had never had much patience for Danni’s obsession with aliens. Danni thought better of bringing up the radio report that Nancy had obviously tuned out.
“Uh…I just got a text from Aubrey. I guess they’re throwing a Welcome-Back party for me tonight. So…can I go?”
Nancy smiled. “Can’t be much of a party if the guest of honor isn’t there, can it?”
“Really?” Danni’s lips broke in a smile. “Thanks, Mom!”
She grabbed her phone immediately and texted her BSF. “Totally in! Pick me up!”
Danni reached to pull Louie’s blanket back up over him, and glanced out the window for only a fraction of a second. But in that one, brief glance, far in the distance in front of the broad span of mountains, she could have sworn she had seen three bright purple lights blink into existence.