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THE SOUND WAS FAINT AT FIRST. Quinn had to concentrate hard to hear it. A low, dull hum, like a swarm of bees a million miles away. No one else in the minivan noticed—at least no one said a word—but with each mile that passed, the sound grew louder. Clearer.
Quinn sat beside Kara in the rear seat of the red Caravan. The desert was a whole other planet. Nothing but gravel and rock, spindly creosote, and cacti spreading out on all sides. She imagined hordes of snakes and scorpions crouched under rocks, waiting for darkness before attacking. Good thing they’d be through the Mojave before nightfall.
The knot Quinn had been picking at came loose. She held the bracelet in her hands. It was frayed but strong. Kara had an identical bracelet. She’d made them back in November, the day after everything changed. They’d worn them ever since.
Quinn ran a finger along the intertwining purple and orange pattern. Two colors tightly woven to form a single band. Only now that Kara was moving away, it was like the threads were unraveling. Quinn couldn’t let that happen. She reached over and looped her bracelet through Kara’s.
“Hey!” said Kara.
“Quit squirming. Help me retie it.”
Kara rolled her eyes. Together they managed a loose knot. They made another and pulled the ends tight.
Quinn patted the linked bands. “Forever?”
Kara smiled. “Forever.”
Quinn grinned until the corners of her mouth quivered. The thought of Kara moving a thousand miles away stabbed her inside.
She remembered how they’d met on the first day of kindergarten. Quinn was at a table with three other kids. She was coloring a picture of a leaf.
“You’re messy,” said the boy beside her.
Quinn looked down and saw orange lines streaking outside the bold black border. A moment before, she’d been proud of her work. Now she wanted to hide it. Before she could, a hand reached over and made a few quick strokes with a black crayon. Quinn’s coloring was now tucked inside a brand-new border.
The girl with the short black hair looked at Quinn and smiled. They’d been best friends ever since.
“Who’s hungry?” asked Mr. Cawston.
“Starving,” said Josh. He was twelve—a year older than the girls—but Quinn was just as tall. Kara was a full head shorter.
“You haven’t stopped eating since we left Denver,” said Mrs. Cawston. “You’re like the Grand Canyon.”
“More like Area 51,” said Kara. “Mysterious and … alien.” She whistled a sci-fi tune.
“What’s Area 51?” asked Quinn.
Josh poked his head through the center aisle. “Aliens landed in Roswell, New Mexico, ages ago. It’s a big government conspiracy. The military’s still holding one captive in Area 51.”
Quinn glanced anxiously at the barren landscape. Hills rose and fell like petrified waves. “Weird.”
“What’s weird,” said Kara, “is no one noticed that the alien escaped. And he’s sitting right there.” She reached over the top of the seat and flicked the back of Josh’s head.
“He’s definitely strange,” said Quinn, giggling.
“I’m not the one wearing boots in the desert,” said Josh.
“They’re not boots, they’re UGGs. All California surfers wear them.”
“You don’t even surf,” said Josh.
Quinn grinned. “Yet.”
He swatted her with his tablet. “I may be an alien, but at least I don’t look like one.”
“Stop bickering,” called Mrs. Cawston from the front. “Or I’ll contact the mother ship and have you all beamed up.”
Quinn looked at the pale, cloudless sky and sighed. Perhaps that’s where all the missing people were. Cruising the galaxy on a ginormous alien spaceship. She twisted a lock of frizzy brown hair.
Josh powered up his tablet. He was reading The Time Machine. For the millionth time.
“Do you ever stop reading?” said Quinn.
“You should try it sometime,” he sneered.
“I read,” said Quinn. When Kara raised her eyebrows she added, “What?”
“Ski brochures don’t count,” said Josh.
Quinn flicked his upper arm and he yelped. Kara laughed.
Quinn wanted to remind them she hadn’t skied all last winter. Plus, she really had started reading—Emma’s books. She began twisting her hair again.
“I saw a sign a while back,” said Mr. Cawston. “There’s a diner coming up.”
The journey was passing too quickly. The seventeen-hour car ride was supposed to last a lifetime, but in only a few short hours they’d be at Kara’s new home in Santa Monica. Quinn had been excited to spend part of summer vacation there. Now all she thought about was going back to Denver to face school alone. She and Kara had tried their best to convince Kara’s parents not to move in the first place.
“You’ll get low altitude sickness,” said Quinn.
“No such thing,” said Mr. Cawston. “Only high altitude sickness. People who move to Denver get that because there’s seventeen percent less oxygen.”
“Exactly,” said Kara. “We’re used to having seventeen percent less oxygen. So sucking in seventeen percent more will inflate our lungs like balloons. We’ll explode.” She puffed her cheeks for effect.
“The sand will bother your skin,” said Quinn.
“We’ll be covered in festering scabs,” said Kara. “I’ll probably lose an arm to a rogue shark. And Josh’ll be attacked by gangs of nasty sea slugs.”
Josh, knee-deep in a bowl of rice puffs, waved a dismissive hand. “Sea slugs are herbivores.”
“At the very least,” said Quinn, “the humidity will make your hair frizzy.” She pointed to her own hair as proof.
Kara nodded fiercely. “Yeah, Mom. You’ll look like a troll.”
“Hey!” snapped Quinn.
Kara grinned sheepishly.
The plan had failed.
Quinn took a deep breath and wriggled her wrist. The bracelet was uncomfortable. Tying them together was silly. She wasn’t sure why she’d done it.
The minivan passed a white metal sign, rust melting down its edges and post. It read: This property has been under claim since 1954. Enter at your own risk. Behind it was an army-green billboard. The same rusty white metal letters announced: Norm’s Diner. Next exit.
They left the interstate and bumped along a dirt road. The tires crunched to a halt in front of an old railcar. It sat in the middle of nowhere, like it had detached from a train a thousand years ago and had been gathering dust ever since.
“You can’t be serious,” said Kara.
Neon-pink tubes ran the length of the car announcing Norm’s Diner. More tubes flicked on and off. They moved toward an arrow in the center that pointed to the door.
“It’s like that show Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives,” said Mr. Cawston.
“Definitely qualifies as a dive,” said Mrs. Cawston.
Josh opened the side door. It was as though he’d opened an oven.
“Come on, Min. Let’s check it out,” said Mr. Cawston.
“Okay, girls,” said Mrs. Cawston. She pointed to their linked bracelets. “Aren’t you going to free yourselves?”
“Nope,” said Kara.
Warmth spread over Quinn like melted butter. She squeezed Kara’s hand and then dragged her out of the backseat. A cloud of dust exploded where her boots hit the dirt. It curled up her bare legs toward her jean shorts. Kara practically fell into her, sending more dust curling upward from her purple flip-flops to her yellow miniskirt. The temperature soared.
“If I stay in the sun long enough, Norm can serve me,” muttered Quinn.
For a moment she stood statue still. Above the diner, the neon lights buzzed and snapped. But beyond that there was something else.
Text copyright © 2016 by Marina Cohen
Illustrations copyright © 2016 by Sarah Watts