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I have a ball of starlight inside me. A globe, containing a billion bright pinpricks. It’s always been there, since I was a baby—but lately I’ve been chewing up the inside of my own mouth waiting for it to burst out of me. Sometimes I feel all these little suns whirling, like they’re getting ready to emerge from the hollow of my collarbone.
My whole life has been leading up to this, and I can’t stand the waiting.
* * *
I’m dangling by my waist from the side of the highway bridge. All the blood rushes to my head as a sixteen-wheeler truck rushes past, so close that I can feel the air disturbance and smell the fumes. The bridge quivers, and so does my heart. I feel like I’m going to pass out.
“Anything?” asks Rachael Townsend, who’s holding my belt in her strong grip.
“Nothing,” I gasp.
“Maybe you’re not scared enough,” Rachael says.
“I’m definitely scared enough. This … isn’t working.”
Rachael helps me pull myself upward, back behind the rusted old railing. I collapse on the hot cement walkway, next to a graffiti tag with a picture of a snarling puma.
“Okay.” Rachael smiles, sitting cross-legged on the walkway with her eyes looking wide and extra green in the midday sun. She’s dressed like a fourth-grader, as usual, in corduroy overalls and a long-sleeved stripy shirt. “So it’s not reacting to fear. Or adrenaline.”
“And we know it’s not triggered by anger,” I say, “or it would have activated when Lauren Bose put dirt in Zuleikha Marshall’s new shoes. For sure.”
“Is Lauren Bose still harassing Zuleikha Marshall? And the school is doing nothing?” Rachael shakes her head. “This is why I’m being homeschooled.”
“Yeah. And yeah, the administration is both-sidesing the hell out of it. Makes me want to scream.”
“Okay.” Rachael reaches into her backpack and pulls out a folder. “So I’ve personally seen your rescue beacon light up on three separate occasions, and you’ve told me about four other times.” She shows me a chart, with beautiful handwriting and amazing doodles showing different versions of me with a bright blue-tinged glow coming from my sternum. Because Rachael is the greatest artist of all time.
Each cartoon version of me is labeled with things like:
Tina about to go to junior prom with Rob LangfordTina right after cops broke up our flashmob outside the slumlord officesTina finds out she flunked trig midterm“I got a D on that trig test,” I protest. “I did not flunk!”
“So I don’t see a huge pattern,” Rachael says. “I mean, it’s supposed to turn on when you’re old enough for the aliens to come get you, right?”
“They’re taking their sweet time.” I drag myself to my feet. “My mom keeps saying it might not happen until I turn eighteen, or even twenty-one. She just doesn’t want me to leave. As if it would be better for me to just stay trapped here forever.”
Rachael stands up too, and we walk back toward her rust-colored old Dodge hatchback. She’s being quiet again, which … a lot of being friends with Rachael is learning to interpret her many flavors of silence.
Like, there’s the “I’m mad at you and you won’t find out why for a week” silence. Or the “I’m figuring something out in my own head” silence. The most common is the “I need to be alone” silence, because Rachael has major hermit tendencies. But this silence is none of those, I’m pretty sure.
We drive for a while, without even any music. I’m one-quarter wondering what’s up with Rachael, but three-quarters obsessing about my rescue beacon and why it won’t just spill all the stars already.
At last, when we’re stopped at an intersection near the upscale mall and the tech campus, Rachael glances my way and says, “I wish I could go too. When the aliens come to collect you. I wish I could come along.”
I just stare at her. I don’t even know what to say.
“I know, I know.” Rachael raises her hands from the steering wheel. “It would be ridiculous, and I would be useless up there in space, and there would be creatures trying to kill us, and it’s your destiny, not mine. But still. I wish.”
I want to tell Rachael that she’ll have a way better life down here on Earth. She’ll go to art school, find a new boyfriend to replace that loser Sven, publish tons of comics, and win awards. She’ll have adventures that don’t involve things like an alien murder team trying to kill her. She has plenty of reasons to stay.
Unlike me. I don’t have any real friends at high school, since Rachael dropped out. And the only thing I have to look forward to here on Earth is more people talking down to me. More bullies and creepers at school. More feeling like a bottomless pit, crammed with garbage emotions.
When Rachael drops me at my house, I just say, “I wish you could come too.”
“Yeah.” She smiles and hands me the folder. “Here. You should have this. Maybe it’ll help.”
She drives away. While I stare at a painstakingly annotated chart full of cartoon Tinas—each one bursting with pure dazzling light.
* * *
A few hours later, Rachael and I are already chatting again:
Chat log, Aug 19:
Trashstar [5:36 pm]: its gonna happen soon. i can tell. the beacon. it’s gonna light up.
Inkflinger [5:36 pm]: thats what u said last spring. and last winter. and five other times.
Trashstar [5:37 pm]: its different this time i swear
Trashstar [5:37 pm]: my mom is doing that thing again where she just stares at nothing
Inkflinger [5:38 pm]: oh man, i’m sorry
Inkflinger [5:38 pm]: what do u really think will happen when it lights up????
[Trashstar is typing]
[Trashstar is typing]
[Trashstar is typing]
Inkflinger [5:40 pm]: helloooo?!
Trashstar [5:40 pm]: i dont know
Trashstar [5:41 pm]: they didnt tell my mom much when they dropped me off
Trashstar [5:41 pm]: just … alien baby. massive legacy. evil murder team.
Inkflinger [5:41 pm]: i hope there’s a dragon that u get to ride on
Trashstar [5:41 pm]: like my own personal dragon
Inkflinger [5:41 pm]: ur personal dragon that u share with me
Trashstar [5:42 pm]: i’m pretty sure there will be at least a suit of armor
Trashstar [5:42 pm]: rocket boots!!!!
Trashstar [5:42 pm]: my theory is i’m the heir to a space casino
Inkflinger [5:42 pm]: u’ve had YEARS to think about this
Inkflinger [5:42 pm]: and space casino is the best u’ve come up with????
Trashstar [5:42 pm]: or maybe a wizard school
Inkflinger [5:43 pm]: its definitely either casino or wizard academy
Trashstar [5:43 pm]: pretty sure i’ve narrowed it down to those 2 options yea
* * *
This beacon is a part of me, like my liver or kidneys. Except sometimes at night, a faint growl wakes me—and I feel like I have a pacemaker, or some other foreign object, jammed inside my chest. And then I remember that my body isn’t the same as literally everyone else’s.
I fill our electric teakettle, with the switch jammed in the “on” position. And then I lean all the way over the side of my bed, so the steam is hitting the exact spot where the beacon is located. Mostly, the steam gets up in my nostrils and makes me choke.
My mom hears the kettle squealing. “What are you doing in there?” She peels back the curtain that separates my “bedroom” from the rest of the apartment. “Stop messing around. This is ridiculous.”
“It likes the steam! I can feel it reacting.” I cough and sputter.
“It’s an interplanetary rescue beacon, not a pork bun.” My mom turns the kettle off.
“I’m just so sick of ‘almost.’” I flop back onto my bed and bury my face in my knees.
Lately, my mom spends her time either trying to hide her tears from me, or acting like I’m already gone. Last week, I caught her folding the same shirt for five minutes, just creasing and tucking over and over until it looked like a paper football. She’s started calling up friends she hasn’t seen in ages, signing herself up for adult education classes, working on ways to move on with her life without me. But then, she’ll blow off some social plan that she spent hours making, just so she can sit at home staring into a Public Radio mug full of Chablis. I want to comfort her, or reassure her, but I don’t know how.
For all we know, the people who left me on Earth as a baby are all gone, and there’ll be nobody to answer the beacon when it does come to life.
“You could just stay here on Earth and have an amazing life.” She stares at her refrigerator door, with all the old photos and the terrible artwork I did in fifth grade. “You’re already helping people down here,” she says with the full force of her midwestern Presbyterian earnestness. “All of the things that you do with the Lasagna Hats, everything you make happen … Nothing could ever make me prouder of you than I already am.”
“Yeah.” I stare at the floor. I don’t know what to say. My mom knows I want this, more than anything, even though it’s going to destroy her.
My mom sighs and drinks from her wine-mug. “Just promise me one thing.”
For once, we are actually looking at each other. Her red hair has wiry streaks of gray, and her eyes have new lines around them.
“When the beacon lights up, you have to run.” Her eyes blaze, out of nowhere, with an intensity I’ve almost never seen before. “Run as if armies were chasing you. Because I’ve told you, the moment your beacon activates, monsters from beyond our world will try to kill you. They won’t stop. Keep running, until you’re sure you’re being rescued for real. Promise me.”
I kind of shrug it off, but my mom grabs my wrist. So I say, “Yeah, yeah. Of course. I promise. Jeez.”
* * *
That night I wake up, and there’s someone next to my bed.
All I can see at first is a pair of coal-black eyes, glinting in the moonlight filtered through the branches of the yew tree outside my tiny window.
Then I make out his face. Pale, like a ghost. Grinning, like a serial killer.
Something lights up in his hands. I glimpse a shiny metal tube with four wings on all sides, and an opening, full of bottomless darkness, aimed right at me. Somehow I know this is a weapon.
He stands over me, huge as a mountain, blocking out everything else. Even if I had the strength to rise, I would still be a speck next to him.
“I take no pleasure from killing you.” The giant speaks in a low purr. “Satisfaction, certainly. And an adrenaline rush. And oh yes, a sense of vindication. Your death will probably give me closure. But still, I feel sad that it came to this.”
My skin is so cold, my hands are numb and my arms feel prickly. I can’t breathe.
“I want you to know that I feel nothing but pity for your miserable state.” The huge figure raises the gun to my head.
I scream until my throat hurts.
The gun hisses. I’m about to be burned down to nothing.
I’m so cold, I can’t stand this cold.
The word “miserable” rings in my ears as I scream and brace myself for death.
Copyright © 2021 by Charlie Jane Anders