ANOTHER YEAR, ANOTHER pilgrimage. On Samhain, the same weekend my younger brother had disappeared nine years ago.
Now I was twenty-nine. Cozmo would’ve been twenty-six. And my parents were just as hippy-dippy whacked-out as ever. I didn’t even think they’d hit the reefer yet.
Each year they insisted we sojourn to the Nevada desert surrounding Area 51. My folks had created their own traditions and rituals to commemorate the pagan holiday, when the veil between the living and the dead lifted. For my parents it was more about the veil between humans and . . . aliens.
Dad drove the old Winnebago, Mom navigated, and I—in the early years—had spent the trip rereading dog-eared paperbacks of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. These days, having earned my doctorate in astrobiology, I’d graduated to my iPad and classified NASA studies on the potential viability of life forms on other planets.
We never stayed at the Little AlieINN. Mom and Dad preferred their own landboat in case they needed to make a quick getaway from government spooks.
And we were never alone. Over the years my parents had surrounded themselves with likeminded people, all who believed in something other. The desert was overcrowded by these Believers. Alienophiles, I liked to call them. Just plain crazy was the term used by my learned colleagues to refer to folks who set up camp around Area 51.
I thought they had a point, especially when my mom called back to me, “Astrid, did you bring the crystals this year?”
“No. But I see you have a new lava lamp.” To go with the waterbed mattress in the back.
“What’s the chatter at NASA?” Dad asked, wheeling the big beige and white RV into our preferred spot amid other campers, tents, yurts, and whatnot.
Campfires dotted the vast desert, people milled around, their silhouettes dark figures against the firelight.
“Still no discoveries of alien species, Dad.”
Not that I hadn’t made it my life’s work to prove with certainty either extraterrestrials existed or with absolute finality that they didn’t. At least that way maybe my parents could grieve Cozmo properly and get on with their lives in a more normal manner.
But then, they’d never been normal.
One of my first memories was a road trip to a crop circle formation in Iowa. At the time I hadn’t thought it strange that our family vacations revolved around possible UFO sightings and other weird phenomena.
Cozmo’s disappearance cemented my parents’ belief in the existence of aliens.
And their unfounded beliefs became the reason I took a more scientific route to the theory.
Other Believers dropped by while we set up camp—Mom hanging her new glitter banner Hellooo to the Aliens! on the camper’s awning, Dad testing his heavily enhanced CB radio to see if he could pick up extraterrestrial communiqués, me once again swearing this would be my last year.
My parents were pretty tame compared to some of the Alienistas. Like old Mr. Hobbs,who maintained he’d been abducted by this humanoid race from some made-up universe called the Sharonite Galaxy. He claimed the so-called Zenithians had compelled him into servitude, and that he was really over one hundred years old—not the sixty or so years of age he appeared—because his aging had slowed drastically during his make-believe captivity.
Even Old Man Hobbs’ story was fairly run-of-the-mill compared to Alayna’s. The young woman was about my age, and she had one hell of an active imagination. Her story revolved around another—yup, you guessed it—kidnapping, this time by a reptilian race from a planet called Skeer. Apparently they’d bred Alayna then plopped her back on Earth.
Of course they had.
After arranging striped lawn chairs outside beneath the awning, I flipped open the cooler. Fishing through the ice, I retrieved a nice cold beer. I would’ve preferred to just get stoned for the entirety of the three-day weekend, but unfortunately NASA had a strict drug-testing policy.
Nothing for it but to get good and drunk.
“Hey, Astrid.” Jeremiah approached and plunked into the chair next to me.
He was here every year, just as hopeful about making contact. Maybe he’d watched Independence Day one too many times, because otherwise he had a pretty good head on his shoulders.
“How’s NASA treating you?” He leaned forward eagerly, his interest in me unmistakable.
He had gorgeous green eyes, but otherwise his puppy-dog-cuteness did nothing for me. The only type of men who interested me were the completely untrustworthy bad-boy types who generally acted like I was invisible because I had brains to go along with my boobs.
“Oh you know,” I passed Jeremiah a beer, “same old.”
I’d made a few discoveries like microorganisms on the exoplanet NASA named FZNEB369, but nothing of supreme importance, and most details remained classified. Even if I did discover extraterrestrial life, I wasn’t at liberty to just go around gossiping about it.
“You wanna watch the Alien Run with me tomorrow afternoon?” Jeremiah referred to the annual 5K race, his eyes flickering up from my breasts.
A blush spread across his cheeks when he saw that I’d caught him checking me out.
If only he was ruggedly sexy, with big shoulders and a wicked smile and a thick . . .
Instead he looked like the type of man who possibly had a phone full of cutesy animal memes featuring baby pandas and dancing kittens.
“You know we’re just friends, right?” I asked with a firm pat on his hand.
And—yep—Jeremiah looked like I’d just kicked his dancing kitty clear across the desert.
Thankfully, my mom and dad descended from the Winnebago’s rickety steps, boisterously greeting Jeremiah.
“How’s the new version of Alien Takeover coming?” Dad pumped his hand.
Mm hmmm. Jeremiah was actually the billionaire creator of an Xbox franchise based on . . . aliens of course.
As he excitedly launched into a long-winded description of the new game I was just relieved his attention was averted from me.
While he chatted away to my mom and dad, my head drifted back. I lazily sipped a second beer, locating the brightly shining constellations above. I named each twinkling formation silently, as I had ever since I was young and Mom had taught me the tranquility of stargazing with nothing but the naked eye.
“I feel it.” Mom’s giddy voice drew my gaze, and she clapped her hands together. “This year we’ll make contact.”
Oh my God.
They thought the same thing every year—that Cozmo had been abducted by extraterrestrials, and one day he’d be returned to us.
I couldn’t stand to witness their naïve optimism anymore. Cozmo was gone, and it was time to move on.
“I think I’ll go for a wander.” Standing up, I crushed the beer can in my hand before tossing it toward the makeshift recycling bin.
“Do you want the flare gun in case you spot something?” Dad half rose from his chair.
“I’ll join you, Astrid.” Jeremiah blinked up at me, eager puppy.
I squeezed his shoulder, hoping to keep his butt plugged down on the chair. “Nah. You stay here and keep my parents company. I won’t be long.”
My mom tossed a sweatshirt at me. “Better take this so you don’t get cold.”
I gave a little wave then headed away from all the campfires and the campers and the cuckoos.
The red glowing circles of lights receded in the distance as I put more space between the Believers and me. The night sky spread out above me, vast and sparkly—Cassiopeia, Orion’s Belt, Ursa Major . . .
The air grew chillier, and a wind swept up. I climbed a rocky outcropping, pulling on my mom’s sweatshirt. I wasn’t at all surprised the hoodie proclaimed You Are Not Alone with the typical bug-eyed green alien front and center.
Heat lightning flashed across the sky, lighting the dark horizon in blue-whites and orange-pinks. The diffuse zaps approached closer and closer, and I laughed as a few drops of cleansing rain fell upon my upturned face.
Another flare of lightning followed a loud clap of thunder then a strange atmospheric warping—like water thrown into a pool of gasoline—appeared in the air directly in front of the little rocky hill I stood on.
And out of the wavy hazy membrane walked a man.
Hair as dark as the dense night sky was cropped close to his head, and the bones of his face were sharply angled, devastatingly handsome. He wore faded jeans form-fitted to hugely muscled thighs, a T-shirt that rippled over massive shoulders, and on his feet were scuffed biker boots.
He was super tall, sexy as hell, and everything I’d been lamenting about Jeremiah lacking right down to a surprisingly wicked grin stretching his sculpted lips.
Everything about this man screamed danger in the most appealing way, and then his pupils flipped from horizontal to vertical.