Once upon a time, a ten-year-old girl tossed and turned in her bed, whipping the lavender-detergent-scented, ironed-to-a-fare-thee-well bed sheets into a sweaty, tangled web. She had a cold feeling in the pit of her stomach, as if she’d swallowed an iceberg. She didn’t know why.
Ashley Viva Stella, that was her name, although she hated to be called Ashley. She liked Ash better. When she looked at her clock, it was 1:33 a.m. Ash sighed. She had a long way till morning.
Ash switched on the lamp on her bedside table, casting a warm, yellow glow across the room. She picked up the book she had been reading, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Ash passed about six or seven pages without retaining any information at all — literally, if you had walked into the room and asked Ash what she just read, she would not be able to answer that. Ash soon realized that she would not get anywhere by reading, so she switched off the light and stared at her ceiling. Soon, out of pure exhaustion, she fell into a restless sleep.
Ash was in a dark cavern, with the only illumination being her headlight on her uncomfortable plastic hat. Bats silently fluttered between the stalactites and stalagmites — the ones that were on the cavern ceiling, though Ash could never remember which was which. Ash was looking for something… something… something…
Ash sat up in bed, panting. She read her clock. It was 7:06 a.m. Ash had to read the clock twice, once to just read it and the second time, because she could barely believe her eyes. Even though her mom got up at six, there was no light from beneath the bedroom door, and the delectable smell of Saturday pancakes had not made its way up to her bedroom.
In fact, when she yelled, “Mom!” her voice had an echo to it that is only heard in particularly empty houses.
Frantic, Ash yanked the ruffled lace curtains away from the window so hard that she almost ripped one clean off. When she peered out the window, she thought she was hallucinating.
The neighbors across the street, the Goldmans, were stuffy, old grandparents. They lived in a great, big house, a Victorian-style beauty, as her mother always called it. Personally, Ash hated it. It made her feel cramped and claustrophobic, and Mrs. Goldman had a mania for cleanliness, so the Goldman place was always unnaturally clean. It made no sense, her claustrophobia — the Goldman house was huge! But she felt claustrophobic, all the same.
The Goldman house, the ‘Victorian-style beauty,’ was half-crushed by an enormous rock! It looked like a meteor, not that Ash had ever seen a meteor before. It’s not like meteors come crashing randomly down all over the place, but when you see one, you just kinda know it.
As you’d expect, there was a huge crowd around the Goldman house. It looked like the whole neighborhood had come. Mrs. Goldman was being carried out of the rubble on a stretcher. Mr. Goldman was kneeling on the rough gravel beside her.
Ash was so shocked, that for a moment, she did nothing at all. Then, she finally came to her senses and stuffed her feet into a dirty pair of too-small yellow sneakers. Well, the sneakers used to be yellow. Now, they, like all the other well-used items in her wardrobe, were sort of an indeterminate gray, and her pajamas, which she was still wearing, were striped other shades of indeterminate gray. She ran down the stairs so fast, she seemed to be flying — her sneakers seemed hardly to be touching the wooden stairs at all.
Ash pushed open the door and slammed it behind her. She pushed through the huge crowd surrounding the Goldmans’ house, yelling to the annoyed people in her wake, “Sorry! Sorry! I have to find my mom!”
Ash was so desperate to find her mom, that when she pushed through the crowd, she pushed away her mom and kept searching. But when she yelled, “Sorry! Sorry! I have to find my mom!” to her mom, Ash’s mom stepped in front of her and said quietly, “Ash, I’m your mom.”
Ash threw her arms around her mom, Jasmine Violet Stella. (Yeah, I know, Ash’s grandma was obsessed with flowers.) Ash’s mom smelled like salty sea air, the same way she always smelled, but after being so scared of losing her mom, Ash loved the smell more than ever.
“Ash, I’m so, so, sorry,” Ash’s mom breathed. She pulled Ash away from her and looked at her, mother to daughter, blue eye into deep, deep, brown eye. “When I looked outside the window and saw the meteor, I ran outside to help the Goldmans without a second thought.”
“So it is a meteor,” Ash remarked.
“Well, that’s another conversation we have to have later, isn’t it,” Ash’s mom said, sheepishly. Ash agreed.
Ash twisted her head around to see the damage done to other houses. But it was weird — the other houses seemed to have gotten off easily, without a mark or a scratch. While Ash was inspecting the surrounding houses, she spotted, out of the corner of her eye, a greyish-white figure disappearing into the trees.
The town Ash lived in was densely wooded all around. This cut Ash off a little bit from the rest of the world. In fact, there was very bad cell phone connection, and Ash had only been outside of her town once, to visit her grandmother.
The town was self-contained, though. And that is why, just three months ago, a colony of aliens decided on that place as their landing place on Earth.
Earth was a prime spot. The aliens had decided on that long ago. It was virtually free of pollution. (Believe me, all the other inhabited planets had had organisms that were able to think and pollute billions of years longer, and were much, much, worse.) The organisms that lived on Earth were simple-minded and easy to manipulate, and overall, Earth was much younger than the aliens’ former planet, Planet 89k in the Andromeda Galaxy. To the aliens, Earth was a blank sheet of paper, a fresh start, with only a few faint marks.
Ash’s hometown was almost a little world in itself. Oh, sure, there were a few roads and paths through the woods, but they were far from the interconnected highways that generously decorated the rest of Earth. So in all ways, Ash’s hometown was the perfect landing spot.
Three months later, by catching onto a passing meteor and altering its course, the alien colony had arrived.
When Ash saw the greyish-white figure, she passed it off as nothing, just a trick of the eyes. But whatever had planted the iceberg in her stomach refused to allow Ash’s brain to think about anything else, or at least not for a long period of time. For the rest of the day, Ash thought about the greyish-white figure. She pushed it to the back of her brain. But the thought did not go away. Instead, Ash’s thought waited patiently at the back of her brain, and whenever there was nothing better to do, the thought waddled over to the front of her brain.
Ash lay in her bed. The thought about the greyish-white figure prevented her from sleeping. As soon as Ash began to close her eyes and think about puppies at the beach and other cute, comforting things, the greyish-white figure thought waddled over, and Ash opened her eyes in shock. This choppy, interrupted sleep got her some rest, but Ash was still grumpy and irritable the next morning from insomnia two nights in a row.
“Hi, sweetie!” Ash’s mom greeted her cheerily, “I made cinnamon toast!”
“I don’t want cinnamon toast, okay?” Ash snapped back.
“Ash…” her mom said, in a tone that warned Ash that her mom was not going to put up with that behavior. “I want to start this morning out in a good way. I don’t want to go there, Ash.”
“You don’t realize that the house across the street was just destroyed? By a meteor? How do you not expect me to be paranoid after that!” Ash shouted at her mom. She surprised herself by her tone.
I’m going to be in such big trouble… Ash thought nervously.
But instead of escalating the war, Ash’s mom took a deep breath and sighed. “I know what happened yesterday was scary, but I’m trying to keep my cool, okay?” Ash’s mom replied softly.
Ash was not comforted at all. Instead, this made her angrier.
“You don’t understand!” Ash yelled, “You may be trying to ‘keep your cool,’ but I am actually having a normal reaction to this enormous disaster! I am freaking out!”
“Are you overreacting?” Ash’s mom asked.
Ash considered what she was doing. Yelling and shouting was not going to stop the fact that life had to go on, despite this disaster.
“Uhm, sort of, not really… yeah,” Ash answered sheepishly.
“C’mere, sweetie,” Ash’s mom said, opening her arms.
Ash charged headfirst at her mom’s stomach, playfully. “Oof,” her mom grunted, as Ash knocked her over. “You’re getting strong!”
Mother and daughter wrestled on the floor, and all was forgotten for a couple minutes. But the looming threat of the meteor returned soon, when…
Ash’s mom switched on the kitchen TV.
“Scientists are still trying to figure out what is the meaning of this meteor…” the reporter droned on.
There was a photo of the destroyed Goldman house on Eyewitness News. Ash and her mom looked at each other. Without talking, each knew what the other wanted: Turn off the TV.
So Ash clicked the remote, and the screen went black. But once Ash and her mom had started thinking about the meteor, they couldn’t stop — it was like a magnet.
“Mom,” Ash started nervously. “Did you see any small, greyish-white figure?”
“When?” Ash’s mom replied wearily.
She was 99% sure that Ash was just being funny, or making some invisible joke, but she always tried to give Ash a fair chance to speak.
“Uhm, yesterday?” Ash said.
“No, sweetie,” Ash’s mom answered.
The irrational part of Ash’s mom’s brain then considered a new possibility: Ash needed to go to the mental hospital, but that was so unlikely, that the one hundred times bigger, more rational part of her brain deleted the thought.
“Sweetie, is this some kind of joke? Because I’m really not in the mood.”
“Ah, no,” Ash muttered softly, and that was it, conversation over, end of story. But this was only the beginning of her asking those questions.
It was Sunday, and there was no school, though Ash wanted to have school. Anything, anything, to get away from this thought in the back of her mind, this growing thought that was slowly, painfully, taking over her mind.
Because Ash was just denying the truth–aliens were taking over the planet.
“Did you see a greyish-white figure? Two days ago?” Ash asked around.
It was Monday. Ash had thought that having school would help take her mind off the greyish-white figure, but here she was, asking about the very thing she didn’t want to think about. The front of her brain told her that she didn’t know why, but the always-more-truthful, sometimes-painful back, told her that she really just wanted to have people who knew that what she saw was real.
But to no avail — everybody looked at her as if she was crazy, or with worry, and said, “No, I haven’t, not at all.”
Well, almost everybody. The class clown, Robert Grimley, said, “D’you mean Mrs. Goldman? She looked pretty greyish-white, though more from her shock that her beautiful house was destroyed than from the pain of having the painting frame fall on her foot.”
When he said beautiful, he made his voice high and old-lady like. It was an uncannily good impersonation of Mrs. Goldman.
“You are so unfeeling,” Ash shot back, though she, too, found it hard to have emotion to spare for Mrs. Goldman.
She had invited Ash, and Robert too, at some point, over to her house, which was a fancy, stuffy place filled with priceless objects, uncomfortable designer furniture, and flax and granola cookies that were more like terrible crackers.
Ash heard a piercing whistle very near her ear.
“Aah!” Ash flinched involuntarily and covered her ears.
They rang loudly afterward, so that she could hardly hear anything. But she didn’t need to hear to see that the oblivious PE teacher, Coach Shea, walked away without a look back to see Ash’s pain.
The day went on. Humanities, math, and computer class, the three other subjects she had that day, didn’t help at all to take her mind off the figure. In humanities, they were asked to write their feelings about the meteor hitting the Goldmans’ house. In math, they were asked to calculate the mass of the meteor based on the length, width, and density. In computer class, they were asked to write a digital composition about the meteor.
Finally, school was dismissed. Ash slammed the door behind her, as she swung through the doorway of her house.
“Oh there you are,” Ash’s mom said, not looking up from her laptop, which she was rapidly typing on. “We need to go to the store.”
Ash sighed and flung her backpack onto the coffee table, causing the fortunately-plastic cup on it to tip over and thump onto the floor.
“Ay–Ash! Put your backpack somewhere safe and pick up that cup!” Ash’s mom groaned.
Ash did what she was told and headed out the door again with her mom.
At the grocery store, the air smelled heavily of fish. There were many signs everywhere for a sale on salmon. Ash’s mom never bought the food on sale. She said that they only put the food on sale when it was going bad, and they wouldn’t get much money for it, unless they put it on sale.
Ash’s mom immediately headed to the dairy section to get milk, cheese, and butter. Ash instead asked a bagger about the greyish-white figure. When the bagger said “no”, Ash told herself, I will ask one more person and then that’s it, I’m done, no more talk about the stupid greyish-white figure!
So Ash asked another bagger. This bagger she knew. She was twenty-one, and her name was Alex Seidra. Alex had babysat for Ash sometimes, when Ash was younger. Mostly, Alex was just doing odd jobs to earn money for college.
Alex said, “What do you mean? No, I didn’t see anything like that.”
Ash’s heart was in her shoes already, but Ash was pretty sure it had now tunnelled through the earth and ended up in Australia.
Even though Ash had vowed to ignore the memory of the figure, as she walked home, she kept thinking about it. She knew in the back of her brain that what she saw really was real. So, she decided to do something about it. But she couldn’t think what.
As Ash lay in bed that night, she couldn’t sleep (again!) She realized that this had happened every night since the meteor, and even the night before. Ash grew angrier and angrier.
This weird figure is taking over my brain! Thoughts raced furiously through Ash’s brain, I have a constitutional right to be safe in my own home, but I’m not safe from this figure anywhere!
Ash got so angry that she decided to do something about it. Right then.
As if controlled by an invisible force, Ash methodically rose to her feet and dressed in a warm long-sleeve shirt and a jean jacket. It was a brisk fall night. Ash was still in her monkey pajama bottoms when she headed outside with a flashlight.
Previously, Ash had not known why she was going outside. She just felt really strongly compelled to. But as Ash was carefully closing the door of her house, it hit Ash like a ton of bricks.
She was looking for the aliens.
Ash took one last look at her house. She wasn’t sure she would ever see it again.
As Ash headed into the woods with a flashlight, she felt a very strong sense of deja vu.
I’ve been here before, Ash thought.
And then, she realized. Ash stood stock still, terrified.
The dream from Saturday night. The cavern.
Ash ventured deeper into the woods, swinging her flashlight wildly amongst the trees. She didn’t see anything. It was just dark, dank woods smelling of wet leaves. No moon glinted over her head as she headed into the menacing trees. Ash was just about to turn back when she saw a beautiful light.
Ash didn’t know what she was doing. She broke into a panting run for no reason, toward the light. Then, Ash fell down on the soft earth, out of breath and out of hope. “Aah…” Ash breathed heavily, and fell into a black hole of despair, darkness, and finally sleep.
Ash didn’t know she had been asleep until she woke up. At first, she didn’t know what she saw.
Then she realized. Ash was in a clearing of the woods. A bright globe, ten feet tall, radiated the soft glowing light that she had seen earlier. And what was that? Oh my gosh…
Hundreds of those small greyish-white figures were climbing expertly all over her. It tickled. Suddenly, Ash had a wave of tiredness. She fell asleep again. In her sleep, the aliens whispered to her…
Tell… everyone… you… know… about… us… our… only… request…
One girl. Hundreds of aliens. The two worlds had always been separate. But this symbolized unity. Unity between two planets.
The End. Well, not really.
Epilogue: Tuesday morning
Ash ran home and told her mom about the aliens. She told everyone. And strangely, easily… everyone believed her. Maybe it was the aliens’ magic. Maybe it was something else. I don’t know.
Go to Ash’s hometown. Go to her house. By now, Ash is seventy-three. She has children and grandchildren. Ask her about the meteor, and this is what she will tell you:
Once upon a time, a ten-year-old girl tossed and turned in her bed…
The End. Really.