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CHAPTER 1
The Nightwalk

“Hey! Wait up!”

     Meg did not respond. She simply stopped walking and stood still, head tilted back, eyes scanning the evening sky. She had listened to his feet crunch the gravel twenty paces behind her ever since they left the movie theater, over a mile ago. Now the crunches quickened, steadily closing the gap between them on the desolate country road.

     It had been a wordless walk so far, with neither uttering a sound to the other. That didn’t matter to her. Conversation wasn’t necessary. She knew his attention would be focused exactly the same as hers—on the sky.

     Watching the stars emerge over the prairie each evening was a habit they shared. For Meg, it was more than the imposing presence of the universe that captured her passion—it was letting those tiny twinkling bodies overhead carry her curiosity to visions of other worlds, other civilizations.

     “So,” he said, stepping up to her side. “Wanna cut through the canyon?”

     “Sounds good to me, but do you think it might be too risky, you know, what with the dog holes and rattlers?”

     “I think there’s enough moonlight we can make it. Don’t you?”

     “I suppose . . . .” Meg had trusted Mitch’s advice all of her life. She had never known a day without him in it since they were born. Brother and sister. Twins. He was the calm one, reserve and pragmatic. She was vivacious. Impulsive. Inquisitive. Mitch grew to be more than a brother to her. He was her protector, a helper in times of trouble. Her best friend.

     Like Meg, he was tall, with a mirrored image of her upturned nose and freckles. Tousled rock-red hair, curly to the point of being almost frizzy, was cropped short so as to minimize the daily struggle with comb and brush. Lean and lanky teens they were, dressed in plaid shirts tucked inside ranch-worn dungarees. Sneakers were tolerated for classroom and after-school activities, but for the most part they both preferred genuine leather hand crafted boots. By casual observation of their appearance and mannerisms, the twins might be mistaken as identical. They were not, of course. Neither were their thoughts always alike, and right now Meg was thinking about the dangers in crossing the canyon at night compared to how much time they would save in getting home.

     “So, what d’ya think?” Mitch interrupted her thoughts. “Do we cut across?”

     “If you say so!” She bent over to remove a small stone that had hitched a ride inside her right sneaker. She winced a little as her slender long fingers worked the small pebble out of her shoe and stuffed it into a pocket of her jeans.

     “Another rock?” Copyrighted material, illegally taken from PinPubStudio.com

     “Yeah. A little round one. I’ll decide whether or not to keep it when we get home. This breeze feels good, huh?”

     “Yep. Theater was stuffy.” Mitch glanced at her out of the corner of his eye, grinned, and added, “anything that gets near your fingers better watch out!”

     “Oh shut up!”

     Silence returned as the two began walking again, their wide brimmed Stetsons carried in hand at their sides. With each step they took the sky grew darker, the stars brighter, and their starwatching more intense. They may not be identical twins, but aside from Meg’s budding womanhood, there was little difference in the two silhouettes that climbed the hill in the moonlight.

     The road bent to the right at the top of the rise. They followed the curve, and, kicking an occasional stone out from underfoot, soon left the dull glow of town behind them. Somewhere in the distance they heard the clink-clank of a bell, and knew someone’s cow was late for milking. A coyote echoed another’s call for companionship. The prairie was fast falling asleep but for the crunch of gravel under their feet.

     Within minutes they stepped off the gravel road and crossed a wide grassy margin to a barbed wire fence. With a flick of the wrist, the Stetsons were returned to the tops of their heads. Mitch pulled the strands of wire apart while Meg stepped through them to the other side. Then he stepped through them himself, and began looking around the ground.

     “We’ve got to find a stick or something,” he said.

     “Yeah, I know. I’m looking . . . nothing over here.”

     “Here either.”

     “Look over there,” Meg pointed to the third fence post beyond where Mitch stood. “Looks like that one’s been splintered.” Mitch walked over to the fence post. “Yep,” he said, reaching down to pick the missing piece up off of its gritty bed. “It’s a sturdy one, too.”

     “Great. Remember what Mom always says.”

     “Yep . . . watch out for bad tempered ferrets!”

     “Right. Let’s go. I’ll follow behind you.”

     The trek across Comstock’s Canyon began. It was more rolling prairie than canyon, considering how gentle the slopes were on either side of it, but it did make a dip, and it did have a wash running through it. Sometimes. And generations of the John Comstock family had owned it, so Comstock’s Canyon was what it had always been called. And now the twins were about to cross it. At night. Without a flashlight.

     Beginning with their first step, Mitch used the piece of splintered fence post to prod the ground ahead of them for prairie dog holes. Meg followed close behind, her fingertips pinching the back of Mitch’s shirt and her eyes focused on the ground. She stepped into each exact space left by his feet as soon as they exited. Forward they marched, through the scrub oak and wild grasses towards McCleary Wash. On the other side of the wash lay the gentle ridge marking the end of Comstock’s Canyon. Once over that, it was only half a mile home.

     They had just stepped over a third prairie dog hole when Mitch stopped short, thrusting his arms out to each side. Meg slammed full force smack dab into his back. Copyrighted material, illegally taken from PinPubStudio.com

     “Ouch!” she scowled, rubbing the end of her nose to ease the sting of the impact. “Don’t stop right in front of me!”
    “Shhhhh! Listen.” he whispered over his shoulder. “Hear it?”

     “Oh yeah.” Meg stood motionless and mute. The rattler signaled again. “Sounds like he’s off to the left ahead of us. Wish I had my boots on.”

     “Me too.” Mitch jostled the piece of fence post back and forth on the ground before them like a blind man’s cane as the two eased forward. They circled far to the right of the sporadic rattle, listening to it fade into a whisper, then disappear altogether into the prairie behind them. All they heard now, besides the occasional scraping of brush against their jeans, was a mounting rush of air, wheezing its way through the scrub oak.

     By the time they reached the edge of McCleary Wash, that rush of air—that light breeze that was so welcome after leaving the theater—had blown itself into a downright squall.

     “Wind’s kickin’ good, Meg. Let’s move a little faster.”

     “Yeah. Let’s.” She reached for her brother’s hand, knowing they had better get across the wash and up over the ridge before the wind came any harder. Windstorms around the canyon were not uncommon, but tonight’s was different. It was getting stronger by the minute, and made a whirring sound rather than the usual howl. It had a sweet smell to it, too. Meg wondered if Mitch noticed it. “Wind smells kind of funny, don’t you think?” she called to him.
     “Kinda sweet?”

     “Yeah. Like Sweet Williams! Only there’s none around out here. I wonder where it’s coming from?”

     “Sweet Williams?”

     “Yeah.” Copyrighted material, illegally taken from PinPubStudio.com

     “Sweet Billies?” Mitch laughed.

     “Sweet Billies? No sillies.” Meg was laughing too. Was it something in the wind, she wondered, or were they both just tired?

     “Silly Billies?” Mitch giggled. That tickled Meg. Serious Mitch, who always teased her that giggling was for girls, had for once given in to the uncontrollable force of funny himself. She stopped to soak up the scene, laughing out loud at the sight of him. Just as he turned to see how much she appreciated his cleverness, the wind snatched the Stetsons right off their heads and sent them flying! It reminded Meg of the very first time they experienced a wind storm.

     They were eight years old at the time, walking home from the last day of school that year. While taking their customary shortcut through the canyon, the storm hit—whipping their hair and shirts into a slapping frenzy. It ripped school papers right out of their hands and swirled them out across the canyon floor like half a dozen drunken magpies enjoying an impetuous chase. Then, as now, Mitch took his sister’s hand and together they forced their way through it and home. The wind-driven grit had blasted her face and peppered her eyes then just as it was starting to now. Like the school papers of the past, she watched their hats ride the wind right out of her reach.

     “Mitch! Our hats!” She expected him to take instant action to retrieve them. But he didn’t. He couldn’t. The wind had whisked his feet out from under him, hurling him high up into the air while their hats flew away to who knows where.

     She turned to see her brother’s gangly long legs spiraling out of control in the dusty moonlight. Meg wanted to giggle. Or cry. Or scream for help. But she didn’t get a chance to do any of them before the same gust of wind pulled her off the ground, swirling and twirling her this way and that like a stick of weightless straw. Was she falling? Floating? It all happened so fast she couldn’t tell for sure, and as suddenly as she was picked up, she was dumped with a thud into the dirt not far from her brother.

     “You okay?” he yelled to her.

     “Yeah! I think. You?” Copyrighted material, illegally taken from PinPubStudio.com

     “Yep, but guess what?”

     “What?” she called back, squinting her eyes in order to find Mitch’s silhouette through the dust about five yards away. She put all fours to the ground and crawled through the gritty billows to where her brother sat, staring at the wash in disbelief. She did the same when she saw it.

     “It’s full, Mitch! The wash is full!

     McCleary Wash was never full in August. Only during autumn rains, through the winter, and during spring runoff was the wash ever running. In summer it remained bone dry. Meg and Mitch had crossed it a hundred times. Not only was the wash full, but the water had the very strong smell of Sweet Williams.

     “Look at the water, Mitch. It’s . . . it’s . . . purple!” Had she bent over any further to inspect it, she would have tumbled in head first for sure. Although the seriousness of their situation dispelled levity for an instant, they were both quite lightheaded and giddy. Mitch knelt down alongside his sister to take a closer look at the water.

     “Hard for me to tell what color it is, in this shadow.”

     “It’s sweet, too!” No sooner had Meg licked off her finger and wiped it on her jeans than Mitch grabbed her hand.

     “Margaret Turner!”  he shouted. “For God’s sake, don’t lick your fingers! We don’t know what’s in here. Or where it came from. Could be contaminated. I swear, one of these days those fingers of yours are going to get you into serious trouble.”

     Trapped by her own spontaneity, Meg changed the subject to considering their options. “How’re we going to get across? Do y’think we should head back to the road? How are we gonna get home?” Her inherent propensity for rapid-fire questioning took over.

     She looked up the incline through the now decreasing swirls of dust, but saw only unfamiliar land forms of blues and mauves. Maybe if she pinched her eyes shut for a moment . . . but no, the hallucination was still there—swirling clouds of lavender-blue dust against a backdrop of coal black. It danced this way and that, stinging her eyes with grit and forcing dust up her nose and into her mouth.

     “Pewgh!” She spat it out and turned again toward her brother. “This is scary. Aren’t you getting scared? D’you think somehow we got lost? What’re we going to do? Mitch? You got any ideas?”

     “I might think of something if you’d quit firing questions at me one after another! I think that lick of water you took did something to your brain. Dang it all ... I don’t know where we are. I don’t remember any part of the wash ever looking like this. See those big boulders up there? I think we can jump across on them.”

     Meg looked upstream, in the direction Mitch was pointing. “I don’t see any boulders,” she said. “How far up are they? I can’t see anything through all this dust! Are you sure?”

     “Yep. I’m sure. Look harder.”

     Meg looked harder. She pinched her eyelids closer and closer together, peering out through the tiny slits that remained until vague shapes appeared here and there in the midst of the murky purple water. “OK! OK! I see them now. I guess.”

     “You ready, then?” he asked.Copyrighted material, illegally taken from PinPubStudio.com

     “Yeah. I’m ready, but you’ll have to help me. I’m feelin’ dizzier than a tick on a tail-chasin’ dog!”

     Mitch grinned and reached out to his sister. Hand in hand, the two jumped over boulders and stones, nearly falling more than once into the rippling waters. The more boulders they crossed, the more energy they used. The more energy used, the more oxygen their bodies demanded. The more oxygen demanded, the more sickening sweet smell they sucked into their lungs.

     Meg did not tolerate it well. “I think I’m gonna throw up,” she muttered, tightening her clammy cold hold around Mitch’s hand. “No you’re not, Meg. Not now. Just hang on.”

     “But I feel really weird, my stomach’s churnin’ and it feels like my feet aren’t going to stay on the ground much longer.” Copyrighted material, illegally taken from PinPubStudio.com

     “Yep. I feel weird too, so let’s get across so we can sit down for a minute.”

     Mitch jumped to the next boulder, still holding Meg’s hand, a slight tug of which brought her floating to his side. He repeated the process on the next boulder, and the next, and the next. With each jump they became lighter and lighter, and soon began bouncing from one boulder to another like two feathers taking flight in an unexpected breeze, yet decisive in their direction. In no time at all they reached a large flat boulder in the middle of the stream. Mitch pulled Meg onto it with ease, and together they contemplated the next move.

     “It’s wider than it looked from back there,” he noted, shielding his eyes from the moonlight with the back of his hand in order to get a better look. “As light as we are, we can probably hop right across.”

     “Let’s do it.” she urged. “Want me to go first?”

     “You feeling better?” he asked.

     “Yeah. I’m starting to get used to it.”

     “Then you go first.” Mitch laughed, then unbuttoned his shirt and took it off. He crawled out of his undershirt, and tied the two shirts together.

     “I suppose that’s my safety rope? In case I fall in?” Meg wound the end of his shirtsleeve twice around her hand. She always seemed to know what Mitch was going to do before he did it; and what he was going to say before he said it.

     “Yep,” he said, winding the tail of his undershirt around his own strong hand. “Ready?”

     “Ready!” She crouched on the edge of the large flat boulder, ready to spring. “One. Two. Three.” With the grace of a pronghorn, Meg crossed the rippling purple waters, bounced up into the air and back down upon landing, and for an instant was afraid that she might not be able to keep her balance. She couldn’t, and drifted backward into the bank, at the same time pulling Mitch from his stance on the boulder.

     Flying through the air he came, flipping over Meg’s head like a fledgling acrobat. He touched down in a cloud of moonlit dust on the other side of her, and they giggled together in comic relief. Meg untied the rope of shirts, and Mitch pulled them back on. “Now for the ridge,” he said, “and we’re home! You up to it?”

     “Yeah. I’m not quite as dizzy, but let’s take it slow, OK?”

     “OK.”Copyrighted material, illegally taken from PinPubStudio.com

     The twins began to climb the shadowy wall of what they believed to be Comstock’s Canyon.

     Mitch took the lead, gripping onto boulders and stones, his stomach scraping against the powdery sand here and there as he pulled himself towards the top of the ridge. Meg followed right behind, grabbing the same stones Mitch had used as soon as his feet lifted off them. Still light as feathers, the climb itself was not physically demanding on the twins except for their breathing. The more they gasped for air, the more dust they inhaled. The more dust they took in, the more they began to cough and sneeze. Despite those interruptions, they crawled like a couple of prairie weasels to the top of the canyon wall and peeked over the rim. There below them in the great black sky was the brightest planet they had ever seen. At first glance it reminded Mitch of his favorite marble back in the third grade. His shooter.

     “Ohmygosh! Mitch! It’s the Earth, isn’t it?” Meg stared at him for a couple of seconds, and he at her, then both looked back to the bright planet.

     “So where the heck are we? The moon?”

     “Can’t be!” Meg pointed out a small white ball on the fringes of the big planet. “There’s the moon, over there, see?” Mitch saw. A quick check of their surroundings reinforced the findings that somehow they had left Wyoming far behind. Like a scene from a science-fiction movie, miles and miles of the most foreboding land they had ever seen stretched out before them—a great desert of dirty mauve sand. Silent. Motionless. It rested peacefully within a shallow container of blue and violet mountains draped with the indigo shadows of early evening.

     Meg gestured at the continuous range of peaks that formed the great circle before them, stopping her arm midway around. “It’s a crater! Look over there, across from us. Behind that ridge. The sky is all lit up.”

     “Must be some kind of civilization,” Mitch reasoned. “Maybe a space station.” He was ready to accept that they were alive and well, and no matter where they were, at least they were breathing, and able to walk. Actually, they could hop with very little effort, and he reckoned that in just a few minutes they could be across the crater floor and would certainly find somebody within the skylight to help them get home.

     “Come on, Meg!” He reached out his hand and helped her over the crater’s edge. Down the incline they ran, using more energy than anticipated, as there was little gravity to help them.

     They sprang along the crater floor, making straight way for the skylight and raising clouds of lavender-blue dust with each plunge of their feet into the soft sand. The crater was eerie. Uncomfortably quiet. Incomprehensibly large. The twins felt like a couple of ants crossing a shallow dry-well dig that might cave in on them at any moment.

     “Thhuwmp!” Something shot out from within the skylight’s glow and swished over their heads into the darkness above. They were knocked to the crater floor by the sheer velocity of its after wake.

     “Did you see that?” Copyrighted material, illegally taken from PinPubStudio.com

     “How could I miss?”

     “Y’think it was a missile?”

     “I dunno.”

     “Thhwump!” Another shot. They hit the dirt, and watched the projectile blast over them and into the darkness above, twinkling as it traveled, and yet seeming to become stationary in the heavens.

     “I don’t think they’re after us,” Mitch speculated, helping Meg up off the ground.

     “I don’t know how you can tell . . . but whatever they’re after, they’re sure raising a lot of dust doing it! I think I’m going to . . . ah . . . ah . . . CHOO!” The force of the sneeze sent her flying backwards for some ten feet, and Mitch ran to retrieve her. No sooner were they on their way again, than “thhwump” Another projectile, another swish, another dust cloud, another sneeze, and another ten feet to the rear. Meg was way past frustration, and nearly into tears.

     “We’ll never make it to the skylight this way!”

     Under earthly circumstances the twins were not given to accepting defeat along their path to accomplishment, so with unspoken agreement they joined hands and mustered the courage to spring onward towards the glow of the skylight.

     “Thhwump!” Copyrighted material, illegally taken from PinPubStudio.com

     “Hit the deck, Meg!”

     Simultaneously they dropped, and tracked the projectile through its ensuing cloud of dust. Smaller and smaller the twinkle became, until settling at the lower right corner of the Little Dipper.

     “They’re stars, Meg! They’re stars! That one stopped at Ursa Minor. I think they’ve probably all been going to predestined coordinates—which means there has got to be some intelligent civilization over there where they’re coming from.”

     “I think you’re right.” Meg rose from the dust, giving Mitch a hand up. “But why . . . .”

     “Ah. . . ah . . . CHOO!” This time it was Mitch, blowing himself ten feet to the side.

     It was clear they must stop themselves from sneezing or risk retracing their entire crater journey thus far. Mitch was quick to come up with a solution.

     “Let’s do this, Meg. Let’s walk forward, towards the skylight, until we hear the star launch. Then, when it shoots over us, we’ll turn around so that when we sneeze, we’ll blow ourselves ten feet towards the light.”

     Meg nodded and stifled another sneeze with a finger to the bottom of her nose. Through star launches and sneezes, they made it to the far side of the crater, just under the fringes of the skylight. There, exhausted, they dropped to the crater floor, giving way to slumber the instant their heads relaxed into the soft sand. The much-needed rest would renew their physical and mental energy. It would also keep them from seeing a small dark creature inch toward them from out of the indigo shadows.

~ ~ story continues in the book with CHAPTER 2 - The Encounter ~ ~

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