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Where the Forest Meets the Stars

By:Glendy Vanderah

1

The girl could be a changeling. She was almost invisible, her pale face, hoodie, and pants fading into the twilit woods behind her. Her feet were bare. She stood motionless, one arm hugged around a hickory trunk, and she didn’t move when the car crunched to the end of the gravel driveway and stopped a few yards away.

As she shut down the car, Jo looked away from the girl and gathered binoculars, backpack, and data sheets from the passenger seat. Maybe the kid would return to her fairy realm if she wasn’t watching.

But the girl was still there when Jo stepped out of the car. “I see you,” Jo told the shadow on the hickory.

“I know,” the girl said.

Jo’s hiking boots scattered chips of dry mud up the concrete walkway. “Do you need something?”

The girl didn’t answer.

“Why are you on my property?”

“I was trying to pet your puppy, but he wouldn’t let me.”

“He’s not my dog.”

“Whose is he?”

“No one’s.” She opened the door to the screened porch. “You should go home while you still have some light.” She flicked on the outside bug bulb and unlocked the door to the house. After she turned on a lamp, she returned to the wooden door and locked it. The girl was only around nine years old, but she could still be up to something.

In fifteen minutes, Jo was showered and dressed in a T-shirt, sweatpants, and sandals. She turned on the kitchen lights, drawing a silent batter of insects to the black windows. While she readied grilling supplies, she idly thought of the girl under the hickory tree. She’d be too afraid of the dark woods to stick around. She’d have gone home.

Jo brought a marinated chicken breast and three vegetable skewers out to a fire pit in a patch of weedy lawn that separated the yellow clapboard house from a few acres of moonlit grassland. The forties-era rental house known as Kinney Cottage was perched on a hill facing the woods, its rear side open to a small prairie that was regularly burned by the owner to keep back the encroaching forest. Jo lit a fire in her stone circle and set the cooking rack over it. As she laid chicken and skewers over the flames, she tensed when a dark shape rounded the corner of the house. The girl. She stopped just yards from the fire, watching Jo place the last of the skewers on the grill. “Don’t you have a stove?” she asked.

“I do.”

“Why do you cook outside?”

Jo sat in one of four ragged lawn chairs. “Because I like to.”

“It smells good.”

If she was there to mooch food, she’d be disappointed by the empty cupboards of a field biologist with little time for grocery shopping. She spoke with the rural drawl of a local, and her bare feet were evidence that she’d come from a neighboring property. She could damn well go home for dinner.

The girl edged closer, the fire coloring her apple cheeks and blondish hair, but not her eyes, still changeling black holes in her face.

“Don’t you think it’s about time you went home?” Jo said.

She came nearer. “I don’t have a home on Earth. I came from there.” She pointed toward the sky.

“From where?”

“Ursa Major.”

“The constellation?”

The girl nodded. “I’m from the Pinwheel Galaxy. It’s by the big bear’s tail.”

Jo didn’t know anything about galaxies, but the name sounded like something a kid would invent. “I’ve never heard of the Pinwheel Galaxy,” Jo said.

“It’s what your people call it, but we call it something else.”

Jo could see her eyes now. The intelligent glint in her gaze was oddly shrewd for her baby face, and Jo took that as a sign that she knew it was all in fun. “If you’re an alien, why do you look human?”

“I’m only using this girl’s body.”

“Tell her to go home while you’re in there, will you?”

“She can’t. She was dead when I took her body. If she went home, her parents would get scared.”

It was a zombie thing. Jo had heard of those games. But the girl had come to the wrong house if she was looking for someone to play Alien Zombie with her. Jo had never been good with kids and make-believe games, even when she was as young as the girl herself. Jo’s parents, both scientists, often said her double dose of analytical genes had made her that way. They used to joke about how she’d come out of the womb, with an intent frown on her face, as if she were formulating hypotheses about where she was and who all the people in the delivery room were.

The alien in a human body watched Jo flip the chicken breast.

“You’d better get home for dinner,” Jo said. “Your parents will be worried.”

“I told you, I don’t have—”

“Do you need to call someone?” Jo pulled her phone from her pants pocket.

“Who would I call?”

“How about I call? Tell me your number.”

“How can I have a number when I came out of the stars?”

“What about the girl whose body you took? What’s her number?”

“I don’t know anything about her, not even her name.”

Whatever she was up to, Jo was too tired for it. She’d been awake since four in the morning, slogging through field and forest in high heat and humidity for more than thirteen hours. That had been her routine almost every day for weeks, and the few hours she spent at the cottage each night were important wind-down time. “If you don’t go, I’ll call the police,” she said, trying to sound stern.

“What will police do?” She said it as if she’d never heard the word.

“They’ll haul your butt home.”

The girl crossed her arms over her skinny body. “What will they do when I tell them I have no home?”

“They’ll take you to the police station and find your parents or whoever you live with.”

“What will they do when they call those people and find out their daughter is dead?”

Jo didn’t have to feign anger this time. “You know, it’s no joke to be alone in the world. You should go home to whoever cares about you.”

The girl tightened her arms across her chest but said nothing.

The kid needed a jolt of reality. “If you really have no family, the police will put you in a foster home.”

“What’s that?”

“You live with complete strangers, and sometimes they’re mean, so you’d better go home before I call the cops.”

The girl didn’t move.

“I’m serious.”

The half-grown dog that had begged for food at Jo’s fire for the past few nights skulked into the outer circle of firelight. The girl sat on her haunches and held her hand out, cajoling him in a high voice to let her pet him.

“He won’t come closer,” Jo said. “He’s wild. He was probably born in the woods.”

“Where’s his mother?”

“Who knows?” Jo set down her phone and turned the skewers. “Is there some reason you’re afraid to go home?”

“Why won’t you believe I’m from the stars?”

The stubborn-ass kid didn’t know when to quit. “You know no one will believe you’re an alien.”

The girl walked to the edge of the prairie, held her face and arms up to the starry sky, and chanted some kind of gibberish that was supposed to sound like an alien language. Her words flowed like a foreign tongue she knew well, and when she finished, she smugly turned to Jo, hands on hips.

“I hope you were asking your alien people to take you back,” Jo said.

“It was a salutation.”

“Salutation—good word.”

The girl returned to the firelight. “I can’t go back yet. I have to stay on Earth until I’ve seen five miracles. It’s part of our training when we get to a certain age—kind of like school.”

“You’ll be here awhile. Water hasn’t been turned into wine for a couple of millennia.”

“I don’t mean Bible kind of miracles.”

“What kind of miracles?”

“Anything,” the girl said. “You’re a miracle, and that dog is. This is a whole new world for me.”

“Good, you have two already.”

“No, I’ll save them for really good stuff.”

“Gee, thanks.”

The girl sat in a lawn chair near Jo. The grilling chicken breast oozed greasy marinade into the fire, smoking the night air with a delectable scent. The kid stared at it, her hunger real, nothing imaginary about it. Maybe her family couldn’t afford food. Jo was surprised she hadn’t thought of that right away.

“How about I give you something to eat before you go home?” she said. “Do you like turkey burgers?”

“How could I know what a turkey burger tastes like?”

“Do you want one or not?”

“I want one. I’m supposed to try new things while I’m here.”

Jo put the chicken breast on the cooler side of the fire before going inside to gather a frozen burger, condiments, and a bun. She remembered the last cheese slice in the refrigerator and added it to the girl’s dinner. The kid probably needed it more than she did.

Jo returned to the yard, laid the patty over the fire, and put the rest on the empty chair beside her. “I hope you like cheese on your burger.”

“I’ve heard about cheese,” the girl said. “They say it’s good.”

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