The Rockside Diner lay conspicuously alongside a less-than-busy highway. White Christmas lights lined the bottom edge of its roof. They lit up every night whether or not it was the Christmas season. The diner was difficult to miss even for drivers passing by at high speeds. Its bright interior lighting beamed out of tall clear windows into the dark desert expanse of Arizona. Inside, the white walls, red booths, and stainless-steel stools complemented its 1950s décor; the diner was full of music paraphernalia including a pink neon-lit jukebox, framed records, and vintage posters. An alien mannequin wearing an “Area 51 or bust” sign around its neck stood in the corner.
It was in this diner on a warm morning in early autumn that three friends, who were seniors at the local high school, met in one of the diner’s corner booths to celebrate Ryka’s birthday. Ryka studied his faint reflection in the window. He looked the same as always- short spiky hair dyed scarlet, eyebrows curved sharply, three piercings in his left ear filled with tiny silver rings, and a face shaven smooth. On his neck were two blue characters resembling Egyptian hieroglyphs but different. Throughout the years, his adopted parents had informed many curious parents that the symbols were tattoos. To their son alone, they added that the tattoos were one of the reasons that child protective services had removed him from his birth parents. However, one night, only a few days before his mother passed away after two agonizing months debilitated by bone cancer, she had told him that he was born with the markings. Then, she had fallen into a coma.
Too depressing. Ryka shook his head. Why dwell on a painful memory? Today was his seventeenth birthday, and he was surrounded by his two best friends, Mikala and Killian. Outside, the sun beamed, and thin wispy clouds roamed the sky. Mom wants me to be happy today even if she can’t be here.
Killian noticed Ryka contemplating his image. “You look the same. Trust me. No one wakes up looking different unless they’re sick. Age is just a number,” he remarked, stirring his cappuccino until it spilled over the lip.
“Nicely done,” laughed Mikala. “But aside from being a clutz, you’re wrong about age. It’s a process, a cycle. Every moment matters.”
Killian shook his head. “Some moments really matter. I don’t think eating omelets, although freaking delicious, and dried toast in a roadside diner ranks high on the list of our life’s top moments.” He realized his error instantly and cleared his throat. “Ryka, you know what I mean. Your birthday is important but one day we’ll celebrate it in real style.”
Mikala let out an exasperated sigh. “Killian, world conqueror. Remember, we’re all going to the same community college, so fame and fortune will have to wait.”
“That’s only because our families aren’t loaded with cash. I mean, come on Mikala, you’re a straight B plus student. If you could have afforded Stanford, well…” he snickered, putting up his hands as to say “who knows.”
“Ha…ha. Real funny coming from a straight C student.”
Ryka grabbed both of them by the arm. “Relax, both of you. Otherwise, I’m getting on top of the table and dancing.”
Killian spit a mouthful of cappuccino all over the table.
“Great!” Mikala slapped Killian’s shoulder. “And Kerry thought you and I were dating. Can you imagine?”
Killian rolled his eyes. “Anyway, you better stay off the table, Ryka. We’re banned from Maylor’s place because of your last dance moment.” He laughed suddenly, remembering Ryka’s moves. “It was pretty awesome though. You dancing on the tabletop while everyone else watched; some enjoying the randomness of it all and others looking mortified. And the response you got, when you messed up your spin, was classic. Plates shattering all over the floor. Mr. Maylor emerging from the kitchen and threatening to call the police. Screaming at us to get out and stay out. Swatting at us with his apron. Who does that?”
Mikala burst out laughing. “You’re so dark, Killian. It was funny up to a point. But when Ryka fell off of the table and landed onto all of those jagged shards of what was left of the plates, well, that wasn’t funny, was it?”
Killian looked serious. “No, you’re right. But I didn’t know he cut himself until I saw the bright blood. Ryka, it just kept trickling off of your elbow. Made my head swim.”
“We remember,” Mikala began. “You put your arm over my shoulder and I half carried you out.”
Ryka turned over his arm with gusto and displayed the scar. “That was the second time I ended up in the ER. Stitches suck! My cut itched so badly, I had to breathe hard on it for some relief just to keep from losing my mind.”
“Birthday cake should be here any moment,” interrupted Killian, looking around the diner with hungry eyes.
“Are you serious?” Mikala stared at him in disbelief. “That was a joke. I never asked the waitress to bring out a cake. It’s barely past 9 AM. Who eats cake at breakfast?”
“Who wouldn’t want cake at breakfast? Beats the breakfast,” he retorted.
“Your dentist must really love you,” Mikala shot back.
Ryka gasped. “Ow!” His hand shot to his neck tattoos.
“Bee sting,” guessed Killian, ridiculously.
Ryka’s mouth shot open, but he could not speak for a moment. Finally, he recuperated enough, “No…no. My neck. It felt like it touched a hot burner on a stovetop.
“Fibromyalgia. No, diphtheria,” hazarded Killian.
“I don’t think you’re ready for med school,” said Mikala incredulously. She glanced back at Ryka and her eyes widened. His neck tattoos glowed red. “Oh my God! Ryka, it’s glowing.” She pointed a shaking finger.
Ryka’s eyebrows rose. “What’s glowing?” He felt his neck. “Killian!”
“I don’t see anything.”
“It stopped.” She looked perplexed. “But I swear…I know what I saw,” she said, rubbing her eyes with her palms. “Maybe I should’ve went to sleep before two in the morning.”
“Yeah, a waking dream. That’s what you had. I’ve had them too,” offered Killian. Mikala did not bother replying.
A flash of silver light streaked across the sky like a bolt of lightning. Ryka caught it at once and was about to point out the phenomenon when the intense light poured through the diner’s windows. He shut his eyes tight and covered them with both arms. The light’s intensity grew until he could see the outline of his arms through his shut eyelids. Why won’t it stop. And then the light extinguished. Opening his eyes, Ryka saw blurred images. He closed his eyes again, feeling tears flowing down. Just wait a second. Calm down. You’re not blind. Whatever that was, it was super bright. Just need to let your eyes adjust.
In a moment, Ryka tried again. Everything came into focus. The scorched Arizona desert outside shown just as rugged and bleak as before. The heat rose from the road in squiggles. An obnoxious billboard with two oversized cowboy boots loomed over a crowded parking lot. Round cacti sat in the shade beneath smooth jutting rock formations. “That was bizarre,” he said, wiping tears from his eyes. “What are you doing?”
Mikala and Killian stared at him, frozen into goofy positions with equally odd expressions. “Is this part of my birthday surprise? Because…it’s great,” he erupted, staring at them to see who would blink first. “You’re really going for it. Killian is going to break. We all know that.” Ryka put his elbow on the table and rested his cheek against his fist. “Scintillating. I mean, ladies and gentlemen, burn your cellphones and trash your TV sets. Who needs ‘em for entertainment when this is happening right now?” An idea struck him. “My birthday, my rules. I win if I can get you to break.” He turned toward the rest of the diners and began yelling, “My friends are weirdos,” but stopped midsentence. The rest of the diners were frozen as well. Seriously? “Oh, I get it. This is the surprise. You somehow got everyone involved. Pretty elaborate stuff but pretty awesome.”
Ryka grabbed each of his friends by the arm, “Thanks.” He reflectively yanked his hands back as if he had touched something unexpected and gross. Mikala and Killian’s arms were rock hard. “Ok, how are you doing that? This isn’t cool guys. Hey! Cut it out!” A realization clobbered him like a blow. Mikala’s long black hair, streaked with forest-green highlights, was stuck in an impossible position as if she had whipped her head to the side but the hair had not caught up. A jolt of fear ran through him, and his hair stood up. He shivered and rubbed his arm. Get a hold of yourself. What about the rest of them?
The answer lay around him. Not a single person in the diner moved. But what else? The antique clock on the wall had stopped ticking, the juke box was silent, the noise from the busy kitchen did not exist, and in one corner, a waitress poured a stream of coffee that appeared as a frozen waterfall between the glass container and the cup. A forever pour.
Panic! Ryka jumped out of the booth and spun around in a circle; his heart beat so fast that he clutched his chest and tried getting his breathing under control. “What is this?! I don’t understand?!” His trembling hand struggled to retrieve his cellphone out of his jeans’ pocket. As soon as he managed to get it out, he dropped it, and as it landed on its side, the face cracked. He bent down to pick it up. Dead! Without losing a second, he took Mikala’s phone, which rested near her half-finished plate, and dialed 911. Nothing. No reception. Get out! Ryka bolted for the door. His body slammed against it, and he was propelled backward, falling onto his side. The pain was sharp and he staggered to his feet, dazed. Again, he pushed on the door, but it did not budge. “Help!”
A trembling of the earth nearly knocked Ryka over. An echoing metallic sound rippled over his ears. He turned toward the noise and saw streams of strange light cascading out of the sky. As the light hit the earth, it dissolved and what remained were four human beings. There was a man dressed in a checkered suit as well as a woman who looked as though she had just left the audience of a philharmonic performance. The other two were tall, well-built men; they wore solid blue uniforms with a repeating geometric pattern in white over the length of one arm.
Ryka did not wait to see if they were heading for the diner. He ducked down and crawled under the booth’s table, tucking himself between the wall and Killian’s legs. His heart pounded and sweat formed all over himself. He closed his eyes. You have to relax. They won’t find you. Just calm down and everything will be alright.
The door to the diner opened. Ryka heard footsteps that grew closer until he knew the people were standing at his booth. He opened his eyes. One of the uniformed men had knelt down and was staring right at him. “Don’t kill me! I’m just a kid.”
“Found him,” the man, whose name was Craeton, said in a deep voice. “Come out because I’m not crawling under there.” He waited a couple of seconds and then added, “Don’t make us rip this table off. We don’t have time for it.”
Ryka heard a woman crying. Had one of the diners come out of her trance and been overwhelmed by what she had found? What should I do? I can’t stay under here forever. If I force them to rip out the table, then imagine what they’ll do to me. With great apprehension, he began to crawl out; he slipped once on his sweaty palms and banged his face against Mikala’s knee.
Craeton helped Ryka to his feet and guided him back into the booth. As Ryka sat down, he realized that Mikala and Killian’s rigid bodies were being repositioned in another booth. Then, a shiver ran through him. The other uniformed man held his gloved hand near a diner’s head and a fuzzy white light reached out from the glove and flowed into the woman’s head. It lasted for a few seconds, and then the man went to the next person and repeated the process. “What are you doing to them?” Ryka asked, startled.
“Adjusting their memory so they don’t remember any of this. It’s painless and won’t harm them,” explained Craeton.
“Are you going to wipe my memory?”
“Why not? What are you going to do to me?!” Ryka pounded his fist on the table, rattling the silverware.
“It’s best if they explain.”
The man dressed in a suit sat down, followed by the woman who was lightly crying. “I’m Dyersha and this is my wife Tialia,” his voice was calm and steady, although he looked as if he was holding back great emotion. His face was pale and lined, his hair short and black, and his eyes seemed to hold the weight of many burdens. The woman next to him wore a scarf concealing most of her black hair, her face too was lined, but her eyes seemed hopeful.
Something about Dyersha was perplexingly familiar to Ryka. It was as though he had seen the man before. You don’t know any of them, and you’ve never seen any of them. How could you have? They fell out of the sky.
Dyersha seemed uncertain. He glanced at his wife, and she nodded encouragingly. He resumed, “We travel with the light or one might say in the light. We live very far from Earth, many galaxies away, on a planet that is similar in ways to this one. We have water and vegetation. But there are stark differences. The life forms on our planet look like the people of Earth, but we are different. These clothes are not our clothes. We wore them to blend in. Our guards are soldiers and must wear what you see them in.”
Sighing, he continued, “Years ago, our planet was attacked by an alliance of hostile worlds whose life forms you would describe as monstrous both in appearance and in their actions. They invaded, overwhelmed our planet’s defenses, and massacred all who did not escape. We were refugees and retreated to a poor, inhospitable planet. There we scraped by but did not have enough to survive, so we broke up our family. We sent our son away…when he was very young,” he choked up.
Dyersha looked out the window for a moment, composing himself. He went on, “There are many populated planets in the cosmos. More than you can imagine. Some are quite powerful. A network of them reclaimed our planet and welcomed back refugees. We are headed there presently. But first…we had to reunite with our son, who is much older now.” Dyersha stopped speaking and tears ran down his cheeks.
“I don’t believe you,” Ryka said simply. But things that his mother had told him in the past, things that had never made sense, he began to understand.
“We are not speaking in English to you,” revealed Dyersha.
Ryka’s mouth dropped. How did he miss it? The whole time the men had spoken to him in a language that he had never heard before, yet he had understood them. It’s not possible.
Tialia smiled at Ryka. “We’ve missed you…the pain has been unbearable at times. We had nothing and we just wanted you to live.” She wiped away tears. “An agency found your adopted parents and promised us that you would be safe. I could have died when they took you from my arms.” She lifted up her necklace and exposed the same two symbols that were on Ryka’s neck. The moment she touched them, they began to glow. As they did, Ryka saw scenes from his parents’ lives unfold. He watched as they fled a war-torn city, as they ran to the light shooting into the dark expanse of the night sky, as they landed upon a desert-like planet among a makeshift town of refugees, and as they handed him over to an aid worker.
Ryka was weary with grief. It was as if he had lived the events. Everything they had told him was real- as real to him as the table that his flattened palms pressed tightly against, as real as his thoughts, his words, his memories. He knew it through and through. And it was too much. He broke down and cried.
“What about my father?” Ryka managed to ask.
Tialia took Ryka’s hands into her own. “He knew we were coming. He didn’t tell you because he knew that you wouldn’t believe him. You had to experience it.”
“I’ll never see him again?”
“You will. We are going to him now. But you will have to say good-bye, for we will never return.”
Ryka stood up. “Then, let’s go now, so I can have as much time with him as possible.” He looked at Killian and Mikala. “They won’t remember me, will they?”
“They will not. This is how it must be.”
Ryka went to each of his friends, whispered words into their ears, and kissed each on the forehead.
And with the light, they were gone.
The diner sprang to life. The jukebox music awoke as did the diners; they went on as though there had been no interruption.
Killian lifted his cup of cappuccino to his lips but then lowered it. He looked puzzled. “Mikala. Where’s Ryka?”
Mikala chewed a mouthful of jellied toast. She turned to Killian as she swallowed, “Who?”