She used to spend hours gazing up at the stars, my Mama. I gazed up at them with her. My small body pressed into hers, the two of us gawking at the tiny, twinkling orbs overhead. Faint music coming from the radio, long-since rescued from the junkyard and put to good use again, wafting around us.
In those moments, it was just me and her. Against the bills piling up on the table in the rickety wooden house. Against the notice tucked inside my mother's sock drawer, the one I knew, even then, I wasn't supposed to see, but I peeked at it anyway. The one that promised her a job, a real job, a good job that could put more on the table than canned beans. The one that would put her love of science, of space, to use. The one that would mean nothing if she couldn't scrape enough money up to afford the classes it required.
But, in those moments, we didn't think of any of that. It was us against the world.
Every night we observed the stars, me pressing my eye to the grimy rim of the telescope, squinting until my head hurt, I'd ask the same question. "What do you think is up there, Mama? Do you think there are aliens?"
And every night, she'd give me the same laugh. Jolly. Hearty. That was my Mama. "I don't doubt it, baby. Not one bit. I bet they are looking down on you right now, just like you are looking up at them."
"They wouldn't hurt us, though, right?" I asked one night, to which she pulled away from the telescope, eyebrows raising.
"Hurt you? Baby, what gave you that idea?"
I scuffed the toe of my too-small shoe against the porch. "Nothing. Just that Billy-Toad. He's always saying they will. Saying they are watching us, waiting to make a move. Saying I should just give him my Twinkie now because they gonna come and take it from me anyway."
My Mama smiled, pulling me in for a hug. I weaseled out of it like I always did. Like I wish now that I hadn't. She ruffled my dirty hair, not seeming to care several of the brown strands stuck to her palm once she removed it.
"Baby, the aliens aren't going to hurt us. They aren't going to bother us at all. Don't you worry, not one bit."
But my Mama was wrong. Even when she got that job, working with all the other scientists in their big, important lab coats. They were wrong, too. Because, in the end, we all should have listened to Billy-Toad, even if he was just trying to scrape a quick snack off me. As it turned out, he was the only one I ever knew that had the slightest idea of what was to come.
The billboards in the square as flashy, catching everyone's attention but mine. They all stop and stare as if they'd forgotten what tomorrow is. As if. No one can forget, not really. Maybe the first few years, but now? Twelve years later? No, no one can forget.
Especially not me. A hand goes to my pocket as a duck through the low-hanging doorway, the instant smell of greased food and unwashed flesh crowding my nostrils and making me suppress the urge to gag. My fingers close around my Mama's locket, tucked deep inside my hoodie. The one thing I have left of her. She and those scientists were the first to go.
No, not go. Not to the moon. To their graves.
It's a gruesome thought, and I shake it off as I slide into a seat at the bar. Tanner's restaurant is dimly lit, and the prime location for gossip and booze since the Explosions, but the prices are fair and Tanner has a cousin who works in the Democracy. That alone provides him with more knowledge than the rest of us have regarding the unlucky soul chosen for the moon this year.
Flicking the leftovers of someone's meal to the ground, I turn my attention to Tanner behind the bar. He's a bear of a man, beefy arms pumping out the taps, broad chest hidden beneath a gristly beard, but his lips split into a grin when he sees me.
"Amia! Stopping in for a whisper of the candidates this year?"
I shake my head, though that's exactly why I'm here. I never ask Tanner straight up like many others do; he gives out false information then. Tells them it's someone they love, just to give them a scare. He couldn't do that to me even if I did ask him. There's no one left in this forsaken world that I love.
"Just a water," I say, and he scratches his beard with his elbow as he gets to work.
"Water? You came all this way for water?"
"The heat is killer in the summer," I reply with a shrug.
He nods, sliding the frosty glass across the counter. "The Explosions made sure of that, didn't they? 'Course, you know better than anyone, what with your mom and all."
Tanner tenses as if the words just slipped right off his flapping tongue. I have no doubt they did. He watches me carefully, but if he's expecting me to react in any way, he ends up disappointed. It's no secret what happened to Mama and those scientists. It's the same thing that happened to any lab that studies space. The same thing happened to all the largest, most densely populated areas, too.
Exactly what Billy-Toad predicted would. The aliens watched us, although they weren't on Mars like everyone was expecting. They were on the Moon. And they got tired of waiting. They made their move via the Explosions.
Nuclear attacks without warning. They took Mama and left me alone, cowering in the basement of the wooden house. That was the only time I was glad we lived so far away from any town. So far away from anyone besides the bullfrogs and the crickets. They were my only companions while the rest of the world went up in flames.
I stayed in that house, living off what we had. Two years passed, me in solitude. In silence, until I couldn't remain there any longer. That's when I left it behind. That's when I learned what had become of the world in my absence.
The government, or at least the one I knew, was gone. Replaced by the Democracy in my country. Other countries had their own replacements, but their structure was basically the same. Gradually, I began to learn everything anyone did about the aliens.
It wasn't much. It still wasn't much, but it was all the extraterrestrial beings would allow us to know.
The Democracy had long since compiled a list, one that flashed continually on a certain billboard in town in bright blue letters that glowed, night or day. Eight things anyone needed to know about the aliens. Eight things I had long-since memorized, as anyone who was anyone had.
- The extraterrestrials reside on the Moon. All previous earthly settlements there have been destroyed by these beings.
- The extraterrestrials need no water. They need no air. They need no food. Instead, they feed off of knowledge.
- The extraterrestrials attacked us in search of our knowledge. They do not want us to have theirs. It is why all study of the outside universe had been banned. The Treaty was set in place to keep them at bay and us safe from their attacks.
- The extraterrestrials will be provided with new knowledge once a year via a package sent to the moon. Each government is responsible for providing its own package. The governments that fail to provide a package will be punished.
- In each package, new items will be included for the extraterrestrials to study so that they may feed. These items consist of plant and animal lifeforms, technology, and other earthly items. A male and female from under each governments' rule are sent as well.
- Each government is responsible for including their own human candidates. Age, weight, and background do not matter. Criminals are allowed to be sent.
- The candidates chosen yearly will be sent within the package for the extraterrestrials. They will be collected by the government via their choice of method and placed into the moon-bound rocket.
- The candidates should not expect to return.
Eight rules, although the eighth had always proved to be the most amusing to me. The candidates should not expect to return. Twelve years of the package being sent, twelve years of the unfortunate humans not returning, yet people always hoped. They always hoped. It was the one thing the Explosions hadn't destroyed.
Setting my empty glass down, I wipe my mouth with the back of my hand. Twirling around on the barstool, I survey the dusty interior of Tanner's restaurant. Those within. It's unlikely any of us will be chosen, not with the entire population of the country.
Leaning on the counter, Tanner appears to be thinking the same thing, because he says, "Makes you glad the Democracy chooses by random, doesn't it? Poor saps in Old-Russia who get plucked up because of their social status."
I grin. "If the Democracy did that, you'd be in space right now."
"And you right beside me, Amia," Tanner bellows, slapping my shoulder. His mirth quiets down when he whispers, "My cousin says they've already drawn by our social security numbers. You shouldn't worry. It's an old man hundreds of miles from us and some young girl, your age actually, who lives down in those marshes. No one here. Doubt it ever will be."
My age. I swallow, trying to imagine someone my age being sent up with the package. It's an unbearable thought, so I swallow, disguising my discomfort with a laugh. "There was Hector, though."
Tanner nods, remembrance lighting his features. "Hector, that old bat. I'd forgotten about him. That crazed fool who waited every year to go up. Thought it was some kind of honor."
I raise my arms, letting our a mock cheer of excitement and collecting many half-hearted glances from surrounding tables. "What an honor! Feed the aliens with our surplus of overflowing knowledge! Serve your country by keeping it safe!"
Tanner joins me, the two of us cheering as if we were watching the most exciting ball game in the world. "Aye," he shouts. "My knowledge! Them extraterrestrials can have it! I'm not putting it to much use!"
Our party of two ends when a man at the far end of the bar calls for a refill and Tanner must get back to work. Before he does, he clasps my shoulder a final time. "Don't you worry. It won't be you in that rocket."
"Won't be you, either," I tease, shoving his hand away. "They'd have no knowledge to collect from you."
His laugh shakes the bar and I stand up to leave, tucking my money under my empty water glass. Worry? No, I'm not like the fools in the square, gaping up at the reminders of what tomorrow will bring. I'll have to stand in front of those screens tomorrow as it is, watching as the leader of the Democracy reads off the two names. The names that now, thanks to Tanner, I can rest peacefully knowing aren't me.
Yet some part of me, a dark part, a twisted part that I know for certain no one else has, wishes that they'd call my name. If only for the sake of the extraterrestrials feeding off my knowledge, feeling exactly what they did to me when they took away my Mama.
The square is already packed when I arrive, nervous whispers racing throughout the crowd. The gun tucked into my waistband presses into my skin. I bring it every year, just in case. In case Tanner's cousin was misinformed. The candidates aren't searched. I know this because Hector was able to get away with several packages of food strapped to his legs and arms for the journey.
Last I saw him, on the footage of him and the other candidates boarding the rocket, the bulging bags of Doritos were still visible beneath his jacket.
The gun is an added precaution. One that, if the time came, I don't know what I'll do with it but it's nice to have regardless. It was Mama's because sometimes those marshes we lived in could get real spooky. Nothing compared to this, though. Nothing compared to this.
My fingers dance briefly over the barrel as those in the square turn to face the screen- a final moment of comfort before the dreaded moment. There was talk weeks ago, about the Democracy planning to make this day a holiday next year. About the candidates' families being rewarded for their noble sacrifices.
I scoffed when I heard it, the Democracy fitting to make the one day a year everyone hates a celebration. It's just like them to do something like that. Now, however, I can't help but wonder who would get paid should I be chosen. Maybe Tanner. He's the closest thing to family I have left.
I spot him as the screens flicker to life, halfway across the square. He'd lugged out his dishes, setting to washing them. It's a small decision, but one that shows exactly how he feels about the ceremony. A waste of time.
Above, the leader of the Democracy fades into view. His hair his slicked back- or what's left of it is- and he clears his throat. Wets his lips. A fleck of saliva lands on the camera, obscuring the uppermost corner of his shiny head.
Opening a thin, blue envelope, he clears his throat again. "Male- River Patterson. Age- 62. Please remain where you are. Authorities are here to escort you to the rocket."
Ah, yes. The authorities. Silent-faces, statue-still men that arrive one day a year to stand in our square. To collect a candidate in the off-chance someone is chosen. Just like the rest of us, they don't know who it will be. But, orders are orders, and they have brought a gray military vehicle all the same. One to escort the candidate, if there should be one, to the rocket.
The Democracy's leader turns his attention to the second, and final, envelope. Thin and pink. He opens it, wetting his lips. "Female- Amia Gregory. Age- 21. Please remain where you are. Authorities are here to escort you to the rocket."
Suddenly, my legs won't work. All faces in the square swivel towards me. Towards my face, which has broken out in a sweat that I know isn't from the summer sun. I gasp for breath, clutching my chest. Then my mother's locket. I don't touch the gun, for fear the authorities will notice it and take it away.
They're closing in fast now, from all directions, anticipating a runner. They won't get one. Not from me. I can't move. I can't breathe. Through the hushed people, the ones that view me with more relief than pity, I glimpse Tanner. He's abandoned his dishwashing, shoving around it, and the water tips over with a splash. Wetting the feet of those who stand too close to it.
He's faster than the authorities and suddenly, I am too. I rush toward him, and him toward me, heaving his way past the whispers of human life. Reaching me, he pulls me into an embrace, tears already starting to leak from his crinkled eyes.
"I'm sorry, Amia. My cousin must have heard it wrong. If I'd know, I'd have warned you. Helped you escape."
But his cousin hadn't heard wrong, not really. A girl my age- me. Who lived down in the marshes- also me. Past me, but still me. Oh, if Mama could see me now!
I grip to Tanner, to his sturdy frame, as the authorities arrive. They wrench me away and he bellows, swinging toward him. Trying to get me back, and I find my voice.
"No! Don't! Let me go!" Let me go. Let me go. The words echo in the ears of those that fill the square, those that make way for the authorities as they lug me back toward the truck. The truck that had unwillingly become my death sentence. Throwing me inside, the metal doors close with a bang. Cutting off Tanner. Cutting off my world. Cutting off what little fragments of life I have left.
The rocket's interior is dark, and while the other candidates around me struggle to see, I don't. I know there's nothing to see. It's all the same stuff that was boarded on beside us.
In the blackness, a cow moos, a melancholy, drawn-out sound. It's accompanied by several baaing sheep. Dogs, whining as they scratch at the interior of their pens. Us candidates aren't in pens. We don't need to be. There's nowhere for us to run.
Several of the others cry, ranging from sniffles to wracking sobs, but I don't. I can't find it in me to cry. Emptiness. Hollowness. That's what fills me. And a spark, one I didn't expect to have. One that is the same as yesterday- was it only yesterday- when I left Tanner's restaurant.
Anger. Pure, unbridled resentment directed toward the extraterrestrials. First, they took my Mama. They robbed her right from my small, innocent hands. Now, they've taken what little normalness I'd managed to construct. Now, they were going to take my life.
And I hated them for it.
In the darkness of the rocket, the gun makes it from my waistband into my sweaty palms. I feel it over, clenching my jaw. Then, I cock it.
They already took my Mama. Now they were going to get me.