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The blaze of white light yanked me out of a sound sleep.
"Wha—!" I shot up in bed, staring around me.
In the sudden blast of brightness, all the colors seemed bleached out of my room. From my posters, gray-skinned rock stars glared at me like squirming butterflies pinned to the wall.
For an instant my room had looked like a photographic negative, as if the flash sucked the color out of everything it touched.
Weird. I'd never seen anything like it.
The night winked black again. I stared into the darkness, red spots dancing in front of my eyes. "What was that?" I wondered, feeling a tingle of fear in my blood.
I jumped. It was thunder, of course. First you see the lightning, then you hear the thunder. It was a storm, had to be, right? Still, it didn't sound right. But as the shuddering noise faded, I couldn't say what seemed wrong. Just something ... odd.
Maybe it was only that I'd been woken up suddenly. Maybe there was enough of a dream left in my head to make my room look weird and strange in the night shadows.
It was only a stupid dream, Nick. Go back to sleep.
I started to slide back under the covers when—FLASH!—another bolt of lightning ripped across the sky. The glare burst across my room and zigzagged down the wall like a laser beam.
The thunder ripped through the night like an explosion. A bolt of lightning must have hit something nearby! Jumping out of bed, I ran to the window.
What I saw amazed me.
There was an odd, pulsing glow in the sky, in the direction of Harley Hills.
Harley Hills. Nobody lived out that way, nobody even went out into those hills much, for some reason. The whole area was kind of lonesome and spooky.
I shivered a little, peering into the weird glow, trying to see what could be making it. Could it be a fire? But there wasn't much to burn in the Harley Hills. There were hardly any trees out there, just rock.
ZAP! Suddenly another jagged burst of lightning flashed so bright it hurt my eyes. I jerked back from the window, momentarily blinded. Blinking to clear away the glary spots, I leaned forward to look out again.
Over Harley Hills, the clouds were glowing like old-fashioned lanterns with flames dancing inside. They were rolling and pitching on top of one another, as if they were alive.
This was no ordinary summer thunderstorm.
The hairs prickled along the back of my neck. The air in my room seemed to stir and grow colder.
Suddenly an icy hand grabbed the back of my neck.
Evil laughter cackled in my ear. Cold, bony fingers gripped tighter on my neck.
I whipped around, knocking the hand away and a dark figure darted just out of my reach.
It was my twin sister, and she was holding both hands against her mouth to stifle her laughter.
"Very funny, Jess," I said, rubbing my neck. "Your hands are freezing," I added, as if the coldness was the only reason I had almost jumped out of my skin. "You'd better check and make sure you've got blood in your veins and not ice water. Or antifreeze."
"Very funny," said Jessica, coming to stand next to me at the window. "The lightning woke me up, but Mom and Dad are still sleeping. Mom didn't even get up to check the windows."
"It's not raining," I pointed out.
"I know," said my sister. "That's what's so strange."
The wind whipped through the trees in the backyard, but the air was so dry it seemed to crackle. Was it my imagination or was the strange glow over Harley Hills growing brighter?
"This is the weirdest thunderstorm I ever saw," breathed Jessie.
"You think it's weird because you're weird!" I taunted her.
Jessie grinned and whacked me with a pillow she snatched off my bed. I dove around her and grabbed the other pillow, but Jessie had already jumped quick as a flash out of my reach.
We were twelve and even though we were twins we didn't look anything alike. Jessie was skinny and quick and looked like Mom. She had shiny brown hair and big brown eyes and a short straight nose she stuck into everybody else's business.
I aimed the pillow at her face and heaved.
As for me, everybody says I look like my dad. That means sandy hair, blue eyes, and freckles. I was hoping someday I'd have his big, broad shoulders, too. I was bigger boned than Jess, but it was only last year I finally grew as tall as her.
Jessie caught the pillow I threw at her in midair. Now she had two. I started to duck when suddenly both of us froze. Light blazed through the window. Only this time it didn't flash like lightning and it was whiter than sunlight.
There was no thunder, just silence.
"Awesome!" Jessie whispered, her eyes open wide.
I looked out the window. What I saw made me gasp in amazement.
During our pillow fight, the strange, glowing clouds I'd seen over Harley Hills had moved closer. Much closer. Now they were directly over our house.
"What is it?" Jessie asked fearfully. "How can clouds be lit up like that? It's like they're on fire!"
"And they're all massed together in a bunch," I said, trying to keep my voice from trembling. "As if they're hiding something."
Even as I spoke, a dark shape moved deep inside the clouds.
"Nick, do you hear something?" asked Jessie.
Yes. It was a low, rumbling noise, like someone was pressing the lowest note on a church organ. The sound was so deep we could feel it more than hear it, like a vibration in our bones.
"Oooh. It makes my heart flutter," whispered Jessie.
I nodded. The sound had worked its way into my chest, too, and my stomach felt queasy.
We stared out the window as the dark shape swirled like a whirlpool inside the cloud, getting blacker by the second.
"I'm scared," said Jessie in a little-girl voice that made me shiver.
Suddenly, in the middle of the black spot, the clouds cracked open and rain poured down.
"Ow!" yelped Jessie as a fat drop hit her square in the eye. She stumbled back from the open window. "I'm blind!"CHAPTER 3
I slammed down the window as huge drops of rain battered against it. I'd never seen such a deluge. It was like the clouds were dumping a waterfall right on top of us.
"Are you okay, Jessie?" I asked, turning quickly to my sister.
She was wiping the water out of her eye. "I'm fine," she said, blinking. "When it hit me, the rain made my eyes sting."
Suddenly Jessie's face brightened as she stared past me. "Look!" she said, pointing out the window. "Fireflies!"
She was right, the rain did look like fireflies, like each separate drop was glowing under its own mysterious power. We pressed up against the window, too mesmerized to be scared.
The whole backyard was bathed in strange rosy light that twinkled and sparkled as the raindrops splashed all around. As the drops landed on our old swing set, they left lines of eerie light as they rolled down. Each grass blade on the lawn gave off a luminous shine. The trees dripped sparkles.
"Way cool!" I said. "It's like St. Elmo's fire."
"St. whosie's what?"
"St. Elmo's fire," I repeated. "That's what sailors in olden times called this strange glowing light they used to see on the ocean or sometimes on the mast of their ship. They thought it was some kind of curse or magic but it's just a form of static electricity—like the sparks you get on a dry day when you brush your hair. Nothing to be afraid of."
"Afraid? Are you saying I'm afraid?" Jessie stuck out her lower lip and frowned at me.
I grinned back at her. "You're a girl," I said. "Girls are supposed to be scared."
She drew herself up and glared at me. "No way!"
"I'm your twin," Jessie reminded me. "If I'm scared, then so are you."
She was right. Lots of times we did share feelings. She was right about something else, too. I was kind of scared. But I was even more excited than I was afraid. I wanted to know what was going on with these glowing clouds that weren't like any storm clouds I'd ever seen.
"There's only one way to prove you're not scared," I said.
"What's that?" By the angry glow in her eyes, I could see Jessie would take any challenge.
I had to raise my voice a little to be heard above the pounding rain. "We go outside."CHAPTER 4
The kitchen was filled with strange, flickering light from the glowing rain.
"It's totally weird that Mom and Dad could sleep through this," said Jessie, peering doubtfully out the back door at what looked like a wall of shining water. "Maybe we should wake them," she suggested.
"Yeah, and maybe they wouldn't let us go outside. Maybe you'd like that," I said sarcastically.
Just as I had hoped, she got all huffy and yanked open the door. "We're going to get wet," Jessie predicted, hunching her shoulders. But even as she spoke, the rain stopped, as if it had been turned off with a switch. As if whatever caused this weird storm wanted us to go outside.
I stepped past Jessie and walked out into the night.
Every twig and leaf, every line of the house and our old rusting swing set was outlined in zingy light, like neon. Pearls of light still dripped from the trees. It was beautiful—but something about it made my skin crawl.
"Oh, no," cried Jessie. "It's going away."
She was right. The light was beginning to fade. It went slowly, like a flashlight with a dying battery.
Jessie darted back into the kitchen and grabbed an empty glass jar, the kind we used to use for catching fireflies. She stooped and began to scoop up some of the rainwater from the grass. "Maybe if we seal it up we can keep some of the glow inside," she said, screwing on the cap and shaking the jar to watch the light slosh up the sides.
I knelt down and ran my finger through a fading puddle. The water was cool. I put my finger to my lips to taste it. The rainwater had an odd but not unpleasant taste. Kind of like cinnamon.
"Don't, Nick!" warned Jessie. "Better not taste that stuff. It could be some kind of pollution. Like acid rain, only worse."
She was right. Jessie often was. She had a sensible streak. But, of course, it was too late. I spit on the ground but still felt the spicy flavor on my tongue.
"Look," cried Jessie. "The clouds are going away!"
Above our house the sky was clear and stars were visible. The big mass of clouds, clumped up like piles of cotton candy, was moving back toward the hills. The glow was fainter. I had the funniest feeling that we had imagined the whole thing.
But when the clouds reached Harley Hills they seemed to settle over the top of the highest peak. And then the spooky hills began to glow as if there was a fire deep inside the earth.
The hairs stood up all over my body.
"What's going on?" I breathed to nobody in particular.
"Could it be a reflection from the clouds doing that?" Jessie wondered.
"Maybe," I said. "But I've got a real strange feeling it's something much weirder than just a reflection in the clouds."
"What do you mean?" Jessie asked.
"Maybe we just had a visitor," I said. "A visitor not of this earth."CHAPTER 5
Inside our house it was as silent as a tomb. Jess and I crept up the stairs, careful not to wake Mom and Dad, and went to our rooms.
Before shutting her door, Jess glared at me and whispered, "You're just trying to scare me, right?"
There were times when we tried to scare each other, but this wasn't one of them. When I got back inside my room, I pulled the shades down. The last thing I wanted to do was lie there in the dark with the glow from Harley Hills reflected on the walls. Making my room look strange and creepy.
Just to make sure, I pulled the blanket over my head and squeezed my eyes shut. Go to sleep, I told myself. When you wake up everything will be back to normal.
Except I never got back to sleep.
Lying there with my head under the covers, I could hear every little thing inside our house. The bed-creak noise as my sister tossed and turned in her room. A faucet drip ... drip ... dripping in the bathroom. The refrigerator cycling on and off in the kitchen. The creaking of a door hinge.
Wait. A door hinge? That meant somebody was up and moving around. And yet I hadn't heard footsteps, so how could anybody be opening a door?
A small, muffled thump came from somewhere downstairs on the first floor.
I sat bolt upright in bed, straining to hear.
Thump ... thump ...
There it was again. A noise I'd never before heard at night. I listened so hard my ears seemed to get hot. So why was I shivering?
Thump ... thump ...
Someone was in my house. Or something.
At just that moment my bedroom door opened silently.
It was here, in my room. Coming to get me.CHAPTER 6
"Nick, do you hear that?" my sister hissed.
She was wrapped in her blanket; that's why she'd looked so strange coming through the door.
Thump ... thump ...
The faint noise was still there, coming from downstairs.
"What do you think it is?" I asked.
"I was hoping you'd know," Jessie whispered. "I think we should wake Mom and Dad."
Why hadn't I thought of that? What were parents for, if not to check out scary noises in the night? My dad would grab his flashlight and go to investigate and then in a few minutes he'd come back upstairs and announce it was nothing. A loose shutter. A tree brushing the side of the house. Nothing to worry about.
Just thinking about my parents made me feel better.
"We'll go wake them right now," I said, getting out of bed.
Jess followed me to their bedroom door.
Knock-knock. "Dad!" I hissed. "Mom!"
I tried knocking louder. No one answered, so I pushed open the door and entered. This was an emergency. We had to wake them up.
"Oh, no," Jessie said quietly. "What do we do now?"
The bedroom was empty. Mom and Dad weren't there.
Thump ... thump ...
The noise was slightly louder when I got to the top of the stairs. There was no choice. We had to go down and check it out.
Something was deeply wrong. First, the eerie storm, the strange clouds over Harley Hills, the rain that glowed in the dark. Then our parents disappearing from their room. No way could we just ignore everything and go back to sleep.
So I started down the stairs. Jessie was right behind me, hanging on to my pajama top. I knew she was scared, but it made it easier, having her there.
Thump ... thump ...
Something about that noise was familiar, but I couldn't put my finger on it.
"It's not coming from the kitchen or the living room," Jess whispered when we got to the bottom of the stairs.
No, it was coming from somewhere deeper. I thought I knew where, and just the idea of it made me shiver.
Thump ... thump ...
The muffled noise was coming up through the floor. From deep in the basement.
"Maybe it's the furnace," I said. "The furnace makes weird noises sometimes, right?"
"Not like that," said Jess. "And how come Mom and Dad aren't in their bedroom? Something bad has happened, Nick."
"It's probably nothing," I said. But I didn't believe it.
"There's only one way to find out," suggested Jess.
"Right," I said. "Let's do it."
We headed for the basement door, with me leading the way. I was acting brave on the outside, but inside my stomach felt like a chunk of frozen roadkill.
The basement door was at the end of the hallway. I tried flicking on the hall light, but it was burned out. I knew, because I was supposed to change the bulb, but had never got around to it. Served me right, having to come down here in the dark.
Thump ... thump ...
"It's louder," whispered Jess.
She was right. It was louder and it was definitely coming from deep in the basement.
I stopped short right at the door. My sister bumped into me from behind, almost knocking us both down. "Careful!" I hissed.
Cautiously I put my ear against the door panel.
Thump ... thump ...
The noise was clear as a bell. And I was pretty sure I knew what it was. The sound a shovel makes as it scoops up the dirt.
Someone was down there in the basement, digging.CHAPTER 7
It was Jessie who opened the basement door. For some reason my hand wouldn't work—probably because it was shaking so much.
That's the noise the hinges made as the door swung open. Beyond the doorway, the stairs led down into the darkness.
THUMP ... THUMP ...
It was much louder and very distinct. The sound of a shovel chewing into the earth.
Excerpted from Strange Invaders by Rodman Philbrick, Lynn Harnett. Copyright © 1997 Rodman Philbrick and Lynn Harnett. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted December 4, 2000