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When I was in the third grade on the California coast, a crazy man came into my classroom one day and started waving a knife around. He said he was an alien hunter. He had a purple blotch on his face that was shaped exactly like Mexico, and his eyes were wild. Help came before he could hurt anybody, but he left scars all the same.
I was so petrified I don't remember a thing after that, until I saw Gramps holding out his arms to me. He lifted me from the couch in the principal's office, where I lay curled up, and held me close. He smelled like freshly baked bread.
And that was the day my nightmares started.
At the end of that school term, Mom quit her job at the university, where she taught astronomy, and found a new one at another university, in North Carolina. A moving van carried our belongings across the country, but Mom, Gramps, my brother, David, and I spent five amazing days and nights traveling in our car, taking in the sights of America.
In North Carolina we were thrilled to pieces with our own seven-acre plot of land surrounding the farmhouse Mom had bought for us. Locally it was called the old Fischer place, for the family who'd lived there for years and years before us. There were apple trees and lots of blackberry bushes, a grape arbor, a weeping cherry tree, and I don't know what all.
I barely remember Daddy, who died when I was three. From then on, Gramps, who is my mom's father, tended our house and took care of us. David and I never knew Grandmama, because she died before we were even old enough to have a memory. Gramps, in his sixties, was still as energetic and feisty as a boy. He took good care of himself through a healthy diet and exercise, and because of that, he seemed much younger than he was. At times, in fact, when asked his age, he actually fibbed, subtracting five years or so, and he got away with it.
My mother was the best mom in the world. She was strong like a rock, sweet, smart, and pretty too, but it was Gramps I turned to when I needed help or comfort or affection, probably because he was always available. Gramps was also a wannabe artist. In California he stayed at home and happily painted his pictures when Mom, David, and I were at school. Sometimes he sold his stuff at arts festivals for a few dollars each. But now that we were older, and living in a new place, he wanted to walk out into the world a bit, as he put it. So that first September he began teaching art to high school students in the small town near us. Next door to the high school were the lower schools, where David and I enrolled. Mom's new job was only thirty minutes away. So there we were, a happy bunch of campers in our new home.
The next spring we sowed our seeds in the ground and watched them sprout and grow into living plants that made tomatoes and cucumbers for us, along with green peppers, corn, and melons. We got good vibes from the earth and spent every hour possible outside. Another planting season flew by, and now it's spring again. David and I are practically all grown up, as I am finishing the sixth grade and he the eighth.
The nightmares that started for me in the third grade eased up over the years, but at certain times I still feel like that little girl who was so scared and helpless, she wet her pants. I see things in the shadows, and when I round a corner, I halfway expect something hideous to jump out at me. I also hear noises under my bed and in my closet.
Some shrink told Mom that it's common for a person to carry a thing like this forever. That doesn't exactly make me feel any better. It doesn't help either having a brother who is perfect--one who works out complicated math problems just for the fun of it, and beats the computer in chess. Yeah, David's so middle-aged he makes me sick, and do you think he's ever been afraid of anything at all? I don't think so.
I've come to the conclusion that I'm sure about only one thing in my life, and that is that I want to be able to do something--anything--that my brother can't do. At least, I want to do it better than he does. Will that ever happen?
Now at school a new buzz has started. You know the way things go around. One year you'll have stories about witchcraft, and who might be a witch and who might be a vampire or a werewolf. One year there's a ghost in somebody's house, or at one of the umpteen cemeteries in our little town. Everybody has a hair-raising story to tell you at lunch break. And this year, wouldn't you know? It's UFOs.
"There are aliens among us," the kids whisper, because teachers don't want to hear junk like that.
"They are here to take over the earth."
"If we don't get them first, they'll get us."
My very best friend is Kitty--short for Kathryn--Singer, a tiny, sparkly African American girl who always wears purple. I love her to pieces, but I gotta tell you she has an imagination that won't quit. Maybe it's because both her parents are librarians, and the whole family reads tons of stories, sci-fi and otherwise. They also watch every movie that comes along, no matter how far-out.
On a golden Saturday in May, Kitty and I are picking strawberries from our patch when she says to me, "Did you know the aliens come in the middle of the night when you're sleeping, and suck your soul out through your big toe? Then you become one of them, and you don't even know it. You go on living regular until one day they make you do evil things."
"Suck out your soul through your big toe? Kitty, you've been watching way too much sci-fi."
From the Hardcover edition.