1. The act of looking up at the night sky and wondering if something more is out there.

2. Looking at the night sky with the uncanny feeling that something is looking back.




Chapter One

It was a clear night, no clouds veiling the sky. The farmhouse was sleeping, everything absolutely still but the moonlight, which passed through the cracks in the blinds and between the curtains. It peered in between the cracks of the bookshelf—dimly illuminating The Great Gatsby and A Collection of Frost Poetry for a moment. Everything gleamed grey in the odd light, but in daytime the walls and carpet would have been blue. The light shone on the desk, glinting dimly off the Advanced Literature textbook, making the brass handles on the drawers twinkle a little. The light traveled across the surface of the bedside table, over the alarm clock that read 2:15, up the side of the bed. It spread over the faded comforter, crept across the creases and depressions, around the figure of a sleeping girl. The light touched her peaceful face, casting a silvery radiance on her features. She turned over restlessly as the light hit her eyes, hiding from the brightness as she tried to fall asleep again.

            The persistent glow finally made her open her eyes in frustration, rubbing them so she could see her room. For a second, she thought she’d left her own light fixture on, but she saw the bulb was dark. That couldn’t just be moonlight – it was far too bright. It was never this bright at night, especially with her blinds drawn. Was it a flashlight or a lantern pointing up at her window? No, it wasn’t just a small point of light, it completely flooded the room. Could it be a car’s headlights? No, it was too bright for that too, and it seemed the source must be bigger than that, with the way it spread everywhere.

            For a moment, all she could grumble in her head was, what are they doing, flashing that light at this hour? Don’t they know this is a house full of sleeping people? Of course, she had no idea who “they” were, but her irritation was directed at whatever the cause of this disturbance might happen to be. Her annoyance was much fiercer due to her exhaustion, and she vaguely realized that she’d be embarrassed of her resentment in the morning.

            Groggily, she sat up in bed and pulled the blinds. She squinted, struggling to see where it could be coming from. It was impossible to see the source of the unexplained brilliance—whatever was the cause, it was on the other side of the house. She knew she would be unable to sleep until the mystery was solved.

She pulled on her pink bathrobe and slid on her slippers. She snuck down the hall, pausing to listen. Had anyone else been awakened? Her mother still snored; her brother still mumbled in his sleep. The girl laughed to herself silently for expecting anything different. Her sister’s room was silent, which meant everyone in the house but she had not been disturbed.  Wincing every time a stair creaked, she made her way to the first floor, her slippers scuffing against the linoleum floor with a squeaking sound. The white light leaked around the edges of the door as she grasped the handle and pulled.

            Stepping onto the porch, she looked around. There was no sign of anything unusual except for the light flooding the property. The long, waving fields of corn, the rusted fence, the pickup truck in the driveway, the chipped barn across from the drive; nothing was amiss.

            Or was it? She couldn’t help but feel uneasy. The eerie light put everything into sharp definition, casting ethereal shadows.

Something was not right. A light breeze rippled through the corn, making it rustle slightly, like whispers.  The rusty gate was unlatched, and it began to sway on its hinges with a high squeak, like a phantom was opening it. She felt a prickling on the back of her neck—despite the warm night, she could feel her goose bumps.

            She was about to turn back and go inside, when something huge moved near the side of the barn. The light moved, too, and flashed into her eyes. She couldn’t find her voice to scream, and the shadow came over her; she began to feel dizzy….


            She awoke in bed, her eyes heavy and the room completely dark. She closed her eyes again and rolled over with a small laugh, relieved it had been a dream. Her eyes snapped open when she realized that she wasn’t in her own bed. She sat upright in shock, staring wildly around her, waiting for her eyes to adjust.

            Where am I? She thought frantically. She couldn’t remember anything after the shadow had come over her. How did I get here? What happened? Am I in a hospital or something? Did someone bring me here? What time is it? How long have I been here? Why can’t I remember? Terror gripped her. Her limbs were paralyzed with fright for a moment—but then she rushed into hectic action. She felt along the walls for a light switch – they felt oddly smooth, like the walls were made of plastic. Finally, she flicked the light on and looked around the room.

            Everything was blue. Even the light – which was actually a tube that ran the edges of the room – was blue, casting an eerie illumination on the room. The room itself, only ten or so feet long, was unremarkable. A blue desk was pushed against one wall, with a shelf of books above it. Against another wall sat a chest of drawers, with a mirror propped against it. Everything, even the bed frame, seemed to be molded out of some kind of plastic. It reminded her vaguely of her own room, but it was completely different. The place was absolutely benign, yet it filled her with panic.

            She noticed the door had no handle.

            She went to it and tried to slide it open, but no amount of effort could force it in any direction. In desperation, she put her back against it and pushed, but it was no use. She slid to the floor in defeat. When she opened her eyes, she caught sight of the far wall, and gasped out loud: the wall was made entirely out of glass, and what lay beyond it took her breath away.

            All she could see was a vast void of black, spangled with millions of stars. She looked up, she could only see stars; she looked down, she could only see stars. Somehow, impossibly, she was in outer space. Then she saw a marble – swirling white and blue. She cried out in anguish as she realized she was leaving Earth – her home – farther and farther behind her.

            That was too much. She broke down and started to cry.

            Where am I? She thought again desperately. What am I going to do? There’s got to be some mistake! I’m supposed to be at home, in bed!

            She leaned against the window and closed her eyes. She dried her tears on the sleeve of her robe. How had she gotten here? Someone must have brought her here, surely. But why? Instantly, she was alarmed again. What could they possibly want with her? Where were they taking her?

            “Hello,” said a quiet murmur from behind her. “Pretty, isn’t it?”

            She spun around, her eyes wide. Standing a few feet from her was a tall figure. It was too dark to see the person’s face, but their silhouette stood thin and wiry. She hadn’t heard the door open, or the stranger’s footsteps; she couldn’t help but back away in fear.

            “I’m sorry,” whispered the voice, the figure taking a hasty step back. It seemed to be a male voice, and—despite its gentle tone—it did not reassure her. She still stared at the silhouette with wide eyes. “I didn’t mean to frighten you.”

            “Where am I?” she breathed.

            “On my ship,” replied the voice. Then he revised, “Well, actually, it’s not really mine, I only borrowed it.”

            “Who are you? What do you want from me?”

            “Please don’t be afraid,” said the voice kindly.  “I won’t hurt you, I promise. My name’s Ephraim.”

            “Why did you take me? Bring me back!” she choked.

“I’m sorry,” the voice said. “I can’t bring you back. Even if I wanted to, we’ve only got exactly enough fuel to make it back to my home.” His tone had an edge of inevitability in it.

            She burst into tears again. “I can’t go home?” she wailed.

            “Please don’t cry!” pleaded the voice. “Please. It’s alright.” The figure’s voice was desperate now, truly upset at her reaction. “Please, Clara, I’m not going to hurt you!”

            “H-how do you know my name?” she said through her tears, a repulsed shiver going through her. The person—Ephraim—spoke seriously.

            “I know a lot about you, Clara. I know that you’re seventeen years old, and your birthday is the first of August. I know you’ve got a sister named Molly, who is six, and a brother named Michael, who is twelve. Your parents are separated; you live with your mother on a farm in Iowa that we just left a few hours ago. And—“

            “How did you know all that?” Clara demanded in a whisper.

            The figure shrugged. “I’ve been watching you.”



Chapter Two


Clara blanched.  “Why?”

            “It’s complicated. It’ll take too long to explain now. But I will.  We’ve got plenty of time.” She could almost hear a smile in his voice, perfectly content with the idea.

“What do you mean?”

            “It takes about six of your earth months to get to my home,” he explained, unperturbed.  Clara’s mouth opened in horror, and the tears came again.

            “Six months?” she sobbed. “I can’t stay for six months!”

            “Don’t be upset, please,” Ephraim begged. His arms reached out, as if to comfort her (they shook slightly as he did so), but then he appeared to think better of it, and dropped them. The ship lurched for a moment.

            “I have to go to the control room,” the soft voice explained. “I need to re-check my coordinates…” He began to walk out of the room silently, but then turned back and said timidly, “I really am sorry, Clara.”

            Clara didn’t hear him leave. She had turned towards the window again, pulling her robe around her more tightly, her eyes still wide and petrified. Her pulse hammered in her neck, but she still felt inexplicably icy, her terror hollowing out her insides until she had nothing left—she had been kidnapped by some strange, alien being, she couldn’t escape, and she didn’t know how to get back, if it was even possible. And she had never been so far away from home.

            She stretched out her hand, pressed against the cold glass, as if to touch her home planet. It seemed so close, though it shrunk infinitesimally with each passing second.  She imagined her mother would be frantic at her empty bed. She wondered if they’d found out she was gone yet. Will I ever see them again?

            It dawned on her that this was absolutely impossible. This episode had to be a dream—or a hallucination—or something. Everyone knows there is no such thing as Martians, and the idea of an alien abduction was completely ludicrous. She couldn’t even remember how she’d gotten here—could it all be a bizarre, vivid nightmare? Her numbness had taken on a dreamlike quality—couldn’t she still be in bed, at home in Iowa, where she would soon be awakened by an alarm clock? When was the last thing she was sure to be real? She remembered seeing the eerie light, but that part had been so surreal, she could easily have been dreaming as she’d followed it outside. She tried to pinch herself, to do anything to wake herself up, to no avail; she was still facing this window in a spaceship guest bedroom.

            Another thought occurred to her: what if the light part was real, and when she’d blacked out, she’d never awoken? What if that was when the dream started? She could be lying in a hospital bed someplace, with the heart monitor beeping…or what if she wasn’t? She could be dead for all she knew! Her heart pounded as she panicked at this thought. The last thing she was certain to be real was tucking her little sister into bed, and reading her a story. She could remember washing the dishes that night—it felt like years ago already, like another life—and reading a book before she turned out the light. Had that been the last thing she’d ever done in her life? If she’d known she was going to die, she would have made more of an effort to be kind to everyone on the last day of her life, she would have told people she loved them, she would have--

            “Hey,” said a voice from behind her. “Don’t you want a better light?” All of a sudden, the room was bright with ordinary fluorescent light. “That’s better,” the voice continued. It was a feminine voice this time. Clara whirled around. This dream—as she decided for now that it must be; the alternatives were too frightening—was getting more and more bizarre by the minute.

            Standing in the doorway was a woman—she was human, or at least seemed to be.  She was a little strange-looking, however. A few things reminded Clara that this woman was not from Earth. She stood long and stringy, at least six and half feet tall. Her long hair that brushed her waist was so light a shade of red, it could almost be considered pink. Her skin, porcelain smooth, was paper-white and delicate-looking, like fragile tissue paper. She wore relatively tight-fitting, bland-colored clothes.

            But Clara could hardly notice any of this. She couldn’t stop staring at the woman’s eyes: they were enormous, at least twice the size of human eyes, but almond-shaped, like a cat’s. She also didn’t appear to have any pupils—no black to interrupt the mint green color, just pale irises that were overwhelming.

            “So you’re Clara.” The woman came into the room with a slow, casual pace, her arms folded, and her expression indecipherable. Then again, maybe it was impossible to read those enormous eyes. “I’m Ariana. I’m assuming you met my brother, right?”

            Clara cleared her throat nervously. “Ephraim’s your brother?”

            Ariana’s lips turned up at the corners. “Often I pretend otherwise, but yes, he’s my brother.”

            Clara shivered. “What do you want with me?” she asked, her voice quivering. “Are you going to experiment with me or something?” She twisted the sleeve of her robe as she spoke.

            Ariana snorted and rolled her pupil-less eyes. “You’ve seen too many science fiction films.” She shook her head and continued, “That’s Earth’s problem, you know: the media. It can create some awful stereotypes. It’s not really fair, you know.” She laughed lightly. “Poor, poor Earth creatures are just afraid of the unknown—not that I blame you, of course,” she added kindly, turning more serious, her smile disappearing. “But my brother was telling the truth when he said we wouldn’t hurt you. Really.” Her wide gaze was a little eerie-looking, but seemed perfectly honest. She pressed the tips of her spindly fingers—at least twice the length of a human’s—together as she surveyed Clara’s cowering form.

            Clara got the courage to speak. “Where are you from? Mars?” She shivered at the thought.

            “No,” laughed Ariana. “Don’t tell me you honestly believe in that kind of thing! Your scientists haven’t even found our solar system yet.” She moved to sit on the edge of the bed, and motioned for Clara to do the same. “But you and I aren’t that different, you know. In fact, billions of years ago, we used to live on a planet that was very similar to yours. That planet was destroyed a long time ago, but we—well, not me personally, but my race—escaped in a ship that found us a new solar system. But not before they saw that another one was created in its place—Earth. So, once the human race appeared, we started sending satellites to your planet, to see how it would develop. We learned your languages—or most of them, at least, your planet can be terribly complicated at times—and we’ve been keeping any eye on your people, since technically, you’re our cousins.” Her abnormally large eyes gleamed. “We’ve evolved a bit since we left, but then again, so have you.”

            “So…” Clara struggled to understand, her train of thought hindered by her anxiety. “So that’s what your brother meant when he said he’d been watching me? How he knew all those things about me?” A squirm of revulsion trembled in the pit of her stomach as she spoke, and it showed in her voice.

            For some reason, Ariana seemed particularly amused by this. She chuckled. “Kind of,” she said. Though she was a bit strange, Ariana put Clara much more at ease that anything else so far. “By the way,” Ariana went on, “I am sorry about him, and that we took you; I know that wasn’t very nice, but you have to realize—my brother doesn’t really understand Earth culture. He’s only been doing orbits for three years. I know a little more because I’ve been around your planet half my life,” she chuckled again. “But he’s inexperienced and immature. He may seem a little odd—believe me, no one knows that better than I do—but he doesn’t really mean any harm.”

            Clara decided not to comment. She wasn’t sure of what Ariana’s idea of “harm” was, as Clara had already been abducted and was being taken to a strange place for whatever unknown reason. Instead she asked, “Where are you taking me?”

            “To our home,” Ariana answered.

            “Which is…?”

            Ariana smiled; it looked odd with her huge eyes, but nevertheless, it was friendly. “We call it “Shiron”, which means home in our language.”

            But I don’t want to go there!

            “I’ll leave you alone now,” murmured Ariana. She jerked her head towards the far wall. “The bathroom’s that way. I’ll bring you some breakfast in an hour.” Her eyes tightened—was it in sympathy, Clara wondered? “I truly am sorry this happened to you,” she muttered, “but I swear I had nothing to do with it.” Before Clara could even blink, the door was closing behind her.

            She hadn’t noticed the door next to the bed. This one had a handle to slide it open. Inside there was everything—sink, toilet, shower, even a bathtub. They were a little oddly shaped compared to what she was used to, but everything was still recognizable. Glancing behind her with apprehension, she locked the door. The shower water was warm, too, and soothing, once she figured out how to turn the taps on. She almost forgot she was on a ship, deciding not to wonder how they got hot water in the middle of outer space.

            As she dried her hair with a fluffy white towel, she realized she had nothing else to wear but her nightgown and pink bathrobe. It could have been worse, she supposed. At least she was clean. For a few moments, she was able to calm herself—forgetting, for the time being, that she was being held against her will. The bathroom vanity had everything—toothbrushes, toothpaste, hairbrushes—but all the labels were in some strange language Clara didn’t recognize, and it took her a while to understand what each object was used for. (It was at least five minutes before she figured out that the toothpaste, which was completely liquid and didn’t taste like anything, was poured into a hole in the back of the toothbrush, which had no handle.) She tied her light brown hair back in a braid, and unlocked the door.

            A soft knock rapped on the bedroom door. “Can I come in?”

            It was Ariana’s voice. “Yes,” said Clara through the door. She hoped she wouldn’t have to see the other one again; the mystery surrounding him frightened her. After all, he was the one who had brought her here. Ariana stepped into the bedroom. So far, she hadn’t made Clara feel like she was in a prison—she was almost likable.

            Ariana had brought her normal Earth food—cereal and toast—much to Clara’s surprise. Ariana stayed in the room while she ate, but to Clara’s relief she didn’t watch—she looked in the opposite direction, out the window. Still, it made her extremely self-conscious, and she tried to eat as quietly as she possibly could. As soon as she was finished, Ariana left her alone again. Clara wondered what in the world they could possibly want with her. She fervently hoped they weren’t merely trying to gain her trust to lull her into a false sense of security—until they roasted her on a spit, or put her in a stew. Then again, they had done nothing to suggest they were anything but gentle, human-like creatures. But was it all just a façade?

            Then arose the problem that had bothered her before: Is this even really happening? Am I really in a spaceship headed for another universe, or am I in a coma someplace, dreaming strange things from the pain medicine? Worse, have I gone completely insane from the monotony of my life, and dreamed up a fanciful hallucination that I’m on an adventure?

            All of this thinking left Clara with her head spinning with worries. It didn’t matter that she had nothing to do; her stress kept her plenty occupied. She simply stared out the window at the dark emptiness, fidgeting with the sleeves of her robe. Earth was very small now.

            “Clara?” She jumped at the sound and inhaled sharply. She recognized the timid voice with horror. She turned around and got her first look at Ephraim, the strange creature who had brought her here.




Chapter 3

            Like his sister, he had a fairly human appearance. He nearly brushed the ceiling with his head at seven feet tall, with a build as gangling as a preying mantis. His skin radiated even paler than Ariana—so white that, under the fluorescent light, it almost hurt to look at him. He had white-blond hair and eyelashes. But his eyes were what made him appear very strange: they were even more overlarge than Ariana’s, so light a shade of blue that it was hard to tell they had any color at all, and they slanted up slightly. He didn’t have any pupils, either, adding to the hypnotic affect—she couldn’t look away from them.

            The icy color of his eyes made her shiver for a second, like they were freezing her insides.

            He was standing about a foot away from her, but stepped back at Clara’s response. She flattened against the wall, as far from him as she could get.

 “I’m sorry,” he said in the same anxious voice, yet again.  “I didn’t mean to startle you. I just wanted to see if you were alright.” His wide stare was set intently on her. He didn’t seem to need to blink.

            Clara couldn’t make any sound--Ephraim’s odd appearance did not help her nerves. He continued to fix his creepy, unblinking gaze on her, and when she didn’t speak, his long, spidery hands twisted together anxiously. He seemed to be trying to make himself smaller, wincing slightly.

            “Are you alright?” he asked, sounding genuinely concerned, his eyes crinkling at the corners. “I know you’re frightened, but you really can trust us.” His huge eyes now made him look strangely innocent. “I wouldn’t hurt you.”

            Mutely, Clara nodded slowly. It at least seemed that he meant it, whether it was true or not.

            Abruptly, he smiled, straightening up in obvious relief. “Good. Have you talked to Ariana yet?”

            Clara nodded again, more bravely this time.

            “I think she likes you,” he continued in his soft voice. “She’s not usually that friendly, to initiate an ordinary conversation, unless it’s someone she likes.”

            Clara finally found her vocal chords. “Why did you bring me here?” she asked in a small voice.

            Ephraim looked at her for a long moment, seeming to debate over whether he should be straightforward or not. “I’ll explain to you eventually,” he said at last. “But not now.”

            She gritted her teeth in frustration. Was that the only answer she was ever going to get? This is so unfair! Does he expect me to be alright after he kidnaps me, and now he doesn’t even have the decency to tell me why?  She swallowed all her tears and rhetorical questions, and asked one that she intended to get a real answer to. “How long did you say it takes to get to your home?”

            “Six months, he replied, untroubled.

            She knew it already, of course, but hearing it confirmed again sent another wave of despair over her. She squeezed her eyes shut and tried to block out all the light. Maybe when I open them, I’ll be back home. Maybe this is just a dream. Please, please let me be imagining this.

            She opened her eyes, and he was still there, his eyebrows pulled together in concern.

            “Are you sure you’re alright?” he asked cautiously.

            She nodded, but she could feel her eyes stinging. She didn’t want to cry in front of him again, but she had to swallow hard for a few minutes before she could speak, and even then, her voice was thick.

            “Can I please be alone?”

            She couldn’t look up at him, but she heard his sharp intake of breath. “Okay,” he said, but his voice was alarmed. She heard him stride towards the door quickly, but his footsteps paused there.

            “I…I really am sorry, Clara.”

            Then he was gone, and she was alone to cry as hard as she wanted to. She was crying harder than she ever had before, and she actually began to worry that she wouldn’t be able to stop. Finally, after what felt like hours of sobbing, she began to calm down. She doubted she had any tears left in her, but she struggled to breathe normally after hyperventilating. Her tears hadn’t dried on her face yet when a small knock came on the door.

            “Clara—can I please come in?”

            She couldn’t even answer, but he came in anyways. The second he caught sight of her red, swollen eyes, he rushed over to her, but hesitated when he reached her. He sat on the edge of the bed with her, but she slid farther away from him.

            “Oh, please don’t be sad, Clara,” he implored. “You might even like it there.”

            She wasn’t listening. She didn’t care how wonderful a place it could be; she wanted to go home.

            He looked hopefully at her, obviously trying to distract her. “It’s pretty different from Earth, but it’s nice. Do you want to hear about it?”

            The sound of his voice somehow helped her hold the tears in better, so she nodded. She didn’t really care what he said, she just wanted noise.

            He smiled abruptly at her response, and began to explain, talking quickly in his eagerness to distract her.

            “It’s like Earth in some ways, but not exactly…It’s even colder than your Alaska in the winter, and it’s always windy. But we’ll get there in the summer, so it won’t be that bad. By the time we arrive, the ice will have melted, and the sea thawed out.” He paused, pressing his white lips into a line. “In a lot of ways, I like Earth better. You have a very beautiful planet—it’s so much warmer than ours, and brighter. And there are different kinds of places. Shiron is mostly the same, everywhere.” He smiled again. “And I like Earth’s literature quite a bit. Especially your classics—they’re amazing! I wondered why you liked them so much, so I tried them out myself.” He glanced over at the bookshelf over the desk, and Clara followed his gaze—and realized that she recognized many of the titles and authors.

            “Shakespeare?” she asked incredulously. “Robert Frost? Jane Austen? Charles Dickens? Where did you get these?” She sniffed a little, and almost gave a watery smile, forgetting for the moment where she was.

            “Those are your favorites, aren’t they?”

            This was a little unsettling to Clara. Her enthusiasm faded. “What else do you know about me?” she whispered.

            “Lots,” responded Ephraim in an oddly innocent tone. “I know that your favorite color is blue. I know that you want to go to college, but you don’t have enough money. I know you get along with your little sister, but Michael annoys you. You write poems and stories that are very beautiful.” His eyes seemed to glitter at this. “My favorite one was the poem about the sky being like a cathedral. I wrote that one down. I wanted to remember it.”

            Clara felt like ice was pouring through her at the thought that he’d been watching her for some time. Thinking back, she tried to remember if there was anything she would be embarrassed about him seeing, but she couldn’t think of anything in specific at the moment. The feeling continued to bother her, though.

            She had to look away from his unblinking stare. It made her uneasy.

            She picked up a book that had no title and flipped it open.

            “It’s empty,” she said in surprise, “blank.”

            Ephraim nodded. “I figured you might want something to do for the next six months—they’re for you to write in.”

            “Oh.” Clara blinked in shock. “Um…thank you.”

            Ephraim just smiled. “Well, I better go,” he said, standing up. Then he looked back to her anxiously. “But…please feel better, Clara. Please?”

            She wrapped her arms around herself tightly, but said nothing as he left the room.




Chapter Four

            Clara sat back down on the bed, dazed. This bizarre, alien creature had not only kidnapped her from her home, but also seemed to know everything about her! She shuddered. This is going to be a very long six months, she thought bleakly, assuming that this is actually happening. Slowly, she began to come to the conclusion that this was real enough. There were so many details, and she could remember everything about her past—not at all like any dream that she had had before. Even if she was wrong, and it was happening in her head, it was real enough that she would have to deal with it for the time being. Right now it felt real. She felt far away from home.

            She turned back towards the window and saw that Earth was no longer visible. Another sudden surge of homesickness washed over her. Even if this place weren’t so strange, she would still want to go home! Six months…her mother would probably put up a search, but there would be nothing to find. Her family might think she’d died.  Or that she’d run away, or been kidnapped. The last, of course, was true, but this didn’t feel like an ordinary kidnapping. It was cruel, perhaps, that they had taken her away from home, but they were being kind to her. Where was the logic there?

            She found herself longing for it to be a couple of days ago—back when her life was monotonous and predictable, when she didn’t have to worry about whether she was ever going to see her home again.

            Clara’s thoughts spun in helpless circles again, and the moisture in her eyes brimmed over. She pulled a blanket from the bed around her tightly. Looking out at the endless universe, she felt very small. What’s going to happen to me?

            When she was tired of standing there, worrying, she crawled into bed and tried to fall asleep, praying that, if she did sleep, she would wake up in her own bed at home. Eventually she gave up on that hope: this nightmare wouldn’t end. She leaned her head against the wall, her cheek resting on the smooth, plastic surface, and she closed her eyes. Inexplicably, it brought to mind the plastic tube slide in the playground at her old kindergarten—where she had often retreated to when people were being mean to her…it had been her refuge many a time, and now the memory of it was soothing…

            Now she saw her house behind her eyelids. She thought of the little grove of trees at the edge of the fields, which were planted there to protect the crops from the wind. Though the wall felt nothing like it, she imagined that the surface under her cheek was really the rough bark of the maple tree. She could practically see the sunshine, green through the filter of the leaves, from beneath her lids, hear the chickadees and mockingbirds chirping in the branches, smell the moss… and then as she inhaled, thinking that she was recovering from her panic attack, she was rudely jolted to reality. The wall smelled nothing like nature—in fact, it had the distinct essence of disinfectant, like the doctor’s office, and it reminded her just how far away all those comforting places really were.

            She ended up crying herself to sleep.


            When she awoke, she wondered for a second why it was still so dark, and why her alarm hadn’t gone off. Then yesterday’s events caught up to her, and Clara nearly groaned out loud. There was no escaping it—this really wasn’t just a bizarre dream. This bizarre occurrence was actually happening, without a doubt. She flicked on her light, unready to face the day.

            This, at least, made her feel a bit better: being able to take a shower and clean herself up. The soaps with the foreign labels—covered in characters like Chinese writing, but more squiggly—smelled like some kind of citrus, not quite orange but not quite lemon. She wondered why such a small thing could give her so much satisfaction, and then she realized it was so simple: because she could have control over this one tiny thing, which made her feel like she may not be completely helpless.

            Then she sighed. She didn’t want to have to wear her nightgown every single day, especially if she couldn’t wash it. She opened the drawers of the dresser without hope.

            Much to her surprise, there were clothes in it. She reached in and pulled out an ordinary sundress, with blue flowers on it, crisp as new. There didn’t seem to be any pants, but, as Clara thought to herself as she pulled it on gratefully, it was better than wearing the same dirty pajamas for six months. It was a little loose, but it fit her just fine.

            She felt a little bit better than last night—she’s cried herself out now, and the sleep and the shower had brightened her outlook considerably. She even made her bed after she’d combed her hair out. Though she’d intended to stay far away from anything that creature had given her, eventually she gave in to temptation, slinking to the bookshelf and pulling out Pride and Prejudice. What luck: she had her favorite book to help her retain some bit of sanity. Her stubbornness caved in—she couldn’t stay away from this book.

            She looked up when Ariana entered with her food tray.

            “Hello,” Ariana smiled. “You look a bit better than yesterday.”

            Clara smiled halfheartedly. “Thanks.”

            “Good book?” asked Ariana conversationally, sitting on the edge of the bed. “I never did get much into British literature myself—I had enough trouble getting fluent in the modern English, let alone the older versions.”

            Clara smiled more naturally this time. “To each her own, I suppose. I like it.”

            Ariana smiled, too, seeming pleased to have engaged Clara in a cheerful conversation. It was apparent that she intended to keep away from the deeper topics.

            But Clara needed to know. “Are you ever going to explain why you brought me here?”

            Ariana looked at her for a long moment. “You’re going to need to hear that from my brother. It’s not really my place. Until he’s ready to tell you himself…no, I’m not going to. I’m sorry.”

            Clara ground her teeth together until she could contain her frustration. She pulled her feet onto the bed and hugged her knees. “That’s what everyone keeps saying. I miss my home.”

            “I know.” Ariana was quiet, too. “I miss my home, when I’m away.”

            “Then why do you leave?”

            “It’s my job,” she muttered. “And besides, I left because I couldn’t stand what was at home any longer. It’s hard, not wanting to be at home, with your family, not wanting to be protected any longer, but not wanting to be away, either, in the middle of the cold, uncaring universe.” Her lips twisted into a bitter smile. “When I was younger, I thought it would be…exciting to always be traveling among the stars, to go to a strange planet. It seemed like the adventure I needed, so I signed up to come to Earth. Home was driving me crazy—I was feeling so trapped, and my mother was determined to keep me that way—I could hardly resist the opportunity to get away!”

            Her faraway look at the window grew mistier, almost saddened, and she didn’t seem to remember Clara was even there. “But, about three months into it, I realized how lonely it is—to always be away from home. I mean, it’s not that home is better than the places you go, just that it’s home. It’s familiar.” She stared off into space, deep in thought. “I want to be on my own, to be independent. But I’m also afraid to be alone.  I’ve never told this to anyone, not even Ephraim. I don’t want to seem like a homesick little kid, because I really don’t need my parents anymore. But still…I’m homesick.”

            “Why are you telling me this?” Clara asked. “You hardly know me.”

            Ariana turned back to her and smiled. “Because you’re the only one who would understand how I feel about home,” she said.

            Indeed, Clara knew exactly how she felt…except she’d only had to feel that way for two days.

            Both of them were jerked out of their deep thoughts when a small beep sounded, like a watch alarm. “It’s my turn. I better go,” Ariana sighed. Seeing Clara’s quizzical look, she explained, “Ephraim and I switch off lookout duty, making sure the ship stays on course, thing like that.” She winced. “I hate having that responsibility—the huge ship, all in my hands. Ephraim’s a much better pilot.” Clara didn’t say anything.

            Clara’s optimistic mood had been shaken a little. Actually, it had just walked out the door with Ariana. She set her book down—even Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy couldn’t distract her. She stood by the window again, her arms wrapped around herself. Something small and red began to emerge from the corner of her window. Looking closer, she realized they were flying over Mars! It would take a while for it to glide completely into view, but there it was, Earth’s neighbor. Clara realized that she would be seeing things that no one else on Earth ever had, but she didn’t care. She didn’t want to be here.

            She stayed there for hours, eventually sitting on the floor, cross legged, with her forehead against the glass. She wasn’t even really seeing the empty black void out there, she just imagined the look that might appear on her mother’s face at her disappearance: the absolute fury, and after that, panic. She wondered when they would stop looking for her. She just sat there, shivering and unmoving. Eventually, Mars came fully into view, glowing red and angry—it didn’t look like a friendly planet to Clara, even through her blurry eyes, glazed with unshed tears.

            She wasn’t aware of exactly when she fell asleep, just that when she awoke, it was dark; someone had turned out the light and draped a blanket around her. Her consciousness was vague and unfocused, and she soon drifted off again.

            The next morning—if indeed it really was morning; it was impossible to tell without the sun in the sky—her routine began again. She could already feel a pattern beginning. Ariana brought her meals, Clara tried to immerse herself in one book or another, and she would go to sleep early, just for something to do. It continued the same way for a week. Clara never saw more of that creature who had brought her here, thankfully. But the lack of human contact (or conversation of any kind, for that matter) was beginning to wear on Clara. Ariana would sometimes stay for a few minutes to talk, but usually left as soon as Clara was finished with her meals. The silence, besides the quiet gliding of the ship, was pressing on her unbearably, and Clara often felt like talking to herself, just to hear something.

            Then, one day, something broke the pattern.




Chapter Five

            The door slid open—not the way Ariana opened it, swiftly and confidently—but a different way, slowly and tentatively. A very soft voice came through the half-open door.


            Oh, no! Not you. She shuddered, not wanting to see that unnervingly unblinking stare.

            Ephraim stepped into the room in a very hesitant way. Clara backed towards the wall, hoping he would leave. She couldn’t look at his eyes, so she focused lower: his long, white hands were tying themselves in knots. She cringed farther away from him.

            “Please, don’t!” he begged, reaching towards her consolingly. He stepped farther into the room, his pale eyebrows slanting up, walking slowly until he was a foot away from her. He reached out one hand to touch her, but she flinched away. This seemed to cause him more pain than anything else.

            “Please,” he said in a tormented whisper. “Please don’t be afraid of me.” His eyes were so perfectly innocent and sad; she almost felt a small twinge of pity for hurting him. He came a few steps closer, so they were only about a few inches apart. “I don’t want you to be afraid of me,” he said. He bit his lip, his voice becoming thick. “I don’t want you to hate me. I’m sorry, Clara. Please, please don’t hate me.” Clara couldn’t speak. He went on unsteadily.

            “I know you’re probably pretty lonely,” he looked around the small room as he spoke, and then turned his gaze back to her. “So, if you want somebody to talk to, I’ll be here. If you want, we could be friends.” Though he didn’t smile, his widening eyes here made him seem hopeful.

            “When we get back to—to your planet,” stammered Clara. “Then can I go home?”

            Ephraim swallowed hard. “Go back? To Earth?”

            “Can’t I go home?” she begged. “Please?”

            He bit his lip harder. “Okay. I’ll take you home.” His voice was extremely reluctant, almost miserable. “I promise.” His overlarge eyes were impossible to doubt—they were unquestionably honest and sincere, though cast downwards. “As soon as you want to go back, I’ll bring you to Earth.”

            Clara had no option but to trust him, though she had no idea whether she should. “Thank you,” she said stiffly. “I believe you.”

            Ephraim let out a relieved breath and broke into a sudden smile. “Good. Six months is a while—I doubt you’d like being completely alone. As much as you sometimes pretend otherwise, you get lonely just as easily as anyone else.”

            Clara blinked. “How did you know—?”

            “I told you, I’ve been watching you. For three years. I feel like I know you already,” he admitted. “And I could tell. At school, you weren’t in the middle of things, always on the edges—you only had a couple of friends, and you pretended that you preferred to be alone—but I could tell you wanted to be liked.” After this, he just stared, smiling and waiting for Clara to say something.

            “I…er…” Clara wasn’t sure what to say. “I don’t know anything about you.” She sat on the edge of the bed nervously, and Ephraim did the same. “Do you have a family, besides Ariana?”

            “Sure,” said Ephraim, still cheerful. “My mother and father are at home. They—well, just my mother, really—hate that we’re away all the time.”

            Clara was again painfully reminded of what home must be like right now—all in disarray from her disappearance. She decided to steer the conversation towards another topic.

            “So…what exactly is it that you do? Ariana said it was your job to come here.”

            “Oh, we’re what they call surveyors,” Ephraim explained, his huge blue eyes eager. “We stay in these ships for a certain amount of time, going around Earth. There are satellites all around, too, that gather information, and we stop at each one to collect data as we come to them.”

            “Like what?” She only glanced at him out of the corner of her eye occasionally; it was easier to not be frightened if her eyes were not locked in his.

            Ephraim shrugged. “Each satellite collects different information—some study more technical things about Earth, like climate and weather and pollution. Others are more…personal, I guess. There are small cameras placed randomly in all kinds of places: cities, suburbs, farms like yours. It’s to observe individual people, and to study how people on your planet behave and interact.”

            “Like me,” Clara realized. “That’s how you were watching me.” She tried to conceal her nausea at the thought of aliens spying on her.

            “Yes.” His expression turned thoughtful now. “The cameras record, and then beam the images to the satellites, and we can watch them. Everything we collect is taken back to Shiron, where different groups of scientists study what they find.”

            Clara frowned, a little disturbed.  “So, what, the entire planet of Earth is one big science experiment?”

            “No!” said Ephraim hastily. He seemed worried that he’d offended her. “My people are just curious about what Earth is like, that’s all. They just want to know…” He trailed off. “Besides, wouldn’t your people do the same? They send space shuttles off, looking for life on other planets. But what would they do once they found that life? You used to think people lived on Mars.” He gave a tiny, stifled giggle that sounded strange coming from such a tall creature; a child’s laugh, shy and hushed.

            “Well…I better go,” Ephraim said, clearing his throat and edging out of the room slowly. Then he added, “But it was nice to talk to you.” He paused by the door and asked tentatively, “See you tomorrow?”

            Clara nodded. Ephraim was instantly cheerful again. “Bye, Clara,” he murmured in a strangely joyful tone as he shut the door behind him.

            Clara turned her back on the door and tried to make sense out of what had just happened, more utterly confused than she ever had been. Shaking her head, she climbed back onto the bed. She ended up finishing her book hours later, and when she looked back to the window Mars was just a tiny red pinprick in the distance.


When Clara woke up, she cleaned herself up in a haze, barely awake. When she re-entered the room, wringing her hair, she gasped.  Out the window was a huge, dark shadow that nearly covered the pane of glass. Were they about to collide with something? Worse, were they under attack from other aliens?

            “Relax, Clara,” Ariana’s voice sounded from behind her. Clara jumped, and Ariana laughed. “It’s just the asteroid belt. We’ll be out of here in a few minutes and you’ll be able to see it.” Clara breathed again, and Ariana chuckled. “We’re just going through a field of rocks suspended in space, nothing to worry about.” Sure enough, when Clara looked back, they were moving away from the asteroid by her window.

            Other than that momentary heart attack, her day went by the same way the rest of the week had. Until Ephraim stopped by, like the day before.

            She still didn’t know what to think of him. He did not appear ill at ease around her—to the contrary, he was constantly smiling and staring at her, apparently oblivious to how uncomfortably her stomach clenched just at the sight of him. There were only a few, disjointed comments to break the silence for a few minutes.

            However, Ephraim made a comment that caught Clara’s attention. “My favorite book in the whole world—my world and yours, for that matter—is Pride and Prejudice.”

            “Oh.” Clara looked at him in surprise for a moment; his head was tilted to the side like an innocent child. “That’s what I just finished reading.”

            “I know,” he said brightly. “You love the characters, and the writing style. And I agree, that’s great, but I just really love the whole idea.”

            “Why is that?” Clara was rather startled. She looked up again to see his face was thoughtful—and still intent on her. His eyes—which reminded her of glass marbles—seemed to glow a little in the fluorescent light.

            “Because…they seemed to hate each other at first, but then, when they really got to know each other, they didn’t. Once Elizabeth got over her prejudices, she realized she liked Mr. Darcy.”

            “Oh,” said Clara again. She couldn’t think of a suitable response to that, and she found it difficult to look away from those pale, glistening orbs. As he studied her face fixedly, his head tilted to the other side.

            “Your eyes are hazel,” he noted, smiling suddenly. “I did wonder,” he continued. “I couldn’t tell from that far away.”

            She turned her face away quickly, flushing in uneasiness. Every time their gazes met, she felt a perturbed twist in her stomach, and she had to take a deep breath.

            Though his scrutiny didn’t relent, he abruptly changed the subject.

            “I can’t understand why you like Great Expectations, though,” he said, his pale eyebrows creasing over his eyes. “It was so sad in the end. I wanted them to end up together.”

            This, oddly enough, made Clara calmer. If there was one thing in the universe that she couldn’t keep herself from talking about, it was literature. She was drawn in reluctantly to the conversation, and they debated for a while over plot and theme—she was surprised at his thorough familiarity of something alien to him. Though she was hoping he would leave her alone, she was able to keep the talking going, and the discomfort faded a little, her stomach relaxing at the familiar topic.

            It must have been at least an hour later—after discussing characterization and thesis, like they were in school, writing an essay—when Ephraim bit his lip.

            “It’s my shift again. I better go, or Ariana will be irritated with me.” He rose to his feet unwillingly.

            “Oh, okay,” said Clara. She was almost disappointed; she had been momentarily glad for the noise filling her confining room, and she was not looking forward to the silence again.

            “See you later?” he asked, almost pleaded.

            Clara nodded. “’Bye.”

            Ephraim loped out of the room, surprisingly graceful for his height and stature. He shut the door slowly, and Clara couldn’t hear his footsteps disappear.

            It seemed only minutes later when it opened again. Clara looked up in surprise—she still hadn’t even decided what she was going to do next. It wasn’t Ephraim this time.

            “Hey there,” said Ariana, sitting down swiftly on the bed, next to Clara.

            Clara smiled shyly. “Hi.”

            Ariana seemed to stifle a chuckle. “So…you were talking with Ephraim today, were you?”

            Clara nodded, wondering why that was amusing.

            “So, has he driven you insane yet?” She was smirking.

            “No,” said Clara. “He was nice.” She felt the heat flood her face as she spoke aloud the thing she hadn’t yet admitted to herself. It didn’t erase her resentment towards him for kidnapping her, and it didn’t rid her of fear, but she couldn’t deny that he was kind enough to her. Though she knew it was unwise, she always felt a compulsion to give people the benefit of the doubt.

            Ariana was silent for a minute, seeming to think about this reply. Then she laughed a little. “Have you noticed his tendency to state blunt, uncomfortable truths, and not realize how awkward the atmosphere suddenly gets?”


            Ariana’s tinkling laugh filled the room at that. “I figured it would be hard not to notice,” she said. “Well, anyways, I was going to get something to eat, and I wondered if you wanted anything.”

            Clara shook her head.

            “You must be a little bored,” said Ariana, looking around the room wryly as she spoke. “This room is, what, ten feet long? I can imagine you must not like that…I go crazy enough with being stuck in this ship all year, and it’s really quite huge.” Clara didn’t say anything to, unsure of where Ariana was going with that random comment. She just shrugged. Smiling, Ariana left the room, closing the door behind her and disappearing silently down the hall.

            After a few minutes, Clara realized the sliding door was not closed—there was a tiny crack left in it, large enough for her to put her finger in and pry it open.

            Clara froze. This was an unexpected freedom suddenly within her grasp. This tiny room was making her overly anxious. Had Ariana left it open on purpose?

She looked out of her doorway cautiously, and peered outside. The hall, as far as she could see, was plain, blank, and sterile. It was only lit by the blue tubes that ran along both sides. She took half a tentative step outside, debating. Was she allowed out of her room? Would they be angry? She thought back to Ephraim—he was supposed to be her friend, right? So he couldn’t be too upset.

            Was it worth the risk? With a sudden vanishing of her indecision, Clara took a bold step out, feeling unusually adventurous, which surprised her. Shutting the door silently behind her, she made her way down the hall.



Chapter Six

            As soon as the door was shut, the light from her room disappeared, making the hallway all the more dark and eerie. The floor was hard and cold to her bare feet, and she walked slowly and shakily, afraid to make noise. She shivered; her resolve was already beginning to waver, but she wouldn’t go back now. Though she was fairly sure she wouldn’t get into trouble if she was caught, she still tried to be as silent as possible, and go undetected through the ship’s barely lit, narrow corridor. The walls extended infinitely, plain and colorless, the floor a simple tile, like a hospital. Every once and a while, she would come across a door. Each one was nearly indistinguishable from the wall—she wouldn’t have known they were there if not for the light shadow around the edges—as they were just as smooth and white. She didn’t come across many doors, only a few labeled “storage” or “closet”. There were some that surprised Clara: the one that said “library”, for instance, or the one labeled “laundry”. It seemed more like a hotel than a spaceship.

            She drew level with a door that was unmarked. This surprised her; all of the doors so far had had writing, except for her own door. This similarity made her wonder…

            Was it a bedroom? Clara was suddenly burning with curiosity, but she hesitated at the handle. She hadn’t opened any of the doors yet, out of fear. But this would surely get her into trouble, more than the others.

            If it was Ariana’s room, Clara doubted she was in there—after all, hadn’t she mentioned getting something to eat? She wouldn’t be there.

            If it was Ephraim’s…well, he was supposed to be piloting right now, wasn’t he? His shifts were pretty long, and he had only just left. Either way, she had plenty of time. After all the invasions of her privacy, she thought herself quite entitled to a few answers about who he was. She slid the door open.

            She could tell at once that it must be Ephraim’s. The walls, the floor, and the furniture were a light olive green. She stepped inside carefully—keeping the door open, in case she had to run out—and flicked the light on.

            It was simple, like Clara’s room, but there were much more personal items in it. Above the bed was a reading lamp, next to a tall (but organized) stack of books. Some had strange characters on the spine, but others had familiar English titles:  A Compilation of Carl Sandburg Poetry was wedged between two alien volumes, and 1984 by George Orwell lay on top of the stack. On the vanity was a small globe of a yellowish planet, probably his home, she surmised. The entire room, she noticed, was exceptionally neat—not painfully tidy, like an obsessive neat freak, but a healthy kind of clean; as if whoever owned it was simply tidy by nature, and did it unconsciously.

            Taking a hesitant breath, she realized that it smelled nice in here, not like a heavy perfume, but the subtlest hint of something—like the deep, intoxicating scent of a library, the pleasantly clean smell.           There was a desk, like in Clara’s room, which had a bulletin board over it. Maps of constellations, flight schedules, and pictures were tacked all over it in an orderly fashion.

            Coming closer, Clara realized they weren’t just pictures; they were drawings--very, very beautiful drawings. One of them, she saw, gasping quietly as she leaned closer, was clearly Ariana! As she looked them over, she could see several other reoccurring people, which she assumed to be friends or family.

            The artist, Clara noticed, used very thin, light lines from some grayish ink. The style was rather curly and spiral-like, and it wasn’t until she looked even closer; her nose inches away, that she could see the detail, just how intricate the lines were.

            Did Ephraim draw these? They were incredible, yet somehow she could see him making them. They were fairly lifelike, yet seemed more expressive than ordinary portraits. Resting on his desk was what looked like a notebook, with loosely bound white pages. Looking around to make sure no one was coming, she flipped it open.

            The first page was a landscape. There was a roaring wave backed by a high cliff—she could practically see the movement.

            When she turned the page, she blinked, wondering if she was dreaming. It showed a princess, looking out a window at a battle. She smiled—it reminded her of a story she’d written, years ago. The next page showed a girl on a rusty swing.

            Wait a second—wasn’t that just like a poem of mine?  

            On the page after that, a girl on her hands and knees, scrubbing away at a decrepit spiral staircase, was revealed.

            Hang on…I swear one of my stories was about that…

            After that was a landscape of a broken-down lighthouse and a beach littered with driftwood and a distant shipwreck—the subject of a short story she’d written for school last year! This was far too much of a coincidence; how many people chose those kinds of things to draw randomly, especially considering that he was from a different planet? As she flipped through the book hastily, she realized that almost every single picture was like an illustration for one of her stories or poems.

            This was unbelievable! Had her stories created that much inspiration? She drew back the last page. Her head was spinning; why had he made them?

            She heard her sharp, harsh intake of breath. Her heart climbed into her throat, pounding outrageously hard. Staring back at her from the page was herself!

            It was an image of her, smiling, with her legs crossed and her chin resting on her hand. Even in a portrait like this, there was movement—her hair and clothes seemed to spiral in the wind. This picture was by far the most beautiful of all of them. It looked just like her, and yet it couldn’t be her—she looked like an angel. This depiction clearly had the most detail and effort put into it, the most care.

            Clara had a sudden feeling that she shouldn’t be here. She closed the sketchbook hurriedly, turned off the light, and shut the door behind her, as if she were being chased. She flew down the hall as quietly as she could, trying not to look too guilty. Finding her door, at long last, she shut it behind her and let out the air in her lungs. Had she been holding her breath that whole time? She tried to stop her pounding heart, to slow her frantically beating pulse; but every time it began to decelerate, she would remember that lovely image of herself. She wasn’t quite sure why this haunted her so much, but it did.


            Weeks passed, and Clara tried to forget about the pictures, particularly the one of her.  Ephraim still came and talked to her every day, and Clara tried to act natural and banish the thought of that drawing. Though she was disturbed by his stalker-like behavior, she was determined not to think about it. Every day, they talked about everything: books, friends, music, movies (apparently they had something similar on Shiron to the Earth version, though people didn’t watch them as often—they were also three-dimensional images like a virtual play). She learned more and more about what life on his planet was like, and she had to admit that it fascinated her—she could hardly believe it was real.

            One day, the subject of school came up.

            “We start school when we’re three years old, and we stay overnight for the week. We just came home on our days off,” Ephraim said, and before he could continue, Clara interrupted.

            “Three years old? That’s so young, though, to spend that much time away from home!”

            Ephraim shook his head. “It’s not as young as three Earth years; it’s more like the age you’re in when you go to kindergarten. I told you, our years are longer than yours.”

            “Oh. Sorry, I know things are different where you come from, I didn’t mean to—“

            “It’s okay. I don’t understand plenty of things about Earth either. Anyways, we learn general things like reading and writing in Shironese until we’re about six, and then we start to learn other languages…we get to choose four Earth languages to learn; I chose English, Swedish, Hungarian, and Dutch. I guess it was lucky for me that I was better at English than the others.”

            His eyes appraised her carefully as he said this, and Clara knew what he meant—he could communicate easily enough with her. “And then what?” she prompted, unsure if he was going to continue, or just stare at her some more.

            “Once we’re about nine years old, we choose a career category. Father always told me stories about outer space, always showing me the stars through his telescope and telling me about Earth, so I chose astronomy. When you’re ten or eleven, you narrow your choice down a bit, so I decided to become a pilot.”

            Clara smiled back at him. “That sounds a lot more interesting than Earth school,” she said.

            “Not necessarily,” he said, “it’s just different than what you’re used to. I always was fascinated by the stars, though…”


            They passed Jupiter eventually, which loomed overwhelmingly immense. Ephraim pointed out all the moons to her by name, and told her what it was like on each of them, astonishing her, once again, by his thorough knowledge of something alien to both of them.

            Ariana continued to come and talk to her as well. The stark contrast between her and her brother was striking; Clara couldn’t figure out how Ariana could be so…normal. One day, she simply had to ask.

            She worded her question carefully, not wanting to offend anyone. “Ariana, why exactly are you and Ephraim so different? I mean…you’re brother and sister and all, and you’re from the same planet, but you act like you’re from Earth, and he doesn’t…”

            Ariana chuckled a little. “Yes, I know what you mean. You see, Ephraim’s, well, sheltered a lot more than me, you know?”

            “But how do you know so much about the way people from Earth act, but then he…doesn’t?”

            Ariana seemed to think about her answer for a minute, her eyes faraway. “My father is obsessed with Earth,” she said finally. “He always has been, since before either of us were born. Intrigued by its people so much, he decided to try an experiment when I was born—I was the oldest, so I was the one he tested it on, of course. Instead of raising his daughter the way most children on Shiron were, he brought me up on Earth’s television, Earth’s music and books, everything like that. According to him, the plan worked: I was much more like a child from Earth than a little Shironese girl. He said it proved his theory that a lot of your planet’s culture is shaped by the media. Mother was furious at him for it, saying I’d never find a place in this world, and that it was shameful for him to treat his own daughter like an experiment.” Her voice went high as she imitated her mother’s voice mockingly. “She was wrong; I could take care of myself just fine, and I found plenty of friends who would accept the freak—people found me interesting. I ended up being confident enough, I was liked anyways.”  Ariana looked over at Clara and grinned. “A bit of an unusual way to bring a kid up, don’t you think?”

            Clara nodded, frowning. That is absolutely bizarre, she thought. “Then what about your brother?”

            She rolled her eyes at the memory. “When Ephraim was born—I was just a toddler, but I still remember them arguing about it—Mother insisted that he couldn’t turn out the way I had. She wanted to bring him up properly, of course, make sure he was just like the other little boys at school. Of course, she grew so protective over him, he was a little too shielded from the world, if you know what I mean.” She snorted derisively as she remembered. “I couldn’t wait to get out of the house, but he was scared to even go to school—I can still remember him crying and clinging to Mother on his first day.”

            “Seriously?” said Clara. She didn’t want to laugh, but it was so hard to imagine Ephraim—the seven-foot-tall alien who had kidnapped her—as a child. It was hard to attach an age to him at all. Remembering a comment made by Ariana a while ago, she asked curiously, “Did you actually ever pretend you weren’t related?”

            She laughed. “Yes I did, actually. A couple of years ago, when we were about to leave home for our surveying duties, and no one knew who their partners were going to be. I was hoping I’d get paired with this guy I liked at the time—but instead, my group of friends and I hear my little brother calling over to me. One of my friends asked if I knew who that kid was—he was extremely excited we got paired together, but I wasn’t too thrilled. So I said, ‘No, I’ve never seen him before’ and ignored him.”

            Clara tried to keep a giggle from escaping her, but it was difficult. Ariana seemed to notice, her green eyes flickering towards her for a second in amusement. “Then what happened?” Clara asked, trying not to smile, and failing.

            “Well, you know him, he wasn’t about to give up. I guess I kind of humiliated myself for a second. I suppose that wasn’t too nice of me, but…you know what I mean. You’ve got a little brother.”

            “Yeah, I do. But you know they usually look up to you, even if it doesn’t seem like it…”

            Ariana sighed. “I know,” she said grudgingly. She smiled briefly for a second saying, “He’s actually a little bit older than you in Earth years, if you can believe it.”

            They continued to talk for a few more hours, but eventually Ariana had to leave. When Ephraim came to her room in her place, Clara had a hard time not giggling, remembering his sister’s story.




Chapter Seven

            As time went on, they began to talk about more personal things such as friends and family. Clara noticed that he didn’t have much to say about friends; she gathered that he was shy, like her, and didn’t have many friends. She hated to admit it, but it was almost enjoyable to have him visit every day. Even though he must have already known everything there was to know about her, he was still eager to listen to virtually anything she had to say. Now that is a rarity, she thought, a friend who actually enjoys listening.

            How odd. He was almost like a friend now. That was certainly unexpected. His weird, unending stare never ceased, but it gradually became more and more natural for her to ignore it. Though every once and a while something would slip out that reminded her of his fixation (and when that happened, a twinge of unease would stir in her), she was able to act normally around him. Eventually, her fear of him began to subside enough to even smile when he came in through the door. How strange that this alien creature—that she still resented for abducting her—could have ever become her friend.

            One day, Clara began to feel even more keyed-up than usual, and even his company couldn’t change the fact that she was trapped.

“What’s the matter?” Ephraim tilted his head to the side as he observed her fingers drumming on the book in her lap, her feet tapping, and her wandering eyes. She got up and started pacing the room, hoping to burn some of her pent-up energy.

            “Well, it would be nice if I could walk around more,” she said, still pacing. “I haven’t gone anywhere but these ten square feet in almost a month. Can’t I go outside my room?”

            “Um…” Ephraim deliberated, shifting from one foot to another, biting his lip.

            “Come on, Ephraim, I’m not your prisoner, am I?”

            “No, of course not!” His voice was shocked.                                                   

            “And it’s not as if I could find some way to escape. Please? Can’t I please go outside my room?” Clara had no idea she had any talent at being persuasive, but she could see she was close to winning.

            “Well…okay, I guess it couldn’t hurt. Do you want me to show you around?” He visibly perked up when he suggested this.

            “Sure, if you want,” she agreed, glad to be able to stretch her legs a little.

            The hallway was as dark and blank as the day Clara had snuck out, but its eeriness was lessened by Ephraim’s presence.

            “How big is this ship, anyways?” she wondered aloud quietly. She’d only gone down one end of the corridor the last time, and not even the whole way. It was impossible to tell when the hallway finally ended; it spanned on and on as far as she could see. “Are you and Ariana the only ones here, or is this place full of aliens?”

            “It’s pretty big compared to Earth shuttles, but that’s because we have to spend so much time in here. And yes, we’re the only three people aboard. It only takes two to run a ship.”

            He led her slowly down the side of the hall she’d never seen before. No doors interrupted to blankness for a while, nothing to see but empty whiteness around them, until they reached a sudden brightness. As Ephraim pulled her by the hand, Clara saw the source: they were joining a perpendicular hallway that was brightly lit.

            The white light in here was blinding, and the hall stretched on infinitely. Even more difficult to look at was Ephraim, who, in the weird light, seemed to radiate his own.

            “This is the main hall,” he explained. Clara looked down one end, then the other. Both were absolutely identical and indistinguishable from each other.

            “Which way do you want to go first?” he asked.

            It was an impossible choice. Clara didn’t know what could be down either of them.

            “I can always show you the other way later,” he pointed out.

            “Oh. True. Hmm…that way,” she said, pointing to the left.

            “Okay, left it is. That’ll take us to the living spaces and things like that. Come on!” He tugged her along excitedly, smiling brilliantly.

            There was nothing to see for a while, until a door appeared out of nowhere on their right side.

            “That’s one of the pantries,” he explained. “We have to have a lot, to last us for a year or more.”

            “Why don’t you have condensed food, like the stuff astronauts eat?” Clara wondered.

            Ephraim made a face. “Ugh, I’ve seen the kind of things they eat in space. Would you like to live on that for years at a time?”

            Clara giggled. “I guess not, no.”

            Ephraim shook his head, continuing on through the hall. “Anyways, we’ve got to have a certain weight in the back of the ship to balance it out with the front, where all the water and oxygen is stored in tanks. Why not use food?”

            Clara could think of one problem with that. “But what about when the food is used up? Then the weight shifts, doesn’t it?”

“Yes, that means the back gets lighter, but we use up water and air, too. If it’s unbalanced for a while, the system automatically holds onto some used water or carbon dioxide to keep it equal until some weight in the back lifts.”

“Oh. That makes sense, I guess. But how does all that food keep for a year?”

“No offense, but Earth’s food preservation methods are a little more primitive than ours. I don’t really know the details, to be honest, since it’s not my field, just that it’s certain gases that keep living things from breaking down.” He glanced at her, seeming embarrassed at admitting it. “Once you choose your career, they only bother teaching you what you need to know.”

 They came to another door.

            “This is the kitchen,” he said, sliding the door open and glancing inside. Clara stuck her head in. It was hard to see anything with the lights off, but she could see the shadowy outlines of lethal-looking alien appliances. She wondered if she would ever get to see what each one was used for—she was especially curious about the one that looked like a twisted helix in a jar. Maybe it’s like a blender, she thought.

            They came across another door.

            “The dining room,” he announced cheerfully. Clara peeked inside this one, and caught a glimpse of a long, white oval table, surrounded by spherical chairs. Though it was hard to tell with the sparse light, the furniture shone smoothly, like the plastic material in her room.

            “Well, there’s not much to see any farther, just machinery rooms and the engine room. Nothing too exciting,” he shrugged indifferently.

            “Can we see the other end?” Clara asked excitedly.

            In answer, Ephraim took her other hand and led her the way they’d come. It took a long while to walk through the places they’d already been, then to their starting point. Clara felt the distance of that section of the hall must be at least a quarter of a mile.

            It caught Clara by surprise when they reached a door marked water.

            “It’s basically a room lined with tanks of water,” he explained as they continued. “There are several others like it. They’re accessible to us, in case we need to adjust a valve, or patch a leak, but thing rarely go wrong in these ships. They’re built too well for accidents to happen very often.”

            There were several other doors like this one, then a few that read oxygen, and then, at last, an unmarked door.

            “This is Ariana’s room,” he explained. “I don’t think she’ll mind if we just take a quick look.”

            The room wasn’t all that unlike from Clara and Ephraim’s rooms. It had the plastic-like furnishings, the bed in the corner, and the desk near the door. Everything was a pastel shade of tangerine that was a little overwhelming, and there were some clothes folded over the desk chair.

            They backed out of Ariana’s bedroom, and continued down the infinite hallway. Clara wondered if it would ever end—her feet were becoming tired from the expanse they had already walked, and there was nothing to see at the moment.

            Finally, they came to a huge double door that blocked off the hallway and went all the way to the ceiling. Clara’s pulse quickened. There must be something important behind this door, she thought.

            “Do you want to see what’s in here?” he asked brightly, looking equally excited. “Go on in—you first.” With that, he slid open the doors and motioned for her to step in. The second she did, she knew her instincts had been right: there was something amazing behind this door, alright.

            “Whoa,” she said in awe. That was all she could say as she stared around her with wide eyes. The ceiling was as high as a cathedral in here, the room shaped like the inside of a sphere. The walls were still startlingly white in the fluorescent light, but circling the room near the ceiling were screens, like plasma televisions, only larger—thousands upon thousands of screens! And each one showed a different video of Earth: she could see a hectic, swarming Asian city, a village in Vietnam, a camp of Bedouins in the middle of a desert, and a town near a tropical beach, which she suspected to be an island. There were places in the United States, Europe, Africa, and Australia…everywhere that Clara could think of, there was a screen showing it—even some places that she’d never heard of before. Some showed daytime, others were dark with the night.

            “It’s…it’s like you’ve got the whole world, right here,” she said breathlessly. She couldn’t tear her eyes off the countless views of the world, all moving at the same time. There was no sound, but there were a number of switches underneath each one that could have been to turn it on to the one you wanted to hear.

            “There’s a lot to look at, and they’re all interesting,” he agreed. “Very, very fascinating…”

            It didn’t occur to Clara until after they were closing the doors behind them and moving on, but she realized (with a sickening sensation) that he must have seen her from those screens, larger than she was even in real life. The feeling of disgust was hard to expel as they continued on their way.



Chapter Eight

            One night, he entered her room when she was about to go to sleep.

            “What’s the matter?” she asked, surprised at his sudden appearance.

            “Nothing’s wrong,” Ephraim assured her. “But…just come with me. I have something to show you.”

            Mystified, she followed him as he led her down the hallway, farther than he’d ever taken her before. “Come on, this way!” he said, pulling her along by the hand.

            “You said there was nothing exciting down this way,” she said, pretending to glare at him.

            “Well, I lied,” he said simply as he tugged her along. Clara laughed.

            At the very end of the hallway was another unmarked door. She had no idea why, but she felt strangely apprehensive. He was about to let her go inside the room first, but then seemed to change his mind. He stepped behind her and covered her eyes with his hands.

            “What are you doing?” she protested.

            “It’s a surprise. Just walk forward—the door’s open; I won’t let you run into anything.”

            She was extremely cautious now as she took a few steps forward, and then she heard a door shut behind her.

            “Okay…here we are.” Slowly, he took his hands away from her eyes and she opened them.

            Her breath caught in her chest as she stared in awe at the room she had entered.

            The walls, the ceiling, even the floor was made of completely clear glass—she could see nothing except the stars.

            She turned around, looking at it from all sides, unable to decide where to focus her gaze. There was far too much to see all at once.

            In her mind, she struggled to come up with adequate words for it. The velvety vastness around her was overwhelming, timeless—it was like she was seeing infinity, right here, all at once, and she couldn’t speak. It was sprinkled with stars, like Christmas lights set against the heavens.

            It wasn’t just black and white, either. Colors dotted and swirled all around her mesmerizingly—stardust, she called it in her mind, though she knew there must be a scientific word for it. The photos she’d seen of space could not compare to this proximity, to the feeling that she could just reach out and touch the stars. She could see stars that were blue, orange, green, white, yellow, all dotting the universe with a spectacular mural…

            There was only one thing she could say: “Wow.”

            She hadn’t noticed that Ephraim had come to stand next to her. “It makes you feel like you’re right in the middle of it, doesn’t it?”

            “Yeah,” she whispered. “It makes you feel so huge and so tiny at the same time…Like you’re walking on air…” She turned to him, unwillingly tearing her eyes off the galaxy. “Why’d you wait until now to show me this?”

            “Because,” he said, taking her by the shoulders and steering her over to a wall, “I knew we’d be coming past this.” He pointed to an empty spot in the darkness.


            “Shh. Three seconds,” he said, still pointing. She watched the place he indicated.

            Suddenly, the place was a shower of brilliant light, as a star passed it with a dazzling tail of fire.

            “Wow! A shooting star!” she breathed.

            “Well, a comet, actually,” he corrected in an undertone, sounding apologetic to prove her wrong. “But ‘shooting star’ sounds nicer.”

            They stayed there for hours, just sitting in the middle of the floor and looking all around them at the cosmos, even looking under their feet at the masterpiece below them. Occasionally, he would point out a constellation or a specific star or planet he knew.

            “What do you think?” he asked finally.

            She gave a breathy laugh. “I think that nothing could have prepared me for this—I have never seen anything more magnificent in my entire life.” Embarrassed, she realized that her voice shook and her eyes were glistening, just from the startling beauty.

            He smiled, clapping his hands together once. “Good! I thought you’d like it.”

Fascinated though she was, she was so tired, and she could hardly keep her eyes open. She went reluctantly back to her room—nearly sleepwalking with exhaustion—and Ephraim had to remind her that the stars would still be there when she awoke.

            The next day, the two decided that they would spend every other day in the glass room, looking at the stars, and the remaining days they would stay in her room. She never failed to be amazed by the stunning universe out there, as he showed her Saturn up close, with all its graceful rings. He showed her supernovas, blooming with spectral light and color. He brought her right past Neptune, the ethereal blue planet, and Pluto, the minuscule chunk of ice. Before she went to sleep, when he was gone, she would write about her day, about all the things she saw, in one of the empty books. When she admitted it to herself, she knew it was the greatest adventure anyone from Earth could ever imagine, if she excluded the fact that she wasn’t here by choice.

            One day he brought her there excitedly on an off-schedule day, saying there was something she couldn’t miss.

            “Right there—see?” he pointed towards the left wall. It would have been impossible to overlook, whether he had mentioned it or not.

            “Oh my,” was all she could say. It was like a splat of paint thrown carelessly onto the black canvas of the galaxy—but when Clara looked at it longer, she decided it was more like street art graffiti on the universe, since it was composed of multicolored specks.

            “What is it?” she asked in wonder.

            “That’s the Columbine System,” he said, sounding proud of his expertise.

            “Columbine?” she repeated.

            “The Shirons named it after the Earth flower because they thought it looked something like it—it’s sort of the same shape.”

            And when he put it that way, she did see it like a flower, the petals reaching out and spinning slowly. There were a thousand different ways of looking at the nebulous cloud of color; she couldn’t decide exactly what it looked like to her. It couldn’t only be considered one thing—it was too multidimensional, and constantly changing, though too subtly to catch with the unaided eye.

            “I’ve never heard of it before,” she said. “Not that I’m an astronomy expert or anything, but it doesn’t sound familiar.”

            “Well, you wouldn’t have—your scientists haven’t discovered it yet.”

            “Oh.” This realization shocked Clara more than it should have. “We’re really far away from Earth, aren’t we?”

            Of course it shouldn’t have been surprising. They’d already passed her solar system and left the Milky Way weeks ago. But somehow that thought caused a stab of panic to go through her again—almost as if the solar system would lock its door to her if she left, and she would be unable to enter again.

            When she glanced at his face after this question, she saw that his eyes were very wide, and wary. She realized he was afraid she was going to fall apart again, so she tried to control her expression a little better.

            “Yes we are,” he said, slowly and somewhat fearful.

            She cleared her throat. “Just wondering,” she said as calmly and blasé as she could.

            He continued to watch her cautiously, but she looked at the stars again, pretending not to notice. She could feel his eyes on her, but she didn’t acknowledge it, and she tried to let him know subtly that she was sufficiently distracted by the nebula.

            After a few minutes, he seemed convinced that she was alright, and began to excitedly explain everything he knew about it.

            “It’s still forming, so no one lives there yet or anything. It’s visible from the Shiron sky in the winter, but no one goes outside, so it’s really a shame—hardly anyone ever sees it, and it’s so pretty, isn’t it? We’re quite lucky we get to see it up close. It’s been forming for billions of years, after a large star died, and it’s been spinning into a system ever since. We won’t still be alive when it’s totally finished, though…”

            His words were tripping over each other in their haste to get out, but he continued to tell her animatedly all the scientific laws behind its formation, and Clara nodded, pretending to understand the technical vocabulary…



Chapter Nine

            As the weeks went by in this pattern, Clara began to lose track of the time. She was extremely surprised, therefore, when she was reminded of the date. A quick, cheerful rap sounded on the door that she didn’t recognize: usually, the two aliens would just open the door.

            “Come in,” she said, bewildered.

            Ephraim stood there, his hands behind his back, looking extremely pleased with himself.

            “Hi, Clara,” he sang, his huge smile never fading.

            “Um, hello,” she said, bemused.

            Ephraim was glowing. “Happy Birthday!” he exploded.

            “Oh!” said Clara, understanding now his mood. “Thank you.”

He pulled something out from behind him, still looking almost unreasonably excited. It was a package in white paper, a broad, flat rectangle tied with a white silk ribbon. He thrust it in her hands, grinning broadly.

            “Come on, open it!” he exclaimed.

            “Ephraim, you didn’t have to—“

            “But I wanted to,” he interrupted, steering her towards the bed and sitting on the edge. “Now open it!” he commanded cheerfully.

            Carefully untying the ribbon and ripping the paper, Clara tore open her present. She felt her mouth fall open and nearly gasped as the present was revealed.

            Ephraim’s sketchbook! All the drawings he’d made, with the swirling silvery lines, the illustrations for her stories—they were hers! She opened the front page with trembling fingers to see, once again, the crashing wave against the cliff.

            “That’s Shiron,” Ephraim explained. “Close to where I live, there’s a cliff where you can look out and see that.”

            “Wow,” Clara breathed almost silently, touching the page hesitantly. She noticed that there were two moons in the sky. Even though they were ordinary geometric shapes, they still carried Ephraim’s signature style—there were spiraling patterns all over the moon’s surface.

            “Well?” Ephraim burst out. “Do you like it?”

            Clara smiled. “It’s beautiful.” She flipped through the pages and looked at the illustrations, letting out an amazed laugh. “So you drew these?”

            Ephraim nodded a cheerful assent. “Those are for your stories. What do you think?”

            Clare decided it wise not to mention the fact that she’d seen them already. They were interesting enough to look at over and over, anyways. “They’re amazing,” she said sincerely. “Thank you, Ephraim, I love them.”

            Ephraim was nearly bouncing up and down with joy. “Good! Happy birthday, Clara!”

            “Thanks for remembering. But I don’t know when your birthday is,” she realized.

            Ephraim shrugged. “Our years are longer than yours, and we go by a different calendar, anyways. I’m not sure how I would translate our months, convert them to yours…” he trailed off. Then his eyes popped wide for a second in shock. “But I’ve forgotten to make you a card!” he exclaimed.

            “Ephraim, you’ve done plenty,” she laughed. Ignoring her, he snatched back the sketchbook to an empty page.

            “One moment,” he said, almost brisk for Ephraim. He pulled a pen from his pocket and twisted off the cap. Clara went behind him to watch him draw, her eyes growing wide in awe.

            The pen barely brushed the paper; it seemed to hardly touch it at all. His movements were light and quick, dancing across the paper in whirling motions. Clara slowly saw something take shape: another cliff, this time topped with two figures. One was tall, the other had hair flying around her face. Clara peered closer as he continued to add small details.

            “Is that--?”

            “It’s us,” he said brightly. He gave back the drawings. Across the bottom was written, in an equally curly script:

            Happy Birthday Clara!

            Clara could hardly believe he could have made something like that so fast; it couldn’t have been more than five minutes.

            Clara flipped to the end of the book to find that the picture of her had been torn out. She suppressed her squirming feeling of disquiet at that, though she wondered if perhaps he had crumpled it up. Something—perhaps the amount of detail and care that was obviously put into it—told her that the likelihood of that was low.

            He left cheerfully, oblivious to her momentary distraction, saying that he had something else to do, and he would see her later.

            Just after Clara had finished with her second meal of the day, Ephraim brought her another surprise: a slice of birthday cake. It was vanilla with pink frosting; her favorite. It tasted just like something she could get at a bakery, absolutely delicious.

            “Well, thank you,” she said, turning scarlet. “That’s very nice of you.”

            He grinned. “I made that, too.”


            “On Shiron, cooking isn’t necessarily a female task,” he said. “I mean, I know even on Earth it isn’t always, but still, that’s the stereotype.”

            Clara laughed. It was odd; this creature seemed to have multiple-personality-disorder: one minute, he was kidnapping her and telling her it would be a year before she saw her family again, the next minute, he was making her feel like she had a friend. Why was she always so confused by him? She tried not to think about that picture of her, wherever it was. That did not help her.

            “Thanks,” she said again quietly. “You sure went to a lot of trouble; you didn’t have to do all that.”

            “Well…” His voice was ashamed. “I figured it was the least I could do…maybe make up for bringing you here, a little bit at least. Besides, people rarely make a big deal out of your birthday, so I thought this year could be different. I mean, eighteen is a big year, isn’t it? You’re technically an adult now. That’s good, right?”

            She couldn’t help but smile at his obvious attempt to make her happier than previous years. “Yeah, I guess so.”  She was having trouble not remembering last year—which Ephraim surely must have seen—when her mother had almost ignored it.

             After she finished her cake, Ephraim sat across from her on the bed, his pupil-less eyes on her all the while. He studied her face for at least a minute, and Clara couldn’t tell if his expression was anxious, or eager, or both.

            “So…” he finally said, seeming completely unaware of the suddenly awkward atmosphere. “I was thinking. You write. I like to draw. We’ve got months ahead of us, with not very much to do. So what if…” His eyes grew wider, hopeful. “Maybe we could work together?”

            Clara was startled by this sudden idea. She hesitated, and then decided, why not? She didn’t have anything better to do. “Sure.”

            “Great!” He gave a quick, wide smile. He pulled out a sketchbook, smaller than the one he had given Clara, and a pen. “Next time you get an inspiration, let me know. Okay?”

            “Okay,” she agreed, feeling uncomfortable, and wondering if he knew about what she wrote every other night, how she recorded what she was seeing—she’d never shared her work before.

            He continued to look at her through those oversized eyes, never blinking. A small smile touched his mouth. Then he looked down at his picture and started drawing.

            With his eyes hidden by his eyelashes like that, it was easier to notice other things about his appearance. He was very gangly and skinny and his limbs looked almost breakable, especially with his height. Other than his unnaturally pale skin that seemed to emit a subtle glow, and his huge eyes, his face was not unusual. He had a straight nose, white lips, and thin eyebrows. His white-blonde hair was long; it fell across his forehead and brushed the nape of his neck. Clara thought back to when she thought he looked eerie. Now she could look at him without flinching. He wasn’t very frightening anymore; even when he flashed his eyes to her briefly. He was a friend—harmless. The Shirons—strange though they were—were beautiful people in their own way, nonetheless.

            Then she noticed that he was drawing slower than the last time. His hand was more careful, and lighter than ever, graceful. The pen practically caressed the page.

            “What are you drawing?” she asked curiously.

            Hastily, he shut the book, looking guilty. “Nothing,” he said unconvincingly.

            Clara decided not to press it. He seemed truly embarrassed. They sat for a while in companionable silence, looking out the window. It didn’t feel awkward like it had before—today he had redeemed himself somewhat by his attempt at atonement.

            Tentatively, she reached over and took his hand. It was thin and long, like the rest of him. His skin felt fragile, delicate, but it nevertheless felt nice to have his fingers close around her hand. When she looked up at his face, Ephraim was looking at her and smiling.


            Things were different now between Ephraim and Clara, though she never said anything about it. There was nothing she could do about her wasted year for the time being, and he would take her back when he could. There was nothing else that could be done. All he seemed to want from her at the moment was friendship, which, Clara noticed, he seemed to be rather short on from other people.

            Even so, there were some times, in the middle of the night, when she would begin to think of home again, about the things she curiously missed so badly. How could she have taken the familiarity of home for granted every day? No matter what kind of wondrous things she was seeing now, she couldn’t forget about home. But one night, when she was out of bed, by the window and crying, someone came in the dark room and put a blanket around her as she shivered. They never said a word; they just put a thin hand on her shoulder for a second before leaving the room silently.

            In the morning, of course, she had her suspicions about it, but she kept them to herself. He didn’t mention her homesickness, so neither did she—she felt she had done enough whining about it in front of the other two, however reasonable it was.


            That day, they were talking in her room again.

            “What do you want to talk about today?” he asked.

            “Well…I’ve wondered. Why are you so interested in hearing about me all the time?” she asked him dubiously. “You already know everything about me, practically.”

            “Not everything,” he contradicted. “There are some things I don’t know for sure…Like, why does your mother keep that farm? She doesn’t seem like the kind of person to own one.”

            Clara smiled, her mind faraway now. “It was her grandfather’s,” she said, her voice getting dreamy as she remembered. “They were very close, my mom and my great-grandpa. He built it a long time ago, and when he died, he left it to her. She wouldn’t get rid of it, not even when she got married to my dad…”

            “I never saw your father,” Ephraim noted quietly. He didn’t seem to be asking for an explanation, but she gave it anyway.

            “He left.”

            “I know.”

            She didn’t ask how he knew. It didn’t really matter.

            “He did love me, though,” she said suddenly, as if breaking out of a trance. She thought for a moment, laughing fondly as some old memories coming back to her. “Once…I remember, for my sixth birthday…do you know how lots of little girls all wish for ponies for their birthdays? Well, my dad actually got me a horse… He thought maybe we could try and breed them, you see. But I was so happy…it was a beautiful horse, chestnut colored…” She was lost in memory, laughing a little. “I got to feed him, and give him water, and Daddy taught me how to ride him… “

            Then her smile faded. “But when I was nine, my mom said he was too expensive to keep feeding and taking care of, so we sold him. But maybe she just didn’t like the reminder. My dad had left by then.” Her voice had grown flat.

            For once, Ephraim didn’t say anything. Whether he simply couldn’t think of anything, or perhaps he was trying to be tactful, she did not know. But he reached over and took her hand again, and she didn’t protest.

            After a long while, he took a deep breath and smiled down at her brightly. “By the way, I have an idea, in case you’ve been getting bored—we’ve got a lot of time on our hands and everything.”

            She jerked out of her trance. “Oh? And what might that be?”

            He went and knelt at the edge of her bed and took something out from under it. “I know you like to play checkers,” he said as he emerged with a small wooden rectangle. He sat back down across from her and opened it up—and pulled out checker pieces. “Would you like to play?” he asked eagerly.

            She couldn’t help but laugh. “You really do think of everything, don’t you? Where did you get that?”

            “Earth,” he said simply.

            She laughed again at his statement of the obvious. His eyes seemed to glitter for a second in a strange way as they appraised her, and he smiled.

            “So would you like to?” he asked cheerily.

            “Sure,” she grinned.


            She won all four games. Ephraim didn’t seem in the least put out that he lost every time, and she began to wonder if he was letting her win on purpose. Then again, it was her planet’s game, not his.

            “I’m better at chess,” he admitted after his fourth loss. “I didn’t practice this one as much. But well done!”

            She giggled.

            “We can play chess with this board, too, and I’ve got backgammon around here somewhere, I think, and I put a deck of cards in your desk…” Like Clara had pointed out, he thought of everything. She couldn’t help but laugh again.


            Later that day, Ariana visited with her again.

            “My brother was a little put out that you beat him so badly in checkers,” she grinned.

            “So he wasn’t just letting me win?” Clara asked, only half-joking.

            “I don’t think so.” The two girls laughed, and then there was a pause.

            Ariana chuckled to herself for a moment.

            “What is it?” Clara asked, frowning.

            “I was just wondering…how are things with you and Ephraim, anyways?”

            Clara looked over at her in surprised, perplexed. “They’re fine, I guess. Why?”

            “I just wondered if you still hated him, that’s all.”

            Clara flushed, feeling ashamed. “I don’t hate him. I never hated him.”

            Ariana snorted. “You had every right to. I know I would have, in your situation.”

            Clara sighed, and then pressed her lips together in a line. “Well, I see what you’d meant, about not really meaning any harm or anything. He’s nice to me. We’re friends.”

            Ariana raised her eyebrows, looking surprised by her answer. “Really,” she said.

            Now Clara was confused again. “You were the one that said I could trust you guys. What’s wrong?”

            Ariana shrugged. “Just that I know my brother pretty well…I suppose he is taking you home, right?”

            “He said he would,” she said, her eyes widening now at the idea that there was any doubt.

            “I hope he means it, for your sake.”

            Clara turned around all the way to look Ariana in the face, her own eyes large with sudden stress. “Ariana—please tell me honestly. Can I trust that he’s telling the truth? What else would he be planning?”

            Seeing her distress, Ariana backpedaled. “I didn’t mean he was lying—I don’t know, my brother’s not a liar. Not exactly, I mean. But…”

            “But what?”

            “Well…every so often, he’ll tell partial truths, or leave something crucial out, or find some way out of whatever he promised…but don’t worry, Clara, he’s not a bad person, he’s not going to—“

            Clara stood up, her heart pounding so hard that she felt high.

            “You know what? I think I’m going to go have a little chat with him, if you’ll excuse me.”

            Ariana shook her head wryly. “Be my guest. I think maybe that would be a little educational for him.”

            It didn’t take as long as she thought to reach the pilot room.

            She marched up to his chair.

            He regarded her clenched fists with puzzled eyes.

            “Ephraim,” she said, with every bit of bravery she could muster, her jaw tight. “Are you planning on going back on your word? Are you really going to take me back home, or are you just stalling?”

            His head tilted to the side, looking slightly hurt.

            “Why would I lie to you?” he said.

            She crossed her arms across her chest, and—taking a deep breath to gather whatever bravado she had in her—and said, “I demand you take me home!”

            For a second, he just looked at her, his eyes expressionless except for a touch of shock.

            Then, inexplicably, a slow smile spread across his face, and he looked beyond delighted.

            He shook his head back and forth slowly, his expression still satisfied.

            Clara frowned, her anger dying and only confusion taking its place.

            “What?” she insisted.

            He still beamed. “Clara,” he said happily. “Didn’t you notice? You just took initiative. You were assertive!”

            He regarded her like he was a proud parent of a student on the honor roll.

            “Um,” was all she could respond, as she felt herself flush magenta.

            He also didn’t seem remotely affected by her actual words.

            He gave her a tiny pat on the head, still looking exceptionally pleased. “Good job, Clara, I’m proud of you.”

            She scowled, wondering if he was joking or making fun of her. “Is it that surprising?”

            “Well…you must admit you do have problems with excessive submissiveness…” he murmured, “you and I both, so I’m not trying to be insulting.”

            She inhaled deeply, trying to maintain her dignity, hiding her scowl. “I’m going back to my room. I’ll see you later.” Her wounded pride did not allow her to look up at him as she stalked out of the room, but he called back to her with a bright voice.

            “Well done, Clara. I’ll see you in a few hours!”

            She returned to her room, grumbling as she went, her face still flushed with embarrassment.




Chapter Ten

            She was very deeply asleep when someone was shaking her awake gently.

            “Clara? Wake up, Clara, you should see this.” The quiet voice was impossible not to recognize.

            “What’s wrong?” she asked sleepily, rubbing her eyes.

            “Nothing’s wrong, I just want to show you something.” He pulled her by the hand out of her bed, but she was so tired, she almost fell to the floor. He scooped her up in one arm and supported most of her weight as he led her down the hall. She was so tired it took her a minute to be surprised; he must have been a lot stronger than he looked.

            It also took her a while to register where they were going: the glass room at the back end of the ship.

            “What are you doing up so late, anyways?” she asked him, yawning. “Don’t you ever sleep?”

            Ephraim chuckled quietly. “Yes, of course I sleep. But I don’t need as much as you do. Earth has longer nights than we do, and shorter days. And anyways, it isn’t late, it’s almost noon. Our sleeping and waking cycles are off.”

            Clara was beginning to wake up a little more now. “Wait—how can you tell the time without—,”

            Her question was answered the second the door was opened—and she was quickly revived.

            Ephraim looked very pleased at her staggered look and her gaping mouth.

            “Is that—?”

            That is Shiron.”

            The planet before them was absolutely colossal; Clara had never seen anything more majestic—it had to be twice the size of Earth. It was a yellowish green color, but its atmosphere was cloudier than Earth’s. There were two moons that she could see, circling the globe leisurely, though the movement was invisible. Surrounding the planet were thousands of ships the size of ants, swarming around their mother planet.

            “It’s…it’s…amazing,” she said breathlessly. “You live here?”

            “You like it?” His voice was thrilled.

            “Yeah,” she said, laughing in wonder. This was incredible—she was hours away from an alien planet!

            He took her by the shoulders and led her out of the room. “But you better get dressed—we’re landing soon. I better make sure everything’s going okay in the pilot room. See you later.” They went their separate ways down the hall, and she shut her door behind her, her heart thumping madly at the thought of what was to come.

            Clara looked into the mirror, a new problem suddenly occurring to her. The only aliens she had ever met were Ariana and Ephraim, and it was by them that she judged what the rest of the Shirons must be like. She would certainly stand out if the rest of them were as tall and pale as them—she was only about five foot four, and her skin glowed pinkish from growing up on her mother’s farm. And then, her eyes were much smaller than either of theirs, not to mention her colors were practically radiant compared to the Shirons’ unobtrusiveness. She stared back at herself unhappily, imagining how people on the street would probably goggle at her.

             She’s never been satisfied with her reflection anyways—she was too plain, her nose was too rounded, her features nondescript—absolutely unmemorable. Though her conscience scolded her for it, she always felt a small twinge of jealousy towards the other girls in her high school, the ones with sleek blonde hair and tiny waists, the beautiful ones. She’s always felt that she was dull and boring—too invisible, easily lost in a crowd, blending in like a chameleon. Now she was wishing she could blend in; it must have been a blessing in disguise. Sticking out might not be such a great thing after all.

            The door opened halfway. Ephraim peeked inside.

            “We’ll be landing in a few minutes,” he murmured.

            Clara looked away from her reflection. “Oh.” She looked down. “Okay.”

            Ephraim opened the door completely and searched her face. “You seem anxious,” he observed.

            She twisted her hands together. “A little,” she said.

            “You don’t have to be,” he assured her. “Really. It’s only going to be a week there. Maybe you’ll even like Shiron.”

            “Er…” Clara tried to look for the right words. “Won’t I…stand out a little? I…” Her mouth twisted. “I just don’t want everyone staring at me, that’s all.”

            “You don’t have to worry about that. Everyone on my planet is used to the idea of aliens,” he said, sounding surprised. His overlarge eyes were even wider than usual. “In any case, you look very pretty.”

            To hide her sudden unease, she looked away and laughed. “Thanks.”

            “Why are you laughing?” Ephraim cocked his head to the side. “What’s funny about that?”

            “Just that you don’t have to be so nice,” she said. “I mean, I appreciate it, but I don’t like people to give out compliments to be polite.” She laughed again. When she looked back, he was shaking his head.

            “Clara, Clara,” he said in his odd, serious voice. “Do you know why I gave you dresses to wear?”

            “Um, no,” she answered truthfully, frowning. She wasn’t sure how this related, and she didn’t know there had been any reason.

            “Because every time I’ve seen you really, truly happy, you were wearing a pretty dress. Like your graduation, or the time you finally got taken to the prom. It was like those were the only times that you knew you were beautiful. So…I just hoped you could feel that way every day.” He shrugged shyly. “That’s all.”

            She stared at him, completely at a loss for words. She felt like she had something stuck in her throat. Thankfully, she was spared from answering by a sudden jolting of the ship.

            “Oh—um—we’ve reached the atmosphere,” said Ephraim, distracted. “I better land the ship myself.”

            He left silently.

            Clara’s head was spinning. What in the world just happened? She was extraordinarily stunned and confused, but she didn’t have long to think about it. Before anything could really sink in, the ship began to land—she could only register a slight sense of foreboding at his words. She had to hang on to her bed frame to keep herself upright as the ship’s nose dipped low and gravity began to work the way it ought to. The ship made another lurching movement, then a sickening screech as the ship touched down to the ground. It seemed to stretch on, an exaggerated squeal of wheels against pavement, then, as suddenly as it had began, it ceased.




Chapter Eleven

            She hurried to the pilot room, knowing Ephraim and Ariana were sure to still be in there.

            Ariana grinned at her from behind the pilot chair. “Well, in a few seconds, you’ll get to see an alien city, Clara.” She looked back at the window, though nothing could be seen through it but the blank whiteness of the landing ground. “Welcome home,” she said softly, presumably to herself as she gazed out the window with a captivated expression on her face.

            Ephraim was concentrating on the complicated row of silver switches. His long fingers expertly flipped every other switch, and then he said to the girls, “Okay, we’re all clear. Everything’s off.” Apparently, this meant they could leave.

            A quiet whir sounded, and a hole opened up in the floor like a mouth. A set of white stairs unfolded itself mechanically, and all three of them looked at each other. Clara was now exceptionally eager to see what this new planet would be like, her pulse quickening—it now almost felt like an exploration of the galaxy, as opposed to abduction.

            “Well… I’ll go first, I guess. See you guys down there,” said Ariana unceremoniously, gliding down the stairs. She disappeared.

            Ephraim looked to Clara. “I’ll be right behind you, don’t worry.”

            Her knees were shaking so hard, they found it difficult to support the rest of her, and the stairs alone made her feel rather faint with the effort of not falling over. When she got out from under the wide belly of the ship, she realized the world was spinning faster and faster! She was so dizzy…what was wrong with this planet?

            “Sorry, Clara, I forgot, you’ll probably get a little lightheaded—like the opposite of motion sickness.” Ephraim’s voice was sheepish from behind her. “Oops. I should have warned you. Are you okay?”

            “Sure, of course,” she said, though the horizon was still swaying like a ship at sea. “I’ll be alright in a second.” She looked around at the bleak, desolate area where they’d landed. There was nothing to see at all, save for the pale grey sky and the white, cone-shaped control tower a few yards away. The colorless pavement seemed to be the only thing that made up this world, as far as she could see. It dropped off behind them pretty quickly, but there seemed to be nothing beyond it.

            She looked behind her and saw—for the first time—the outside of the massive ship she had spent the past six months in.

            It wasn’t a flying saucer, almost to her disappointment, but it wasn’t like an Earth shuttle, either. It had a flattened, streamlined look to it, even though it was as long as the Washington Monument on its side. From a birds-eye view, it would have looked like an arrow with a large dome in the center: the observation room could be seen from the outside. It was the same smooth, shiny plastic as everything on board had been—Clara guessed it was more lightweight than metal. Somehow, it seemed much smaller from the outside than it had on the inside.

            But Ephraim wasn’t going to have her distracted by the spacecraft.

            “Come on, this way, you’ll get a good look!” He gently pulled Clara by the hand, away from the ship, to the edge where the landing surface ended. “Look, right down there; you can see my neighborhood from here.” He pointed down, and she cautiously looked over the side.

            It wasn’t at all what she had expected, though she’d heard about Shiron plenty of times from the two aliens. Then again, she wasn’t really expecting anything in particular.

            They were standing on a rocky precipice that jutted up violently from the dark sea, which churned around the base. White-crested waves sprayed up, but none came close to reaching the top where they stood. There were numerous cliffs, from some tumultuous upheavals of rock millions of years ago, shaped and honed by the sea. It was uncannily like Ephraim’s drawing, she realized.

            Scanning the distance, she saw that the land softened as it came inland, rolling gently into hills and valleys. Grass undulated all around the bluffs, rippling in the wind like the waves below, soft white and yellow wildflowers swelling gently in the breeze that now tangled Clara’s hair.

            On one distant bluff, a herd of pure white, long-haired yak-like creatures with curly horns grazed peacefully.

            Turning a little to one side, she caught a glimpse of the hazy outline of a town—though it was unlike any town Clara had ever seen. The little houses, neatly stacked in rows, were shaped like half-spheres, like tiny brick eggs poking out of the ground. A path smoothly meandered between the buildings, which grew taller and fatter as the path went on, until it wound out of sight.

            She took this all in with awed eyes. “Wow.”

            Ephraim took both her hands and pulled her around so she could see him. His enormous eyes were excited, the breeze playing with his fair hair. “What do you think?”

            “It’s beautiful,” she said in surprise, feeling the smile spread slowly across her face. In answer, a smile turned up the corners of Ephraim’s lips.

            “Look over here, Clara,” he said, tugging her by both hands to the other side of the cliff. Clara gasped at what she saw.

            Perched atop another distant precipice was a castle-like structure, made of stone and pillars and turrets. It was a faded gold color, and apparently crumbling into the sea before their eyes—the rock was being eaten away by time and weather and sea.  Despite this, it was an impressively colossal structure.

            Ephraim’s smile widened at Clara’s gaping mouth.

            “It looks ancient,” was all she could say.

            “It is,” he nodded. “It was built by the people who are truly native to Shiron—the people who were already here when we came. Now this is the only thing left of their world.”

            As Clara took it all in again, she noticed that the place was very strange. Everything—the sky, the bowing grass, the town—everything seemed to be bleached. The colors were faded and pale, just like Ephraim and Ariana. Clara wondered if everything on Shiron was like that. Even if she hadn’t known it to be a completely different planet, even if the town and the landscape weren’t so unfamiliar, she still would have been able to guess it was not home. Somehow, everything from the soil to the cloudless sky, from the pavement she stood on to the oxygen she breathed in, everything felt different—foreign. Perhaps she was imagining it.

            “Ephraim! Clara! Over here!” The two spun around to see Ariana waving to them, beside the ship. She was leaning against one of the flat motor vehicles. When they reached her, she said to Ephraim, “If you want to show her around, I’ll take this”---she nodded to the vehicle—“with our stuff, then you two can take the elevator.”

            “Thanks, I think we’ll do that.” He took Clara’s hand again and led her over to the control tower. “This way, Clara.” She hadn’t noticed before that there was a clear tube beside the tower, about the size of a telephone booth. Beside it was a man, his hand on a contraption that looked like a pump. He looked similar to the other two aliens Clara had yet seen, with the large pupil-less eyes and pale features. He did a double-take at the sight of her (she burned magenta), but he recovered himself and turned to Ephraim. He said something in an unfamiliar language, and Ephraim gave him a short reply. It sounded like a soft, sighing language, like the wind that whispered around them.

            As they stepped into the tube that would apparently take them to the ground level, Clara asked nervously, “What did he say?”

            “He just asked me which level we were going to—above ground or below.”


            The elevator sealed off, then began to descend rapidly, like the ground had dropped out from underneath them. Clara’s stomach flipped. “Yes, there are things below ground,” Ephraim explained. “The winters are so frigid here; it’s too harsh to even go outside our homes. But we’ve hollowed out tunnels and caverns underground. Some people have permanent homes there, but mostly people just move with the seasons. Even though it’s protected from the wind, few people can stand never seeing the sun.”

            By now, the elevator had taken them to the ground. The town was very close now, and Clara could see people walking the streets.

            “Where’s Ariana?” She looked behind her, but she could only see the sheer rock face.

            “She’ll be down, but it’ll take a while. The way down is steep.” He took Clara’s hand eagerly again. “Come on, I’ll take you to my house. You can meet my parents!” Clara couldn’t possibly argue with this much enthusiasm—she couldn’t help but smile at his obvious excitement at showing off his world to her. He was practically skipping.

            Despite his reassurances earlier, Clara found herself holding very tightly to Ephraim’s hand as her stomach churned in apprehension. He turned to her in concern.

            “Don’t worry,” he said kindly. “Mother and Father will love you. Trust me, it’ll be fine.”

            Shakily, Clara nodded again, and let him tow her along to the strange, alien neighborhood before them. She’d been right before, about the road being made of brick. There was a narrow walkway on either side of the road, where people passed them. Most seemed to be on a pleasant stroll, which Clara assumed was due to the weather, and a few greeted Ephraim in the strange, soft language of Shiron. All of them started in surprise at Clara as they walked by; she certainly did stand out with her brighter colors. She flushed every time a person stared at the sight of her, and shrank closer to Ephraim’s side. Everyone else’s hair and skin and clothes were bland, unobtrusive colors; she felt almost rude for interrupting it with her deviation.

            He led her past rows of the odd, half-sphere houses. They were all the same shape, but Clara noticed the people had made them their own by adding shades in the windows, or flowers in the yard. The grass was more like dry moss, short and insubstantial, and the dirt was light and dusty.

            “Why are the houses shaped like that?” she asked in an undertone.

            “Well, I told you the winds get pretty high in the winter,” he explained. “Spheres, as you know, are the strongest shape, since they have no corners or weak points. Therefore, it’s harder for the wind to erode it, and the houses last longer.” His tone had become so knowledgeable and scientific; it occurred to Clara that he must be very intelligent. She laughed at herself internally, wondering why she’d never realized it before—after all, he flew a spaceship.

            They were halfway down the street, and Clara wished she had more eyes, or at least as large of eyes as her alien companion. She couldn’t help but try to see everything at once—the people out for casual walks to enjoy the meager sunlight, the flat motor vehicles speeding silently down the street and parked in various driveways. Some passers-by gave a friendly wave to Ephraim, and as they continued down the road, some people in their yards called out to him in the smooth, whispery language. It sounded too beautiful for informal conversation.

            “What are they saying?” Clara asked anxiously.

            “They’re just saying welcome back,” Ephraim shrugged. “They’re my neighbors—I haven’t been home in over a year. Here we are,” he pointed to a house they had just drawn level with. “This is my house.” It was the same unremarkable white brick as all the houses behind and beyond it, with a light tan vehicle parked in the driveway. There were pale blue blinds in the front window, and some short, lavender flowers dotting the lawn. Ephraim led her up the walkway—her heart pounding ridiculously fast for their slow pace—and knocked.

            The door opened almost immediately.

            “It’s about time, Ephraim!” said a voice behind the door. The speaker stepped into the doorway, and Clara realized it could only be Ephraim’s mother: the woman had the same shape to her eyes—though hers were mint green, like Ariana’s—and the same straight nose, her sleek blonde hair in a knot on her head, so light Clara almost thought it was white. At the moment, she stood with her hands on her hips, gazing sternly at her son with permanently watery eyes.

            “Where have you been?” she continued scolding, her voice high and clearly irked. Though Ephraim was at least a foot taller than her, he cowered slightly at her reprimand.

            “Mother, we only got back a few minutes ago,” he explained sheepishly. “The flight went a little off-course.”

            The woman sighed. “Well, I do wish you weren’t into piloting, of all things—it’s so dangerous, and you’re hardly ever home—“

            She seemed to only just notice Clara’s presence.

            “What’s this? An earthling?” she asked, blinking in surprise. Clara flushed, already trying to take up as little space as possible and hopefully go without notice.

            Ephraim glanced at Clara for a second. “Mother, this is Clara—I told you about her.” He added something hastily in Shironese, obviously some kind of explanation as well.

            His mother nodded slowly, a faint crease appearing between her eyebrows. “Ah…I see.” She turned to Clara, turning cheerful with alarming abruptness. “We’re pleased to have you here, Clara—do come inside,” she beckoned, smiling.

            Shyly, Clara stepped inside Ephraim’s house, too timid to speak.

            It was larger than her house, the entryway ceiling going all the way up so that it curved at the top with the roof.  There was a white staircase to the second floor, and beyond the entrance hall was what seemed to be a living room. She could see a white, circular table, spherical chairs that looked quite comfortable, and a couch shaped like an ellipse. Again, all the colors were subdued, all of furniture seeming to be made out of one continuous piece of sleek plastic.

            “Is Ariana back, or still all over the galaxy?” Ephraim’s mother grumbled.

            “She’s back,” said Ephraim solemnly, never letting go of Clara’s hand. “She’ll be down any time now.”

            “Yes,” she said sourly, her eyebrows still lodged in a line over her pale eyes, “you’ve said that she was coming back soon ever since she left—five years ago! Doesn’t she know what she’s doing to her poor mother? How she’s breaking her family’s heart?”

            “Mother,” he reproved her quietly. “She’s sorry she left, really.”
            “You don’t have to be making excuses for her,” she said sternly, crossing the room to put her arms around her son. “Welcome home, dear.”

            “Thanks, Mother.” He didn’t look too enthusiastic.

            “Now,” she said, releasing him. “Why don’t you take your friend upstairs—I’m sure you’ve had a long trip, and then come back downstairs and talk with me?”

            Clara’s overall impression of Ephraim’s mother was that she was overbearing and domineering. She smiled to herself—apparently parents were the same, no matter where you were in the galaxy.

            “Yes, Mother,” he sighed. Ephraim turned to Clara and took both her hands again, saying, “This way, Clara.” As he took her upstairs, he added to her in a low voice, “I’m sorry about Mother. She’s upset that my sister never comes home—and that I don’t come home nearly as often as she would like.”

            “Is she upset that I’m here?” Clara whispered as they reached the second-floor landing.

            “No, of course not,” said Ephraim in his most innocent tone. “She’s only upset that I didn’t ask her permission first. She hates it when I don’t tell her things.” He stopped in front of a doorway and cautiously looked inside. “Here—my father is home, let’s go in and you can meet him.” He opened the door carefully and tiptoed inside with Clara right behind him.

            The room appeared to be a cross between a workshop and a study. It was mainly empty, which made it look even larger than it already was, and dull sunlight streamed in from the clear ceiling, which curved with the roof. Bookshelves were built into all the walls but the farthest from them, which was covered with pieces of paper: a global map of Earth, drawings of ordinary household items like hair dryers and bicycles, a few graphs and charts, anatomical drawings of the human body and more unrecognizable diagrams. The object that really drew the eye, however, was the revolving silvery model in the center of the big room, which Clara realized was a model of her own solar system.

            Hunched over a desk near the door was a man who must be Ephraim’s father. He had a few tools in his hand—one looked like a triangular protractor, the other like a compass—and seemed to be measuring and drawing something. He was so focused on his work that he didn’t hear Clara and Ephraim coming up behind him.

            Ephraim cleared his throat timidly.

            The man jumped. When he turned around, he sighed in relief, and then smiled widely. “Ephraim! You’re back!” Clara had to bite her lip to keep herself from giggling. He had the same huge eyes as everyone else on the planet, but he wore glasses that magnified them to absolutely comical proportions.  His eyes were blue, though, like his son’s, and he had pale red flyaway hair that was apparently as unpredictable as his thoughts.

            He took off his glasses for a moment to peer up at them, and his eyes returned to a slightly more reasonable size. “You’re home early, son.”

            “No, Father,” said Ephraim patiently. “I’m late. Three days off schedule. See?” He pointed to a calendar above his father’s desk.

            “Is it really already the twentieth day?” He put his glasses back on and squinted at the date, as if disbelieving. “So it is! How about that?” he said wonderingly. He finally noticed Clara’s presence, and his eyes widened impossibly. “But who is this?”

            “Father, this is Clara,” Ephraim said, and before he could continue, his father interrupted with a quiet gasp.

            “But you’re from Earth!” he said. At first Clara thought he was angry, but as the amazed smile lit up the man’s face, she realized he was positively delighted. “Oh, but we must talk! This is brilliant—incredible—fantastic! I’ve spent half my life studying aliens, and now I actually get to meet one!” He shook her hand vigorously in both of his. “I am so pleased to meet you, my dear! Ephraim’s told us so much about you, of course—“

            Ephraim interrupted him, speaking hastily in Shironese, sounding uncomfortable. His father looked surprised for a second at whatever he’d said, but then nodded and said something else, chuckling. It all made Clara wish she knew their language; it was maddening that people could say things in secret while she was present.

            She blushed, pleased that he seemed to approve of her so entirely. “Nice to meet you, sir,” she murmured.

            “Well, it was a pleasure to meet you, too, Clara,” said his father, smiling up at her. “Now I really must be getting back to my work…” He had already turned to his tools and begun drawing again. Ephraim took Clara out of the room.

            “Father is a professor,” he explained in a whisper. “He teaches lectures at the school and works on research of his own, mostly about Earth. He’s brilliant but…strange.”

            Clara had to stifle a laugh at the thought of Ephraim calling anyone else strange. One thing was certain, however: she knew now where he got it from.

            “Here’s the guest bedroom,” he pointed. “I’ll be back in a minute, but I better get downstairs… Mother wanted to talk to me.” As he descended the stairs, Clara couldn’t help but notice his slightly apprehensive expression.

            The first place she went was to the window, to look out, once again, at the impossible. She was staring out at a sprawling alien city on the other side of the universe. No one back home would believe this, she thought, grinning. But then her momentary delight faded as she was reminded of home again with a sharp pang. A rush of homesickness threatened to bring her to tears again.

             Of course, this strange and wonderful place was worth visiting and the people here worth knowing. Of course she liked the new friends she had made—bizarre though they were—but she missed the comfort and ordinariness of home. There was a bed in here with a pale blue comforter that was undoubtedly soft, and a window with a lovely view, and interesting places to see. But she longed to sleep in her own bed, with the familiar rough quilt. She missed her room, where two of the three light bulbs were burned out in her ceiling fan; where the mosquitoes buzzed around her ceiling in the summer and the air was hot and sticky…She missed the way she could hear the cicadas droning during those summer nights, and how the rustle of the corn in the breeze could be heard when she stuck her head out the window…And she longed for her summer homework—well, now it was long past summer, she realized, and school must have started ages ago. She was missing her senior year, she thought. Not that she couldn’t make it up when she got back, but it was still an entire year missing that she could never get back. Just a lost year, where no one could ever know what had happened to her, where she had mysteriously disappeared…

            A soft tap on her shoulder made her jump in alarm, but it was only Ephraim, of course.

            “Sorry,” he said sheepishly. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

            This was another thing she ought to be glad of: there were people here who liked her, who paid attention to her. She shouldn’t miss home, where this would never happen.

            “It’s fine,” she said, smiling easily. He beamed in response. “Are you in trouble?”

            “Am I in trouble?” he repeated confusedly, tilting his head to the side.

            “With your mother,” she said.

            “Oh. No. She’s just glad I’m home.”

            Clara lowered her voice. “Is she upset that I’m here? Don’t lie to me, Ephraim, I want to know.”

            He deliberated for a second, but then he said innocently, “Why should she be upset that I finally have someone come to visit? She’s not against you, she just was angry to find that I’ve been keeping things from her…”

            Sighing, Clara said, “Well, I suppose she can stand being with me for one week. And you’d be leaving soon anyways, even if I weren’t here, right?”

            Ephraim’s cheeks turned pink and he looked down. “Oh. Right. I suppose so…if that’s what you want…” He looked mortified.

            “Ephraim,” she said, exasperated, “how many times do we need to have this discussion? I’ll stay here for a week, and then you have to take me back. That was our bargain, remember?”

            “Yes, it was,” he mumbled, his huge eyes downcast. “But I said I’ll take you home as soon as you want to go, and well, I’d hoped maybe…” He was wringing his hands, apparently unable to say what was on his mind.

            “You’re not going back on your promise, are you?” she asked, shocked. “I thought I could trust you—I thought you were supposed to be my friend!” Her heart raced as she began to worry—yet again---she’d been wrong to trust his word.

            “I am!” he said quickly, looking up in alarm. “Of course I’ll bring you back; it’s just…well…” He looked ashamed again, and his quiet voice became harder and harder to hear. “I’d hoped that maybe you wouldn’t want to go back. That maybe you’d want to stay here with—with us.” His shoulders drooped as his hands tangled themselves together and his eyes became very glassy.

            “Ephraim, of course I want to go back home—can’t you think what my family’s going through right now? I’ve got people back there worrying about me—do you think I could just forget all about them?” Her frown deepened---he was acting like a selfish child. “Besides, that’s where I belong—I would never belong on Shiron, or anyplace but Earth. Just like you wouldn’t belong anywhere but here, don’t you see?”

            “Yes, I see that now,” he choked. “But…Clara?”

            “What?” Her voice was annoyed.

            His big eyes looked up at her, and he looked truly wretched. “Why are you so anxious to leave me?” he asked sadly in a very small voice. “Don’t you like me?”

            And instantly, it was very difficult to remain irritated with him when he behaved this way. “Oh, don’t be like that, Ephraim, don’t be sad,” she said, reluctantly pitying him. He continued to look dejected, so she took a step closer and—feeling rather awkward—gave him a hug. “Of course I like you! It’s alright, Ephraim, we’ve still got six more months after this week,” she said positively.  

            “I suppose you’re right.” He didn’t seem to know quite what to do, with Clara’s arms around him, so he settled for putting his own arms around her shoulders lightly. She’d never noticed before, but he smelled nice; like the fresh pages of a newly opened book.

            She pulled away to read his expression. Some of the misery remained. “Oh, cheer up, Ephraim,” she said. She couldn’t believe she actually felt guilty. “You’ve been a really great friend to me, but I’ve got to get back to my family. Your mother wouldn’t like it if you disappeared one day and never came back, would she?”

            Ephraim winced. “That’s not far from what Ariana did. Mother was furious: she’d joined the piloting academy without telling anyone, and left one day. She came back for the first time today, since she left home five years ago. The only way my parents knew what she was doing, and if she was alright, was from me, since I came back and forth.” His mouth twisted unhappily. “She didn’t even tell me what she was going to do, and she normally told me everything.”

            It was then that Clara heard voices coming from downstairs. One of them was clearly Ariana, and she was saying, “I’m sorry I’ve caused so much turmoil in this family, but I couldn’t stay another minute, with you constantly—“ 

Another voice interrupted, speaking in Shironese. Both of them were irate; her mother’s voice sounded like a hiss. “Alright, maybe I should have given you more warning,” said Ariana, still angry. “And I’m sorry, Mother, okay? But have you ever stopped to wonder why I left? I was so tired of you sheltering us from the whole world, and trying to control everything!”

            “If it was my fault, why have we never had a problem with your brother?” her mother snapped. “I don’t think I’m so terrible, as you make me out to be!”

            “No trouble until now.” Ariana sounded smug. “You’re angry with him, aren’t you?” Clara could almost see her smirking. “My baby brother finally did something spontaneous, and you’re furious at him for it. Is it because he finally did something without your consent, or because you’re worried he’s growing up too fast? Or maybe you think that some of his affection will be taken away from you and given to someone else? Is that it—you’re jealous that he’s not a mamma’s boy anymore?”

            Her mother said something in her language; it sounded livid. Ariana answered in English. “You know what? I think his friend has already been good for him. He’s starting to depend on you a little less since he’s met her; started to be more of his own person. I know you see it as a rebellion against you, but it’s only going to help him in the long run.”

            They continued arguing, but they didn’t say anything else in English. Clara looked to Ephraim for his reaction.

            A pinkish tinge appeared on his white face. “Um, let’s go downstairs…they won’t argue if we’re there.” His embarrassment was obvious. He hastily took her hand and led her down the stairs.




Chapter Twelve

            As soon as the two entered the room, both Ariana and her mother stopped their fight and looked at them expectantly.

            “Oh, hello dear,” said their mother, suddenly flawlessly polite. “You three can sit at the table,” she avoided looking at her daughter, “I’m going to get your father…” She turned and went up the stairs, muttering to herself.

            Once her mother had left, Ariana seemed quite at ease. “So, met our parents, have you?” She grinned at Clara. “Mother is probably complaining about me to Father.” Her grin turned wicked. “I wish I could hear what they’re saying.”

            Clara followed them into the dining room. The table was long and oval, surrounded by chairs that looked like dug-out spheres. Ariana seated herself gracefully across from Clara.

            “I don’t think you should cause trouble on purpose,” mumbled Ephraim. “I agree with you, you know that, but…” He made a face. “I wish you wouldn’t drag me into this.”

            Ariana snickered. “Alright, if you’d rather stand up to her yourself...”

            Their mother cleared her throat loudly and stomped into the room.

            Dinner was uncomfortably strange. Their mother kept huffily throwing dirty looks at Ariana, who pretended not to notice. Their father sat on Clara’s left, at the end of the table. He had taken his glasses off, for which she was thankful (it was awkward enough without having to fight the urge to laugh). He asked her questions continuously about everything. He wanted to know what Iowa was like, about her family and friends, about school. Clara felt excruciatingly self-conscious, sure that she wasn’t remarkable enough to interest him, but he seemed fascinated by the tiniest answer. Worse were his questions about Earth in general; about the media, the government, and society. She felt terribly embarrassed that she didn’t know the answers to everything, but this only seemed to intrigue him further.

            The entire time, Clara glanced at the family out of the corner of her eye. The main dish was some kind of crustacean that looked like a large shrimp and a lobster combined. The silverware was just a long metal stick, which Clara was unsure what to do with. She hoped they weren’t used like chopsticks; she was terrible at that.

            Next to her, Ephraim threw her a quick apologetic glance, then very pointedly speared a small piece on the end and put it in his mouth. Understanding, Clara mouthed silent, grateful thanks.

            It wasn’t bad; it tasted like any other seafood Clara had had. One of the vegetables was flaky and spiral-shaped, like a snail shell. It looked like coconut when it was cut up, but tasted blander.  The other vegetable was green like spinach, and reminded her of basil, but more bitter.

            When the meal was finished, Ephraim’s father looked put out.

            “Well, next time, my dear,” he said to Clara. “But it was wonderful talking to you, simply marvelous!” Ephraim began to steer her out of the room, seeming to sympathize with her obvious discomfort. His father called out, “Wait, I forgot to ask—“

            But Clara and Ephraim ran out the front door in escape.

            They looked at each other for a second, and then Clara started to laugh. Ephraim joined in for apparently no other reason than that she was laughing. When they had both caught their breath, Ephraim said, “Hey, can I show you something?” He was a little more serious, but still smiling.

            “What is it?”

            He pointed to something up the street. Clara saw a cliff even taller than the one they had landed on. “The view from there is really pretty,” he explained. “It’s one of my favorite places to go, especially in the evening. Do you want to see it?”

            “Sure,” she agreed eagerly, then realized, “but won’t it take a while to get up there?”

            “No, not if we use an elevator. Most of the major cliffs have them.”

            “Oh. Why?”

            “Why what?”

            “Why are there elevators in cliffs?”

            “There used to be buildings up there,” he explained, “places to observe the stars, and sometimes lighthouses for the ships out at sea. But most of them were knocked down—they got too damaged in the winter by the wind. Now everything’s in the valley, where the wind’s a little less harsh.”

            “Cool,” she said, imagining the view. “So nobody goes up there anymore?”

            “Not usually, no. But we better get going, before it gets dark.” He took her hand again and began to lead her away from the front steps. This time, she walked with him enthusiastically, instead of afraid. It was still as bright as the afternoon had been, but she saw less people on the road than before.

            It didn’t take as long as she thought it would to reach the base of the rock face. The road turned to avoid hitting it, but she and Ephraim walked straight to the small clear elevator that looked like an ant compared to the massive cliff behind it.

            The elevator ascended so fast, her ears popped. She couldn’t watch the town disappear from under her; it made her stomach turn. After a while, she felt Ephraim gently tugging her hands away from her face. “We’re here, Clara,” he said.

            “Oh. Sorry.” She hadn’t realized they’d stopped moving. They jumped out, and the elevator stayed where it was, waiting for the return trip. She gazed around at their surroundings.

            The grass, low and scrubby, crunched under her feet. All she could see from this far back was the sky, empty and colorless. As she walked across the top of the precipice, she found the wind was much stronger up here, it tore through her hair, sending strands flying behind her head as she faced the wind head-on.  She had to hold the skirt of her dress down to keep it from blowing upwards.

            She had goose bumps already, but she went towards the ledge anyways, ignoring the chill. What she saw made her shiver all over again.

            The roiling sea below her pounded and thrashed against the rock, as if the coast had done it some wrong that ought to be avenged. The land, which was being eaten away slowly, and wearily pockmarked by the vengeful waves, looked tired of the sea’s endless grudge against it. The water was the darkest thing Clara had yet seen on Shiron, almost black in the twilight. Its violence was so great; there were breaking waves as far as the eye could see. 

            A ghost came from overhead—a bird, like a grey falcon with a longer beak. Clara watched it dive quickly at the waves, and silver flashed; it must have caught a fish. She leaned over the edge a little to watch it soar around.

            This time, she nearly fainted.

            Ephraim caught her by the waist and pulled her back. “Are you okay?” he asked anxiously. “Don’t look over that far. I don’t want you to fall.”

            “Sorry,” she said dizzily. “I’m not good with heights like that.”

            “I won’t let you fall.” His fragile arms were still a snare around her waist.
            “Maybe I better just get away from the ledge.” She backed up a few feet, but she could still see the dark water. The sky was becoming a light purplish grey, and growing steadily darker.

            Ephraim let go of her quickly, clearing his throat.

            “Look.” He pointed upwards. Clara had to tilt her head back to see the two huge, glowing moons now visible in the sky. “The big one is Ciro,” he said, gesturing to the largest swollen moon. “And the little one is Aeolus.”

            “Just like your picture,” she realized. “When will the stars come out?”

            “You can’t see very many,” he said sadly. “The atmosphere is so thick. That’s what causes this, you know,” he continued, waving a long hand at the city on the other side. “All the colors are faded like that because our ozone layer is at least twice as thick as yours; everything gets all washed out.” He sighed. “That’s why you’re so lucky. On Earth, everything’s bright and colorful. Even you’re brighter.” His eyes followed her hair in the wind. She blushed.

            “Which is why I stick out so much here,” she muttered.

            Ephraim tilted his head to the side. “In a good way,” he said, sounding insulted.

            Clara laughed, “Whatever you say, Ephraim.”


            When they returned to Ephraim’s house, his mother was in the entrance hall, apparently waiting for them.

            “What have you two been up to?” she asked, eyeing Clara suspiciously.

            “Just showing her around,” he shrugged.

            She nodded slowly, but her distrustful manner didn’t lessen as she walked upstairs.

            The two went their separate ways in the middle of the hallway.

            “Good-night,” he said, grinning broadly as he squeezed her hand. “See you in the morning.”

            “Good-night,” she said, smiling.

            Inside her room, it was darker than outside; like midnight rather than dusk. She wanted to watch the stars come out from her window, but her eyes slid closed of their own accord. She was so tired and it was so comfortable here under the soft covers, she was drifting away…

            The next thing she knew, it was morning, and grayish sunlight was streaming through her window. She felt so stiff, like she’d been asleep for rather a long time, as she stretched and pulled her covers off. She didn’t have a clock in this room, (and she had no idea how Shirons kept track of time) so she had no idea how long she’d slept, but the sun—oddly hazy through the thick blanket of atmosphere—was high enough in the sky to tell her she’d slept in late.

            Hurriedly, she combed her hair and splashed water on her face from the basin on the nightstand, getting dressed in a rush.

            She poked her head out of the door, wondering where Ephraim and Ariana were—remembering what Ephraim had said about Shirons needing less sleep, she assumed they were already awake.

            She tiptoed—with a self-conscious timidity induced by her unwillingness to interrupt another family argument—across the hall, to the stairs. She could hear voices downstairs, all indistinguishable and calm, so she crept down the stairs.

            Ephraim was seated patiently in one of the chairs in the living room, and his face visibly brightened when he caught sight of her.

            “Hi, Clara—did you sleep okay?” he asked, standing up.

            “Just fine, thanks,” she smiled. “Have you been waiting long for me?”

            He shook his head. “Not long—and I was eating breakfast, too. It’s still warm, I think; I saved you some.”

            There was a bowl sitting on the dining room table, apparently waiting for her.

            “Thank you,” she said, her stomach growling as she sat at the table.

            “Sorry, we haven’t got Earth food in the house,” he winced.

            “That’s fine,” she assured him, deciding not to wonder what was in the bowl and just eat it gratefully. It was thick and white, like oatmeal, so she chose to pretend it was as she scooped up a spoonful.

            It was sweet, almost like a liquidized crepe, but there was something odd about it too.

            “The thing in largest supply around here is seafood,” he explained with an apologetic smile. “So we even have it for breakfast.”

            She preferred to pretend she hadn’t heard that last explanation so she could enjoy her breakfast. It’s actually kind of good if you don’t think about it, she thought.


            “Can I show you around town?” Ephraim asked eagerly as they stepped out of the house, his eyes sparkling with enthusiasm.

            “Sure,” she agreed, unusually brimming with energy. The sky was a powder blue, infinitely vast and empty, shining with muted light. The air felt warmer than yesterday had; she guessed it was around fifty degrees Fahrenheit, warm enough to comfortably wear short sleeves, despite the breeze.

            He took her hand and led her down the walkway, a bounce in his step, and he began to stroll so quickly she had to jog to keep up with his long strides—he did have much longer legs than she did.

            “Come on, this way!” he sang, grinning broadly. “You’ll like the city, trust me.”

            “Can we go a little slower?” she panted, though she was on the verge of laughing.

            He came to a halt so abruptly, she almost ran into him. He pressed his lips together sheepishly. “Sorry.”

            She laughed, trying to catch her breath. “It’s okay,” she said. She could see his brimming excitement, and it was really quite funny—like he was on caffeine or something.

            They set off again at a stroll down the sidewalk, occasionally walking past more of the tall neighbors—and Clara got up the courage to smile and wave when Ephraim said hello to them.

            Once, they passed someone shorter than Clara; a little girl with giant grey eyes who called out when she saw Ephraim.

            “Hi, Mira!” he said, stopping and stooping to look down at her.

            The girl blinked up at them with a precocious smile; her curious gaze lingered on Clara. She asked a question in Shironese, pointing at the foreigner.

            “Mira, you know it’s rude to point, especially at visitors,” said Ephraim, but his scolding was far from sharp. “This is Clara—she’s from Earth, and she only knows English, so I bet she’d appreciate it if you spoke her language.”

            “So you’re Clara. Pleased to meet you,” said Mira, extending a hand to shake.

            Had Ephraim told everyone in this city about her? Clara decided not to ask.

            Clara shook it, pressing her lips together to keep from laughing. “Pleased to meet you, too,” she said, amused by the girl’s formality.

            “How’s your mother?” Ephraim asked the girl.

            “She’s doing better, I think.” Mira didn’t take her eyes off Clara.

            “Tell her I said to get well soon—I’ll bring her over some soup if she needs people to cook for her.”

            “She’d appreciate that,” said Mira, still scrutinizing Clara. Her grey gaze was beginning to make Clara feel uncomfortable—like she could see right through her. “I’ll tell her you said hi. And…nice to meet you, Clara; I’ve never met an alien before.”

            Clara flushed, but Mira hadn’t seemed to mean any offense by it.

            Ephraim gave her a pat on the head and bade her good-bye, and they went their separate ways.

            “She’s a cute little thing,” said Ephraim, chuckling. “She’s my cousin—her mother’s been sick lately, so my family’s been keeping an eye on her. Mira thinks she knows everything,” he added.

            Clara laughed. “So, do you know everyone in this city or something?”

            He shrugged. “No, not everyone…but it’s not very big, only a population of a few thousand at most.”

            “How many people live here—on this planet, I mean?”

            “Less than on Earth, I know that much—maybe a few hundred million at the most,” he said as they continued on their way.

            “If your race is so much older, then why…?”

            “We learned a long time ago that overpopulation causes problems.”

            She bit her lip, her stomach turning. “Is it like China with the population control?”

            “Oh, no, of course not,” he explained quickly. “But it’s kind of the social custom to have no more than four kids—it’s not a law or anything, you wouldn’t get into trouble for having more, but it’s just the tradition. Most families have less than that, anyways.”

            Clara thought for a while, their conversation pausing for a bit as their stroll took them past larger houses.

            “Do these houses belong to the richer people?” she asked.

            “Well…it’s not so much money as it is esteem,” he said in an undertone. “The teachers and government leaders and philosophers and the like; they’re the ones that get the most respect, so the city reserves the bigger houses for them.”

            “Teachers are highly respected?” It was certainly different from the Earth mindset.

            “Oh, yes,” he said, his eyes wide in surprise. “They’re the ones that pass on their knowledge to the next generation, hoping to instill wisdom and virtue into the people. Don’t you think that occupation deserves respect?”

            Blood seeped into her cheeks. “Of course I do,” she said quickly. “I just never thought of it that way. Teachers aren’t paid very much on Earth,” she explained.

            “Oh…” A slight frown crossed his face as he thought about that. “But sports players and movie stars are paid so much…” He muttered slowly to himself.

            Clara looked behind herself at the neighborhood and the cliffs soaring above it, and she found her glance resting on the crumbling castle. “You said that castle was built by the people that were here before…What did you mean by that?”

            He snapped his eyes back to her, eager to explain, a smile popping back onto his face with alarming speed. “Well, you see, we didn’t come from this planet. We—well, not anyone I know, but our ancestors, billions of years ago—came from an entirely different galaxy, but the sun was going out. My race saw it coming, so they sent everybody to this planet, which they’d just discovered, and we escaped to safety.”

            He swallowed, looking ahead now as they walked on, his eyes becoming pensive. “But there were already people living here—not people quite like you or like me, but intelligent creatures all the same. There are depictions of them on cave drawings, on the ones they hollowed out before we came, and they’ve got segmented eyes, like flies…”

            She was thinking hard, trying to imagine what it would feel like if she knew intelligent creatures other than humans had previously existed on Earth. When she glanced back at Ephraim, he was smiling at her again.

            “It is weird to think about, isn’t it? A whole civilization was built here that we’ll never know about. It’s really quite a mystery—they’d already been declining when we arrived, but as soon as we came, they retreated into caves and disappeared. We hardly know anything about them.” His tone was very thoughtful now, and he tapped his mouth with one finger as he contemplated. “But that castle was superbly built to still be here now, as we speak, billions of years later. Even we don’t have that durable of architecture, and we’re not sure how they did it. By all scientific laws, it shouldn’t still be standing.”

            “That is mysterious,” she murmured. And wouldn’t it be a fantastic basis for a story, with all that room for speculation…?



Chapter Thirteen

            The buildings were closer together now, the grassy yards much smaller, and Clara guessed they were downtown.

            “There’s the farmer’s market,” Ephraim explained, pointing to a side street branching off of the main street. Vendors stood behind booths and barrels and crates full of pale, bland-looking fruits and vegetables, selling them more quietly and courteously than Clara thought possible. Perhaps it was a rule in the city, but no one raised their voices too high, not even in the crowded market—but since no one shouted, everyone could hear each other just fine.

            “There’s the school I went to,” he pointed out, a cluster of egg-shaped buildings looming ahead of them. There were no children outside of it—but, since little Mira had not been in school, perhaps it was a break or a weekend.



            They stood in the ring of plants—they were no taller than Clara herself, but looked somewhat tree-like: gnarled, twisted limbs turned into twirling tendrils of twigs, all covered in a fluffy snowdrift of white blossoms.

            Awestruck into silence yet again, Clara stepped towards the nearest tree and touched the delicate bark, one finger tracing over the twisting patterns etched in it. A smile slowly touched her lips.

            “How beautiful,” she whispered, for at least the hundredth time since she’d arrived.

            She didn’t see Ephraim’s face when he said from behind her, in an equally breathless voice, “Yes…how beautiful.”

            She finally recognized his presence when she felt something touch her lightly—his lithe fingers had picked a snowy blossom from the tree and tucked it behind her ear.

            Pink seeped into her cheekbones simultaneously with the blush arriving on his face, nearly identical shy smiles appearing on both of them.

            She looked away, her face burning, but his eyes—bluer than the sky—continued to search her.

            Seizing the opportunity to redirect their attentions, Clara knelt to examine the flowers under their feet, tiny pink blossoms all like individual buttercups.

            When she reached out to touch them, they suddenly took flight in a fluttering pink cloud—it was not a cluster of flowers at all, but a colony of butterflies nesting in the ground!

            She laughed wonderingly as they soared around her gently, like she was in a snow globe.

            Ephraim laughed with her, a curious expression in his eyes as he watched her marveling.



            Ephraim looked down for a while, his eyes on their hands. He suddenly looked both morose and worried—Clara squeezed his hand, trying to cheer him up.

            “What’s the matter?” she asked.

            He took a deep breath and looked up at her, his large eyes cautious.

            “Clara…if I asked you a question, would you answer me honestly—and not worry about hurting my feelings?” he asked.

            There seemed to be an undercurrent to his question, so she answered warily.

            “Why wouldn’t I answer you? Just ask me.”

            He looked down again.

            “Well…I was wondering,” he said slowly, as if trying to figure out how to word it. “Are you… happy here with me? Because I know you were really sad and homesick before, and I feel bad…”

            He trailed off miserably, still not meeting her eyes. He seemed quite apprehensive about her answer.

            Oh dear. This was a question that had to be answered delicately—both honestly and with great caution.

            She tried to find the right words—because she didn’t want him getting the wrong idea.

            “I’m not scared anymore,” she began. “And I’ve gotten used to it here. I’m okay.”

            “But are you happy here?” he pressed. His eyes were anxious.

            “I like it here,” she said carefully. “It’s a very interesting place. And I like you and Ariana. But…” She paused, biting her lip. “But I still want to go home.”

            His face fell the tiniest bit, but he nodded, as if trying to pretend he’d expected it.

            “It’s not that I think home is better than here—but it’s where I’m supposed to be. You see?”

            He nodded. “Of course,” he said. But it was unconvincing.

            She wasn’t quite sure what to say—she didn’t want him to think she wanted to stay, but she also felt a squirm of guilt in her stomach when she saw his feelings hurt.

            “I’m happy to have friends here,” she explained, “and that you’ve been so nice to me. But I still think I need to go home.”

            “Of course,” he said, his tone unusually offhand. “That’s what you should do, then. I’ll take you back first thing tomorrow.”

            “Thank you.”


Ephraim noticed her troubled look.

            “What’s wrong?”

            Clara sighed. “I’m just worried about what I’m going to tell them, back home. I’ve got to have some explanation for my year-long absence.” She tried her best to keep the accusatory note out of her voice.

            “What are you going to say?” Ephraim was staring ahead, not looking at her.

            “Well…” Clara hesitated. This was a risky idea, but it was the only thing she could think of that might actually work. “I’ll probably tell Mom I went looking for my dad. It’ll get me into huge trouble, of course, but it’s a lot more plausible than the truth.” Again, she tried to stay emotionless.

            “Will they believe you?” he asked quietly.

            “Probably; I’ve actually considered doing it before.” Clara’s voice was flat, unemotional.

            After a slight pause, Ephraim said, “I can see what it must have done to you. Not just your dad leaving, but the affect it had on your mom.”

            “What would you know about that? That was so many years ago. I don’t care about it anymore—it was a long time ago.” Clara’s voice wasn’t sharp, as her words may have indicated; it was soft and shaky.

            Ephraim gently explained. “That’s not true, Clara, of course you care. I can tell your mom blames you—and that you know it, too.” Clara froze, her eyes popping wide open and moistening. “I can tell she holds you responsible, since he wouldn’t have left if he hadn’t found out you weren’t his baby.”

            As soon as his sentence was out of his mouth, another scene swam before her eyes.


            It was late at night, long after Clara had gone to bed, but she couldn’t sleep. She’d sat in bed, twisting her brown pigtails anxiously in her hands, trying to shake off a nightmare, uncertain if her parents would be angry if she came downstairs. But now she heard the voices—they were arguing again.

            She hated it when they fought. It had never turned physically violent, not even close, but it often meant they were bad-tempered in the morning with each other and with Clara and Michael. In fact, many a time her father had stormed out of the house and spent the night in the motel in town.

            But it never lasted long, she comforted herself. Her parents loved each other, she thought. They would always say sorry in the end.

            Shakily, she made her way down the hall and towards the stairs. The raised voices came from the kitchen.

            Pausing to listen, she realized that she’d never heard them this loud before. There were a lot of words she had never heard before, and she couldn’t tell what they were fighting about. Her gait was twice as unsteady now, shuffling down the stairs with true fear.

            In the hall to the kitchen, she stopped again, too afraid to show her face just yet, and she caught a few words of the fight.

            “Oh, so it’s completely my fault then, is that what you’re saying?” her mother said. Her voice had grown quieter, but acidly sarcastic, and it was almost worse than hearing her scream.

            “What’s that supposed to mean? I suppose he forced you into it, did he? You knew exactly what you were doing—how can you expect me to be alright with this?” Her father’s deep voice was alarmingly loud, bouncing off the kitchen walls.

            “It was eight years ago, John! Eight years! Don’t you think that’s a bit long to hold a grudge? How could that still bother you? It was ages ago—it’s not like I’m still seeing him!” Her mother’s voice was gaining volume now too.

            “It doesn’t matter how long ago it was!” her father roared. “Sleeping with another man is not something I can wave off!”

            Her father’s low, grumbling voice called her mother a name Clara had never heard before.

            Clara didn’t understand this fight at all, but it terrified her more than any of the others.

            “What did you expect, John? What did you think would happen all those long nights where you blew me off? You were never home! And even when you were, your job was so damn important you couldn’t possibly think of your wife! You want to know why I did it, John? Because you were never there. Even when you sat at this table and ate dinner with me, you were someplace else, and—for God’s sakes, I was lonely!”

            Clara couldn’t take it anymore.

            “M-mommy? D-daddy?” she whispered feebly, coming out into the light.

            Her mother’s eyes popped open for a second; her father looked almost murderous until his eyes rested on Clara, and his face softened in guilt.

            “Go back to bed, Clara,” said her mother. “We’re just having a discussion, sweetheart, go back—,”

            “Kate,” said her father sharply, something apparently occurring to him. His eyes were still fixed on Clara, looking at the cowering little girl as though he had never seen her properly before. “Kate, you said this happened eight years ago.”

            Clara squirmed under his harsh gaze. Her father never looked at her like this.

            “Eight years ago,” he continued, his voice gravelly with suppressed emotion, “you were pregnant with our—what am I talking about?—with your daughter!” He faced Clara’s mother with his fists clenched. “Now answer me the truth, Kate,” he said in a low, dangerous voice. “Clara is not mine, is she?”


            The word echoed around the room for a moment.

            Without another word, her father tore out of the room and bounded up the stairs.

            “Wait—where are you going?” Her mother called.

            Moments later, he was at the front door, suitcase in hand.

            Her mother was screaming. “You can’t just leave! Just give me another chance. How can you leave now—you’ve got a son to think of, a daughter on the way!”

            Her father glanced back at Clara’s quivering figure, his eyes distant, as if he were looking at a stranger. His voice was cold.

            “How can I give you another chance, Kate? How can you expect me to trust you after this? It’s like our whole life together has been a lie.”


             The tiny eight-year-old girl, shivering and sobbing against the linoleum kitchen floor, vanished from behind Clara’s eyes, and she was brought back to the present.

            It was only then that she realized there were tears on her present-day face, too.

            “I was there,” she choked. “I was there when he left—he left all the time for a night when they were arguing, but that time he never came back. And…and he would n-never have l-l-left if I’d n-n-never b-been born—“

            Unexpectedly, Ephraim put his spidery hand under her chin to make her look at him. His expression was soft. “Clara, I didn’t mean to make you sad,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

            The sobs continued to shake through her and flood down her face. Ephraim continued on, his large eyes staring into hers seriously. “I just wanted you to know that it’s not your fault.”

            Clara stopped breathing. “W-what?”

            Ephraim dropped his hand from her face, only to put both his hands on her shoulders. He leaned down so he was her height. “Clara, you shouldn’t have to be paying for that—it was your mother’s own fault, and she ought to take responsibility for her own actions! It’s not your fault. It was her decision. And don’t you dare be sorry you were born.”  He stared into her eyes for another long moment, as if hoping his words had gotten through firmly enough. His pale blue eyes seemed more alive than usual: Clara had never heard him speak with such passion before. He must have really meant it.

            Clara let another heavy sob escape her, and buried her face against him. She didn’t even come up to his shoulders, he was so tall, but she didn’t care.

            “Oh, Clara,” he sighed, wrapping his thin arms around her in comfort. “Shh, shh, it’s alright Clara,” he whispered over and over again. He rocked her back and forth slowly, trying to calm her down, holding her all the while.

            When she had quieted a bit, her sobs controlled, she simply closed her eyes and leaned against him, hiccupping. He rubbed her back gently, somehow hesitantly. “It’s okay, Clara.” He then began to whisper something in another language to her—Clara recognized it as the language of Shiron. Whatever he was saying, it was very soft and soothing, almost lulling. The words were very beautiful, whatever they meant.

            Clara had calmed down enough to ask, “What are you saying?” She smiled slightly.

            Ephraim sounded like he was about to say it in English, but then changed his mind. “I’ll tell you sometime,” he hedged. “But not now.”

            “Okay,” she agreed, closing her eyes. “I won’t forget.”


            That night, she fell asleep gratefully, feeling exhausted from the tears. But sometime in the dead of night, she had a nightmare, triggered by the memories Ephraim’s words had reminded her of.

            Clara woke with a start, trembling with sobs. The first thing she realized was that it was only a dream. The second thing she realized was that there was a tender hand on her forehead. She gasped.

            “It’s okay, calm down, it’s alright,” Ephraim whispered soothingly. “Shh, you’re okay, Clara.” His fingers brushed at the wetness leaking out of her eyes.

            When she was able to breathe, and her hyperventilation paused, she asked, “What are you doing here?” He was kneeling beside her bed, his hands still calming her.

            “I had a feeling you might have a nightmare tonight,” he answered.

            Clara felt the tears pour out of her again, even though she’d already cried so much already. Her eyes were still raw and red from last time—and now she couldn’t stop.

            It was odd that in the dark here she felt comforted by Ephraim’s presence, not embarrassed by it. He wasn’t intruding exactly, because he was the only one who knew everything and understood. She leaned her head against his chest, absolutely sobbing. Eventually, he gave her a handkerchief to blow her nose on, and she took it gratefully.

            She sat there in his arms as he comforted her, trying to pull herself together.

            “I’m a horrible person,” she choked.

            That took him by surprise, and he pulled back sharply, taking her by the shoulders. “What did you say?”

            “I’m s-so selfish,” she said, trying to control her sobs. “It’s such a stupid thing to get so worked up over—and I shouldn’t be wallowing in self-pity when there are so many people who have it so much worse.” She couldn’t go on anymore, disgusted with herself.

            “Hold on just a minute,” said Ephraim, sounding almost angry. “Don’t say things like that. You’ve got a right to be upset. All you ever wanted was to be loved, and your mother would never give that to you. It’s okay to feel sad, Clara. If you cover it up all the time, it’ll keep building up, and then it’s going to eat you up inside!”

            She let out another weak sob, and he gently pulled her to him again. She was unbelievably glad that he was there—more than she would have thought possible—glad that he stayed with her patiently for what felt like hours as she cried herself out. She was glad that she could feel his thin arms consoling her, rubbing her back and rocking her slowly.

            Finally, she caught her breath again, and blew her nose again.

            “Feeling better?” he asked hesitantly.

            She nodded. “Thanks.”

            It was incredible—and a bit nonsensical—the overwhelming trust she now felt towards him. He was the only one who understood, who knew everything there was to know about her—who else could she turn to?

            She began to unsteadily explain herself. “It’s not so much that I’ve got a terrible life or anything—I know I don’t. But…it’s just the thought that I was a mistake…that if people always did the right thing in this world, then I wouldn’t exist—and maybe that means I shouldn’t exist, or I wasn’t supposed to…And maybe that means that I can’t be good—I feel like I’m stained or something, just because I’m the unwanted byproduct of an affair—“

            Ephraim was shaking his head. “No, no, no, Clara, you already are good.” His voice sounded hurt, almost offended as he hastily went on. “Don’t say that—you know you’re a good person. Don’t you remember what I said this afternoon? It wasn’t your fault, so don’t go making yourself responsible. Sometimes good things can come from bad situations, you know?”

            Clara paused for a minute, thinking about what he’d said.

            “You would think, wouldn’t you,” she said wryly, but still a little shakily, “that living with a mother like mine would desensitize me? And yet, still I’m a melodramatic, overly sensitive teenager who can’t think of anything but herself. I’m such an awful—“

            Ephraim put his hand over her mouth. “Stop it,” he said firmly. “Don’t. You’re just upset—and it’s okay to be upset; you’ve got every right to be.”

            She sighed, her head still resting against his shoulder.

            He patted her head lightly. “And your emotions are not something you have to be so ashamed of, either.”

            “I cry too much,” she mumbled.

            “Less than me,” he admitted. Her lips twitched. “Trust me, you’re not a crybaby; you’re just sensitive. That’s better than going through life not feeling anything.”

            “Still. I shouldn’t wear them on my sleeve so much. I must annoy people.”

            She felt him shake his head. “Not me.”

            They stayed like that for a while—she wasn’t sure quite how long, just that her face had dried and her breathing had calmed down. Her tears had made her strangely exhausted again, and she had the feeling that she may just drift off peacefully at any moment.

            He hugged her tighter for a moment, sighing, and then whispered, “Are you going to be alright on your own?”

            She nodded—she’d cried all the tears in her.

            He touched her cheek for a second, and murmured, “Good-night, then, Clara. It wasn’t your fault; remember that.”

            He left the room silently, and she sank into dreamless oblivion, glad to have the tears out of her system.


            Ephraim was quiet for a minute. “We’re not so different, you and I.” His voice was thoughtful.

            Clara frowned in confusion. “What do you mean by that?”

            He looked to her and smiled gently. “At school, people once made fun of you. They thought you were a crybaby; they teased you for being smart and sensitive. You don’t fit in.”

            “How did you know--?” Clara spluttered. “That was ages ago—long before you were spying on me—how could you have known that?”

            He was still quiet. “I can tell by the way you talk to people, especially people your age. It’s like you’re afraid you’ll say something stupid and they’ll laugh at you…so you sometimes choose to be safe, to say nothing at all. And so, even though they don’t mock you anymore, you’re always afraid…”

            Clara blinked a few times in shock. Her throat was too dry to say anything. She was amazed: once more, he had shown astonishing insight into her life, into the parts he’d had to infer himself.

            “And then, as their memories of you as a target for teasing faded, you eventually began to escape notice altogether, and feel like an outsider. You act like you’ve chosen that path out of your own free will, but you want to be liked. You wanted it so badly…” He trailed off. “I saw when that boy—what was his name? Zach—when he took you to the prom last year. He said it was just as friends, but you liked him, and you hoped so badly he would like you, too.” He looked at her sympathetically. “And the whole time you were together, he asked you for advice about that other girl that he did like, and he barely paid attention to you at all. That hurt you a lot.” He shook his head. “And then when he told you he’d only asked you on a dare. I was so mad he said that…” He folded his arms, almost like he was pouting. “That was a terribly mean thing of him.” He frowned. “I would have been a better friend than that.”

            Clara, meanwhile, was choking. “How did you know all that?” she demanded. “About when I was little—you never saw them make fun of me.” The memories were all too painful; it was so long ago she shouldn’t care anymore, but she did. How in the world could he have guessed?

            Ephraim turned away from her so she could not see his face. “Like I said, you and I are not so different.”

            It took her one moment to understand what he meant, and then her eyes pricked with pity.

            He cleared his throat, still looking away, but his voice was a little rough when he spoke. “Still… it doesn’t matter. Actually, you were the one that showed me that.”

            “What do you mean?”

            He turned back to her, his eyes a little red around the rims. “Emily Dickinson said it best: ‘Much madness is divinest sense…Assent—and you are sane--/ Demur—you’re straightaway dangerous/ and handled with a chain.’”

            Her lips twitched involuntarily. “I love that poem.”

            “I do, too.” His voice was still raw, his eyes fixed on her still form. “And it’s true. People have a set idea of what they think you should be—and if you don’t fit their mold for you, there’s something wrong with you in their eyes. But when those ideas are cast aside…” His head tilted sideways as he studied her. “You see things in a different way. And maybe people can be wrong about what others “should” or “shouldn’t” be.”

            She raised one eyebrow. “Are you trying to get at a specific?”

            He smiled a little, too. “I’m a coward,” he said, his voice cracking. “It’s true; I’m just weird. Everybody knows I’m an oddball. Even you know that.”

            She wasn’t sure what to say. His eyes crinkled at the corners as he thought.

            “But that doesn’t mean I’m worthless,” he said in a stronger voice. “Maybe I’m different from what everyone else thinks I should be—but I’ll make something of myself one day. I will. I’ll show them that it’s only society’s standards that hold some people back. And then they’ll know that their preconceived notions about people are only confining.”

            She put her cheek against her knees. “And if you weren’t confined…what would you do then?”

            He smiled, a little sheepishly, looking around as if to see if anyone was listening. “I don’t want to pilot my whole life,” he whispered to her. He hesitated, and then blurted out, “I want to be an artist.”

            A smile spread slowly across her face. “Well, why don’t you? I think that’s a brilliant idea.”

            He drew his knees up like her, a pink blush coloring his cheeks. “Thank you, Clara. But… my parents…”

            “What about them?”

            “My mother thinks it’s impractical. She told me to get a real job, one that I can live off of easily, one that’s more directly beneficial to the community.”

            “And art isn’t? I say it’s ‘directly beneficial’ to the soul.”

            “Not in her eyes,” he said, looking miserable. “And then, my father…well, sometimes I think the only way he could be proud of me is if I do what he wanted me to…”

            She gave a tiny laugh, and he looked up at her in surprise. “You just said the solution a few minutes ago, Ephraim. You said yourself; it’s suicide to listen when people tell you to be someone you’re not. You ought to take your own advice, you know.”

            He smiled halfheartedly. “You’re right, of course—but that’s easier said than done.” He sighed, but then glanced sideways at her. “I have an idea.”

            “What’s that?” She frowned in mock suspicion.

            His smile was more genuine this time. “We can make a deal. I won’t let myself be afraid to be myself, if you won’t either. You’ll pursue your dream to the ends of the earth, and I’ll pursue mine, and we won’t listen when people tell us it’s not the right dream, or we’re not the right sort of people. We won’t care if others don’t appreciate what we’ve got to offer, because someone will.”

            She looked down, grinning. She’d never admit to it, but her heart pounded, feeling inexplicably joyful; like she was being set free.

            “Deal,” was all she said.


            One day, Clara awoke to see something that shocked her: that longed-for sight of planet Earth, the beautiful white-and-blue planet that loomed outside her window. I’m almost home! She thought to herself joyfully. She was so close now; she had to stop herself from cheering out loud.

            While she got dressed, it occurred to her that this must be why Ephraim had seemed a little melancholy lately—he had known they were close. She sighed, thinking he must still be hoping she would stay. He must be woefully short on friends to be this desperate, she thought ruefully.

            Despite her worries about how Ephraim was handling this, she couldn’t help but feel excited. She was nearly home, so close she could see her planet; it looked so familiar and comforting, even from this distance. Her pulse beat elatedly as she felt the movement of the ship, gliding closer and closer to the open arms of home…

            Of course, now she was reminded of what her mother would say when she turned up at home again, and she was nervous again at the trouble she would be in. She tried not to think about that. Nothing could ruin her homecoming for her, she was determined of that.

            Clara came into the kitchen for breakfast and saw--to her dismay--that Ephraim was waiting for her at the table, looking gloomy. He looked up with huge, morose eyes when she entered.

            “Hi,” he said dully. “We’ll be landing in about three hours.”

            “Okay,” she said, sitting down next to him warily with a bowl of oatmeal. “Ephraim, are you…are you alright?”

            He stirred his soup moodily, not looking up at her. “Of course I am—why wouldn’t I be?” This was, clearly, a lie, judging by the grey circles under his eyes and the fact that his hands shook slightly. Clara couldn’t think of anything to say to him, so she ate her breakfast silently.

            After a few uncomfortable minutes of very loud silence, Ephraim stood up and said hastily, “I have to go and relieve Ariana. I’ll see you later.” He rushed out of the room without looking at her, leaving her gaping after him, her mouth open, and an apology on the tip of her tongue.

            Clara sat in her room for a few hours, pacing back and forth. She couldn’t truthfully say she was going to miss this room, as it had been the sight of so much stress, but, as she thought to herself, it’s strange what you can get used to.

            It was very hard to say what she was feeling at the moment, because she was very unsure herself. Were you supposed to be glad when a year-long abduction was over? But this wasn’t an ordinary abduction—did the same answer apply when you’d befriended your kidnappers? This was the strangest situation she had ever conceived of. She didn’t feel joyful or sorrowful, not angry or upset or elated, just…strange.

            She knew she would never see this place again, so she wondered if she ought to take anything with her. She had worn her favorite dress today, knowing it would be the only one she would take with her; normally she didn’t wear it because the ship was too cold for anything sleeveless, but today was special. She’d never really realized that she looked nice in white—then, shocked, she realized that it was her first positive thought while looking in the mirror, and she smiled.

            She pulled something out from under her bed: Ephraim’s sketchbook. Should she take this with her too? She found her legs carrying her to the pilot room before she had even made the decision to go there. Before she knew it, she was behind his chair, holding the book out to him.

            “I think you should take this,” she said, her voice shaking a little. He turned around abruptly, his blue eyes wide.

            “No,” he said, and the agony was obvious in his voice. He reached out to it, but instead of taking it from her, folded her hands around it more tightly. “Keep it. It was a present. I made it for you. Please¸ take it with you.”

            She nodded slowly. “Alright. If that’s what you want,” she said softly.

            “It is.”

            She left the room, still worrying about what would happen to him when she was gone.

            Back in her room, she packed the sketchbook into a bag and looked around, wondering if there was anything else she wanted to take home. She put a few of the previously empty books in there, now full of colorful descriptions of her adventures during the past year. Perhaps she could make something out of it one day; or at least prove to herself she hadn’t gone mad and imagined the whole thing.

            An hour passed as she looked out the window at her approaching home, the most beautiful sight in her life. It seemed so friendly and warm, just looking at it--it seemed to be welcoming her home.

            They were so close now that Earth took up most of her window. Clara was pacing around her room restlessly; not ordinary pacing back and forth, but all over the room in irregular patterns. She would sit down for a moment, then stand up and walk to her window, then over to the mirror, then to the bookshelf. She tried reading, but she couldn’t concentrate on anything. It was at least an hour and thirty minutes that she was watching home grow larger and larger, closer and closer, when Clara’s door opened. She could tell who it was at once by the person’s footsteps, though her back was to the door.


            “So you’re leaving us.” Ariana was calm, matter-of-fact. Clara turned around to read her expression, but Ariana’s face was empty.

            “I’m sorry,” Clara murmured, guilt swelling over her, but Ariana shook her head.

            “Don’t be,” she said kindly, smiling slightly. “I know how you feel. Really, I do. I would want to go home, too.” Clara looked down, still feeling guilty. Unexpectedly, Ariana put her arms around her like a sister. “I will miss you, though,” she said. It was possibly the softest side of her that Clara had ever seen. It made Clara smile.

            “I’ll miss you, too. Thank you—for everything, for being my friend when I was all alone here. I really needed that.” The words reminded Clara of the unpleasant task ahead of her, and she stepped back, her smile melting off her face.

            Ariana seemed to read her thoughts. “You better go talk to my brother before you leave…”

            Clara winced. “I’m not really sure what to say,” she admitted, her eyes tightening at the thought of Ephraim’s probable mood at the moment.

            “Just say good-bye,” Ariana said. Undoubtedly, her mind was in the same place Clara’s was.

            Clara nodded slowly. “I will. Thanks again, and good-bye.”


             She shut the door behind her, not wanting to see Ariana’s empty face again. Clara was not nearly as proficient at hiding her emotions.

            Just as she’d expected, Ephraim was in the pilot room. He was sitting in the control chair, curled in a helpless ball, with his feet up on the seat. He did not turn around when Clara stepped into the room cautiously.

            “Ephraim?” She could barely hear her own voice, but he heard.

            “Yes?” His voice was muffled, as he’d just pressed his face against his knees. Feeling terribly responsible for his obvious depression, Clara approached the chair carefully.

            “Ephraim, I’m sorry.” She put a hand lightly on his bony shoulder, and he finally looked up at her.  His great eyes were red around the rims. The expression was so vulnerable; suddenly Clara couldn’t look at him any longer.

            “Good-bye,” she said shakily, turning away. She picked up her bag and was about to leave, when he seized her hand desperately.

            “Please, wait!” he said, and he was truly begging now. “Please. You don’t have to go back there.”

            “Yes, I do, Ephraim, they need me!” said Clara hoarsely.

            “But I need you, too! I need you…” he trailed off, losing volume. He glanced down and closed his eyes, looking ashamed. “Maybe you’re right. But I need to tell you something, please; before you go…I need to explain why I brought you here in the first place.” He closed his eyes for another second, apparently preparing himself, wanting to say this without breaking into pieces.

            Clara was a little shocked—she’d all but forgotten how this year had begun. He never had explained why, though she had spent many a sleepless night wondering. What could possibly have driven him to this degree of desperation in his loneliness? It seemed rather unreasonable, really.

            He looked up again, his eyes serious and large, but no longer filled with tears—just hypnotic. He began in a steady voice, taking both her hands. Since he was still sitting, she knelt down on the ground so they were at the same height. His eyes were earnest and very close to hers.

            “I love you,” he said. “Clara, I love you, and I always have, and I always will—even when you were just fifteen years old, and I could only watch from a distance. Clara, I love you, I absolutely adore you.”

            There was a very long, very loud pause.

            There was no way she could have heard right. No way. Her mind locked completely.

            His cheeks turned very pink.

            “Say something,” he begged finally.

            She was still frozen in shock.

            “Look, I know…I know it doesn’t change anything, that you want to go home. And that’s okay. I just wanted you to know how…how much I love you. And how wonderful I think you really are. More than anything, I want you to know that you’re loved. You’re the sort of person that needs to know they’re loved. I don’t want you to feel guilty or anything…I mean, it’s my own fault for being selfish in the first place…” He was getting a little shaky now, but neither of them could drop their gazes and look away. “That was why I did it, of course—it seemed like, well…like I didn’t have another choice. At the time, anyway. You could have gone off to college and I would never have seen you again… I guess I was just kidding myself when I imagined you might want to stay there with me. Maybe if I showed off the universe to you, and you got to know me, maybe I could win your heart…But it was the stupidest thing I’ve ever done. I’m sorry.”

            She was still completely numb.

            He stared back, apparently waiting for a reaction.

            “Ephraim—,” she finally choked, unsure of what to say.

            He put a long finger to her lips.

            “I know, I know. You don’t feel the same way about me. And that’s okay—really, it is. I’m just glad I got to spend this time with you, however short it was. That’s another thing I have to tell you,” he said, cupping his hand under her chin so she looked him in the eyes. “This has been—and probably will always be—the very best year of my life. The stars just seem a whole lot brighter with you around.” His voice grew a little watery at the end, and he sniffed.

            Finally, she found her voice.

            “Then why are you letting me go?” Her voice sounded strange to her.

            His eyes met hers gravely. “Because you’re more important,” he whispered. “I thought everything would be perfect once I got you, but…then I realized that I can’t be happy unless you’re happy.”

            Tears began to leak out of his eyes again.

            “That’s another thing you’ve got to know,” he choked. “I’m so sorry I did that. I never meant to frighten you, or to make you unhappy. I’m sorry I did it.”

            “Don’t be,” she said suddenly. “Don’t be sorry. Otherwise we could never have met.”

            He smiled weakly, sniffing. Tentatively, he reached out and stroked her cheek with the back of his hand, eager and hesitant at the same time. She couldn’t move.

            “Are you going to be alright?” she asked, not convinced. “I mean, once I’m gone, are you going to move on with your life and forget about me?”

            The impossible happened: Ephraim blinked.

            “I’ll be alright,” he said, sounding shocked. “But how could I forget you? You’re my reason for everything. Every thought I’ve had these past few years has been about you—I can hardly think of anything else. I dream about you almost every night, if I’m lucky.” He paused as her expression froze again at that, seeming worried that he’d frightened her again, and his cheeks turned pink again.

            “Well, um, anyways, I’m not telling you this so you’ll feel guilty, or even so you’ll want to stay. I know now that if you couldn’t be happy here with me, then…” He hesitated, and then said shakily, “Then I don’t want you to stay. I just want you to be happy, and that’s enough for me. That’s what matters.”

            But a few more tears streamed down his cheeks silently.

            Clara, meanwhile, was wordlessly wondering at all that he’d just admitted. It was impossible that she’d heard correctly, wasn’t it? He couldn’t be talking about her. Lackluster, invisible Clara, who was never exciting or outgoing enough to be noticed by anyone…or so she’d thought…and all that time, she’d never known that somebody loved her…

            He swallowed hard and pushed her hair back from her face with one hand. “But before you go,” he murmured, “I just want you to know that, to me, you are the sweetest, most intelligent and most beautiful girl in the universe. You are one of a kind—infinitely precious. So…don’t let anyone make you feel worthless. Okay?” He smiled again halfheartedly.

            Clara didn’t realize that she was crying until that moment, when she began to shake all over and her breathing came unevenly.

            “No, don’t cry,” he said softly, his large, beautiful eyes tender as he wiped her tears away. “It always makes me sad to see you cry. It’s alright, love.”

            He leaned towards her and whispered in her ear, saying the same soothing sentence as once before in his own language.

            “Are you finally going to tell me what that means?”

            She could feel his eyelashes sweep across her skin as he closed his eyes and smiled. “It means ‘I will love you always’, closest as I can translate.”

            She pulled away sharply in shock.

            Then she began to replay the past year in her head, with this new knowledge, and suddenly it all made much more sense. She bit her lip as she realized, with illogical anguish, that he must have torn the picture of her out of the notebook because he’d wanted to keep it for himself.

            And it was apparent—how could anyone not see that fervent, adoring light in his eyes as he studied her face for the last time? Perhaps she hadn’t realized before because she hadn’t wanted to.

            She wasn’t sure what her reaction was, beyond the shock. Her mind was too numb to process a rational response.  There was one thing bothering her more than the rest at the moment.

            “Ephraim—the way you’re talking about me, it’s like you’ve got this perfect, idealistic image of me,” she choked. “But that’s not true at all, that’s not how I really am—“

            “I know you’re not perfect,” he interrupted gently. “But neither am I! I didn’t just see the good things about you, Clara, I saw everything—things no one else knows about—and I love you anyways. You’re still much better than I am. And still the sweetest girl alive. The first time I laid eyes on you…well…” His mouth twisted a little bit and his cheeks turned pink again. “I knew you were special—I couldn’t take my eyes off you. Ariana said I was crazy—maybe she was right—but I loved you almost from that very first day…but I’d never felt like that before, so I didn’t even realize what it was at first. And I’ve wanted to tell you ever since you got here, but—“

            He broke off, looking pained as his eyes closed. “First, you were scared of me. I didn’t want to frighten you even more. Then you’d never be mine. Later, you started to finally trust me, and Ariana said that would be a good time to tell you, but…” He stopped again, wincing. “I was too embarrassed—too scared. So now I had to tell you; otherwise you’d never know I was up here, loving you madly, whether you’re here or not. My time ran out.”

            He took her face in his hands, though his touch was so light, she could hardly feel it.

            “Do me a favor, will you? Go out there in the world and do something special—publish a book or two. I know you can do it. You’re brilliant.” He smiled more genuinely this time.

            “I’ll be sure to put your drawings in,” she promised him, sniffling a little. It was ridiculous that she should be crying at this parting—going home after a year of imprisonment—but she couldn’t help it.

            “I love you,” he whispered, yet again. “I’ll miss you every second—I miss you already.”

            “You’re the best friend I’ve ever had,” she said weakly. It didn’t feel like nearly enough, but it was the only thing her confused, swirling brain could send to her lips. She touched his cheek lightly for a second, and his look of wonder could have been appropriate after being kissed by an angel.

            He closed his eyes and whispered fervently, “Since I’ve only got this one chance to say it, I’ll say it as many times as I can. I love you, I love you, I love you. Please, please believe me on that—I know you don’t always trust me when I tell you things about yourself, but never forget that you are loved—and always will be.”

            Sniffing slightly, she nodded. He took a deep breath, seeming slightly exhausted by his fevered rhapsody.

            “Now…you should go. You want to.”

            The words came out of him in a forced way, and she could tell only half of him meant it. The other half, meanwhile, was battling to keep her, but it looked like his unselfish side was winning…

            “Are you sure you’ll be alright?”

            She had no idea why this concerned her so much, but it was unbearable to think of him all alone up here, pining away after her while she was moving on. It would be her fault that he was so sad, since she had chosen to leave.

            His eyes opened, so overwhelmingly close to hers, and she found herself lost in his mesmerizing gaze.

            “Yes, I think so,” he murmured. “If you’re happy, it’s hard for me not to be.” He smiled slightly. “You have no idea how wonderful it made me feel to hear you laugh every once in a while…”

            One finger traced her lips as he said this. She shivered.

            She had no idea why, but her stomach was suddenly fluttering with butterflies…soon, his face was so close to hers, their foreheads were touching…and—though she had no precise thoughts in her head at the moment, though her mind was swimming so much from the force of his blue eyes that she couldn’t think straight—she knew that she was the one that initiated it. She leaned forward until their lips touched.

            For a brief second, her mind was blank. She only noticed that his lips were trembling, and the hand that he had placed on the back of her neck was shaking.

            It was the strangest first thought to have, but she realized that is was her first kiss—and his, too, she would wager.

            She found herself shivering all over, without being able to flinch away. A strange surge of warmth shot through her, even though the room was cold and her hands felt like ice. Instead of breaking apart, she let him pull her closer, a hand on her waist, her hands going to his shoulders…

            Then it hit her.

            What am I doing?!

            Her mind began to scream at itself.

            What is wrong with me? I can leave now—home is just a few steps down the stairs. Why am I even doing this for him? I don’t owe him anything; he kidnapped me for heaven’s sakes!

            And why is my heart beating at a hundred miles an hour? And why haven’t I moved, even now?

            She couldn’t even understand the odd reluctance her body had to detach itself from his arms. In fact, one of her hands had somehow ended up in his soft, fair hair.

            This is ridiculous. Wake up!

            And she suddenly jerked out of her trance, breaking away with a small gasp.

            Briefly, she caught a glimpse of his fleeting look of transient bliss. Clearly, he thought it pure ecstasy to be touching her. But she was inexplicably frightened—not of Ephraim himself, just his closeness.

            She took a step back, unable to release her eyes from his hypnotic gaze.

            His hands let go of her unwillingly.

            “Thank you,” he whispered, swallowing hard.

            She just stared at him, disbelieving and terrified.

            “I—I have to go,” she muttered.

            “Wait,” he said. He got out of the chair and went to her, even as she backed up a few steps. Her gaze was watery as his fingers tentatively reached out and stroked her hair. Goosebumps arose on her arms and the back of her neck, but she couldn’t move. She let him caress her face for a moment, let his fingertips brush gently along her neck and collarbone, allowed him to press his lips softly against her cheek.

            “Good-bye, Clara,” he murmured, kissing her forehead delicately. Her eyes closed.

            “Good-bye, Ephraim,” she said, her throat thick. She stumbled backwards, away from him, towards the stairs.


            She ran down the steps, landing in a heap on the Earth. Righting herself, she realized it was a warm, humid June night, just like the one she had left behind. Pretending—however ridiculously—that she couldn’t hear the colossal ship behind her, she walked up her own front steps. The dark, vacant windows and the missing truck from the driveway told her that her mother was—mercifully—out at the moment. Her hands shook violently as she unlocked the door with the key from under the doormat, and burst through the front door.

            “I’m home!” she shouted victoriously. “Finally!”

            The clock over the stove showed her, with luminous green numbers, that it was 2:15 in the morning—the exact time she had left, over one year ago. For one wild moment, she wondered if no time had passed on Earth at all—or if perhaps she’d imagined the whole thing as a vivid dream—but the calendar on the fridge told her that a year had indeed passed.

            She stared around her kitchen for the first time in one incredibly long year. Nothing had changed at all; the pots and pans still hung from the ceiling on a rack, the linoleum floor and wooden cupboards were the same as she remembered, and the tiny table was quite familiar. The room still smelled like the cleaner her mother used on the countertops, like she’d remembered.

            Why, then, did it feel so strange?

            She waited for the warm feeling of homecoming to wash over her.

            It didn’t.

            Why? Why could she not feel happy—she was home now, safe and where she belonged? She had finally gotten her wish, after a year of yearning for this place. Why didn’t that fill her with joy? She was in her house, on her planet, and freed from a yearlong abduction. But as she listened to the ship on her lawn prepare for takeoff, she could only feel gloom, sinking loss.

            Where was the logic there? What on earth could she be losing?

            As she stood there, she inexplicably thought of him—his beautiful eyes regarding her with unconditional adoration—and the seemingly faraway memory of that kiss. Why should she think of that now, of all times, when she was free to forget about him and move on? What was wrong with her?

            Her pulse began to thud heavily in her veins; a burning cold sliding unpleasantly down her spine as the impossible answer came to her. What was wrong with her?

            She shoved the front door out of her way, flinging herself out onto the lawn, where the ship was already hovering above the house.

            “Wait!” she cried. “Come back!”

            Her cry turned into a sob of anguish as she realized it was too late. It was too high to descend safely now.

            She cast a wild look back to the house—and it stared icily back at her. It wasn’t her home now; it was an empty place.

            Now she understood that home is a relative term.

            She had no idea if he could hear her over the distance already between them, and the whine of the engines that filled the night sky. But she had to try. She had to admit it to herself, in any case.

            “Ephraim!” she called up desperately. “I love you, too!” Her shout became another sob. “I love you, too.”

            The ship climbed higher and higher, so that it was merely a bright light disappearing into the sky. She knew, as she watched it ascend, that he would never move on from her—the two of them would love each other, no matter how many billions of miles were between them, for as long as they lived. Never would she forget that he was up there, loving her every day, of that much she was sure. If she was very lucky—or if fate had decided to be kind—then he would also have the same comfort whenever he missed her most.

            How odd it was that the one person in the entire universe that she could relate to on such a deep level would be an alien.  

            But it made sense, now that she thought it through without her stubborn denial. His complete, passionate devotion to her was only part of it—it was much more than that. She loved him just because he was who he was; an adorable, gentle, childlike boy who actually understood her—who actually cared enough to understand. She saw parts of herself reflected in him; surely he must have seen that too, before she ever had. It was the strangest thing, that they could be so incredibly alike when they lived in two opposite corners of the universe.

            The stars seemed more twinkly than usual as the tears blurred her vision and smeared the lights, so that they seemed to fill up the sky more. The ship was hardly bigger than the rest of the stars, but she kept watching it as closely as she could.

            They were remarkably alike, she thought again. Both shy, both idealistic, both of them trying to see whatever good in the universe that they could, even when those around them tried to prove them wrong. He made her feel younger and older at the same time—like the voice of reason to their duet, the adult, and yet a child taught to see the world with eyes of wonder again.

            And the more she thought, the more she knew. The words she’d shouted aloud to him were true.

            He made her feel special—only he, who looked at her with the same awe as he did the stars, could make her feel beautiful.

            Surprised through her tears to yet be feeling anything more, she could feel, deep within her unknown reservoir of passion, a throbbing, aching longing. There were no more words in her head to describe it, except so this is what love is like. Even though it hurt—the throbbing in her heart, the energy such emotion took from her, the loss she was confronted with now—she would take it. Even with the pain, she liked the feeling—the state of being—of love. It was pure. It was so powerful it knocked the breath out of her. She did not know that such feelings were possible.

            It was like the two of them—so connected, so one in mind and soul—were having a wordless conversation. Somehow, she felt like his heart was connected to hers as though on a string—every throb of his heart, she felt inside her too. His pain, his joy, she could feel along with her own, and this comforted her. Their distance did not affect this connection.

            “I’ll never forget you, Ephraim,” she whispered. Her voice broke.

            And the sky—more of a home to her now than the strange house behind her—seemed to send his answer back to her. Somehow, she was sure he knew.

 Briefly, the white light of the ship flashed brighter for a moment, and then suddenly shrank until it could no longer be seen, like a star that collapses at the height of its glory, and dies.