I lay on my back on the forest floor, in the exact place they first arrived seven years ago. Aching from the hike and my gnawing hunger, I stretch my body into a five-point star and stare through the trees at the sky. As the air grows cold and the sunset dissolves into the red-baked black of the night, I close my eyes and picture their faces of polished silver. Their thin, long bodies laced with gold circuitry. Then, just before melting into sleep, I try to summon them into my dreams once again.
Please come back to us.
Don’t leave us here alone with each other.
While foraging in the woods for food, you find a skeleton near a cork elm ringed with wood lilies. The bones are arranged into an X. A jawless skull of polished silver sits at the center of the X and stares up through the trees. Clumps of thick clouds hang bloated and black in the sky, ready to dump radioactive rain on the world. Without thinking, you reach out to touch the gleaming skull. But you stop when you remember what your father said on the day he left for the war.
Never touch anything strange in the woods.
At the beginning of the sixth year of the war, me and my sister saw a soldier fall out of the sky. From our bedroom window we watched him glide through the air like a leaf and crash through the roof of our barn. We woke up mother and followed her outside. The soldier’s parachute was caught in the roof; he hung limp and unconscious from the lines. A white cloth stained with engine oil had been sewn onto his flight suit, covering the flag of our bitter enemies to the north. I pointed at the cloth and started to speak, but Mother spit on the floor and tore the cloth and grabbed the old ax off the wall.
Take your sister back to the house and lock the door.
Lying in bed, the rough covers pulled up to your chin, you ask your mother if they’re ever coming back. You ask her what happened when they first landed in the woods. You ask her why they tried to help us when they didn’t even know who we were. Then, without waiting for her answer, you tell her what the Miller twins said about them last week: that their star had transformed into a red giant, that they talk to us only in our dreams, that their ships are made of a special gold that’s not heavy.
That’s why everybody keeps fighting and no one wants to be friends with them, you say, because it’s easier to kill them and take their stuff when they’re not our friends.
Your mother looks at you for a long time and then closes your favorite book about precious metals. Her eyes are blue. She looks very tired.
I don’t know about that.
I don’t really know about any of this stuff anymore.
There’s no more grape jam in the house, so me and Simon eat dry toast for breakfast. The crumbs are hard and sharp and tiny, and we flick them at each other while we eat. Mom stands by the window and stares at the dirt road in front of the house. While she’s distracted, I bite my crust into a boomerang and throw it at Simon’s neck. His face scrunches up like a raisin. He starts to cry. Then some jeeps from our army roar down the road toward the Miller Farm, where the enemy soldier crashed through the barn two days ago. Mom thinks we don’t know about the soldier, but we do. After she put us to bed last night, we heard her whispering about him on the phone with Mrs. Miller.
Once the jeeps are gone, Mom picks up the kitchen phone and starts dialing. Halfway through the number she stops, clicks the hang-up button, and starts dialing again. Then she stops again. She clicks the hang-up button over and over. She screams louder than Simon’s crying and slams the phone against the wall a few times. Simon stops crying and looks at me. I look at him and then out the window to the road. The dust kicked up by the jeeps hangs in the hazy air. A rope of black smoke rises from the Miller Farm. Before I can ask Mom what’s going on, someone pounds hard on the front door. Mom presses her finger to her lips for quiet and ushers us into the basement. Just before closing the door, she holds my face in her hands and stares at me.
Leave the lights off and find a good hiding spot and stay there.
Stay quiet no matter what.
Everything is going to be okay.
Your escape from your unit complete, you reach the woods outside town just before dawn. There you sit on a wall of stacked stone and crunch into the last fresh apple from your pack. Once finished, you stretch your neck in a slow circle and watch the sunrise. Oaks and elms creak in the early morning breeze. Feathers of pink flame leak through the serrated teardrops of the leaves. In the east, a glittering star emerges from behind the sun. Streaking across the sky, it falls in a shallow arc and then pauses. From where you’re sitting the star seems to be hovering directly overhead, but you can’t tell for sure. Then it begins to descend. It flies straight down, growing larger with each passing moment, its gold body glinting in the morning light.
Steve Gergley is a writer and runner from Warwick, New York. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Atticus Review, Cleaver Magazine, Hobart, Pithead Chapel, Maudlin House, and others. In addition to writing fiction, he has composed and recorded five albums of original music. His fiction can be found at: https://stevegergleyauthor.wordpress.com/