Seven Years Ago
“Neeeeeeeeeeeeeeer! Pew, pew, pew!” Running through the front foyer of his house, nine-year-old Anthony Tate held a toy jet fighter out to one side as he imitated laserfire. The boy’s unruly mop of light brown hair matched his eyes, and a light coating of freckles dusted his face. A face that was covered by a wide smile that showed his crooked teeth as he called in his best approximation of a pilot’s commanding voice. “Target locked, dodge this, you alien scum! Missiles away! Whooosh, there they go!” With a sweep of his hand, he indicated their path.
“Weeerrbblee reebble rabble!” Anthony’s best friend, Cassidy Evans, held a toy fighter of her own. This one had started out its life looking almost identical to the one that Anthony was playing with. But the two of them had carefully painted it bright pink with purple lightning bolts (or as close as they could get to lightning bolts) on the wings, and glued a second pair of wings to the bottom of it to make the fighter look a little more alien. Granted, they easily could have asked for and received an entire fleet of alien toys within fifteen minutes. But they wanted to do it themselves. Plus, it was fun, and it gave Anthony something to do with the plane whose wings had broken off.
“Werble rebble rabble?” the boy echoed, head tilting in obvious confusion as he watched Cassie zoom in circles around him, the ‘alien fighter’ held out beside her. “What does that mean?”
Grinning, the short-haired girl chirped, “That’s the sound of the anti-missile shield! It’s like a tractor beam, only it pushes things away instead of pulling them in!” Quickly, she added, “But it takes all the power from the shield to push things away, so the aliens hafeta time it right, or–”
“Pew, pew, pew!” Anthony blurted, suddenly realizing where the girl was going with that before she finished describing how the shields being down to power their anti-missile system would leave the aliens vulnerable to other attacks. He made his fighter do a quick loop and a barrel roll while indicating the path of his lasers with quick flicks from his fingers. “Pew, pew!”
“Naaaaargh!” Cassidy cried out, making the fighter spin around while speaking in her best high-pitched alien voice. “Damage, damage! Return to mothership, return to mothership!” With that, she began racing up the nearby stairs two at a time. “Accelerating out of Earth’s atmosphere! Divert remaining power to boosters to escape gravitational pull!”
Quickly, Anthony started up the stairs after her. “Oh no you don’t!” He called. “Come back here, you alien scum! We modified this fighter to reach space, you can’t get away that easily!”
“Come and get us, dirty human!” Cassidy called back from the top of the stairs, still using her high-pitched alien voice, while adding a buzzing sound just because she thought it sounded better that way. “You can’t hope to stand up against the firepower of our main battle–oof!”
That last bit came because Cassidy had run straight on into a man who had just stepped out of one of the rooms on the second floor. Just as he appeared, speaking over his shoulder, Cassidy bounced off him, landing on her backside with a yelp as the man grunted and stumbled a bit.
“Cassie!” Anthony quickly flung himself up the last couple stairs, dropping beside his friend. His plane fell to the side, forgotten for the moment as he checked on her. “Are you okay?”
“Uh huh,” she confirmed, staring up at the man she had run into with large doe-like eyes. She didn’t recognize him. He was in his mid-late thirties, with dark blond hair and brown eyes. “Sorry, Mister.”
There was the slightest pause before the man offered a faint, yet genuine smile, shaking his head. “Not at all,” he assured her, holding a hand out to the girl, helping her up. “I’m afraid it was entirely my fault for getting in the middle of a…” He glanced from the modified ‘alien’ fighter on the floor, to the normal one lying nearby where both had been dropped. “spaceship dogfight?”
“Anthony, Cassidy?” Anthony’s father appeared in the doorway behind the other man, stepping around him. “Is everything okay out here? You’re not bothering our guest too much, are you?”
“Oh, it’s quite alright, Russell,” the man assured him. “I managed to stumble my way out into the middle of a fight to save the planet, that’s all.” He winked at the kids before turning to Anthony’s father. “No harm, no foul. Shall we continue our discussion in the other room? I have a few more examples of just how we can revolutionize the entire industry.”
Giving a good-natured roll of his eyes at the bold claim, Mr. Tate waved for the children to be off. “Why don’t you kids play outside for a little bit and run off a little more energy? I’ll have Ricky bring you out some treats to the pavilion.” That said, he began to walk off with his guest, informing him, “You know, a lot of people claim what they have will ‘revolutionize things.’”
“Ah,” the other man retorted while following. “But they don’t have what I have. Results.”
Standing there, the two children watched the men leave, before Anthony turned to Cassie with a sudden grin. “Hey! I saw the truck that guy came in. It looks all funny, like a van and a truck all smooshed together. That can be the alien mothership and we can fly around it and stuff!”
Cassidy immediately jumped at that idea, and the two of them grabbed their respective fighters before rushing down the stairs and out the door. As promised, there was what appeared to be a van-truck hybrid in the long, half-circle driveway, near the exit gate with its back end pointed toward the mansion. With gleeful whoops, the two kids raced past the fountain and to the vehicle with their ships held out to the side in flying mode, already blurting the onomatopoeia for their respective laser and missile sounds as they split up at the back of the truck-van, each racing around it in a different direction. Anthony went toward the driver’s side while Cassidy ran on the passenger side, each sprinting to reach the front of the designated ‘mothership’ first.
Before Cassidy could reach it, however, the heavy side door of the vehicle slid open right beside her, and she stopped abruptly. Turning, the nine-year-old found herself facing another girl who had just slid the door open. This girl was perhaps a year older than the other two, a pretty blonde ten-year-old who sat cross-legged in the back of the truck-van, which turned out to be full of random crates, electrical equipment, and tools. Both girls stared at one another in silence for several long seconds. Finally, Cassidy piped up with, “Hi!”
“Hi!” the girl echoed brightly, though she remained sitting in the same position.
“Who are you–” Anthony, having reached the front of the vehicle, came around to join her before seeing the girl sitting there. “Oh! Uhh, hi.”
Abruptly focusing on him, the blonde girl chirped, “Hi, Anthony!” She looked positively delighted, giving a dazzling smile. “Did my dad tell you to come get me? I was bored.”
“Um.” Exchanging a brief, confused look with his friend, Anthony shook his head. “Not really. Your dad’s still talking to my dad. He made you stay out here by yourself? Oh, um, this is Cassidy.” He gestured that way. “How come you know who I am?”
“Hi, Cassidy.” Smiling easily as she greeted the other girl by name that time, the girl added, “I’m Paige. My dad showed me your picture when we were coming over here. He really likes your dad.” She paused, as though only just thinking of something, before frowning. “But I’m not supposed to talk to strangers.”
Shrugging, Anthony pointed out, “He showed you my picture and told you my name, so I’m not a stranger, right? And this is my friend, so she’s not a stranger either.”
“She?” Paige blinked once, looking back that way. “You look like a boy.” It was a statement made not of maliciousness, but youthful innocent frankness.
Flushing, Cassidy cupped both hands to the side of her head, covering her short black hair before stomping once. “I’m a girl!” she insisted. “I just like short hair, that’s all.”
“Okay,” Paige replied with immediate acceptance before adding, “I’m sorry if I said something wrong.”
Cassidy shook her head. “It’s okay, everyone thinks I’m a boy at first. Um.” She hesitated before offering, “Do you wanna play with us?” The girl reached into her pocket before tugging out a small action figure, holding it out. “We’re the ships, but you could be a Star-Touched who comes to help Anthony’s ship! Like Silversmith!”
There was another brief pause as Paige looked blankly at the toy being offered to her. Then her hand moved, taking it from Cassidy with a small smile. “You really want to play with me?”
“Sure!” Anthony agreed, head bobbing up and down. “Your dad’s van is the alien mothership, okay? I’m the American fighter ship and Cassie’s the aliens. So, you wanna play?”
Finally, Paige picked herself up from her cross-legged position, hopping nimbly out of the van. “Okay!”
With that agreement, the three children immediately began running in circles around the vehicle, loudly exclaiming about everything they were doing in the course of their battle.
Two Years Later/Five Years Ago
A soft tap at Cassidy’s window drew her attention that way. She was in her bedroom, sitting on the floor as she stared at Anthony’s jet fighter and her own modified ‘alien’ ship. It had been mere days since the… attack that ended with her best friend’s death and that of his family and the house employees. Days since she had learned in such a traumatic fashion that her father was Silversmith, that her grandfather had sent those men to kill her friend and his family because he wanted to get at her. Days since Bobby had saved her life nearly at the cost of his own and since she had seen her father cut her grandfather’s head off in front of her.
Days since she had spoken more than a few words to anyone, or had done much of anything aside from sit, stare at nothing, and murmur or whisper to herself. Sometimes she watched TV, but she didn’t really engage with it. She’d had books in her hand but had barely read. She took toys and sat there staring at them, remembering all the things she had done with Anthony.
As that tap came, the girl turned her head slightly to see a familiar figure crouched there by the window. There was a brief pause before she stood up, walked over to unlatch the window, and then stepped back.
It slid up, and Paige slipped inside. The blonde opened her mouth, shut it, then stepped over to silently embrace Cassidy. The other girl let her, and they stood in silence for a few seconds with Paige tightly hugging her while Cassidy stood with her arms at her sides. She felt… tired. Just so damn tired. She wanted her best friend back. She wanted none of this to be real. She wanted… something. She didn’t know what, but she wanted something to change. She had spent so many long hours closing her eyes, wishing that everything that had happened would be a dream, and opening them.
The only part of her days when Cassidy wasn’t sad were the moments just after she woke up, before the memory of what had happened settled in. She slept as much as she could, not only because she was tired (though she was), but because every time she slept and woke up, Anthony was kind of… sort of alive for just a couple seconds.
Until she remembered that he wasn’t.
Finally releasing Cassidy, Paige stepped back with a small, worried frown knitting her forehead. “I’m sorry,” she said quietly. “I’m really sorry, Cassie. I–” She stopped, head tilting slightly before she admitted, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to say right now. Dad never… told me how to talk to people like this. He never told me what I’m supposed to do.” Swallowing hard, her voice trembled as she added pleadingly, “I want to know what to do.”
At first, Cassidy didn’t respond. She simply stood and stared over the other girl’s shoulder at the window. After a few long seconds of that, her eyes moved to meet the despondent Paige’s, and she asked in a quiet, brittle voice, “How did you get inside? There’s security cameras and stuff.” It was the most outward interest she had shown in anything since that horrific day.
“Yes,” Paige agreed. “There’s a lot of them. But it’s not really hard to get past them if you…” She paused, considering for a moment before settling on, “… if you time it right. You just have to watch the cameras and go where they’re not looking.” She said it that simply, as if talking about learning how to water the lawn rather than how to sneak past a dozen cameras on the grounds of the richest family in Michigan.
Again, Cassidy didn’t say anything for a moment. She stood there, looking at the window in silence before finally turning back to Paige. “Can you teach me how to do that?”
“How to–” Paige started before looking over her shoulder at the window and back again. “How to get past your house security? Why do you want to leave? It’s… “ She paused, considering her words before deciding on, “Don’t you want to stay where it’s safe?”
“It’s not safe here,” Cassidy replied quietly, a slight tremor in her voice as her head shook. “I…” A hard lump formed in her throat, and she had to swallow repeatedly before being able to speak again. “I don’t want to be trapped here.” Her gaze found the other girl’s urgently, lower lip quivering. “Please, Paige.”
“Okay,” the blonde agreed softly. She took Cassidy’s hand and squeezed it. “You didn’t tell your parents about me?”
“No,” Cassidy confirmed in a barely audible voice. She was looking away. “You always said you’d get in trouble if your dad knew you were playing with us when he came over.” For the past two years, about once a month, Paige’s father would visit Anthony’s house. While he was inside having long meetings, Paige would emerge and play with Anthony and Cassidy for awhile. She always seemed to know when her dad was coming back, no matter how long he took, and would tell the other two she had to go back to the van. Actually, it was kind of fun to have a secret friend nobody knew about. It was… kind of fun… while Anthony was alive.
Stepping over to the window while tugging Cassidy by the hand, Paige carefully asked, “Are you really sure you want me to show you how to get past the cameras?” When the other girl gave a firm nod, Paige pulled her right up to the window. “Okay.
“First, watch that camera right… there by the corner…”
For the next hour, Paige taught Cassidy how to escape her house without being noticed. She showed her where the cameras were, where various motion sensors had to be avoided, how to get across the grounds without being seen from the guard shack, how the guard patrols worked, which windows to keep an eye on while leaving or approaching, and so on. She showed the other girl everything she needed to know to escape her own house.
Eventually, however, they both watched from the bushes as a car arrived in the driveway of the house, a pale man with dark-blond hair emerging to greet both of Cassidy’s parents as they came from the house to meet him. He wore a crisp white suit.
“Who’s that?” Paige whispered, as the two girls crouched in the bushes.
Cassidy’s head shook. “I… I dunno.” She sighed, looking at the ground. The past hour had been the most she’d been able to forget what happened at Anthony’s house, and that made her feel guilty. She… she didn’t quite forget Anthony, just… she hadn’t been sad about it for a few minutes.
What was wrong with her? Was she evil too?
“Cassidy?” Paige prompted, squeezing the girl’s arm. “Are you okay?”
Shaking that off, Cassidy managed a weak, “No. I miss Anthony.”
“So do I,” Paige murmured, her own voice a very soft whisper. She started to say something else, before turning to look at the front door where the adults were talking. “Cassidy,” she put in a bit urgently. “We need to get back. They’re coming to talk to you.”
“What?” Blinking, Cassidy looked to the house, where her parents and the strange man were going inside. “How do you–”
“Come on.” Paige pulled her by the hand, checking the cameras before leading the girl to the side of the house. She had already showed her how to climb up the wall, and did so more quickly, helping Cassidy until they reached her room. Once the other girl was safely inside, Paige started to leave again before wincing. “Guard patrol,” she whispered. Then she looked over to the door. “Your parents are coming.”
Cassidy looked to the door as well, before pointing. “Go to my closet,” she said simply. “You can hide there.”
Paige did so, stopping briefly to embrace her friend. “I’m really sorry about Anthony. I wish… he was here to make you feel better instead of me.”
Sniffing, Cassidy closed her eyes tightly. “I wish he was here too,” she agreed in a shaken, trembling voice. Then she looked at the girl. “But I’m still glad you’re here. You’re… you’re my friend too.”
The two girls, united by their grief for a lost friend, looked at one another for a moment. Then the sound of the doorknob turning spurred Paige into action. She raced to the closet, slipping into it and closing the door just as Cassidy sat on a chair facing the mirror.
“Hi,” the blond man started while Paige peered out through the crack in the closet door.
“My name is Jackson. Kent Jackson.”