"How many do you think there’ll be?" Missy asks me. She tilts her head way back so she can look up at me. It pulls her mouth open wide and she looks like a fish, gasping for air. Somehow she still manages to have that grin in her eyes, the one that got her her nickname. Her real name’s Cadence but we call her Missy, short for mischievous, because ever since she was born she’s been joyfully getting into trouble.
Whether she’s dropping something, just to see what happens, or finger-painting the walls, or digging holes in the yard she does it all with this look of pure delight in discovery. She’s six now, but from one minute to the next she could be two, or twenty-seven. Her personality is boundless. I’m already the smallest girl in the sophomore class, but sometimes she makes me feel even smaller. I just try to keep up.
"I don’t know," I say. "A lot. Too many to count. They’ll be moving too fast, anyway." The night air has bite and I force myself not to shiver. I refuse to regret not taking Mom’s leopard-print Snuggie. There are some things worth freezing for. My pride is one of them. Still, I eye Missy’s footie pajamas with longing.
There isn’t much I like about living outside of town, but I do like the way the sky feels like the whole world at night. It spreads out before us, the moonlight adding blue to the black. Any minute now the meteor shower will start. Our big, flat backyard, bordered only by the woods behind it is the perfect viewing spot. I would never admit it out loud but I’m almost as excited to see the shower as Missy. There’s something about the idea of all those shooting stars. So many wishes.
I hop onto the picnic table, and Missy climbs up next to me. She scoots as close to me as she can. If I didn’t know better, I’d think she was afraid being out here in the dark, but nothing scares Missy. For her, everything is an adventure. I’m the one that secretly uses her cell phone as a night-light.
"What are you going to wish for?" I ask.
"Tabby," she thrusts a tiny finger at my face, scolding. "You’re not supposed to tell!"
"That’s only for birthday wishes. Meteor showers are special. They don’t count."
She frowns, thinking it over. "Oh, right," she nods slowly, totally trusting her big sister way too much. "I forgot."
Sometimes I just want to hug her. "So?"
"I’m gonna wish for a swing set, and a swimming pool, and a magic wand, and…" She takes a deep breath so she can shout the rest. "An adventure! The real kind. Not like when you just pretend."
"Wow," I say, but before I can finish the thought, Missy squeals and points to the sky.
The sky comes alive with little streaks of light. Three or four at a time at first, and then a steady stream of yellow shoots from behind us, across the yard, and toward town. It’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen. They light up the yard like fireworks.
I didn’t expect them to be so bright.
Missy runs out into the yard and spins, her head tilted back, pure glee on her face. "Look at all of them Tabby! Look!"
I do as she commands, and I’m surprised to see that in just the few seconds that I looked away, the meteors seem to have gotten bigger. Or closer. Or both.
They’re no longer tiny star-sized dots in the sky. They’re growing. I track one as it flies over my head. The angle looks wrong. Like it’s going down instead of across. The next one I track is even bigger. And the one after that is huge. I watch it disappear into the horizon and then there’s a slight flash of light, like heat lightning, in the distance.
My skin prickles. That’s not right. I may spend most of science class doodling in my notebook, but I’m sure that meteor showers go past the earth from like millions of miles away. They’re not supposed to get bigger or enter our atmosphere.
For the first time since the shower started I sit still and just listen. Faint pops sound from every direction. The meteors. Missy dances in the yard, practically in her own spotlight. My throat goes tight and I have to force myself to take a deep breath and look up.
The sky is filled with giant glowing orbs. They don’t seem to be falling at random anymore. They move quickly, on their own paths, some close, some miles away. Over the popping sounds now I can hear the thrumming beat of helicopters, and sirens in town. The flashes that once looked like heat lightning are getting bigger and brighter and a ground-rumbling thunder accompanies each one.
This is bad. This is so, so bad. "Missy," I shout, as calmly as I can manage. "It’s cold. Let’s go inside."
Missy doesn’t even bother to tear her eyes away from the sky. "No way! This is the coolest thing ever."
Before I can argue, the yard lights up bright as day. A burst of heat and light streaks right over our heads with a high, keening sound, heading toward the patch of trees behind our house. It – something – lands there with a boom that I feel more than hear.
Missy squeals with delight and runs toward the glow. "Missy! No!" I shout, but it’s too late. She’s already disappeared into the trees.
The trees whine and crackle with fire. Smoke creeps through the trunks so quickly that soon I can’t see much at all. Running simply isn’t possible, so I call again and again, “Missy!” but my cries are chopped to pieces, powerless against the blades of helicopters.
I inch forward with my hands stretched out in front of me. They sink into thick smoke until they are nothing more than faint hand-shaped outlines, a dark gray against gray. If Missy isn’t hurt, she’s at least as lost as I am. Soon, even my cries are choked out by the smoke. I have to lift my shirt over my nose and mouth just to breath. My eyes sting. I stop and realize I don’t even know which direction I’m going. For all I know, I’m moving in circles, bending around tree trunks this way and that way without anything to orient me.
I cough. Struggle to draw another breath. Fear settles over my shoulders, slips down my back like cold water. I don’t know how to get out.
Heat rises. Another fundamental I’ve gleamed from class, so I kneel with one hand braced against a tree trunk. The air isn’t so thick down here and I manage a few deeper breaths of stuffy air. The sounds of helicopters and fire attack from all sides. I’m going to be smothered by smoke and sound, and there’s nothing I can do about it.
A hand slides into mine. Small, hot, and familiar. Before I can say her name, I see her eyes and stop.
They shine like stars; points of shimmering white surrounded by black.
“Tabby!” She tugs at my hand. “Let’s go, Tabby. We have to go!”
Once more she tugs, and I’m on my feet and running. I don’t know how we don’t crash into the trees, but Missy steers us around them without effort, moving faster than we should be able to in this haze.
The smoke begins to thin. I blink, and we’re out of the trees, running across the flat expanse of our backyard and straight for the house.
She’s so fast. My legs are nearly as long as her entire body, but she’s two steps ahead the entire time. I don’t know if we’re being chased, if there’s anything behind us but noise and light, but it feels like we can’t afford to be slow. Even when we’ve made it back to the house and slammed the backdoor behind us, it feels like something is so, so wrong.
Missy lets go of my hand and runs through the dark hallway ahead of me. The only sound in the house is the TV in the living room and the ringing in my ears. Mom and dad are still in town. Date night means they’re probably inside a movie theatre, unable to hear the sirens and oblivious to whatever it is that’s happening here.
I don’t feel my legs anymore. I only know they work because I manage to get myself to the kitchen sink for a glass of water without falling over. After two full glasses, I’m still thirsty.
“I made a wish, Tabby,” Missy says from behind me, making me jump. “I touched a fallen star.”
She sounds different. Not in the way I’ve come to expect. She sounds calm and still. I remember how strange her eyes looked in the smoke, and how quickly she ran through the haze. Another chill rushes over me, tugging at my skin and hair with thousands of tiny fingers.
“What did you wish for?” I ask. Setting the glass on the counter and turning around.
From the living room, a local reporter has broken into the regular program. She’s trying not to shout as she says, “Authorities are asking everyone to stay indoors. Wherever you are, stay put and if you’re near the site of any one of these…these fires, do not approach them. Authorities are asking for anyone caught close to a blast site, where we’re learning there are possibilities of toxic substances, to contact the police.”
Missy stands in the middle of the kitchen, holding a something small in her hands. Her fingers are stained black with it, but she smiles.
“What is that?” She’s never made me so nervous. I’m afraid to look into her eyes.
She takes a step toward me. I hear the TV turn to snow in the other room. There’s no sound of helicopters anymore, just static and the hissing of the fire in the distance.
“Are you ready, Tabby?” she asks. “You have to say yes. Oh, please, say yes.”
This is my sister, I think. There’s nothing to be afraid of. I force myself to look into her eyes and I’m relieved to find they’re the same hazel they’ve always been. More green than brown and as mischievous as ever.
“Okay, I’m ready, Missy,” I add her name to prove that she’s her. To ground her in our house and her small body. “Now, tell me what it is.”
Lights sweep through the house from the backyard. I hear engines revving and voices shouting and my heart crashes into my chest like a star falling from the sky. Missy grasps my hand in hers, pressing something hard between our palms. It stings or burns, I can’t tell which, but someone is pounding at the back door.
Missy just smiles up at me; playfully, excitedly, calmly. She’s not worried about the men at the door and I wonder what she knows that I don’t.
But then she says, “It’s an adventure,” and I know I’m about to find out.
The pounding at the door grows in intensity until I’m sure they’re going to crash through it. It could be the neighborhood watch. It would be looters, driven mad by the chaos. It could be the army. It could be Mom and Dad. No, not Mom and Dad.
I look down at the warm object in my hands. It’s small and black, and almost looks like a rock, but not quite. It shines too much. Glimmers, like some type of metal that I don’t have a name for. “Missy, where did you get this?”
Missy stares at the metal rock and in her eyes I see that same strange glow. It scares me. “Missy?”
“We have to go now, Tabby.” She slips her tiny hand in mine and leads me to the front of the house. Bright beams of light flash this way and that. The voices of men shouting, sirens, fire, all of it mixes together until it’s nothing but white noise and the pounding of my heart in my ears.
I’ve seen enough movies to know that the government shouldn’t be trusted. What if aliens crash landed, and they want to eradicate all witnesses? But what choice do I have? I open the door, before they bust through it.
Men rush in with guns drawn. They swarm the living room, the kitchen, and I hear their boots stomping up the stairs. The flashlights on their helmets sting my eyes. I pull Missy close to me and hide the object in the pocket of my pajamas.
“Is there anyone else in the house?” a soldier asks me. My first instinct is to lie and say, yes my parents are home. But they’d know, and I don’t know what could happen to me for lying to them.
“We’re alone. Our parents are in town.”
“We?” he asks.
I nod. Missy’s fingers grope my pocket and I grab her hand too hard, but she doesn’t seem to notice. She grins up at me, like this is all some part of a game. Usually I’d wish I could be as fearless, but tonight I’m glad to be scared enough to be smart.
The soldier barks commands into a walkie-talkie and then tells us to come with him. I take one last look around our house. It doesn’t look like home with all these strangers here. Mom’s leopard-print snuggie lays draped over her rocking chair, and for no other reason than to feel close to her, I take it with me, and follow the soldier outside.
Our front yard looks like a war zone. Flashing lights are everywhere and it is so overwhelming that I’m disoriented and barely notice that Missy has walked away to speak to a man in a white coat. I pat my pocket. Empty.
The man takes her by the hand. Soldiers rush in and pin me back. All I can do is scream her name and pray she turns around. Why won’t they let me go to her? It’s like they don’t even see her. The man in the white coat turns to me and then slowly Missy does too. In their eyes I see the same glimmer.
“It’s an adventure, Tabby,” my sister says, as she points her finger to the sky. “I’m going, because you said I could, but these men will take care of you now.” Her voice changes and she’s gone from six to twenty-seven again. “Tell them nothing.”
And just like that, she’s gone.
"Geminid-Shooting-Stars" photo found here.