Megan wrenched out the duffle bag she’d been searching for and hefted it over her shoulder. Her spirits sank. How would she carry this as well as a backpack full of supplies?
Her little brother stood at the top, straining to hold the extra-large tub of peanut butter with both of his small six-year-old hands.
“What’s that?” her brother asked as she passed. “Megs, where are we going?”
“It’s a tent.” She considered sugarcoating the situation, pitching her voice high with fake cheerfulness and telling him they were going on a camping adventure. The idea turned her stomach sour, so instead she kept her mouth set in a firm line. “We’re leaving.”
Most kids run away from home to take a stand against what they see as parental tyranny, but Megan had no such grandiose visions. The scratch marks and bruises covering Shawn’s pudgy body were why they now walked down their cracked and weedy driveway. It had taken Megan less than a semester in school to understand that if she got good grades, Mom was content to yell instead of hitting. Shawn on the other hand never told anyone why he always forgot his gym clothes, but couldn’t grasp that higher grades would keep him out of trouble at home. She’d watched it for a year and couldn’t bear it any longer. Armed with food, water, shelter, and a copy of The Worst-Case Scenario Handbook, Megan planned to walk from their apartment in New Jersey to their dad’s house in Connecticut. Both were tiny states on the map and right next to each other, so she hoped it would take around three days.
“What’s that?” Shawn’s sing-song voice asked for the thousandth time. It was day six. Megan rolled her eyes and didn’t even glance at him. Any warm fuzzies towards her brother had faded on day two when he refused to walk unless she carried his pack. Although her usually endless patience had been reduced to rags, she resolved never to show it, terrified the anger would turn her into a monster if ever expressed. Again, he piped up. “I think it’s a fire!
The breeze brought a smoky scent into her nose. Was there actually a fire nearby? She spun to see Shawn staring at a faint gray fog wafting in. A second sniff puzzled her. Wood smoke mixed with a tangy, fruity aroma like pie in the oven? How was that possible when they had seen no houses in days?
It was a mirage, it had to be. But instead of an oasis, Megan was imagining a life-sized gingerbread house, complete with giant Necco wafers for roof tiles and a candy cane door frame. M&Ms decorated the chimney emitting the magnetic fragrance. Before she could gather her wits, Shawn did what anyone would expect of a little boy after wandering in the woods for six days.
“But the sign says, ‘Welcmm—ouch!” his attempt to bit into the gummy bear lawn ornament had failed. “This thing is rock hard!”
“I’ll bet it’s really old and all sorts of bugs have gotten stuck in it.”
Before she could get a closer look, the door opened and an old woman poked her head out. She was plump and wore an apron over a floral print dress. “If you children want treats, you can come inside for them instead of eating my masterpiece.”
“Oooh,” Shawn said, abandoning his destructive endeavor, but looking to his big sister before accepting the offer.
“I am so sorry,” Megan began.
“Not at all,” the old woman said with a smile. “That’s what it’s built for, so come in and make yourselves comfortable.”
Megan thought the “Woah!” that came from her brother as he beat her inside was due to the goodies waiting for him, but nothing could have been further from the truth.
The inside of the cottage was pure metal, dimly lit by glowing strips around the walls. Panic rose in her chest. This wasn’t even a house! There wasn’t even a fireplace where the chimney had been! The only recognizable piece of furniture was a swivel chair parked in front of a switchboard with blinking lights.
The door shut behind them with a pneumatic hiss.
“Stay still,” the old woman said, pointing what looked like a metal Nerf gun at them. Before their eyes, her features rearranged themselves. While the basic shape stayed the same, the resulting oversized head, squashed torso, and spindly birdlike legs would barely pass for a human with serious birth defects.
Shawn put his finger on the truth immediately. “Holy crap, she’s an alien!”
“Don’t say ‘crap’,” Megan corrected out of habit.
The alien gave a gravelly laugh, even her voice transformed. “That’s right, little boy. I am Ulasa from the asteroid Nytheb. I was in the middle of the Great Migration when my ship ran out of fuel and I’ve been on your planet for over a year, collecting energy sources. The Powers favored to bring me two of you—exactly the remaining number of sources I need.” With the flip of a switch, the ceiling slid away and a set of half a dozen golden cages descended. Inside the cages were other children, staring sullenly at the alien witch. “You humans have such tiny brain capacities compared to the Nytheb, but the younger you are the more brain energy is available to me. You’re also the easiest to fool with my ship’s camouflaging system.”
“She’s going to kill us!” The oldest boy of the group said. “She’ll hook us up to her machine and drain our brains until we’re all dead.”
“It’s a long journey,” Ulasa explained with a shrug. She cocked her gun. “Now, you newcomers, get into the last two cages nice and politely.”
“Shawn, get her!” Megan yelled. It was a stupid thing to do, but she hoped if they both rushed the alien creature maybe one of them would be able to topple her over. She was betting Ulasa wouldn’t want shoot her energy sources dead.
She’d bet wrong. Two paces from striking distance, the gun made a loud popping sound and pain shot through Megan’s shoulder. Instantly, all strength evaporated from her body and even as she lunged for the gun, darkness enveloped her.
The sound of lots of people shouting woke her up.
“It’s that one!”
“Which one? What’s that?”
“I think I’ve got it.”
“No, let me do it!”
The floor lurched to the side, rolling her a few feet and effectively waking her up. When the world finally came into focus, she couldn’t believe what she saw. All the kids were out of their cages clustered around the control panel. Nobody noticed her because they were all too busy arguing.
“Everybody calm down!” She hated raising her voice, but she hated bickering even more. To her surprise, they seemed to listen, turning to her with expectant gazes. She felt like Wendy with the Lost Boys, except some of these kids were girls. “Shawn, where’s the old alien lady?”
“I grabbed her knees right after you got shot and knocked her out cold. Then I figured how to get everyone out of the cages and we hooked her up to the machine instead of us.” He pointed to a crumpled form in one of the cages.
Megan glanced down at her shoulder. It was sore, but there was no blood. The older boy who had talked earlier explained, “It was a sleeping dart.” He cleared his throat. “My name’s Kevin, by the way. We’re trying to fly this thing, but we’re totally lost.” He welcomed her into the huddle with a wave of his hand. There were no windows in the ship, so everyone was staring at a computerized map. “This is us,” Kevin said, pointing to a green blinking light. “Earth is way over here and we’re trying to figure out where to go next.” The triangular shaped icon labeled “Earth” was over a hand span away. “Right now, we’re flying in circles to avoid drifting off into space.”
“That’s really smart!”
Kevin blushed. “Thanks, it was my idea.”
Megan pointed to a golden star with the word “Safepoint” on it. “Let’s try there. Maybe they can give us directions.”
Shawn, who was too short to see the map, tugged on her t-shirt. “Megs, where are we going?”
Megan grinned because this time the truth was better than a sugarcoated lie. “We’re going on an adventure!”
BIO: Tahlia is a senior at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California and has been writing for EC since it began. She is currently trying to publish a novel while juggling school, work, two blogs, and a youtube channel. Her favorite fairytale is Anderson's The Little Mermaid. For more of her writing, check out her ongoing Victorian fantasy story at www.GuardianGhost.wordpress.com.