Chapter 7: September Ends

1001 Meters from the Rusty Arms RV Park

Bellwood, California

8:05 pm, November 17, 2000

"- of all the stupid - !"

Those bitten-out words were Michelle's only company after she jumped across the half-full ditch and started shoving her way through the bushes on the other side. The bushes, and the flip phone in her hand. The one she squeezed with everything that she had. And everything she was going to give its owner when she caught up with her.

" - I've already got two Goblins that I've got to take care of, Crazy Girl! I don't need two more!" She shouted at precisely nobody but the bushes, which so didn't care. That was the problem. It was bad enough when her baby brother, Matthew, did this when they were out shopping. But he was five now and that was when Elias had finally outgrown playing hide and seek when they were out in public. She was looking forward to the peace and quiet!

Peace and quiet that somehow went out the window the second she stepped foot in Bellwood and met a certain redhead.

"And the dork that put the crazy into Crazy Girl!" Michelle spat those words out along with a couple of leaves and how she wished that Ben was here so she could spit them out on him. God, her Goblins were still babies, but - "But he's almost thirteen! What's his excuse?!"

Besides being a boy and just thinking about those silly things...

Michelle growled because sure, Watch Boy was a little mouthier and a whole lot wittier than most and the only thing better than the whole star-crossed thing that he had going on with her Crazy Girl was how happy he made Gwen once they both got their heads out of their butts, but honestly he never seemed all that different than any of the other boys that she'd grown up with on base. She'd certainly never understood what her best friend saw in him.

Not even a little and what was Michelle thinking, imagining she'd want one of her own?! Kissing couldn't be that much fun, could it? Enough to be worth all of this trouble?

She didn't know. Not about that or what made Ben throw himself on top of both of them as a meteor fell burning from the sky…

The only thing that was hotter than that fireball was Michelle's face because she knew the words that were about to come out of her mouth in the split second before she realized what Ben was doing. It wouldn't be the first time a boy had done something like that to her, even if she'd never actually been tackled before. Just like it wouldn't have been the first time that she'd said things that would have made her maman wash her mouth out with soap and send her grandparents praying for her again. Words that probably would have made the bozo laugh because he'd never liked her any more than she did him.

Not that he would have been laughing if Michelle had gotten her hands on before he went running off after the thing like a moron!

"'Stay here!'" She mimicked the last thing that he'd said to her - to them - even as she glared at the branch over her head. The one that he'd used to get over this mess and the branches that she could feel pulling at her clothes and hair and why didn't she wrap it today and please don't let there be any bugs! "Garçons stupides!"

But she was repeating herself and at least he had an excuse.

"Which is more than anyone can say about you, Crazy Girl!" She shouted again. God, Gwen was the stupidest smart person that she'd ever met. She was smart enough that she could think herself into knots for months, but what did she do today when something fell burning from the sky? Or when her dummy went charging into the woods after it? Did she stop and use that big brain of hers?

Of course not!

"You two deserve each other," Michelle grumbled as her voice went back to normal because it was either thinking about what the phone in her hand meant - the one that Gwen never let out of her sight - or the kiss that she still felt pressed into her cheek from a girl who still jumped when she got hugged. And then they were both gone before Michelle had a chance to think.

Not that that was a problem anymore. Her brain had all sorts of ideas now as she fought the bushes that she could have sworn Gwen melted through. It was like the branches just moved out of her way while she was chasing her boy toy and it so wasn't fair. Not for her or her temper. "I'm going to kick both of your butts."

Which was so much better than what the Colonel was going to do to her if he ever found out that she'd just been sitting there when her friends ran off.

Her civilian friends.

Michelle whimpered at the thought even as the brush finally gave way and sent her spilling out onto the ground on the other side because she was the oldest and the one who should know better. She was the one who did all of the ducking and covering back when she was living on base. She was the one who should have stayed calm when things fell from the sky, not Watch Boy. Not Crazy Girl.

Who were nowhere in sight.

She couldn't hear them either. The only good things were that the brush thinned out a lot as she moved deeper into the woods and there were still embers smoldering everywhere pointing the way.

Enough that she swallowed hard because she'd seen enough of the news over the last few months that she knew if it hadn't started raining a few weeks ago, this whole forest could have gone up.

"And it still might," she said to herself even as she found a puddle that flooded her shoe. How many times did the Colonel tell her that just because there wasn't a boom right now that didn't mean there won't be a boom ever? Or that she had to be the responsible one? That she was the oldest and the New York City-est and she should know better.

She should know better than to charge into the woods at night, when who knows what was out there, watching her…

"It's not any different than all those stupid camping trips he drags us out on," she tried to tell herself, but that wasn't the memory that chilled her even more than the muddy water that squelched in her shoe with every step. If it wasn't for the phone that she was clutching with both hands, she knew that she'd be reaching for the strand of beads that were woven into her hair. Her fingers worried at the blue and black plastic that she'd held every time they went out shopping, but if she called for help…

This wasn't like the time that those idiots in Germany found their dad's service pistol and decided to show it off before they were caught. That was what she tried to tell herself because it was true.

But it didn't matter.

Neither did the fact that she wasn't nine anymore. No, she was older. Old enough to know better, and about more than just the fact that it would be a lot longer than a couple of hours before she could sit this time if the Colonel found out about any of this unless she called him right now. And she wanted to.

By Allah, she really did, but you didn't snitch on your friends. That was the only rule that mattered on base and out here in the real world. It didn't matter how stupid they were being or how dark the night was.

And it was so dark. Dark enough that a lifetime of stories was running through her head and filling in all of the shadows around her. Not the stupid ones her friends told or that she'd seen in movies either. No, real stories. The ones that she'd heard the Colonel share with his late at night as she hid around the corner so she could hear everything he wouldn't tell her. Sometimes they were funny enough that she bit her hand so she wouldn't get caught laughing and those were always her favorite, but the others…

The others were always told in low voices over drinks that were so much stronger than the beer that they usually shared. They were stories about insurgents and aliens and monsters of every shape and form that all happened in places just like this.

And when she felt something catch her ankle….

Michelle didn't shriek. She wasn't an idiot like the girls in the movies that her best friend loved so much. She just kicked as hard as she could at the branch that went flying. A branch she stared at with wide eyes as it went. Eyes that flooded with sudden tears as she sucked in a breath and smelled smoke. That was when she finally came to her senses and flipped open her best friend's phone because rules were one thing, but there were some things more important than everyone ignoring her because she was a snitch who got everybody else in trouble. She was old enough to know that, too, but it didn't keep her from praying as her shaking fingers found the right buttons, "Please don't get mad."

She had the Colonel's private number half-dialed, the one she was only supposed to call during an emergency when she heard it, " - a Heatblast, Doofus! We've got to call - " The words were so soft and almost lost in the trees, but…

But she knew that tone.

"Crazy Girl?" Michelle called out again as she closed the phone and started running forward. Roots and more branches caught at her feet as she ran, but she didn't care. They weren't as bad as the flickering orange light that was casting long shadows ahead. The light that made her call out, "Gwen!" one more time because there was a fire.

And then one of the shadows moved. "Michelle?! What are you doing - " Gwen called out, alarm filling her voice as she turned around. Filling it when it should have been overflowing already because whatever was burning was right in front of her!

Not that it mattered. Nothing did as she tackled her best friend and gave her the tightest hug she'd ever given anyone as her heart pounded. There were so many things that she wanted to say, to do.

Just starting with smacking some sense into her! "What is wrong with you!" She hissed because she knew that hitting her would just end up with her hand in a sling and Gwen still just as crazy if she started down that road. It would be worth it though.

So worth it.

But somehow she didn't. Somehow she settled for letting her hands grab her best friend by the arm as she started pulling. "And what am I doing? What are you doing just standing here?! Don't you see the fire? We've got to - "

"'Chelle!" Gwen called out just like Matthew when she finally caught him. And just like her baby brother, the girl dug in her heels. Not that it changed anything for either of them. Being the big sister had some advantages, even if it was just a few weeks, inches, and pounds now.

Pounds she never wanted to think about, even if she caught her bestie sighing about them - and the curves that came with them - a few times when they were out shopping together but she put them to use now. Them and the words she'd heard so many times over her life. "No! No 'Michelle's! I'll drag you and Watch Boy out by your ears if I have to, but - "

Her maman never left a threat hanging like that, but she'd never had a hand clamped over her mouth either in the middle of one of her tirades. It wasn't Gwen's. She knew what Gwen's hands felt like and these were bigger. Big enough that she almost bit it even after she heard Watch Boy hiss in her ear, "You're going to wake him up!"

Almost - his skin was between her teeth - and then his words sank in. Every instinct told her that she shouldn't look. She ignored them just like she did the hand on her mouth and the arm she was clutching as she turned.

And they all found out that Ben's hand could hold back a shriek pretty well, too when she saw the thing laying there, smoldering away in a circle of burned grass and dried mud.

"A-alien," she mumbled through numb lips into Watch Boy's palm because she didn't know what else the thing could be. The thing looked almost like someone had tried to make a person out of the charcoal from the Colonel's grill. The lit charcoal, but the smoldering orange flames weren't what made her face bead with a sudden sweat, even if it was what made Ben pull his hand away from her face as she added, "That's an alien!"

"We know," Gwen said, her voice hushed and not with awe, a second before Michelle felt an all too familiar hand squeeze hers even as she was pulled back into the dark of the woods. "'Michelle, listen to me. You have to - "

Michelle didn't. She just shook off her bestie's hand and took another step closer as she watched it - no him. Ben was right. It looked like a him somehow as it laid there, face down, and sucked in the air she wasn't even sure that it needed. She just watched his flames flare and ebb every time he made that sound. She didn't think that anything could ever make her stop looking at it.

Not even the thousand questions that ran through her head. How did it get here? Where did it come from? What did it want? And why was she the only one freaking out?!

"What's with you two?" Michelle hissed as she spun around again while Crazy Girl and Watch Boy just stood there. Now that she could see their faces in the light of the fire she could see that they weren't even looking at the thing. Just at each other. She'd watched the two of them spend an hour arguing over whether the purple stuff in her fridge was grape or blueberry flavored and there were pillows thrown before it was over, but that wasn't anywhere near as intense as the one they were having now just with their eyes.

It was weird, like watching her Mama and the Colonel argue when the Goblins were in the room and she was sure she was losing even before she stomped her foot and got both of their attention as she waved a hand back. "That's an alien! An alien! How cool is this?!"

Even if he was a bit on the scrawny side….

"Michelle," Gwen tried again and Michelle couldn't help jumping at the sound of her name or glaring when she caught Watch Boy giving her one of those looks. "It isn't safe. You have to - "

"Are you kidding me?!" Michelle hissed at her even though she knew that the girl was right. It was the only thing that they drilled for more at school than duck and cover, but -

But aliens!

"P-please," an exhausted voice suddenly called out from behind her. One that didn't sound alien at all, just hurt and exhausted. Hurt enough that it made Michelle spin around and remember what she should have done the second she saw him.

"Are you okay?" Michelle asked as she hurried towards it. This time she ignored the shouts behind her and the heat in front as she rushed forward. She wished that she had a first aid kit as her mind raced over all the classes that her maman made her take. That she wanted to take because she had little Goblins in her life who needed watching over, but despite everything she said about her brothers, they were still people and the alien in front of her wasn't. She didn't have a clue what she could do.

But she still had to try.

"Does anything hurt? Are you having any trouble breathing? Do you even do that?" The words were a nervous babble as Michelle reached out just so the visitor would know that he wasn't alone before the heat and arms thrown around her waist stopped her.

"Michelle!" Gwen snapped again, and her grip around Michelle's middle was tight, but her voice was steel with worry as she snapped, "We don't know why it's here."

And Ben's voice was barely any softer, but she could have sworn she saw a hint of something approving in his expression as he shot a look at her and added, "And you call her crazy."

"I - " Michelle started as she swallowed hard at how dumb she'd almost been even as she watched the Alien dig its rocky fingers into the mud under it and try to pull itself up. "I'm just - "

She didn't know. She just wanted to help. There were so many things that she knew she didn't know. Being friends with Gwen brought that home every day, but the biggest mystery, the one that stopped them all in their tracks, was what the alien said next as it pulled itself across the dried mud it landed in, but not towards them.

"G-get up," the alien said and Michelle wasn't even sure that he knew that they were there as he pulled himself down the same way he'd been going before he crashed-landed. Not when he said the words like he'd done it a thousand times already just so he could keep going. And as rough as he sounded, what he said next hit even harder as he looked right at them, desperate and spent as he begged, "P-please. I h-have to find Mr. T-Tennyson. I have to tell him - Mom and dad are - are - "

The words were broken nonsense that kept going even as the alien collapsed again. All except for the two that didn't make any sense.

"How - " Michelle started after the eternity that she needed to find her voice after the alien's strength faded again as she wondered how she'd made a fool of herself again today before reality set in because this wasn't an RV she'd forgotten about. It was an alien and it was impossible. It should have been impossible, but for some reason she didn't laugh as she turned and asked, "How does he know your dad, Crazy Girl?"

"I - " Gwen started, her green eyes wide in the light of the alien's fading fire. They were wide and scared as they flickered up to Michelle's and then to Ben's and back again as her brow creased like it always did when she was thinking hard. And then she swallowed. Not hard. Not like her mouth was dry. No, it was the little tell Michelle had seen dozens of times over the last year every time that the boy who was still holding Michelle back came up. It was the swallow that happened every time before she lied. "He doesn't."

And Michelle felt her heart crack like a branch did somewhere in the night around them.

The arms around her middle turned to stone then and Gwen's whisper didn't sound like any of the ones she'd heard from her best friend before. It wasn't the least bit teasing. It wasn't even a whisper. It was just low and serious. "Now can we call Grandpa?"

An adult. Even with everything else going on Michelle almost laughed with relief at the idea.

Almost, except Watch Boy did something that Michelle didn't think anyone could. He ignored Gwen. He didn't even look at her - at them - as he rushed forward. He slid the last few feet on his knees and there wasn't anything relieved in his voice when he demanded, "What do you want with Grandpa Max!?"

And if the alien didn't see Ben reaching for the broken branch by his side, Michelle did. She wanted to yell and demand to know what she was doing, but the arms around her middle squeezed a warning. "Crazy - " Michelle started.

Started and stopped because Gwen wasn't even looking at her or anyone else in the clearing. She was looking into the trees ahead with a frown marring her brow as she studied the night with the light of the alien's fire reflected in her green eyes.

Only somehow it almost looked violet.

"Grandpa Max?" The alien asked as it brought its face up out of the dirt again. It couldn't blink in surprise, but the way the fire where its eyes should have been flared sure looked like it was trying to. "You know - " And that was when he saw the branch. His eyes dimmed, but there wasn't any panic in his voice as he sagged down. "M-my dad! He told me to find him. He - "

"Ben?" Gwen cut the alien off with a voice as tight as her grip as she took a step back and pulled Michelle with her while Ben just nodded and stood, his frown cutting even deeper into his face as he looked, too.

"What's going on?!" Michelle demanded when she heard it, too. It wasn't the crack of something stepping on a branch or trodding through dry leaves. It wasn't anything that she was sure she heard at all until she turned back as Watch Boy pulled off the medal around his neck - the one he'd been showing off all night - and shoved it into the pocket of his jacket before he zipped the whole thing up. And he did it all with his eyes locked onto the same spot between the trees that she'd been looking at as he murmured, "Somebody's out there."

"What?"

"There's more than one," Gwen said at the same time, her voice just as low and tight with nerves as her head moved back and forth like she was an owl and not just a bit batty. Her and her boyfriend both as Watch Boy shot her a look even as she got the kind of scowl on her face that maman always said left wrinkles before she let out a breath and shook her head. "Five or six? I don't know."

And way Crazy Girl's voice curdled as she admitted that almost made Michelle laugh until she realized that she was the only one who thought it was funny.

Michelle almost laughed until she realized that she was the only one who thought it was funny.

"They're here? Already?!" The alien groaned as he tried to push himself up so he could run or fight. Michelle didn't know which. It didn't matter. Not when his legs wouldn't hold him. And then those burning eyes went wide and right to them. "You've gotta get out of here! You've got to - "

"What's going on?" Ben demanded, serious in a way that Michelle never heard from him before as he stared into the night.

A night that was suddenly too still as all the bugs around them went quiet again.

"I don't know," the alien gasped out as he tried to get up again. "They attacked my home and my dad - my dad told me to run, but if they're here already…"

Ben looked at the alien for another minute before he looked up with his lip jutted out and Crazy Girl proved just how crazy she really was as she let Michelle go. And not so she could turn and run, or explain, or do anything sensible. No, she did it so she could tie her hair back as she stepped towards the woods like the madwoman she was. And for once, Ben even agreed. "What do you think you're doing?!".

"You don't have the Watch anymore, Doofus," Gwen bit out and Ben flinched like his bling mattered right now. "So get Michelle out of here while I - "

"This is the police!" A man shouted out of the night in a tone that would have made the Colonel jealous. It was the same tone she'd heard every time she got in trouble. "Stay where you are and put your hands in the air!"

It was all going so fast, but Ben was somehow even faster even as Michelle froze. Fast enough that he grabbed his girlfriend before Michelle could find out what the crazy little stick of a girl thought she could do even with all of her karate.

Karate that she knew Watch Boy shared and it didn't seem to impress him at all as he scoffed, "But I've still got a brain, Dweeb!" He pulled them both back at that, but there wasn't anything teasing as he stepped over another branch and asked the alien in the most serious tone she'd ever heard from the boy, "Can you distract them?"

The alien just stared at all of them until Ben demanded again, "Can you?!" And then it just nodded, resolute.

"Good," Ben said, his chin still out even as they disappeared into the dark and his eyes hard even in the face of twin glares. One of which was another argument done in glares that was over almost before it began before both sets up eyes fell on Michelle. "You have to go, Michelle," Gwen hissed into the quiet with a tone that was Bus Ride serious with a push back towards the road, towards people. "This time I mean it. Run and don't stop until you're back at the - "

Gwen's voice barely cracked the silence, but a man's voice shattered it. "Stay down!" It was the kind of voice that the Colonel would have been proud of as the big policeman stepped out of the brush and into the clearing with his pistol already drawn and aimed at the burning alien, who froze just short of the branch as the man added, "Don't move!"

Like he could, Michelle thought wildly, but she….

"Michelle!" She heard Crazy Girl hiss as Watch Boy gasp as she escaped his grip with a move that she'd learned back in kindergarten. She bit him. She bit him and she ignored everything else as she charged back into the light and between the gun and the alien being.

It was a visitor from another world, just like Michelle saw on their field trip a lifetime ago. It was just like the one she saw in the First Contact museum. The one that didn't hurt anyone but still faced down the whole army by itself before it could make anyone listen. It was a year ago and so much more happened while she was there, but she still remembered the brave little private who walked up that ramp and saved the world.

It was bravery that she knew she'd never have. She'd never even come close. She couldn't save the world, she could barely get through algebra! But it didn't matter. Not any more than the fact that the boy on the ground was probably going to have volcanoes for pimples. Not when he was lying there alone and not hurting anyone. Not when she was Army.

So she rushed out and got between the gun and the alien. She was so stupid.

"He's okay! He didn't hurt us!" Michelle swore as she raised her hands as high as she could because it should have at least made the policeman do all of the thinking that she didn't because she was just a little girl and there were rules.

There should have been rules.

If she was home, there would have been. There would have been a few more warnings and a lot of shouting from the base guards that would have ended up with her standing in front of her father and in so much trouble, but no one would have gotten hurt.

For a second, Michelle was sure that it was true, here, too. A second where the man hesitated and gave her a quick look, but his pistol never wavered from the alien boy on the ground behind her. "Get out of here, kid. That thing's dangerous."

"But - " Michelle started and wished her mind would catch up as she dared look back because the alien behind her looked the furthest thing from that, but she'd heard stories. So many stories. Enough that not even she sounded convinced when she finished, "But he hasn't done anything."

And he didn't feel dangerous. Not as he stared up at her with his eyes wide like he was seeing her for the first time, and she felt warm all over as his flames flared.

There was more shuffling around her and she would have given anything if she could see Crazy Girl and Watch Boy behind her, but it was like they'd both disappeared into the night and she just wanted to scream at them and for them, but she knew that if she moved, if she even breathed….

Especially as the big man in front of her reached for the radio on his shoulder and, with a tight voice, said, "We've located the target, but one of the witnesses stayed. One of the girls."

There was so much tension in those words that Michelle almost felt bad for him. Or she did until she heard a voice come back through the little speaker. One that wasn't human. One that was just a hiss like an angry snake. A snake that the policeman must have eaten because his hand snapped up just as fast. Fast enough that Michelle didn't even have time to gasp as something like regret flashed through his eyes.

And then time just stopped as he pulled the trigger.

- o - o - o - o - o -

Michelle had heard the stories about what would happen next.

It was impossible not to, growing up on base. She'd heard that time would slow down and she wondered if she'd see her maman again, and if she'd get a movie of her life before whatever happened next. She wished she had popcorn. She wished that there would be more to it, and the only worry she felt was that it would be full of all the things that she hadn't done yet.

She was only thirteen and she'd never even been kissed, not really, but she didn't panic. Not even as she saw the orange fire burst out of the barrel not two feet away from her face. There wasn't time.

There wasn't even time for her to remember more than the beat of the prayers that she heard her maman say every night, the melody of her brothers' happy shouts, and the quiet warmth of the Colonel's body as he hugged her close after he made the phone calls that were just as much a part of his life as his deployments.

Would he be making the call for her now? Her heart ached at the idea, but what hurt the most was that she didn't even have a chance to say goodbye.

That was her last thought, and it wasn't even a full one. Just fragments.

Fragments like the violet light that suddenly burst to life not centimeters from her nose and shattered like glass when the shot hit it and reality came crashing back down.

- o - o - o - o - o -

Crashing down like her butt as Michelle forgot what her knees were for as the shot exploded in front of her face. It was so close that it should have…

Should have, but it didn't. Her ears rang from the noise, but the only thing she felt was the leaf-covered ground, which was hard enough. She didn't, but the violet light didn't protect the officer and she saw him stagger back with a cry as he covered his face with his hands.

It didn't save him from what happened next, either, as a storm came up out of nowhere and tore at the ground and trees. A wind that threw things so much heavier than popcorn as it curved around Michelle like it was a living thing and threw every bit of debris that it caught up at the man who was still looming over her as the world kept getting crazier around her.

As crazy as her Crazy Girl, who she swore she heard scream her name in the middle of all of that. Only her voice echoed over and over again like there were dozens of her. Hundreds. And the wind didn't let up, not even a little. Not even as there were more cracks of thunder and flashes of the same orange and violet lights that lit the woods all around Michelle and the alien boy she tried to save, lights that burned away the night everywhere that his fire couldn't reach.

Flashes of it that just showed more men, more officers between the trees as something took them on before the light was gone and darkness swallowed them all again.

Them, but not their voices or the surprise that filled their shouts, and none of them sounded like they came from her Crazy Girl or Watch Boy. "Over here! They're - "

"Behind you! Behind - !"

Voices that turned to shouts. Shouts that turned to screams mixed in with the flashes of light and for one wild minute Michelle felt like she was in the middle of a fireworks show.

Not that she saw a lot of them. Not on base. Not when so many of the units had seen active combat. Michelle knew it was worse for the families who had veterans who'd been in Vietnam, but even her dad's unit had plenty of troopers who stayed inside on the Fourth of July and wouldn't even buy so much as a firecracker, much less the rockets that sent up those dazzling explosions of light. She'd only seen fireworks a few times in her life, mostly when she was visiting the Colonel's side of the family, and even then only because her grandparents took her and the goblins.

God, between the food and the noise they were all almost sick by the time they got home and there was no almost after. Not when they found the Colonel and Maman sitting on the couch in each other's arms and listening to classical music blaring with the blinds closed tight as the rest of the world partied. Not that the goblins cared. but she just rolled her eyes at the drama of it all...

She wasn't rolling them now.

No, now they were locked on the officer in front of her as he refound his footing. He had an arm shoved in front of his shocked face as the howling wind still pummeled him. But, even half-blinded, his gun hand didn't waver as he stared right at her as surprise turned to anger as he demanded, "Are you doing this, girl?"

The words were harsh and Michelle swore she heard something clicking under them as the man aimed again, hesitating only long enough to flip a little switch on the pistol. A switch that made the red light in the barrel burn orange as she skittered back as fast as she could. Not because of the gun. Not even as he raised it again, but because of what she saw when he peeked over his arm. His face wasn't burned like she thought it was - like it should have been - but she wasn't looking at his face. Just the one red eye that was glaring back at her.

There was nothing human there.

Nothing but surprise as a burning branch slammed into the man's arm and sent the pistol flying. "Leave her alone!" The alien howled as the alien swung the branch again. It was as thick as a baseball bat in his hands, but it still splintered when he hit the policeman with it again and again until the big man went down.

And the alien almost followed him.

Michelle watched, frozen, as he swayed on his feet as he let what was left of the branch drop. The fire that made up so much of his body guttered in the wind. He looked almost spent except for burning embers of its eyes. Eyes that she stared into and she swore flared brighter as he reached out for her before he caught himself. "Are you okay? Did he hurt you?"

Michelle should have said something. She should have done more than just nod, but she couldn't take her eyes off of him. She'd heard so many stories about aliens before, but -

But nobody ever told her that they were beautiful.

"I- I thought that aliens like you would be taller, Matchstick," Michelle finally said. The words slipped out of her dry mouth before she could catch them, and she swore that her face burned as hot as his as she ducked her head because they were so stupid even if they were true. He looked like he was barely as tall as Watch Boy and somehow even skinnier, but it didn't matter.

Not as much as the look on his face as he squeaked out "Matchstick?" And she found out that aliens could be cute, too, as she watched him blush and squirm, but he didn't complain. Not about that. "I mean, I'm not an alien. My name is Alan and - "

Despite it all, Michelle giggled as she took him in. "Alan the alien?"

"I'm not an - "

"Abomination." Reality came crashing back down as the officer spat out that word. His voice was wet and the clicks in it so much louder under it as Michelle twisted her head around and watched him push himself up with one arm wrapped around his middle as the other hung there, limp. But that was the only sign that he'd been hurt at all. There wasn't even a spot of dirt on his uniform or a wrinkle that wasn't there before.

"Rude much?" Michelle snapped back as Alan stiffened at her side, his hands flexing for her arms before he caught himself. Which was more than she could do, even if her words were ridiculous and her voice was shaking with fear, but she didn't have anything else.

Not that the police officer paid her any attention as he stared at Alan.

No, as he stared at the thick and wide metal band around Alan's upper left arm and the disk surrounded by four white tubes that were set into it. They were all details that were lost in the night and confusion before and the thing was filthy with dried mud, but now that she knew it was there she could see a symbol on it. A green and black hourglass symbol that looked familiar, even if she didn't know why.

She didn't know it, but the officer did. "The abomination," he repeated, awed and terrified at the same time as he let his good hand drop in front of him. The hand that was never holding his ribs. The hand had something egg-shaped in it. It was a snow-white something that Michelle hadn't ever seen before. Not on base or TV, but it didn't matter. She knew what it was anyway.

Grenade.

"No!" Alan shouted as she let out a shriek and he rushed forward, too late.

"For the Highbreed. For Us All, " the Officer intoned as his thumb reached for something on the side of the slick alien device. "Night Will Not Fall Ag - "

"FULGARI!" Michelle heard Gwen scream from somewhere in the woods behind her before he could do whatever it was that he was going to do and the world cracked with thunder as a blinding, endlessly forking burst of light flashed shot by her so close that her hair reached for the sky. Violet light. Violet lightning that threw the officer back into the night in a violent jerk and, in the second after it hit him, she thought she saw the man vanish and something else take his place.

But the thing she saw…

"Damn," Alan whispered as Michelle spun right and saw Gwen crouched over another police officer, who wasn't moving. It was impossible in so many ways, the least of which was that the Crazy Thing had circled that far through the forest without making a sound. The fact that the man at her feet was almost twice as tall as her but even with the torn sleeve on her sweater, ripped skirt, and her red hair mostly escaped from its braid it looked like he was the one who got mauled, which should have been the most insane thing ever, even for Crazy Girl.

But it wasn't.

No, the most impossible thing - even more than Alan - was her best friend's hand. Her glowing hand, with the same violet light clung to the night around it like a cloud, complete with little sparks of the same lightning she'd just seen dancing against her open palm.

Which was smoking.

"Crazy Girl?" Michelle breathed as she stared at the girl she knew everything about, right down to the little dash of freckles that she got on her shoulders sometimes when they were out in the sun too long. The one who couldn't hide anything from her. Not for long anyway. Her best friend and almost sister and more…

That was what she thought, anyway, as she wondered how she could have missed any of this.

If the light wasn't there, if it still wasn't wrapped around Gwen's arms up to her elbows Michelle never would have seen Gwen stop so fast that she almost tripped over her feet as she realized. Never would have seen the eyes that should have been green if they weren't burning with the same light - eyes that she loved to make roll - lock right on her or her mouth drop, speechless at last.

The light flared a second later, flared and vanished like the wind that filled the clearing as that mouth finally moved to make one word. The only one that mattered, the one that Michelle loved to tease out of her best friend along with the blushes that usually came with it. She was too far away to hear the soft 'Michelle,' but she knew it was there.

It was the only normal thing of the night and Michelle held onto it for all it was worth as she stared at the girl who she thought couldn't keep a secret to save her life. Who she thought was her best friend and the best part of moving out here.

Michelle almost cried. She wanted to, even if it was the last thing that a Colonel's daughter could do, but she didn't. She was too busy screaming instead.

"Crazy Girl!"

She was almost too late, almost too slow to see the shadows in the bushes behind Gwen move. Shadows she only saw because of the flaming violet light that was replaced by a burning crimson bolt as the shape in the bushes opened fire at the back of her best friend's head.

Everything went wild after that.

Michelle had seen Gwen move before. She'd watched her dance and at gymnastics and in karate. She knew how fast the girl could be. She'd known it ever since she watched her take down Sean and Flint last year with two moves that could have come out of the movies.

She never imagined that the Crazy thing had been holding back for all of this time as she watched Gwen spin away from the shot, her face lit brightly by the red bolt that just missed her nose as she held her hand out and then something brighter than the sun appeared in her palm of her hand. It only lasted for as long as a camera's flash at the arcade. It was just long enough to make Michelle flinch, the officer scream and recoil -

And for Watch Boy to come flying out of the woods in the strobe of light like this was a movie and the couple had been waiting for that moment their whole lives. Or they'd done it before, but that was impossible.

Ben's branch was gone, too, but he didn't need it or the grace she saw in Gwen. No, she was all feet of fury while Ben was much more basic and focused on his fists. Fists he used now as he drove them down into the officer's hands to knock his pistol away before he spun around and buried the point of his elbow into the man's chin in a move that would have been the envy of every soccer hooligan Michelle left behind in Europe. Especially when she saw the man's head twist around as his face went flying off.

As his face went flying off.

A face that turned into something white before it disappeared into the leaves and the officer disappeared in a flash of light as he reeled back.

And the thing that took his place….

It was the same monster that Michelle had seen a moment ago, only this time she couldn't pretend that the green and purple thing under it was something she imagined after the lightning blinded her. Something that only looked human because it had the right number of arms and legs that were wrapped in what she hoped was a purple and green bodysuit. The only difference was that she never saw what was under the white face mask that hers was wearing.

And she wished she never saw under this one because she already knew that the squid-like thing that she saw would haunt her dreams even more than...

"We - we're in one of Crazy Girl's movies," Michelle whispered even though she knew that there weren't any cameras or Wes Cravens around. Or a nightmare, but she couldn't wake up even though it felt like the Goblins were bouncing on her bed again as the ground started rumbling under her feet. A rumbling that got so much worse as her Crazy Girl shouted something and dozens of roots exploded from the ground as she threw her hand out at the monster as it screamed.

And then it was just gone, engulfed in a tangle that was as tall as she was.

"What the - ?" Alan the Alien whispered from her side. Hearing him say that, knowing that he'd seen it, too…

It didn't make it any more real. Neither did the heat of his hand as she reached for it before she caught herself.

The only thing that did, the only thing that convinced her that this wasn't some wild dream she was having because of too many smoothies was just how ragged her Crazy Girl looked in the violet light that still surrounded her hands. Even from here, Michelle could see the dirt on her best friend's face and legs and the wild mess the storm had made of her hair. Only some of it was still in the sloppy ponytail she'd made, the rest of it danced around her head and somehow just made her look fiercer. So did the sweater and skirt, even if there wasn't any way that the girl that she knew would let anyone see her looking like that.

But at least Gwen still somehow looked elegant even for all of that, which was more than anyone would ever say about Ben. Somehow he looked all that much filthier than he had at his soccer game, which felt like it happened years ago now. Except his voice never shook then, not even when he was losing. Not like it did now as he screamed at Alan and Michelle knew it wasn't just so he'd be heard over the wind, "Where did you get that?! I had it at home with mom and dad! What did you - "

Which didn't make any sense. None of it. Not even the way Ben was pointing at the weird disk on Matchstick's arm like he was going to march over and pull it off with his bare hands.

"Ben!" Crazy Girl screamed before he could, her head whipping around as she threw her hand out and a violet dome covered her boyfriend a second before more of the red energy bolts exploded out of the woods from two different directions and almost caught the two of them in a crossfire.

Almost, if they weren't so quick. If they both didn't dive behind a tree that looked ancient and was just big enough around to give them both cover. Enough that Ben could ignore the fact that they were being shot at just long enough to let out a frustrated "But he has the - !"

"Later, Doofus!" Gwen screamed right back and she sounded just as scared as she spun around and another of those violet domes appeared around them. She sounded just as scared, but Michelle saw her face before a wild mane of red hair took its place and she knew what the look she saw in those green eyes meant. She'd seen it enough back when Marci was still being a bitch and if Michelle could think, she would have almost felt sorry for whatever was still out there in the night.

Almost, if they weren't shooting at her friends.

And they were good, too. Michelle just watched as the trees that Crazy Girl and Watch Boy were hiding behind splintered under the strange red bullets and even as fast as they were, they couldn't get away. Every time they tried, the shots were there first. She didn't know what to do.

And she wasn't the only one. "Come on, come on…" she heard Alan whisper next to her, his whole body so tense that the fire on it flared like fat was dripping on his coals as more and more of the trees vanished as Crazy Girl studied the night as best she could and Watch Boy…

Watch Boy glared back at them, at Alan, and his face twisted like it did when he tried Tofu as he shouted, "What are you waiting for?"

That snapped the alien who swore he wasn't one out of his trance as he pushed himself back up as Michelle looked around for anything that could help. "Right!" Alan shouted back. "Just let me get another branch and - "

"A branch?!" Ben cut him off as he shoved a hand through his windblown hair. "You're a Heatblast! Blast some freaking heat!"

"What?" Alan shouted back, as confused as Michelle felt.

And the look Ben gave him….

It was a look Michelle knew so well. It was a look she used every time her brothers couldn't find something in the fridge even though it was right there and she was hanging out with her Crazy Girl. Her Crazy Girl, who looked ready to explode.

Who needed them.

"You figured out how to fly and it's the same thing! Just hold your hands out in front of you and push!"

"What is he - " Alan started.

But Michelle cut him off. "Just do it!" The alien gave her a look as he shook his head, but what else could they do? So she watched him as he held his arms out, squinted and -

And flames shot fifteen feet out of Alan's hands like he'd somehow palmed a flamethrower as she shrieked and crab-walked back from the heat. The only thing that burned brighter than the flames was his grin when he saw what he'd done. "Oh, yeah!" And then Matchstick looked into the dark woods and smirked. "Come and get some!" He shouted as he charged forward at whoever was shooting from the left.

Michelle felt her hand come down on something hard as she scurried away from the heat. It was something that didn't feel like it was made out of metal or plastic, but she knew the shape even before she looked down and saw the Glock half-hidden in the grass.

She almost yanked her hand away before she heard something scream as Alan let out a wild laugh, "That's for mom and dad, you jerks!"

Michelle's head jerked up at the sound just in time to see Crazy Girl and Watch Boy moving, charging the gunman on the right under the cover of a violet shield and the Officer who'd been hiding there until Alan's fire lit up everything.

Even the sliver of metal that was high up one of the trees behind them. It was a sliver that Michelle almost ignored before she remembered Gwen saying five or six. I don't know and she felt her breath catch because she did.

She knew even before she saw the rifle take the same careful aim that she'd seen dozens of times at the firing ranges that the Colonel dragged her to when he was home. Bonding time, her mama called it as she sent them both off with a kiss even as she rolled her eyes because…

'Our house always has room for more medals, Honey Bunny, but you know that's not why we're here, right?" The Colonel always asked her as he kissed the top of her head and put the pistol into her hand. He never looked anything less than determined when he said it, but there was something in his eyes when he did it. Something sad and proud as she nodded and took aim. 'It's like my dad told me when I was your age. You're the oldest. You have to know how to protect the people we love when I'm not there.'

The one in the grass didn't feel anything like the one he was always pushing into her hands as she scooped it up, but that didn't matter. Not when the trigger was still in the right place. Mostly. It had a little switch on the side that she couldn't figure out and didn't touch. Not as she watched the thing that was wearing a policeman's skin go still as he found his target.

Michelle found hers first.

It was just like the paper targets at the range until she pulled the trigger of the gun that looked like a pistol, but it didn't kick like one. It barely had any recoil at all, not that Michelle noticed. Not that she noticed anything but the red bolt that exploded out of the barrel.

And the sound of the man screaming as he fell.

- o - o - o - o - o -

The scream didn't stop.

It was high-pitched and terrified and so, so loud now that the storm was gone as quick as it came. It was so loud that Michelle didn't even realize it was hers until she heard someone scream even louder, "- elle, look at - Michelle!"

The words from her side came again and ended in a squeal as Michelle spun around to follow them. Follow them with the pistol still in her hand. The pistol was shaking even before she saw Gwen's emerald eyes go wide on the other side of the sights. Only luck kept her from pulling the trigger. Luck and a thousand lessons with the Colonel, but not even those could keep her voice still as she croaked out, "Crazy Girl?"

The words barely came out because her mouth was so dry. As dry as her cheeks weren't as she let her bestie pull the gun away.

The gun she'd just shot somebody with.

"It's okay," Gwen whispered as she wiped the pistol grip with her skirt before she set it down. And then she was back and Michelle was in her arms even though Gwen never - "It's okay."

"Y-you're shaking," Michelle whispered as she buried her face in her best friend's shoulder as she tried to hold it together. Tried and tried because the Colonel would be so -

So -

"No, I'm - " Gwen started before she swallowed hard as a sob cut her off. A sob that didn't stop even as she hugged Michelle tighter. "Shh….."

Crazy Girl's hugs were always warm enough that she could melt in them once the girl relaxed, but this one felt like a furnace. One that was only burning on one side though. The same side she heard Matchstick whisper, "Is she okay?"

"I - I - " Alan sounded so worried and Gwen was so tense that Michelle just wanted to say something brave. Something that would make them feel better like the Colonel would, like her maman would, but all that came out as she buried her face in her best friend's shoulder and sobbed.