“I thought CeeBees were supposed to enhance their host’s endurance?” Viktor jogged ahead of me. The showoff ran backward, a smirk on his lips.
I slogged along. One sneaker in front of the other took about as much effort as climbing the rope from hell in gym class. I never wanted a root to rise up out of the ground and trip someone so much. I would give my first born to watch Mr. Tall, Dark, and Latino fall tight buns over teakettle. To stop from sticking my tongue out at him, I chugged my soda.
Fizzy goodness dribbled down my chin. The blue bugs lapped it up before it dropped onto my t-shirt. Too bad, they didn’t kick in with a boost of power.
“Don’t tell me you’re winded.”
“I’m not.” Running was against my religion. Of course, that didn’t explain the drudgery of putting one foot in front of the other. The CeeBees hadn’t cared about my membership in the Church of the Couch Potato when I’d sprinted into the desert.
“Then why so slow?” Viktor turned about giving me a view of his taut backside before slowing so I could jog beside him when the path opened up.
Why indeed? But I knew. The CeeBees giveth, and the CeeBees taketh away. Especially when the Freudian spam dots read my subconscious and knew I didn’t want to run any more than a nympho wanted a cigar. I crushed the empty can and added it to the bag of trash. A coyote’s howl echoed in the sandstone canyons boxing us in. The pines and shrubs glowed a sickly pea-green in the darkness-night vision courtesy of the blue bugs.
“Maybe I’m not peachy keen on finding out what’s at the end of that scream of bloody murder.” I wasn’t a superhero, and I never played one on TV, either. I did have that bit part in grade school where I was a spider once, but I doubted freezing in place would help. Especially since we were at my folks’ current residence.
And that scream had sounded human.
My chest tightened and I picked up speed. Mom, Pops, and Dad had better not be hurt.
Viktor pumped his arms faster. “Your late night snack must be kicking in.”
“It’s not late.” I glanced up at the sky. A gray aura licked at the western edge of the buttes. The pines vanished as my soles scraped the rocky terrain. “The sun just set a half hour ago.”
But I’d been gone hours before that.
My parents probably worried I’d become lost.
I would have been worried. But my blue bugs guided me like an internal compass. I knew exactly where home lay.
And the dead thing separated us.
Halfway up a mesa, bushes rattled. The hair on my nape prickled. It could be the wind. If wind only blew in one area.
Viktor cocked his head and squinted at the same section. “Are your CeeBees detecting a predator?”
“Not really.” I blinked. I had spider senses and didn’t know it? I really needed to check the manual. Keeping the swaying bushes in my peripheral vision, I angled south. “Why? Do you see something with your X-Ray vision?”
“Enhanced vision, not X-Ray.” He winked. “If I want to see what’s underneath something I just ask.”
My muscles heated. “Do you always have to make things sound so sexual?”
“I don’t have to do anything, but I do love to see you blush.”
Jerk. I darted ahead of him and rounded the bend. His words sunk in. “You see in color?”
In the dark. So much for my advanced alien tech.
“Yep.” A rock shot in front of him as he caught up to me. “Of course, I can’t see in zero lighting like you can.”
“Good to know.” I grunted as a stitch knit my side. I dug my fingers into the soft tissue under my ribs. Something wasn’t right. I’d consumed more than the required calories after I’d woken. Why weren’t the spam dots behaving? I should be running like a gazelle with a pride of lions after her.
“Of course, if you wanted to play Hide and Seek, I could still find you.” He ducked under a manzanita bough. “But we’d have to play by my rules. The finder gets to ask anything of the findee, and she must submit.”
An owl hooted nearby.
Submit to Viktor? There was a time my heart would have pitter-pattered over the idea. But now, he kept me between his body and the thing on the ridge. Now, my heart only pittered; the traitor.
“Not gonna happen.” A branch tip snagged my shirt then snapped off. I bounded out of the wash and onto the bank.
Sheep huddled together in the clearing. Greenish wooly faces turned toward the ridge. In the distance, headlights bounced over the desert. Golden beams painted the shrubs in bright greens. Dad. He was always the responsible parent; the one that checked for monsters in the closet.
I needed to get there before he did.
Viktor clamped a hand on my arm. “Wait.”
I jerked to a stop instead of losing my arm. “What?”
“Let them get there first. They’ve no doubt brought weapons to investigate.”
“Weapons? Are you nuts?” I tugged on my arm.
He dug in.
“These are my parents. They’re pacifists to the nth degree. I wasn’t even allowed to hit a fly with a rolled up newspaper when I was younger. I had to catch it and put it outside.” And now my dad was out there, facing who knows what. I had to get to him. Kicking, my toes connected with Viktor’s shin.
I tore free and sprinted across the desert. Finally, my blue bugs cooperated. Hopping like a bunny, I leapt small shrubs in a single bound and sped past fluttering moths.
The meaty scent of blood thickened the air. Fresh kill.
My stomach cramped and my hind brain urged flight in the opposite direction. I powered on. My CeeBees had regrown a toe. They’d brought me back from the dead. I’m sure I could recover from whatever was out there. At least, I stood a better chance than my family.
“Rae. Dammit, Rae! Slow down.” Viktor’s footfalls pounded behind me. “You don’t know who was attacked.”
Who? Who? I sounded like a mental owl. Instead of picturing my parents slaughtered, my mind filled with a gutted sheep. Why would I picture that? The CeeBees. Was it true, or a measure to calm me?
“Rae.” Viktor raked his hand down my back.
“It’s a sheep.” I skirted an Ironwood tree and veered left.
The headlights grew bigger. The soft purr of an electric motor gobbled up the darkness.
“You can’t know that.” Viktor pinched my sleeve.
The ribbed collar of my tee-shirt cut across my windpipe, and I slowed. My thighs trembled, my knees shook, and my stomach growled. “I do know that.”
A lump of snot-green wool lay in a glossy black pool. My stomach churned. I was a cellophane carnivore, preferring my meat in its natural environment of the refrigerated section in the grocery store. This was a little too real.
Viktor huffed beside me. “It is a sheep.”
“Was.” Past tense. It was dead. I felt the emptiness inside me. Skirting the pool of congealing blood, I sidled closer to the steaming guts. “Why didn’t the coyote eat it all?”
“I don’t think a coyote did this.” After a quick tug on his pants, he crouched down near the split stomach. “Give me the fob.”
Clenching the snack trash between my knees, I dipped my fingers into my pocket. My nails scratched warm metal before I pinched the fob and slid it out.
“Hurry.” He snapped his fingers.
“Oh, hey! I’m not a dog.” The triangular ends bit into my palm. No way would I let him have it back. He could use it against my parents.
“Radiance.” Dad called out.
The ATV’s headlights smacked me in the eyes. Not that I wanted to see, but whatever animal did this was still out there. Blinking rapidly, I waited for my vision to adjust.
“I’ll do it. Just tell me what to do.” I swept my thumb over the crystal in the center. It remained dark. Uh-oh. That could be bad.
“Just point it at the carcass, then check your phone for the information.” He growled.
I pointed. No beam of light blasted out. I shook the fob twice and swept it back and forth for good measure. Nothing. Nada. Zip. I thumped it on the heel of my palm.
Viktor arched an eyebrow. “You broke it?”
“No. Noooo. I didn’t break it.” My spam dots just drained the life out of it. Little blue vampires.
He swore under his breath.
The cart zigged to the right and light raced across the desert to smack into a dwarf maple. The ATV braked and the cart behind it rattled to a stop.
“Rae?” Dad leapt out of the driver’s side. His wristwatch glowed fluorescent blue in the darkness. “Are you alright, Doodlebug?”
“Yeah. I’m fine.” I slipped the key fob into my pocket and retrieved the trash. “Unfortunately, something decided to nosh on one of the ewes.”
Closing the distance between us, Dad ignored the animal. He opened his thick arms. “It happens, Doodlebug. Everything has to eat.”
I stepped into his hug, inhaled the citrusy scent of his handmade soap. He was there for me, like always. Making sense of the crazy.
“It must be a coyote.” Viktor cleared his throat. “We saw one in the bushes not too far back.”
I stiffened. I hadn’t seen a coyote, and he’d said nothing when I’d suggested it.
Dad squeezed my shoulders.
“Actually…” Gravel crunched. A broad shouldered silhouette cut across the spray of headlamps. The boy-toy Alexander Leech swaggered toward the carcass, sweeping the area with the beam from the flashlight in his hand. “There aren’y any tracks.”
He crouched on the ground, touching the area imprinted with the treads of my sneakers.
I shook my head. “Listen up, Great Carnac, I don’t know what kind of animal whisperer you think you are, but you’re not going to track an animal on commune lands.”
A muscle ticked in Alexander Leech’s jaw.
“We don’t punish animals for being hungry, Xander.” Dad squeezed my shoulder. “It was only following its instincts.”
“If it was an animal.” Xander shone the beam at the sheep’s stomach. He ran a finger along the slitted belly. “That looks more like a knife wound.” Next, he picked up a stick and poked around the entrails. “And it didn’t eat much.”
Viktor rocked back on his heels. “It could have been scared off.”
Testosterone poisoned the air. I’m sure I sprouted a chest hair. I shifted beside Dad waiting to see which of the primates could fling more crap.
Xander snorted. “There aren’t any tracks. There would be tracks if two predators went at it.”
He dipped his hand inside the belly and groped the organs.
I stepped back and wrinkled my nose. What kind of macho contest was this?
“Maybe Rae and I stomped on them, like we did the tracks.” Viktor pressed.
Ducking his head, Dad rubbed his bushy beard to hide his twitching lips. “Perhaps, you boys should take—”
“Ha!” Xander pulled out his hand. Blood and goo dripped from his fingers, marbleized his forearm. “Just as I thought. The adrenal gland is missing.”
Viktor’s nostrils flared. “The adrenal gland?”
Dad’s fingers tightened on my shoulder. “Are you sure?”
I gritted my teeth. Obviously, I was missing something. Something I might have understood, if I watched the news. “What kind of animal only eats the adrenal gland?”
Viktor’s fists trembled at his sides before he tucked them into his pockets. “Human poachers. But I doubt there’s a market for sheep’s adrenal glands in homeopathic medicine.”
Xander shook his head and leapt to his feet. “It all fits now. The reason why there’s no tracks, the missing gland. It was aliens.”
Fear pole-axed me, spearing me to the spot. Aliens. Aside from Viktor, the only aliens about were my aliens. The aliens I was charged with looking after. Oh crap. Oh crap! I should never, ever have given up swearing. Now my skills were rusty. I needed something, something a lot stronger than an F-bomb at the moment.
“Aliens?” Dad tensed. “You think aliens did this?”
Viktor threw back his head. His laughter flowed like a splash of cool water on a summer’s day.
My shoulders relaxed, my lips twitched. If he could laugh it off, then maybe it wasn’t so bad. Then why had he wanted to use the fob? I sobered. Okay, maybe it was aliens, but Xander and Dad didn’t need to know that. And I had no proof until I could power up my phone and see what kind of ET ate sheep guts. My laugh was high and tight, forced from my throat.
Xander’s jaw thrust forward. “It was aliens. This is a textbook case. Everyone knows they come at dusk and daybreak, so you can’t see their lights against the setting sun.”
Dad raised his hand and as if to calm the boy-toy. “Those are government lies, son. Cattle mutilations, sheep mutilations, and the harvesting of organs are all part of a conspiracy to help those in power live long lives. That’s the God’s honest truth.”
Xander’s teeth clicked shut.
Viktor’s mouth hung open.
I nodded. These were the things I was taught to believe growing up. These were the things I believed until the blue bugs infected me and revealed the aliens all around. “Dad has books on the subject, if you want to read more about it.”
“Why don’t you two boys load the sheep on the ATV and take it back to the ranch? Now that the government stooges have their organs, there’s no sense in the carcass going to waste.”
Viktor arched an eyebrow. Guess he wasn’t used to getting his hands dirty.
I smirked. “Try not to get any guts on you.”
Threading his flashlight through his belt loop, Xander picked up the forelegs. “Take the back. I wanna see this wound in a better light.”
Viktor sighed and obeyed.
The animal swung between them as they shuffled over.
Dad retrieved a sack from the driver’s side. “Keys are in the ignition. Rae and I will walk back.”
The ATV bounced as they laid the body on the back. Xander scrambled for the driver’s seat. “I’ll drive.”
Viktor glanced at me. “Rae?”
“Catch.” I chucked my trash at him.
He caught it, clamped his lips together, and climbed into the passenger side. Dropping the trash at his feet, he crossed his arms over his chest. “See you back at the house.”
The engine growled and Xander popped the brake. Gravel sprayed from the tires as he steered the ATV in a tight arc and headed back to the commune.
Dad nudged my shoulder. “You two make up?”
With Viktor? “No.”
He opened the bag and flashed its contents. Finger sandwiches from lunch. Baked zucchini chips. Brownies. And bottles of water with cucumbers inside.
I wanted to dive in and eat my way out. Instead, I selected the biggest sandwich and peeled away the wax paper. “Do you like Viktor?”
“Not if you don’t.” Dad unwrapped a brownie. “Just thought if you two made up, you would leave.”
Pain punched me in the stomach. The egg salad sandwich dissolved like ash in my mouth. “You don’t want me here?”
“I want you safe, Doodlebug. And I don’t think that you’ll be safe here.” Dad took a deep breath. “You see, Xander wasn’t wrong. An alien did kill that sheep.” He tapped his watch. For a second, wispy characters covered the faceplate and an arrow pointed behind them.
To the mesa where the bushes had shook.
I swallowed the pap in my mouth, then swallowed again to get the lump out of my throat. “Dad—”
He raised his hand to stop me from speaking. “I know there are aliens, because I’m one.”