Charlene rushed into the house after a long day at kindergarten and stripped off her jacket. “Momma, I’m still hungry.”
Amelia shut the front door and grinned at her daughter, placing the tiny book bag on the bench next to the door. “How about you go play in the living room while I get a snack for you? Your Aunt Belle will be over soon.”
With a huge groan, Charlene stomped off and muttered, “Tiffany is supposed to come over.” She groused and pouted on her way to the living room.
“She’s still coming,” Amelia called back.
Charlene cracked a slight smile and sat in front of her favorite toys. Her birthday was a month ago, and her parents had given her a great party. She still warmed at the memory of all her friends playing outside in the yard. It had been a chilly day, but the best day ever. Her mom rented a blow-up playhouse that was loaded with balls. Then her dad ordered Charlene’s most favorite food that she only received on special occasions. Pizza! After dinner, Charlene had the largest slice of choco-choco cake, which left her with a small tummy ache when she went to bed.
Tiffany had been one of the many friends who came over for the day. She lived next door and was a year older, but Charlene and she were close. They played most days after school and sometimes on the weekends. Tiffany’s parents also enjoyed visiting with Charlene’s mom and dad. Charlene’s house was the only place Tiffany was allowed to go alone.
Amelia arrived with half of a sandwich on a small plate and handed it to her daughter. She smiled at the favorite toy in Charlene’s hand and spun the toy’s tiny prop. “Your dad will be home next week.”
Charlene put the toy airplane on the floor near her knee and picked up the sandwich. “I miss him.”
“I know.” Amelia played with Charlene’s golden hair that was similar to hers. “I do too.” It’d been three weeks since her husband left for duty, but he was expected back soon. “Do you have homework this week?”
Charlene gave a huge nod while chewing and tilted her head back. “Writing.”
Amelia hummed, then started toward the kitchen. “After dinner, then.”
Charlene grumbled even with a full mouth. “Isus Belf hayin fer din?”
Amelia paused between the living room and kitchen, pivoting toward her child. “Swallow, then ask your question.”
Charlene finished chewing and swallowed the bite as told, then asked, “Is Aunt Belle staying for dinner?”
“Yes.” Amelia went to the refrigerator, filled a glass halfway with water, and inserted a paper straw. She gave it to Charlene. “We haven’t seen her since your birthday.” A doorbell alerted them both, but it wasn’t Tiffany. Her friend often came to sliding door in the living room and knocked.
Charlene recognized Aunt Belle’s voice when the greetings started at the front door. She picked up the remote, turned on the television, and waited for the inevitable.
“Charlene,” Belle greeted in a singsong voice.
Charlene tried to ignore her aunt until she was scooped off the floor and pulled into bear hug. A fit of giggles broke free while she returned her aunt’s loving hold. “Hi, Aunt Belle.” She endured a few kisses to her cheek before she was returned to her favorite spot on the floor.
“It’s good to see you.” Belle messed up Charlene’s hair.
“Can I get you anything, sis?” Amelia asked.
“Iced tea, if you have any.” Belle was in her usual pair of jeans, tunic shirt, and blond hair in a bun. “How’s school, Char?”
“Good.” Charlene dropped her head back and smiled at her aunt. “Sometimes it’s kinda boring.”
Belle snorted low and seemed ready to say something except Amelia interrupted her. Accepting the beverage, she thanked her older sister. Her attention shifted to the sliding door and said, “I think your BFF is here.”
Tiffany knocked twice and smiled big at Charlene, who hopped up to unlock the door. Tiffany rushed into the home and pushed the hoodie off, revealing her full head of coiled, black hair. “Hi, Char!”
Charlene bubbled and hugged her friend. “Hi, Tiffany.” She brought her friend to the play area between the coffee table and television, nearly spilling the glass of water. Picking it up, she placed it on the coffee table and spotted her mother’s pleased expression.
Amelia and Belle had retreated to the sofa behind the coffee table. Belle sipped on the iced tea and studied the show on the television. “What are we watching, Char?”
With a furrowed brow, Charlene twisted around and replied, “She-Ra and the Princess of Power.” She rolled her eyes at her aunt’s raised eyebrow and returned to her playtime with Tiffany.
“She-Ra is part of the Masters of the Universe,” Amelia explained to her sister. “Like He-Man.”
Belle groaned and set the glass on the table. “Seriously? Isn’t she a little young for that?”
Amelia shrugged and argued, “Charlene is a thirteen-year-old in a five-year-old’s body.”
“Wait ’til she’s eighteen, then,” Belle joked. They continued to chat about their lives and the latest news in their family. Charlene had tuned them out for the most part unless something sparked her interest, like the mention of her father. Her time with Tiffany was more important than silly adult stuff, until they started talking about her again; at least that’s how it sounded anyway.
“How’s she doing in school? She said she gets bored sometimes.”
Amelia shifted on the sofa and replied, “She excels, but I do think at times it isn’t challenging enough. We’ll see once she starts first grade.” Brief silence fell between the sisters, filled by the drama from the episode of She-Ra. “Have you and Ryan changed your minds about the future?”
Belle huffed. “No. You know we’re too career driven to ever consider kids.” She placed the empty glass on the table, then added, “I’d rather be the cool aunt than the mother.”
Amelia grunted and stretched on the sofa before she said, “I still worry you’ll one day regret your decision.”
Belle reached over and squeezed her sister’s thigh. “I won’t.” She paused, sighed, and whispered, “We won’t. I’m happy that Ryan and I could help give you and Charles a child.”
“I know. At least we kept it in the family.” Amelia held her sister’s hand for a moment, then patted it and stood up. “I should start dinner.” This time, she raised her voice and said, “I’m planning on salmon, broccoli, and quinoa.”
“Oh gross!” Charlene looked over at her mother and glared after the menu announcement. “Do I have to eat?”
Amelia folded her arms and stood between the living room and kitchen. “Well, I could make lasagna.” A slight grin toyed with the corner of her lips, but she remained serious otherwise.
Charlene grew wide-eyed and popped up from her seat, then enveloped her mother’s waist with her small arms. “Lasagna, please!”
“Only if you do your homework after dinner,” Amelia countered.
Charlene hung off her mother’s waist, head tilted back, and whined like any kid. “But teacher asked for it on Friday.”
“The teacher,” Amelia corrected, “or my teacher.” She folded her arms, stared down at her daughter, and waited for the agreement.
Hugging her mother again, Charlene sighed and said, “Oookay!” She smiled at her mother’s soft chuckle, then relaxed from the warm hand against her back.
“Are you staying for dinner, Tiffany?” Amelia asked.
Tiffany was shaking her head. “I have to go home soon.”
Amelia nodded and checked that no one needed anything before she started dinner. Charlene returned to Tiffany and their games with the toys. About half an hour later, Tiffany said farewell and left from the back door again. Belle took Tiffany’s spot and continued whatever game Charlene saw fit.
Dinner was filling and tasty. Afterwards, Charlene struggled to go to her room and do her homework. Her mother urged her to at least work on it for ten minutes, promising to come check in a few minutes and help her if she needed it. Around eight o’clock, Charlene prepared for bed with her mother and said goodnight to Aunt Belle, who volunteered to read tonight. Belle sat by Charlene’s bed on a stool and settled in her lap the paperback book that Charlene had picked for tonight. It was a National Geographic Book for kids about planets. The cover and pages were worn from constant use, but Charlene loved the book that her father had given her. One day Charlene was going to grow up to be like her dad, an astronaut.
It wasn’t long before Charlene fell asleep after Aunt Belle read and showed her about the planets in their solar system. Sleep was fitful until a few doors opened and closed, and familiar voices carried through the house. Groggy and confused, Charlene turned over and tried to sleep again except one of the voices was from a man. Sitting up, Charlene blinked several times and rubbed her eyes, but she heard the strong voice again.
“Poppa!” Charlene bolted from the bed, stumbling a few times, and clung to the door handle. She wrenched it open, then hurried to her parents’ bedroom down the hallway. The door was cracked open, a light on, and sounds of movement and conversation inspired Charlene to go faster. She pushed the door open and beamed at seeing her father after so many weeks. “Poppa!”
Charles Larson was in his casual uniform, or as Charlene called it, the “doody uniform.” He was seated next to Amelia on the bed but stood up when Charlene barreled into the bedroom. “Char!”
Charlene rushed him and was scooped up into his strong arms, snuggling into one of her favorite places. She squeezed him hard and said, “You’re home early!” He placed a huge kiss on her cheek, then knelt down and set Charlene on her pajama-encased feet. She wanted to ask what planes her father flew this time, but his tired features made her pause.
“Char, you should be in bed.” Amelia was still in her nightgown, and the bedsheets had only been stirred on her side.
“It’s okay,” Charles argued. “We have to go.”
“Go?” Charlene asked, looking between her parents and noticing her mother’s frown.
“Are you sure this can’t wait until tomorrow morning?” Amelia asked. “What if it’s a false alarm?”
“They’ll need your help, Amelia.” Charles shook his head and remained knelt beside Charlene. “I’d rather us be safe, even if it is a false alarm. But it’s not.”
Charlene clutched her father’s arm and pressed against his side. “Where are we going?”
“To a base,” Charles replied and hooked his arm around Charlene’s waist. “We have to leave in a few minutes.
Charlene struggled with a yawn and leaned more heavily against her father. “But I’m tired.”
“You can sleep in the car.” Charles stood up and balanced Charlene on his hip with his arm across her back. “Amelia, we have to go. There’s not much time.” His urgency seemed to spur Amelia to life.
Amelia neared her husband and daughter, touching his arm. “I hope they’re wrong.” Her eyes were puffy and red. She exchanged a quick but tender kiss before she leaned her forehead against his temple. That’s when Charlene noticed her mother was shaking and her breathing was unsteady for some reason. She separated from them and whispered, “I hope they know what they’re doing.”
Charles removed his cap, revealing his high and tight haircut. “I do too.” But his voice held doubt. He turned a weak smile onto Charlene and said, “We need to pack a few of your things, Char. How about I come help you?” He left with her. His steps were big and fast. “Can you get changed quickly?” While Charlene dressed, he packed a small bag of clothing for the strange trip in the middle of the night.
Within thirty minutes, they were loaded in her father’s small SUV. She was buckled up tight, with a tablet in hand and a learning game loaded on it. Her parents’ soft conversation was confusing and uninteresting to her. A few times they argued about Aunt Belle and Uncle Ryan, but her dad was firm in whatever decision he made. Another yawn came over Charlene, and the tablet indicated that it was six minutes after three o’clock in the morning.
“What about school tomorrow?” Charlene cut into her parents’ discussion, breaking the tension in the front of the SUV.
Charles was in the driver’s seat and glanced back at Charlene through the mirror. “You’ll miss the rest of the week, Char.”
Charlene grumbled but remained quiet and continued to play with the app on the tablet. The game’s pop noises were playful and fun as she tried to outwit the bunny rabbit. Her mother’s low gasp caught her ear, and she looked up from the game. Leaning to her right, she peered through the front window. Outside in the night sky was a large, long row of soft blue lights that hung in the night sky. “What is that?”
Charles and Amelia ducked when the rumbling object flew over them. The car vibrated, then swerved from the strange object’s sheer force and power. Something about its presence spurred Charles to increase the speed of the car, getting them out of Bakersfield and down the six-lane highway. Charlene leaned toward the passenger window and peered up at the dark sky, tracking the strange object that continued southwest.
“What was that, Poppa?” Charlene asked again, certain her father had an idea.
“It was a plane,” Charles replied.
Charlene turned her big eyes toward her father and said, “That was so big. Where is it going?” She waited for an answer that never came and left a strange feeling in her stomach. She sighed and returned to the game, but she kept glancing out the window. The strange airplane was long gone.
A few minutes later, she heard the car radio but the volume was low. Charlene looked up from the tablet and tried listening to the frantic voice over the radio. He spoke too fast, and it confused Charlene the longer he talked about a strange spaceship or something. Then the radio man’s voice was overpowered by a strong, powerful horn that pierced everyone’s ears. Charlene cried out, dropped the tablet, and tried covering her ears.
Charles’ scream was the strongest. Like the other vehicles on the highway, he lost control. Everything happened at once as their SUV veered off the highway to the right. It crashed through the guardrail, then smashed into a tall telephone pole.
Charlene was slumped forward for a while until banging on the car’s doors jarred her awake. Her parents both groaned, and Charles was the first to straighten up. The airbags had deployed around them, protecting them from the head-on crash into the pole. Another bang started, but it was on the driver’s window.
Charles unbuckled himself, then opened the door.
“Hey, are you all right, buddy?” a guy asked.
“Yeah, thanks.” Charles had his right hand on his thigh with a gun strapped to it.
“Do you need any help?”
Charles shook his head and replied, “We’re fine.” He waited until the man was gone, then he looked over at Amelia. “Are you okay, honey?”
Amelia shifted and groaned, touching her forehead. “I think so.” She and Charles looked at their daughter, who was staring back at them. “Char?”
Charlene wiped a few tears from her cheeks and nodded, but her father’s questioning look forced an answer from her. “I’m okay.” She rubbed her face and wanted to ask what happened. Instead, her parents hurried out of the crushed vehicle and moved like demons were after them.
Charles took care of getting Charlene unbuckled and out of the seat. Amelia was at the back of the SUV and snared their three backpacks. She came around to the drive’s side and knelt in front of Charlene, checking over her.
Charles took a book bag and shrugged it on his back. “You have your gun, Amelia?”
Amelia nodded, then stood up and took Charlene’s hand. “What now?” Her voice had a tremble and her grip was stronger than normal. She looked toward the southwest, clenched her lower lip, and looked at her husband. “That doesn’t look good, Charlie.” Next to them, the highway was peppered with car and truck crashes, even with it being late at night. People were tumbling from their cars and limping around while some able people helped others.
“What was that sound?” Charlene asked, looking between her parents.
“It was some kind of sonic wave,” Amelia replied and touched Charlene’s temple. The worry on her face made Charlene tremble and clutch her mother’s hand.
With a glower, Charles scanned their immediate area and shook his head. “There’s a small airport in Cawelo. Maybe we can get a plane and get to the base.” He picked up Charlene’s book bag and slung it over his right shoulder. “Can you walk, Char?”
Charlene nodded and grabbed a handful of her father’s camo pants. “What’s happening, Poppa? Where did that horrible noise come from?” She looked to her mother too, pleading for answers. Her heart was skipping beats. The chilly night was piercing her through the warmth of her jacket and made her shiver.
Charles squatted down until he was eye level with Charlene. “Our world is about to change, Char.” He gathered her small hands into his. “It’s not going to be safe anymore, but I have to get you and your mother somewhere safe.”
“To the base?”
Bobbing his head, Charles squeezed Charlene’s hands and said, “I need you to be brave now. Can you do that?” In his eyes, there was worry and other strange emotions that Charlene hadn’t seen before and couldn’t understand. Her dad was always so confident and sure of himself, but not tonight.
Charlene straightened her shoulders and gave a firm nod. “Ad astra per aspera,” she declared in Latin and grinned in triumph.
Charles chuckled and whispered, “Ad astra per aspera.” Then he wrapped Charlene up in a tight, long hug – one of their last ones.
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