Where the Forest Meets the Stars Page 1

Author: Glendy Vanderah

Genres: Fiction


The girl could be a changeling. She was almost invisible, her pale face, hoodie, and pants fading into the twilit woods behind her. Her feet were bare. She stood motionless, one arm hugged around a hickory trunk, and she didn’t move when the car crunched to the end of the gravel driveway and stopped a few yards away.
As she shut down the car, Jo looked away from the girl and gathered binoculars, backpack, and data sheets from the passenger seat. Maybe the kid would return to her fairy realm if she wasn’t watching.
But the girl was still there when Jo stepped out of the car. “I see you,” Jo told the shadow on the hickory.
“I know,” the girl said.
Jo’s hiking boots scattered chips of dry mud up the concrete walkway. “Do you need something?”
The girl didn’t answer.
“Why are you on my property?”
“I was trying to pet your puppy, but he wouldn’t let me.”
“He’s not my dog.”
“Whose is he?”
“No one’s.” She opened the door to the screened porch. “You should go home while you still have some light.” She flicked on the outside bug bulb and unlocked the door to the house. After she turned on a lamp, she returned to the wooden door and locked it. The girl was only around nine years old, but she could still be up to something.
In fifteen minutes, Jo was showered and dressed in a T-shirt, sweatpants, and sandals. She turned on the kitchen lights, drawing a silent batter of insects to the black windows. While she readied grilling supplies, she idly thought of the girl under the hickory tree. She’d be too afraid of the dark woods to stick around. She’d have gone home.
Jo brought a marinated chicken breast and three vegetable skewers out to a fire pit in a patch of weedy lawn that separated the yellow clapboard house from a few acres of moonlit grassland. The forties-era rental house known as Kinney Cottage was perched on a hill facing the woods, its rear side open to a small prairie that was regularly burned by the owner to keep back the encroaching forest. Jo lit a fire in her stone circle and set the cooking rack over it. As she laid chicken and skewers over the flames, she tensed when a dark shape rounded the corner of the house. The girl. She stopped just yards from the fire, watching Jo place the last of the skewers on the grill. “Don’t you have a stove?” she asked.
“I do.”
“Why do you cook outside?”
Jo sat in one of four ragged lawn chairs. “Because I like to.”
“It smells good.”
If she was there to mooch food, she’d be disappointed by the empty cupboards of a field biologist with little time for grocery shopping. She spoke with the rural drawl of a local, and her bare feet were evidence that she’d come from a neighboring property. She could damn well go home for dinner.
The girl edged closer, the fire coloring her apple cheeks and blondish hair, but not her eyes, still changeling black holes in her face.
“Don’t you think it’s about time you went home?” Jo said.
She came nearer. “I don’t have a home on Earth. I came from there.” She pointed toward the sky.
“From where?”
“Ursa Major.”
“The constellation?”
The girl nodded. “I’m from the Pinwheel Galaxy. It’s by the big bear’s tail.”
Jo didn’t know anything about galaxies, but the name sounded like something a kid would invent. “I’ve never heard of the Pinwheel Galaxy,” Jo said.
“It’s what your people call it, but we call it something else.”
Jo could see her eyes now. The intelligent glint in her gaze was oddly shrewd for her baby face, and Jo took that as a sign that she knew it was all in fun. “If you’re an alien, why do you look human?”
“I’m only using this girl’s body.”
“Tell her to go home while you’re in there, will you?”
“She can’t. She was dead when I took her body. If she went home, her parents would get scared.”
It was a zombie thing. Jo had heard of those games. But the girl had come to the wrong house if she was looking for someone to play Alien Zombie with her. Jo had never been good with kids and make-believe games, even when she was as young as the girl herself. Jo’s parents, both scientists, often said her double dose of analytical genes had made her that way. They used to joke about how she’d come out of the womb, with an intent frown on her face, as if she were formulating hypotheses about where she was and who all the people in the delivery room were.
The alien in a human body watched Jo flip the chicken breast.
“You’d better get home for dinner,” Jo said. “Your parents will be worried.”
“I told you, I don’t have—”
“Do you need to call someone?” Jo pulled her phone from her pants pocket.
“Who would I call?”
“How about I call? Tell me your number.”
“How can I have a number when I came out of the stars?”
“What about the girl whose body you took? What’s her number?”
“I don’t know anything about her, not even her name.”
Whatever she was up to, Jo was too tired for it. She’d been awake since four in the morning, slogging through field and forest in high heat and humidity for more than thirteen hours. That had been her routine almost every day for weeks, and the few hours she spent at the cottage each night were important wind-down time. “If you don’t go, I’ll call the police,” she said, trying to sound stern.