My hands are almost shaking too much to grasp the knob. Once I manage to get the front door open, I slam it behind me and collapse on the floor, gasping for breath.
I turn and reach to click the lock. A pink sticky note on the door catches my eye.
Harper, you better be locked in your room when I get home!
I toss Mom’s note on the floor as I rush to turn on every light in the house. Then I check the locks on the doors and windows — not that I’m sure a door or window would stop that thing.
I sprint upstairs, shove my nightstand in front of my bedroom door, hide in my closet, and pick up my brother’s baseball bat. My heart slowly returns to a normal pace. This is ridiculous, I’m seventeen and hiding in my closet like a little kid. Ugh. I wouldn’t be in this situation if it wasn’t for Mom.
My younger sister Olivia and older brother Brett were already seated on the couch when I walked through the front door. Across from them, Mom was leaning back into her shabby Victorian armchair, staring at me with that smug-ass expression of hers.
“It’s 7:30 p.m., Harper. Where have you been?” she asked, tapping her foot impatiently.
“I thought it was another stupid scare,” I said as I set down my backpack, trying to keep my cool. “Don’t worry. I was just at soccer practice with a few friends.”
Mom tilted her head and raised an eyebrow. “People are dead, Harper. That was very careless of you.” Her voice sharpened.
“But it happened like thousands of miles from here,” Olivia blurted.
Mom looked from Olivia to the window in thought. The evening sun highlighted her attractive, yet permanently scowling face, with faint wrinkles at the corners of her eyes. “It’s always better to be safe than to take risks,” she said quietly, practically to herself. “I shouldn’t let you out of the house unless the authorities can prove the Syndrome is gone. Especially you, Harper.”
“Especially me?” I forced myself to pause, trying to maintain composure. “What about Brett? He leaves all the time, and you don’t care ... You’ve had me trapped in here for weeks. I needed some fresh air.”
“Brett is responsible. When he left the house this morning, he was going to his job — not to play soccer with his friends.”
“Yeah, but —”
She put up her hand. “And you’re hanging out with those ... girls when you play soccer. Those reckless, irresponsible girls.”
“So which part are you really upset about, then? The girls, or the soccer?” “Both.”
“Does this mean you’re going to keep us locked up like last time?” Olivia asked, her big doe eyes full of concern. She swept her dark hair away from her face, exposing the slightly awkward thirteen-year-old features that she hadn’t grown into yet.
“Oh, I’m such an awful mother, aren’t I? Trying to keep my children alive,” Mom added snidely for effect.
“More like dramatic,” Olivia huffed, crossing her arms.
Preach, Olivia! I looked to Brett for support, but he said nothing and kept his head down. Typical.
“Do you know how they diagnose the RSE Sleeping Syndrome?” Mom asked.
“They can’t confirm it until you’re dead, then they slice into your brain and find it full of tiny holes. There’s no cure for it because the scientists don’t know what it is. Does that sound like something you want to catch while playing soccer with your friends, Harper? Or hanging out at the mall, Olivia?”
My stomach lurched with annoyance. “You’re blowing the situation way, way out of proportion again. The breakout happened on the other side of the freaking country. There are no cases here. Do you realize how crazy controlling —” I snapped my mouth shut, but it had already slipped.
Olivia and Brett shrunk into the couch.
Mom stood with enough force to make her chair slide back. To reinforce her point, she stalked closer to me, and stopped when we were nearly eye-to-eye. “Nobody leaves or comes into this house unless I say so! Especially you, Harper. Is that clear?!” Her breath beat hot on my face.
My fists tightened. The seconds of silence that followed lingered in the air like a pungent smell. I peered at the door and then back at Mom.
“Harper, don’t you —”
She reached for me, but I was already out the door, pounding my anger into the ground with each step as I raced away. My feet carried me from the suburbs, through a creaky gate, and into the sagebrush-laden desert.
In the distance, the evening sun had sunk behind the great Sierra Nevada Mountains, the landscape darkening into a monochromatic gray stretch of bushes.
Antares, my favorite star, was one of the first to pierce the night sky. Away from the city lights, its ruby-red luminescence was brighter than even Mars tonight.
As my gaze lingered on it for a moment too long, my foot caught on a rock, and I crashed onto the gravel and skidded into a bush.
“Damn it!” I cursed. My leg was burning as I tried to wipe away the small rocks from my bleeding knee. But something on the ground caught my eye. Something fluttered. I turned. There was an odd glow in the not-too-far distance, and I froze.
Walking slowly towards me, almost floating, was a tall human-shaped silhouette — colors radiating off a black hole of a body at the center of what looked like a supernova.
I blinked over and over again, trying to correct my vision, holding the air in my lungs, so I didn’t make a sound.
As it continued toward me, its flame-like energy casted distorted halos across the surrounding sagebrush and rocks. When it passed the other side of my bush, a gasp slipped out.
Through the branches sheltering me, I saw the thing pause. Then its featureless black head revolved like an owl spotting prey.
In a panic, my fingers scurried across the dark ground until they found a small, jagged rock.
The thing made a sudden sharp turn, heading for my hiding spot. I shot up, my heart about to rip from my chest.
“S ... S ... Stop!” I shouted like an idiot.
It did ... And for a moment, everything seemed to move in slow motion as colorful flames licked around its tall and slender body, but I couldn’t make out anything else in its black silhouette.
It started hovering forward again, and I hurled my rock to slow it. The rock passed straight through the thing, as if it were made of smoke. My feet skidded on the gravel as I turned and raced home, too scared to look behind me.
Now I’m clutching this baseball bat in my closet, trying to make sense of what the hell I just witnessed. Was it all a hallucination?
I hear the front door open and tiptoe downstairs, still wary of my mother. Brett sets down a small pile of groceries and gives me an angry look. That’s not fair. I should be mad at him for not backing me up with Mom.
He looks at my knee, which is still trickling with blood. Damn, I forgot about that. His expression softens. “What happened?”
“Harper!” Mom calls in her nails-on-a-chalkboard tone. I don’t move, and I hear her walk inside.
“Why are you two just standing here?” she says in an accusatory tone, without so much as a glance at my knee.
“Because ... I think I saw a ... a ... ghost ...” Even with all that’s happened, and everything racing through my head, I realize how dumb it sounds the moment it comes out. I don’t even believe in ghosts. Well, didn't used to, anyway.
She slowly lifts an eyebrow. “Really? And is this conveniently timed ghost supposed to make me feel bad for you? Make me forgive what you’ve just done?”
Her eyes bore into me.
“I ... ” I go silent, tightening my trembling hands.
“Are you doing drugs with those girls?” she says.
I have to clench my jaw to stop myself from screaming. “Why do you think I would do drugs?” I say through gritted teeth, shivering from both fear and rage. “My friends don’t do them either. Forget it, alright? The desert was dark and hard to see.”
“You went to the desert? After what we just talked about? Really?” she says like I’m stupid.
I don’t say anything.
“Harper?” She snaps her fingers in my face.
“There was no one in the desert, Mom. It was fine,” I say flatly, to hide the sting in my throat.
She claps her hand to her forehead. “I can’t even, Harper. No more tonight, please. I’m done.” She shoves a grocery bag into my hands and pushes past me. Brett follows behind her like the little lap dog he is.
After a silent meal full of glares and aggressive meatloaf cutting, I take the dishes to the sink and load them into the dishwasher. When I return to the dining area, Mom immediately points to my room. I get up and push in my chair.
“Not just her,” Mom says, looking at Brett and Olivia “Everyone. Now.” she roars.
“They didn’t do anything,” I say, watching Olivia hang her head.
“It’s not great to have everyone pay for your actions, is it, Harper?” Mom taps her fingers against her arm, a threatening expression on her face.
Not fighting back would bring everyone the most peace so I hold my tongue and, like prisoners, we march upstairs to our bedrooms.
When I open my bedroom door, the papers on the wall give me pause: my printouts of dozens of nebula and space photographs are taped to the 70s orange oak paneling.
Fueled by my annoying, illogical paranoia, I rip them down and shove them into a box in my closet, promising them and myself that I’ll put them all up again when I stop being such a baby.
The moment I hear Mom’s TV turn on, I sneak across the hall into Olivia’s room. When I open the door, I find Olivia reading a newspaper in bed.
“Harper! Jeez! Knock first! And don’t be so careless!”
That hurts a little. “Careless” is Mom’s favorite word for me. I know Olivia doesn’t mean it. Mom was probably just going off about what a bad daughter I am when they all went shopping earlier.
“What are you reading?” I ask, answering my own question when I see, The RSE Sleeping Syndrome Is Here! in giant bold letters across the page.
Her voice quivers. “Mom said we should be ready, you know, if it comes here.”
The inflicted fear in her big eyes presses against me like a hot iron. I want to stomp down the hall and yell at Mom for making this innocent thirteen year old girl feel this way. But I hold back my emotions and plop on Olivia’s bed instead, wrapping my arm around her.
“What do I need to know?” I say cheerily.
“Well ... the first symptom is euphoria. It says to watch out for people who may
appear intoxicated or on drugs. That’s followed by the unavoidable urge to sleep. After someone falls asleep, death comes in about twenty-four hours.”
“Strange,” I say.
“Yeah. It’s very strange. Like Mom said, they aren’t even sure what it is, but they suspect it’s a super fast version of ... ” She points to a spot on the paper and struggles to pronounce the words, “Bo-vine spong-i-form en-ceph-alop-athy.”
I recognize the term from biology “Mad cow disease?”
Olivia looks up from the paper, her big eyes get even larger. “So you know more?”
I recall that Mad cow disease erodes holes in your brain so that it eventually looks like a sponge. But there’s no way I’m telling Olivia that.
“You don’t need to worry about it, Olivia. We have a better shot at winning the lottery.”
“But if I do get it, they don’t have a cure for it! Just like Mom said!”
Another wave of white-hot anger burst through me, but I say reassuringly, “Sure, everybody is panicking about it now, but it probably won’t spread. The only case in the United States is that homeless shelter all the way in New York. It didn’t spread after it wiped out that small village the first time.”
She frowns, seemingly unconvinced.
“Besides, why would anyone from New York ever want to come to crappy-old Reno, Nevada? Everyone wants to get the hell out of this crap hole the first chance they get. They’d much rather go to California or somewhere way cooler ... Like us one day.”
I grab the newspaper and toss it across the room, making it rain paper. She laughs, which makes my anger subside.
“You want to have a slumber party like old times?” I ask her.
She grins, slides over in her bed, and pats my usual spot.