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art by M.S. Corley

Such Days Deserved

Lee Hallison is a writer living in the Pacific Northwest with her family. She has been published in Daily Science Fiction several times. You can read more about her at leehallison.com.

The Empty Lot on Annie's block was hot and dusty-dry in the summer, luminous with possibilities. Spiky shrubs caught bits of litter, strange jars and cans nestled among pebbles and behind rocks, and grownups rarely came by. Magic happened all the time. She unearthed a real fossil when scraping out one of the crawling paths between shrubs that they called "war tunnels." Another time her friend Grace found a skinny old snakeskin. And when Annie punched Tommy Canallee in the stomach for picking on her brother, his nose bled.
Her father took her there one night to watch the eclipse of the moon. He held her upright when the stars dizzied her in their vastness, pointing to possible planets and filling her mind with more magic than she ever imagined. The lot seemed to shimmer after that.
The Empty Lot was bumpy and too littered be good for stickball. That happened on the street, hearts racing faster than feet, sound ceasing in the moment of terror before the tag. Summer narrowed down to the block, the Empty Lot, and the crew-cut boys and stringy-haired girls who hollered and fought for their idea. Stoop Ball. Stick Ball. Red Rover. War. Lightning bugs begging to be chased at dusk. Annie flopped into bed, flush-faced and limp, every night that summer, and greeted each morning with the innocence and openness such days deserved.
And then they dug a fort. A hole in a soft bump of a hill perfect for digging. Covered by a rusty piece of sheet metal Johnny found on the curb. Big enough for three at a time, dirty knees up, squeezed in tight with triumphant grins. Annie bossed the others into special club rules for taking turns, and they invented games only played near the fort.
And then it showed up. Annie knew it was an alien. She'd found books hidden behind her father's bookcase, a curious stash of small paperbacks with pictures of women riding rocketships and googly-eyed aliens brandishing strange looking guns. She'd been watching and waiting for aliens to come, and now one had.
"Is it alive?" Johnny's leg jiggled. Three of the little boys peered around him, trying to catch a glimpse.
Annie grabbed a stick gun off their pile, one smooth and stripped of bark, and poked the alien. Nothing happened. It was covered in raggy fabric. Its skin was bumpy and kinda greenish, like a warty frog's. She couldn't tell if it had legs or not--it had crumpled up, filling their fort.
"Get outta there!" Bill yelled, throwing a rock.
Annie turned to look for one.
"Aw, it's just a bum. Leave him alone." The voice was Terrence's. Big Terrence, Johnny's teenaged brother cutting through the lot. When Annie was little, she'd felt dizzy when he told her he was ten. Double digits.
They backed away as the grey lump resolved itself into a very human shape, the warty frog skin turning into an old man's face right in front of their eyes.
"It's pretending," Annie whispered to Grace, whose fingernails were digging into her arm. "Aliens can do that."
They sidled back after Terrence loped off. Their fort had been taken over by the enemy. They argued, Annie kicking the dirt when no one would agree to help drag it out.
"I think it's dead," she said, her words shutting them all up. Bill moved backwards, and one of thelittle girls sniffled. Insect buzzes filled the bright hot air, and the dead alien's smell wafted over them. An oily metal smell. Spaceship fuel, they decided.
Annie pointed to the sticks.
"Poke it."
Bill squeezed his lower lip between his teeth and jabbed like a scientist, watching for a reaction. The alien groaned and turned over. One eyelid fluttered open. Kids shrieked, dropped their sticks and ran. Annie and Grace and Bill stayed. Johnny came back when he saw them still looking in.
The air stilled as if the earth held its breath. The alien's face was covered in hair and dirt. The closed eye was crusted shut with goo. It croaked and stretched out a shaking hand. Grace squeaked and grabbed Annie's arm again. Johnny picked up another rock and threw it. Without speaking, they all picked up rocks, and for a while the Empty Lot was filled with the sounds of thumps and scrabbles and croaks.
The rest of the kids had come back, solemn gazes bearing witness. The warriors stopped when the alien's hand lay flat, dirt and blood lining its knuckles. Annie's skin tingled with goose bumps and her face felt hot and swollen. She ran home, not looking back to see if anyone followed.
Sirens flying down the block woke her in the night, and she lay staring at the ceiling until the dark grayed awake. The dull yellow tape surrounding the empty lot gradually shredded away, and later that year, the dirt was paved over for a small barbershop and parking.
Nothing was left, just the hollow in her heart, where magic once resided.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, June 26th, 2013
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