Cold seeped into Realene’s bedroom through the cracked bay window, frost spreading in bursts along both sides of the glass. She perched on the window seat, a thick, maroon, knit cap stitched with ‘Class of ‘97’ pulled over her head and one of her Oma’s colorful hand-made Afghans wrapped around her shoulders. She dangled one denim clad leg over the narrow perch to thump against the headboard of her bed.
Their lot was on the outermost ring of Plainview Trailer Park, the backyard separated from an open field by a two-lane road that turned to gravel beyond the perimeter of the park. She drove that dead-end gravel road sometimes, her only company the billow of dust and ping of tiny pebbles on the car’s undercarriage.
Her bedroom took up the back end of the trailer, and she stared out at the snow-packed landscape, the stark, endless whiteness of it glowing beneath the moonlit sky. In summer, she listened to the chatter of the prairie dogs who made their burrows in the field, but tonight they were burrowed deep underground in hibernation for winter.
“Another gorgeous North Dakota night,” she said, holding the cordless phone to her ear. The wind picked up outside, cutting through the corrugated steel shell and wood-paneled walls to drop the inside temperature.
“You’ll be mackin’ on all those super tan coeds by next fall, yeah?” Nate said in that irritatingly positive way of his.
“Not likely. Found the milk in the cabinet and the detergent in the fridge today. Ma’s getting worse.” Her scholarship to Arizona State seemed like a cruelty now, a glimpse of a future she’d never achieve.
“She’s lucky to have you, Rea, and you’re lucky to have her, too.”
“I know.” She figured he was thinking of his own mom, who’d stopped talking to him after his asshole dad had kicked him out. “And stop trying to distract me. I’m clearly trying to wallow in self-pity.”
“It’s been five months of wallowing, though.”
Her fingers tightened on the handset, the plastic creaking in her grip. “I wasted years studying, taking AP classes, doing that shit intern gig at the hospital, all for nothing. I think I’m entitled to a few months.”
“They’re holding your scholarship for a year. Plenty could change by then.”
“Sure, sure,” she said. “Too bad Lutherans don’t do that laying on of hands stuff. I could sign Ma up for a healing on Sunday before the potluck. A quick cure from JC himself, followed by a healthy portion of Mrs. Felton’s famous tater tot hotdish.”
“Don’t joke, that hotdish is truly sent from heaven. And you don’t have to go evangelist style, I saw an infomercial where you can send away for a miracle.”
Realene laughed. “For the low, low price of nineteen ninety-five, I bet.”
“Well, to start. As Reverend Zebediah would say, miracles aren’t cheap, ya know?”
“He did not actually say that.”
“Oh, he sure did. Has my mom believing salvation is only worth what you pay for it.”
“Her and half the town. Irene’s been tryin’ to convert me and Ma ever since Dad died.” Realene sighed. “Seriously, though, I can see how they get people. If I really thought saying some prayers and writing a check would help me get outta here, I’d sell off Oma’s China and get down on my knees.”
“Come on, it’s not that bad here. And you still have me, right?”
Something flashed outside, drawing her gaze to the darkened sky, to a sizzling trail racing through the stars. She used one hand to wipe away the fog of her breath on the glass. “You see that? Outside?”
“Course not.” The basement apartment he rented only had those emergency access window wells, and this time of year they’d be piled nearly to the top with snow. “What’s to see?”
“Shooting star.” She watched the light cross the sky in a golden arc before closing her eyes and silently repeating the rhyme. Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight. I wish I may, I wish I might have this wish I wish tonight.
“What’d you wish for?”
“Can’t tell or it won’t—” She gasped. The star crashed into the field across the street with an explosive bang that sent a rumble through the ground, shaking the trailer. “Hey, I’ll call ya back.”
She slipped from the window seat and dropped the phone into its charging cradle, throwing the Afghan on the same twin bed she’d had since she was a kid. Her wood-paneled walls were still plastered with anatomy diagrams and Nirvana posters. But Kurt killed himself three years ago, and her pre-med scholarship came a week before Ma’s diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s. It was the room of a kid who’d looked ahead to a future of possibilities, not an adult faced with the harsh realities of life. But redecorating would mean admitting she was there to stay.
Her knee-length, hooded, navy-blue parka hung from the footpost, and she threw it on over her sweatshirt and jeans. Already, she began to doubt what she’d seen. But she’d felt the rumble of the ground as the star slammed into the field, could still see the blaze of the fiery light across the sky. Skin tingling with anticipation of what she might discover, she walked down the narrow hallway past her bathroom and the back door. She stopped in the cramped kitchen, gripping the back of one of the vinyl chairs that sat at the Formica table, brutal reality sapping her excitement.
The lingering scent of their depressing supper—turkey TV dinners—filled the kitchen, whose cracked and yellowing linoleum transitioned to the thread-bare orange carpet of the living room where their box TV strobed in the darkness from the far wall, playing an old episode of Laverne and Shirley. In the adjacent corner, their small Christmas tree twinkled with multi-colored lights. Canned laughter mingled with Ma’s soft snores, and Realene prayed she wouldn’t wake up.
She’d fallen asleep in her recliner again, the footrest extended and their tabby cat, Pumpkin, snuggled at her side, his head sticking out from beneath the blanket on Ma’s lap. The lumpy chair was once her dad’s favorite spot, leaving the sofa for Realene and Ma. Since the dementia had worsened, she preferred the chair, insistent on keeping it warm for the husband she thought would walk through the door at any moment.
The need to escape gripped Realene tight, and she hurried past.
“Louie? Is that you?” Ma asked, her voice groggy with sleep.
He’d been dead two years now, but maybe it wasn’t so bad Ma still lived in a world where he was alive. Their wedding picture hung on the wall behind the recliner, Ma in a simple white dress made in a rush after dad had proposed before being deployed to Vietnam, and he in his green dress uniform and cap. They were so young and happy, their whole lives ahead of them.
Realene felt that way, once, too. Clearing her throat, she said, “It’s me, Ma. I’m goin’ outside to check on something.”
“You better not be sneaking cigarettes again, Realene Marie.”
In junior high, Ma caught her puffing on a stolen butt from her dad’s ashtray. She’d been convinced that smoking would make her cool, realizing later it just makes you dead from lung cancer. “I Dream of Jeannie is starting,” she said with a silent thank you for Nick at Nite. Old things, familiar things, were what tethered Ma to reality.
“Oh, I love that Larry Hagman. He’s so handsome,” Ma said, giggling. “Don’t tell your father I said that.” She raised one hand to fiddle with the jeweled earring that hung from one sagging earlobe. Even when she forgot to shower or brush her hair or change her clothes, she never went without earrings, one of dozens gifted from Realene’s dad. At least once a month, he’d fish a gift from his pocket with a sly smile, and Ma acted surprised every single time.
“It’ll be our secret, Ma.” Realene swallowed past the lump in her throat.
She walked through a doorway into the entry room, an add-on her dad built. Metal shelves stacked with tools, camping supplies, ice melt, and other crap lined the back wall, and her childhood bike sat on the side wall behind the assortment of shovels. Already shivering at the prospect of the sub-zero temperature outside, she slipped on the insulated duck boots she’d left to dry in the plastic boot tray near the door, wrapped a scarf around her neck and the lower half of her face, zipped her coat to her chin, and tugged the hood over her hat before putting on her gloves. She closed her eyes, picturing that blazing light crossing the sky.
A gust of icy wind hit her when she opened the door, but she pressed forward, stepping onto the worn wooden porch. Directly ahead in the field, a billow of white smoke rose into the sky from the impact of the shooting star. Her pulse skipped in anticipation.
A door banged open, and their neighbor, Calvin, peered out at her from the back door of his trailer, clad in a red flannel and long johns. “What’s all that racket?” he called, the long, white whisper of his comb-over flapping in the wind.
Prickling with irritation at another delay, she said, “Something crashed. Goin’ to check it out.”
“Should I come with ya?” A plump, stuffed squirrel was tucked beneath one arm, its tail extending in an exaggerated curl. She’d dropped off a pie for him on Thanksgiving and discovered his obsession with taxidermy.
“I’ll be fine.”
“It’s colder than a penguin’s pecker out here. Sure you don’t need help?”
She couldn’t help but snort a laugh at the charming mental picture that conjured. “I’m sure. You go on in.” She didn’t stay long enough for him to protest, descending the porch steps and trudging through their backyard and past the small shed she’d helped her dad build at least a decade ago. They were halfway through December, and the snow was the hard, crunchy kind that wouldn’t melt for months.
The wind bit at her exposed skin and she lowered her chin as she crossed the seldom traveled road that ran behind the trailer park. Her boots sunk into the drifts blanketing the field. By the time she reached the spot where the shooting star collided with the earth, sweat dotted her face beneath her scarf.
A bowl-shaped crater at least twelve feet in diameter had been blasted into the ground, revealing the dirt beneath the packed layers of ice and snow. In the center of the crater sat a boulder-sized rock, faint wisps of smoke still rising from its surface.
“Whoa.” Sitting down, she let her feet dangle over the rim of the crater. A faint heat seeped through her jeans. The projectile must have been blazing hot to burrow such a deep hole in the frigid ground. She slid down the slope and approached the rock. The mottled surface reflected the sheen of the full moon, its color seeming to shift between gunmetal silver and deep purple.
A hissing sounded from inside the object and Realene moved closer, reaching out with one, trembling gloved hand. Tightness filled her chest as she considered the immenseness of the universe, a universe where she was no more than an insignificant blip of life. Not exactly a cheerful thought, but a thrill of excitement filled her at being the first person to witness this celestial object up close, to bask in its enormous power.
The hiss from inside the object rose in pitch, like a blazing hot kettle reaching a boil, and she froze, her fingers hovering inches away. Her eyes watered from the bite of the bitter wind, and she blinked away the ice crystals forming on her lashes, gaze fixed on the rock. A thunder-crack sounded, and the thing ruptured, splitting into two neat halves. With a yelp, she stumbled backward and fell, landing painfully on the hard ground.
The inside of the object looked much like the outside, that same mottled, metallic rock. Realene climbed to her feet, eager to touch the thing, to claim it somehow, though her brain argued that may not be the best idea. She stopped when thick, black liquid welled from the pores inside the rock, filling the air with the scent of burned motor oil. The stuff moved slowly, not dripping or pooling like a normal liquid; rather creeping along the cleaved surface. The cold air is freezing the stuff, she told herself, until the rivulets hit the exposed dirt and skittered across the ground in a weblike pattern. Realene gasped and backed up before the sludge hit her boots, slipping but managing to stay upright. She watched as the gunk stopped and seeped into the frozen soil to disappear.
The wheeze of her rapid breathing echoed in her ears as she crept backwards, eyes locked on the fallen star. The scent of burnt oil singed her nose as the last of the black sludge slithered from the rock and sunk into the earth. No evidence of the stuff remained. Beneath her feet, the ground rumbled, and she extended her arms to keep her balance. An aftershock from the impact, she thought. A high-pitched shriek, like that of a wounded animal, swelled from beneath the ground, mixing with the whistle of bitter wind, and she cringed.
“Well, shit,” she said, trying to convince herself this whole situation was more funny than terrifying. “Can’t imagine I’m getting my wish now.”
After a restless night’s sleep, Realene woke excited for the first time in months. The meteor, or whatever it was, waited a few hundred feet from her trailer. She’d called the police the night before to report the crash landing, and everyone would be clamoring to hear about her discovery.
Media, police, scientists, and curious townspeople blocked the view of the crater, but she managed to shoulder her way through the crowd. The meteor’s landing area was roped off with caution tape, a task that required chipping away at the winter hardened soil to insert a ring of metal posts, and a police officer manned the perimeter.
Clad in a balaclava and black coat marked with a starred patch signifying his authority, he raised one hand as she approached. “This is a restricted area, ma’am.”
“I called last night. I live right over there, I’m the one who reported the landing.” Her smile wilted at his serious expression.
“We received a number of calls, ma’am, and this area is for authorized personnel only.”
“Return to your home, ma’am.” He fixed her with glare.
“Fine.” She wove her way back through the crowd and into the road.
A cameraman filmed a woman with perfectly styled hair and puffy white earmuffs who spoke into a handheld microphone. “Reporting live from the Demise, North Dakota, this is Shelly Schraeder. Stay tuned throughout the day for breaking news from WDIZ.”
“All clear,” the cameraman said, and Shelly lowered the microphone.
Realene recognized Shelley from the local news and angled toward her.
“Miss, hi, I saw the landing last night.” She wished she’d taken the time to do her makeup, but she’d assumed she’d be talking to the police. Being on television, though, that was even better. “I live just over there, was the first one over to the crater.”
Shelly smirked. “You and half the trailer park.”
“But I really did discover it,” Realene said. “Like, I almost touched the thing.”
“Listen, hon, this is the biggest story of my career. If I handle it right, 20/20 will be beating down my door, but that’s not going to happen with a bunch of b-roll of smalltown hicks.”
Realene clenched her fists at her sides. “Listen, if you don’t want to hear what I have to say, then I’ll just go talk to someone else. You’ll be sorry when—”
“Chief Andersen, can I get statement?” Shelley shoved Realene aside, causing her to slip and fall on the icy asphalt, pain blooming through her bruised tailbone. The cameraman and other media nearby eyed her, some holding back snickers.
Heat flaming up her neck and face, she got up and trudged through her backyard, not looking back. Once inside her trailer, she tore off her gloves and coat, leaving them in a pile on the floor, and kicked off her boots. Of course, no one would care what she had to say.
She stomped into the living room and stopped at the sight of Ma sat on the carpet, wrapping paper, tape, and a small white box beside her.
“Oh, you’re back.” She grabbed the box and clutched it to her chest. “Don’t peek.”
Realene’s mood thawed. “You didn’t get me another gift, did ya?” Ma had taken to wrapping items from around the house the last few weeks, everything from her own clothes to food from the cupboards.
Ma giggled. “You’re really going to love this one. Your dad gave it to me before you were born.” She winced when she tried to stand, and Realene took her elbow to help her up.
“Ma, you don’t have to do that. I already have a dozen gifts under the tree.”
“Oh, I know, but you deserve it, sweetie.” Ma’s eyes shone as she pushed the little white box into Realene’s hands. “Here, open it now, I can’t wait.”
“Okay, okay.” She removed the lid to find a heavy, silver ring with a large oval stone nestled on the cotton pad. “It’s beautiful.”
“It’s a mood ring. Irene said they’re getting popular again with you kids.”
Realene didn’t normally wear jewelry, the closest thing the hairband she kept around her wrist to tie her hair back, but she slipped the ring onto her middle finger and thought she might never take it off. The stone’s color shifted to a bright green. “I love it.”
“Wait ‘til your dad sees how nice it looks on you.” Ma’s face crinkled with a wide smile. “You’ll have to wait for the rest of your gifts, though, no more until Christmas.”
Realene pulled Ma into a hug, squeezing her tight and wondering how many good days she had left. The ring’s stone turned black.
Standing in the driveway beside her beat up Ford Escort and staring at the crowd of people that clogged the road between her yard and the field, Realene was forced to admit nothing had changed. The meteor was the most exciting thing to happen in Demise, maybe ever, and even though she had discovered it, no one cared. She was nothing more than a smalltown trailer park hick, and no wish would change that.
Since everything was the same, Friday meant breakfast and the Bingo Palace.
She finished scraping the frost from her windshield and climbed into her car; thankful it hadn’t died. The battery needed replacing, the cables detaching from the corroded terminals on a semi-daily basis. She tossed the combination brush and ice scraper in the backseat.
“Got your dauber?” she asked, her previously wet hair now frozen in curly icicles that crinkled when she glanced at Ma in the passenger seat, where she sat bundled up in her tan, wool coat and blue knit scarf.
Ma reached for her souvenir canvas Mount Rushmore bag and managed to spill the contents on the floor. “Here it is,” she said, holding up a plastic tube with a bright pink cap, her signature dauber. All the ladies in her Friday morning bingo group had their preferred color of ink, and pink was Ma’s. The tradition was at least a decade old, and Realene always made sure to keep Ma well stocked with supplies, taking over the responsibility after her dad passed.
“It’s my lucky day, today, I can feel it. Might have to take your father out for a steak dinner with my winnings.” She grinned, her cheeks and nose rosy from the cold.
“Oh, yeah?” Realene said. “Where you gonna go?”
“Ponderosa, I think. They have an unlimited salad bar, and you can make your own ice cream sundaes,” she said.
Realene smiled in spite of her mood. “He’s going to be so excited.”
Ma giggled, reaching up in an unconscious gesture to check her earrings. Today she’d chosen one of her favorite pairs, glossy rose buds with a clear gem dangling from one petal like a drop of spring rain. Fridays were often Ma’s best day, the breakfast and bingo tradition so familiar it offered an easy comfort.
“Ready, Lizzy?” Realene said, patting the dash. Her dad taught her to always name your vehicles, insisting they performed better that way, so she’d dubbed the Escort Elizabeth Blackwell after the first woman in the US to earn her medical degree. At the time, Realene believed she’d be an MD, too, someday.
She exited Plainview, the scene of the meteor landing shrinking in her rearview mirror. On the same side of the road as the trailer park, she passed a neighborhood of older homes, including the one where Nate’s parents, Dick and Sophia, still lived. She knew he preferred to be called Mr. Haugen or Richard, because he told her as much every time she had the displeasure of meeting him. That’s why she made sure to call him Dick. Sometimes she even shouted obscenities toward his house as she drove by but resisted with Ma in the car.
The landscape to the right consisted of field after field that had been surrendered to the prairie dog colonies. Without fail, each summer some local asshole would write into the community column for the Demise Daily, suggesting the farmland-ruining, disease-spreading vermin be eradicated. Luckily, the animal rights people managed to stop that from happening. Realene grew up with the prairie dogs in her backyard, and their frolicking and chatter only ever brought her happiness. She glanced in her rearview mirror at the crash site, hoping the shooting star hadn’t done any damage to the colonies that populated the field.
Ma bent forward, humming “On the Road Again,” as she piled her spilled belongings back into her bag. She glanced out the window. “Such a nice day out today.”
“Yeah, heard on the news it’s supposed to get up to ten degrees this afternoon.”
“Oh, wonderful,” she said, not picking up on the sarcasm in Realene’s voice. Ma sat back and continued with her humming. Willie Nelson was Dad’s favorite.
They approached the overpass that rose over the railroad tracks, and a green and white sign announced they were now entering the Demise city limits, population 4,944. The first white settlers to the area in the 1800’s had apparently not been prepared for the severe weather and lack of drinkable water, and dozens perished that winter, earning the town its name. Every so often some local politician would suggest they change the name to something more appealing, but it never went anywhere. North Dakotans wore the harsh conditions of their environment as a badge of honor, so why not be totally up front and name your town after literal death.
Realene pulled into one of the spaces along the front side of Gramma Butterwicks, a squat, tan building with faded red trim. The large windows that wrapped the building were decorated with white Christmas lights and offered a glimpse at the customers, mostly Ma’s age, crowding the vinyl booths. Tacky plastic ferns hung from the ceiling between each table, and Realene wondered, not for the first time, who thought dust-collecting plastic plants were a good idea.
Ma’s best friend, Irene, stood next to her rusted baby blue Ford bug, her perfectly curled brown hair unmoving in the breeze. She raised a mittened hand to wave, and it struck Realene how much younger she seemed than Ma, though they were the same age. Alzheimer’s and the trauma of losing dad aged Ma more than Realene realized.
Ma opened her door and stepped carefully from the car.
“Have fun,” Realene called after her.
Ma crouched to peer through the open door. “Wish me luck.”
“Luck and a steak dinner,” Realene said, sending her Ma into a fit of giggles as she closed the door.
Irene met Ma and ushered her into the restaurant, but didn’t follow, instead rushing up to Realene’s driver’s side door. She rolled down the window. “Hey, Irene. How are ya?”
“Oh, you know, pretty good.” She poked her head partially inside the vehicle.
Realene’s nostrils were assaulted by the copious amounts of Aquanet it took to keep Irene’s hair helmet in place. “Cold out there. You don’t have a hat?”
“Oh, I’ll only be out a minute. Just got my hair done, so.”
“Ah. What can I do for you, Irene?” Cold air gusted in through the open window, and Realene wished the woman would get to the point.
Irene lowered her voice. “We’re havin’ a special service today over at the church, what with it raining brimstone and all. I was hopin’ you and your Ma could make it.”
“Brimstone? Do you mean the meteor?”
She stuck her whole head through the window. “Reverend Zebediah says the end times are here. There isn’t much time left to repent, to show you’re part of the worthy—”
Realene leaned further away from Irene, from the menthol cigarette breath now overtaking the hairspray for most offensive smell. “I saw it land, Irene. Definitely just a meteor, no fire or brimstone.”
“Oh, now, there’ve been other signs, too. False prophets, and wars, and natural disasters. Not to mention loose morals. The reverend has been preaching about the signs the past few years, and wouldn’t ya know, here they are. You and your ma, your good people, and I wouldn’t want to see you all burned up with the heathens.”
“Loose morals and heathens, huh?” Realene’s mouth twitched, but she managed not to laugh. “I appreciate the thought, Irene, but Ma likes Bethel Lutheran, been goin’ there for years.”
“Well, I’m sure they’re very nice, but Reverend Zebediah says the seven plagues—”
Realene pasted a polite smile on her face. “Listen, I gotta get goin’. And don’t you be talking about this judgement day conspiracy stuff in front of Ma.”
Irene stood, her mouth agape. “Listen, now, I’m not one of those conspiracy nuts. There’s a big difference between—”
“Ok, well, you have fun at bingo, and make sure to get her home by noon. No stoppin’ by your church either, or I’ll have to come in and make a big fuss to get her. I’m sure your reverend wouldn’t like that very much.” Realene rolled up the window and pulled out, leaving Irene standing in the parking lot staring after the car.
“What a nut,” Realene said, with a tolerant shake of her head. Irene could be a bit much, but she was good with Ma, and at least her theories about judgement day were better than an alien landing conspiracy. Heaven’s Gate happened earlier that year, and Realene still remembered the images of those poor people lying on their cots in their matching outfits, convinced a Hale Bot riding UFO would rescue them from Earth and deliver them to some foreign, alien paradise.
Realene drove down Dahl Street, one of four roads that ran east-west across town. All four were named for one of the settlers who’d perished that harsh winter more than a hundred years prior, which she’d always found a bit morbid. Dahl held many of the town’s businesses, and she saw sign after sign capitalizing on the meteor. Leon’s Auto Repair boasted 25% off body damage repairs for a ‘Crash Landing Sale,” HobbyShop advertised a Christmas special on binoculars and telescopes to watch the skies, Waldenbooks boasted of sales on books about space, and the Piggly Wiggly advertised “Everything You Need for your Meteor Party.” Even the new Blockbuster video on Dahl and Main got in on the action, with posters for Independence Day and Mars Attacks featured in the brightly lit front windows.
Glancing at her dashboard clock, she decided she had enough time to stop in and grab a video for later, after Ma went to bed. Pulling up in front of the store, she left her car running with the heat on full blast, making sure her spare key was in her pocket before locking the car door. While there was an unspoken rule that one did not steal running cars in the middle of the North Dakota winter, you could never be too safe.
A bell dinged as she entered, and she gave a cursory smile to the girl behind the counter who chirped, “Welcome to Blockbuster Video.” Realene strode past the full-sized cardboard cutout of Arnold Schwarzenegger from Jingle All the Way, shivering partially from the cold, partially from the thought of having to sit through an Arnold and Sinbad Christmas comedy.
A display labeled “Space Movies” had been set up on the side wall next to the new releases, and she scanned the shelves. The new releases advertised in the front window were all rented, only the empty cardboard VHS boxes holding spots on the shelves, but she snagged a copy of Total Recall, a much better Schwarzenegger option.
Snagging a box of Jujyfruits from one of the end-cap candy displays, she approached the checkout desk between the enter and exit doors. Pulling her Blockbuster card from her wallet, she set her items on the counter next to a little sign that said, “Be Kind, Rewind.” The guy working glanced up from the computer.
“Realene, hi, wow. You look great.” A pink flush crept up his neck and he tugged at the bottom of his blue polo with yellow cuffs and collar.
She sucked in a breath. “Hey, Tony. How are ya?”
“Oh, good, good. You know, been here a couple months now, and it’s pretty chill. They’re making me a lead soon, I think. And there are Blockbusters everywhere, so when I finally get outta this hellhole, I’ll be guaranteed a job.”
“That’s cool.” She slid her plastic boxed video and candy across the counter and handed him her card. “Just this.”
He scanned each item with the small hand-held scanner before returning it to its cradle. “I’ll take care of the movie for ya, I get a free rental every day, so.”
“Oh, you don’t have to do that.”
“You’ll have to owe me one. He gave her a wink.
“So, how much, then?” she asked.
“Oh, uh, ninety-nine cents for the candy.” He gestured toward the parking lot at a motorcycle with the Misfits logo painted on the tank. “Been working on my bike, too, fixing her up with parts from my uncle’s junkyard. She handles like a dream.”
“Kinda cold for riding, isn’t it?” She dug a dollar from her wallet and handed it to him, her eyes straying to the front door as if focusing on it would get her out of there faster.
“Nah, not if you’re dressed right. Gotta be careful on the ice, but I know how to control her.” He handed her a penny in change, and she threw it in the ‘find a penny leave a penny, need a penny take a penny’ tray. “So, crazy about the meteor, huh? Too bad it didn’t blow the whole town off the map. That would have been something.”
“It landed by my house, so pretty glad that didn’t happen.”
“Oh, sorry, I didn’t mean you, you know. You’re cool. I mean, you know, I wouldn’t want you to die or anything.” He cleared his throat. “Anyway, so you saw it. That’s awesome.”
“Yeah, yeah. It was pretty cool.” She shrugged. “Blasted a hole in the ground at least six feet deep. I was actually the first one out there after the crash.”
“Whoa, that’s sick. I bet the reporters are like beating down your door, huh?”
She blushed this time, because wasn’t that exactly what she’d been hoping for? “Nah, no one wants to hear from me.”
“Tony, can you work returns?” The girl who’d welcomed her when she’d walked in glanced between the two of them, hands on hips.
“Just a minute, Julie,” he said.
“I better get goin’ anyway. I’m meeting Nate for breakfast.”
“Still hangin’ out with him, huh? You guys like, a couple or something?”
“Just friends,” she said, her words clipped. Why did everyone assume a guy and a girl had to be romantically involved?
“Oh, good, I mean, he’s a cool guy.” He picked up her video and candy and set on the other side of the counter, past the buzzer that would sound if anyone tried to leave with a video. “So, uh, I want to hear more about this whole meteor crash. Want to like, meet up at the lake later? A group of us are headin’ out there to hang out, have some drinks, you know. We got a portable space heater for the back of the truck and everything.”
She cringed, remembering the one time she’d gone out to Sauer Lake with him in high school. He was pretty cute, and he hated Demise as much as she did, which was a plus. That date had been a huge mistake. “Uh, thanks anyway, but I have to work.”
“Oh, okay, well, what’re you doing—”
“Tony. Returns,” Julie snapped.
Realene wanted to kiss the girl for interrupting and took the opportunity to grab the video and candy. “See you around.”
Rushing outside, she fumbled with her key to unlock her door before making it inside and tossing her purchases on the passenger seat. She’d have to find somewhere else to rent videos. Not that Tony was the worst, but he couldn’t seem to get it through his skull that she didn’t like him, not like that. His interest in her meteor story had been nice, though.
Pulling onto Main Street, which started at Sauer Lake and continued all the way across town to the trailer park, she glanced in the rearview mirror toward the lake. Though a couple blocks behind her, she could see the eerie mist that rose from the water’s surface hovering in the air. So salinated it didn’t freeze, even in subzero temperatures, the lake was totally inhospitable to marine life.
Now that she thought of it, that could have something to do with the fact she didn’t remember her date with Tony fondly. Mayor Opdahl convinced city council to stock the lake with some specially bred catfish, sure it would be a boon for fishing touristry, but the water was too salty even for them. The night of her date with Tony, they’d been sitting on the beach getting drunk on Zima, and she’d just made the terrible decision to kiss him, when hundreds of dead catfish washed up on shore. She’d promptly puked on one of their creepy, little, whiskered faces, and given up seafood entirely. Even lutefisk, a practically sacrilegious choice for a Norwegian.
Realene headed toward McDonald’s, glancing at her watch to make sure she still had time. She’d be cutting it close to grab food and get home in time to catch up with Nate, but Walt was usually cool if she rolled into work a few minutes late.
She passed Irene’s church, Revelation Evangelical, previously known as Faith Evangelical. The large, windowless building with a three-story tall, peaked roof that bore a large, plain cross overlayed with a number “7” on the brick exterior above the main door. A long, low section of the building jutted out to one side and half a dozen large, metal shipping containers sat behind the church. Even on Friday, cars packed the parking lot that sat before the building and directly off the road. The sign at the curb read “If I am a man of God, let fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty- 2 Kings 1:10.”
Realene thanked God her folks never got sucked into that church like Nate’s parents had. The previous leader, Reverend Miller, had been a stand-up guy, often volunteering to call bingo on Fridays and always showing up at the Bethel’s charity car wash to chip in a few bucks. He’d died several years back of a heart attack, despite being in his early forties and healthy. Zebediah, who’d been the assistant reverend, took over and changed the church’s name to Revelation.
A white van with a speaker mounted on the roof and that same cross plus seven symbol painted on the side pulled from the church parking lot, cutting in front of her.
She laid on her horn, shouting, “Watch it, asshole!”
Ahead of her, a deep voice, probably Zebediah, boomed from the speaker. “Witness the fire reigning down from the heavens. The end times are upon us. Repent, sinners. Repent or perish.”
“Oh, for Christ sakes,” she mumbled, slowing down to put space between her and the Revelation van.
The roads were pretty busy, typical for a weekday morning, and she ended up stopped at the light by Skateway, a metal warehouse-style building painted in rainbow stripes. Even they’d gotten into the meteor mania, their front sign advertising “Space Skate 4pm-8pm.” For a second, she thought of going, even though Space Skate probably only meant they’d be running the disco ball. She and Nate loved hanging out at the rink in junior high, scrounging quarters from the coin returns of the arcade games when they didn’t have enough money to rent skates. Two speakers mounted to the outside of the building belted out “The New Pollution” by Beck.
Humming the song long after she’d pulled away from the stop light, she continued to McDonald’s, pulling into the drive thru lane. The building was recently remodeled to add what they called a ‘PlayPlace’ to the front of the store, which consisted of a giant kid’s area featuring a jungle gym and ball pit. Though early morning, kids already swarmed the area, visible behind floor to ceiling windows.
The person in the van ahead of her, which thankfully had no speaker mounted on the roof, took a ridiculous amount of time ordering, and she tapped her fingers impatiently on the steering wheel. Maybe it hadn’t been such a good idea to stop for a video. Finally, the van pulled ahead.
A teenaged voice squawked over the speaker, “It’s going to be a while, dude.”
Realene examined the van ahead of her and realized it boasted a Carpet Emporium logo. “Damn it.” Vickie, the owner of Carpet Emporium, was notorious for keeping an actual real live tiger named Murray as a pet and taking him for spins around town during the summer in the back of a pickup specially equipped with a thick loop and chain. Nate spent a summer working at McDonald’s and shared that Vickie liked to bring Murray through the drive through, ordering several dozen burger patties at a time.
The van rocked in place, and Realene doubted it was because of frisky teens. Murray growled from inside the vehicle, confirming her fears. Her watch told her she didn’t have time to wait, and she pulled out of the lane to snake around the van, giving Vickie, whose teased, bleach-blonde hair made her look like an aging Poison groupie, a glare as she passed. Why the hell did a carpet store owner need a tiger? Why did anyone need a tiger? They belonged in the jungle, or at worst a zoo. And didn’t Vickie realize lunch started after 10:30? At least wait until lunch to request burgers. Realene guessed crazy rich people who owned tigers could do whatever they wanted.
Pulling back into traffic, Realene headed for home. The town cemetery sat on one side of the road, and their largest park, adjacent to both the elementary and junior high schools, sat on the other. The playground was vacant, but a hockey rink had been erected at the edge of the park, defined by makeshift plywood boards and flooded with water that would stay frozen all winter due to the frigid temperatures. A group of kids clad in winter coats and hats zoomed around the ice, shouting and slamming one another into the boards.
The rinks were set up by the city at all three of the town’s parks, hockey being the sport of choice, for boys at least. Girls were expected to figure skate, but Realene never had an interest in either, couldn’t understand the appeal of winter sports. Another reason why Arizona was so perfect for her.
Movement at the edge of the park caught her eye, and she slowed, peering out her passenger side window at a group of prairie dogs scampering across the snow. They moved as a unit, tiny brown bodies romping through the drifts. She never saw them act like that before, and the sight drew a surprised laugh from her throat. “Go back to bed,” she called, knowing the weather was much too cold for them to be above ground. Silly things. Were they jostled awake by the meteor crashing?
A honk from behind made her jump in her seat, and she tore her gaze from the animals. An impatient driver tailgated her, but she was careful not to go too fast as she continued through the intersection and crested the icy overpass over the railroad tracks that divided her rundown edge of town from the rest of Demise. She glanced in her rearview mirror, searching for the prairie dogs, but saw only the hockey players and large expanses of snow-covered grass.
When Realene arrived home, she found that security around the landing site had multiplied and most of the gawking townspeople were gone. A chain link fence topped with barbed wire formed a wide perimeter around the crater, which was still marked with caution tape. Spotlights on tall metal tripods ringed the inside of the fence, probably for use in darkness, and police officers dotted the outside of the fence every ten feet or so. Inside the fence, a group of people in white hazmat suits—scientists and professors with nearby NDSU’s aerospace program, she’d learned—clustered near the crater.
She stood in her backyard eating her Jujyfruits and glaring at the cars still lining the rarely traveled road that led nowhere, including four news vans, a couple civilian vehicles, half a dozen police cruisers, and several military jeeps. Steele Air Force Base, where her dad worked as a mechanic after his tour, was fifteen miles outside town, and she wondered what they’d made of the object falling from the sky.
The area had been the site of many missile silos thanks to the Cold War and Ronald Reagan, her dad’s personal hero. She’d always thought Reagan a jellybean-eating idiot but never said that out loud. The last active missile silo, the Echo-One Minuteman Missile Alert site, was decommissioned a few months prior. She bet the assigned soldiers remembered their days spent waiting to launch a nuke at a moment’s notice. How many of them went for their red buttons when the meteor crashed, intent on defending God and country, only to find those buttons disconnected?
Several police officers, all dressed to match the one who’d been so rude to her earlier, stood at the edge of the field near the fence’s gate, keeping reporters and looky-loos at a reasonable distance.
Realene watched as the pair of military personnel in heavy, olive-colored parkas shook hands with one of the scientists, then exited the fenced-in area to head toward their jeep. They’d likely realized this was not the hostile action of a foreign enemy, and therefore not their problem. As the men reached their vehicle, she recognized one of them as Colonel Harmon, her dad’s former boss at the Air Force Base.
“Colonel,” she called out, stuffing the empty candy box in her coat pocket as she trudged through the snow toward him.
He turned at the sound of her voice and raised one hand in a wave. After saying something to the other man, he continued across the road, meeting her at the curb and drawing her in for a crushing hug. She squeezed him back as hard as she could, imagining for a moment he was her dad.
“Pretty casual today, colonel.” She angled her chin toward the black, Air Force logo’d baseball cap sticking out from his fur lined hood.
“Expected me out here in my dress blues, did you?” He winked, drawing focus to the old scar that ran from beneath his eye to his earlobe. She’d asked him about it once, and he’d said, “You should see the other guy.”
“Haven’t talked to you in a few weeks.”
“Sorry I haven’t checked in.” She resisted the urge to look away. “Just busy.”
“Uh huh. And how’s your ma?”
“Today’s a good day. She’s off playing bingo, hoping to win big and take dad for a steak dinner.”
He crossed his arms. “You sure you’re okay? She’s not getting to be too much for you?”
“Nah. We’re doing alright. Really.” She forced a smile, not wanting to worry him when there wasn’t anything he could do.
“You start returning my calls, and I’ll believe that. Told your dad I’d look out for you, and I don’t take that lightly.”
She squirmed under his stare. “Okay, okay. I get it.” She wouldn’t want to be one of the soldiers under his command.
“So how you dealing with all this hubbub? Nobody’s harassing you or anything, are they?”
“I wish. Might be able to earn a few bucks telling my story to the National Enquirer.”
“Very funny. Seriously, though, if the reporters get too aggressive, if they’re bothering you, let me know.”
“Yes, sir.” She gave a mock salute, and he shook his head indulgently. “What can you tell me? About the meteor?”
He shrugged. “Egg heads from the university say it’s just that, a meteor. Not an attack, so it’s in their hands now.”
She considered mentioning the gunk she’d seen leak out of the rock the night before but abandoned the thought. He’d only scoff at her overreaction to some space mud.
Footsteps crunched through the snow behind her, and Nate joined them.
“Colonel.” He shook the man’s hand.
“Son.” The colonel smacked Nate on the shoulder with his free hand. “You takin’ good care of our girl, here?”
“She can take care of herself,” Nate replied.
“Damn straight,” she said.
The colonel gave a disapproving grunt at her language. The man waiting at the jeep called out, and the colonel said, “Duty calls. I’ll talk to you later in the week.” He gave her a pointed stare before heading to his vehicle.
Shelly Schraeder rushed up to the colonel, trailed by her cameraman, and peppered him with questions. He ignored her completely and left her staring after his vehicle as it drove away, which Realene found extremely satisfying.
“What a circus, huh?” Nate said, surveying the scene. The temperature warmed a bit from the previous night, but not enough to justify his unzipped lime-green ski jacket flapping in the stiff wind. Unlike her, he seemed built for the wretched North Dakota cold. He’d even delivered the local paper each morning for years, starting in third grade and stopping when they hit high school.
“I think you missed your chance for an up close of the meteor.” When she’d called him back the night before with the news, he wanted to drive straight over, but she talked him into waiting. Though the object had given her the creeps, she’d felt like it belonged to her, somehow, and didn’t want to share it with anyone quite yet.
“Meteorite. Everyone calls them meteors, but that only applies when they’re in the sky, once they’ve landed, they’re meteorites,” Nate said. “How big did you say it was?”
She held up her gloved hands about three feet apart.
“Amazing. Most debris burns to dust before it ever reaches the ground.” He stared wistfully at the group of scientists. He’d talked throughout sophomore and junior year about going into Astronomy at NDSU, but by the time they were seniors he’d stopped bringing it up, deciding college wasn’t for him.
“What’s the big deal about these meteorites, anyway?”
“They allow us to study space.” He bounced on his heels like an excited kid at his first science fair. “Some say they can even contain Martian life.”
“Martian life? Like some of those creepy gray aliens could come crawling out of the rock or something?”
He laughed. “No, more like bacteria or fossils.”
“Oh, yeah, of course.” She scrubbed her gloved hand over her face, the image of that black sludge skittering across the ground flashing through her mins. The more she considered it, the more certain she became that the dark had been playing tricks on her cold-addled brain.
“Yeah, just slept like crap.” She’d been too excited and anxious to sleep much, thoughts of the meteor consuming her. And the wind was especially bad the night before, swelling again and again in that same pitch that sounded like screams.
A figure tromped toward them through the snow, and she recognized Calvin’s weathered face beneath a fur trapper hat with ear flaps he’d likely made using the pelt of some animal he’d caught and skinned. Yuck. He stooped to inspect a hole in the snow, circular and smaller than a footprint. Other, similar holes dotted the yard, along with tiny paw prints peppering the top layer, probably left by the rabbits that liked to winter beneath her porch.
“Hey, Calvin,” Nate said.
He stopped beside them and pulled a joint from his pocket, placing it between his lips.
“Dude, you do see those cops, right?” Realene asked.
He frowned. “Yeah, so?”
“It’s a hand-rolled cigarette, nerd.” Nate socked her in the arm.
“Shut up.” Heat flooded her cheeks. “Not everyone’s an expert, like you.”
Nate’s brow furrowed at the mention of the cause of his criminal record and subsequent stint in juvie, but he didn’t say anything.
“What’re you two talkin’ about?”
“Never mind. And you shouldn’t smoke.” Realene glared at him.
“You think I don’t know that?” Calvin pulled out a pack of matches.
“What’s that hat made of?” Nate asked, as if picking up Realene earlier thought.
“Prairie dog.” Calvin grinned, displaying tobacco-stained teeth. “Caught and skinned it myself.”
“You’re proud of that?” she asked. “Killing those harmless little guys?”
“Not harmless. Them and the gophers build their burrows in the grazing fields, cows step in the holes and break their ankles. Then guess what happens to the cows. Hafta’ to be shot.”
“And shooting the prairie dogs is better?”
“Not shooting, poisoning. And I don’t know about better, but they pay me to do it. Gotta keep the farms runnin’.”
“You poison prairie dogs for a living?” Nate asked, eyebrows raised.
“Not just them, I can take out any kind of vermin. Got a knack for it.” Calvin raised his chin, proud of the macabre skill.
“I gotta get ready for work,” Realene said, ready to be done with the conversation. She’d recently switched to day shifts at the gas station to be home in the evenings. Ma got worse after dark.
“Hey, no Egg McMuffin?” Nate asked.
“Oh, yeah, sorry. Vickie and Murray were jammin’ up the drive thru. You want a Pop Tart?” Realene gestured toward the trailer. “I got some of those new Wild Berry.”
“Well, I can’t turn that down. How often do they come out with a new Pop Tart flavor?”
“What about me?” Calvin asked.
“I’m still pissed at you for killing those harmless little prairie dogs.” She refused to reward such behavior with processed pastries.
“They’re not harmless,” he called after her, but she didn’t engage. Knowing he killed helpless animals for a living tempted her to never talk to him again, though she knew she would. Ignoring one’s neighbors might fly in the big city, but not in North Dakota where politeness reigned supreme.
“One or two?” Realene asked, pulling the box of Wild Berry Pop Tarts from the cupboard above the canary yellow stove that matched the fridge.
“One’s good, as long as that’s enough for you.” Nate wandered into the living room and flipped on the TV.
“I already had some Jujyfruits.” She opened the foil package and placed the purple and teal frosted pastries in the toaster. She hadn’t tried the new flavor yet and looked forward to it, the bright colors a sure sign they would be tooth-achingly sweet.
“Seriously? I swear, you have the metabolism of a hummingbird.”
“What can I say, my body craves sugar.” Most kids grew out of their candy addictions, but hers only intensified. And she didn’t discriminate, loving every candy equally.
She leaned one shoulder against the side of the fridge and watched as he flipped the channels.
He stopped on MTV and cranked up the volume. The MTV News logo of a satellite dish spinning and a typewriter ball spinning to spell out “news” filled the screen.
“I’m Kurt Loder with an MTV News Brief.” He wore a t-shirt and blazer and sat in front of a graphic of a spinning globe. “Late last night a meteor hit in Demise, North Dakota, a town of about 5,000 residents.”
Several photos of the meteor landing site, including one with Realene’s trailer in the background, appeared beside Kurt on the screen.
“Holy shit,” Nate mumbled.
“The collision measured a three on the Richter scale, equivalent to a minor earthquake, but no damage to nearby structures has been detected. Scientists with the North Dakota State University astrophysics program shared that initial samples from the meteor appear to contain water and certain amino acids crucial to the existence of life. Early reports demonstrate this may be one of the most important scientific artifacts of the century. That’s the news for now, stay tuned for more throughout the day on MTV.”
The toaster popped, but Realene ignored it, staring at the TV, which switched to a commercial for the Real World. Evidence of life, no wonder they’d beefed up security.
“Can you believe that? Incredible.” Nate’s eyes sparkled with excitement.
“I don’t know why you never applied to NDSU. You could study that nerdy stuff all day long.”
He turned away, so she could only see the back of his head. “I guess I’ve just accepted my fate, you know?”
“Screw that.” She hated the thought of fate, the idea that no matter what you did your future was predetermined and you could do nothing to change that. “You should do whatever it takes to get out of here. Hell, apply for Real World. You’d be the only normal person in the house.”
“That’s why I’d never make it. Not crazy enough.” He shrugged, walked past her into the kitchen to grab his Pop Tart.
“Speaking of crazy, you should’ve heard Irene this morning. The reverend’s got her believing that God’s raining down fire and brimstone. He was even driving around earlier in a weird van with a speaker spouting off about end times.”
“That guy is seriously dangerous.”
“Not to mention fashion blind. I think all he owns is denim. And I bet he irons his jeans.”
“I guarantee it.” Nate snickered. “Well, if we’re all going to die, I’m gonna go try again, see if I can get up close to this God-sent meteor.”
“Don’t you mean meteorite?” Realene grabbed her own Pop Tart from the toaster and raised it in a toasting motion.
“Eh, if Kurt Loder calls it a meteor, guess I will, too. Wish me luck.”
“Luck. Call you later?”
“I’ll be around. Unless the storm hits early.” Nate gave a wave, munching on his breakfast as he left.
Realene watched out the kitchen window above the sink, which offered a view of the front door, deck and Calvin’s place, as Nate thumped down the steps and crossed the yard. No way would he get anywhere near the crater.
Leaning back against the stained, yellow countertop, she surveyed the kitchen. Dishes filled the sink, and she wished for the thousandth time they’d invested in a dishwasher, but Ma considered it a waste of money.
Stacks of junk mail and church programs collected from months of Bethel Lutheran Sunday services piled the table and countertops. Realene periodically tried to clean up the mess, but Ma panicked every time something was thrown away, as if one of the non-descript envelopes addressed to ‘Resident’ or the announcement of the church’s annual chili cook off might be the vital piece that would illuminate a past receding further and further into the shadows of her mind.
Her despair from the night before came flooding back, even sharper than before. While glad for the short break from Ma, being alone only intensified the depression she had to hide when Ma was home. Realene ate her toaster pastry in a few large bites, hardly tasting the preservative packed breakfast she’d normally savor. It struck her that she used to love Pop Tarts, used to think of them as a treat when she and Nate would eat them as kids. But setting mattered, didn’t it? If she were splayed out on a twin bed in her U of A dorm room, absorbed in an anatomy textbook, her pastry would taste totally different.
Her eyes burned, and she blinked rapidly as she swallowed her last bite and brushed the crumbs from her hands. Pumpkin wandered up and rubbed against her legs before giving a little “meow.”
“Hungry, Punky?” She grabbed the Whiskas from the pantry and filled his bowl, placing it on the floor. He trotted over to munch on his dry bits of kibble.
The Daria theme song began to play, signaling the start of an episode, and she considered ditching work altogether to veg on the couch. But they needed the money. With a sigh, she flipped the TV to Turner Classic Movies for Ma before clicking it off, then donned her winter gear, heavy boots and all, before stepping back out into the cold North Dakota winter.
Realene glanced toward the police perimeter and saw Nate talking with one of the officers, maybe the same one who denied her entry. She should have let Nate come over the night before. The meteor landing was a big deal to him, to everyone, but she’d been too focused on wanting to keep it for herself. Even now, she briefly considered marching back out to the reporters and trying to tell her story, but she couldn’t risk a repeat of her earlier embarrassment.
She slogged through the snow to the driveway, where she’d parked next to Ma’s minivan, whose block heater plug extended from beneath the closed hood and connected to the extension cord plugged in to an outlet on the side of the trailer. Realene hadn’t been home for long, so didn’t bother to plug her own car back in, and it started up on the first try since the engine was still warm. Nate’s dirty work truck with chains on the tires, a plow blade attached to the grill, and a two-hundred-gallon plastic deicing tank with sprayer strapped to the truck bed, sat parked at the curb. She navigated around it as she backed from the driveway.
Realene couldn’t resist another look at the gathered crowd as she pulled from the trailer park, and she noticed a man standing back from the others, on the fringe. Reverend Zebediah. His creepy van sat parked at the curb, the speaker blessedly silent.
He turned slightly as she drove by, wearing his signature Canadian Tuxedo beneath a wool coat. She couldn’t comprehend how anyone thought head to toe denim was a good idea, but it seemed to be all he owned. Irene’s comments came back to her, a reminder that he’d convinced his parishioners the meteor landing signaled some kind of final reckoning.
After flicking the guy off and feeling quite good about it, she continued down Main away from the landing site. Her car’s old tape deck didn’t work, and she couldn’t afford a CD player, so she flipped on the radio to the local alternative rock station. “It’s another beautiful day in Demise, with temperatures above zero. We’ve even got fiery meteors falling from the sky. In honor of the event, here’s ‘Firestarter’ by Prodigy.”
Realene cranked up the volume. As much as the meteor ended up being a disappointment, she had to admit it was nice to have some excitement for a change. And while no one would ever recognize her for it, she was the first one to actually see the landing site. That counted for something.
Copyright © 2023 Angela Sylvaine