I shifted in my saddle, and leaned down to whisper to my horse, Nightingale. “This is no problem for you, girl. You’re much faster than he is.” She snorted back at me and stomped a foot. I patted her dark mane and looked over at my friend, Kate, who sat astride Archer, a brown Quarter horse. “The rocks are the finish line, as usual,” I said.
Kate nodded, her blond hair hanging loose over her narrow face. “No problem, Archer’s got this one, right buddy?” She patted the horse and smiled.
I felt my competitive side take over and I narrowed my eyes in concentration. “Ready?” I called.
Our eyes met. “Go!” we shouted together.
I spurred Nightingale forward and we took off. I kept my eyes on the thick mass of Kate’s hair, willing Nightingale to inch past it. Below me, the clay-packed ground rushed by in a blur of brown and red.
I could already see our usual marker approaching up ahead; we always stopped at the same cropping of rocks. Underneath me, I felt Nightingale muscles contracting, pushing us forward, but Kate stayed a half a pace ahead as we barreled across our invisible finish line. Kate was enthusiastic about her victory. I tried not to grumble; I hate losing.
“Yes! That’s my boy, Archer!” Kate patted his mane, and crooned at the brown spotted horse.
“You had a head start,” I mumbled.
Kate laughed and despite the loss, I felt my mood lighten. Running always did that for me. We turned the horses, walking back side by side.
“What did you do this weekend?” she asked.
Instantly on alert, I searched her face for the reason behind her question but saw only innocent curiosity. “Some home improvement stuff with Peter,” I answered, carefully.
Kate looked at me in mock sympathy and I knew she believed me. “Did you ask him about the town homecoming next Saturday?” she asked.
“Yeah, he said its fine as long as I’m home by eleven.” I didn’t really care about homecoming or the parade but Kate did, so I tried to sound excited.
“Home by eleven? You’re going to miss the end of the parade. Well at least he’s actually letting you go.” Then her expression changed. Now she was the one to look nervous “Hey, um, Ethan Lawson asked about you the other day.”
“That’s nice,” I answered, already dismissing what was obviously a match making attempt on her part. I stared out over the valley, and then focused my eyes on a spot at the top of the cliffs, where blue sky met orange clay peaks. I thought again how much I loved the colors here, even if green grass was scarce.
“Alina, he’s cute and he’s nice and he likes you,” Kate was saying.
I suppressed a sigh. I’d noticed how she’d emphasized the word ‘likes’; as if that was reason enough to like him back. None of the boys here interested me and the few that might have been attractive were still off limits, for reasons I couldn’t share with Kate. At times like this, I really hated having a secret. “Sorry, Kate, I’m not interested. Why don’t you ask him?” I added, hoping to throw the spotlight off myself.
Kate gave me a look. “He obviously has a thing for dark hair, dark eyes. I don’t think blonde fits into that category.”
I shrugged. “Well, it doesn’t matter. Peter would flip.”
“Peter’s going to have to deal with it, eventually. You’re not a little kid anymore. You’ll be a senior in a couple weeks.”
I smiled in spite of my frustration. “You sound like you’re writing the speech for my teenaged rebellion.”
She grinned. “Feel free to use it if needed.” Then she grew serious. “Look, I know you’re not that social, but you’re going to have to learn to trust people eventually.”
I shifted in my saddle and wished, for the millionth time, that I could just tell her. But if I did, Peter really would flip. Not to mention the danger it would put her in if they ever found me. My mind filled with blurry images of black monsters and I shuddered. All I knew of them were stories, passed down through Peter’s memory. He hadn’t told me much- just enough to give me a healthy dose of fear and understanding for why we continued to live in hiding. I blinked to clear away the dark images. “Yeah, I’ll think about it,” I said vaguely.
Back at the barn, Kate and I put away the saddles and wiped down both horses. When she was gone, I opened the mental line of communication between me and Nightingale.
I wish I could just tell her who I am, I thought. I knew I was whining but I didn’t care.
You know the danger that would put her in, Nightingale replied.
Yeah, but I wouldn’t have to tell her everything at once. What if I started with the fact that we can hear each other’s thoughts and give her a chance to get used to that before I tell her I’m from another planet?”
You forgot to mention the internal lamp you carry around inside, she reminded me. How do you think she would take that?
I sighed. She had a point. The truth about me was a lot to process. Especially for a human who had no knowledge of the thousands of other inhabited planets that existed far outside this solar system. Kate was right. Trust was hard for me.
I said good night to Nightingale and let myself in the front door, kicking my boots off haphazardly. The scent of garlic and tomatoes hit me and I was reminded again how glad I was that Peter had discovered his love for cooking. I could still remember the human’s prepackaged and microwaveable meals I’d eaten when we had first come to Earth. This was much better; still, a surprising hobby for the Emperor’s top advisor, his previous job.
Peter was taking a pasta dish out of the oven, an oven mitt on each hand. Though the scorching Arizona sun did nothing to raise our body temperature, which ran at a steady 120 Fahrenheit, a four hundred degree oven would definitely do some damage.
“Did you have a good ride with Kate?” Peter asked, turning and setting the dish on the table.
“Yeah, she and Archer beat us.” I sat down and began dishing salad into a bowl as Peter joined me.
He chuckled. “I hope you weren’t a bad sport about it.”
“No, I didn’t have time. She started talking about the homecoming parade next week.”
“I’d forgotten about that. You know you need to be careful.” Peter’s expression changed and I could feel the lecture coming on. These were the times Peter felt more like my dad than my guardian.
I rolled my eyes. “I know, I know. Don’t let anyone touch my skin and don’t use my glow. You don’t have to keep reminding me.”
I’d spent half my childhood practicing these things. By seventeen, I’d gotten pretty good at it, even Peter had to admit. We hadn’t had to move in over a year and a half now - a new record. And I’d made a friend because of it. Kate was the first friend I’ve ever really had; the first Peter allowed me to have. It had taken a lot of convincing for him to believe I could be friends with Kate and not tell her what we were. Then he’d met Kate and that made it easier. Kate was easy to like. Her eternally cheerful attitude was hard to resist.
And it turned out I liked Arizona. The orange and red clay of the cliffs that made up the canyon we lived in almost glowed in the sunsets. Sometimes I felt like it reminded me of something, though I couldn’t quite remember what.
Either way, I didn’t need Peter lecturing me. I’d be careful because I didn’t want to have to leave.