Chapter One CHAPTER ONE
When your last name is “Crook” and your best friend is Nick Lawless and your daddy’s the sheriff, then folks never forget you. That’s A-OK by me. I’m proud to be Magnolia Jean Crook from Totter, Texas. Especially the Totter part. Especially now. Because we are fixing to host our First Annual Come On Down Day.
In just one week our small town aims to welcome any and all space aliens who wish to visit. No RSVP required.
And today is our official kickoff party.
Most Totterarians know about the flying saucer that swooped over Bonham, Texas, around ninety years ago, and details of the sightings near Levelland when I was four.
Now we want a turn.
Only, we’re hoping for face-to-face encounters instead.
Mr. Harrington, our resident ufologist and current president of TUFOO (Totter Unidentified Flying Object Organization), stands on the steps of our town square gazebo. He dabs his bald head and taps the mic. We quiet.
“Perfect landing conditions forecast for next Saturday, people,” he says, and points to the cloudless sunshiny November sky. “They’ll be here.”
Nick retrieves his drumsticks from his back pocket and hits them together above his head as cheers rocket through the crowd; we’ll be ready.
“Come On Down Day will be the best day of our lives,” proclaims Mr. Harrington as he adjusts his bow tie.
Normally I don’t cotton to that kind of hyperbole, but anything is possible.
TUFOO wants to celebrate their organization’s tenth anniversary in a spectacular way, so the members dreamed big.
“Remember, good people,” Mr. Harrington continues. “Purchase a raffle ticket for a chance to tour a spacecraft, should the invite from our new friends be extended.”
What Mr. Harrington doesn’t know is that everyone in town agrees he’ll be the one to board the outer space vessel. Though Mr. Harrington’s people skills aren’t stellar, his funeral home is a major sponsor of this event. Plus, he’s organized it all. We figure it’s the least we can do in return. Besides, Totter folks are big on kindness.
“And finally,” Mr. Harrington says, “I invite you to partake of the punch and cookies under the tent, pose for photos with the display on the lawn, and join the story time beside the live oak. Those of you lucky enough to have come early today will be happy to know that the library doors for the first gander at the meteorite will open in minutes.”
“Outta sight,” hollers a man waving a blue paper. His entry pass reads 11:30, which is when his viewing group will get an extra-special look-see.
Chances are that the space rock is why lots of us showed up this morning. Even UFO skeptics, like the one who refused my offer of a WE BELIEVE button, hold a blue pass. How often do regular citizens have a chance to get this close to a rock from outer space? Around here, never. Thank you, anonymous collector.
And thank you, Mimi, my grandmother, who coordinated the meteorite’s display.
Every half hour for the next two hours, a dozen people will set their eyes on, and touch, the cool space rock. Then it will return to its owner. Our town is small enough that I know over half the people in the first viewing.
We spot Mimi across the lawn with my little brother, Travis, and head their way. Like others, Travis is dressed as an extraterrestrial, though no one else wears rain boots with silver foil. Like always, Mimi is dressed in shades of blue, which today means her blue eyeglasses and fashionable bell-bottom pants.
“We must have a cookie,” Mimi says as Nick and I approach.
“Two, please,” says Travis, who inherited his sweet tooth from her.
“Deal,” I say, and tap the cowlick on top of my brother’s head. “We’ve just handed out our last button.”
From the line at the bake sale table, we survey the spectacle on the northwest side of the lawn. Under the live oak tree, a flying saucer the size of a plastic baby pool sits atop a tripod taller than Daddy. Wrapped in shiny tinfoil, it gleams in the sunlight, and at night lights up sparkly-bright, thanks to strings of twinkly lights circling and dangling from its oval-shaped body. In the grass below, dozens of identical baby dolls with their eyes wide open and their arms extended are frozen in walking positions.
“It’s a mighty fine work of art,” says Mimi.
“Right on,” says Nick, pushing his bangs out of his eyes.
Mr. and Mrs. Harrington’s prizewinning Halloween decorations from this fall live on. They’ve created a different version of this scene at their house every year for the past decade. This is the first time one’s appeared on the square.
“I’ve never, ever seen anything quite like that,” Mimi adds.
My body tenses, and I glance at Nick. Maybe he didn’t hear her because he’s turned to wave his drumsticks at some of our sixth-grade classmates.
“But it used to be in the Harringtons’ yard,” says Travis.
He would remember. We visited their creation every day last month, not to mention Halloween night, sometimes with Mimi in tow.
“Oh, of course,” she says. “How thoughtful of them to share it with us again.”
Good save, Mimi, I think, and I kind of, sort of, relax. She’s as quick as ever on the cover-up in spite of the constellation of responsibilities on her mind.
“Cookie time,” I say as we reach the refreshments just as Daddy swoops in.
“Smile,” he says, snaps a picture, and leaves.
Mimi asked him to help document Come On Down Day events with his fancy camera. Since it’s his day off, he’s not in uniform.
I didn’t bring my Brownie camera because I’m saving the rest of my film for the big event.
Sugar-butter-almond deliciousness scents the air. Dozens of decorated confections with blue and black swirls punctuated by white dot-like stars span the tables. After one bite we all agree. The cookie committee outdid themselves.
“Do space aliens like cookies, MJ?” my little brother asks.
“Good question,” I reply. “What do you think?”
“Yes, and spaghetti and tacos and chocolate ice cream.”
“Who wouldn’t?” says Nick, revealing his signature dimpled smile.
“We’ll find out their preferences soon enough,” Mimi assures us. “Totter’s best cooks will bring samples for our guests next Saturday.”
Like Travis, Nick, and Mimi, I believe extraterrestrials exist, but I’m not positive we share the same tastes.
Travis tugs my sweater. “If you aren’t gonna eat your second cookie, MJ, I can help.”
A high-pitched screech emanates from the gazebo, and we spin toward the sound.
Deputy Rodriguez stands beside an ashen Mr. Harrington, his bow tie askew. “Earthbound people,” Mr. Harrington shouts into the microphone. “We have a galactic problem.”
The crowd hushes, eyes fixed on the gazebo stage.
“The meteorite is missing!”