A Girl Named Cricket
Though their planet is dying, Cricket Sminth is still furious at her parents for having tricked her into leaving home. What’s more, in the form of a sixteen-year-old girl, she is now forced to enroll in high school in the little desert community of Prickly Pear, California.
Cricket’s disdainful behavior makes enemies of everyone in town including Claudia, the mayor’s daughter, and Tom, the one-armed boy she’s strangely attracted to. To make matters worse Immigration and Custom Enforcement has begun investigating the Sminths.
But the biggest danger by far is Levi Barker, motorcycle gang leader, who has taken an unwelcome interest in the odd girl.
BUY THE BOOK
My parents hurriedly undid their harnesses and arose, their heads just missing the low overhead curvature of the fuselage. Mother turned to me, releasing my harness, but I remained seated, arms tightly folded across my chest. My terror of a fiery meteoric death had subsided, replaced by that familiar rancor rising in me again like bubbles of fetid swamp gas. How could I ever forgive them?
“Come, dear heart. We must go,” she said in our whistle/click language.
“English, please,” admonished Father. “Even when we think we are alone.” His words reverberated with fear, but I was indifferent. I did not wish to speak in any case, no matter the language.
“Come, dear heart,” repeated Mother, ignoring him.
When I did not move, she knelt beside me and touched my shoulder. I tightened my hold on myself.
Father placed a hand on the door. Cabin and atmospheric pressure equilibrated with the faintest hissing. As the door opened fully, fresh cool air wafted in and a panoramic vista appeared. I could see the stars! That was not right!
“There is no ceiling out there. No ceiling!” I objected.
“Parts of the planet have no ceiling,” said Father.
Alien. That was the word for it. Sassatha was largely decked with low orange clouds. Nor was the landscape here in any way familiar, much less reassuring. Although we had been prepared for some of this, it was still frightening. Father recognized more of these phenomena than either Mother or I and could even name them in English.
Bushy plants, spaced ten to twenty feet apart, covered a vast tract of land. About our height, they were covered with thousands of leaves smaller than a fingernail. Why I thought they must be poisonous, I do not know. Just irrationally fearful, I suppose.
Scattered among them were growths like enormous hands protruding from the ground as if giants, buried from here to the horizon, were trying to escape from their sandy graves. They stood twenty or thirty feet high, with straight, stubby fingers. An indifferent pale moon illuminated the macabre landscape and cast Father's shadow against the wall behind him.
A few yards away a white, winged animal with a flat face and surprisingly large eyes, shocked into flight by our raucous landing, came back to its perch atop one of the giant hands. A furred animal with a hairless tail, frightened into skittering motion, became visible and vulnerable. The predator spotted its prey, took flight, and a moment later snatched the little animal with remorseless claws.
And I could see all this! Our metamorphosis to human form—or transmogrification as I thought of it—had enhanced our auditory and visual acuity.
Doubtless, Father saw an omen in the death of the little animal, but after a moment of motionlessness, he sighed and began to work. From the storage compartment at the back of the plane, just past the galley and the toilet, he removed three transport boxes that carried our tools, instruments, and supplies. One by one, he took them by their straps, walked down the narrow aisle carrying them before him, stepped out of the craft, and rested them against the fuselage.
“Come now, my heart,” said Mother for the third time. “We must go.”
When he was finished with the first chore, Father approached and leaned over me.
“This demonstration of your displeasure is pointless and stupid,” he said. “Furthermore, you are endangering our lives.”
“Don't,” said Mother. “She's been through enough.”
“She's been through enough! Had I not experienced it myself in close quarters, I would have believed it impossible for a person to whine continuously for two weeks. Juveniles are so blazing—”
“Don't,” repeated Mother sternly.
He turned back to me and, continuing to ignore his own admonition, spoke in our language, quietly and intensely.
“Let me tell you what will happen if they find us here, seething silent one. First, they will bind your wrists together. Then they will push you into a cage in the back of a vehicle and drive to an airport. They will fly you to a laboratory where they will put you into a cell and strip you and search you and scan you, prod you and poke you and prick you. Again and again, they will ask you to demonstrate the workings of our devices. For the rest of your life, they will question you. And they will do the same to us, probably in separate cells.”
“Dear one,” said Mother, touching my shoulder once more, “one day you will understand how sad we are about the subterfuge that was necessary, but you know that we love you. We will not leave without you, but if they find us, it will be the end of...of...us.”
My silence chilled them. I finally stood, hissing. I stepped from the vessel onto the sand while eluding Mother’s attempt to hug me. She followed and stood next to me, abandoning gestures of affection.
“Isn't the air sweet?” she said.
I turned away, but was immediately distracted by the endless, roofless expanse above me. But I could only look at that for a moment before fear stopped me. I looked at the odd textured surface under my feet and kicked at it, but the minuscule sand storm provided no gratification.
To avoid the catastrophe of discovery by some errant low-flying airplane pilot or itinerant after-dark herpetologist, camouflage was necessary, but as Mother felt the need to watch over me, the task was entirely Father's.
Before covering the rocket-turned-glider plane with vegetation and as much sand from the dune as he could, Father used the fierce white flame from our Sassathan blowtorch to destroy our machines, manuals, instrument panels, food—anything that, if found, would surely trigger a hysterical “man hunt” for the owners of the plane. To the native eye, the fuselage and wings would appear oddly shaped, but not necessarily extraterrestrial. Things that could not have been made here were reduced to amorphous puddles of metal, vitreous slag, and ash. He worked with as much energy as he could muster, but was soon exhausted. Two weeks of weightlessness and only fragmented sleep had taken their toll on each of us. In the end, the vessel could not be completely hidden.
Mother knelt, touching a hand to the ground as if to convince herself that we had indeed arrived. A more familiar type of animal, green-and-yellow-striped and scaly, not a yard away, scampered from its hiding place.
Mother let a handful of sand sift between her fingers.
“Silicon dioxide,” said Father. “Mainly.”
“I know what it is,” said Mother.
Finished with the blowtorch, he lifted a transport box, helping Mother slip her arms through the straps and rest it on her back. I allowed him to put one on my back. Mother helped him with his.
We walked single file, my parents periodically exchanging places at the lead, the second in line keeping an eye on me, though I followed closely behind.
My eyes traced a sine wave. Up towards the galaxy, down towards the ground, up towards the galaxy...This was the most unusual surface I'd ever walked on, at times soft, at times hard, at times rippled, at times smooth. Unpredictable.
“Pay attention, please.” Father was currently in charge of my supervision.
“I am paying attention.”
“Your head is bobbing up and down as if mounted on a spring.”
I retreated into silence.
As we were tired, and our legs weakened by the weeks of weightlessness, we took the shorter routes even if they occasionally brought us in contact with the bushes, which exuded a subtle pungent scent and which I was convinced were poisonous.
As otherworldly as these things were—the flora, fauna, landscape, and sky—nothing was as otherworldly and frightening as walking on the surface of the planet—not safely underground. Might we not be torn to pieces by blast winds, burned by rain, or poisoned by air? Indeed, my lungs had begun to tingle, increasing my anxiety, but I could as easily have sought my parents' reassurance as I could have asked to ride on their backs. I kept looking up, each time startled that there was no ceiling there, no clouds.
The straps of the boxes bit into our shoulders. Never in my life had I lifted anything so heavy, much less carried it on my back. Indeed, my original body would have been incapable of lifting this burden. These new muscles were thicker and stronger than my original ones. And although I had exercised, I'd never walked for more than eleven or twelve yards at a time.
Weaving in and around the bushes had become tedious. We were relieved to come to the sandy shoulder of a little-used unpaved road.
This surface proved firmer than the naked ground and more even. Eventually we arrived at the transition from unpaved to paved road and a little further on, to the outer perimeter of the town.
“An abandoned abode,” noted Father unnecessarily, stopping for a moment, probably because his legs were tired. “Note the boards over its apertures.”
The squarish structure was approximately five to six times Father's height. The two halves of the top were pitched upward and met at a ridge. The whole thing seemed like a blemish bursting forth from the earth.
“It is like a blister,” I said. “Repugnant. Why should anyone wish to live in it?”
“It is rare,” responded Father, “to find a person who combines dermatological acumen with architectural criticism—alien architectural criticism at that. Fascinating. Now, shall we resume walking?”
I persisted. “It is constructed entirely of flat two-dimensional surfaces. The wind could blow it away. A ridiculous structure.”
Disappointed in both of us, Mother shook her head. “Desist, please.”
A little further on several more abodes appeared. Before them lay the rusted carcasses of boxlike conveyances.
“Defunct motorized conveyances,” said Father, pointing.
“My dear husband, you cannot help yourself, can you?”
“I am attempting to be helpful.”
We continued to walk.
Why were these oxidized conveyances here in the first place? Were they on display? Or had they been destroyed by acid rain where they now lay? Had the poisonous downpour driven off the inhabitants of the blisters? I felt unwell.
Primitive lighting fixtures high up on metal poles illuminated sections of black road. Hard as these roads were, the flanking strips of white stone, upon which we now walked, were absolutely indurate and unyielding. A fall here would abrade the skin or break bones. I adjusted my stride and footfall lest I send shock waves through my spine.
Why would anyone make such a dangerous thing? Where was common sense? Had they not yet invented cushioning?
My parents had been observing me closely.
“It is a relatively young civilization,” said Father.
We came to a section of town whose one or two level structures were in better repair, though a clustering of giant blisters was more distressing than a single one.
A twisted, glowing red glass tube read, “Prickly Pear Gas and Auto Repair”. I could read the individual words—my neural net transducer was still working after the landing. But what of the meaning? Was this a place to purchase vapor-exuding thorny fruit and treat one's injuries oneself, perhaps with that very same thorny fruit? I would soon learn to scan the airwaves for a more accurate picture of things.