“What’s your favorite animal, Ryan?” My question came out in gasps as I pedaled hard, trying to keep up with my taller, faster friend.
“Giraffes!” His reply almost got lost in the wind as we screeched around the curve at the bottom of his street.
“Giraffes don’t count! They’re extinct. I meant a real animal.” It was only ten in the morning, but heat surrounded me like a cocoon. I was already sweating, and I’d forgotten my deodorant. Gross.
“They’re not extinct.” He skidded to a stop, turning to glare at me. “My dad says they’re going to clone a female any day now, and then Ol’ Willy won’t be alone anymore.” He took off without another word. That was Ryan, having his say then speeding into the distance. It’s how he won all our arguments. My mom didn’t agree with his dad. She had cried for days when the last lady giraffe died, leaving Ol’ Willy as the only remaining male—the only living giraffe.
Mom hadn’t cried like that in months. Now, she took those pills that laid her out all day on the couch. She was too tired to cry.
I took my time following Ryan, and by the time I reached the foot of the hill, he was halfway to the top. I gave up and got off my bike—Ryan’s old bike—and began trudging upwards, leaning on the handlebars. Ryan relented and stopped his bike to let me catch up. When I came within earshot, I said, “Ok, ok. I meant extinct in the wild.” We’d learned all about classifications of endangered animals in our new class at school, Climate Science and Conservation. Least Concern. Near-Threatened. Vulnerable. Endangered. Critically Endangered. Extinct in the Wild. Extinct. I wondered what it was like to be the last of your species. To know that once you were dead, there would be nothing left of you. Gone forever, forgotten in the flesh. I shuddered. Ryan didn’t notice.
We continued upwards, pushing our bikes. I waited for him to ask me my favorite animal, but I knew he wouldn’t. He was an odd guy, my best friend, quiet but popular. I volunteered: “I really like spectacled flying foxes. And they’re not extinct, or near-extinct. Anymore.” I preferred a story of success: after the population-decimating heat waves of 2018 and 2021, conservation efforts had kicked in, and the species had been rehabilitated, now boasting a solid Vulnerable classification. Spectacled flying foxes were cute as heck and having more babies than ever these days. Not like giraffes, the poor old things—thing.
“You’re such a nerd,” Ryan said, his eyes fixed ahead. “You pay too much attention in school.”
I shut up, bowing my head over my borrowed handlebars as we completed the trek to the top of the bluffs. Maybe you don’t pay enough attention, I thought at my friend. I didn’t challenge him out loud, though. I never did. After all, he was the only one who knew about real life. He knew what it was like, living with a mom who was doped up all the time. We were getting old enough to notice it now, to notice the problem. Our moms would take their pills and lay out on the couches in Ryan’s living room, and nothing in the world could wake them. They’d slept through the Irvine Earthquake, though the entertainment center had crashed to the ground. They’d slept through my big sister Mandy’s breakdown, leaving me to handle her delusions until Dad got home that night. They’d slept through who knew how many years now, missing birthdays and holidays and the collapse of the ecological world.
We paused at the top of the bluffs, panting in the sunshine as we looked at the city sprawled out below us. From here, we could see most of Marina Del Rey, including the Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve and Conservation Research Center. We’d gone on a field trip there at the beginning of the year, studying the remaining species of birds and insects, learning why they were important for preserving human life. I hated bugs, but it seemed like every little pinching and biting beast on the planet had some vital function that humans couldn’t live without. I tried not to kill them these days, just shooed them outside when they got in the house. Mom used to help me rescue spiders from drains and wave flies out the window, but I’d been doing it on my own for a while now. Especially now that Dad was living with Uncle Dave.
Ryan led the way, turning left and walking his bike up the path parallel to the cliff in front of us. He reached the big rock and glanced around, then dropped his bike and disappeared from sight.
I leaned my bike against his and peered over the edge. A steep but climbable path dropped away below. Cautious, I slid down on my butt, red rocks biting into my bare legs. On the ledge below, I dusted off the seat of my shorts. Ryan knelt against the cliff face, doing something with his pocketknife. His t-shirt fluttered in the wind. I studied his face a little too long, though he didn’t notice. He looked just like his dad: black hair buzzed short, stocky build, narrow deep-set eyes under thick brows. The only thing he got from his mom was her impressive vocabulary of curse words..
Turning away, I watched an ambulance speed down Jefferson Boulevard, followed by a wailing cop car. I crouched down and sifted through the rocks at my feet. I found one shiny with specks of nickel and blew the red dust off of it. It glinted in the sun, leaving spots in my vision. I held it for a moment, then tossed it over the edge of the cliff.
“Got it,” Ryan said. He triumphantly held up his treasure, a dull-looking arrowhead. He’d noticed it yesterday but hadn’t been able to pry it from the surrounding stone.
“Are you sure that’s not just a triangular rock?” I asked, moving closer for a better look.
“It’s a damn arrowhead,” he said, wiping it off on his shirt. “I’ll show Dad. He’s seen hundreds of these.” Without a word of discussion, he slipped past me and headed for the path. I followed, scrambling up on my hands and knees. I was getting a little out of breath because of my asthma and the mounting heat, but I knew we’d have a nice, easy ride back home. I made it over the lip of the bluff just as Ryan hopped on his bike.
“See you there!” He pumped the pedals and sped away down the hill.
“Yeah. See you.” I dusted myself off again and took my time getting on my bike. I hated it when he left me behind like this. He could be such a butthole.
I coasted down the hill, letting the hot wind dry some of the sweat under my arms. I vowed never to forget my deodorant again. I definitely didn’t smell like a little kid anymore.
By the time I got back to the house, Ryan’s bike was discarded in the side yard, and he was nowhere to be seen. I leaned my bike against the house and let myself in the back door, sighing as the cool air touched my skin. There was no one in the kitchen, so I grabbed a couple paper towels and tried to wipe the sweat from my face and armpits. Then I went to find Ryan, who was no doubt in his bedroom examining his find.
To my surprise, he was in the living room, sitting on the couch beside my mom, who leaned forward with her elbows on her knees. Their eyes were fixated on the television, which was tuned to a news channel. The arrowhead lay on the coffee table, forgotten.
“What’s–?” My mom shushed me and pointed to the broadcast.
“… reports of findings from inside the craft,” the newscaster was saying. “Captain Coelho and his officers have personally inspected the alien vessel—”
“Alien vessel?!” I shouted. Ryan’s mom woke with a start where she lay on the loveseat, looking groggy.
“What the heck are you yelling about?” My mom flapped a hand at her and gestured to the television again. I knelt on the floor.
“… that they will be examining everything thoroughly before bringing it back to Earth. I can’t express how momentous—this is perhaps the most important moment in human history.” The woman on the screen paused as her eyes teared up. Then, her face changed as she looked at someone behind the camera. “I’m being told we’ve received some pictures. They’ve been relayed to us from the Mars Space Station. We have a direct link to the MSS, so we’re the first ones to show you this, folks. Let’s take a look at history.”
The screen cut to a still photograph. Against a backdrop of dark, star-scattered space, a blurry oval shape jumped out at us. It looked like it had once been brightly painted in rainbow colors, but now it was faded, singed, and pockmarked.
The picture changed to a close up. I could make out the ridges of the sinuous-looking hull, and the bolts lining the hatch. Was that a porthole at the edge of the shot?
Another picture, this time of the alien vessel resting in the cargo hold of a larger ship. An astronaut stood beside it for scale. It was only a few feet taller than her.
“It’s an escape pod,” I said.
“You watch too much Star Trek,” Ryan replied.
“Hush,” my mom ordered.
The screen cut back to the newscaster. “And that’s all we’ve got for now, but stay with us for continuing coverage,” she said. “For those of you just tuning in, an alien vessel has been discovered in the far reaches of our solar system, confirming that we are not alone in the galaxy…”
My mom stood up abruptly, looking unsettled. “Let’s go home,” she said. “I want to check on Allen.” My brother was old enough to stay home when he didn’t want to come over to Ryan’s place, but Mom was a big worrier even when she was high.
“You’re not staying tonight?” Ryan asked me.
I looked at my mom as she gathered her purse and car keys. She was moving slow. Wobbly. Ryan followed my gaze and noticed it, too. A flash of sadness crossed his face.
“No, not tonight,” I said. He grunted in response and leaned back on the couch, turning up the volume on the television. His mom had already fallen back asleep. I held the door for my mom, making sure not to let any of the cats escape. “Bye.”
I got into the passenger seat of Mom’s tiny car, buckling my seatbelt. Mom wasted no time getting us on the road, squinting at the streetlights through the sun’s glare. I tried to ignore the pangs of nervousness, tiny explosions of anxiety in my chest that warned me I was not safe.
Mom blew past the meter and onto the freeway. She was a speed demon. We lived pretty far away, almost all the way downtown, but I couldn’t relax enough to look at my phone.
“Can you believe they found aliens?” It had been a long time since I’d heard this kind of emotion in Mom’s voice—this kind of lucidity.
“It’s pretty amazing,” I agreed. Something in her tone reminded me of when I was little, before things had gotten bad. A bitter emotion rose in my chest as memory barged in. Piled together in bed, we kids listened with rapt attention as Mom read her favorite childhood books to us: The Neverending Story, Number the Stars, Hatchet. She read patiently, never rushing through the text, as if each word were a piece of delicious fudge, demanding to be savored.
Trying to distract myself from the nostalgic sadness, I opened up my phone and started scrolling through the internet’s reactions to the alien discovery. It worked. Trek fans on Tumblr were losing their shit. New memes were popping up every few minutes. I couldn’t help but get sucked in. Reading on my phone made me carsick, so I reclined my seat all the way, which helped a little.
I was about to reblog a post featuring my favorite character, Captain Sisko, when everything exploded. My body was thrust forward, slipping underneath the seatbelt and into the floorboard. Pain flashed up my left leg. My phone disappeared.
Someone screamed “What happened?” over and over. I wanted to tell them I didn’t know, then I realized it was me screaming.
“We had an accident,” Mom said, voice tight with pain.
I got quiet, pulling myself back into the seat as best I could. I knew better than to put up a fuss when Mom needed to think and figure out what to do. After a moment, though, it was clear that she couldn’t move, couldn’t think, couldn’t help.
I got out of the car. Vehicles whizzed past just feet away as I edged forward toward the car we’d hit. Its trunk was completely smashed in, its back windshield shattered. A woman sat behind the wheel with the window down, talking rapidly into her phone.
“Please,” I said. “My mom needs help. Can you call 911?”
The woman ignored me. Hot rage began amassing in my throat. My heart was like a hummingbird, vibrating in my chest.
I turned around and limped back alongside our car, ignoring the crumpled hood. A station wagon had rammed into our rear bumper, its hood sliding partially underneath our car’s back end. The driver of the station wagon was talking urgently on her phone.
“Please, can you call 911?” I shouted over the noise of the traffic.
She ignored me. The rage swelled. Electricity jolted through my brain, disorienting me. An 18-wheeler sped past, horn bellowing, missing me only by a couple of feet. I looked down and realized my entire body was shaking violently.
I got back in the car with Mom and rummaged under my seat for my phone. Mom had managed to get unbuckled, but that was about it. Her eyes were half-closed, and she was struggling to breathe. My face felt hot as I wondered exactly how many pills she had taken. Were her ribs broken? Was she going to be arrested? I started to cry.
I heard the sirens before I saw the ambulance. They roared up beside us, followed by about a dozen fire trucks. Now that they were blocking traffic, I opened my door again and waved at the nearest firefighter.
He walked over to me, tall and broad in his yellow suit, and knelt down on the heat-radiating asphalt.
“Are you hurt anywhere?” His voice was calming, almost as if he were about to start laughing, but not in a mocking way.
“My leg, a little,” I said. “But my mom is…”
“They’re taking care of her,” he said. I turned around. In the few seconds I’d had my back turned, paramedics had opened the driver’s side door. One of them was talking to my mom, reaching into the car to prod her chest and arms.
“This isn’t so bad,” my firefighter said. He had taken my leg in his hand to examine the cut. “Might need a stitch or two, but we’ll let them decide that later. Hey, did you hear they discovered aliens today?” He cleaned the cut and bandaged it in seconds, telling me the whole time about the pictures of the alien vessel he’d seen online. I pretended I hadn’t heard, saying “wow” in the right places as he talked. “That’ll do it. Just sit here until I come get you.” He closed my door and walked away to talk to the ambulance driver. My anxiety was gone now. I felt unnaturally calm.
Two women helped Mom onto a stretcher, clutching her arms so tight I knew they’d leave marks. She bruised like a peach. Fear swept through my body once more, and my eyes stung. I looked around again for my phone, but it must have disappeared into a wormhole. I watched in the sideview mirror as the paramedics lifted Mom’s stretcher into the back of the ambulance.
My firefighter came back and opened my door. “Ok, you’re going to ride with your mom,” he said. I got out, and he put a hand on my shoulder, steering me to the ambulance.
“Thank you,” I said as he turned me over to a paramedic. She motioned toward a seat behind the driver. I slid past Mom on her stretcher, sat down, and buckled my seatbelt as we began to move. The paramedic put a mask over Mom’s face, then turned to me.
“Hey, you alright? This must be pretty scary for you.”
She seemed to think I was several years younger than I actually was. It didn’t matter. I nodded. The fear had abated again. I felt numb, but I knew I should be scared.
“You ever hear that old song? ‘Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens…’ It helps when you feel upset or scared to think about the things you love most.”
My eyes were still fixed on my mom’s face. Her eyes were closed, but I could see she was in pain. “Like what?”
She concentrated on her work for a moment, poking Mom with a needle. “Like, I don’t know, what’s your favorite animal?”
“Giraffes,” I said. “They’re gonna clone a lady friend for Ol’ Willy any day now.”