Seventh Grade (Alien!) Hero Sneak Peek

Middle Grade Science Fiction by K.L. Pickett

Seventh-grader Dustin Cotter dreams of being the first human to make contact with an alien species from outer space. So when he discovers that the meteorite he watched crash-landing is really a miniature spacecraft, he’s determined to capture it.

But first a dog grabs it. A dog that happens to be owned by Randie, the cutest girl at his new school. Then it gets stolen by another kid on horseback: Max, the school comedian/magician/cowboy. Dustin finally manages to get it back, and his dream of making contact comes true when he meets Bok, the tiny alien astronaut.

However, a dangerous motorcyclist saw the crash-landing, too. He wants the spaceship and will stop at nothing until it’s in his possession. And then one dark night, the man catches Dustin alone out in the desert - and Dustin’s dream turns into a life-threatening nightmare.  

      

Chapter One

Alone. Again.

The two things I wanted most in the world were:

1.To make contact with an alien life form (and become famous), and

2.To make friends with Miranda Wright (and have her like me).

The chance of number one happening was probably greater than the chance of number two. But if I did discover life from another planet, I’d be known as Dustin Cotter, that famous kid who found the aliens; maybe then Miranda would want to hang out with me.

Neither one was likely to happen. But hey, a guy can dream, can’t he?

Miranda was one of only two good things I’d discovered since Mom had moved us from San Diego, California out here to Cactus Springs, Arizona. She’d said we were moving here to start a new life, since Dad had remarried and moved to New York. My vote didn’t count for much; I told her I was happy with my old life, but we moved anyway.

The only other good thing about living out here was the billions of stars. It seemed like I could see the entire Milky Way. Planets revolved around millions of those stars, and some of them were sure to be inhabited. They had to be!

I turned my thoughts back to the American Meteor Society’s website on my computer screen. It had all the latest information on tonight’s meteor shower, which I didn’t want to miss. I was dying to see all those shooting stars!

Dad would love seeing them, too. When he used to live with us, we’d watch the stars and planets together a lot. Would he be able to see the meteors in New York? I didn’t know, but thought I’d call and tell him about it. While I was searching for his new phone number, Mom knocked on my bedroom door.

“What?” I called without bothering to open my door. I knew she wouldn’t open it. Ever since she and Dad got divorced, she’s been trying to “let me have my space.” Which was okay with me. It was rude to talk to her through a closed door, but I didn’t care. It was her fault Dad left, and that made me mad.

“Dustin? Can I come in?”

I wanted to say no, but I didn’t. Instead, I opened the door. Mom sat on my unmade bed, wrinkled her nose at the pile of dirty clothes, and glanced at my poster with the satellite picture of Mars. It’s taped next to one showing close-ups of the craters of the moon. They were the only things I’d put up from my old room back in California. Everything else was still packed in boxes in my closet.

“I know moving in the middle of the school year has been hard on you, honey. I was hoping you’d have made some new friends by now.”

“Yeah, well, I liked my old ones. The kids here just don’t like the same stuff I do.”

What an understatement that was. Nobody at this hick school seemed to be the least bit interested in science or outer space. It made me feel like an alien on my own planet. But I wasn’t about to tell Mom that.

“I worry about you,” she said. After pausing a moment, she sighed. “Sandy and a couple of other nurses asked if I’d like to join them for dinner and maybe a movie tonight. But I hate to leave you alone on a Saturday night.”

“I’m fine! Just go!” Then I added in a sarcastic voice, “Have a good time with your friends.” Sandy had been Mom’s friend since high school. After Dad married Darla and moved to New York, she’d talked Mom into moving out here to Arizona and helped her get a job at the hospital.

Mom looked worried and stood up. “Nope, I’ve changed my mind.” She put on her fake smile. “I know. Let’s you and me go to the Chinese place you like.”

“No offense, but hanging out with my mom on Saturday night is not my idea of fun. But I’m glad at least one of us has friends. So just go.” I knew I was hurting her feelings, but I didn’t care.

“I don’t understand you anymore,” whispered Mom while shaking her head.

“You’re the one who dragged us out here. I didn’t want to come.”

“I did it for us. I make more money here, and rent is cheaper. We’re a one-income family now; you know that.”

“And whose fault is that?”

Mom frowned, clenched her fists, and spoke through tight lips. “Your father left us,” she said, emphasizing each word. “I’ve worked two double shifts at the hospital this week; I deserve a dinner out.”

She paused, and her voice softened. “If you don’t want to go with me, I’ll go with the girls. But I’d rather go out with you.”

She hovered in the doorway. I could tell she wanted me to say something. When I didn’t, she turned and walked out of my room, closing the door behind her.

I felt a little bad about what I’d said and really didn’t want to be alone again tonight. So I almost called her back. But I didn’t. Then I thought about asking her to watch the meteor shower with me later. But I knew she wouldn’t be interested in seeing it, so I didn’t do that either.

Now Dad would be interested. Even though it was Mom who bought me my first telescope, he was the one who set it up for me. We’d sit outside and gaze at the stars and planets. Mom was always too busy working.

Unlike Mom, he was always ready to have fun. If he were here, we’d set up the lounge chairs on the deck and bring out lots of snacks. I’d fill up the ice chest for his beer so he wouldn’t have to keep saying, “Hey kid, go grab me a cold one.” We’d tell jokes and spend the whole night together outside under the stars.

But Dad wasn’t here.

I forced myself to stop thinking about him and went back to reading about the meteor shower.

A short while later, Mom called from outside my door. “I’m going now. I made you a sandwich for dinner. It’s in the fridge. I won’t be late.” The front door opened and closed. The car engine started up and the wheels crunched on the gravel driveway. I turned my head toward the window.

Watching her drive off toward town made me angry. If we were still living in San Diego, I could have had a sleep-over tonight, and my friends would have brought their telescopes. This wasn’t fair. Was this how the rest of my life was going to be? Mom going out to have fun with her friends, while I stayed home alone, waiting for her to come back?

A big, wet nose nudged my arm. My dog was signaling he wanted a good scratch behind his long, floppy ears. Reaching down to pat his head, I said, “Well, Captain Kent, it’s just you and me. Alone. Again.”


Chapter Two

The Most Ordinary Guy in Seventh Grade

I grabbed my sandwich from the fridge, took it to my room, and turned back to my computer screen. The more I read, the more excited I became. Tonight I’d see my first meteor shower. The article said the best views would be from the Southwestern deserts. And that’s where I was, on the outskirts of Cactus Springs, Arizona, smack dab in the middle of a big, flat desert.

Mom had rented us an old, paint-peeling-off house on a rutted dirt road over a mile from town. It must have been a ranch or something a long time ago, because rotten wooden fence posts surrounded it, and rusty old barbed wire reached out to snag you if you weren’t careful. Behind the house were some old, dilapidated wooden storage sheds. I never went near them for two reasons: One, because they looked like they might collapse any minute; and two, because they looked like a perfect hiding place for snakes.

The only other house nearby was Miranda’s. It was about a quarter mile away, across the desert on the only other dirt road stretching this side of civilization. Around and beyond the two houses were endless acres of rocky sand dotted with cactus, creosote bushes, and ocotillo, which is a funny-looking plant that looks like tall sticks poking out of the ground covered with sharp spines.

Being out here, away from the lights of town, I’d have a great view of the meteors. It was too bad my old friends in the seventh grade science club couldn’t come see them. No one at my new school would want to; all they cared about was football or the rodeo. Kids here would think I was nuts for wanting to watch stars.

Especially Max Murdock, a tall guy in my history class. For some reason, he liked to pick on me. He was always leaning his chair back against the wall with his dirty John Deere ball cap pulled down over his eyes. Sometimes he’d yank my sweatshirt hood back off my head when I walked by, and then act like he didn’t do it. Or he’d steal my pen when I wasn’t looking, and then pretend like he’d found it in someone’s ear. Whenever I answered the teacher’s questions, he’d make stupid comments. But I noticed he never knew any of the answers. Worst of all, he was always hanging around Miranda.

Thinking about Miranda made me get up and go to my window where I had a good view of her house. It was just beginning to get dark, and someone came out and flicked on her porch light. I decided to have a closer look through my telescope out on the porch.

One cool thing about this old house was that my bedroom had its own back door to the outside. As I stepped out onto the wraparound porch, my dog almost knocked me over. “Captain Kent, watch where you’re going,” I snapped.

He bounded out in front of me, leaping to the bottom of the steps for his ball. Grabbing it, he turned and raced back up, stopping just out of my reach.

“We’ll play in a minute. Let me see something first.” I walked over to my telescope that I’d pointed toward Polaris, which is a star in the Little Dipper constellation. I swung the telescope toward Miranda’s house.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not a peeping Tom or anything. The side of her garage, a green, windowless wall, faced our house, so there wasn’t much to see. But sometimes I’d catch her out in her front yard.

I focused the eyepiece. “Bingo!” Miranda came into view. Her long, blonde hair was pulled back in a ponytail. She tossed out a Frisbee for her golden retriever to catch, and I admired her throwing arm. Her dog took off and, with an amazing leap, caught it in midair. Carrying his captured prize like a trophy, he trotted back to Miranda. He sat facing her, and she reached out to take the Frisbee from him.

“Why can’t you do that?” I asked Captain Kent. He dropped his ball and waited for me to pick it up. His long tongue hung out of the side of his mouth, dripping drool. Peering at him, I couldn’t help comparing his spiky, multi-colored fur with the sleek coat of Miranda’s retriever. “Oh well, I guess you can’t help it if you’re a mutt,” I muttered as I picked up his ball.

“Hey, Captain,” I yelled and tossed his ball into the yard. Sprinting after it, he grasped it in his slobbery jaws, ran back to me, and sat a few feet away while thumping his tail on the ground.

I put my hand out for the ball like Miranda did for her dog, knowing it was a useless gesture. “Drop it,” I commanded. Captain Kent pricked his ears, wagged his tail faster, and ignored my command. I knew what he was waiting for. Every afternoon, I’d throw the ball for him. He’d grab it and run, and I’d race after him to try to get it back. He loved our game of chase; you could say he’d trained me well.

“Here I come,” I yelled, leaping off the porch. Captain Kent spun around and ran off, turning his head to look back every so often. Sometimes he’d almost let me catch up to him, and then, with a burst of speed, he’d race on just out of reach. When I started stumbling over my own feet and gasping for breath, I stopped.

“I give up,” I said, collapsing on the wooden steps. Captain Kent lay down a few feet away from me. He dropped his ball and watched as it rolled a foot or so away. His gaze swung from the ball toward me as if to say, “Don’t even try to make a move for it.”

After I’d caught my breath, I went back to my telescope. Miranda had taken her great smile and her long, blonde hair back inside. I really wanted her to notice me. But I’m not tall, my hair’s just plain old mousy brown, and I wear jeans and T-shirts like everyone else. So why should she notice me, Dustin Cotter, the most ordinary guy in seventh grade?

Plus, I’d only been at this school for a couple of weeks.

I’d certainly noticed her, though, for two reasons. First, she was cute, and second, she spent a lot of time during lunch and breaks with her nose in a book, so I figured she liked to read as much as I did. And a couple of times, I walked behind her in the cafeteria to spy over her shoulder to see what she was reading. Both times, it turned out to be science fiction, which is what I love to read, too.

But how could I get her to notice me?


Chapter Three

The Meteor Shower

Mom called to ask if it was okay if she stayed to watch a movie with Sandy. It seemed like a weird question to me. She didn’t need my permission. I think the question she was really trying to ask was, “Do you want me to come home to be with you?” I told her to have a good time and went to check the time of the meteor shower.

According to the American Meteor Society website, nothing would start happening until about four-thirty a.m., so Captain Kent and I curled up on the sofa with some popcorn to watch some old episodes of Planet Quest. Sometimes, Dad used to watch them with me on Saturday nights. Thinking about him, I wondered what he was doing right now.

I’d never called him about the meteor shower, so I got up to get the phone. New York was in a different time zone, later than Arizona’s, but I couldn’t remember how much later. No matter. Dad never went to bed early. Mom might get upset about a long distance phone bill, but I promised myself it would be a short conversation.

After digging out his new number, I punched it in. It rang four times before the answering machine kicked in.

“Hello, this is Kurt,” said Dad’s voice.

“And this is Darla,” said a giggling, young woman’s voice.

Laughing together they said, “Sorry, we’re out, so leave a message.”

“Uh, hi, Dad. There’s going to be a meteor shower tonight. I thought you might want to watch it. Bye.” I hung up, wishing I hadn’t called. With Dad out with Darla, and Mom out with her friends, I felt lonelier than ever.

Before going to bed, I went to the kitchen and got some snacks to eat while watching the meteor shower. After laying out my sweatshirt and socks, the last thing to do was to set my alarm clock.

It seemed like just minutes later the alarm starting ringing. My hand slapped it off. It couldn’t be four-thirty already. My bed was so nice and warm, I was tempted to stay snuggled under my covers and go back to sleep. But any minute now, shooting stars would be darting across the sky. Would I rather sleep a few more hours or watch meteors? No contest. I sat up.

I hoped Mom hadn’t heard my alarm. She liked to sleep in on the weekends. As I got out of bed, Captain Kent made me laugh by jumping up to burrow under the covers. After pulling on my jeans, a sweatshirt, and shoes and socks, I opened my door and walked out onto the porch.

On this clear, moonless night, the stars lit up the sky. The Milky Way stretched from one mountain range far away on my right, way over to more mountains in the distance on my left. The sky had never been this awesome back in California. I stared at the vast universe, imagining aliens looking up from their planets, seeing the exact same stars. Were they wondering if there was intelligent life out there somewhere, too?

Then a streak of light shot across the night sky. A meteor! A few minutes later, another one sped by. A half hour later, my neck hurt from looking up. After hauling out a blanket and pillow, I was able to lay down on the old picnic table in the yard. That made watching the stars much easier. More than twenty whizzed across the sky that first hour. People call meteors shooting stars, but they’re really bits of debris from a comet zooming by somewhere out there in space.

The second hour there weren’t quite so many. By six-thirty, the black night sky was turning varying shades of gray as the sun started coming up over the distant mountains. I stood up and stretched. It had been well worth it to get up early to see all those meteors.

As I was picking up my candy wrappers, a movement caught my eye. One last meteor streaked across the sky. It was visible even though the sun’s morning light had blotted out the rest of the stars. Wow! That one’s got to be really close to be seen this late in the morning. As I stood there staring, it got brighter and brighter. It was plummeting down across the sky when it veered a little to the left. I blinked my eyes. How could it do that? Meteors don’t change course in mid-air. I must have imagined it.

A second later, I realized it was crashing into the desert.

The meteor nosedived toward the desert north of my house. The rays of the early morning sun bounced off its metallic surface, kind of like off a mirror. I squinted because it hurt my eyes to watch as it streaked down to earth with a faint “Whoosh.” When it struck the ground, a small cloud of dust could be seen rising high in the air, even though the collision was some distance away.

I made a mental note of where it had gone down: in a straight line toward the highest of the two mountain peaks in the distance. Grabbing Captain Kent by the collar, I shoved him into my room, making sure the door was shut tight. I didn’t want to worry about him following me.

Running fast, I headed toward the crash site. I kept glancing at my surroundings in order to keep my bearings so I wouldn’t veer off course. From my house, the desert looked pretty flat, but I soon realized the low spots were just hidden from view. Dry creek beds with steep sides, and often several feet across, seemed to pop out of nowhere. I wasted time figuring out the best way to cross them.

In some areas, thick patches of cactus or mesquite bushes blocked my way, forcing me to skirt around them. Reaching a broad area without much brush, I turned on the steam and felt like an Olympic runner.

When the dirt under my right foot gave way, my body pitched forward, and I sprawled head over heels across the ground. I stood up, dusted myself off, and looked back to see what caused me to fall. A ground squirrel tunnel had collapsed under my weight. Glancing around, I realized there were similar burrows all around me. I took off again, this time watching where I put my feet. If I sprained an ankle now, I’d never find that meteorite.

As I ran, I pictured tomorrow’s headlines on the front page of the local newspaper: “Seventh Grade Student Finds Falling Star.” I’d be famous! The whole school—the whole town, the whole state, maybe even the whole country—would know who I was, including Miranda! Maybe then, the kids here would want to be friends with me.

My goal was to reach the meteor crash site as fast as I could; however, soon I was wheezing for breath and had to slow down. A distant humming sound made me stop to listen. It sounded like a helicopter. Then a motorcycle came into view. Other people were headed for the meteorite, too.

I picked up my pace, but knew I’d never reach it first.

For a while, the guy on the motorcycle was easy to spot as he raced across the desert. Then he rode down into a low area where he went out of my sight; however, his dust cloud still billowed up behind him.

Panting and out of breath, I made my way up a small slope. When I reached the top, the crash site was about a quarter of a mile away in a shallow area. A thin skid mark scarred the desert for about the length of a football field. It ended in a hole on this end that looked like it was about the size of a doghouse. The meteorite must have been pretty small. The helicopter had landed, and the motorcycle was parked nearby. It was obvious these people didn’t want others around; three of them were blocking off the entire area by stringing yellow “caution; keep out” tape from one ocotillo plant to another. I wasn’t getting near that meteorite now.

Unless I could sneak in closer. 


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