Chapter One

Bang!

I sat up in bed, disoriented. At first I thought it was just the wind and rain from the storm, but then I heard Comet. He was standing at the window on his hind legs, a low rumbling growl coming from deep in his throat. He rarely barked, so I knew something was up.

“What is it, boy?”

I started to reach for the lamp, then stopped. If he was growling at prowlers, I wouldn’t want them to know anyone was awake. So I left the light off, rubbed the sleep from my eyes, and slipped quietly out of bed. Then I tiptoed across the room and put a hand on Comet’s back to calm him. Slowly, I stroked his wiry fur. He stopped growling, but continued to stare, his body rigid and alert.

“It’s okay,” I whispered.

But as my gaze followed his, my pulse quickened. In the country, it would normally be pitch-black on a moonless, stormy night. But it wasn’t — at least not around the barn. A strange red light seeped through the cracks of the wooden walls, casting eerie shadows in all directions.

Was it a fire? That would certainly explain the reddish glow and Comet’s behavior. I shook my head. No, that couldn’t be it. There were no visible flames or smoke. And besides, the light wasn’t quite right. It looked more like a flashlight beam than the flickering flames of a fire.

Bang!

The loud noise made me jump, and then a movement caught my eye. It was the barn doors, flapping back and forth in the gusting wind. At least I knew what had woken me. But that didn’t explain everything. I mean, Grandpa not latching the doors was entirely possible, but the red glow… that worried me.

I grabbed my raincoat and headed downstairs, switching the light on as I entered the kitchen. I would go check it out, but if someone was in the barn, maybe seeing the house lit up would make them think there were reinforcements inside. Not that it really mattered. I wasn’t planning on being seen. I was just going to sneak out, make sure the cows hadn’t wandered off, and figure out where the light was coming from. Easy peasy.

In hindsight, maybe I should’ve been more cautious. But we didn’t get much crime in the country, so I wasn’t overly worried. What passed for high crime in my neck of the woods usually consisted of cow-tipping and tractor racing. Farm kids would do just about anything for amusement. And at the moment, I suspected a couple of them might be in the barn. Then again, Grandpa had caught a hobo out there once. The guy turned out to be harmless, just looking for a warm place to sleep, but you could never be too careful.

We kept an emergency flashlight on a shelf by the door, so I checked to make sure the battery was good. Then I stood there, pondering whether or not to wake Grandpa. But ultimately, I decided against it. No use getting him all riled up and agitated over nothing. Besides, the last thing I needed was for him to get out in the damp weather and catch his death of pneumonia. Old people were magnets for that stuff.

I pulled on my rubber boots and pushed away the negative thoughts clawing at my mind. Jumping to conclusions would only make matters worse. The storm had simply blown the doors loose… that’s all. As far as the strange glow, I knew there had to be a perfectly good explanation for it. Nothing to be alarmed about.

A soft whine at my feet interrupted my thoughts. It was Comet. He wanted to go with me, and I briefly mulled it over. But if the cows had gotten out, which was entirely possible, I didn’t want to be chasing them down and dealing with him. Plus, even if I didn’t end up having to round up cows in my pajamas, it was still messy out. And taking Comet would mean I’d have to clean him up before he could come back inside.

He must have sensed my decision, because he plopped down on the kitchen floor and gave me the saddest look he could muster. It was a tactic he’d used successfully on more than one occasion, but this time it wasn’t going to work.
“You wait here, buddy, I’ll be right back,” I said, giving him a quick scratch behind the ears. Then, pulling my raincoat’s hoodie over my head, I eased out the back door.

It was strange, but I couldn’t shake the feeling I’d just told my dog a lie.
Outside, the rain had slowed to a drizzle, but it was still gusting pretty hard. As much as I didn’t want to go out in it, there was no putting it off. I stepped from the covered porch, leaned into the wind, and grimaced as tiny drops of water pelted my face.

Carefully, I made my way across the slick grass, mud squishing beneath my boots. I was just thinking it must’ve been raining longer than I’d thought, when my right foot suddenly slipped out from under me. Mud oozed between my fingers and soaked into the knees of my flannel pajamas. Great… just great. After saying a few choice words, I struggled to my feet and continued on.

The barn doors were banging around pretty hard, so I went for those first. I switched off the flashlight, stuffed it into one of my raincoat’s pockets, and reached out. Luckily, I was able to grab them without getting clobbered, but the wind made it difficult. I nearly slipped and fell again, yet somehow managed to stay upright, ease inside, and pull them closed behind me.

I froze.

If someone was in the barn, closing the doors would be a dead giveaway that I was near. Also, having them closed would slow me down if I needed to get the heck out of Dodge and make a mad dash for the house.

Slowly, I released the doors.

Bang!

The wind slammed them into the side of the barn, and I cringed. But it couldn’t be helped. I darted to one side and concealed myself in the shadows. Maybe I was just being paranoid.

A loud thump came from one of the back stalls.

Okay, maybe not.

Crouching low to make myself as small a target as possible, I looked around for something to use as a weapon. Nothing. Note to self… going out to check for prowlers, armed with only a flashlight, was a dumb idea. But I couldn’t back out now. So I squatted there in the dirt and listened, straining my ears.
Except for the wind, rain, banging doors, and cows chewing their cud, it was quiet.

I moved farther in.

The pungent smell of moldy hay and manure assaulted my nostrils and almost made me sneeze, but I held it back. I’d all but convinced myself that the sound I’d heard had been nothing more than the cows bumping around in their stalls, and that the red light was some new-fangled thing Grandpa was testing to see if it would make the cows feel better about themselves, when I heard something else — a low murmur, like voices, only I couldn’t understand the words.

The hairs on the back of my neck stood up, and my heart pounded. I fought the urge to run, telling myself that it was the kids next door playing some kind of prank. And if so, catching them red-handed would be the only way to prove anything. That calmed me down, and I knelt there for a few more minutes while I savored the idea of getting revenge for their non-stop bullying. With renewed courage, I tiptoed closer.

As I inched forward, it became clear that there were two voices. I could tell by the difference in their tones. One was considerably higher and louder than the other. They appeared to be coming from the milking stall in the very back. One thing was for certain… the voices didn’t belong to the bullies next door.

I moved silently, closer and closer, passing stalls of cows who watched dumbly as I crept by — their faces blissfully undisturbed by the presence of intruders.

The voices grew louder.

I still couldn’t make out the words. It sounded like they were speaking another language. Fear threatened to paralyze me, and a permanent lump formed in my throat. But I’d gone too far to turn back. I was hooked, like a fish on a line, being slowly reeled in by my insatiable curiosity.

Finally, I reached the next-to-the-last stall, carefully raised the latch, and slipped inside. It was empty, which was odd because there should’ve been a cow inside. If thieves were stealing livestock, why not take one closer to the front? And why take it around to the milking stall instead of leaving immediately? It didn’t make sense. Not that anyone ever accused cattle rustlers of being the sharpest tools in the shed.

Gulping down the fear that gripped me, I eased up on my tiptoes and attempted to peer over the wall between the stalls. But no matter how far I stretched, it wasn’t quite enough. That’s when I noticed the metal bucket in the corner. I flipped it over, taking care not to let the handle clang against the side, and set it against the wall. Then, carefully, I stepped on top. Thankfully, the added height was just enough to allow me to peek over and…

My jaw dropped.

For a moment, I thought my heart was going to burst right out of my chest. I teetered on the bucket in shock, not realizing that I’d stopped breathing until a wave of dizziness hit me. Forcing myself to take slow breaths to keep from blacking out, I stared wide-eyed at the scene before me.

An odd, metallic, lantern-like thing — the source of the red light I’d seen from the house — sat on a shelf near the back of the stall. The missing cow was also there, happily chewing its cud, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the two beings next to it weren’t human.

They looked like something straight out of a sci-fi movie — humanoid, with two arms, two legs, long fingers, bald heads, and noses that were little more than indents over their mouths. Oh… and grayish-green skin. But what struck me most were their huge, inky, black eyes. One of the creatures stood next to the cow’s head, and the other sat on a milking stool.

Wait, what?

I’d been so freaked out by their appearance that it took a minute for my brain to register exactly what I was seeing. But there could be no doubt about it… aliens were milking our cow. I couldn’t believe my eyes, but that’s exactly what they were doing. The one on the stool had a bucket under the cow and was attempting, unsuccessfully I might add, to extract milk. And the other alien, growing louder and louder by the minute, gestured wildly with his hands. He appeared to be saying something like, “Not that way, you idiot!”

An idea struck me.

If I pushed myself up on my tiptoes, I might be able to see if…

The bucket tipped.

It toppled over with a loud clang, leaving me clinging desperately to the top of the wall with my eyes still visible above the rim. The aliens, startled by the noise, looked up. For a moment I hung there, frozen, like a deer in the headlights, mesmerized by my reflection in their eyes. Then my grip slipped. I tumbled backward into the stall, bumping my head in the process. Fortunately, I landed on a pile of hay instead of cow manure. I was still struggling to rise when the stall door creaked open on its hinges.

“I, I’m…” I stuttered in horror, not knowing what to say. My brain screamed at me to beg for mercy, but my mouth wouldn’t cooperate.

As the aliens entered the stall, I attempted to burrow deeper into the hay. But it was no use. The tall one reached out, with a long, bony finger, and touched my shoulder.

A slight tingling sensation spread through my body, and then…

Darkness.

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