Detective Earl Smith and his son, Kevin, sat in the cop car. The world outside was green and plastic, awash in yellow sunlight. No bird chirped, no blade of grass moved. The wind stood still. The car’s radio provided a muffled soundtrack for the uncomfortable silence. Detective Smith’s mind was blank and wordless; he had run out of things to say to his son long before they had entered the car.
Detective Smith and his wife were in the painful process of an unacknowledged divorce where they still lived together yet were slowly drifting apart, like shards of a broken window grating against each other before the eventual shattering. Kevin was caught between them, slowly being pulled apart by their separating gravities. He and Detective Smith had only exchanged single-syllable words in the past few weeks.
Since today was take-your-kid-to-work day, and since his son got a free day off from school, Detective Smith’s wife had made a firm decision that he would accompany his dad to work that day. Detective Smith had not wanted to fight that morning, so he agreed.
Detective Smith shuffled the papers in his lap as he read them. They were that morning’s reports, picked up from the precinct, along with a donut, still uneaten.
Detective Smith made a noise.
“Kids’ve been going missing,” he said as one word. “So far 8 disappearances.”
Kevin said nothing. He looked at the grate in the center of the street. There was a crack down the center.
“Doesn’t seem to be a pattern. Some kids younger than you, some older.”
An animal made a noise somewhere far away.
“Maybe you know some of them. Here . . .” he shuffled the papers, “you know any girls named Cynthia? Cynthia Johnson? How about . . . Alex Keff? David Dundst? Alicia McHallen? The last girl was 6, you probably wouldn’t know her.”
A car drove by.
Detective Smith returned to the reports. “Looks like they all disappeared outside . . .”
He trailed off. Something in his expression changed, like a tomato souring in time-lapse. He sighed.
“What day is it today?” he asked.
“Friday,” responded Kevin. He didn’t meet his father’s gaze. “Why?”
Detective Smith put the car in gear. “That means they’re here today.”
The car edged out into the street and turned right on the suburban lane.
“Where are we going?” asked Kevin, sighing.
Detective Smith turned left into a neighborhood. “At every crime scene there were the same enormous runes dug into the earth.”
“What does that mean?”
Detective Smith shrugged as he pulled into the driveway of a house that looked like every other suburban house in every other cul-de-sac in the country. “It probably means aliens. But I don’t know, I’m usually wrong.”
Kevin looked his father in the eye. “What?”
Detective Smith got out of the car and walked toward the house. Kevin followed.
They stood in front of a thick mahogany door.
“Listen,” said Detective Smith, “you should probably stay in the car. The people who live here aren’t exactly . . . normal.”
“It’s take-your-kid-to-work day,” said Kevin, giving his father a blank stare. “Isn’t the whole point to take me with you?”
“Fine,” sighed Detective Smith. “Tungsten could use a friend.”
“Tungsten? What kind of a name is that?”
Detective Smith knocked on the mahogany door. There was a brief pause and the door swung open. On the other side was a boy, about Kevin’s age, with a pleasant face and eyes that protruded out of his head. They were blue and deep like the depths of the ocean, and they seemed to take in the world before them with such voracity it was like watching a hungry cow devour a patch of grass.
“Detective Earl!” the boy exclaimed.
Kevin flinched at the mention of his father’s first name.
“Hi Tungsten,” said Detective Smith, smiling softly. “Is your dad here?”
Tungsten shook his head. “Not today, sorry. We left him behind. He’s getting me a dog.”
“Like, from the pound?” asked Kevin.
Tungsten looked at him, and it felt as if Kevin were being memorized. “No, a real dog. One of the ones that roams the plains and drinks from the wild streams.”
Kevin was unsure how to respond.
Detective Smith looked defeated. “Oh. Well, tell him I’d love to talk to him when he gets back.” He turned to leave.
“Do you need his help?” asked Tungsten hopefully. “With police business?”
Foot on the driveway, Detective Smith turned back. “Yeah. Kids are going missing.”
Tungsten made a hmm noise. “Are there runes?”
Detective Smith nodded. “Yeah, there are runes.”
Kevin looked surprised. “How’d you know that?”
“I can help you,” said Tungsten, smiling.
Detective Smith looked uncomfortably at the ground. “Listen, you’re a great kid, Tungsten, and I really appreciate the offer, but I don’t want to get in trouble with your dad, and these things sometimes end up being—”
“I know at least half of what my dad knows, and my dad knows everything,” said Tungsten matter-of-factly. “Please, I can help. I want to help.”
Detective Smith sighed and put his finger on the bridge of his nose. “Fine.” He turned to his son. “I’m taking you home.”
“What?” exclaimed Kevin. “No!”
“I’m not having you involved in this. It’s dangerous.”
“Actually,” interrupted Tungsten, “it’s not. If my theory is correct, the aliens we’re dealing with are famously non-violent.”
“‘The aliens we’re dealing with?’” quoted Kevin, eyes wide in disbelief.
“I told you he was weird,” sighed Detective Smith.
“Well, if the aliens are non-violent, that means I can come along, right Earl?”
Detective Smith rolled his eyes. “I’m not taking you with us. End of story.”
“I don’t think Mom would be happy if I told her you ditched me on take-your-kid-to-work day,” hissed Kevin. Detective Smith flinched like he had just been stabbed.
“Fine,” he exclaimed, throwing his hands up in defeat. “Don’t blame me when you crap your pants in the portal.”
They drove to the crime scene, Detective Smith in the driver’s seat, Kevin in the passenger’s, and Tungsten in the back, face pressed up against the window, watching the identical houses blow past with childlike fascination.
The crime scene was in the center of a park. It was taped off, police cones making a sloppy circle around a ring of black, unintelligible scars on the green grass. A swing set and a jungle gym watched from afar as the group of three made their way past the circle of “CRIME SCENE: DO NOT ENTER” tape.
Tungsten bent down and inspected the violent black marks. It looked like someone had been lit on fire and tried to put it out by rolling in the grass. The dark marks had no pattern, no repeated symbols. Tungsten scrutinized the rune, his big Bambi eyes consuming every detail. Occasionally, he would take a piece of charred grass, put it on his tongue, swish it around his mouth as if it were wine, and spit it onto the ground.
“Who is this kid?” Kevin asked, confused and suspicious.
It was now Detective Smith’s turn not to respond.
Tungsten stood up suddenly. “I know what happened.”
He began to walk around the edge of the rune, picking up various twigs, pieces of grass, bundles of tape and the occasional police cone.
“Our diagnosis was wrong. It wasn’t a rune, it was a keyhole. We obviously don’t have the key anymore, but—”
Tungsten held up what appeared to be an arbitrarily constructed mess of grass and police tape wrapped around a twig with a police cone on top. He walked over to Detective Smith, took his shoulders, and guided him until he was standing on part of the rune.
He went to do the same to Kevin.
“Wait a minute,” said Kevin, backing away, “what is this for? What are you talking about?”
Tungsten frowned. “You don’t understand?” he asked, surprised.
“No, you eating grass and making modern art out of random stuff from the park doesn’t really make sense to me,” retorted Kevin.
Tungsten nodded. “I forgot,” he said explanatorily.
He moved Kevin into a position across from his father.
“You forgot what?” asked Kevin, begrudgingly accepting the boy’s instruction.
Tungsten looked him in the eye. “The way the world presents itself to you is not the same way it does to me. Dad always tells me that, but it’s so hard to remember something you don’t experience.”
Once again, Kevin didn’t know how to respond.
Tungsten placed himself so that the three of them were making a triangle on the edges of the rune. He held up the mess of cone, grass, twig and tape.
“It’s happening,” he said simply.
“Kevin, look at me,” said Detective Smith, meeting his son’s gaze. “What’s about to happen may be very . . . alarming, but trust me, we are going to be perfectly safe.”
“What are you talking about?” asked Kevin.
“Just try not to freak out—”
The black marks suddenly glowed purple, and the next moment, the group of three found themselves pulled upward into the sky.
It was as if they were in an elevator moving at a million miles a second with no floor, ceiling, or walls. Kevin watched as the moon flew past and the earth shrunk to a blue marble beneath their feet. Space flew by them, so fast they could barely comprehend it. Occasionally, they passed a planet, there one second, gone the next. Kevin caught a glimpse of Jupiter and a smidgen of Saturn, but blinked and missed Uranus.
After a few seconds, Kevin realized he was still breathing.
He looked at his father, eyes wide in awe as he viewed the celestial world speeding past—awe, but not surprise. Tungsten, quite out of character, seemed bored with the incomprehensible majesties flying past. Instead, he was staring at Kevin, watching his reaction to the sudden change of scenery.
There was something separating the three of them and the cold vacuum of space. It was thin and glittered slightly, barely there, hard to notice, like trying to see if it’s raining outside without looking for a splash in a puddle. The thing surrounding them resembled a long, translucent silk curtain, like the skin of a bubble.
Kevin reached out and touched it. It flowed through his fingers like water, no texture, no sensation. His fingertips went through it and touched the outside world. It was cold and painful—
Detective Smith grabbed his son’s hand and pulled it back within the translucent veil. He shook his head.
“You don’t want to do that,” he explained. “Space and exposed skin don’t go well together.”
Kevin heard a noise and turned. Tungsten was laughing at him.
A series of planets he had never seen before passed by in the blink of an eye. After what felt like a thousand years and, at the same time, six seconds, the group of three suddenly landed.
The translucent silk curtain dissipated into nothingness. Somehow, they had landed feet-first, even though they had started facing the opposite direction.
Kevin looked around, opened his mouth to say something, and threw up.
Detective Smith stretched his arms and rolled his neck. “Just for the record, I warned you. You insisted on all of this, not me.”
Tungsten watched Kevin intently.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
Kevin looked up at him. A brilliant purple sky shone behind Tungsten’s head. He could see two moons and another enormous planet in the distance.
“Oh wow. Wow. I . . . Okay, this is . . . huh . . . what, um, where are . . . wow . . .”
They stood in tall golden grasses that swayed in the breeze. The golden grass was smooth and parted around the three figures like water.
“We are on the planet of the Marsineans,” said Tungsten. “Obviously, the Marsineans are the one who made the passage to Earth.”
“They’re the ones kidnapping children,” said Detective Smith. “What are they?”
“Um,” interrupted Kevin, “is no one going to talk about how we just flew through space onto a different planet in a different galaxy? What’s that all about?”
“Tungsten and his family are different,” said Detective Smith. “They help us with . . . this type of thing.”
Kevin stared at the seemingly normal boy in front of him.
“I don’t understand any of this,” he whispered.
Tungsten was still staring at him intently. The shining purple sky, flowing golden grass, two moons and planet behind him not only didn’t catch his attention but seemed to actively bore him.
“Wait a minute,” hissed Kevin, turning to his father, “you’ve done this before, haven’t you? That’s why you weren’t freaking out. You knew about all of this—” he waved vaguely at Tungsten, the flowing grass, and the planet in the distance, “—and didn’t tell me?”
“I’ve only travelled through space a handful of times,” responded Detective Smith, “and mostly with Tungsten’s father. I didn’t tell you because Tungsten and his family are assets of the police department. They value their privacy.”
“So what are they, Uber for space travel?”
“We call them when we deal with situations we can’t handle, like this one,” explained Detective Smith.
“But only on the weekends,” added Tungsten. “Friday through Sunday. Including Sunday. And Friday.”
“Only on the weekends?”
Tungsten nodded. “We’re only visiting.”
Kevin shook his head. “This can’t be really happening.”
“To answer your question,” Tungsten said to Detective Smith, “the Marsineans are a telepathic, helium-based people. They feed off the plants native to this planet and are renown for being non-violent.”
“Non-violent, huh?” murmured Detective Smith. “Why would non-violent aliens kidnap children from Earth?”
“I think I might know why.”
Tungsten made his way through the silky, golden grass, beckoning them to follow. Soon, the ground rose up into a hill in front of them. After a few minutes of hiking, they made their way to the top.
“What is that?” exclaimed Kevin.
Beyond the hill was a valley filled with enormous trees. The trees had orange trunks and were each the size of a ten-story building. They were dripping with huge, juicy fruits the size of entire houses. The fruits were blue and resembled huge, sagging grapes bejeweled with glittering seeds.
“Those are the Marsinea trees. The Marsineans eat their fruit to survive.” Tungsten inspected the enormous orange trees and frowned. “There aren’t as many of them as there were last time I was here.”
“When was the last time you were here?” asked Kevin.
Now it was Tungsten’s turn not to respond.
“Hey, look over there,” pointed Detective Smith. There was a building, about the size of one of the trees, just a few football fields away. “That’s where the children must be.”
Confirming this fact was the sound of children screaming, echoing across the plain from the ominous building.
They made their way down the grassy slope, through a clump of the enormous orange trees, until finally they reached the building. It was nondescript and white. The only feature was a sliding door through which Detective Smith purposefully strode. Tungsten and Kevin followed quickly behind.
As soon as they entered, they realized what the noise they had heard was.
The room was filled with young children, mostly toddlers. The toddlers were laughing and playing, running around screaming, falling over, and getting back up again. Various toys were splayed across the floor. The walls were dotted with slots that opened every few seconds, revealing new toys to replace the ones the toddlers had been playing with. The toys that had been replaced were picked up from the floor and tossed into a chute in the corner, never to be seen again. The toddlers were completely enamored with the constant supply of new toys. They didn’t even notice the sliding door open and the three figures entering.
“This was not what I was expecting,” said Detective Smith, inspecting the chaotic scene in front of him.
“They’re . . . playing,” said Kevin. “Having fun.”
Detective Smith walked through the room, making sure to avoid stepping on any toddlers or their toys. There was another door at the opposite end of the room.
He pushed it open and entered. The room beyond was, once again, filled with playing children. This time, the children were older. The room was bigger than the first one, housing an enormous, complex jungle-gym system. There were monkey bars and slides, poles and bridges, pits full of bouncy balls and tall towers mounted with plastic binoculars. The kids, now around 6 or 7, were running around the playground joyfully. It appeared that a game of tag was in full effect. Somehow, the kids were having even more fun than the toddlers in the first room.
“I’m beginning to sense a pattern,” said Detective Smith, pushing through to the next room.
This room was full of kids age 10 to 15. It was filled with screens and complex gaming systems. Each kid had their own screen; some were watching TV, others playing video-games, others sleeping in luxuriously padded chairs with noise-cancelling headphones and eyeshades. There was a fully stocked snack bar filled with every candy and drink a kid could desire.
“This . . . this is like kid heaven,” Detective Smith said, confused. “Why would aliens abduct kids and bring them here?”
Tungsten nodded. “Just as I suspected.”
Kevin looked at him, then at his father. “Is there something I’m not getting?”
“The Marsineans, they’re a telepathic race. And their trees, there aren’t nearly as many of them as there used to be—they’re obviously having some sort of famine.”
“What’s your point?”
“Don’t you get it? The trees are telepathic, too. They run on happiness. It’s like bees and pollen, except with emotion.”
Detective Smith’s eyes opened wide. “That’s why they wanted the children. What’s purer than the happiness of a child?”
“They made a child-happiness factory,” stated Kevin. “Who would’ve thought.”
“So that’s why they need children from Earth. They bring them here and make them happy so they can grow more trees.”
“But you can’t just kidnap children,” Kevin added. “That’s not okay. We have to get these kids home, to their parents.”
“Why would we do that?” asked Tungsten.
Kevin and Detective Smith looked at him.
“It’s obvious that they’re happy here, and isn’t the prime goal of every human to be happy? Why would we take them away from that?”
“But they were kidnapped,” said Detective Smith. “Against their will. Separated from their families.”
“But their families won’t make them happy,” said Tungsten. “They’ll never come close to making them as happy as this place does. I mean, look at you two. You two seem to only make each other sad.”
Kevin’s eyes opened wide. Detective Smith cleared his throat.
The room was quiet, except for the deafening roar of children laughing and screaming.
“Sometimes there are more important things than being happy,” said Detective Smith quietly.
“But if it will satisfy them—” Tungsten stopped. He cocked his head to the side, as if listening for something.
His face turned white.
“What’s wrong?” asked Detective Smith.
“Dad found me a dog already,” Tungsten whispered. “He’s coming!”
There was an enormous rumbling noise followed by the boom of something breaking the sound barrier.
Instantly the three ran through the various rooms, pushing past squealing children and emerging out of the prison of happiness.
Searing through the purple sky was a meteor. Its fiery trail glowed a vibrant gold. The meteor seemed to be headed directly for them.
“I’m gonna be in so much trouble,” Tungsten whispered. “He’s mad. He only takes the meteor when he’s mad.”
The meteor was getting closer. Any second now it would hit them and completely obliterate them in a maelstrom of fire and flying dirt.
The golden meteor arched over them, so close Kevin could feel the heat of it singe the top of his head. It slammed into the ground a football field away, coming to rest at the base of one of the enormous orange trees.
Nervously, Tungsten made his way towards it.
The meteor was the size of a burial casket. It was made of lustrous silver metal that shone magnificently in the low purple light. The crater around it was still smoldering when Tungsten approached.
“Hey, Dad,” said Tungsten nervously.
The meteor cracked in two, both sides heaving apart. Sitting inside it was a man. He had sleek blonde hair and a tight face stretched over angular bones. He looked like the type of man who owned the world, and when he opened his eyes, it was like looking into the face of God right as He sent you to Hell.
“What do you think you’re doing, Tungsten?” boomed Tungsten’s father. His voice was deep and inhumanly resonant; Kevin felt as if he would die before its echo stopped ringing in his bones.
“You were gone; I was just trying to help them,” Tungsten explained quickly.
Tungsten’s father rose from the meteor, and in comparison, the rest of the planet shrunk away. “You should’ve waited for me. You’re not ready to do this on your own.”
“I am ready!” Tungsten exclaimed. Kevin opened his eyes wide. Tungsten’s father did not seem like the type of man you would want to yell at.
Tungsten’s father eyed Kevin. “Who is this?”
“He’s my son, Quasar,” said Detective Smith. “It’s bring-your-kid-to-work day.”
“This is no place for a child, Earl.”
“I’m not a child!” yelled Tungsten. “When will you accept that?”
“You are weak, Tungsten!” shouted Quasar.
There was power behind that voice. Kevin couldn’t help but instinctually tremble.
“I helped them,” declared Tungsten triumphantly. “I deciphered the rune, I found the missing children—”
Tungsten fidgeted, then, as if a fly had crawled into his ear. His eyes flicked between his father and the ground, somehow drawn to his father’s gaze against his will. Kevin had the odd feeling that a conversation was occurring that he was not able to hear.
Quasar frowned, opening his eyes wide. “You were going to leave the children here?!”
“They were happy!”
“I have raised a fool!”
“I’m not a fool!” Tungsten pointed accusingly at Detective Smith and Kevin. “I watched! I listened! Just like you told me to. All they want is to be happy, and that’s what the children are.”
Quasar’s voice changed, then. It was no more angry and furious, it was now full of sadness.
“There are so many things you do not know, Tungsten. So many things you do not understand.”
“I understand them,” Tungsten said quietly. “I understand what they want.”
“No,” whispered Quasar simply, “you don’t. They are more complex than you give them credit for. Sometimes, the things they want aren’t what they need. Sometimes, they themselves don’t even know what they want.”
Tungsten looked defeated. “Then how can I? What is the purpose of being here if we can never truly understand them?”
Quasar didn’t meet his son’s gaze. “That is something I cannot teach you. That is something you will have to find out for yourself.”
It was apparent that the argument was over.
Turning to Detective Smith, he said, “I’m sorry my son endangered you. It’s time to go home, and take the children with us.”
The translucent veil once more descended from above. It encircled the two fathers and their sons, lifting them from the ground and lofting them through the sky, across the universe, past the planets and the stars, past the galaxies and the comets, back to the small blue marble and the thin, gray moon.
They landed softly in the park.
“I’ve returned the children to their respective homes,” said Quasar matter-of-factly.
“Thank you, Quasar,” said Detective Smith.
“Tungsten and I will be returning home now,” he said, putting his hand on his son’s shoulders. Tungsten stared at the ground dejectedly. “My wife is making tacos. They’re quite delicious.”
“Tell her I said ‘hello’.”
Quasar and Tungsten turned and began to walk out of the park.
“Hey, Tungsten!” yelled Kevin as they walked away.
Tungsten turned, looking at him in surprise.
“We should, I don’t know, hang out sometime.”
Tungsten’s face lit up.
“I’d like that!” he called back.
The father and his son disappeared around the bend.
“I didn’t think you liked him,” said Detective Smith. “You two aren’t the most similar people in the world.”
Kevin shrugged. “He’s a weird kid, but he took me to an alien planet today. I’ve never had a friend who could do that. Maybe I should, I don’t know, branch out or something.”
Detective Smith put his arm around him. Kevin flinched but didn’t pull away.
“That’s good, son. I’m proud of you.”
Robby Pettit is 16 years old. He lives in Excelsior, Minnesota