The final red tinge of another sunset was fading, sinking behind a distant sagebrush-dotted horizon. In a matter of minutes the sky would be filled with the soft lights of a million stars. Sevenah watched the performance as faithfully as she did every night from her grassy seat beneath the old weeping willow tree where she could see across her father’s cornfields and beyond. This hill was her favorite place to be, evenings her favorite time of day, almost always spent with her very best friend, Ian.
The two usually rode her horse, Paka, up the hill to watch the sunset, but her beloved pet had been fitted with new shoes and was struggling to adjust to them. Her mother had suggested leaving him in the barn.
Sevenah glanced at the silhouette of Ian seated beside her—tall, lean, and slightly slouched. He was staring up at the first star of the evening, which wasn’t really a star at all but the bright reflection of the sun off the nearby planet, Venus.
“Do you think people will live there someday?” she asked him.
Ian turned his head to find her staring at the same celestial light he had been contemplating. His fingers brushed away the dusty-brown bangs that hung in his eyes.
“You mean Venus? Doubtful. I can’t imagine the atmosphere ever changing enough to sustain life—at least not our kind of life.”
She laughed. “What other kind is there?”
“Oh, species that require alternative atmospheres to survive,” he said matter-of-factly.
She laughed even more.
“I think you read too many sci-fi books,” she smiled. It was true, he usually had a book or two in his possession to thumb through when there was nothing else demanding his attention. Even homework didn’t take priority when it came to an off-world adventure story.
“I’m still right,” he insisted.
Sevenah resumed staring up at the darkness. The sun had set entirely, giving way for the appearance of a speckled night’s sky. It seemed the more she stared, the greater the number of stars. She pondered the immensity of the universe and how it resembled an artist’s black canvas peppered with a haphazard splattering of white paint.
“I think there probably is life out there a lot like our own. I can’t imagine so many suns—so many planets—and not at least one of them being something like ours.”
She could sense Ian nod in agreement beside her.
Her eyes searched for the big dipper, one of the few constellations she easily recognized. It wasn’t within view. She twirled around and pulled her long, red-brown hair over one shoulder before lying back on the grassy slope to see past the droopy limbs of the willow tree. It was only a matter of seconds before Ian copied her move, a habit of his. As soon as his head lay beside hers, she pointed directly up.
“There it is,” she announced, “the Big Dip.”
Ian pointed off to the right. “And there’s Arcturus and Virgo and Leo…”
“Show off,” she muttered, slapping him lightly on the shoulder. Her head turned sideways to catch a twinkle in his green eyes as he chuckled. They were a shade darker than her own. He smiled his usual warm smile when she stared at him a little too long.
“What?” he asked.
“Nothing.” She rolled her eyes to divert attention from her blushing cheeks.
Ian’s lips slipped crookedly to one side. “Maybe someday you and I will visit another world.”
Sevenah laughed out loud, causing a frown to erase his grin. Apparently he was serious. To spare his feelings she chose to play along.
“Okay, okay, how about I’ll fly to Orks Nation while you go visit the little green men on Zeeksville?”
“Oh come on!”
She turned up a questioning palm. “What? You’re the one who believes in aliens.”
“Yes, I do, but that’s not what I’m groaning about. Orks Nation? Zeeksville? Those are horrible names! Could you at least try to be creative with your planets?”
Her body rolled sideways to face him, elbow bent, hand cupping her cheek. Lengths of reddish hair fell straight behind her shoulder.
“I suppose you have better names?” she challenged.
“Oh, definitely yes,” he insisted. He rotated to face her, copying her move again.
“Lay ’em on me then.”
Ian glanced up at the darkness for a moment. “Okay, how about….Rapador of the Paegus Solar System. Or even better—Moccobatra of the Alaheron System.”
“Did you pull those out of one of your sci-fi books?” she asked suspiciously.
“You just made them up?” Her eyebrows lifted, a little surprised and impressed.
The same eyebrows scrunched together in confusion. “Then where’d they come from?”
“Okay, I got them from a book,” he admitted.
“I thought so,” she smirked. “You’re not so terribly clever either.”
Ian sighed as he watched Sevenah’s pink lips curl into a wide, triumphant grin. “No fooling you, is there,” he muttered.
“No—but nice try.”
Sevenah fell on her back again and stared at the heavens silently for a while. Ian remained on his side, watching her scan the universe with wonder. They listened to the remote chorus of crickets and tree frogs until Sevenah’s arm shot up, tracing an arc overhead.
“Did you see that?” she chirped. Her eyes glimmered with excitement. “A falling star! Did you make a wish?”
Ian dropped onto his back and looked up. “No—no wishes. I don’t believe in superstitions.”
She laughed. “But aliens you do believe in. You’re so weird.”
“What did you wish for?” he asked, ignoring the playful insult.
She grinned big. “I wished for all your wishes to come true.”
“Really? You wasted a wish on me?”
“Of course. You’re my best friend.” Her hand reached to squeeze his.
“But I thought if you told your wish it wouldn’t come true.”
“I thought you didn’t believe in superstitions,” she retorted.
Their conversation was interrupted by the muted beep of a cell phone. Sevenah reached into the pocket of her Levis and pulled out a small, pink, touchscreen device.
“Your mom?” Ian asked, seeing her frown at a glowing text message.
“Ugh, yes. Who else would it be?” Her eyes flickered over at Ian before returning to the text she was quickly typing in response. “You’re so lucky no one hounds you like this.”
He grinned, amused. “What are you telling her?”
“That I’ll be home as soon as you’re done molesting me.”
Ian quickly reached for the phone. “Sevenah, don’t you dare…”
It dinged—message sent—as she avoided him, shrugging innocently. “Ooops, too late.”
“You are so rude to your mother,” he chided. “Ruth is going to hate me now.”
It was always strange to hear Ian refer to her mother by name. Sevenah sighed, complaining. “Well, if she wasn’t so darn overprotective. It’s annoying.”
“She cares about you.”
“Which is a good thing.”
The phone was shoved back into her front pocket before she sat up and crossed her legs. Ian did the same, slumping a bit.
“I guess it’s time for you to go,” she announced. “Walk me home?”
“Don’t I always?”
Ian shed his J.D. jean jacket and tossed it over Sevenah’s shoulders as she started down the hill in front of him. They skirted the browning cornstalks at the bottom before heading for a distant white fence that encircled her house. He would drop her off by the gate tonight instead of going in to visit with her parents as usual.
“I might not see you in the morning, Sevenah. My uncle’s got plans.”
That was odd. Ian hardly ever mentioned his uncle, let alone did anything with the grumpy, old guy. She had never actually met the man but had heard about his ornery character on occasion.
“Yes, but it shouldn’t take all day. I’ll be here as soon as I can be.”
“Okay,” she shrugged. It was the weekend, so they would still have plenty of time to hang out even if he wasn’t there first thing in the morning. She would have to remember to tell her mom not to make any breakfast for him.
“Hey, Ian. Jackie mentioned at school today something about the whole group going back to Sun Lakes one last time before winter sets in. Maybe you could join us there when you’re done with your uncle.”
“It’s a little chilly for swimming, isn’t it?”
“Oh, we’re not planning to swim. Just a barbeque-picnic sort of thing.”
She caught the disapproving look on his face when he glanced at her. “I’d rather you wait for me.”
“Actually, I’d rather not go at all if you don’t mind. I had other plans.”
“Yes. Is that so hard to believe?”
“Well, um…uh, no,” she stammered, “I guess not.” Truthfully it did surprise her. She was used to him going along with her plans and her friends. Very seldom did he suggest an alternate activity. Curious, she asked, “So, what did you have in mind?”
He lifted both shoulders undecidedly.
“I thought you said…” she started. Then her eyes pulsed wide and she poked at his arm accusingly. “You just don’t want me hanging around Erik!”
His head shook in denial. “That’s not it.”
“Don’t tell me you’re going all ‘Ruthy’ on me. Are you getting my mother’s overprotective gene?”
Ian laughed with amusement. “I’m not going ‘Ruthy’ on you, but I could probably one-up her if I wanted.” His laughter halted when he turned a serious face on his friend. “Just promise you’ll wait for me. I’ll take you to the lake if that’s where you really want to go, but wait for me, alright?”
Her hand batted at the air. “Whatever.”
“Promise me,” he insisted.
She looked up to see if his expression was as stern as his voice. It was.
“Fine,” she agreed, her brow creasing with puzzlement. “I promise.” She crossed her heart as if swearing it.
Sevenah wondered at his sigh of relief.
Surprisingly, they had made it to the main gate, just outside the reach of a porch light. Ian held the wooden entry open for her.
“I’ll see you tomorrow then,” he said.
She handed back his jacket before starting down the cement path for the front door. “Okay, but don’t be too late. I’m not going to sit around and waste my entire Saturday.”
“Hey!” he called out behind her. “You promised you’d wait for me.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” She grinned impishly, glancing back at his troubled face. Great. He was going “Ruthy” on her.