“You know, Cleo, there are lots of things to do on a hot summer day. Some of them even involve fun.” Cleo MacSiacais, part-time gardener, occasional artist and full-time language geek, sighed heavily and tossed her trowel into the grass. Removing her glasses, she wiped off the afternoon’s sweat and grime with a corner of her t-shirt, turning to her companion as she did so. “I told you we’d be here for a while, Bernie. Why on earth did you even come out today? You hate this stuff.” Cleo’s brother, ten years her junior, was using a stick to dig a trench around a pale stone half-buried at his feet. “Because anything’s better than being stuck with them,” said the boy, meaning their mother and her new boyfriend. “All they want to do is talk about college or whatever. I’m just sick of ’em.” Cleo suppressed a small smile at her brother’s rant – lately, he’d found it increasingly annoying to be seen as adorable. “Well, sweetie, what about Sparky? Isn’t he home for the summer?” Bernie kicked the rock loose and looked up at her from under his mop of unruly black hair. “Yes, he is, but he’s working at the Snack Attack to save up for precious college. Ugh – everyone is obsessed with stupid college.” Cleo, who had realized long ago that her brother didn’t share her love of matters academic, wisely kept silent.
Bernie stood, kicking the loose stone over before grabbing his backpack. “I’m gonna get outta here, okay? Luci said she might have some work for me in the afternoons.” Cleo did smile this time – her brother may not have much interest in intellectual edification, but he had a very robust interest in her best friend. “She did, huh? You don’t like washing dishes at home – what makes washing Luci’s dishes so much better?” Her brother flushed a deep crimson and toed the stone at his feet. Cleo laughed, relenting “All right, Romeo, get out of here. I’m just about ready to head back in anyway.” Her brother grinned impishly and ran over the embankment, vanishing into the late afternoon sunshine.
Cleo sighed and rubbed her hands on her jeans, then began packing her garden bag. As she gathered her tools, she thought about heading in and grabbing a shower before stopping at Dufresne on Main herself for dinner. She liked to rib her brother about his crush on Luci, but in truth she was no better – she’d just been under Luci’s spell longer. Although they’d known each other for almost their entire lives – born within a week of each other, attending the same elementary and high schools, and then, finally, returning to Sparta after college – Luci had never given more than the most ambiguous of signs that she cared for her best friend with anything beyond friendship. Cleo, long accustomed to the weight of the torch she was carrying, had never addressed her feelings about Luci directly, allowing their relationship to bypass cliched awkwardness and develop into the kind of deep affection that was nevertheless tinged with hesitancy and unspoken longing. And now that Carlos, Luci’s boyfriend, had proposed, that longing would – must – remain unspoken forever. She shook her head and blew a stray hair from her eyes, pausing to redo her ponytail for what had to be the hundredth time, scowling at the dust in her ordinarily shiny black hair. Hair triage performed, and shouldering a bag not nearly as heavy as her heart, Cleo turned to climb the hill that lead back up to her house when the sun set something at her feet aflame with color.
It was the stone her brother had been attempting to excavate by shoe. Cleo bent to retrieve the stone, holding it up to the light in order to get a better look. Ice-white stone ran in a uniform circle around the edge, but the center was set with what looked like carved quartz. It threw rainbows over her dusty t-shirt as she turned it over , marveling at the intricate carvings. “What is this thing?” she wondered aloud, and nearly shrieked as the stone pulsed twice with sharp blue light. “He…hello?” she held the stone at arm’s length, wincing at the flare-bright flash. She stood there for several minutes, eyes screwed shut, braced for disaster. When nothing else happened, she felt some of her fear abate. Opening one eye, then the other, she looked around. Satisfied that she hadn’t been blown to bits, or turned into a turtle, or something similarly Homeric, she brought the stone closer to examine its surface once more. Inside of the white rim, the stone seemed to be black quartz, dotted with smaller bits of white quartz like diamonds on black velvet. In the center lay an orb of milky blue crystal, with vertical bars running along either side of it. The bars were engraved with a series of whirls and abstract geometric shapes; at first, she had mistaken them as mere decoration, but something about their uniform distribution and pattern spoke of intelligent design to her linguist’s eye. “They’re words. Words in a language I’ve never seen. This is big.” She paused, staring at the alien characters as if she could translate them through sheer force of will. “Screw that, this is HUGE.” The blue orb flared again at her voice, but she was expecting it this time. She smiled, running a finger over the delicately carved survace. Was it her imagination, or was the right-hand strip of characters warm to the touch? “I don’t know what you are, but I aim to find out,” she whispered, her smile widening as the pulses came again, softer this time. She slipped the stone into her garden bag and headed up the hill toward her house.
Behind her, the shadows were growing long as twilight drew its cool indigo blanket over the hillside. And in the garden, leaves began to stir.