"Dear Diary: I admit it. I've been following Britney Spears' career since she was a Mouseketeer in a training bra. I'm not proud of it, but at least I'm honest. That's why I know something happened to Britney before the MTV Awards. That wasn't Britney up there-and that's not her out there now. No. I have proof. The Britney we know and love is missing. Abducted. Replaced. By a three-headed alien...and now that alien is after me..."
I read the entry in my diary again. It was no good. I knew everything I'd written was true but even I didn't believe it. But I'd have to tell the story to somebody or burst. I don't know how Chad is handling the situation. Maybe he's keeping a diary, too. I am his best friend, but he can't tell the story to me. I already know it. I was there.
Chad Carter and I live only a few houses apart, and have since kindergarten. We've been best friends almost that long. It's true that as we get older I'm starting to have strange thoughts about him - "just friends" is taking on a whole different meaning - but I'm not keeping this diary to talk about mushy stuff. I'm keeping it to talk about what really happened to Britney Spears, why she really acted so weird for a while.
I guess the trouble started the night of the saucer crash, though I didn't know it. I was to busy leaping around the living room holding a hairbrush to my mouth as if it were a microphone while Britney sang "Crazy" on the CD player. We have a really good sound system so it sounded cool, and I'd been practicing Britney's moves for months, so I looked cool, too.
Chad once told me that if you kind of squinted and the room was dark enough you might mistake me for Britney, herself. But he's my friend, and so can't be trusted. Still, while I danced around the living room, I believed him. I was wearing an outfit very much like one Britney might wear when in sweet mode: tight white pants, white tennis shoes, and a pink belly shirt. I wanted to have my belly button pierced but my parents wouldn't let me. They weren't quit that cool.
"Crazy" ended and "Sometimes" began. I began to move with the music and mouth the words. I could have gone on all night, or until my parents complained, whichever came first.
"Hey, Liz," a voice called over the music.
I made an unchoreographed jump and gave Chad a dirty look. He was leaning against the frame of the front door. I turned off the CD player, blasting silence out at us. "Must you sneak up on people?" I asked.
"It wasn't hard," he said. "A herd of elephants could sneak up on you when you're singing like that."
"Good, huh?" I said and flashed him a monster smile.
"I like it," he said. "But the world already has one Britney Spears."
"You can't have too many Britney Spearses."
"Sounds good to me. Come look outside."
I joined him at the door and looked up at the sky. It was early November, a crisp Los Angeles night, with the sky overcast as usual. I was surprised to see lights moving around up there. They seemed to be about the size of car headlights, but they were so high that they cast a weird glow onto the underside of the clouds. They circled each other like gnats around a light bulb. They were a strange color, too - sort of an off pink. I could tell you I also heard an eerie whistling, but I didn't. The night sounded like any other night.
Before we go any further let's get a few things straight. First, I'm not some hick from the sticks. Second, the lights I saw were not airplanes, helicopters, weather balloons, or swamp gas.
My dad was standing on the front lawn looking at the sky. I don't think he noticed us.
"Wow!" I cried. "What's all that about?"
"Ad for the new Arnold picture?" Chad suggested in a sort of Austrian accent.
"Not," Liz exclaimed.
"Weird, huh, Mr. Barlowe?" Chad said.
Daddy jumped as if Chad had startled him, but he didn't look at us. He couldn't keep his eyes off the light show in the sky. "Hello, Chad. Yeah, weird. I can't wait to see how the Air Force explains it on TV tomorrow morning."
"Swamp gas?" I suggested.
Daddy and Chad laughed.
"Look!" I cried, and pointed at one of the lights as it fell toward the earth. It fell faster and faster, and soon I could hear the warbling I'd missed before.
"Cool," Chad said.
A moment later the light fell out of sight behind trees and houses, and a second later an explosion lit up the night like a camera flash that went on and on, making everything look flat and washed out in its bright white glare. A moment later we were shaken by a short loud rumble as if sleeping giants were turning over in a nearby gravel pit. The glare and the noise died away to nothing.
"Oh, my god," Mr. Barlowe said. "Let's not stand here with our ears hanging out. Come on!"
We ran down to his Volvo, which was parked at the curb, and piled into it. I rode shotgun. Chad had the back seat all to himself. Mr. Barlowe pulled away from the curb as if his car had been shot from a cannon.
It was difficult to tell exactly where the whatever-it-was had come down so we drove around a little, zig-zagging through the neighborhood streets.
"Tomorrow's the big day," I said to Chad over my shoulder. I braced myself as the Volvo screeched around a corner.
"Big day?" he asked innocently. He could be such a goober.
"Doofus," I said. "You know. The contest."
"That's what I like about you, Liz - you're focused."
One of the local rock stations was promoting a contest. First prize was a pair of backstage passes to the Britney Spears concert coming up soon at Dodger Stadium. It was all we talked about. I figured it was my one big chance to meet Britney in person. If we hadn't been going to the site of a UFO crash we'd probably be talking about the contest in my living room. When we entered we'd made a solemn pact that if either of us won, the other could have the second pass.
"It'll be great," he said. "I hope we win."
"We will win," I said with absolute assurance. "Britney and I are destined to meet."
"It'll be great," he said again.
A siren was getting closer. I didn't know whether it was the police, the fire department, or an ambulance, but it kinda sorta increased the excitement.
Daddy was busy trying not to drive on the sidewalk and Chad was busy day dreaming about the big contest, so I was the first one to see the fire in the park.
The park was a square block of green containing a couple of baseball diamonds, some open space, and a small building where you could go to the bathroom if you weren't too particular about the smell or the germs. Grass was burning in one of the outfields - a line of bright orange that sent up a veil of white smoke to mingle with the overcast. Behind the veil was a large dark shape with portholes lit from the inside. Occasionally a shadow would cross one of the portholes. Determining the shape of the thing that made the shadow was impossible, but every so often the smoke cleared and I could see that the large dark shape was in fact sort of a big metallic jelly bean.
All at once I had two equal but opposite feelings: I was intensely curious to know what was inside the large dark shape, and yet certain I didn't want to know what was inside that large dark shape because it would terrify me.
"It's a ship," Chad said.
"Duh," I remarked.
"Let's get closer," Daddy said. Without waiting for an answer he climbed out of the car. We couldn't get any closer in the car anyway. People had apparently stopped when they first saw what was going on in the park because cars were parked every which way all up and down the middle of the street.
The moment Daddy opened the car door I could smell the burning grass.
"I guess we're the designated grown-ups tonight," I said as we followed him. The odor of smoke got stronger as we approached the main attraction.
The police and the fire department were already there. Firemen were watering the fire, but aside from that nobody was actually doing much. People ran toward the thing, but it wasn't just the heat that prevented them from getting too close. Almost everybody had seen at least one episode of The X-Files. They knew what happened if you got too close to an unidentified thing from another world.
Everybody looked up at a bright light, and for a minute I thought the mother ship had arrived. But then I heard the scuttling roar of the helicopter's spinning rotor as it circled over the scene shining a searchlight on the thing. All it succeeded in doing was blowing the smoke around, and ruining everybody's hair style. Everybody was coughing. I could barely see Chad, let alone the ship, because of all the water in my stinging eyes.
A couple of kids ran past us with a bounding dog. An ice cream man, seeing an opportunity, turned on his bells. The atmosphere was more like that of a circus than an interstellar landing site, not that I'd had much experience with interstellar landing sites.
"What do you think, Liz?" he asked between coughs.
"About what?" I asked as I bobbed around, trying to see between the heads of the people in front of me.
"Who's gonna get off that ship? Luke Skywalker or some really hungry alien?"
I shrugged. The question was pointless. Whatever got off that ship, I wanted to be there to see it. "Where's Daddy?"
"He's around. Probably teaching the aliens the Vulcan salute."
Chad sounded worried. But just between me and my diary, I'm a lot braver than he is.
"Maybe," Chad went on, "the people on the ship have come to see Britney."
"Sure. The King of Outer Space is probably here to win the big contest."
"He can't win the contest," I replied. "We're going to do that."
"Of course. Ulp."
I saw a woman walking toward us. She was beautiful, with cheekbones to die for and high arched eyebrows over dark eyes that could only have been piercing. Her hair was a dense cloud of red, which even in that uncertain light, seemed to glow a little like neon. Like Catwoman, she wore a tight black suit that might have been made of leather - but it wasn't all stitched together. She looked as if she'd been dipped into whatever the suit was made of and it clung. She didn't actually dance when she moved - lets just say she was graceful. If you want the truth, she was so beautiful and so intense that I was a little embarrassed just looking at her.
"Oh, ulp," I said knowingly when I saw the woman. Chad was a boy and couldn't help staring at her any more than he could help liking those old Three Stooges shorts.
The red-headed woman had no trouble getting wherever she was going. People got out of her way. The crowd opened up in front of her and closed again behind her. For a moment she looked right at me. And not just at my outside, but at my insides, too. She immediately knew everything about me, even that I had stolen a Milky Way from a Ralphs when I was three, but she didn't care. I was no more interesting to her than the individual blades of grass she was walking on.
"Wow," Chad said softly.
"Yeah," I agreed.
We heard the approaching grumble of big engines, and a moment later big military trucks arrived. They surrounded the ship, and before they even stopped men and woman in green Army clothes jumped down from the backs of the trucks and encouraged people to back away from the ship. Each of the soldiers carried a rifle, which made their suggestion a little stronger even though they didn't actually point their rifles at anybody. More helicopters arrived and hovered over the scene, swinging their searchlights around like big sticks.
I didn't want to, but we backed off like everybody else. A guy with a bullhorn told us to go home, that there was nothing to see, that everything was under control.
"So 'nothing' is under control?" I commented.
Chad shrugged. "I never did understand the military mind," he said.
"They have no idea," I said.
"The Army. Anybody. This will change everything. Now that we know we're not alone everything will be different."
Chad nodded even though we both knew the situation was too big to take in all at once. I wasn't scared yet, though I should have been.
We walked through the retreating crowd. A woman with a big purselike thing over one shoulder stuck a microphone in Chad's face. "What did you see? What do you think it is? Are you frightened?"
"See?" he asked stupidly.
"It's the saucer people," I said into the microphone. "They've come for Britney Spears."
"Okay, thank you," the woman said quickly, and turned away to ask some old guy wearing a Dodger cap the same questions she'd asked Chad.
"You could have told her this would change everything," Chad said.
"I hate TV news," I replied.
We didn't talk any more as we walked back to the car. I had my own thoughts about aliens, and beautiful red-headed women, and so on. And I guess Chad did, too.
We found Daddy leaning on his car, waiting for us. He seemed really excited. "Wasn't that something?" he kept saying over and over again on the drive home. "Wasn't that something?"
"It's something all right," I said, just to hold up my end of the conversation.
If I'd known how much of a something it really was, I might not have been so casual about the whole thing. The joke Chad and I had made about the King of Outer Space was a lot closer to the truth than we suspected, and certainly a lot closer than we wanted it to be. Change everything? We had no idea.