Volume 33, Number 1


Joanna Michal Hoyt

The worst day of Bella C’s second-grade year was getting her down even before she heard about the aliens.

“Tell me what’s wrong!” Bella C said again. “You’re s’posed to be my best friend!” Bela O turned her head away and stared out the school bus window.

It wasn’t fair for Bela O to keep secrets. Bella C had told Bela O when she felt stupid because couldn’t understand which numbers Mr. Price said they were supposed to carry in Double Digit Addition, and Bela O had explained better. Bella C had told Bela O when a car ran over her mommy’s cat, and she saw it in the road squished and bloody and broken, and Bela O had cried with her and then picked wildflowers with her for its grave. Bella C had told Bela O about how Daddy got Laid Off so he was there when she left for school and still there when she got home and sometimes he smelled different and his eyes got blurry, and Bela O had squeezed Bella C’s hand and looked sad, and then she raced her to the corner. Bella C had told Bela O all her sad things except for the scary alien dream. That was different because saying it out loud might make it real.

Bela O used to tell Bella C her sad secrets too. She told when her grandma died. That grandma lived a long way away in another country, and Bela O had never seen her, so she wasn’t sad the way she would be if her other grandma died, but her papa cried so loud at night that he sometimes woke Bela up. Bela O told Bella C when her mama got cut on one of the machines at the packing plant where she worked and came home with a big scary bloody bandage. Bella C hugged Bela O and then asked her riddles.

Friends were supposed to tell their secrets. Especially friends who got called Bella-Bela by the other kids as if they really were one person. But today Bela O had gotten on the bus with messy hair and puffy red eyes, and she hadn’t told her best friend anything about it. She’d tried to tell jokes at lunch but they weren’t very good, and her eyes stayed sad even when her mouth curled up. She wouldn’t come do her homework at Bella’s house, and she wouldn’t say why.

Maybe she wasn’t really a friend, just a pretend friend. Just like them having the same name was pretend, because Bella C was Annabelle and Bela O was Isabel. They were different people, and Bela O wasn’t a very nice person, Bella told herself as she trudged up the driveway, her old blue sneakers scuffing through the bright new-fallen orange leaves. If Bela O had been with her they’d have tried to spot the prettiest leaf. But without Bela O there to argue about which one was prettiest, Bella didn’t bother to pick up any of the leaves.

The pickup was in the driveway, so Daddy was home, even though he hadn’t waited for her at the end of the driveway like he usually did. Bella opened the screen door and went in.

Daddy had left her milk and gingersnaps on the counter, but he wasn’t waiting for her in the kitchen. He was talking in his bedroom. He sounded like he was scolding someone, but he didn’t talk to Mommy like that, and Mommy was still at work anyway, and Bella didn’t have sisters or brothers. She sneaked up the stairs to hear more.

She heard him say “hell” when she was halfway up the stairs. Daddy scolded Bella if she used that word, but he was saying, “The country’s going straight to hell with all these aliens. Stealing my job—yours too, before you know it, I’ll bet you. Stealing kids, too, they say. I hate to think of those traffickers getting hold of Bella...”

Daddy stopped talking. Nobody seemed to be answering. Had the aliens gotten him with a ray through the window? Aliens could do things like that. Bella had read a very scary book about that once, a book she got at the library. Mommy said it was too scary for little kids, so Bella didn’t check it out. She snuck it into her backpack instead, took it home, and stayed up reading with a flashlight under the covers, reading about aliens shooting rays and killing people or else controlling their brains while they were alive. That was the first time Bella had the Very Bad Dream that she couldn’t tell Mommy or Daddy or Bela O. But she’d never heard grownups talk about aliens before.

Bella snuck up a few more stairs very quietly, in case the aliens were in the room with Daddy.

Then she heard Daddy’s voice again. “No, no, course I wouldn’t,” he said. “Not if I could help it. Not if I knew. But you don’t always know...”

His voice stopped again. Bella reached the top of the stairs and started down the hall. She was so busy listening for aliens that she didn’t notice Mellowmutt, her big green plaid dog who she’d left at the top of the stairs that morning, until she tripped over him. She couldn’t help yelping.

“Bella’s here. Talk to you later,” Daddy said, and then Bella heard the phone receiver clunking down. The door opened, and Daddy came out with a curvy-up mouth and scared sad eyes. “How’s my Bella?” he asked. “How’s my Belle of the Ball?”

“How close are the aliens?” Bella asked.

Daddy’s face twitched. “Don’t worry, Bella,” he said. “That’s a grownup thing, not for little girls to worry about. Daddy and the grownups will keep you safe.” He gave her a big hug, but his hands felt cold, and his heart was bumping hard and fast, and Bella didn’t think he was sure he could keep her safe.


Bella tried to do her homework, but she couldn’t remember which numbers to carry, and when she tried to think about it she thought about Bela O and the aliens instead. She tried to eat her supper, but even though it was chicken soup with dumplings she couldn’t get very much inside her because she was thinking about things that made her stomach feel achy and squirmy.

She told Mommy and Daddy that Bela wasn’t being friendly. Mommy said everybody had bad days. Daddy said maybe she should try making some different friends. When Bella said, “Maybe she was scared about the aliens,” Daddy looked worried and started talking about the sticky garage door. Mommy looked suspicious at first, but then she just looked tired, like she usually did now that Daddy was Laid Off and she was working every day of the week at the nursing home and sometimes doing double shifts. She went to bed almost as early as Bella did.

Bella lay awake in the dark, thinking about aliens who stole children. Who might steal Bela and do something really, really scary to her. Traffickers, Daddy had said. Daddy and Mommy had told her when she was a little girl about always looking both ways for traffic on their little road, and never, ever crossing any big road without a grownup because the traffic might come zooming up and hit her and squash her dead like Mommy’s cat. Maybe the aliens would pick her up with their flying ships and then drop her out of the sky onto the road in front of traffic. Maybe they would control her brain with their rays and make her walk into traffic.

Bella tried to think about something else. She sang “Jesus Loves Me” and “Alice the Camel” under her breath. But all the time the scary words were pushing, pushing against a door in her brain. Aliens. Traffickers. You don’t always know...

She tried to slip past that door and into a good-dream sleep, but the door burst open behind her, and the bad dream pulled her in again.

She was at a picnic at the lake with all her favorite people. Mommy and Daddy. Bela O and her parents. Aunt Marian (without grumpy Uncle George yelling for her to come do something for him all the time). Grandpa Howard (walking with just a cane not a walker, the way he used to walk when Bella was little, when he could still drive up to see them). The sun was just hot enough and the lake was just cold enough, and when they ran out of the water the picnic was ready, and all the sandwiches had cream cheese and olives inside instead of tuna fish. Everything was good until the alien music started.

The alien music was like the creepy music in the trailer for one of the scary movies that Bella wasn’t allowed to watch. Nobody else seemed to hear it, but Bela heard it, and she knew it was warning her that one of the people at the picnic was really an alien in disguise. If the alien touched her it would put its rays into her, and she wouldn’t be Bella any more, just a girl costume with a mean scary alien inside it. And she didn’t know which person was really an alien, which one she had to stay away from.

That night Bella knew as soon as the dream started that it was going to end with the alien music. But she couldn’t make herself wake up. She couldn’t do anything because if she ran away, or if she tried to warn someone, then the alien would know she knew and the alien would get her right away.

Bella heard Bela O laughing, and the alien music getting louder, and the traffic roaring down the road near the beach, a lot of traffic going very fast. Bella bit into her sandwich and felt the bread and the cheese squish between her teeth, and she thought about herself squishing under the wheels of a car, and she covered her mouth so she wouldn’t throw up. Bela O said, “Bella, what’s wrong?’ and reached her hands out. What if she was the alien? Bella jerked away and ran.

Somebody was running after her, heavy feet going schrhff schrhff in the soft beach sand and then thump thump on the hard-packed dirt of the parking lot. Bella didn’t look over her shoulder. She didn’t want to fall. She didn’t want to know who was chasing her.

Something grabbed her arm. The alien had come out of its disguise now. Its fingers were long and green and scaly, and they burned on the outside of Bella’s skin, but they made a cold slimy place inside her, and the cold slime spread up into her brain so she couldn’t pull away or shout Let me go! She couldn’t she couldn’t...

Bella woke up choking, shaking, with her blankets and sheets twisted like a rope over her neck. Her light-up clock said 11:30. She didn’t want to go back to sleep. She didn’t want to dream. She didn’t want to wake Mommy and Daddy. What if they reached out to hug her and their hands were green and burny and cold?

She pulled Mellowmutt up onto the bed with her, sat with him, wrapped the blankets around them both and told him that they were going to watch out so the aliens didn’t get them.

She woke up again at seven when her alarm clock played Rise and Shine. Her back felt funny from sleeping all hunched up, and there was a big drool spot on the back of Mellowmutt’s neck. When Mommy looked in to say good-bye at seven-thirty, Mommy’s eyes and her hands looked all right, and in the day it was easier to think that maybe aliens weren’t real. Only Daddy had said they were, and at breakfast Daddy still looked worried.

Bela O turned away from the window and patted the seat next to her when Bella got onto the bus. Her hair was neat. Her eyes still looked wrong, especially after she got a good look at Bella.

“What happened to you?” she asked.

Bella opened her mouth to tell her, but she just couldn’t. She wasn’t sure the dream would come real just because she said it, but she wasn’t all the way sure it wouldn’t either. “Nothing,” she said. Bela O opened her mouth to ask something more—Bela O always wanted to know something more, in class and everywhere else too—and Bella said in a hurry, “What happened to you yesterday?”

Bela O shrugged and her face tightened up. Then she fished around in her backpack, said, “Look what my mama gave me for after lunch,” and pulled out a little greasy brown paper bag with the puffy triangle cookies that Bella-Bela liked best of all. “We’ll share,” Bela O told her. So it was almost like they were best friends again, but not really.


The leaves turned brown and blew around and clogged up the drainage ditches. The wind turned cold, cold. Bella’s daddy learned to make chocolate chip cookies that were pretty good when he didn’t get upset watching the TV and forget to take them out of the oven on time. Then there was an Election, and Daddy said that the man who won that was going to get rid of the aliens, and Bella started to be happy, but Mommy said that was a lie and the man who won was stupid, and then they yelled at each other while Bella went to her room and put her arms around Mellowmutt and her head under her pillow. After that Daddy still looked worried sometimes and she still heard him talking to the TV or on the phone about aliens, but never when Mommy was home.

Bela O looked worried too. Bella-Bela sang and swung together at recess and told stories together at lunch, but Bela O went straight home on the bus after school every day instead of staying to do her homework with Bella. For weeks and weeks she wouldn’t say why. One day she said, “To see if they’re still there!” and burst into tears. Bella whispered, “Are you scared the aliens will get them?” Bela O glared as if her friend had just said a swear. They were back to being mostly friends the next day, but Bella never said anything about aliens to Bela O again.

Night after night after night Bella dreamed about the picnic in the park. While the days got shorter and the nights got longer and the first snow fell and melted and the second snow fell and stayed and more and more snow fell, she had the dream the exact same way over and over and over again.

Then the snow started to be more brown and gray than white. A few of the chickadees tried out their summer songs early. Mr. Price’s class started Double Digit Subtraction. And one warm Friday night Bella had the alien dream but she didn’t wake up when the alien grabbed her. She stood there all stiff-bodied and squishy-brained, and then she felt it let go of her arm and she tried to run away. First she couldn’t move. Then she pushed herself as hard as she could and she started to run—straight toward the road. Then she woke up, all sweaty and cold.

On Saturday night the same thing happened in the dream. She tried to turn away from the road, but it was always, always right in front of her.

On Sunday night she still couldn’t turn or stop. She ran right out into the road. A big monster-green pickup truck zoomed at her. Inside her head the alien was laughing, and its voice was evil and creepy but it was also like a voice she knew, though she couldn’t remember whose it was. It sounded like someone who was supposed to help her but was laughing instead because she was going to get killed.

She was sweating when she woke up, and her hands were fisted up and poking hard into her stomach (she was lying on her front). She sat up and fixed the blankets and lay back down. She went to sleep and had the dream again. And again. And again.

She didn’t rise and shine when the alarm clock told her to. She just lay there and cried. She was still doing that when Mommy came in.

Mommy took her temperature and asked where she hurt, but when Bella said it was a bad dream Mommy said she was going to be late for work and hurried away.

Daddy looked like he’d been having bad dreams too, and he burned Bella’s pancake a little.

Bela O looked at her when she got on the bus, and she looked like she was going to ask a question, but then she shut her mouth, the way they both did now that they weren’t really Bella-Bela any more. Instead she pulled a joke book out of her backpack and started reading some to Bella. Bella felt too tired and scared and cross to laugh, so Bela laughed extra for them both, only the laugh sounded fake.

Not just fake. Creepy fake. It sounded like the alien in Bella’s dream.

Bella got up, grabbed her backpack and walked to the back of the bus where the bad boys sat. Bad boys weren’t as scary as aliens.

Bela O started to come after her, but one of the bad boys tripped her, and she fell down bang on her knees in the aisle and started crying. Bella wanted to go help her up and pick up her pencils that were rolling all over, but she also didn’t want to, just in case Bela really was the alien. Bela O picked herself up and stared at the boy who had tripped her, and then at Bella, and her hands and her mouth were all shaky but her eyes were hard, hard.

In math class Bella got called on to do a problem at the board. Usually if that happened she reached over to Bela O, who sat next to her, for a fist bump. This time she didn’t. She got up to the blackboard, and she stared at the problem, and it was just little scratches that didn’t mean anything. She couldn’t think what to do with them. She stood there until the other kids started laughing.

Bela O laughed loudest of all, a creepy alien laugh.

At lunchtime Bela O sat by herself at the far end of a half-empty table facing the wall. The new kids who mostly talked Spanish sat at the other end. Bela O didn’t look at them, didn’t look around for her old friend either. Bella C didn’t talk to her, but she went past her on her way to the trash can with the sandwich her daddy had made her—yucky tuna fish—and she dumped a gooey mayonnaisey glob of tuna onto Bela O’s best black sweater.

On the way back home Bela O sat alone right up behind the bus driver. When she saw Bella climbing into the bus she stuck her foot out into the aisle, but Bella saw it and she didn’t trip.

When the bus stopped at Bella’s house she walked past Bela O without looking at her face, though she did look out for a foot. Her daddy was waiting in the driveway.

“What’s wrong, Bella?” he asked.

“Nothing,” Bella mumbled.

“What are you crying for?”

Bella just shook her head and cried more. Daddy picked up and took her inside and called her his Belle of the Ball and asked her again what was wrong. She didn’t tell him. She still didn’t want to say that dream to anyone. He took her temperature to make sure she wasn’t sick, and then he made her hot chocolate with little marshmallows, the kind she liked best, but it tasted like mud. Her daddy played a game of Chutes and Ladders with her before he had to make supper and she had to do homework. She lost. Her homework was just scratches that didn’t mean anything, and her mind was full of nasty laughing: the bad boys laughing at Bela O, Bela O laughing at her. She hadn’t done any of the problems when it was time to pack her homework up and set the table.

They were halfway through eating supper (which tasted like sand) when the phone rang. Mommy sighed and got up to look at the little screen on the phone.

“It’s Carl and Maria,” she said.

Bella sucked in her breath. That was Bela O’s parents. What had Bela O told them about Bella? What kind of trouble was she going to get into? Could she get back out of trouble if she explained about Bela O being an alien? Would any kind of trouble be worse than having to tell about the dream?

“Carl?” Mommy said halfway between her hello-friend voice and her go-away-people-who-call-during-supper voice. She made a sharp little sound. “No. No, she isn’t here now... Bella, did Bela O come over after school?”

Bella tried to answer, but no voice came out. She shook her head hard.

“Did she say anything about going somewhere different? Carl got home just now, and Bela wasn’t there.” Mommy’s voice had gone high and squeaky.

Bella shook her head again. She felt sick and stupid. If Bela O was acting like an alien, maybe it wasn’t her fault. Maybe the aliens had grabbed her mind, and maybe they’d made her walk into traffic, and maybe she was dead.

“Doesn’t Maria know where she is?” Daddy asked. Usually Bela O’s daddy got her ready for school before he went to work at the garage, and then Bela O’s mommy met her at the school bus after she got back from the packing plant.

Mommy didn’t answer right away. She listened to the phone some more. Then she covered the mouthpiece and said, “Maria wasn’t home either. She didn’t leave a note or anything.”

“I didn’t think she was the kind of tramp...” Daddy started, but Mommy gave him a very, very mean look and he shut his mouth.

Mommy listened a little more and then she hung up the phone.

“Maybe we could go and look,” she said. “If that child’s wandered off, and Maria’s out on her own looking...”

“No!” Bella said.

“No, what?” Mommy snapped.

“I don’t want the aliens getting you!” Bella choked out through snot and tears.

Then, of course, Bella had to explain. She hadn’t gotten very far before Mommy was yelling at Daddy about Giving The Poor Child Nightmares.

“But if it’s true...” Bella sniffled.

Mommy glared at Daddy. “It isn’t,” she said. “Well, not like what you think.”

Daddy got up and mumbled that he was going to go look for Bela O. “It’s safe,” he said when Bella started to cry again.

“It’s safe,” Mommy repeated, squeezing Bella. “They’re not that kind of aliens. They’re just...” Then she made another funny noise. “David, come back!” she called.

Daddy clumped back into the kitchen.

“Did you catch the news this afternoon?”

“No. I was fixing that blasted pilot light, and Bella came in in a state...”

“ICE raided the packing plant this afternoon,” Mommy said.

“The aliens did a raid?” Bella asked.

“No, honey. They... The government was looking for what they call aliens. That’s what they call people who come from a different country and... and don’t get all their papers signed first.” She glared at Daddy again.

“Like when Tommy Higgs wrote his mom’s name on the field trip permission slip, and they let him get on the bus and she was mad?” Bella asked.

“Yes,” Mommy said. “Only they’re grown up, so—”

“They’re breaking the law,” Daddy said, glaring back at Mommy. “But if they just went after aliens... Maria can’t be one, can she? They’ve lived here longer than we have. Bela was born here.”

The phone rang again. Mummy ran to it. She made sad noises and said “Sorry” and “Yes” and “Of course” and then picked up her coat and her purse.

“Where are you off to?” Daddy asked.

“To the school,” Mommy said, and she sounded even madder than when Bella had a tantrum and broke Mommy’s favorite mug on purpose. “Where Bela Ortiz is sitting in the gym crying because she went home, and there was nobody there to meet her because her mother was arrested as an alien and locked up God knows where by some goons under the orders of that bastard you voted for. Along with the parents of about thirty other kids.”

“Why can’t Carl...”

“Because he doesn’t have papers either, and he’s afraid of getting locked up and leaving his daughter absolutely alone,” Mummy said, and her voice was cold and hard, almost an alien voice. “I’m going to get her. You see if you can stop our daughter being terrified by the nonsense you’ve pumped into her head.”

“I didn’t...” Daddy started, but the door banged, and Mummy was gone. “Come on, Belle of the Ball, finish your supper,” Daddy said, and he reached out to pat her on the shoulder.

Bella jerked away from him. “Did you make them take Bela O’s mama away?’ she demanded.


“But Mommy said...”

“Look, I voted to get the aliens cleaned out. I didn’t mean...”

Bella ran into her room and shut the door behind her. She was not going to come out again until Bela O came in, and then she’d clean the mayonnaise off Bela O’s sweater and give Bela O Mellowmutt to hold and say she was sorry until Bela O stopped being mad at her, and then even if the terrible thing that had happened was Bella’s daddy’s fault it wouldn’t be Bella’s fault any more.

But Mommy came back alone. Bella came out and stared at her.

“It’s okay, honey,” Mommy said. “Bela O’s with her dad.”

“Where?” Bela asked.

“Someplace safe,” Mommy said in a wobbly voice. “They’d planned this. If one of them got caught and the other didn’t, the one that was safe would take Bela and go.” She looked at Daddy and added, “I wouldn’t tell you where if I knew.”

“Where’s Bela O’s mama?” Bella interrupted.

Mommy’s voice got thinner, and she was still looking at Daddy, not Bella. “Locked up in jail,” she said. “Probably waiting to be dumped back in Mexico where she hasn’t been since she was nine years old. Where she doesn’t want her daughter to come with her because of the gangs.”

“How do you know all that, Clarence Darrow?” Daddy asked. “They let you in to see her?”

“Because she talks to me!” Mommy’s face scrunched up. “Talked to me, before you...”

“You never told me,” Daddy said.

“Why? So you could report them?”

“Lisa!” Daddy said. “You don’t really think... Of course I wouldn’t... It’s the traffickers and dealers I wanted them to take out, not... I never had anything against Carl and Maria...”

“You never had anything where your brain should be,” Mommy said. “Or your heart either.”

Daddy stood up and looked at Mommy with hard eyes. Alien eyes.

Bella ran back into her room. This time she didn’t bang the door. She didn’t want them to hear her. She didn’t want them to come after her. She didn’t want them to touch her with their alien hands...

Aliens aren’t like that, she told herself. Real aliens are just people from faraway who don’t have bus passes.

But something was wrong with Mommy and Daddy. Something had been wrong with Bela O. Maybe her dream was real. Maybe now there were aliens all around her, and if they got her she...

Then she thought again about that morning. How she’d run away from Bela O on the bus and not helped her when the boys tripped her and dumped food on her.

What if Bella C was the alien?

There were voices outside her door. Mommy and Daddy.

“Bella, honey?”

“Belle of the Ball?”

“Are you okay?”

“Go away,” she said. “I’m an alien. You can’t touch me. Go away.”

The door opened and they both came in, knelt down on either side of her, rubbed her shoulders and told her that she wasn’t an alien. So she told about her school day and waited for Mommy to give her that dead-eye look.

“Oh, Bella,” Mommy said. “Oh, Bella, you shouldn’t... But that doesn’t make you an alien.”

“But I made things bad.”

“People do that,” Mommy said. “They do a lot of that.”

“But Bela thinks I hate her!”

“I don’t think so. I gave her a hug for you before she got into her papa’s car, and she gave me one for you.”

“Why?” Bella wanted to know. Mommy’s face wobbled and she didn’t answer.

“Because that’s what people do, too,” Daddy said.

“Yes,” Mommy said. “We do. Father Huerta from church was there, Bella, and a bunch of people are going to try to help the mamas and papas who got locked up and their kids too. I offered to help too, and he said he’d call me.” She paused. “I told him only to speak to me.”

“I’ll help if I can,” Daddy said in a small squished voice.

They sat together on Bella’s floor with their arms around each other, the way Bela O and her daddy were probably holding each other somewhere, the way nobody was holding Bela O’s mommy. They cried together. They waited for the phone to ring again.