When They came, the story began, we thought They were our salvation. We thought They’d give us energy, heal our sick, solve world hunger. Instead, the story would continue, They didn’t. This was the point where I usually stopped listening—because, after hearing it one-hundred-thousand times over the past few years, it was never told any differently. The story never changed. The point was never made any clearer.
When They came, it should’ve began, They only had one thing on Their minds:
Sadly, this was the story I had to listen to on my final day in the Juvenile Education System—when, after studying a generalized curriculum for several agonizing years, I would finally be emancipated and graduate into the Adult Work Force at the age of seventeen. It wasn’t my idea of a ‘final hurrah,’ but at least it beat a test.
“Ana Mia Sofia Berrios!” The teacher slapped the edge of my desk with his pointer stick hard enough to jar me out of my thoughts. “Pay attention!”
I instinctively drew my hands away and set them in my lap without response. Mr. He merely nodded before pulling a projecting screen from the ceiling. “Now,” he continued, making sure to catch my eye as he turned to survey the room of twenty students. “We are all aware of the events that began on September 17th, 2024—when we finally established First Contact with an extraterrestrial civilization. What we couldn’t have anticipated was the fallout that would occur thereafter.”
Mr. He rounded the stool the battery-projector lay upon. His eyes held a certain sadness. “It is my responsibility, as a senior educator of the Juvenile Education System, to relate to you one final time the dangers that exist outside the walls of Fort Hope.”
His trembling fingers searched for the projector’s ON/OFF button as his eyes remained fixed on us.
He didn’t want to do it. That much was clear. He didn’t want to push that button and reveal to us the one thing that haunted our memories, our dreams, our every waking moment. But it didn’t matter. He had to do it. It was required—actually mandated—that we see the things that lay outside our walls. But for people like me—who’d happened to live through, survive, and still dreamed about it—I could already see it as his index finger pressed the button: lingering in the shadows, waiting for a moment to strike, watching, waiting, anticipating, breathing with only a wheeze as it lifted its hands to turn the doorknob and step right into my—
The projector came on.
I wanted to scream.
But somehow—someway—I managed to hold it in as its image filled the screen.
Limp-wristed, a sloping jaw, glowing eyes that lit the night—most wouldn’t have found the Coyotes threatening upon first glance, as they simply looked like exaggerated caricatures of traditional horror movie werewolves without tails. It was only in knowing what They could do, and Their purpose, that made Them truly frightening.
“Canis Alienus,” Mr. He said, “otherwise known to most as Coyotes, are the primary scouting agents employed by the extraterrestrial intelligence that currently surrounds and monitors the planet Earth. It is likely that many of you have had contact with these creatures, and I apologize for any traumatic memories this may cause. As you all know, I am required by law to show these images.”
No one said a word. Barely anyone breathed. I struggled to keep from breaking down.
“Now,” Mr. He began. He set his pointing stick on a diagram featured alongside the image and drew in a breath. “Canis Alienus is the bipedal, wolf-like organism that commonly patrols the grounds outside of Fort Hope. They were the first extraterrestrial organisms to be reported on the ground and are also the ones responsible for gathering intelligence on Their surroundings. They are the primary reason the civilian population is not allowed outside at night, and the primary threat our Midnight Guard guards against.
“I show you these photos,” he continued, “because I am aware that, on your last day as juvenile youths, many of you might be considering applying as civilian volunteers for the Midnight Guard. This is not a decision made lightly, nor one that should be considered without weighing the risks and benefits. We’re all aware that Canis Alienus was responsible for many of the harvests that took place in the early days of the aliens’ arrival.”
My pounding heart threatened to snap my ribs and burst free of my chest. My head swam, my lungs ached, every muscle in my chest was tight. Tears swam to the surface of my eyes as memories of that first night came back—when one of Them looked into the house with its glowing yellow eyes and began to jiggle the doorknob.
“Furthermore, I would advise everyone to consider non-militaristic options for employment, if only because—”
The way it had laughed. Smiled. Grinned. Even though they said that wasn’t possible—that it was just Their natural expression: elongated and sloped.
“—several of the Midnight Guard report symptoms of anxiety and stress, nightmares and insomnia—”
And when it had realized the door had never really been locked.
“—and because your safety is guaranteed within the confines of Fort Hope.”
And then when the door had creaked open.
When it had realized it could get in.
When it’d entered the house—laughing and laughing and—
The projector snapped off.
The screen whipped up.
I blinked, free of the nightmarish vision.
In its place, Mr. He looked on with sad yet determined eyes. “Congratulations, class of 2030,” he said. “You are now officially members of the Adult Working Force.”
Though several cheered, I wanted to cry.
Six years had passed and not a thing had changed.
And worst of all: They were still here.
Graduating students had no more than forty-eight hours to decide on a prospective future and apply to the Advanced Learning School of their choice. During this time, many would sit, wait, reflect on everything they’d learned. I, on the other hand, was terrified that my heart was leading me in only one direction:
The Midnight Guard.
Most would’ve considered my leaning foolish, given the inherent physical danger and psychological trauma associated with it, but none would’ve found it surprising. Like my sister—who’d joined the Guard four years prior—I had a reason for wanting to don the uniform and climb the walls.
It had all started on September 17th, 2024, on the night They’d first appeared—on the day my life changed forever. My mother, father, sister, and I had been watching a movie in our family home in San Antonio, Texas when a Coyote had approached and began to survey the house. Back then, we couldn’t have known They were simply scouting and were no real threat unless They suspected a human presence. My father, on the other hand, was convinced we were in real danger—and in true, heroic fashion, had devised a plan to sneak out the back door and lure the creature away as we’d hid beneath the dining room table.
It’ll be all right, I remembered him saying. I’ll be right back.
The problem was: he never came back. He’d been Harvested—drawn up into one of Their ships never to be seen again. Up until a few years ago, my mother was convinced he could still possibly be alive. Your padre will be back, she used to say. Just you wait and see. She’d completely disregarded his screams, the light we’d seen, the way the house had shook as one of the Harvesting ships had passed over, all with the belief that, someday, he would return.
She’d lost hope the day my sister, Xiomara, had turned seventeen.
Not a night went by without her whispering te amo—or, I love you—to the only remaining picture we had of him before she went to bed.
On this day—where I should have been celebrating my rise to adulthood with my friends and family—I sat at the only table in our efficiency apartment and struggled to figure out how I would tell my mother she would lose yet another child to the Guard.
My sister would still be asleep, recovering from the previous night’s duties and the toll they would have taken on her body. If only she were awake, I’d thought. Maybe then she could advise me on what to do.
Sighing, I crossed my legs atop the chair and surveyed the small, one-bedroom apartment I shared with my mother and older sister. Space was limited within Fort Hope—even more if you lived with a family—but the council had done their best to make sure we were taken care of. We had three mattresses, a bath with a working drain, a couch, and a dining table to call our own. It was more than most could ask for—or even dream of, considering the housing restrictions.
The sound of a key entering a lock entered my ears. A short moment later, the door opened and my mother walked in, carrying a large paper bag. “Ana Mia,” she said. “Congratulations, sweetheart.”
“Thanks, Mom,” I replied, rising and beginning to walk toward her. “Do you need any—”
She swatted my hand away as I reached out to take the bag. “No. No. This is for you. A surprise.”
“A surprise?” I frowned. “For what?”
“For your special day.” Smiling, she set the bag down and reached forward to part my long black hair from my face. “It’s not often a mother’s little girl becomes a woman.”
“Mom,” I groaned.
Behind us, the bedroom door opened. Xiomara yawned and ran a hand along her close-shorn hair. “Morning,” she said.
“Good morning,” my mother replied, though with her usual tang of disapproval. “You’re just in time to celebrate.”
“What?” Xiomara frowned, then blinked, as if clearing the haze of confusion from her brain. “Oh. Oh!” She rushed forward and wrapped me in a hug, though it was awkward considering she was only five-foot-three and four inches shorter than me. “Congratulations, Mia!”
“Thanks sis,” I said, wrapping her in a hug.
She held tight for a moment—lifting me off the ground despite her size—before turning to face my mother. “Sorry I didn’t wake up early. It’s just—”
“The Guard.” Mother nodded. “I know.
Xiomara pursed her lips, but didn’t reply. Instead, she reached down, took hold of my hand, and watched as my mother approached the counter to sift through the contents of the paper bag.
A moment later, our mother turned, revealing a steaming rotisserie chicken sprinkled with fresh herbs. “Congratulations!” she said.
“Mama!” I cried. “How did you get this?”
“I have my ways,” she said, then winked.
“It’s too much. I… are you sure you can—”
“What’s done is done.” She smiled. “Like I said—it isn’t often a mother’s child becomes a woman. Now sit down. We’ll want to eat before it’s cold.”
Though my stomach grumbled in anticipation, my heart fluttered with worry and unease. It wasn’t often we ate fresh meat—much less chicken—and I couldn’t help but wonder if my mother had gone behind the kitchen staff’s back in order to get it. While it was true she worked in the kitchen, removing food that was not yours was a punishable offense—one that could have you thrown outside the walls.
I opened my mouth as she began to set plates in front of us. She pressed a finger to my mouth and shook her head. “Shh,” she said.
I sealed my lips and looked down at the steaming food.
So real, so fresh, so delicately-prepared.
“Eat,” my mother said.
And we did. All of it. Complete with a side of wild peaches and a small slice of chocolate pie for desert.
By the time we were done, my stomach felt like it was ready to burst.
“Thank you,” I said, looking toward my mother.
She only nodded as she began to gather up the plates.
“Shit!” Xiomara said. “I’m gonna be late!”
“Xiomara Antonia!” my mother scolded.
My sister darted toward the bedroom.
“That girl,” my mother mumbled as she shook her head. “I swear.”
“About that,” I started, swallowing a lump in my throat.
She glanced at me out the corner of her eye.
“Mama,” I said, mustering up all the courage I could manage. “I want to join the Midnight Guard.”
The plate she held slipped from her hands and dropped to the floor, shattering instantly.
“Mom?” Xiomara asked as she came running out of the room in full uniform. She looked at the shattered plate before glancing back up at our mother. “Mama? What’s wrong?”
“Ana Mia,” she said, trembling, tears appearing in her eyes and streaming down her face. “She… she…”
“She what?” Xiomara asked. “Mama?” She took hold of her shoulders. “Mama? What’s wrong?”
“She wants to join the Guard!” she cried.
It didn’t take long for her to fall into Spanish, as she usually did when she was upset. The next several minutes were spent with her crying, my sister nodding, and them conversing in the language I had never learned, while I sat back and played the casual observer. Just as I thought they were done, my sister pulled me from my seat and dragged me out the front door—into the warm twilight of early evening.
“Xiomara!” I cried. “What’re you—”
She slammed the door before spinning to face me. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
“You couldn’t have waited until after she finished the dishes?”
“I don’t know what you’re—”
“For one, she’s freaking out because she broke one of her good dishes,” Xiomara said. “And for two, she’s upset you told her you’re joining the Guard after she risked her job by stealing that chicken for you.”
I blinked. “Okay,” I said, trying to maintain my composure. “I get that. But I don’t understand why she’s so upset.”
“You don’t understand?” She laughed. “Are you crazy, Mia? After what happened to Dad?”
“But I thought—”
“You thought what? She’d be proud of you for joining the Guard? That she’d be happy you knew what you wanted to do with your future?” She shook her head. “Are you kidding me?”
“No.” I shrugged out of her grasp. Xiomara turned away from me and crossed her arms over her chest. “I just thought… maybe it’d be different. Because of you being in the Guard.”
She snorted—a sound that never failed to make me feel stupid regardless of the situation. “Well,” she said as she turned to face me. “You thought wrong.”
I wasn’t sure what to say. So, rather than say anything, I simply hung my head and sighed.
“Look,” Xiomara said. “I know this is hard for you. It’s hard for all of us. Even me. You think I want my sister putting herself in harm’s way?”
“I…” I stopped and shook my head. “No.”
“Then you can only imagine how Mom must be feeling.” Xiomara placed a hand on my shoulder and tilted my chin up with the other. “Go. Try and make up with Mom. It’s not gonna be easy, I know, but if you can make her feel better even a little bit—”
“I know.” I forced a smile. “Thanks, Xio.”
“No problem.” My sister wrapped me in one last hug before starting down the road, toward the armory where she would retrieve her weapons and body armor for the night’s watch. “I’ll be back in the morning. Let me know how it goes.”
I waited until Xiomara disappeared down the road before turning to face the door. Though anything I said was unlikely to help, I knew I had to at least try to make things right—if not for me, then for my mother. I owed her that much.
After taking a long, deep breath, I placed my hand around the knob and entered the apartment.
Though my mother was nowhere to be seen, it didn’t take long for me to find her. Her muffled sobs could be heard through the flimsy wooden door separating the bedroom from the rest of the apartment.
“Mom?” I asked, unsure how to proceed as I stepped forward. “Mama?”
I waited for a response. When none came, I knocked three times and tried the knob, but found it locked. “Mama,” I said, knocking once more. “Please. Let me in.”
She responded in Spanish.
“Mama,” I sighed. “You know I don’t know Spanish.”
“By the Virgin Mary,” she replied as she unlocked and flung the door open. “The Midnight Guard? What about your agricultural studies?”
“I only did them because I wanted to be around animals.”
My mother shook her head. “Ana Mia,” she said.
“Look,” I began, wanting to sound strong but at the same time refrain from being pushy. “I know you don’t like the idea of me joining the Midnight Guard. I wasn’t sure about it either at first. But the more I thought about it… and the more I actually began to think about why I wanted to do it… the more I realized it was because it felt like an actual purpose.”
“They need people to help in the fields—”
“But they also need people to guard the walls,” I cut in. I took hold of her hands and forced her to look me in the eyes—a feat that was nearly impossible to obtain when she was at her most vulnerable. “There’s always going to be people in the fields. There’s always going to be people in the kitchens. There’s always going to be people who want to help build machines and repair buildings and do all those other things that keep them safely inside the walls. But like it or not, there will always be people who are afraid to keep watch. That’s why we need the few who are willing to do it.”
The shimmer of tears in her eyes had disappeared. In its place was an understanding—or, at the very least, an acceptance—that hadn’t been there before. “You’re just like your sister,” she said, tightening her hold on my hands. “And you’re both like your father—your poor, stubborn father. Down to his nose and everything.”
“Mom!” I cried.
She laughed—a serene sound when silence had come to fill our lives.
“I’m not going to like it,” she said, her tone darkening and becoming serious once more, “but I’m not going to deny you anything you want to do. If you feel this will give you purpose… if you feel, in your heart, that this is what you’re meant to do… then yes. You have my blessing.”
I wrapped my arms around her chest and fell into her embrace.
“God help us all,” she said as she stroked my hair. “God help us all.”