Reena glanced at her rearview mirror, watching as Malina’s shrinking figure turned toward a bench, her friend’s shoulders hunched in a defeated fashion. She tightened her grip on her steering wheel and pressed down on the gas a little harder, trying to shove away the helplessness she felt in reuniting Malina with her family across the rift.

But she was no scientist. Instead, Reena was here to protect this town’s denizens–both human and Karazai. Keep the peace. Maintain the status quo. There was no pushing the envelope with her job; instead, that was left to the brilliant scientists in this town.

Back at her condo, Reena shifted through the shirts in her closet, frowning at her choices. As she reached for a frilly button up shirt, a black dress that hung at the very end of her closet caught her eye and beckoned. Reena slipped into the black dress, silently chiding herself for making a big fuss over what to wear just to see Victoria. 

Victoria, Reena thought, as she dabbed coral gloss on her lips that were pulled to a smile. Their friendship had a rough start, what with Victoria trying to ruin her Christmas. Though Reena’s job was to keep the town safe, she let Victoria slide, mostly because she felt sorry for the little criminal, the loneliness in this strange town all too familiar to her. Other than Malina, Arden, and the rock band that Arden urged Reena to join after learning she played guitar, Reena filled her off days with hikes and ice cream runs with Victoria. The more Reena got to know Victoria, the more she sensed this resilience and determination inside Victoria that Reena admired.

Of course, Victoria wasn’t yet privy to the alien race in town, so unaware of the stakes involved. Often she would complain to Reena about her mindless documentation of strange plants and seeds, though most of her frustration stemmed from not knowing the bigger picture.

Reena checked her reflection, thinking twice about wearing heels and opting for boots instead. She didn’t want to appear too dressy. She took one more quick glance around her apartment, which had upgraded from “bare” to “utilitarian” during her tenure here. It was no longer empty, yet it still felt… hollow. As Reena drove a few blocks over and past white picket fence cookie cutter homes that queued up like an assembly line, her thoughts wandered wistfully for something at the tip of her tongue. 

Victoria’s condo was easy to spot, with pots of succulents lining her porch and hanging from above. The front door creaked open before Reena could knock. 

Reena sucked in a breath.

There stood Victoria, wearing a flowy red dress beneath a leather jacket. Her hair was pulled up to a messy yet elegant bun. She towered over Reena easily with heels and unabashed confidence.

Damn you, Malina, Reena mused to herself, it really is a date. But Reena also accepted she knew that the moment she had slipped on the black dress.

Victoria gave Reena a coy smile. “Hi.”

“Hi,” was all that Reena could say back. As silence descended upon them, Reena furiously thought to herself: Words. Say. Something.

Victoria looked down at her outfit. “I hope I’m not overdressed. Millie’s Steakhouse just sounded like a fancy place to eat at.”

“You’re fine.” Reena cleared her throat when her voice croaked unnaturally as the words escaped her lips.

Victoria looked down with a blush. “Shall we go?”

Reena nodded dumbly as she led Victoria back to her truck. She snuck glances at Victoria, as Victoria told Reena about her day.

“What about you?” Victoria asked. “How was your day?”

Maybe there can be a life, a home, to go home to, Reena mused. She shrugged off the thought, not wanting to assume Victoria’s intentions, as she told her friend about meeting with Malina, while deftly dodging and omitting any bits about Malina’s extraterrestrial life. Victoria listened with a smile.

Millie’s Steakhouse was crowded, with several groups of people waiting in the foyer already when they arrived. The two women waited nearly an hour before finally being seated, settling into a booth near the bar.

Reena scanned the dining room, assessing for threats. A soft blend of jazz background music, hushed conversations, and dishes clattering filled the space. Before Reena could settled into a relaxed state, something catches her eye.

A man sat at the bar, nursing a drink. Something about him didn’t sit right with Reena. Maybe it was that his coat collar was turned up to cover his face despite the restaurant’s warmth. Maybe it was the way he seemed to be waiting rather than savoring his drink. Maybe it was how he sat rigidly in his seat in a way that wasn’t socially awkward but poised, as though preparing for an attack. 


Reena snapped her attention back to Victoria. “Well what?”

Victoria frowned as she peered at her friend. “Are you okay?”

“I’m sorry,” Reena said. “It’s just…”

She trailed off as she noticed the suspicious man at the bar slide an envelope across the counter to the bartender, who hastily shoved the envelope inside his pocket. In a motion that happened so quickly that Reena felt she would have missed if she blinked, the bartender sprinkled powder into a glass of wine, right before a harried server appeared at the bar for his next deployments.

Victoria followed Reena’s gaze. “What?”

“I’ll be right back.” Reena stood up before Victoria could protest. She stalked to the frenzied server, who was about to place the drink on the table of another booth. “I’ll take that.” Reena said simply when the server yelped in surprise.

“Is there something wrong?”

The voice in the booth was smooth–magnetic even. Easily recognizable, as Reena knew immediately who the man was even before she met his eyes. Michael, a prominent Karazai figure, lounged in the center of the booth. A few others, who Reena couldn’t quite name, shared his booth, their heads leaning toward Michael in a wary and conspiratory way.

“I believe this was my drink.” Reena said, raising the pitch of her voice and feigning an air of apologetic inanity with batted eyes and an easy smile. Based on the expressions of the server and the men and women in the booth, her daffy demeanor seemed to successfully shift the tone from alarmed to confused, though it did very little to assuage Michael’s quizzical expression. When the now-irate server opened his mouth to protest, Reena interjected. “Why don’t you get another glass for this man?”

Reena turned to the bar, where the suspicious man’s seat was now empty. She cursed to herself, scanning the back of the bar for the bartender instead, but finding that also empty. She stormed into the restaurant’s kitchen, restaurant staff looking up in alarm.

At the far end of the kitchen, the bartender shoved his way through the staff and pushed his way out the back door. Reena thanked her past self for her prescience to wear boots as she sprinted across the kitchen and through the door, quickly closing the gap with the bartender in the alley, and knocking him to the ground with a hard thud.

The bartender groaned as Reena turned him over so he was lying on his back. She roughly searched his pockets, pulling a bag of green powder and a fat envelope with a stack of cash. “Hello, Barry.” She spat the name from his nametag. “I’d like to know more about your secret menu.”

“Aren’t you supposed to be off this evening?” asked a familiar voice from behind her.

Reena jumped to her feet and spun around to see Arden emerging from the back door from where they came and striding to her. 

Arden turned to the worried onlookers who had poked their heads out of the door behind him, his hands open in a calm and reassuring manner. “Nothing to see here folks. Please go back to your business.” 

They waited as the kitchen staff reluctantly pulled back inside and shut the door. Reena placed her hands on her hips, pointing to Barry the bartender who was still groaning on the floor. “I saw this man slip something in Michael’s drink.”

Arden kneeled down over Barry. “We’ll get him to the hospital first. You might’ve banged him up real good. Then we’ll question him.”

Reena handcuffed Barry as Arden pulled out his phone to call for the ambulance, which arrived a few short minutes later. Onlookers once again began poking their heads through the kitchen back door and windows.

“You don’t seem fazed,” Reena told Arden quietly, as they watched the paramedics load Barry into the ambulance. “What were you doing here? I didn’t notice you in the restaurant before.”

“I was… spying,” Arden replied, his eyes shifting to the restaurant.

“On?” Reena asked. “The man at the bar?”

“What man?”

Reena sighed. “The man who paid Barry to put this powder–” she held up the bag of green powder– “in Michael’s drink. I assume this is poison.”

Arden eyed the bag. “We’ll send that to the lab. I wasn’t aware of the man. I was spying on Michael.”

Then the suspicious man got away for sure, Reena thought, as she rubbed her forehead. “You’re no spy, Arden. You could have asked me.”

Arden nodded, rubbing his chin pensively. They stood in silence until the ambulance pulled away. Finally, Arden said, “There are some dangerous politics being played in this town. Some Karazai are adamant about staying here on Earth and preventing–even sabotaging–any progress on connecting our two worlds.”

Reena froze and her heart sank, her thoughts returning to Malina’s defeated figure. Anger boiled inside Reena. Who were these callous people who decided it was acceptable to keep Malina and her family apart? “I want in on this.”

“Are you sure?” Arden asked. “It could be dangerous. And may require a lot of late nights.”

“Yes,” Reena said without hesitation. Then she thought of Victoria, who she had neglected for far too long this evening. “Now, if I could be excused. I was here with someone.” And now I think that evening is now irretrievably ruined, she thought ruefully, feeling immediate regret for how easily she forgot about her date when her job kicked in. Still, her anger at Barry the bartender, at the man at the bar, at this faction, still resonated in her bones.

“One more thing.” Arden studied Reena, his eyes lingering at her fists that were still clenched tightly. “There is also a faction that is driven to return to their home planet at any cost.”

Reena nodded, her expression neutral. She didn’t need to be an ex-spy to understand his unspoken cautionary note. “Message received,” she said, as she braced herself while slipping back inside the kitchen door.

Victoria waited. And waited. And waited.

Reena was still nowhere in sight. It had been several minutes since Reena jumped up from their table, inexplicably accosted a server, and made a beeline to the restaurant’s kitchen–all without so much as a backward glance to her.

Victoria sighed, resigned, as the server showed up at their booth and asked, an edge in his voice, if she was ready to order. She shook her head, relinquishing their booth as she made her way to the bar to get a drink, only to find that the bartender was nowhere in sight. She leaned against the bar and tapped her fingers impatiently on the counter, when a familiar voice called out to her.

“Hey, Victoria! Over here!”

Angela, one of her coworker Sian’s gaming buddies, waved her hand wildly from the other side of the bar. Victoria hesitated, far from being in the mood to make conversation. But as Angela’s hands shifted from waving to beckoning, Victoria felt no choice but to join her. 

“Fancy seeing you here,” Angela said as Victoria plopped on the seat next to her.

“I was here on a date,” Victoria said glumly.

“You don’t seem very thrilled about that.”

“She left me,” Victoria bemoaned. When Angela raised an eyebrow, Victoria explained, “She’s an officer in this town. I think duty called.”

“I see.” Angela hesitated, as though reluctant at first, before sliding her glass of beer to Victoria. “I think you need this more than I do.”

Victoria smiled at Angela. “That’s very sweet of you but I can’t take your drink.”

Angela waved her hand dismissively. “I don’t know where the bartender disappeared to. He left in a hurry.” Angela grumbled. “Hopefully to get more beer.”

Victoria chuckled. “Thank you.”

“I don’t think we ever had a moment to chat just the two of us,” Angela said, as Victoria took a sip of her beer. “What brought you here to Selunia Falls?”

“To be a botanist,” Victoria said. “And occasionally sell trees.” Her tone was flat and uninspired. Victoria couldn’t muster the energy to sound excited about what she did.

That didn’t go unnoticed by Angela. “Do you enjoy it?” Angela asked.

“Yeah, sure.” Victoria knew she was convincing no one.

Angela titled her head thoughtfully. “What excites you about this town?”

“I guess Reena does,” Victoria said.

“No, no!” Angela waved her hands, as though commanding Victoria to a stop. “What drives you? Surely there’s something that you stand for by yourself?”

“I’m just getting by really.” Victoria glanced away as she fidgeted in her seat. “Good pay. My own condo. Can’t complain.” She looked back up to Angela–to find the engineer glowering at her. “What?”

“You have an opportunity in this town!” Angela exclaimed. “To make a difference! To do something huge!”

“What difference?” Victoria countered. “I spend my days conducting experiments that go nowhere! I could be doing research elsewhere without being kept in the dark about the bigger picture!”

“But instead you’re here!” Angela placed her hand on Victoria’s arm and gave her a firm shake. “You just need to push yourself and ascend the ranks! You know there is something here bigger than anything you can imagine. Don’t throw it all away just to be here for some floozy.”

“‘Floozy?’” Victoria let out a laugh. “She ditched me to go do her job!”

“Sounds like she knows what it takes to be here,” Angela said with a shrug. “The question is, do you have what it takes to stand on your own here?”

Victoria sat back on her seat, flustered and annoyed. But Angela was right. Victoria knew there was something bigger in this town. Though she appreciated her friendship with Reena, the hollowness inside her could only be filled by understanding her piece to the puzzle in this strange town. She had taken the job, uprooted herself to this town, after a breakup with her ex-girlfriend because she wanted to know there was something she could do by herself. And that she could survive by herself.

And she couldn’t do that if she was with Reena.

“Now where is that bartender?” Angela demanded impatiently.

At that moment, Reena appeared at Victoria’s side, her face apologetic. “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Victoria said. It was only a half lie. She was angry at Reena but Angela had given her something to think about. “I think we should just call it a night.”

Reena opened her mouth, as though to protest, before nodding. They made their way back to Reena’s truck and sat in contemplative silence as businesses and houses sailed past their window. Reena offered no explanation for her absence, and Victoria asked for none. That silence continued until they reached Victoria’s condo.

“I know tonight was supposed to be a date,” Reena said, her voice gentle and her eyes down at her lap.

Victoria froze, unsure what to say, or how to feel. Of course it was supposed to be a date. She was looking forward to this evening and taking the next step in their relationship–at least, that was what she originally wanted.


“I do like you a lot,” Reena continued, her voice insistent as she barreled ahead, smoothing the wrinkles on her dress nervously. “But I don’t think we should date each other.” Her eyes fell. “At least, not right now.”

An odd feeling of relief washed over Victoria, with only a pang of sadness at her heels.

“I’m still trying to figure myself out,” Reena explained, her eyes drifting down.

Victoria looked down at Reena’s arm, resisting the urge to squeeze it and tell her that they could figure themselves out together. 

But Victoria knew that both she and Reena couldn’t figure out themselves with someone else. She needed to stand on her own. “I understand,” was all that Victoria could say.

Victoria leaned in and kissed Reena on the cheek, quickly exiting the car before she could change her mind. She wrapped her arms in front of her chest, bracing herself against the cold, as she watched her friend drive away. She then closed her eyes and sucked in a deep breath, feeling herself grow taller with the motion, as Angela’s words resonated inside her.

There was a lot of work to be done here in Selunia Falls. Now was her time to shine and ascend the ranks. Maybe then she would finally find out this town’s secret and understand her piece in this puzzle.

Reena watched Victoria in her rearview mirror, her friend’s figure hunched. She couldn’t imagine the pain Victoria must be feeling, being sent adrift by her closest friend. Reena let off the gas slowly, gripping the steering wheel to prepare for a U-turn.

In her rearview mirror, she noticed Victoria straighten up, her frame determined.

Reena smiled proudly, pressing on the gas again. There will be time for us after, Reena reassured herself.

But for now, Victoria just needed to be Victoria, and she needed to just be Reena.