Should you save a world that doesn’t want to save you?
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from We Light Up the Sky, a new novel from author Lilliam Rivera about an alien invasion seen from the perspective of three Latinx teens—publishing October 5th with Bloomsbury.
Pedro, Luna, and Rafa may attend Fairfax High School together in Los Angeles, but they run in separate spheres. Pedro is often told that he’s “too much” and seeks refuge from his home life in a local drag bar. Luna is pretending to go along with the popular crowd but is still grieving the unexpected passing of her beloved cousin Tasha. Then there’s Rafa, the quiet new kid who is hiding the fact that his family is homeless.
But Pedro, Luna, and Rafa find themselves thrown together when an extraterrestrial visitor lands in their city and takes the form of Luna’s cousin Tasha. As the Visitor causes destruction wherever it goes, the three teens struggle to survive and warn others of what’s coming—because this Visitor is only the first of many. But who is their true enemy—this alien, or their fellow humans?
Pura Belpré Honor-winning author Lilliam Rivera examines the days before a War of the Worlds-inspired alien invasion in this captivating and chilling new novel.
Five days before the Visitor lands, Pedro has an unusual encounter at the bus stop where he always waits for the 7 a.m. bus to take him to Fairfax High. There’s a dense morning fog that sweeps across the streets adding to Pedro’s drowsiness. Last night he went to La Plaza to watch Kandi perform. It was the late Rocío Dúrcal’s birthday, and Kandi was deep in his emotions. The flawless performer lip-synched to “Amor Eterno” with tears streaming down his immaculately painted face. Pedro sat at his usual corner table in awe of the emotional display, so much so that he too succumbed to a tear or two.
Pedro’s not technically allowed in the twenty-one-and-over club, but La Plaza has been his sometime home for so long that the owner overlooks his age. La Plaza is the only place Pedro feels safe, and because of that, Pedro frequently stays out way too late. But he’s never tardy to school no matter how many times the club calls to him. He would never allow his “misguided antics” to get in the way of showing out academically and aesthetically.
Dressed in a combination of his two favorite stunners—pop star Kali Uchis and the principe de chocolate Andrés from the only television show that counts, Los Espookys—Pedro looks primed to battle any drama in sequin joggers and blue high-tops. Or, at the very least, to almost pass this morning’s history test. What he didn’t expect was a beastly run-in at the bus stop.
Pedro barely pays attention to what he thinks is a stray dog until the wild animal slowly comes into focus. The coyote’s fur is knotted in between bald spots. Its snout is long, and one of its pointy ears has a stripe of white. The animal looks hungry.
“Hijole,” Pedro whispers.
The coyote stares at him, and Pedro is still. This is a dog, an ancient dog, who will sense Pedro’s fear if he shows it, so he doesn’t. By some miracle he decided not to blast Kali Uchis in his eardrums, something he normally does when he walks by himself. At least he can hear if the coyote starts running after him to tear his heart out or whatever it is coyotes do to measly humans.
“You don’t want this,” he says.
The animal seems to take in Pedro’s glittery pants and the black T-shirt that lists Los Espookys cast names: “Renaldo y Andres y Ursula y Tati y Tico.” It draws nearer. Pedro doesn’t notice the flower protruding from the side of the coyote’s rib cage. It is as if the animal has brushed up against a blooming plant sometime during its travel, embedding the head within its dirty coat.
Pedro knows he should run, but where? The garage behind him is closed, and the apartment complex across the street is too far away to make a difference. The beast would be on top of him even before he made it there. He’s sure of it.
“Leave me be, ancient perra,” Pedro says quietly as the coyote takes a couple of steps forward. Fear rises, starting from his toes, inching up to Pedro’s stomach. The coyote doesn’t stop. It gradually comes closer.
A car suddenly takes a sharp turn onto the street. The coyote calmly turns away from Pedro and struts into the dense fog. Pedro glares in disbelief until the dog disappears.
Why is a coyote trying to kill me this morning? reads the caption Pedro writes on the ’gram with a picture of the foggy street. Pedro has ten thousand followers, but he thinks it’s really low considering the quality content he posts. Pedro’s not a TikToker although he should make the transition. He just refuses to do so.
Before he boards the bus, a hundred followers hit the heart button on his post.
While most people who aren’t originally from Los Angeles may think the city is nothing but a daily dose of sunshine and organic food, those like Pedro understand the coyote is a reminder of how no one truly belongs here. Not the recent transplants. Not even Pedro, who was born in the heart of the City of Angels.
The beastly encounter was a first for Pedro. Today is going to be something, isn’t it? he thinks. He rechecks his horoscopes (Astro Poets, CHANI, Co-Star) to confirm if there are any ominous signs he should be aware of. His Leo horoscope in Astro Poets is the one he obsesses over the most: Expect the unexpected. Be open to new encounters. Denim, perhaps? Light a hot-pink candle.
As he boards the bus, Pedro doesn’t notice the tiny petals sprinkled on the street, left behind by the coyote.
The horoscopes have spoken. Whoever is supposed to show up this week—hot girl, boy, or person—better be ready to shower this Leo with love, not mayhem. And take note: I am open to Diptyque candles and designer jeans, he writes.
The image Pedro posts is one of his face tilted against the bus window to show off his strong jawline and lips that have a hint of pink to them. He flashes a sexy smile.
In a stately house located in historic West Adams, Luna eats her bowl of oatmeal, leaning over the kitchen island. She still feels unsettled from last night’s nightmare. In her recurring dream, she’s in the hospital trying desperately to see her cousin before it’s too late. With each step she takes, LAPD stops her, takes her temperature, and asks her inane questions. As she tries to break through their barriers, her desperation escalates. She yells at the sunglass-wearing man in uniform, and he pushes her to the ground over and over until a door in a long, desolate hallway unlocks. Luna runs toward the room, away from the menacing cops, but when she finally reaches the eerie hospital bed, she finds a body hidden under a sheet. With trembling hands, Luna gradually pulls off the bedsheet, only to wake up before confirming who lies there.
The heavy bags under her eyes reflect off the toaster. She made them worse by trying to conceal the tiredness with makeup.
“Horrible,” she says to herself. She takes out the picture of her cousin she keeps tucked in her schoolbag. Tasha had dyed her shoulder-length hair purplish pink. She wanted Luna to change her hair color too, to update her usual dark brown hair to something more fun. But Luna doesn’t like change. Tasha teased her for being such a moody Cancer.
The aftereffects of the disturbing dream are like tiny jabs. She thought keeping herself busy would help stave off these heavy emotions. This week, it will be two years since Tasha died. Two years. How is it even possible? Her life was forever altered that day.
“You’re looking cute.”
Her mother enters the kitchen in her nurses’ scrubs and yellow clogs. Luna puts away the picture.
“Thanks. Spirit week,” she says. Everyone at school is meant to wear pink today. Never one to go against the grain, Luna wears a pastel pink silk top with tights and ankle boots.
Luna’s mother pours coffee into her rambler. She smiles, and Luna tries to return the gesture, but it feels disingenuous. Luna hasn’t been talking to her mother this past month, at least not with any kind of depth. Not that she’s angry at her. She’s just been focusing on school and burying her feelings.
“Don’t forget to take the garbage out tonight,” her mother says.
Luna’s face drops. What is she even talking about? This week is not a normal week. Doesn’t she remember?
“I thought we were going to drive to the cemetery after school,” Luna says, trying hard to keep her voice from shaking. She hates feeling this way, like she needs help. Like she’s weak.
“I’m pulling a double shift, covering for two nurses,” her mother says. “We’ll go the following weekend. We’ll make a day of it. I promise.”
This week needs to be perfect. Her mother brushing it off only brings into focus how much she doesn’t care. Why are strangers more important to her than her own daughter? Why can’t she see how Tasha was supposed to be here with her? Instead, Luna has to deal with everything on her own, with no one to share every silly thing, every secret, every joy.
When her mother reaches out to her, Luna moves away.
“I’m leaving in five minutes.” Her mother sighs. “You ready?”
“Yes.” Luna rinses her bowl in the kitchen sink and places it in the dishwasher. She grabs her backpack and follows her mother to the car.
“Can we not listen to music? I have to study,” Luna says. The radio is reluctantly turned off.
“Honey, I heard you last night. Everything okay?”
Luna concentrates on her textbook. Does she tell her about the nightmare? How she woke up crying? She misses Tasha so much, and her mother just seems unmoved. Honestly, no one is interested. So she keeps this heartache to herself.
“Yes, everything is fine,” Luna says. “I had a nightmare, that’s all.”
Luna’s mother nervously taps on the steering wheel. “Do you want Ceci to keep you company tonight while I work? What do you think?”
Ceci and her mom both work at the hospital, and she lives five minutes away. Luna likes Ceci enough, but she doesn’t want to talk to her. Ceci is into feeling your emotions and talking them through. She gifted Luna a journal to write down her “morning pages.” The journal is still on Luna’s bedside, unopened.
“I’m going to be studying,” Luna says. Her mother doesn’t press the subject. They drive in silence until they reach the school drop-off.
“Have a good day, baby.”
This week is going to be a continuation of the past two years, just a deep well of sadness.
“Thanks, Mom,” Luna says as she opens the car door and joins the rest of the students marching toward campus.
Rafa doesn’t have money for the bus, so he walks along the wide Wilshire Boulevard, heading west. The daily journey takes him an hour and a half, and his sneakers are barely holding up, what with all the walking he’s been doing ever since he started attending Fairfax. He’ll have to replace them soon.
His backpack holds the drawing his sister, Mónica, gave him this morning. The crinkled paper depicts the moon and stars, and on one of the stars, she drew a little house with a chimney bellowing smoke. Rafa asked her if she knew what that was, considering she’s never been to a home with a working fireplace.
“It’s where we are going to live,” she said. “It’s called Casa Estrella. Lots of families will live there.”
Mónica is missing her two front teeth, so whenever she talks, there is a pronounced lisp, and when she frowns, she looks like an abuela. Rafa doesn’t tell her that, though. He doesn’t want her to be sensitive about her ghost teeth.
He enters the school through a side entrance, early enough to eat the free breakfast, which he does, although the burrito is bland and the tortilla tastes as if it’s been refrigerated for too long. Soon the first bell rings. He gathers his things then heads to homeroom. His jean jacket is frayed and full of holes. It doesn’t offer much warmth. He digs his hands deep in the pockets of his dusty black jeans.
The classroom slowly fills with students, none of whom speak to Rafa. He started at Fairfax three weeks ago, a late transfer into the senior year class, and it seems everyone had no room for new friends. He sniffs at his jean jacket. It smells dirty.
“Don’t worry losers, I’ve arrived!” Pedro announces as he enters the room and saunters over to the seat in front of Rafa. Rafa doesn’t make a comment, though in his mind, he tells a witty joke and imagines Pedro enjoying it. He absentmindedly stares at Pedro’s sequin jogging pants. He thinks of the brilliance of stars and how they appeared last night when he stepped out of the tent.
Rafa and his family have been living underneath the highway ramp for a couple of months now. Before the tent, they lived in a converted garage. When the owners told his family they had to vacate because someone had called the city, they were really apologetic. The news couldn’t have come at a worse time—his father was just let go at the car wash. The tent is a temporary solution until his father finds a new job. Temporary, like everything in Rafa’s life. His worn sneakers. The hair he doesn’t have money to cut professionally, so it just grows unruly. The stench from his jean jacket.
If he studies Pedro’s dazzling pants, then maybe Rafa can forget about the long walk home and how his sleeping bag doesn’t keep him warm enough.
“You’re in my seat.”
His name is Isaac, and ever since Rafa began attending Fairfax, Isaac has been on him. Rafa stays focused on the sequin.
“You didn’t hear me,” Isaac says. “Get your fat ass off my seat.”
There hasn’t been a fight between them yet, but it seems inevitable. Isaac won’t stop until Rafa sheds blood, a tear, or both.
He slowly looks up.
“Did you forget to finish off your witches’ brew this morning?” Rafa says.
Pedro turns around and cackles.
“Witches’ brew!” Pedro says. “That’s some funny Shakespearean shade.”
“Did he just call me a bitch?” Isaac asks Luna, who stands behind him.
Luna laughs. “It sounds like it,” she says and takes her seat by Rafa.
Frustrated, Isaac grabs Rafa by the collar of his jean jacket. The classroom erupts. It’s going down, and everyone seems eager to see a fight happen. No one knows the quiet new kid, but they all know Isaac.
“You heard me.”
“Everyone on this planet heard you. No one cares,” Rafa whispers so only Isaac can hear. Isaac’s ears turns red.
The homeroom teacher, Mr. Alvarez, enters the classroom.
Isaac quickly drops Rafa’s jacket. They glare at each other, and for those seconds, Rafa understands this moment will not end here.
“I’ll see you later,” Isaac says and walks to the back of the room to sit with his buddies.
“And that concludes today’s riveting insight into toxic masculinity,” Pedro says into his phone. Then he swerves the camera to Rafa. “Thanks in part to him.”
“You’re welcome,” Rafa says quietly. “I guess.”
Beside him, Luna shifts in her chair.
While Mr. Alvarez takes attendance, Rafa hears Isaac talking about him. He glances at the clock hanging on the wall. It’s not even 9 a.m. and today is already too much.
Somewhere in space, the Visitor approaches earth.
Excerpted from We Light Up the Sky, copyright © 2021 by Lilliam Rivera.