Every family has issues. Most can’t blame them on extraterrestrials…
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Light Years From Home by Mike Chen, out from MIRA Books on January 25.
Every family has issues. Most can’t blame them on extraterrestrials.
Evie Shao and her sister, Kass, aren’t on speaking terms. Fifteen years ago on a family camping trip, their father and brother vanished. Their dad turned up days later, dehydrated and confused—and convinced he’d been abducted by aliens. Their brother, Jakob, remained missing. The women dealt with it very differently. Kass, suspecting her college-dropout twin simply ran off, became the rock of the family. Evie traded academics to pursue alien conspiracy theories, always looking for Jakob.
When Evie’s UFO network uncovers a new event, she goes to investigate. And discovers Jakob is back. He’s different—older, stranger, and talking of an intergalactic war—but the tensions between the siblings haven’t changed at all. If the family is going to come together to help Jakob, then Kass and Evie are going to have to fix their issues, and fast. Because the FBI is after Jakob, and if their brother is telling the truth, possibly an entire space armada, too.
“All right, I’m just gonna cut the bullshit,” Kassie said. Her words bit through the gentle morning noises of the mostly empty restaurant. “Jakob, where the hell have you been?”
“Okay. Okay, I deserve that.”
“Deserve that? Who runs off without a trace for fifteen years?
And you come back, and you think buying us breakfast will make it okay?”
“No,” he shook his head. “Of course not. It’s just breakfast. An olive branch.”
“Olive branches don’t bring back Dad.” Kassie stared at Jakob without blinking, a clear challenge across the table. Growing up, she’d never fought with such direct blows. She usually attacked with quiet pettiness, saying things just out of earshot or infusing her body language with a stiff apathy, even when something deserved at least a drop of feeling.
Kassie, who Evie had barely spoken to over the past five years—and really, that was Evie’s fault—wasn’t going to pull any punches here. Not with Jakob. “You overheard us.” Jakob stirred the straw in his Coke, ice rattling around.
“I asked you to keep it quiet. You didn’t respect my request. Like everything else. ‘Oh hey, I’m Jakob. Mom and Dad can’t say no to me. All the pretty girls think I’m charming. All the dumb dudes think I’m cool.’ Then you vanish. And now Dad is dead. Your. Fault. Yours.” Kassie’s cheeks flushed, and her eyes glowered, though despite her tone, this wasn’t fury.
Evie wasn’t a psychologist like Kassie, so her clinical judgment might be off—she spent her days weighing sick animals and wiping their pee off herself—but her gut knew her big sister was giving in to something besides rage, like if Kassie let up for a split second, then the raised voice drawing the attention of the restaurant would immediately slip into every other emotion.
“Kassie, that’s a little harsh,” Evie said.
“Is it? Am I supposed to dress this up? What would make it better?” Kassie laughed, fingers tented against her forehead. They threaded through her hair, pulling the strands all the way back as she sighed. “And don’t say aliens, Jakob. Don’t get Evie started on that bullshit. No. Fucking. Aliens.”
Evie shot her sister a glare. “There is plenty of scientific evidence showing visitations not of this Earth. That night lines up with other findings of suspected—”
“Evie, this is not your show. Turn off the performance art.”
“What the crap, Kassie?” She slammed the table with her words, causing the silverware to rattle and her tea to shake within its stained ceramic mug. “If you just took the time to understand—”
“Maybe if you just took the time to check in, you’d understand.” Kassie’s words came out terse, and rather than look up ready for a fight, all her bravado from earlier inverted, shrinking her into the diner booth with a sudden deflation.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Evie asked, now feeling the need to be the aggressor. She had her own questions for her family, and they had nothing to do with questioning life choices—and though the story of the day was Jakob’s return, she sure as hell wouldn’t pass up what Kassie had just walked into. “You got our house for free. That’s right—” she turned to Jakob “—guess who’s on the deed now. She convinced Mom to do that. Hey, some of us have to pay rent.”
“That has nothing to do with this. Or him.” Steam still visibly rose from Kassie’s mug as she took a sip, then set it back down. “Actually, maybe it does. You have so much to say, then go on. Tell him how Dad died.”
All eyes were on Evie now. The weight of Kassie’s attention compounded with an intensity from Jakob—not judgment but a pensive curiosity.
He wanted to know this. Probably needed to know this.
Whether that was a good or bad thing, she couldn’t say. This new Jakob proved harder to read.
She blew out a sigh and scanned the room. Even the wait staff, who were hiding behind folding napkins and sorting silverware for the morning, seemed to be waiting for her answer. “He… drowned.”
“Drowned where?” Kassie asked pointedly.
“And what was he doing there?”
Kassie may have known the answer to that in simple facts from the police report, like how they’d found the Key and surveying equipment in Dad’s car or in what part of the lake they’d found his body. But what he had been doing there only Evie knew. Because they had talked about it, in one final quiet moment at home before Dad had died.
Six months after Dad returned without Jakob, he’d gradually slipped from being the same old Arnold Shao that everyone knew, watching science-fiction repeats and going for daily runs and staying up late with overtime hockey games to someone who spent all his free time online. And it wasn’t just diving deep into blogs on UFOs and alien abduction. He’d started chatting with people, posting on forums, sharing photos and information, sometimes pushing through the night before stumbling into his office job and fudging his way through the day.
This shift rippled around everyone. It was as though Jakob had been the center of their solar system, and his disappearance was a supernova event that had knocked everything out of alignment. Kassie called regularly from her summer classes at UC Davis but increasingly grew irritable with Dad, more often talking with Mom. And the tension between Mom and Dad, Evie felt it: even though they weren’t particularly talkative to begin with, dinners somehow evolved into even quieter affairs. Half the time, Evie didn’t even bother coming home after her summer job at the downtown branch of Books Inc. The nearby cafés offered a friendlier environment for her to sit with her laptop.
Where she, like Dad, began researching alien abduction.
That night, they had had a heated discussion about a new thread, a discussion of historical environmental data recorded since the mid-1990s, how the burgeoning access of data allowed a network of people to put together consistent tracked shifts in relation to reported disappearances.
“Look at this,” he’d said, swiveling in his chair to the glowing computer monitor. “This is recorded atmospheric pressure on the night we were abducted. And humidity levels,” he said, clicking over to another browser tab, “and electromagnetic activity. You see how the values change?”
“Just like in the findings by the Animus blog.” Not exactly— the blog’s hypothesis had slightly different data curves. But close enough that Dad seemed onto something.
“Exactly. And look, a few days later when you found me, similar drops. Different starting points because the initial conditions are different based on weather.” He leaned back in his chair, then grabbed that thing from the desk’s hutch. He put the object on piles of printouts and charts that now blocked out the row of Kassie’s track and Jakob’s swimming trophies. “This. I’m not kidding when I say this is the Key. It has to be.” Dad launched into his foggy recall of the alien ship. With Jakob for part of it. But Jakob had been ushered elsewhere. And then the rest became large blurs. As he hit the unknowns, Dad’s eyes welled with tears, but his mouth slanted with fury, a previously rare emotion that had become more frequent for him since Lake Kinbote. “What were they doing to him?” he asked, shaking his fist. “They let me see him. But he was different. I could tell. They did something to him, I know it. He came in and gave me a hug. That’s how I knew something was wrong. Jakob never hugs. And he squeezed so hard,” Dad said. “He said something, and I just can’t remember it. It’s all hazy from there. I remember being grabbed and pushed into a… a chamber of some kind. They kept pushing, and their grip—god, it was unlike anything I’d felt. Not human. I remember the feeling of floating almost. I don’t know if they’d grabbed my legs or if it was something else in their technology levitating me. I remember grabbing something: it was on a cart or nearby table. They have tables in space,” he said with a laugh.
“Everyone needs a table. Even aliens,” Evie said, completely serious.
“I remember grabbing onto the Key, and it was being pulled from me. And then Jakob—it was Jakob, I’m sure of it—shouted, ‘Let him go.’ ‘Let him go.’ I still think about that. He told them to let me go, and they didn’t. They didn’t listen to him.” They sat in the quiet office, the whoosh of traffic and the occasional passersby the only noises between them, and Evie had reached over and held Dad’s hand as he stared at his stack of papers. “The Key. Why is it so important? Why would they fight me over it?” He tapped the smooth surface of the object in his hand. “I know it’s all connected. I can feel it in my bones. I’m taking a few days off from work. Gonna drive up to Lake Kinbote in the morning.”
Behind him, Mom crossed the hallway with a bag of groceries in either hand. She shot them a glance that Evie caught before her face returned to neutral and she marched to the kitchen.
“We’re gonna find him, Evie.”
Dad’s eyes locked into hers, a pleading behind them that felt more like a question than a statement. Not the quiet ignoring from Mom, not the heavy sighs from Kassie. He believed that statement with every fiber of his being.
What he needed at that moment was for someone to give him permission.
“We will, Dad. I promise you.”
Despite the euphoria of being around Jakob again, of watching him sit stoically in their corner booth, Dad’s questions lingered.
She didn’t need to ask Jakob about where he’d been because she knew; she felt it in her bones and breath. But how, why, what it all meant, that mattered.
Kassie had told Evie she’d thrown the Key out a few years ago, and if she hadn’t, maybe Evie could have inspected it with her equipment from the Reds. But she told herself to fret about that later, not as she sat with Jakob in the face of Kassie’s question. Her sister loaded it with a vindictive tone, but Evie answered it the way she would have had she been livestreaming: matter-offact, scientific, calm. “Dad was at Lake Kinbote looking for you. Not you. Like, he didn’t think you were out camping there or hiding underwater. But looking for clues about where you went. He’d looked up magnetic-field data and atmospheric-pressure data and wanted to see for himself.”
“Did you hear that, Jakob?” The question came at nearly a shout. “Dad died looking for you. Something about your disappearance got him back at Lake Kinbote and then in the water. They found him two days later. Do you know who had to identify the body?” Kassie finally let go, her voice breaking despite its raised volume. She pointed a finger at Jakob, and it failed to hold steady; it jabbed in the air with each word, a tremble rippling through it. “I saw him. I saw Dad after two days of being in the water. I can never get that out of my head. So tell us, Jakob, where have you been this whole time? Because Dad would want to know. Dad died trying to know…” Evie watched her older siblings eyeing each other, the people she’d spent her youth with now sharing a table as weathered adults, twins with their connection severed by both time and space. Kassie’s jaw tightened, and though the words and the emotions behind them were launched at Jakob, they seemed to bounce off him, like he processed it all and reset to zero in seconds. “So I think you owe us that,” Kassie finally said, falling back to her seat.
Jakob looked at his sisters, focus bouncing between them.
Then he shrugged.
Of course he would. That was how he handled conflict, anything from their parents begging him to take school more seriously to the fallout from semi-illegal shenanigans with his swim buddies.
Except he didn’t follow with his usual response, and that threw Evie off. There was no curl of the lip, no glow in his eye, and maybe that stemmed from the serious nature of the conversation.
It wasn’t every day you learned your father had died searching for you.
“Excuse me,” the waiter said softly. Evie turned to find him balancing three plates of food along his left arm. “Club sandwich. Biscuits and gravy. And granola parfait.” He set each one down, then backed away before Evie could correct his placement. Instead, as they awaited Jakob’s reply, she pushed Kassie’s glass bowl to her and pulled her own sandwich plate over.
“Okay.” Jakob looked down at his food, then back up at his sisters.
Evie’s entire body tensed. Her breath narrowed, and her pulse quickened, Dad’s words echoing in her mind. He was different. I could tell. How much detail would Jakob give? Would Kassie believe him? What secrets did he carry, and—she just realized— what could she tell the Reds?
A stinging sensation came from the inside of her lip, and she realized that her top teeth were digging in. She told herself to unclench and wait, every fraction of a second stretching out interminably.
Here it came. Confirmation of extraterrestrial life. Confirmation of where he’d been. Confirmation of why he’d been away. Evie practically felt Dad’s presence next to her, leaning forward in anticipation.
“I was backpacking,” he finally said.
Evie blinked, trying to comprehend what backpacking meant as the balance of her mind tilted.
“In Europe,” he added.
Evie held herself, unsure of what she’d just heard.
Did he say Europe?
“What can I say?” And then her wide, frozen eyes caught it: there—finally—was the trademark Jakob smirk. “I had a good time.”
Though she wanted to say or do something, every part of her froze. Even thoughts failed to appear, and instead only a deep nausea gave away how she felt.
Excerpted from Light Years From Home by Mike Chen, copyright © 2022 by Mike Chen. Published by MIRA Books.