Struck by lightning on her annual birthday hike to a favorite mountain meadow in Colorado, 80-year-old Clara Norwood closes her eyes, expecting to die. Instead, she wakes up on an Elirian spaceship. When she is returned to Earth, however, Clara realizes that the Elirians did more than simply heal her injuries. They also reversed all the ravages of aging, and she is once again a beautiful young woman.
At first Clara rejoices in her newfound strength and energy, but before long her 80-year-old spirit begins to feel at odds with her youthful body. She is uncomfortable with the all the electronic gadgets of the 21st century and dreads the prospect of outliving her friends and family. She is also mystified by the unexpected attention she receives from men who are younger than her own adult children — and completely unprepared for the new realities of modern dating and romance.
Faced with the prospect of living her life all over again in another era, Clara wonders if the Elirians would be able to return her to her old body — and what her choice would be if they could…
“Original, deftly crafted, absorbingly entertaining from beginning to end, Heather Starsong’s Never Again is a compelling read and clearly establishes this author as an impressively talented storyteller who will leave her readers looking eagerly toward her next novel. Very highly recommended for community library Science Fiction collections.” — Midwest Book Review
“A delightful, thought-provoking, and mesmerizing tale. From its opening in the beauty of the mountains to its final page, this fresh and remarkable story engages with a new perspective on extra-terrestrial beings, cross-generational relationships, the tenderness of aging, the lure of beauty, the folding of time, and the essence of love. I see life through a different lens now.” — Cedar Barstow, author, Right Use of Power: The Heart of Ethics
“Treat yourself to a vision of a new world. Never Again is one of those rare books that is both magical and wise. As well as delighting you, it will teach you unexpected lessons about youth and old age. In fact, it will stand many of your unquestioned ideas upside-down and cause you to look at aging in new ways. ” — Sam Keen, author, Fire in the Belly
“I read the book in one session and reread it the following day. The full life experience — and beyond — is captured within these pages. Read it once and like myself, you may read it again to arrive at a new perspective on your view of the world, love, getting older… and beyond.” — P.S. Gifford, author, Curiously Twisted Tales
“Never Again is not your ordinary alien abduction novel. It is a touching story of self-discovery and second chances. Ms. Starsong crafts a tale of what it might really be like to have a second chance at life and love, and how it may not be what you might expect. It is science fiction that even non-science fiction fans will enjoy.” — Steve Bellinger, author, The Chronocar
It is not unusual for an old woman to remember being young. But it is strange for a young woman to remember being old. As I did.
This thought comes to me as I lie face down in the midst of my little vegetable garden, having snagged my cane, lost my balance, and fallen. I am not hurt, but shaken. The tilled earth is soft, and it feels like too much effort to get up just now.
My head is turned to the side. From this position my garden is upside down. I have a worm’s eye view around the roots of bushy lettuces, the orange tops of carrots under their ferny leaves, tomato plants towering over me, hung with bright fruit. There are weeds everywhere.
It’s all undone, all the work I did in my garden when I was still young, before I went up the mountain. It’s hard to believe that only four days ago I walked freely there, high above tree line, ran lightly, leaping from rock to rock.
I turn my head. Dizziness spins through me and my eyes go dark. I am in the spaceship, the Elirians around me, touching me with their strange, seven-fingered hands, transforming my body.
Greg comes running. “Mom, what happened? Are you okay?”
I open my eyes. I’m not in the spaceship; I’m in my garden. “I’m fine,” I say. “Just resting.”
Greg bends over me. “What the hell are you doing? You shouldn’t be trying to work in your garden yet. You just got home from the hospital yesterday.”
He is frowning, his lips pressed together. I guess I’m hard to care for. The change was so sudden I forget I can’t move easily anymore, can’t squat to tend my garden, that I must lean on my cane and be careful.
Greg lifts me to my feet. I smell the faint tang of his sweat. In spite of his impatience, he is gentle, supporting me with his strong arm as he helps me into the house and settles me in my rocking chair. I lean my head back and close my eyes.
I know they are far, far away now, across the galaxies, but still they seem near. I remember the soft touch of their radiant fur, see their luminous eyes, hear their melodious voices singing, Write your story.
It seems a small thing to do in the face of great need. But now they are gone, I would do whatever they ask. After all, they are far older and wiser than I.
I am too weary to write now, and the story isn’t finished, but I can start remembering. It all began when I climbed the mountain on my birthday.
* * * *
The path was steep, crisscrossed by roots of tall evergreens that towered above me on either side. Early morning sun slanted through the trees, dappling the path and casting long shadows ahead of me. Using my stick for balance, I climbed with difficulty, my knees stiff and aching. My toe snagged on a rock and I stumbled forward. As I caught myself and straightened, my heart wavered, skipped a beat, stopped for a moment, then raced. I leaned on my stick, almost blacking out. At last the familiar dizzying feeling passed.
I took a deep breath. Crisp, cool air, smelling of pine needles and moist earth. Another step up, then another. I can make it, I told myself. I will. Just this one more time.
Each year on my birthday, I had made it somehow, never knowing if I could, up the long side of the mountain, passing from wonder to wonder, to my special place. That year, the year 2011, it was my eightieth birthday.
My heart was still uneven, racing in short bursts as I continued to climb, watching carefully now for rocks and roots. A shiver of fear ran though me. Only a few days ago my cardiologist had warned me I was at high risk for heart attack when it raced like that. Was I crazy to try to climb so high and far?
Behind me I heard laughter and shouts, and then in a moment I was surrounded by little boys in blue Cub Scout uniforms. They had arrived in the parking lot just as I was leaving, bursting out of their van and scattering like seeds exploding out of a dry seedpod. I had turned back to watch them, laughing with delight. Those little boys jumped and ran, punched each other, shouted, ran back and forth across the parking lot as if running were nothing, jumped as if they had to, as if it were an essential part of their being. The two young men accompanying them were calling them together as I started up the trail.
Now they surged by me, still running, jumping over the rocks and roots. I laughed again; I couldn’t help it. They were so exuberant, so alive! At the same time a sob caught in my throat. I used to jump like that, run, dance.
One young man kept up with the boys; the other slowed and walked beside me. “Beautiful day,” he said, smiling down at me.
I pulled myself together. “It is indeed,” I responded. How handsome he was, his tanned young face under a wide-brimmed hat, his clear eyes.
“How far are you going?” he asked.
“As far as my legs will carry me.”
“Have a good one.” He quickened his steps and moved on, and soon the whole group was out of sight around a bend in the trail.
Alone on the path, I stopped and questioned myself again. Maybe I should just go a little way, sit by Silver Lake a while, and then go home. Not push it.
But if I didn’t go this year… Sudden tears stung my eyes. If I didn’t go this year, then I would never go again. I’d give up, tell myself I was too old.
Wind moved through the pines, a soft, soughing sound that felt like the voice of my sorrow.
Shall I never walk again in the beauty of the high country, never go again to that magical place I loved beyond all reason, never again dip in the icy crystal stream, lie on the soft tundra, the stern jagged peaks around me, the deep sky above?
I’d already lost so much. If I lost this too, would life still be worth living? Would I just shrivel?
With an impatient gesture, I rubbed a tear off my cheek, took a firm grip on my staff, and started walking again. I must not give up.
One more steep part and the trail leveled out, opening into a view of Silver Lake and the peaks above. There was still snow up there, even this late in the summer, white against the deep blue of the sky. I tilted my face up. No blue anywhere so deep as the blue of Rocky Mountain sky.
When the trail branched, I followed the sign that said, “Sapphire Lake, 2 miles.” My heart had steadied, going back to its normal ka-thunk, ka-thunk, and my legs were losing their stiffness, finding their rhythm. I’m okay, I thought with a surge of joy. I’ll make it.
I knew this trail. I had walked it every summer for more than forty years. Each rock and tree, each turn in the path, each new vista greeted me with the welcome of a long-beloved friend. The path ran for almost a mile along the side of Silver Lake, wide, smooth, and mostly level, leading through ancient evergreens with a mantle of moss and flowers at their feet. Little rivulets trickled out of rocky crevices and crossed the path. Here and there the glimmer of the lake shone through spaces between the trees. On the other side of the path, I noticed a tall, lightning-blackened tree standing among the live ones. An image flickered through my mind from a dream that had waked me two nights before. There was a forest like the one I was walking through now.
I stepped to the side of the trail, leaned on my staff, and closed my eyes. The dream filtered back, at first in scattered images, then in its entirety.
I was floating in the sky, disembodied. Far below I could see Earth, blue, marbled with white clouds. A voice somewhere near or within me said, It is time to return to Earth.
It is time.
When the voice spoke again, I felt a pull from Earth. I resisted, then surrendered and began to fall, slowly, slowly, drifting between stars. At last I came to rest on a mountaintop, taking on the translucent shape of a human body. A path opened before me and I followed it, my body becoming more substantial as the path led me always downward over tundra and rocks, past lakes and streams, until I came to a forest. There in the trees near the trail stood a tall, black-robed figure, his face hidden by a deep hood. He opened his black cloak, and I went into it. Darkness, peace. Wrapped in his embrace, I knew he would be there when I needed him. He was my way home.
When he unfolded his cloak, I saw that the path led to an opening in the forest. Below in the valley was a village. I could see people moving around their houses, fenced gardens, beasts in the fields. I walked a short way, then turned back to Death, for so I knew him to be. He nodded to me and I went on my way, reassured.
It was a good dream. I stood awhile longer letting its comfort wash over me, then glanced up at the black tree that reminded me of Death. “I’m glad you’re there, but I’m not ready yet,” I told it as I stepped back onto the trail. “I want a few more years to walk in these beautiful mountains.”