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Attack of the Froguanas! Chapter 3
Chapter 3: The Next Day
Jess knew something was wrong the instant she woke up.
Through her window, she could see that the sky outside was pale blue and gold. It was clearly just past dawn. Her parents were very good about letting her sleep in on Saturdays, which meant that her mother should not have been in her room at all. Yet there her mother was, shaking Jess' shoulder and saying her name with an expression like grimmest death.
"Wha…what's the matter?" Jess stammered, blinking furiously out of sleep.
"Jess, we need to go. Your sister's in the hospital."
Jess's heart sunk so fast, it made her feel sick.
"She's not hurt," her mother said at Jess' stricken look. "She's with Jake Daffee, and she sounded upset. We should go get her."
Reeling with relief, Jess swung herself out of bed and reached for her clothes.
In the car, Jess fed her mother and father questions about Taylor--when did she call, how did she sound, what were you doing when she called--in an effort to prevent her mother from asking her any questions about Jake Daffee and why Taylor was with him. She would rather not stand before an inquisition meant for her sister.
Taylor was ashen-faced when she saw her parents and sister walking down the hall toward her. Tears gushing from her eyes, she allowed herself to disappear into her parents' hugs. Feeling helpless and wrong-footed at her sister's distress, Jess awkwardly petted Taylor's hair, wishing there was something she could do to make her stop crying.
Slowly, the story came out. Taylor and Jake had snuck out together, had gone for a drive up by Sharman Farm, and when they decided to go for a midnight stroll, they had been attacked…
"By a cougar," the doctor informed them when she made her appearance. "They've been attacking the livestock near the borders a lot lately. This one really did a number on the boy. His condition is stable now, but it was touch-and-go all night. He's sustained severe injuries, and there's a good chance we'll have to amputate his left leg."
Taylor made a shocked noise. "But what about baseball? He's on the varsity team!"
"The animal chewed almost completely through his thigh," the doctor informed her dispassionately. "If we do have to amputate it, it'll be for his own health."
"Can I go see him?" Taylor asked in a small voice.
The doctor shook her head. "Family only at the moment. I'm sorry."
Soon, the Dawson family was walking out to their car. The engine had barely revved to life before Jess' father stared in with his inevitable lecture. His dark complexion had been ashy all morning, but as his relief that his youngest was alive and uninjured gave way to anger at her deception, his color returned rapidly. Jess, having sat through many of her father's lectures when they were directed at her, couldn't help but marvel at his technique. His phrasing wasn't repetitive, his vocabulary was immaculate, and he managed to convey the full extent of his disappointment while driving on the winding country lanes that took them back to Salmondale. He was just winding down, pulling into the driveway, when Taylor spoke for the first time since the hospital.
"It wasn't a cougar," she said.
There was silence. Then Jess' mother said, "But that's what the doctor--"
"The doctor wasn't there," interjected Taylor. "I don't…know…what that thing was. But it wasn't a cougar."
"Who was that?" asked Grandma Mary, as her husband hung up the telephone and sat back down to his breakfast.
"Oh, just Johnny," replied Grandpa Bob. "He was complaining about some kids carrying on outside his house last night. Said they were singing that stupid fox song."
"Oh, you mean the one that goes--"
Bob gestured sternly at his wife with the sugar spoon. "Don't you dare start, Mary," he warned, his voice grim but his eyes smiling. "Not one word."
Mary sniggered into her coffee, and then jumped as the door that lead to the garage burst open. In came her son-in-law and Taylor, having a very loud row. They were soon followed by her daughter and Jess, who both looked like they wanted to derail the argument, but weren't sure how.
"Taylor," said her father, "It was dark. I'm sure you were very scared. You can't trust your eyes at a time like that. Now, because you deceived your mother and me, your boyfriend's in the hospital and you both nearly got yourselves killed. I hate to say 'Let that be a lesson,' but I hope you do!"
Taylor protested shrilly, and her father responded even louder. The noise of their fight was making the breakfast dishes rattle on the table. Finally, Mary picked her moment and interrupted the squabbling father and daughter. "Could someone please explain to me what's going on?"
With a series of short questions and shorter answers, the grandparents learned the story. Taylor had called from the hospital that morning and Jake Daffee was in danger of losing his leg.
Bob was irate. "You mean to tell me," he growled, his face rapidly turning red, "that my granddaughter called you from the hospital and you didn't think to tell me about it?"
Jess' father had the good grace to look embarrassed, but his voice was still forceful and angry as he responded. "I didn't want to worry you or Mary. Taylor said she was fine--"
"Oh, I see," Bob interrupted. "Taylor calls you from the hospital after being attacked by a wild animal, but as long as she's not in critical condition, there's no need for me to know, is that right?"
"Dad, please." Jess' mother tried to placate her father, who was glaring daggers at his son-in-law.
"That's a great question, Bob," said Mary icily, as she stood up from her seat. "I think I'd like an answer, too."
Before a full-scale screaming match could develop, a shrill voice cut through the din with a loud swear word. Parents and grandparents turned to look at Taylor, who was trembling where she stood. The pink scrubs she wore--a loan from one of the nurses--drowned her skinny frame, and she clutched the bundle of bloody clothes she had worn the night before to her chest, as if her heart would fall out if she didn't. Silence crackled in the air before Taylor spoke in a voice choked by anger and tears.
"What I did," she snarled, "was stupid, and I'm sorry, and I'll never do it again. But," she continued. "I'm not stupid, and I know what a cougar looks like, and the thing that got us, that got Jake…was not a cougar!"
Taylor glowered at each member of her family in turn, daring them to contradict her. Finally, Mary spoke. "What did you see, honey?"
At that, Taylor lowered her head.
"I don't know," she mumbled. "It was…it wasn't like anything I've ever seen before. It had teeth…like you wouldn't believe. As long as my arm. And it looked straight at me while its head was turned in the opposite direction. You know any cougars that can do that? And it didn't have fur, it was all…scaly. And Jake's stomach was all torn up, but not because the thing bit him or scratched him. He…" Taylor's words blurred together into a tear-soaked rush of sound. "He jumped on its tail to stop it from coming after me. That's what tore his stomach up. He saved my life and he almost died!"
With that, Taylor turned and raced for the stairs. Her footsteps thundered through the ceiling, interspersed with her loud, angry sobs. Her bedroom door slammed shut, and there was silence.
Jess, her parents, and her grandparents looked at one another helplessly. Finally, Jess' mother spoke. "I'll stay here and look after her," she told her husband. "If you could just go to the market for me..."
"No, I can stay," contradicted her father. "You should go."
"I can look after her," Jess interrupted at last. Her parents blinked at her, as if they had forgotten she was there. Jess continued, "We'll take care of her, me and Grandpa and Grandma. We promise. You both should go."
With some persuading, Jess' parents decided to let the grandparents and Jess look after their youngest after all, and they both left for the market. After giving her grandparents a brief hug, Jess climbed the stairs to check on her sister. Alone in the kitchen, Mary and Bob looked at each other with expressions of fear so profound that they didn't even dare show each other how afraid they were.
Finally, Mary spoke. "Do you think…?" she faltered.
"It can't be," said Bob shortly. "I mean, we killed them, didn't we? There wasn't any of them left."
"But what if there were more, Bobby? We didn't search the forest afterward. There could've been more."
Bob got up and paced across the room, running his hands through his gray hair over and over. Mary suddenly felt a flash of memory as she watched him. She could remember sitting in her parents' kitchen--fifty years ago--with Bobby, and Johnny Kramer, and her best friend Linda, and that joker, Jim O'Bannion. It was in the dead of night, and all their voices were hushed in order to avoid waking up her parents. Linda had a deep cut on her face that Johnny was tending to, and Jim was making no effort to hide his jealousy. Mary had told him off in a loud whisper. For cripes sake, Jim, would you grow up? There are more important things to worry about, in case you haven't noticed! And Bobby had paced back and forth, running his hands through and through his hair, trying to think of a way to save them.
Bob suddenly stopped pacing, and turned to face his wife. It's a curious thing, but when you've known someone and loved them for a very long time, you stop seeing their face clearly. A person's face changes as time passes, and all the different faces that your loved one has worn seem to blend together, like transparent slides stacked one on top of the other. Mary, when she looked at Bob, could see the creases on his face and his slightly misshapen nose, but she could also see the face of the brave, clever boy whose class ring she had worn on a chain around her neck for a full two years before he had given her a diamond one to wear on her finger. And Bob, when he looked at Mary, could still see her blonde hair that had glowed in the sunlight (though it was now completely silver), and the lines that carved patterns on her skin were, he knew, the same wrinkles that had appeared whenever he managed to make her laugh. They each saw their partner simultaneously as they had been when they had first met, as they had been when they had begun to build a life together, and as they were at that very moment. Partners, best friends, husband and wife. They had faced life, and had found happiness, together.
Mary went to her husband and braced her hands on his shoulders. "If it really is them again, we can beat them. We did it before, didn't we?"
Bob cupped his hands around his wife's face. "We did, but we were eighteen back then, and also stupidly brave."
"Well," Mary deadpanned, "that's why I was going to suggest calling up Jim O'Bannion for help. There's no way that man has grown up at all. We can just sic him on the things."
That made Bob laugh, and his laugh made their fear shrink a little. "That's not a bad idea, you know," he chuckled. "I'll call him and Johnny, have them meet us at Hinwood's later today. You want to call Linda?"
"We're already supposed to have lunch today. I'll just tell her to come to Hinwood's instead."
Bobby nodded, and then kissed his wife hard. "No matter what happens," he vowed, "I'll protect you. I always will."
"I know you will," Mary replied. "I promise I'll do the same for you. Now go ahead and call the boys. I'll check on the girls. I'll tell you," she added, a hard note edging into her voice, "If those creatures come anywhere near our girls again, I'll make them wish they'd never landed in this town."