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Attack of the Froguanas! Chapter 6
Chapter 6: Twentieth-Century Fighters
Six days later, Jess slipped out of her window exactly thirty seconds after midnight. She pulled her dark hood over her eyes and thought grimly about her little sister doing the exact same thing the week before. That escapade had resulted in Taylor being menaced by a giant space lizard and her boyfriend losing a leg. As she picked her way across the roof and swung herself down into a nearby tree, Jess prayed that nothing similar would happen that night.
As she drove to each of her friends' houses in turn, the similarity between the two nights grew even more unnerving. Michael had greeted her with an expression of determined bravado. Jess could tell how scared he was, but seeing him so focused on looking brave helped her conceal her own fear.
Mat and Ash, for some reason, had opted for black face paint as well as dark clothes. Matt's eyes were wide with apprehension and he didn't say much, but Ash did enough talking for both of them. She made wisecrack after wisecrack about anything that occurred to her--along with a couple of borderline insinuations about why Jess hadn't needed face paint--in a clear attempt to lighten the mood. To their collective surprise, it seemed to work. By the time Em was in the car and they were headed to their destination, they were all bantering back and forth, almost as if it was just another Friday night.
The town of Salmondale was drowsy enough on most nights, but the weekend was the one time when it stirred past sundown. Looking down the hill at the glittering lights of downtown, Jess thought of all the kids she knew from school, all of Taylor's friends, and the countless others, pinballing through the small-town streets, blissfully unaware of the alien threat that lurked in the forest.
It had been Grandpa Bob's idea to wait until Friday night to fight the Froguanas. Everyone would either be downtown celebrating the weekend or in bed asleep. "Everyone sane enough not to pick on a bunch of giant lizards, that is," he chuckled.
She drove on, along the winding curves of Sarandon Lane, and the town dropped out of sight…replaced by thick black walls of forest. She had always enjoyed driving on this road before; the golden beams of the headlights slicing through the darkness, her car a bubble of music and noise. Now, despite the comforting presence of her friends, Jess couldn't help peering into the dark on either side of the road, half-hoping and half-dreading to see glowing yellow eyes in the depths of the forest.
Finally, they made it. They had agreed to meet on the outskirts of Sharman's Farm, where it all happened a week before. Bob and Mary were standing next to Jim's truck, their arms around each other. Jim and John were struggling to unload a boxy contraption from the truck bed, while Linda unpacked a rucksack on the ground. Jess could see numerous flashlights, bottles of water, and what looked like plastic handguns scattered on the ground. Flare guns? She wondered. Must be.
Switching off the engine, Jess climbed out of the car and went to hug her grandparents. Burying her face in her grandmother's shoulder, she hoped she couldn't feel her shaking.
Once they were all assembled, Bob took a flashlight from Linda and switched it on.
"Alright," he whispered. "This is how it's going to work."
He reached into his coat pocket and removed a folded piece of paper. Unfolded, it proved to be a map of the forest.
"We've been investigating the forest all week," he continued, "while all you young people were in school. And we've found what we need to make the plan work."
He pointed to an X in the southern part of the forest--distressingly close to Sharman's Farm. "This is their nest. The adults don't tend to hang out there, with the exception of nesting females. What we've got to do is get all the lizards there at the same time."
"What happens then?" asked Matt.
"Then we switch on this baby," replied Jim, patting the box that he and John had managed to muscle out of the truck bed. "Battery-powered space heater. 2000 watts of power. Way more than a pack of Froguanas could handle."
"Right," continued Bob. "So here's what we're going to do: We'll get into groups of three and enter the forest at different points. At the same time, we'll go into the forest and start herding all the Froguanas to the nests. Once we're there, we'll pack them in tight and then turn up the space heater. The heat will confuse them, we'll stop them from getting away, and with any luck, they'll tear themselves to pieces without us having to lift a finger."
"With any luck?" asked Em, her voice quivering a bit.
"Well, this is how we beat them last time," replied Bob. "No reason why it shouldn’t work again."
Quickly, the ten of them divided into teams. Em and John would take the southern approach with the space heater turned on low. Ash, Linda, and Matt would take the east; Jim, Mary, and Michael would take the west; and Jess and Bob would take the north.
Michael immediately protested. "Jess, I don't want you going with just one other person," he fretted. "Look, you go with Mrs. Dawson and Grandpa Jim, and I'll just…"
"Absolutely not," said Jess firmly. "If you think I'm letting you go in the party of two, you've got another--"
"There really shouldn't be much danger from the north end," interjected Mary. "It's all scrub-brush up there--not a great home for big lizards."
"Shouldn't be much danger?" Michael repeated dubiously.
"Think about it," countered Mary. "They made their nest toward the south, because they'd be closer to the farm that way. There's no food to the north, so why would they bother going up there?"
Michael nodded slowly, thinking this over, and then abruptly turned to Jess. "Well, if there really isn't any danger up there, then there's no reason why I shouldn't be in the party of two, is there?"
"And there's no reason why I shouldn’t be, either," retorted Jess hotly.
Before Michael could argue back, Bob interrupted. "Go with your grandpa, Michael," he ordered. "Families should stick together."
Michael fell silent, and glanced guiltily at Mary. Jess could tell he was thinking about how brave she was to let her husband travel alone. The least he could do is be that brave with me, thought Jess. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Matt scuffing the ground with his foot and throwing apprehensive glances toward Em. Clearly he didn't like the idea of her traveling in a group of two, either. At least she had the space heater, though.
"Alright," Michael agreed finally.
They all took out their cell phones and agreed to call in as a group when they reached their designated points. "If you run into any other wild animals," Bob instructed, "Nail 'em with your flare guns to scare them off."
There was a quiet moment as they all looked at each other. Jess tried not to wonder if this was the last time they would all be together.
"Be safe," murmured Mary.
"Don't wander off alone, any of you," warned Jim. "It's going to take all of us to do this right."
"Let's go," said Jess grimly.
She climbed back into her car, followed by Jim, Mary, and Michael. She heard Bob's truck start to her right and could just make out the shapes of Ash and Matt sitting in the truck bed. She took a deep breath and fired up the engine.
The drive over to the western dropoff was the most uncomfortable car ride Jess had ever experienced. No one spoke, and Jess didn't dare turn on the radio. The roar of the car engine was loud, but not loud enough to cover the disquieting lack of conversation.
Jess kept her eyes focused on the road and tried not to think. Her head spun with worry after worry. Awful scenarios played out in the dark corners of her mind.
"It's fine, Mom," Em whimpered from her hospital bed. "The doctor said it was a clean break, so it should heal within a year."
"I'm so sorry for your loss," Mary said, as Ash and Matt's parents held each other, sobbing.
"Hey Mom, Dad," said Jess, screwing up her courage, "Did Grandma and Grandpa ever tell you about the giant lizards they found when they were kids? Well, they're back, and they tried to fight them again, but…"
The thought of her parents--asleep at home, completely unaware of what their daughter and their own parents were doing--made her stomach lurch so badly she thought she might really throw up. She shook her head, feeling tears burning in her eyes, and tried to get herself under control.
Suddenly, she felt a hand on her shoulder. She knew, without having to turn around, that it was Michael. Jess took a deep, steadying breath, and drove on through the night, with Michael's hand a comforting presence on her shoulder.
Finally, they arrived at the western dropoff. At some point during the past week, Bob had marked the spot with a yellow X on one of the nearby trees. Jim and Mary climbed out of the car, but Michael didn't move. Jess turned around to face him.
"I just want to say be careful," he murmured, cradling her face in his hand. "This whole situation is so messed up. It's not fair we have to be involved in this. We're seniors, after all--aren't we only supposed to care about finals, college, and getting wasted?"
Jess laughed in spite of herself. She had been fighting feelings of injustice about this whole thing--the unfairness of having to fight killer alien lizards in her senior year of high school--but she hadn't dared say anything out loud. After all, her grandparents had had to do the same thing, and it was the right thing to do.
"But we're going to get through this, alright?" continued Michael. "We're going to kill all the Froguanas in the forest--never thought I'd say that sentence out loud. We're going to save the town, get justice for Josh getting his leg ripped off…and then we're going to go to the diner, get a mountain of fries, and finish up Mrs. Quinn's stupid take-home exam. Sound good?"
Jess started to laugh, but then was overwhelmed with a feeling that she might cry. Instead of doing either, she leaned forward and kissed her boyfriend.
"You be careful, too," she replied when they broke apart. Trying to keep her tone light, she said, "I really want those fries now--if you're just taunting me with a promise of fries, you're going to be in big trouble, Banner."
Michael laughed, and then reluctantly climbed out of the car to join Jim and Mary. Jess waited until the three of them disappeared into the forest, and then set off to the north. This time, she turned on the radio full-blast. Being silent with company was one thing, but being silent alone would be unbearable.
"I hear your heart beat to the beat of the drums
Oh what a shame that you came here with someone
So while you're here in my arms
Let's make the most of the night like we're gonna die young!"
As she neared the northern drop-off, Jess could just make out her grandfather sitting on a fallen tree. He seemed to be wrapping a length of cloth around a thick branch. He looked up as she approached, shielding his eyes from her headlights.
"What's that?" Jess asked as she climbed out of the car.
"I'm making a torch," replied Bob, holding it out for her to see. "Since there's only two of us, I thought it might be a good idea to have an extra source of heat."
Jess frowned. "Why didn't you say anything before? Michael's worried sick about me, and I bet Grandma's worried sick about you."
"I think she'd be more worried about me with fire than me with a giant lizard," confessed Bob as he drew a lighter out of his pocket. "She never quite forgave me for falling asleep with a lit cigarette when we were first married."
"Yeah, I can't imagine why," deadpanned Jess. "Where did you learn how to make a torch, anyway?"
"Boy Scouts," replied Bob.
"You're not serious."
"No, I'm not. I looked it up on the internet."
Jess shook her head, laughing. "Alright then…shall we?"
Bob nodded, and the pair of them turned to enter the forest.
With each step they took, Jess was more and more glad that Bob had brought a torch. Not only did the heat make her feel safer, but the extra light was very welcome indeed. Her gaze darted back and forth through the gloom; she strained her eyes trying to see what lay ahead of them. She kept picturing the drawing that John had shown them the week before, and tried not to imagine what such a creature would look like in the flesh.
For what seemed like hours, they walked on, stepping over brambles and fallen branches. Occasionally, they would hear a rustling noise from somewhere deep in the trees. Every time it happened, Jess' heart would skip a few beats, and she would glance apprehensively at Bob. Every time, Bob would shake his head. Not one of them.
And Jess would try to relax, until it happened again.
Suddenly, they heard a loud crack that was unmistakably the sound of a tree branch being stepped on. Bob and Jess stopped in their tracks. Glancing sideways at her grandfather, Jess could see that his face was white with fear, and the hand that gripped the torch was shaking. Before she could say anything, Bob met her eyes, and the fear was gone from his face as if thrown forcibly away.
Be brave, Bobby, he ordered himself. Be brave for Jess.
Tentatively, Bob took a step forward, and Jess followed. There was another crack, some rustling, and then two yellow eyes stared out of the darkness.
Definitely one of them.
For a long time, the lizard stared at the humans invading its forest. Jess didn't dare stare directly back--she remembered reading about how certain animals take direct eye contact as a challenge. She felt the fight-or-flight reflex surging through her body, but she knew she couldn't follow either instinct. The only thing she could do was stand together with her grandfather and wait.
At last, the yellow eyes vanished into the gloom. Ahead of them, Bob and Jess could hear muffled thumping noises, like distant thunder, through the undergrowth. Bob turned to Jess and whispered, "Let's go. Carefully, now."
And so they walked on, but with even greater trepidation than before; always aware of their silent companion just out of sight ahead of them. Randomly, Jess thought of Old Man Sharman, the alpaca farmer, herding his animals in and out of the barn. As more footfalls added themselves to the march ahead of them, Jess felt the comparison growing stronger. I'll bet alpacas don't try to eat you if they get the chance, though, she thought grimly.
Jess knew they had finally reached the nest when she began to see lights in the gaps through the trees. She grabbed Bob's hand in hers and whispered, "This is it."
Bob glanced sideways and shook his head. "Not yet," he breathed back. "This was the easy part."
As they reached the edge of the clearing, Jess caught her breath as she realized how right Bob was.
The clearing had obviously been made by the lizards. Jess could see fracture points in the tree trunks surrounding them, a result of the lizards charging at the standing trees and knocking them over. Strewn all over the ground were bloody clumps of fur and bones that Jess didn't dare examine too closely. But the sight that made Jess' blood run ice-cold was the writhing mess of lizards that swarmed over the cleared ground.
Washed gray in the moonlight, the lizards' hides gleamed faintly as they climbed over tree trunks and each other in obvious distress. Looking out at the edges of the clearing, Jess could see her friends and their grandparents standing sentinel at the gaps between the trees. Every time a lizard tried to break free of the clearing, it would hiss and recoil at the presence of too many warm bodies. Too much heat.
"This is the tricky part," said Bob, flinching slightly as a lizard charged up to them and sprang back again. "Somebody's got to turn the space heater up on high and get it in the center of the clearing. The one we got should be plenty hot enough for what we've got to do."
"What's that?" asked Jess, who had spotted Em and John at the southern point of the clearing, fiddling with the space heater.
"If we can agitate 'em enough," said Bob, "They'll go into a frenzy."
He turned to look at her with a grim expression on his face. "Do you know what chickens do if they spot blood in the flock?"
Jess nodded and gulped, turning back to the clearing.
Bob felt horrible--he couldn't believe he had dragged his granddaughter along on this stupid thing. "Jess," he began, unsure of what he could possibly say, but she shook her head before he could think of anything.
"I had to do this, Gramps," she said resolutely. "These things could've killed Tay. This is the only way to get rid of them."
There was a moment of silence between them, as they both tried to prepare themselves for what was about to happen. Jess looked across the clearing and saw Michael standing stoically beside Mary. She took a deep breath and--
"What the heck are they doing over there?" wondered Bob. "It doesn't take this long to turn on a space heater."
Jess looked back over at Em, where she stood with John and the space heater. Even at the distance they were, Jess could tell that they were panicking. John slapped the space heater and kicked it a couple of times, his distress apparent.
"I don't think it's working," Jess murmured.
Bob swore quietly. "Oh, no…"
Jess felt her stomach clench all over again. The plan was failing. They were all standing like idiots around a clearing filled with bloodthirsty lizards, and they had no way at all to escape.
Before she could do more than gape, Jess felt her hand being tugged. Bob was pulling her toward Michael, Mary, and Jim. "Come on, hurry!"
It all felt like a dream. Jess could've sworn that she flew over the ground as she and Bob darted toward Jim, Mary, and Michael. As soon as they reached them, Jess reached out with her free hand and grabbed on to Michael's wrist. She knew instinctively what Bob was trying to do: If they all managed to group up together, they might be able to avoid the angry horde of Froguanas.
It was their only chance.
By some miracle, they managed to race around the circle without tripping. Fortunately, those on the other side of the circle saw what they were doing and were racing toward Em and John. With the space heater non-operational, they were the biggest targets.
After a heart-stopping sprint, they all managed to grab hands with Em and John and fly from the clearing. But they were nowhere near out of danger yet. Behind them, they could hear the growling and snarling of dozens of angry lizards who had just been cheated out of dinner. The sound of their pursuit was loud and menacing.
"They're not stopping!" someone shouted.
"Grandpa," wheezed Jess. "The torch!"
Bob had fortunately kept the burning torch in his hand as they ran. At Jess' words, Bob paused, turned back to face their pursuers, and hurled the torch toward them with all his might.
There was a momentary pause, and then the underbrush sparked alight. Beyond the growing flames, they could hear the sound of lizards squealing and wailing in fright.
Bob turned back to the rest. "Run!" he shouted.
And they didn't stop running until they were out of the forest and safe at the moonlit pastures of Sharman's Farm.