Attack of the Froguanas! Chapter 8
Chapter 8: Twenty-First Century Warriors
The sense of déjà vu was almost overwhelming as Jess snuck out her window again that very night. She knew she was pushing her luck by sneaking out two nights in a row, but she also knew that it couldn't be helped. With any luck, this would be the last time she'd have to do it.
She picked her way stealthily across the roof and was about to jump off, when a whispering voice nearly made her fall off instead.
"You're going to kill them all, aren't you?"
Hand clapped over her mouth to stifle her scream, Jess turned in the direction of the voice. Taylor was sitting there, framed in her open bedroom window. Her hair was tied up in a kerchief and her expression was unreadable.
Jess opened her mouth, intending to give some kind of excuse, but Taylor waved an impatient hand before she could speak. "I heard you and the others talking earlier," said her little sister. "I know what's out there--and I know what they can do."
Jess' shoulders slumped and she nodded. "Don't tell Mom and Dad, please?"
"Duh," hissed Taylor eloquently. "I don't want a doctor's appointment any more than Grandma does." Her expression turned suddenly hopeful. "Can I come with you?"
Before the question was even out of Taylor's mouth, Jess was shaking her head. "Not a chance, squirt," she said firmly. "If something went wrong and you got hurt, Mom and Dad would kill me. You know that."
"But what if you get hurt?" The question had a belligerent, teenager-y tone to it, but Taylor's brown eyes betrayed her concern and fear.
"Then it'll be my own fault for being careless, won't it?" Jess replied. "But anyway, I won't get hurt. Grandma and Grandpa will look after me. They've gone up against these things twice now, and they don't even have so much as a scratch."
Taylor nodded slowly, thinking this over, before looking up at Jess again. To her alarm, Jess could see tears pooling in her sister's eyes. Moving as quickly and quietly as she knew how, she reached through Taylor's window and hugged her. For a long time, they stayed there, half-in and half-out of the window. Last chance to say good-bye, Jess thought despite herself. No, damn it. Don't think like that.
Finally, Taylor whispered, "Be careful, stupid-face."
Jess snorted with laughter and pressed a sloppy kiss to her sister's hair. "Get some sleep, booger-brains," she retorted, grinning into the darkness. "I'll see you tomorrow--I promise."
With one last squeeze, Taylor let go of Jess and sank back into her room. Turning resolutely away, Jess crawled to the edge of the roof, swung her legs over the gutter, and slipped off into the night.
Time to go.
The strangest thing about the drive up to Sharman's Farm, Jess thought, was how unafraid she felt. She knew where she was going, what she was about to attempt, and how dangerous it was for everyone involved. Despite her promises to her friends and her sister, she knew there was a very real chance that her plan would fail. And yet, her heart wasn't racing, and her palms remained dry all the way up to the edge of the forest, where her friends and grandparents waited for her.
I'm already used to this, she realized wonderingly, as she switched off the engine. Battling giant lizards from outer space in the dead of night? Been there, done that. Incredible.
Michael seemed to be thinking along the same lines as he greeted her. "We really need to stop meeting like this, baby," he called softly as she walked over to join the group.
Jess teased back, "What can I say? I love the ambience. You're the one that keeps following me around."
Bob put an arm around her shoulders and squeezed affectionately. "Glad you could make it, Cowgirl," he whispered.
"Glad I could be here," she replied, deciding not to tell him about her encounter with Taylor. It'd only stress him out, she reasoned. Instead, she looked around at the assembled group and saw that they were all carrying torches identical to the one Bob had made the night before. Jess nodded her approval, and said, "Thanks for sticking with the plan, everyone. I really appreciate it."
"It's a good plan, Jess," replied Ash. "I just hope it works."
"It will," said Jim confidently. "I wish we'd done this back in the day. Maybe if we had, we wouldn't be doing it now."
"Well, with any luck, we won't need to do it again," said Jess. "Let's get to it."
The plan was very similar to the one they had tried the night before. It began with everyone positioning themselves at the entrance points to the forest and making their way to the nest again, herding the lizards there as they went.
"Not that there's likely to be many lizards out tonight," Linda pointed out. "We scared 'em a good one last night--they're probably all still recuperating in the nest."
This first part of the plan came off without a hitch. Jess drove to the west first, dropping off Jim, Mary, and Michael at the western point, and then drove north to meet Bob. Once there, she pulled her own torch out of the trunk and Bob lit it for her before lighting his own. With a shared glance and a nod, they turned as one and strode into the forest.
The walk through the forest that night, compared with what happened on Friday night, was remarkably un-terrifying. Ahead of them in the darkness, they could hear faint scuttling noises, but nothing that sounded like a Froguana. Jess strode confidently forward, her burning torch clasped firmly in her hand. She had to remind herself to keep her pace slow, so as not to stride past any hidden Froguanas.
"You seem pretty cavalier about this, Jessie," murmured Bob, glancing sideways at her.
Jess shrugged. "It's just not as scary tonight, for whatever reason. You seem pretty calm yourself, Gramps."
Bob winked at her. "Remember, this is my fourth time hunting Froguanas, Cowgirl. I'm practically a pro at this, now."
"Maybe we could make a living at this stuff," Jess joked. "Every time some alien menace comes to town, we jump in, rock 'em sock 'em, and then get a reward from the mayor or something."
"A key to the city, at least," Bob grumbled good-naturedly. "And a little cash would be a step in the right direction, as well."
"Maybe we could set up an office in town," giggled Jess. "Supernatural Investigations and Eliminations. Matt could design a logo for us."
"We'd give out business cards," Bob continued.
"Get a spot on the radio."
"Radio, heck! We'd start doing TV commercials!"
"Get interviews on The Tonight Show!"
Bob's brow furrowed. "Merch?"
"Merch, Grandpa, that's the cool, hip, young-person word you want."
Bob opened his mouth to reply, but then fell silent. They had arrived at the clearing once more. The game was over.
Linda's prediction had been right--the Froguanas had stayed around the nests since the events of the night before. Jess felt her stomach clench as she saw that they were not in a writhing, panicked mass as they were before. This time, they were facing out toward the edges of the clearing, teeth bared, all making a fearsome growling noise that sounded like nothing else on Earth.
For the first time that night, Jess felt a flicker of fear in her heart. But she quickly brushed it away. The plan will work, she reassured herself. No matter what, the plan will work.
She turned to Bob. "Ready?" she asked.
Her grandfather nodded. "Ready."
The second part of the plan was arguably the easiest of all. Stepping as fast as they could over fallen logs, Jess and Bob moved counter-clockwise around the circle. Through the trees, they could see the burning points of light that marked the positions of all their other compatriots, moving in unison. Counter-clockwise around the clearing.
And as they walked, Jess and Bob trailed their burning torches through the underbrush. Everywhere they touched, flames burst to life on the forest floor. Before long, a ring of fire encircled the clearing completely.
Coughing at the smoke that threatened to fill her lungs, Jess reached back and threw the torch into the clearing with all her might. Beside her, Bob did the same. The clearing had become an inferno; a pulsing mass of flame that cracked and snapped in the night air. From somewhere in the depths of the fire, unholy shrieks rent the air, growing louder all the time. Jess couldn't see the Froguanas through the smoke and flames, but the sound of their fear and distress made Jess' insides ache with an emotion she couldn't quite understand. She shoved it away, whatever it was. She could worry about it later, when the town was safe.
Someone grabbed Jess' hand. Turning, she saw that it was Michael standing next to her, coughing and breathing hard. In the firelight, she could also see Mary and Jim in a huddle with Bob. She could just make out the others stumbling toward them through the undergrowth.
"What now?" Michael yelled over the screams of the dying Froguanas.
Jess shook her head. "We wait," she replied. "And hope for the best."
The final part of the plan was by far the most dangerous. They knew going in that the only way to take out the Froguanas for sure was to burn them in their nests. The flaw in the plan, of course, was that they didn't have any way of controlling the blaze once it started. Their only hope was the vigilant eyes of Old Man Sharman. He had called the fire department in time the night before--would he do it again?
"Jess." Michael sounded tense. "What if he doesn't call it in?"
"I'll do it," she replied, brandishing her cell phone. At Michael's uncertain expression, she elaborated, "I'll take the fall, don't worry. I'll say that I snuck out here for a midnight picnic with Richard Pointing, we were smoking cigarettes, the place caught fire, and he ran away."
Michael stared at her incredulously. "There is so much wrong with that story, I don't even know where to begin," he said.
"Well, pick something," Jess challenged as the flames crept closer. She tried to distract herself by joking with Michael, all the while thinking Any moment now…
"Well, for starters," said Michael, "Isn't Richard Pointing going out with Gillian Dods?"
The flames burned on, getting more and more ferocious with every passing second.
"You mean you're more concerned with Richard Pointing's alleged infidelity than mine?" Jess forced an indignant tone into her trembling voice.
The fire was starting to creep away from the clearing, catching on the surrounding tree branches, having consumed everything flammable in the clearing.
"Well, our relationship is built on a solid foundation of mutual trust," Michael retorted. "We can work through this. For Richard and Gillian? There's no hope."
The heat was incredible, and the smell was noxious; smoke mixed with the unmistakable odor of burning flesh.
"Yes, but I'm a smoker now, too," said Jess. "Bet you didn't know that about me, Banner. Who knows what other secrets I'm keeping from you?"
"I don't mind," said Michael, pulling her close. "I know it's wrong, but smoking's kind of hot."
"That's the nature of the beast," Jess gulped, and then began dialing 911. She couldn't afford to wait any longer. Between getting burned to crisp and getting grounded for the rest of her life, she'd pick the grounding.
And then, a miracle occurred.
From above, there was a great whooshing sound, and the flames were suddenly pressed down as if by some immense hand. Squinting through the smoke, Jess could just see the searchlight of a helicopter bobbing in the sky. Water was cascading down in a great shimmering rush, flattening the fire in the clearing.
Old Man Sharman had come through and called the fire department after all. They were safe.
Quickly, she turned to the others. "Alright, we need to hurry. They can't find us here, or we're toast."
"I'm already feeling pretty toasty here," quipped Ash, fanning herself. At Jess' incredulous look, she hastily added, "But yeah, let's vamoose."
And so they vamoosed, north toward the cars and away from Sharman's Farm, where they knew the fire department would be setting up camp. The last thing they needed was to be accosted by Salmondale's finest while fleeing the scene of the crime.
Before they knew it, they were out of the woods and standing in the scrublands to the north. Bob's truck and Jess' black Chevy were there, as if they had been patiently waiting for them to return.
For a long time, they stood there, just under the shelter of the trees. They didn't want to take the chance of being spotted by a random sweep of the helicopter's searchlight. Breathing hard, coughing frequently, they tried to get themselves together.
Michael spoke first. "I've just realized something," he said, in a tone of mild surprise.
"What's up, Banner?" asked Ash.
Michael looked from person to person, a spacey sort of smile forming on his lips. He said, "I have no idea how to explain to my parents why my clothes smell like smoke and dead lizard."
Nobody said anything as Michael's words slowly sunk in. Jess felt her jaw drop. Of all the things she had taken into account to make this plan work, she had never thought to consider this.
And for some reason, that struck her as unbearably funny.
Her friends and grandparents stared as she bent double, wheezing with laughter. She shook her head helplessly, unable to stop. Finally, everyone else started laughing too, straining to keep their voices down.
It was a long time before they all managed to calm down. Once the last few chuckles had subsided, John said, "You can all come round to my place. Have a shower, change clothes, and try to get back before dawn."
"Yeah," said Jess, wiping her eyes on her sleeve. "Grandma and Grandpa need to get some sleep. They've got an appointment with a shrink tomorrow."
Jim coughed with surprise. "You're getting your head shrunk, Bobby? About darn time!"
"I'm not," Bob protested. "My wife is. She's completely buggy--thinks there are alien lizards in the woods coming to eat our children."
"And what's that supposed to mean, Robert Dawson?" Mary teased, hands on her hips. "Just because I believe in alien lizards, that means I'm crazy?"
"No offense, Mary," said Linda, turning toward the cars, "But if I started believing in Froguanas, I'd have myself put away for sure."