Attack of the Froguanas! Chapter 9
Chapter 9: Friday Night Again
Jess ducked as a french fry flew across the table at her. "I swear to God, Jess, if you make that joke one more time…" warned Ash.
"It's a funny joke!" Jess protested, throwing a fry back.
"I still say you should've gone through with it," said Matt, earning himself a shove from his sister. "Not only would it be absolutely perfect, I would be able to sleep at night without hearing her snoring."
"I only snore to drown out the sound of you sleep-talking," retorted Ash. "Because 'Canna get for flying T-rex over shleesha' means fetching nothing."
"Tell it again, Jess," begged Matt, turning imploring eyes across the table. "Come on--defend my honor!"
"I thought that was my job," argued Em, who was tucked under Matt's arm on his other side.
"Oh, you're not just having fun at my expense?" gasped Matt ironically. "Well, if you wanna stick up for me for a change, be my guest!"
"Go on, Em," encouraged Michael, sitting to Jess' right. "Ash has to take it if she wants to dish it out."
"Em…" Ash warned, craning across her brother.
"We-should-have-blamed-everything-on-Ash-that-night-in-the-forest," proclaimed Em, as Ash hung her head in defeat.
"Why is that?" chorused Jess, Michael, and Matt.
Grinning, Em finished with the punchline. "Because everything we left behind was ashes!"
Jess leaned back in the booth, chuckling, and took a long pull on her chocolate shake. A Grill Aday was just as bright and tacky as it ever was, full of 50s kitsch and loud music. They were all crammed into a booth, chowing on burgers, fries, and shakes, and making each other laugh. At first blush, it could have been any other Friday night.
Except for a few small differences.
Matt and Em were a couple, for a start. Jess asked her about it after she caught the pair of them sneaking a kiss between classes on Monday. According to Em, he had pulled her to one side while they were at John's place recuperating from their fight with the Froguanas. Hair dripping wet and wearing one of John's ridiculous patterned sweaters, he had delivered a passionate speech about how they had stared death in the face and survived together, how he had adored her for years and thought that everything about her was amazing, and how he never wanted another day to go by without being with her.
"And then I kissed him," she had finished, her face flushing as red as her hair.
"Holy mackerel," declared Jess, shaking her head. "Who knew the kid had it in him?"
Em laughed her agreement. "No kidding, right?"
The other difference was Jake Daffee, who was currently sitting on Michael's right-hand side and talking baseball with him. Since he had been released from the hospital--minus his leg--Michael, Jess, and Taylor had filled him in on what really happened in the forest that night. It had taken some time, and Jake looked to be on the verge of breaking down for most of it, but finally, he turned to Taylor and said, "So, what you're telling me is that my girlfriend saved me from killer alien lizards?"
Taylor ducked her head shyly. "Technically just one," she clarified. "And I couldn't have done it if you hadn't saved me first."
Jake grinned his trademark sloppy grin and proclaimed "That's hot."
That night, Jess had invited him to hang out with the group as they wended their way through town, following their old Friday night yellow-brick-road. The way she saw it, they had all fought in the same war, so to speak, so they ought to stick together.
And Jake being part of the group did have its perks. For starters, he was able to use his employee discount at A Grill Aday to get them all free ice cream cones, which they had devoured before starting on their burgers. And he also gave Michael someone to talk to about baseball, which he greatly appreciated.
But best of all, Jess was closer to her sister than she had ever been before. Taylor, according to Jake, was channeling her inner Florence Nightengale and very sweetly helping him through his physical therapy. According to everyone else who saw them together, she had more or less elected herself as Jake's personal bodyguard. Having saved the guy's life once already, she seemed more than prepared to do it again if the need ever arose. Now that Jess was a much bigger Jake fan than she had been before, Taylor was much more willing to reach out and be friends with her big sister.
As if she could hear Jess' internal monologue, Taylor appeared at the table, decked out in her finest bedazzled denim. "You guys done yet?" she asked. "There's a party over at Gillian Dods' place. They've hired a DJ."
"How much do you want to bet it's just Richard Pointing wanting to score points with his girlfriend?" quipped Ash.
Jess exchanged a look with Michael, and he grinned back, remembering their little conversation in the woods, not so long ago.
Jake stood up with a grunt, shifting his weight onto his remaining leg. "Your carriage awaits, my lady," he said, flopping forward into a bow.
As Taylor shoved him playfully, Jess realized the fourth thing that Jake brought to the group: a much-needed sense of silliness.
Out of all of them, Jake had lost the most in their battle against the Froguanas. His leg--and most likely his entire baseball career--was gone. Taylor confided to Jess that he was having difficulty adjusting to life as it was now, but he seemed to reserve his heart-to-hearts for her alone. Around the rest of the group, he was dramatic, ridiculous, and hilarious as ever. He seemed to be using his new friends as a way to escape from his problems and sadness. Which is just as well, Jess reflected as they trouped out of the diner together. Because I've been using him the same way.
She knew they had done the right thing. Of course they had. Those lizards were a danger to every creature on Earth, and they had no business being on the planet at all. More than that, they had attacked Jess' sister, and they were the reason why Jake couldn't play ball anymore. There was nothing else they could've done.
But every night since they had beaten the Froguanas, Jess had woken up drenched in sweat, the smell of smoke in her nose and the shrieks of dying lizards echoing in her ears. She couldn't suppress feelings of overwhelming guilt over what they had done. The Froguanas were dangerous, yes…but they were only doing what they could to survive. They weren't evil--just hungry.
None of which she said out loud to any of her friends, not even Michael or Taylor. Instead, she smiled and joked and half-heartedly studied for finals, keeping her feelings locked away inside.
The night passed in a haze of barely distinguishable music and noise. It turned out that Richard Pointing was the DJ at Gillian Dods' party after all, and he actually did very well. They all played games and told stories, as if it was just another Friday night.
Which it was. There were no monsters lurking in the shadows, no killer lizards living in the forest. All was right with the world.
It is, Jess tried to reassure herself. Everything's fine.
Finally, it was time for everyone to go home. Jake drove Taylor home first, so that she could sneak back in without interference, while Jess shuttled the rest of her friends back home in her trusty black Chevy. One by one, they all went home. Jess dropped Michael off last of all, taking the time to kiss him thoroughly for a few pretty-much-perfect moments. She remembered a note he had passed to her in homeroom on Monday, one that made her light-headed and giddy just remembering it.
You realize that, since we have defeated an alien menace together, we have to get married? There's nobody else I can be with now. You're the one, Jess.
With one last kiss, she let him go, and watch as he faded away into the dark. She already missed him.
Returning home, she turned the doorknob as quietly as she could and let herself inside. Bob and Mary were still awake, sitting in the living room. They both had puzzle books open on their laps, but clearly weren't working on them. They looked up and smiled at Jess as she entered the room.
"Have fun tonight, cowgirl?" asked Bob.
Jess grinned. "Yeah, it was great. We went to Gillian Dods' place. Richard Pointing was a DJ."
Bob took his cue to reminisce a bit, and talked about how Richard's grandfather used to work at the local radio station and had gotten fired for reading the news after inhaling helium once. Jess and Mary both laughed quietly, having heard the story several times before.
Finally, Bob said, "Well, ladies, I think I'm going to turn in. Are you coming?"
Mary shook her head. "I want to finish this last puzzle," she said, gesturing to her book.
"I'm not quite tired yet," said Jess, which was true enough.
Bob shrugged. "Suit yourselves. 'Night, then."
And with that, he was gone. Jess slumped back in her chair and closed her eyes for a moment, and then realized that she couldn't hear Mary working on her puzzle. Opening her eyes, she saw that Mary was staring at her with a strange expression on her face.
"There's something on your mind," said her grandmother.
It wasn't a question, and Jess couldn't deny it. She decided to answer honestly. "It's just…I keep thinking about what happened last week, with the…in the woods. I know we did the right thing. I do. They were too dangerous to let them alone. They ate Jake's leg, and they nearly killed Tay. And they're probably really bad for the environment or whatever. I just…keep thinking of how they sounded that night. It…"
Her words failed her. But Mary understood, and reached over to hold Jess' hand. Jess knew that she was remembering too--the godawful shrieks of pain and fear, sounds that no creature on Earth was capable of making.
Finally, Mary said, "Don't tell your grandpa I told you this, okay?"
Startled and (despite herself) intrigued, Jess nodded. Mary took a deep breath, as if preparing to lift something very heavy. "Did you know Grandpa had a sister?"
"No," Jess breathed, a sense of dread already churning in her stomach from her grandma's use of the past tense.
Mary nodded. "She was just a little younger than us. Her name was Barbara, but everyone called her Barbie, because she was just like a Barbie doll. Pretty, popular, cheerful as anything. She was planning to go to nursing school--she loved helping people…"
Mary trailed off, and Jess realized with a shock that she was crying. She immediately got up and went to hug her.
It took a moment for Mary to gather herself enough to speak again. "The same night we saw the Froguanas for the first time--when we were having that picnic in the woods--Barbie had snuck out to meet her boyfriend, Billy. They parked over by Sharman's Farm--you know what I mean when I say "parked"--and they must've heard a noise, or I don't know what, because…"
Mary broke off with a barely stifled sob. Jess' stomach clenched with horror. "Tay…" she whispered, and Mary nodded.
"Exactly," she said.
They both sat quietly for a long time, letting the story settle in the air.
"I swore to myself," said Mary, so quietly that Jess could barely hear her, "That I would do right by Barbie. She was going to be my maid of honor, she…I loved that girl. I had to do something."
Jess nodded. She completely understood. She could only imagine how Mary and Bob must have felt when they found out the Froguanas had attacked Tay. At least she had managed to escape with her life.
Mary wiped her eyes and said, in a shaky voice, "We'd better get to bed, Jessie. We both need sleep."
Jess nodded, and hugged her grandma once more. "I love you," she murmured. "Thanks for everything."
Climbing the stairs, Jess turned to look out the window. She could just see the dark mass of the forest in the distance, and she smiled to herself. There were no monsters in the dark anymore. All was well.
Richard Sharman shuffled through the layers of ash covering the forest floor. To say he was disgruntled would be putting it mildly. It had taken fifty years to get the colony big enough to survive on its own. The idea of starting over from the very beginning was almost more than he could stand.
Suddenly, his food kicked something solid, and he froze. Hardly daring to hope, he knelt down and smoothed the ashes gently out of the way, searching…
And--holy God--there it was. An egg. One last egg.
Like a mother cradling her baby, Richard wrapped his arms around the egg and lifted it gently to his chest. Shifting the flashlight in his hands, he lit his way home, walking with a new spring in his step.
It would take some time for this little fellow to grow to maturity, he knew. But he was a patient man, Farmer Sharman. He'd wait however long it took for the little creature to come into the world at last.
The Froguanas would come back, he vowed. The world needed these beautiful creatures. All they needed to do was look at them--and they would see.