Dark Dragons

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Chapter 9 - Girl Drama and High School Misadventure

Sunday, May 16

Wolf Flat was a mile-wide growth of oak, gray pine and coyote brush a couple of miles east of Mt. Lukens. It lay just off the well-worn hiker trails and dirt roads which crisscrossed the Angeles National Forest but close enough to Darren’s house——about a one hour walk up one hill and down another——to serve as temporary base for the Dragonstars. It was the best location to park their fighters and keep them from the interloping eyes of bikers, hikers, and the occasional forest ranger in a pick-up truck.

They set the fighters’ anti-intruder defense to automatically trigger if anything “two-legged” came within five hundred feet——a tightly focused, ultrasonic sound creating so much pain, no trespasser could stay in one spot and tolerate it. Any determined interloper who managed to make it within one hundred feet would be met with the hydra shrouds hidden under the Dragonstars’ cockpits. Long before the guns kicked in, however, the main computers would send an alarm to the guys’ PDA’s. They could then just activate the autopilots and have them head for the secondary holding area, that being Fisher Canyon five miles to the north, another off-the-beaten-trail growth of pine trees.

It was just after ten when they began to make their way back to civilization uphill along dusty Mt. Lukens Road, the lemon glow of Los Angeles highlighting the mountain top above.

Darren felt . . . strange. He really couldn’t set his mind on it, but something didn’t feel right. A continuous tingling across his skin had started the moment he popped the windshield. A quick sensor sweep revealed nothing threatening around them, but Darren had decided to wear his combat armor suit home instead of storing it in the personal effects compartment. The other guys wore their clothes.

“Still feeling funny?” Jorge asked.

Darren sent another thought command to the suit’s sensors, but again nothing. “I’m telling you, I feel like we’re being watched. Don’t you guys feel weird?”

“You’re paranoid,” Tony said.

Darren ignored his chiding, and sent out another sensor sweep. The signal only unveiled the presence of a single rabbit scurrying through the thorny chaparral to their right and a lone owl in a blue oak behind them. Maybe it was nothing——just post-battle juices pumping through tight veins.


“Where the fuck have you been?” Allison shrieked.

So much for the stealthy entrance. Darren slid the patio door shut and squint his eyes from the bright kitchen lights. The microwave clock read 10:52 PM.

“Outer space,” he answered. At the last moment, he had decided to stash his combat suit in the garden shed after predicting this very encounter.

“Answer me, goddamn it!” Allison stood next to the table wearing her “Bear-Hug” nightshirt with the cartoon polar bear and a fearsome scowl on her face. The clash was almost comical. Almost.

“We got lost in the hills,” he lied. “We were halfway to Palmdale before we realized where the sun was and——”

“Where’s your cell phone?” Allison shouted. “Why didn’t you call?”

Why was she screaming like this? Allison had allowed him some leeway before. Not that her parental responsibilities were lax, but she always gave Darren plenty of room to be a teenager and trusted him to stay out of trouble. There were countless times he hadn’t called and walked in the door hours late.

“The battery died,” he answered.

“I suppose everyone’s batteries died, too!”

Darren’s eyes caught What’s-His-Name standing just outside the kitchen lights in his boxers. He had a discomforting look on his face, like he was straining not to be seen. Or maybe because his girl pal’s son had finally discovered the horrible truth, the unity of the single-parent household now disrupted by the Intruding Suitor. Like I didn’t know you were banging my mom, fucktard.

That’s why the theatrics——Allison just up’ing the Mom-in-panic-mode. “Stop with the Meryl Streep impression, alright?” Darren said, walking past her to the stairs. “You’re giving me a headache.”

“This conversation continues tomorrow, Slick,” she murmured.

A moment later, Darren landed in a heap on his bed, clothes and shoes still on. Before he could fall asleep, however, he remembered the disc-shaped PDA in his front pocket. He pulled it out and laid it on his pillow. No, not there . . . mom. He slipped it under his pillow just under his ear.

He heard his mother’s voice downstairs: “Yes, I’d like to leave a message for Officer O’Ryan when he comes in this morning. My son just walked in the backdoor, so I won’t be filing a missing persons report.”

He let out a sharp huff and rolled his eyes.

“That’s right . . . yes, thank you . . . yes, so am I, ma’am.”

Minutes later, he heard the sound of the front door shutting and a car backing out of the drive, the refrigerator closing, the cap from a beer being twisted off and discarded into the trash. Darren took his tennis shoes off and laid down again, then heard a kitchen chair being pulled from the table. His mother began sobbing softly.

He wanted to go downstairs and apologize but was too damn tired to get up. He would try to remember to apologize tomorrow but then figured he might forget or refuse to if she pissed him off again.

Darren fell asleep with the sounds of his mother crying over a beer at the kitchen table.


The alien probe slowly hovered out of the dark and circled the house on a cushion of anti-gravity static, much to the taunting of neighborhood dogs that could hear the ultrasonic excess of its sensors. It slipped under the clothesline and floated over the pool, the water rippling from its repulsors. It scanned the back yard again, searching for danger, and slid towards the patio. The machine extended an appendage from within its spherical body and placed a tiny beacon underneath one of the deck boards. A light on the device began to blink.

With that, the Vorvon probe slipped quietly back into the dark foothills.


Darren woke around ten that morning with a scorching migraine. As he went to the medicine cabinet for Tylenol, he heard the TV downstairs. Allison was up. He popped his pills and descended the stairs, apologies floating in his head but none seemed really good. His mom was still asleep on the couch. Or maybe she was faking sleep. It wouldn’t be the first time.

The TV was tuned to one of the 24-hour news channels, the anchor talking to someone named Brad Harmon from CalTech. “. . . Io is a very volcanic moon, one of the most volcanic bodies in the solar system. . . .”

“That’s right, but we’ve never seen it produce an explosion of this magnitude.”

Darren felt his headache pulsate just a little harder. Of course the explosion was seen from Earth.

“This mysterious burst was on the order of ten to fifteen million megatons. The only naturally-occurring explanations for that could be a supernova, or an exploding star, but of course the Sun is the only star in our solar system. Some varieties of black holes are thought to roam the galaxy at will until they collied with a celestial body, releasing enormous amounts of energy.”

“Then Io should have been destroyed.”

Dr. Harmon smiled nervously. “Not necessarily. One of the theories for the Tunguska Explosion over Russia in 1908 is that a very tiny black hole struck our planet . . . but we’re still here.”

“Would a black hole explain the high amounts of radiation that was recorded from the explosion? One of the scientists we interviewed earlier suggested that this explosion was thermonuclear.”

Dr. Harmon smiled nervously. “That is possible. We really don’t know much about black holes and how they interact with the interstellar medium. We have no direct, close observations of black holes to give us hard facts.”

Darren opened the front door to let some cool air flush his face and help abate the migraine shooting across his forehead. On the porch lay a fat Sunday Edition of the L.A. Times:

SHOOTOUT IN CHINATOWN: Six bank robbers, four police officers dead; LAPD denies use of secret assault unit

Secret assault unit? Darren felt just the slightest chill tingle the skin on his back. He opened the screen door and snatched the paper up that had a large picture of three SWAT officers with submachine guns pinned behind a black SUV. He flipped the paper over and saw the front page’s second headline, this one in smaller type at the bottom:

MYSTERY EXPLOSION ABOVE L.A.: Scientists claim asteroid as cause for Friday morning’s blast despite eyewitness accounts of an ‘upward’ flying object

The headache now reached full bore, and he sucked air between his teeth. Maybe a dip in the pool would help. For the rest of the afternoon, he lay on the air mattress with his limbs splayed in the water like a frog floating on a lily pad. His sunglasses did not do a very good job keeping the sun’s rays out of his eyes.

“Mind if I hang with you for a couple of days?”

Darren looked up to see Tony standing at the pool’s edge with a backpack and a nasty cut on his left cheek. He did not have to ask his friend what had happened. It was either Tony’s asshole dad or his older brother Curtis, a USC dropout, surf junkie and habitual meth sampler.

Darren nodded and pointed at the tiki bar. “There’s Miller Lite in the fridge.”

Tony met Darren’s gaze, and he could tell that a hundred different thoughts stirred behind Tony’s eyes——eighteen years of childhood lost in a maelstrom of punching, butter flinging at the kitchen table, hurtful put-downs or whatever passed for abuse in the Simmons home. Tony glanced away, and his eyes burned a hole through the trees to a point a thousand miles away, maybe wondering where his real mother had run off to so many years ago——hating her and wanting her at once. Tony’s new stepmom was okay, but she always had that creepy Thousand-Yard Stare that soldiers got after a hundred straight days of hard combat. Post-Traumatic Syndrome had replaced family values. Darren never knew how Tony managed to avoid assimilating the abusive behaviors of the Simmons clan and keep a piece of himself distant.

An hour later, Tony was drunk off his ass, lying halfway out of the sun lounger next to the tiki bar.

A little past one o’clock, Darren heard a car pull up. He backstroked over to the opposite end of the pool to get a look. A familiar purple Ford Fiesta was parked in the driveway. No, it can’t be! His brain went into lock down, all reasoning ceased. He got out and walked around the side of the house to check the Fiesta’s license plate: DBL VEEZ.

Oh . . . my . . . god.

Heart climbing into his throat, afraid to go into the house, he pushed himself toward the front porch anyway, still dripping wet.

“Elvis, get down!” Allison shouted inside.

Darren opened the screen door.

Vanessa Vasquez stood in the foyer, Elvis on his hind legs practically humping her. She was giggling, giving the black lab hearty scratches behind the ear, when she turned and smiled. “Hi, Darren.”

Rocket shot! “Hi.”

Allison shook her head and gave Darren a sideways glance. “He always gets hyper and horny when someone new comes in the house.” Vanessa’s grin faded, and she turned to look at Allison. Darren as well shot his mom a dark look and felt the testosterone level drop.

Awkward pause . . . and suddenly the two girls were laughing hard. Vanessa struggled to keep Elvis’s weight from toppling her over, Allison struggling with his collar. The black lab barked a couple of times, apparently getting the joke too. Darren breathed in deeply.

Allison said, “I meant the dog, honey,” and off they went again with their Girl Moment.

Darren shifted his weight to the other foot, put on a fake smile and let it fade quickly.

Allison finally managed to pull Elvis and his exposed “red lipstick” off Vanessa and led him away into the living room.

For the love of Christ, Darren thought, wanting to crawl into the keyhole next to him. “Sorry about that,” he said.

“That’s okay. Dogs will be dogs.”

Darren nodded. “Yeah.”

Vanessa let out another chuckle. “Um . . . I think you know me, right?”

“Yeah . . . Vanessa Vasquez. We had speech class last semester.”

Vanessa nodded her head, and Darren could tell by her sly grin that she knew something he didn’t. “Yeah, right”——pressing her tongue tight against her teeth——“speech class.”

Darren again re-shifted his weight back to the other foot.

“You remember that debate that Mr. Andrews gave me a shitty grade on?”

He thought for a moment and then nodded his head, knowing where she was going with this. “You knew that note was from me?”

“Yeah. I watched you slip it in my locker between classes.”

He raised both hands. “Guilty.”

In Introductory Speech, Vanessa had given a passionate, 10-minute debate with the zeal of a slick senator condemning a recent California proposition banning Mexican child immigrants from health care and a free education. When it came time to debate with the class afterwards, everyone couldn’t say one thing or another about it, either agreeing with her or too disinterested to give a crap.

The exception had been Mr. Andrews who quickly revealed every conservative bone in his body with a pompous drool of blatant statistics and bombastic rhetoric designed to protect him from any counterpoint. Vanessa, of course, didn’t have the lofty bravado to rebut. Andrews thought he was some goddamn armchair pundit on Meet the Press. Any other person would have broken down, given up, even nodded in agreement just to get it over with. Not Vanessa. She stood there and took it, occasionally slinging the shit back at him when she could get a word in. When Andrews finally slipped, she moved in for the kill with the best smart-ass retort in class that day.

“If you’re so adamant in keeping Southern California strictly American,” she began, “maybe we can get a proposition on the ballot to rename Los Angeles ‘Joe Smith.’”

Everyone in class cracked up. Darren liked her even more from that moment.

After her speech, Darren had managed to get a look over her shoulder to see what grade she received: “Although you displayed ample material and dialogue to back up your claims, you failed to effectively support these convictions during the concluding debate with the class——B for presentation, C for point/counterpoint.”

Unbelievable. For the remainder of the class, Vanessa just stared at her desk, one deservedly pissed off Puerto Rican.

During Bill Seaver’s big snore-fest about capitalism versus socialism, Darren decided to write Vanessa an unsigned letter complimenting her steadfastness and the crack about Joe Smith, a letter he suddenly couldn’t remember the words to. Which made him nervous. After the last bell had rung and the hallways jammed up, he slipped the note through the ventilation slot in her locker door. Darren remembered checking the crowded corridor for her before slipping in the note, but apparently he hadn’t checked very well.

“I was standing on the other side of Amy Coffel’s locker,” she said. “You obviously didn’t see me.”

“Figures,” Darren said.

“Thanks, by the way.”

Darren smiled, shrugged. “Andrews is an ass hat. You didn’t deserve it.”

Vanessa nodded. “I still have it.”

“What?”

“Your note.”

Awkward Pause Number Two.

Vanessa looked into the living room and slipped both hands into the back pockets of her rather tight blue jeans. She had her shiny black hair tied back in a ponytail, and Darren could detect just the slightest whiff of perfume. Something fancy, he could tell, like those fold-out sample pages in his mom’s Vouge’s. In fact, she looked rather decked out for a Sunday afternoon. She had the first three buttons of her yellow blouse undone, showing the top of some decent cleavage.

Quick, asshole, she’s wandering. “Somebody told me you were runner up for Miss Teen California last year. That true?”

Vanessa rolled her eyes and let out a huff of air. “Yes, with my mother acting as drill instructor.”

“Ahh. I take it your heart wasn’t exactly into it.”

“Hell no. She’s the one who signed me up, parading me around at all of the regionals like a damn poodle.”

“Best in Show, huh?” Shit!

“Something like that. She wants me to be an actress or a singer . . . I forget which. Who knows. I think she’s just sick of selling insurance and trying to regain some lost opportunity from her youth through me. Don’t let the dreams go by, sweetie, she says. Hell , I just want to be a Foreign Service Officer for the State Department. I’m taking an internship this summer in Washing . . . I’m sorry. I’m boring the shit out of you.”

“No, you’re not,” he said truthfully.

“Yes I am. I do that sometimes. Anyway, the reason I’m here——”

. . . is that I wanna bury your face in my. . . .

“——is to get the Cliffs Notes to Catcher in the Rye for Todd. He asked you Friday if he could borrow it, but you weren’t home when he came over yesterday.”

“Oh yeah, that’s right.”

“He’s doing something with his family today so he asked me if I could grab it for him. I’ll probably end up writing his report anyway. It’s due tomorrow.”

“Yeah, right. Let me get that for you.” Darren bounded up the stairs into his room. The little yellow and black booklet lay on his desk. He snatched it up and leaped down the stairs, two at a time, and landed like an Olympic vaulter. He had his Nice Guy smile on but it felt numb, forced.

“Thanks, Darren. Todd really appreciates this. He says he’ll keep Marcus off your back.”

Darren gave her a quick nod, guts going soft, penis shriveling.

Awkward Pause Number Three. . . .

“Well, maybe I’ll see you at school tomorrow. Bye.”

“Sure. See ya.”

Darren practically moped back to the pool and helped Tony nurse a bottle of Jägermeister. An hour later, he was again floating on his air mattress with his limbs splayed and dozens of empty beer cans trailing away like so many sonar buoys. Allison started ranting again——something about contributing to the delinquency of minors——but Darren barely heard her words. Later that evening, she made taco salad for supper, but very little conversation took place between the three of them while they picked at their food. Darren went to bed around nine with a raging hangover and cried himself to sleep. Tony likely did the same.


Around seven-thirty the next morning, they pulled up to the corner of Sutton Canyon and Foothill on their bikes to wait for Nate and Jorge who arrived three minutes later. Darren had convinced everyone Saturday night that they should go to school, an unpopular suggestion which they debated for ten minutes. Teachers and pop quizzes had been far from their minds during their crazy weekend, but Darren thought it would be a good idea just to show up. They needed to forget their wild weekend and return to the real world again for a while anyhow, to remind themselves that they were still human, still teenagers. High school sounded like a nice remedy even though both Darren and Tony would be in detention, Tony for pulling a fire alarm last Thursday.

As they turned the corner onto the street leading to Vergugo Valley High, a high-pitched voice behind them suddenly shattered the calm. “Hey guys, what’s up?”

Darren winced. That familiar, shrilling voice rung in his head like a gong.

“Geils!” Tony said with mock gaiety.

Geils peddled faster to catch up. “Hey guys, you’ll never believe what I saw this weekend . . . a UFO. Crazy, huh?”

Darren watched Geils’s head quickly swivel from face to face, watching them for a reaction, waiting for the alarm to sound. Everyone had their poker faces on, though.

“I think it was the one that blew up over the city Saturday morning,” Geils said.

“You mean the meteor?” Darren said. “The newspapers said it was just a rock falling out of the sky.”

“Yeah, right. The government’s covering everything up. They know what’s goin’ on. I’ve seen some other strange shit, too.”

“Like what?” Darren sighed, trying to sound bored. But the alarms to Def-Con One were going off in his head.

Geils shrugged, smiled. “I’m not tellin’. You’d think I’m crazy.”

“You? Crazy?”

“I could be mistaken.” Geils was enjoying his moment. “Well, I guess I’ll see you guys during lunch hour. Later days.” He took a turn onto another street and rode off, trailing foul air behind him.

The boys stopped their bikes at a corner to let the traffic go by. Everyone’s radar had been activated. Danger was coming.

“You think he knows?” Jorge asked.

Darren thought about that. Geils was a profound storyteller, but why make up a story about a UFO? Darren weighed the equation and said, “Yeah, he knows.”

“Great,” Tony whined.

“Looks like we’ll have to cack him,” Nate said.

Everyone snickered. Everyone but Darren. He was silent the rest of the way to school.


A quiet corner of the library served as the school’s detention, but it wasn’t all that bad, being just forced Study Hall anyway. Boring, but at least Darren didn’t have to put up with classes and Marcus for a week, who happened to be sitting on the other side of the library reading a book. Horton Hears a Who probably, his finger moving slowly under each painful sentence. Tony sat two tables over, his nose buried deep in Intermediate Chemistry 3rd Edition. Darren didn’t know any of the others here, nor did he care. He recognized some of the faces, most of who cruised around town during lunch hour smoking grass. Tony’s crowd.

He went back to his algebra book, and when he did, he heard a ringing begin to build in his ears. He stuck his fingers in and wiggled but the ringing persisted. Suddenly he felt daggers pierce his eyeballs and a terrifying pain shoot through his head. He bounced in his seat when the ache took the breath from him, and he pushed in his temples, squeezing his eyes in reflex. It tore down through his spine, and he saw his Dragonstar, the alien moonship, his dad’s funeral last year. Memories poured out of his subconscious, images he hadn’t seen in years. It was like an electric surge overloading a computer, and everything exploded at once in a tangling mess of confusing images. He dug his knuckles into his temples, hoping he wasn’t drawing attention. Just when he thought he would pass out, the pain and whatever triggered it, faded away.

He buried his head face down in his algebra book and hoped he wouldn’t have another spell. Apparently there were nasty side-effects to being a brainwashed pilot of alien war machines. The withdrawals Kalaar had warned him of in his dream had come true. The electro-junkie inside him would need a fix soon.

“Damn.”

For the rest of the day, Darren just stared at his books without deciphering a single word. While others around him were tackling trigonometry equations or the significance of Greek democracy, Darren ran through the internal mechanics of his Dragonstar. Right now Vanessa was sitting in class somewhere and unintentionally making guys nearby think naughty thoughts, while Darren poured over battle strategies and defensive maneuvers in his head. Todd was probably dreaming of his girl in gym class, as Darren scribbled alien internal organs and physical weak points in his notebook. Todd’s little brother Marcus was shooting spitballs through a straw over in the corner of the library when Darren was asking himself if he had the guts to go the distance. Along the margins in his notebook, Darren wrote, “We have to be right the first time. If we get it wrong, we lose. Hit them before they land——a foothold is defeat.”

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Darren looked up and spotted Marcus throwing wads of paper at Bobby Samuels, a freshman and a pretty small guy. Bobby gathered his books and things and got up to leave the desk in front of Marcus.

He heard Marcus whisper, “Fagot.” The current detention monitor, Mr. Kerns, sitting just twenty feet away, did not move one bone of his body or even take notice of Marcus’s insult.

Darren couldn’t help but feel the quiet storm in him grow louder. He had slugged it out with extraterrestrial invaders across the moons of Jupiter, and here he was a day later still quivering from the school jock. He could take Marcus, and he didn’t need pulse rifles and Dragonstars either. Time to turn the tables on this prick.


Just after two, Darren knocked on the door to the custodian’s office and opened it, prepared to say, “There’s puke all over the boy’s bathroom next to the art room,” but Stuckey and his four guys were not here. He stuffed the wooden bathroom pass into his back pocket and opened the red notebook marked “Locker Log” on the desk. Locker #377, combination 45-62-18. “Thank you,” Darren said with a grin.

Four minutes later, he stood in front of Marcus’s locker, checking both ends of the hallway, before opening it: a varsity football jacket, notebooks, schoolbooks, nothing taped to the inside like pictures or tassels or mementos of any kind. A boring ass locker.

He gathered everything in his arms, closed the locker, and headed for the side entrance just down the hallway. Outside, he tossed Marcus’s shit in the Dumpster next to the teachers-only parking spaces. As the notebook flew in the air, everything inside spilled out and scattered across the nearly full Dumpster. Darren was about to turn and head back for detention when he spotted a color photograph of . . . Marcus? . . . dressed only in a leather, studded chest harness and rubber thong? Darren reached in and turned the photo around.

“Jesus Christ,” he cracked.

It was Marcus . . . standing in front of a bathroom mirror with his cell phone, his tongue licking his teeth, and his ridiculously small prick poking out of a zippered opening in the thong. It was creepy and hilarious at the same time. Trying out for a Village People-tribute band? Why the hell would Marcus bring this picture to school? Probably for the same reason guileless teenagers took naughty pictures of themselves with their cell phones that wound up online——because they were stupid.

Darren would make Marcus pay for his furtive audacity. Two minutes later, he was in Mr. Ellis’s office while the band teacher conducted his students in the next room. To a horribly mangled rendition of “Another One Bites The Dust” coming through the walls, Darren began to run off copies of Marcus’s S&M, wack-off pic on Ellis’s laser printer. He emptied the paper tray.

With about three hundred copies in hand, Darren stuck one through the ventilation slot of each locker, careful to keep his eyes open for teachers. One did appear from around a corner, but Darren was in between lockers, and he simply kept walking while the teacher smiled and went past. After the hallway cleared, Darren picked up where he left off. He managed to get every locker on the first floor, about two hundred of them, before heading upstairs to continue his revenge. Five minutes later, he popped the last one in. There were still another hundred lockers remaining, but oh well. He made his point.

“Did you fall in?” Mr. Kerns whispered after Darren returned to detention.

“Mr. Barstow wanted to talk to me in his office,” he lied, handing the bathroom pass back.

When Darren sat down, he looked over at Marcus who was staring. Darren flipped him the bird. Marcus’s eyebrows lowered before he went back to his book.

When the three o’clock bell rang ten minutes later to announce the end of the school day, the results of Darren’s Payback were immediate. It began as a wave. It seemed to rise near the gymnasium first before moving east toward the cafeteria. Around the science wing, it reached a crescendo, and then overtook the computer/typing classrooms nearby. From upstairs, it came down from all three stairwells like a class-five hurricane.

Laughter. Catcalls. Whistles. Oh my god’s. What the fuck?’s. It’s Marcus Lutze’s. A bunch of people were singing “Y.M.C.A.” near the math rooms. Teachers were angrily trying to gather up as many of the pictures as possible. Darren strolled the hallways with a smile. He wished D.B. were here to see this.

Marcus was not at his locker. Darren wanted to see the look of horror and despair on his face, but the jock was nowhere to be seen. Only when he met Tony, Nate and Jorge at the bike racks outside, did he see Marcus standing next to his Corvette in a rather heated argument with his buddies, Greg Shaw and Tom Nichols. A couple of guys on the football team walked by, said something, and Marcus shouted, “Fuck you!”

“Did you get one of these, too?” Tony asked him, holding Marcus’s picture.

“Yeah . . . I’m the one who found it in his locker and printed them up.”

“What?” Tony, Jorge and Nate exclaimed together.

Darren pulled out a roll of pennies from his backpack that he had kept in the bottom of his bag for months, never compiling the nerve to use it. Now he would.

“How did you get into his locker?” Jorge asked.

Darren didn’t answer. He had already acquired “lock-on” and began to ingress the target.


“You two are the only ones who know my locker combination!” Marcus shouted.

“We didn’t open it!” Greg shouted back.

“I’m the one who did this to you, asshole.”

Marcus turned around. Darren Seymour had one foot on the Corvette’s back bumper.

“So what are you going to do about it, huh? I bet you won’t bring naughty cell phone pictures of yourself to school anymore.” Darren held up the color original. “No lipstick?”

Marcus lost it. He lunged to attack.


Darren flung the picture away, tightened his grip around the roll of pennies and brought the punch out of his sock. The jock’s head went sideways against his Corvette, followed by the rest of him. Marcus put his hands to his face and stumbled back, then tripped over his feet. He was on his ass a second later.


“Holy jizzim, the crazy bastard did it,” Tony giggled.


All Darren could do was stand there and wonder why only the bad guys in the movies were knocked unconscious with a good hard knock.

Marcus got to his feet and felt his jaw, Darren hopping it was broken. He stepped back and saw that everyone in the parking lot was staring. Someone in the distance shouted, “Alright, Seymour!” Then he noticed boundless rage come over Marcus’s face, the scariest look Darren had ever seen——full of teeth, blood and spit.

Oh shit, I’m gonna die.


“Oh shit, he’s gonna die,” Tony said.


Marcus lunged to attack, and Darren felt his own jaw exploded and a steel fist sail into his stomach. He staggered back and managed to sneak in another punch to Marcus’s cheek—— something crunched——before the jock was all over him. Blow after blow assailed his body from every direction. He brought his arms up to defend but couldn’t stop Marcus’s muscular assault. A vicious right-hook smashed into his chin, and Darren nearly cried out but checked it.

From behind, Tony flew in like Jackie Chan and planted both feet on Marcus’s back, sending him forward against his Corvette. Before he landed on the pavement, Tony managed to——somehow——put his fist into Greg Shaw’s face.

Darren paused for a moment to process what he just saw Tony do. Years of torment from the hands of a vicious older brother had obviously beefed him up.

Before Marcus could push off from the car to rip Tony’s liver out, Darren came back, blood running down his face, and brought an uppercut fist into Marcus’s nut sack. The jock let out a sound like a mating walrus and landed on his knees before keeling over, eyes wide, chin buried in his chest.

That cued up Greggie and Tommy to wade into Darren and Tony like drunk rednecks on a pair of lost city boys in the wrong bar. Darren tripped and landed on his knees just as Greg tried to surgically implant his left Nike into Darren’s gut. Tom pulled Tony off the ground by the neck and smashed him in the face with a single punch, which tore out Tony’s nose ring in the process. Mr. Barstowe, a couple of janitors, and even a guy in a minivan picking up his kid parted the crowd and joined the melee, prying angry, wild bodies off one another.

“Stop it!” Barstowe cried. “Stop it!”

Tony apparently didn’t know who Barstowe was during the confusion, only that he was fighting, too. Without thinking, and keeping in character, Tony pulled out a blind-punch that put Barstowe on his wallet.

“Oh, sorry!” Tony cried.

Darren groped around on his hands and knees, watching the blood drip off his face. His insides felt like goo. His knuckles were cut, and he saw pennies scattered all over. He hurt like hell, but he also felt good . . . alive. Released. He just got his ass kicked, but so did Marcus. Probably the first time since the third grade. Not bad for one day’s adventure. Yeah, he felt all right. That was until he looked up and saw Double V’s standing there with her boyfriend.

Darren couldn’t tell what Vanessa’s expression conveyed. Disgust? Anger? Concern? Nothing? He didn’t know. All he knew was that he felt ashamed to be on his knees before her, blood dripping down his face, looking weak, while she stood there and looked gorgeous. Quickly, he looked away and brushed imaginary dirt off his leg.

“You okay, guy?” Todd asked, helping Darren get to his feet.

“I’m fine, thanks.”

Barstowe promptly grabbed Darren by the arm, dragging Tony behind him, and led both of them away with a single line of blood running down his cheek.

“I swear to God, I didn’t know it was you, Mr. Barstowe,” Tony pleaded. “Honest.”

“You’re dead, Seymour!” Marcus roared over the shoulder of one of the janitors. “Hear me? Don’t go to sleep tonight!”

Darren wanted to crawl into a bubble, one that kept out light and sound, and stay there until he came out old, shriveled and gray.


“Damn, Seymour, remind me never to cross you in the future,” Tony said, still giggling at Marcus’s picture on the coffee table.

“Don’t take sick ass photographs of yourself and I won’t.”

“Wasn’t that fight awesome?” Tony swung Darren’s baseball bat at an imaginary opponent. “We took ’em on and kicked ass, baby.”

“We got our asses kicked, too,” Darren reminded him and put a cold washcloth on his cheek.

“Yeah, but we got some good shots in. Hey, look at it this way——at least we get to spend some more time together in detention.” Tony grabbed the remote and turned the TV on. “Did you see me put ‘Bar Stool’ on his ass? I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t even know it was him until my fist was half-way there. Course, it was moving so fast I couldn’t stop it.”

“Uh-huh.”

“It was worth it. We’re outlaws, man. America’s Most Wanted.”

Darren adjusted the washcloth on his face and leaned back in the couch. Yeah, America’s Most Wanted, alright. What did his moment of revenge really accomplish, besides a possible invitation to death and a humiliating encounter with Vanessa? Darren didn’t feel any stronger or rise in self-esteem either. Embarrassing Marcus Lutze and denying him a harassment-free school year hadn’t solved a damn thing.

The doorbell rang, and Darren jumped, thinking Marcus, but realized Marcus would never bother with such courtesy before barging in and commencing the ass beating. Please don’t let it be Vanessa.

Tony took the baseball bat with him and opened the door. A redhead girl with several earrings, a torn t-shirt and baggy green pants stood on Darren’s porch.

“Michelle!” Tony said. “What are you doing here, ginger snap?” It was the girl Tony had wrecked the other night. Darren had heard every lewd, disgusting detail the next day.

“Not much. I went over to your house, and your dad screamed at me to leave. So I went over to Nate’s, and he said you were here.”

“Did you see me and Marcus Lutze get into it today?”

“Yeah, I did. Me and Heather King were smoking a joint in Aston Burke’s car just a few feet away. We saw the whole thing. I saw you put ‘Bar Stool’ on his ass. That was pretty cool.”

Darren rolled his eyes and put the washcloth back on his face.

“So what’s up? Goddamn girl, you’re lookin’ good!”

“I just wondered if you wanted to go to the Gardens with me?”

Tony smiled, the look of a coy six year-old on his face. “Of course.”

The burnout crowd liked to stalk the hills above Descanso Gardens to drink beer, smoke pot and crank their car stereos. Everyone else called it Welfare Hill because all the Lady Burnouts got knocked up there.

Tony grabbed his sneakers, gave Darren a look, and said with a sly grin, “Wish me luck.”

Michelle giggled.

Darren waved him off. “Have fun.”

Tony and his girl left, and Darren found himself alone once again. Everyone had a girlfriend tonight. Everyone was getting play. He felt an all too familiar jealousy gnaw his insides when the thought came to him of Todd and Vanessa making out by candlelight.


Allison apparently had another round of bar hopping with her gal pals or some other important Monday night engagement because Darren found a note on the coffee table when he woke from his nap: “Back around 12 or so. Love ya, Mom.”

For the rest of the day, Darren let his doldrums meander on like a slow river, not knowing where it would take him, still unable to get out of the canoe. Standing in the shower, he let the warm water beat into his face, but it would not rinse away the foulness and go down the drain. He looked at himself and thought about what he saw. There wasn’t much to think about, other than feeling like an alien in a human body. His brain was running on something else, another fuel, the original connections reprogrammed into a different mode. At times, for no apparent reason, he would feel confused, then horny, then depressed. Angry. The jumble of emotions didn’t make sense.

It was exhilarating to fly and fight in machines born on another world, but he had sacrificed dearly for it. The ship in the forest had done more than just insert complicated information. It had pushed aside some of his memories into a dormant state to make room for what he needed to know. He couldn’t remember Nate’s phone number or recognize some of the controls on the TV remote. There were song lyrics he could no longer recollect . . . he used to be able to sing “Hotel California” without pause, but now he couldn’t recall the last six verses.

He couldn’t remember his dad’s first name either.


It was around ten o’clock when Marcus Lutze walked out of the dry ravine behind Darren’s place and inched closer to the house in the shadows, away from the street lights. The house had a few lights on, but Marcus couldn’t see Darren through the windows.

Marcus walked around the pool and up on the deck. Where the hell were Greg and Tom? He had specifically ordered them to be here before ten o’clock. Looking through the glass patio door into the kitchen and the den beyond, Marcus pulled the switchblade from his backpack and flicked the blade out, his heart pumping harder. The other contents of the backpack included a bottle of chloroform, a soldering iron and an electric muscle stimulator. He would blow his wad in Darren’s face to the screams of agony before bringing the switchblade across the fucker’s throat.

Marcus had no doubt he could use the switchblade. He had practiced on the stray cat his mother had been feeding on the back porch. No problem.

“Here, kitty kitty,” he whispered against the glass patio door. Carefully caressing his broken cheekbone with a finger, he pushed down hard with his palm to open the pain and remind him why he was here.

A whoosh of motion to his left turned his head quickly in that direction. Something round and metallic, levitating impossibly above the ground ten feet away, lit him with a green flash. Marcus took a step to his right, then inhaled sharply to release a hot scream when five huge shadows floated down and landed on the deck around him. He heard a muffled growl under a helmet in front of him, saw a pair of yellow eyes to his left, before an electric surge zapped the consciousness from him, and the world went dark.


Take the human to the Invicid. I will stay and scout for the other three.

The remaining group seized their prey and hovered upward into the night toward the dropship waiting for them above the city.


Around ten-thirty, Darren slid into the bushes outside Vanessa’s house, and saw Todd Lutze’s red Chevy pick-up in the drive way. Figures. He couldn’t see Todd, but Vanessa was sitting at the kitchen table doing what looked like homework. Probably Todd’s. They also appeared to be the only people home, Vanessa’s parents and little brother nowhere to be seen.

Not good, Darren thought.

Vanessa was a top-grade honor student, which fascinated Darren even more. He held a terrible resentment for hot-looking girls who had the IQ of mustard——Tony’s and Nate’s usual preference——and intentionally used their beauty as a weapon to make up for personality. Big boobs and ass were a high priority on many lists, but Darren had to admit without dishonor to the Male Cause that he liked smart girls with an edge of sass around the corners. They were the only ones who seemed alive.

He sat there for another ten minutes, swatting at flies and beginning to feel like an idiot. This was stupid. A stalker hiding in the bushes was not a trait he wished to acquire——especially if he got caught, being less than ten feet from the kitchen window and Vanessa’s roving eye.


Vanessa thumbed through the math section of her SAT Practice booklet when she heard Todd shout an expletive from the living room. He was playing a game on her little brother’s Xbox. Apparently he just lost.

“Todd, get your ass out here and go over these test questions with me,” she said.

“Give me another ten minutes.”

“You said that a half hour ago.” Vanessa sighed, rolled her eyes and looked at the clock. Ten-thirty-five. “I can’t do your SAT for you, and it’s only three weeks away.”

Video game noises continued to boom from the surround sound. Then, “Yeah, I know. Five minutes. I’m almost done with this level.”

Vanessa smiled and tossed the practice booklet on a pile of unopened college acceptance letters that her dad refused to throw away. Keep them and make a ceiling stringer out of them, he had said. Mementos of teenage brilliance. She had already committed to the Edmond A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown, but her proud papa coveted each letter that arrived in the mailbox as if they were treasury bonds and kept pulling them out of the trash.

Vanessa put on her iPod and dialed up some Journey, her mom’s favorite band from her old high school days. Mom had hooked Vanessa onto a lot of 70’s and 80’s music. She laid her head down in her arms and waited for Todd to finish his video game. Before she could close her eyes and get lost in Steve Perry’s soaring voice, she noticed in the short stack of textbooks to her left a yellow bookmark barely sticking out of Introduction to American Government. She remembered what it was and pulled it out, not having seen it for months. It was Darren Seymour’s secret admirer note she had spotted him slipping into her locker last semester. Well, it wasn’t exactly a secret admirer letter, which she had feared before opening it in the hallway. There were no creepy words of hopeless love contained in the letter, no sappy, sugary images of future bliss and promises of foot-kissing devotion either. Just a few short, nonthreatening sentences of praise and reinforcement:


Despite Mr. Andrews’ crap assessment of your presentation, you have incredible poise and confidence when you talk. Your points were well rendered. Too bad Andrews didn’t see that. Loved the Joe Smith crack. Nothing wrong with being a smart ass during the point/counterpoint. Defiant words can change the world, and you definitely have them.


Darren Seymour was the first boy, other than her dad, to ever praise her. Her first feeling had not been a depreciative “Oh-that’s-so-cute” kind of response. In fact, her first reaction was shock, and it had taken a few days for her eighteen year-old brain to process his confident words. It was so——mature. Darren had intrigued her for a few weeks after that. There had been times that she wanted to say “hi” or at least acknowledge him with a smile in the hallway, but feminine intuition held her back. She didn’t want to send the wrong impression. After a while, though, her intense curiosity in Darren would wane to mild interest and occasional “What-if’s.” Her heart had swayed toward Todd over the last three months anyway, and their slowly progressing relationship had, until recently, become serious. She had scattered other boys off her radar.

Still . . . Vanessa held a slight suspicion that maybe someone else had written the note and just gave Darren five bucks to stuff it in her locker. She could never match those endearing words in the note to the ungainly, ambivalent person that was Darren Seymour. Their first ever meeting yesterday afternoon offered Vanessa, after all of these months, the chance to know him a little more, hear his voice, see the person behind the words.

But it was a letdown. All he did was act weird around her.

She had even temporarily cancelled her self-enforced decree of No Makeup or Hot Outfits——which she usually imposed at school in hoping to restrain the tiresome flirtations by the entire male population——and decked herself out to the nines, even wearing her expensive perfume. But Darren hardly looked at her, only uttering a few short sentences and goofy grins. The better nature of her being knew not to let her Miss-Teen-California good looks inflate her self-importance like the haughty bitches at school who thought they were Maxim magazine cover models . . . but for crying out loud, What’s a girl gotta do to catch a guy’s eye? If her overwhelming presence had been too much for Darren to handle, then the boy behind the note had never existed. Or maybe she had placed too much importance on that note anyway. Maybe Vanessa’s mind had created the image of Her Ideal Guy born from a note filled with suave words and praises.

She twirled the paper in her hand for a little longer . . . and finally crumped it up and tossed it in the garbage can. Maybe someone other than Darren did write it.

Final assessment of Darren Seymour: cute, smart, friendly, if not a bit odd; an innocuous friendship and cursory “Hi’s” in the school hallways possible. But nothing more.

A warm, wet kiss landed on the back of her neck and she opened her eyes, smiled.

“I’m ready to study for my SAT, Miss Vasquez,” Todd said.

Vanessa took out her iPod’s earbuds and draped them over her shoulder. She stretched her arms across the table and laid her head on them while Todd slid his lithe, muscular frame slowly into the chair. She could smell his freshly laundered clothes and just a hint of Armani on his skin, and she was suddenly adrift.

He opened the practice book. “So where are we at? You want to tackle math first?”

She didn’t answer. Dad’s not here. Mom’s not here. Sammy’s not here.

“Vanessa?” he whispered with a grin, the one which always gave her naughty thoughts. “You’re staring funny.”

The fire in her heart was suddenly roaring out of control. They had both been patient. Todd especially. Even though he had told her that he craved her, he always had the good character to never force himself on her, or turn immature and nasty when she softly resisted. They had both been very patient.

“You still have Mr. Binky?” Vanessa asked, tingling all over.

Todd bit his bottom lip. “Still in my wallet.”

Stupid hormones.

Vanessa got out of her chair and slid her leg across Todd’s lap and straddled him. She felt his heart jump against her chest when she folded her arms around his head and quickly brought her open mouth to his.

She could still hear Journey playing through the earbuds——“Girl Can’t Help It.”


Darren watched Todd stand up with Vanessa’s legs still wrapped around him, both pretending to be toilet plungers, and swat at the light switch three times with his left hand before the kitchen went dark. The entire Vasquez home was now pitch black.

Every sad song ever sung in the world suddenly came out of the speakers in Darren’s mind. “All Out Of Love” from Air Supply. He tried to stand up, but his legs were weak. He wanted to burst through the back door. He wanted to just suck up the hurt and go home. He wanted . . . he did nothing but stay on his knees and weep, his guts heaving, teeth clenched to restrain any cry that might come out, afraid someone would hear his torment. “Tired Of Being Alone” from Al Green. Keep it coming. “She’s Gone” by Hall & Oats. “Dreaming With A Broken Heart” by John Mayer. The tears were absolutely pouring out. He hated her. He wanted her. Should have stayed home, asshole. What about “All By Myself” from Eric Carmen. Yeah, somebody pass the razor blades to that one. He wrapped his arms tight around his heaving stomach, still trying to keep quiet.

Then something incredibly lucid jumped out between the spasms of self-pity and anger coursing through his body. “Lonesome Looser” from the Little River Band. Darren pulled his cell phone out of his front pocket and did a quick Google search for a phone number. It took only a few seconds to find the number and dial it.

Please be there. The phone rang three times until a man’s voice said, “Vasquez Pharmacy and Market, open twenty-four hours, how can I help you?”

Darren inhaled sharply to control the sobs before speaking. “Can I speak to Juan Vasquez.”

“Speaking.”

“Mr. Vasquez, this is Officer O’Ryan of the LAPD. We received an anonymous phone call from a neighbor stating that a teenage girl and boy are currently committing a lewd act through an open window at your residence.”

“Excuse me?”

“Sir, do you have a teenage daughter or son currently at this residence?”

“I have a daughter who’s home alone,” came the suddenly dark voice.

“Apparently, she’s not.” Darren paused for about three seconds for effect before continuing. “Sir, I’m about two miles away on Foothill and if you want, I can . . . ah . . . go to your residence and . . . intervene, but it would take me a few minutes.”

“Forget it. My work is only two blocks away, and I’ll get there faster.”

“Very well. Good luck, Mr. Vasquez.” Darren hung up.

It would be easier to accept if Todd Lutze was a sick jerk like his little brother. Yet Todd was a good guy, Darren having been recipient of Todd’s good graces in the past . . . like the time when he taught Darren how to climb ropes in gym class, or when he loaned him twenty bucks to pay for school pictures after Darren lost his money to Giels Woodbury on a bet. Rich, good-looking, six-pack abs, not the sharpest knife in the drawer but great personality. Hell, if Darren was a chick, he’d want to fuck Todd, too.

Four minutes hadn’t passed when the headbeams of a Toyota truck pulled into the driveway and lit up the dark house like police floodlights on a gang hideout. Come out with your dick in the air where we can see it!

Mr. Vasquez, dressed in a neatly pressed, white pharmacist’s smock, appeared in the headlights and bounded up the drive, keys jingling in his hands. The living room lights came on, but Darren could not see inside from his vantage point in the bushes. But he could hear just fine.

Juan: “Vanessa!”

Vanessa: “Dad, what are you——?”

Juan: “I live here, that’s what I’m doing,” with a constrained voice. “Vanessa, put your bra back on . . . now!”

Just a bra? Damn, that was close. Second base.

Todd: “Hey, Mr. Vee, look I just——”

Juan: “Todd, get your shirt on, grab your keys and get out of my house.”

Vanessa: “Dad!”

Mission Accomplished. Exfil the area of operation and return to base. Darren stood up and tip-toed to the backyard and ambled around the Vasquez pool toward the spot where he had laid his bike. When he turned toward the adjacent yard, he heard rustling in the row of lilac behind him. He looked and saw a quick shadow melt into the shrubs and vanish. A cat, he figured, but the shadow appeared to be larger than a feline out hunting for mice.

Marcus?

Shit. He peered through the darkness as best he could but saw nothing. Quickly, he snatched his bike and peddled across Vanessa’s neighbor’s yard, past a speedboat parked in the drive and tore ass down the street. It would be a long bike ride home.


The alien probe waited for the human to move on before it hovered toward the house. It switched on its sensors and scanned the home’s layout. Making sure it remained concealed in the bushes, it moved toward the kitchen window before slowly rising to peer inside. A female sat at the table, her head in her arms, the same one who had unknowingly stirred the male’s interest earlier.

Sensing this particular display of mating practice might suggest something important, the probe quickly flashed an invisible scan over her body and recorded the location of the house. It transmitted all acquired data on a sub-space channel and moved on to follow the male.

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