The 2020 Event |The Main Event|

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Chapter 22
Happy Birthday Jack Monta!

Get Out Of The Shower

“GooooooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOD MORNING JACK, RISE AND SHINE! IT’S! YOUR! B I R T H D A Y!!!!” screams Dakota’s voice on the alarm that Jack set for himself on his uPhone. “HAPPY BIRTHDAY JACK MONTA! LET’S GO KICK SOME ASS TODAY!”

The funny part is that Dakota recorded that message years ago as a motivational thing to get Jack out of his warm bed on a cold day, the warm bed, of course, representing Jack’s tendency towards depression and the cold day, of course, representing the truly harsh, chaotic, and unconscious nature of reality at large. It just happens to hold extra meaning today, a coincidentally colder than usual spring morning, the day of the track championship.

Lots of things lining up this week, definitely strange; at least it’s almost over.

Jack checks the time – 5:43. Perfect, plenty of time to get ready. Jack grabs his meet bag, already stocked with his spikes, a change of clothes, three flavors of Hatorade bottles, and everything else he’s going to need for his meet. He creeps past his Mom’s bedroom, not wanting to wake Her or his estranged father from their slumber. As he makes his way up the one and one quarter staircases to the main floor, he hears the shower turn on.

‘That’s fine, this is okay, he’ll be out in like five minutes. It’s not like he broke his promise to me on my birthday and got high. He’s not gonna be in there for another half an hour, it’s fine.’

Jack uses this extra time to call up Dakota, as per their birthday tradition. They always call each other in the morning, it onl–

“HAPPY birthDAY my friend! How the fuck are ya?”

“THAAANK YOU! I definitely am Dak, I definitely am. Listen, Sam’s still in the shower and my Mom is zonked out, apparently she brought my dad home last night.”

Oh, oh Jesus Christ. Are you, uh…”

“Yeah I’m fine, I didn’t even see him. Snuck in through the back window.”

“Yo that’s the move! What a gee Jack Monta, oh my gooooood.”

“Right? So like, question for ya. Is there any chance you’d be able to give me a ride to the school? I know the whole alien invasion thing’s still going on, but they won’t hurt you.”

“Now how on Earth – or whatever planet they’re all from – can you be so sure of that, buddyman?”

“Didn’t I tell you dude? I met the captain of the ship, his name is Jolon. Super chill.”

“Oh yeeaah. Lit. Yeah I’ll get my Mom to get ya, plan for us to be there at six’twenty. There are no cops out, right?”

“Zip.”

“Bravado, we’ll be able to speed then. Okay man, I’ll see you soon.”

“Thanks a lot Dak, I appreciate you.”

“As you should! Late.”

click

Jack checks the time again – 5:46. Now all he has to do is play the waiting game.

And play he does, for exactly twenty-four minutes. Then Jack storms up the stairs and, as he’s about to knock on the door of the bathroom, he smells… god damnit. He fucking smells burnt weed. Fucking Sam!!

Jack rips the latch to the attic down and gets treated to the skunkiest odor bath he’s ever had the displeasure of being treated to. Un-fucking-believable with this dude, he can’t go a week without smoking weed? UGH! Jack throws Sam’s bedroom window open to air the entire house out. Then he goes back down the ladder and nearly knocks the bathroom door off its hinges.

“Yooo,” Sam says so freaking slowly from behind the door.

“Get out of the shower asshole, I need to leave for the meet!”

“A’ight man, sorry. I just got in here, I’ll be out in a sec.”

“You’ve been in there for half an hour, are you freaking kidding me?!”

“…Shit.”

One the longest minute of Jack’s life ever later, a soaking wet Sam, who’s stoned brain thought it was a good idea to dress himself before he dried off for some reason, probably because of the weed, steps into the hallway. Jack doesn’t even give him the chance.

“Why the fuck did you smoke.”

“Kuz I had a bad morning and I–”

‘A bad morning? Are you shitting me?!’ “I thought you were trying to quit!”

“Dude I’m not actually addicted, you can’t even get addicted to Cannabis, it’s li–”

“Oh my god, would you stop calling it that?! It’s weed, its pot, it’s a fucking drug Sam. It’s a drug!!”

“Dude, you were here, with the aliens, you re–”

“You’re twenty Sam! Twenty freaking years old! And a human, not an extraterrestrial! When are you going to grow up and get over this stupid high school druggy shit?!” yellsays the high schooler who doesn’t partake in said high school druggy shit.

“Why don’t you guys… why can’t you just love me for who I am?”

Sam gets looked right in his fire hydrant red eyes and, on a silver platter, is served, “Because you’re a fucking psychotic fucking drug addict and your smoking tore our family apart. Asshole. Now get out of my way,” before he’s pushed aside by the birthday boy.

Momma Dakota

One very angry shower later, Jack is clad in his running uniform – mid-groin shorts and a singlet that makes a wifebeater look like a turtleneck hidden under a t-shirt and a pair of reasonably lengthed shorts so he doesn’t get stared at by closeted kid sniffers – and out the door. Just like Dakota said, his Mom pulls up in her dope old unmarked black ex-undercover cop car at exactly six twenty; the bus leaves the school in twenty-five minutes, but there’s still so much to do before then! They have to… well, during cross country season they would have to load the bus with the tent, the cart, the water cooler, the chocolate milk cooler, the ice cooler, the six-seater bench, the other six-seater bench, the six-seater bench for the girls team, the trash can that’s not actually a trash can, the med kit, the defibrillator, the spike basket… the list could go on, trust me. But today is a track meet; all they have to do is show up, maybe fill the water cooler if nobody else did yet, and hop on the bus. Easy peasy, squeezy lemons.

Jack, his mind cast wildly abuzz by the morning’s events, climbs into Dakota’s Mom’s car and doesn’t say a single word. Fortunately, Dakota’s got him covered.

“Whaddup birthday boy? You look like you’re having a fantastic morning.”

“Hey Dakota, hey Missus Dakota.”

“Hello sweetie. Excited for the meet?” Momma Dakota says as she backs onto Quarryville Road and peels out.

“Yeah, very.”

Dakota exhales a short burst of nose air. “That good, huh?”

“What?” Jack says, pretending he wasn’t paying attention. “Oh uh, yeah. That good. Me and Sam got into it a little bit about his drug problem an–”

“Sam has a drug problem??” Momma Dakota shouts from the front seat, surprised she’s never heard about this.

“Nah, Jack’s just a drama queen and a half,” Dakota fills her in. “Sam smokes weed a little more than the average human.”

“Uh, he also does acid, apparently,” Jack says, looking out the window as the plant life sprouting from the side of the road flies by him.

“Really?! Woah,” Dakota says in admiration. “What did he say it was like? I’ve always been super curious.”

“Well curiosity killed the cat, Dakota,” his Mom pipes in, not wanting her son to get into all that. Not while he’s in high school, at least.

“And satisfaction brought it back,” Dakota hums.

“Well it isn’t that satisfying, or else I would still be doing it,” as she takes a turn a bit too fast, the car going up on two wheels for a split second. “I left that stuff behind in college, where I picked it up. As most do.”

“Yeah well, Sam dropped out of college,” Jack mumbles from the inside of his skull.

“Better than flunking out like Isabelle’s loser-ass older brother,” Dakota says, trying to keep it real. “What’s his name, Taylor?”

“I guess. And his name’s Tyler, he’s not that bad…” Jack says, thinking back to last night’s walk’n’talk across the dam. “On second thought, maybe he is a loser.”

“Exactly.”

“Boys, don’t talk about others behind their back. You wouldn’t like it if they did that to you. Plus, Jack… I know it’s none of my business, but don’t be too hard on your brother. I had a broth–”

“MOM! You do NOT need to bring that up, please! We’re tryna get ready for the meet back here and shit!” Dakota uncomfortables before retreating into his shell.

“No it’s fine,” Jack says, genuinely curious and in major need of a distraction. “What about your brother, Missus Dakota?”

“Well, he… he had a lot of emotional problems. Always kept everything pent up inside of him until… um, until one day, when…” sigh. “There’s no getting around it. He flipped out and committed suicide, hung himself with a belt in the attic. It… we thought our family was dysfunctional and distant back then, my siblings and I, but when he took himself out of the equation… everything really went to shit. Pardon my French.”

“Oh… I… I’m so sorry. It’s all good though,” Jack assures her. “Like, on the cursing. I’ve heard much worse.”

“Oh I’m sure you have. I was the last one that he spoke to, and the last thing he said to me was…” sigh. “He asked why we couldn’t just love him for who he was. Even today, I still don’t know.”

That hits Jack like a fucking freight train. The rest of the car ride is very quiet.

Beneath The Skybridge

A few minutes later they pull into the school’s driveway, swerve around the roadkill in the parking lot that nobody ever cleaned up because the last janitor got fired for being suspected of pedophilia, and skid to a stop behind the backed up line of cars on the school’s back road. Not wanting to wade in the uncomfortable silence that unstoppably arises whenever humans invoke the S word, Jack and Dakota thank Missus Dakota for the ride and hop out with haste.

As they walk along the grassy curb towards the bus, they see what’s causing the holdup: Coach Thenure has his truck parked longways across the driveway. He literally K-turned in the middle of the active street and backed up to the curb so nobody could pass him, effectively barricading the road. Sure, he obviously did it so he could easily unload his truck, but still, it’s causing a traffic jam, and he seems to be struggling to remove the lawn chairs from the bed of his truck anyway, like, what was even the point? Jack and Dakota share a yikes look and almost walk the other way, but their conscious grabs hold of them and guides the pair towards the grizzled old high school veteran.

Thenure smells the boys before they even get a chance to say good morning. “BOYS! I need YOU TWO, to get MY CHAIR, out of MY, T R U C K.”

The boys get Coach Thenure’s chair out of his T R U C K.

“Good! Now, here,” as he hands them his keycard. “I’m going to park in my handicap spot on the other side of the school. Go into the locker room and get all the supplies, wheels roll in five minutes whether you’re on the bus or not!”

Jack and Dakota, sharing a doubt over Coach Thenure’s ability to return to the bus within five minutes, slowly walk towards their locker room. Jack goes to swipe the keycard and gets denied, the sensor seems to be on the fritz this morning. Not even a second later, Coach Coach opens the door from the inside and hands the boys an empty water cooler.

“Good morning boys, and happy birthday Mister Monta! I’m sure you know what to do with that.”

“Morning Coach!” the boys say with smiles on their faces, Jack adding a, “Thank you!”

Dakota, giving Jack the present of not needing to carry a metric ton of cross country supplies out of the closet just to put them back, tries to enter the locker room but Coach holds a hand up, creating a forcefield.

“Where ya goin’ there, Dakota?”

“Uh, to get the rest of the, um. Supplies,” he says, saying a bit more nonverbally.

“What supplies would those be? The school that’s hosting the meet has bleachers, we don’t need anything. Besides, this is a track meet, we would look asinine carrying all of that stuff.”

“Coach Thenure told us we had to get them, he seemed pretty distraught.”

“I… see,” Coach sees and says as his brain see-saws, teetering with a tot’s worth of possibilities. “Tell ya what, why don’t you two go fill that thing together. and I’ll go and have a chat with Coach Thenure. Cool?”

“Cool!” the boys coo like a pair of carrier pigeons. They hand off Thenure’s keycard like a baton and trot off towards the athletic trainer’s office.

Coach, on the other hand, centers himself and makes his way towards the front of the school. As he passes the bus and rounds the corner, he’s ambushed by Coach Scoompa.

“Running! Good to see ya bud,” as they share a brohug. “All set with the water cooler?”

“Yessir, Jack and Dakota are filling it now. Here’s your keycard back.”

Scoompa takes his Dean-tier keycard and lanyard and drapes it around his neck. “Thank you. Did Len tell you about the meeting yet?”

“He did not, I was just on my way to go talk to him. He seems to be convinced that we’re going to a cross country meet today.”

Scoompa expresses his suddenly puzzled state of mind. He looks around at the thirty cars, the innumerable students buzzing about, and the total lack of the autumn season around him. “Really? Then why are there more than seven kids here? In the ass end of April? Like, really?”

“Yeah, I know. He always gets like this in the morning, he goes too fast and gets himself lost.”

“Thenure? Going fast? Yeah right, that’ll be the day. All right, very good. Thanks Coach.”

Scoompa turns to climb back into the bus but Coach grabs him with words. “Wait, so what was that about a meeting?”

Scoompa climbs halfway back down the staircase and says, “Sorry man, you know the shtick; he’s gotta fill you in on that one.”

Scoompa then hustles back up the stairs and disappears into the cloud of Hatchet body spray. A sound that can only be described as a rogue elephant squaring off against a pack of rabid hyenas booms from the bus until the doors hiss closed.

About one hundred twenty-three seconds later, once Coach’s legs have carried him up the center roadway, he’s almost flattened to the pavement by Thenure’s pickup truck. The old codger-dodger then pulls the emergency break, Coach assumes, and does donuts in the parking lot, almost taking out the concrete sign that was donated to Hoffman High by the first graduating class after the name change. Thenure then pulls up next to Coach, who’s hiding atop the sign, and rolls his window down.

“Running!” Thenure shouts as he offers a greasy handshake to the messy-haired boy. “What are you doing up there? I just told you and your buddy, you need to get the supplies!”

“Good morning Len. You gave Jack and Dakota your keycard, which I have here for you.”

Coach hands Thenure the keycard, garnering a very confused look from the human embodiment of the tenure system.

“Wait… how’d you get this, then?”

“I…” Coach begins, changing course halfway. “Today’s the track championship, you know that… right, Len?”

A driblet of drool begins its descent from Thenure’s bottom lip to the hair on his arm. He doesn’t slurp it up in time.

“That’s why there are so many kids and parents, and that’s why we need to take two busses. You uh… you know what’s going on here, right Coach?”

The feeling of cold saliva on his arm seems to knock Thenure out of his Alzheimerific trance. “Yes! Yeh– uh, yes I do, of course!” He then grips his steering wheel with both hands, absent-mindedly squeezing it as his brain tries to work. With his pupils darting back and forth from the center to the corners of his eyes, “Um… thank you, Running.”

Coach smiles, putting a supportive hand on Thenure’s shoulder. “Happy to help. Scoompa also mentioned that there was a meeting coming up?”

“Oh yes, thank you for reminding me! Next week we’re having a consultation meeting and… or… wait, that was last week. Erm…” he growls, really trying his best here. He burps without opening his mouth and a few things click into place. “Right. Next week, me, Scoompa, and Mister Ghost are having a meeting to discuss who’s taking over the cross country program next school year. I don’t know if you heard the rumors, but PrinciPal was put into the hospital after he was viciously attacked by a janitor that he caught raping a student. He’s pretty beat up, he uh…” as a tear wells up, “he might not be coming out.”

Stiffening his upper lip and raising his chin, Thenure continues, “So the superintendent Mister Shmeagle has asked Mister Ghost to step up as the new Principal of the school, and I’ll be filling the position of Athletic Director.”

“Wow, that’s… congratulations, Len!”

“Thank you!” with a jolly ol’ smile. “I thought it was a good idea too. It’s about time this school’s running programs get some support from the top. But, that leaves a power vacuum in the cross country area, and as much as Scoompa would love to coach both teams, well…” gesturing towards Running.

“Say no more, Len. I’ll come and see you on Monday and you can fill me in on the rest.”

“I would like that.”

“Me too, Len Then Ay-Dee. Me too.”

Standing in the wide gap beneath the skybridge, the two running enthusiasts share a moment of solace. Then, Coach checks the time and reminds Thenure that the wheels roll in three hundred thirty-three, whether he’s on the bus or not!

Word

Meanwhile, on the boys’ bus, Jack and Dakota are struggling to get the water cooler up the steps. They weren’t paying attention inside the trainer’s office and the hose sprayed water everywhere, greasing up the handles of the cooler just enough to make the carrying of the ancient plastic thing even more of a chore than it already was. Just two more steps to go, you can do it boys… one step… boom! It’s up, now just slide it bac– oh my god, they forgot to screw the cap shut. Oh my god, there’s water everywhere!

Thinking fast, Jack and Dakota rip their shirts and singlets off and start to mop up the spilled water. Their polynylon threads are no towels though; the things get dripping-wet saturated before the boys can even get started. They’re so embarrassed at themselves that they push a frightened pair of freshman girls aside just to ring out their garments through the open window.

‘Wait… why are there girls on the boys bus?’ Jack and Dakota both think at the same time without knowing the other is thinking the same thing. They then both share the realization that their pale, exposed runner’s bodies have spilled the water cooler on the girls bus, the very one that Isabelle’s sitting inside – two rows back from where Jack and Dak are standing, actually – and, like the rest of the girls, she’s giggling at them, not with them.

With sloppy haste, the boys screw the cap on the cooler and kick it down the aisle, Dakota riding the thing like a sled and Jack sliding down the aisle on his feet like it was a slip and slide, except slightly more badass.

A moment after they escape the humiliating clutches of the laughing high school girls, a small but powerful hand grabs Jack’s still shirtless shoulder. As he’s turned, his face blooms into a rose when he sees Isabelle and the literal tanzanite gemstones that are her eyes. She holds out a dirty rag – oh, that’s Jack’s shirt, he must have dropped it during the retreat.

“UH uh, th-thanks Isabelle, uh… sorry for, you know… soaking your bus.”

“It’s fine Mont’,” she giggles, “don’t worry about it. Where’ve you been all week? I’ve been looking all over the low-cost apartment complex for you.”

“He never left Quarryville!” Dakota shouts from the wing of his plane, swooping in to save the day with a bombing run. “Dude’s been chilling with aliens, he met the captain of the invasion ship!”

Isabelle raises both of her eyebrows, giving Jack a chance to speak for himself. Surprisingly, he takes it.

“Yeah, I uh… I won a contest and I went to New Manhattan and met some aliens. They were kinda cool, um… Sam actually turned out to be right when he said they did drugs. Well, he didn’t, he didn’t say that they did drugs, but like, the magic tricks? Before he did them, when he said, uh, when that drugs, er, when the drugs… when you take the drugs, they let you, like, talk to aliens. He was… okay. The aliens did drugs, that’s what I’m trying to say. Not drugs drugs but like, space drugs, like… UH. I forget what they were called, but yeah. I met some aliens that do Psychedelic drugs.”

Neither Dakota nor Isabelle expected that. Letting her curiosity get the best of her, Iz says, “So did you do the space drugs, too? Is that what you’re getting at?”

“OH! I uh, I mean… well, like… I didn’t… not, do them. Uh…”

Yoooooo,” Iz and Dakota say, sharing a look of disbelief.

Then, Isabelle says, “That’s fuckin’ WILD dude! Listen, um… the busses are about to leave and I have to go help clean up your mess, but… when we get to the meet, I wanna talk to you. Like, privately. And preferably before the one hundred, I don’t wanna be all sweaty.”

A tumor forms inside Jack’s brain, his cells multiplying at an uncontrollable rate until they form a mass large enough to cause his cerebral cortex to impale itself on the bone spines that line the inside of his skull. Jack dies immediately and goes to heaven, meeting God at the pearly gates. He asks to be let in, to go out on a high note, but then I tell him, “You’re like, decades early on this shit,” and his consciousness gets promptly sent back into his body. The tumor that formed in his brain must have changed its mind because it vanishes, gone as quickly as it came, the extra cells being repurposed into stem cells to fix the impalation holes. To the rest of the world, Jack spent a slightly longer time blinking his eyes than he otherwise would have.

Dakota, having refueled his plane, takes off into the sky and leaves Jack to enjoy the spoils of his victory. Maybe Sam was on to something last night, Jack can’t wait to tell him about this later.

That’s then though, and this is now, and now Jack really wants to say something smooth to seal the deal. The “English” lexicon has thousands of words that can be strung together into millions, if not billions of unique combinations; there are more potential phrases in the Zerocian language than there are stars in outer space, and no matter how bright those stars are, Isabelle’s eyes will always shine brighter. Jack looks into the heart of her supernovas, more dazzling than all the nebulae afloat in the vast cosmos of Universe W-2020, opens his mouth, and hits her with his best attempt.

“Word.”

This motherfucker literally says word. Like, not okay, not cool, not I’m looking forward to it; he could have said literally any word that’s ever been said by a human ever, or he could have made up a word! He could have belched up some random mouth noise that would have doubtlessly tickled Isabelle’s tater tot into submission right there on the spot, easy. But no, he unironically says the verbal placeholder that lazy authors put into their books when they can’t think of anything else. He says fuckin’ word.

Isabelle smiles, wording Jack back before she returns to her bus where she pokes her head out an open window and wishes him a happy birthday.

Huh, it worked. Word, Jack Monta. Word.

A moment later, Dakota parachutes out of the sky, water cooler in hand, and spills the rest of its contents upon landing. He explains that it was an accident, a bogey that Terry would describe as a fast mover if he was mocking the way the old US army (and by extension the mainstream media) would talk about unidentified flying objects, slammed his parachute with some crazy turbulence and he just lost his grip, honest. Jack doesn’t believe him at first, mostly because he doesn’t see a parachute, but why would Dakota lie?

Together, the boys haul the empty for the third time today water cooler back to the athletic trainer’s office and refill it, making sure to tighten the cap this time. In fact, they even take the cap off and screw it on a second time, just to be sure. As they lumber out of the trainer’s office, the boys bus pulls up and Coach steps out as soon as the doors allow him to.

“Boys, I must say, sublime work on the girls bus this morning. Very smooth. You’ll be running laps after your race today, so says Coach Scoompa.”

“Wow Jack, a private chat with Iz and some extra training? Your birthday just gets better and better!”

Coach raises an eyebrow and smiles, shaking his head; ah, to be a schoolboy again. Well, to be a schoolboy in general. Anyway, he takes the cooler from the boys and carries it into the back of the bus for them so they can take their seat. All right, I’m excited for the meet – time to get this show on the road!

A Fast Mover

Moments after the busses get onto the road, they come to a dead stop. Wanapo’s traffic seems to be backed up all the way from the highway at the end of Jaskell’s half of Treering Ave. Those damned low-cost housing units, this many humans aren’t meant to live in so small a community, the infrastructure just can’t handle it. All this stop-and-go traffic is just going to ruin the air quality, the potholes are going to swallow entire flatbed trucks for breakfast, it’s going to be a travesty.

Wait, what’s that? Hold on, turn up your speaker, kid… thank you. Ah, okay. I see. Breaking news, hypothetical reader: some sort of accident near the highway is clogging up the road, it’s not the apartments. Welp, fuck what I said.

Well that’s strange, they’re saying something crashed out of the sky, an SUV full of a whole family and a half of humans caught it and got ganked. That’s terrible… what, was it a helicopter? Some little single-body plane? Drunk driving is bad enough, but drunk flying? Really New Jersey, like, really? Wait… what the fuck did the reporter just say? A… a fast mover…? That’s not possible, I was speaking metaph– wait, what are those letters on the side of it? Does that say… oh fucking hell kid, forget about the text message, your mother can wait! I don’t care that you left your peanut butter and jelly at home, FUCKIN’… thank you. Yeah, zoom in cameraman, what’s tha–

Oh my god… what have I done?

These busses need to get off the road, I need to do something. Um… a fuckin’… AH!

A meteor named Bob, it… no, fuck, that would just make things worse. Um…

The cars behind the busses begin to float off the… no, that can’t happen. They’re deadlocked, I guess, nothing’s working. I can’t get them out.

Wait, WHAT?! WHY CAN’T I GET THEM OUT?!

FUCK!! WHAT DO I DO?!

Okay, chill out HOW. Just breathe, keep calm. Um… FUCK, uhhh… screw it, go big or go home right? Nobody’s gonna read this shit anyway, I can do what I want.

WHOOP

“Did you hear that?” Jack asks Dakota, the latter pulling a pair of earbuds out of his ears.

“Nope, what was it?”

“Kind of sounded like a whoop, like Sam would make.”

“Huh… well I mean, the bus just kinda jerked forward. Maybe the tires or the breaks squeaked or something.”

“Yeah, that was probably it.”

NO! It WASN’T! Get off the bus, Jack!

Jack doesn’t move, having no apparent reason to get off the bus and earn himself another suspension. It’s his birthday, everything is going to be just fine. All Jack’s life, he’s always gotten himself all worried and worked up over nothing, but he’s not a kid anymore. The boy is seventeen, in a year he’ll be a grown-ass man. Hell, if he was Hispanic he would have been considered a man a whole year ago. If he was Jewish he would have been a man four years ago! It’s time to step up and face the facts – the majority of Jack’s problems exist inside of his head. No more running from them; it’s time to face the world and all its adversity with a smile, like a proper human.

What the fuck…? I didn’t… where did that come from? Why can’t I control this shit anymore!?

Dakota elbows Jack in the side, perhaps a little harder than he meant to, but that’s okay. It’s not every day that a Zerocian invasion ship flies overhead as the boys are on their way to a track meet.

“Dude, that’s…”

“I see it,” Jack says to Dakota. Then, to himself, “I guess Jolon’s leaving a couple days early.”

Dakota pulls up VidTube on his uPhone to strean the Zerocian ship so Terry can see, but he gets distracted by the Breaking News section instead. There are tons of videos, some uploaded within the past few seconds, some streaming live, of the accident. A large craft came tumbling out of the sky and took out an SUV, the commenters are calling it an alien ship. Or at least they were until the Treering ship came looming overhead, making the crashed object look more like an ambitious teenager’s drone than anything else.

“Dude look, your invasion ship’s shooting a beam down to the road. YYOOO! Is that Jolon?! He looks like a badass!!”

Jack snatches Dakota’s phone from his hands and studies the screen. “Yeah, that’s him. That tomahawk is fuckin’ deadly, dude.”

Then, after a moment of watching, “Wait, where is this? Is this why we’re stuck?”

“Yeah dude, an alien ship crashed,” Dakota says, feeling like he’s in the know on a big ol’ conspiracy. “Maybe Jolon accidentally shot off an escape pod or something?”

On the screen, Jack and Dakota watch Jolon frantically swinging his tomahawk into the hull of the crashed ship. His movements don’t seem calculated or gracious at all, he’s swinging that thing like his life depends on it. The boys watch Jolon reach into the gash and peel back the hull of the ship, the shredded metal cutting into his hands and leaving purpleish-blueish bloodstains on the gray exterior.

“No, that… that doesn’t make any sense, that doesn’t match the design of his ship.”

“Then why does it say Jettison on it? Isn’t that just fancy talk for escape?”

Suddenly the bus driver lays on the horn, grabbing the attention of the student athletes from the clutches of their glass rectangles. There’s some sort of crazed crazy woman standing in front of the bus, probably an escaped resident from one of the Quarryville group homes. That’s a long way for a deviant to travel, sure, but who else would have purple hair and a star tattoo over her eye?

Jack thinks, ‘What th–’ but is cut off when one of the freshmen in the back of the bus screams. Jack, sitting in the aisle seat, spins around and sees…

“What the fuck? Is that a fucking zomb–” he says before he’s hit by a freight train carrying a load of brick walls.

All the color drains from Jack’s pale body, replaced by a steady tremble and a mean case of pins and needles.

“Dakota, I need to get off this bus.”

“What?”

“I neED TO G–”

He’s cut off when a searing wall composed of hard UV light cuts the bus, the water cooler, and the zombie all clean in half. The kids scream and start panicking. Scoompa, Thenure, and Coach try to calm everyone down, but their words lose all their value when the two halves of the bus are pulled to the edges of the street until the tires collide with the crumbling curbs.

Scoompa and Thenure look at each other with terror in their eyes – a situation like this wasn’t presented in their school-mandated online coaching courses, they’re more screwed than a goldfish in vinegar. Luckily Coach, thinking on his feet, offers a solution.

“Everybody, get the fuck off the bus!!” Coach shouts over the commotion, his voice booming like the wingflap of a thunderbird. “Back to the school, NOW!”

He doesn’t have to tell the kids twice, they burst from the halves of the bus like a swarm of honeybees out of their hive, but it may be too late. The hornet’s already here.

Coach hops out onto the road and stares down the purple-haired assailant. He doesn’t get paid for this job, he does it for one reason and one reason alone: the kids. He genuinely cares about the youth, they’re going to inherit the whole world one day, and they need to be watched after until that day comes. As an adult with great social power, he has one great responsibility: to protect and serve.

Channeling the spirits of his dead ancestors, Coach charges the woman and is immediately deflected into a nearby tree by a hard-light fly swatter. The woman then sets her sights on Jack, who stares right back at her. Time doesn’t even have a moment to freeze; Jack turns and starts to ru–

A brilliant white light consumes the scene, the bangless flash disorientating everyone and sending children flying through the air. A moment later, a man clad in a business suit swoops in from out the sky, not wearing any semblance of a cape, and lands with enough force to create what is both a small crater and a gigantic pot hole in the pavement.

Oh thank fucking goodness, that’s power armor. It just looks like a business suit. Now… wait… where’s Jack?