Seventeen-year-old Mana has found and rescued her mother, but her work isn’t done yet. Her mother may be out of alien hands, but she’s in a coma, unable to tell anyone what she knows.
Mana is ready to take action. The only problem? Nobody will let her. Lyle, her best friend and almost-boyfriend (for a minute there, anyway), seems to want nothing to do with hunting aliens, despite his love of Doctor Who. Bestie Seppie is so desperate to stay out of it, she’s actually leaving town. And her mom’s hot but arrogant alien-hunting partner, China, is ignoring Mana’s texts, cutting her out of the mission entirely.
They all know the alien threat won’t stay quiet for long. It’s up to Mana to fight her way back in.
Enhanced will become available October 17th. Please enjoy this excerpt.
Chapter 1T he town has been emptied. When you walk down the street, you meet nobody, nothing, except for the bees buzzing hopelessly in the air, the beetles scuttling across the cracked sidewalks. Nothing seems to matter to the bugs or the wind; they just keep on keeping on. The sky above me is dark, tornado brown and hopeless. The debris the humans left is picked up and spun on.
It’s my dream nightmare.
I’ve had it every night since my mother has been in the hospital. It haunts me in the daytime too. This dream of a future Earth with no humans, this dream of a future earth inhabited only by aliens and beetles and bees . . . I can’t let it be real.
I am terrified it will be real.
I am terrified that I won’t have a chance to stop it.
* * *
Human beings like to think that we are the most important species to ever exist, the top of the food chain, the most dangerous predator. There is safety in that. Even as we mourn how awful we are as a species, we can breathe a sigh of relief that though we are awful, we are still safe in that awfulness. Humans don’t feel threatened by dolphins. We don’t worry that rabbits will attack our phalanx, split our defensive line, capture us, and then roast us on a spit. Our homes aren’t threatened by roving bands of manatees bent on our annihilation.
We trust that we are safe. We trust that our biggest threat is each other.
That trust is a lie.
There are much bigger things squelching, stomping, and fluttering about. There are much bigger threats than us humans. Without our weapons, we are a pretty weak species. Our skin breaks and tears. Our minds twist and explode. Our lungs can only bring in so much air. Our muscles can get us to run just barely fast enough—even Olympians can’t run fast enough—to escape the threat that approaches us.
And then there is me. There are four facts in the story of Mana Trent.
I am a weapon.
My mother loves me.
My mother is not my biological mother.
My whole life is a lie, a story.
I am a weapon that aliens originally planned to use to infiltrate the humans from within, but I was rescued by my mother, a government-endorsed alien hunter turned rogue, and she created a fabricated life for me before she was kidnapped and shot and spiraled into a coma, which is where she is now—in a coma in a hospital. It is where she has been for weeks and weeks. Now, I’m waiting to be used, to be helpful, for word from the agency she worked for that they need me. So far? Nothing.
The world of desolation, of bees and wind and beetles? It could happen.
This is what I’m thinking about on a freaking freezing day in December. And these thoughts swirl around in my head so fiercely that I forget to answer half the questions on my world history test and instead just doodle all over the margins: WHO AM I? WHAT AM I? WHO DO I TRUST?
My best friend Seppie has passed in her test early and sits back at her desk texting or checking out the cheerleaderswhorock Tumblr tag or something. Her parents are doctors, normal and brilliant and human. They deal with systemic racism and microagression with grace and humor, the same way Seppie does. They are the sort of people you want to belong to—smart and funny and perfect in their imperfections.
The bell rings. A dog races outside the classroom window, infinitely more fascinating than the test I should be focusing on. Clouds loom above the dog, thick and gray, heavy with snow that is ready to fall. A front must be coming through, a change in the weather pattern. I shudder.
“Turn your tests in!” our student teacher calls. Her name is Mrs. Horton. We call her Mrs. Horton Hears a Who a lot.
My paper is terribly lacking in answers, kind of like my life. Standing up, I sigh. Seppie nudges me with her bag. “You okay?”
“I feel lost,” I tell her.
She pats my arm. Already, Ms. Efficient has packed up her laptop, phone, books, and world history textbook, which weighs eight thousand pounds, while I’m still struggling to get my actual test paper to the teacher’s desk.
“I’m sure your mom will wake up soon,” she says.
“It’s not just that.” My head aches.
“Ms. Trent! Kindly stop asking your friend for the answers and turn in your test.” Our teacher, Mr. Boland, is not normally quite so much a pain. He is today.
“I—I–” I can’t even get a word out.
And I don’t honestly have to speak because while I’m just standing there stuttering and mortified that he thought I might have been cheating, Seppie has whipped my test paper out of my shaking hand and strides to the teacher’s desk. She slams it down. Her biceps are definitely looking stronger lately. She has started taking Krav Maga, this Israeli self-defense system designed for the country’s special forces.
“I hope you seriously were not implying that Mana was cheating, Mr. Boland, or that I would help her cheat, because that sort of besmirchment of my character does not suit me nor you.” Her hands fly to her hips. “Do I make myself clear?”
He coughs and flattens my paper on the stack of other tests. “Perfectly.”
She gives him a glare-down. He looks like a bully that’s been beaten up in an alley and I swear if he could turn tail, run, and hide right now, he would. Instead he just pivots to the left, pivots back, his hands go up almost into a V stance, and he adds, “No insult meant.”
Everyone remaining in class is silent, standing there, stopped, as we wait for Seppie’s reaction.
Finally, she says, “None taken, but you need to apologize to Mana here. She’s not the best test taker but she’s no cheater. Are you, Mana?”
“No, never,” I mumble. I don’t mumble because it’s a lie. It isn’t. It’s the truth. I mumble because I’m so horrified.
He laughs nervously. “All set then. Everyone have a lovely day. Try not to be late for class.”
As we walk out of the room, Seppie drips disdain. “‘Try not to be late for class?’ Witness Mr. Needs to Assert His Authority.” But as soon as we’re out in the hallway and nobody is listening she says, “Sometimes I think you like failing tests.”
“Favorite thing in the world,” I quip, taking out my phone and checking if there is any communication from China in response to my million texts to him about helping him save the world, or at least humanity. There is nothing.
China is my mother’s former partner. He has promised me that I can help him try to locate all these parts in some sort of machine that aliens are making to destroy people. He is arrogant and wears sunglasses a lot and is secretly kind beneath his tough-guy exterior. He is also ignoring my texts.
Seppie yanks the phone out of my hand and scrolls through my unreplied-to texts. She sighs. “How many texts have you sent him?”
“Three a day,” I admit. “For a month and a half at least. How long has it been?”
“Fifty-six days.” Handing back the phone, she cocks her head toward me, chin down. This is Seppie’s sad posture. It’s the same way she looked when we lost the cheerleading state championship in eighth grade because Doreen Dwyer forgot to do a back hand spring and then later fell out of a simple prep and elevator. We lost by a point. Seppie never forgave her. And then there was the time Seppie did not get a perfect 2400 on her SATs and got a 2390 instead. I couldn’t talk to her for a week. Nobody could. Lyle and I eventually sat her down for an intervention that involved binge-watching Scream Queens and lots of chocolate ice cream.
I feel like I would get a full-on Seppie lecture about seeming desperate in texts and how you should never act too needy, except that she has class now and we’ve come to the intersection in the hallway where we always part.
She gives me a tiny hug. “Listen. Some things are just not meant to be. Maybe it just isn’t your destiny to save the world. It’s okay. You’re okay.”
Her words sting. I stiffen even though I’m being hugged. “I don’t have any other destiny. I’m supposed to be helping them.”
“Sweetie, if they wanted your help, I think they would have texted you back by now.” Her words stay in the air for a second and thud to the floor, hard and heavy things. She lets go of me, hug over.
“I know you think I can’t help—”
“This is an alien versus humanity thing, Mana. This is war.” Seppie’s voice is low but insistent.
“I know it’s a war.”
“Why do you have to be a part of it? There’s no reason you have to go through all that again. Your mom is in the hospital.”
“I know that.”
“Your dad is missing.”
“I know that!” I talk over her. “That’s why I have to do something. Don’t you get it?”
“No. I don’t. You can stay here, right here, and be safe.”
“There is no safe. Come on, Seppie. You know that now. There are people like my mom and China laying down their lives for us—these . . . these silent heroes—and I have to be a part of that. I can’t not be a part of that. I can’t do any less than that. You’ve seen what I can do.”
I want to keep arguing, but her words hurt and I say nothing else as her face shifts from sympathetic Seppie to an expression that I’ve never seen before.
“I—um—I got into a special camp,” she says out of nowhere. “It’s sort of a pre-med, pre-college thing for people who want to be doctors.”
She’s leaving me? Now?
The floor is suddenly super-attractive and I want to stare at it, but instead I manage to rally and throw myself into Seppie in a congratulatory hug. “Really? I am so happy for you! When? Where?”
“Soon. I—um—I’m probably going to miss some school.” She hugs me back and whispers into my hair, “You sure it’s okay? I feel weird leaving you.”
This seems sudden and for a second I don’t trust her, which is ridiculous. I mean, I trust my friends, but I keep expecting her to shake her head and make the sign of the cross and tell me she’s not up for all the weirdness and danger that are my life now. She hasn’t, though. I have to give her that.
I give her an extra-tight squeeze and try to talk through the lump of sadness that has lodged itself in my throat. “Of course! I’m a big girl. I can handle myself without my best friend for a week or so. Right?”
She breaks the hug, but keeps her long arm wrapped over my shoulder. “Of course you can. You can do anything, Mana. You just have to put your mind to it.”
“Thanks, life coach,” I quip.
“Best friends are often life coaches.”
“Sure, if their advice is ‘go kiss that cute guy over there,’ or ‘yes, climb out the window so we can sneak into some twenty-one-and-over club.’” Laughing makes it better, but the reality sets in again. “How long will you be gone?”
“A week or two. The details are still being worked out.” She cringes. “I won’t be here to cheer for a bit, but I’ll be back in time for Districts.”
I try to process it all, but it just makes me sadder. “Wait. When do you leave?”
“It’s been very last minute, rush-rush,” she says, but her voice doesn’t ring 100 percent true. “It’ll be fine. Don’t worry.”
She folds me into another quick hug and lets go. She doesn’t scrutinize my face because she knows me well enough to predict that I won’t be able to hide my sadness. Neither of us wants that.
“Try to have all your life crises internally when I’m gone, okay? All your big questions? Just stand by on figuring them out, and try not to have any big external emergencies! You know what I mean, right?” she shouts over her shoulder as she disappears into the classroom.
And the crap thing about it is not just that I have failed my world history test, but that the answers to those questions that were spiraling around in my head throughout the exam suck. Who am I? I will never know. What am I? Some sort of experimented-on freak. Who do I trust?
It has been weeks and we haven’t looked for anything at all.
So, yeah, these were the things that I was thinking about instead of answering why governments in the Middle East back in ancient times weren’t centralized or why pre-Columbian civilizations were similar to classical Greece. Clue: It’s all about the city-states, which I knew, but I was too distracted to answer.
I barely held it together when I stared at those blank spaces. And then Mr. Boland was such an ass, accusing me of cheating.
“Mana?” Mrs. Horton is notoriously wine-loving, which you can tell from the red veins in her eyes, but she is also notoriously kind, and I know she can tell that I’m upset, thanks to the blank piece of paper Seppie turned in for me and my currently shaking hands. She comes around from the other side of the hall. “Are you doing okay?”
I nod stiffly. I don’t trust my voice. I’m not good when people are kind to me or when they ask about my mother.
“How is your mother doing?” she asks, right on cue.
I freeze. There are kids behind me. I will not lose it. I drop my bag. Stuff falls out all over the floor.
“She’s the same,” I lie. She is the same physically—still in a coma—but she is not the mother, the quiet, demure, non-alien-hunting mother, that I thought she was for all the years of my growing up. “I’m sorry about the test.”
I squat to pick up my things and Mrs. Horton helps.
Her face squishes up a bit as she studies my face and then her attention focuses on the other students streaming pass me down the hallway. She hands me my world history book. “We can talk about this later.”
We can talk about my F is what she means.
“Okay,” I say and scurry off. Now that my pen and stuff are back in my bag, I escape down the hallway without making eye contact with anyone and head toward lunch, but I completely do not want to go to lunch. I want to cry, because seriously? Seppie leaving after I’ve failed my world history exam is the final straw in the Mana Entrance to Nervous Breakdown Land. I don’t want to whine, but I’m already dealing with a lot of world-changing crap, which includes trying to keep the entire human race from dying without my actually doing anything. It seems ironic that the class I’d be failing would be world history. Soon, there may be no humans left who will care about world history.
I start texting China—just one more time.
“Mana!” Seppie’s voice calls after me and she runs down the now empty hallway. I’m not sure why she’s left class and whatever she was going to say is forgotten once she sees my phone in my hand. “Are you really texting him again?” She takes a step back, exhaling, probably remembering how I stopped bullets midflight, knocked men and women down simply by the crazy anger that happened in my mind after I had some caffeinated Coke. “It is not up to you to save the world, Mana. You have nothing to prove.”
The bell rings.
“It’s not about me.”
She taps my phone with her perfect fingernail. “Stop texting. It makes you seem desperate.”
She pivots away even as I yell after her, “But I am desperate.”
The hallways are empty. And I need to go somewhere or else I’ll get a detention for loitering.
So, I bomb into the bathroom in the foreign-language wing. This is the bathroom nobody ever uses because it smells like dead mice and Clorox bleach wipes all at once. I smash open a stall with my fist, all macho and stuff, ready to hunker down on the toilet and cry in an un-macho way . . . but there she is, standing on top of the toilet paper holder, ruining my plans.
“What—?” I start to speak but my words sort of strangle in my throat. I’ve never seen this girl before. She balances on that tiny perch with just one bare foot. Her toes, not her toenails, are yellow. They match her hair.
She puts her finger to her normal-colored lips. She appears human, but she’s not—even I can tell that. “Shh . . .”
“What?” I point at my chest. “Me?”
Her head bobs this way and that. She cocks it to the side like a dog does, listening. “Shh . . .”
“But what? Why am I shh-ing?”
Reaching out, she yanks me into the stall, hauling me up in the air in a swift, easy movement. I dangle there. She uses her free foot to slowly nudge the stall door shut. Yep. Definitely not human.
“You might want to lock it . . . the door, I mean,” I whisper when I remember how to talk again.
Her eyes widen and she says in a deep croak, “Good idea.”
With a quick release and grab, she shifts her point of contact with me to the back of my sweater, which panics me slightly because I don’t want it to rip. My mom is in the hospital, my dad is missing, and I’m a bit low on funds so I can’t ruin all my clothes unless I want to suddenly pretend to be Goodwill chic. I’m not quite ready for that commitment yet. Even as she pulls the catch-and-release-and-catch maneuver, the alien girl pushes the latch of the door shut with her big, yellow toe. Peppermint swirls suddenly appear on her yellow toenails, which is absolutely amazing, and I would love to find out who did that because I am in dire need of cool toenails.
“Your nails,” I whisper, “are adorable.”
She actually smiles. Her teeth are normal like a human’s. Just then the door to the bathroom creaks opens and her grin disappears into a determined line. She puts her finger to her lips, but she doesn’t have to tell me. I know enough to be quiet.
The whole feel of the bathroom changes. Tension fills the air. Whatever has just stepped in here with us is most certainly not human.
All the alien girl’s muscles quiver as if in anticipation of a fight. Her nostrils twitch. The stall door, marred with beautiful graffiti illustrating in black ink a bum having an explosive poop, keeps us from seeing who or what just came into the bathroom with us. I check above the compartment’s walls. There’s no drop ceiling to escape through. We can hardly dive through the toilet and into the pipes. We are stuck in the tiny space, stuck, waiting. Fear pushes my heart into overdrive.
Something is with us.
Don’t check in here. Don’t check in here. The words flop around inside my head like a prayer. Don’t check in here. Don’t check . . .
No sound fills the bathroom. This is obviously weird all by itself. People don’t come in the bathroom and just stand there doing nothing. They wash their hands or use the toilet or open their purse and get stuff out to brush their hair or smoke something illegal or pop pills or gossip, but they never, ever just come in the bathroom and make no sound.
The alien girl tenses.
I tense, too.
I’m afraid to breathe.
I can’t believe I’m even trusting my life and safety to an alien girl I haven’t met before. However, she does have nice toenails. Lyle says I am too trusting. Lyle is my other best friend besides Seppie, and we kissed once and it was beautiful, but now we’re both dealing with identity issues since he’s turned out to be an alien and we’re also dealing with absent mothers. Mine is hospitalized. His is jailed. Still, he’s probably eating in the cafeteria right now, safe and full. My brain is babbling.
Something is with us, something bad.
The girl gives me Be quiet! eyes, even though I didn’t say anything. A spider crawls across the top of the bathroom stall door. Two seconds later a giant tongue curls up around it and then disappears, trapping the spider and sucking it away. The world smells of moldy bread and death. Fear gags me.
Maybe, I think, it won’t notice we’re here.
Maybe, I think, we should run.
In the next second, everything goes straight to hell.
The stall door slams open. The lock turns out to be a flimsy, useless thing against the force of the creature on the door’s other side.
Standing there, it appraises us for half a second.
It’s monstrous, large, and green, like you imagine orcs or trolls from fairy tale books. Only there are four eyes on its head instead of two, and its head is long and pointy and strangely undersize on top of its enormously muscled shoulders.
I study it, looking for a weakness, a something, a way to escape. Instead I freeze.
It is naked.
So grossly naked.
But I can’t tell if it’s male or female? Or both?
“How did it even get in here?” I yell. I scream a swear word. Luckily, the walls in this part of the building are five thousand years old (not really) and thick. I don’t think anyone can hear anything coming from a bathroom or another classroom, ever. I hope not, at least. I don’t want anyone else coming in here and getting hurt. I swear again.
The alien girl matches my curse and jumps straight up into the air, hauling me with her and then moving sideways a couple feet. “Tuck your legs!”
I do and we vault to the next stall, where she lands perfectly on another toilet paper holder. There’s no time to say anything or even breathe, because the monster thing moves to that stall, too. Its tongue flicks out toward us.
“Again!” she yells and jumps back to our original stall, even as she yells the word.
It may be big, but it isn’t stupid, and it’s right there behind us.
I smash-kick the door at the thing’s face. The door hits its nose, but bounces right back open. Alien girl lets out some impossible groan and the monster’s tongue lashes out again. We move up and over. This time she lands in the toilet. Her naked foot falls into the bowl, which is disgusting and horrible. A hard cracking noise fills the stall. She drops me and cries out. I try to yank her up.
She shakes her head. “It’s broken.”
Broken. Her foot? The toilet? It doesn’t matter. What matters is surviving.
“How do we fight it?” I ask. “How?”
Before she can answer, there it is again at the door. It towers over us, a hulking, naked form.
I have no weapons, just my Hello Kitty backpack, but there are books in it. I rip it open and yank out my world history book. I throw it as hard as I can at the creature’s face. It makes impact. The thing grunts and lashes its tongue out toward me. The alien girl lunges sideways, her foot still stuck in the toilet. The tongue wraps around her waist. The force is enough to free her from the toilet, but it also makes a sickening noise like all her internal organs have been crushed and flattened.
“Run!” Her eyes bulge as the creature yanks her closer to its mouth. “You idiot! Run, Mana!”
She knows my name. She also knows I am a bit of an idiot.
She tried to protect me from this . . . this thing . . . And of course, everyone has been ignoring me and yet, here I am, fighting aliens in the grossest bathroom at school, and none of my friends is backing me up. Just the poor alien girl.
There’s no way in hell I’m going to leave her here and run away. Anger makes my head vibrate. Yanking the toilet seat off the toilet, I try not to think about germs and bacteria from poop and vomit and stuff, and instead rush forward right at the creature. Its mouth seems toothless but full of sucker-like things. I smash the toilet seat into it, just above the tongue, pushing as hard as I can. The creature’s arm smacks me backward and I’m airborne before my side slams into the wall by the sinks. It takes me a second, but only a second, before adrenaline and pure rage have me rushing forward again.
“Don’t hurt her!” I yell.
The ugly alien starts sputtering and coughing, and the alien girl is not in its mouth, which is good. I grab the world history book and jump up to smoosh it into the thing’s mouth, too, just above the toilet seat, which thankfully is still lodged in there.
“Eat history, butt head.” I mutter this like I’m some kind of badass myself, but I’m shaking, not a badass; not just angry, but terrified.
His tongue tries to get back into his mouth.
I have given it a gender affiliation.
I rip open the garbage bin and shove the rounded, metal top into his mouth, too.
“Girl! Are you okay?” I shout.
There’s a grunt from somewhere, but I can’t focus on that now, can’t take my attention off the alien.
The eyes turn to examine me and then they pulsate and bulge, pupils widening and twitching before all four of them roll into his head. He falls, grabbing onto me. We tumble down to the tiled floor, hitting hard. Pain billows through my arm, my knee, but it’s not a forever-pain, more like I’ve landed in a bad back twist and wrenched a muscle.
Two seconds later, I have scrambled out from beneath the wretched thing’s arm and I’m trying to find the alien girl. She’s on the other side of his gasping, twitching body. I have to clamber over him to reach her. She’s an odd bluish-yellow color, even for an alien. I unwrap the tongue from the center of her torso, ignoring its sliminess, and lift up her shirt a bit to inspect the damage.
Everywhere the tongue touched, her skin has turned blackish purple. I must gasp or something, because she shakes her head. The alien beast from Shrek Gone Wrong Land has stopped moving.
“You have taken its life journey,” she whispers, “and it has taken my life journey from me.”
I start to protest but she grimaces and reaches into the pocket of her pants. “I was bringing this to you. That is why . . . I’m here. And to warn you. They are trying to kill you and all like you. The Samyaza. They know you are here now. He is proof . . .”
Her voice pauses and stops. It is a hoarse whisper, a last vocalization. My heart breaks for her and when she reaches her hand out to me, it trembles.
“Take it,” she insists. “Please.”
I grab a black crystal from her hand. It looks like it’s made up of chunks of tiny rectangles all latched together somehow, and it shines and reflects light like police officers’ sunglasses in old movies. The stone pushes against my skin like it wants to hide in my palm, to just run away from the death, the bathroom, the world. It feels . . . happy, safe, good. I wrap my fingers around it. It just fits.
“Don’t let anyone see it. Don’t let anyone have it. Don’t tell anyone. It will help you locate the others. You must keep it safe. She trusts you—” She loses her ability to talk for a second and her eyes close. “She wants you to—”
“No . . . hey . . . Stay here . . . I need to thank you. I need you to be okay . . . And . . . open your eyes,” I beg her, forgetting about the crystal the moment I place it on the floor next to her.
There is still movement beneath the lids. That has to be a good sign.
“We have to get you help,” I say. I grab her hands in mine. They are blackening even as I hold them. The color spreads like spilled watercolor paint, taking over her skin. “I can call China, maybe? They must have a way to help you.”
“No. You can’t tell anyone. Not even him.”
“You aren’t with them? Isn’t that why you’re here? To activate me? Make me an agent?”
“You aren’t some weapon to be activated, Mana. Remember that. You are a living being. A soul. With choices.” Bluish liquid drips out of her mouth and she convulses. Once. Twice. Her eyes open and lack lucidity, but then they refocus, right on me. “Your destiny is not to be used by others. That is a big lie. It is a lie you can choose, but not a lie that you might want . . .” A gurgle obscures her words. She keeps talking through it and I’ve lost what the lie is. “ . . . and Pierce says you can be trusted. She says you are kind.”
Pierce! Pierce was the alien who worked with my mom and China. We thought she died. Nobody has talked to her since we left her defending a compound against some aliens.
“Is Pierce alive? Is she okay? Is she with China?”
The alien starts to answer but instead of words, another gurgling noise comes out of her mouth. “No more talking!” I wipe at her face with some paper towels that are on the floor. “We have to get you help. Now. No arguing.”
“My organs are crushed,” she says. “It is not your fault. I should have been better—faster. That toilet. . . . So sorry . . .”
“You were great. You jumped over the stalls and you had the best balance, and your toenails—” The words burble out even as my stomach twists with worry and sorrow. There’s no way that I can save her.
“You are a sweet girl, Mana. Please, take the crystal. Don’t let anyone know. They will want it. Use it to find the rest. The link. They are there.”
“The rest of what?”
Her eyes open. “It will help you find other enh—”
And then she is gone. Her words stop. Her breath stops. Her eyes don’t move. Her hands in mine are heavy weights.
“Don’t go,” I whisper. “Please, I like you. And you know things. Please . . . Don’t go.”
But there is no point in begging, because she is already gone.
Copyright © 2017 by Carrie Jones