Attack of the Alien Horde
AS MILES TAYLOR WALKED THE halls between fifth and sixth periods, it suddenly dawned on him that he was having a good day. A good week, even. It’d be an understatement to say the past two months had been rough, but he was starting to think being the new kid at Chapman Middle School wasn’t going to be as bad as he’d feared. Maybe—just maybe—he was going to survive. He approached his locker and slipped his backpack off his shoulders, congratulating himself on his streak of twenty-one consecutive class changes executed without incident, and counting.
That’s when he saw the Jammer.
In the world of big-time Georgia youth football, Craig “the Jammer” Logg was known as a prodigy. Legend had it that he registered his first tackle at eleven months of age, when he knocked down a toddler at daycare who mistook Craig’s mini Nerf football for a teething ring. Craig had been hitting people ever since. It was his calling. As for Craig’s parents, Coach Lineman, and all the Chapman Raiders faithful, their calling was to chant “Logg Jam! Logg Jam!” every time Craig stuffed a running back charging up the middle.
Off the field, Craig’s new favorite pastime was making Miles’s life miserable, and he excelled at that, too. More important, he knew it, and the Jammer wasn’t the sort to let talent go undemonstrated.
Miles stopped dead in his tracks, his mind screaming with alarms like a luxury car dealership caught in a baseball rainstorm. The good news was his locker was only a few feet away, whereas Craig was farther down the hallway. The better news was Craig hadn’t noticed Miles yet because he was talking with some of the other kids from the football team. If Miles was quick, he could weave his way through the crowd of loitering students, get to his locker, swap out his books, and head back the way he came without Craig ever knowing he was there.
Miles took a deep breath and made his move.
27-9-39, combination lock opened. Did he see me? Miles thought. Backpack unzipped, morning books deposited. Is he coming over here? Afternoon books retrieved, backpack zipped closed. Should I look? Don’t look! Backpack slid onto shoulders, mission completed.
Miles wasn’t positive, but he might have set a new record for fastest locker stop. Rushed as he was, he never noticed the paper cup sitting on top of his locker. It was positioned at the edge, so it would tip over the side if the locker door was shut with just the right amount of too hard. Which was exactly what Miles, in his effort to make a clean getaway, did.
A torrent of warm Coca-Cola fell on Miles’s head, followed by the hollow sound of the empty cup hitting the terrazzo floor.
Consecutive class changes executed without incident: Zero.
“There’s where I left my drink!” someone called out.
A hushed silence fell over the hallway, and Miles sensed dozens of pairs of eyes watching him. Wishing he could crawl inside his locker, he instead slowly turned around to find Craig towering over him.
Craig sported feet the size of bread loaves and a head as hard and large as a football helmet—even when he wasn’t wearing one. In between was a body huge enough to make neither look awkward. Whenever another football mom asked Mrs. Logg if Craig had been a big baby, she’d reply, “Honey, I thought I was going to die.”
Craig bent over and picked up the cup. “It was full when I put it up there,” he said. He looked down into the space where sixteen ounces of soda used to be, but now only a few drops remained. “Looks like you owe me a refill.”
One of Craig’s teammates chuckled. Miles wasn’t sure which one—it could’ve been any of them, since the only thing that seemed to differentiate them from one another were their jersey numbers. Several other kids joined in, and soon everyone was laughing in unison, as though a Coke falling on someone’s head was the pinnacle of comedy. Soda found its way under Miles’s collar and trickled down his back.
Among the gathered students were popular kids, like Craig and his pals, who laughed at Miles because that’s what popular kids do when one of their own pulls a prank. There were regular kids, too, who laughed because it was what the popular kids were doing. Lastly, there were unpopular kids, who laughed out of relief because it could just as easily be any one of them about to spend the rest of their day sticking to their clothes.
It was a standard post-prank scene, and Miles took it all in stride. He was used to it. Thanks to the Jammer, he’d been in this position many times before, and he was sure he’d find himself in it again. The only thing that would bother Miles was if he saw . . .
Hers didn’t sound like the name of a person, but like the name of a faraway place Miles would only ever see on a map. She was a legend of her own, the girl with chestnut hair and hazel eyes who Miles had heard tales about even at his old school. His first day at Chapman, he spied her at her locker, and Miles knew who she was even before her friend called Josie by name. Georgia just wasn’t big enough to have two girls that beautiful.
Josie looked every bit as beautiful now—even surrounded by the pretty, popular girls she was friends with—and Miles wanted nothing more than for her to not see him standing there with soda soaking into his sneakers. But there she was, hair pushed back in a headband, so he could look directly into her clear, bright eyes. A small hummingbird brooch was pinned to her sweater, as if she were letting Miles know that, like a hummingbird, she was always on the wing. Something to gaze upon, but never touch.
Josie didn’t laugh with her friends. She didn’t shrug indifferently and walk off, the way girls sometimes do when boys are being boys. No, what she did was much worse: She blushed. Her cheeks bloomed red, as though seeing Miles drenched in Coca-Cola had somehow embarrassed her, or rather made her feel embarrassed on Miles’s behalf. She felt sorry for him.
The thought of it brought the red out in Miles’s own face. Not because he was embarrassed or sorry. He was furious.
“Well?” Craig sneered. “Pay up.” He wiggled the cup, beckoning Miles to drop the cost of a refill inside.
What happened next surprised everyone, most of all Miles. One moment Craig was holding the cup, and the next it was sailing through the air.
The hallway fell silent. An unpopular kid wheezed. Craig stared dumbly at his hand, stunned by the cup’s sudden disappearance. Miles could relate. If his palm hadn’t been stinging from slapping the back of Craig’s hand, he would’ve sworn the cup had gone airborne all on its own.
“Dude . . .?” one of Craig’s teammates said expectantly. He nodded in Miles’s direction, an invitation for Craig to dispense punishment. Not that the Jammer ever needed an invitation.
Craig balled his hands into tight fists. He glared at Miles and growled through gritted teeth. “You little—”
“Mis-ter Tay-lor!” a voice boomed, with stern emphasis placed on the first syllable in each word.
Assistant Principal Harangue was standing in the middle of the hallway. Mr. Harangue was a squat man not much taller than many of Miles’s fellow seventh graders, but what he lacked in height he made up for in bulk. He was thick and barrel-chested, and Miles had never seen him without his shirtsleeves rolled up. He probably kept them that way even during the dead of winter, Miles guessed, because the dark hair matting his Popeye forearms would keep them warm enough. Mr. Harangue was the kind of guy whose five-o’clock shadow arrived every day at ten a.m. sharp.
Miles noticed a splatter of soda on Mr. Harangue’s pressed white shirt and looked down to see the empty cup on the ground at his feet.
“Young man, you will deposit that cup in the trash where it belongs,” he bellowed, pointing to a trio of nearby garbage bins. Miles wondered whether the wax-coated cup belonged with the recyclable paper or the general waste, but he didn’t think this was the best time to ask. “Then you will report to my office and sign up for detention.”
• • •
Miles was no stranger to Coach Lineman’s after-school detention. If asked, Coach Lineman would describe Miles as a troublemaker in desperate need of the discipline one acquires only through the dedicated pursuit of organized sports. In his defense, Miles would say that life was like one of Coach’s games, where the referee never sees the player who pushes first but always seems to get his head around in time to throw the flag at the player who pushes back.
School hadn’t always been this way for Miles, but it’d been this way since his first day at Chapman Middle. Miles was dealt the hand of being the new kid when his mom fell in with a rich CPA and ran off to start a new life in Hollywood (Florida, that is). Miles’s dad held on to the family home for a few months, but he didn’t earn enough as an electrician to cover the bills, so he and Miles had moved during the summer between sixth and seventh grades. Just like that, the house where Miles had lived since birth was replaced by a cramped, two-bedroom apartment located in the next school district over.
The distance from old school to new was only a few miles, but for a kid too young to drive it might as well have been the other side of the state. Gone were the friendships he’d nurtured since his first day of kindergarten. In their place were new faces and a new social ladder to climb, starting at the bottom rung.
The familiar surroundings were gone, too. It had taken him days to memorize the layout of his new school. He’d spent weeks learning the hard way which menu items the lunch staff was particularly bad at cooking. Chapman even smelled different, more ammonia-on-steroids and less the soothing, piny aroma that wafted through the halls of his former school.
Not that he’d ever been the big man on campus. But there was a time when he at least recognized the kids at the bus stop, a time when someone would save him a seat in the cafeteria if he got stuck at the end of the lunch line. At Chapman he was alone.
Miles glanced at the clock above the multimedia screen and slumped back in his chair. Ten more minutes, and he’d be paroled. Looking around, Miles sized up some of the other kids in detention and tried to guess what had brought them there.
Seated in the desk to his right was Jeff Jeffries, with his long stringy hair and wearing a faded black T-shirt. Head of the school’s metalhead faction, Jeff had flunked two grades in elementary school, so he was one of the oldest kids at Chapman—old enough for his parents to let him ride the MARTA downtown with his nineteen-year-old brother to see whatever death-metal band was playing, even if it was a school night. Probably got busted for sleeping in class, Miles thought.
To Miles’s left was Trisha Brevard, the bubbly captain of the Raiders cheerleading squad. Her shrill voice was a constant, and not just at football games. She always had something to say about nothing in particular, even during class, when the only person who’s supposed to be saying anything is the teacher. Detention had seemed to quiet her, though. With no one in the room worth talking to, she instead texted her friends for news from the outside world.
Travis Bramlett was at the back of the room, twirling his pencil like a hunting knife. A scrappy kid with a mean streak, Travis didn’t care much for music or sports. He didn’t care much for authority, either, an attitude that more often than not landed him in detention. Not that Travis cared. The only thing Travis cared about was making sure the boys didn’t try to date his little sister, a pretty sixth grader named Trina. As long as Travis shared a school with her, Miles doubted anyone would go near her.
It surprised Miles how much he knew about the others. He supposed that was what reputations did—outline the necessary details that made each kid different from everyone else, kind of like social cheat sheets. But there was one kid in detention whom Miles had never seen before.
Miles could tell from the textbooks on the kid’s desk that he was enrolled in seventh-grade classes, but he looked too young to be in the sixth grade, never mind the seventh. Small wasn’t the word. He was tiny, as underweight as he was undersized, like a full-sun shrub that had spent its whole life in the shade. The only large thing about him was his glasses, which must’ve been too heavy for his face because he kept pushing them back up his nose.
You can’t blame a kid for his physical shortcomings—having small parents with bad eyes wasn’t his fault—but the way he dressed himself only made things worse. His yellow polo shirt was belted into khaki pants that, amazingly, were too small even for him. Sitting down made them ride ridiculously high on his ankles, exposing crisp, white tube socks and a pair of off-brand sneakers so white and shiny that they must’ve just come out of the box. He dressed the way cool kids dressed back in the days of . . . Actually, there was never a time when cool kids dressed that way.
Worst of all—the absolute worst—the kid was reading a comic book. No, not reading. Studying. He was hunched over, face close to the comic and his lips moving silently as he recited the word balloons to himself. Its pages were worn and bent from countless readings, and the whole thing looked as though it were on the verge of falling apart altogether.
And it wasn’t a cool comic book, either, something science fiction or crime. It was an issue of Gilded Age, the sappy superhero monthly about Gilded’s latest heroic deeds. Sure, Gilded was awesome. He was the only for-real superhero the world had ever known. But if you wanted to know what he was up to, all you had to do was catch thirty seconds of news. Just this morning, Miles had eaten toaster waffles while the TV aired the previous night’s highlights of Gilded in action. He’d rescued a family caught in a burning house, then blown out the fire with one puff of air. Miles remembered having a tougher time blowing out the twelve candles on his last birthday cake.
The kid was setting off a major nerd-alert. He was so harmless to look at, Miles couldn’t imagine him doing anything bad enough to merit detention. Then again, the only thing Miles had been guilty of was not having a single friend to testify on his behalf in front of Mr. Harangue.
Coach Lineman glanced at his stopwatch, the same stopwatch he frowned over in PE whenever someone failed to finish their half-mile run in less than five minutes (something Miles was always guilty of). He folded his sports section, tucked it in his armpit, and stood from his chair.
“Time!” he announced, clicking the stopwatch with his thumb.
Everyone made their way toward the door. Jeff Jeffries strolled past, iPod blaring loud enough for Miles to hear screaming guitars. Trisha Brevard dialed her cell phone. Travis Bramlett yawned.
Miles thought he was the last one to leave the room, but on his way out he looked back and saw the tiny kid with the glasses still hunched over his comic book, absorbed in every detail.