Return to Paradise

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CHAPTER ONE

I HAVE TO KEEP REMINDING MYSELF WHO I AM the first week at the new school. Not, like, I lost my memory or something. I know who I am in a literal sense. But I have to keep forcing myself to remember what being me means. So all week I keep a single thought repeating through my head:

You are Mark James.

It’s what I think on Monday when some douche bag trips me while I try to find an empty seat among a precalc classroom full of strangers.

You are Mark James, the guy everyone at your old school looked up to. These idiots will learn.

And Wednesday when someone loots my locker during weight training and forces me to walk around in sweaty gym clothes for the last two periods.

You are Mark James, all-conference quarterback. They’re just jealous.

And at lunch on Thursday when I sit on the tailgate of my truck and someone in a loud old Camaro zips past, hurling an oversize Styrofoam cup of orange soda at me while yelling what I think is “ass pirate.”

You are Mark James, and you are the best fucking athlete the Paradise High Pirates ever saw.

If someone had asked me a year ago what my future held, I’d probably have said something like “Mark James, Ohio State star quarterback.” Maybe if I’d had a beer or two I’d go so far as to say, “Mark James, first-round NFL draft pick.”

What I wouldn’t have said—what I couldn’t have even imagined thinking—was anything remotely close to “Mark James, survivor of an alien attack.”

For my entire life, the future seemed set for me. As soon as I threw my first pass, I knew what I wanted to do. Paradise High QB, college football star, NFL hopeful. But now the future is this stupid, dark thing I can’t predict, and I feel like my whole life has been heading towards something that doesn’t even matter. Might not even exist if we end up conquered by a bunch of superpowered aliens. I mean, my all-conference trophy was used to murder an alien. A Mogadorian. A bunch of pale, janky-looking assholes from another planet came to Earth hunting for a very human-looking alien named John Smith—ha—and his invisible friend. Then they destroyed my school. My kingdom. Almost killing me in the process.

Some people did die. I guess I should count myself lucky, but I don’t feel lucky. I feel like someone who’s just found out that vampires exist or that reality is actually an elaborate video game. Everyone else keeps going on as usual, but the world has changed for me.

There are only a few people who know what really happened at Paradise High. Everyone thinks the school’s in shambles because weirdo-drifter/new student John Smith went crazy and jumped through the principal’s window one day, then came back that night and caused massive amounts of damage that took out half the building. Then he fled town. Word is that he’s some kind of teenage terrorist or member of a sleeper cell or a psychopath—it depends on who is telling the story.

But one exploding school can’t stand in the way of education, so now everyone from Paradise is being shipped to the next town over where there’s an actual building for us to go to. It just so happens that the next school over is Helena High, our biggest rival, who I beat in the best football game of my life, capping off an undefeated season by completely annihilating their defense. So, yeah, I guess I can see why I’m not the most loved guy in school. I just never thought I’d spend my last semester of high school washing orange soda out of my hair. Maybe if I was still the same old Mark James I’d think it was kind of fun even. I’d be dreaming up ways to get back at the other students, ways for me and my football buddies to prank them and get the last laugh. But filling someone’s locker full of manure isn’t as high on my list of priorities now that I know beings from another world are walking among us and that a complete alien invasion is possible at any time. I wish manure were still higher on my to-do list.

A bunch of my teammates have told me I’ve gotten quiet and seem different since it happened, but I can’t help it. It’s kind of pointless to talk about cars and partying when I was literally almost squashed by some kind of extraterrestrial monster. How am I supposed to go back to being fun-loving, beer-chugging Mark James after all that? Now I’m “Paranoid That Aliens Are Going to Hunt Me Down” Mark James.

I can deal with the new school. Hell, I probably deserve it for the shit I put people like John through back in Paradise. It’s only a semester, and then I’ll have graduated. Maybe they’ll even be able to fix up the school auditorium in time for me to walk the stage in Paradise. What sucks is that I can’t tell everyone what’s going on. They’d throw me in a mental institution. Or worse, those bad aliens—the Mogs—would be after me to try and shut me up.

At least I have Sarah to talk to. She was there. She fought with me, almost died beside me. As long I have Sarah, I don’t feel like I’m going to go crazy.

CHAPTER TWO

THERE ARE BIG SCHOOL BUSES SHUTTLING KIDS back and forth between Helena and Paradise, but I was able to talk the principal into letting me drive myself. I told him I wanted to stay late and work out—that I didn’t want what happened in Paradise to keep me from being an unstoppable college football machine. He said that was fine: I’m guessing partly because he hopes anything I do in the future will make Paradise High look good, and partly because everyone in town still feels kind of bad for me because I threw a party and some kids accidentally burned down my house.

I don’t think that had anything to do with aliens. At least, I’ve made sure to tell everyone who insinuates that John blew up my house that it was really a couple of stoners down in the basement who were lighting stuff on fire for fun. That usually shuts people up—especially adults who like to pretend that stuff like that never happens in good old Paradise. Besides, John saved Sarah and both of my dogs. There’s a YouTube video to prove it. No one should be giving him shit for that night. He gets a free pass on that one.

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