Dad’s brow creased. “You don’t have to do this, Jess. We can turn around now and go home.”
His fingers rapped on the limousine’s armrest as we pulled up to the entrance of my normally quiet school. Outside, police officers and several uniformed security guards held advancing reporters and camera crews on the sidewalks.
“Relax, Major,” Elaine said, across from me. She pulled out a compact and touched up her lipstick. “Two months after single-handedly saving the world from an alien invasion, Earth’s teenage savior returns to finish high school.” She snapped the case shut. “This is the public interest story of the year.”
Dad’s nose flared. “Yes, she’s supposed to be going to school, but you’ve made it a media circus. Why’d you have to schedule a press conference in the auditorium?”
She slipped her lipstick back into her designer purse. “They would have been here anyway. The best way to calm a stalking fox is to invite him in for tea.”
“Tea? I’ll give you tea.”
I held up my hand. “Dad … ” I didn’t have to finish. I never did. Their arguments were always the same. Father protects daughter, while the publicist pushes media exposure as far as she can legally get away with—and me stuck in between.
Elaine wasn’t all that bad, as far as publicists went. Not that I’d known any other publicists, but she’d been by my side since my very first press conference, and the hundred or so more over the past two months. She could be pushy, but she understood the power of a pint of Death By Chocolate ice cream at the end of a long day, which totally earned her brownie points in my book.
Dad’s gaze returned to me. “We just got back. Do you really need to do another press conference?” The deep lines around his eyes added to the weight of my own exhaustion.
I shifted in my seat, my hands clammy against the leather interior. “If we go home, they’ll just show up here again tomorrow. Let’s get this over with. Maybe then things can get back to normal.” I grabbed his hand. “I can do this.”
Dad pressed his lips together. Of course, he knew I could do it. But knowing and wanting me to answer another set of invasive questions were two different things, and I loved every stubborn inch of him for it.
Elaine fluffed my hair and adjusted the collar of my shirt. “Show time.” She knocked twice on the window, and the Secret Service agent outside opened the door for her. She glided through the crowd with a practiced grace.
Camera-palooza erupted outside. Dang, there weren’t this many photographers when I met the president.
Dad stepped out before me, an imposing figure in his combat uniform. Having an over-protective father did have its advantages. No one was getting by this bodyguard. No one.
I closed my eyes and clutched the charm on my necklace. My mother’s strength seeped into me, giving me courage. You’ll be fine, I heard her whisper. You’re my strong little girl. Always have been.
“I’ll try, Mom.” I opened my eyes and shuddered. You would think I’d be used to the feeding frenzy by now. This was the longest fifteen minutes of fame ever.
Steadying myself on the limo door, I stood.
“Jess, look over here.” Flash.
“Miss Martinez, how does it feel to be back at school?” Flash.
“Jessica, to your right.” Flash. Flash.
The faces and camera lenses blurred. My mind filled with the phantom sounds of alien weapons. I closed my eyes and breathed deeply to ward off memories of blinding lights and screaming voices.
It was over. The aliens had left, and I was alive. We were all still alive.
The Secret Service closed in around us as Dad placed his hand on my back, guiding me to the front entrance. With a well-rehearsed smile, I made my way forward, hoping to avoid a repeat of tabloid-gate when the worst-of-the-worst photos of me turned up on the cover of the National Daily.
Dad moved beside me as we stepped over the threshold. I slipped my fingers into his hand and squeezed. One more press conference. Just one more. I could do this.
We made our way through a throng of reporters, students, parents, and teachers to the auditorium. Hundreds of voices jumbled into one chaotic roar rebounding off the lockers.
A microphone appeared in front of my face. “Ms. Martinez, how did you—”
Dad pulled me to his chest as two Secret Service agents pounced on the guy. The reporter and the agents sunk back into the crowd, disappearing like a stone thrown into water.
“There will be question and answer time after the presentation,” Elaine called as we passed through the auditorium’s stage door.
I exhaled, rubbing my arms. That had to be the worst crowd ever.
Dad circled the area behind the curtains and checked the cracks and crevices backstage. The Secret Service agents had long since given up on trying to convince him that the government pre-secured all of my speaking engagements. I used to joke about their paranoia, until someone actually found a bomb. Those guys in ugly suits quickly became my best friends.
“Did you practice your speech?” Elaine asked.
I raised an eyebrow. “No.” You’d think she’d stop asking me that. I hadn’t memorized one yet. Why would I start now?
I pulled aside the curtain and scoped out the auditorium. A sea of smiling, wide-eyed faces filled the room. Camera crews and reporters intermingled with the student body.
Going back to high school was supposed to help me get my life back.
This fiasco was not getting my life back. But maybe if I answered everyone’s questions now, they wouldn’t keep asking later.
Hey, a girl could dream.
Elaine patted my shoulder before heading out past the curtains. Her heels clopped across the wooden stage as she passed a huge poster of National Geographic’s “The Night the World Stood Still: Special Edition.”
Steven Callup’s cover photo was one of those shots every aspiring photographer dreamed of catching: perfect lighting, engaging subject, active backdrop, and undeniable emotional tone. I wasn’t drooling over this masterpiece, though; because the photograph featured me.
The flames over my shoulder were in crisp focus and flawlessly mirrored in my dark hair. The mottled hues of a fresh sunrise blended perfectly with the devastation in the background. And my God, the expression on Dad’s face as we embraced … the love in his eyes.
That night would haunt me forever. Something incredible had happened, and it had nothing to do with an alien invasion. That cover immortalized the moment for the world to see: a year after my mother’s death, my father finally opened up and started to feel again.
I released the curtain, ready to face my peers, knowing that no one gave a rat’s ass about me or my dad.
They only wanted to know more about David.
I mean, I totally got it. An alien guy crash lands on Earth and has to escape before his people wipe out humanity. Heck, I’d be interested, too. But the clincher was that David changed his people’s minds because of me. I was the heroine in the story of the millennia, whether I liked it or not.
I cringed, thinking of how many people had contacted me for the movie rights. Ashes in the Sky, they wanted to call it. What kind of idiotic title was that? Ridiculous, all of it. The world almost ended right in front of me. I didn’t need to see it again on a big screen.
As Elaine announced my name, and the audience applauded, I wondered if anything would ever be as it was before David’s people arrived.
I took my place behind the microphone and squinted into the harsh auditorium lighting. I’d been in that audience dozens of times, but never on stage. The faces looking back at me were familiar, but distant. Awestruck.
This place was my school. My safe haven. Having the media here was wrong.
I gritted my teeth and gripped the sides of the lectern. This assembly would be the absolute last time I talked about what happened to me in public. Ever.
A mop of perky, blond curls caught my attention from the third row. My BFF Maggie beamed as she gave me a thumbs-up. Part of me relaxed, knowing I had a friend near.
Maggs was the only other person who’d known about David before the Army started chasing us. She even risked her own rear-end helping us escape. She’d talked her way out of a grounding from her father, the general, thank goodness. Damn, he must have been ticked when he found out what she’d done.
Taking one last breath to steady myself, I edged closer to the mic. “You’d have to be dead not to know what happened two months ago. So I’m just going to open it up to questions.”
Hundreds of hands shot into the air.
One of the moderators handed a microphone to a bubbly girl with a blond ponytail. “Is it true that the alien looked just like Jared Linden?”
And, it starts.
“Yes. David mimicked an advertisement and looked just like Jared Linden’s character in that movie Fire in the Woods.”
Okay, that was only half of it. The truth was far too embarrassing. David pulled Jared Linden’s features from my mind. He didn’t look exactly like Jared. Just the hotter parts. The rest was an amalgamation of other cute guys he’d yanked out of my brain. There was no way I would admit to that, though.
A tall kid in a black band tee stood. “So what really happened out there? They were going to annihilate us. How’d you get them to change their minds?”
I cleared my throat. A flash of David’s smile and the warmth of his touch sent a shiver down my spine. “Luck was totally in our favor. If David’s plane hadn’t crashed, we never would have met. It didn’t take long before he realized the human race was worth saving.”
A teacher handed a microphone to a girl wearing glasses. “How long will it take them to terraform Mars?”
Ugh. I tried to think of David’s new home like Seattle or Los Angeles, but it wasn’t. It was Mars. As in: not Earth. Talk about your long distance romance.
“I have no idea how long it will take them to make Mars livable. I do know that they are running short on supplies, so I’m hoping it will happen pretty quickly.”
A girl in a cheerleader uniform flagged down the lady with the microphone. “Everyone says you and the alien were doing it. Inquiring minds want to know. Was he any good?”
Camera flashes singed my eyes as a teacher tried to pull the mic away from the girl.
“No,” a reporter shouted. “Let’s hear the answer.”
The audience murmured, shifting like hyenas waiting to pounce on an unsuspecting foal. Beside the stage, Dad’s face became an unnatural shade of crimson.
“Well?” the cheerleader asked.
I wiped the sweat from my palms, remembering the shockwave that raged through me when David’s lips covered mine. The tabloids had reduced our relationship to supermarket trash, and Rah-Rah Girl probably wouldn’t know a real emotional connection if it bit her.
David and I shared something so deeply intimate it transcended everything. No one could possibly understand. I wasn’t even sure I understood. All I knew was that I was in love, and I’d probably never see him again.
I blinked, realizing the room had gone quiet, awaiting my answer about doing it.
My hands fisted, but I forced a smile and rustled up the rote response Elaine had prepared for me. “I heard that rumor, too, but David and I were only friends.” A sickly gash sliced through my heart. The thought of living the rest of my life with him on another planet was akin to living in the desert without water.
Was he out there somewhere, longing for me as much as I yearned for him?
My stomach fluttered. I hated how people’s stupid questions dredged up feelings I’d worked hard to suppress. I had to get off that podium.
A kid in the back stood. “How does it feel to know that six million people died while you were out there hugging dear old dad?” He pointed over my shoulder to the huge magazine cover behind me. “How does it feel to know the death count is still rising?”
It was? “Umm—”
“When did you know they were hostile?” someone else shouted.
My heart thumped against my ribcage. “I, uh—”
A reporter snatched the microphone. “Do you honestly believe they won’t come back and finish us off?”
The rumble of voices intensified. Cameras flashed as dozens of voices drowned one another out. So much for school being my safe haven.
Elaine gripped my shoulder and pulled me from the dais. “Thank you,” she said. “That’s all the questions we have time for today.”
She scooted me past the curtains, Dad following close behind. The volume in the auditorium escalated.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “We should’ve been ready for that. Next time—”
“There’s not going to be a next time.” I thrust my chin in the air. “That was my last public appearance. I’m already behind in school, and I need to graduate this year. I just want to get back to my classes and put this all behind me.”
She grinned in that syrupy way adults do when they are about to condescend your butt. “We’ll talk about this later, honey.”
Dad’s gaze seared through her before he offered me a nod of approval.
No, Elaine. We would definitely not be talking about this later.