The Starburst Juju by Monica Strang
In a time when most had lost hope and many were living in fear, Pepper, a typical teen girl, is trying to make sense of the chaos and fear that exists all around her. After witnessing the abduction of her parents and narrowly escaping her own destruction, she is quickly thrust into solving the mystery behind her parents’ involvement with the annual alien abductions. Along the way she discovers her own hidden talents and gifts, and creates lasting relationships with her new-found friends. Pepper’s search for her parents is an adventure that will test old and new friendships, and one that will eventually force her to re-evaluate everything she thought was true.
Whoever said when life gives you lemons, make lemonade was an idiot.
I mean, it’s kind of hard to make lemonade with lemons like chronic pain, abuse, poverty, the loss of a friend.
I’m not usually so cynical, but it was pretty wretched that those were my first thoughts of the day, and not that it was my birthday. Sad, I know, but that’s how all of my birthdays have turned out.
I threw the blanket over my head, blocking the sunlight that pierced my eyelids when Mom opened the blinds.
“Pepper,” she crooned. “It’s time to get up, honey. I let you sleep in a little, but if you don’t get up soon, you’ll be late for school.” Mom tugged on the bedspread, trying to pull it down, but I held on tightly.
“What’s the point?” I yelled, hoping she would understand my muffled words from under the thick quilt. “It’ll just be reports of who the stupid aliens kidnapped this year. It’s not like we’ll be doing any actual schoolwork.”
Mom stopped pulling and sat on my bed. “It’s a matter of principle, honey.”
Of course it was. With both my parents being teachers, to miss school would be blasphemy.
“Besides,” Mom continued, “you know nobody in this town really cares about the Maddocks anymore.”
It was true. Our town didn’t exactly have reason to be on the aliens’ radar.
I pushed the sheets away from my face. Morning light streamed through the windows by my bed. “This is the one day of the year that everyone hates. And by ‘everyone’, I mean the entire planet. I’m not going to school.”
Mom gave me one of her half smiles. “Hmm. I always thought report card day was worse.”
“Real funny, Mom.”
She gave a deep sigh and kissed my forehead. “Happy birthday, Pepper. Breakfast is ready.”
I closed my eyes and listened to Mom’s footsteps leave the room.
“It’s not my birthday,” I whispered. “It’s February 20th. Again.”
After a few minutes, I rubbed my heavy eyes and forced my body out of bed. As I got ready, I couldn’t help but think about the poor sap getting snatched today—whoever it was. So far, the aliens (or Maddocks, as we called them), had stolen a total of 26 people over the past eleven years. Well, 23. One artist from France committed suicide when the creatures showed up at his door. The other two, both military specialists, died trying to fight the monsters taking them.
Morons. Everyone knows you don’t challenge them.
If you fight, you die.
The savory smell of eggs and bacon that wafted into the room coaxed me into getting dressed quickly. My stomach begged for food. I hastily braided my dark hair in its usual two braids and hurried to the kitchen.
Dad held a bowl of steaming oatmeal while he sat watching the news, not even noticing me come in. I thought it was odd that my parents seemed to be obsessed with the aliens even though no one else in town was.
Dad was talking to himself, mumbling something about a star, his eyes glued to the screen. He had the same raven black hair as me, and a wisp of it slid down in front of his eyes, as it always did. “We need to fight them,” he said more clearly while unconsciously tucking the stray pieces back in place.
Memories of news reports flashed in my mind of the one time we did fight. It was six years ago, when the beasts landed in Japan. The armed forces actually got there in time, but it didn’t go well. Tokyo was all but destroyed. Thousands died. It was pure chaos with everyone running, screaming. Smolder filled the air as people stood frozen in the streets or collapsed on the sidewalks, coughing smoke from their lungs.
People were hurt. Crying. Bleeding.
I still had nightmares from the constantly repeated news clip of a man holding one of his own bloody eyes in his hand. He just wandered around aimlessly as if not sure what to do with it.
I slumped down in front of a plate filled with eggs, bacon, and hash browns; my favorite breakfast. No longer hungry, I pushed the plate away in disgust and put a frozen waffle in the toaster to possibly eat on the bus later.
“Did they get anyone yet?”
Dad jumped at the sound of my voice, fumbled with the remote, and hastily turned off the TV.
“Oh! Hi sweetheart.” He laughed nervously. “I wasn’t really watching; just channel surfing, but…um, no. Not yet.”
Mom walked by and elbowed Dad in the head, giving him a warning look. I hated it when they tried not to show how fanatical they were about the whole alien abduction thing, as if hiding it was somehow protecting me.
“Hey, I have something for you!” Dad finally recovered and handed me a beautifully wrapped box. Where he found such nice paper, I would never know. I untied the bow and removed the top. The inside padding held a glittery pink cell phone with a crack in the top right corner of the screen and a slight dent on the side.
After the initial shock of seeing it, I forced a smile. “Thanks.”
“Happy birthday!” Dad looked at me like he had just given the greatest present in the world, and to every other fifteen-year-old, it probably would be. But there was no one I could really call. The only person I ever talked to was Parker, and he lived next door. I could walk to his house faster than it took to dial his number.
“Here, Pepper, hand it to me. I’ll program our numbers in.” Dad stretched out his hand as I tossed the phone over.
“Oh, honey. Don’t look so upset,” Mom said. I realized I wasn’t smiling anymore, and I tried to perk up.
“No. It’s great, Mom. Really.”
“Well, we did get you one more thing.” She grinned and pulled out a brown paper package from the kitchen drawer. The promising size and shape of it made me smile genuinely this time. I grabbed it from her hands and ripped it open. The latest Molly Mole book crackled of newness when I opened it, and I inhaled the smell of fresh print on paper. I don’t think I had ever seen a brand new book before. I sat there for a minute, admiring it.
“What, no thanks?” Mom said with amusement. “That wasn’t easy to find. If Parker hadn’t seen it at the street market yesterday, all you’d have is an incredibly pink phone.” She winked at Dad.
“Hey!” Dad gave a cry of mock outrage and donned a playful frown while tickling Mom’s waist, who giggled like a child.
Time to act. “Thanks, Mom.” I gave her a hug, trying to break up their awkward teasing, and then embraced Dad. His haphazardly shaven whiskers prickled my cheek.
“Where is Parker, anyway?” I asked. He was always here during breakfast so we could ride to school together, although I think he came over just for the free food. I’ve never seen anyone eat as much as he does.
“He was here a minute ago, but he said he left your present at home,” Dad said.
In that case, I couldn’t wait to see what he had for me. After all, Parker understood me better than anyone. We’d known each other since we were seven. His family moved into the house next to ours one summer, and we had hung out together nearly every day since. I liked that I could talk to him without feeling judged, and he could always make me laugh no matter how rotten my mood was.
Mom sighed and gave a worried look at the clock. “Why don’t you just meet him over at his house? I don’t want you to be late.”
“Sure.” I grabbed my backpack and headed for the kitchen door.
“Don’t forget this!” Dad grinned widely and held up something pink, wiggling it at me.
Oh, right. The phone. I walked back to take it from his outstretched hand, and my fingers froze inches from his. There was a noise—what was that awful noise?
Before I could figure out where the sound came from, our house began to shake violently, like a runaway train was going to slam through the walls at any moment. I looked at my parents. Their eyes were wide as they stared back. The pitcher lurched from the table and smashed into the floor, splashing orange juice everywhere. Glass dishes and mugs danced on the shelves for a moment before tumbling to the ground, shattering into thousands of pieces. I screamed and held my ears as the pounding became unbearably loud.
Mom was there instantly. She held me while Dad wrapped his body around us, shielding us from all the flying glass. He winced as shards dug into his legs and back. The thundering strengthened, the vibrations louder and louder in my head. Just when I thought our house might actually collapse, the intense rattling stopped.
“What was that?” I gasped. Dad fell away from us, and I looked down, lightheaded with panic, to where he held his leg. A large fragment of glass had wedged itself into his calf. He took a towel from the table, wrapped it around the glass, and bit off a yell as he hastily tore the piece from his flesh. Blood flowed down his pants as he hobbled to the kitchen door and cracked it open. I followed behind Mom, who chased after him. He peeked out the door, then slammed it shut and fastened the lock.
“Is it them?” Mom’s voice shook.
Dad looked stunned. “I can’t believe it. They found us.”
Mom’s trembling hands grabbed mine, and I met her eyes in reflex, hoping for some reassurance. I found none. I’d never seen her so terrified.
“Who found us?” I asked, not sure if I really wanted to know.
Loud howling came from outside, although I wasn’t sure I could call it howling. It was more like metal screaming out as it was being shredded. The hair on my arms rose. The horrific noise intensified until it was right outside our kitchen, like it was pounding on our door. Slowly, but deliberately, we backed away. The howling stopped.
It was now eerily silent outside.
My heart thudding too loud in my ears, I whispered, “Dad, what’s out there?”
Before Dad could answer, something massive crashed through the door, smashing it to pieces. Fragments of splintered wood flew all around us; the debris blinded me for a second. Agonizing pain exploded in my shoulder when a large chunk of the door struck my arm. Mom and I screamed as we held onto each other. My arm throbbed in agony.
Two huge Maddocks stomped in; their scent, like wet dog, was suffocating. I’d seen them a million times on TV, but nothing could have prepared me for the real thing. With bodies more like bears, their large snouts curled and bared gleaming canine teeth. The hairy creatures stood upright like humans, so they towered over us. Muscles bulged under their dark fur. Their eyes were large, green and glowing. They moved in a mechanical way, like programmed robots. One of them grabbed Dad while the other tore my screaming mother from my grasp, dragging them both out the broken door.
“Pepper! Run!” Dad shouted.
My heart pounding, I frantically looked around the kitchen. With my good arm, I grabbed the first thing I saw, the toaster, and yanked it out of the socket. I cried out in pain as blisters sprouted on my hand before I could even drop it. It was still hot from heating the waffle. I blinked back tears and took one of our large knives out of a drawer. My burnt hand tried to refuse my grip on it, but I pushed through the pain and threw it at the closest Maddock. The back end of the knife bumped its arm and fell lamely to the floor. The disgusting creature didn’t even notice.
“Pepper, please!” Dad yelled. “Just run!”
I ignored the pleading look on his face and snatched another knife, panicking when I realized it was only a tiny paring blade. It would have to do. I chucked it at the same Maddock, and a shriek of pain came from the beast as the sharp edge sank into its back. A small fraction of a smile slid across my face. I got him.
The alien turned around sharply, noticing me for the first time. It roared furiously, its glowing eyes turning dark.
Oh crap, what was I thinking? I dashed behind the kitchen table in a weak attempt to hide; my stomach lurched as I tried not to throw up. I watched as Dad thrashed around violently to get free, but the Maddock holding him struck him once on the head.
His body went limp and was dragged out the door.
“Dad!” I leapt up from behind the table, feeling faint from the sudden movement. Mom flailed as the other monster tried to yank her outside. She tugged off her high heel, dug it into the Maddock’s hairy arm, wiggled free, and desperately ran to me. We held onto each other for a brief second before the outraged creature wrenched us apart again.
Mom lunged back for me, tears shimmering in her eyes. I grasped her arms, trying to pull her toward me. The Maddock kicked me in the stomach.
I hunched over and dropped to the kitchen floor, struggling to breathe. Just before Mom was pulled out the door, she scrabbled for a pen from the counter and tossed it to me. I barely caught it.
“Pepper! Jerica! Jerica!” she yelled.
“Mom! I…I don’t understand!” I could hardly get the words out. Not knowing what to do, I stood on shaky legs, held the pen up, and staggered toward the ugly alien, aiming the sharp end at one gleaming eye. I didn’t get far before the shaggy Maddock heaved its massive paw out, throwing me across the room. Excruciating pain shot through my head as I collided with the opposite wall.
My body slumped to the ground. Barely able to keep my eyes open, I tried to stand. My vision was hazy, and I fell again. Something wet oozed down my forehead, and when I wiped my hand against the skin, blood stained my palm.
“Stop!” Mom pleaded. With tears running down her cheeks, she was no longer struggling. She seemed almost calm in the alien’s arms as she looked into my eyes. “Pepper, tell them to get the star—” The Maddock thumped her on the head. Her eyes rolled back and she no longer moved. Too weak to get up again, I closed my eyes.
“Pepper! You better not be dead, or I’ll kill you! Please, you gotta wake up!”
It was Parker’s voice. It sounded distant and muffled, like I was underwater. I felt him; he was holding my head in his lap, stroking my hair. He gently shook my shoulder.
The shaking. Mom’s scream. Dad’s unconscious body dragged out the door.
I bolted upright.
“Holy Shibblets, you’re alive!” Parker scrambled up. He pulled me up with him and hugged me. I held onto him but pulled back when I noticed my red hands. My clothes, skin, and matted braids were caked with sticky blood, but I didn’t feel any pain. I didn’t feel anything, really.
“Pepper, I saw them, those ugly buggers. I tried to…but they freakin’ kicked me across the yard…then they flew off…”
Whether he trailed off or I just couldn’t hear him anymore, I couldn’t tell. I was woozy. They were gone; the Maddocks and my parents. My body and mind collapsed in despair. Parker grabbed me before my head smacked the ground again.
“Whoa—okay. Pepper, lay down. I’ve already called the police.”
The sound of fighter planes droned on overhead. I decided I wasn’t moving from the kitchen. I needed to go back to sleep, where I didn’t have to think about my parents’ motionless bodies. It wasn’t until the medics picked me up that I was forced to move as they lifted me onto a stretcher. I heard stifled voices, but I felt miles away. Parker’s voice rang through, reassuring me, letting me know he was there, but I wasn’t with him. I was gone, slipping away into a deep, horrifyingly dark sleep.
Monica Strang is a talented and skillful web developer. Her creativity has spilled from crafting websites into writing Middle Grade novels. She resides in San Diego, California with her husband and two children.
Website URL: www.TheStarburstJuju.com
Book Trailer YouTube URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2JzZ6shanUU
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