By Jami Lynn Saunders


Saunders


All Books by
Jami Lynn Saunders:

 

D.N.A.—CHAPTER ONE: LEAVE ME ALONE

Nnnttt, nnnttt, nnnttt.”

A warning alarm blared throughout the operating room as the heart monitor flatlined. A team of white-coated men worked frantically on the small, gray, motionless body.

“Hit the defibrillator again,” the head doctor ordered. “If it dies, we’re finished!”

The alien being convulsed as the jolt of electricity surged through him.

David Noble floated in the air above the operating table, watching the scene unfold. The creature on the table was short, no more than four feet tall. It was vaguely humanoid in appearance, with two arms and two legs, a head, and a face. But its eyes were huge, and its gray skin was scaly, like a lizard’s. It might have been a being from another planet or a creature that stepped from the screen of a science fiction movie. And for one brief moment, David could’ve sworn that one of those huge eyes fluttered open and made eye contact with him. None of it made any sense, yet David felt unnaturally calm as he continued to stare down at the being from his gravity-defying position above.

David wondered how he had come to be there. The view was realistic, vivid, though his vision was out of focus. He knew something was amiss. He thought he must be dreaming. The scene made his heart race, sent a hot flash throughout his body. Sweat dripped from his spirit form. As the first droplet hit the alien being, a centrifugal force whirled David round and round, until his dream body was sucked down an invisible drain. He settled at the bottom, inside the gray body that lay still on the operating table. In an instant, David’s dream had morphed him into the creature. He heard someone shout, “Clear,” and then his body convulsed as the defibrillator unleashed another jolt of electricity. His brain seemed to be seizing up, and the harsh, buzzing sound of the alarm was boring a hole into it. Bright lights flipped on and off, hurting his eyes.

“Get up, you lazy turd.”

David’s eyes flew open, his hands swinging wildly in the air. His alarm clock was blaring in his ears as his stepbrother, John, flipped the lights on and off with one hand, while shaking David like a rag doll with the other.

“Get off me,” David yelled. “I can get up on my own.”

“Really?” John said as he yanked the alarm clock’s plug from the wall to silence it. “Your alarm clock begs to differ. It’s been going off for nearly ten minutes. Now get your butt out of bed, you loser. Mom said it was time that we ate breakfast together like a real family.”

“Don’t call her mom,” David said.

“What did you say?” John asked as he made a fist and drew it back as if to strike.

David flinched.

“That’s what I thought. Now hurry up. I can’t eat till you do, and I’m hungry.” John dropped his arm and made for the stairs that led out of the basement.

If “worst stepbrother” were an Olympic event, David was sure that John Butler would be a multiple gold medalist. David sighed and tried to push the thought of his miserable life out of his head. He got up, stretched, and rubbed his crusted eyes—the result of a late night binge of playing Space Invaders on his laptop while John’s friends played billiards—and began the daily process of feeling sorry for himself. He returned his makeshift bed to its folded couch position, got dressed, and trudged toward the basement steps.

The dark basement family room had been David’s personal hideaway from reality for over three years. Unfortunately, his bedroom hideaway had recently become John’s recreation room, too. The new pool table and a 52-inch flat-screen television hooked up to a wide variety of gaming consoles meant that David’s Fortress of Solitude had become John’s summer party pad for all of his meathead football buddies. The new game room was obviously the brainchild of David’s stepdad, Don Butler, the high school football coach and math teacher. He had told David that he needed a place for his star players to bond after practice. David could have suggested a few other places for the jocks to bond. If fact, he would’ve liked to give John and Mr. Butler another place to live, like maybe somewhere on the other side of the planet.

“Let’s go, let’s go,” John yelled from the top of the stairs.

John, who had once been best friends with David, had become a thorn in his side. And now that John was living in David’s house, the dumb jock was always trying to prove his dominance. He even attempted to strip the basement ceiling of the star field David had so painstakingly created, until David’s mom intervened. David shook his head slowly. It was bad enough that he had to tolerate the invasion of his privacy, but having to eat breakfast with his stepbrother and stepfather was beyond the pale. There was also nothing he could do about it. He sighed once more and headed for the stairs.

When he entered the breakfast nook, his mother, Karen Butler, greeted him with a hug. David still hadn’t gotten used to his mother’s new name, and he had vowed never to change his own name from Noble.

“There’s only one more week of summer vacation left,” his mother announced in a chipper voice. “So today, I’m officially ordering you to get out and get some sun.”

“I don’t need sun,” David replied.

“Everyone needs sun. It keeps you healthy.”

“I don’t know, mom, he might melt,” John said as he dug into a pile of bacon. Don Butler snickered behind the morning newspaper.

The coach was a continual reminder of the passing of David’s father. David would never accept this man as a father figure. It sickened him to know that his dad’s best friend had made a move on his mother. Even worse was that his mother had accepted Don’s marriage proposal, and barely a year after her husband had died. Her assurances to David that no one could ever replace his father were wasted words. David hated Don and wasn’t sure he’d ever forgive his mother.

“What’s wrong, David?” Don asked. “Did my boys keep you up all night shooting pool again?”

“He thinks he’s too cool for pool,” John said.

“Wow, did you think that one up all on your own?” David shot back.

“No sense in getting mouthy, young man,” Don said.

“Now, boys, leave David alone,” Karen said as she rubbed the top of her son’s head. “He can’t help it that he’s a loner or that he doesn’t like sports anymore.”

Don put down the newspaper and looked at Karen. “He can be a loner if he wants to, but I think it’s a shame that he isn’t into sports anymore.” He looked at David. “We used to have fun together, remember? You were probably the best eighth-grade running back I ever had on my team. It’s just a shame you didn’t stick with it in high school.”

David rolled his eyes while John’s smoldered with jealousy.

“This year, I’ll be the best senior you’ve ever had on your team,” John said.

“I have no doubt, son.”

David ignored them both and flipped on the small television set in the kitchen before sitting down to pretend to enjoy breakfast. He did love his mom’s cooking, and the hotcakes, eggs, and bacon she placed in front of him smelled tantalizingly good. But his enjoyment of the food wouldn’t make up for the unpleasant company.

Karen stared at her son, and wanted to cry. David was good looking, with sandy blond hair and striking blue eyes and lean, angular features. He had earned straight A’s through eighth grade and had always had a passionate love of football and life in general. But ever since his father had died on their hunting trip before David’s freshman year, her son’s bright eyes had dulled and he hadn’t cracked a smile. The day after the funeral, he quit the football team, dropped his best friends, and moved to the basement to become a hermit.

Don flipped the television channel to the morning news to catch the latest scores. But the airwaves that morning were filled with local breaking news.

“Authorities have confirmed that a high-profile prisoner, formerly on the FBI’s Most Wanted list, escaped during a routine prison transfer. The man is believed to have fled into the hills near the town of Atlantic Bay. State and local police and the FBI are warning people to stay out of the woods and remain inside their homes while law enforcement officials conduct a countywide search throughout the Atlantic Bay area. The man should be considered armed and dangerous. Anyone who spots any suspicious suspects in the area should contact the local authorities.”

“I guess we should stay inside today,” David said before getting up from the kitchen table and heading back down to his man cave. He dropped face first onto his couch while his mother called after him. He covered his head with a pillow to drown out the noise. Two seconds later, John ripped the pillow from his head.

“You’re not getting off that easy,” John said. He grabbed David’s arm, pulled him off the couch, and started dragging him toward the stairs.

David shook himself loose and whirled around to face his stepbrother. He hated John nearly as much as he hated Don. He’d long since buried the memories of their happy times together growing up. He knew his mother still cherished her memories of those times, but then she didn’t really know how John treated him now.

“Don’t ever grab me again,” David hissed.

“What are you going to do about it, loser?”

“I’ll make sure you don’t play another game of football this year, jerk, even if I have to break your arm while you sleep.”

David turned and walked up the stairs, John muttering behind him.

“Here he is, mom,” John said when they entered the breakfast nook again.

“Thank you, Johnny,” Karen said. “Since you were able to get him out of the basement, I think you should take him on down to the boardwalk.”

John’s face fell. “But, mom, I—”

Don lowered his newspaper and stared at his son. The look said everything.

“So much for a great weekend,” John grumbled.

“What did you say?” Don shot back.

“Nothing, Dad. Come on, David, let’s go.” John grabbed his keys off the counter and headed for the front door without glancing back. Karen eyed David while she gestured toward John. David reluctantly followed his stepbrother out the door.

“And see if you can talk him into playing football this year,” Don yelled as David shut the front door behind them.

 

David remained silent as John drove them to the Atlantic Bay boardwalk. David was surprised they hadn’t wrecked considering that John was paying more attention to the ocean than to the road in front of them. David had missed the beach. He gazed out over the sand and took in all the tourists and locals soaking up the late-summer sun. Perhaps it would do him good to spend some time at the beach. He might enjoy a day out for a change.

John found a place to park and skidded the car into it, taking up space for two vehicles.

“You think this truck is special enough for two spots?” David asked.

John glared at him. “Don’t worry about it.”

“I hope you get towed.”

“I don’t see any lines,” John snapped. “Besides, I don’t want some idiot surfer scraping my truck like last year.”

“Brilliant,” David said. “You’d rather get your stupid truck keyed by some irate driver who can’t find a place to park because you took up two spots.”

“Listen, David, I like this less than you do, but we’re stuck with each other for the day, so we might as well try to get along.”

“You’re the one with the problem,” David said.

“I’ll let that comment slide. Just don’t embarrass me.”

The duo headed into the boardwalk arcade. Video game noises filled the air, people played skee-ball, and kids whacked at whack-a-mole. David eyed a few familiar faces from school. One in particular made his heart flutter. Chastity Bertrum. She was with her sister, Cera. He aimed a smile in their direction, but they both rolled their eyes before turning away from him.

John shook his head. “I should’ve known better than to bring you down here. If Chastity and Cera Bertrum snubbed you, you’re definitely a social pariah. We’re starting senior year in another week. You think you’d quit being such a geek.”

David shrugged off the comments and disappeared into the crowd of tourists heading for the pinball machines. John’s hand spun David around as he flipped his first ball. “Look, I don’t mean to be so horrible to you, but you bring it on yourself.”

“You mind, I’m here to have fun, remember?”

John shook his head. “You know, just being down here with you reminds me of how close we once were, how we were once best friends.”

“Those days are long gone, Johnny.” David returned to his pinball game, but John kept badgering.

“I know you hate the fact that my dad married your mom, but you got to face facts. Your dad is dead. Your mom needed someone. Who better to take care of her than your dad’s best friend?”

“Best friend? Really? It’s a stab in my dad’s back, if you ask me.”

“Yo, Johnny Five,” a stocky boy with reddish hair yelled from across the arcade.

David turned to see Brice Cooper and four other jocks approaching. He looked at John. “Your head goon Brice and the other goons await their leader.”

“Be with you in a few,” John yelled at Brice before turning back to David. “Look, I’m trying to be a friend here. You need to let the hunting accident go. It was a freak accident, and that’s all it was. Nobody has ever blamed you but yourself. If you’d quit feeling sorry for yourself and acting like such a loser, I could help you recover from your self-inflicted social suicide. Dad said he’d let you back on the football team. I’m sure you’d have to sit the bench most of the season, but it could be a start at regaining your popularity.”

David spun from the pinball machine until he was nose to nose with John. “I don’t give a crap about popularity, and I don’t give a crap about you, either, Johnny Five.

John clenched his fist as if he meant to smack some sense into David. This time David didn’t flinch. The next thing he knew, John Butler was on the ground pressing his hand against his face to stop the blood from pouring from his nose and David was rubbing the knuckles of his fist and heading for the door. John’s friends rushed to his aid, while people stared at the altercation. John sat on the floor in shock.

“Yo, you’re not going to take that from that dork, are you?” Brice yelled.

“Shut up,” was all David heard John say before he disappeared onto the boardwalk.