I tucked back the dark bang that flew in my face, shifted my seating, and balanced Philosophers of the Pre-modern World on my crossed legs.
Squinting in the morning sunshine, I forced my eyes to read the passage from Colton’s Lacon one more time:
“Time is the most undefinable yet paradoxical of things; the past is gone, the future is not come, and the present becomes the past, even while we attempt to define it.”
I closed the textbook and tossed it on the grass. “Why should I even care about what some old cleric guy said two hundred years ago?”
“Because he’s a famous old cleric guy.” Matt plucked the book from the lawn and dusted a few stray grass clippings from the cover.
“I came to college to study photography, not to be confused beyond reason by dead philosophers.”
Matt handed my book back as we stood. “Philosophy is supposed to broaden your mind.”
“Yeah, well, I’m broad enough.” I could sense a witty retort forming on his lips. “Don’t say it.”
He held up his hands. “I wouldn’t think of it.”
A group of people pointed at us from across the courtyard, and my fingers twined around my necklace, pressing the charm into my palm.
Here we go again.
When I first came to Columbia University, this was one of my favorite places to relax. The grass was like a hug from home, despite the New York skyline looming just over the trees. But each semester I had to dodge more and more Jess-watchers. Why they were still interested in me after all this time, I didn’t know.
It had been nearly two years since David left Earth to help his people populate Mars, and there’d been no impromptu spaceship sightings yet. But alien chasers still flocked to Columbia University thinking today might be the lucky day.
“How about we go this way.” Matt tugged me away from the wide-eyed group. Several of them raised camera phones, then looked at the sky.
It was always the same, as if just because Jessica Martinez walked outside, a spaceship would magically pop out of nowhere and whisk her away.
“You know, it wouldn’t hurt you to smile once in a while.” Matt waved at a guy holding a late model Nikon camera with a cheap lens attached to the front. “You always look ticked on the tabloid covers.”
I left the walkway and stomped across the grass. “These aren’t paparazzi. They’re just gawkers, and they’re driving me crazy. I wish they’d just let it go.”
Matt laughed. “Let it go? You’re Jess Martinez: the girl who saved the world from Armageddon. Twice. I think you need to cut people some slack.”
I stopped by the oak trees beside the library and watched a bird hop back and forth from the grass to the cement walkway. “I just want to be normal again. I want people to stop staring at me all the time.”
“Then you better stop wearing those tight jeans because, damn, girl, I’d snap a few pictures too if I thought I could get away with it.”
I smacked his shoulder, like I always did when he complimented me in his own, Matt-like way. It felt like we were back in New Jersey, back when I was “just Jess” and friendships weren’t so much a luxury.
“So, when is your cancer conference over?” I asked.
“It’s a symposium, and I’ll be here for a few more days.”
A few more days. It wasn’t enough. “Thanks for coming to see me. I missed you.”
Red stained his cheeks. “Yeah, I missed you too.” His gaze drifted to the tree. “Bobby says hi, by the way.”
I cringed and tried to hide my sneer. “I can’t believe you guys ended up friends after what he did to you in high school. He’s such a jerk.”
“Yeah, but he’s a connected jerk.”
“You don’t need him, Matt. You’re brilliant.”
He shrugged. “Brilliant only gets you so far. Bobby has the charm and means to get my work noticed.”
“And in return, you get him good grades?”
“I can’t take his exams for him, but yeah, I help with the other stuff.” We walked to the library steps, where he reclined against the marble. “He quit McGuire for you, you know?”
“That doesn’t change anything. He and I are never getting back together.”
“He’s trying to get back in your good graces … change the world so you see him differently.”
I eased down beside him. “Did he ask you to say that?”
Matt’s eyes opened like saucers. “Am I that transparent?”
“I can’t believe he’s pretending to care about cancer research just to impress me. When will he learn to take no for an answer?”
“So, you’re serious? You’re really not into him anymore?”
“Not. At. All. Not if he were the last guy on the planet.”
A smile spread across Matt’s face. “Good. You can do better. He’s a weasel.” He cleared his throat. “Just don’t tell him I said that. He’s still bigger than me.”
I mustered half a grin when three people jumped in front of the steps and tried to pretend they weren’t taking pictures of me.
“Wow,” Matt said. “They really don’t let up, do they?”
“Not too much, no.”
He stood and helped me to my feet. “How about we go inside somewhere? Is there anywhere around here we can catch an early lunch?”
I folded my arms. “Seriously? We’re in New York City. Name your poison.”
His grin made me forget about the roving photographers. “Anywhere quiet, where we can kinda be alone.”
I straightened. “Alone?”
He slipped his cold fingers around mine. “I meant it when I said I missed you.”
Whoa. I slid my hand away. “Weren’t you just rooting for team Bobby?”
“Yeah, well, I figure if the referee has banned Bobby from the game permanently, that kinda makes room for team Matt to swoop in and maybe win one for the eggheads of the world.”
A flash of seventeen-year-old Matt, bruised and bleeding on the sidewalk after Bobby beat him up for taking me to a movie flashed through my mind, before my vision refocused on the brilliant med student Matt had become. I’d saved the world from aliens, but Matt was going to save the world from cancer. He believed it. I believed it. Matt was one of those guys who could do anything.
As long as he could avoid getting beat up again.
And with me at his side, he would get beat up again. Going to college hadn’t changed Bobby that much, even if Bobby was riding on Matt’s gravy train.
Matt just put himself way out on a limb. But did I want to go out on that skinny little branch with him?
A smile burst across my face. Maybe I did. “How about something a little more casual, like ice cream.”
He held up his hands. “Whoa there. I don’t know. Ice cream sparks of commitment. We’ve only known each other for what, eight years? I think you’re moving a little fast for me. I thought I was pushing it with lunch.”
I punched him in the arm.
He punched me back. I loved that. No airs. No games. No attitude. Just Matt.
Maybe, just maybe, I could get my life back. Maybe I could be happy again.
A startled cry echoed through the courtyard.
“What is that?” a man yelled.
Matt grabbed my hand and we followed the throng away from the steps and onto the South Lawn. A huge hole had formed in the clouds, widening into a shimmering circle of crystal blue.
I plucked my camera out of my backpack and joined the amateurs clicking away with their cell phones. I hid my amusement behind the lens of Old Reliable.
These people had no idea what a picture could be, how to focus in just the right place, how to find tone in the simplest of images, and catch the perfect light to evoke the exact mood. I hit the shutter four times as the anomaly widened, expanding past several city blocks. Nature never ceased to astound me.
A few more photography students added their lenses to the crowd. There’d be no deficit of pictures for the papers to choose from, that was for sure.
I snapped seven more shots. The race was on. Click. Who would take the best shot? Click. Who would be the first to get their work into the papers?
Me. That’s who. Click. Click.
The shape shifted and elongated, swirling until it settled over the courtyard and froze as if someone pressed the pause button.
The crowd grew silent. I lowered my camera. WTF?
The air in the middle of the circle formed a nearly transparent, shimmering bubble. A rainbow formed across its surface; the stripes brilliant, clear, and defined. Dozens of breaths hitched as an iridescent flicker blasted across the apparition. The form pinched and molded into a colorful, swirling tube that slowly dropped from the sky.
Matt tightened his grip on my hand as the other spectators stepped away. Half their gazes staring up, the remainder staring at me.
“Friends of yours?” Matt asked.
I shivered. “No. That’s not Erescopian technology.” At least I didn’t think it was. Erescopian ships were liquid metal … shiny opal or silver. “That just looks like … ”
“Water,” Matt whispered.
Water hanging in the sky. Or more like a lake … a huge lake with a giant elevator tube dropping out of it. So. Not. Good.
The cylinder fell in short, billowing waves before settling on the middle of the South Lawn. It was there, but it also wasn’t—like it took a picture of what was on the other side and played it like a video, hiding the tube like a chameleon. Wicked cool—if I wasn’t standing so close to it.
Matt inched back, glanced at me, then returned to my side. If I wasn’t riveted to my little patch of grass, I wonder if he’d have run.
Camera shutters triggered like crazy. Everyone gawked at me, like I was supposed to know what to do.
Yeah, cause Jess Martinez knows all there is to know about spaceships.
A whoosh echoed through the open area, like the Jolly Green Giant had blown out a candle, but without the wind. The people on the other side of the cylinder lit up as if a hundred suns flooded them. They stepped back, shielding their eyes.
My fingers tightened on the strap of my camera. I’d seen that light before, on the tarmac two years ago, as hundreds of Erescopian soldiers left their liquescent spaceships and stepped on Earth for the first time.
A siren blaring from behind the buildings broke my frozen stance. I raised Old Reliable, clicking off shots that probably would amount to nothing, until a human form materialized within the cylinder’s hazy brilliance.