My name is Jake. I'm just your average teenager. I have a part-time job, I procrastinate on my math homework, I like to play basketball in the driveway with my friends, or video games in my room. I used to be no one special.
I miss being ordinary.
I could tell you it's too dangerous to tell you who I am, or where I live, and I wouldn't be lying. It would be dangerous. We have enemies looking for us, powerful enemies. And trust me when I tell you that they're everywhere .
But there are things I'm going to tell you that are far worse than who I am. If I write down where I've been, what I've seen, the things we've done, then figuring out who I am wouldn't be much of a challenge, regardless of whether or not I come out and say it.
So the logical question you might be asking is probably something like this: if it's so dangerous, why am I writing this down?
That's a valid question.
It was Cassie's idea. She thought it would help us cope if we kept journals. I'm honestly not so sure, but Cassie tends to be right about stuff like that. Besides, it's not like we can really talk about stuff like this to anybody. Marco said it was stupid, but then again he said the journals would make the New York Times Best Sellers List in a heartbeat, assuming we live that long.
But I'm not writing this because Cassie told me I should, or because Marco thinks they'll make us rich and famous. I'm not even writing it for me.
I'm writing it for you.
If anyone else ever does read this, it either means we won, or we lost. If we lost, well... if we're captured, I guess it doesn't matter, but I'd rather be dead than captured.
And whether or not I'm alive when you read this, I want someone to know who we were, what we did. I want you to know that we screwed up, that we cried, that we weren't ready for this. That I definitely wasn't ready. But that hasn't stopped us from trying, from bleeding. We're going to fight, and we might not come out of this alive, any of us.
It's too late for any of us to be unscathed.
And also because I'm not the only one in danger. The ones after us, they're after you too. And if we ever go down, well, I guess it's better people know, even if that might make things worse.
You might not believe my story, and that's okay if you don't. I can't believe everything that's happened to me the last few days. I'd like to say that part of me still thinks it's a bad dream, but I don't. I don't want to delude myself about anything like that. I know it's real, and there have already been consequences. I can still hear the screams in my head. It's all true, all of it, whether you believe it or not.
And if this is just the beginning, if it's going to be a whole year or two before we get help, I know I'm not going to be the same person in a year.
Maybe I am writing this for me. Maybe I just want to be able, some day, to look back to when we were just five kids.
When I was still just a kid.
My name is Jacob Berenson, I live in Santa Cruz, California, and I was only sixteen when this started.
It was Friday night and Marco and I were working a shift. We work at the multiplex by Urban Outfitters. It’s a nine-screen chain theater. All in all, it’s not a bad job. Granted, I do come home every night smelling like buttered popcorn, but it was either this or fast food, and I’d much rather get free movies than flip burgers. Plus, I was working with Marco, which made it a little easier.
Marco and I have been friends forever. He's very visibly Hispanic, though I think he mentioned he has Native American ancestry somewhere. He's kind of a sarcastic goofball, but Marco is one of the smartest kids in our school. He doesn't really advertise that much - I guess he doesn't want to be labeled a nerd or something - but he's in all the advanced placement courses. I’m barely getting by in trig, and Marco is acing calculus.
Anyway, Friday nights are busy, as you’d probably guess. I think Saturdays are worse, but that night we had a pretty decent crowd. It was opening weekend for the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie and we had a larger-than-anticipated showing. But the crowd wasn't nearly as bad as Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2 had been. I mean, I like Marvel movies as much as the next guy - Marco and I both love comics - but when you work there during the fanboy rush, they get a little less fun. By eleven, though, it wasn't so bad. Our last showing most nights is around ten, sometimes ten-thirty, so the snack rush was over.
Marco was flirting with the girl that had been working the ticket booth. He had better luck with girls than I did. I was wiping the glass counters of the concession stand. We had to keep it open till eleven-thirty for some reason, but other than the occasional refill on popcorn and sodas, no one really came out of the movie for snacks. Maybe candy or something, but the hot food - the hot dogs, pretzels, and chicken tenders - that stuff never sells after the movie starts. I’d already turned off the deep fryer.
I was getting ready to refill the Diet Coke syrup when Marco came back to the snack counter.
“So, got a date?”
“Nah, Jenny has a boyfriend.”
We’d been talking about girls all night. Well, Marco had been talking about girls. Plural. I’d only been talking about one girl.
“But see, that’s how it’s done. You just go up and ask.”
“God, you make it sound so easy.”
“Jake, it's Cassie. I mean, what the hell, do you think she's going to say no?
That wasn't the problem at all. I sighed. “No, the problem is that you and I both know she'll say yes. I guess what's making me nervous is that I've known her forever. You've known her forever . How do you go up to a girl like that and tell her you wanna be more than just friends?”
Marco shook his head. “Yeah, okay, I can see how that’d get your panties in a wad. But if you don’t ask, someone’s going to.”
I gave him a hard look.
“Hey, dude, Cassie’s cute but she's not really my type. I’m just saying she’s probably someone’s type. Maybe ask her out before you get the same answer I just got from Jenny.”
“Yeah, you’re not wrong…”
Marco had a smug look on his face. God, he can be insufferable when he knows he’s right. And like I said, he’s smart as hell, so he actually makes that face a lot. Some days I just want to hit him, but there are more productive ways of spending that kind of energy.
“I'm going to go clean the bathrooms. Think you can refill the Diet Coke while I'm out?”
“Aye, cap’n,” he said in an exaggerated random pirate voice. I rolled my eyes and smiled. That was Marco.
I really didn't mind cleaning the bathrooms that much. I mean yes, the men's room can be gross and I have yet to have a shift where I hadn't found popcorn in the urinals or a hot dog in the toilet, but whatever. Mostly it was just mopping tile floors and how hard is that?
It took me less than half an hour to do both of the lobby bathrooms and when I got back to the concessions, Tobias and Marco were talking.
Tobias is a friend of ours that hangs out at the theater a lot. He never has money for movies. Mostly he just hangs out in the art supply store next door, and then loiters in the theater lobby playing the crane game. Sometimes I let him use my employee tickets. Tobias was always a bit distant, but I didn’t mind hanging out with him and Marco and I definitely didn't mind that he was always willing to help us clean up.
I kept telling him to just put in an application, but for some reason he just never did.
“Hey, Tobias? Bad night?”
Tobias didn't talk about his homelife to anyone but me and Marco.
Years ago, we had all gone to school together, but when we were in third grade, Tobias’s mom vanished. I don't mean she ran out on him, though that theory has been put out there. I mean she just disappeared. It was a big local scandal at the time, police investigation and news crews, that whole mess. But eventually the case went cold. Tobias had never known anything about his biological father, and his mother's half-siblings were his closest living relatives. He ended up living with his aunt in Pittsburgh for a few years. But she apparently ran off to get married a few years ago and Tobias moved back to California.
It wasn't really much of a secret that his aunt never cared much for him, and he lives with his uncle now, who has a drinking problem, so Tobias hung out at the theater anytime he wanted to not be home.
And he was there pretty often.
I think the only reason he didn’t talk to anyone about his homelife was simply that he didn't want to get bumped to foster care and if things with his uncle fell apart, that was his only other option.
So any time I asked if he was having a bad night, he knew that was my way of asking if he wanted to crash at my place.
“Yeah, bad night…” he said, running a hand through his shaggy dark blond hair. He always seemed so embarrassed about coming over. I tried not to make a thing out of it.
Marco handed him a Coke from the fountain machine and a plate of nachos. The cheese was still warm. “On the house, kid.”
“Thanks, man. So what's going on?”
“I'm trying to get Jake to put on his big boy pants and finally ask Cassie out.”
“Marco…” I really did not want to lose my job because I’d punched out a coworker.
Tobias smiled. He had kind of a sad smile, the kind that just never quite reached his eyes. “Bring her here. She likes movies, right? Didn't I see her going in with Rachel?”
Rachel was Cassie's best friend and also my cousin.
“Yeah…” I said, sheepishly.
“Casanova here bombed his first attempt.”
It was true. “I was going to ask her out then panicked and asked if she wanted my employee tickets. She immediately asked Rachel.”
“Well, at least she doesn't have a boyfriend,” Tobias said.
I put my head in my hand. “Jesus, did you two coordinate on this?”
Tobias laughed. “Jake, she’s waiting for you to ask her to the dance.”
“Oh, come on. I don't want to go to that lame-ass dance.”
“Yeah, you're way too white for that,” Marco said.
“Hell, no, ese . I'm not white enough for school dances.”
“Dude, did you forget Cassie's black?”
We laughed at that.
“Jake, just tell her you have to work the night of the dance and ask her somewhere else.”
I looked at my phone. I just wanted to see how much time was left in our shift, but I saw there was a text from Tom, my older brother saying he was going to be out late and to cover with mom. Man, that was getting to be a habit. Ever since he'd started dating Zoe...
“Oh, in case I didn't mention it earlier, I'm giving the girls a ride home.”
“Ugh, great.” We were all friends, but Rachel and Marco tended to… I don't know how to put it. They almost had like a sibling rivalry and it sometimes caused waves. Usually Cassie helped keep the peace.
We chatted for the rest of the movie. Once people started coming out of screen six we’d have work to do, but we still had time to kill till then. We talked about school, video games. Normal kid stuff. Looking back, it feels weird thinking about it. I was just your ordinary high school soohomore, trying to get through school and a part-time job, and maybe get a date. The weird part is, none of that really went away either. It's just different now. Like when you see yourself in an old photo or something I guess.
But eventually the movie ended and Marco and I had work to do.
I caught Rachel and Cassie in the hallway by the ladies’ room. Rachel and Cassie really do seem like a study in contrasts. Rachel is pale and blonde, with blue eyes, and always looks like she stepped out of a fashion magazine. She was wearing a blue floral dress and an off-white little jacket - bolero, I think they're called - and had her hair styled. Cassie is dark-skinned with shorter black hair. She is almost always wearing jeans. Tonight she was wearing cut-off denim shorts, a form-fitting white tee, and a flannel shirt tied around her waist. I felt my throat go dry.
“Hey, Rache. Hey, Cassie. You enjoy the movie?”
I thought I saw Cassie blush, but with her darker complexion, it was hard to tell. “Yeah, thanks for letting us use your tickets.”
Rachel shot me a knowing glance. Dammit. Did everyone know? “Aww, Jake, I didn't know you gave Cassie your tickets. That’s so sweet of you.”
I couldn't tell if she was making fun of me or trying to make me look thoughtful, but I felt red-faced.
“Oh, that was no trouble. Marco and I have to go help clean up number six and we’ll be ready to take you home.”
“Yeah, no problem. We’ll just sit in the lobby.”
“Oh, that reminds me. Tobias is crashing at my place. He's probably out there waiting, too.”
I thought I saw an odd expression on Rachel’s face, but she just said, “Yeah, that’s cool,” and both girls headed out to the lobby.
Marco and I weren't the only employees working to closing that night - only the manager could lock up, for one thing - so it didn't take long to sweep up all the dropped popcorn or mop up all the spilled soda. There were a few misplaced items to take to lost and found and the normal miscellaneous trash. It was about a quarter till one before we had taken out all the trash and finally punched out. Marco and I waved to our coworkers as we headed out and the manager locked up behind us. I had parked in the garage across from the Mediterranean restaurant about two blocks down and it didn’t take us long to get there.
I hit the button on my key fob and the lights on my hand-me-down, grey 2007 Ford Expedition flashed on as the doors unlocked. It used to be my mom’s but she had just gotten a newer, more eco-friendly model. Tom, being the oldest, had gotten first crack at it, but he said he was saving for college and didn't want to pay the insurance, so I was one of the only sophomores at our school with his own vehicle, which was cool.
Marco said we should take it out camping sometime and I was thinking about it.
We all shuffled in. Marco called shotgun and Tobias crawled into the back so the girls could have the center row. I turned the ignition and the engine roared to life. I plugged my phone into the cigarette adapter. The model year predated USB ports, auxiliary input, or Bluetooth, so I’d bought a cigarette lighter adapter for it. For being ten years old, it wasn't a bad vehicle. The SUV did have GPS, though I was really tempted to install a new one, and it did have a DVD player, though I never used it unless my other cousins, Rachel’s younger sisters, were in the back. I think the only DVDs I had in the car were Disney movies.
“Cassie, you're the furthest out, so I'm going to take you home first.”
I saw her nod in the rearview.
“How much sleep are you going to get tonight?”
“Mom’s off tomorrow, so she’s doing the morning rounds for me. I actually don't have to be up till eleven if you can believe that.”
Cassie lives on what used to be a dairy farm on the outskirts of town, right at the edge of the Moore Creek Preserve. Both her parents are vets, and her dad runs an animal hospital, the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, out of the old barn. They still have horses and one cow, but there's always a menagerie of sick or wounded animals at her place. It's like a petting zoo, if petting zoos had foxes and bobcats.
“That’s cool. Would you like a hand tomorrow?”
Cassie has the most chores of any girl I know. Her place is cool, but it is a ton of work.
“Yeah, that'd be cool.”
I saw her smile and it made my night.
It usually only takes about fifteen minutes to get to Cassie's place from the cinema. It was a quiet night. Marco leaned against the window. He knew it would be about half an hour before I dropped off Cassie and looped back around, so he just wanted to nap for a bit, and I couldn’t blame him. After a long day at school and work, I was beat, too. I think he was asleep before we were out of the parking lot. Rachel and Cassie spent the short drive talking about the movie, making plans for a shopping trip. Tobias was quiet, but I saw him staring at the window, just taking in the night.
I think back to that night and think of all the ways that things could’ve gone differently. There were any number of reasons why we shouldn’t have been there. If Marco and I hadn't been working, I wouldn't have been out at one in the morning. If I hadn’t given my tickets to Cassie, she and Rachel would have been home already.
And, perhaps most importantly, Tobias wouldn't have been riding in the back of my SUV, looking at the night sky.
“Hey, cool. A meteor shower.”