I’m going to tell you my name is Jake. It isn’t. Well, it might be. Either way, whatever name I wanted to give you, I can’t. I’ve been told to give you this name: Jake. I’m told it will make more sense to you that way. I’ve read the other books. The books of the timeline before ours.
I think you’ve read them, too. The ones about the kids that could turn into animals in order to fight brain-controlling slugs? If you haven’t read them, you should. Their story finished. Ours…may not.
In any case, I was told to write this for you. You may notice that none of the things I talk about are happening on your local news. That’s because this story doesn’t take place in your world. It doesn’t take place in their world, either. The ones before.
This story is for you, not to try and recruit you to our cause, or to tell you what cities to run away from. This story isn’t to tell you who to watch out for, or if your neighbors are your enemies. This story isn’t any of that, because I don’t know much about your world. The details will be different. The players will be different, for the most part. The only thing I know about your world is this: it’s next.
My name is Jake. I’d like to start off with a cliché like, “it was a dark and stormy night”, or even “it was an ordinary night,” but it wasn’t either of those. It was dark, but clear. It was ordinary for most people, but for me it was a night to go pick up my cousin at the airport. That’s something I do every few months, but not often enough for me to call this Friday night “ordinary.”
“You okay, honey?” Cassie asked.
“Sorry, lost in thought,” I replied.
“Worried about saying the wrong thing to Rachel?” Cassie had a way about her, where it seemed like she knew what people were thinking. It worked real well on me.
I took my eyes off the road for just a second to take a quick glance into her big, brown eyes. “Yeah, when she loses a fight, she gets all pissy. It was the same when she got a silver medal as a kid. I’d always say something to try and cheer her up, and it would always set her off. Like she’s a bomb where the red and blue wires are both the wrong one.”
“Have you ever tried just shutting up?” She asked. I laughed. I hadn’t actually considered that one.
“No, hon, I haven’t. Maybe I’ll try that this time.”
“Of course, if you do all the talking, she won’t go off on me,” Cassie mused. I let out a bit of a grin. I’d known Cassie almost as long as I’d known Rachel, and I don’t think I’d ever seen Rachel lose it at Cassie. At me, oh hell yeah. Other kids at school? Definitely. But Cassie seems to be immune to Rachel bitchiness. Not that she’s always a bitch. Let’s just say she has a reputation of someone to tread lightly around.
I put my hand on Cassie’s thigh. Sometimes I have trouble expressing my affection for her, so I’ve been trying lately to make small gestures like this. When I was over in the shit, I had to shut myself down to survive, and even after being out for a couple years, it’s been hard turning that part of me back on. Cassie squeezed my hand. Her hands are so much smaller than mine, and softer. She’s only a couple years younger than me, but if you shook our hands, you’d guess she was quite a bit younger. Maybe it’s because she actually moisturizes.
I could see her smiling out of the corner of my eye. Not a toothy grin like she had just won the lottery, but a small, content smile, like when you finally get home at the end of a long day and can just relax. We drove in silence for a while, and just enjoyed being with each other. I was just about to take the off-ramp to the airport when Cassie broke the silence, “are you practicing shutting up for Rachel? Or did you decide to start now?”
I took the exit and waited at a red light. I like the freeway, because you never have to stop. Well, in theory, anyway. I hated waiting at lights. Especially lights like this one, where there wasn’t anyone else waiting. “Who the hell are you green for! Um…I just didn’t want to spoil the moment by saying something stupid.”
“You’re learning,” Cassie teased. Her phone vibrated right under my hand. “Oh, it’s Rachel. She’s waiting for us.”
“Is that how she phrased it?” I asked.
“I don’t think I can read it the way she phrased it,” Cassie replied. She was okay with how Rachel and I talked, but she had higher standards for herself. The light turned green, and I turned into the airport’s parkway. Rachel wasn’t exactly a small girl, and it was easy to spot her blonde ponytail over the rest of the crowd.
Rachel saw us park our van in the loading zone, and came to meet us. When we went on trips as kids she packed more suitcases than an entire orchestra. Now that she flies regularly for work, and since airlines charge by the pound, she’s learned to travel light. I opened the rear door to our (Cassie’s) minivan and Rachel threw her pink backpack and small blue suitcase into the cargo area. If it wasn’t for the hydraulic hinges, I’m sure she would have slammed the door shut.
I opened the rear passenger door for Rachel, but she was too impatient for the slow, electronic motor and wrenched the door open, hopped inside, and slammed the door shut. “Where’s the Mustang?” Rachel asked.
I had left our (my) Mustang at home, because “your suitcase wouldn’t fit in the trunk and your head wouldn’t fit in the back seat.”
“So let me sit shotgun and shorty there can sit in the back,” Rachel said. Cassie wasn’t short. Well, compared to Rachel and I, she was, but she was taller than the average girl. When we’re 6’3 and 6’1, that makes Cassie’s 5’6 a bit on the small side. Even so, it didn’t matter. There was plenty of legroom in our Sienna.
“Why do you think I had him bring the minivan?” Cassie asked.
“Because I don’t get pulled over in it,” I replied.
“Don’t get pulled over as often, anyway,” Rachel teased. She buckled herself in, and I pulled out of the airport’s loading area.
“That wasn’t even my fault,” I said, for probably the millionth time. “If a speed limit sign is yellow, that’s just a suggestion.”
For the millionth time, Cassie had to remind me, “Honey, when the yellow sign says 25, the white sign says 45, and you get pulled over for going 57, it’s not because you were going faster than the yellow sign.”
“Yeah, ‘cuz, the suggestion doesn’t mean you can go however fast you want,” Rachel added.
“Rachel, shut your mouth or I’ll shut it for you,” I said, as I pulled back onto the highway.
“I’d like to see you try,” she challenged.
“Try?” I asked incredulously. “Try? When I fight, I win.”
“Uh oh,” Cassie muttered next to me. I don’t know which is worse, what I said, or that it took Cassie to make me realize what I’d said, but it was too late.
“You asshole.” Rachel and I had been teasing each other before, but she wasn’t happy anymore. This wasn’t “oh, haha, you got me.” This was “oh, fuck you, Jake.”
“Look, Rachel-“ I tried to wiggle my way back out of the pile of shit I’d stepped in, but Rachel, being the wrestler she is, pinned me down in it.
“You think you can take me?” She asked. “Pull the car over, let’s find out who can really take who,” she said.
“Cass, help me out here,” I begged.
“Nuh-uh,” Cassie said. “I told you to keep your big, dumb mouth shut. Did you listen to me?”
“No,” I said.
“Well, if you didn’t like my help before, why should I bother helping you now?”
“Oh goddammit,” I groaned. “Rachel, I know you’re badass, but-“
“Just admit I’d take you in a fight,” Rachel demanded.
“Yeah, but only because your head is so thick I’d break my hands before I could knock you out,” I said.
“That’s not my thick head,” she said, “that’s your weak-ass girly hands.” Just like that, she was back to teasing me. You see, Rachel is an enigma. When I try to piss her off, she rolls her eyes and rolls with the punches. But when I make a joke I think is innocuous, it’s like a virus that turns my sweet cousin into a raging bitch-monster. Sometimes acting like an asshole will bring her back to eye-roll Rachel. Other times it digs the hole waayyyy deeper. Luckily for me, this time it worked.
I was at least smart enough not to ask Rachel about her fight, but she told us anyway. MMA fighters come from two main backgrounds – grappling and striking. I told you earlier that Rachel did wrestling in high school, but I didn’t tell you she’s got black belts in both Judo and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Those are all grappling arts. Her opponent was a striker who knew how to keep her at bay.
This was Rachel’s 7th fight in the Ultimate Women’s Fighting League. She was doing okay. This was her 3rd loss, which meant she still had a winning record. One thing about Rachel, is she never lost a match outright. She was never knocked out, and she never tapped out.
She only ever lost because her fights went the distance, and then judges ruled against her. Of course, it’s never because the other fighter had better technique, or because she was unable to finish the fight on her terms. It was always because the judges were biased, or because the referee let her opponent get away with something. After her last loss, I reminded her what she once told me, “Don’t leave it in the hands of the judges.”
I learned real quick not to remind her again.
I think it was Cassie that suggested Rachel stay with us for the night. That way she wouldn’t need to worry about unpacking, and she could just relax. Cassie’s a great cook, and Rachel liked the idea of a free hot meal. Even more, she liked the idea of a bottle of vodka to drown out the loss, so we stopped by my work on the way home.
Oh, I should probably mention – I work at a grocery store. It’s not like I just have bottles of vodka sitting in my desk at work. I’m not that lucky. It was there that we ran into Tobias. That kid is…different. I don’t really know what other single word encapsulates all that is Tobias. I have never in my entire life met someone who is simultaneously as hard-working and as lazy as that kid. I’m a manager – not his manager, mind you, but a manager – and I can’t tell if he should be fired or promoted.
Let me tell you about this kid. On paper, he’s flawless. If he’s assigned bathroom duties, they’re cleaned every thirty minutes. If he’s on floor, it stays spotless, and when he faces an aisle, it is perfect. However, I’ve also seen him sweep the floors by pushing the broom on a riding cart, I’ve heard him ask a tow truck driver to help him bring the carts in from the parking lot, and I’ve seen him lay down on one of our 6-wheeled hand trucks to face the bottom shelf or to clean up a spill.
I don’t know if Tobias is an idiot or a genius. I guess what he does works, and as one of my sergeants used to say, “if it’s stupid and it works, it aint stupid.” But I also like what Hank Hill had to say, “ugh, that boy aint right.”
“Hi, Jake, Cassie,” Tobias said as we walked in. “And…hello there Jake’s friend.”
“I’m his cousin,” Rachel scolded. As if Tobias should have known that. Without a second thought, she went straight to the beer & wine aisle. More specifically, she moved all the way down to the locked case where we keep our harder liquor.
“Sorry,” Tobias yelled after her.
“Goddammit Jake, I need a key to get these,” Rachel complained.
“Tobias, can you get Jeff?” I asked. You were only allowed a key to this aisle if you were over 21. Tobias had about 4 years until he could get into the liquor cabinets.
“Yeah, fine,” he grumbled. I wasn’t sure if it was sarcastic or not. “But then you gotta give me a ride home.”
“I don’t see how you doing your job warrants me giving you extra favors,” I chided him.
“Okay, I was gonna ask for a ride home, though,” he said. “I’m off in five. My uncle was supposed to pick me up after work, but he’s…um…busy.”
“What does he do for a living again?” I asked.
“Stuff,” Tobias answered. That was the least vague answer he’s given me on the subject, and I must have asked over a hundred times. I wasn’t sure if Tobias just had no clue himself, but it always seemed to me like there was a reason he kept his uncle’s job a closely guarded secret.
“Alright, fine,” I said. I conceded the question for the time being. “Just go get the damn key.”
Rachel had grabbed an 18-pack of beer and was tapping her foot next to the cabinet, waiting for Jeff. “Jake, why do they lock this shit up?” she asked.
“So people like Tobias don’t try to steal it,” I replied, right as Tobias walked back to the aisle.
“Oh, ha ha,” he said.
Jeff unlocked the cabinet. Rachel picked a bottle of some rum she likes, and another bottle based purely on its ABV rating. She and Cassie went to the checkout stands.
“Wait, you have the minivan tonight, right?” Tobias asked.
“Yeah,” I said, “why?”
“Because I figured the ‘stang would be cramped,” he said. “Although I wouldn’t mind getting stuck there with…um…nevermind.”
I gave him a mischievous smile. “I’m not going to give you any speeches about how you better watch yourself or I’ll fuck you up. Rachel will do that for me.”
“She’ll tell me that you’ll fuck me up?” he asked.
“No, she’ll fuck you up,” I said. “And don’t twist my words around!” I knew exactly where his mind was going. It wasn’t too long ago that I was a hormone-riddled teenager.
“Okay, so we ready to go?” Tobias asked.
“Are you going to clock out first?” I asked back.
“Oh. Yeah.” Once again, I wasn’t sure if that was sincere or not. I wouldn’t put it past him to “forget” to clock out in the hopes of getting 20 hours of overtime. Like I said – I’m not sure if he’s smart or dumb, or if he should be fired or promoted. He’s…Tobias.
The four of us met back at the store’s entrance. “Wait, he’s coming with us?” Rachel asked. She didn’t seem happy.
“I just have to drop him off at his house,” I said. Rachel cracked open one of her cans of beer. With a pop and a long hiss, the foam rose up and oozed out of the small opening. Rachel jumped back a foot and leaned forward to keep the dripping can from getting her shoes wet. “Why did you do that?” I scolded her. “You know I can’t have an open can of booze in the car!”
“It won’t make it to the car,” she explained. Rachel then proceeded to chug the whole can in about three swallows, then she tossed it in the trash. For good measure, she let out a massive belch.
Tobias’ eyes widened in awe. Well, at least one eye did. The other was covered by his emo haircut. There was a flicker of a smile on his normally passive face. Before he had a chance to say anything, I jumped in, “alright, let’s go.”
If you were to look on a map at Tobias’ house, my place, and the grocery store, you would see a perfect triangle. Looking back at that night, it’s amazing I was even there. Had Rachel not had a fight, I wouldn’t have been out that night. Had Rachel not lost her fight, she wouldn’t need a drink, and I wouldn’t have seen Tobias. Had Tobias not needed a ride, I wouldn’t have been where I was.
All of this had to happen for me to be where I was. That night, of all nights, I happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, because this was not an ordinary night. Sometimes I look back, and I can’t help but wonder if this was more than just a coincidence. If there was something pushing me to be there. In the end, it doesn’t matter. I was there. That is what mattered.