The Thirteen-Year Prologue:
The day that defined a generation, the day that everyone remembered, also held the person that time forgot.
It was the beginning of the twenty-first century: the end of a nuclear era, and a time of peace and prosperity. There was a new president, a new century, and a new way of life. The population was happy. Healthy. Hopeful.
And for Jason Fernandez and his family, life had just begun. For as long as the nine year old could remember, they had been worried about money. His father, with his smooth black hair and sturdy frame, would wrap his arms around his mother, who was thinner and frailer, and they would murmur to each other things about taxes and credit card payments. At first, Jason had always asked what they were, but he had given up after a time. The explanations rarely made sense, and in any case, when they did it just depressed him. But now things were better. His father had a well-paying job, and he would leave early every morning after kissing Jason's forehead as a good bye.
His mother still fretted. He got used to this. He would sit and chew on his pencil as he tried to figure out a math problem, or worry about those one-minute multiplication exams, while his mother idly bustled around the house and worried aloud.
"He always goes and does the most impossible things," she'd say. Or, "I do wish he'd be careful." And her eyes would flicker to the television set, which was always off those days, and then she'd return to her fussing. So in all respects, this particular September morning, crisp and cooling as summer began to hand the reigns to autumn, was just like any other. Jason was bent over a sketch of a cape-clad figure and ignoring his mother as she paced around the kitchen. Jason had always found his mother's constant movement soothing. She would wash dishes, counters and even the floors, and would talk to the air as if it understood her. Today her muttered litany was "What was he thinking, accepting this? Doesn't he think about what will happen to us-?"
Jason didn't pay any attention. He never did. The little superhero he was painstakingly drawing was more interesting. But he kept an eye on the clock, watching as it ticked closer to the time when he was supposed to be in school. Every morning, his mother would do this. She wasn't much good with time. Whenever she started worrying, she went on for a good long time before she would finally look at the clock, realize the hour, and rush out the door with Jason in tow.
Today was no exception. Exactly ten minutes after they were supposed to be leaving, he heard his mother utter, "Oh dear," and felt a hand grab his collar to tug him to his feet, another shove his notebook and red backpack into his hands, and then he was pulled out the door and into the car.
Unlike others, they didn't watch the news report before they left. The TV remained silent and did not pass on its tales to tell. And because Jason's mother didn't believe in listening to the radio either, there was no chance to hear it. Jason leaned against the window and stared lazily out. They lived on the outskirts of New York, and they were heading into the city. Normally, there was a lot more traffic. But it all seemed to be heading out that day. Weird.
He tried to tell his mom this, but she told him not to worry about it and to be grateful, because maybe he'd be on time today. Jason didn't dignify this with an answer. He'd been late so often that his teacher had given up. But he figured his mom probably didn't want to hear that.
There was also a cop on the side of the road who tried to flag them down, but his mother ignored that too and kept going. Jason could see him making gestures in the mirror next to him, and wondered if they were going to get into trouble. But the man didn't follow and, eventually, Jason stopped fretting. But it was only when they arrived at the school that his mother seemed to realize anything was wrong. The parking lot, which was large to accommodate the many students who lived in the city, was filled with cars that weren't moving. Parents were gathering their children close to them and rushing into the old brick building that served as Jason's elementary school, and teachers were urging them inside. Everyone looked, to Jason's inexperienced eye, worried and nervous.
That was weird, too. And a little creepy.
"Why are all the parents going inside too, Mom?" he asked, looking over at her. She was staring too, fine brown brows furrowed, and her large eyes puzzled.
"I don't know," she said. "Maybe I missed a meeting?"
Jason nodded. That was always possible. She missed a lot of meetings. His dad said that she was so concerned about showing up and upsetting everyone that she worried herself out of going. Jason wasn't sure if he was serious about that or not. Absently, he wondered if he could lean back to retrieve his sketch again and work on it while she figured it out. But to his disappointment, his teacher—a slim blonde who wore a constant nervous look behind those big glasses of hers—approached the car, looking more upset than ever. His mother rolled down the window.
"Ms. D?" she asked, sounding surprised. Jason could never remember what her real full name was. And "Ms. D" was easier to remember anyways.
"Oh, Mia," Ms. D said. She was twisting her skirt funnily, Jason noticed. Kinda like he did when he was trying to get water out of his pant bottoms when he'd stepped in a puddle. And she sounded like she'd been crying "You haven't heard? It's been all over the news…"
"I don't pay attention to that," his mother replied, a little stiffly. She always got offended about these kinds of things. "But why? What's going on?"
Ms. D looked around, then at Jason, before leaning in to murmur something to his mother. Jason lifted his head and tried hard to hear what they were saying. The last time they'd started to mutter, his mother had grounded him for a week for getting into that fight with Johnny Crawford. He wanted to know what he was in for. But he had no luck, and after a while, his mother pulled away. Her face was pale, like she was whenever his father came home late, but worse. She was so white she looked like the paper he used to sketch. For the first time, Jason began to feel nervous.
"We're going to go inside, all right, Jason?" She smiled at him and reached over to unbuckle him. "With the other students. C'mon." She slipped out of the car, and Jason, after a puzzled look, found himself following her and Ms. D inside. His mother was squeezing his hand tight enough to hurt, but he said nothing
They didn't really walk through the long hallways of the school. Or it didn't feel that way to Jason. He felt like he was running to keep up with the two taller adults. His sneakers squeaked on the blue linoleum, and he kept looking around. There was no one else there. No one was standing by the lockers, no one was leaning against the walls and chatting with their friends, no teachers were ushering the kids to classes. It was silent. It was eerie. And his mother's grip on his hand kinda hurt. He turned to look up at her and Ms. D, who were still talking.
"When did it launch?" his mother was asking.
"Twenty minutes ago." Ms. D was shaking, he realized. And was she…crying? He felt he had to look away, just out of embarrassment. Grown-ups weren't supposed to cry. Teachers especially. He didn't like this, not at all. "A lot of people are trying to leave, but…with the roads…we thought it would be better if we all stayed here."
"You have a shelter?" By comparison, his mother sounded calm. Or not calm. Just shocked. What was going on?
"Y-yes. It won't do much good, but we thought…it was better than nothing. We had better hurry," she added, and the two women picked up the pace, dragging Jason behind them. Ms. D stopped by a door that Jason had only walked by once or twice and opened it, revealing a set of dark and rough stone steps. She headed down those quickly, and Jason's mother turned to look down at him.
"Nuh uh," the boy said, stubbornly. "I'm not going down there." It was creepy and dark. What was she thinking? No way! But his mother just shook her head.
"I don't have time for this, Jason," she said, and grabbed him in her arms and carried him down bodily. Jason would have struggled—he really would have—except that he could hear his mother's heartbeat, pounding by his ear so hard and so fast that he would've thought it was a jackhammer. So instead he stayed silent, and when they got into the basement, his eyes widened. The whole school was there—all the teachers, all the students, even the parents! Most of the kids were in groups, chattering. Some of them were silent, sitting and staring at the wall, and others were being held by their parents, tight, like his mom had done to him. Some of the adults were crying like Ms. D, and others just sat by themselves, head in hands. When they arrived, his mother set him down.
"Go play with your friends, okay?" she told him quietly, staring down at him. She was still holding his shoulders. "I'll be back shortly. I…" She hesitated, then smiled at him. "I love you." And she leaned in and kissed his forehead before going to the teachers. Jason stood there for a moment, stock-still and unnerved, then whirled around and raced over to the other kids. One of them was his best friend, Seth, who was standing in front of a small and shabby TV that Jason had never seen used. It had a news broadcast on it, the kind his mom never let him watch. This one had a radar image, the kind he saw in the movies, with a small rocket-shaped dot moving toward it, and a timer. Ten minutes, it said.
There wasn't any noise. They hadn't been able to fix the TV that much, apparently. Jason studied it for a moment, puzzled, then turned his attention to Seth.
"What's going on?" he asked. "Why are all the grown-ups actin' so weird?"
Seth was a scrawny kid with big eyes behind even bigger glasses and shabby clothes. Jason's mother had always said it was Bad Taste to point that out. Jason didn't get why. But he always knew what was going on. The adults always thought he was mature. They talked to him. So Jason—whom no one thought of as grown up at all—always went to him for the news.
"You don' know?" the boy asked incredulously as he pushed up his glasses. "Someone shot a new-cu-lar rocket at us. I think it's Russia. Or Korea, like the movies! But mom says it's not."
"Someone shot a rocket at us?" Jason was impressed. He didn't know people did that outside the movies. But he didn't know the first word. "What's…new-clear mean?"
"New-que-lar," Seth corrected him.
"Whatever." Jason waved it off. The pronunciation was all the same to him. What did he care if it was nuclear or nuke-u-lar? He was more curious about what the rocket did. "Does that mean it's got people in it an' stuff, like the space shuttles?"
"Nuh uh." Seth shook his head. "It means it's gonna…" His brow furrowed. "Make things explode. Like action movies, only worse." His thin face turned grim for a moment. "Mom says we're gonna die."
The two boys considered this in a solemn silence. They knew technically that everyone died. They knew this because books, movies, parents and teachers told them that. Neither of them had actually seen death firsthand. It was a foreign concept, distant and far away, like turning thirty and paying a mortgage (whatever that was). So perhaps it was not a surprise that they didn't linger on it long.
"Big explosion, huh?" Jason said eventually. "Like the action movies?"
"I don't think it is." The glasses had slid down Seth's sweaty nose again, and he pushed them up. "They said we're gonna die, Jason. Doesn't that scare you? It scares me."
"Yeah, but explosions can only hurt people who are caught in them, right?" Jason's voice was practical. "We're underground. So, see, we can't be hurt, 'cause we can't see the explosion and stuff. We won't get exploded on. We'll be safe."
Seth didn't look convinced, but he nodded anyways.
"Besides," Jason continued on, a little recklessly now, because in spite of his brave words the idea of dying made a funny little sinking feeling in his stomach. "Jet'll save us."
This time, his words did have an effect. Seth brightened at the name and nodded earnestly.
"That's right!" he said. "Jet'll save us! That's brilliant, Jason!"
Jason knew he wasn't technically supposed to know about Jet. He might have been young, but he could guess that it was the reason that she never watched the news or listened to the radio. But she hadn't estimated on Ms. D being so keen on keeping them informed on "current events," which apparently meant the news and stuff. So Jason snuck papers from Seth and his other friends and read all about the latest sensation in New York City—a real live superhero. He wasn't like Superman. At least, he didn't think so. He couldn't zap things with his eyes and he didn't seem to have superhearing or anything cool like that, but he could fly. And he wore a tight black jumpsuit that seemed to have military stuff on it. He helped with bad car crashes, saved jumpers off of bridges and stopped robberies. He was a hero. So perhaps it was no surprise that he would think that Jet would save them from a missile. If anyone could, it was Jet, who'd once held off ten robbers. Jet, who could pick up a school bus with one hand. Jet, who had only been around for three months and had captured every young boy and girl's imagination. They believed with all of their being that he could solve this, and that because of him, they wouldn't die.
The adults, however, seemed a little more skeptical of this. Maybe that was why they all seemed worried while all the children were huddled together, quiet but still certain that it was all going to be all right. And it explained why, at five minutes on the TV, his mother came back to him and gathered him to her chest as she settled down in a chair, holding him in her lap and stroking his hair. She was…eerily calm. It frightened Jason on an instinctive level, and he tried to reassure her.
"It'll be all right, Mom," he said, with all the authority he could muster. She didn't answer. Her hand remained on his hair, and her eyes were locked on the TV, which now held the image of the rocket itself, arcing slowly toward them. Someone had turned on the subtitles, and they scrolled along the bottom of the screen, creepy in their little black box with white lettering and moving slowly, as if whoever was writing it wasn't quite focused on their work. "Forces have been mobilized to find the source," he read, "and although plans have been discussed to shoot the missile down, no safe solution has yet to be found…half the occupants of New York have been evacuated, but we are told the rest of them are…"
He didn't read the rest, but just curled into his mother and buried his face into her smooth shirt material.
"Jet'll save us," he mumbled. She laughed softly—he could only just hear it, just barely, and he was so close to her—and he could hear the rustle of her long hair as she shook her head. Gently, she brushed a kiss to his forehead, and hugged him tight.
The next moments passed in silence. All the children had been gathered by their parents. When Jason looked up, they were watching the TV. No one was laughing now. Some of the grown-up seriousness had rubbed off on the children. They were all waiting. None of the children knew for what, or why. But there they were, because somehow or another, they knew it really was the only thing they could do.
And then, two minutes on the countdown, he appeared. All in black, a small spot on their camera as compared to the radio. He came flying out of the sky at ridiculous speeds. The children all lifted their heads. Jason's heart rose from where it had been sitting uncomfortably in his stomach.
"It's Jet," whispered someone, and hope lifted its head in the room at last. Jason's mother muffled a sob and pressed her face into his hair and didn't say a word. But Jason watched, lips parted, eyes wide, as the little figure tugged on the rocket, hard. It didn't move it from its path. The camera tried to zoom in closer. It didn't work. The figure tugged again, and again, then flew below. Jason could see the captions. "Jet seems to be trying to pull the rocket—no, push it, out of orbit, but what can he do—"
And he was pushing it. Pushing it so the nose was no longer facing down. Pushing it so it was heading up, and he was flying under it, going ever higher and higher, and there was a ragged cheer growing in the room, starting as a whisper and getting louder and louder, reaching a crescendo when the rocket and Jet, growing smaller and smaller to the camera, vanished outright. Everyone yelled and cheered and hugged each other, even the kids, who hadn't really known what was at risk in the first place.
Everyone except Jason and his mother. She just held him close, wouldn't let him join the others, and wouldn't tell him why she was still crying, even when he tried to protest that the rocket was gone and that everything was safe now.
Everyone was sent back home. It was a little more crowded. The radio was silent, even though Jason pleaded for her to turn it on. He wanted to hear it all—was Jet okay? Who'd sent the rocket? Where had it gone? But she refused and they stayed in silent until they arrived at the house. Then she unbuckled him, led him inside, and sat at the counter in the house, staring down and cradling her head in her hands. She wouldn't let Jason turn on the TV or check the computer. So instead he sat down and read his old papers, and occasionally looked up at her when the phone rang. She didn't answer. She didn't move. She seemed to be waiting for something. She kept looking at the door, looking, watching, seeking. Jason didn't get it. He grew frustrated with her. He tried to get her to move, tried to encourage her to answer the phone, to do anything. But it was to no avail.
It was only until dinner time passed that Jason began to realize what she was waiting for. His father had not returned.
He joined his mother in the silent vigil, and they both waited, her clutching his hand so hard that it hurt, he didn't come back that night. Nor the next morning.
The world spun around them. New York rejoiced in its avoided disaster. The country sought the culprits. But for Jason, all that mattered was that, for some reason, his father hadn't come back to him.