"I got it, Mom." Isandro Cork looked to his mother, who was visibly trying not to cry. "No, Mom, don't—" he protested, but her tears began to fall.
"I remember when I took you home," she sputtered, as Isandro held his mother tight. "Your chubby little cheeks, and your sweet little fingers—and now you're leaving!"
"Just for a couple weeks," he added, trying to help.
"Hopefully," she said.
And there it was—the dark truth that had shaped Isandro all his life, hanging palpably between them. It had dictated who he was friends with, where he went to school, how he spent his free time, and now, whether or not he'd be able to come home.
"I'll come back, Mama," he whispered, hugging her close, and he almost convinced himself it was true.
She sniffled and patted his cheek. "Okay," she said. "Okay. It's almost light. You should get going." A knock at the door startled them both, and Isandro's stomach dropped to see the fear in his mother's face. He crept to the spare bedroom down the hall, grabbing the small pistol from the fake dictionary on the bookshelf. He loaded it as he heard his mother open the door.
"Zoa!" he heard his mother say, and he breathed a sigh of relief. He unloaded the pistol and put everything away as carefully as he could.
"Hi, Ms. Cork," came Isandro's friend's voice from the hallway. "Is Isandro ready?"
"It's Mom, and almost. Isandro?"
He put up a smiling face before coming back down the hall. "Hey, Z, you're early," he noted. "Just give me a sec." He went into his room and grabbed a big blue duffle bag, mentally checking if he packed everything—phone charger, clothes, money, pistol, knives, bandages...
"Looks heavy," Zoa said, watching him carry the bag to the trunk of his van. "You pack bricks or what?"
"Just the essentials," he answered. Not technically a lie.
"Yeah, okay, sure," she said, grinning widely. "Who are we picking up first? Watts?"
"Yeah," Isandro answered. "Figured we'd end with Grish, she's closest to the freeway."
"Wait, what about Jade?" Isandro's mom asked, helping Zoa get her own suitcase into the trunk.
"Jade canceled," Zoa shrugged. "Said her family was gonna do their own roadtrip out to her grandparents." She shut the back of the van. "Ready?"
"As I'll ever be," Isandro answered, and his mother wrapped him in a tight bear hug that threatened to break his ribs.
"Be careful," she whispered urgently. "Look out for anyone following you. If you get into trouble call Eve, not me."
"I know, Mom," he said. "I'll be back before you know it."
Zoa honked the van's horn. "Come on! Let's go!" Isandro climbed into the driver's seat and backed out of the driveway of the home he'd lived in safely for as long as he could remember.
Within the hour, the sun was rising, and three more of his and Zoa's friends—Watts Wheeler, Amy Rose, and Grish Pascale—were sitting in the back.
Isandro had known the girls for at least four years, some for even longer. It was Zoa he'd known the longest—since her frizzy white blond hair was more straggly from making mudpies in her backyard all the time. She was deceptively strong, though, having spent years in endless martial arts classes and being on the varsity track team since her sophomore year of high school.
Behind her sat Amy, who had moved here from Minnesota in sixth grade. Her hair fell in perfect copper waves, and her button nose was dusted with a light constellation of freckles. Her lips were always turned up in a slight smile, and her eyes sparkled whenever she laughed. Amy knew more of Isandro's secrets than any of his other friends, and he was sure that was true of everyone else in the van, too.
Her ex-girlfriend and constant best friend, Grish, lay sprawled across the three back seats, sleeping. The remnants of a forgotten pixie cut fell over her eyes, and fluttered every time she breathed. She'd moved here in 8th grade, becoming fast friends with Amy, and soon, the rest of them. And Isandro knew she knew about the same darkness Isandro and his mom had been careful of his whole life.
And behind him, typing frantically on her laptop, checking her phonoe every twenty seconds, was Watts. Even just thinking about her—easy smile, round face, downturned green eyes, thick golden blond curls—his heartbeat sped up. While he spent every day at lunch with her and their friends, he couldn't seem to get enough time with her. He took a deep breath and steadied himself.
"You good?" she asked.
"What? Yeah," he answered. "What are you working on?"
"Stuff," she said. "And Jade's texting me a lot."
"Is she?" Isandro tried to remember if his phone had vibrated once since he started driving, but he came up empty. Weird. Of the friends in his group, Jade was the one he was closest to. She was definitely the only one who knew about his crush on Watts. They met for weekly coffee to talk about their weeks and their ideas and plans and dreams—so why was she texting Watts while they left, and not him?
"She says she wishes she could come. I told her I'd get her a postcard."
"Is she doing well?"
"Seems like it."
Isandro pushed it out of his mind. "What kind of stuff are you working on?"
"Stuff stuff. Game. Don't wanna jinx it."
"Can I play it?"
"If I ever manage to debug it. Now, hush, mama's working."
It wasn't long before his mind drifted off to the folder sitting in his backpack in the trunk, hopefully safely hidden. He couldn't tell the others about it—well, maybe Grish—but the others wouldn't understand it.
He knew they understood secrets well enough—Zoa had a small brown notebook, pocket-sized, that she scribbled in, her eyebrows knit in confusion as she made sure no one read anything in it, even upside down as she wrote. Isandro had caught a glimpse of it once, and thought he'd seen Greek letters squeezed into every inch of the page, with complete disregard for the printed lines. Watts was always typing on her computer, too, and always quiet about it. Sometimes, when she was tired from working all night, she'd mutter things under her breath—"that works for the first file, but not anything else, why can't I work out a decryption key?"—nothing that sounded like games. And she never seemed to finish any of her projects anyway.
And Grish, she knew everything. Isandro looked up into the rearview mirror, catching her eye. "Next gas stop, anyone wanna switch seats?" he asked.
"Shotgun!" Grish yelled from the back.
"Aw, man," Zoa groaned. "You better not play any shitty music."
"Joke's on you," Grish said, "I only brought shitty music."
"Artsy folk or underground indie?" Amy asked, and Isandro saw Grish's face grow red.
"Mix of both," she mumbled.
"Noooo!" Zoa yelled, oblivious, and everyone laughed, everyone but Isandro.
In the rearview mirror, a large white SUV pulled into their lane a couple cars behind them. Isandro thought he'd seen the same car about 50 miles behind them, but he couldn't remember. Confirmation bias, he told himself, and shook his head. "Who wants breakfast?" he asked, and pulled off the freeway without registering the enthusiastic answer.
They ended up in a small pancake restaurant called MacCready's, and shared every part of their meals. The good food and loud jokes, and, more importantly, the absence of the white SUV put Isandro's heart at ease.
His mother had always told him to be as careful as possible, to always look out for anything out of place, especially for anyone who could possibly be following him. Being away from his mother for the first time must really have been putting him on edge—the SUV must've been someone trying to beat the morning commute. Speaking of—
"Anyone wanna see a movie?" Amy asked. "We passed a movie theatre on our way off the freeway. There might be something good playing. Traffic's probably a bitch anyway."
"No horror, please," Isandro said. "I'm already getting a ton of anxiety from driving so much."
"I can drive for a while," Zoa offered, but Isandro shook his head.
"I'll be fine, let's just not watch something spooky."
"Hmm..." Amy said, pulling up a list of showings. "Generic Action Film #5 in ten minutes?"
"Ha ha," Watts said. "What's the actual title?"
"Does it matter?"
An hour and a half later, they were strolling out of the movie theatre, fingers greasy from popcorn and eyes squinting in the sunlight. Watts suggested going to a small local coffee shop to talk about the movie and get a few pastries before they left. What she really did was set up her laptop and phone to settle in for some hardcore coding.
Zoa shrugged. "I can't keep sitting around. Sorry. I'll be back in like twenty, thirty minutes, maybe. See ya." She marched back out the door and started jogging down the street.
Isandro looked over at Amy ordering at the front register, and then at Grish twiddling her thumbs at a table near Watts. "Great," he muttered before walking over to the table and sitting next to Grish. "Hey," he said, and she jumped a little.
"Oh," she said. "Hey."
"Figured you might like a third wheel here."
"And you didn't want to be ignored by her," Grish added, nodding towards Watts, engrossed in her code. Isandro didn't quite know how to respond, but Grish shook her head. "Bad joke. Thanks man, I appreciate the company." Isandro remained unconvinced, but Amy set down an iced coffee and a chocolate croissant.
"Oh, um, Isandro." Amy seemed confused to see him sitting there. "You want anything?"
"No, I'm good," he said. "Thanks, though."
Amy didn't respond, but slid smoothly into the last chair, right across from Grish. "Hey," she said. Grish nodded in response. Isandro was struggling to breathe from all the tension.
"How..." Amy started, paused, thought about what she wanted to say, and then continued. "How have you been doing?"
Grish shrugged. "Been better," she grunted. "Been worse, but definitely been better." Amy seemed to shrink in her chair, and Grish kept staring at the ice melting in the coffee.
"That's for you, by the way," Amy said, pointing to it. "Vanilla. I know how you like it."
"You know a lot about me," Grish answered.
"Well, it's been lovely," Isandro said, standing up. "Amy, you wanna help me refill on gas and snacks?" She nodded vigorously and practically sprinted out of the shop.
As soon as the door closed behind them, Amy let out a deep breath, like she'd been holding it. "That bad, huh?" Isandro asked, half-joking.
"Believe it or not, worse," Amy said. "Jade was fucking right. Never date your friends. You won't be friends." Isandro snuck a glance at Watts through the window. He hoped that wasn't true.