Chapter 1 – Black SUV – [Snakefly: A Superhero Story]

(Content warning: violence)

In the eight months following the 28th of January, the city of San Jose made significant progress in recuperating its people and infrastructure. With the one-two punch of a weeks old heavy storm and a 6.1 magnitude earthquake, the impact was immense, and the numbers eventually tallied up to 89 casualties, 3,476 injuries, and $2.8 billion in damages. Fortunately, two other significant Bay Area earthquakes within the prior 6 years had motivated the state government to coordinate locally and nationally to better prepare for a similar event. Though it was impossible to completely prevent catastrophe, recovery occurred more efficiently and returned thousands to normal life within several weeks or months. The ripples of devastation, while still present to many citizens, faded out of earshot in the daily lives of most. 

Several teams of scientists determined the earthquake’s cause to be a rapid build-up of tension triggered by the intense low pressure of the storm system. Structural damage hit hard and rendered much of San Jose’s urban sprawl temporarily uninhabitable or untraversable. Many of the injuries and deaths came from other complications caused by the damage; Mon’s mom, an ER physician at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, experienced firsthand the stress of caring for a huge influx of patients without a hospital at its highest effectiveness. She didn’t talk much about her work whether or not a calamity had struck, but Mon knew it’d been even harder than normal. She’d watched a lot of people pass.

The internet flooded with videos of the earthquake in different parts of the city. Mon had watched a countless number of them before feeling he’d seen enough; there was only so much footage of a building shaking and people running for cover one could handle without getting sad. Some of the videos with lightning, floods, and even weird aurora-like glows in the sky (apparently a phenomenon called earthquake lights) were more interesting, but with the perspective of the ruin that followed, it was hard to be too amazed. 

His entire family survived the ordeal, and the injuries he discovered when adrenaline died down weren’t severe. The weeks afterward had been hectic, but their modest house only needed minimal repairs and it wasn’t long before they resumed some version of normal life. By the time Mon’s senior year of high school rolled around, he’d already forgotten most of what it’d been like to live after the world shook. Life and school felt ordinary.

It was a Monday afternoon and Mon sat alone in his bedroom, headphones on, mechanical pencil in hand, and an assignment for Government on the desk before him. His room had the space to hold his bed, desk, and dresser with just enough open area for a 5’8” teenager to exercise comfortably in, but apart from that, it was pretty uneventful. The walls were bare and bleak, and most of what could be considered decoration came in the floral design of the blankets on his half-made bed and the Funko Pops, stationery, and other trinkets scattered on his desk and dresser. Oh, and the dirty clothes laying here and there on the floor. Consider it impromptu decor.

As Sergio’s Twitch stream played on low volume through his headphones and thoughts about what exactly the judicial branch did ran through his head, Mon suddenly perked his head up.

“Yeah?” he said loudly.

A few seconds later the door opened behind him. Beck’s reflection stood in the glare on his laptop screen. She was older than him, with Ma’s lighter skin, Abuela’s straight black hair, and the same acne that Mon had, only with the generosity of a few years to clear it up. 

“Okay, how the hell did you know I was coming? You’re literally listening to music and the door was closed.”

He took off his headphones but kept writing. “You walk hella loud. You’re like an elephant.”

“Elephants are known for walking quietly, dumbass.”

Mon considered this. “Whatever. And it’s not music, it’s a livestream.”

She walked inside and leaned on the edge of his desk with arms crossed, glancing over her shoulder to look at his screen. “Sergio’s still doing this? I thought he was on YouTube.”

“Twitch works better for streaming gameplay.” How many Supreme Court Justices were there? 13? No, that was colonies.

She rolled her eyes. “Okay.” She hit his arm and he flinched. “Get your coat. Ma wants us to make a grocery run.”

Mon looked up and furrowed a brow. “I’m literally doing homework.”

“I’ve got a big piece of paper, too. It’s a grocery list. And you bet I’m not carrying all of the shit on it myself.”

“Ma texted you an actual paper list?”

Beck sighed and hit his arm again. “Just get ready. I’ll start the car.”

She left the room and Mon stared at his homework. With a heavy exhale, he typed a goodbye to the inactive Twitch chat and got up, picking up the jacket hanging on the edge of his bed on his way out.

The Martinez family lived in a fairly unremarkable neighborhood on the East side, and their faded olive house, like most on their block and the blocks around it, had a single floor, a sparse yard, and a really small driveway. In their case, that driveway held Beck’s car, a grey 2014 CR-V with too much in the backseat, which she was starting as Mon stepped outside.

Shade from the tree on their little slice of sidewalk blocked the light of the sun hidden behind a cloudy sky. Mon locked the front door, got in the car, and buckled up, then appreciated the cool air wafting through the opening windows as Beck checked the mirrors. 

“So, how are applications going?” she asked, backing up.

He looked out the window and watched the neighbors’ yard move away. “They’re having us do PIQs for the UCs right now.”

She turned onto the street. “How are you doing on those?”

Mon tuned in to the song on the radio of a parked car they briefly passed. Something jarringly rhythmic. Then he answered, “They’re okay. I finished two. I’m just waiting to talk to Ms. Evano when I’m done with the rest.”

“She’s the college counselor, right?”

“Yeah.”

She nodded absentmindedly. “If you want some help earlier than that, just ask. I wrote the same essays like four years ago. Plus I know you.”

“Thanks, I will. I’m just trying to figure out what to write about. But —” he sighed — “I’m just tired. All my other classes are assigning all this work and ugh.”

Beck gave a sympathetic smirk. “Yeah, first semester senior year is rough. Next year it’ll be easier, though. Just don’t get senioritis. It feels like shit.”

Mon mirrored the smirk. “I think I’ll be fine.”

With a dubious shake of the head, she laughed. “Everyone says that, and then second semester comes and you don’t wanna do shit. Trust me, you don’t wanna end the year in that headspace and then start college. It’s hard as is.”

Mon nodded and tiredly considered the next several months — no, years — of academic work ahead of him. 

“You in the mood for some music?” Beck asked after a pause. 

He shrugged. “Sure.”

As they pulled up at the first stoplight out of the neighborhood, she reached forward and turned on the radio. 

. . . from bank patron Shyvan Williamson.

“I don’t know! Just one moment the guy’s got a gun in his hand and the next it’s fl

Beck changed the station as both of them frowned. The next one was playing some random pop song Mon had heard a hundred times. She changed the station again and settled on some R&B. 

She leaned back. “Better.” Mon nodded.

The light turned green and the music played. They drove on.

A couple minutes later they pulled into a wide, moderately busy parking lot in a simple, well-planted area. Scattered apart from one another were a few unremarkable buildings, including a Chevron gas station, a Boiling Crab restaurant, and, most prominently in size, a Target store the two of them entered with reusable bags and phone in hand.

“Okay, so, what are we getting?” Mon asked, holding the bags. 

Beck glanced down at her phone. “Most of it’s ingredients. Ma said tomorrow night we’re gonna make some food to deliver to the Clivases this weekend.”

Mon’s eyes glistened in somber recognition. Ma had come home two weeks ago and been even more exasperated than usual, unable to make the effort to be energetic with him and Beck for dinner. She’d gotten word that one of her colleagues, Dr. Clivas, had passed away a few days before. Although she and Dr. Clivas weren’t close friends and really only rubbed elbows when the medical profession demanded it, working in that field together undoubtedly gave them a strong connection. 

Mon had never met the Clivases, but he knew Ma had. She’d gone by herself to the funeral processions the week prior, and when she returned it was clear the death had had an effect on her. 

He sighed. “Right. The funeral was last week, wasn’t it?” 

Beck looked up from her phone with a solemn expression. “Yeah. Ma said she knew she didn’t want to get them anything then, since most people were already bringing them food that would go bad before they could eat it.”

He nodded and steeled himself. “Where to first?”

She pointed a thumb to the left. “That way.”

They took off down the aisles and talked as they gathered the ingredients they needed. Neither of them knew very many details about Dr. Clivas in life or death, but they did know he left children behind. Sympathy motivated them, and among their soon jokeful conversation and shopping excursion there was an unspoken sincerity to help the Clivas family.

Aside from the ingredients for what Mon learned would be a hefty dish of lasagna, the two of them also picked up household groceries and goods. Beck caved and bought chips and cookies under the condition they also buy some for the Clivases. With similar treats and foodstuffs in tow, the two left the store, Mon carrying all three bags, a jug of milk, and a jug of iced tea. Beck carried her keys.

“I’m just saying, he knows I’m gonna try to do my optics project with a live demo, so he’s 100% doing it on purpose,” Beck said as she opened the trunk, referring to a fellow student who was making rather ungenerous use of their department’s supplies, much to her inconvenience.

Mon unloaded the bags into the car and scoffed. “I bet whatever he does isn’t even gonna be that good.”

“Right?” Beck added. “He doesn’t even need to pass that class since he already made all his core requirements, but he’s trying so hard to use up all the equipment all the time.”

“Your professor really shouldn’t let him even do that.”

Beck closed the trunk and held up her hands in exasperation. “Yeah, I’m gonna talk to her. It’s just so annoying. They really just need to coordinate better when allocating resources to students.”

Mon shook his head as they walked to their seats, but paused as he opened the door. A few cars down on the opposite lane, a car lay idle, the windows down just a smidge and the radio playing loud enough for him to vaguely hear. For a parking lot, that wasn’t exactly a strange thing in the slightest.

But Mon could swear it was the same car that’d been on their street earlier. He hadn’t really paid that much attention to it before, but he did now. Black Nissan SUV. A driver hard to see behind the dark tint of the glass. 

“You alive?” Beck asked, already buckled in.

Mon snapped out of his head. “Huh?”

Beck’s expression was humor with a hint of concern. Her eyes flickered to catch his gaze. “You alive? You just blue-screen-of-deathed for a sec.”

Mon squinted at the SUV and heard the radio station host give an energetic shoutout. “Sorry. I just thought I saw that car earlier.”

She glanced at it as he stepped inside. “I don’t know. It could just be the same model.”

He shrugged. “Maybe.”

The SUV didn’t move as they drove away, and Mon forgot about it by the time they pulled out onto the road.

The evening was uneventful; Ma wouldn’t be home till near midnight, so they ate a pasta dish Beck cooked and Mon tried to finish his homework, gave up because he was tired, worked out a bit because that was a different kind of tired, then did nothing on his phone for two hours before going to sleep. An emergency room physician and a college student didn’t have quite as consistent schedules as a high schooler did, so Ma and Beck were both still asleep when he crawled out of bed the next morning. He ate breakfast, got ready for the day, and walked out the door by 7:15.

Late September mornings in San Jose were cool and bright, and Mon’s commute to school took him across a waking sunlit city. When he got to James Gibbons High a few minutes after 8:00, it seemed like an imaginary urban coffee had started to kick in. The city was sobering up. 

Cars swarmed through the parking lot and a few students walked outside the campus. Mon entered through the northern doors and made his way through the busying grey halls and cozy common spaces. He tuned out the conversations of gathered students and occasionally glanced at — but didn’t really read — the many wall-adorning posters that advertised clubs, sports, school events, and the staff’s ambitious hopes to promote a tight-knit community culture among the student body. 

Eventually he planted himself on a couch in the common space nearest the cafeteria. A lot of students gathered here after eating school-provided breakfast, so most of the other tables were occupied (and also probably a bit sticky). But the small round table next to this couch only had one other occupant.

“Hey,” Mon said, dropping his bag and rifling through its contents.

Leo looked up from his sketchbook. With gelled and combed black hair, rimless glasses, and a colorful outfit that was 100% in violation of school uniform policy, the guy was about as vibrant as the drawing under the tip of his Micron pen. “Hey, Mon.”

He returned to his drawing and Mon got to work on the chapter analysis for the somewhat spicy section of The Great Gatsby he’d read on the bus. They didn’t engage in any conversation until Sergio, casually dressed with light grey jacket, light black jeans, and a probably lightweight black backpack, strolled up with a jaunty stride.

“Oh shit, I definitely didn’t do that,” he said, looking over Mon’s shoulder. 

Mon looked up and grinned.  “Dude, you should’ve. I’m pretty sure Mr. Idbark’s right about Nick Carraway being gay.”

Leo furrowed a brow. “You even doubted him?”

Sergio vaulted over the couch and plopped down next to Mon. “Lemme get a read.” 

His green eyes scanned over the text for the better part of two seconds before he handed the book back to Mon and reclined. “Nice. Are the questions hard?”

Mon shrugged. “Not too much, I guess. Leo, did you do it?”

He nodded. “Yeah, it didn’t take too long. It was a good split between reading time and writing time.”

“Well, I’ll cut that in half by –” Sergio snapped and did finger guns — “not doing the reading.  Just gimme a rundown of what happens in the chapter.”

“Okay, so basically they go to the cit–”

“Dude! That headshot?” came an awkwardly loud call from across the common space. Nate, brown hair messily curled and hands full with snacks, didn’t see the many heads around him that turned at his (almost) shout. 

Among them was Sergio, who used the motion to dramatically flick his straight brunette cut. “That headshot?” 

“That headshot?” Nate echoed, eagerly walking up, throwing a bag of cookies at Leo, and doing a silly celebration with Sergio before sitting down. Leo caught the cookies, mumbled a thanks, and resumed drawing.

“That was sick,” Nate said. “Dude, Mon, where were you last night? You missed Sergio’s top stream highlight.”

Sergio grinned and opened the bag of Takis Nate tossed him. “You know it. I already finished editing that clip.”

“I had to go get groceries, Tonight my mom wants us to cook some food for one of her coworkers’ families.”

Sergio squinted and ate a chip. “Is it for that doctor that died? Er, like, his fam?” 

Mon nodded.

Nate cycled back from a frown. “Oh, well, dude, last night Sergio and I were in Chalet in the room with the piano, and he nailed this hella sick quickscope that won us the game. It was insane.”

Sergio bobbed excitedly. “I’m hella proud. Plus it means I actually have something cool to put in my upload this week.” 

They all chuckled.

“Hey, Sergio, can you pull up that sketch you sent me?” Leo asked without looking up. 

“Uh . . .” He glanced from side to side, holding up hands already slightly covered in chip dust. “It’s in the group chat, right? Mon, can you?” 

Mon sighed, pushed his work aside, and wrenched his phone from his pocket. His eyes widened. “Oh, dang, I’m on 46%.”

“That’s not that bad. Were you fully charged?” Nate asked.

“Yeah, dude. My phone always overheats and the battery dies really fast.” He navigated their Discord server and found a photo of Sergio’s channel banner sketch on one of the text channels.

“You need a charger?” Sergio offered, already digging in his backpack.

Mon opened the image, turned on airplane mode, and placed the phone in front of Leo. “No, I’m good, but thanks. Maybe in class later. But woah.”

He nodded. “So, Leo, how’s the art turning out?”

The three of them stood and moved to look over Leo’s shoulder. He’d expanded greatly upon what Sergio had provided as a pencil-drawn whisper of an idea, and now on the page was a vivid, cheery cover art with a quaint rendition of a headphone-clad Sergio before a backdrop of several different game maps.

“Pretty good,” Leo replied, eyes darting back and forth between the sketch and his illustration. “I’m planning on putting text, like your upload schedule, in the space over here when I do the digital.” He pointed to the unoccupied foreground space beside Sergio’s icon.

Sergio smiled. “Awesome. I love it, man, thanks. Can always count on you and your art skills.”

Leo nodded with a humble smirk. “Anytime. Besides, I have to empty these pens so I can finally justify having impulse-bought all those other ones.”

Mon and Nate chuckled and sat down. Sergio stayed standing and admiredly watched Leo work. 

A few minutes later, the warning bell interrupted their conversation and sent students all around the now congested school packing up their things and rushing to class. Leo returned Mon’s phone, which was now at a slightly upsetting 41%, and Mon resolved to turn it off as he joined Sergio in the current of students flowing towards Mrs. Plimoline’s Statistics class. 

The lesson that day was on standard deviation, a concept Mon got a decent grasp on after lecture and the associated assignments. He and Sergio spent the last few minutes of class joking around with the classmates they were assigned in a group task with. 

AP Lit and Senior Seminar afterward were pretty chill. He, Sergio, and Nate successfully got Mr. Idbark to say his iconic “Hey, that’s pretty creative” in reference to a musical project two of their classmates were talking about, and Mon managed to finish the chapter analysis for Chapters 2 & 3 and write the outline for his third PIQ.

Government’s lecture helped Mon clear some mental fog about some details he’d been lost on when trying to do the homework yesterday, and today’s casual Media Arts work — mostly cleaning his school desktop and AirDropping files to and from his now room temperature phone — was a much needed brain break before dropping into Physics and having his mind adequately fried by science. 

Leo had stuff to do and Mon, knowing his schedule for the evening, turned down Sergio and Nate’s offer to hang out after school. When the bells rang and students flooded out of the hall like sardines, Mon left through the northern exit, as always, and made his way to the bus stop for route 61, accompanied by a few students he wasn’t close with but had shared a commute with enough times to exchange friendly greetings with as they walked.

Though the sun hid behind a blank, cloudy sky and a soft gust of wind wafted around, there was a warm, relaxing air as the bus arrived. Mon let the other commuters pass before him, then hopped inside and scanned his Clipper card on the farebox.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Hedrick.”

“Hey, Mon,” replied the driver, a smiling man with a nice hat that, were it a bit lower, would’ve hidden the large but faded scar in the middle of his forehead. “School good today?”

Mon returned the smile. “Yeah. How’s the traffic today?”

“Eh, same as always.”

The two nodded respectfully at each other and Mon walked down the bus. He saw it largely occupied and moved to the empty space beside the exit, then secured his footing on the ground and placed a hand on the pole in front of him. The doors hissed shut and the bus took off with a trembling start, and its myriad cluster of passengers took to either silently browsing their phones or conversing with those riding with them. Mon watched the city of San Jose pass him by as the sounds of chatting, laughter, traffic, and headphoneless video streaming filled the air. 

As they crossed the edge of Japantown, his phone started to buzz in his pocket. 

“Hello? Ma?”

There was a slight shaking on the other end, and he guessed that she was walking. He focused to hear her over the noise of the bus. 

“Hi, Mon. I just got off work. Your school called about a college meeting this Friday. Do you want to go to that?”

Mon squinted and tried to remember details from what Ms. Woodson had said earlier in Senior Seminar. “Uh . . . yeah. It’s a workshop on financial aid stuff, I think. We’re not gonna be doing that for a few months, but I guess it’ll be good to go.”

“Okay. Let me know if you change your mind, because I just scheduled an early shift on Friday so I can be free by 5:00. Will they be working on scholarships?”

“Uh, no. They might bring them up, but I think it’s on just financial planning. It’s more like a presentation on the expenses we have to expect and stuff.”

“Does that mean things like tuition and room & board?”

Mon furrowed a brow; the bus felt like it was getting louder. He pressed his phone harder against his ear and raised his voice a tad. “Yeah.”

“Beck said you’re still working on those essays for the UCs. Will they talk about those?”

The bus turned a corner and Mon steeled his grip on the pole. The ground felt really shaky, not in a jarring way, more a feeling of vibrations. He looked down in curiosity. “No, that’s just application stuff they’re doing with us in class.”

There was a beep over the phone like keys remotely unlocking a car. “Do you need any help with those? Beck still remembers things from when she applied . . .”

Mon didn’t hear the ending of her sentence, for the entirety of his attention was pulled away by a familiar sound in the distant background of the phone call. It wasn’t Ma’s voice, it wasn’t the opening of a door close to her, and it wasn’t the sound of a car engine revving up.

It was the sound of a radio station host giving an energetic shoutout. Not the exact same words, not the exact same background music, but beyond a shadow of a doubt the exact same voice he’d heard yesterday when that SUV had caught his eye.

He tensed.

“MON?!” thundered Ma’s voice, not a yell but as if her normal, conversational volume had been amplified a thousand times over and blasted into his ear. Mon flinched and reeled away from his phone as the cacophonous sounds of his surroundings returned to his perception, hammering him with a sudden tangibility in where he stood and the physical space he occupied. 

Wide eyed, he looked around, mind snapping back into focus like a dislocated joint. The bus rattled. People talked. 

“Mon?” Ma faintly repeated.

Stifling a breath, he lifted his phone to his ringing ear. “Yeah? Sorry, sorry. I’m on the bus and I think I just . . zoned out for a second. What did you say?”

His eyes darted back and forth as she answered. “Oh. I asked if you started on the essays for private colleges and scholarships.”

Mon blinked and gulped. Why was that radio station playing near Ma? Was that car there? Was it following her?  “Uh . . no, not yet. Most of the CSU and UC deadlines are before the, uh, privates.”

It sounded like she was driving now. He couldn’t hear the radio host anymore.

“Okay, well, don’t wait too long. Most of the scholarships give you a better chance if you apply earlier.”

Mon nodded absentmindedly. It could’ve just been out of earshot. How had it even been in earshot?

His heartbeat had quickened. “Okay.”

A few seconds’ pause, then, “I’m pulling on to the street now so I’ll have to hang up. I’ll see you at home. Remember we’re gonna be cooking.”

“Okay.”

“Bye, sweetie. I love you.”

“I love you too.”

She hung up, and he cut himself off from a sentence he didn’t know the words to. 

He steadied his breathing as he tightly gripped his phone. He had no clue what to do.

For the rest of the bus ride he stirred in ambient confusion and anxiousness, juggling between the decision of if he was being too paranoid or not paranoid enough. It was probably nothing, right? Hearing the same radio station multiple times in two days wasn’t the weirdest thing that could happen. It was weird how hard his mind had zoned out and focused on it, though. But still. It was probably fine. Probably. Almost everyone used radios in their cars. Probably nothing.

He nearly forgot to thank Mr. Hedrick on his way off the bus. 

A subtle fervor kicked its way into his stride as he walked home., but it wasn’t a long trip from the stop, and the transition outside lifted his thoughts from whatever exactly it was that’d just happened.

Ma’s car, a grey 2016 Toyota Highlander, sat calm beneath the shade of their sidewalk tree, and Beck’s in the driveway. Both of them were home. He didn’t feel it, but his gait relaxed as he took the final steps to the house.

Then something happened that Mon best understood as a twinge in his ear. Among the calm noise of a quiet neighborhood — the distant bark of a dog, the voices of families talking in their homes, the chirps of birds flying overhead — another sound welcomed itself into his perception. It was music. A song. Not one he’d heard before, not with instruments he recognized, nor a tune he could really describe, but a song that, for whatever reason, seemed familiar.

Curiosity led his eyes to follow his ears. His gaze fell down the street and onto the black Nissan SUV resting on the side of the road.

He ran inside and didn’t respond to Ma and Beck’s greetings. 

“Hi, sweetie!” Ma called from the kitchen.

“What’s up, gremlin?” Beck added. 

Mon ran into the living room, backpack swinging off his shoulder as he spun around and the front door slammed behind him. He planted his feet behind the living room window and parted the blinds to peer outside. The car was just barely in his line of sight, far to the road on his left, past their garage and driveway, but it was still there.

“Beck, that car I saw yesterday, it’s outside,” he said, loud but blank.

There was a moment’s pause from the kitchen.

“What?”

Mon tried to focus on the details of the SUV, kicking himself for not having done so as thoroughly yesterday. No visible driver. He couldn’t read the license plate from here.

“That black car I saw when we were driving to Target and again when we were in the parking lot. It had the radio playing and I heard it again when Ma was on the phone with me earlier. Now it’s outside.”

He heard them set down utensils and walk from the kitchen as he squinted at the license plate.

Blurriness seeped into his gaze like a filter slowly setting in. In a panicked reflex he ripped his glasses off of his face and blinked, immediately noticing something off with his vision.

Ma and Beck entered the living room and stepped behind him as he scanned outside another time. Now razor clarity cut out each detail of the street and the surrounding houses, and Mon frantically looked around, confused, mind racing, before his eyes fell on the SUV again and tried to read the license plate.

No digits. It was blank.

“It doesn’t have any plates,” he muttered absentmindedly. The presence of his family staring over his shoulder relaxed a tension that immediately hardened despite them. 

Somehow he felt Ma share in this tension. “You said you heard it when I called you on the bus? Is that why you zoned out?”

Mon nodded. “Yeah. I know it’s crazy, but I swear it was the same radio guy. I heard it. It was super clear.”

“Are you sure?” Beck asked worriedly.

Mon didn’t waver. He didn’t just say what he said next; he felt it through and through. “Yeah. 100%.”

There were a few seconds of silence. “Rebecca, call the police,” Ma ordered, tone dead serious. Mon felt her hand on his back. “Monley, get away from the window.”

She ushered him back towards the couch as Beck hurried out of the living room. His eyes fluttered to adjust to the dim indoors, then the distant outside was blurry again, and he fumbled to put his glasses back on as Ma pushed him aside and turned off the TV. 

She was still in her hospital attire, with her dark hair tied up in a bun and a stern but kind expression on her tired but bright face. After setting down the remote she walked back to the kitchen and began turning off appliances.

“Don’t panic. Police usually take about five to ten minutes to arrive,” Ma said. “We just need to wait and stay calm. Monley, get the stove.” 

Mon followed and turned off the stovetop. “How long ago did you get home?”

“About twenty minutes ago,” she answered, gears visibly turning in her head. 

Beck, holding her phone partly to her ear, asked, “Did you notice them when you were driving home?”

Ma shook her head.

Mon thought for a second. “Were you on speakerphone when you called me?”

“No.”

“When I heard the radio, it was loud. Loud enough for me to hear when I was on the phone on the bus.” His nostrils flared. “Yesterday it was barely a few cars away from Beck’s when I saw it.”

“Did you see anyone inside?” Ma asked.

He shook his head, simultaneously racking it in the hope of some subconscious perception returning to him. 

The three of them stood vigilant around the countertop, waiting to act in an atmosphere of bricks. Beck suddenly took a breath.

“Yes, hello? There’s a car outside my house that my brother has seen following us the past few days.”

She listened for a moment. Ma walked to the window, and her children followed.

“My little brother noticed a car following us yesterday evening and noticed it again today. Right now it’s down the road near our house, visible from our living room window.”

Mon fought uneasiness as they gazed through the blinds. He exchanged a cautious glance with his family, a sense of dread lingering in his chest over more than just the car. He prodded his glasses as he squinted, uncertain and afraid but resisting both.

Beck continued to speak with the responder on the line, who eventually told her officers were being dispatched to their home. By the time she ended the call, the three of them took turns standing watch at their window, waiting on edge as the SUV remained unmoving.

Then, in an instant that nearly made Mon flinch, it started to drive off.

“It’s moving,” he said in the same tone, loud but blank. Ma and Beck rushed to his side.

They watched as the SUV pulled away from the sidewalk, turned around on the road, and aligned itself in the opposite direction away from the house. 

“Take another photo,” Ma ordered. Before Mon could do anything, Beck already had her phone poised before the window.

Still, nothing was visible, just the dark exterior of the car and opaque windows through which Mon compelled himself to see something. No blurriness or clarity came across his vision, and the SUV drove off and quickly disappeared. 

Breaths of what wouldn’t quite be called relief followed. 

“Is it gone gone?” Beck asked.

Mon kept staring. “Maybe. Should we go outside?”

“Wait until the police come,” Ma said. “It shouldn’t be long.”

A more welcome vehicle arrived not long after. 

After answering the door, greeting one another, and explaining the basic details, they moved out to the yard, and in the late afternoon haze, Mon crossed his arms. 

“I saw it yesterday when she took me to go get groceries. It was over there, in the same spot, and we drove right past it.”

“Did you see anyone inside that time you were closest?” asked Officer Renning, a blonde, middle-aged woman who scribbled in a notepad as they spoke.

Mon shook his head. “Every time I see it the windows are rolled almost all the way up and I can’t see anything. But I can always hear the radio playing. It’s weird.” 

The other officer, Officer Chan, twisted around and glanced again at the now empty spot in the road. He was younger and tall with black hair and a familiar face Mon couldn’t place. “Who lives in that house?”

Ma scratched her forehead and sighed. “A nice family, I forget their name. I’ve never seen them with that car, though. They usually park in their garage, and they’re nice people. I’ve given them old clothes and food.”

“Do you know any reason anyone would be following your family, Ms. Martinez?” Officer Renning asked. 

She looked at her kids and her house and sighed. “No. Nothing. Our family isn’t involved in anything. Both of them are students and I’m an ER physician.”

“What about the father?” Officer Chan followed.

Beck replied with a frown, “He passed away a few years ago.”

The officers exchanged a glance. “Might we ask the circumstances of his death?”

The family consulted one another with silent eyes. Ma nodded. “He was involved in a mugging. The shooters were imprisoned over two years ago.”

Beck uncrossed her arms and gave Mon a sideways hug. He reciprocated.

Officer Chan took a breath and rested his hands on his belt. “Is there any chance this could be connected to what happened to your husband?”

Ma shook her head. “I doubt it. The mugging was random and he happened to get caught in the crossfire.”

Mon chose not to dwell too far in that direction and stared at where Officer Chan had looked a moment before. 

“Have you had any high-profile patients recently?” Officer Renning inquired. “Celebrities, elites, politicians, the like.”

“People from all walks of life come into the ER, but few of them are wealthy,” Ma said. “I rarely ever care for them beyond their emergency visit.”

“What about patients you did care for after their first hospital visit?” she queried. “Do any of them stand out?”

“No. Nobody.” Ma’s eyes were calm, but after she answered, Mon watched them grow heavy as she got lost in thought.

Mon looked up. “Do you think they’re trying to rob us?”

Officer Renning lowered her notepad. “It’s possible. Burglars often watch a potential site and try to get a grip on the schedules of the homeowners before breaking in. That would mostly likely leave you and your family out of physical harm if they chose to come in when you were all gone, which is likely. But the security threat is a deep concern.”

Officer Chan jumped in as they grimaced. “There isn’t much we can do right now. You said it had no license plates, right?”

Ma turned to Mon, who shook his head. “No. They were there, but they were blank, with nothing on them.”

He nodded. “In that case, we’ll put out an APB for a vehicle using the photos you took in case anyone spots the car in the next few days. When we leave we’ll sweep the neighborhood again, but I have a feeling it’s gone. If you’re worried about security, doing anything you can, like changing your locks, will help.”

Ma and Beck nodded to each other. Officer Chan continued.

“I’m sorry. I wish there was more we could do, but there isn’t much to work on yet. If you see that car again, call us immediately. Just keep your eyes peeled and stay vigilant. It sounds like you’ve already got one perceptive kid right here, though.” He gestured to Mon, who suddenly became much more aware of the presence of his glasses on his face.

Beck made a clear attempt to smile. “You’ve got a point there. I can never walk by his room without him getting annoyed at me”

Mon tagged along. “I keep telling you, you walk hella loud. You’re like a, um, T-rex.” She rolled her eyes. 

Ma’s tired expression lessened and she turned to the officers once again. “Thank you. I still can’t think of any reason why we’d be followed, but your questions about my patients did make me think. Three weeks ago a colleague of mine, a surgeon, Doctor Morris Clivas, passed away.”

Both officers narrowed their eyes. Mon did too, and saw confusion grow on Beck’s face as well. 

“What were the circumstances of his death?” Officer Chan asked.

She watched her children and offered a comforting look. “His family has kept a lot of details private, so I don’t want to speculate anything. I’d just be remiss if I didn’t bring it up.” 

As Mon’s mind prepared to take a plunge in a worrisome direction, Officer Chan adjusted his stance. “Thank you. I would try not to jump to any conclusions about that, though. All the evidence so far points to a planned burglary, which might be over now that they know you guys noticed them already. We’ll be respectful in reaching out to the family, but I’d put more faith in other avenues to bring up something more.”

They nodded. Both officers seemed like they were getting ready to leave. Officer Renning extended a hand.

“Thank you, Ms. Martinez. We’re gonna drive around the neighborhood one last time and be on our way. Keep your eyes peeled.”

Ma shook her hand. “Thank you both.”

Officer Renning turned to walk away, and Officer Chan raised a finger at Mon. 

“Hey, you don’t happen to be that kid on the bus back when the earthquake happened, do you?”

In a second, Mon remembered where he’d seen this man’s face. His eyes widened and face lit up. “Yeah! You’re the officer who helped me out of the tunnel!”

The two of them smiled as the other three stood in varying degrees of confusion. Ma placed her hand on Mon’s shoulder.

“My god. Thank you for helping him that night. Neither of us were with him when it struck. We only heard what happened from him and some other responders.”

Officer Chan smiled. “Of course, ma’am. But I’ll say, honestly, this kid already did a lot more than me by the time I got there.”

“What happened with him?” Officer Renning asked. 

He pridefully rested his hands on his belt and drew a breath. “Eight months ago when the earthquake hit, I was with my old partner clocking out of the precinct when everything started shaking. When things got sorted out there they had us drive out on first response, so when we’re pulling out in the heavy rain towards the 87 I see a bus crashed under the overpass. We get out of the car to see two women already out on the street out of the tunnel, and while my partner checks on them I run inside and see this kid –” he pointed dramatically to Mon — “back against the seat, hands up, holding up this pile of rubble caving in from the tunnel. He’s got the bus driver out cold next to him with the guy’s leg pinned down in the metal from the crash, and this kid’s the only thing keeping them from being crushed.”

Ma and Beck listened attentively, and Mon, although proud within the hindsight granted by the fact he’d survived, tried not to be too overt about it.

“I run inside as fast as I can because there’s no counting how much longer they have. And that isn’t long, because before I’m even there, all the rubble comes down, and this kid, by some miracle, I swear, gets his foot on the metal hard enough to bend it loose and then yanks the driver out of the way right as everything comes crashing down. The guy’s legs get a bit crushed, but they’re both alive, and when I finally get them out of there I realize this kid got those two women out of the bus and damn well saved three lives. Incredible.”

Officer Renning eyed Mon in amazement. “Wow, kid. You’ve got guts. Have you ever considered studying to be like us?”

Mon awkwardly stirred. “Uh . . not really. I mean, I didn’t really think, and when it was over it was scary how dangerous I realized it was.”

Ma nodded and rubbed his shoulder. “The whole family has a bit of a knack for rushing in to help.”

“Did they make it?” Officer Renning asked. “The adults.”

Officer Chan nodded. “It was hard to follow up, but they were all stable by the time parameds drove off with them.”

“The driver still works that route, too,” Mon said. “I saw him a few hours ago.”

“He’s a nice man, and truly grateful for what Mon did,” Ma added. “It’s a wonder to see him smiling and driving around.” She looked at Mon. “It reminds you why you helped.”

Mon smiled. Beck slugged him affectionately in the arm.

“Well, I’ll tell you, though,” Officer Chan continued, sharing the smile. “It still boggles my mind how you were able to pull him out of there. That metal must’ve still been loose, but damn, it’s still metal. Adrenaline’s a hell of a thing.”

Mon shrugged. “Yeah, I mean, I was just really scared. I felt the aftershock coming and knew we’d die if I couldn’t do anything.”

Officer Chan raised an eyebrow. “Aftershock?”

Mon mirrored the eyebrow. “The aftershock that happened. I felt everything start shaking again before everything came down.”

He appeared confused. “I don’t remember feeling any aftershock, and I was barely a few feet away, kid.”

“If you were under a collapsing tunnel, you probably just felt the shaking from that before it finally came down,” Officer Renning proposed. “In the end it’s the same effect.”

They nodded. Mon didn’t quite feel like that was right, but it’d been a long time and he supposed the explanation made sense.

“Either way, a hell of a story,” Officer Chan added. He offered a handshake. “Andrew Chan. I don’t think we ever got formally introduced. I’m glad to see you made it out okay.”

Ma gave Mon a sideways hug. “So are we.”

Mon accepted the handshake. “Mon Marti. Or, well, Monley Martinson-Martinez, but that’s kinda long, so everyone calls me Mon Marti.”

He smiled warmly. “Nice to meet you again, Mon. Say hi to that driver for me, alright, kid?”

“Will do,” Mon chirped. 

He tipped his hat. “Well, folks, my partner and I are gonna drive around your neighborhood one more time to check if that SUV is anywhere around here. There’s a chance you even calling the police already scared them off from considering a burglary, but stay vigilant and update your security if you think it would help. If you see or hear anything else, don’t hesitate to call. There’ll be an APB out so officers will already be aware of the car you saw today. Any last questions?”

The Martinezes checked quietly with each other and wordlessly determined the response to be no.

Officer Renning gave a small salute. “Sounds good. Have a good evening.”

“Thank you, officers,” Ma said.

“Thank you,” Beck said. “You too.”

“Thanks,” Mon added.

The officers nodded and returned to their cruiser, then pulled out of their precarious half-park in the driveway and drove off down the road. 

Tension and worry were partly subdued, and proactivity arrived in their place as the three of them walked back into the house. A brief inspection of their locks led to the decision that getting new ones wouldn’t be a bad idea, and plans were made for Beck to get that done the following day. There wasn’t much else to do, so they each took after sharing the somewhat unclear but better-than-nothing photos Beck had snapped through their own social circles and networks.

After that, though, there wasn’t much else to do. They made sure the doors and windows were locked and went over what they’d do if someone broke in at night, but then it was back to business. Mon had a bit of fun and learned a bit about cooking, family dinner experienced some awkwardness in segueing to casual conversation, but did overcome that, and eventually the family adjourned for the night to attend to their own business. For Mon, that was mostly homework, a quick workout, and a lot of screen time.

With an opening in her schedule with earlier shifts for the rest of the week, Ma took the chance to drop Mon off at school the next day. Beck would call a locksmith and get new locks put in during the school day, but since there’d only be one new key made and she had afternoon classes, Ma asked him to head over to Santa Clara Valley Medical after school and hang around until she got off work. 

His friends and a few well-acquainted classmates asked him about the car, but aside from “oh shit” and “wow, that’s crazy”, there wasn’t much anyone could offer — although Sergio and Leo both made points to mention it on their respective online platforms. Mon did his best to just focus in class, and eventually the hustle of the school day and interacting with others took his mind off of the whole situation.

Sitting in Physics at the end of the day, though, and reading through a chapter on the electromagnetic spectrum did make him remember what had happened with his glasses. He’d forgotten about it quickly with everything else going on, but it was really weird. Could glasses just . . stop working for a second? He took them on and off again, and they seemed to work and correct his vision pretty well.  It didn’t make much sense, but it honestly didn’t seem like much of a big deal.  

As he left school and took 61 in the opposite direction towards the hospital, his thoughts rode the train of thought of recent weird things and he considered how he’d zoned during the phone call yesterday. He’d clocked out and only focused on one thing before, but wow, that’d been something else. Like, really something else. Maybe Officer Chan was right and he really was pretty perceptive. 

Mon got off the bus and cast a glance at SJCC on the other side of the road, remembering the woman the night of the earthquake and how she’d said she went there. He wondered if she was around right now as he took out his phone called Ma. It rang a few times, but eventually went to voicemail; he got anxious for a moment, but calmed down when he remembered she was still working and undoubtedly busy.

“Hi, Ma. I just got off the bus. I’m not really sure where to go, so I’m just gonna find a lobby somewhere and chill until your shift is over. Call me when you get this.”

With that, he walked past the areas of construction around the front of the massive property and navigated the incredibly busy parking lot. The ER was a bit farther back, away from the traffic-congested street he’d come in from, but as much as everything seemed like separate buildings, Mon knew they were all connected, so he picked a nearby entrance and began the journey there.

Cloudy skies and huge blocked-off sections of developmental land took a bit of the luster away from the hospital campus, but even then it was pretty nice. Maybe it was just the refined architecture paired with the hospital’s monumental size, but as Mon passed people and wound past cars and little crosswalks, he still felt a bit awestruck by a place it wasn’t all that uncommon for him to visit. He made his way to a calm, semi-busy lobby and set up shop tearing through his homework (which, frankly, is a generously exciting way of phrasing the task) as he waited for Ma.

About one and a half classes’ assignments later, Mon searched his backpack for his copy of The Great Gatsby and couldn’t find it. He traced back his day, remembered he hadn’t needed it in AP Lit since there’d been a quiz, and realized he’d left it in Ma’s car after taking a chance to read in preparation. Though he was, admittedly, not good at driving, he had gotten his permit a few months ago and Ma had given him her spare car key for emergency use. Feeling too mentally fried to tackle his assignments for Stats or Physics, he packed his things and headed off to retrieve his book.

It took a while to find Ma’s car without an idea of where she’d parked inside a multi-level parking garage, but he didn’t mind walking around a bit and managed to find it eventually. Spotting it from across a few rows of cars, his eyes lit up and he eagerly wove between the vehicles around him.

He clicked the key chip and the headlights flashed as he approached. Pulling open the door and glancing at the front passenger seat didn’t reveal the book, so with a sigh he stepped inside and closed the door as he looked. He patted down the seat and wedged his hand in that uncomfortably tight gap on the edge of the cushion and the armrest, then felt the familiar texture of paper and tried to wrap his fingers around it to pull it up.

Then he froze.

In the corners of his vision, slivers of blurriness creeped in vignette. His eyes were locked on the cup holder, head pointed down, but elsewhere, in darkness he couldn’t even see, there was a presence, a weight that felt like oppressive warmth and oozing pressure.

In the shadows behind him, someone held their breath.

Stillness blinked in time and Mon instantly knew this person knew he’d heard them. His entire mind went blank. Then, abrupt in fervorous panic that snapped like a bolt of lightning, he thrust himself towards the door.

Immediately an arm swung from the darkness and hooked his neck into the seat; he wheezed and kicked against the floor as the arm crushed his throat and the seat jerked forward with a powerful slam from behind. 

“Don’t move, don’t talk, shut up; I’ve got a gun and if you do anything I will blast your brain over the dash.”

In an instant Mon’s thrashing vanished and he compelled himself to be a statue, petrified in pain and a jackhammer heart with one hand on the door handle, the other on the edge of the seat, and his back trembling above the cushion. From the absence of motion came a silence that felt like anything but.

“Fuck,” the man said, voice deep and ominously dark. “What the hell are you doing here?” 

The man’s words were shaken by ragged breaths. Mon could barely breathe. Beyond the pressure on his neck and the excruciating urge to gasp and move and escape, he stayed still and smelled the acrid musk of cigarette smoke and sweat.

Hours passed before Mon realized he needed to answer. “I left my book,” he croaked.

He could feel the weight of the man pressed against the back of the carseat, head lowered, ducked out of sight of the rearview mirror. All Mon could see was the arm, clad in a dark brown, rugged sleeve.

“Why are you at the hospital? You’re supposed to be at school.”

Mon’s eyes darted in every direction. Tension built inside his head. He needed to breathe. He forced out a mumble. “I’m waiting for my mom.”

A sigh. Endless moments of pain and tightness squeezing into every nerve.

The pressure loosened, but only slightly. Mon wheezed as quietly as he could.

“If you tell anyone about this, you and your family are dead.” Ragged breaths. “You’re gonna answer my questions. Understand?”

Mon did his best to nod.

“How well did your mom know Morris Clivas?”

A million thoughts raced through his head. Clivas? Dr. Clivas? Why was– 

“Th-They worked together. He was a surgeon and she’s in the ER so they worked together a lot.”

Silence. “Did your mom ever see Clivas outside of work?”

Urgent thoughts. “N-No, not really. Sometimes, I guess. I don’t know.”

The man sighed. “Seven months ago your mom looked into the file for one of Clivas’s patients. Tell me who they are.”

Mon’s head reached dead-ends at every turn. His hand trembled on the door handle. “I-I-I don’t know. My mom never tells us about work.”

“Never? She never tells you anything? What the fuck do you talk about?”

Mon winced. “I-I don’t know! She started working at the ER when my dad died and stopped talking about work after that!”

The man repositioned his arm and then yanked Mon’s neck back. He flinched and his eyes welled with tears.

“Be useful. You know something. What patients did she and Clivas work together on?”

“I don’t know, a bunch! They’re in a hospital!”

A low sigh, almost a growl. “Does your mom ever go anywhere and not tell you or your sister?”

What was he trying to say? “N-No, not at all. She only has time for work and being with us.”

“No long, unexplained shifts? No times when you wondered where she was?”

Mon shook his head desperately. “No. No.”

A shaking silence filled the car. Through the windshield, Mon could see distant people walking around in the parking garage. He heard footsteps, muffled conversations, each quivering breath of the man behind him. 

“Did you kill Dr. Clivas?” Mon whimpered.

Stillness in their quiet dark. Ages passed. “Listen, kid. As long as you don’t speak a word of this to anybody, as long as you and your family don’t go calling the fucking cops again, as long as you mind your damn business, no one needs to get hurt. We’ll be out of your hair in a few days.”

A narrow pressure pushed against the cushion behind Mon’s head. He knew. The barrel of a gun. 

“I’m gonna get out of the car, and you’re not gonna move a fucking muscle. Understand? You’re gonna stay there and stay quiet and wait until it’s like I was never here. Then you’re gonna shut your mouth, grab your book, and not tell anybody about this. Not your mom. Not your sister. Not the cops. Not your weird friend who does the livestream shit or the asshole with his stupid drawings all over Instagram. Nobody. Understand?”

Mon nodded and croaked, “I-I understand.”

“Good. Now stay still.”

The arm slowly lifted off of Mon’s neck, but the pressure of the gun stayed piercing to the back of his head. Gradually, painstakingly, the back passenger door opened, and the noise of the parking garage flooded into the car. Weight shifted, the man breathed; though Mon felt the gun turn, he knew it was still pointed at him, even as the pressure then vanished from the cushion.

He tried to look through the side view mirror. He saw nothing but an arm pointed back with a grimy pistol in its hand.

The man shut the door and walked away. Shadows moved in Mon’s periphery.

He didn’t move for minutes. Barely breathed. Stayed in the same painful, uncomfortable position and suffocated on the terrified air he still had in his lungs. He thought of Pa. Of Ma. Was she okay? She hadn’t answered when he’d called earlier. Oh god, was she okay? Why was that man in her car? Who was he? What was happening? There was a gun. What the fuck? He almost died. Ma. Ma. Was she okay?

When he found the courage to move, he raced. He bolted out of the garage and pounded the pavement in a dead sprint towards the ER, mindless to the honking cars and turning heads and the onslaught of noise and the haze in the distant corners of his vision.

Winded, he slid into the emergency room and frantically glanced around. The front desk, the beds, the gurneys, the patients, the nurses and doctors rushing back and forth.

Ma, there, in the back, tending to a patient. She didn’t see him.

Internally, he collapsed. Externally, he backed away and pulled out his phone.

A direct question would be too obvious. He sent Beck a meme.

She replied within a minute.

im in class, shut up

For a moment he considered what the reading would be if he was hooked up to one of those heartbeat monitor things he saw nearby. Probably a mess.

He stumbled into a chair in a nearby lobby and fell apart. 

The Great Gatsby didn’t feel all too important anymore. 

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