I close the composition book I’m using as a journal—or more like a collection of letters to John that I can never send to him. He’s out there on the run … running for his safety … running for his life. He’s probably constantly moving; there’s no address to send him anything. No way of staying in contact. I know he has a phone with him, but under no circumstances can I call him. It would surely be traced somehow, and they would find him. The FBI. The Mogadorians. He could call me or text me, but that would be too risky. I’d love to hear from John but at the same time, I’d rather not right now because I know it’s safer this way. And the worst thing he could do is try to come back here to see me. For his safety’s sake, I hope he doesn’t.
I wrap the journal in a shoe box and tie a ribbon around it. I make one of my fancy bows that I’m known for around Christmas time. I don’t have a lockbox or anything like that to put the journal in for security. Besides, that might seem a little suspicious. A shoebox with a ribbon around it may seem less inconspicuous. With the ribbon and the fancy bow, I can tell if anyone disturbs it. I place the shoebox in a particular spot under my bed, committing to memory its exact position and location.
Like photography, writing is a passion and a means of therapy for me. They give me an escape I like to have at times. Before photography came along, writing was my number one love. Anything would do: poems, short stories, letters, and articles. I would always write for the school papers wherever I was at. I’d write about anything and everything. I was notorious for that. That’s how I got into photography. When I started writing for the school paper in seventh grade, they wanted some pictures to go along with their articles. Being the enthusiastic one, I volunteered to take pictures. Needless to say, I fell absolutely in love with it right away. Since then, it has become my number one love. As long as I was writing or taking pictures, I enjoyed a certain level of freedom.
That word almost feels foreign to me now. I feel like any sense of freedom is so far out of reach that it’s more of an illusion than a reality. News crews, police, and FBI agents cover the town. There isn’t anywhere you can go without seeing one of them snooping around. And for me, it’s impossible to go any place without being hounded by news people or being watched by police or FBI agents. I feel like everyone is watching me; even residents I’ve known for years stare at me with a sense of uncertainty and lack of trust.
It feels like the interrogation room that first day. I know I was being watched through that glass. I couldn’t see through it, but I knew someone was there. It’s the same feeling when I’m outside the house. I can see the obvious onlookers, but I sure there are others watching. I can certainly feel them around… police, FBI, even the Mogadorians. Somehow I know the Mogs are watching too.
I shake the eerie thought away from me and pad downstairs to the living room. My dad is at work right now, and my mom is on the couch watching the news. Most of the schools shut down for a couple days—security precautions, they say—so my little sister isn’t at school but in the kitchen, probably finding something to snack on. That sounds good right about now. It’s about lunch time, and I am a little hungry. I make my way into the kitchen, unnoticed by my mom.
“Hey, Sarah,” my sister says in almost a whisper, but with a loving grin on her face. She’s fixing herself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
“Hey yourself,” I whisper back with a big grin. “What are you getting?” I ask, already knowing the answer but just making conversation.
“PBJ!” she exclaims. She ducks her head down and covers her mouth with her hand in an oops gesture. “PBJ,” she says again, this time in a whisper.
I can’t help but giggle. She giggles back. “Why are we whispering?” I ask, not really knowing why we are whispering.
She shrugs with both hands up. In one hand, she is holding a butter knife with jelly on it. The moment we both look at it, the jelly slides off the knife on plops onto the counter. We both start laughing. She always has a way of making me smile or laugh. Most of the time unintentional. “You want a PBJ?” she asks through her giggling.
“Yeah, I’ll take one. But I don’t want that jelly.” We look at the splattered mess on the counter and laugh some more.
I take a napkin and start cleaning up the mess. As I start to make my sandwich, she tells me that my two older brothers keep asking my parents if they should come home and help. I’m not exactly sure how they could help. She said my dad told them to stay at their colleges. There wasn’t anything they could do here. Besides, as much as I love them and would like to see them, it’s not worth interrupting their studies to just sit around here and do nothing. They were always protective of me and my sister. I guess that’s the advantage of having two big brothers around. I do miss them though.
I finish making my sandwich, and we stay at the kitchen counter and eat our very messy but good peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I tease her about missing school and having a couple extra days off. She says she likes the vacation, but is sad that my school got “messed up.” I told her I was sad too. More so of why it got destroyed, and even more that John isn’t here. But I don’t tell her those parts. I just nod in agreement. She asks if I know where they’re going to send me for school.
“I don’t know. I haven’t heard anything yet,” I tell her. “We’re supposed to find out today or tomorrow.”
“I don’t like being the new kid at school,” she says while shaking her head.
“Me either,” I admit. “Me either.”
I guess my mom thinks I’m still upstairs in my room, because she drags out it in a loud voice, “Sarah … can you come down here?” Not angry, just loud enough to hear it in from my room.
My sister and I lock eyes and then start laughing again. “Coming mom,” I get out, stifling my laughter. I get up and walk into the living room.
“Oh, I thought you were in your room,” she says looking back at me over the couch.
“They’re about to announce how they intend to split up the students and which schools they go to. I thought you might want to know.”
“Yeah, I do. But I’m not looking forward to it,” I admit. She tries to give me a comforting smile as I sit down on the couch next to her. My sister—still eating her PBJ—sits down on the other side of the couch.
The news woman comes back on the TV and begins a little background story of what they believed happened at the school. Although most of what she says is false, it’s not something I wish to relive again. I look away from the TV and try to occupy my mind with other things. I still can’t believe they think John is a terrorist and is somehow responsible for the school. Well, in a way he is but not like they say. If they only knew the truth! If they did know the truth, things would be a lot worse for John than being wanted for terrorism. Being part of an alien race, the government would want to do experiments on him like some lab rat … maybe even dissect him like the frogs in Biology.
I shake my head at the thought. My mom looks over at me as if to ask “what?” but gets distracted by the news woman making the important part of the announcement. She says the students from my school will be split up into four groups determined by their last names: A through F, G through L, M through R, and S through Z. My group is going toColumbianaHigh Schoolin—where else?—Columbiana, which is about 20 minutes from my “old” school.
“Why so far away?” I ask, thinking out loud and not really expecting an answer.
“I don’t know, honey,” my mom says in a sympathetic tone. Then she says with a more chipper tone, “I guess you’re a Clipper now.”
Columbiana Clippers … great. At least the school isn’t that big. That could be a good thing: fewer students, less hassle. And Mark and Emily fall into my group as well. That’s a plus. With Mark there, at least there’s one person who has an idea of what I’m going through … and knows the truth. And having my best friend, Emily, there should help. She doesn’t know the truth about everything but at least I’ll have someone else to talk to if I needed.
“I wonder if they’ll have a bus over here to take you to school,” my mom says.
“I’m not riding a bus all the way over there. I’ll just drive,” I say in a very determined tone.
“You sure, honey? It’s a good ways from here.”
“Oh, I’m definitely sure!” I say. “I’m already going to be a new kid at the school; I don’t need the humiliation of having to ride the bus over there.” I lean forward and say to my sister, “No offense, squirt.”
She leans forward and gives me a toothy grin with peanut butter smashed in her teeth. I laugh to myself and shake my head as I sit back. She’s always making me laugh.
I turn to my mom, “Besides, I just want to blend in with everyone else there and go unnoticed. The less attention, the better.”
Not happy with the school announcement, I tell my mom I’m going for a walk and I’ll be back in an hour or so. Before I head out the door, I make a quick stop in my room to pick up a camera just in case I feel like snapping some pictures while I’m out.
It’s clear outside, not a cloud in the sky. Even though the sun is shining full-force, the air is still very cool … cold actually. Cold enough, in fact, to where I can see my own breath, the moist vapor turning into a white cloud with each exhale, floating into the air and vanishing. A very slight breeze blows around me, but I can still feel some warmth of the sun on my face. It feels good … really comforting. I’m glad I grabbed my knitted gloves while I was in my room. Without them, my fingers would get too cold and shaky and my pictures wouldn’t come out very well.
I’ve walked down my street a million times before, but I always admire the beauty that it holds. I think it’s one of the prettiest streets in all of Paradise. I’m so glad my parents picked that house when we moved here. A conservative amount of trees line the properties along the street—not too many and not too little, just right. My mom, being in real estate, always said that the right trees on a property gives it character. I never really understood what she meant by that until I got into photography.
Being a small town, my mom’s real estate agency didn’t have the resources to take “professional looking” pictures of the properties she was selling. She always admired my photos and would ask me to take some pictures for her. I was more than happy to help especially if it helped her sell a house. It wasn’t until I developed the pictures that I noticed what she was talking about.
In a small town, a lot of the houses tend to look alike: same size, same shape, same layout, same yard, and sometimes the same colors. After all, most of the houses were built by the same contractor—no imagination, I guess. The only thing that made one house different from another was the location—of course—and the yard … or more specifically, what was in the yard.
As I started developing her pictures, I began to notice that it wasn’t always about the house itself, but what was around it. A lot of the houses looked the same, but what made each property unique were the trees. You can copy a house on each property, but it was difficult to copy the same trees on each property. You can plant the same tree in each yard, but each one would eventually grow differently. It would have its own distinctiveness … its own identity … its own character.
In a way, these trees were a lot like people. No matter what school you went to or what town you lived in, it was the people in it and around it that gave it its personality … its character. Without the people, it would just be a simple school or a mediocre town.
I must have really been in my own dream world because before I knew it, I found myself in the middle of the business district part of town. It sounds big but it’s not. It isn’t even that far from my house; it’s definitely within walking distance. Even though I have my car, I like to walk to town. It’s relaxing and it’s good exercise.
“Wow,” I say under my breath, “I already used up half a roll of film. I don’t even remember what I took pictures of on the way here.”
The business district really means one street lined with small shops on either side. I walk down one side of the street snapping pictures every now and then. At the right time of day, the smells are so perfect: the coffee from the café; the sweet, sugary smells of the pastry shop; the breads from the bakery; the popcorn from the theater; and even the clean linen smell from the laundry mat. I continue to take pictures of the shops across the street, catching the people as they move along their busy day.
I notice I’ve reached the end of my roll of film. If I don’t develop the film myself, I usually take it to the local photo place across the street. They always do a good job. I cross the street and drop the film off. I tell them I’ll be back in a couple of days to pick it up, no hurry. I’m a regular customer; they know me there.
When I notice that I’ve been gone almost two hours, I start to make my way back home.
Just when I feel that things are normal, I notice them: black cars and SUVs with dark, tinted windows—probably FBI—driving up and down the street. There’s a local news crew off in the distance by the drugstore. It looks like they’re interviewing people outside. Not wanting to be noticed by the news crew, I turn around quickly to head the other way.
Oomph! It feels like I walked into a brick wall. I now see that it’s a man who was apparently walking right behind me.
“I’m sorry,” I say staring at his chest which is at my eye-level. He’s a very large man. I can hear him breathing deeply. “I didn’t see you there,” I add as I step aside to hurriedly walk around him.
He doesn’t say a word; he barely even moves around me. He just keeps walking in the other direction.
That was weird … almost eerie.
Although I didn’t get a good look at his face, he didn’t seem familiar. From what I saw in that brief moment, he was wearing dark clothes and a long, black coat. When I look back over my shoulder, he’s still walking away in the other direction. I see he’s wearing a black baseball cap too.
I turn around to head in the opposite direction—away from the news crew … away from the large, eerie man. As I’m about to cross a side street, a police car pulls up and blocks my path. Its bright red and blue lights are flashing on top of the car. I raise my hand to block the glare of the lights in my eyes. That’s when I notice who is driving. It’s Mark’s dad.
“We’ve been looking for you,” he says chidingly as if I’ve been hiding from everyone on purpose. “Your parents and Agent Hecht need you at the house.”
Ugghh! Just hearing his name—Agent Hecht—sends an uncomfortable chill down my spine. What does he want? What is doing at my house? This does not sound good at all. I thought I was done with the FBI … apparently not.
“You getting in or what?” he asks with a harsh tone. He sounds angry. I take it he didn’t appreciate the order from Hecht to come look for me. I don’t blame him; I wouldn’t like to take orders from Hecht either. “Get in the back,” he says.
Yeah, he’s definitely angry.
I get in the back of the police car—feeling like a criminal. I’m sure Mark’s dad sees me that way: a criminal—aiding a “known” fugitive and terrorist by not telling him what I know about John. Actually, what he thinks I know about John. He must have some sort of strong intuition because he insists I know more than I’m not letting on. Besides, he never liked me breaking up with Mark. And he definitely did not like me hanging out with John.
“What does Hecht want with me?” I ask innocently.
“You’ll find out soon enough,” he retorts back. In the rear view mirror, he eyes me with a contemplative look like he’s deciding whether to tell me more.
Is he grinning?
“I think Agent Hecht is going to assign someone to follow you around … everywhere.” He’s probably telling me this in hopes it will worry me.
He adds, “You know, for protection … and surveillance, in case that terrorist, John Smith, tries to contact you.”
Okay, that worked.
I’m a little worried now, but I’m not letting him know that. “That’s fine. I don’t have anything to hide,” I lie. I have everything to hide. We ride in silence the rest of the way to my house.