I swallow the teeth. Dream logic tells me to aim for my stomach, trusting the acid to burn through enamel and bone. But several of the molars are sucked down the wrong, fleshy tube to my lungs. The tip of a canine presses against the fragile membrane of my right lung as I gasp. The primal tooth moves, stalks away, not piercing me yet.
The other teeth float easily as I breathe in again, distributed evenly to each lung. The teeth, not my teeth. They no longer feel like my own. My body has been separated from myself for the last few days. Disassociated. Disaffiliated. Awake or asleep. It doesn’t matter. There isn’t a difference.
It’s not a new feeling, being uncoupled from my body. I know it’ll go away soon, but that doesn’t make the disorientation any less real. Or the fog between me and my body any less terrifying.
I swallow the teeth because I can’t let them fall out. I know I’m dreaming. That teeth rotting in my mouth, falling out of my gums like pearly raindrops to clink against a faraway floor, is a symptom of anxiety. A symptom of stress.
It probably isn’t a vision. Calm down. Calm down. Calm down.
I wake up, face down on the couch. I lift my head, neck craning back. The ozone smell of freshly vacuumed carpet rises from below and stays in my nose. I gave up on the chore halfway through. To nap.
“You’re being selfish,” my mother reminds me from somewhere near the ceiling. She flicks the end of the sheet she’s folding, a slight wind burning my calves. “Come on, honey. Finish up before dinner.” She leaves.
It’s the beginning of my sophomore year. I will get to live somewhere else soon. Get out of Tujunga. But according to the rejection letter from Cal State’s EEP, I have to wait.
After the rejection, I looked up the chances of getting interviewed, being accepted into the required Honors Academy, going there all summer (with my parents reminding me every day how much they were spending for me), and then still getting rejected from the Early Entrance Program. Only five other students shared my fate, whining about it on Instagram with too sunny pictures in front of campus statues and the EEP Center, still so thankful for the opportunity. #blessed #tryagainnextyear #futureEEPster #LA #palmtrees
I’m the only one too old to reapply next year. I turned sixteen on July 31st, one day before the cutoff date to reapply as a fifteen-year-old. The oldest an EEPster can be. Now I have to wait two years to apply to college. Like everyone else.
I drag myself up, elbow pushing off the fading blue couch. The playroom has to be cleaned every day because of the sheer amount of snot, vomit, and general horrors the children generate. They came from all over the LA area, Mom likes to brag. Really, she’s trying to get D-list celebrities to let her watch their babies. And mostly succeeding. Even bringing in some elusive C-list members. Such a diverse population, says her website, exposure to new cultures. Daily enrichment. Dedicated staff. Which she doesn’t list on the site. Because it’s only me and her now. She fired Mrs. Silva, unable to pay her with my EEP loans and everything.
I feel bad. I do. But I feel worse about not getting in. Not being able to leave.
I turn the vacuum back on and push it without moving from my place on the couch. It reaches most of the rainbow-colored, alphabet soup rug. It’s not usually this hard to motivate myself to clean the playrooms, disgusting as they are. But I know I still have to prepare bottles and empty the diaper genie and sanitize the changing tables and mash fruit into “designer” baby food for tomorrow’s groups of toothless wonders. Mom claims to understand my disappointment, claims that she feels it too, but she piled on the daycare duties after I didn’t get into EEP, after I promised her a million times that the Honor Academy loans would be worth it.
She and Dad want me to go to college. Insist on it. But they can’t afford it yet. And couldn’t afford the Honor Academy without loans. So, they took away my laptop, phone, several of my favorite books. To help me “focus on my studies.” And upped my unpaid hours at Miranda’s Premier Daycare and Nursery in the same breath.
“Cassandra,” Mom’s voice calls from the kitchen. “Come help Caleb set the table!”
And more regular chores too.
Caleb, at ten years old, could probably handle it. As soon as I think it, a crash sounds from the kitchen, and baby Chloe starts to cry.
I leave the vacuum, not bothering to unplug it. After wading through the toy room (which I haven’t cleaned yet), I arrive in the kitchen. Caleb has broken not one, but two plates. He stares, two forks still in his hand, as Mom sweeps the jagged shards into a dustpan. I think of the dreamed canine tooth stalking through my lung. Tell myself it won’t come true.
“Can you take the lasagna out?” she asks.
I grab an oven mitt and pull it out, setting the steaming pan on the stove. Though I’ve only been back for a few weeks, I’m sick of homecooked meals. At Cal State, we had all of LA to explore. Me and Jacob would stuff ourselves full at trendy food trucks or at taco joints where Jacob ordered for us both in Spanish, laughing when he stumbled over the words, and paid every time. Then we would go back to the EEP-sponsored dinners, feigning sickness or picking at each other’s food, making weird combinations and daring my other friends to eat it. Or at least, I did. As an undergrad helping out with the program, Jacob wasn’t really supposed to encourage the participants to start mini food fights. Beth and Janie would always giggle when he checked on our side of the table. I did too, at the beginning of the summer. Before he started talking to me, listening to what I was saying with an almost overwhelming focus in his green eyes. He barely even glanced at my breasts growing over the course of the summer. Well, only a few times.
Neither Beth nor Janie have contacted me since receiving their acceptances. But their ecstatic faces are all over my timeline.
“Did you finish vacuuming?” Mom asks, scooping lasagna out for Caleb and herself.
“Yes,” I lie.
“Great,” she says, “Thank you, Cassandra.” Like she isn’t the one forcing me to do it.
I don’t respond, retrieving Chloe’s baby-cereal. I was in charge of feeding her now too. Mixing the rice-based mush and feeding Chloe with the tiny, red plastic spoon is my least favorite chore, and Mom knows it. She wants me stuck in Tujunga for the rest of my life, carrying on her farce of a daycare. Why did she think I wanted to go to college early? I don’t even like children. “They’re barely human,” Jacob says, even about the eleven-year-olds that get into the Honors Academy. “Still learning how to be real people.”
But feeding Chloe means I’m distracted enough that Mom doesn’t engage in conversation with me. Doesn’t have to act so disappointed. Like she could be more upset about this than I am. After she asks Caleb about his day, and he rambles on for twenty minutes about the wonders of fifth grade, they finish eating, and I get to clean up Chloe’s mess. Caleb, no longer trusted with dishes, gets to play on Dad’s tablet.
Mom tries to chat with me while she loads the dishwasher, matching the tone of the cheery newscasters in the background, telling viewers about rampant forest fires. “And how are your friends? Excited to start their sophomore year?”
“Yeah.” I’m not speaking to my high school friends exactly. They had gotten offended that I wanted to leave them to go to college early. They thought I thought I was better than them. Which I never said out loud before and tried not to think in their presence. I hadn’t noticed until halfway through the summer that they’d kicked me out of the group chat, right about the time I started leaving campus with Jacob for meals.
“Really?” Mom asks, wiping down the counters. “Are you in the same classes with all of them?”
“Some of them,” I say. I had seen some of them whispering a few rows ahead of me, sneaking glances at my chest. Though I had only grown the boobs this summer, I knew when they were being looked at. Judged. I mean, we used to make fun of Abby Cromwell for not shaving her legs, but that was just for fun. This was serious bitchiness.
Mom and I continue working in silence. Then she takes Chloe out of her highchair, wipes the last of the mush from her chubby, pink cheeks, and carries her away.
“Don’t forget to start the dishwasher,” she says.
I can have dinner now. The lasagna is cold. I could heat it up, but I’m in a rush, so I can barely taste it anyway. Tongue and teeth moving it back. Caleb’s mop of brown hair looks up from behind the tablet every few minutes, but he doesn’t speak. Or offer to help do the dishes.
Dad walks in as I’m washing my plate, a thin line of grease smeared across his forehead.
“Dad!” Caleb jumps up to hug him and informs him of the mark, poking at it and blacking his own finger.
“Hey, Cassie.” Dad uses a dish towel to wipe at the grease, tosses it towards the laundry room off of the kitchen. It lands on the tile floor, just short. My new laundry duties force me to appreciate mom’s work ethic at times, but it mostly makes me frustrated with Dad.
“How was your day?” he asks.
“Hey. Good.” I put my dish away and leave, their discussion of Caleb’s soccer game trailing out of the kitchen as I walk away. I could leave laundry until tomorrow.
Now I wait.
I found out where Mom and Dad were hiding my phone on the third night of my grounding. Under a pile of coupons in the junk drawer. I opened it to twenty texts from Jacob. I explained the situation, so now he knows to wait until nighttime.
I go upstairs and pace from my bedroom to the bathroom, waiting for Mom to finish giving Chloe her bath. Splashes and snippets of children’s songs emanate from behind the door. Finally, Mom appears, Chloe wrapped in a towel on her hip, steam flowing into the hallway.
“You didn’t clean the toy room.”
“No, I forgot.”
Mom stares at me with a raised eyebrow. “Did you finish your homework?”
“Finish up. I’ll deal with the toy room in the morning.”
Mom and Chloe leave, humming and squeaking respectively.
Mom would probably fall asleep in bed with Chloe. Dad wouldn’t wake her up until he went to bed in a few hours. Caleb doesn’t pay attention to what I do.
I sneak into the bathroom. I had put on mascara for my last visit. Jacob said he liked it. I play around with blush and poke my cornea with eyeliner, black tears welling.
I paint my nails instead of trying again.
Caleb wanders in to brush his teeth. I check the time on the tablet, dangerously close to the half-full sink. Almost 9:00 PM. I remind Caleb that water and electronics don’t go together and leave.
I go back to my bedroom and change into shorter shorts and a lower shirt. After Caleb leaves the bathroom, eyeing me with confusion but not saying anything, I brush my teeth again and head downstairs.
Dad sits in the recliner, watching a rerun of serious men discussing a serious crime. I try to hurry down the hallway past him, but he hears me open the front door.
“And where are you going?” he says from the living room, calm but loud enough for me to hear.
“Nowhere,” I say back.
I wait for his response. Dad is generally less upset than Mom about these things, but he’s never caught me trying to sneak out before.
“Come here, Cassie.”
I shuffle back to the living room. Dad looks at my outfit. Disapproves.
“I’m going to a friend’s house,” I say.
“Summitrose,” I say, naming a street only a block away.
He doesn’t quite believe me, but he probably doesn’t want to wake Mom.
“Just be back by midnight.” He sighs and looks back at the TV. The screen makes the collection of wrinkles in his forehead light up neon. “Be safe.”
“I will.” I hurry past him to the kitchen, grab my phone and the car keys, holding them tight to make sure they don’t jingle.
I check my phone on the way out. Jacob texted already. I assure him I’m on my way before climbing into the car and softly closing the door.
I turn the keys in the ignition, hoping the noise doesn’t alert Dad, and slowly drive the car down the street before I turn on the headlights.
Jacob lives in the city, but we meet at his parents’ cabin in Acton, north of L.A. and Tujunga. It borders the national forest on the other side, so I have to drive all the way around. Smog veils the distant smoke from the forest fires. Cars move sluggishly, but the excitement in my stomach makes the time go faster. The mind-racing makes my eyes forget to see. It’s not until I’m a couple yards away from the stopping car in front of me that I break. My seatbelt stops me from flying through the windshield, but my open mouth slams into the steering wheel. I didn’t hit the car, but I’m bleeding. I know before I check in my rearview mirror.
The right, front tooth is chipped. My bottom lip is bleeding profusely, onto my shirt, but I’m stuck on the tiny triangle of bone gone from the corner of my tooth. I feel the sharp fragment in the back of my throat and swallow without thinking. The dream image overtakes my vision for a second.
The visions had started when my period did. Dreaming the night before I woke up damp with blood for the first time. I thought, I hoped, these few years later, they might be subsiding. But sure enough, each month before I begin to bleed, the visions start up again.
At least I’m not pregnant.
The car behind me honks. The way is clear.
I keep driving, one hand on my lip to catch the bleeding. It doesn’t really work.
I pull up to the cabin, turning off my headlights. It’s cute in the daytime, reddish wood with green trim, but now there’s only the porchlight casting a perfect circle of light. The cabins on either side are in complete darkness.
Blood drips down my chin and throat as I climb the stairs. Jacob opens the door before I can knock.
“Oh no, Cassandra baby.” He draws me inside, fussing over the lip, asking what happened. I like it when he calls me by my full name. It sounds much more adult than “Cassie,” but it hurts to smile. I explain as he retrieves a towel from the small kitchenette, helping me press the fabric to my mouth.
Though he lives at home half the time, his parents let him use the cabin whenever he wants. They have another one, but he claimed this cabin, a little smaller, a little older, when he turned eighteen. It has character. And it feels like a grownup’s apartment. Oversized posters on wood-slatted walls. Rugs across the floor. Wi-Fi.
He lifts the towel from my mouth, and his finger hooks through one of my belt loops to pull me closer. He inspects my face. I tilt my head up, asking if the chip is noticeable, and he shakes his head, leaning in. He starts to kiss me but tastes blood, pulls back. He wipes at his red-stained, blonde mustache. At least it won’t leave my mouth scratched pink tonight. I told him I liked it though, when he asked. It does make him look older. Like the college student he is. Reminds me that I’m almost his age. Almost an adult. Close enough. I whisper some of the fervent words he taught me back to him. I help him slip off my shorts, the bloody shirt.
His lips leave. He tells the breasts that they are beautiful. The bodies are warm together.
I fall asleep quickly afterwards, a quick nap, though I know he doesn’t like when I do that.
I can’t breathe. Something—maybe the teeth—rises out of the stomach, out of the lungs, and lodges in my throat. I choke and choke and choke and don’t wake up until I cough myself to consciousness, white bed sheets veiled over my face. I push them off, untangling the rest of myself from the sheets and comforter.
“Whoa,” says Jacob, dodging my flailing arm. “What was that?”
“I couldn’t breathe.” It must be the different bed, the tangled sheets. I wrap my hand around the choked throat. No teeth pushing against the skin, the esophagus. I’m fine. It probably won’t happen. I hope not. I’ve already had one vision too many this month.
“Well, are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m okay.”
“Aw,” says Jacob, arms outstretched. He doesn’t believe me. “Come here, baby.”
We are not dating, I know, but I lean into him, strong arms wrap around me. Neither of us want a relationship. We haven’t exactly talked about it exactly, but he’s an adult, and I’m almost an adult. I can handle a purely physical relationship. And I’m smart enough to know he isn’t committed to me. That he’s a full-blown college student. That he goes to parties with pretty girls. That I have to wait two years to apply for the chance to go to Cal State with him. But grown-ups can have sex without attachment. Grown-ups get out of their hometowns. One day, I was getting out of Tujunga and high school and my parent’s house. But, for now, I let Jacob hold me, liking the sensation of his chest hairs against my bare back.
We have sex again, in the shower this time, before I leave. I drive home carefully.
Mom and Dad are waiting for me.
I shut the door behind me and drop the car keys on the kitchen counter. “Hi.”
“It’s 2:00 AM,” Mom says.
Dad says nothing. Tattletale.
“Yes,” I say.
“And you took the car?” Mom nods at the keys.
“Where were you?” They continue to stare at me, like they can drag the truth out of me. My stomach turns. “At a friend’s house.”
“Which friend?” Mom eyes my low-cut shirt like an accusation, but then she notices the blood stains. Her eyes widen.
“From EEP,” I answer. “Janie.”
But Mom’s forgotten her interrogation, her face softening into worry. “What happened? Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. The car’s fine.” I aim this last part at Dad, though he still looks anxious.
It’s not even that much blood, but they need more details, so I recount the accident. Afterwards, Dad goes outside with a flashlight to check out the bumper.
Mom gives me a shirt of hers, fresh from the dryer. I feel pleasantly warm and cleaner than I have in a while. “You did the laundry for me?” It was another one of my extra chores.
“We were worried about you,” she explains. “It was too early to call the cops. And the clothes needed to get done anyway. I needed to do something.”
I scoff at the idea of calling the cops, but she looks tired.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
Mom sighs, shakes her head at me with a smile. It brightens into a smirk. “You know, you can talk to us about anything.”
I stare at her. That’s not true. It was private. I have a right to privacy at my age. Besides, they wouldn’t understand this. I was still figuring out why I keep driving forty minutes through the dark for someone like Jacob. There were no strings attached, but there was a thread I kept following, unraveling. It was fun. And exciting. And I was restless. Everything was still new for me. With Jacob. Mom and Dad were old. And even if they did understand, they wouldn’t like it.
“We just want you safe,” Mom says.
“I know. I’m fine.”
“And using protection,” she adds, looking at me out of the corner of her eye. She doesn’t know. She’s just guessing.
“Mom!” I avert my eyes and blush without having to force it. Me and Jacob were being “safe.” I made sure of it, but my parents didn’t need to know anything about that.
“Okay, okay,” Mom says. “Just go to bed then.”
I turn to walk past her as Dad comes back in.
“Car’s fine,” he confirms for Mom.
She sighs once again. In relief. “Go on,” she tells me. “It’s late.”
“And leave the phone,” Dad says. His only comment to me.
I walk back and drop it into the junk drawer.
I sleep without dreaming.
The next morning, I inspect the tooth again in the bathroom mirror. It’s not bad, but it’s noticeable. The outer corner of the right, front tooth. Gone. It looks rounded off from afar, chipped closer up. At least no one at school talks to me anymore.
I pack up my bookbag, Mom’s lecture on following through on chores washing over me. I catch the bus. I turn in homework. I go to lunch.
I sit as far away from my friends as possible, ending up by the trash cans, but I still see them looking. Whispering. It’s not until my last bite of crappy cafeteria pizza that I start to choke. I can’t even cough, it’s so far down my throat. The suffocation dream. Vision. The teeth rattle in my chest. Panic. Someone appears beside me, catching my arm. I black out and see fire.
Orange flames running through a forest, jumping from tree to tree. Smoldering meadows and mountains. Fire racing across the top of desert dunes, sand burning. The oceans topped with oil spills and spitting black smoke into the sky. Charred and twisted remains of cars. Drivers burned. Passengers fleeing. Mom carrying Chloe. Dad and Caleb sprinting, reaching back for them. Jacob in bed, burning inside his little cabin. The flames will catch up. They will reach everyone. Beyond California. Beyond America. Everything.
I’m awake. A crowd towers over my body.
“Are you alright?” a teacher asks.
I clear my throat of teeth, the third vision still burning in my mind. “Yes.”
A round of giggles.
“I need to go,” I say, standing. People move out of the way, and I try not to see their bodies as burned corpses. I go to my locker and collect my things before stopping in the bathroom. Sure enough. Blood.
That doesn’t mean it’s true, I tell myself, as I put in a tampon. I was just unconscious. That doesn’t count as dreaming. Probably. I was thinking of forest fires anyway. I was watching too much of the news now that I didn’t have free access to my phone.
I’d never had three visions before my period. Usually one, maybe two. And always small, like cutting my knee shaving or Caleb getting sick in the car. Chloe’s first steps. I could never prevent them. Only witness.
But I’d never seen the whole world like that. All that burned death. Flames ignited in my stomach. It had never felt so real.
I go to the office and say I’d like to go home. One of the ladies there saw what happened in the cafeteria. They let me call Mom. She doesn’t ask questions, sends an uber to pick me up.
Mom is in the playroom, an avalanche of children between her and me. Several have started crawling towards me, reaching. I see their tiny bodies burning.
“Hey,” I say, backing away slightly. “Can I talk to you?”
“How sick are you?” She’s wrangling two toddlers. Or trying to separate them. It’s hard to tell, but they are both screaming. “Can you help?”
“Sure.” How do you tell someone your dreams keep coming true and now you’ve seen the apocalypse? I sigh and sit cross-legged on the floor, letting the children overtake me. I can only hold a couple in my lap at a time, but they all try to climb up at the same time. No one spits up. For now.
Mom speaks softly to her circle of toddlers, makes sure everyone is playing nicely. Encourages them to lie down on the mats and tiny pillows she’s set out.
“Almost nap time,” she smiles, walking to me, an eye still on her brood across the room. She plucks a child off me. Another takes his place at my shoulder. “Are you okay?”
“I choked on my lunch,” I say, hand on my throat without putting it there.
Mom’s face panics. “Oh sweetie. That must have been scary. I’m glad they let you come home.”
I don’t feel the need to correct her. “I knew it was going to happen.”
Mom was eyeing the children but turns to me. “What?”
“I dreamed about it,” I say. “And about chipping my tooth.”
“Cassandra, your tooth isn’t chipped.”
“Yes, it is.” I grin big and point at the right, front tooth. “See?”
“Oh,” Mom says. “Maybe a little.”
“That’s not the point.”
One of the younger toddlers crawls towards Mom, slamming its bald head into her shin. Mom lifts up the baby as it starts to cry. It’s Chloe. She gurgles and grins at me. I force myself not to relive my vision.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Mom asks. “Is this about last night?”
“No,” I say, inhaling through my sore throat. One of the kids drools against my arm. I can’t tell if she’s asleep or trying to suckle my elbow. “I’m dreaming the future. I have been for a while.”
Mom’s expression doesn’t change, only a dropping of her eyebrows. Pity. “Cassandra, why don’t you lie down. I’ll bring you some water, okay?”
“I don’t need water,” I say, though I’d felt dizzy since my blackout. My head was still fuzzy, and cramps were beginning in my abdomen. “I keep seeing things before they happened. I swear. And I saw something else too.”
“What was it?” Mom says, almost in a baby voice. She was looking at Chloe, her thumb trapped in her chubby fist.
“You’re not taking me seriously.”
Mom sighs. “I try to take you seriously, honey. But you haven’t been behaving very maturely.”
“Yes, I have!” I protest.
“What about last night?”
“That’s different,” I say.
“How?” Mom is looking straight at me now. She already guessed I was having sex. Maybe it didn’t matter who with. But Jacob’s age stopped me.
“It’s private,” I say, putting off the inevitable. Also, I didn’t plan on discussing my sex life in front of a bunch of toddlers.
“I would have preferred you wait until you were an adult, but—”
The girl drooling against my arm jolts awake, starts to cry. Mom trades her for Chloe, leaving my baby sister in my arms. She cries louder. The drooler calms. Mom nudges the other kids towards the nap mats.
“Is it someone from Cal State?” Mom persists. She’s nothing if not a multitasker. “One of the E.E.P. people, I hope, and not an undergrad.”
“Yeah” I lie, testing her reaction. “My age.”
Mom’s eyes light up. “Why didn’t you say anything? You know you can always come to me for boy advice.”
Damn. She hadn’t known for sure.
“It’s private,” I say again. “It doesn’t matter. I’m trying to tell you what else I saw.”
Mom is beaming, swaying her hips with the drooler still in her arms. “Cassie’s got a boyfriend. Cassie’s got a boyfriend.”
“Mom! Everyone is going to die!”
She stops dancing. “Cassandra, I was only teasing. We can talk more about how you can protect yourself—”
“Nevermind!” She wouldn’t believe me if I spent the next twenty-four hours trying to convince her, and I didn’t know when it would happen, where it would start. To think, I was going to ask her if she had ever experienced something similar, if this was hereditary, but there was no way. She would never get it.
I lay Chloe down on the nearest mat and stalk out of the playroom. Jacob and his green eyes would listen to me. There was a 50/50 chance he was at the cabin instead of his parent’s house, which I had never been to.
“Don’t you think you’re being a little dramatic?” Mom asks, not moving, most of her charges still awake. She can’t leave.
With my bookbag still on, I grab my phone and leave the house. Dad’s shop is about a mile away, but he’ll let me take his car without too much of an interrogation. Or he’ll be too engrossed in work to notice.
When I get there, still sweating from the walk, he’s helping a customer in the back, both men ducked inside an open car hood, discussing a failing engine. To avoid any questions, and to save time, I swipe his keys from the desk. I just need a little time away. And even if Jacob isn’t at his cabin, the spare key is under a statue of Smokey the Bear on the porch.
The smog is bad today. The distant smoke of the forest fires is covered, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worse than before. Is that how it would happen? Forest fires already had a hold on California. Could they spread over the whole country? The whole world? Or was it something worse. A nuclear bomb. A series of volcanic explosions.
I drive carefully, fiery ruins of cars in my head.
Jacob doesn’t have class today. Though I remembered my phone, I forget to text him before I pull up in front of the cabin. I knock on the door. After a few moments, Jacob answers. With the door open, I can hear music playing, see candles lit around the room. There’s a pair of strappy sandals by the door, a hair tie on the nightstand that isn’t mine.
“Hi,” Jacob says. He’s not wearing a shirt.
I push past him into the cabin. “Is someone else here?” I never got candles. Or music.
A blonde head and bare shoulders peek out from behind the bed. “Hi,” the girl says. The woman says. She’s gorgeous, vaguely familiar. “Sorry, thought you might be the neighbors again.” She giggles, not a shred of shame or awkwardness in her face.
The neighbors had never complained about me and Jacob. My face flushed. She must do things differently. Better.
“Who are you?” she asks, not threatened by the little girl at the door.
“Jacob, can I talk to you?” I say.
“It’s okay, Jake,” the woman says. I don’t like the nickname. “I’m late for class anyway.”
She grabs some crumpled fabric from the floor and slips it on before standing. A loose dress, apparently all that she’d been wearing. She heads towards us without a word, leans her hand on Jacob’s shoulder as she puts on her sandals by the door. He stands steady for her. I remember who she is. Holly. Another undergrad volunteering with the EEP Honor Academy. His age.
“See you later.” She gives him a peck and leaves.
“Cassandra,” Jacob says, shutting the door behind her. He thinks I’m going to freak out.
“It’s fine,” I say too quickly. “It’s fine.” It’s not, but we hadn’t made any promises. We were adults. At least, I thought I was an adult.
“Are you sure?” He sounds guilty.
I nod, keeping back the prick of tears behind my eyes. I need someone to talk to about the vision, but he isn’t it. I can’t. I need to leave.
He opens his arms, offering a hug I’m not sure I want, but there’s a knock at the door. Jacob, having learned from my entrance, crouches down and checks the keyhole. “Cassandra.”
“What?” I ask, light-headed. Could it be yet another girlfriend?
He steps back from the keyhole. “I think your Dad is here.”
“What?” I go to look, see my Dad’s grease-smeared shop apron, the wedding ring on his left hand. “Shit.” Mom must have sent him.
“Go hide behind the bed,” says Jacob. “I’ll see what he wants.”
Not thinking, I go hide where Jacob’s girlfriend had just been. It smells like sex by the bed. I tell myself I’m not jealous. Or mad. I tell myself I’m just thrown off. But I don’t believe it. If I can’t even see my present, how could I see the future? I duck further down, breathing in the dust from the slatted floor. Trying not to cry. Or at least not make any noise.
Jacob opens the door. “Hello?”
“Hi,” says Dad, sounding a bit awkward. “I’m looking for my daughter, Cassie Perkins. The phone tracker says that she’s nearby, and I saw my car down the street. Is she here?”
“I don’t know a Cassie,” says Jacob. “Sorry.” The door starts to creak closed.
“Wait,” Dad says. “That yellow jacket there. Does that say Cal State Early Entrance Program?”
There’s some shuffling. “Um, yeah,” Jacob says. “I volunteer at EEP. I’m a freshman at Cal State.”
“Our daughter applied there,” Dad says. “She was there this summer.”
“Oh,” Jacob says. He snaps. “Do you mean Cassandra Perkins? Yeah, I remember her now.”
“What’s your name?”
“Jacob, is my daughter here?”
“Nope!” Jacob’s voice is slightly too high, panicky. “I don’t even—I didn’t even recommend her to the program director.”
I almost come out. Was that true or was he lying to get rid of him? Was Jacob the reason I didn’t get in?
There’s silence for a moment, and I picture Dad eyeing him, judging. “Fine.” He gives up.
The door swings shut.
I stand up from behind the bed.
“Shh,” Jacob hisses before I can speak. He’s at the window. With the curtains pulled aside, I see Dad walking to the next cabin.
“Is that true?” I say anyway. “You didn’t recommend me?” It wasn’t what I had planned on saying.
Jacob turns away from the window but doesn’t answer for long enough that I get my answer. I don’t want to cry over it, but I do.
“Baby,” he starts.
“No.” I sniff. “Don’t.” I don’t want to be upset. About this or the woman in his bed. I’m not. I’m not. I’m not. My chest is tight and hot.
Jacob walks over to the bed, sits down on it and pats the sheets. They’re still tangled from his latest romp.
I stay standing. After a moment, he approaches me and wraps his arms around me, crossed arms and all.
“I had a dream,” I say into his bare shoulder, not relaxing, not sure why I’m telling him other than I have to tell someone. “About me chipping my tooth and then choking. And it happened. They both happened.”
“Chipping your tooth?” Jacob’s chest rumbles with the question.
“When I cut my lip,” I explain. “I chipped my tooth too.”
“Oh, right.” There was doubt in his tone. “I told you it wasn’t noticeable.”
“And I dreamed it before it happened. And then I had another dream.”
“About what, babe?”
“About the end of the world.”
Jacob pulls back a little, trying to look at me. “What?”
I keep my arms crossed, as much as I want to hug him back. “Everything was on fire. Everyone dies.”
Jacob grabs my shoulders and pushes me back, meets my eyes. “What are you talking about?”
He thinks I’m crazy.
“Why?” I ask. “Why didn’t you tell them to accept me?”
He sighs. “Because of shit like this, Cassandra.”
“You do crazy shit all the time.”
“I’ve never told—”
“You were straight up lying to your friends about us going out to eat.”
“You didn’t want anyone to know about us,” I say.
“Did I ever say that?” Jacob asks.
I pause. He didn’t. I assumed.
“It’s true, but whatever.” He rolls his eyes at me.
A spark lights and dies in my chest.
“And then,” he continues. “You still flirted with me in front of them and the staff. You didn’t consider the consequences. You only think about yourself. Do you know what could happen if people found out I was sleeping with you?”
“You would be embarrassed?” I ask. Of course, there was a difference between us. Jacob was almost a man. I just got boobs. I had a long way to go, a lot to learn about being a real person. But I’m ready. I think.
“No,” Jacob scoffs. “I would get in trouble. I’m eighteen. A legal adult. You’re sixteen.”
“That’s only two years.”
“That’s not—that doesn’t matter!”
“Whatever!” I yell back, running out of arguments. “You could have told him I was here. My parents already know I’m having sex with someone.”
“You know,” Jacob stares at me, “you’re not as smart as you think you are.”
He continues talking, but my brain fogs him out. I’ve never been so insulted. He thinks I’m an idiot. A child.
“—consequences for you too,” he’s saying.
“What?” I repeat.
“Do your parents know how old I am?”
I don’t answer.
“Didn’t think so.” Jacob sneers. “You told them you were fucking someone, but no details.”
“So.” I try not to let him see how much his tone affects me, how much harsher the f-word sounds when he’s says it standing up, not in bed.
“Because you knew they wouldn’t want you sleeping with someone like me.”
I don’t respond, still stuck on his previous accusation. I’m not as smart as I think I am. It’s true, I realize. I can see the future, but I’m so stupid that it doesn’t make a difference. It makes no fucking difference.
“Shall I call daddy back? Let’s see what he thinks.” Jacob, still shirtless, runs from me.
“Wait!” I go after him, stumbling a little on the uneven floor.
It’s too late. Jacob’s already through the door when I reach him. He half turns back, pushes my shoulder a little too hard to get me out of the way, and shuts the door. I fall.
My hand brushes the nightstand, brings it down with me. One of the candles sputters out immediately. The other one catches on the bedspread. It begins to burn. One of the spreading flames falls to the floor, catching on the wooden panels. The fire is roaring before I can get back up.
As I struggle, I hear something being pushed across the wooden deck. Jacob’s blocking the door with the porch’s chairs, the bench, Smokey the Bear.
I finally stand, but the fire is racing across the wooden floor.
This is what starts the end of the world. The flames follow the border of the rug before beginning to swallow it too. The wood walls are starting to catch as well. I make it to the door. Push. The furniture and statue don’t budge. This is the only exit. I’m trapped.
I look out the windows—windows we’ve never been able to open, the cabin to old and cheaply made. I see Jacob jogging down the street towards one of the neighboring cabins. My father is nowhere to be seen. I search for something to break to window with, pull off my own shoe and bang it against the glass. No cracks. The flames are up to the ceiling now, blinding white at their base, red at the tips. It’s hot. My lungs taking in smoke, sharp against my insides, trying to invade other organs. My throat burns. I can’t see anything else in the room. I punch the window. Bloody knuckles. No dramatic shatter like the movies.
I scream, sure that someone will hear me. But smoke pours into my lungs. Turns my cries hoarse. I can’t see out the window anymore. I drop to the floor, belly down, nose against singed edge of the rug, not burning as easily as the rest of the floor. Someone will help me. Someone will notice. The smoke was escaping. But the fire will burn up the inside of the cabin before moving on to the outer structure, the neighboring cabins, through the surrounding forest and into the streets of Tujunga and then LA. But it will kill me first.
Maybe, I think, it will only kill me.
I’m still banging a fist against the base of the door—still immovable—when the first flames wrap around me, and there are no more thoughts. No more visions. They burn the clothes off. The hands blister. The individual hairs on the calves catch fire. The hair on the head burns with a bright smell that I choke on. I pound on the door with the skull, unable to breathe but still trying before it’s overtaken. The eyes are blind, but I think I hear someone knocking back, sliding furniture out of the way, on the way to rescue me.
But the body is thoroughly burned before anyone outside notices that the cabin is aflame, before anyone sees the smoke and sprints back to the girl he trapped, to the daughter he was searching for. The men burn themselves clearing the doorway. Standing over the body long enough to inhale its ashes. The neighbors call 911, and the firefighters are quick to respond. They save the cabins next door, stop the trees from going up in flames. The police and the parents will use the teeth to confirm what Jacob admits, to identify the body. To make the accusations that don’t go to trial, not without the expensive lawyers. The forest doesn’t burn. The city doesn’t burn. The world does not burn.