As I wave to the surging crowd, I grin hugely. They love me. Or at least they think they do. I shove away the thoughts that threaten to overwhelm me, straighten, and grin wider. My security team blocks the crowd from coming closer. I quickly head to the long black limousine that awaits me at the end of the side-walk. As I turn to wave to the crowd one last time, someone manages to push to the front. He looks to be around my age, but I can’t tell if he’s college-age or still in high school. He’s wearing a suit and down on one knee, his head bowed so all I can see is his sandy hair. He’s suddenly holding a small jewelry box.
“Zarita Oquendo!” he shouts, “will you marry me!”
I ignore him and get in the limo. The chauffeur shuts the door and we leave. I feel bad for the guy who proposed to me. I didn’t believe that it would actually happen, but now some poor fool is going to be all over the internet. And the ring he bought must have cost him a fortune. I hope he can get a refund.
I lean back onto the soft leather seat of the limo. I love how this feels. I am finally living my dream, and I’m lucky enough to have started early. Most actress wannabes wind up waitressing in Hollywood while they watch people living the lives they always wanted for themselves. The jealousy doesn’t really make for great customer service. They don’t usually start the month waitressing in a small city on the east coast, and end up with a job in a TV show on the west coast by the end of it, but that’s how it went for me. I love how I have total control of my life.
I shoot into an upright position when I hear my thoughts. I don’t have control of my life. I am completely powerless. If my actions led my life, I would still be a waitress. I had nothing to do with my sudden popularity. If I was in charge, I wouldn’t be the one who was now a national celebrity.
My phone rings, forcing me back to the present. Part of me wants to ignore it and follow this train of thought back to what should be my reality, but I know I have to answer. After all, the caller is someone I’ve known since we were both little, and the person who put me on the fast-track to fame besides.
“Hey, Jake, what’s up?”
“Not much. I just got back from the hospital. I’m supposed to be resting, but I don’t see the point. I’ll get to do just that soon enough. Anyway, congrats.”
I hear the laughter in Jake’s voice. He clearly has heard already about the proposal. Even only a second after mentioning the fact that his fast-track appears to be the one through life, he’s already going to bug me. Jake has Batten Disease, and it’s a miracle he’s still alive at age 21. That’s why he insisted I take credit for what he did: because I’m more likely to be here to enjoy the fame.
“I didn’t say yes.” I laugh.
“But you didn’t say no.” Jake points out.
“You don’t think he’s going to try that again, right?” I’m serious now. “He knows that I’m not going to marry him?”
“Well, he might take the fact that you didn’t answer to mean that you didn’t hear him, but I don’t know.”
I can hear him smiling again. Jake seems to think it’s the funniest thing.
“You wouldn’t joke if it was you. Imagine all the screaming girls who would throw themselves at your feet.”
“No they wouldn’t. Trust me, you’re doing me a huge favor by taking the credit. If I was in the public eye, everyone would know.”
“Fine, but you have to let me do something for you.” I tell him, “you have to have some of the benefits of what you did, other than a measly 20% of the money.”
He agrees that if he needs something he’ll call me, and we hang up as the limo pulls up to the front entrance of the building where I am staying in San Diego. It’s crazy how much I have made because of Jake. I thank the chauffeur and head inside. It’s still strange to me that I left my parents and the true hero back in Massachusetts. As I step onto the elevator, I think back to how it all started, only six months ago.
Jake had asked for a ride to Walmart. I was going anyway, and he wanted to pick up a few things. We were in the back of the store by the fabric when I froze.
“I smell smoke.” I told Jake.
Then the alarms went off. Someone made an announcement that everyone should head to the exit in as quick yet calm a manner as possible. Jake looked at the large signs above the aisles and started off with me close behind.
“Where are you going?” I asked, “the exit is that way.” I pointed straight ahead and towards the right. He kept going left. I followed him to the toys, where there were about 20 unsupervised kids who were either oblivious to the pandemonium, or standing there looking terrified.
“Okay, everyone.” Jake clapped his hands and all the kids turned to look at him. “We’re going to go outside and find all of your parents. Ready? Follow Zarita.”
So I led the whole group of kids outside into the heat of a midday summer sun, while Jake brought up the rear. When we got outside, we stood in a cluster while I tried to locate parents. Jake went back inside when I wasn’t looking and returned with four more kids. He turned to go back in and I grabbed his arm.
“Jake, you can’t run. Stop going back. The firemen can handle it.” They were already there and battling the flames.
“I have to. There might still be people inside.”
I looked out at the hundreds of people gathered in the parking lot. “I don’t think so, but let the people with the masks and non-flammable suits check. Okay?”
I pulled him over to the group of kids and he started asking them about their parents. It was only a short time before we had reunited most of the kids with whichever parent brought them to the store. One kid remained, and he insisted his mother was inside. So Jake turned to head back inside, despite my insistence that there were a lot of people there and perhaps the kid’s mother was somewhere in the middle.
As Jake was about to re-enter the burning building, his Batten Disease kicked in and he jerked backwards, knocking himself off balance and into me. I caught him, barely, and pulled him away. He apologized profusely, but he listened when I made him sit down with Dylan (the other kid).
Dylan’s mother apparently had been inside. He saw her on a stretcher being rushed to the hospital, and burst into tears. Jake was the one with the presence of mind to ask the kid for his phone number. We told the kid’s dad what happened, he spoke to his son, and then we agreed to meet at the hospital.
On the way, Jake passed out, so when we got there, I called inside and they sent a stretcher out while I texted Jake’s parents. I walked with Dylan to meet his father as soon as the paramedics took Jake inside. Dylan’s father thanked me profusely, and then we parted ways. Them to see Dylan’s mother, and me to see Jake.
The next morning, when I came downstairs, both my parents were waiting for me. Someone had taken pictures of me the previous day. One of me catching Jake, a few of me with other kids, and one of me with Dylan and his dad at the hospital. My father’s favorite newspaper had the story of the Walmart fire along with the ‘college-girl hero’ who’d supposedly saved a bunch of kids and even went to check on the burn victims at the hospital.
I called Jake, but he insisted that I shouldn’t set the record straight. He also reminded me that if people knew that it had been him, he would be forced to tell the world about his problem, and he wasn’t interested.
After that, people started leaving huge tips for me at the restaurant where I worked, and people sent me random gifts of appreciation. Pretty soon, the whole country knew my name, but no one knew about Jake, despite the fact that he was getting 20% of what I got. I don’t think he even told his parents what really happened.
As the elevator’s ding alerts me to the fact that I have arrived on my floor, I once again force myself back into the present. I just finished a long morning of filming, and, as if that’s not enough, I made a few visits along the way back to the penthouse. Although the sun is still up, it’s only five, and I haven’t eaten supper yet, all I want to do is go to sleep. Back home it’s already eight, and since that’s also too early to go to bed, I call my parents while I make myself dinner (I decided hiring a personal chef was too much).
“Hi, Sweetie!” my mother answers brightly, “How was your day?”
“It’s so hard. Being an actress is harder than it looks. And this is TV we’re talking. If I mess up, I can have a million do-overs.” I realize that I sound whiny, and try again. “Then again, there are countless girls even just my age who would probably do a lot to be in my place. And at least I’m not in LA itself. I have two hours every morning to prepare myself. I can’t believe I am a guest star for Disney! Oh, and Mom, they offered me my own movie!”
“It sounds like you’re having a great time. I miss you though.”
“Well, I haven’t decided if I am going to take it yet, but this all feels like another part I have to play. When do I get to stop working? It’s a bit extreme, right? Even for supposedly saving a bunch of kids. Shouldn’t my five minutes be over by now?”
“Zarita, it’s one hundred percent up to you. Your father and I will support you, whatever you decide. If you want to come home, you can, but as to how long this fame lasts, only time will tell. We have newspapers here too.”
“I hate that my life is governed by the choices of others. Why can’t I control what happens?” I sighed, “Anyway, I haven’t heard how your day went.”
My mom and I talk for a while, then she passes the phone to my dad. We talk for almost an hour, and I ask for advice. By the end of the discussion, I know that it’s time for me to go back home. I will finish up filming the last episode I signed up for tomorrow, and I will have to leave the movie role for someone else. Now that I’ve been an actress for a bit, met some really great people, and all, I think I need to go finish college and start a real job of sorts. I want to get myself where I go. I don’t want to coast along the waves of someone else’s actions.
And so, the very next week, after leaving my chauffeur and security members with a nice severance package and a bit more free time, I fly back home. My dad meets me at the airport in his beaten old truck, and from there we head straight home. After a bit of settling in and too many hugs from my parents, I drive over to Bridgewater State University in my Toyota camry.
Back when I went to Bridgewater, I used to drive Jake home. He never learned to drive because of his condition, and we live in the same neighbourhood. I text his friend Devon, who started driving him when I left, to let him know I would be there today. When I pull into the parking lot, I look to the sky and whisper a thank you. It appears that my leaving California behind is either not in the news yet, or the world has forgotten me. Either way, I am happy that I can wait for Jake without dodging paparazzi.
I don’t have to wait long. After only a few minutes, I see four people walking towards the parking lot. I notice that one of them has blue hair, one has hair that stands out from his head by at least a foot, and the other two are Jake and Devon. I wave, and then I see Jake freeze. Devon laughs, and then, from the way he gestures, I guess that he is telling the other two who I am. I briefly wonder how he explains. I’m not Jake’s girlfriend, although I am pretty sure that’s only because Jake doesn’t think that he’s going to live much longer, and doesn’t want to leave heartbreak behind him. That’s just another thing beyond our control.
Jake moves again, a bit faster than I would think is wise, especially since Batten Disease makes its victims clumsy. And then he trips. I run forward. By the time I get closer, Jake is steady again. I stop about three feet from the group.
“Z?” Jake sounds like he doesn’t believe that I could be back. He shakes his head as if to clear it, and then gestures to the people around him. “You know Devon, this is Martin,” the guy with the hair lifts a hand in a wave. “And Lisa.” The blue-haired one.
“Hey, you must be Zarita. How was Hollywood?” Lisa asks.
“Too much.” I answer honestly, “It was fine at first, if a bit overwhelming, but it’s not here.”
Martin, Devon, Lisa, and I chat for a bit, then Devon announces that he has a ton of work to do and drags Lisa and Martin away.
For the entire five minutes, Jake was just standing there staring at me.
“Jake,” I catch his eyes with mine. “Are you okay?”
“What are you doing here? I thought they offered you a movie.”
“I told them I appreciated it, but I was ready to head home. I have people here that no one can replace in San Diego or LA.”
I see a smile tug at his mouth, and he finally steps forward to hug me. I feel so stereotypical when my pulse quickens, but I hug back. Too soon, Jake steps back, and we walk side by side to my car.
A couple more months pass like this, only, I re-enroll in Bridgewater, working my schedule to end at the same time as Jake’s. I keep my feelings about Jake to myself, until one Sunday night I accidentally say ‘I love you’ as I hang up. The second I realize my mistake, I turn off my phone so I won’t know if Jake texts or calls. I spend the next hour trying to calm my racing heartbeat.
The next morning when I pick Jake up, I’m very nervous. Sure enough, he starts talking almost immediately.
“Z, about what you said yesterday, do you mean it?”
I struggle to keep my eyes on the road, while I nod. I can’t see him, but I hear his intake of breath. He releases it slowly.
“I don’t know what to do. I always avoided dating because I don’t know if I will still be here tomorrow. I might be in the hospital, or just gone. I can’t really make commitments cuz of that.”
“I know. That’s why I wasn’t going to say anything. I’m sorry.” I blink, trying to keep from crying. I need to see the road to drive. For once, I am hoping that his thick glasses are just barely not enough to see me clearly.
“Don’t be sorry.” Jake’s voice is very low, like he’s also trying not to cry. “I like you, Zarita.”
“Tell you what,” he says after a while, “let’s try it. The doctors say I might beat this, so maybe it’s safe. How about Friday, after finals? Will you go out with me?”
Every time I drop Jake off, I tell him how excited I am. I think I might be accidentally making him nervous, and perhaps regret his decision. On Thursday morning when I get in my car to go pick Jake up, my phone rings. It’s Jake’s mom.
“Hi, Zarita. Jake isn’t going to school today. He’s in the hospital.” I can hear an extra level of fear in her voice.
“Are you there now? I’m coming.”
So I drove to the hospital. Jake’s disease had advanced drastically. He’d woken up without being able to use his legs, and after holding off for over a decade more than normal, it was advancing rapidly. Jake doesn’t look like himself with all the tubes connected to him. By the time Devon, Martin, and Lisa arrive, he is already gone.
I’m crying again. I never felt more lost than I do right now. Not even when I was on my own in California. During the funeral I stood with his family, but now, I stand here on my own. I lay down a large bouquet of daisies on his grave and turn away, tears obscuring my vision. As I leave, I make a silent promise that I will give the bulk of the money I made during my fame to research on Batten Disease. Someone must be able to find a cure, although for Jake, it’s too late.