000 – September 30th

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Entirely Presenting You is a web serial in the modern supernatural genre, with elements of action, and occasionally horror and psychological drama. It is currently scheduled to update weekly, 12 a.m. CST on Saturdays.

Also, know that this story will be dark, and will not stray from themes including, but not limited to, graphic violence and language. Effort will be made to take such subjects as seriously as they deserve to be, but potentially queasy readers should be wary, regardless. But most importantly, this was written for fun, and hopefully readers will have some fun along the way.

For a more in-depth explanation on what this web serial is, check the About page. For even more, why not check out this trailer? Or this one? Or perhaps this one?

A girl’s story will be presented in its entirety. And it begins on the night of September 30th. If you are able, enjoy.

030 – Fragile Ego

epy arc 5 look

Previous

“Alexis!”

I raised my head, squinting. Head rush.

Ms. Powers stood at the head of the classroom, displeased.

Delayed, I made a sound in response. “Hmm?”

That didn’t help any.

“I’d be less offended if you spent my class on your phone the whole time, rather than sleeping.”

But I don’t care what you have to say.

Sleepily, I pulled a strand of hair out of my mouth, pushing some back behind my ear. I rubbed my thumb right under my eye.

“Sorry, didn’t mean-”

The bell cut me off.

Everyone started getting up, gathering their belongings, chatting amongst themselves. I followed, sweeping up my binders and journals into my arms, keeping them close to my chest. I got out of my chair, and started leaving the classroom, looking for Brittany. I wanted to walk and talk with her as we headed to our next class.

“Alexis.”

I stopped, then turned. Ms. Powers was at her desk, sitting. She motioned for me. She looked stern.

Not now.

Reluctantly, I walked up to her, I clutched my school stuff tighter, closer.

“Yeah, Ms. Powers?” I asked, my pitch a bit higher.

She took a look past me before saying anything. Waiting until everyone has filed out of the classroom?

Ms. Powers put her hands together, resting them in her lap. “What’s going on, Alexis?”

I answered her like I did before. “Hmm?”

She pressed her lips to a line, and tilted her head to the computer beside her. “You’ve missed several homework assignments in the last few weeks, you haven’t done very well on the last few quizzes, and you’ve been out of it in that time, too. We have a test coming up, do you know that?”

“I do, yeah.” I vaguely remembered Ms. Powers mentioning something like that, but I was pretty confident that it wasn’t for another week or so. I’d study later.

She had an eyebrow raised at me. “There’s a lot of material there that I don’t you have a grip on, yet. Are you going to be okay?”

I considered my chances. I could make a passing grade on it, possibly. Worst case scenario was that I’d have to beg Katy to help and tutor me, even though she might not be entirely familiar with the material. She was taking a more advanced class.

“I think I will be.”

Her accusatory expression remained. “We’re only in the first half of the school year, so you have time to turn things around, but, if you don’t get a handle on this soon, it’s going to be a lot harder on you later.”

Are you already saying that I’m going to fail this class?

“I’ll make sure that it doesn’t come to that,” I said, trying to remain cheery. We only had five minutes for a passing period, and it took three minutes to get to my next class. I’d end up being late if Ms. Powers didn’t end this soon.

“I’m asking if there’s anything you’re having trouble with. I have after school hours, so I can help with whatever you’re having trouble on. Some students from the math club show up, too, so you can get help from your peers if you’re uncomfortable with me over your shoulder.”

I wanted to roll my eyes, but there was no way I could get away with it. Plus, she was actually being reasonable. I’d feel awful if I kept up an attitude.

“Sure, definitely. I’ll swing by if I need it.”

I wasn’t sure if I meant that. I’d still prefer Katy helping me out.

Ms. Power’s whole, rotund body relaxed some, like I had just let go of holding mochi, and was watching the snack slowly return to its original shape.

“I’d really recommend it,” Ms. Powers said. “You were a good student, Alexis, you just need to get your priorities straight.”

Oh, I know.

“Is it because you’re in the middle of volleyball season?” Ms. Powers asked. “Is Coach T running you too ragged to study at home?”

I drummed my fingers on my binder, four quick successive taps. “It’s not volleyball. It’s something… more personal.”

Ms. Powers made a face. Concern, I recognized. “Oh, alright then.”

I could hear them behind me. Kids from the next class coming in to take their seats. The bell would ring again soon, and I’d get a tardy.

“Uh, Ms. Powers? I gotta head to my next class. Otherwise…”

Her eyes widened, slightly. Ms. Powers rocked back in her seat, then forward, using the momentum to get to her feet.

“I apologize for keeping you. Go, go.”

I turned.

“But don’t forget what I said!” She called out as I left the classroom.

“Sure thing!” I said back. With seconds on the metaphorical timer, I rushed to my next class.

Valerie had her elbows on the table. She whined.

“Man, this is terrible. I wanna go out for lunch.”

“Can’t,” Eve said. “Staff and teachers have upped their game during lunch hours. They’ll check anyone walking outside, asking for a school ID. I’d rather not take that chance.”

“Right?” I agreed, “These new rules are such ass.”

“Watch what you say,” Jenny said, grinning. “Someone might be listening.”

I agreed with her. Sometimes, being secretive was more important than any ounce of honesty. I glanced around in the bustling cafeteria.

The school’s atmosphere had changed in recent weeks, a certain electricity in the air that made everyone antsy. The new rules, the stricter policies, stricter teachers, and the addition of another school cop made for a particularly new environment that the student body hadn’t quite adjusted to just yet. I could almost say there was a sense of paranoia, if I wanted blow things out of proportion.

All because of one person.

I would have found it interesting, if I didn’t have to keep watching my back.

“You gonna be okay with just that?” Eve asked, pointing to the apple I had in front of me. I hadn’t taken a bite out of it, for reasons known only to me.

“I’m not hungry right now, so I’m gonna save this for later, probably during Mr. Richard’s class.”

“That’s your prerogative,” Eve said, “But you’ll turn to dust if you keep up with that diet. You actually have to settle and stop, you know?”

“I do know.”

“Coach is going to get on your case about it, too, if she hasn’t already.”

“If I’m not at practice, it’ll be harder for her to do that.”

Brittany cut in, this time. “You’re not coming today?”

I put my hand on my notebooks, set beside the apple. “I have to start super studying for tests and stuff, especially math. If I don’t, I won’t have a practice to go back to.”

I was sitting in a group of my volleyball teammates, but, if this cafeteria wasn’t so full of people, and was also a lot smaller, I would’ve felt like I was suddenly being interrogated.

Not that I didn’t love these girls, but I couldn’t find Katy and Maria in time. My teammates found me first.

“It’ll be alright,” I said, both lying and deflecting. “Pretty soon, I’ll be back to warming the benches for you.”

The table laughed.

The other girls went off into their own conversations with each other, and I decided to look into my notebook. Maybe I’d try to get some studying done, for once.

“By the way, Alexis, how were things with Brandon, before…”

Or not.

Valerie, sitting across from me, had asked that unfinished question. But that was enough to get the attention of the others here.

“What even happened there, anyways?” Eve asked.

Jenny answered, “Got caught with armed robbery, along with other accomplices that belong to the same gang. That’s more than enough to get him expelled, but, even if it wasn’t, I don’t think we’ll be seeing him anymore. Not for the rest of the school year.”

“God damn, you seem to know a lot about this, Jenny.”

Jenny flipped her hair. “What can I say? It’s juicy stuff. I even heard that The Bluemoon helped catch him.”

There were gasps from everyone at the table.

I tried to mimic their shock as much as I could, but I was more concerned over the fact the conversation moved to that topic.

“Yeah, Alexis, didn’t you go on a date with him, just before that?” Valerie asked, bringing that topic back to me. Which I feared.

Word spreads, doesn’t it?

As much as I didn’t want to answer that question, I’d earn some unneeded suspicion if I refused to address it.

“We did, I guess, but it really didn’t feel like a date, to be honest. It was more like two friends hanging out.”

“Ouch. The friend zone?”

That was a small revelation. Oh, it so totally was that, wasn’t it? That blows.

I let it a fake chuckle. “Yeah, that exactly. It… just didn’t work out. Simple.”

Not the full truth, but the general strokes were there. I didn’t mention Jillian.

“But did you know he did gang stuff?” Valerie asked.

“That was a surprise to me,” I said. That part, was the complete truth. “He didn’t seem like that kind of guy.”

“Ah, what could’ve been. Such a tragic love.” Valerie stuck her tongue out.

I recalled the time I saw Brandon. It was the first time Hleuco and I worked together. What luck. I was floored when I saw him, couldn’t quite process it. I freaked out, and I ran, unintentionally leaving him hung out to dry. Maybe I thought I gave him a good enough chance to make his own escape, but I could have been guessing under my own metrics. A personal price, a personal consequence, for being Blank Face. It was hard to get over, but I wasn’t going to let something like that stop me so soon.

As awful as that thought was.

“It was never going to work out, looking back at it now,” I said, “But it’s still heartbreaking, hearing about what happened.”

Valerie then looked deflated, “Man, stop trying to make me feel bad for wanting to joke around.”

Everyone at the table laughed again, but it was more downplayed, this time.

The conversation continued, but over another subject. It wasn’t before long the bell rang, and everyone had to leave for class.

My group split apart, saying goodbye, then we went to our respective classes.

Before I got to the stairs to reach the second floor, I came across the scene.

Two teachers, and a cop, were in the middle of stopping a student who was also leaving the cafeteria. They were talking to him, and he had a serious expression on his face. Upset that he was caught? He might as well have painted a target on his back.

Most students minded their own business, and kept moving, but a few watched as the teachers led the boy down the hall, in the opposite direction of where he was originally going. He looked forward, and I saw in detail why they had stopped him. Everyone did.

He was wearing a blue hoodie.

The school had rules that prohibited wearing colors that might insinuate gang affiliations, but what could you do if the whole spectrum of the rainbow was used for colors? It was never the most well-enforced rule, but recently, the school had updated the dress code. No one color was allowed to dominate an article of clothing. It had to either be all-black, or have some design or pattern that allowed another color to be incorporated. No blank shirts with strictly one color, pretty much. A hard rule to follow, honestly, it made a third of my wardrobe unwearable at school. Today, I had to wear a black school sweater, with the school mascot across the chest. A bat.

In the face of that rule, another update to the dress code was that you weren’t allowed to wear blue hoodies.

The Halloween Riots were still going, after all, and the school didn’t want any reference or image of that appearing in the building. Why? I wasn’t sure. Maybe the administrators didn’t want a possibility of a riot breaking out here, but that seemed unlikely to me.

Maybe it was an extension of the gang affiliation rule.

Either way, this student broke a rule, now he was being reprimanded for it.

He passed me, and he broke his forward gaze to glance at me.

I felt a spike in temperature, however slight.

He doesn’t know, of course he wouldn’t.

Impossible, absurd, didn’t make sense.

But I was still about to sweat.

The cop was following behind the teachers, and addressed me as he walked by.

“Nothing to see here, go to class.”

I stuttered, “O-okay.”

I hurried along, like a good student was supposed to.

With each step up the stairs, my paranoia increased. If that was what the school wanted, then they passed with flying colors.

The bell had sung its last tune for the day. Every student did their best to try to make it out of the building as fast as they could, and be free… until the next morning. I was more lax in my step, walking at a pace that the elderly would have been annoyed by.

My last class of the day had me in the back of the school. Because of that, the gym wasn’t far, not much of a walk. But today, I wasn’t going that way.

After getting to my locker, and stuffing all of my belongings into my backpack, I took one of the side doors, leading outside. Figured I’d get some fresh air while I wrapped around to get to the front of the school.

Crossing the back parking lot, I passed some kids standing around, smoking cigarettes. I turned the corner, and nearly bumped into someone who was absentmindedly standing too close to the turn.

Harrian Wong.

“Oh, Harrian, hi,” I said.

“Hello,” he responded, as despondent as ever. He was in black, too, but his clothes were baggier, his hair covering his eyes. He reminded he of a grim reaper. If he actually was one, though, I’d suspect there would be even more people on Earth. Not a lot of energy or pep in his movements.

“Watchu doing here?” I asked. “Waiting to be picked up?”

“I, um, I’m meeting with those two guys?” He phrased his answer weirdly.

“Those two guys?” I asked back. I tried a guess. “Eric and Evan?”

Slowly, he nodded.

“Neat, how’s that going? Do you hang out with them a lot?”

“Sometimes.”

Doesn’t exactly answer the question.

“But you’re going to go chill with them today, right?”

Harrian shrugged. “I guess so. Eric just ask me to come here after school ended, today.”

“Sounds fun,” I said, with not a lot of fun inflected in my voice, admittedly. I should probably move along, but something compelled me to stick around for a little longer.

“You went to the barbeque, right? How was that?”

“Good. There were games and food and stuff, a lot of the Asian kids from here went to it.”

“Oh? Who went? Jasmine, Mary?”

“I only recognized their faces.”

“Okay,” I said. “Did you do anything there?”

“I volunteer. Help out at different booths, and organize different events.”

“Wow, that’s actually really impressive.”

“I was so tired, I thought I was going to die.”

I almost laughed at the statement, but I didn’t, even though I was sure it was a joke. “Been there, almost done that.”

“I’m not sure I follow.”

“I was trying to say to that I’ve been so tired I thought I was going to die.”

Harrian paused, in thought.

“Oh no, isn’t that a big deal? People die every year from overwork, especially in Japan.”

“Wait, no, that’s not, that’s not what I was getting at.”

“No? Because it’s an issue that doesn’t get talked about a lot. Did you know, according to the Japan Times, that 23 percent of 1,743 Japanese companies surveyed said that they have employees who worked more than 80 hours of overtime a month? And twelve percent said that some employees work more than 100 hours? And that last year, 96 people died from brain and heart illnesses linked to overwork? Other countries across the world have a similar issue, too.”

I frowned, “And the two of us, talking here, isn’t going to help solve it.”

He actually frowned in return. “No sadly.”

A second, then several, passed.

Wait…

How did we go from a barbeque to the overwork epidemic plaguing Japan?

Is he just dense, or a genius?

The conversation was losing air, and I wanted to abandon it. I had other things to get to, after all.

“I have to go, I’ll see you around, Harrian,” I said. “I wouldn’t want to keep you from the boys when they get here.”

I moved to leave, but Harrian had begun to speak, and that gave me pause.

“… zài jiàn.”

I scratched my head. “Didn’t catch that, exactly.”

“I just wanted to say ‘see you later.’ In Mandarin.”

“How nice of you,” I said, genuine.

“What’s ‘good bye’ in Japanese?”

Put on the spot. I didn’t have a response prepared. My knowledge of Japanese was pathetically sparse, despite all the years of my mom trying to teach me.

I searched in the recesses of my memory.

I put my hands in my pockets, and I tilted my head.

“The only word I can think of is ‘sayonara.’ But I think people don’t typically say that. It implies a sort of finality. Don’t quote me on it.”

Harrian accepted that. “Good enough.”

He stood, almost in anticipation.

Did you actually want me to say it?

If I say that, will you let me leave?

I tried not to look fazed. I’d entertain him, for the moment.

“Sayonara, Harrian.”

He waved, and I left, going towards the front of the school.

Harrian was an odd guy, with an odd way of speaking and with an odd way of presenting himself. But, he seemed well-meaning. In only a few minutes, I had the oddest conversation I would ever have ever. And somehow, I doubted it was going to be my last one with him.

“How does this fit?” Katy stepped out of the changing room, wearing a dark blue gown, black heels. She struck a pose.

I laughed until I started coughing. Maria cackled.

Katy puffed out her cheeks with a pout, turning red. “I’m being serious, here.”

“I’m being serious here, too,” Maria said, “You look like a host for a gameshow.”

“Katy, sorry, but I’m with Maria,” I said, “But I am ready to take that cruise to the Bahamas.”

Between the two of us, we made even more of a racket. Women from other changing rooms poked their heads out to stare, but we hardly cared.

Katy, however, was not so enthused. “Screw you guys. I like it, I’m buying it.”

She went back into the changing room.

“Wait, wait,” Maria said, trying to catch her breath. “Did you even check the tag, it’s not on sale.”

“I don’t know the price, and I don’t care to know,” she said from inside the changing room. “I’m buying it, screw you guys.”

Through our pointed teasing, we pleaded with Katy to not buy the dress. She didn’t listen. She left the changing room, storming past us to get to the register. After she purchased that extravagant piece of fashion, we exited the pricey store from the upper end mall known as the Realm.

Instead of taking me straight home, Katy took us here. Maria agreed to tag along.

The Realm wasn’t strictly a part of the upper districts that made up a richer part of town, but it was a start, a sort of hub where the upper middle class citizens liked to spend their time, and where the upper class would go to kill theirs, when there was nothing else to do. The stores here were nice, the employees were nice, everything looked nice. It was a good place to be. To be. Purchasing anything was another question entirely if you were just a normal working person.

We continued to walk around, Maria and I took in the glitz and glamour of the stores and pretty people. Granted, we were probably taking things too seriously, but it wasn’t like we got to be here everyday, much less right after school. For myself, anyways, I tried to enjoy my time here.

I was following advice given to me.

“Now we need to find dresses for you two,” Katy said, pointing to me and Maria.

“Why?” I asked, “And like we can afford anything from here. As if.”

“We can find what you like, and we’ll look for cheaper alternatives elsewhere.” Katy tapped her head. “Trust me, I got this.”

“What is this for, again?” Maria then asked. We stood in a line to take an escalator down.

“My mom’s planning a small gathering on the weekend,” Katy explained, almost coming across as tired.

“I’m not willing to believe anything your mom does as ‘small,’” I said.

“It’s for my dad, Mom wants to celebrate.”

I had a feeling she was understating things.

We reached the fourth floor, and checked out other stores, here.

“Celebrate what? Their anniversary?” Maria asked.

“No, it’s lamer than that.”

“Doesn’t sound like any party I want to go to.”

“Shut up. I want you to go, Maria, consider this your invitation. You can’t refuse either, Alexis, my mom’s already invited your mom.”

“Wasn’t planning on it?” I said in a funny way. I had a feeling I knew what Katy was referring to, and if I was right, that could really screw me over.

Part of me wanted to refuse.

“But what is it?” Maria asked, more adamant.

Katy looked reluctant to share, but she couldn’t withhold details forever. Through an uncharacteristically bashful look in her eyes, Katy explained.

“My dad’s been running for public office for the better part of the year, now, and the day for voting on it is about to come up. My mom is so confident that he’s going to take it that she’s been planning the whole thing ahead of time.”

“Isn’t that putting the cart before the horse?” Maria asked.

“My mom won’t stop talking about the polls, and I’ve seen it myself. It’s pretty dismal for the other guy.”

“If that’s so, then congrats. What’s the job?”

“DA. District attorney.”

“What do they do?”

“In the case of this city, he’s going to go up against the gangs. Personally.”

Maria looked like she just got shot. “Oh shit. Good thing I’m…”

Maria stopped, but she didn’t know what Katy and I already knew.

“Why’d you never bring it up before?” Maria asked instead, grilling into Katy at this point.

“It wasn’t relevant to bring up, and I didn’t think he’d actually get this far.”

We continued towards another store, checking the options inside.

I could see why Katy was so apprehensive about bringing this stuff up. She knew all too well about her dad’s public efforts over fighting the crime in the city. Officially making himself a public figure would complicate matters even more, and give him a wide scope of enemies and detractors to deal with.

If she only knew what else Thomas was up to, in the midst of this.

More than twenty-four hours since the attempted ambush of Styx’s Gang, and I was trying to follow Thomas’s advice, to help myself before I could help out others. I was… working on it. In my time as Blank Face, I had neglected some personal stuff that I should have been on the ball about. School, friends, my personal life, they were all put on hold while I tried to figure out these powers… and this thirst.

Things were starting to fall apart, and if it wasn’t for Thomas’s intervention, it was liable to get worse.

In the end, we all have secrets we want to keep.

“Anyways,” Katy said, disappointed with what this store had. “It is what it is, now. Let’s keep checking around.”

We took another escalator down. We checked a store, the name Italian, and the prices made the dresses not desirable at all. Not that they weren’t pretty – they were – but they were so unobtainable.

Even with the money Thomas had paid me for my nights as Blank Face. I felt guilty for accepting it before he knew, guiltier still after he did know. I offered, but he refused to take it back.

Right now, despite it being in cash, I couldn’t use it now, not with Katy and Maria being curious. Especially Katy.

Which had raised another concern I didn’t know I should have had.

Does Katy know I’m Blank Face?

Thomas admitted to figuring out who I was the second he saw me in person. Was there a similar case with Katy? She was smart, she could have pieced things together as the weeks passed. Dammit.

I was afraid to ask, afraid to find out. Because if I tried, and I was wrong, then I would have inadvertently spilled the beans before I was ready.

Thomas was a unique case as far as revealing my identity went. We went through a considerable amount in a short span of time, more than anyone should go ever through. And, in more ways than I could imagine, Thomas had saved my life.

Even if they were my friends, even if they were my best friends, I wasn’t ready to just tell Katy and Maria everything. Not yet. Once I got a grip on the other stuff in my life, the stuff I had been neglecting, then I’d consider it.

Katy was smart, insightful, and Maria had a way of surprising me. For now, I’d have to be wary of them.

As shitty as that was…

“Katy, let’s call it a day, we still have time to find a dress,” Maria said eventually. She pointed to the window roof, where the sunlight peeked through. An evening glow.

“Fine, we can head out,” Katy said, caving in. “I refuse to believe you’ll find anything that works.”

“Fuck you, I already have dope shit at home, believe that.” Maria sounded confident, and I could bet she had every reason to be. “It’s her you should be worried about.”

She directed that to me. I had to defend myself.

“Hey, I can clean up nice when I want to. Don’t you fret, Katy, I saw some decent pieces here, I’ll use those for inspo for finding something later.”

Katy huffed. “You two better be smoking when I see you there.”

Maria and I almost synced up. “I’m insulted that you’d question that.”

With that, we decided to make our way down to the first floor. Our way out to a parking lot was through a large department store. Of course, we had to at least look at the clothes they had, and smell the perfumes they had available. Worth it.

After some time, we took to leaving the Realm, getting outside.

A girl was standing outside, around the doors, trying to get people’s attention.

“Any information on the Bluemoon, please! We’re looking for any information about Stephenville’s watchful protector! Any help is appreciated!”

She was trying to hand out fliers, papers of differing, bright colors. Hardly anyone took them.

“Crazies,” I heard Katy mutter. I wasn’t willing to go that far, but to think there were fanatics just as much as there were detractors.

As if she could hear us, the girl came our way, stopping us. She held out a flier to us.

“If you have any information, please don’t hesitate to contact us!”

‘We’re?’ ‘Us?’

Is this some kind of organization?

The girl wasn’t any older than the three of us, though strangely familiar.

“Not interested,” Katy said, handling it quickly. She stepped past the girl, and Maria followed. I was a step behind, looking at the girl, still curious at her curiosity about the Bluemoon. As I passed, I took the flier from her hand.

Her glance to me turned into a hard, intrusive stare. Then, a wide-eyed stare. She looked me up and down.

She grabbed my hand.

“I know you!”

My heart sank.

I looked at this girl again. Loose denim jeans, striped shirt, with each stripe a different color. But I recognize her hair. Dyed a deep purple, cut into a bob that bounced.

Shit.

The girl from Braham Barn, from when I went back after discovering my powers. I scared off her and her friends. They saw me. I didn’t have a mask, back then. I wasn’t Blank Face yet.

Stephany? Her name was something like that.

Shitty shit.

Her hold on me was tight. If I tried to be forceful, it might cause a bigger scene.

“Yeah, oh my god, it’s you! I can’t believe I finally found you!”

I looked back. Katy and Maria were staring back, confused.

Oh shit.

“Come with me, just for a second,” Stephany said, tugging at my arm, “I just want to talk. It’s really you, the-”

I couldn’t let her continue.

Everything would come to an end if I let her. Everything.

I didn’t have a lot of cards to pull, except one.

“Hey, excuse me!” I said, getting her attention, and stopping her.

“I don’t know you, and we’ve never met. We don’t all look the same, you know. If you have an Asian friend, that doesn’t mean you can pick on anyone else and say you know them. That’s messed up.”

Stephany’s face turned as red as a tomato. Others were looking at us as they went on with their day.

“I didn’t, that’s not what I was trying to get at,” Stephany said, distressed. Her grip loosened. “I thought-”

“Oh, you thought. Clearly not enough thought went into what you just did.”

Someone else came up to us. A mall cop.

“Is there a problem, here?”

“No, officer,” I said, “I was just leaving.”

I pulled, and my arm went free. I walked away, leaving the girl and the cop behind. I returned to my friends.

“What was that about?” Maria asked, half-grinning.

“Mistook me for someone else,” I explained. “Happens all the time.”

“Hah, I feel you.”

We continued down the parking lot. My heart beating like it was about to jump out of my chest.

Such a small encounter, but that was still too close of a call.

I checked the flier I took from her. Bright orange. ‘The Bluemoon Fan Club’ was printed across the top, followed by an address, contact information, and meeting times.

“A bunch of crazies,” Katy commented, seeing that I was reading the flier. “Following a bigger crazy.”

I folded the paper, and put it in my back pocket. Might have to deal with this later.

“Man, I ain’t gonna lie,” Maria said, “The Bluemoon freaks me the fuck out.”

We’re still on that subject?

“Yeah?” Katy said.

“I mean, yeah, but… don’t really want to get into it right now. Just wanted to say that.”

She trailed off. She had another point, but she didn’t want to say.

Couldn’t press her on it.

“I can see where you’re coming from,” Katy said. “That Bluemoon proved that two plus two equals five. Nothing makes sense, anymore, and people are still trying to cope, however they can.”

“If you think two plus two equals five, Katy,” I said, “Never mind about asking you to help me with my math class.”

“Ha, ha,” Katy said, flat, “What did you need help with?”

“What do you know about Algebra Two?”

“Enough to write the book on it.” Katy grinned. “I can help, just tell me when.”

“Cool, thanks.”

Good, the conversation went elsewhere, away from myself, essentially. Maria’s car was parked closest to the mall, so we split up with her first, before heading into Katy’s car. We started the drive back to my place.

A whole day, working towards getting my life back together. A whole day without the mask. Somehow, it felt like it was going to be harder than anything else I had ever done.

Previous

Interlude – Styx

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The music was loud. Loud enough that he didn’t hear the chair collide with the wall, tools scattering into the air, then banging onto the floor.

Styx roared.

It was a sort of rage that was utterly recreational. A push, and that was all that was needed for him to go off. Like his moods lived on a swing. All it took was a simple push.

Recreational, yet fulfilling. He needed this. Craved it. The freedom to do, the freedom to be. Addicting, and he was his own supplier.

And here? He also had the freedom to destroy.

Everything in the garage was his. The sports cars, the vintage motorcycles, the guns. Organized according to manufacturers, then year. Everything in the condominium was his. To be precise, he owned the whole building. The crown fruit of his decades of hard labor. Building an empire wasn’t easy, but it certainly was rewarding.

The vehicles were clean, the walls white, the area well-lit. A complicated sound system blasted the music throughout the garage, a deep bass rumbling mirrors and windows. Guns rattled where they were situated on a wall, but they wouldn’t fall. The cleanliness didn’t necessarily fit Styx’s nature, but it didn’t have to. He had the means to afford it, and the means to indulge himself in it.

However, despite the otherwise well-kept status of the garage, there was one third of the space that he allowed to be dirty. The innermost section of the garage. His workstation, where he kept his projects and other endeavors. Here, was where he was most free. Tools and knives and guns were strewn about, dirt marks were streaked across the floor and walls. Dark splotches of paint and blood touched the ceilings. Various tables with various tools and gadgets, randomly placed, unlike how his cars and motorcycles were lined up. He liked the contrast, how things didn’t necessarily go from one to the other.

He liked the chaos.

Again, Styx roared. It strained.

As he let himself come down from his fit, he grabbed a towel off of a table, wiping sweat off of his body. He was shirtless, wearing only black skinny jeans and black boots. Tattoos of different images were sketched across his chest, torso, and arms. Pagan, tarot, Lovecraftian.

Styx bent down where the chair had landed. He picked up a wrench, gripping it tight in his hand. He turned, then stopped.

Acknowledgement.

He went to another metal table, where other tools laid, available. A remote was there, too. Without having to lift it, he pressed a finger on a button. The music was immediately cut.

“Victor,” Styx said, but he didn’t hear himself. A high ringing had replaced the noisy, industrial instrumental.

‘Victor’ answered with a lift of his chin.

His clothes were simple, but it was all he had time to procure. Things were moving, quickly, and Victor had little in the way of leisure time. A white shirt, tucked into blue denim jeans. Light brown boots. Round, large sunglasses adorned his face.

He ran his fingers through his hair, despite the bandages wrapped around his palm. Though, there wasn’t much there, thanks to his buzz cut.

“I’m surprised you haven’t blown out your ears yet,” Victor said, having to raise his voice for Styx to hear. The proper security measures were set up across the building, even though it wasn’t necessary. Anyone who knew, knew to stay away.

After one of Styx’s men escorted the two back to the condo, and after the two spent some time catching up, Styx had told Victor the different words and numbers necessary to let himself in. Told. Styx trusted he wouldn’t write it down, and was confident in Victor’s ability to memorize a few letters and digits.

Victor had taken the wooden stairs down to the garage, the glass door behind him. A large, brown paper bag sat at his feet.

“You were okay with being out in the open?” Styx asked instead, as if Victor’s concern wasn’t worth addressing. “No issues?”

“None. I know how to keep my head down.”

“Don’t want to spoil your arrival to the Feds?”

“Oh yeah, I prefer being the uninvited guest. Makes things interesting. Especially if I bring gifts.”

Styx nodded. His brow was still furrowed, his eyes wild, like he was still maintaining a hold on the anger that gripped him not too long ago. He creeped over to the middle of the garage, towards his bike, to actually get some work done on it.

“It’s just a few scratches, Styx, I don’t see why you need to tune up the whole-”

Styx cut him off.

“They fucked up King of Pentacles!” he bellowed at the top of his lungs, referring to his bike. “I’ll whip the bitch who did it!”

King of Pentacles. The motorcycle was a mechanical embodiment of Styx’s career in the underground. Originally a used bike he stole almost thirty years ago, he’d built upon it, adding where it was needed, stripping away where it was least efficient. Now, it was a bike that perfectly represented his status in the city. Not how he viewed himself, necessarily, but how others should view him.

An all-black custom chopper. Sleek, elegant, but with a edge to it that made people steer clear of it, turning another way if they simply saw it parked, somewhere. Styx preferred functionality over aesthetics, but it worked, here. The large engine at the bottom resembled something of a ribcage, and the headlight was encased in a plating that resembled Cthulhu. Asymmetric slits allowed light to bleed through, with tentacles reaching forward to hold the front tire. It had a form, but nothing definite, concrete. It left things to the imagination, and most didn’t want to be around to ponder over it.

And Styx saw where scratches defiled the bike, where dents fucked up his handiwork. Though few, and negligible, it make his blood boil.

Angrily, Styx went back to finishing the final touches on his bike. If anyone could work the nuts and bolts of a motorcycle with anger, it was Styx.

“We’re not even taking King of Pentacles to the meeting,” Victor said. “You can fix it later.”

“This is my bike,” Styx replied, in a much more reserved manner. “You know that.”

“And you know I know that, I’m just telling you that it can wait. The meeting’s in an hour, and you’re the only one with clearance to take me.”

Styx twisted with the wrench, making more adjustments. “I don’t give a fuck. Everyone can wait. You, Mister, and those fucks. My shit takes precedence over their shit.” He yelled, as though to verbally form an exclamation point. It rang throughout the garage. That, he heard.

“Then I have no choice but to wait.” Styx heard Victor walk through the workstation, picking up the chair that Styx had thrown, and sat in it.

“Man, this city hasn’t really changed much since I left,” Victor said. “More of the same. Except, there’s actually more. More gangs, more drugs, more shit. I commend you for keeping things together.”

“It’s easy,” Styx said, keeping it short.

“I’ll say. You’re living lavish. I’d comment and suggest that the wealth has made you soft, but it clearly hasn’t.”

Styx didn’t respond, focusing too much on King of Pentacles.

From behind him, Victor murmured, or spoke at a normal enough volume that Styx couldn’t pick it up. The ringing was only now starting to subside.

“Yeah?” Styx questioned.

“Right, the music. I was talking… there’s one new player in all this, huh?”

Styx knew exactly what he was talking about. Who, to be precise.

“Yeah.”

“‘The Bluemoon.’ Or, didn’t you mention another name?”

“Yeah, Blueballs?”

“Your humor is still on point, Styx. No, I mean an actual name.”

“Last night, when I got a call from a police station that I’m good with. John told us everything. Told us it went by ‘Blank Face.’”

“That was it. If it went by another name, couldn’t it just be another super… thing?”

“That’s a whole different question. All I know is, that’s the same one that came by the yard. The physical description matched up. It was a good thing I kept watch, in the distance.”

“Blank Face, huh.”

Then, Victor laughed, without warning. Styx kept working.

“The hell? I’m not impressed at all!” Victor exclaimed. “I was thinking it’d be some terrifying figure, but all I saw was some clown with a limp arm. What kind of hero can I just kick out the back of a truck, and you come in to break their arms. What a little bitch.”

Styx giggled to himself. It was manic, uneven in pitch. “Heh, lil’ bitch.”

“That’s why I had to ask if that really was The Bluemoon I’ve seen on TV. It shouldn’t have been that easy.”

“That was our Blueballs for sure, but does it really matter? The meeting is still happening, they still want to talk about this.”

Victor sighed, letting out another chuckle. “Hah, I get it, though. There’s more to it than that, and that’s what they’re pissing themselves over. We’ll all go over it then. But, I’m not going to say it didn’t take the wind out of my sails, even just a bit. I sit for thirty-six hours in the back of a truck, smelling like shit, only for it to be almost unbelievable easy to take the hero out. Do you see what I’m getting at?”

“Yes.”

“Maybe being a ‘hero’ isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.”

Styx pulled away the wrench, and patted the leather seat of the bike. He stood, facing Victor. “Don’t get ahead of yourself. If taking out Blueballs was all he needed you to do, Mister wouldn’t have asked for you. And what you perceive to be a minor threat is still a threat. You don’t get to where I am by underestimating bitches.”

Victor lifted his hands, placating. “I know, I know. I’ve got work to do.” He groaned.

Victor casted a glance at Styx. “What about you? You scared of this, thing? It escaped, went after your guys, last night.”

Styx answered plainly, truthfully. “Me? Nah. If anything, I’m curious.”

“Nice.”

Victor stared at Styx, and he stared back. Blankly.

Victor dropped his shoulders, grumbling, and lazily pointed to a corner of Styx’s workstation. “Um, I was trying to find a way to bring this to your attention, but… Are you going to introduce me?”

Styx looked, and remembered that the man tied to a chair was there.

He was blindfolded, with no clothes, save for his underwear. Twitching, shaking. His mouth shuddered, but no sound came forth.

He dripped of blood and sweat and tears, his blindfold most dark where his eyes should be. His chair was placed on top of multiple mats, placed into a large square. Normally used for dogs, the mats caught the blood and urine that slid down the chair’s legs.

Styx shrugged.

“My payment for agreeing to see through you crossing the border. You might recognize him, you sat by him for thirty-six hours.”

Victor frowned. “This is why society agreed to put value into things like green paper.”

“So?”

Victor shifted in his seat. Not because he was alarmed, Styx knew, but because he went to reach for his phone. Styx took that as a chance to check his, too.

“Bored?” Victor asked, looking at his phone.

“Stress reliever,” Styx replied, while looking at his, “And practice for when I get that bitch who fucked King of Pentacles.”

“The more things change, the more they stay the same, then.”

“Aye aye.”

The man was becoming audible, now, but no one paid heed to him. The man whimpered while Styx checked his phone.

Victor put his phone away. “So, you almost finished, here? I’ll leave a better impression if I show up early. You know, like an actual professional.”

“Eh.” Styx put his phone in his pants pocket. “Let me get my stuff, then.”

Victor griped again, as he got out of the chair. “Styx, if you’re so bored being here, in this city, why haven’t you left, yet? You could’ve visited me.”

“That again?”

“Yes, again. Nothing’s honestly tying you down, you could leave anytime you want, let the city burn behind you while see the world.”

“Like what you did?”

“Yes.”

Styx looked to Victor, his chin tilted up some to make up for the height difference. He had no expression. “That’s what makes us different. You wanted to see the world, I wanted to make my own.”

Victor smiled. “And that’s the only difference?”

Styx’s lack of expression stayed.

Victor then nodded, as if taking it all in. “I suppose that still makes me Remus, and you Romulus,” he said.

“Careful, I haven’t killed you yet.”

“If it ever comes to that, you’ll die, too,” Victor said. “Of boredom.”

Styx actually cracked something of a smile to that, though twisted, unhinged.

Before Styx could let the moment get the better of him, he turned, retrieving his leather jacket, putting it on over his bare torso. He didn’t bother to bring a gun. His presence would be enough. Victor followed, taking the paper bag he brought in with him.

“You can pick which car we take,” Styx said.

Styx took to a corner of the room. Fitting, to how much of a role he played in this. A willing, listening participant, but not necessarily an active one.

Others began filing in, sitting around a round table. Some were in more casual wear, but most elected to wear suits. Mostly men, but two women were in attendance, already waiting.

Styx rested his tongue on his upper lip.

Victor sat next to him, watching as the rest came into the high-rise restaurant. The room was dimly lit, sensual, if Styx wanted to be poetic, which he sometimes liked to be. A light jazz tune wafted about the area, almost as if the room had housed the essence of this music, and the building, the floor, the room, was built in accommodation to it.

Poetic.

Styx looked at them all, uncaring. They weren’t even a third of the gangs that had a hold on the city.

He listed the names of the different mobsters. Arthur, Brian, Cassius, D’Angelo, Edward, Forest, Gary, Hayden, Inez.

All separate, yet connected by a single thread…

And they were completely oblivious.

“Is Mister gonna make it, Styx?” It was D’Angelo, calling from across the room. Leader of one of the Italian mobs.

“No,” Styx replied, at half the volume. “He’s sitting it out. I can fill him in, if he wants.”

D’Angelo motioned to the whole room, as everyone took their seats. “This isn’t enough for him to show? This isn’t important enough to appear in person, for once?”

“It may look that way to stupider eyes, but I am not his keeper. If he found a more pressing matter to deal with instead, that’s on him.”

“He called the meeting!”

“Calm down, D’Angelo,” Inez said, ushering him to sit. “We can still have a discussion and act without him. So let’s try to be punctual.”

D’Angelo sat, and Inez looked pleased with herself. The leader of a cartel on the south side. A real cougar with the power to dominate. So badly, Styx wanted to fuck that grin right off of her face.

He tried to keep still.

“Let’s getting started then, brother,” Forest said, pointing to Victor. “Man of the hour.”

Victor took that cue, leaving his seat to approach the circle. He brought his bag with him.

“That’s what I am. ‘Kay, I’ll make the introduction short. Most of you, we go way back, and it’s nice to see you all again.” He gestured with a small bow to the table.

“The rest of you who are not familiar, I’m probably the reason why you’re​ at this table, today, and absolutely the reason why Mister can afford to miss such a meeting. To be cocky, I produce results.”

Some of the mobsters exchanged glances. The ones who didn’t know him.  The naïve ones.

“To all you new folk, don’t waste the energy trying to decide whether or not I’m the real deal. I am. Let’s all just accept that, and we’ll all be a lot richer for it, in the end.”

Victor set the paper bag down on the table, next to Arthur. Arthur pointed to it, and Victor motioned, letting him take a peek inside.

Styx leered to himself when he saw Arthur’s reaction.

“Are you mad? What are you thinking, bringing-”

“Now, now,” Victor interrupted. “Let’s not get so irritable so soon. You’ll find that it may come in handy, one day.”

Arthur grumbled, and passed the bag down for Brian to look inside. His reaction was more understated, Styx saw, but he couldn’t quite hide the fear. Brian passed the bag down, and the bag made its round trip. The ones who already had a rapport with Victor masked their trepidation well. The others did not.

Styx knew Victor was making a show of things, but it was only because he had to confidence to do so. The repertoire.

“Let’s start with the obvious, yeah? Why are we all here, today, having a meeting over a light breakfast?”

The mobsters looked amongst each other.

“Tough crowd,” Victor said. “Then, I won’t tiptoe around it anymore. The Bluemoon. Or ‘Blank Face,’ from what I’ve heard on the streets.” Victor put his hands into air quotes when he said ‘Blank Face.’ “A very indecisive individual, this one.”

Victor started snapping his fingers, looking expectant.

“What do we want to call this individual? Bluemoon, Blank Face, hero, vigilante, monster…”

“Lil’ bitch,” Styx yelled out.

“Thanks for that, Styx, but I’ll just go ahead and use ‘Blank Face.’ If that’s what they want to be called, then I’ll respect their wishes.”

Hayden, the other female mob boss, leaned in with her elbows on the table, her chin resting on her hands. “Are you going to at least pretend that you’re taking this seriously?”

Styx squinted. One of the naïve ones.

“Oh, I am. Wouldn’t want to waste a perfectly good sightseeing opportunity. Yes, this Blank Face has been causing some trouble for the lot of you. Even its very existence raises some issues. Coupled with the fact that the National Guard might sweep the streets to find the vigilante, and not to mention all the media coverage placed on the city because of it, that’s a lot of eyes on things we don’t want to be looked at, no?”

Hayden fell back into her seat. Styx couldn’t see it from his view, but he read that she crossed her legs.

Victor kept going. “This may be unprecedented, but we’re not blind and in the dark. There are some things we do know about Blank Face. I’m sure all of you have heard by now, but Blank Face decided to pay me a visit, last night.”

A few had worried expression. Styx knew what that would imply, that he was incapable, or vulnerable, to an assault by Blank Face or another party. That he somehow slipped up, able to be taken advantage of. He hated that implication. He could have pushed, and killed any one of them for thinking that, if he wanted to.

He didn’t.

Styx had an outlet for his frustrations at home.

A feeling stirred within Styx.

Arthur spoke. “Is that why you’re trying to act so nonchalant about this? To save face after seeing the devil?”

Several laughed.

Victor was motionless, not responding to that comment.

“We were close to capturing it,” Victor said, fixing his sunglasses, “Maybe even closer to killing it, last night. I was able to subdue it and distract it enough for Styx to do his thing. Two broken arms, strangulation, at least. Who knows what we managed internally. Blank Face managed to walk away from that.”

Suddenly, there was no room for levity. The table was dead quiet.

“How, how are you so sure?” It was Cassius who had to balls to say something.

Styx spoke. Everyone turned their heads. “Our transport of Blank Face was interrupted, and it got away. My men told me afterwards that Blank Face was soon active, moving like nothing ever happened.”

Victor gave Styx a thumbs up. “Which brings me to my next point. Bla-”

“You’re fucking telling us that thing can’t die!”

The voice was too on edge, too shrill, to point to a source. Panic was rushing into the hearts of the mobsters, at the revelation. Styx took a glance at his phone.

“Everyone, please, settle yourselves!” Victor had to raise his voice to be heard above the uproar. “You’re going to scare our hard working servers!”

Some turned, Styx did, too. A small team of young waiters stood, flustered at what to do. One had a platter of crepes and omelets. Another had his hands around an intricately designed cart, with pancakes and cups of coffee on it. But he was still.

Styx silently judged as the mobsters started to right themselves, straightening their backs. Victor gave the servers the okay to approach.

“To address the table’s concerns,” Victor said, “It appears that Blank Face has some sort of improved healing. But, do not let that scare you. Blank Face can be taken down, and it may be easy for it to get back up, that point remains. We just need to hit back, hard. Harder.”

“And how do you propose to do that?” someone asked. Styx couldn’t tell.

Victor, now, had started walking around the table. Styx only saw the back of his head, but he knew what his expression would be. He mouthed it in time with Victor.

“I’m working on it.”

“You’re… working on it?” Forest.

“Yes, my man, working on it. I’ll give you the proper pitch when I have it more developed, probably by later tonight, so I’m hoping I’ll have your… support.”

“We’ll see if it’s good enough for that.”

“Thank you very much. I don’t want to spoil what I have right now, but I’m thinking something theatrical? We have people in masks, now, performing magic and tricks. I suggest we play into that a bit.”

“Wait, people?” Inez questioned, stressing that second word.

“Oh, I almost forgot! Everyone was losing it a moment ago…” Victor scratched his throat, before saying, “Blank Face isn’t working alone.”

Styx could feel it in the room, the panic coming back, but no one wanted to fall into it. Not anymore. Styx remained calm.

“You’re joking.”

“‘Fraid not. One of Styx’s Ferrymen were interrupted by Blank Face, earlier in the night, before it came to us. A van came to get him. A man in a bird mask accompanies Blank Face.”

The two women went pale. Styx, instead, seethed at the mention of the van. “There’s… there’s more of them?”

Victor shook his head. “That’s one of the things we don’t know. I’m inclined to say yes, just to be careful.”

Murmurs among the mobsters, unsure of what to make of the possibility of at least two superhumans working against them. Styx couldn’t help but think of ways to rip them apart, instead. And if they could recover from that, then more fun for him.

“What more do we know of this man in the bird mask?” Inez asked.

“Not much, but they were probably in constant communication with each other.”

Styx had realized that Victor never mentioned how they got interrupted by the van, how it crashed into King of Pentacles. At this meeting, too many details were coming out that were frightening the mobsters. It wouldn’t do to have them completely chicken out and not want to hear Victor’s plans. Or was it better that he play into that, getting more support?

Or, was Victor trying to protect Styx’s rep? As if he needed it, but, if so, Styx appreciated the effort.

D’Angelo cut into his pancake, then ate, chewing slowly. After washing it down with coffee he asked, “And you think you can take them on, not knowing what you don’t know?”

“Oh, I can. The battle isn’t as uphill as you’re insinuating it be. The whole world is even more fearful of Blank Face. By the by, I love the riot idea. I say we do more of that, while we’re at it.”

The different members of the table nodded. Styx loved the idea, too.

“If we play our cards right, this might turn out to be a problem that solves itself. Again, more details to come.”

Forest raised his cup, looking around for a waiter. “Ah, man, that’s enough of the Blank Face talk, for now. Getting me sick to my stomach. Brother, we’ll patiently await your pitch.”

Victor had wrapped around the table, his back to Styx. He brought both hands up. Peace signs.

“Super.”

While the others got to their breakfast, Hayden asked, “Is there anything else we want to bring up?”

Arthur set down his fork. “There’s one thing.”

Victor leaned close. “Hmm?”

“Thomas Thompson.”

“Don’t know the name, sorry.”

“He’s a lawyer. Pain in the ass, with the potential of becoming a bigger one.”

“I’m listening.”

“Elections for the next DA are coming up, and it looks like he’s going to take it. We had our guy, John Cruz, but the public adores Thompson. He’s squeaky clean, going on a platform of ‘hope’ and ‘courage’ in the face of adversity. ‘Wander no more,’ he says. It’s bullshit, but they’re eating it up.”

Victor fixed a sleeve. “Squeaky clean does present a problem.”

“Him being in office isn’t going to help us any. Harsher punishments on any alleged corruption in the police force, and he’s advocating for harsher punishments for any possible connection to any gang activity, however minute. He was instrumental in bringing down one of the Cobras. They’re still shaken up about it.”

“Sebastian?”

“Yes.”

“No.” Victor looked legitimately disheartened, hearing that. He brought a finger to his chin, thinking.

“So you understand why I brought it up? If he can do that much without holding an official office…”

Victor snapped his fingers. “Say no more, I can take care of it.”

No one did say more, seemingly satisfied. Everyone continued eating. A minute with only small talk, then Victor walked back to Styx, bringing his bag with him.

“Doing okay?” Victor asked.

Styx grunted, non-committal.

“Hey, I’ll need your help in this, in all of this.”

“As long as you keep it entertaining.”

“I’ll plan around it.”

They both smiled, Styx’s much more menacing. Victor was a man of his word, and he was looking forward to it as much as he was.

Styx was ready to push.

Previous                                                                                               Next

029 – Heart to Heart

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Eldritch in nature, but the pathos was universal.

A terrifying creature, masquerading as something that made sense. As an image that could be fathomed, but there was a far greater horror that existed beyond its corporeal existence.

A concept, an idea. Symbols. It had a form and it could consume.

Its physical construct tore into another. A smaller, more base shape. Humanoid. Soft, fragile, delicate.

To assign an identity to the lesser being would assign a level of importance. It needed no such thing.

The greater being made shreds of the lesser. Curved, twisted teeth, from the mouths of the seven heads. It ate, swallowed, but not for nourishment. Rather, to ravage. A spiteful, terrifying creature.

It lurched, and another head took over. A familiar face, a distorted version. Once conjuring warm, nurturing sentiments, only now served to service a stronger mental agony to the lesser being. The inner organs of the lesser spilled out from its abdomen, and from the teeth of the greater.

With a wide movement, a shift of parts, the greater switched visages. A perverted, curled variant of a friendlier guise. A string of organs was torn away as the switch was made.

The lesser being felt a certain betrayal. Familiar faces in an unfamiliar context. It ate at its spirit, as much as the greater being did. Whittling down, but never to zero.

The process repeated. Five more heads. The world. It ate at the lesser being.

And the lesser being could do nothing but endure.

Chained to a mountain, with the curse of forever life. This state of being was forced upon the lesser one, with no choice but to suffer.

The greater took, and the lesser restored itself, and the greater took again.

Life. A cruel act of kindness.

I came to. Awake, but not alert. Groggy, really.

A dream. Judging from my breathing, the initial panic when I woke, it was more like a nightmare. But, when I tried reaching, trying to recall what exactly it was, it only pushed the images away further. Then, it was gone, forever forgotten. A phantom memory. Only the feeling lingered.

And I was free to try and figure out where I was.

It was dim in this small, cramped space. I was sitting on a wooden seat, built into the wooden compartment. Looking straight ahead, there was an elaborate pattern of crosses in the upper half of the wall in front of me. The crosses were actually holes​, and I should have been able to peek through, but a dark screen prevented me from doing so.

I couldn’t stretch my arms or legs out all the way. It was that cramped.

I exhaled, trying to stay calm. A hushed sound.

I soon came to the realization that I still had my mask on.

I was still in costume. Fanny pack, and when I patted my jacket, the baton, too, was still on my person. I had everything on me.

My hood was down, strands of hair sticking to the back of my neck. It was stuffy, in here.

Where…

Upon inspecting again, the wall to my right was actually a small door. I’d have to hunch to get through. It didn’t appear to be locked. Could I just leave? Was this a trap?

Worse yet, was I kidnapped?

“Blank Face. Good morning, again.”

A disembodied voice spoke from the other end of the screen. I couldn’t see who it was coming from, but I didn’t have to. I could do place it, no problem.

“Hleuco,” I said, rasp. “Thomas.”

“Rise and shine,” he said, with no particular emotion behind his words. “Try not to move too much, you don’t want to fall and hurt yourself. Stay still.”

“Where, where are…” and I trailed off. Hard, coming up with words and how to say them. Still out of it.

“Where are we? We’re somewhere safe, I can tell you that. Try to help yourself, and get your brain going again. Can you guess?”

I wanted to complain, to whine, but I probably needed to get my bearings on my own. It’d help me be more alert, faster, and I would be able to talk properly.

Fuck, but I’m so sleepy.

I took my time, looking around, despite the space allowed, despite how unresponsive my body was being. The setting was not unfamiliar, albeit a little anxiety-inducing. I’d been in spaces like this, before, though the situation was quite different. Usually it was much more oppresive. I laid my eyes on the pattern of crosses in front of me, again.

“A confessional?” I asked.

“Good job, you’re correct,” Hleuco confirmed. “St. Elizabeth, to be exact.”

I bobbed my head, aware that he couldn’t see. I’d been here once or twice, years back. A small cathedral. I knew my home from here, I could walk if I had to.

But, could I? I was still too drowsy to do much of anything, except sit here.

In a sense, I was trapped.

“How… What…” So many different questions I wanted to start with, but I didn’t know which to commit to. Which avenue of thought to pursue first.

“Take your time,” Thomas said. It didn’t sound like he had his mask on. “There are a lot of bases to cover, and there is no need to rush.”

His reassurance almost served to make me even more on edge, but I took his advice. Start simple, and go from there. What was the most pressing thing I wanted to know, right this second?

“What… happened?”

“A lot, so you’ll have to be more specific. What do you remember?”

I tried to think. “I was… dragged by my neck, no, before that, ambushed by Styx’s Gang, then… that first thing. Everything after… it’s all too blurry, right now.”

It was hard to try. Only pieces of images came back to me, and so vague that I couldn’t find the words to articulate those images. What was potent, however, were the feelings they brought back. Pain. Panic. Desperation. It was enough for me to stop trying, completely.

I blinked.

“No, that’s good enough,” Thomas said. “You don’t have to strain yourself. But, you’re right. Styx’s Gang managed to get the upper hand, and they took you out of the trailer yard. I wasn’t that far from where I dropped you off, so I saw them as they passed by. My deepest apologies for having not stopped them in time, I had to drive around, guess their route so I knew where to come in and cut them off. It wasn’t the best of plans, considering how I stopped them, but we were in a bit of a pinch, there.”

Quietly, I agreed.

Thomas continued, asking, “You really don’t know what happened past that, do you?”

I sighed. “No.”

“You had your earpiece, I knew that for a fact. I tried communicating with you, telling you where we could rendezvous and make a proper retreat. And you were talking, just not to me.”

“What?” I looked to the dark screen in front of me.

“I’m not going to make any assumptions about you, or your mental state, but you weren’t taking in anything I was saying to you, and you… went off to do your own thing.”

I could tell from his words, his tone, he was stepping around something. I was drawing up a blank. Was it that bad?

“Through your… aimless chatter,” Thomas said, “I was able to find you. You were alone, in the bottom of a drained pool, and unconscious. I feared the worst, but I brought you to the van, regardless. Thankfully, you were coming in and out of consciousness, which said enough, to me. Going all the way back to the factory would have made us sitting ducks if someone managed to follow us all the way out there. Too out in the open, with no other places to hide. And I wanted to check on you as soon as possible. This church was secluded enough, with all the backroads and corners. Abandoned, too. Even God left this place behind.”

The cloud surrounding my brain was clearing up some, but not by much.

“Was anybody hurt?” I found myself asking, not really sure why.

A small pause, but I took notice.

“No.”

A small bit of relief, but I took it. It helped. I relaxed somewhat, pressing my back to the wall behind me.

“So, what now?” I asked. My relief was abruptly cut short. “Wait. Did you say ‘morning,’ a bit ago?”

Another pause.

“It’s a quarter until seven,” Thomas said.

My stomach did a flip. I was going to be late for school, if not miss it altogether. Right now, I was fighting sleep, but I’d probably crash as soon as I was safe at home. On a normal schedule, my mom usually had work before I even got up, so there would be no issue, there, but Katy might be peeved if she came by to pick me up, and I wasn’t… available.

Aside from the night before my birthday, this would be up there as one of the worst nights I ever had. Ever.

I brushed aside the time factor for the moment. “Yeah, what next?”

“I think we’ve waited long enough. If anyone, gang, police, or otherwise, were to come in and get us, they would have done so already. We’re in the clear.”

I let the relief sink in. At least I could call this night officially over.

“But, I was hoping you and I could have another chat, if you don’t mind?”

My relief was snatched away, again.

“About what?” I intoned, trying to accentuate my tiredness, expecting him to take the hint.

“You.”

I didn’t offer another word.

Thomas picked the conversation back up. “It didn’t matter much to me, your origins, or how you came to be. I know I’ve said that before, but I’ve come to realize how shortsighted that was.”

My continued silence was an opening for him to go on.

“In your, how should I put it, heightened state, you were mentioning wanting to drink something. I forgot to bring it up before, but, after I found you, you were mumbling similar musings in the van, in your brief periods of lucidity. You may not remember, but, tell me, what was this ‘juice’ you were talking about?”

I felt a chill, my blood running cold. I was potentially being called out on the one thing I didn’t want to talk about. For the life of me, I couldn’t recall saying anything about ‘juice,’ but it wouldn’t take a genius to figure it out, on my end.

“Juice?”

“You said the word on multiple occasions. I’d normally not put so much attention on such a word, my own daughter has outgrown the need to pester me about wanting some, but it seemed so important to you. I have my own suspicions, but I’d like for you to tell me, yourself.”

I lifted a hand, and I thought about opening the door and leaving the confessional. I didn’t want to talk about this, not now, not ever. I couldn’t let that particular secret get out, or else I’d be even more fucked. People were already rioting about the fact that I existed, what would happen if they learned that I needed blood? What then?”

Honesty isn’t your only policy, I thought.

“I’m just as stumped there, too,” I lied. “I don’t know what that could possibly mean.”

Seconds passed. Quiet seconds, with my hand towards the handle of the door.

“That’s bullshit,” Thomas said, blunt. I had never heard him curse in my life. “Give me the truth, Blank Face.”

My hand grabbed the handle, and it twisted with a click, but I didn’t open it, not yet.

“You’re antagonizing me,” I said, just as bluntly, “That’s not cool.”

“If that’s how you choose to see it, Blank Face, then okay. But, you know what I mean, don’t you, you’re just refusing to say. But, hey, I’m not holding you hostage, all I want is a simple answer to a simple question. Go ahead, run if you want to, but I’ll know that you’ll fold at the slight presence of fear. I’ll know that you’re a coward. And that’s not cool.”

I inched the door open, letting a draft slip into the booth, cooling my neck. I realized how slightly dry my throat was. I was becoming more alert, now, more aware, and that allowed me to finally have enough strength to be angry.

How dare he.

I looked at my hand, watching how it went in and out of focus.

“You don’t fucking know me,” I told Thomas, the family friend. “You don’t know what I’ve fucking been through. Don’t you dare call me a coward.”

“Then show me you truly aren’t one. Or instead, tell me. You’re willing to go out, night after night, taking on criminals, but you’re scared of a little, tiny word? Even I know you’re better than that.”

Out of impulse, I screamed, rasp. I threw myself back, my shoulder hitting the wall opposite the door. The door went back to being closed.

He was prodding me, egging me on, and I let myself fall right into it. I wanted to hate him for being so obvious, but I’d hate myself more if I had let him think he was right.

You have no idea what I’ve been through.

A pointed ache pierced my stomach.

I didn’t speak for some time. Thomas didn’t, either.

Damn me, damn you, Thomas, and damn this whole world.

I opened my mouth, partly.

“Blood.”

I said it, drained of all life. Exhausted. My posture wasn’t straight, my shoulder on the wall beside me, my arms dropped on my lap. I stared down, staring at the prayer card that had fallen to the floor. Our Father.

Telling the truth had sucked all the life out of me.

What was Thomas’s reaction, on the other side? Shock, fear, hatred? I would never know.

A minute passed. The longest one ever.

“Blood?” Thomas repeated, finally saying something, and it was an encouragement to go on.

Defeated, I did. “I can’t eat normal, human food. I need to drink blood. A package deal with these powers. And I really need it. I guess, if I go too long without properly feeding, I tend to lose myself to the thirst. It… what’s the word? It sucks.”

“And, until you showed your powers in public, you’ve lived all this time without attracting any attention?”

“No. I haven’t lived with this, for that long. I’ve only had my powers for about a month now.”

“I see. How did you get them, then, if I may ask?”

That entire night flashed before my eyes. In order to avoid choking up, or tensing up just thinking about it, I had to remove myself from that memory. Report it, as if I was speaking about another poor soul.

“Attacked, by an unknown assailant. Mangled, ripped apart. Left for dead. But…”

“But you survived,” Thomas said.

“If you could call it that,” I said.

I heard from the other side of the confessional, where Thomas was. A single wooden tap.

“You’ve seen fear, Blank Face. You met it head on. It may have… gotten to you, but it didn’t defeat you. From what I’ve seen, from what you’ve proven to me, you had gotten right back up, and you wanted to use that experience to help others, when they couldn’t help themselves. At a bare minimum, you are a survivor, and you are braver than anyone I know.”

I hiccuped, fighting back tears. No, Thomas, you’re wrong.

Thomas spoke again, despite me. “To branch off what you said earlier, does that mean there’s another one like you, out there? More of you?”

I had to keep my answers short, my emotions getting the better of me. “No. Don’t know.”

“Did you ever try to investigate, try to find out?”

“No, kind of, little bit.”

“How come?”

“I went back, to where it happened. Nothing. Then, after that, I, I…”

“‘I,’ what?”

“Been busy ever since.”

I heard a shuffling on the other end, shifting. An exhale.

“Do you even know what you are, exactly?” Thomas asked.

“No… I’d call myself a vampire, but that’s not quite right. I’m not too sure.”

Another exhale.

“I have a feeling this was a conversation you’ve needed, but never got,” Thomas said. “Am I wrong?”

I didn’t say anything.

“Thought so. Let me tell you this, then. As you are, you may very well be the only one of your kind, vampire, ghoul, whatever. But that does not mean that you are alone. Do you understand me? It may be hard, it may even seem impossible, but there are people out there who can and will lend a helping hand. You just have to find them, you just have to try.”

For a moment, I let words resonate.

Another quiet minute, though it felt less grueling.

“Did I make any sense, there?” Thomas asked, getting to me. “Was I clear?”

I was unmoving, still in that slumped position.

“Yeah.”

“Good. Now, for some less important matters. Our next order of business. I propose we hold off on our masked activities for a time.”

Putting my arms on the seat, I situated myself back to an upright position. “What?”

“I have some last-minute campaigning to do this coming week, and I want to dig more into what you found at the trailer yard. And to do both, I need time. Truly. Something was off about those people you found. Styx’s Gang isn’t known to deal in human trafficking, and there were no drugs or guns in there, too. I’ve already come up a theory. Not people, but a specific individual, hiding amongst a group of normal, illegal aliens.”

“Who? Why?”

“That’s why I need time. I still want to do a more honed in, focused approach against the gangs, so I’ll need time to research and better plan ahead for our next outing. If you truly want to, you can go back to dealing with random, petty crimes in the meantime, but I suggest you take a break, too. Some time off will serve us both well.”

“What about the riots? Or us trying to establish a new image?”

“People lose interest over time. It’s human nature to become bored. The riots will eventually decline to manageable level. As for image, we have all the time in the world to get the public to change their minds, once we strike the gangs more strategically.”

“It feels like running away,” I said. “Like we’re cowards.”

“There’s nothing wrong with the act of running way,” Thomas said, “If it’s a means to survive. Just make sure you can hit back twice as hard when you come back, later down the line. And that’s what we’re going to do. Hit back, twice as hard.”

I leaned back. I do like the sound of that.

“Or, I can it put it this way,” Thomas said. “In the bag I gave you, the one that had your new costume, there’s one thousand dollars, the standard payment. I’ll throw in another grand. I’m paying you to take time off.”

I was hit with a wave of mixed, turbulent emotions. Gratitude, guilt, embarrassment, disgust, but some relief, too. Like a weight was lifted, that I had been carrying for so long that I had forgotten about. I told someone, another human being, about my true nature, and I was still here, living and breathing. It wasn’t the end of the world.

A test, barely passed. But barely passing was still considered good enough.

I was going to take it.

“Sure,” I said, “I can sit still for a while.”

“Alright,” Thomas then said. I heard rustling from his end, a door opening. “I think we’ve been stuck in here for long enough. Let’s get a move on. Unless…”

He trailed off.

“Yeah?” I asked.

“Unless you have anything else to say. We are in a confessional, after all.”

I considered it. Seriously considered it. But my heart was pounding, aching. Would I be pushing my luck? Taking things too far? Would it become a burden to him, if I told him now, after everything he got out of me? Presumptuous, to put it into words.

But the words he just said came back to me.

‘There are people out there who can and will lend a helping hand. You just have to find them, you just have to try.’

Another test, the final one of the night.

Despite myself, I couldn’t form the words, couldn’t articulate them. They were too heavy. I simply went for taking off my mask.

I opened the door, and got out. My heart was beating, hard.

I faced Thomas, who had his mask in his hand, too. He didn’t have his suit jacket or his tie, his sleeves rolled up to his forearms. His hair was unruly, and he looked about as weary as I probably did.

He smiled. A soft, understated one. Like I had told him a bad joke he’d heard before.

“Alexis,” he said, and it was all I needed to hear.

“You knew,” I said, too tired to find any more anger in me. “For how long?”

“I knew the second I saw you, to be perfectly honest. It wasn’t the best disguise. Come on, a paper bag? And I’ve chaperoned you and Katy on countless Halloweens. I know what your voice sounds like in a mask.”

If I had the energy, I would have died from laughter. “Then why didn’t you tell me?”

“You were clearly still trying to get your bearings on the whole thing,” Thomas said. “I didn’t want to throw you off when you were still on such shaky ground. I was willing to wait, until you were more prepared, more certain in yourself, and then I’d let you come to me, whenever you were ready. I’m sorry I kept you in dark about this, I’ll have to beg for your forgiveness.”

I did manage a chuckle, this time. “I can’t fucking believe this.”

“No cursing,” he said, behind a tired grin.

I stepped forward, and immediately my leg buckled under me. Still too drained to do much of anything.

Thomas came right before I could collapse, and caught me, wrapping his arms around me in an embrace. Both our masks dropped to the floor of the dark cathedral.

We stayed like that for a time. We were both in an odd standing position, leaning into one another for each other’s support, and we were both too spent to move. Didn’t want to fall.

And, for me, it was something I didn’t know I needed.

My face was buried into his shoulder, and I could smell the sweat that overpowered his aftershave.

“How are you holding up, AK?” Thomas asked, referring to an old nickname he gave me, back when I was a kid. I wasn’t the biggest fan of it, then. “Feeling okay?”

I wasn’t sure if he could hear me, but I spoke into his shoulder. “I feel so frustrated.”

A soft laugh. His body swayed.

“The only thing free in life is frustration,” he said.

I believed him.

Previous                                                                                               Next

028 – Course

Previous                                                                                               Next

I didn’t scream. Couldn’t, due to the chain. A shaky, pathetic gurgle was all I could produce.

My left arm broke from the impact. If I had a hard time moving before, it was completely impossible now. It went limp at my side, attached like dead weight.

It was just dislocated, not too long ago.

Out of the frying pan, and into Hell itself.

Naturally, my arm went right to healing itself, but it was delayed, slow. It wasn’t healing as fast as it should, as fast as I had seen it heal before. The wounds weren’t mending like they should.

It was obvious why. Like a car running low on fuel, it wouldn’t work properly.

I needed blood.

For my part, at least the sleeves covered up my arms, so no one could see what was actually happening. They couldn’t peek under the hood, so to speak.

I just prayed that man would not hit me again.

My eyes were already full of tears, sliding down the sides of my face until they stopped where the mask touched my cheeks, tracing a perimeter of wetness. My vision was compromised.

Breathing was a challenge, a faint inhale was all I could muster.

“And one more for the road,” I heard from the man standing above me, the sound of the metal bat cutting through the air.

If I could see, everything would have went black and white. I croaked, drool starting to trail down the corners of my mouth.

The man hit me again.

But I prayed about it.

My right arm, shattered at the elbow.

The rest of my body twisted and shuddered at the pain. I couldn’t vocalize, so my body had to express the pain I was in for me.

“Styx, it’s good to see you again,” someone else said. “Been well?”

“Well as I can be. Thanks for the help, but we can pick up on the pleasantries later.”

“Then, this is the infamous superhero, am I right?” that other person asked. “Looks like I wasn’t needed after all, if we’re already taking care of this, now.”

“Don’t go planning your vacation just yet. He still has work for you to do, here. Mister.”

A second voice, a second player. This talk about a ‘Mister.’ Vaguely familiar, like I’d heard mentioned in a dream, somewhere, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

Metaphorically and physically.

My brain wasn’t letting me piece any bits of information together. I was simply unable to do much of anything. Rendered useless.

I shut my eyes, then tried to blink away the water. I needed to see, needed to find a way out.

The second voice spoke again. “I’d be wary, though, may have a partner, this one. Was talking to themselves. That, or this is one crazy motherfucker.”

“Yeah? If Blueballs here makes it all the way back home alive enough, we can try asking a few questions.”

“Ha. I have to say, Styx, you know how to entertain your guests. This should be fun.”

“Doing this for so long, you have to keep things interesting. Otherwise, you’re fucked.”

The rough voice of that biker, I had to assume he was ‘Styx.’ He raised his voice to address others here.

“Aye aye! We’re rolling out. Gather up the others, they’ll be sorted out later. He, and this… They come with me.”

Roars of assent, then the sound of movement, activity. People were moving, getting things together. Several engines rumbled to life.

One behind me was the loudest. The sound banged in my head.

My arms weren’t healing fast enough. Still couldn’t move them.

Could barely hear. Could barely breathe.

This might be it.

The loudest engine roared again, and I felt the ground move beneath me. The chain tightening yet again.

This scenario, something familiar about it.

I was being dragged by a motorcycle, with a metal chain around my throat.

My whole body was limp, unable to move a finger or toe as the motorcycle approached a faster speed, getting out of the trailer yard. As we exited, I saw that the gate was open. It was locked shut before, preventing Hleuco from getting in with me.

I was brought onto the road proper, where the ride became even more bumpy. Tiny, pointed pebbles were kicked up as I was dragged, the occasional cracked chip of concrete slipping into through the collar of my clothes, scratching the skin off of my bare back.

My eyes were rolling upward. Buildings rushed above me, speeding by as I was forced past them.

Street lights, traffic lights, no matter the color, we maintained speed. No other cars to impede the bikers, too. Styx’s Gang likely had complete control of the roads.

An elbow bumped against the road again, but it was less painful, that time.

Every feeling and sensation in me was already fading, but I felt the occasional kick of my leg as my foot bounced against the road, the stimulating sharp pain as a broken elbow scraped along concrete. We were going fast, now, and I was soon to pass out, and dying right after.

This was how I was going to die, wasn’t it? Reduced to a bloodied, beaten ragdoll, flopping pitifully, like I was being toyed with by a child. I’d die before my healing could catch up. I’d fall unconscious before I could lift any appendage.

I shifted my gaze ahead of me.

A handful of small, white dots were trying to pierce the dark that already blanketed my eyes, floating up and down, but largely staying in place. The outer edges of the lights were blunted by the overcast gloom that befell me. Hazily, I tried using the lights to focus, keep my mind active, and figure out what exactly they were.

I sensed that Styx had made a turn, because the ground under me shifted, and I was swinging to the right. It was a wide turn, which translated into me hitting the side of a curb, before being pulled along a straight course again.

I gagged.

Over the loud engines, cackling and whooping sounded off all around me.

The engines, the laughing and cheering. The lights… The lights in front of me were from other motorcycles. Others from Styx’s Gang. I was surrounded. Even if I could miraculously get myself out of these chains, there were threats in every direction.

I had no sense of time, place, or direction, or even an idea of who I was. Just an ever-encompassing hurt. I was lost. I was losing.

I was broken.

-ace… ear me… Co-

Among all the racket of the machinery and running concrete, a low, mechanic hissed tried to reach out to me.

-most… from be-

I opened my mouth, or rather I let my jaw hang as much as the chain would let me, and found my lips, tongue, and throat to be dry. A fish out of water. A vampire without blood.

The straining, the struggle, the fight within me was all but depleted. I was running out of fucks to give.

Styx’s motorcycle turned again, because I hit another curb, and I, in effect, bounced.

The hit was enough for me to let my eyes wander around, then gently close, languid. The motorcycle lights dimming all the more.

I was ready to give up.

But, a light here, a light there, spun. Then, they blinked away.

Two, much brighter lights, had cut through the individual lights, knocking them away. The crunch and scraping of metal followed, along with more shouting.

The two lights were moving in unison, together, picking up more speed, catching up to me. It was starting to get close, too close, then swerving to pass me up. With the last of my receding vision, I saw where light reflected off the otherwise black surface.

A van.

Get read- Stick with… self!

Words. In my ear, again.

Who?

Help?

H…

Hleuco?

The black van sped off again, and while I couldn’t see what exactly went down, I certainly heard it.

And was forced to deal with the aftermath.

Metal banged and crashed together, and the chain went even more taut. I was yanked another direction, towards the sidewalk.

My long, agonizing ride through Hell ended with an abrupt halt.

It took some time for me to finally realize it, but I was able to take breaths, to inhale oxygen. The chain had slackened enough, and I was no longer dragged away.

I was dizzy, if nothing else. Rolling and sliding and tumbling, every turn and direction. It wouldn’t leave me. Whiplash.

Damage to my neck? Probably. I was tugged by there for so long. Permanent? Probably not, but the healing would be slow there, too. It throbbed, like someone was still pulling at the chain at consistent intervals, and it wasn’t getting any better. I fought the urge to vomit.

Involuntarily, an arm suddenly twitched. I could move it. I had finished healing, there. With the little energy I had left – energy I was surprised I still had  – I worked to uncoil the chain around my neck.

I worked as fast as I could, which was still slow, and the chain fell beside me, and I was free. Finally.

Working to get to my feet, however, was another hurdle entirely. That meant my entire body working together to a common goal, and I absolutely did not have the capacity for that. But, I had to move, to get moving. Escape, and find a place to hide and lick my wounds in peace. Catch up with… with someone.

But first… first…

I needed blood.

The pounding around my throat, my windpipe. I let it get to my head.

Operate, first instincts.

As fast as my newly-mended arms would allow – which was not at all – I pulled down at the metal chain that once ensnared me. And kept pulling, passing the chain past me, alternating hands. Like I was climbing a rope in gym class, except on my side, and instead of going up to the ceiling, I was trying to get to the motorcycle.

Eventually, I got through the excess chain, and the metal links straightened out again. I was able to make progress.

Dissonant. Jarring. Shouting. Tires. Just noise, everywhere. Panic. Making sense of it could come later.

I pulled, tugged, and pulled again. I made it to the motorcycle, arms aching all the way.

Tapping into my last reserves of strength, I pushed myself up, and crawled on top of the vehicle, which was on its side, but still humming, engines on.

Ah, shit.

They weren’t here. Styx, or the owner of that other voice. Male, if the haze in my brain could clear up a little, and let me remember properly.

They aren’t here. Not anywhere around. Did they run off? Take another bike?

Wait… What was I going to do, if they were here?

That thought, that idea, I had to push it aside. Just for now. Search. Look elsewhere.

I sat up, but I was slouched over. I removed a glove, feeling around the bike, being mindful of where the bike was at its hottest.

If they crashed…

There.

My fingers ran across something wet. I looked at my hand, the way it glistened, how it smelled.

Not oil.

Blood.

Yes.

Getting my mask off was the next course of action. Using only one hand was proving tricky, and I was becoming impatient with how hard it was to unfasten the different straps and pieces to it. I was tempted to just rip it off, but that would only cause more problems in the immediate future.

Patience, Blank Face, give yourself just a small amount.

I did, and I managed to loosen the mask. I pushed it up, scrunching it, putting the filter over my eyes.

I didn’t waste a fucking second.

I thrusted my fingers into my mouth, and licked.

A surge, a short burst of energy, coursing through my veins.

But it was not enough.

It was not enough to satiate me.

Like a brief charge to a battery, I was now at about ten percent. I needed more. I wanted more.

I rose, getting over the bike, and onto my feet. I fixed the glove back over my hand, fit the mask back properly on my face, and adjusted my hood.

Time to find Styx.

I ran onto the sidewalk, trying to look for a good path to maneuver myself upwards, to a roof.

I leaped up to get onto a single story building, crossing the roof to observe the street below.

A line of motorcycles were continuing their drive. Some bikers had helmets, some had bandanas. I couldn’t locate the van that knocked itself into Styx’s bike. But there was another vehicle, among the motorcycles.

A red pickup truck, carrying seven people in the back. They were in white. A boy among them.

With little thought entering my mind, I went back down.

As I descended through the air, I threw a hand into a pocket of my parka, and drew out a handle of a retractable police baton. I clicked a button on the side, unsheathing it. A little over a foot long.

The baton… I recalled getting it earlier in the night. Exchanged for something I couldn’t remember right this second. Something about… safety.

I had aimed with my jump, landing a distance ahead of the truck, but with a few bikers close by.

Within reach.

I swung, wide, attempting to clip a biker off their ride as they passed. I connected, and a biker in a helmet got knocked back off their bike.

The truck was advancing, even closer now, and there was little chance in avoiding me with a sharp turn, considering its load. I had to perform a small hop, and the top of the truck just grazed past the bottoms of my shoes.

It had avoided me, but the truck had veered, then stopping the moment I touched back down. The people in the bed of the truck fell forward, from the momentum of the sudden brake.

Now, I had options, but I went straight for the closest person, to make the decision easy. The downed biker.

I retracted the baton, slipping back into a pocket, and picked up the man by the collar. Either he was lighter than I thought, or I was starting to get some strength back.

I ripped apart his leather jacket down the zipper. He had a sweater underneath, and a scarf around his neck.

Come on.

I’d be momentarily stalled in getting his neck exposed. The impatience was eating at me, hastening my movements, becoming more wild. Couldn’t wait for more blood. Now. Now.

A blow to my side, and I was back down. Swiped by another passing biker. The thick parka took the brunt of the hit, but I instinctively knew that a bruise was left behind. Maybe a broken rib, if I was unlucky. It’d heal, but a significant wind was knocked out of me.

Too many people, here. Gang members, innocents, witnesses. Needed to get one, needed to get to a far away place where I could feed in peace.

Yeah, yeah.

I had to move as soon as I straightened myself up, and get out of the way of bikers and other such obstacles. Slower, easier targets. Weaker.

A hiss in my ear. I brushed it off. It was easy to drown it out with all the incoming sirens.

My jaw twitched. I licked my lips.

A short building, old, with ruined bricks and grooves that defaced its surface. I scaled it, my hands and feet reaching into holes for support and footholds. I got over in no time flat.

I skittered down the side of the building, running while keeping an eye on the street I just left. The truck was just now getting into gear, a ring of bikers surrounding it. Still supervising a transport, or were they trying to protect the immigrants from a certain group, or individual?

Me?

Good luck with that.

I kept a hand close to the pocket where I returned the baton, ready to use, ready to strike. Had to think of a way around those bikers. To throw them off, or eliminate them entirely. They could fight back, they had strength in numbers.

The people in the truck? They had numbers, but not strength. They had been travelling for days, probably, and they were drained, spent, weak. I could use that. Should.

What I needed to figure out was how to separate them from the bikers, then each other. Pick them apart.

One. I only needed one. Two, if things fell in my favor.

Apples. Strawberries. Jam.

Let’s jam.

I went back down, but not onto the street. I was ahead of that group of vehicles, in wait. It had gotten late enough that there wasn’t a single person here on the sidewalk.

I ran until I got to the corner, where the street turned into an intersection. A metal newspaper vending stand, full of paper. I lifted it up over my head, and tossed it at the truck as it sped closer.

It slammed into the hood of the truck, hitting the windshield as it got knocked away, papers flying, twirling down.

The bikers stopped when the truck did. The truck was probably still operable, but some of the truck’s passengers were choosing to abandon it, instead. They scattered, running past the bikers and into alleys and other streets, but not in my direction.

The bikers themselves split up as well, shouting contradicting orders. Some fled entirely, while a select few actually parked their bikes and got down.

Challenging me?

No time to play.

I jumped across the street, avoiding them all. No time to waste. My stomach grumbled, my throat flared.

We were well out of King District, but a lot of the buildings here were either under construction, scheduled for demolition, or abandoned completely. A lot of dark corners, a lot of places to hide.

In reality, a lot of places for people to corner themselves.

I headed straight, into an abandoned building. It was easy to glean from seeing inside the skeletons of other structures. No one had run inside. Too easy to be seen and found out. They had the right idea, but it would only them take so far.

With my mouth starting to salivate at the thought of sustenance, I jumped again, going through an open windowsill.

The clamor outside was immediately taken down a notch. I was in a hallway of an empty hotel, it looked like, judging from the doors that were lined down the length of the hall.

Halls, doors, under stairs, rooms, closets. More places to hide than I expected. This could be harder than I thought.

But that didn’t slow me down. I only needed one.

One. Only one. Needed.

I decided to work my way down, investigating every floor, every possibility, before moving to the next one, below. From checking the numbers on the doors, I was on the fourth floor. If the door was locked, I didn’t try to open it. If it wasn’t, I’d peek my head inside.

Nada.

I moved on, down the winding stairs at the end of another hall, same floor. I didn’t take the stairs, exactly, I hopped down, passing all of the steps, stopping when I banged my shoulder against the wall on the other end. I turned, and repeated the process again to make it to floor two.

The second floor.

Haste made waste, and I was starting to worry that my hurrying was making me clumsy. That I had missed a person, somewhere, or skipped over a locked door when I shouldn’t have, with someone hiding inside. Maybe I could backtrack if I ended up coming up short by the time I reached the lobby. The longer I took meant people were getting away. Food. Drink. Apples.

I combed through the second floor. Rooms, bathrooms, I was checking under beds, now. I pulled open a drawer, staring at a ziplock bag of colored tablets and syringes, and I had to force myself to realize what I was doing, and why it didn’t make sense. Desperate. My throat was on fire.

I got back out into the hall, and looked for the next set of stairs.

In the gloom, I didn’t notice a plank of wood on the floor. My foot got caught on it, and I tripped.

However, I kept my momentum, putting my hands out and catching myself, rolling forward. On all fours, I crawled a foot or two towards the stairs.

I froze.

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

A small boy. Probably not over thirteen years old. He slowly drew back, taking small steps, down the stairs. Hair messy, disheveled, stuck up in places. Clothes white, but dirty. Hands to chest.

Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah.

Lost boy.

“Miguel,” I said, and that was it. No statement, question, or other comment. I just said a name.

He didn’t give me a response, not that he needed to. He turned on a dime, taking the stairs two and three steps at a time, disappearing from my sight.

I didn’t take the same tactic down as before. I bounded towards the railing, vaulting over to reach the final floor. Floor one.

The first floor, I mean.

Miguel was fast, I had to give him that. He was already hiding somewhere, I figured. He was nowhere in sight when I made it into the lobby. I walked, taking my time. I could catch up to him with a single move if and when I had to.

I didn’t find him by the front counter, but I glanced at a dusted brochure that sat atop it. I picked it up, feeling inclined to read it.

“The Burne-Jones Hotel? A-already going sightseeing, Miguel?”

No answer, not like I expected one. I set down the brochure, and searched elsewhere. It was quiet in here, and when I wasn’t walking on carpet, my steps carried. I would have heard it, if he had opened an exit door, or any door, for that matter.

Bang. The sound of a metal door, down the hall behind me. I hurried in that direction.

He wasn’t here, and door wasn’t closing behind anyone. Dammit. A rock sat inert close to the bottom of the door, a white mark left a foot above it. A trick?

More sounds, again from behind. This time, footsteps.

I picked up the rock before I turned around. Briefly, I saw a figure run down the length of the hall. Another exit was at the end, there.

“Mi-Miguel!” I shrieked, my voice reaching a higher pitch. My head was pounding, my thoughts singular, narrow, too focused. Feed. Fruit. Juice. The smallest of fries.

I can feel myself losing it.

And I am okay with that.

Going after people was…

I wound up the rock like a baseball, then threw it at the boy.

Twice in one night, I struck my target. The rock flew down the hall, striking Miguel in a calf. He didn’t fall, but hobbled away to a nearby door. Changing course?

I followed him, taking long, fast strides, nearing a jog. Windows near the door revealed a pool area. I got to the door, and went through.

The pool itself was drained, and it was easy to spot Miguel in here. He was standing awkwardly at the other end of the empty pool, holding​ a metal pipe. Shivering.

Fool. He had cornered himself.

Like a dumb, scared rabbit.

I dropped into the pool, my landing echoing through the room. Carrying.

With every step forward, he took three back. But his back soon hit the pool wall behind him.

It was dark in here, dark throughout the entire hotel, but I had no issue on that front. For Miguel, he wasn’t allowed that advantage. Moonlight had pierced through the windows that faced the outside, casting blotches of light on the floor of the pool.

What did Miguel see, right this second?

My voice croaked out, completely unrecognizable.

“Migueeeeel, you s-set meee up against Styx Gang, r-riiiiiiight?”

It seemed like so long ago, but I remembered being ambushed back in the trailer, taken by surprise. I had no evidence, no reason to claim what I was claiming, but my brain was taking any train of thought that came to it and rode it all the way. Derailed.

He yelled, as if trying to appeal to someone he knew. But that person checked out some time ago.

Slurred, panicked Spanish. I was barely decent speaking at normal pace in class. All of his words were lost on me.

Alright, no more delay.

Okay.

I practically skipped the rest of the way. My leg strength took me the rest of the way in three steps.

Miguel tried to swing, to retaliate, but it would be of no use to him. I caught with one hand, twisted, and it was enough for him to let go of his makeshift weapon.

My other hand went for his throat.

He was stuck, choking, with my thoughts speeding towards one eventuality, pushing me to take the appropriate action.

“Juice,” I wheezed, trying to suppress a cough. “Let me drink. M-make it easy for me. Give me juice. Use my knife, give me your juice. I j-just want something to drink.”

I thought again. Did I have my knife?

No, I don’t.

Someone had me give it up for… something else. It was in my pocket right now. Would that work, instead?

I had a feeling it wouldn’t.

My fingers tightened some, and the boy was turning red. Like an apple.

Just needed the juice.

Soon…

I was excited.

“A—–…”

A word, maybe more. A sentence? I couldn’t understand, but whatever was said compelled me to wheel around.

Part man, part bird. Tall. Two, dark circles for eyes stared back at me. Haunting.

He brought an arm out. Holding something. Pointing something.

At me.

Who-” I started, but two sharp pricks poked into my leg, stopping me. Another prick.

Whua…

Sluggishly, I drooped, an intense weariness overwhelming me. I stumbled, and the boy slipped out of my grasp. My eyesight was beginning to swim, and a heavy, forceful comfort took over my whole body and sense of self. With my eyelids heavy, and a long breath, I blacked out.

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027 – Pop

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There was break in between me relaying that information to Hleuco, and when he finally said something.

People?” he questioned.

I almost didn’t believe it myself, when he asked me. I went to take a better look inside.

Ten, eleven, no, thirteen people. At least. That was what a quick scan gave me.

Most of them looked to be Hispanic. Thin, confused, tired. Men, women, children. Parents, and their offspring. A wide-eyed girl in one corner, a tall man with a buzz-cut in the other. They were all in baggy white clothing, though sullied with marks of brown across sleeves and pants. They​ stared back at​ me, silent, possibly scared. Given my appearance, it was understandable.

I confirmed it to Hleuco. “People. Not sure the total, but definitely more than fifteen.”

Another break.

That… complicates matters,” he said, after a time.

“No shit. What the fuck do I do? I can’t just walk away from this. Not anymore.”

Several of the people inside tested a few steps to me, trying to get a better look at who I was. What I was doing here.

We just might have to, Blank Face,” Hleuco said, “We are in no way equipped to deal with them.

“But, who are they?” I asked, though I could guess the answer.

Without having actual eyes on the scene, illegal aliens, most likely.

I looked at them again, everything clicking into place. Human trafficking. I never thought the day would come in which that particular global issue would present itself to me.

Among other things, but now’s not the time for that.

Something had to be done, here.

Couldn’t just walk away from this.

“You’re asking me to leave them alone?” I asked, my eyes still glued on this discovery. A decision had to be made, and soon. A dark figure in a gas mask, standing still, talking to themselves, wasn’t exactly warm and welcoming imagery to these folk.

I’m telling you as fact. We’re in no position to take them elsewhere, and where would we take them? Our plan doesn’t change, even in the face of this. We can call the police from a far-enough location, and let them sort this out.

But, I was here, now. There were people, here, locked up in a trailer of a semi, and they did not look okay. Did they need help?

And could I provide it?

“He- hello?” I asked, testing them. “Anyone here speak English?”

Blank Face, what are you trying to do?

I disregarded him. If there was any info I could pull from these people, I’d try to get it.

No one said anything. Their stares were as blank as my name.

I had to level with them. Talking from the outside of the trailer wasn’t going to get any of these people to respond to me. Had to get inside.

I placed my hand on the floor of the trailer, ready to prop myself up. I opened my mouth wide, and exhaled harshly.

Ah.

Right, my shoulder.

Or rather, my left.

My shoulder was out of its socket. Popped out. Dislocated.

It pounded in pain. Slow and steady, but I didn’t feel like a winner. This was going to be a problem, like a thorn in my side. More than I had initially thought. The pain refused to be ignored. Aggravatingly annoying.

Was the excessive force in breaking the chain even worth this discovery? I almost wished I could turn around and pretend I didn’t see anything.

Why did I have to do that? Alexis, you motherfuck.

But, I couldn’t ignore this, not anymore. I couldn’t ignore them.

I took my right hand away from the trailer, and hovered it over my left shoulder. I didn’t want to touch it, but I wanted to make some gesture to relieve the pain, to make it feel better.

To make me feel better.

“Hurt?”

A small boy. Probably not over thirteen years old. He slowly drew near, taking small steps. His black hair was messy, disheveled, sticking up in various places. Like the others, his sleeves and trousers were tracked with dirt, staining the white he wore. His hands were to his chest.

I looked back at him. I didn’t have an expression to provide, only the gas mask I had on. It wasn’t the most inviting appearance.

How was I to answer him? Would admitting to the pain make me look weak to them? To him? I had control of the situation, here. I’d keep it that way.

Rather than giving an answer, I asked a different question, instead.

“Do you know English?” My words were distorted through the filter of the mask.

The boy lifted one hand away from his chest, making a pinching gesture.

A little bit.

He continued to me. With his other hand, he held it out for me to grab.

I thought about taking it, but I wanted to get up on my own power, to prove that a shoulder like this wouldn’t be an issue. Even though I would be proving that to nobody that mattered.

I propped my hand back on the floor of the trailer, and, with a push of my legs, hopped up into the trailer. Against my best efforts, I made a sound.

The boy jumped back, giving me space. The others stirred too, as my steps were amplified by the space.

My nose hadn’t caught it while I was outside, but it reeked in here. It was a good thing I had on a gas mask.

A stale, musty odor of sweat and other more foul bodily fluids. I didn’t want to think too much on it, considering the amount of people here. How many miles were they travelling to get here? How long were they holed up in here? Was Stephenville even their final destination?

My hand went back to hovering over my shoulder.

I checked to my right, and saw the boy there. I could start with him.

“English, right?” I asked, in a manner that was, in no way, a proper English sentence.

His voice carried a heavy Hispanic accent. “Yes, are you police?”

“Not really, no. Ignore the jacket. Uh, no soy un policía.” Everyone exchanged looks with each other, but that was the extent of the Spanish I had at hand.

I had to move to the real topic. Their very existence, here.

“This might be stupidly obvious,” I said, “But I want you to tell me what all of this is.”

The boy turned to the rest in the trailer, and they were looking back and forth between me and him. Suddenly, he was put on the spot as the spokesperson for this group.

He backed up again, and stared at his feet. “We are trying to make it inside to America.”

Illegal immigrants. These people were trying to get into this country, under the radar, under the nose of the federal government. Hleuco was right.

“Well,” I said, “Let me be the first to welcome you to the good ol’ U.S. of A. Don’t get your hopes up.”

I saw the boy’s lip curl up, slightly. Did he take offense to that?

“Where are you all coming in from?” I asked instead.

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know?”

“I’m from Pátzcuaro, the others were picked up from other towns and villages.”

I raised an eyebrow, not that he would see it. “Where are your parents, then?”

The boy brought his head down, his chin pressing into his neck. I couldn’t see his eyes, anymore.

His voice was barely above a whisper. “It has been a long journey. For a lot of us.”

Ah.

There was an implication, there, that I didn’t want to explore. I simply tried to block it out of my mind and move onto another topic.

Another voice did that for me.

Blank Face, I thought I told you to pull out of there, already.

I put a finger to my ear, and positioned myself away from the group, indicating to them I was speaking on a device.

I whispered.

“You never said anything along the lines of that.”

Then I’m telling you now. We’ve gone far enough for one night.

“But these people, we don’t know what’s going to happen to them, after this. I don’t think they know, either, by the looks of things.”

I can tell you exactly what will happen to them. Either they get found out by the police and deported back to wherever they came from, or they get divided up between the different gangs, becoming a member as a sort of payment for being helped into the country. Either way, they reap what they sow, and it won’t be long until either party comes to get them. I’d suggest not being around when that happens.

“I get you, but-”

Besides,” he interrupted, “Something isn’t right, here.

“Whatever do you mean?”

Styx’s Gang mostly deal in drug trading, occasionally weapons, but rarely people. If at all. I’m only surmising from what I can hear on your end, but the people there, are they just normal people?

I checked. No one here looked exactly distinct, just fatigued. Like they’d been through Hell and back, an experience that was impossible to explain, they could only show it in their face and posture.

I could relate.

“As normal as you’d expect illegal immigrants to look like,” I said.

“Is there anything else there? Large bags? Boxes, crates, cargo?”

I checked again, but it was clear from the space between the people here. How they stood.

“Some have backpacks and stuff, but nothing big like you’re asking.”

A pause from Hleuco.

Something’s not right, it’s not adding up. Why would Styx’s Gang help out in transporting regular people?

“Maybe out of the kindness of their heart?” I asked, only kind of kidding.

No, but funny. We can talk about this in person, and go from there. I have a bad feeling about this, and I’ll only start to feel better once you’re back here.

Sweet, his sentiments were, but under the current context? His words were tinged a little sour.

“Okay, I see what you’re getting at, I’ll be heading back. I think I need your help with this shoulder.”

I’m a lawyer, not a doctor. But I will take a look at it.

We left it at that, the conversation put on hold for now. I moved my arm back to my side. It was useless in relieving my shoulder.

I wanted to check up on it myself, but my jacket was too heavy, and I didn’t want to unzip it and accidentally move my shoulder around, causing even more pain. I dislocated my own shoulder. My own dumb luck and strength got the better of me.

I needed to stop getting ahead of myself.

“Hurt?”

I found him coming back my way. The boy asked me that word again. If he was willing to ask twice, that could mean he was able to help in that regard.

“Sort of,” I admitted, “My shoulder, I dislocated it.”

He held his hands out, but not too far. Reserved, cautious.

“I can try and set it back. My… my father was a nurse.”

I looked at his face. A forlorn expression. Sad, almost pitiful. Dark shadows were cast over his eyes, his mouth struggling to set itself straight, the corners of his lips drooping down.

How long exactly was this kid’s journey in getting here?

I relented, finally allowing him to provide me some aid. Pride shouldn’t be a factor at play, now.

“Sure,” I said, “You can try.”

He didn’t need to be perfect at it, or even good. I figured my healing would handle most of the work from there. It just needed to be set back in place.

It was a kid helping me out, a child, but I was in no position to be picky.

I tensed somewhat when the boy reached for my hand. “Do you want to lie down?”

“I’m good.”

“But I can…”

“I can deal. It’s nothing. We can make this fast.”

Because I need to go, and leave you all behind.

“Let’s move to the wall, at least,” he instructed me.

I gave him that. He led the way, moving me, and had me prop my uninjured shoulder against the wall. The others around us moved out of the way, murmuring amongst themselves.

Blank Face, you have to-

I paid no heed to Hleuco. Had to focus on my shoulder. No distractions.

“Okay,” the boy started, “Try to relax. I will be moving your arm a bit, pop it back. Let me know if it hurts.”

“Sure,” I said. I had to try and relax. It was harder than it sounded. I never had to do this before.

He held my wrist, and lifted my arm to level with the floor, bending my elbow ninety-degrees. Firmly, he gripped my elbow with his other hand. My breath was cut short.

“Wait,” I said, and he stopped. “What’s your name?”

“Miguel. Why?”

“I just felt like I needed your name before you do this. Sorry, continue.”

Miguel did. “Get ready,” he said, calm. “It might hurt a tiny bit, but you will immediately feel relief.”

“Hope so,” I said in return.

He rubbed my elbow, before slowly rotating it, moving my shoulder ever so slightly. After a time, just when I was about to raise a complaint, he promptly pushed it up with a sudden force.

A pop. A click. The satisfaction of snapping something back into place.

Not a tiny bit, a lot. The hurt. I squeaked.

Followed by an immediate relief. I moaned.

“Agh, oooof,” I sounded, staggering forward. My right hand finally got a chance to massage my shoulder.

I felt my healing getting a chance to do its job, a warm sensation blanketing my arm, hottest at my shoulder. I dropped to my knees, as the relief took over.

I paid little care into what the people in the trailer thought of me, at the moment. A lot of confusion, and impatience, most likely. They still had no concept of who I was, or what I was doing here. They didn’t even know I had powers. But that wasn’t of their concern.

And my concern was getting out of here and leaving these people here. Which was impossible, by now. I had broken the chain, and the trailer doors could be opened from the inside. Whoever wanted to leave now had to opportunity to do so once I left. Less people for the police or gangs to pick up, at least.

You couldn’t disrupt any more than that, without dismantling.

The comfort I was feeling before was starting to level, become neutral, and I was able to start getting back on my feet.

But, instead, I was violently jerked up by my hood.

The volume inside the trailer spiked up spontaneously, cries from everyone filling out the interior of the chamber. Something was happening, and I couldn’t see it.

I was being pulled by my hood and shoulder, my feet dragging behind. I was still reeling from the overwhelming sensations from earlier to properly get a grip on what was taking place.

I tried lifting my hands above my head, reaching for whatever – or whoever – had me in their hold, but my left shoulder was still too sore to move properly, and I couldn’t get any leverage from the way I was being yanked around.

A blunt force struck my back, near the left shoulder blade, and I was pushed down. But not onto the floor of the trailer. I was kicked back outside. As such, it was a bit of way down.

I hit the ground, my previously dislocated shoulder taking a brunt of the impact. It inflamed in pain again.

Stunned, bewildered, off guard. I did not see this coming.

I still could not see. The portion of my hoodie was over my eyes, the lens of my mask.

Blank Face, Blank Face!” It was Hleuco. “Give me an update!

Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t provide one. As soon as I fell out of the trailer, I heard movement all around me. Boots on concrete. A clattering of metal. A chain.

I felt it go around my neck.

There was a delay, between hearing the metal and feeling a constricting of air, until I realized that it was all happening to me. I was being assaulted, attacked, ambushed.

My mind and body were struggling to keep up. Whoever these people were, they knew how to keep me off balance, trip me up. A harsh yank, and the chain tightened around my throat. My eyes burst open, my fingers feebly tugging at the chain.

I was being pulled away, again. Dragged.

Fuck, fuck.

I hadn’t had a proper meal in weeks. I knew I had lost weight, I saw it with my own two eyes, others had noticed, too. Which was why I could be so easily moved like this.

Cough, I tried to. Couldn’t. Choked. Gagged. Fuck.

Crisis. Alarm. Stay calm. Couldn’t. Fuck.

I couldn’t get my feet under me to run, I couldn’t get a good grip on the damn chain. Randomly, a hard tug, and I choked and lost my hold. Fruitless. Pointless. Fuck.

Tears started welling in my eyes. I couldn’t breathe, and I was panicking. Wanting to hyperventilate, but without the taste of air. An indistinct static noise hissed in my ears. Hleuco, probably. Though I couldn’t understand him. The only sound I could distinguish was the occasional rattling of the chain as it loosened and tighten around my neck as it was pulled, the scratching of my jacket against the concrete. Like sandpaper.

I was inches away from passing out entirely, but I was put to a stop. My back to the ground, I was down. The chain still held me like a snake wrapping itself around prey, but it slackened somewhat, as if toying with the mercy it could so easily provide. The hood over my eyes was pulled away, and I was face to face with a man. Black, middle aged, bald, but with scruffy beard.

He sounded as rough as he looked. “I heard you been trying to catch a ride with one of my men. Sad to say, I don’t think you’re tall enough to ride.”

He added, “You don’t look like any border patrol I know. You must be that masked freak… what was it? The Blueballs?” Small droplets of spit landed on a lens. I wanted to clean it off so bad.

“Blahffnn… Fayffffsh,” I tried to correct him, to no avail. The chain still had me.

“Heh, didn’t quite catch that,” the man said. He stood, and I saw he had on a black leather jacket, blue jeans.

I also saw the bat in his hand. A metal bat. Dented in two spots at the end of the barrel, where the bat was its most thick.

“But if you wanted to ride with us so bad, you coulda asked. I will be… more than happy to accommodate you personally.”

He whistled, and more footsteps were summoned around me. I saw them, in the corners of my eyes. Shadows of people, moving, working. Hands grabbed mine, and peeled my already weak hold around my throat, spreading my arms out to my sides. I was sprawled out.

“The chain’s tied to my bike, already, so we are ready to roll. Please keep your hands and feet close by at all times. Any tampering with the safety measures will result in an early stop of the ride, and I don’t think you want that.”

The man lifted the bat above his head. “So, this is for your safety. Enjoy.”

He swung the bat down, and proceeded to break the first arm.

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026 – ἄχοςλαός

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The music was loud enough to be heard from even outside the building. Dulled, muted, but audible. It was a steady beat, the bass hammering into my chest.

I was across the street, atop another building, watching over an auto-repair shop as loud music and whirring equipment sounded into the night. Being on the Southside, the buildings here were sparse, not as tall as the ones downtown, so I had to make do with where I perched and hid. There was a run-down, forgotten office building that was a safe distance away. I picked there to do my stakeout.

Vehicles of all types were parked in the wide parking lot of the repair shop. Truck, car, vans, mopeds, but the most common ones were motorcycles. I watched as workers labored over the motorcycles, everything from tweaking the nuts and bolts to even refueling. Somewhere in between that process, drugs were being loaded in. Somehow. I didn’t quite get it.

Hleuco had given me a short rundown, but anyone who had lived in Stephenville for longer than a year would have some knowledge of Styx’s Gang.

Stephenville’s biggest native gang, one of the few left. They had been around, established, from even before the city’s attempted economic and manufacturing boom. Even back then, they were never the most powerful, or the most influential, but they were mobile, and mostly used the city as a hub. As the different cartels started coming in, they brought with them their conflicts. Scuffles here and there took place, apparently, but Styx’s Gang was able to alleviate some of that pressure by agreeing to move weight for all of the different gangs. All at a slight spike in price, but it was a damn steal in exchange for a full-blown gang war.

And I was about to throw a wrench into that particular cog.

Through Hleuco’s own connections, he’d found out about a large shipment of something that Styx’s Gang supervised the transport of. The original plan was to stop them in the middle of that transport, but we missed that window of opportunity when we were talking on the roof of the factory. If we wanted to continue to pursue that shipment, a change of plans was in order.

In short, I was anxious. Not from the height I was at, but rather what I was about to do. What Hleuco had planned for the night. He told me the new plan on the way, and I thought he was insane.

He seemed to have picked up on that.

Did you know that it takes five years for a coffee tree to reach its full maturity, and they can live up to a hundred years old?

“Spectacular,” I said, flatly.

Also, that the name ‘Wendy’ was made up for the book Peter Pan?

“What does that have to do with anything?” I asked, rather irritably. Unintended, and while I understood why he was being like this, he didn’t have to be so obvious about it. He was coming off as patronizing, the opposite effect of what he was trying to accomplish. “Aren’t we behind as it is?”

We are, certainly, which is why we have to adjust accordingly. Although, our tardiness might have made things easier for us, in the end. The only downside is we have to wait a little bit more. My apologies if I try to lighten the mood, to kill some time.

With him buzzing off in my ear, I couldn’t use body language or any visual cue to display my mild displeasure at his consideration for my nerves. I had to speak my mind.

“I get it, I get it,” I said, “You don’t have to go that far, though. It’s going to throw me off once it’s time to go.”

Fair. Then, to switch to something else, how was getting up there? Can you move around in your new costume okay?

I recalled how I got up here, maneuvering my way up this building. Moving about was fine, easier than ever. I was getting the hang of getting up to the roofs, traversing over the tops of buildings, knowing how much strength to put into my legs for certain distances, how to land. I was beginning to develop my own personal ‘parkour,’ achievable only through my own strength and abilities.

“I can.” That was all I had to say.

Good to know. Get ready to move when you have to. Otherwise, just sit and wait.”

“Roger that.” I stayed put.

A moment passed, quiet, aside from the music coming out from the building ahead. Hleuco let the conversation go, leaving me to my thoughts. A dangerous thing to let happen. I straightened my shoulders, and I thought about the slight, but noticeable weight added to them.

Clothes made the man, or girl, or vampire, or hero. My old threads made up Blank Face, or The Bluemoon, to the public at large. Clothes were an important part of one’s image, defining how one was viewed by others, and even how one viewed themselves.

With this outfit, it was different, I felt different. If I was still supposed to be Blank Face, I certainly felt like a different one.

The parka was heavier than my old windbreaker. Not that it weighed me down, just that it was made of a thicker, more durable material. The inside was lined with fleece, which provided me with a warmth I didn’t realize I needed. It was November now, and the weather was getting cooler with every passing week. It wouldn’t ever snow here, but the windbreaker would no longer suffice in the coming months.

Assuming this gig lasts that long.

It was still blue, as well. A darker blue, easily mistaken for black in the nighttime.

The most striking feature of the parka, though, was the word policía emblazoned across the back, capitalized in gold. A little on the nose, I thought, but it certainly wasn’t generic.

However, it was the mask that most deviated from my original look. Stylized as an old-school gas mask, white in color. A single canister protruded out from the left side of the filter that covered my mouth. The lenses were circular, much like Hleuco’s mask, giving me a much less human look and feel.

Definitely more durable than a cheap plastic mask you could get anywhere.

Certainly better than my old outfit, and in every conceivable way. Extra pockets in my parka, a tighter fit on my mask, Thomas had thought of everything when he gave me this costume. I could only be grateful.

Yet, why did I feel like I was in another person’s skin?

“Hleuco.” I found myself saying his name.

Yes?

“Have you been hearing me fine, though?” I asked, testing the earpiece. “Does the mask… um, mask my voice too much?”

A little,” Hleuco admitted, “But not so much that it’s an issue. I took that into consideration, as well. Anything to better hide your identity, the better.

He had even put that into consideration, into the details of my new costume.

“Where did you even get this stuff, anyways?” I asked. “I was gonna ask earlier, but there were other things to go over.”

Items from my private collection, from when I was younger, with fewer ties that kept me down.

“Oh, neat,” I said, not sure what else to comment. Overdue belated birthday gifts from a family friend, I decided to chalked it up as.

But, there are more important matters at hand. I need you to keep me in the loop. Otherwise, I can’t provide what little help I have.

“Right.” I checked again. Still nothing. Workers were still working. Barring the late hour, as far as any normal person would be concerned, it was a normal repair shop. I told him that.

“All clear,” I said, “Though I guess in this case, it’s not the best thing in the world.”

Patience, is all I can tell you. Unless you’d like for me to provide more fascinating bits of trivia?

“I’d like to unsubscribe from useless Hleuco trivia, please,” I said, shutting him down.

I leaned ahead, peering through my lens.

“Movement,” I said to Hleuco. I looked on.

Three men were exiting out of the garage of the auto-repair shop, each wearing very heavy jackets. They each took to their own motorcycle, starting it. It was faint, but the rumble of the engines added to the noised raised by the shop.

“Three guys,” I reported, “Each with their own motorcycle. That’s them right? The Ferrymen?”

Right. They do the basic rounds, delivering goods to whoever needs or wants them. They may be the lower ranks of the gang, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t uninformed. They’ll know what we’re looking for. It’s just a matter of getting that information out of them.

“Isn’t that a whole lot of stupid, though? That just gives people like us the opportunity to do what we’re about to do.”

I didn’t say they know everything. They just know the city better than anyone else. The layout. Where to go and how. And before us, who stood to challenge them? They’ve provided a service, a means to diffuse. If we aren’t careful, it’s possible for everything to blow up in our faces.

The inherent risk in poking this particular beehive wasn’t lost on me. I was aware. It still weighed on my entire being, though.

This was the exact thing I wanted to avoid at first, I thought, Going after gangs.

“Actually, I think I want to subscribe to useless Hleuco facts,” I said.

It will be fine. It is but a sign of their arrogance, that they move around so freely and openly with little resistance or opposition. Remember, we’ve only just begun, so there’s no need to take it too far, so fast. Our tactics are still the same. Hit and run. Disrupt, rather than dismantle. We’re just targeting where we hit this time, rather than taking what comes to us.

If he was up here, being the one to get his hands dirty, maybe he wouldn’t sound so calm about this.

The motorcyclists were pulling out of the shop, getting onto the road. They immediately split up. One went down one way, the other two went in the direction of the building I was on.

Towards me.

“I’m moving,” I said into the earpiece. I turned, crossing the length of the roof.

There was another reason why I had picked this building to spy on them. According to Hleuco, and what he already knew about the area, the parking lot behind this building was a spot where druggies would congregate, waiting to get a score from a passing Ferryman. It was the closest spot for this base, and the most out of the way.

But I couldn’t wrap my head around it. If it was this easy to find a drug deal, why haven’t the police done anything about it? What was stopping them? Money? Power? Fear? It became more apparent every time I stepped out as Blank Face, just how ruined this city actually was.

I made it across the roof, the gravel shifting under my feet as I moved. I watched below.

A few had already gathered. The homeless, the downtrodden, the bored. They were waiting around in a circle, under the orange glow of a lamp post. They were in a parking lot, but no vehicles were present.

No one saw me waiting above.

In the time it took me to move to the other side, the two motorcyclists were turning the corner, coming up to the parking lot. The ragtag group faced them when they heard the motorcycles approach.

I itched in wait.

“They’re here,” I said out loud, positive no one would hear me. “I have a feeling it’ll be messy again. I’ll let you know when I ready.”

Got it,” Hleuco confirmed, “Before you go, remember the rules. No-

“Yes, I’ve heard it enough times, already. I’ll be good.”

There’s nothing wrong with being thorough. Alright, go. I’m not too far. Just give me the signal. Out.

I breathed out, slow. Though I had done this before, didn’t make it any easier to do it again. These were still people. Eggshells, really.

The gang members stepped off of their motorcycles. Looking at them from a closer point of view, I saw that they were black Harleys. Even the Ferrymen themselves were the spitting image of a bar-tumbling biker, leather jackets and all.

They didn’t walk to the others. Instead, they let the ones with the demand come to them. The ones with the supply got to determine the circumstances.

And I was to stop them.

I waited no longer. Putting my arms on top of the metal railing that lined the edge of the roof, I vaulted over.

“Going in,” I said as I dropped.

A three-story fall. I prepared to cushion my descent.

It worked. Kind of. I leaned in as soon as I touched ground to roll forward, but I tripped, flopping onto my side instead of somersaulting. At least I had descended into the dark, where that lamp post couldn’t expose me. No one was close enough to hear my flub, either. Especially with the motorcycles still going.

I hiccuped in trying to suppress a cough.

Haven’t completely developed that personal parkour just yet.

What? Something wrong?” Hleuco’s voice was raised, curious.

“No, not that,” I said. “Just remind me to take the stairs next time.”

I sprung back up on my feet, shaking it off. I pressed on.

The glow of the lamp post soon came over me. I was crossing the parking lot, towards the addicts and their dealers.

They didn’t see me at first. Not immediately. Even as I walked, my pace brisk.

The first person to see me was a girl, the first to purchase her score from one of the bikers. As I got closer, I saw her face shift from confusion, realization – despite my new clothes – then fear.

“Run!” she yelled, pointing. “The Bluemoon!”

The others faced the way she was pointing, and they were much faster to react.

They scattered.

I focused not on the homeless, the downtrodden, or the bored. They weren’t priorities, it was the two bikers. The two Ferrymen.

They were immediately trying to get back on their bikes. I had stop them.

I broke into a run, lunging forward as I got closer.

I tackled the first biker off of his bike. His leg caught the side of his bike, toppling it over with him.

In that time, the other biker was already making a getaway.

I can be fast, but not that fast.

If I didn’t make a move, he’d escape, alerting the others from Styx’s Gang, and this night would go even more down the drain.

I jumped back onto my feet, scanning the area for anything I could use to stop him.

A brick, a few paces away. Was I confident in my aim? My throwing arm?

Better than nothing, I supposed.

I ran after the biker, trying to catch up. Trying, because he was already almost out of the parking lot. I bent down as I ran, scooping up the brick.

I maintained my speed, running as fast as I could. My mind racing just as quickly, I watched for any clue, any indication which way he’d turn onto the road.

His shoulders budged, leaning right. I compensated.

I held my arm back and up, and fired.

Bullseye.

The brick flew from my hand in a straight line, connecting with his side. I heard him scream in a sudden agony. He folded, falling off his bike and onto the road. His bike skidded away from his body as he went limp.

Pure luck. That was the only way I managed that shot. But did I throw too hard?

Eh, whatever.

I stood there, massaging my arm. I needed a breath. The shouting of the other destitutes faded away. I could live with them getting away.

“Hleuco,” I said out loud, “Come.”

Be there in a few.

After I caught a second wind, I returned to the other biker, his leg still pinned down by his bike. I only needed one of them.

“Hi,” I said, as I bent down, over him. “You look like you need help.”

He was heavyset, bearded, a bandana across his forehead.

Yeah, the spitting image of a biker dude.

“The… Bluemoon?” he breathed. He made a face. The motorcycle was heavier than it looked, and it already looked heavy. He was stuck, wholly dependent on my mercy.

Something about that…

I spoke. “Oh, that’s right, you like the new fit? Trying to go for a new look, since, you know, everyone’s an asshole. And yeah, I guess I am The Bluemoon, but that name sucks. If you get to make it out of this, tell everyone I go by ‘Blank Face.’”

“Blank… Face,” he repeated, “What… do you want? You here to fuck with us again?”

What he was referring to, I had no idea, but I ignored him. No time to get into that, now. I simply parroted what Hleuco wanted me to say. To the best of my memory. I improvised. “A shipment just came in recently. A big one. I think you know what I’m talking about.”

He scrunched his eyes. “I don’t.”

I groaned. Standing back up, I set my foot atop the motorcycle. I pressed down.

He screamed.

“I think you know what I’m talking about,” I repeated, my voice raised, but still level. I had to be heard over his wailing.

“I don’t know! I can’t say!”

“Why can’t you say?” I intoned, “Because you don’t want to betray your family?”

“I don’t- agh!”

He wasn’t giving me anything.

Dammit, I’m not good at this at all.

Before I could continue, a light came upon me. A van stopped right behind me. I twisted to see, my foot still on the bike.

Hleuco stepped out of the van. I pressed my ear to temporarily turn off the earpiece.

“Is he a good catch?” he asked. “I saw the other Ferryman on the street, back there.”

“He’ll be fine, or, he won’t be an issue, is what I mean to say.”

“Alright,” he said, taking it as that. He clasped his hands together. “Did we get what we need out of him?”

I shook my head. “Not yet. I don’t know if he even knows anything.”

“Oh, he’d know. You just haven’t tried hard enough. But, we can continue this elsewhere. We’re out in the open. Can you lift the bike?”

“With one hand,” I said, pretty sure about it.

“Perfect. Come, let’s bring him in.”

For a second, I paused. Hesitated. The biker’s squirms filled the fleeting, empty moment.

I didn’t even ask a question. I just phrased a word funny.

“Kidnapping?”

Hleuco, however, seemed to understand the underlying meaning. “Kidnapping? No, he was going out for a ride, wasn’t he? He’s just accompanying us for ride.”

“Um, right.”

“Blank Face, he’s probably got enough drugs to last him some sort of substantial sentence in prison. We get what we need out of him, through whatever means comfortably set within our moral and ethical sensibilities, and we can leave him to be picked up by the proper authorities.”

I put a hand on my hip. I thought about it. “Sure. My moral and ethical sensibilities have been pretty loose lately, anyways.”

Hleuco raised his hand, making a gesture. “We’ll deal with it as it comes. Now, let’s move it along.”

Without another word said, I got to work in lifting up the motorcycle, while Hleuco reached for the biker’s arms.

I slammed the door of the van shut. I removed my right glove, rubbing my hand on the side of my new parka, drying my hand from any excess sweat.

The window of the door I just closed rolled down.

“Are you alright, Blank Face?” Hleuco asked, from the driver’s side of the van.

“I’m alright,” I said, reassuring him, and myself. “Let’s go. If we can find the shipment fast enough, we can be done here, right?”

“Correct.”

“Then, let’s do it.”

“I’ll wrap around the best I can, but I can’t get in and bring the van, so you sneaking in is the best bet.”

“Probably.”

“Remember, the number is 2-1-1.”

“2-1-1,” I repeated back to him.

“Good luck,” he said, and he drove off.

After pressing my ear, turning the earpiece back on, I put back on my glove, and ran towards the fence. I cleared it easy.

I found myself in a trailer yard, on King District, where semi-truck trailers were parked, waiting to be loaded with freight. However, if John Todd, 34, from Clifton, Virginia’s information was correct, one of these trailers still had its cargo.

Trailer 2-1-1, to be exact.

Getting in through normal means was impossible. There was a fence around the lot, and a gate at the entrance. The place was privately owned, meaning, if we didn’t have official business here, we weren’t getting in.

I spat in the face of that.

The hour had turned ungodly, so the place shouldn’t be guarded too heavily, if at all. It was good that I was almost done with being Blank Face for the night. All I had to do was find the trailer, find out what was inside, and alert the appropriate people to its existence.

Disrupt, rather than dismantle.

Right.

I snapped my fingers.

I still needed to feed. How was I supposed to fit that in now? I’d have to figure that out, soon.

I proceeded, checking the backs of every trailer, where the numbers were printed.

5-5.

7-8.

1-9-5, 1-9-6, 1-9—–. I ran until the numbers became a blur, ignoring anything that didn’t have the first slot carrying the general shape of ‘2.’

2-0-1. I slowed, walking until I got to the correct number.

“2-1-1,” I said, out loud, to myself.

You found it,” Hleuco said, his distinct buzzing returning into my ear.

“I did, but,” I inspected the back of the trailer further. “The latch is chained, locked. I might not be able to open it.”

Have you tried?

“I have not.”

Then do it.

I resisted the urge to be snarky. Not now, we were almost finished.

I checked the chain again, holding it in my hand. It was wrapped around the latch and handle used to open the door. Wasn’t heavy, or thick. It might break if I pulled at it hard enough.

Might.

I tried.

I put both hands on the chain, tugging at it, pulling back. Not much give.

I tried again, putting more force into it. I caught the sound of metal clanging. An echo.

Once more, not much give.

I put one last burst of effort into it. I pulled, and put both my feet on the door of the trailer itself, getting off the ground. I gritted my teeth. Tiny, angered hisses escaped from my lips in an effort to break the chain. It was like forcing a sword out of a stone.

Metal clanged again. An echo. I felt it getting looser.

One more full pull, I pressed my feet against the trailer, and yanked my whole body straight.

I dislocated my shoulder.

“Ahhf!”

I crumpled, falling down, holding my left shoulder.

My breath hitched again.

Blank Face, update.

“Nothing, it’s nothing,” I seethed. “Just pulled something.”

Do you need assistance? I’ll find a way to get over there and get you out.

“No… need,” I protested, “I’ll be fine, it’s… one of my powers. Besides,” I rolled onto my back, and felt my left hand’s grip on metal, “I broke the chain.”

With your bare hands? Fascinating.

“Yes, now please, no more questions. Focusing on getting myself… together again.”

I didn’t hear another word from Hleuco. I had to put effort into moving my hand, dropping the broken chain.

I got up into a sitting position. I patted down my left shoulder, my eye twitching every time I did so.

Couldn’t move it, and my healing wasn’t doing anything about it.

It hurt, and it hurt like hell, but I wasn’t shocked or scared at the feeling, rather I almost felt inconvenienced. I had to either relocate it myself, or get Hleuco to do it, and let my healing work from there.

Now I really have to hurry.

I took my time in getting to my feet. Slowly, surely. I didn’t know whether to continue hugging my shoulder or to let it hang for now. But a foot forward, then another, was more important.

I moved along.

Right hand outstretched, I felt for the latch and handle. It was difficult, trying to work it with one hand, but I managed, and I swung the door open.

I looked inside.

My heart dropped.

“Um, Hleuco?”

Yes, did you find it? Is it in there?

“Yeah, but, the shipment isn’t drugs, or weapons. It’s people.”

Previous                                                                                               Next

025 – Play for Keeps

Previous                                                                                               Next

Dark clouds stretched above me. Heavy, like it could rain at any moment, the threat literally hanging over my head. Huge, too, and I distracted myself by imagining what it would be like if they were really huge floating islands, and a civilization of people had been living up there for centuries, completely separate from us land-dwellers. What kind of food would they eat? How did they travel from cloud to cloud?

I’m wandering.

I heard Hleuco approach up from behind. I didn’t turn or react, I simply looked ahead.

The city was nothing like New York, with the iconically tall buildings and the sheer amount of them, but Stephenville had a skyline of its own, scraping its own name into the sky. The center of my line of sight held a higher concentration of buildings, taller too. An area colloquially referred to as ‘The Eye,’ the roughest part of town, and where the more prominent gangs held the most influence and power. Even with my powers, I was still an ant, compared to the bosses within those towers. Impossible, to do anything about them now. Not like that was what we were working towards, or anything. Our aspirations were a lot smaller.

I looked, once again feeling a sense of self-doubt, second guessing myself. Should I really be doing this?

Hleuco took a position a few feet away from the roof’s edge. As for me, I was sitting, my legs hanging. It was chilly up here, even with a windbreaker.

We were on a roof of an abandoned factory, in an older district. The ‘hood,’ if I wanted to put a label on it. It was the closest thing to a headquarters we had, not that we had done any refurbishing or renovations towards making it a base of operations. More of a meeting place, I supposed, far enough off the grid that no one besides crackheads and their dealers would enter.

However, that meant that I had to travel pretty far to make it here. Forty-five minutes, walking when two buses took me as far as they could.

I need to learn how to drive, and soon.

Actually, first, I need a car.

“You could’ve told me you were already here,” Hleuco started, breaking me away from my thoughts.

“I came up from another way,” I explained, dryly, “The roof here is big, so I thought I’d stay in one place.”

“You have your earpiece, don’t you?”

“I needed a breather.”

“I said it was urgent for a reason.”

“Kept you waiting, huh?” I asked, not concerned.

“Only a few hours, but it’s not as if time is of the essence.”

“That’s a relief, then,” I said. I didn’t care how late I was. I had to wait for my mom to go to bed before I could head out. That was a drawback he’d have to learn to deal with. Not my fault I was the only superhuman available at his beck and call.

I didn’t apologize, nor attempt to justify my tardiness. Was not in the mood.

“In any case, there’s a lot we need to discuss, and now there’s not much time,” Hleuco said, taking my small wisecrack in stride. “But this is something we need to address.”

I heard a cushioned drop of what sounded like clothes onto concrete, then the crinkling of paper while he talked.

“Thanks to the so-called ‘Halloween Riots,’ the people are asking for a real witch trial out of you.”

“How reassuring,” I said. Lightly, I kicked my legs out in front of me, letting them swing.

Hleuco continued to explain the situation, a situation seared into my consciousness for the last few days. “Public perception was wary at least, fearful at most. But now?” The crinkling paper came back, and he paused. He exhaled, before saying, “They want to burn you at the stake. Not the best foot forward when you just started being a superhero.”

“I didn’t do this to be loved,” I said, nonchalantly. “Not a concern.”

“Perhaps it’s not a concern in a personal sense, but it’s a concern nonetheless. If these riots continue into the next few days, the governor is considering sending in the National Guard to come after you.”

That got to me. I wasn’t aware of that potential measure. “You’re kidding, right? Tell me you’re kidding?” I looked at him for my answer.

I frowned.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

What I heard from Hleuco was him tearing into a bag. He was suited up, and had his mask on, but not on properly. It was lifted up, the mouth-beak section over his eyes, and he was eating a burger.

“You were late, so I had time.”

“But right this very second, though? You’re mixing signals.”

“I still have some leftovers, want a few?” he offered, showing me the greasy paper bag.

Again, my stomach did a flip.

“Um, I’m good,” I said.

“Hmm, more for me.” He dug into some french fries, left in the bottom of the bag.

Without realizing it, he was rubbing it in my face.

“Tasty?” I asked, harshly.

“Very,” he answered, his mouth full.

“Okay, can we get back to the point, now? You were the one complaining about wasted time.” I set my sights back on the city.

“Sure.” The paper bag rustled some more. I heard him set it down.

“Nothing confirmed,” Hleuco said, “It was only reported earlier this morning. The governor’s considering it, but that’s enough for us to have to seriously change how we do this moving forward, assuming of course, we want to move forward.”

“Meaning?”

“I’m just going to get this out of the way now, so I don’t have to waste any more time. Do you feel like quitting?”

That question came at me from nowhere. It was a big question, too, one that I had to take seriously. I pushed myself away from the lip of the roof, and stood, facing Hleuco.

“Why are you asking this, now? Didn’t we just start?” I asked.

Hleuco had fixed his mask in the meantime, and looked at me front and center. A big duffel bag was by one foot, and crumpled litter by the other.

“I ask because the gangs are already retaliating,” Hleuco said. His mask’s beak cupped over his mouth, carrying it, making it sound bigger. “No civilians are dead, but plenty have been injured from being caught up in a riot. And it’s not just those riots. You saw it with the bank robbers. They were using your image while committing a crime. Doesn’t stop there, and it hasn’t. Crimes all over the city are reported being committed by those in blue hoodies and grey pants. Robbery, arson, home invasion. The riots have continued, too, though smaller and faster to be stomped out than that first one on Temple Street. Isolated incidents, but connected by a single, blue thread. It’s clear what’s going on, here.”

Behind my mask, I hid my concern. And the occasional flinch of pain whenever my throat or stomach ached.

I pressed further. “Would you care to be more clear?”

Hleuco drew in a breath before explaining, saying, “Let’s go back to the initial riot on Temple Street.”

“I’d rather not.”

Listen. Several were apprehended and arrested, all from various gangs. From Axel, the Thirteen-Dogs, even leftovers from The Chariot. Not one gang, but several. You were partially right, before, when you asked if a gang was behind it. Turns out there were more.”

That was exactly what I needed to hear at the moment. More complications. I never wanted to be more wrong in my life.

I flinched again. My stomach.

“And it wouldn’t even be a hard collaboration to organize, I’d imagine,” Hleuco said. “Just show up in one place, in dress code, then go to town. Even if they lose people in the process, the gangs did their damage. And the people they did lose? At least they went down for a cause. People like to think that.”

Hleuco reached back behind his head. He was undoing his mask, removing it, revealing the man behind it.

Thomas Thompson.

He set his arms beside him, his mask in one hand. His eyes were baggy, dog-tired, but he stood straight, his posture firm. He fixed his hair with his free hand.

“So I want to ask you again, do you want to quit?”

The question struck me in an odd way. The way he laid out those particular cards, the way he was dealing this out, it made it seem like he wanted me to call it quits.

Again, mixing signals.

I called him out on it, instead of answering. “You were the one who encouraged me to do something with my powers, to do more to help others. Now you’re asking if I want to walk away, after only a week or so doing this?”

Thomas shook his head. “I’ll never not encourage you to help people with your abilities, all I’m asking is, with these circumstances, are you willing to move forward? No one could have anticipated this, and having to tackle this issue will be asking more of you than you initially offered to put on the table. How did you put it, when you just came through my window, back then? ‘Go after the small fries?’

“Not exactly how I said it.”

“Semantics. I stand by what I said when we first met, but I’m not dumb. I recognize how young you really are, the life that mask is trying to protect and hide. I only gave you my proposal because I knew you were aware of the danger, you dealt with it, and you walked away unscatched. You have potential, you have promise, and I want cultivate that. But, this isn’t your main responsibility, and it never has to be. You don’t owe this city anything, and you’re too young to owe this city your life. You don’t have to go that far. If you’re going to fight, you’ll need to come up with your own reason.”

The words rang clear within me, but they were like a ringing alarm that would wake me up every morning. I’ve heard it before.

“You’ve mentioned this already,” I said, “When I came to see you. You’re retreading.”

“I’m reaffirming,” Thomas said, correcting me. “Our original plan of going after petty criminals isn’t going to hold water when they’re tossing molotovs. We will have to change our game plan, not terribly so, but it is in order.”

“What an argument,” I commented. “It’s like you actually want me to walk away from this.”

“I won’t reiterate, otherwise we’ll be going in circles. I’ll simply wait for an answer.” He checked a watch on his free hand. “Though, if we wanted to get to the other thing I had planned, you’d need to be quick.”

My mask hid the slight smile I had. I was amused. “Putting me on the spot, then.”

“Waiting.”

I turned away from him, my eyes again on the city. I went all the way out here just for this? My whole neck and torso were hurting, stinging, and I had already mentally prepared myself to do some superheroing tonight, even if I’d end up falling asleep in class the next day. I needed an outlet, something to take my mind off of that disaster of a dinner.

And I actually needed dinner, too. Not that Thomas had to know that.

He was right, though, I had to give him that. This wasn’t what I signed up for. I had agreed to do work like this as long as it was simple, an easy engagement, with monetary compensation. Two or three times a week, depending on my schedule, I’d ride in a van, or run along rooftops, stopping whatever crime or wrongdoing I’d come across. Hleuco would relay whatever information I needed, usually the movements of the police, all from some complicated police scanner he’d managed to procure. It was as straightforward as you could get, an avenue to not be myself for a while, to assume another identity. As Alexis, my powers – my thirst – hindered and interfered with my day-to-day life. A source of stress. As Blank Face, I could at least direct my strength towards something that wasn’t myself. The thirst was still a problem, though, hanging over me like the dark clouds above. Agreeing to be a superhero was equal parts for myself, and for whoever I could help. But, according to Thomas, those parts were already becoming disproportionate.

Already, we had to change things up.

On the other hand, I didn’t sign up for any of this at all. But, I should have come to terms with that some time ago. Honestly? Still working on it.

I still needed an outlet, a recreational channel for my powers. And, as a more pressing, immediate matter, I was still thirsty. I needed to be out right now. I just had to find a way to slip that minor detail past Thomas.

With my answer, my mind made up, my resolution steeled, I looked across to Thomas. He was still, waiting. Still waiting.

“I’m still in,” I said, after thinking it over.

“Oh?” he asked, sounding like he didn’t expect that.

“I’m saying you’re right, but I won’t quit just yet. We just got started. Let’s show them something good.”

“So, you’re telling me we’re on the same page on this?”

I clicked my tongue. “Looks like it, but don’t point it out like that. It makes me want to take back what I said.”

Thomas smirked, like he was entertained, or relieved. “Then I say no more, just take this.”

He bent down, picking back up the larger bag at his feet. The way he lifted it suggested that its weight was pretty hefty. He tossed it at me, swinging it underhand.

It crashed at my feet.

“And this is?” I inquired.

“Your new costume.”

“New costume?”

“The gangs and riots are smearing your image, and it’s working. The public will hate you, if they don’t already. It’ll be difficult continuing this if they associate you as another element of the rampant crime in the city.”

“But don’t people out there realize that this is a scheme on the gangs’ part? A trick?”

“Some might see through it, but it’s easier to want you out of the picture now, then want to see you maybe achieving some good in the future. Audiences love to hate.”

I tugged at the hem of my jacket. “And you think a new costume is going to change it.”

“It’s a step. This is less imitable, harder to come by. And, if I might add, it’s more striking, too. It’s enough to differentiate yourself from the fakes. Visually speaking. You may have been working on a new one on your own, but I took the liberty of piecing together my own version. I hope you don’t mind.”

I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t put much stock into my ‘costume’ when I first came up with it, but I couldn’t deny that I’ve developed some attachment to my current getup. It became familiar, recognizable, comforting when I was out doing uncomfortable things. It was admittedly strange to feel this way towards some clothes and a mask, but if old army veterans could maintain a sense of pride in their old uniforms, I could hold that sentiment towards a beaten-up windbreaker and joggers.

But, I was curious at what Thomas had come up with.

I tapped the tip of my foot on the ground, fixing my shoe. I breathed audibly.

I got down on my knees, and zipped open the bag. I peeked inside.

“This is what you came up with?” I asked, still investigating.

“I’ve left some other stuff in there for you, but just try it on. No worries, I’ll look the other way.”

Thomas didn’t expect or wait for a reply from me. He moved, walking away, his back to me.

I had thought about why he was seemingly so disinterested and uncaring about my true identity. The best friend of his only daughter. Considering how I was, what I had become – whatever that was, exactly, – wouldn’t anyone want to know who was under this mask? Yet, he seemed to want to respect that. Was there a reason why? I couldn’t stop myself from putting that train of thought into motion.

Could it be that he already knew?

No, I thought. Wouldn’t make sense. I knew Thomas, he would’ve immediately said something the second he found out. He wouldn’t have let me get this far. He simply wasn’t interested, I had to suspect. There were more important things on his mind, other motives. Like he said, it could be anyone under this mask, but his words would be the same.

That, I knew.

When Thomas got farther away, I changed into what was in the bag. I removed my windbreaker, then my fanny pack with my knife and pepper spray, but I kept my joggers on. I wasn’t willing to expose myself that much, not while outside, and definitely not while Katy’s dad was right there, back to me or not. Not my style.

Hastily, I removed my mask, and swapped it with the one in the bag. I adjusted it to fit my face, and fixed the different straps that wrapped around the back of my head. I tried to clean off the right lens with my hand, but it smudged, leaving a mark, and I left it at that.

Next came the parka, and I zipped it up, snapping the metallic buttons together once I put back on the fanny pack. The parka went past my waist, stopping right at my butt.

Last came the gloves, which I found next to an unattached handle of a thing. Black leather gloves. I put them on.

The only thing I didn’t wear were the pants at the bottom.

I stood, flipping the hood up.

“Um, I’m ready!” I called. My new mask distorted my voice even more than my old one. It sounded deeper, even more muffled. “Ready!” I called again, to account for it.

Thomas came back, fixing the straps around his mask, too. I couldn’t see his expression when he checked me out.

“You didn’t change into the pants,” was what he said.

“I thought we were trying to stop crimes, not be involved in our own.”

I couldn’t see his expression, his reaction, but a pause was all I needed.

“Not what I intended,” Hleuco said.

“Fucking around,” I said back, “Just fucking around.”

“Alright. That aside, I think it works. You look good, or rather, you look proper.”

I shifted in place. The jacket was heavier than I was used to, and the mask covered my face entirely, and it would be harder to take off. This was going to be an issue if I was planning on finding blood tonight. Which I was.

A small complaint which I couldn’t raise.

“I tried keeping the silhouette of your original look,” Hleuco explained. “While making it more utilitarian, built to last. Truth be told, I was quite fond of the rough draft of a costume you had at first, so I just wanted to build upon it, improve it.”

“No, I, you’re right. This is better,” I said. There was a certain nervousness, there, that I didn’t expect. This really did feel like a costume, like effort was made to be and dress the part of a superhero.

This is better, but it’ll take some getting used to.

Hleuco concurred, “Great. Now, we head out. We’re behind as it is, and this took longer than I anticipated. Come along, I’ll explain on the way.”

He moved again without any confirmation on my part, and I had to follow, stuffing my old mask and windbreaker into the bag as I went.

“So, what’s next?” I had to ask. “A new costume couldn’t be the only thing you had in mind.”

“No, it isn’t,” he said as we left the roof, going through a door that led us down some stairs. The added echo of our steps and his masked voice made me really have to listen. “We were going after the smallest of fries, the game that didn’t matter. That’s fine and well, but that means no gang has any incentive to take us seriously. And they don’t, otherwise they wouldn’t be playing dress up. If we want to make an impact, we will have to show them that we are serious, and that we mean business. No more picking up what we can. Now, we play for keeps.”

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