000 – September 30th

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Entirely Presenting You is a superhero 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.

 

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083 – Haunt

Previous

D had picked up the phone in an instant. I was thankful for that. It saved me the ache of waiting too long.

Yes?

I never felt so relieved to hear such a cold, mechanical sound.

“D!”

I yelled out even though I knew that I had to keep it down. The tensions had been high, and they were only getting higher.

That’s a lot of pep. Something good must have happened.

“It’s the complete opposite, actually. We got ambushed and the RV was taken.”

D hesitated and stuttered. I could have sworn that she swore herself.

Sh- shoot. That is the complete opposite of good. Did you find the truck?

It was my turn to hesitate.

“I did, but none of our passengers were in there. Neither was Tone. I’m hurrying to find them.”

There’s a lot you have to catch me up on. I thought I told you to keep me updated.

“I’m doing that right now.”

I kept moving, pacing myself so I didn’t lose my breath as I explained what I knew to D. It didn’t amount to much, though.

“Okay, here’s the deal. I left the RV so I could go around this town and find Tone and the truck, myself. Before I found the truck, though, I did manage to find some of… I’ve been avoiding using the word ‘cargo,’ but yeah. I happened upon some of them.”

I paused.

And? Where are they now? Did you put them somewhere safe?

Questions I didn’t want to answer.

“One didn’t make it,” I said. “And I’m trying my damnedest to make sure the other one does.”

I expected a pause on D’s part, another hesitation, but she responded immediately.

So we’re already fricked.

“You could say it again, but I’d rather not hear it again. It’s freaky out here, D. I’m at the town’s amusement park, and it looks like it came straight out of a horror show. They’ve killed people and decorated the bodies, putting them on display. I couldn’t tell if some of them are our people or not. Didn’t exactly get the chance to check.”

Sounds like quite the party.

“D,” I intoned, “Not now.”

From the phone, I heard D clear her throat.

Then let’s not jump straight to conclusions and assume the worst, Vivi, but let’s not delude ourselves, either.

The knot in my stomach twisted, tighter.

“I’m just trying to pick up whatever pieces I can find,” I said, “And I need your help.”

Always,” D said.

I spun, changing my posture, so my shoes slid across the pavement, letting me ease into a full stop.

I put the walkie-talkie closer to the phone.

“Not sure if you can hear it, but I found the walkie-talkie from the truck. It was Tone’s.”

And Tone is still nowhere to be found. Shoot. Is something coming out it? I’m picking up some stuff, but it’s too muddied.

“Too many degrees of separation, right. They’re coordinates.”

Coordinates?

“I don’t know where it leads to, or who’s broadcasting it, but it could be our only lead. Right now it is our only lead.”

It could also be a trap.

“Like that didn’t dawn on me. But what else do we have?”

Did you try… talking to it?

“It’s been on, I’ve been pressing the button, no one’s responding. It’s just looping those coordinates. I don’t think it’s receiving any inputs.”

Sketchy for sure. You want me to punch them in for you?

“Could you?”

Anything, anytime. Just give them to me and I’ve got you.

It was a cumbersome process, hearing the mechanical, looped coordinates, and repeating them back to D. It had looped so many times that I was worried that I’d gotten them out of order. So many numbers and degrees. But, I managed to get it right, and D replied accordingly.

It’s loading… and there. Where are you, exactly?

I fumbled with my phone. “I can look it up real quick.”

I pressed the buttons, cursing the slow service. We were far away from any semblance of society or even reality. Precious time wasted due to the failings of a small rectangular piece of plastic.

I told D my exact position.

Thank you, ma’am. Okay, so that puts you… About half a mile north of where you are.

Half a mile. I didn’t have a map of the park, I didn’t know how big this place was. No way was this park so big that it could cover more than a mile of land. Wherever this broadcast was coming from, I’d have to leave the park to get there.

“North,” I said, “Got it. You wouldn’t happen to know where or what that leads to, do you?”

I don’t. The app isn’t giving me very clear readings in that area. It’s like that whole area doesn’t exist.

“Well, it does exist, and it’s a god damn fucking nightmare. I want to get out of here already.”

Fastest way to do that is to head to where those coordinates lead, then.

Exactly.

“North, right? I’m on way.”

I’ll try and help in guiding you as you get closer, so keep me on the line. I’ll stay close to my phone so if you need me just talk.

“Sure. I’m putting you in my pocket for now.”

Hope it’s not too tight a squeeze.

“You’ll just have to get used to it,” I said, shoving my phone into my pocket, robbing D of a chance to retort. No more time to stand around and chat. I switched off the walkie-talkie, too, I had got what I needed out of it.

I looked to Isabella.

Despite my ability to run faster than any top athlete without really trying, she’d managed to keep up with me. She was standing there, waiting, her fingers intertwined. Clearly nervous.

That tug, again.

I spoke, “I got you back, didn’t I? I’ll do the same for the rest. It’s only a matter of time.”

Isabella nodded, slow, her eyes not meeting me.

If only I had time to sit down and sort through this whole situation, figure out the details and make a proper plan. But it was one crisis after another. I could never seem to catch my breath.

“Come on,” I said, turning to start running. Winding. “Let’s get a move on.”

Isabella gestured, and I took that as a confirmation that she was up for it. And then we got a move on.

We were still in the back lot of the amusement park, and, while it was less of a maze to get through than the park itself, I still second-guessed myself with every corner and long pathway I took. I had been in this Death For Amusement Park for at least a half hour, and in Fuckington for a full sixty minutes, and every new thing I came across only made me disoriented and confused. It was as if I was running through a maze in my own head. I’d get lost if I wasn’t careful, wasn’t always diligent.

No distractions. Couldn’t afford them.

I found myself by the side of some buildings, smaller installments away from the rides and the park itself. Portable structures that used to be offices or staff headquarters, probably. They actually weren’t in a similar state to every other building I’d seen previous, in the park and in the surrounding town. No broken windows, no streaks of dirt, no sign of any damage of debris anywhere. The buildings themselves looked to be in the same style of architecture as the rest of the park, so they weren’t new constructions. These had been kept up, taken care of.

“People have to be coming through here.”

Isabella voiced my thoughts.

Hearing them out loud forced me to take action. I retraced my steps somewhat, going back around a corner I had passed, crouching. In case anyone was there, I had to stay hidden.

Isabella followed, sticking close, staying right at my back. She continued to bring up good points.

“We’re in the staff section of the park. There’s probably a lot emergency exits close by. We could just take the nearest one and be done with being here. It’ll make getting to those coordinates way faster. Less stuff getting in the way.”

All good points.

“There might be some clues inside those buildings,” I mentioned. “As to what this town and park even are.”

“Do we even need to know? You said it yourself, you want to get out of here already. We have to get the others back, everything else is secondary.”

I took a peek from around the corner, checking for anyone. No one. For now.

“I get that, obviously,” I said. “But information is one of the best secret weapons you can have. It’s not enough to just get… almost one hundred people back from a whole freakshow mob of people. The truck is still back there, stuck in the park. Either we drive the truck out of here, or we bring that many people back here, to the truck. Both options are pretty much impossible. If we can learn more about, about Fuckington, we can actually make a plan on how to get out of here. Fuck, I wish I had some time to think.”

“You have some right now, and you have to make a decision. Check those buildings, or go straight to the coordinates.”

Isabella wasn’t going to be making anything easier for me, was she?

Fair enough, though, she was right. I wasn’t graced with a lot of time to think this out and consider every little thing. I was pressed for time in every sense of the phrase. Not enough to think everything through, and Isabella was right up against my back, as if to urge me to take an action, any action. It just had to be immediate.

And I was right there with her, it was just that the slow-drip realization that there was so much to consider that it weighed on me and pressed me down, making the simple act of moving again that much harder.

What was I supposed to do what was I supposed to

“Behind you!”

Isabella hissed the words, but I sensed the urgency.

I’d heard it, too. Footsteps.

Forced into take an action. Of course.

I ran.

Heading towards the direction of the buildings, I went around them, to the back. I moved fast to get behind cover as soon as possible. Isabella was right behind me.

I checked where the sound had come from.

People.

They went around the corner, coming close to the office buildings, but not to us, specifically. They hadn’t noticed our presence.

But they were aware of it.

“Anything from the others?”

“Nothing.”

“Fuck, I wasn’t expecting this.”

“I doubt anyone was, sir. They just came out of nowhere.”

“Now they’re a problem. I don’t like problems. They make things complicated.”

“They already took out a handful of our guys. Some of them probably can’t walk no more.”

“We have to stomp them out now, before it gets too out of hand. We only have so many on the medical staff. Does anyone have anything new? Where we saw it last?”

“We don’t. Last known position was it going through the air, like it was flying. Our best guess was that it was heading toward the roller coasters. But it could have went on foot from there.”

“So they could be anywhere by now. Fucking shit.”

“Could it really be her? The Bluemoon?”

“It doesn’t really matter whether it is or not. Either answer has its own implications, none of them being any good to us.”

“Truly a problem, then.”

“No shit. So get cracking. I want her skull split open and her eyes gouged out before dinner.”

The rest of the group answered in unison.

“Yes, sir!”

Seven of them in total. No bikes or vehicles. They were all on foot. Moving in a group, in haste, searching for us. Hunting.

The voices had been muffled, somewhat, and I could see why. They were all wearing masks. Not like mine, though. Much more macabre.

Animal masks. Pigs, dogs, goats, one was even a frog or maybe even a toad. The muted colors and rough textures put a grotesque feel over the designs and look of the group.

Blood, or whatever it was that evoked the image of blood, smeared across the masks, pieces ripped out at the bottoms to resemble strips of torn flesh, dangling and loose. The eyes were filled in, black, from corner to corner. With all the added, disgusting detail, they really went the extra mile to make the masks look realistic. The pointed ears almost made me take extra caution, that they’d actually pick up my breath or my heartbeat as they became more elevated.

If the intention was to intimidate or freak me out, then congratulations, it worked.

They continued speaking, but they had lapsed into another language. I couldn’t understand them.

I whispered to Isabella. “Are you catching any of that? Do you know what they’re saying?”

“I can’t.”

“Too far, then.” I peeked around to corner to check on them again. They had spread out, moving to inspect the area, some closing in on the offices. “But they’re coming this way.”

“We have to move, Wendy,” Isabella said. Shaky.

“I know,” I murmured back. I considered my options.

Another mob was here, now, looking for us like how we were looking for Tone and the others, except their intentions were probably not as… good. These guys seemed to know something about Fuckington and the park, if not directly involved with what was going on, here. Between the clean office buildings and this group, it was like a goldmine of information had fallen right into my lap.

If there was ever a chance to get some context, it was right now.

“I have to,” I said, talking to Isabella, but mostly reaffirming my decision to myself. “It won’t do any good for us to find Tone and Sarah the others and not have a plan prepared afterwards. I have to get some info out of these guys.”

“It’s up to you,” Isabella said. “Just know that any wasted time is going to harm them more that it harms you.”

I drew in a breath, and was slow to draw it out. She wasn’t helping in the slightest.

Fine. It was a harsh dose of reality, but she was right. This was important, and there were very good reasons to do this, but it did take time, time I might not really have. People’s lives were on the line, and sacrificing time to better help them might end with those same people getting sacrificed instead, in a sick and ironic fashion.

Flashes of those shrouds and stuffed animals flickered through my mind. I couldn’t let any one of them become that. I got Isabella back, I managed that much, but there was still so much more I needed to get done, so many more people I needed to save.

Looped notions, the same constant thoughts, over and over. I was repeating myself. Ad nauseam.

I was tired.

I had gotten some blood in, but it was like being at the end of my rope, and then setting it on fire. I was already running on fumes. Pushing it would mean pushing myself, and I could only go so far, now. Physically, mentally, emotionally spent. Only so much left to give.

But I had to keep going. I had to do this.

“Okay,” Isabella said, as if she knew what I was thinking. “If you believe it’s worth it, then I’m with you.”

Now she was helping. But, it did make me feel a little better about this, though the seeds of doubt would always be there, by this point. I’d just have to learn to work around them, push through those weeds, anyways.

I pushed through them.

The masked mob began to cover more ground, and I moved in accordance. I stayed low, crouched, and I slinked away from the corner I was hiding behind to sidle along the back wall, sneaking around the mob. Keep out of sight, and wait for the right opportunity. Avoid getting into another fight, if at all possible.

Pick them off, one at a time. Get as much information and details as possible.

It was the best I could do, given the circumstances.

I kept an ear out, trying to map them out in my head as they walked and talked. Using my hearing to learn their locations. The results weren’t great, I wasn’t a bat, nor did my powers extend to that particular sense. Just more guesswork.

I noted a specific pair of steps come around from the back of us. They were definitely being thorough, deciding to search here. We’d get caught once they went around that corner. A cement wall that acted as a barrier between the park and the town was quite a distance away, and attempting to cross the gap to use the other office building as cover might expose Isabella and I, in the doing.

Nowhere else to go but up.

I held my hand out for Isabella, and I went up.

The roof was corrugated metal, and it made a bit of noise as I landed down, putting myself flat on my stomach. Not enough to attract their attention, though, I hauled us up rather than jumped, muffling any sound. Isabella was surprisingly light, too, helping her up and over was like moving a feather.

“You heard that?”

I pressed my tongue against the back of my teeth, hard. I held my breath. I was listening in on them from above.

“Heard what?”

“Up there, I think it came from the roof.”

“Must have missed it, then.”

“Whatever. Come on, we have more ground to cover.”

“Sure.”

I exhaled, hard, feeling lightheaded.

So many close calls. Too many, really. A lot of them could be counted in the holes and tears that riddled my clothes, my jacket.

I couldn’t chance any more. Even with my healing.

I listened.

They had sprawled out, searching everywhere, someone even went into the office building I was hiding out on top of, judging by the sound of a nearby door opening and closing, then opening and closing again. The office space inside must have been small or sparse with stuff, because they didn’t take very long to look around. They left and returned to the others.

“Nothing in there.”

“Same with the other storage, too.”

So they aren’t offices, I thought. At least I got something concrete.

“The whole search is turning into a bust, at least for this section.”

The conversation shifted into another language for a moment. Everything they said was lost on me, and Isabella wasn’t offering to translate.

One of them returned to English, saying, “Let’s just get a move on, Richie, check somewhere else. We have to round back to the base eventually, everyone’s going to want to get together and talk about this. Coordinate.”

Ah. Coordinate. That word had begun to stick out to me.

Another responded. But I didn’t have eyes on who.

“Soon, Leon, I just want to be thorough. The thing could be right under our noses and we’d have no idea.”

Or right above you, I thought.

“And then what? You saw what that thing did, no? Not even a whole spray of bullets could stop it.”

“It’s alive, Leon, and that means it’s capable of dying. And we will be the ones to kill it, skin it, and string it up for all to see, and then no one will ever try coming here to fuck with us again. Forever.”

“You make it sound so friggin’ easy.”

“Death isn’t a very far trip, and there’s plenty of ways to get there fast. Short cuts. We’ll find something for it. Put the devil back where it belongs.”

“Christ…”

Another voice spoke up. “Not just them, too, there’s still him.”

“I know. This has become a thing, now. Which is why I want this dealt with as soon as possible.”

“If it’s after the meat from the truck, we could just use them as leverage. Have it come to us.”

“That’s not a bad idea,” another replied.

The first guy, Richie, spoke.

“We only have so many to use. We need to budget them or we lost that as a potential bargaining chip. But… I am not against that idea.”

“So we should get back to the assembly already? Things have been getting way too messy, lately, and now there’s this, it, him, and if this gets out and we can’t control it then-”

“We’ll have it under control, Leon, we have it under control. We have the upper hand, and it holds the best bargaining chip we could ask for. This can be contained.”

“Then let’s get back to the assembly and get something prepared. Being split up and wasting time looking around isn’t going to help.”

There was a small round of discourse, at that. Another language.

“Then we’ll go,” Richie said. “Call Alessa, tell her that we’re heading back.”

“On it.”

I listened as their collective footsteps continued onward, away from what I knew now were the storage buildings, and away from me and Isabella. I crawled on my stomach, peeking from the lip of the roof, and I watched as the masked mob disappeared underneath a tent, the man in the toad mask closed a tarp behind them. It led back to the park proper, from what I could gather from their path and the direction they were headed.

And then they were gone. And I was free to move.

I dropped down from the roof, to the front of the office. It wasn’t a large drop, with the building being less than a story in height, if that.

Isabella managed to get down by herself, landing right next to me, a second after I touched ground.

“Close call,” I said.

“Like I needed any more,” Isabella said.

“Right,” I said. “Anyways. There is the option to follow those masked guys, they might lead us directly to the others.”

“Or they’re going somewhere completely different. Stop trying to get off track, Wendy.”

“I’m not, there’s just so many ways we can go about this. But you’re right, let’s just stay on the current course.”

Isabella did have a point, though, there was no guarantee that following those masked guys would lead us to Tone and Sarah and the others, and the looped transmission from the walkie-talkie was the only thing that was directly connected to the end goal. If we were going to make any progress in getting them back, it would be by going there.

I looked ahead, finally getting a decent look at the face of the buildings. Clean, maintained, unlike the park or anything else I’d seen in this forsaken place.

“Current course does have me doing a quick check through here,” I said, thinking out loud. “Sorry. Just give me a couple seconds, here, maybe a minute, or several.”

I looked at Isabella. She shrugged.

“It’s not my peace to make.”

I grimaced. First D, now Isabella. Everyone was giving me attitude today, it seemed.

But, that was fine, for right now. I could imagine Isabella being shaken up about what had happened, especially considering that it went down so fast. If she needed a way to vent, air out frustrations, and if she needed a punching bag to do that, then I’d be willing to take the hits.

“A couple seconds it is, then,” I said, before moving up to the first office, pushing the door open.

In stark contrast to the bloodied, mangled imagery of the shrouds and bodies, the interior was sterile, clean of any flecks or dirt or dust. Cold, even, but it was the closest thing to normal, to the point of mundanity, that happening upon it felt like a warm embrace.

I began to survey the area. A couple of seconds. Aside from that contrast, here wasn’t much to take in.

A single, tiny space in a temporary structure. It was never meant to hold much.

Boxes upon boxes. Cardboard and wood. The stacks of crates varied in length, some managed to reach the ceiling, but most were either as tall as me or a box or two short. There were two of these buildings, after all, it wasn’t like anyone would need to conserve space.

But, it was just that, in here. Boxes. Crates. Cardboard and wood.

I walked more inside, the door closing on its own. My finger traced the edge of one of the boxes. Wood. It smelled of lavender.

Not that one.

I went to another stack, instead, a cardboard box that reached up to my nose in height. I brushed away dust and cobwebs – a pair of gloves – kicking up a stale, musty scent. It wasn’t sweet, though. Closest thing to a jackpot I’d ever get.

Setting my breath in a firm line, holding my breath, I tore the box open. I coughed anyways.

Then, getting on the tips of my toes, I peeked inside.

Masks.

Curious, I grabbed the box and set it down at my feet. I dug through that box and the next.

More and more masks. Similar in fashion to the ones the group that had passed just before. There were different animals in here, different kinds of birds. Ravens, crows, blue jays and cardinals. All of them ripped and damaged to achieve that specific, gross aesthetic.

The next box had props, some of these I had yet to see being used, others… had tried to leave their mark. Varied, but they all sharing a theme. Ugly and wrong.

Claws and toy swords were next to handguns. Lanterns and miniature figures of ghouls were piled next to magazines. I must have shaken the box a bit when I set it down, because a pistol was lodged into the open mouth of a skull, stuck. The blank, empty sockets stared at me, wide and seemingly growing wider.

With the strange mixture between a fantastical sort of horror and the very real, it gave me a chill down my spine. For a split second, I considered the possibility that the skull was real.

A hint of honey began to waft-

I shut the box and kicked it away. I heard the contents shift around, inside.

I put my hand to my mouth. I felt the contents shift around, inside.

It was as if I had opened Pandora’s box. I couldn’t stop myself from thinking up terrible, horrifying ends to everyone I was responsible. What if I couldn’t save them? What if more of them died because of me? What if I never made it out of this town?

Tone. Sarah.

I thought about Sarah.

My knees started to shake, my shoulders shivering. Those were all very real possibilities, weren’t they? They could all come to be?

Death was amusement, here. This was how these monsters treated it.

The seeds weren’t roots, anymore. They had bloomed, to their fullest growth and effect.

It didn’t take long for the vines to wrap and constrict my mind.

One surreal visual after another, one surreal visual after another.

Everything was an assault on my grasp of reality. I could feel it slipping away with every second I didn’t get to sit down and rest.

“Wendy.”

It was so difficult, why did this have to be so difficult? Everything, always?

“Hey.”

I just wanted to shut myself away and lock-

“The door!”

I snapped, already moving to the door as it was pushed open again. Throwing my hands forward, catching onto cloth and skin.

I found myself back outside, back in the dead air and blinding sun.

I clawed for more purchase until I hit the ground, my fingers coiling around someone’s neck.

Someone.

It was the guy in the toad mask.

I saw his eyes from behind the mask, they were wide. I wasn’t as shocked, my ears were perked, twitchy, for any sound. With Isabella and my own growing paranoia, I had learned to constantly check my surroundings, now. Especially my back.

Even in my haze, I was still able to keep that in mind.

The toad masked man gurgled, struggling to speak.

“You- achk!”

I tightened my grip, squeezing.

“I thought you cleared out of here, already,” I said, even though I knew he wouldn’t be able to answer.

“Those gloves could be his,” Isabella offered, “Maybe he came back for them? Or maybe he was sent back to stock up on something else?”

Forcing myself to relax my fingers, I loosened my hold, bit by bit. Enough so that he could breathe.

I let him take raspy, harsh intakes of air.

“It doesn’t matter why he’s here, what matter is that I have you.”

I looked right into his eyes, the whites of mine probably wider than his.

I gave him my terms.

“You have a second to agree to answer my questions before I tear your mask and head off. A single second. Nod if you agree.”

The toad nodded.

Finally, information. Context. Something I could use to gain some understanding about what this fucking town was supposed to fucking be.

I opened my mouth to ask my first question, but Isabella interrupted.

“Heads up.”

My head went up.

I snarled.

Two more animals had come crawling back, perhaps to check on their squealing, disgusting friend. A pig and a goat.

But who would want to save such trash?

They hadn’t sniffed me out yet, but they would soon.

From skin, back to cloth and skin. I grabbed the toad.

Dragging him, I hobbled to my feet and, with my second step forward, turned at an angle to spin.

After a second revolution, I released the toad. The pig and the goat finally took notice of something being amiss, but it had come at them too fast.

The toad crashed into them both, crumpling them into the ground. The rest would come, surely, soon enough. The rest of those filthy creatures.

Too many complications.

Had to leave.

I motioned for Isabella and we took off, going over the storage building to put it between us and them. We ran for the short wall to jump over that as well, to finally leave this park and put it behind us.

Going through the air, I put my hands on my head, as if I needed to physically keep in place, or else I’d lose it for sure.

I was lost until D gave me a clear way to go.

Probably best to start in those apartment buildings, then.

I was holding the phone, D hadn’t gotten off the call. I went north, gauging the distance until I had to pull my phone out and ask D for help as I closed in.

Wandering, out of place and lacking any sense of direction. I was desperate for a guiding hand by this point.

“Yeah, that’s all I see, here. It’s going to be my best bet.”

Agreed.

The stretch of town from the park went back to being abandoned again, how it seemed to be when we first arrived. I knew that it was a veil, now, a front for something much more perverse. What that was, exactly, still escaped me, and it bothered me that I still didn’t know. ‘Bothered’ being a gross understatement.

But, I hadn’t run into anyone else on the way, no men or animals or monsters. They were around, somewhere, but not here. Did that mean that they had different bases they would congregate to and operate from? The group from before mentioned meeting back up with an ‘assembly,’ but what was that supposed to entail? As far as bases went, the park was probably one of them, but the rest of the town would be too wide an area for them to cover, I supposed.

If I knew how they operated, how they would make their rounds, I’d have a much easier time. Yet, at the same time, I wished I never knew Fuckington existed.

Like a nightmare I couldn’t wake up from.

Fumes. No amount of blood could supplement the beauty of sleep. Maybe if this had happened back when the sun was still down, I’d have a much better grip on things. Now? Reality and sanity both seemed to be slipping away at a rapid pace.

Hurry hurry hurry hurry.

I hurried.

The gate into the apartment complex was closed, but a car had crashed at the base of it, leaving a big enough opening to walk through. We walked through it.

Deserted, left to break apart, lifeless. A slight wind had picked up, and I could almost hear a low hum resonate through the broken windows and opened doors of the apartments.

Imagining smells, now sounds? Or was the town so far gone that any stimuli, no matter how minute, no matter how real, seemed to be a trick of the mind?

Fuck.

Something on a deeper level than just being abandoned. It had been made hollow. And it was a sort of emptiness that could claw out other things, making them blank, too. I could feel it happening to me.

I hurried.

A flicker in my eye.

“Two at two.”

Not from the phone, at my side.

I looked slightly to the right.

At the front of one of the apartment buildings, two animals stood, guarding the entrance. Two horses. I ducked behind a nearby set of dead shrubs before they could notice us. We were far enough, and if we stayed low, we could remain out of sight.

“Thanks, Isabella,” I whispered.

“Don’t mention it.”

My gaze stayed on them, studying them. They were relaxed, which blew my mind, and they were chatting amongst themselves, not focusing on the actual job of keeping guard.

Could they be in there? Tone and Sarah and the rest?

I clenched my fists, feeling my phone in one hand.

“D,” I said, “You’re going back in my pocket.”

I’ve got a snack and game with me, so I’m good.

I put the phone away.

“If you rush in, you might attraction more attention,” Isabella said, warning me.

“I know that,” I said. “But-”

I stopped.

My natural inclination was to suggest taking them both out at once, from an angle, but no. No.

I doubted myself too much, now. Couldn’t do it my way.

“I’ll just go around them, avoid getting into a fight.”

There was a pause.

The suggestion was left to hang, but I had a feeling that Isabella approved of the idea.

She didn’t offer a rebuttal, this time. I’d take it.

Staying low, I went around them, to the side of the apartment. The horses kept chatting.

The apartment building was several stories, but that was the least of my issues.

Easy enough.

With a jump, I scaled the side of the apartment, feeling how noticeably heavy my legs were getting.

Hurry.

I stalked over the roof, running. Too high up for them to hear me and register my footsteps.

I found a dip in the roof, a balcony poking out from the top floor. I directed myself over there.

A small drop, and I was right above the two horses.

It would have been so easy to take them out, to drop on top of the first and cripple the other. It was an urge that begged to be satiated. To get back at anyone who could be responsible. Revenge.

But, my needs didn’t come first. It was Tone’s, it was Sarah’s. Olivia’s, even, before my own.

I clenched my fists and ran into the apartment.

I was, however, prepared to defend myself if someone was unlucky enough to turn a corner and see me.

Dark, and damp. The carpeted floor muffled my footsteps as I continued to investigate the place. I could see, but the lack of light to give anything definition gave my brain the freedom to fill in the blanks, and I was so tired, that my vision began to swim. Blotches of grime on the walls looked like faces, and strips of peeled painted looked like mouths, tongues hanging open, as if it was savoring the stale taste in the air.

Some skin peeled away to reveal the bones underneath. Skulls.

The hallway twisted as I began my descent.

I cracked a smile. A faint giggle escaped my lips.

I covered my mouth, breathing through only my nose. I was fighting myself, now, my own body and mind to move forward.

Feels wonderful.

So so real. So surreal.

Then, music.

Music?

Sounds, pleasant. Soothing.

It guided.

Was I imagining things again?

Did I care?

I followed it.

It was coming from one of the rooms. My feet carried me inside.

Someone.

I moved my hands and then they went to sleep. Asleep. Sleep.

As though my sense of awareness was lagging behind, I was snapped back to the now.

I looked at my hands. My fingers were coated in fresh blood, a sweet taste in my mouth, a body at my feet. Breathing, but slow.

Did I blank out for a moment?

Oh well.

I shook my head and looked up.

Another someone.

In the dim, in the back of the hollowed living room, someone sat in a lounge chair. He was slumped over, his face covered, but with how it moved, I could tell he was breathing, too. His hands were tied behind him. A soft light broke past some blinds to his left, illuminating him. Light jazz music came from somewhere.

I walked over in a daze.

The music and his breathing filled my ears, and everything moved like I was in slow motion. Lagging, listless. Like I wasn’t pressed for time.

Then I got to him.

I pulled off the covering from his face. I saw his face.

Finally, I had him. I got him. I got you.

Another snap to the now.

Wait.

Who is he?

Previous

082 – Kids See Ghosts

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It was one surreal visual after another.

The rust and decay had infected the amusement park, too. Streaks of red and orange crept up against the metal construction of the rides and attractions, eating at them, then growing to consume more. It had taken over like a parasite. There was nothing amusing to be found, here.

But, it wasn’t just that, it wasn’t just the rust. At least that was natural, an expected outcome after years of neglect and abandonment. There was the unnatural, as well. The uncanny. Rust and decay made it a husk, but that only gave room for something else to be filled in.

Shrouds, hanging from different parts of the main path of the park, lined up in even intervals, like elaborate decorations. Mostly white, but blots of red and black seeped through the material, giving them a soddened look. A slight sway in the light breeze, dangled by rope tied around one end.

Bundles of blankets. And by how they rested or fell into place, they looked like bodies.

Just the smell alone was enough to confirm it. Stale, but sweet.

They’re literally stringing people up.

There was more here, too, more ugliness, but I wasn’t exactly given the luxury to take my time and peruse around.

I was immediately shot at when I stepped into the amusement park.

I dove.

Bullets whizzed past my head as I went to find cover. I only managed to get a quick scan of my surroundings before I had to move, taking in as much detail as possible. So striking, it burned deep into my mind’s eyes from just a small look. I didn’t see the RV, though. It had gone elsewhere, probably deeper into the park.

I pushed my shoulder into the side of a ticket booth, staying low, using it for cover. The shots kept coming.

Breathing was hard.

Running and jumping, the loud sounds and the fact I was being shot at, it all added to make me want to feel rattled and shaken. Taken aback. It was hard to keep that feeling at bay and keep myself in check. I hated it all, really. Being here, having to do this, grabbing all the pieces I could while everything started to fall apart. Because I knew I wouldn’t be able to get all of those pieces back. I wouldn’t be able to save everyone.

But I had priorities. And I could not lose that. Them.

I had to save Sarah and Isabella. Tone. And as many of the other people in that trailer as possible.

It fucking killed me that I wouldn’t be able to save them all. Olivia and her father.

The shots kept coming, and my hands were shaking.

I wanted to call D. I couldn’t do this by myself. I could feel myself being tugged in so many different directions, threatening to tear me apart.

The seeds of doubt were only digging deeper roots.

And even just catching a glimpse of the spiraling, surreal visuals drove the point deeper and deeper and deeper and deeper and deeper-

A bullet bounced by a corner of the booth, by my head, and I screamed. Like I was admitting it to the world.

I was doing so well before. Why was I starting to fall apart now?

Couldn’t stay here, I couldn’t stay down. I’d have to get on the offensive, or move myself into a position where I could. The queen, who was able to take any square and maneuver in any way they pleased, no matter who was in their way. I had to emulate that, I had to be that.

I was that.

The shots began to peter off, then they stopped entirely. Were they out of ammo? Or were they just assessing the damage, wondering if they had gotten me at all.

I don’t even know who these people are.

Didn’t matter. They were in my way, and I needed to take them out. No matter what.

It was my turn to move.

Jumping to my feet, I ran across my side of the ticket booth, going around so I was heading in the direction of the nearest ride, instead of going straight, towards all the people with the guns. I didn’t let the silence stretch, I’d take my turn, my chance, and see if I could wrestle an advantage out of this.

Some shots tried to follow me, but they missed. It was easier to keep myself calm, in check, when I was running, forcing my mind and body to move. A distraction, in a way, though I was just really trying to stay diligent.

I ducked underneath a tent. It was small, the ride itself being small. Being so close to the entrance, it was probably designed for younger kids, something that wouldn’t make the longest of lines while being an option for those who couldn’t handle the more intense rides that were probably deeper in the park. I hopped over velvet rope that guided the lines, and hopped out of the way of ropes that came down from the underside of the tent, tide. More bodies.

They couldn’t have done these to all of my people. Not enough time.

These bodies had been here.

I ignored the ugly realization and pressed forward. Pushed it out of my mind.

I made it past all the ropes, then ducking and diving under and over the coiling metal that made up the kiddie ride. It wasn’t the most elaborate of constructions, and I made it out of the tangle and was back out in the open, but I was alone this time. I was out of sight of the mob I had pushed back into the park.

I could hear the rumble of the engines, the nondescript shoutings. They were pulling back even more into the park, but that didn’t necessarily mean anything good. I remembered the other half of the mob. They had retreated enough to regroup and get their bearings again, because I knew for a fact that they weren’t expecting me when I ambushed their ambush. For them, their whole plan had been thrown out the window.

But, they wouldn’t be gone forever. I’d have to deal with them, too. Worst case scenario, they’d come up from behind and I’d end up being sandwiched between two hostile groups.

I breathed, heavy. I ran harder.

Thinking about that second group made me think about Olivia, too. For whatever reason, assuming the worst gave me a wound that cut deep. Harder to heal from stuff like that than anything physical.

I ran even harder. Diligence.

A small path had been formed between booths and attractions. It was safe to move straight down, here. I kept an ear out for those up ahead and anyone who might be coming up from the back, and I used that to gauge where I should position myself.

The path began to wind, and I had to take a turn to go around another tent.

I had a moment’s pause. I hesitated.

More obstacles. People, but not anyone alive.

Rotting or had rotted under the sun. It wasn’t summer, it wasn’t even spring, but bodies exposed for a long enough time outside would eventually look all the same. Open sores, bloated stomachs, slumped postures, gaping holes and missing things. The ones here weren’t shrouded up, but I wished they were.

The idea that anyone from the trailer could meet that fate. Sarah… Isabella…

Had to force myself to take another step and keep moving. I stepped over the bodies and limbs. Blood had seeped into the tents and dirt, adding to the rust and decay of everything. Meat festered and juice had been caked and dried. Flies zipped between the different bodies, occasionally buzzing in my ear and making my skin crawl.

The scene was so sour, but the smell was so sweet. The contrast disgusted me, that I both needed to get moving and pretend that the gore wasn’t there, and that I wanted to stop and smell the roses. I was getting tired, sleepy even, and taking even the smallest of breaks felt like the furthest of dreams, now.

Keep moving, keep moving.

I had to keep moving.

Another turn, and another turn, and the path finally opened up. I saw the front of booths, for concession stands and games. Every one of them had been emptied out, though, no food to be seen, and any prizes left behind had been propped up to create a new, ugly scene.

Huge stuffed animals were standing inside some of the booths, posed as if they were waiting to help a customer. Arms splayed, leaned over, inviting, but the bloodstained, matted fur would have kept anyone away.

What the hell was this place? It really was a fucking nightmare.

Heavy drops of sweat rolled down my neck as I continued, sprinting. Running helped, it had helped, but the constant, escalating barrage of freakish sights drilled into my head, seemingly chipping my sanity away. The realization made my heart drop, that I wouldn’t be able to hold up forever. I was getting more tired, more exhausted, drained, thirsty. I couldn’t keep this up for much longer.

Faster faster faster faster faster

An engine roared as the path began to snake around, and I could sense that it would be coming right for me.

I jumped.

I landed on the top of a booth, crouched over, inching forward on my hands and feet. I had a glimpse on the scene.

Either the mob was smaller than I had thought, or it had split up again and I was only seeing just a fourth of them. There was one biker, riding on a dirt bike, speeding ahead as the rest of the group followed on foot. Not all of them were armed with guns, but they all had something in hand. One person had a bat with barbed wire around it – because of course – and another had a crowbar. Along with the biker, the third person on foot was holding a gun. A pistol and rifle, respectively.

Four people in total.

The surreal and morbidly real. Death being the common theme that seemed to connect everything here.

I stood, above everything.

I dropped.

I had to time it so the biker was the first to hit the ground. My feet crashed into the side of his helmet, and he was down, just like that.

The remaining three were farther away, giving them time to react to my presence. The two with blunt weapons ran off on either side of the path, into some more booths, leaving me alone with the last remaining gunman.

He immediately fired.

I lifted my shield, another ping off the metal. It left a dent. My shield could only take so much, it wasn’t even really a shield to begin with. It was starting to become more like a cheese grater than anything else. A few more shots would render it completely useless.

Moving my shield away, I-

A burst of heat surged through my body. Like I had been set on fire.

Parts of my shield were chipped away, but those tiny chips of metal were being sent flying away from me, from the front of my body.

I collapsed. I fell forward.

Bullets through my body. Passing from my back through the front. I felt one pass between ribs. A shallow, weak exhale passed between my lips before it tasted dirt.

I had been shot from behind.

Shot. Again. Oh god.

Not again.

I felt my mind being scrambled and my heart pounding so hard it would end up tearing itself apart. My entire body convulsed. Shaken, shaking.

Loud, ringing, singing. Louder and louder until I couldn’t hear anything anymore. I couldn’t focus on anything else. It was just a blank, white noise that buzzed and made my vision fuzzy.

No. I could feel the ground melt away and turn cold.

No. Turning into cold tile.

No. The ringing echoing until it distorted itself until it sounded more human.

No. Screaming.

No.

No no no no no no no

Do my best to keep it together.

For her for her for him for them-

I could feel my body mending itself together. Skin to muscle to bone to muscle to skin again. I was healing.

Every inch of my body was screaming with pain, stinging and burning with an intensity like acid. I had no way of knowing how many bullets tore through me, exactly. Even with the soothing warmth that became more pronounced throughout different parts of my upper and lower back, chest and stomach, I still wouldn’t have been able to gather an accurate count. Still rattled, still shaken.

I was just grateful that a bullet hadn’t passed through my skull.

A more solid, deeper exhale. My body was reconstituting itself, and my mind could finally start to do the same.

Testing myself, I clenched my fist, and found that I could.

Then, I pushed myself, in every meaning of the phrase.

On my feet, focusing on what was behind me. Who had shot me.

The biker.

Still in the dirt, but he had crawled over to grab for his rifle. He was fumbling with it, reaching around him, his fingers digging into soil and rock, frantic.

Looking for another clip?

I wasn’t too familiar with gun types or models… but did he empty out a full clip, or whatever he had left? The latter still meant a lot of bullets. Under any other circumstances, if I had been anyone else, the biker would have struck home and taken out someone forever… never to get up again.

I got up anyways.

I leapt again, my feet slamming into the front part of the biker’s helmet. His head snapped back, and his shoulders were driving into the dirt. Moving with momentum, I picked up his bike and set it on top of him, kicking the rifle away for good measure.

Now he was officially out of the picture.

I really need to pay attention to my rear.

I turned back to the other gunman in the distance.

He was aiming right at me, and I had my shield raised right before he fired.

It pierced through, but it hit my leg, right in the upper thigh. I buckled. Down on one knee.

This wasn’t going to work.

I slipped my arm out of the handles, only keeping one hand on the door itself. I half-turned, that arm extended all the way out.

I swung.

The door flew out of my hand, spinning until it was a blurry, flat line, perpendicular to the ground.

The guy tried diving out of the way, but he didn’t have my strength, or my reaction speed. The end result was partial.

The door passed through him, but it wasn’t a clean cut. It collided with his hip, intercepting him and his path. The man himself spun in the air, and he crashed down, awkward, with the door still in him.

He howled in pain. It raised the hairs on the back of my neck.

I would have bisected him if the door didn’t get stuck in him like that.

Well, he wasn’t getting back up, at least. And I had technically done far worse to bad guys, whenever I stabbed limbs or other non-lethal parts of the body in order to keep them down and out. This was just that, though, a little more unconventional, which raised the shock factor up by just a little bit.

He’d live.

But I had to put my attention on other things. Sarah and Isabella. The others. The guy with the bat and the guy with the crowbar.

They had ran off in different directions, but I had the feeling that they wouldn’t be any trouble, at least for the time being. If they were, they would have shown themselves by now, make a move. But I was able to catch my breath for some considerable amount of time without anything else happening to me.

A very brief moment for some respite.

I felt better, now, but it went back to that metaphor from earlier. I had caught most of the pieces, but some slipped through my fingers, the cracks. I wasn’t able to save all of it. I managed to regain some composure, but I could feel the exhaustion, the wear and tear, start to affect me. Mentally and physically.

Eyes darting, scared that I might see someone in the corner of my eye, scared that I kept thinking that a mote of dust was someone. Body sore, warm from all the healing, my throat drier than it had ever been in a long time.

And not getting Sarah and Isabella back yet seemed to compound that feeling even more.

My leg heated up, enough so that I cringed, and I looked down.

Where I’d most recently been shot.

I watched my leg as it healed itself, the muscles and meat moving back and forth, as if it was massaging itself, the hole the bullet had made getting less noticeable with time. Right before the hole was about to close completely, the warmth in my leg spiked, and I saw the bullet get spit out of me.

The way the reddened and irritated skin and muscle formed in order to push out the bullet, it really did look like that. Like a mouth spitting out an unwanted piece of junk. Even a tiny, thin layer of tissue flicked out like a tongue to push away the fabric of my pants and guide the bullet out.

Then, the wound closed, and it was like I’d never been shot at all.

I’d never seen my healing work up close like that, spitting out a foreign object, my body seemingly moving and acting of its own accord.

It was… freaky.

There were so many particulars of my powers that I had no awareness of. What, exactly, made me tick? I felt as if I knew the more important parts, but I’d been thrown for so many loops in recent times that I wasn’t sure what to make of anything, anymore. Nothing seemed concrete.

And considering that I always wanted to be in the loop, it was getting harder and harder to try and justify ignoring certain details. Even if they hadn’t been pertinent, even if they hadn’t always been relevant, they were still important.

When I get back to Stephenville, I’m going to that barn with D.

But thinking that far ahead would be dangerous if it meant losing sight on the now. I still hadn’t gotten any progress towards finding Sarah, Isabella, or the rest from the trailer. Every second that passed without me seeing them gave me a certain anxiety that wracked my head and made it pound.

I staggered forward. I didn’t hear anything from behind, so the biker wasn’t up for any questioning, in a very literal sense. So was the other man up in front, but he was still howling and shrieking away.

My feet dragged along the dirt. I wasn’t trying to be metaphorical in the doing, but being forced into healing from so much damage at once had taken a lot out of me. As if I had completed an entire marathon, sprinting.

So tired.

Needed something to pick me up.

That first.

Okay.

Sounds good.

Yes.

I stumbled my way over, letting myself fall onto my knees, right beside the man with a door lodged deep into his hip. His screaming was lessening in volume and intensity, but it was still so desperate, so sad, so pathetic. He was on his back, but with how the door had hit him and with the door’s size, he was raised one way, leaning into the dirt at a weird angle. Not comfortable in the slightest.

Blood had seeped through his jeans, dripping along the edge of the cold metal door, and into the soil. It wasn’t a fatal amount of blood, but it would be, if he didn’t get some attention soon, and he’d died for sure if I were to pull the door out of him now. Right now, the best thing I could do for him was nothing.

I put one hand on a dry corner of the door, and lifted.

He’d been howling, tapering off to whimpering, and now he was shrieking again.

More blood flowed down that particular side of the door.

I positioned the door so it leaned against my shoulder, leaving my hands free to cup them together, collecting the blood that dripped. It took a minute for me to get anything usable, but I managed to get a decent amount. With care, I brought my hands up and sipped it out of my makeshift cup. Slightly metallic, but saccharine. I rolled my eyes and head back, greedy, trying to catch every drop of juice.

Oh… oh god.

I’d never get used to how fucking good this tasted.

I really, truly, could lose myself in the flavor. Swimming in the sensations, synapses firing to create color, vibrant and bright in their intensity. Floating, in every direction, all at once. A true and pure and real experience.

I opened my eyes.

Checking my hands, they were smeared and streaked with red, and I felt some dripping down one cheek, mixed with a bit of saliva.

Got carried away, there.

I checked on the man again. His skin was pale, clammy. I checked his pulse. It was there, at least. Weak, but stable. He’d live, but he’d really need some legitimate attention soon, and I hadn’t the faintest clue as to where the nearest, functional hospital was, because I knew for a fact that Fuckington didn’t have one.

Where were his friends? I hadn’t seen them since they split off in different directions. Were they actually planning to head somewhere else instead of attempting to get the drop on me? I had let myself be out in the open, staying still as I fed. Anyone could have gotten me good, if they saw me. But nothing happened.

No one around.

A revving engine.

I had thought too soon.

I checked the man one last time. His eyes were drooped, low, his breathing shallow. It was only a matter of time, now. He didn’t look like he was able to speak, much less utter a letter. Couldn’t get answers out of him.

Standing up, I went back on the move. With how the pathways of the amusement park were situated, the man would be found by whoever was coming this way. The engine was getting louder. The other half of the mob from before?

I wasn’t about to waste my time with them. The RV was somewhere in the park, and I’d have to scour the whole place to find them. I could go and take out the rest of the mob, but I’d rather avoid the risk of slipping up and catching a bullet that I couldn’t come back from, or I’d take too long and alert more of the mob to come to my position, delaying me even more.

For now, I’d have to sneak around.

I took myself off the path, towards another, leading to a long stretch of the larger rides. Legit roller coasters.

I was running like I had gotten a second wind, because I did. It was only a small, improvised cup of juice, but it really did wonders. I was still feeling the lack of any real rest, but I was perceptive, again, my brain firing off as if I had taken a shot of espresso.

The roller coasters were huge, hulking beasts of machinery, metal rails and tight angles and high peaks and low dips that made me think that it was a shame that I’d never get to ride these during their heyday. With the rest of the Death For Amusement Park and Fuckington, these magnificent, constructed creatures were but mere corpses now, parts of the track and railroad having been rotted away, missing. More rust, more decay, mold even. Trash and litter drifted in the light breeze, a piece of plastic catching on my foot, and I had to stop to shake it off before I could keep going. There was so much that it stacked, and I’d have to hop over longer and longer distances in order to get anywhere.

No one around, which was both good and bad. The good was that there were no shrouds or bikers or gunman or creepy stuffed animals here. But, aside from the occasional engine revving in the distance, with a twinge of an echo, the silence here was eerie. It had been like this when I was out searching the rest of Fuckington. No sounds of anyone or anything. No people, cars, not even a bird for ambient noise. Just a vast emptiness that seemed to amplify anything that would dare make a sound and make it loud.

So fucking loud. Every flap of my hood against my ears or the crunch on loose paper or soil under my feet was as worrying as a blast from a gun. That everyone could hear me from just my heartbeat. Every sound or noise scooped my ears and filled it. Like I had an entire sense compromised. I wasn’t deaf, but rather the extreme opposite. Any sound kicked all tension in my body up to a clipping red.

Where were they, and how hard was it to find one RV?

Another sound shot through and it felt as though my head was splitting.

I spun around.

It had come from somewhere, but it wasn’t far. Not in the direction of the booths, though. Another direction.

From the back of one of the roller coasters.

I didn’t like what I had heard. A shrill, high-pitched scream. It sounded like a girl, it sounded like it came from someone young.

It sounded like-

No. There was no way.

But I had to check. No stone unturned.

I changed course.

I found the ride, a roller coaster with what looked like the biggest drop of the whole park. It was so tall that I had to crane my neck and then some to take in the entire height.

No one in line, of course, it was easy to get to the front. There was a line of cars on the coaster’s track, but they were empty, broken, disconnected from one another. Some even looked like they had mold on them.

A small hop took me over to the side side, where park employees had access to the back parts of the place, like maintenance or other facilities that were usually off-limits to regular people.

A lock on a door tried to keep me out from that area. A kick made its efforts in vain. The lock banged against the perforated metal door, clanging more as it hit concrete.

Fuck, but some haste was necessary for the only potential lead I had. I pushed the door open and ran out to the back part of the amusement park.

Something here.

I almost stopped, I almost didn’t believe what I saw. That it was here.

The truck.

The one Tone had been driving. It was here. Facing me, parked. We were in an open lot in the back of the park, wide and expansive for carts to drive around to offload workers and supplies. There were some of those carts here, but the amount they had degraded was to be expected, by this point. They wouldn’t work now.

I ran even faster, panting, straining.

My foot kicked against something, and I did stop this time. I wouldn’t have if I didn’t recognize what it was.

A teddy bear.

It was on the ground, flat, on its side. I’d seen the other stuffed animals here, and this was in a debatably better condition, but I still froze and felt a chilling fear creep through me and had me seized up.

The head was removed, the stuffing having spilled out at the base of the neck, the head not that much farther away.

A teddy bear. Isabella’s teddy bear.

It had to be hers. I recognized the fur, the size of it, and it simply looked too new compared to everything else I’d seen at the park, especially the other stuffed animals. There was no one else it could have belonged to.

I picked both pieces up, fitting as much of the stuffing as I could. No blood, or any other sign of violence around where I’d found the bear. Nothing smelled sweet.

I hoped that was a good sign.

I moved again, to the truck, around to the door on the driver’s side. It had been opened.

Tone wasn’t in the driver’s seat. No one was in the driver’s seat. It was empty, nothing but his walkie-talkie. I grabbed it. It was still on.

Something tickled my nose, and my stomach did a flip. I looked in the direction of the trailer.

Please, no.

I followed the trail, my nose leading the way.

Please no, god, please.

The walk was agonizing, slow, painful with every step taken.

Please no please no please no please no please no please no please no please no

I got to the back of the trailer. The door was open.

Who opened it?

No time to guess.

I hopped inside and looked.

I swallowed.

I saw Isabella.

She had her backpack with her. She was standing. Her back was to me, her face staring at me head on-

“Isabella?”

It was the first word out of my mouth in a very long time.

Isabella turned and faced me. The look of relief on her face… I wanted to fall and cry, too.

“Wendy?” she asked.

“It’s me,” I said, stepping forward. “I’m getting us out of here.”

Isabella didn’t hesitate to move. She picked up her backpack, and met me at the opening of the trailer.

Her hands were holding on to the straps of her backpack. I thought she’d want to hug me after seeing me, or something, but if she needed some space right now, I wouldn’t deny her that.

Isabella did say, though, “Thank god you’re here, I was so scared.”

“What happened? Who the fuck did this?”

She shook her head. “They came so suddenly, it was an ambush. They forced us into the amusement park, and Sarah tried to drive through to see if she could find an exit. We ended up having to ditch the RV and escape on foot. We got split up, and I got lost, so I kept going around until I found the trailer. There wasn’t anyone inside, so I used it as a hiding place until you came by.”

I was so relieved to see Isabella, and to see that she was okay, but it was only half of a feeling. I still needed to get Tone and Sarah and over ninety others.

“So you don’t know where the rest are?” I asked.

Again, Isabella shook her head. I wouldn’t blame or berate her for not knowing. She was as rattled as I had been.

“We’ll find them,” I said, saying it like it was a matter of fact. Easier to believe, that way. “Here’s your bear, by the way.”

I handed it to Isabella, but she dropped it back down, at her feet.

“It’s broken, now,” she said. “Useless.”

I frowned, but there wasn’t anything I could do about that. I didn’t have a way to fix it, and if she didn’t want it, then she didn’t want it.

I spoke, “Then let’s go and start-”

A buzz from a device.

Two- gree- est. -outh.

It was a distorted, almost robotic voice, but it was a voice. Not Isabella’s, though.

Too faint and fuzzed out to properly discern the meaning.

I checked the walkie-talkie.

It continued to buzz. Isabella stared too.

“You hear that?” I questioned, just to make sure. Just so I wasn’t hearing things.

“Yeah.”

The walkie-talkie continued to spout out the broken message, until it had continued long enough that I realized that the message was being repeated. Parts of it faded in and out, some parts were missing in one loop but present in the next, so it took a few more listens to get everything pieced together.

Isabella and I came to the same conclusion.

“Coordinates,” I said.

Sudden and weird, to be getting coordinates now, from an unknown source, my suspicions raised. My concerns were, too, because I hadn’t heard anything from Tone or Sarah.

The timing wasn’t bad, but it didn’t make me feel very good.

“Let’s keep moving,” I said, “I’ll call D, get her up to speed, and have her check whatever these coordinates mean.”

Isabella nodded, her hands still holding tight at her backpack straps. Knuckles white.

I wished I had gotten here sooner, so she wouldn’t be like this, but I had her now. And that was all that really mattered.

Tone and Sarah, and all of you. You’re all up next.

I left the trailer and crossed the lot, and Isabella followed.

Previous                                                                                               Next

081 – Ghost Town

Previous                                                                                               Next

We had arrived at our destination.

Our speed was glacial as we approached… whatever this place was. An hour to get here, sixty long minutes to prepare and plan and hope, and my expectations were still circumvented.

An abandoned amusement park.

The entrance was dilapidated and decrepit. Rusted. Whatever color that had given this place life had been drained away and diseased with something more sickly. Shades of a dark red and orange scraped through the bright mascots and characters and childish imagery to warp and twist them into monsters and creatures. This was no place for a child.

Statues that were supposed to be welcoming us had deteriorated to the point where they were doing the complete opposite, now. In their current condition, with chunk of arms and legs and tentacles and trunks and eyes and ears missing or broken off, it seemed more like a warning.

Lamp posts were knocked down, bulbs were broken. Shattered glass and torn up pieces of cement prevented a proper path forward. There were only a few cars as we pulled up more into the parking lot, but, much like everything else, they weren’t in any condition to be used for its intended purpose.

Not a person in sight. And even if there was, I could only imagine how damaged they’d have to be to end up wandering into this place. Because no one should have to come here unless they had a very good reason to, and I would have liked to think that we had some decent justification.

But, the deeper we continued, the thinner that justification seemed to become. Seemed.

The whole damn town seemed like it had been forgotten by time and neglected by people. Though, in essence, it was like that exactly.

Brief, I thought back to the buildings we passed as we arrived here. Even they stuck with me.

Broken and barren. Par for the course, I knew now. Windows had been shattered, holes torn through bricks, houses and stores gutted of their belongings and wares. Graffiti had been streaked and marked across every available surface. More reds and oranges. More rust. Words, symbols, more warnings. I wasn’t able to make out the original name of the town as we entered, covered up too much by all the tagging. A fitting metaphor.

I was, however, able to catch the new name. Fuckington.

Alright then.

It was just another strange addition to an already strange town. Nothing seemed right, here. It was just… wrong. Twisted, even perverted. Things were stripped down and then built on top. Corrugated metal roofs covered wooden constructs that resembled shacks or huts, lined in certain spots down the different streets. Haphazardly put together and assembled with little care to overall aesthetics or designs. Squatters? People who took advantage of their surroundings for temporary housing? Didn’t know, and I didn’t want to know. Despite all the ‘work’ that had been done, I still hadn’t seen another person around. And I almost wished I wouldn’t. Almost.

Our trip from Stephenville to El Paso had taken us out farther west. And things have only gotten crazier and more wild.

Thinking backwards, from the park to the town to even the streets that led us in here. The dips and cracked cement, the potholes and snapped pipes. I was already thinking of ways to get out of here.

But there was still much more of the town that needed to be explored. We couldn’t turn back now.

Not good.

My focus snapped back to the present.

Sarah put the RV in park, turning the engine off.

“We’re… here.”

Sarah was just as unsure about this as I was.

I was standing between the two seats at the front of the RV, my elbows resting against a headrest on either side. Sarah was seated on the left, Isabella to my right.

Sarah took the keys out of the ignition. She held them, tight, the keys and kitty charm hidden by the firm fist she formed. Isabella was frozen, waiting for either Sarah of me to make a move.

Not me or Sarah.

Hello?

“Oh, D,” I said. D was still on the phone, situated on the dashboard.

You there or no?

“We are. I’m just trying to take this all in.”

Sarah chimed in. “You can include me in that, too.”

“Yeah,” Isabella said.

Where are you?

“I…” I started, but words escaped me. Even being in the RV, in relative safety, gave me a heavy oppressed feeling. Foreboding. Like a weight on my chest.

“We’re in Fuckington,” Isabella said.

What-”

“That’s what the sign read as we got here, don’t blame me.”

Alright then.

“That’s exactly what I thought,” I said. “You know anything about this place? From what I saw, it’s even smaller than the other town we passed through earlier, but it’s seen… a lot of shit.”

It was the best way I could describe it, out loud. The place looked like shit.

I wouldn’t know anything about that location, exactly, but I’ve heard of the concept.

“Concept?”

Whenever really small or obscure towns get even smaller or more obscure, because of a declining industry or other opportunities elsewhere. That gives outside groups, like homeless people or wandering hitchhikers or even gangs to come in and overpower whoever stuck around. Give it a few decades of people coming in, getting what they want, getting out, with some relative silence in between, and everyone kind of just forgets to care. And then you get this.

It seemed like it was a microcosm of what happened to Stephenville. A similar idea. Gangs coming into city that didn’t have the proper infrastructure to fight back, instead being corrupted by it. Similar, but not exact, because a small foundation had been set up for them when those gangs arrived. A parasitic underbelly that was ready to consume the seediness and nourish from it.

Mister.

But, here, it was like this town’s ‘Mister’ had left long ago. A corpse of a place. I couldn’t even consider it Hell, since we still hadn’t seen a soul around. And the more I stayed in the RV, the more I didn’t want to go outside and look for any, much less one hundred and three people.

But I knew I had to.

“What the hell is Tone even doing here?” I questioned. The second most pressing question regarding this situation. The first being where.

It’s what I got when I checked.

“Do you have a more accurate read? We didn’t see the truck coming in, and we’re getting deeper without having seen much else outside of decay.”

I can’t pinpoint it since you’re so far out, and with what I’m working with right now, which isn’t a lot, it’s the best I can do. I told you it wouldn’t be great.

“It’s good enough,” I said, second-guessing it all. The seeds had sprouted, the roots digging. “We can take it from here.”

Good luck, stay safe, yadda yadda. Keep me updated.

“Always.”

Sarah hung up the phone for me. WIth her other hand still balled up, she had to twist around and back in order to return it to me.

“How you want to do this?” I asked. “I can take a look around while you two stay in here. Work my way back, going by rooftops? Gives me a better vantage point that way, and it’ll be faster.”

Sarah nodded. “That’s not a bad idea. You could probably cover a lot more ground that way, and it’ll be easier for me to come to where you are when you find them.”

She looked at Isabella, “And it makes it easier for me to keep an eye on her.”

Isabella returned a look back at Sarah. I couldn’t see what expression she had, but it did prompt Sarah to add, “Not that you need it.”

I added my voice to Sarah’s.

“I can’t exactly have you wandering around on your own, Isabella. I’ll feel better and I’ll be able to work faster if I know you’re here with Sarah, relatively safe.”

Isabella turned in her seat so she had her legs folder under her, facing me properly.

“I know. I’ll take your suggestion and I’ll choose to stay behind.”

I found the humor in that. She’d try to find and scrounge up any agency she could and use it to make her feel better. Admirable and adorable.

“Good choice,” I said.

Isabella hugged the teddy bear she had with her. Tighter. As if she was choking the poor thing.

“This place seriously creeps me out. Just be fast so we don’t have to be here long and I won’t lose my head waiting for you.”

The admittance was admirable. Adorable, too. I really wouldn’t have minded if she decided to stay with us.

I spoke.

“Okay. Looks like I’m off. I’ll try to be quick.”

“You have a gun?” Sarah asked.

“I’ve got my knife, and my mask.”

I gestured, raising my arms to strike a pose. Flexing.

“Even without all that, I’m more than enough.”

Then, I dropped my arms. It didn’t work as well as it used to.

I had to work with what I got, though. And all I had to rely on was myself.

It sucked, but I wasn’t in a good position.

I starting gathering what I needed. I talked as I worked.

“Lock the doors, close the curtains on the side windows but don’t be afraid to check your surroundings every now and then. I’ll keep my phone with me so call if, knock on wood, trouble finds you guys. I don’t care if I’m in the middle of something or if it’s somehow inconvenient. If you’re in trouble, call. I want to know.”

“You got it ma’am,” Sarah said, her intonation rising at the end.

It was endearing, but I couldn’t comment or think on it.

I stood, ready, at the door of the RV. In the reshuffling of all the stuff I had packed, I couldn’t find everything in time. I had a new hoodie on, a temporary black padded jacket, and my mask. My knife and phone were close at hand, too.

I gave Sarah and Isabella a quick look to let them know I was ready. And to also tell myself that.

I’m tired.

“Heading out,” I said, holding back a yawn. I really hadn’t slept in some time.

Isabella was staring, with a certain intensity. Her mouth was hanging open. Easy to notice.

I heard her whisper, “La luna azul.”

“It’s V, now.”

“But still, it’s like the same thing.”

No it’s not.

I flipped the hood up.

“You look like a ninja,” Isabella added. “Or some shit.”

“I have to go,” I said. “Tone’s out there, somewhere, and I’m the only one who can find him. Can’t waste any time.”

I put my hand on the handle, cracking the door open.

“You can start by backtracking, checking any turns or corners we skipped on the main road to get here,” Sarah said. “If you can’t find them, then… just come back and I’ll make my way around the amusement park.”

“Let’s hope it doesn’t have to come to that.”

“Right. Let’s.”

I left the RV and took my first step outside.

Already, I wanted to turn and go back inside.

The smell

Even the very air was tepid and lifeless, and the collective odors of trash and rot and shit was allowed to sit and stew into this thick, atmospheric attack on the senses. It was almost like a vapor, or a fog, that made my eyes get watery, and they were covered.

I gasped, dreading the inevitable inhale that followed. A sour taste that was hard to swallow.

I pushed forward into the fog.

I didn’t see the truck as we arrived into the parking lot, so I crossed the street, leaving it behind. The RV. Sarah and Isabella. I dreaded the idea of leaving them more than the idea of maneuvering through this fog. This miasma.

Without much thought or consideration, my feet touched down on a rooftop. Some steps and a small push to reach another. The buildings weren’t tall at all. I was putting as much effort into crossing gaps and streets as a normal kid would playing hopscotch.

Every time I was in the air, I looked. Every clearance or open space I came across, I searched. Every corner or back alley or dead end, I investigated.

Nothing nothing nothing.

We hadn’t entered a very dense part of… of Fuckington, there were only so many places for me to check before I started going in circles, seeing the same things over and over. The same streetlights and corners, the same broken cars and storefront windows. Some trucks, but none of them with eighteen wheels.

Nowhere, did I see a large truck with a larger trailer.

I landed back down, this time on the street proper. I froze for a moment.

There was stillness, here, that sat above everything and kept it all down. It was so many things. Restlessness, unease, static… the feeling like I was being watched. I couldn’t shake any of it off. It was a paranoia of an almost unreal kind.

The farther I left Stephenville, the further I was going in the deep, it seemed.

I blinked, my eyes stinging.

I have to find them soon.

I couldn’t find the truck. Did they move somewhere else? Leave the trailer?

No way.

I could try looking in some of the buildings, find some other clues. If I were to run into anyone… would they be of any help? No, they’d probably be more trouble than it was worth. I still had yet to run into anyone else. Was there a chance that the town had been abandoned completely?

Maybe, probably. Hopefully.

I went on the move again, walking this time.

There were still some spots I hadn’t checked, yet. It was just that more locations were starting to become more familiar, which wasn’t exactly the coolest thing. I’d rather have this place behind me and out of my head, already.

But, no, I still had over one hundred people to find, and every second that they weren’t accounted for tugged at my mind and added to that paranoia.

I continued searching.

I checked off the spots I already visited in my head, a mental map I made of this one section of Fuckington. Only a few left, a storage warehouse at one end and what looked like a junkyard at the other. I had caught sight of them while I was in the air, looking for more places to search.

The junkyard was closer, actually, so I’d check there first.

In what felt like a few blinks, and fewer steps, I made it to the warehouse. I had to land into a roll onto a patch of grass because I had come in too high and too fast. I had to fix my hood as I got myself straight again.

I turned my nose up at the smell again.

It was even worse, here, foul in a way that gave form to the rot and decay I’d seen all over the town. A whole other dimension.

Another parking lot, then a chained fence with piles of junk and other trash. The ‘entrance’ was just a large missing chunk of the fence itself, and by that was a large sign, faded, posted up way above everything else. It gave me the impression that this area wasn’t original set up to be a junkyard, rather that it ended up being one after whatever used to be here… was no longer here. Maybe a restaurant or even another warehouse.

Either way, it was one more fitting metaphor for fucking Fuckington.

There was enough trash to obscure my view of everything, and the missing gap in the fence was wide enough to drive a truck through. I couldn’t jump across the piles and stacks of shit, with it being haphazard in its construction and too loose, I’d slip if I tried.

No choice but to walk.

The ‘aroma’ got even ‘sweeter,’ getting closer, and it made my steps lighter and eyes dart faster. I paced faster, checking the huge space, internally begging to find them… not soon, but now.

I had to watch my step, though. There were more jagged edges than there were flat surfaces to walk across. Broken glass, needles, bits of wood and plastic. Everything here had degraded in a way that I could only guess what they used to be. It was a graveyard for stuff, really.

Checking what I could see of the ground as I walked, my feet kicking and sifting through junk and detritus like they were dead leaves, I noted that none of it looked flattened or squished, as though a heavy set of wheels had drove through and crushed it. It all looked settled and untouched. Like they just fell into place and stayed there since.

So, no. Nothing here too.

I was losing time. Darn.

I could try one loop around the junkyard, just in case, but it didn’t seem like-

I turned.

A sound, like the rustling of leaves.

Then something more alive.

“He- help!”

I ran in the direction of the cry.

“Is someone there? Please!”

I ran faster.

I rounded the side of one particular pile of trash. Whoever was yelling got louder as they heard me approach.

And the smell.

It was getting stronger as I got closer. An actual aroma. It was actually sweet.

“Right here, I’m right here! Oh fuck, hurry!”

I hurried.

Then I stopped.

It took some time to process what I was looking at.

Or who.

Two, three… four people. Varied in height and age. All on the ground, lined up next to one another, slumped over.

A family?

Two of them were flat on their stomachs, faces buried in the bundle of cardboard and newspapers. One was on their side, eyes staring but not focused, jaw open, slack.

The last was in his back, yelling.

“You, please, I-”

He stopped as he saw me, his mouth snapping shut. Was it my appearance, with the mask and hood? I probably looked like the exact opposite of what he wanted to see, right now.

I approached anyways.

I got down on one knee, digging into dirt and debris, feeling something sharp poking against my leg. Not enough to break skin, though.

I took the man and helped him up the best I could, but his sudden pained expression gave me the impression that he was no longer able. Supporting him by the lower back and shoulders, I tried to him make as comfortable as possible.

“I’ve got you,” I said. “What happened? Who did this?”

He had been screaming his lungs out, before, but his voice had been brought down to a whisper when he had to explain this.

“They… got us… came in so fast. Truck got stopped, then it got so bright, couldn’t see. Loud, bright, hot. Couldn’t fight back.”

The man was only giving me pieces, there were too many gaps to put together everything and form a clearer picture.

But I got the broad strokes. And it added up to the worst case scenario I could think of.

“Who got you?” I asked. “How did the truck get stopped, and why here? How’d you get here?”

And where’s Tone?

I held back on that question for the time being. I doubted that this man would know anything in that regard. He was barely coherent about his own situation.

The man only whispered, tears now streaming down his cheeks. There had been dirt, there, but now I realized it was smeared streaks of blood.

“I got my… my kids, and ran…”

The tears continued, and he choked up.

It’s okay, I thought to say, but it was all too clear that it was not. Whatever he tried running from, he didn’t manage to get very far.

“Can you move?” I asked. Experimentally, I moved him some more, but the sudden scream made me stop.

The man shook his head hard, various fluids flung from his face.

“Too late for me,” he breathed. He sounded haggard. “Please… just help my kids.”

He gestured, or at least he attempted to, shifting his arm over to the next to him, one of two that were on their stomachs. Both weren’t moving.

It pained me to have to say that I couldn’t.

I froze up again, unsure of what to say, then, how to approach that topic. How to break it to him.

“I-”

A small wheeze.

The person on their side.

It was so small that I hadn’t noticed it at first. Barely imperceptible. A subtle rise and fall of their chest. A slow, drawn out blink, their eyes refocusing.

On me.

A girl. A girl like D and Isabella. She was still alive?

She looked worse off than her father. Her hair was mangled, clothes ripped and dirty, her lower lip swollen and red. I could imagine, and I didn’t even want to.

“Can she move?” I asked.

The father only grunted, now. I could see the life slowly leave him. He shifted again, his fingers reaching for his children, and I saw tiny black dots lining his arms, his veins.

The needles.

It really was too late for him.

Slow, with consideration, I set the man down, doing what I could to make him comfortable, despite the circumstance. He seemed to relax, because he let his eyes close, and drifted off…

All tension left his body, and I got up to leave his body be.

I stepped around to reach the girl.

I raised her by the shoulders, helping her get a better position.

“Hi,” I said.

“Hi…”

She was able to speak. It wasn’t as lively as the screaming from her father before, but it was clearer and more pronounced that his whispers. There was life to it.

All from one word.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Olivia,” she said.

Olivia was probably the oldest of the three kids, judging by her height and build. That put her around the same range as D and Isabella. Her hair was short, really short for a girl. I could have mistaken her for a boy if her features didn’t tell me the opposite. Her clothes were stained and smudged with grime, wet in some parts, disturbingly sticky in others.

“I’m going to help you up,” I said. “Can you move on your own?”

Olivia nodded.

“I can.”

“Okay, that’s good. How about your… siblings?”

Olivia’s response was more muted, that time. A whisper that I could forgive.

“No.”

“Okay,” I said.

I started helping her, getting her up so she could move more on her own. I did everything I could to not panic, and let that show in my body language or the lower half of my face.

Everyone in that trailer, everyone that I was responsible for, had been scattered, and some had even been picked off. I saw them, I’d seen their faces. The glimmering, the lack of hope, with their last chance at any peace was to go back to the way they came, back into the chaos and stress. Fathers, mothers… kids. Kids who were embarking on this trip by themselves.

Over one hundred people were supposed to make it to El Paso. Now, there was high probability that I’d lost an entire digit.

Even if we made it to El Paso now, I had already failed.

It was getting harder and harder to keep that panic in.

Olivia was up, now, her steps too small for any meaningful progress, and I needed to hurry. I took her arm around my shoulder for more support, and to get her to move faster.

I had to call Sarah, make sure they were still alright. Isabella.

I leaned one way, to better support Olivia while I used my other arm to reach for my phone and-

The phone started ringing.

I picked up.

“Sarah?”

It was Isabella that answered.

Uh, Wendy, I think there’s trouble.

The panic began to bubble.

“You think?”

There are some people standing around the RV. In the distance.

I started hurrying, walking faster. Olivia tripped over her feet, and we stalled.

Please tell me that you’re just joking,” I said.

Um… no?

Holy fucking shit, no.

“Where’s Sarah? Tell her to start getting the heck out of there.”

Fuck, we can’t. There’s cars, now, some motorcycles. They’re blocking the way out.

Motorcycles. I immediately thought of Styx’s Gang. Could they be out here?

No, that wouldn’t make sense.

I picked up the pace, Olivia whining and lagging behind. I’d drag her if I had to.

“Tell Sarah I’m on my way,” I said. “I’m-”

I heard it both in the distance and right in my ear.

Several shots rang out.

“Isabella!” I yelled.

She was yelling too, but it wasn’t directed at me.

Sarah, we have to-”

Her voice faded away, but I didn’t get another tone. The call was still ongoing.

“Isabella!”

Shrieks from the phone, shots from much farther away.

I had to be there, now.

I grabbed Olivia with hardly an explanation. I shoved my phone back into my pocket, and swooped Olivia up into my arms. She yelped as I took to the air, leaving the junkyard after a single bound.

I sprinted back onto the streets, finding myself back across the rooftops in no time. If she was shocked or scared, Olivia didn’t have to breath to say so.

Moving faster than I ever had before, crossing greater distances, pushing myself more and more. My muscles aching, the itch in the back of my throat getting itchier.

Have to be alert, have to be ready, I have to be there.

I tore through the air. So did the continued gunfire.

I was forced to land a block away, my feet hitting the ground, firm. From where I was, I had a decent vantage point of the chaos above.

Groups of people, a mob really. Cars revving engines and motorcycles circling. From the build of the bikes and the dress of the bikers themselves, they didn’t look like they belonged to Styx. The just looked normal.

Though, normal still wasn’t good.

Where did these guys come from? Where were they hiding? I’d probably never know, but it almost didn’t matter. What mattered was that they were here, now, and they were going after Sarah and Isabella.

The RV.

Through the continued firing and closing in of the mob, the RV was forced to move, being herded towards the direction of the amusement park. The entrance into the park was wide open, like the junkyard, it was able to go through the gap with little issue.

Still not a good thing.

It was too easy for them.

I moved again.

I took Olivia and ran into the nearest building, a souvenir shop that was no longer useful for much else besides providing cover. The mob didn’t seem to have noticed us, which meant I could still get the drop on them. Scatter them, break them apart so I could get to the RV, and hopefully, the truck.

There was a corner behind the counter of the store, I hopped and slid across it, setting Olivia down in one quick motion.

“Stay here,” I ordered. “Hide. I’ll have to do something about those guys, and I’ll come back for you. I promise.”

I pulled back to stand, but her hands were gripping my sleeves, tight. She wasn’t letting go.

“You can’t leave me here, please. They’ll find me. Please don’t leave me alone.”

“I’m not leaving you,” I said, putting extra effort to sound and stay calm while shots were firing right behind me. “I’m coming back for you as soon as I’m finished.”

She only held me tighter. She looked so scared.

I felt for her, I really did, but having her around would be like having a metal ball tied to my ankle. Especially with her being so weak. I wouldn’t be able to move or fight properly if I had something tying me down. I couldn’t afford that, not when time and other lives were on the line. I had to hurry.

I closed my eyes, brief. The desire to keep them closed got stronger.

I snapped them open, and snapped my arms back, breaking Olivia’s hold on me.

“Sorry,” I said. “I promise I’ll be back.”

Olivia whimpered and sobbed as I left the store, going back the way I came.

I’d work better if I ignored it for now. For her sake, even.

Back outside, into the chaos and madness. I managed to sort through it pretty easily.

I scaled the side of the shop to reach the roof. Like every other building here, it wasn’t tall.

A better view of the situation.

The RV was gone, now, blocked by the coiling metal structuring of the various rides and attractions. The mob was getting closer to the entrance, blocking it off with the different cars and bikes they brought with them.

They were coordinated.

Hurrying, panicking, I looked around for anything I could use. A knife wasn’t going to cut it, here.

A huge metal box. An air conditioning unit or something. It had broken down, now, the rust obvious and bright. A small door was hanging open, exposing some metal compartments inside. Some metal pipes were jutting out of its innards. I yanked one free, taking the door off its hinges as well. It was small, but could still cover my head and torso if I held it up.

I slipped my arm into the handles that were on the inside of the door, parallel to each other. I fixed my grip on the metal pipe, so the sharper was pointing away from me.

It had longer reach than my knife, at least.

No more time to waste. I had to move.

I moved.

Taking to the air, crossing the distance with just one jump. I was swinging before I even hit the ground, among the mob before they even realized what was happening.

I pushed with my shield-door, getting as many to fall over as possible, before striking any limbs or joints I could find. Swinging, and swinging hard.

I took a step back to reassess the situation. The mob was beginning to catch on, mobilizing, and I got some more shots in before I had to move.

Not everyone had guns, mostly a few in the mob. Some of the bikers had some, but being up close now, I saw that they had pitchforks.

This really was an angry mob. But what the fuck were people doing here with them? What the hell kind of place was this?

Figure it out later. Now you have to act.

Right.

Crowd control, and disarming the more dangerous individuals. If I could take out those who were armed first, I could power through the rest, easy. I didn’t have D with me, but I knew how to work a crowd.

I pushed through another section of the mob again, pushing them down, striking and stabbing where I could. The mob was sizable, but I could move fast and hit hard, with finality. And with the brief advantage of having gotten the drop on them, I was actually making some decent progress.

A shot was fired.

I lifted the shield over my head.

A sharp pang hit the metal, and it vibrated, shaking my arm. It nearly threw me off balance, from both the impact and the sheer volume of the shot.

Someone tried to take that as an opportunity, shoving me on the side with a shoulder. I shoved back, and they were back on the ground.

I jumped to get some air and distance.

More shots rang out, but they all missed. These guys weren’t used to hitting moving targets, much less ones who were soaring through the air with the sun behind them.

I was back down and moving, rushing those who had a weapon on them. More gunfire, some missing, some piercing through the shield. It wouldn’t hold up for much longer.

I was getting through the mob, picking them off, but I was starting to waste too much time focusing on just them. I had to actually get into the amusement park, follow the RV and find Sarah and Isabella.

Needed a move, a big move. One that would scare them enough and get them to break apart and away.

Ahead, a biker. He wasn’t far, but I’d have to jump to reach him fast. I jumped, throwing the sharp metal pipe at the same time.

It struck, impaling him in the right shoulder. He folded, wincing and crying, then collapsed on the ground.

I got to the bike before it fell over as well. I held it up with both hands.

Didn’t know how to ride one, but that wasn’t what I had in mind.

I gripped it, until I felt metal bend, and I turned. And turned again.

I spun until both wheels had left the ground.

I could hear the shouts, people yelling to get out of the way.

They wouldn’t get an ample enough warning. I let go of the motorcycle, and it cut the air as it flew.

The bike crashed, slamming into a ride past the entrance of the amusement park. I overshot it on purpose.

I still achieved the effect I needed. The mob got the message, and started to scatter away in various directions. Across the parking lot, back onto the street, the majority fleeing into the amusement park.

I’d have to follow them in there. This still wasn’t over.

Pressing on, I headed to the entrance, checking around to see if-

When fleeing, there had to be somewhere to flee to.

I watched as one half of the mob regrouped by the souvenir shop, some even going inside.

Olivia.

I looked back to the amusement park entrance.

Sarah and Isabella.

My eyes and throat burned. I wanted to cry and scream myself raw.

I had my priorities.

A split second decision.

I sprinted into the amusement park.

I told Olivia to hide. I had to trust that she found a good spot.

Shield across one arm, my knife in my other hand. It was all I had to bring in with me as I came in. If I could be fast, I could get back to Olivia in time.

I told myself that.

I had caught the name of the park as I went in. Like the sign as we entered Fuckington, the name had been spray-painted over and renamed.

Death For Amusement Park. A very cruel joke.

Previous                                                                                               Next

080 – 80808

Previous                                                                                               Next

“What happened?”

Isabella was standing as the RV kept driving on the highway, teddy bear in her arms. She had a curious and confused look on her face.

I hadn’t changed clothes.

“Those border patrol guys were fucking assholes,” I said, pushing my thumb through a hole in my sleeve, feeling the dampness of the dogs’ dribble. It was gross, but I couldn’t help but give in to a nervous tick. “They were toying with us the second we rolled up to them.”

“But why is your jacket all ripped up? I heard a lot of screaming and shouting. I was stuffed up in that luggage bag, but I still heard it.”

When I breathed, it wasn’t shaky, which was a good thing.

“Their dogs attacked us. Me.”

“Oh. Shit.”

“Shit,” I repeated, the word let out in a breath. The incident was still fresh in my mind, but it was so fresh that it felt like I was still there, thrashing around in the dark, the teeth digging into my skin and the growls filling out my ears. It was so loud.

I tried not to think about it, but something kept pulling my thoughts back in that direction. Sitting in that moment, giving it weight.

“Where’d they get you?” Isabella asked. “Did they bite you? Are you bleeding?”

I answered by deciding to remove my hoodie, letting it fall off my shoulders, the sleeves slipping down. It landed on the floor of the RV, I kicked it aside.

I rubbed my arms again.

“They did,” I said.

Isabella only looked more curious and confused.

“I don’t see anything.”

“It’s kind of another thing that comes with being me. Injuries don’t last, no scars, nothing.”

Isabella took a step forward, hurried. She would have ran at me if there was room in the RV.

Her momentum carried her, though, and she tripped at my knees. When her head popped back up, her hair flew into her face.

“Whoa,” she said, “Can I see?”

Now it was my turn to look curious and confused.

“What? My arms?”

“Uh, yeah.”

“Why?”

“I wanna see.”

“But there’s nothing there.”

Again, Isabella gave me that look. Like I had said something stupid.

“That’s the point.”

Another comparison to D. I didn’t quite get her. But, there wasn’t much to do, and filling in that downtime with something that wasn’t so taxing didn’t seem like a bad idea. I’d let Isabella take the lead on taking my mind off things.

I let my arms, and my guard, down. A small gesture.

Isabella set her teddy bear down, then she took my hands, gentle, observing every detail she could pour over. The tips of my fingers, the fingernails, the joints, the knuckles, the back and palm of my hands. Her fingers traced over mine. Tingling, until my hands became more numb.

It was sudden, it was weird, but I was getting used to sudden and weird.

“Where’d they get you?” Isabella asked, studying my wrist and my forearm.

“Um, one of them got me at the elbow, pulling me one way, and the other got my whole hand in his mouth.”

“Whoa, that’s fucking nuts.”

“I guess? I almost lost my hand back there. The dog’s teeth dug right into my wrist.”

Whoa. And there’s no trace of that anywhere. That is actually so fucking cool.”

I could see why she was seemingly so fascinated by my healing, but she was getting really into it.

“It’s not that big of a deal,” I said.

Isabella started shaking her head.

“Nuh uh, you don’t get to downplay this, because this is fucking cool. You have super strength and you can never get hurt? That is the fucking dream! Could you imagine how many people I’d be able to fuck up if I had your powers? No one would be able to mess with me ever again. I really, really like the sound of that. I wouldn’t have needed you to help me, and I could have fucked up Lawrence, myself. And that bitch.”

Isabella’s eyes were still on my arms, but they looked glazed over as she reiterated, “I’d really, really like that.”

The idea of a little girl running around exacting revenge on those who’d wronged her…

Wait.

“How far would you go to get at those people?” I questioned. “What does fucking someone up mean to you?”

Isabella answered without missing a beat.

“Anything and everything. Whatever I think is fair, even if it means hurting them until they can’t feel nothing, no more.”

Uh… huh…

“You’d say you go so far as to kill for revenge?”

“If it comes to that.”

Well then.

“What, you’ve never gone that far? You lead a gang, after all.”

What did she think gang leaders do, exactly?

“I can’t say that I have,” I answered, “I’ve been trying to be diplomatic in how I handle things. It’s not all violence and games. It does make it easier, thinking in that way, but that’s not the reality of it.”

“Bullshit. You’re telling me you’ve never had to kill anyone, for any reason? Because they wronged you or got in your way? I’ve seen it up close, people killed for far less justifiable reasons. I’ve seen it happen over a candy bar.”

Over something that petty?

I conceded somewhat, saying, “I’ll admit that I’ve been close, I’ve stood at that particular edge before. But, unless I couldn’t help it, I backed away.”

Isabella didn’t look convinced.

“If I had your powers, that’s how it’d go,” she said.

“It’s not all that great,” I said. “I still get hurt. Stings, burns, cuts, rips and tears and slices. I feel all of it, and it’s not like it completely goes away. I heal, but it’s only the physical injuries. There’s no real cure for mental trauma. Just your best attempt.”

I laughed, the sound coming out hollow. What had compelled me to add that last bit, I didn’t know, but I felt as if some levity was needed. To poke fun at myself a little, I supposed.

“And that, that taxes,” I said.

“You can always get help,” Isabella suggested. “Go to others.”

I shrugged, weak.

“I guess you could.”

If there were seeds of doubt, then I’d want my resolve to be like a tree, strong and unwavering and proud. If I had told myself that enough times, it would have been true. It should have been.

That was the point of everything.

“But yeah, anyways, it’s not like it matters anymore.”

Then, Isabella let go of my hands, and stood back up, seemingly satisfied by her very thorough inspection. If she had gotten something out of that, good for her. I just didn’t know what that was.

“Why’d they even throw their dogs at you?” she asked. “I thought we were trying to fly, or drive, under the radar. What ticked them off?”

We. I liked that Isabella had included herself in that effort. In hiding, she was protecting herself as much as we were protecting her.

And I had failed at my end of the deal.

I frowned.

“I thought so, too, but people like that are suspicious and cautious by nature, it’s part of the job. Even if there wasn’t anything to find, they’d make up something to trip us up on, to get us in trouble. Unfortunately, they did find something. They had stalled for time, and one of their dogs sniffed you out.”

“So it was my fault?”

“No, it wasn’t, and don’t ever think that it was, Isabella. They played us, played me. They thought they were being clever, and for a minute, they were.”

Darn, I hated to admit it. No amount of advanced healing could cover up that burn.

“Their dogs sniffed you out, and asked us to step out of the vehicle,” I said. “For a moment, there, I thought we were screwed.”

“And then you got slobbered on and chewed up? Unless I’m getting ahead of your story, I don’t see how you pissed them off to do that. Not that I’d be surprised if they did it just because, I’ve seen that before.”

“You have? That?”

“Oh, abso-fucking-lutely. People are capable of some fucked up stuff if they think they have all the power, or if they think they can get away with it. When that dynamic is off balanced, some nasty things can happen.”

I wondered how much Isabella had seen during her time in this country. How did that shape her, form her views on the world? It gave her enough of an impression that leaving was a better option. It seemed to me that the idea of hope was as foreign a concept to her as her presence was, in this country.

“I don’t disagree, but I don’t think that was the case, here. They only wanted to use their dogs to search the RV. What they didn’t expect was that the dogs would freak out and go after me on their own.”

“They attacked you guys just because? Aren’t they trained so that kind of thing doesn’t happen?”

“Maybe, but that got thrown out the window real quick. Whatever sense of loyalty or command they had was abandoned for…”

I lost the words to articulate it properly. Just the idea of saying it out loud seemed ridiculous.

La comida para perros,” Isabella said, finishing the thought for me. Hearing in another language almost fit, in a way. Still very real, but detached.

“That’s one way to put it,” I said, less enthusiastic.

Isabella went to cross her arms, but the RV shifted over, Sarah switching lanes. She leaned back against a nearby counter, instead.

“But how’d you even get out of that if the dogs got at you both? We’re lucky that the lady there can even still drive.”

The lady there. The lady being Sarah.

“Not us both,” I said, correcting Isabella. “Just me. Only me.”

“Oh? The way you phrased that makes it seem like that was supposed to mean something.”

Did it mean something?

“Maybe, it could,” I said. I set my hands on my lap, between my legs. “It’s definitely something.”

“Okay,” Isabella said. The word itself, and the phrasing, made it clear that she had no idea where I was going with this. Hell, I didn’t even know.

Maybe if I tried digging deeper, talking, I’d get somewhere.

I dug deeper, I talked.

“You weren’t there, or, you weren’t there to see that part of it. Those dogs… there was nothing holding them back. They were wild. And it wasn’t just on instinct, either. If animals could actually feel rage, I felt that, too. I felt intent. It was like they wanted me off the face of the planet.”

“What, you’re saying that you’re not a dog person?”

I almost laughed. I settled for a weak smile.

“That doesn’t sound too far off, exactly. You know, now that I’m talking about it, getting my thoughts together, this isn’t the first time it’s happened. Not even the second. I… just didn’t realize then since so much other stuff was going down at the same time.”

I recalled the handful of instances. Back when I first worked with Reggie, Tone, and Sarah, when I was chasing after a kid. Arturo, his name was.

Another time was with Alexis.

It was a reach to pick through the details, and it was a lot like fixing a broken cable. To re-establish a connection.

In Katy Thompson’s home, the night that Solace made his debut and gambit. She had a dog there, too, the name escaping me. If I connected the memory right, the dog flipped out then, too, at the sight of Alexis. There was nothing to question at the time, since everyone’s attention and stress were focused on other things. But now, there were enough data points to extrapolate a conclusion, or at least a decent hypothesis.

There was something about me, or in me, that dogs didn’t like very much.

It was natural that my line of question would lead to other possibilities. Natural still for me to not consider them for now.

“Maybe it would be more accurate to say dogs aren’t a me person. Or… me… dog… I, you know what I mean.”

“Okay,” Isabella said. That word and that phrasing again.

“Are you trying to be funny?” I asked her.

Isabella tilted her head one way.

“Why, did it work?”

A small puff of air blew out of my nose.

“I guess it did,” I said.

Isabella smiled, wide, all of her teeth showing. Her eyes were squinted shut.

“A point for me!”

Hm. What was it about her that made it easier for me to open up? Or Sarah, for that matter?

This road trip was seriously taking me places I had never expected to go.

“Well,” I said, moving my hands to help push myself up, “Let’s go check on that lady. No point in just sitting around, here.”

“I think there could be some good things about doing that,” Isabella said.

“Let’s put a pin in it for now.”

I started walking, crossing over to the front of the RV. Isabella grabbed her teddy bear and followed, having taken my invitation to. We had to step over and around some of the clothes I had tossed out of my bag, earlier. I hadn’t picked them back up yet.

Sarah was focused on the road, but she took the time, and the chance, to look back and greet us with a smile.

“Hey Vo- Wendy. And buenos días, Isabella.”

Isabella brought her hands together, her head tilted downward.

Buenos días, Sarah,” she said, surprisingly meek.

So you do know her name?

“How’s it looking?” I asked.

Sarah put her eyes back on the road.

“Smooth driving ahead. Back on the highway, it’s still early in the morning so the traffic hasn’t been too bad. No other obstacles in the way, expected or perceived or otherwise. We should be all in the clear, until we get to El Paso and the checkpoints there.”

A certain word stuck out to me.

“Should?” I repeated.

A very telling pause from Sarah.

“I can’t get a hold of Tone,” she said, a touch quieter.

A chill up my spine and a knot in my stomach.

“What do you mean you can’t?” I asked.

“I mean…” Sarah reached for the walkie-talkie on the dashboard, but stopped partway through. A half-hearted gesture.

“I got a response earlier, when we first left that last town, but I hadn’t gotten anything since. It’s been radio silent.”

That was one of the last things I wanted to hear at this juncture. Losing Tone meant losing over a hundred other people. The very thought of that made me sick, compounding on the disappointment I had with myself for failing to protect Isabella on my own. That feeling becoming exponential, ending with me drowning in it.

No.

“But you got something, right?” I questioned.

“I did, like an hour ago. I heard his voice, he responded.”

It’d been an hour. Anything could have happened.

Or nothing?

“He might be caught up in traffic up ahead, since he went around to pass the town, or something else is holding him up,” I said. “Have you tried calling or texting him?”

“On his phone? I haven’t.”

“Then do that.”

“My phone’s in my bag, on the counter there.”

“I’ll get it,” I said, as soon as Isabella started moving in that direction. “Do you want me to text him? I don’t think I have his number on my phone, yet.”

“Sure, go for it. Password’s just one big square, starting from the top left and going around counter-clockwise.”

I took a seat at the passenger’s side, Isabella having returned with Sarah’s phone in hand. She passed it to me, and I pressed the home button.

I saw the lockscreen. It was Reggie, Tone, and Sarah, standing on a beach, dressed appropriately. The sun was to their backs, their wide grins even brighter. Reggie and Tone were both in trunks, soaked from head to toe. They were both well-built, which I didn’t expect, since I usually saw them wearing baggier clothes.

And Sarah.

They were all standing in a line, but Sarah was above them, propped up by the boys’ arms and shoulders. Her arms were up in the air, as if she was presenting the sun behind them.

Her skin was tanned, a soft glow in the light, her shoulders bare with the type of swimsuit she was wearing. Her body in general was more developed than I could ever imagine for myself. There were actual curves, there, and a definition to them. Not a sore sight at all. Faster and faster, the longer I stared, the more my pulse and-

I flicked the password and got to the home screen. The wallpaper was different.

A quick search through Sarah’s contact list took me to Tone’s number. I called, left a message, and sent a text.

“There,” I said, passing the phone back to Isabella, who was still hovering over me. “I didn’t get anything back, but it’s only been an hour. We usually keep the updates keeping at that interval, anyways, so we’ll just give it a little while longer.”

“That’s fair,” Sarah said, a small hint of uncertainty in her voice. I wanted to get a glimpse at her and see if she was wearing a similar expression, but my face felt red and too warm for comfort. She’d think I was weird if she saw that now.

The road stretched ahead for miles, we crossed the entire length of what was in view twice without any other word spoken.

“So… are we there yet?”

Isabella brute forced her way through the thick silence.

“No, we’re nowhere close.”

“Ah, fuck.”

Please stop with the cursing, Isabella, I think I told you this before.”

“It’s not like you can tell me what to do.”

“I’d like to think that I can advise you on what’s best for the moment.”

“Uh, sorry Wendy, but you can’t. If I can’t do whatever I want, you better believe I’ll say whatever the fuck I want. It’s the only real bit of freedom I have. I’ll fuck and shit and piss as doubly and as triply as many times as I can!”

“You lost me at the end, there.”

“Well, too bad so sad. That’s how it is.”

I wasn’t facing her, but I still put my hands up in mock surrender.

“Alright, you can have that.”

“Yeah, damn right I will.”

Isabella was taking it too far with the swearing, but I couldn’t exactly take that away from her. She’d lost enough already, I’d bet.

I then felt hard pats on my shoulder. Just one was acceptable, but it quickly became overkill.

“What,” I said, brushing the hand away. “What is it?”

“I’m bored,” Isabella said.

Faint, but I heard Sarah chuckling.

“I can’t do anything about that,” I said.

“You coooould.” Isabella drew out that last word.

“Hold on, just give me a second.”

“But-”

“Just a second.”

A small pause.

Isabella muttered, under her breath.

I still had my eyes to the road, but I definitely didn’t miss the swear word she hissed out.

“Isabella,” I warned.

Her muttered turned into a peep, and I heard footsteps move away, down the RV.

I slumped more into my seat.

“Cute kid,” Sarah said. She slowed as a car moved into our lane.

“Is she? She’s seems like a handful. Isabella probably hasn’t had someone to steer her in the right direction for a while. Like a parent, or older sister, or something.”

“You could say the same for Miss D. I have a… fondness for her, but it is true that a girl her age shouldn’t be in the position she’s in.”

Maybe she had a point there. Isabella had kept reminding me of D in so many different ways.

“That is true,” I admitted. “It’s the whole lack of guidance thing. Everyone needs a little bit of that, at minimum. Or else you spiral out of control.”

“And what? Do you want to fill that role for her, for them? Give them direction?”

I would have said that I was up to it, if need be. I only paused and laughed, instead.

“Not my wheelhouse. I’m not that capable.”

“I guess it doesn’t matter much, though, considering we’re dropping her off at the border.”

“Actually, I asked if she wanted to join us, or at least I offered her protection back in Stephenville.”

“Oh, you did?”

“Yeah. She says she hasn’t made her decision, yet, but she has until we get to El Paso. Would you mind if she chose to come back to the city?”

“It’s not like it comes down to me. I’m not the boss.”

“I’m just asking for your opinion, silly.”

“Mine doesn’t matter, but if you’re really curious… I wouldn’t object. She’d be a nice change of pace to have around, I think.”

I didn’t mind at all to have Isabella around, but hearing Sarah be in favor of the idea made it feel all the more right.

“Keep in mind she’s only considering it because I promised that she wouldn’t have to be involved with the gang stuff, and that D stays away from her.”

“They have beef?”

“More like the whole cow.”

“Look at you, Wendy, you’re already looking out for them. You might be capable after all.”

That stupid warmth came back to my face. I hated it. It made me feel stupid and lame. And lame. And stupid.

But I didn’t… actually hate it. It was stupid, but it was warm.

“Stop,” I said, wanting to bury my face in my hands. “And it’s just one possibility, she could choose to keep going and cross the border for all I know.”

“Sure,” Sarah said.

She wasn’t taking me seriously. Maybe I wasn’t even taking myself seriously, too.

My headspace was all pulled in sorts of directions, now.

A loud ring.

“Can I answer it?”

Isabella shouted from across the RV.

Sarah’s was in her bag, the sound wouldn’t have been as clear.

“I’ve got it!” I said, moving again. “Oh, Sarah?”

“Oh, Wendy?”

“I didn’t a chance to thank you for saving our butts back there. I should have done more, or at least not fuck up as much as I did.”

“Please, you didn’t screw up, all I did was improvise the best I could, and even then I got too nervous and gave that Peter guy too much of an opening to work with. If you didn’t lure those dogs to you, I couldn’t have finessed an upper hand for us.”

“It was very clutch. Good job. I really did appreciate the help.”

“I doubt I deserve your praise, but, if it means getting thanked by you, I’ll take it. You’re welcome, Wendy.”

She turned back quickly to give me another wink.

Okay. I had to leave.

I got to my phone on the table, only to find Isabella had it in her hands. From behind, I could recognize the caller ID. It was a pseudonym, in case someone was in the know and had seen the screen. One letter could say so much.

I snatched the phone up from Isabella.

“You don’t want to pick that up,” I said. I put the phone to my ear. “Yeah, D?”

Isabella immediately got up to essentially switch places with me. I watched her go and sit by Sarah.

Just checking up. Still good?

“Nothing new to report. Things have been clear since we left that town. I kind of want to avoid any other detours by this point.”

That might be for the best. Just give it a few more hours. The road should be clear for a little while longer, anyways.

“Hope so.”

Enough of a quiet followed that I could hear Sarah and Isabella converse up ahead.

“Hey,” I said.

Hey,” D said.

“I, well, I’m down to go to the barn with you, when we get back. We can put it higher on our list of priorities, if not at the very top.”

The delay in her response was as telling as the response itself.

Good, that’s good. I’m glad. You’re finally coming to your senses.

“Or maybe I’ve finally lost it.”

Nope, this is good.

“To be fair, if I’m going to do this, I can’t do it alone. I’ll need someone with me, on this.”

Gosh, you doofus, stop. You’re going to make me cry.

“Whatever.”

Then you better get back here safe and in one piece. I want to start making headway with this as soon as possible.

I would have brought up the possibility of Isabella coming back with us, but I’d put one thing on our plate at a time. We hadn’t even gotten to El Paso, yet, and I was already thinking ahead.

The barn. The dogs. Who – or what – I really was, and what that meant in the grand scheme of things.

A sharp fear hit me.

Darn it, seriously. I was letting those seeds of doubt take root in me. Questioning my own capabilities. The very thing I didn’t want to happen. That one thing I wanted to prove.

“I’m not all that great,” I said. A statement, languid, that had no relation of what was said before. A very, very… very reluctant admission.

Don’t say that, Vivi, you’re plenty awesome. It’s just that… no one shoulders everything on their own, including possibly-maybe-not-really vampires with super strength.

“It’d still be nice if I could,” I said.

Save it.

“Yeah, yeah.”

Another thing that I didn’t want to admit. It felt nice getting back into D’s good graces again.

I’ll probably start checking on the territory in a few hours. Call me if anything else comes up.

“Of course. I’ll keep you updated.”

“Bye bye!

The call ended, and I was left feeling a odd myriad of things. Some the opposite of others. Warm, cold, scared, excited. Nervous.

Relief. Like a weight had been temporarily lifted off of my shoulders.

I removed my glasses, rubbing my eyes. Maybe I’d give myself a legit break, and give D another call in a bit.

Maybe.

“Something else came up.”

It was the of the last things I wanted tell D at this juncture.

What?

D sounded noticeably worried.

I’d have to break it to her.

“Tone hasn’t responded.”

The delay from D’s end stretched. Then, out came a loud, tinny sound.

Oh.

It was as succinct as it was a final nail in the coffin that we might be fucked.

It had been two hours since anyone had heard anything from Tone. The sun was rising, now, it was up.

The continued radio silence had gotten agonizing with every passing second, minute, every chunk of time gone without an answer formed an atmosphere of restlessness and uncertainty within the RV. A miasma of sorts.

Even Isabella, who had no stake or responsibility on the outcome of this transport, was pacing back and forth, going from a table to a counter, hugging her teddy bear or chewing the ends of her pigtails.

“You’re on speaker,” I said.

Oh, alright. So… What exactly do we know?

Sarah answered.

“We know that Tone hasn’t responded to any of our attempts to reach him. We went from every hour, to thirty minutes, every fifteen, and now it’s been a constant stream. Through the walkie-talkie and through our calls and texts.”

And nothing.

“Nothing,” Sarah reaffirmed.

Shoot.

“We got split up from them when we got caught up at the border patrol checkpoint at that town,” I said, running through everything one more time, as if I could determine a clue of his whereabouts from just piecing memories together. “Considering Tone got a head start after we stayed behind, he’d have to have been farther along the highway by the time we got past the checkpoint.”

“There’s been so many exits and turns since, though,” Sarah said, “He could have gotten off the highway again to stop and wait for us. You told him to do just that.”

I bit my tongue, holding it there.

Where are you now?” D asked.

“Still going down the interstate, we’re technically still on track to might it in time, but we’d be severely understocked when we get there.”

Then, Sarah added, “I kind of want to stop somewhere ourselves, and figure this out. Somehow.”

Stopping somewhere. That meant halting any forward progress. I wasn’t a fan.

But not knowing where an entire eighteen-wheeler was meant a halt in progress in another way.

Still not a fan.

I asked Sarah, “Do you have any way of finding a whole truck with over one hundred people in it?”

“I do not.”

“Yeah, and the only ones who could, we can’t exactly go to them for help.”

“What do you suppose we do, then?”

I was just as lost as everyone else, there. I had hoped that putting D in the loop would help start any plans, but the silence that continued from my phone as I held it up left me with little confidence.

“Hope and pray?” Sarah suggested, but I could hear the tone in her voice. She was just joking.

“Prayer doesn’t work so much,” Isabella said.

“We need something we can track them with,” I said. Then the word ‘track’ hit me. “D?”

Vivi.

“You think you can track Tone’s cellphone? Would you know how to do that?”

Uh, whoa.

“Is that a ‘no?’”

No, it’s not. I can, or actually I can’t, really, not from where I am at the moment, but if I send a text I can track where it ends up, and that’s like the same thing, except it’s not totally accurate and it doesn’t give me the best read if I want to-”

“Is it a yes or a no?”

Yes, hey, it’s a yes. But I’m out right now, so it’d take me some time to set up. You’ll probably have to wait somewhere while I get ready.

“That’s a start at least. Sarah, you can go ahead and find somewhere to-”

No, wait, I have it.

“D…” I said.

Sorry, sorry, I overestimated myself. But I have it here, it just needs to… Hold on, don’t touch that. Do you want this to work?

I could have sworn I heard another voice chime in from D’s end.

D spoke. “Then stop. I’m on right now.

“Is everything okay?” I questioned.

I heard some grunts and other sounds of physical exertion before I heard D herself.

Fianchetto,” D replied. “It’s not great, but I’ve got coordinates. I’ll just guide you how to get there. It’s super way out, but to start getting there you’ll have to get off at the nearest exit. Any exit, really.

If only I had time to pick D’s brain.

“Any exit?” Sarah asked.

If you’re only a few hours out of Stephenville, then yeah.

Sarah started making the appropriate signals and turns, switching lanes, and then getting off the highway entirely. Leaving the interstate gave me that pit that I felt when I first saw the border patrol in the distance.

“What do they lead to?” I asked. “The coordinates.”

There’s no official name on the map. It’s just in the middle of the road and the dot is stopped there.

“Stopped there? So Tone is parked at that spot?”

You won’t know until you get there. All I know is that I looked up his phone and that’s what it spat back out.

The middle of nowhere. That didn’t spell out anything good, in my eyes.

“How far?”

One hour.

One hour.

Those were going to be an agonizing sixty minutes.

“Fine,” I said, talking more to myself than her. “Sure. Lead the way, D.”

Leading. Next turn is going to be a right after the three more lights…

D rattled off the directions for Sarah. I placed my phone on the dashboard by the walkie-talkie so Sarah could follow along. I returned to the seat in the back, Isabella electing to stay by Sarah. Which was fine by me. I’d prefer to be alone, right now.

I couldn’t sit or rest. My glasses were still off. I went to one drawer and opened it. Stuffed inside were some of the clothes that I had Isabella put away so she could fit inside the luggage.

I found my mask.

More disturbances for my peace of mind.

One hour. One hundred and two people. One mask. If Tone was stopped there, and he couldn’t answer for whatever reason… It couldn’t have been for a pleasant reason.

And it would all end up falling on me.

Just one dot on a tiny screen, but it could be the root of so many possibilities. Not many of them being any good. Like a bad seed.

The seeds, the seeds.

My grip on my mask got tighter.

I couldn’t sit or rest. But I could very well break.

Previous                                                                                               Next

079 – Hell Hound on My Trail

Previous                                                                                               Next

Sarah and I didn’t have a lot of time to come up with a decent story as to why we were coming into town at this hour. We’d have to make something up on the fly. I was decent at that, working with my back against the wall, improvising. I knew how to lie, I knew how to wear a mask.

I didn’t know about Sarah, but I’d trust in her ability in that regard. I’d have to.

Sarah slowed the RV one more time, but this time, she drew us to a stop.

I gulped.

Here we are.

It was the border patrol’s turn to make a move, and when they did, it was in unison, the guards and dogs walking in step with one another. They mirrored each other in their steps, though, a group of two officers and a dog moving to Sarah’s side, and another group of equal numbers moving to mine. The trucks started up and eased forward onto the road ever so slightly, blocking our way even more. The RV would bump into them if we tried to get through.

They were circling us.

We could go in reverse, but that would defeat the purpose, and there was miles of road behind us. If we tried to go back the way we came now, we’d be done for, right then and there.

So, in short, we were surrounded. Guards and a dog on either side of us, trucks directly ahead, and the implicit threat of what would happen if we turned back. Our only course of action now was to do nothing.

We stayed still.

Sarah put the RV to park, and was able to bring down the windows for the approaching officer. I looked between the ones on her side and mine. The windows would stay up.

All four of them were Caucasian, covered in a heavy looking uniform, topped with body armor. Green was the overbearing color, with patches and badges in yellow. I could read it, plastered on the front of their uniform, in all caps.

BORDER PATROL FEDERAL AGENT.’

Three men, one woman, and of the four total, only two had guns strapped to their hip, but the other two held the leashed that kept the dogs in place. There were other things, too, attached on their body armor and person, their own walkie-talkies kept in pouches, flashlights, maybe other weapons. Not that it was too dark to see, but whatever they had, they weren’t going to show unless we gave them a reason to.

We weren’t going give them a reason.

The ambient, soft glow of the vehicles and their lights gave the officers enough to get a decent look at us. I’d imagine that pulling out the flashlights could be taken as being too forward, intimidating. As of right now, this was routine, they were just doing their jobs. And for Isabella, and the other hundred and two people looking for another second chance back in Mexico, we’d let them do just that. Their jobs.

A man approached the open window, talking to Sarah.

“Morning… girls.”

Not even a ‘good’ add to that. Just a simple observation.

Sarah’s response was much more cordial.

“And good morning to you, sir.”

The politeness almost had a bite to it.

The officer didn’t pick up on it. Or, he probably did, but he chose to ignore it. And even that was cutting it close. Anymore of that, and they’d hone in on it, use that as an opening to press harder, dig deeper into our facade. We couldn’t have that.

From between my lips, I produced a low hum. Sarah was close enough to hear it and interpret it as a warning.

Don’t test them.

“It’s early, isn’t it?” Sarah added, as if it was an excuse.

“It is,” the officer said. “Takes a lot to stay up, and not miss anything.”

“Well, I hope you don’t overwork yourself too much, too soon, then.”

“I suppose that depends on how things go.”

I definitely picked up on that.

“May I ask what you’re coming into town for?” the officer asked.

Darn.

I supposed I shouldn’t be surprised, that they’d ask questions. They’d ask regardless of how polite or rude we were. We were still here, at this hour. Suspicions would be naturally raised, regardless.

Moving more my eyes than my head, I checked our surroundings one more time. I noted the officers and the dogs and the trucks. I recalled a sign that was supposed to welcome us into town, but one the of the trucks blocked my view of it, now. I didn’t get a chance to catch the name of the place.

One of the officers at my side caught my glancee, and nodded. I nodded back, suppressing a yawn, and glancing down to the dog he had with him. A canine. The dog was showing his teeth, pushing air out between his teeth, resulting in a low growl.

“Just passing through,” Sarah answered, her focus still on the officers at her side.

“The highway’s back the other way. This town isn’t exactly a tourist trap, so unless you have some business here, I don’t blame you if you ended up passing by here without even realizing it.”

“The road less traveled by? I took us off the exit just to see where it goes. We’re just traveling, passing through. If we could travel by wind, we’d go where it takes us.”

The man expression, and demeanor, changed slightly. He was nodding, his eyes a little wider.

“That’s neat. I appreciate that. Going with the flow. We just got posted up here, so I have to come to terms with the fact that I’m going to be seeing nothing but old bricks and older people for a long, long time.”

“Peter,” one of the other officers said. A woman.

The man who had been talking to Sarah, Peter, turned to the officer next to him.

“What? It’s not like it matters if we’ve been here for five days or five years. I’m just trying to make some chit-chat.”

“Then we can talk after this, we’ve got all the time in the day. Now is not the time.”

“Yeah, but, I’ve been assigned to so many stations with you that you’re kind of boring, now, Chels. There’s nothing new I can get out of you.”

“Then talk with the others.”

“And have them turn out boring, too? No thank you, I’ve learned my lesson. Strangers are way more interesting. You get the good stuff, and then they’re gone forever. They’re strange.”

‘Chels’ rolled her eyes, shaking her head. She took half a step away from ‘Peter,’ pulling her hand up into view. She was holding the leash for the other dog.

“You are unbelievable,” she said.

Peter smirked.

“The job’s still getting done, don’t you worry. The check’s still coming in the mail.”

“That’s not- whatever, Peter, it’s your call.”

“Right, it is.”

I watched the scene unfold, taking what I could out of it.

They seemed relaxed, casual about how they were conducting themselves and their job. Despite what Chels tried to convey, she still let Peter get away with being cheeky. And she was the one holding the leash.

Or… was Chels holding the literal one, and Peter the metaphorical? Seemed to me that it leaned that way.

Was this the B-Team, sent out to the middle of nowhere in some nothing town to squat and keep watch?

If that was the case, that made me feel a little better about being stuck here with them.

“I’m going for a walk,” Chels said. Her arm was lightly tugged one way. Her dog. “Cerber has been begging for one since we got out.”

“Already? Sure, go ahead. We shouldn’t be long, yeah?”

“Yes, sir.”

Peter put his attention back on Sarah.

“Where was I? Oh, yeah, going with the flow. That’s a cool feeling to have. Being free. But, I’d bet it’s not always so liberating. Otherwise, you’re just wandering around, aimless. You need some anchor to keep yourself on track. You girls have any destination in mind?”

Please don’t say El Paso.

Rio Grande,” Sarah said, “We’re just taking the long way around.”

It wasn’t our real destination, but El Paso was on the border, and the Rio Grande was the border, bringing that connection up to these people was the last thing we needed. The less we gave border patrol to think in that direction, the better.

What was Sarah thinking?

“Oh, very neat,” Peter said. “My team and I have actually taken a couple trips down there, ourselves. Have y’all seen it before?”

“No, it’d be our first time.”

“Then y’all are in for a treat, it’s a beautiful place, with great scenery, and so much of it, too. It won’t disappoint.”

“Can’t wait to visit.”

Peter paused, before coming back with, “Is it just you two girls that’ll be going down there?”

“Just us two,” Sarah replied.

“Have you all been anywhere else? If you have, I want to hear all about it.”

“We’ve actually just started our trip. We haven’t seen anything that interesting, yet.”

“Oh man, then you got the whole world ahead of you! There’s a lot of great places to visit, just in this state alone, there’s so much to go to and check out. There’s the big cities, historical landmarks, great landscapes and parks to camp out at. And all the stuff to do, as well. Y’all have had barbeque here, right?”

“Of course. Been here all my life, born and raised. If I wasn’t eating moqueca or feijoada, it was brisket.”

“Sounds delicious, I like that. And you?”

Peter turned to me.

“I, uh, I’m not much of a meat eater.”

It was the only words I had gotten out since this interaction began.

Peter looked as if he felt bad for me.

“That’s a shame, you’re missing out then. But, I know some of the bigger cities have some great vegetarian and vegan places, though, those types of communities have been thriving in recent years. I should know, my niece actually is a vegan, herself, and whenever I got the chance to go up to visit family, I’d either get taken to all these obscure joints, or I’d have to look up even more obscure joints so I can surprise her when I get there. She loves surprises, it shows that I care and I’m willing to put in the effort for her. Know what I mean?”

Did I?

“That’s sweet,” Sarah commented.

“I know right? She’s old enough to live on her own, now, so it’s the least I can do since her father’s no longer with us and her mother… made a similar choice, herself.”

A pause followed, as if Peter was waiting for a response from Sarah. His eyes went down, his expression distraught. It seemed too forced, too exaggerated, to be genuine, but it could have gone either way, really.

“That’s… not as sweet,” Sarah finally said.

What the fuck was happening, here?

This Peter guy was talking, spouting nonsense, wasting his time, his crew’s time, and my time. Rambling, going off on tangents, blabbering about nothing, keeping us here for nothing, and…

Wait.

“You two look rather young, skipping school for a trip? And don’t be afraid to say that you are, I won’t tell your teachers.”

Peter’s smirked even harder after that line.

“My friend’s eighteen, and I’m slightly above that number. We’re free to do whatever we want.”

“Are you, now? So y’all two are rolling along the great American plains, tackling whatever it is you come across?”

“Something like that.”

“Alright then, let’s see, this would be the awkward part of the job. May I see both of your IDs? I just want to make sure, is all.”

Finally.

There wasn’t a delay or pause or sense of hesitation from me or Sarah.

“You may, sir,” Sarah said. We both shifted in our seats to reach for our wallets, our IDs.

I pulled out mine. My ‘real’ one. Not the one that was given to me in order to get into the Lunar Tower. I would have preferred to use that one, but it was probably wasn’t registered in any notable system. My actual one was. D had made sure of that.

I passed the card to Sarah, and she handed it over to Peter. Carefully, he looked between the cards and our faces.

“Sarah?” he called out.

“Here,” Sarah replied.

“And Wendy?”

“Present,” I said, the only other word I was allowed to get out.

Hated it. Hated not being the one in control.

Oh,” Peter said, reading the cards, “You girls are from Stephenville?”

“Yes we are,” Sarah said.

“I heard it’s been quite… chaotic, over there, lately. Always something in that town, right?”

“Right,” Sarah said.

“Tell me. Have you seen it yourself? The Bluemoon?”

This conversation was dragging for so long it hurt.

“The Bluemoon hasn’t been publicly seen for a few months, now.”

I noted that Sarah avoided answering the question directly.

“I’ve heard about that. I have colleagues up in Stephenville, and they’re all worried about what that might mean. And apparently, there’s been rumors that there’s another one in town? But I haven’t gotten anything concrete about that.”

Peter looked at us, eyebrow quirked up.

“Have you girls heard anything about that?”

This was cutting it way too fucking close.

Sarah continued to answer for the both of us.

“Not me, no. That whole situation is one of the reasons why we decided to head out of town.”

“Ah, I get it. Getting out of the craziness of everything while still trying to see something new. I can get behind that. It’s a good way to stay sane. Wouldn’t you say so?”

““I, I guess you can say that.”

I searched for something to say, something I could add to take or wrestle control of the conversation away from Peter. We were still blocked, surrounded, and we needed to get through and catch up with Tone. He had one hundred and two people with him, and we needed to keep track of them. I needed to. And I couldn’t do that if I was still stuck here.

I kept trying to search.

“And to think, that’s on top of the-”

“Peter.”

He turned to look off to the side, where I couldn’t see. There was a delay as he stayed in that position.

Then everything clicked into place.

Peter nodded, slow, silent, before turning back to us. He handed the IDs back to Sarah.

Chels returned into view at the side window. Judging by how quickly she came into frame, and how she stopped, it didn’t seem like she had to wrangle another animal to come with her. Chels didn’t have her dog.

She looked back from Peter, then focusing on Sarah, studying her. I glanced back the officers beside me, and they had straightened up, as well. The dog’s growl ramped up, his muscles more defined underneath the short fur. I saw teeth.

I pressed my feet flat on the floor, as if the pedals were on my side.

Then, as par for the course of this conversation, it was Peter that broke the silence.

“If I may, since I like talking with strangers so much, if I could direct my line of questioning elsewhere?”

He asked, as if we had any control over that.

Sarah had paused, but it wasn’t like Peter’s. His, in short retrospect, seemed deliberate. Sarah had hesitated.

“Of course. I’m, I’m an open book.”

I balled up my fist, wanting to hit something, someone, and it took everything I had within me for that someone to not be Sarah.

Peter looked relieved.

“Good to hear, really, it is. Okay, I just have to ask…”

He wore a similar expression from before, with his eyebrow up. But this time, that fake, casual air had been swept away. He had lifted the veil.

“In leaving Stephenville, you didn’t happen to bring some of that craziness along, did you?”

The question was left in the air for some time.

“I’m not sure what that means,” Sarah said, her words slow, sounding unsure.

Fuck, fuck.

If only I knew how to drive, I’d be the one talking to Peter. I could have found a way to talk ourselves out of this. I could have.

Peter answered Sarah.

“You see, Sarah, my boring colleague Chelsea here was taking a short walk with our patrol dog, and he just decided to take a seat, and he hasn’t budged. He’s still there right now.”

Peter glanced to his side, as if to confirm it again. From where I was sitting, I couldn’t see the dog.

“Yup, there he is, right next to your RV. And he won’t move unless I give him the order to. Cerber listens and adheres to my every word, he’s wholly obedient. Russ, too. And so, with him, sitting and staying on his own? That can only mean one thing.”

Fuck. Here it comes.

Peter backed up from Sarah’s window. One step, and then another. All the officers assumed straighter, proper positions.

“Sarah, Wendy, may I ask the both of you to please step out of the vehicle?”

Fuck. Here it is.

The dog must have sniffed out Isabella. I was scared that might happen, but I didn’t have any way to counteract it, sitting here. And I had let Chels – Chelsea – slip my mind as soon as she slipped out of my eyesight.

Peter, fucking Peter.

All this small talk had been leading to something bigger. The blabbering on, the minutia, it was all done in order to keep us preoccupied, giving Chelsea time to circle around the RV.

“May I ask what the issue is?” Sarah asked, trying to sound calm, cheery, but it came out sounding anything but.

Peter smiled. It made me sick.

“No you may not.”

I felt as if I’d gotten hit in the stomach.

There wasn’t much wiggle room in this scenario, nothing I could use to get the upper hand. Sarah turned, slow, looking at me. Handing over what little control we had over to me.

We couldn’t refuse the order of a federal officer. Doing so would put an end to this for sure.

Sarah stared, and there was nothing I could tell her. All I could do was shrug. Resigned.

It took an agonizing amount of time to get out of my seat, Sarah trailing behind by a bit. My arms were sore and my joints were stiff. I suppressed the urge to yawn again. That nap hadn’t done me any favors.

I saw down the length of the RV. I could see top part of my luggage bag, the handle sticking out a little, tucked under one of tables.

Isabella.

My heart was beating so hard it could break. So bad, did I want to telegraph the current situation to her. To will her to run or find some way to make an escape.

Because I was afraid that I might not be able to help her anymore.

I disappointed you again, Isabella. I am so sorry.

Every step was hard, each proceeding one more difficult and heavy. I nearly fell to my knees as I left the RV, leaving Isabella inside. Alone, curled up, constricted in the gloom.

So close to breaking.

We were met by the four officers, the two dogs. They were standing in a line, the dogs sitting up front. They were ready.

Lights then flashed into my eyes. I put my hands up, squinting. Now they had their flashlights out. They weren’t being so friendly, anymore.

As if the bright was a tangible thing with volume, Peter spoke over it all.

“We’ve had reports of some… unwanted and undocumented individuals making their way through this quaint town. They may not have stayed for long, but their stench has remained, ruining what peace and solitude this town has enjoyed for many years. Off the beaten path, many have been ‘just passing through’ in increasing numbers, and the people here have suffered for it. That, is why we are here now.”

Trying to get at least one eye on the situation, I risked a look, peeking through harsh light.

The canines bristled, their teeth bared, and lifting themselves back up, as if preparing to pounce. If those officers released the leashes, the canines just might do that exactly.

“No one is getting through here unless they’re supposed to be here in the first place. And we’ll make sure everyone present is on the up and up. But, let’s make certain that we’re not missing anyone, shall we? I’d like to get a proper count.”

One hundred and three things came to mind. Then one. And then zero, because I had no idea how I was supposed to get us out of this. I wasn’t even in the RV. We were still surrounded.

This was getting worse and worse.

And Peter, this asshole, was playing it up like it was some kind of show. As if to stave off his own boredom, he was using the power he had over us and flaunting it.

He reminded me of Styx, in that way. The long-winded babble, the tricks and games. I so wanted to slap his head off. I had the strength to do it, too.

I had the strength, but not the power. Sarah and I were still here, stuck. We hadn’t even gotten into town.

And if nothing changed, it would be all over. And we had just barely started.

Fuck me. Fuck us. Fuck all of this.

“Step to side, please, away from the vehicle,” Peter ordered, posturing. “Hands where I can see them, as well.”

I wasn’t able to look at Sarah and gauge how she was doing. I couldn’t even look back at the RV anymore, with it being behind us. My thought kept going to Isabella.

Run, for the love of anything you have left, run.

Hands out and raised, we stepped to the side, moving just an inch closer to the officers and the dogs.

The dogs freaked out even more, on all fours and ready to charge. Their leashes went straight, the dogs nearly choking themselves on their collars.

“Down boys! Down!”

They weren’t angry, this was more than that. Agitated, to the point of being enraged.

I could identify with that.

Peter tried to speak over the dogs, but their presence was louder, overpowering.

“Chels, take Cerber and-”

Chels didn’t get a chance to take Cerber.

Agitated, enraged, both dogs charged.

At me.

It was quick, sudden. It was a surprise and it was painful.

The combined weight of two large animals out me on my butt. Then my back.

Cerber and Russ started gnawing and clawing, their teeth trying to find something to chew through, be it my sleeves or the skin and bone underneath.

I threw my arms out, over my head, in a vain attempt to get them off, or at least away. But I had little wiggle room.

These dogs were trained to keep people down. Probably trained to hurt and main men much larger than them, those who had a reason to want to run away. Men much larger than them. They had the strength and the teeth.

And that desire burned, as if these animals had a personal and vested interest in tearing me up into shreds.

Grinding, gnashing of the teeth, the pain growing hot, searing me. I scrambled for purchase, trying to find my way back to my feet, but they pushed and clawed and gnawed with that much more intensity.

Burn, burning.

I could have answered with my own strength, tear these dogs apart, match these animals with that animalistic, raw energy, too, but I wasn’t by myself, and I didn’t have my mask. Using my strength now would out me as something much more than human. And I couldn’t begin to imagine where these guys would try to deport me.

Tearing, growling, these dogs weren’t letting up. I pushed, and my finger must have slipped on some slobber or wet teeth, because my hand fell right into the open maw of Cerber.

He clamped down, twisting his head, and I allowed myself to scream. Blood-curdling.

They wouldn’t stop, it wouldn’t end.

Hatred, I could feel it, emanating from the dogs. It was potent and severe and true.

They didn’t want to pin me down for the officers to detain me. They wanted to kill me, themselves.

I heard screams, equally terrified. Not my own. Others, somewhere.

Grabbing, teeth catching on clothes and skin. It was like these dogs were coordinating with one another, finding the best angle to work and rip me into pieces. They were trained, after all. Maiming was forced fed and positively reinforced into their code.

They jumped off me, my limbs splayed, still trapped in their toothy grip. They tugged in opposite directions, like they were trying to split me down the middle.

Inklings of ideas, I tried to think on how I could use this, somehow.

But it legitimately hurt. So much.

I yelled again.

On reflex, I flexed my arms, pulling them inward, putting my strength against theirs, so they wouldn’t actually turn me into two pieces. It helped. Somewhat.

It’d have to take another force to get them off of me.

“Cerber! Russ! Down, heel!”

More tugs and pulls, but the overall force and strain on my arms lessened.

It took a considerable amount of time, but the dogs were eventually forced off of me. I was allowed to breathe again.

“Shit! Chels, Mike, hold them down! Hold them!”

Then I was free. Free of the dogs, with only the night sky in my view.

Someone dragged me a distance away, then helping me stand again.

Sarah.

She moved my arm around her shoulder. I tried not to lean and use her for support, but she positioned herself so I’d have to.

Fine, I’d take it.

Splatter of spit and sweat left flecks on the lenses of my glasses. It smudged the image, but I could take in the scene.

It was a lot different from before.

Sarah and I were standing, Peter and his crew were on the ground, holding the canines down and restraining them by the collars and leashes. The dogs were still protesting, snarling, fighting their masters every step of the way, wrestling free. It took the collective effort of four people to keep two wild animals down.

I breathed, swallowed. My body was numb, my arms mending underneath the sleeves.

“Wendy,” Sarah said, still watching the pigs and dogs. Animals, playing in the filth and mud.

“I’m…”

I stopped, then I started again.

“I’ll be alright.”

Sarah shifted, moving an arm. She kept me in place with the other, though.

Cerber and Russ kept at it, but Peter fell back, staying on his knees. He looked at us, and I finally got a decent look at him.

White, his hair cut short, middle-aged. He wasn’t remarkable in appearance, yet he put a huge dent on our trip to El Paso.

He had all the power and control earlier, and now, he looked bewildered.

A light flashed into his eyes, and he squinted, blinked.

“You sicced your dogs on my friend.”

Sarah spoke, clear, over the panic and struggling.

She was holding her phone. A video was being recorded.

“You stopped us, we weren’t doing anything, you forced us out of our RV and you ordered your dog to attack my friend. That’s harassment, in every single fucking sense of the word.”

It was like she was spitting acid at them. The toxicity of it all.

“I didn’t…” Peter said, weak, confused, hardly audible over his own dogs.

“You did. My friend is bleeding. Look at her!”

Peter moved his gaze over to me. I could see the moment where he realized that he was officially fucked.

Sarah hammered it in even more.

“Peter, Chelsea, and I think I heard a Mike? I didn’t catch the other name, but I’m sure it wouldn’t be hard to get, once this gets out, anyways.”

Peter snapped back to Sarah, his eyes huge.

He didn’t have anything to say, this time. Sarah knew to use that opening.

“You failed to do your job properly. You neglected your duties, and you actively attacked us when we had given you no probable cause to. Look at your dogs, you still can’t control them. This is gross negligence. Your dogs didn’t find anything, because there was nothing to find. They’ve been out of line and misbehaved since the beginning. You have nothing, no justifiable reason to do what you did.”

“Peter!”

Chelsea shouted, the dog she was holding down had twisted and was getting free. Peter leaped to put his body weight on top of the animal.

Sarah never stopped.

“Unless you want to lose your job, Peter, you will let us leave and go through town, untouched and unmolested by your folk until our trip is over. And I’ll think about not having this video circulate all over the web. It would be a shame if you couldn’t recommend more vegan restaurants to your niece.”

Peter struggled between keeping the dog down and looking up at us. The veins on his neck looked like they were going to burst.

“We’re leaving,” Sarah said. “And that’s final. Tell your men in the trucks to pull back and let us through. We don’t have anything or anyone illegal, your dogs were wrong.”

Sarah started to move, guiding me with one arm. I didn’t need the help, but I appreciated it. It’d be a lie to say that I wasn’t rattled.

“She needs medical attention,” Peter said, sounding even weaker.

I spoke for myself.

“I do, but not from you. I have a kit inside, I’ll be using that.”

It wasn’t a lie, that we had a medical kit in the RV. It was a lie that I’d need or use it.

Sarah still had her other arm raised, pointing her phone at the officers and the dogs. The dogs still were not giving up, one of them almost biting the ear off of Chelsea to get free.

She helped me back into the RV, and as soon as we were in, Sarah shut the doors and slipped back into the driver’s seat. I was left to fall into one of the seats in the back. Close to a luggage bag, small whimpers coming out of it.

The RV rolled forward, and it was allowed to.

I fixed my posture in the seat as we moved, the window on the other side displaying the buildings of the town. I never got to catch the name of this place.

Brick, old and brown, with little personality. Small, stout buildings, I’d have a terrible and boring time leaping from rooftop to rooftop, here. A short jog would probably take me from one end of the town to the other, little in the way of distance and verticality to really let me stretch my arms and legs.

Another new thing I learned about myself. I preferred the big city, after all.

I took off my glasses, blinking more dirt out of my eyes.

I had time, but I had been rattled, myself. It was hard to catch up to the current situation. Things had been dragged out, the tension suffocating, until it all snapped back in a quick and violent fashion. And that was suffocating in its own way.

What was it with dogs?

I put the thought off, set it away for now. From dogs to ducks, and I had to get them into a row, again. We had gotten separated with Tone and the others, and we had to catch up to them and get settled again before we continued the trip to El Paso.

We had cut it so fucking close.

I brushed my arms, feeling tears in the cloth. They ruined my jacket. The skin, though, and the muscle, they were already back to being intact.

Blood pumping, heart beating.

I’d need a breather.

I didn’t sleep, but I let myself catch my breath as the town passed us by. I stayed quiet, waiting until we left town before letting Isabella know that we were in the clear, and telling her what happened.

Previous                                                                                               Next

078 – Big Dipper

Previous                                                                                               Next

I only needed a few steps to walk over to Isabella, but that felt like its own journey, getting there. Each step was harder, the second guessing getting stronger.

“Hey Isabella.”

No turning back now.

I sat across the table. With a particular slowness, she moved her eyes from the window to me. She put the chocolate bar into her mouth.

“Hi Wendy,” she said, mumbled.

She bent her chocolate bar until a piece snapped off, remaining in her mouth. She chewed and ate it, eyes trained on me. She set the rest of her snack down when she finished.

“If that’s even your real name.”

“It is,” I said, somewhat amused by her immediate confrontation. “Is the candy good?”

“It’s alright.”

“Just alright?”

“I’ve had better.”

“When? Where?”

Isabella glanced back outside the window.

“Back in Mexico. That’s why I’m going back.”

“Must be really tasty, then.”

Isabella blinked, then kept blinking. Her eyes glimmered.

“It is,” she said.

That tug got even stronger. Constricting. Almost suffocating.

“Any other reasons why you’re going back? If I may ask?”

It was hard to ask, I could hear my voice get tight.

But it was probably harder for Isabella to answer.

I watched as she tried.

“After you saved me from the Ghosts, and that long but not really long story with that bitch and that bus, I finally got out of Stephenville. Things didn’t really get better from there.”

“No?”

“I went to other cities, even hitched a ride to other states, where it was supposed to be better. It wasn’t really. Places wouldn’t take me because of some new rule I never heard of, or they didn’t want to risk it, or maybe they didn’t like the color of my skin or whatever. It sucked, trying to do things the right way when the world treated me like I wasn’t supposed to be on it, that it was wrong for me to exist.”

“Been there, felt that,” I said.

Isabella faced me, her stare turning more intense, into a glare.

“Maybe if I didn’t keep your promise to stay away from gangs, I would have had a better chance of living here, maybe even thriving. I tried to do right by you, Wendy, but… You didn’t even do right by yourself.”

She was lashing out. It reminded me of D.

“I disappointed you,” I said.

Isabella put her hands on the table, picking up her chocolate bar again. She spun it around between her fingers, careful to only be touching the wrapper.

She muttered something in Spanish before switching back to English.

“Yeah, duh, you did. That promise was always in the back of my head, no matter where I went or what I was trying to do. It was the only thing I had that gave me any real direction. I try to remember stuff my padres told me, but it gets fuzzier, and with each day that passes, and the more I have to use English, the more my whole life back in Mexico feels like a hazy dream. It doesn’t seem real.”

Isabella tapped her chocolate on the table. Tapping it some more. A nervous twitch?

“If I stayed away from the gangs, maybe karma would help me out and make things right again. But, no, everything and everyone kept telling me they didn’t want me. And all I can do now is go back. It sucks.”

She had repeated herself, in a roundabout way, but it served to make her frustrations clear. Isabella probably hadn’t gotten a chance to talk to anyone about anything. She wanted to – needed to – vent, I’d give her that outlet. It was the least I could do.

“It certainly does suck. I’m sorry to hear that, Isabella.”

Snapping off a piece of chocolate, Isabella tossed it into her mouth. She spoke while she chewed.

“I ain’t wanna hear it from you.”

I just had to let it roll off my back.

“So, you’re going back to Mexico. What’s the plan when you get there?”

Isabella tapped her chocolate again.

“There’s nothing for me here, it didn’t work out, so I don’t have a choice but to go back. I recently got into contact with a relative. Mi tío. Coca farmer. He’s farther south than my old place, but it was something. So I went back to Stephenville, with no real plan in mind on how to get back, until I find out about this transport. Now I’m here.”

“Well, hey, farming isn’t too bad. Work off the land, start of a new life. At least you get to eat some tastier chocolate.”

Isabella gave me a look like I was stupid.

“It’s coca, not cacao. Leaf, not beans. And I’m not starting a new life, I’m going back to the one that forced me to run away in the first place.”

I was a gang leader, my people sold drugs, yet I was still slow on that world and lingo. It clicked now, though.

“I never knew you put so much consideration into that promise,” I said. “Staying away from that life.”

Isabella went back to playing with her food. When she spoke, it wasn’t muffled.

“Of course I did, what else could I do? Ever since I came into this country, you were the only one who ever gave me a helping hand, or at least did it without expecting something in return. No one else ever gave me a chance. And… I did all that I could with that chance, and…”

Isabella smacked the chocolate bar back onto the table. More pieces broke off.

“And all I ever got was some fucking shitty candy.”

What followed was only the droning of tire on road, Isabella as she sniffled, periodically. Her eyes continued to have that shine to it. That glimmer. Isabella was doing all she could to keep her emotions in check, but I could see the cracks. She’d break, one day, and everything would come out and overflow.

It was like looking at an old photo.

I glanced away, keeping my eyes down.

“If, if you’re still worried about having disappointed me, don’t be. You haven’t done anything wrong, and you shouldn’t beat yourself up over falling into shitty circumstances. Stuff just happens sometimes, things fall into certain places, and you have to pick it all up from there. And how you go about doing that, that defines you. So, do you know what I see?”

“What?”

“I see someone strong. Hell, stronger than me. It takes so much to fall into this world and not completely lose your head.”

I heard a huff. An empty laugh.

“Ha. Heard that one before. Sorry to say, Wendy, I’ve already lost it. I’ve already lost.”

Then, Isabella let out a long, drawn breath.

“I have a headache,” she said, seemingly out of nowhere.

She sounded so sad.

That tug went taut, until I felt a sting.

“Stephenville,” I started, “This world, it’s…”

“It’s fucked,” Isabella finished.

I smiled, slight.

“Exactly.”

The RV continued down the road. After a minute or two, I checked out the window, wanting to see the view again.

It looked even better, now that we were farther from the city. The stars were brighter, larger in numbers. Tracing shapes and lines across the sky.

I started talking while the stars shined back.

“Can I ask a weird question?”

“We’re in a weird time, sure.”

“What, um, how did I come across to you, when we first met?”

“How did you come across?”

“Like, what was your impression of me, if you can remember. I know it was a while back.”

“Oh, don’t worry about that. That day is fucking seared into my brain forever. I was, I was with Georgie and Bronson and some others, and I had to get one thousand dollars as initiation to join the Ghosts. Anything went, as long as I got my one thousand by the end of the week. I didn’t have much of a choice, I was new to the country, alone, and I needed protection… but, I didn’t make much progress. So they took me along to make the difference.”

I kept quiet, letting her talk, but I was anticipating her answer. The destination, rather than the journey.

“They made pick random people to rob. And the first person I happened to pick was you.”

“That’s some luck,” I commented.

“It, I remember you being really amazing, honestly,” Isabella said. “I only saw bits of it, but you took them out and you made it look easy. Pushing them around, tossing them like it was nothing, all sorts of crazy shit. It was everything I wish I could do, wish I could be.”

“You are,” I whispered.

It set me back, hearing that. To think Isabella held her in such a high regard, after only one encounter. That Isabella spent the next few months trying to live up to a standard that was set by someone else. And that Isabella was beating herself up over not meeting that expectation.

All because of Alexis, yet Isabella knew me as Wendy.

Was ‘Wendy’ just a mask for Alexis, back then?

And what about

I felt my heart drop at the thought of a follow up question to that. I screwed my eyes shut, and turned away from the window.

Isabella asked, “How’d you even learn to fight like that?”

Yes, good, more of that. More distractions.

I answered with my eyes still shut. Seeing blank.

“I never learned, and I don’t even really operate on instinct. I just have a leg up on everyone else. On people.”

“What does that mean?”

“I’m, I’m not exactly human.”

I didn’t see Isabella’s reaction, but the long pause that followed gave me an idea. Shock, surprise, maybe fear.

“You, you are-”

Her voice was shaking.

“I am,” I said.

I felt several hits on my arm. I forced my eyes open. I saw Isabella, leaning across the table, repeatedly tapping me, punching me as she got more and more worked up.

“Wendy, wake up, what? Excuse me? That’s too vague, you better tell me what that means. That better not mean what I think that means!”

I nodded, shaking a bit from Isabella’s continued assault.

“It does,” I told her.

Isabella stopped, and slinked back into her seat, slouching. Her eyes glued to me.

“No fucking way,” she said.

“Please try to lay off the cursing.”

Isabella nodded back, her eyes huge. She breathed.

“No fucking way.”

I gave Isabella some time to take it all in. It was a lot to take in.

She was blinking, the lower lip shaking, and when she had the constitution to speak, the words were trembling.

“So this whole time, you were… La luna azul. The one everyone is so afraid of. The world’s first…”

She didn’t finish, but I knew what she was going to say.

“Super, isn’t it?” I asked.

From behind me, but at the front of the RV, Sarah called me out.

“I thought you were sleeping!”

“In a minute!” I answered back. I wouldn’t leave her hanging.

Isabella, though, was still trying to process what I had just told her. She was staring back out the window, but it didn’t look like she was focusing on anything in particular.

“Why?” she questioned, “Why tell me this now?”

Because I wanted to move the conversation to something else.

“Thought you might want to know. And to see that you shouldn’t try to compare yourself to anyone, because you’ll always find something that isn’t up to par, or at least you perceive it to be that way. If nothing else, build yourself up, and trust in your own strength. Don’t dwell on your limits, but know your capabilities, and do better.”

Isabella raised an eyebrow.

“So you’re telling me to believe in myself?”

“Is that not important?”

“Now you sound like my-”

Isabella closed her eyes, and when she opened them again, they glimmered.

“Never mind.”

There was a kind of rhythm in our conversation. An ebb and flow. We’d talk, reach a point that was either too sore or sour to press further on, and we’d stop, cooling off before starting it up again. We had just flowed, and now, we were on the ebb again.

A lot to pick apart, from what Isabella told me, and while the connections weren’t clicking, they did tug.

And flicker.

“So you were a hero,” Isabella said, sounding hollow, deflated. “You were my hero, since you saved me, that day. Ever since I came into America, and even after I left Stephenville, I wondered what the Bluemoon was up to. There was a period of time where nothing happened. No sightings, no activity, nothing. It was like you just… disappeared. Even people in South Tucson were worried that something went down, and what that could mean. To think you were doing this, all this time.”

A buzz, as I heard Sarah coordinate with Tone, who was still tailing the RV. Sarah called the update. We were still good.

Good.

“Being a hero isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be,” I said. “And it certainly isn’t realistic. You can’t save everyone. And with this, I can help more people in one day than I ever did as a hero in one night. You can’t break the system from the outside, but you can put it into your favor from the inside. Walls are built for invaders, right? So take the opposite approach. If you want to kill something, do it from the inside. Like a parasite.”

I added, “And it’s not like I’m not wearing masks anymore.”

Isabella huffed again, as if she had found something amusing in what I had said.

“Parasite is a good word, it describes the people you work with so well.”

A not so slight jab at my colleagues. I could taste the venom.

“I can tell you’re not a fan,” I said.

“Can you blame me? I used to be a member of Lawrence’s gang, and that was the beginning of my hell, here. It was probably his idea to make me do that last minute run with Georgie and those guys. And that bitch? I can still hardly believe you work with her, now.”

“She has her… moments,” I said, wording it in a specific way. I knew who she was referring to. “But when push comes to shove, she has your back.”

Isabella shot a look at me.

“She has my back,” I said. “And she might have yours, if you decide to be on her side.”

“Are you asking me to join your gang?”

I didn’t mean to go in that direction, but I wasn’t against it, either.

I shrugged.

“I mean, if you want the protection, we can provide it. A roof, a bed, clothes, food. No strings attached, too, if you want to be excluded from doing any work related to Los Colmillos, just let me know and we can set that up as well.”

Isabella’s expression switched between doubt and curiosity. It had turned out to be an intriguing offer for her, after all. I saw her consider it.

“Are you serious?” Isabella asked, “You bring this up now, after we just left the city?”

“You can always just take the return trip with us. The people on the other side of the border are expecting a certain number of their precious ‘cargo,’ but I doubt they’ll miss someone who changed their mind.”

Isabella sat back, fixing her posture. She reached for her chocolate again, and took another bite. I noticed that she had the energy to grab it in the first place.

She spoke with her mouth full. “I’ll… think about it. I feel like, my whole life, I’ve been going from place to place. Always traveling. I can’t ever have somewhere to call my own. It would be nice to have… that, for once. I’ll think about it.”

Weary, exhausted, drained. She had come across as someone who was much older than she actually was.

I suppressed the urge to grin.

That, somehow, lightened my mood. The tug getting less constricting, feeling more like an embrace.

The prospect of having Isabella around didn’t feel like a bad one.

“We’ve got time,” I said. “You can make your final decision once we get to El Paso.

“But, still, if I do swing that way, you’re going to have to keep that bitch away from me.”

“D’s been good, I promise.”

“No, not to protect me, but her. Who knows what’ll happen if we’re in the same room? I’m ain’t going to be responsible for what mess is made after.”

“You really do have beef with D, don’t you?”

“Damn right I do. I can’t just forget that, and I sure as hell won’t forgive it. Do you know the first thing she ever said to me?”

“You remember that much?”

“Yes, I do. Just as clear as ever. It was a question, too. She asked me permission to steal from me, and then proceeded to crash a bus full of people and steal the one grand you gave me.”

One grand. Alexis really did just toss away cash, just like that.

That’s one thousand dollars I could put into the gang, right now.

I could imagine why Isabella remembered her so fondly. Or, at least, it was part of the reason why.

“I just don’t see myself being relaxed with her around, that’s all I’m saying.”

“If you think that’s going to seriously be an issue, and I can make some arrangements so you never have to meet her again. It might cause some complications later, in case you even needed to see me. She likes to hide in my shadow, and I usually let her stay that close. Usually.”

“That sounds like crazy talk. Wendy, you’re just asking for her to stab you in the back one day, and all for a joke. No, actually, you’re giving her permission to do just that.”

Whatever happened on that bus, it really fucked with Isabella. It was understandable, but…

“You are really waiting for the other shoe to drop, aren’t you? Believe it or not, but this isn’t the first time I heard about this bus incident. We can’t take back what went down, but D’s apologized for it before, and again with you, and I can apologize for a third time on her behalf. You don’t know D like I do. She may go about things in her own way, but that’s what makes her a valuable piece on the board.”

“Maybe she wants you to think that,” Isabella said, with an ominous tone. “Maybe she’s been lying to you this whole time.”

I’d need to set these kids up on a playdate or something.

When we get back.

“Sleep on it,” I said, scooting over to the edge of the seat. “Either way, I’ll respect your decision. But, if it means anything, I won’t let you down this time, Isabella. I promise.”

“Yeah, whatever,” Isabella said. She finished up the remainder of her chocolate bar. “In a minute, though, I’m not even tired.”

I slid out of the seat, getting up. Isabella wasn’t looking at me, anymore, staring off into the distance with her jaw hanging open. She scrunched up her face. Stifling a yawn?

Me too, I thought.

“I’ll check up on you again, let me know if you need anything.”

Isabella yawned for real, this time.

“Sure, thanks, I guess.”

It was an uncertain, vague note, but I’d leave it at that. I crossed the RV again to another seat, farther in the back, where my belongings were. Sitting back down, propping my legs up, I tried to make myself comfortable. The sound of the road filled my ears.

There was so much to consider, now

Talking with D, then Sarah, then Isabella. And even Lawrence had a point. I wasn’t used to being put under a microscope like that. Alexis felt a compulsion to help out a girl she hardly knew, and I was willing to do the very same. What did that say about me, about us?

And it wasn’t just that.

D wasn’t very happy with me overseeing the transport by myself. At first, I had chalked it up to her being too attached, or maybe even because of my prodding about her past with Styx. But no, I saw that it was a symptom of a larger issue.

There was a very large, and very significant part of my past that I had routinely ignored for some time.

That time in Braham Barn.

Of all the connections that I had held on to, that one was the most clear of them all. That night. That girl. Much like Isabella, it was a night that was burned into memory, into history. Alexis had gone through that hell, but I was the one being burned.

I put my thumb on my middle finger. Right hand. I cracked the knuckle. I didn’t feel anything.

This couldn’t be ignored forever.

I groused, as if to react to my own thoughts. I’d have to start making in strides in that direction, as well. It wasn’t just about moving forward. To do that, I’d have to learn where I came from. Look to the past. Visit that barn.

I’d have to grow up.

It was a scary idea, that. And the desire to turn back and change my mind ran deeper than taking a look back to see where I had come from.

I wasn’t sure. It was hard to be sure of anything, now. I was at a crossroads.

As my eyelids grew heavier, I thought about what D’s reaction might be. Would she be happy? Relieved? The possibility of that made me want to get this trip over with even faster. And throwing Isabella into the mix, it made for a picture that was easier to look at.

It was hard to look at Isabella’s face. Blurry, too close. The expression didn’t seem all that light.

“Wendy, get up.”

“Uhn,” I sounded. I fixed my glasses. My neck was sore from how I was positioned on the seat. I hadn’t napped right.

Wait. I took a nap?

Shit.

I rallied my will and stood up. Half-thoughts floated in my head, some dream from right before my eyes had closed. I pushed them aside to focus back on the present. On Isabella.

Isabella stepped to the side. She had been tapping me to wake me up, and she was still doing it, now.

I brushed her hand away. She stopped.

“What’s up?” I asked.

“The lady up front, she wanted you.”

“Sarah?”

“Her, yeah.”

Sarah wanted me? I wouldn’t want to keep her waiting.

“Alright,” I mumbled, as I crossed the length of the RV. I walked a little faster for Sarah’s sake.

I noted that Isabella was following right behind me.

“I’m here,” I said, as I reached the front of the RV.

“Hey Voss,” Sarah said, “Sorry to wake you from your nap.”

“I wasn’t napping, I just gave my eyes a little break.”

Sarah let out a small chuckle. I didn’t respond to that.

“Anyways, I’m guessing we have a situation?”

“We do, and it’s my fault.”

My stomach dropped.

“What kind?”

Sarah took one hand off the steering wheel. She pointed ahead.

“That kind.”

I looked ahead.

We had gotten off the interstate while I was taking a little break. We were on a much smaller road, two lanes, with no cars directly ahead or behind us. It was still dark, I wasn’t out for very long.

But I saw the town we were approaching. It wasn’t on the horizon, but I could make out the short brick buildings and shorter, stocky lamp lights that gave the place some signs of life. A small town for sure. The road we were on would turn into the main street that divided the town into two halves, and from the distance we were at, I could see the entire scope of the town. Small.

A town, seemingly forgotten in time, so anything modern stuck out like a sore thumb.

There were several of those things.

“Slow down,” I ordered.

The RV began to slow in its approach, but we didn’t stop in our tracks. We’d crawled forward, stalling. Buying time.

Figuring out how we were going to get through this. Literally.

The small dots remained small, being in the distance. It wasn’t going to be like that for long.

I counted up the tally of obstacles.

Two trucks, blocky, like metal boxes on wheels, situated at either side of the entryway into the town, a larger truck to the right. Four people, standing on the road itself. Two of them were holding onto a line that connected them and an even smaller dot.

The RV got closer, and I realized those were lines were leashes. They had dogs.

“Border patrol?” I questioned, “Here?”

Isabella reacted. I couldn’t see her, with her at my back, but she did make a small noise, and I felt a tug on the sleeve of my hood.

“Seems like it,” Sarah said.

Shit, fucking shit.

I was expecting them, we had made plans with them in mind, but I wouldn’t have expected to run into them so soon. Going on a detour was a preemptive measure, but for them to have us beat?

“Two armored vehicles, a bigger truck, four guards and two dogs. Anything else I’m missing?”

“I don’t think so,” Sarah said, “The checkpoint doesn’t look very well put together. Seems improvised.”

“You think they saw us coming?”

“I don’t think so,” Sarah said again. “The next turn onto the highway isn’t for another few miles past the town, so they’d have to see us coming from even more miles away to set up something, and given the force they brought out, it wouldn’t be sufficient to catch all of us, if they knew we were here.”

“Then, they’re as surprised to see us as we are to see them?”

“Precisely. I’m sorry, Voss, I should have seen this coming, I should have expected this.”

“It’s no one’s fault,” I said, wanting to reassure her.

No one’s fault, but there was still a problem, here. It could have been worse, but it was still bad.

“Where’s Tone?” I asked.

“A mile behind, no else on the road between us.”

So border patrol wouldn’t see the truck, yet.

“Pass me the walkie-talkie,” I said.

Sarah handed over the device. The RV continued forward, slow. Isabella still had a hold on me.

I pressed a button on the side.

“Tone.”

Voss?

“I’m cutting right to it, we’ve got BP coming up pretty soon.”

A pause.

Shit.

“Don’t think they’ve seen you, but it’s too late for us. Are you able to turn around and make it back to the highway?”

I can. There’s no one around, so I have room. Just the road and open fields.

“Okay, do that then. Just pass the town that way. The detour was to see if anyone was tailing us, and it doesn’t seem like that’s the case, is it?”

It’s not, Voss.

“Good to hear. Alright. Let’s do that. We’ll catch up with you on the highway, or you can stop somewhere safe and wait for us. Keep us posted- oh, and let D and Lawrence know about this. Tell them we’ll going to be alright.”

Got it, Voss, turning back.

And with that, I gave the walkie-talkie back to Sarah.

“Let’s go,” I said. “We’ll meet them head on.”

“Got it, Wendy,” Sarah said, echoing Tone. The RV accelerated.

“Wendy.”

I turned.

Isabella made her concern clear. The kid who survived lonely, cold months in different cities and states, and evading these exact kind of people, she became just that, a kid. Someone who just wanted peace.

I sympathized.

“I’ll help you find a place to hide,” I said.

“Where? There’s nothing here. If they come up here with those dogs I am so fucked!”

“I promised I’d protect you, wouldn’t I? I intend to keep it.”

Isabella was still anxious, still clutching my arm, but I caught the tiniest smidge of relief in her eyes. The idea that we’d get past this and continue to El Paso.

I’d have to live up to that expectation, that standard.

“Follow me,” I said. “Sarah?”

“Wendy?”

“Keep going, I’ll be back in a second.”

Sarah nodded, silent. I didn’t need a response, just her acknowledgement. Her foot stayed on the pedal.

Again, I went to the back of the RV, with Isabella.

I looked through everything in the RV, anything that Isabella could hide behind or under. There was a restroom, some cabinets and shelves, but those were too obvious, too easy. She’d get sniffed out in no time.

Something unconventional? To buy us some time?

I checked the ceiling. Plastic panels. But they were bolted in. I had the strength to tear them out and make a hole for Isabella, but I didn’t have the tools to set them back in. And I didn’t have the time.

Tables, the seats…

I made it to the very back of the RV. Without a full plan in mind, I grabbed my bag, zipped it open, and unpacked everything.

“Stuff everything in the cabinet and drawers,” I said, unloading stuff. “You don’t have to be clean or careful about it, in fact, it might look better if it’s strewn about. Makes the place looked more lived in.”

I kept going, taking things out, picking them one by one as the bag was becoming more empty. I hadn’t brought much with me.

There. The bag was empty.

I turned. Isabella hadn’t moved or done anything. Her hand was hovering over one of my delicates that had landed on the floor, like she was scared to touch it, even if this situation could be life or death.

Move!” I said, hating that I had to be stern with her.

Isabella jumped.

“Wait but, why-”

I passed her, picking that small pile of clothes, stuffing them in an overhead cabinet.

“They’re clean,” I said. “I don’t have any weird stuff, so just move.”

I heard activity from Isabella as I continued moving stuff.

“What’s this then?”

I looked.

Small, black, with straps.

“That’s my mask,” I said.

Isabella froze, as though I told her she was holding a bomb, instead.

I flicked her on her forehead. She flinched, snapping out of it. Her pigtails swung.

“Move,” I said, more kindly this time. “You can just put that under something. If they find it, it’s not like they’ll know what that is, anyways.”

Isabella finally got with the program and moved.

With her help, we put all my stuff away.

Turning, pointed Isabella to the direction of my luggage bag, now empty.

“Get in,” I said.

I could sense the hesitation, but we had ran out of time for her to voice any of it. Isabella stepped inside, sat down, and curled into a ball.

She was small as it was, and now she was smaller. I zipped the bag back closed, stopping briefly before I covered her head.

Staring at me, anxious. That fear was back, stronger now. It gripped her.

“You’re stronger than me,” I said to her. “Never forget that.”

Isabella blinked, it was all she could do.

I closed the bag, and very, very carefully, I slid it under one of the tables, where I had my talk with Isabella, only an hour or so ago.

I returned to Sarah’s side. I sat in the passenger’s seat. Those dots weren’t small anymore.

Brief, Sarah and I shared a look. Silent, but a lot was exchanged in that moment.

The patrol readied their guard, and we were ready to meet them head on.

And then we met them head on.

Previous                                                                                               Next

077 – Interstate Blues

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“I’m here. Can you hear me?”

No response came.

“Hello?”

Again, nothing.

“I know you can hear me, D.”

A mechanical groan.

Then why are you asking?

The attitude on this girl.

On my phone, the image of D stretched, pixelated when she moved to adjust the screen on her end. The connection kept breaking up in some parts, making the sound and picture distorted and warped. I would have tried to make a joke about it, but D didn’t seem like she was in the mood.

Might as well just get to the point.

“Just wanted to make sure,” I said. “We just left the city, still on the road. Duh. It’s so… flat, out here, and wide. But also hilly. Expansive, you know what I mean?”

Sure.

“It never really occurred to me, that I’ve spent so much of my life in the city. It’s a whole different atmosphere out here. Being able to see the horizon and have it not being blocked by a building or a billboard. It’s oddly… liberating, in a way. Freeing. Just, like, being on the open road and seeing nothing but the clouds and trees. It’s a nice change of pace.”

What does this have to do with anything?

“I’m just saying, when all’s said and done, I could see myself spending some more time out here, going camping, or something. Star gazing.”

I didn’t know you were into that kind of stuff.

“I could be.”

Please don’t tell me you’re one of those girls that are super into horses. I never liked them. Creeps me out.

“I don’t, what? I don’t have any particular liking for them. Is that a thing?”

You never heard of it? It’s like, when certain girls get super obsessive with horses, for whatever reason. They put posters up in their room and carry binders and folders to school with pictures of them, so it doesn’t even stay at home. And they wear rhinestones and denim for everything, and, oh god, don’t ever ask them what they did on the weekend. It’s-”

“Um, D?”

The image of D pixelated again, when she brought her hand to her face.

Ugh, never mind. You threw me on a tangent. What did you even want, again?

“I told you, I was going to call as soon as I left the city. And to kind of loosen ourselves up a bit. You know, to take my mind off… everything.”

Then sleep.

“I can’t, or I won’t. If anything happens I need to be here and awake for that. But I can’t focus too much on that or else I’m going to go crazy, like, actually crazy. I need a destresser.”

The groan that came from D sounded dry and almost automated. It wasn’t from the lagging connection.

Wendy, it’s four in the morning. You’re rambling about the wide open plains and you’ve got me talking about horse girls. We’re already crazy.

“Touché.”

Just take the occasional nap. Close your eyes and take a break. It doesn’t even need to be for very long or very often. Just so you don’t crash later in the day, that’s when the pressure’s really on.

“I hear you.”

I’m being serious. This isn’t like a walk in the park or whatever. You’re out in the open, being on the interstate, and the cops out there will be looking for any little thing to pounce on, if they sense anything that raises their suspicion by even a smidge. And it’s worse once you get to El Paso. Border patrol aside, there’s the Army medical center, an Army airfield, and Fort Bliss, one of the largest military complexes in the country and the largest training area in the country. Which is to say, you’re going right into the belly of the military industrial complex with this one. It’s not something to take lightly.

“Thanks,” I said.

But, it’s whatever, nothing I hadn’t told you already. And I definitely won’t bring up the fact that you should have brought me along. You won’t hear that from me.

Ah.

“I think I’ll take your advice for that nap, then. Probably for the best.”

Yeah. Probably.

“What else, before I hang up? How’s Lawrence doing?”

He’s holding up. I just got back from helping him into his apartment. Took a bit longer because he was demanding more painkillers.

“Did you give him any?”

I made sure to give him a regulated dosage. I know the numbers. He’s not overdosing on my watch.

“I appreciate you looking after him, D.”

Whatever. You’re just trying to make me feel better about staying behind.

“You see right through me.”

More than you know. Just go get some sleep, Wendy, please? Don’t overwork yourself again, so soon.

“Sure, I’ll give it a shot. I’ll call again later?”

There was no verbal response. Just the call ending. I hadn’t touched my phone.

I sighed.

I set my phone down, the screen flat on the table, and I looked out the window.

The scenery passed me by.

Dark, but I didn’t have any issues when it came to seeing. Trees grouped into clumps zipped past, the long fields of tall grass rolling as the RV sped along. The sky, visible and unobstructed, open in all of its glory. Hardly any clouds, we had left most of them behind, along with the city, and all that was in view now were the stars. Plentiful and bright. Clusters of white dots that expanded and stretched into the horizon. Shades of blue and white hues streaked across like broad strokes of paint on a horizon. A canvas that wasn’t blank.

I knew light pollution was a thing, but I had never expected this. The night sky, shimmering with splendor. It looked so cool that I had to use words like ‘glory’ and ‘splendor.’

I recalled Hleuco, how he used to fly overhead as I traversed the rooftops. The freedom of it all. The desire to reach just a little higher. Being here, seeing how hills would dip and I could see the tops of the trees, the sky above, it seemed almost feasible.

Wings. If only I had those for a power. I could get up high, but something always brought me back down.

If only I was completely untethered.

To travel, going somewhere new, part of it was a little exhilarating.

There was a feeling that began to stir within me, the longer I stared out the window, listless. I couldn’t quite place it.

On some level, it bothered me.

I didn’t mind being by myself, but I didn’t like when my thoughts wandered. Because they invariably drifted towards me. And there was a tendency of that happening. I’d prefer not to be at the center of that kind of attention.

I would much prefer to focus on other things. Like this job, this favor for Styx. How I fit into all of this. What I would have to do to not fuck this up. Under that context, it was fine, since I was actively working to achieve something, but being alone with my thoughts, and nothing to direct it to or angle it towards?

I didn’t like where those thoughts might wander off to.

It was part of the reason why I wanted to call D, to clear my head, while still keeping my priorities in check. And talking to D was like getting splashed in the face with ice cold water. She was usually so bubbly and so extra that I had to stay on my toes, dealing with her. It took effort to keep up with her pace. But it was a good kind of effort. Keeping up with her? It was worth it.

Usually.

She was usually so bubbly… except when she wasn’t. Those times were rare, but I’d know if she slipped into one of those moods. This was one of those times.

It reminded me of similar instances, when she would be blunt about her sidestepping any of my attempts to learn more about her past. Before, she’d make dry jokes about it, orchestrating an uncomfortable atmosphere to get me to drop the subject. It would work, too, and we somehow formed a decent relationship in the face of that.

And there was this most recent time.

Seeing her with Styx, how close they had to be, or have been… Was I supposed to just stand there and not be curious? To not ask for a sliver or information, at least?

No jokes, this time. She had shut me down, and she shut me down hard. D really didn’t want to get into it. Not relevant.

I had sensed anger, there, stemmed from annoyance. I knew not to needle her about it, the last thing I’d want was to push her too far, and then away. But, despite her repeating it time and time again, it was relevant.

How did her connection with Styx factor into him giving us this job? How would it effect the next two? Was Styx, in his own twisted way, helping us out? He had already given us a hand on multiple occasions, thanks to D herself, what was more assistance to him, under his own terms? It’d be a nice thought, but I learned to never guess his next move. I’d be better off guessing a coin toss. At least my chances were even, there. In theory.

He did mention setting up for a final, ultimate joke, and that it was part of this favor. That didn’t instill me with a lot of hope about what the outcome of this would be.

Which was why I wanted to pick D’s brain about Styx. If I knew more, then we could plan properly, and be more prepared.

But, no. Just anger, just deflection.

And all that anger was deflected back at me.

It was obvious that D didn’t approve of me taking the trip to El Paso by myself, even though I was the only one who could. Lawrence wasn’t able bodied, and D needed to stay in the city and the territory. This job had to be done, and someone had to be physically present for this part of it. Of this particular puzzle, I was the only piece that could fit. The queen. I could make moves that the other pieces couldn’t, I wasn’t bound by certain limitations.

This was my role in Los Colmillos. The Fangs. My purpose. This was who I was. Wendy, V.

Who was I?

The RV hit a slight bump, and I jumped. Fuck.

Exactly the kind of thing I wanted to avoid.

The invariable drift.

My eyes closed, and I could feel the desire to sleep grow stronger. So tired that my eye flickered, involuntary. No. We hadn’t even started yet.

I lifted my eyes back open, and turned away from the window. The rest of the RV.

I saw Isabella, sleeping in the back. She was leaning over the table, head buried in her arms. Eyes closed, but she didn’t appear to be stressed or troubled. Just asleep, with all the peace that brought.

Good for her.

I wouldn’t bother her just to keep my mind running straight. It was a long journey, and she needed rest. There was no need for her to stay up. She could sleep the whole way there, and it would be fine.

I still needed to keep moving, though.

Sliding out of my seat, I got up to move to the front of the RV. The hum of the road gave way to light music, playing at a low volume. The upbeat was accented by sharp, bright guitars, and a dance groove kept the tempo fast and energetic. I could hear other instruments in there, too, but I wasn’t familiar with that kind of stuff. I heard horns, so there was that.

I sat back down in another seat. My view changed, the road out in front of me, the signs and lights passing overhead.

“Good morning, Voss.”

Sarah greeted me first.

“Hey,” I said.

With her eyes still on the road, Sarah turned a dial. The music was turned down.

“You don’t have to do that,” I said.

“If you have something to say, I want to hear it in full. No distractions.”

“No distractions,” I repeated. “What kind of music is that, though?”

“Oh, that? It’s just samba.”

“Samba?”

“Dance music from Brazil.”

“Are you from there, or have some connection there?”

“I do. My grandmother was from there. She was a musician. That’s her band, actually, she’s the drummer.”

“Really? Turn it back up.”

Sarah twisted the dial again, the volume swelled.

I could hear the music again. The song was at some extended interlude section, where each member of the band was jamming out with their respective instruments. The guitars were taking turns doing their own solos, the horns blared to the point of screeching, and the flutes and other woodwind instruments were playing harder now, making themselves more prominent to my ears.

Then the drumming.

Keeping up the pace, or maybe pace was being dictated by her. Each of the snare and cymbals crashed, the sound continuing long after another drum was hit. It built into a wall of sound, towering over every other instrument, almost overpowering the song itself.

But there was a trick to it. Something even a novice like me was able to pick up.

I could still feel the groove. The bounce and rhythm the drummer was going for. It gave the song a sense of direction, and gave the other musicians a platform to go all out and showcase their chops, too. The drumming didn’t overpower the song, it gave the song life.

A hit of the snare and a tap of the hi-hats signaled a change in movement, and another section started up. A vocalist came in, singing a melody that sat on top of everything else. The rest of the instruments had scaled back in intensity, including the drums.

But, for a time, they had the freedom to do whatever they wanted. And even now, the drums still carried the rest of the song, being the foundation that everything was built upon.

It resonated.

“That’s cool,” I said, and that felt like an understatement. “Your grandma’s a badass.”

“She is,” Sarah said, smiling. It dropped a bit. “She was.”

I immediately felt like an idiot.

“Sorry to hear that,” I said, soft.

“It’s okay, it was a while ago, already. And she wasn’t at a bad age to go. Seventy-four.”

“Not bad at all.”

“Actually, in that song we just listened to, she was seventy.”

“No way.”

“Oh yeah, it was the last album she recorded with her band. Sold pretty well too, considering she’s been around for so long, doing what she was doing. Musicians usually taper off and plateau in popularity later in their career, or they fade into obscurity completely. Thankfully, she managed to avoid both. She stuck to her guns, marched to her own beat, and with the help of friends and some awesome aunts and uncles, made some awesome jams for over fifty years.”

“That sounds like a good deal to me,” I said. “Sticking to your guns, marching to your own beat. Definitely a badass.”

“She was a fighter to the end. I just hope I have fire like that, to last as long as she did. Or even just a spark is good enough for me.”

I paused. I would have said ‘same,’ or something along those lines, but she wasn’t my grandmother.

“What’s her name?” I asked.

Sarah set the volume back down as the song concluded.

“Patricia.”

“Pretty name.”

“Ah, thanks. I’m sure she’d appreciate that.”

This was it. Exactly what I wanted. A decent distraction from the job we were doing, a small break. And it was nice to have Sarah be my distraction.

It… It was decent.

A break in the conversation itself, the sound of the road underneath us, the lights from the few cars, the streetlights, the stars above, made themselves prominent again in that lapse. Thoughts creeped.

I cracked a knuckle. The middle finger of my right hand. I felt a momentary heat.

“Sorry I kept asking about your grandmother, though. I didn’t mean to pry.”

I felt guilty about using Sarah’s grandmother as a topic to keep my mind occupied on other things. Guilty about pressing D and getting her mad at me.

“Nothing to be sorry about,” Sarah said. “Ask me about anything. I’m an open book.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, it’s totally fine.”

It is?

“Okay, then, uh, I’m guessing you’re from Brazil?”

Sarah slowed as a car ahead of us signaled that it was going right.

“I’m not from there, no. That side of me comes from my mom.”

“Oh, I’m similar. My-”

I stopped.

The break was sudden and noticeable.

“It’s alright, Voss. Just because I’m an open book doesn’t mean you have to be.”

Staring at the sky, I shook my head.

“It’s not that. Well, maybe it is that. But… I don’t know. It’s weird. The phrasing is weird.”

“Take your time,” Sarah said.

I was at a loss on how to process that. Her.

“I was going to say, my… the woman who had me was a musician, too. A singer. I never heard her myself, though, I couldn’t tell you if she was any good.”

“That is similar,” Sarah said. It would have been easy to construe that as patronizing, but, I didn’t get that impression from her.

The RV sped ahead, the car once in front of us was now out of the way, several lanes across.

Low in volume, but high in intensity, another samba jam started. The drums came in first.

“Maybe I’m overstepping my boundaries, here,” Sarah said, “But I’m guessing you didn’t have a good relationship with your mother?”

My lips formed a firm, set line. Sarah was driving, so she couldn’t see my expression, my reaction.

I could have stopped right at that moment, ended the conversation there and walked away. But, there wasn’t much else to do, I had to stay up, and Sarah wasn’t coming at me in a confrontational manner. It was relaxed, casual, and nothing I was used to.

I answered.

“I didn’t, but it was not so much good, but more like nonexistent. She was in my life for only a brief moment.”

“Oh. She left when you were young?”

“No. It was the opposite, actually. I left her. For this.”

More signs and lights. We passed under them in silence.

“I always wondered how you ended up on this side of the coin,” Sarah said, breaking that silence. “Considering you were on the other side of it, not to long ago.”

“I was, but I was trying force myself into a role that didn’t fit me. It didn’t work, and now people hate me, or they hate the old me, and I’m not much of a fan, myself. So now, I’m trying this instead, and it seems to be working out. Or at least, I’m seeing a lot more success from this. It’s freeing, in a way. And I still get to help people, like what we’re doing right now, or back at the territory. I just don’t have to do it behind a mask.”

“That’s good, then. You found yourself.”

“I, um…”

“Not quite?”

I exhaled.

“I don’t know.”

“Now it’s my turn to apologize for prying, Voss. You don’t have to answer if you’re not up to it.”

“No,” I said, shaking my head. “It’s… fine. I’m not exactly an open book, but, if it’s you, I’m not opposed to being… read.”

“If it’s you,” I added. Repeated.

“I’m flattered.”

The interstate began to wind, giving the path slight, soft curves. Sarah eased us around and forward.

“Like,” I started, unprompted. “I tried so hard to break away from my old life, that I veered into unfamiliar, uncharted territory, and I’m… I don’t want say lost, but it’s like a blank canvas. I want to fill it with different colors, but I’m not sure which ones I should pick.”

“Crisis of identity?”

“Something about that sounds too extreme, no, I wouldn’t call it that. I know who I am, who I’m supposed to be. I’m one third of the top brass at Los Colmillos, I’m the muscle of the group. I can be truly monstrous when using that muscle, but that’s the power that I have, and I won’t deny that about myself. But, it’s the other stuff, the simpler stuff, that I draw blanks on.”

My apartment. Lawrence’s comments, the other day. Even the clothes that weren’t my costume. My glasses. A lot of it was a conscious move away from her, from Alexis. But, in doing that, severing every connection and binding, I became free, but I was also now in free fall. It wasn’t like flying at all.

“Now I feel like I need to do some serious course correction,” I said. “To slow down and take stock of what’s around me, if there’s anything at all. Like, what do I even like? What music do I enjoy? I liked that song you showed me, but would I have come to that conclusion if I didn’t know the context? What about movies? Or what kind of paintings do I want in my room? I’ve never had the time to sit down and figure that out. This life, as I’ve known it, has been one job after another. Things that need to get done.”

Distractions, a voice in my head told me. I didn’t answer it.

“Do you really need to change yourself that much in order to disown your past self?” Sarah asked.

“I do,” I said, “I really do. Like I said, I’m not the biggest fan of my past self. I don’t even see her as me.”

“Hm, I won’t judge your conclusion, considering your circumstances…”

She had trailed off.

“But?” I ventured.

“But,” Sarah said, “While it might be a bit more on the extreme side, you just sound like any normal teenager. To me, anyways.”

Her words gave me a short pause.

“That sounds normal to you?”

“Well, sure. Every kid goes through something like that, growing up. Their body changes, their brain starts producing certain chemicals, and they start to look at the world, and themselves, in a different way. And kids and teens can struggle with trying to find out who they are, and where they fit into the grand scheme of things. They try so hard to figure themselves out, that they rush into adulthood and lose all perspective on how much time they actually have.”

“Time,” I said, still staring ahead, out the window. Something I felt like I had very little of. So much to do, so little time.

“So, if you want my advice, Voss, just take that stuff easy, and give yourself some time to learn and grow. You’ll have plenty of time and opportunities to find yourself. No need to hurry. Take it all in stride.”

“Taking it easy sounds hard,” I said.

“If it’s any consolation, then, you’ve done pretty well for yourself. You’re a teenager, but you’ve got adults answering to you. You hold real power and authority. You, you’re the best, Voss.”

“Now you really are patronizing me,” I said.

Sarah snickered. I turned to see her smiling.

“Where’s the lie? I mean it. You just need someone who’ll hold you down, keep you grounded. Ever had a boyfriend?”

We were still going straight on the highway, but we still took a sudden turn.

“Boyfriend?”

“Well, that’s fine, too, you’re still young.”

“Wait, don’t just assume.”

“My apologies, Voss.”

I gave Sarah a warning look, exhaling again.

For whatever reason, I wanted to refute her.

A few faces came to mind. Not because of any legitimate, lingering attachment, but because they were the only reference points I had.

A boy, back during her days in high school. Tall, black, looks were up to her standards. It never lead to anything substantial, otherwise I would have remembered his name.

And then there was Benny.

“Stuff from my old life,” I explained, not wanting to dwell on that particular thought. “And I’m not even sure if I’m into guys, or if I’m not into the idea of a relationship, in general.”

“I’ve heard that before.”

“Does nothing surprise you?”

“I’m just saying,” Sarah said, smiling again. “Been there, thought that. You get your heart broken and you swear off guys and romance forever, but closing yourself off like that will only lead to more pain. People do need people. No girl’s an island.”

“Solitude is pretty freeing though. Peaceful.”

“There’s a difference between being alone and being lonely. It goes back to my advice. Give yourself some time, space if you need it, and when things fall into place, you can go from there. Who knows? Maybe solitude is for you, after all.”

Or,” Sarah said, stressing the word, “Maybe you find out that being with guys isn’t what you really needed, this whole time.”

She was supposed to be watching the road, but Sarah chanced a look at me, and she winked.

A smile, genuine.

Was I supposed to take that as a suggestion, or an invitation?

My eyes went back to the road. The question would go unanswered.

“It,” I started, trying to find the proper words. “It’s been so crazy, these past few months. Hectic. Everything happening, back to back to back, never getting a chance to sit down and breathe. I guess, during all this, I never stopped to consider that some things were just… normal.”

I was already sitting down, next to Sarah. I forced myself to breathe.

“It’s all part of growing up,” Sarah said.

I put stock into those words.

“It’s not bad advice,” I admitted, “Giving myself time. I wouldn’t want to force myself into anything just because it’s different. Wouldn’t be fair to me, and it’d just feel cheap.”

“Good,” Sarah said. Her eyes were back to the road. The ride smoothed out, the amount of turns and curves and bumps lessening. Sarah’s music finished after some lengthy period of time.

We traveled by the roadway’s hum. Saw the signs pass, watched the fields go by. Every star, every streetlight.

I finally spoke up again.

“Okay.”

I took my eyes off the road. I got out my seat, putting a hand on Sarah’s seat to keep my balance. “Thanks for keeping me occupied.”

“No, thank you Voss, for keeping me company.”

“Well, there’s still a lot of miles and hours left, I’ll see if I can swing by again.”

“Can’t wait.”

“Anything I need to know about the trip? Any updates?”

“None really. Tone would radio in if there are any changes, but I’ll check on him again in a couple minutes. In about an hour, we’ll be getting off the interstate to take a detour.”

“In case of anyone on our trail,” I said.

“Yes ma’am. Right now, it’s just a precaution since it’s still so early on the trip, but if we get off early and take some back roads and pass through some dusty ghost towns, that should be enough to circumvent any trouble, or make it easier to deal with trouble if there is any.”

“Sounds about right.”

It was something D had mentioned and warned us about, going the route we were going. If cops or border patrol were to follow us, they wouldn’t make themselves known right away. They’d keep an eye on us, plan ahead, cut us off at any possible exits or farther down the interstate. If we didn’t know any better, we’d drive straight into their trap, snares and jaws and all.

If we didn’t know any better.

This was why we planned ahead. Being constantly on the move meant keeping them on the move, making them unable to set a proper plan into motion. They’d have to react to us, and we would be keeping them on their toes. Going onto obscure country road and passing through the smallest of small towns would force anyone after us into a bottleneck, and make them easier to take care of.

It wouldn’t be easy, but it would be easier.

“Then we’re right on schedule. Awesome. Thanks again for everything, Sarah, and not just for agreeing to drive me.”

“Anything for you, Voss.”

I moved my hand over as I changed positions, standing. Near Sarah’s headrest. My fingers were so close to her hair, I could feel stray strands brush my skin.

“Oh, and Sarah?”

“Yes?”

“It’s Wendy. You can call me that if you’d like. I’ve probably mentioned that before.”

There was a pause.

“Oh. Okay, Wendy.”

Weird, hearing her say my name. Weird in a good way.

“Go get some rest, Voss,” Sarah said. “We still have a long road ahead of us.”

I chuckled, loud enough so I was sure she could hear me. That was a start.

“Sure thing,” I said.

I took my hand off her headrest, and moved back down the RV.

I saw that Isabella was awake.

She was up, sitting at the table where she just had her nap. Looking outside the window, her lips hanging around one end of a chocolate bar.

I felt a tug.

My immediate instinct was to pull away, but that tug got stronger, more prominent, the more I tried to fight it.

Why, exactly, she gave me that feeling, I didn’t know. And I was almost afraid of knowing why. It was the one loop I wouldn’t have minded being kept out of.

But, I had time, and while my space was limited, I could still try to learn and grow. Getting some rest could wait.

Swallowing my pride, I approached the young girl.

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