000 – September 30th

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

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

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

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

037 – Vicious Circle

Previous

I pushed and pushed Solace’s announcement out of my head. Oh, I tried. I didn’t see it. I didn’t hear it. It didn’t happen. I did everything in my power to block it out of my head.

Block it out, block it out.

But, if I could, then why would I be crying, hiccuping?

Okay, Alexis, let’s try to get ourselves together, then. Let’s try to think straight.

How the fuck was I supposed to get myself to do that?

Nothing was making sense, nothing was connecting. Thomas? Solace spoke about him when he hijacked a TV station’s signal again. Said his name. Thomas, right? My Thomas? Both first and last names were used. Thomas Thompson. His name was uttered by Solace, filtered through their digital hiss.

And it spelled disaster.

I wracked my brain some more, clutching the mask even tighter. The mask he gave me.

Now, things were starting to connect, but I still couldn’t make sense of it. I didn’t know why. I didn’t know how.

Dead.

Thomas was dead. Dead. He wasn’t here anymore. He wasn’t available. He couldn’t help. He wasn’t an option.

I kept telling myself that, yet I couldn’t bring myself to believe it. I was too shocked. Too rocked to my core. I felt like I was coming apart, the whole world crashing around me at the most minute level. As if the fundamentals of what made this world tick were changing, shifting, and I was forced to get my bearings and recontextualize everything, again. This was as bad than that night, when I got hit by that truck, and watched my body pull itself together… after I drank blood. It broke any logical convention I was aware of, yet it happened, and I had to wrap my brain around it, and accept this.

But I can’t accept this.

I can’t.

How could he do this? How could this happen? Before we could do anything decisive. Before we could strike back. Before we could meet and properly plan.

I coughed, and it was a punch to the chest. Hurt, pain. But that was a good thing, it brought me back to the here and now. It helped center me.

In the gloom, down, curled in a ball. I put effort into regulating my breathing. Slow, didn’t know how long I took, but I took my time.

Time to center myself.

I almost let myself be mad at him, for abandoning me at such a critical time. For abandoning me here and now.

But I didn’t.

I still had a sense of self-awareness to not place any fault on Thomas. Something had happened. Something bad. Something out of either of Thomas’s or my control.

And it was up to me to figure it out.

I put everything back the way I found it. Mask, bag, boxes, and clothes on top of that.

I had very little strength left in my legs. I crawled out of the dark closet, back into my dark room. I didn’t need the light.

Getting onto my bed was embarrassingly difficult, mostly because I was making it hard on myself. I labored, I crawled, I pulled on the sheets until I sat at the foot of the bed, hair falling around my face.

I was so lost.

Lost at what to do, lost at where to start. An eerie quiet, I could hear my ears ringing. A clock ticking, my mom talking behind the wall to the living room. I let more time slip by without thinking much of anything.

The passing time brought attention to how thirsty I was, now. That breakfast really did a number on me.

A knock. At my door. Limp, a soft push that pressed the door against the frame. My mom.

“Can I open the door?” she asked.

I pushed my hair away from my face, hastily cleaning myself up.

“Sure.”

She opened, and from just one look, I could tell that she was taking this as bad as me. We looked about the same.

Terrible.

She flipped a switch by the doorframe. I winced.

“How are you feeling?” she asked. She stayed by the door.

With everything that was running through my head, all I had for her was a measly shrug.

She lifted a hand, and I saw she was holding a phone.

“I have Kristin right here, I wanted us to go over to their house, but she wanted us to stay here.”

Kristin. Katy. Right. How could I be so selfish? Thomas was a husband and a father. Someone else’s dad. He had a role in other people’s lives. Not just mine. And they were more important roles, too. How could I let myself forget?

“How’s Katy?” I asked, though, I probably already knew. Worse than me.

“I can’t say, Kristin says she has locked herself up in her room.”

Her too?

“Can I talk to her?” I wanted to know how she was doing, above all else.

My mom had no expression I could put to a word or two. Just… a sense of struggling. She entered my room, and handed me the phone. She brushed my cheek with the back of her hand, and I felt a bit of moisture wipe against her skin and the bottom of my eye. I thought I had gotten that.

Without another word, my mom left, closing the door behind her.

I put the phone up to my ear.

“Hello?”

“Shiori?” It was Kristin.

“It’s Alexis.”

“Oh, hi.”

The phone wasn’t the best, so it was hard to tell if her voice was actually hoarse, or if it was the fuzzy sound quality.

“I’m so sorry about…” I stopped. Sorry about what? That I was part of the reason why Thomas was gone? How could I say that now?

I left that sentence hanging.

“Did you want to talk to Katy?” Kristin ignored my condolences, or maybe she refused to acknowledge it, wasn’t ready to accept it. I know I wasn’t.

“Yes please.”

Moments ticked away, there was distorted sounds on the other end, but nothing I could make out. I sat in the dark, waiting.

“Alexis?”

Muffled, indistinct.

“Katy?”

“Sorry, Alexis, but she’s locked her door, and she can really be stubborn when she wants to be…”

I had guessed so, but it pained me all the same. She was taking it worse than me.

“That’s fine,” I said. “She needs space, I understand that. There’s no offense taken, there.”

“I do think she needs someone to talk to, though,” Kristin said. “You know how she can be, and…”

There was a pause, and it wasn’t brief.

“Maybe text her? Or try calling her on her cell?”

Not bad ideas, but I was beginning to second-guess talking to Katy. I didn’t trust myself enough to talk or think straight.

“I can text her,” I said, “And I can look after her during school, tomorrow. You can count on me.”

I tacked that last part at the end, but I had doubts about that. Was I someone who could be counted on?

“Thank you, Alexis,” Kristin said. “I’ll talk to you and your mom soon.”

Kristin hung up right after. I set the phone beside me. The ticking clock came back to my attention.

I couldn’t talk to Katy, and she wouldn’t talk to anyone. Yet, even with only her mother to exchange some words with, I wasn’t as down as I was right when I heard the news… on the news. Still down, but not totally and completely out. This was, in no small way, a step back, but if I could even get an inkling of where to go from here, I’d turn that next step to a leap, then a bound.

Text…

My cellphone was on my desk. I could start with writing out a draft to send to Katy, at least.

I moved to go get it, dragging my feet.

The phone felt heavier in my hand as I started typing.

I stared at the letter ‘H.’

‘Hey,’ ‘hi,’ ‘hello,’ ‘how are you holding up?’

Shit, I didn’t know where to start. I had known Katy longer than I didn’t, but this was uncharted territory. Anything I say could hurt more than it helped. I didn’t want that on my plate, didn’t need a bigger rift to form between me and Katy. Maybe she did need some space? I wasn’t about to take that away from her.

I put the phone down. The news just broke out, the wound was at its most raw. If anything, it could wait until later tonight.

Fuck…

I was standing over my desk. Going back to bed now would mean that I wouldn’t get up until tomorrow afternoon. Principal Kirk’s offer was looking a lot more enticing, now.

I just didn’t want to be alone, in my head, drowned in my thoughts. There had to be something I could do. Anything, a simple step forward, and I’d try and turn that into progress.

As if on instinct, I reached down to a drawer to the side of my desk. It was old, rickety, and it jammed easily. Some people would give up after a single tug, most would be afraid they’d break it after another, harder tug. It was hard to open, sure, but it wasn’t impossible, you just needed to know how to work it, and it required some strength.

I wiggled the handle, feeling for the inner-workings, then pulling when I was sure I got it.

The drawer slid open.

There wasn’t much in here, two notebooks stacked on top of each other, my knife tucked beside that. Extra batteries were piled here, too. But that wasn’t what I was going for. I removed the two notebooks.

The pager was waiting for me. The one Thomas had provided when we first started this thing.

My eyes widened.

I had just wanted to look at the pager, as another memento of Thomas and Hleuco, but something caught my eye.

A light, beeping and beeping.

A light that would only be on if I had received a message.

I snatched it out immediately, the notebooks and knife and other miscellaneous items falling in its place.

I was having trouble trying to make out the words, my hands were shaking, and my eyes were getting watery, again.

But, I read it.

‘Go to Gomez.’

I had to rub my eyes in order to believe whatever the fuck I was reading was indeed real.

A message… from Thomas?

This can’t be right.

But what other conclusion was there?

Thomas was the only one who had access to this thing, he was the only one who knew the number this pager was connected to. He sent out a message? When?

I checked the pager again, this time reading the time that was stamped by the message. My skin began to prickle from sweat.

It was around the same time as Solace’s new announcement.

This can’t be fucking right.

Now things were making even less sense. What the fuck was this supposed to mean? Thomas was alive? Alive?

There might be a chance he was. Thinking it over, none of Solace’s victims were ever confirmed dead. No bodies were found, and all we had to go on was Solace’s word. Could this have all been one big bluff?

I inspected the pager again, spinning it around in my hand.

There was no keyboard, I couldn’t send a message back. Could I just use my phone?

Cool it, Alexis.

I forced myself to take a step back. Physically, and my thinking process.

There was a message, here. Instructions. But was it from Thomas?

This could have meant any number of things. The last thing I wanted to be right now was cynical, but what I was looking at could be too good to be true.

It could be a trap.

Would that be feasible? Unfortunately, it might be. The only thing I knew for a fact was that Thomas was missing. If he was okay, I wouldn’t be the first person he’d contact. He’d let his family know, first and foremost, and we probably wouldn’t be in this situation. Meaning, something else was at play, here. He needed me.

Or someone who had access to his phone and knew this number wanted me. Wanted Blank Face.

Solace?

The message itself was vague, too. Too vague. Go to Gomez? To do what? Coordinate with him, in place of Hleuco? Would he be willing to cooperate, even, considering how fucking terrible the past seventy-two hours have been? I wouldn’t bet on it.

And why not just message me with a location? Wouldn’t that have been more straightforward?

Too many questions…

But I didn’t have any other leads.

This was the closest thing I had to making any headway. If this really was Thomas sending out an S.O.S., then I was on the right track. If not… then I had to keep on my toes, not catch myself slip. Exercise extreme caution.

I dropped the pager beside my phone, and I dropped myself onto my bed.

It’s up to me, now. Solace is forcing my hand.

Might not be the worst idea to pay Gomez a visit, he was a good friend of Thomas, after all. Having him on my side of the court would net me a huge plus. And, I had some choice words to give him about his subordinates.

The countdown had started over. Twenty-four more hours. Solace would be announcing three more names by then. Three more victims.

Now was the time for action, I thought, I just have to not make Solace read my name by the end of this.

It bugged me, just how at ease I felt with my mask on again.

Was I already that used to it?

I adjusted the straps behind my head, making it fit snugly.

The hood then went over my head, to finish the look.

I was even wearing the pants that Thomas provided me, when he gave me the updated costume. I was complete.

If I had to list one thing I was missing, it was probably my own way to and from downtown. Couldn’t keep taking buses forever.

Already, I was missing what I would have liked to dub the ‘Hleuco mobile.’

It was late, but I had little doubt that James Gomez was still in. From what I had heard from Thomas, Gomez was among the few friends he had in the Stephenville Police Department. If he was anything like us, Gomez would take as many late nights as needed to beat Solace. He would want to beat the bad guy just as much as we did.

Also, I could see him from the window.

The building wasn’t hard to get close to. Situated in a cluster, between other buildings, I managed to maneuver up and across roofs and gaps to get a good position to watch. Gomez was sitting in his office, at his desk, either writing or taking phone calls. His back was to the window, he didn’t see me climb up the fire escape to approach him, and I knew to be quiet. I was unnoticed.

Time to get at it.

I opened a side zipper of my backpack, and drew a marker, popped the cap off the top. I wrote in large letters, all caps, right to left, backwards. I had to do it slowly, so the marker wouldn’t squeak on the glass. I put back the marker, then reread the message, mirrored from my perspective.

ROOF COME ALONE.’

I tapped the window, then scaled the rest of the fire escape. Metal rattled with every step, but it wasn’t enough noise to draw attention from anyone else. I reached the roof in a few breaths.

I moved to get atop the roof access door, perched above the cement enclosure. I waited. Tense.

I wasn’t used to doing these types of things on my own.

Unsurprisingly, the door didn’t open until my legs were aching. Gomez took his time.

The stress of the job, and just aging in general, had gotten to this man. Balding, his hair more grey than black. He had a brown overcoat over his suit, but his physique still showed. Not fat, but he looked like the type of person to call himself ‘big boned.’ Even from the back of his head, I could see the ends of his mustache curl down.

He walked forward, looking around, probably puzzled. No one came with him, it seemed, the door was able to close without being interrupted by another person.

I dropped as soon as the door was shut, announcing my presence. Gomez turned.

“Chief James Gomez,” I said as I faced him, blocking his way back. “I believe a formal introduction has been long overdue.”

I looked for a reaction, any reaction, so I could judge how this meeting would go. He didn’t provide one. Nothing discernible.

“One word,” Gomez said.

I didn’t move, respond, or provide a reaction, myself. I simply kept waiting.

“One word, one press of a button, and I finally have you, and I can finally wipe my hands of this mess,” he said.

I noted his use of the singular. He had a personal stake in this, too.

I kept still.

“But,” Gomez said, “If you’re here, it must be really good, so I’m willing to hear what you have to say.”

“You don’t suspect I’m here for anything… not really good?” I asked. Probably a dumb question, but I wanted to be clear on where we were standing, in terms of this conversation.

“As I said, one word, one press of a button, and you’re done. And if you were here for something more nefarious, you would have done so, already. But I don’t think that’s your style.”

“My style?”

Gomez nodded. “Somewhere in that messed-up head of yours, you actually think you’re the good guy, right? The hero?”

My feelings were mixed. On some level, he understood, he got what we were trying to do, but he was also belittling me. Even with all my strength, my power, he was still taking me for some kind of fool.

“You can put it like that,” I said. “I’m here about Solace, and Thomas.”

That garnered the biggest reaction out of Gomez so far. He squared his shoulders, and inched forward, to me.

“Thomas, huh? That’s the name that brings you to me, after all this time? I was right, this is good.”

I couldn’t get a good reading of this guy. He probably wasn’t corrupt, or on the take, but he seemed to be getting some kind entertainment out of this. Like this was one big game.

Could I trust him? Could I let him in on what was going on between me and Thomas? Or was this a trap all along? A way to get at the both of us?

When in doubt, Blank Face, exercise extreme caution.

“Solace already went too far with Edgar Brown, but I can’t do this by myself. I’ll need your help, your assistance, your resources.”

“And you wanted to come to me? I’m flattered.”

Dammit, old man. Work with me, here.

“People out there have a high regard for you,” I said, “Can’t see why, myself.”

Somehow, he chuckled. “People, huh? Alright, I’ll drop the pretense. It’s been a long night, and it’s about to be even longer, now. What is it you want from me, Bluemoon?”

“It’s Blank Face, actually,” I said, “But never mind that. I… received, Solace’s message earlier tonight, but I have reason to believe that the victims haven’t been killed. There’s a possibility that they might still be alive, and we can save them.”

Gomez wasn’t particularly moved by that chance.

I had to move the conversation along. Get the basics, first.

“Before that, do we even know anything about Solace? Who he, or she, or they are? How they’re even managing anything they’ve been doing?”

Gomez brushed his mustache once. “Nothing concrete.”

You’re kidding.

“Then, something abstract? What do you know about Benny? Of El Carruaje infamy.”

Gomez brushed his mustache again. “Ah, the no-name you took down in your first viral video? How is she relevant?”

“She may have something to do with all of this, with Solace. But, it’s funny, last time I saw her, I left her with your men.”

Gomez was back to being unreadable.

“It’s an interesting theory, I’ll give you that, but no, I never got a record of her arrest. I always assumed she died on the way to the hospital. If I remember correctly, you did assault her with a deadly weapon.”

I held back. Both myself and my tongue.

“How did Edgar Brown go missing?” I asked instead. I needed something I could use. Anything.

For his part, Gomez managed to answer that. “A group, no more than five people, broke into his home, and they took him. They seemed to know the layout of the house, the placement of my men. They slipped away, like it was nothing.”

His jaw clenched at that last word.

That can count as concrete, you know.

I pressed on. “And Linda Day?”

“The details on that are still coming in, or rather, they haven’t come to me. But yes, it’s a similar situation. She was taken from her home.”

“None of them were killed in their own homes? Their bodies haven’t been found?”

“No to both,” Gomez said.

Then there’s a chance they’re alive.

“What about Thomas?” I asked, “I think we know that he wasn’t taken from his home.”

He raised an eyebrow. “And how do you know that?”

“People,” I said. “It’s easier if we just leave it at that.”

Gomez went silent for a time, before saying, “So you know what I know, congratulations. What else do you want, Blank Face?”

I had thought long and hard about what I wanted, and how I was going to get it.

I asked for it.

“So, you have to believe me when I say I know that Thomas’s phone was used at the same time as Solace’s announcement earlier tonight. You must know it personally. I want you to trace it, and tell me where it was last used.”

This was the key, this was what Thomas wanted me to put into place. I was to go get Gomez, and take down Solace together, the entire police force in tow.

But, Gomez had no words to say, no expression to make. He was just there.

“You seem to have a lot of faith in me,” he said, “And a lot of it is unfounded. I can’t get access to that.”

I couldn’t feel my eyes straining from widening. “How could you not have access? Are you fucking inept?”

“You clearly don’t know how things work around here.”

I almost laughed. “I think I know exactly how things are, here. You’re on someone’s payroll, or some shit like that. You motherfucker.”

He wasn’t defending himself. He just stood, his hands now in his pockets.

This wasn’t going well in any stretch of the imagination. Panicking. I started to grab at any branch that could provide me leverage, any path that could still mean forward.

That, or I was about to seriously hurt Gomez.

I demanded, “An officer named Jeffery was the last person to be with Thomas before his disappearance. If nothing else, I want Jeffery.”

Gomez lowered his head.

“You want one of my men? To do what?”

“One way or another, he’s involved in Thomas’s disappearance, maybe even the others. I just want to have a talk with him. Because if I can find where they took him, I might be able-”

I heard the door knob turn, behind me. My whole body moved without thinking, jumping and flipping back behind the roof door enclosure.

A sudden burst of adrenaline.

The door swung open.

“Chief, what’re you doing out here?”

Another person. Fuck.

“I’m out here for a smoke,” Gomez answered.

“You don’t have anything on you.”

“I’m about to have a smoke.”

An audible sigh.

“Well, when you’re done with your smoke, Barry wants you.”

“Another meeting? I’m starting to feel like a prisoner in my own building.”

“It is what it is.” I heard a footstep. “That was it for me, so…”

“Um, any word from Jeffery, yet?”

A lump in my throat.

I crouched.

“Jeffery?”

“Jeffery Robinson,” Gomez clarified.

“He hasn’t called in.”

“Isn’t that a problem? He was assigned to Thomas.”

“I know that, I’ll get a guy on it.”

Didn’t sit well with me, how dismissive the other cop sounded.

“Also, could you bring Sumeet up here? There’s something I’d like to discuss with him.”

Sumeet?

“Uh, sure, Chief, I’ll give him the word.”

The other cop left, and the door closed.

“You can come back out, now,” Gomez said.

Cautiously, I did, reemerging from the shadow. I went around the door, standing in front of Gomez, again.

“You think I don’t know what goes on in my own police force?” Gomez asked. “It runs deep, it’s systematic. Keep an eye out for someone, and they won’t try and find a reason to gouge out yours. The only way to survive out here is not have any ties with anyone, or they will find it, and they will cut it. The gangs will stomp out anything that tries to upset their little world, their order of things. I may be the chief of police, here, but that doesn’t put me in a position of power. That was one of things Thomas was wanting to fix, when he finally became DA.”

I thought back to Thomas, whenever I saw him in the past week. His anger, his frustration, his weariness. He had said something of regrets. Was this what he was trying to fighting this whole time? This… system?

“So you really can’t help?” I asked. “Even if you wanted to?”

“I’m saying I can’t help you directly, or I’m dead.”

“Thomas is dead! Isn’t he your friend?”

Shit, I raised my voice.

But how could I not be angry? How could this man let his hands be tied?

I knew I was being irritable, irrational, but the anger came, anyways.

Gomez nodded, as if he understood where I was coming from.

“Thomas is a very good friend, and I’m already helping you, more than you probably deserve.”

“What?”

In short, I was confused.

“I’m helping you with every second I don’t call in about you standing on this roof. Honestly, it’d be easier if I did, and maybe this bullshit can stop for just a day. But, I’ll give you this one chance, because it looks like Thomas has given you one, already.”

I didn’t know what to say. That was what he called a chance?

“Sumeet is coming up here soon, he runs with Jeffery. He might know something, but I’m not planning on being around when you have your talk with him.”

Gomez walked, then passed me to get to the door. His back was to me.

“That’s all I can offer you,” he said. “That’s all I have.”

I had to instruct myself to unclench my fists. “It’s a start,” I said.

His hand on the door, now. “Still want handouts? I give you any more, and someone like Mister might pick up on what I’m doing.”

Mister. Something about that name seemed familiar, but it was very foggy.

“Who’s Mister?”

Gomez’s expression changed.

“You really don’t know anything? There, that’s my last freebie. Ask at your own discretion, but unless you know with an absolute certainty that he has a part in this, that’s not a fight you want, even with your fancy hopping around.”

“Who is he?”

He left, ignoring me, his exit unceremonious. I was left alone on the roof.

I gathered my thoughts as I returned to wait above the door.

That did not go how I wanted it to.

Nothing on Benny, nothing about Thomas and the other victims, and the last cop Thomas was with was missing. All I had to go on was Gomez’s lack of cooperation – which was somehow a form of cooperation – Sumeet, and the name ‘Mister.’ How did any of this fit?

So many questions, and I had nothing but frustration.

It didn’t help that this might all be a trap. A setup.

My blood boiled.

I waited, and kept low. I touched a pocket by my thigh, where I kept my knife.

The door cracked open, a man in a cop uniform came running out.

“Chief, sorry I’m late! What was it you wanted?”

Sumeet.

I dropped, hitting the roof running.

It was like a tackle, my shoulder ramming into his stomach when he turned, but I kept going. Until I got to the end of the roof. I leapt, carrying him all the way. The night kept us relatively obscured as I traversed the roofs.

He wasn’t screaming, probably from how hard I hit him with the initial hit. Keeping a hold on him as I ran and jumped wasn’t difficult, I hugged his torso with enough strength to crack some bones, but not break him in half.

I crossed streets, alleys, until I was comfortable with the distance I managed. I let go of him as I landed on another roof, his body crumpling.

I didn’t give him a break. Not a break of that kind. I grabbed him by the collar, dragging him until I had him over the edge, his feet dangling.

Anger moving me, frustration flowing. I needed something to direct it to.

He was light, and I was strong. Holding him was like holding a doll.

“Sumeet,” I said, seething, pushing the words through my teeth. “You’re going to tell me everything.”

Previous

036 – On One’s Own

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Physically, mentally, emotionally spent. I was at the end of my rope. And the rope was on fire.

I was burned-out.

I didn’t get the gift of sleep. I was on the floor, unmoving, eyes to the ceiling, my mind running, until daylight started slipping through the windows. Everyone woke up before the alarm, and I woke up with them. Or got up, rather. Though, I couldn’t imagine anyone else getting a wink, not after what happened last night.

Judge Edgar Brown. I had never heard of the name before, but he was at that party, he was targeted, and now he was dead. Didn’t know anything about him, what he was like, his hobbies, what his kids were like, what he liked to do with his family. But he was a person, the center of his own world and universe, and we failed in stopping the destruction of that world. Gone. No more. Dead.

The guilt slowed my steps down the stairs, until I was falling behind.

I failed to think about anything else, but I kept trying. I lumbered into the kitchen, joining everyone for breakfast.

My mom was already up, helping Kristin prepare the food. Kristin herself was on the phone, talking while cooking bacon. The smell wasn’t appetizing.

“I won’t apologize this time, Sumeet, what’s keeping him? Don’t give me that! He can’t spare a second just to say a word? Where’s Jeffery?”

Dang, Kristin was going in on that Sumeet guy.

I grabbed a seat at the table, Katy and Maria on the other end. The dog was outside.

“What’s that all about?” I asked as I rubbed in one eye. Crust stuck to my hand when I moved it away. Ew.

Katy explained, “Dad hasn’t back home yet from last night, so she’s been freaking out. I don’t think she went up to her room.”

“She’s been down here all night?”

“Seems that way.” Katy fixed her disheveled hair, tying it up. It flew apart at the ends.

“I’m worried too, but this isn’t the first time my dad’s pulled all-nighters, they’ve even ramped up in the last month or so. He can get pretty absorbed with his work when he wants to. There were times when I didn’t see him for a couple of days.”

She put her fork in her mouth, but there was no food, there. She was biting on the metal.

Maria picked up her own spoon, then put it down. “It might be the norm for you guys, but considering what’s been going down, you can’t blame your mom.”

Katy set her fork to the side. “I’m not, and I won’t.”

Now I was beginning to worry.

Thomas wasn’t the type to go a length of time without informing someone of his activities. During our outings, he demanded updates from me, and I could expect the same from him. It was a mutual respect that I appreciated, coming from the one person who saw Blank Face as something other than a monstrosity. It meant a lot to me, and it wasn’t a notion I expressed to him as often as I would have liked to.

So, if Thomas isn’t even contacting his wife…

I put myself in check. Couldn’t be thinking that way, or I’d come apart, completely.

“Maybe he’s just asleep at his desk, or stuck in some absurdly long meeting,” I said, “We’ll probably see him tonight.”

It felt like I said that mostly for my own sake.

“We better,” Katy said, with no energy.

I watched my friends as they picked at their utensils, spinning them around. We never had a sleepover with the three of us before, but I always thought it would have been fun. We’d sit and chat over boys, watch a movie, maybe get into the stereotypical pillow fight, for kicks. Maybe even try and squeeze a game of chess out of Katy and her strange chessboard.

We did some of those things, but…

I never expected it to be like this, under these circumstances.

“Don’t talk with that tone,” my mom said, coming to the table. She set down different dishes for us to eat. “Not that you are rude, but it’s discouraging.”

“Sorry then,” Katy said.

“Don’t apologize, just eat.” My mom then went to putting food on all of our plates. Eggs, bacon, and an extra helping of rice for me. I was so out of it that I didn’t even protest.

Though I should have.

Kristin stepped out of the kitchen, continuing to rant on the phone. I had no one to bail me out from my breakfast. Not even Solace.

The food looked delicious, though, I couldn’t say much for the taste.

The bacon glistened in oil and juice, the eggs a bright golden color. The rice was steaming, fluffy. To think, my mouth would have watered at the sight of it, maybe over two months ago.

And the smell coming from the food did the opposite of reinvigorating me. It drained, leaving me even less willing to face the rest of the day.

And it served as a reminder that I was becoming thirsty, again.

I tried not to show it on my face. I tried not to act. It was like walking on eggshells, letting any tells slip now would be a certain and complete disaster. Had to stay calm, had to maintain my composure.

I pushed my plate away.

“Maria, do you want like, half of my food?” I asked. “I’m not too hungry.”

Maria’s look was telling. She would have rather had me eat. But, she still agreed to take a load off of my shoulders, reaching across the table for my food. “This is only because I want to eat food your mom made.”

Maria took some food, then took some more.

“Maria, that’s more than half,” Katy said.

Maria glowered at Katy. “Look, Ms. Barnett looks like she’s a good cook, okay? Can I live?”

“But my mom helped cook, too…”

She took until there was about enough for three big spoonfuls. She wasn’t about to make things easy.

How delightful.

My mom went over the sink, moving on to washing pots and pans. “You eat, Alexis, you need energy. But hurry, we will be late if we don’t leave soon. I will be taking you all today.”

Ah, that’s right, I thought, We still have school.

The food was like a void, and it was staring right back at me. Three bites. If I ate this, it’d help in quelling some of the worries my mom and my friends had. It wouldn’t be by much, but it was something.

And that was all I needed for now.

Especially after ‘promising’ to tell my friends everything, after Solace was defeated.

I gathered some food with my spoon. A little bit of everything. Rice, bacon, egg. I knew a day like this would come.

I swallowed, before food even entered my mouth.

It was considered rude, but I placed my left elbow on table, resting my head in my hand. I situated myself away from everyone, facing downward. Discreet.

With my right hand, I took the first bite.

For Edgar Brown… rest in peace.

The rice and egg had the consistency of mud, the bacon was like cardboard.

Harder to chew, harder still to swallow.

But I did, and it burned.

I almost gagged.

I gathered the second bite, the spoon much heavier, now.

I put it in my mouth, like I was force-feeding myself. Well, I was.

For Thomas, Hleuco. Together, we can take Solace down.

Leftover rice was starting to cling to the insides of my mouth, as if I had eaten dirt, and bits of soil were stuck. The egg tasted rotten, somehow reminding me of a skunk. Dead, on the side of the road, decaying and smelly. The smell, condensed to a taste.

I almost threw up, right then and there.

I took a minute to stop myself from trembling. From shaking.

The third and final spoonful. The most daunting one of all.

And for myself. I wish it would all end, already.

I went right into it, sliding it between my lips.

If my arm wasn’t propping my head up, I would have slammed my chin onto the edge of the table, passing out.

I couldn’t describe this one. It made my mind go blank, hurting me on every front. Physically, emotionally, mentally.

It was just fucking awful.

Every bit of me was screaming to run. My mind going cloudy. Chewed, then swallowed, doing all that I could to keep it down.

The next part was critical to everything. I had to get up, and leave.

But, could I?

I powered through it, had no choice but to. Dropped the spoon, stood, then shuffled along the perimeter of the kitchen. My hand ran along the counter and wall for balance.

I tried to enunciate as clearly as possible.

“Imma try shower…”

Tried.’

Only my mom responded, Katy and Maria were eating their own food, Maria even going for seconds. “Collect your clothes and sleeping bag, I can get them later when I come back.”

I nodded once, sluggishly, then I left. I didn’t move any faster up the steps, or into the bathroom.

I stripped, entered the shower, and let the water run.

In the gloom, all alone, I had the freedom to let everything out.

Katy, Maria, and I all met back at the kitchen, cleaned up and ready to go. I had my backpack, Katy had a purse, and Maria had nothing at all.

Kristin and my mom were sitting at the table.

“I cannot believe this,” Kristin said. She had hung up the phone. “All I want is to talk to him.”

My mom consoled her. “He’ll be back, Kristin. He’s passionate about his work, and we have to do our part too.”

Kristin nodded, sleepily.

“And you also need rest. We don’t want Thomas coming back and you’re not awake to greet him, do we?”

Kristin nodded sleepily, again. She snacked on a piece of bacon while she talked. “No, we don’t. Speaking of which, will you and Alexis be spending the night with us again?”

My mom glanced at me, and I tilted my head towards the front door.

“I appreciate the offer for us to intrude for another night, but I think it is best for us to start staying at our apartment. We can’t be here forever, and I do not want to be a burden.”

“You two are anything but a burden,” Kristin said. “You’re welcome anytime, and you can stay for as long as you need. If you want, you and Alexis can move in and live with us. Maria is also welcome.”

My mom gave her a look. “That’s not reasonable. I still have work, and we can’t leave the apartment unattended for too long.”

“Same here,” Maria said. “Don’t wanna overstay my welcome.”

Kristin responded with a weak smile. “That was my poor attempt at a joke. You go do what you have to, Shiori, Maria. I can arrange for an officer to come by and check on you guys every now and then, if you’d like.”

My mom offered a similar expression. “I will be sure to let you know.” She turned to the three of us. “Let’s get going.”

Kristin dropped the other strip of bacon she was about to eat. “Shiori, let me take them. You’ve already taken credit for cooking breakfast.”

That made my mom give her a sterner look. “No, you stay here, eat, and then you sleep. If I come back and you’re still up, I will put you down myself.”

Maria whispered to us, “Damn, your mom is giving orders to your mom.”

“Mom, let Shiori take us,” Katy said, out loud. “We’ll really be late if we don’t leave now, and Mom? I have a feeling Shiori might make good on her word.”

Kristin sat back, and started chewing on bacon again. “Not might, will. Go, I’ll take a nap.”

My mom accepted that, then left the kitchen, then the house. The rest of us had to hurry to catch up, or she’d somehow leave us behind. We all managed to hop into my mom’s blue van in time.

The drive to school was rather uneventful. I would have liked for some meaningless chatting to come and pass the time, but no one offered up anything to start with. Solace must have been weighing on everybody’s mind.

My mom drove us up to the front of the school, and we filed out as soon as she stopped.

“Thanks for the ride, Ms. Barnett,” Maria said. “You’re the best.”

My mom made a small gesture. “I will be back here when school ends. Alexis, I get your stuff together, and we go back home after I drop off Maria and Katy.”

I needed a second to realize she was talking to me. Still out of sorts.

“That’s cool,” I said, mildly. In truth, I was itching to be back home. I wanted to have easy access to my Blank Face things again.

“Bye,” my mom then said, and she went off.

The three of us moved as a group, entering the school. Loud as ever, with kids bustling and hurrying to their classes. Some gave us looks. I knew that had some effect on Katy and Maria.

But, there was no time to relax, we had to start our day.

Before we could go our separate ways, we were approached by a woman.

“Katy Thompson, Maria Gonzalez, and Alexis Barnett?” She listed us off, wording it like a question.

Cautiously, we nodded.

“Good morning, you three,” she then said, as kindly as one could.

“Good morning,” Katy said back. She had delegated herself to speak for us. I was cool with it.

“Principal Kirk would like to see you.”

The woman’s name escaped me, but I was not unfamiliar with her. She was one of ladies who ran the front office. A secretary.

“Right now?”

“It won’t take too much of your time, you’ll be done before your first class ends.”

Maria interjected, “Are we in trouble already? We just got to school.”

The woman didn’t take it as very funny, answering her directly. “I assure you, you’re not in trouble. All three of you, please come follow me.”

The three of us exchanged some looks, but there wasn’t really much of a choice in the matter.

We followed her towards the front office.

The number of students out in the hall were thinning, giving us room to walk without bumping arms.

I caught sight of Harrian from across the hall.

He didn’t notice me, and I only noticed him because of how hard he was trying to not be noticed. Decked in all black, head down, hands in his pockets, and if he was any faster, he’d get called out by a teacher. He seemed to be in a hurry.

Harrian turned my way, but he still didn’t see me. I got a better look at his face. Haggard. He was skinny, but I could tell that he hadn’t been eating, even from a distance. Shadows were cast on his eyes and cheeks, and his mouth hung open, like he didn’t have enough energy to lift his jaw. He looked weak.

He didn’t come any closer. His eyes went wide, then he spun on his heels, returning the way he came.

Okay… that happened.

If I wasn’t so out of it myself, and if I wasn’t headed to the principal’s office, I would have let myself be more curious as to what that was about. But, from my handful of interactions with him, he was always a bit odd, and I did have my own business to take care of, as both Alexis and Blank Face. Harrian would have to be a lower priority.

Still following the woman, we went around a corner, going towards a side entrance of the front office. The hallway was nearly empty, now.

“Coming up behind you!”

“Let me get that for you, ladies.”

Eric and Evan. Right before the woman hold put her hand on the knob, the duo passed us and opened the door.

“What are you two doing here?” Katy asked as we continued inside. Faculty and some students were here, busy with differents tasks and errands. A lively atmosphere. We passed the front counter, heading into the faculty area.

“Student aide,” Eric answered, “Printing papers, stacking papers, filing those papers, and sometimes, go around school to give people pink slips. They don’t seem to like those.”

“Sounds fun.”

“It’s a blast,” Evan said.

“You two are involuntary student aides,” the woman added, “Don’t act like you want to do this.”

“Aw, come on, Mrs. K.” Eric slouched his shoulders and hunched forward, but he still towered over all of us. “We’re liking it now, promise!”

Evan nodded along, agreeing with Eric.

“What are you in for?” I asked.

“It’s either that or detention,” Eric said. He didn’t offer any more, but he didn’t sound too bummed over it, either.

“This way,” the woman said, going another way in the office, down a smaller hallway where the principal and assistant principal’s offices were.

“It’s nothing, but I can explain some other time,” Eric said.

“I don’t really care,” Katy said, straightforward. Normally, she’d play along with their fooling around, but she wasn’t having it, this time. “Like how we have our own thing.”

“Fair.” Eric started going in the opposite direction, another hall. “We’re this way, got more papers to print.”

“Then stack, then file,” Evan said.

“Yup, and it is fun, Mrs. K!” Eric’s voiced boomed across the halls, but ‘Mrs. K’ didn’t respond. She was standing, hands resting behind her back, facing us. In front of Principal Kirk’s office.

We split up without a proper ‘see you later,’ the boys going to do menial work, and us girls going to do… another thing. I still didn’t know what this was about.

Mrs. K waited until all three of us entered the office before closing the door. She didn’t come in with us.

It wasn’t my first time coming in here. At least I wasn’t alone, this time.

Principal Kirk’s office was like any other principal’s office. Neat and tidy, muted colors, with a few personal touches to make it his own. Namely, a picture frame of his family, and a Van Halen record on his wall. Signed.

The principal himself was typing at his computer. Average looking, he looked nice in a suit, but he wasn’t Thomas. For someone his age, he sure didn’t show the signs of his number. His hair was still chestnut brown, neatly combed back. He had circular framed glasses, but they didn’t look old-fashioned on him. Stylish, in fact.

He stopped what he was doing when he heard Katy pull at the first chair.

“Ah yes, here y’all are, feel free to take a seat,” he motioned to the chairs in front of his desk.

He was prepared for us to come. Three chairs were set, normally there would be only two. Two of the chairs were supposed to be here, they kept in line with the general aesthetics of the room. Wooden, with cushions on the seat. The third chair was clearly pulled from another room. A metal folding chair. It didn’t match with anything in here.

Katy and Maria took the cushioned seats. I settled for the metal folding chair, dropping my backpack beside me.

“How are you all today?” he asked, sounding chipper. It bothered me, or maybe that was a testament to how fucked up I was, mentally and emotionally. It was coloring how I perceived others.

“We’re trying,” Katy said, answering for us again. It wasn’t even much of an answer. We were just… trying.

Trying to do what?

“It’s better than not giving up,” he replied, his tone still the same. I couldn’t argue with him, there.

Principal Kirk came across as the kind of guy who would have been popular when he was in high school, he had that air, that charisma, about him. Maybe he was even a captain of the football team. Though, looking at it another way, it was like he never left high school.

He closed the monitor of his computer, then he gave us his full attention, resting his elbows on the desk, putting his hands together.

“I’ll try to make this snappy, and let you go about your day. Now, from your parents, I’ve heard about the… ordeal, that y’all are going through, and it truly tears me apart that you girls have to go through something of this magnitude.”

I didn’t need to see my friends’ faces to confirm for myself, I could already guess what they were thinking.

Nothing but empty words.

“But,” Principal Kirk said, as if to counter my line of thinking, “Luckily for me, I don’t have just my condolences to give.”

I blinked, the extent of how much energy I was willing to spend. I fought back a yawn.

“I haven’t run this through your parents yet, but I’ve spoken with your teachers, and they’ve all agreed to let you continue your courses from home.”

Katy fixed her seat, briefly lifting herself up so she could scoot her chair forward. She was curious.

“You’ll have to elaborate,” she said.

“The school has a duty and responsibility to provide a safe environment for our students to feel comfortable in. However, given that this is a… special circumstance, we, the school, are willing to overlook your attendance on campus for as long as you need.”

“You’re saying we don’t have to come to school?” Maria asked.

If you feel safer spending the day in the comfort of your own home, the school will not penalize you for doing so. Of course, you will still have schoolwork. The school will email you the lessons, notes, assignments, and reviews for all of your classes, put together by your different teachers. It’ll be in one big file. You complete it from home, send it back, and your teachers will grade it.”

“What about tests or quizzes? Don’t we have to come to school to take those?”

“We will accommodate you on that as well. It’s up to your teachers, but they might change the format, making it multiple choice, or depending on how well you do on your assignments, they might forgo tests, entirely.”

Maria fell back into her chair. Obviously, she was into this.

“Of course, this is all up to you,” the principal said, “Well, it does require your parents’ consent, but this is your decision. Whatever you feel is best for you, we’ll go with that. Want to go home? No problem. Want to come to school? More power to you. This is all about what makes you comfortable.”

The effort Principal Kirk was putting in to get that idea through our heads was admirable. He wanted us to be taken care of, he wanted us to feel safe. Did it suck that the Solace situation had gotten so out of hand that it was affecting the school administration? Sure, but they were trying, and doing their part, too. It might have been a small gesture, but it was going a long way. A small light in an ever-consuming darkness.

“Do we have to make that decision now?” Katy asked.

Principal Kirk shook his head. “Not now, not this instance, though you can, if you’ve come to a decision already. Just let me know anytime, and I’ll make the necessary preparations. All I ask for now is to talk to your parents about this, and give this some serious thought.”

It was an alluring option, I wouldn’t lie. Time away from school could be a big help, it meant time away elsewhere. Mom would be out of the apartment, and I would be free to-

“I’m in.”

We all turned to Maria.

“You’ve already made your decision, Maria?” Principal Kirk said. “You don’t need to discuss this with your father?”

“He won’t mind. It might actually be better. Yeah, I’m sure.”

The principal nodded. “Understood, stick around after we’re done here, and I’ll get things going for you.” He then faced me and Katy. “I don’t suppose either of you have already decided?”

Katy spoke first. “I really appreciate the offer, I do, but I’ll decline. I can tough it out here, at school.”

So Katy decided to stay? Does this have something to do with Thomas talking about not folding to pressure? Tougher stuff?

Principal Kirk sat back, his hand still together, resting on his lap. “I’ll respect that decision, too. We do have extra officers on campus for some added security. I can promise you, you are as safe here as you are in your own home.”

His eyes then went to me. It was my turn.

I want to discuss this with Thomas, too. See if we can’t meet or plan during normal school hours. Maybe even some Blank Face action in the afternoon.

I put my finger to my chin. My eyes went elsewhere.

“I’ll have to talk with my mom about this. She’d want to be in the know before I make a decision.”

Principal Kirk accepted that, too. “That’s just as fine with me. And remember, this is an option that will always be available to you. Katy, if you happen to change your mind, I’ll be more than willing to move in that direction. And Alexis, just let me know either way, after you’ve spoken with your mom.”

“Will do,” I said, “Thank you, though, you didn’t have to go that far.”

“Oh, we do. It wouldn’t be right if we stood here and did nothing. Like I mentioned, it’s our duty and responsibility.”

Duty and responsibility. The words repeated and looped in my head. Somehow, it was reassuring.

Principal Kirk changed his position, tapping a key on his keyboard. His computer woke up.

“I know it’s not a lot of fun for me to have called you down here and talk about boring tests and quizzes, but it is important. Is there anything else you’d like to say to me? Any questions?”

The three of us exchanged looks again. I got the general impression that we were just about done, here.

“I think we’re good,” Katy said, speaking for all of us. “Thanks again.”

“Then that settles it,” Principal Kirk said, getting back onto his computer. “Hope to hear from you soon, and I hope this situation gets resolved as fast as possible, as safely as possible. Maria, stay right there, and we’ll get started. You’ll need to bring back a permission slip for your father to sign.”

“Guess I can’t leave with you,” Maria said to me and Katy. “See you later?”

“Yeah, see yah,” Katy said.

“We’ll text you when we’re out of school,” I said. We got up, taking our stuff with us.

“Oh, Katy, tell your dad the school has his back,” Principal Kirk said.

“Sure,” Katy said, “I’ll let him know as soon as I see him.”

I kept to myself for that one.

Katy and I left the principal’s office, Principal Kirk and Maria getting right to work. We took the same path back of the office, and we were back in the hallways of the school. We didn’t run into Eric and Evan on the way.

The hall was empty. Not even a kid walking around with a hall pass. Somewhere in between going to the front office and conversing with Eric and Evan, the bell rang, but I never heard it.

“Maria’s really gonna stay at home?” I asked. We moved to the front of the school. My locker was on the other side of the building.

“I don’t fault her for that,” Katy said, “Deep down, I think she’s the most freaked out by the whole thing.”

I agreed with her by saying, “I don’t fault her, either.”

“And you?” Katy asked.

“Me?”

“Are you going to end up taking Principal Kirk’s offer?”

Not even deep down, I was definitely considering it. “It depends on what my mom has to say about it. She’ll probably want me to keep coming to school, but I might be able to convince her if I really wanted to.”

“Do you really want to?”

Again, she asked me. She really wanted a direct answer.

“I do. It’d be nice if I could. It’s just that, if my mom says no, that’ll be the final word.”

Katy nodded, slow. It almost looked like she was shaking her head, too.

“Bye, Alexis.”

And that was the final word between us for that morning. We split to go to our classes, located at different ends of the building.

On my way, I stopped to take a sip at a nearby water fountain. The sips turned to gulps, as I was spending more time there than I should.

I tried getting myself back into the mind of being just a student, to being just Alexis, but other things were too prominent, too heavy.

I wish things could go back to the way they were.

I remembered when all I had to deal with were due dates and test grades. And now, I was handling deadlines of the most literal kind.

Because, in less than twenty-four hours, if nothing happened, we would be going through the same thing all over again.

No, no no no, no no no no no no no.

No.

This was the same thing all over again.

I staggered into the closet. My mom left me alone, letting me retreat into my room.

I clawed through piles of clothes and boxes. Bits of dust had settled in my absence.

Ripping open the bag, I found the mask. I yanked it out, hugging it close.

I collapsed to the floor, I curled up into a ball.

My chest was pounding, my heart was sinking.

My whole body, my very being, felt like it was on fire.

The end of my rope.

Solace came back, on the TV, posturing like he or she always did. They listed off more names, and they rattled in my head, echoing and echoing and echoing and echoing.

I wasn’t able to do anything. Not in time. Even if it was just another pair of eyes, it was enough to keep me locked up in my apartment. Like a bird in a cage.

I couldn’t cry, couldn’t tear up. I shook, I trembled.

Please, no.

A wide range of emotions, that I wasn’t sure what to call it. Anger? Horror? Panic? Dismay? It was everything, all at once, until it wrapped back around and became nothing.

A certain sadness.

The names Solace said…

Edgar Brown… Linda Day…

Thomas Thompson.

Previous                                                                                               Next

Interlude – Thomas

Previous                                                                                               Next

Peru – Sixteen years before present

The waves slid across the sand, white foam bubbling in its wake.

Thomas let the cool waters run across his feet.

Sunlight beat down on his face. Bright, hot. He was going to get a sunburn if he stayed like that for another minute.

I can’t remember the last time I was this happy.

A hand gently landed on his shoulder. Warm, comforting. Inviting. It was a touch he wasn’t quite used to, not yet, but at the same time, he didn’t want to lose that spark. That electricity. It was all so new to him.

Even with plenty of space on the beach, he still sidestepped to let his girlfriend stand beside him. They held hands.

They watched the waves come to them, then away.

They watched, then watched some more.

This was a moment, and they were in it.

“Already trying to go out and get cigarettes?” Kristin asked.

Thomas kept his eyes on the water. He smiled.

“You know I don’t smoke.”

“That doesn’t exactly answer my question.”

“I’m not going anywhere. Not now, not ever.”

“Is that so?”

“One hundred percent.”

Kristin bumped her shoulder against Thomas, only getting right above his elbow. She interlocked their fingers.

“Big words. Only time will tell.”

They were big words, but Thomas was up for it, up for the challenge. If not just to surprise himself, but Kristin especially. Scary? It was terrifying, down to the bone. Commitment was heavier than anything even Atlas could carry.

Thomas closed his eyes, seeing red from how bright it was out here. When he opened them again, he was staring right at Kristin.

At Kristin, and at her.

“Are we crazy for this?” Thomas asked, though he already knew what Kristin would say.

She kept her eyes to the ocean.

“We are crazy, and we get crazier with every passing day. Every passing month. We are long past the point of takebacks.”

A door closed, but Thomas didn’t think of it in that way.

“Good, good. I wouldn’t want to.”

She made a sound. A hum. Barely audible over the waves.

“You keep talking like that, I’ll start to think the opposite.”

Thomas put his hands behind his head, stretching. “What would it take to convince you, then?” He gulped. “A ring?”

Kristin made a face. A playful shock.

So cute.

“Slow your horses there, cowboy.” Kristin then shook her head. “But who am I to talk?” Delicately, she pressed her hand against her stomach. Through her shirt, a noticeable bump.

“Another day then?” Thomas suggested.

“Another day.” Kristin agreed.

He left it at that, satisfied.

Amongst the waves, Thomas watched her listlessly.

He didn’t know how many minutes passed when she finally noticed him.

She blushed.

“Stop.”

“Stop what?”

“Stop being such a loser.”

“If I’m a loser, then what does that make you?”

Kristin puffed out her chest.

“A winner. I’m the one who scored.”

Thomas almost snorted. What kind of logic was that?

“You certainly think highly of yourself,” Thomas said.

“I do. Get used to it, or you’ll be in for rough ride.”

Thomas rubbed his cheek with his free hand. “But, rough rides can be good.”

Kristin bumped him again, this time harder, more force.

He swayed one way, then back.

“Am I going to have to get used to that, too?”

“Keep getting smart with me, you just might.”

Chuckling, Thomas let go of her hand, and put his arm around her. He brought her close, tight, before falling to his side, bringing her with him.

She let out a high, shrill squeak as they dropped, water splashing around them.

Kristin was in the water, Thomas on top of her. Both wet.

“And you’re going to have to get used to that,” Thomas said. He couldn’t come up with a better comeback.

“Don’t do that!” Kristin said, scolding him. Salt water splattered from her lips to his face. “This isn’t some dumb movie where you can just do that!”

Smooth, Thomas. But Thomas was sure that a small part of her appreciated that kind of gesture.

I think.

Maybe it was a very small part of her that appreciated it.

“Now I’m wet,” Kristin said, complaining about the obvious. She propped herself up to get the water out of her hair. She groaned.

“That reminds me, Spacey wanted you back at the headquarters in ten minutes. You’re due an extra shift.”

Thomas grinned, almost vulpine. “He should know by now that if he sends you, we’re both going to be late.”

“Don’t joke about this. I can tell his patience with you is thinning.”

Thomas thoughts went to the boss, though he didn’t want them to. “I suppose I can’t fault him for feeling that way. A six-month volunteering program and I just… fooled around for most of it. Really, you did this to me.”

“Excuse me?”

“Yes, distracting me with your feminine ways.”

“I don’t think so, buddy. You don’t get to be absolved from this.”

“Oh, so I’m just a buddy to you?” Thomas asked. He mouthed various positions, moves, references. “Do you give those out to all your buddies like party favors?”

Kristin pouted. “Don’t be so base. I only do that for pals.”

Thomas frowned. “When you talk like that, it’s hard to tell if you’re serious or not.”

“Then don’t change the subject. And get off of me.”

Before he let her go, Thomas kissed the top of her head, then he moved, letting her free. Though, neither of them moved to leave the beach. They stayed, sitting in the water.

“I thought we were leaving now,” Thomas said.

“Yeah, but it did take a long time to find you, and it’s so damn hot. I think Spacey can wait while we cool ourselves off.”

Thomas didn’t object to that. They still had some weeks left of the program left, he’d pick up the slack then.

And, more time alone with Kristin was never a bad thing.

Never.

I’m so glad I met you.

“What do you want to talk about?” Thomas asked her, already lost in her eyes.

“We don’t have to talk about anything,” Kristin said, twisting her hair, getting water out. “We can just sit here.”

“We can, and while I agree that nothing’s more pure and beautiful than these silent, unspeakable memories, I like to talk.”

“That you do.”

Thomas took her hand, submerging it into the water between them. She leaned on him.

“I thought of a name.”

“You have?”

“Couldn’t help it. It’s a girl, right?”

“Right you are.”

“Since it’s a girl…”

“Wait, let me guess.”

He paused, tilting his head. Waiting.

“It’s Katy, isn’t it?”

He smile widened. “You are good.”

“Get used to it,” she said, melodically.

He could feel himself falling for her even more. Deeper and deeper.

“Can you guess why?” he asked.

“I’m not a mind reader. I may think highly of myself, but you’ll need to have more realistic expectations of me.”

“Ah, that’s no fun.” Thomas squeezed her hand. “I picked ‘Katy because, it’s like the ‘K’ from ‘Kristin,’ and the ‘T’ from my name. Also, ‘K.T.’ would be her initials, as well.”

His explanation hung in the salty air. A breeze cooling them.

Kristin didn’t offer up a response. She just snickered.

That snicker grew into a heartier laugh.

“Oh my god, you are such a loser!”

Dumbfounded, stupefied, and dismayed. Thomas hadn’t expected that response.

“Hey, if you hate it, you can just say so!”

In between her fits of laughter, Kristin tried to get words out. Her body was shaking.

“No, I don’t hate it… I love it.”

He felt like he was being thrown for a loop. “You what?”

“I said I love it.”

“Do you actually?”

Yes,” she said, now stern. “I had my own ideas for names, but I adore that reasoning. I really want to use it.”

Thomas sat back, shocked that he could even be more satisfied. Katy. The name rang in his ears like a bell. Clear and bright. Like the sky above him. Endless possibilities. But there would be two constants in his future, now. He felt unstoppable.

“Katy.” He said it out loud, to make the idea solidify even more in his mind. He was going to be a father.

“My folks are going to love you,” he said.

“Of course they will. I’m me.” She pressed more of her weight onto him, leaning on him more. Relying on him more.

He couldn’t stop smiling like a big dumb stupid idiot.

“I love you,” he said to her, for the hundredth time.

“I know,” she said to him, for the hundredth time.

Stephenville – Ten years from present

Thomas stood tall, firm. Confident. And he exuded that confidence because he knew. He had all the facts, the statements, and the jury would be eating out of his hand once he was fully through with him. This wasn’t going to end well for the other guy. Or the other guy’s other guy.

It wouldn’t be easy, but Thomas would have been disappointed if it was.

The homestretch.

He was going to have some fun.

“Good morning,” Thomas said, apt. He stayed at the podium. Weren’t supposed to move around and make a show of things like in shows or movies. These proceedings were usually slow, laborious. A lot of patience, waiting, and listening. For the audience, anyway. For Thomas, he might as well be skydiving.

“Morning,” the witness said back, with no life at all. She was in a suit of her own, drab colors, sitting at the stand. Her hair was tied, but it was done poorly, strands sticking out. There was a microphone situated in front of her, but she was sitting away from it. She didn’t look like she wanted to be there.

Who did?

Thomas started.

“Ms. Jessica Quinn, how long have you been the CEO of Tate and Mono Construction?

“Seven years, give or take.”

“So, relatively new at the job?”

“Relatively, yes.”

“Thank you, ma’am. Just double-checking for myself, I apologize that I’ll have to continue like this for a few more questions. Feel free to relax while I gather my thoughts.”

Jessica didn’t relax. Thomas continued with his questioning.

“Okay, Ms. Quinn, you spearheaded the construction projects in King District, am I correct?”

“Yes.”

“For how long, and what were the projects, exactly?”

“Different housing projects, apartments, homes, offices. My men loaded stuff, dumped stuff, put the hammer to the nail. The whole shtick. And about six months.”

She answered the questions, just not in the right order.

I see.

“And thank you for giving me the whole shtick. Now, as well all know, the reason why you are called up there today is because your ‘whole shtick’ hasn’t gone through the usual procedure, disturbing many residents and businesses, and some of those resident and business happen to be our clients.”

Thomas tapped his fingers on the podium.

“They filed a complaint to you, and not much has been done in the wake of that. Now, here we are.”

Quinn didn’t react to anything Thomas was saying. And he was loving it.

“Ms. Quinn, what was King District like, before Tate and Mono came to do its business?”

“Decent.”

“Decent? Do you mind expanding on that?”

“I can’t explain it, it was just decent. That’s not too hard to grasp.”

“I’ll need a proper answer if only to get a better picture of the situation.”

“Fine, it was fucking Candy Land.”

Some in the audience behind him found that humorous. Thomas, not so much.

“Permission to treat the witness as hostile?”

Judge Edgar Brown hardly gave it a thought. “Granted.”

Thomas kept questioning, but now he could ask leading questions. “Streets were clean, people were friendly, a little rough, but what neighborhood doesn’t have an issue or two? Would you say that’s an accurate description of King District, Ms. Quinn?”

She yawned. “Yeah.”

He glanced at Phillips, Quinn’s lawyer, who was biting the end of his pen.

Cool it, Thomas. Don’t get too excited.

“And what was King District like during Tate and Mono’s time in the area?”

She didn’t say.

“Streets weren’t as clean, the people were hesitant to go outside, rougher overall. Would that be accurate to your experience there?”

“I guess.”

Thomas nodded. “One particular bad apple started making roots around that time, right? The Path, a branch of a Japanese mafia group. The Yakuza. Their men have been causing quite the ruckus in the district since Tate and Mono started their construction, with reports that the Path’s men have been coming and going through buildings your company were responsible for, is that correct?”

“Objection,” Phillips said, “That’s speculation.”

“All the evidence is here, sir,” Thomas pointed to his stack of papers at the folder, “Numerous arrests close to these buildings, drugs, weapons found nearby. This is all written down and documented stuff, and this is more than just some noise complaints. I thought you knew this, Phillips?”

“Alright Thomas, enough,” Judge Brown said. “Do you have a point?”

“One I’m eager to make.”

With little enthusiasm, the judge said, “Overruled.”

Thomas tapped his fingers again, faster. “Ms. Quinn, among noise complaints, have these other more, serious grievances have been brought to your attention?”

Thomas could see her neck glisten under the fluorescent lights. Sweat?

“Keep in mind that you are under oath, Ms. Quinn,” Thomas said, reminding her.

“They have,” she answered.

“And what has been done about it?”

“We never encountered any issue with any outside party or the like, and our construction sites were clean of any illicit materials or contraband.”

“So, nothing?”

“Nothing.”

“Thank you, Ms. Quinn. To switch gears here, you’re still a small company, relatively speaking. This is a big project you’ve undertaken, who’s employed you for these buildings?”

A noted lapse.

“Ishida Hitoshi,” she answered.

“That’s a big name, a big name for a big company overseas.”

Quinn didn’t comment or respond.

And now, the clincher.

“That’s also I name I recognize as part of a big controversy in Japan, with rumors that he has very strong connections with the Yazuka, and-”

“Objection, this is hearsay!”

Phillips leaped out of his chair, furious. “That has nothing to do with this case.”

“I think it has everything to do with this case,” Thomas argued. “If those connections are true, it lines up with what we’re hearing about the buildings Tate-”

Judge Brown stopped them. “Both of you, here.”

They both approached the table. Thomas was ready for what was to come, what could come.

The judge leaned closer, whispering, “Thomas, what are you trying to pull?”

“I’m simply raising an important detail that should be relevant in this case. If Ishida Hitoshi is in league with the Yakuza, people should be looking into what the hell he’s doing in Stephenville.”

If,” Phillips nearly spat the word. “If that’s true, but any claims about that here are unsubstantiated, you have no evidence, and it’s not relevant, and you didn’t submit any of this. You’re making a mockery of this court and this case.”

“It is relevant, Phillips. The writing’s on the wall, yet no one is willing to read it, and I’m left wondering, why? And if you want evidence, look to the countless victims that have been coming forward in the last three years. Also, I can bet you Randolf and his boys can find a connecting thread if they decided to show some initiative. The only one making a mockery of this court is that woman on the stand.”

“Shut it, Thomas,” Judge Brown said. “I’ll be the one to decide if there’s any mockery here. Thomas, let’s say this is looked into, and what you’re saying is true, then this whole case turns into something else entirely, and you are out of here. Is that what you want?”

Thomas was beaming on the inside, but he couldn’t show it, not here. “Criminal activity is a factor here, and I want that recognized. I’ll throw the Hail Mary, someone else can score the touchdown.”

Phillips was fuming. “This is unnecessary.”

Judge Brown wasn’t looking pleased with Thomas. “You better know what you’re doing, or this is it for you. Go back.”

They left the judge. Thomas did know what he was doing, because that probably was it for him.

Stephenville – A week after Loving v. Tate and Mono Construction

“Thomas.”

A man stood next to him, holding a beer. James Gomez. Shorter than Thomas, more stout, but with more muscle than him. A head full of hair, a thick mustache. Both were in fashionable, yet casual wear.

“Thanks for coming,” Thomas said.

“Thanks for… inviting me.” James had to duck when a ball flew too close to his head. He was more concerned over not spilling a drop than he was about the kid who threw said ball. “I’m not a huge fan of children’s birthday parties, though.”

“I invited you, you knew what this was, and you showed up, regardless.”

“At this point, I’ll take anything to get out of the office.”

“Even to arrest me for malpractice?” Thomas asked. “A two-for-one deal? I give you a beer, and you give me handcuffs.”

“No, I wouldn’t do that, but I should. That was a dumb stunt you pulled back there. I heard about it through the grapevine.”

“My bosses are breathing down my neck, drowning me in mindless work. Death threats, many of which are written in Japanese. An earful from the wife, which was the worst of it.”

“God damn,” James said, his voice lowered. There were kids around. “You gonna be okay? With your wife and kid, you have to look out for them, too.”

“It’s nothing but big talk on the gang’s part. They do anything, it’ll implicate them, and then the Path is done for. They’ll keep their distance.

“You sound rather confident about that.”

“I have to be. I’ll admit, it was dumb, but it’ll be worth it soon enough?”

Thomas said it like it was a question.

“I can’t give any details,” James said, “But we’ve traced the money. You were onto something.”

Thomas let himself show the emotion inside him. Gratification. He was beaming.

“But why’d you have to go about it that way?” James asked. “You could have just sent in a tip, or better yet, tell me.”

“Tips are too slow. You’re good, James, but your position isn’t. You’re still new, like me. You don’t have the pull to launch an entire investigation. I saw the circumstances, saw my chance, and I took it. Putting it out like that really got things moving, didn’t it?”

“At the cost of your credibility and reputation?”

“If you’re good at what you do, you can get credibility back, and I’m great. And my reputation is with the people.”

“Why be a corporate lawyer then? If that’s the way you think, you’d be better off in the DA’s office.”

Thomas watched the kids play.

“Big companies mean big money, and big money means more for the little guy. I’ll come down, when the time’s right.”

“When? When I’m police chief?”

Thomas nudged him. “Probably.”

“Whoa there, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”

“Why not? Dream big, do bigger. You’ll be the new police chief, and I’ll be the new district attorney. Together, we’ll rule Stephenville as…”

“Friends?” James ventured.

“I was going to go with pals.”

James didn’t get it, taking a swig of his drink, instead.

“Could be interesting,” James said.

“Could be real,” Thomas said, correcting him. “This city means a lot to me, you know that more than anyone else. It kills me every time someone asks why I haven’t left yet, why I haven’t packed up and moved. I want them to see what I see in it. It’s not perfect, but I can help, I know I can.”

James drank some more, then said, “Real powerful words there, pal, but don’t beat yourself up over it. You’re not a hero, you can’t put all that weight on your shoulders.”

Thomas agreed, “You’re right, I can’t. I’ll need people. People like-”

“Daddy!”

Katy came running to him, her face twisted up, and she was wailing.

“Yes sweetie?” He had to crouch to meet her at eye level. The way she was acting, it was unbecoming of her pretty pink dress. He had to get to the bottom of this, pronto.

“Alexis took my gun and she keeps shooting me but I told her to stop but she keeps doing it and I’m-”

“Hey hey, hey there.” Thomas had to rub her back, calm her down. She was hiccupping.

“I’ll have a talk with her, I’m sure she’s just gotten too excited again. She doesn’t mean anything by it.”

Katy was shaking her head, rubbing her cheeks with fists.

“I wanna get her back, I wanna get that gun back.”

Where do kids come up with this stuff?

Thomas massaged her again. “That’s not what I’m trying to instill in you. Go get some cake, and you’re making up with Alexis. No one gets that toy gun until this party’s over. Understand?”

She hiccuped. “Understood.”

“That’s my girl.” He let her run off to get cake, and he stood, his back hurting a little.

“Kids these days,” James said.

“You’re telling me,” Thomas said. “Sorry about this, James.”

“Go do your thing, I’ll go have another one of these, and I should be up to hear about Kristin’s summer in India one more time.”

“Make sure she mentions the story about the”

“The Yamarāja. I know, I know.”

He shook hands with James, then excused himself.

Stephenville – Three weeks from present

“Car chase going into Williamson Avenue. It’s red, and the only one going that fast. Police might lose it if this goes for any longer. What do you think about lending a helping hand?”

I’m thinking I’m done with the warm ups. Time for some real action.

Hleuco grinned to himself. He liked it whenever Blank Face showed some enthusiasm, even if it was behind a layer of playful arrogance. It meant that she was getting something out of this. And it meant that she wasn’t completely doom and gloom.

He shifted in his seat, moving away from the complicated connected system of scanners and laptops, to the wheel in front of him. The van started.

With the different channels yelping into his ear, he got out of the parking garage, and drove.

The equipment was outdated, but it was functional, and it served a purpose. Gifts from Gomez. Whenever new stuff came in, the old stuff had to be taken out to make room. And James knew how much he liked antique trinkets.

The van was old, too. Unmarked, bought with cash, kept away in a location disclosed only to Blank Face. He knew the city, the ins and outs. Learned from the best, and the worst, when it came to hiding things. It was a bitch to have to walk to every night he needed to use it, but its purpose was well worth a little pain in his legs.

His foot was heavier on the gas pedal than usual, and not because he was too sore to lift it up more. He needed to keep up with the car, and keep up with Blank Face, so he could be in a good position to pick her up and make a getaway. It was imperative that they kept things as simple as possible, as clean as possible. They weren’t attempting to save the world, they were just attempting to make it nicer. Even if by a margin.

And the girl has school tomorrow, can’t let her be out too late.

“Update, please,” Hleuco asked.

Can’t see it yet, but I do see the cars tailing it. Fuck me, they’re fast.

Please don’t say ‘fuck me,’ Hleuco thought.

“Can you get to it?”

Yeah, if it would turn to the right, I could intercept it from up top.

Hleuco kept an ear out for anything interesting. Anything new.

He relayed what he was hearing.

“Police are setting up a blockade, it can’t make a right anymore.”

Fuck me.

Hleuco shook his head as he drove, knowing she couldn’t see him.

Shut up.

“They’re attempting to trap the car on Williamson. They’re mobilizing faster than I thought.”

What does that mean for me?

“Seems to me they might actually have this one under control now. I’m impressed.”

Great. So all I did tonight was just get some exercise?

“Don’t sell yourself short. Mrs. Azikiwe wouldn’t be sleeping soundly right now if you hadn’t gotten her cat out of that tree.”

I won’t stop selling myself short.

Hleuco took the comment in stride. He sped down the street he was on, still mindful of the speed limit, other cars, and lights. It’d slow him down in getting to Blank Face, but she could make up for that with her own speed and mobility.

The fact that she even had that type of speed and mobility…

He was still having trouble wrapping his head around it. Blank Face had powers, strength beyond compare. No one had seen anything like it, ever. The world was still reeling from the revelation, what it meant, what was to come. How, and why.

It was a day that wouldn’t ever fade over time. It had become something of a pop culture lexicon. A meme, as the kids put it. ‘Where were you when the first superhuman made themselves known?’

Hleuco, Thomas knew. He was in his office, watching the whole thing unfold. Watching the potential.

A hero, here in Stephenville of all places.

And he was able to work with her on this. On being an actual hero. Providing guidance. He would have felt privileged about the partnership, if the sheer coincidence didn’t shake him to his core.

With something so big, they had to take small steps. That meant limiting her shifts to more manageable times throughout the week, picking and choosing what petty crimes she’d handle, and monitoring police activity so they wouldn’t be in her hair as much. All to help instill the idea that her great power should be married with a greater sense of duty.

To better steer her in that direction, establish rules was important.

No extremely severe bodily harm was to be done to another human being.

No killing.

He thought those rules were simple enough when he came up with them, but establishing them early was crucial. This had never been done before, there was no precedent. Blank Face was strong, and by her own admittance, already stabbed someone. Accident or not, that needed to be curbed, avoided in the future. He worried that she might want to escalate if things weren’t in check.

Which was why he also invested in precautions. He prayed he never had to use them.

There were many kinds in Stephenville. Those who were good, those who weren’t so, and those who turned and became lost. He only wanted Blank Face to be the former.

Thomas didn’t want another one in that last category. Not again.

Hey, Hleuco, you still thirsty for an update?

Her voice brought his conscious attention back to the road. He clicked the left turn signal, then turned.

“Always.”

I’m on Williamson now, but the car keeps tearing through blockades.

He tuned his ear to the police broadcasts. She was right.

“The car’s modified?”

It’s going fast as fuck, everyone’s jumping out of the way since it’s just plowing through everything. Cars and vans. I think the front’s been reinforced.

“Where are you right now?”

I’m ahead of everyone, so I’m seeing it all, it’s just…

A pause.

Fuck!

“What’s wrong?”

It broke through the last blockade. A… a bus is coming from the left at an intersection. A school bus.

“At this hour?”

Anyone could be in there! Shit, at this rate they’re going to collide.

Again, a pause.

I’m going.

Hleuco almost stomped on the breaks, but there were others around him. He had to keep driving.

“That’s a big no, Blank Face. You’re going to come back here right now.”

And let people die? I can stop the car, there’s still time.

Hleuco threw caution to the wind, listening to the police and getting a better sense of where to go.

He stomped on the gas.

“Blank Face, if you’re even thinking about it-”

I don’t have time to argue. I’ll update you in a bit.

He passed up a car, crossing a red light. The city flew past him.

“Blank Face!”

He kept driving, and the police kept blabbering on. He punched the button to shut them up. He only wanted to hear Blank Face.

But there was no one on the other end.

Fuck me, Hleuco thought.

With another turn, he was close as he could get to Williamson Avenue. The police blockades worked both ways. He drove down a street that ran parallel.

Sweat dripped down the steering wheel. His heart beat so hard it hurt.

The machines beside him whirred, the van’s tires rolling down the concrete. A screaming sound.

Silent.

He drove.

Quiet.

Still no answer.

It was maddening.

Hleuco started slowing down.

Not another one…

Not another regret.

He moved a finger to turn on the police-

Hleuco? I’m at-

Hleuco went to a full and complete stop. The van and everything inside it rocked. Cars honked as they passed.

He ran his hand through his hair, nearly pulling strands out from the root. He was so happy he was mad.

“Repeat that, Blank Face?”

I’m at an alley over on Baxton, by a pharmacy. Is it a good pick-up spot?

That was a block down, secluded enough. It worked.

“It works,” Hleuco said slowly, “Stay there, don’t move. Be there soon.”

I hear you.

Now you hear me, he thought. But he drove to get her.

His chest wouldn’t ease up.

Before he got to the spot, he reached back to the seats behind him. He put on his mask as he went. A memento from his time in Europe.

He needed an identity too, some gesture to make Blank Face feel less alone in her role as a hero. Hleuco. From the name haliaeetus leucocephalus. The bald eagle.

He needed a mask, too. She couldn’t see his face as it was now. Not now.

The door slid open. Blank Face stepped in. They left.

“I’m back,” she said. It was good to hear her voice without the mechanical filter. That was what he wanted to hear.

“Count your blessings,” he said, “You’re lucky you made it out of that okay. But don’t push that luck.”

“I’m with you on that.” She was breathing hard, panting. Whatever she did took everything out of her. “My arms are killing me.”

How strong are you, Alexis?

The van rolled on, and Thomas was ready to call it a night.

Present

He checked to see if he had everything on him. He did. Wallet, phone, keys.

Thomas got into the car, Jeffery closing the door for him.

The vehicle pulled out of the driveway, and they went.

Jeffery was usually more talkative, but he was mute, now. Thomas wasn’t that lively, either.

Solace got Edgar. He’s dead.

He was at his wit’s end, but he was too sick of everything to exert effort for a reaction.

He just sat.

Solace got Edgar, and he was dead. Because Blank Face and Hleuco pushed too hard, pushed the gangs too far, too fast, and Solace was born from their desperation. He thought he calculated it right, he thought they were disrupting just enough that it would not come to this.

Thomas was cognizant of the fact it would have been an uphill battle. Public opinion of Blank Face was plummeting, and they hadn’t yet reestablished her name as being Blank Face.

Uphill, but he didn’t expect it to become this steep.

No, these criminals are superstitious, cowardly. Especially in the face of an actual threat. I should have taken that into more consideration.

His thoughts poured over every detail, every bit of information in the past forty-eight hours. What connected, what made sense, what was a legitimate clue?

Thomas made a fist with each hand.

He had to give it up to Solace, they were thorough. Nothing came up when they investigated the event staff, and of course nothing came up when they went to Kristin. The only lead was the apartment they traced the signal back to. Nothing but bricks and wood.

Except a message to Blank Face.

Blank Face – Alexis – was positive the message was directed to her, by the leader of El Carruaje, a now-defunct gang, and Blank Face’s first foe. When she informed him of this, he tried to inquire about the woman who ran that gang, Benny. Her record, whether or not she was actually incarcerated.

Of course, everyone was scrambling over Solace. Of course, they were too busy to look into a small fry.

Thomas wasn’t the district attorney, not yet. He could only do so much as he was. No one answered to him, they would only consider what he had to say.

After forty-eight hours, all any of them could do was try and prevent this. But it didn’t work.

Lost in his thoughts, Thomas caught a glimpse of an intersection as they passed it. The sign.

Gomez’s office isn’t this way.

“Jeffery, are we meeting with Gomez elsewhere?” Thomas asked.

Jeffery kept driving.

“Jeffery? I-”

The officer whipped his arm back, pointing a gun to Thomas.

Thomas backed up as far as he could, which was hardly at all. His hands went up.

“Just, just be quiet, or I’ll shoot. Not another word. And if you do anything else except sit there and keep those hands up, I’ll shoot.”

Thomas didn’t try him. Jeffery’s finger was already on the trigger. Thomas put his hands above his head.

Behind the car, a resounding, deep grumble rocked Thomas’s ears. He would have liked to turn and investigate, but there was no need to set off Jeffery.

Looking wasn’t even needed. He could see from the rear view mirror, and that distinct tone of that sound.

It was Styx’s bike. Styx was here.

So this was how…

And he considered Jeffery a pal, too.

He was fucked.

Previous                                                                                               Next

Interlude – Isabella

Previous                                                                                               Next

“You’re positive you didn’t forget anything?” The man eyed her carefully. She felt like she was being judged for a crime, waiting for a verdict.

In a way, she was. She wasn’t supposed to be here.

“Just myself,” Isabella answered.

The man, the driver, didn’t avert his hard gaze.

“The trip is eight hours, are you sure you’re going to be okay without any anything to bring? Not to mention, you have to purchase a ticket online.”

Isabella stared up at the driver, and he stared her down. He was more like a pig than a man, overweight, large nose, balding. Not the most friendly appearance.

Her chances of getting on the bus weren’t looking good.

She knew she had to start making haste. She already made the call, so she’d be finished if she stuck around for whatever the aftermath would turn out to be. Like a fire under her butt.

She had to go.

‘No one will ask any questions if you can cough up enough dough.

The words of that lady, Wendy, came to her. The lady that saved her.

No use trying nothing.

She reached into her back pocket, and took out a small brick of cash. It was but one of four. The most amount of money she’d ever seen in her entire life. She flipped through it, pulling out two fifty dollar bills.

Isabella stuck out her hand, holding one hundred dollars.

“Is this enough for a ticket?”

The man’s eyes softened to those of wonder, then confusion. Then, a glint in his eyes.

He didn’t take too long to think it over, however. He moved his head.

“You sit in the back, and you don’t make a sound,” he said. Isabella took that as a sort of warning.

Wordlessly, Isabella got on the bus, taking the few steps to reach the driver. Smoothly, she slipped him the money, and he accepted it with a nod.

Gringos must really be easy to pay off.

Isabella moved down the bus.

The bus wasn’t full, she had her pick if the driver hadn’t given her stipulations. But, it wasn’t empty, there were people here she probably could not pay off.

A man in his late fifties, wearing a suit, talking on a phone. A teenage girl, fiddling with her phone. A boy with his mother, both already napping. There was another girl here, too, closer to her age, but she actually had luggage to bring. The rest started to blend together, the features starting to look too familiar. Unless they were famous, Americans all looked the same to her.

No one paid her any mind as she passed by, going down the aisle to get to the very back. The seats here were unoccupied, and she was able to make herself comfortable, lifting up the armrest in the middle so she could rest her legs.

The bus started, thrumming with life, then drove off.

Isabella leaned her head against the window beside her, watching the city pass.

At least I got a view this time.

She had barely just started getting used to things in Stephenville, and already she had to relocate. It was sudden, too, and now she was going to step foot in a new city, empty-handed. Again.

Well, she did have nine hundred dollars to her name this time.

Though, maybe she would have better chances if she moved elsewhere. The gang and cartel situation here was only marginally better than the one back home, but Stephenville still had way too much baggage attached, and it wasn’t very friendly to outsiders. Southern hospitality was as foreign a concept as she was.

All that, she learned in a week of being here.

Part of her did wish she could stay longer, though. She wanted to see the local celebrity one more time. La luna azul.

Isabella’s stomach grumbled. She massaged her shoulder.

Relocating might have been a good idea, but it was one she hadn’t planned for. That ‘Wendy’ practically pushed it on her. Nine hundred dollars might pull her through the next week, but there were so many other things to worry about. Like, where would she stay? What were the gangs like there? The cops? How would she make money? She was underage, no official papers on her. Illegal, in multiple senses of the word. Not many places would want to take her in, or they might get in trouble, too. Maybe an orphanage?

See, how am I to survive without a gang? They can provide for me, kind of.

The word ‘orphanage’ struck her again.

Her chest welled up. She probably was one by now, if she wasn’t already. It was why she had to flee, they were going to come for her next, and string her up. Isabella had given up hope on seeing her parents ever again, before any of this began. A harsh reality.

Isabella closed her eyes. There were no more tears to shed.

A lot to handle, more than she was reasonably capable of. But, it would have to come later. In eight hours, approximately. She’d deal, then. She would have to. Or she’d never survive.

For eight hours, she would rest. She needed it. To make the most of an unexpected, and shitty, situation.

The bus stopped.

Isabella half-opened her eyes.

That was fast.

She heard the other passengers. Whispers, questions. They weren’t in the know.

Meaning we’re not supposed to stop.

Other voices came into the mix. Outside, yelling, barking orders. Coming from her side of the bus. She checked the window.

She quickly ducked under her seat, cursing under her breath.

Lawrence.

He, and a small crew of his Ghosts, were circling around the bus. Tapping at the windows, tapping at the door. Searching, looking for something. Isabella could only think of one thing they’d want.

Me.

She cursed under her breath again. She made the call like Wendy asked, and told the operator on the other end everything the Ghosts were doing. The skirmishes for territorial expansion, the attempts to get their own slice of the drug trade, the screwed up initiation games for the newbies. And which studio apartment Lawrence was running the whole thing in. She told them everything. Everything she knew. And, through one way or another, Lawrence found out. Fuck.

From what she had seen from the window, she was barely out of the downtown area. Still in the city. Double fuck.

And she saw that the majority of the Ghosts had guns. Triple fuck.

Surrounded. Trapped. Isabella was the fish in this particular barrel. Even so, her mind still went to ways she could make it out of here. As alive as possible.

There was a restroom in the back, but they’d definitely check there, and that would make her a sitting duck, and another analogy. The emergency exit above also wouldn’t do, not with all the Ghosts still ‘haunting’ the area around the bus. The window beside her wouldn’t open, the most it could do was let a little air in. And there was still there issue of multiple hostiles outside. And their cars.

She was stuck here, through and through.

Quadruple fuck.

And with being stuck, it was better to be hidden than to escape and be instantly caught. Luck was all she had.

She stayed put.

If this was a setup by Wendy… she was gonna be pissed.

The yelling and knocking then ended, only because the door was opened.

Footsteps rushed in.

“Thank you, sir.” Isabella heard Lawrence thank someone, probably the driver. No brainer. If Isabella could convince the driver with some cash, there was nothing that said that Lawrence couldn’t.

Pudrete en el infierno.

She tried pressing herself closer to the floor, shimmying under the seats. Sticky, all around icky. Not a pleasant experience. And, while she was small, the space was smaller. Not much in the way of cover.

Isabella held her breath.

“What’s the meaning of this?” Finally, a passenger spoke up. Probably the old man.

“A not-so-routine inspection,” Lawrence responded, “But we won’t take too much of your time. We know you all have places you need to be, and you still have a long trip ahead of you. Ah, the door, please.”

The door closed, squeaking as it shut. Isabella cursed for a fifth time.

Lawrence continued with his orders. “Check every person, every row. Be thorough. We ain’t letting that bitch get away.”

She could hear them get to work, walking down the aisle and harassing the other passengers. Zippers were opened up, things dropping to the floor. Isabella wasn’t that small.

They’re taking advantage of those poor folk, all because of

“Yo!”

Isabella moved her head, shifting her gaze.

Someone also dropped to the floor, a row over. Facing Isabella. A leather jacket, light jeans, a choker. Short brown hair. Deep blue, almost indigo eyes, and something about them carried a feeling of mischief, not concerned in the slightest. Gringo.

The other girl her age.

She whispered, but excitedly, like she was sharing a secret she wasn’t supposed to, but telling someone was more fun.

“Mind if I steal from you? I’m lucky I made it here before he opened the door, or I woulda been a goner. Man, can’t go three steps without running into some trouble, am I right or am I right?”

Isabella blinked. Who…

The girl nodded fast. “Another good idea. We’ll communicate using nonverbal cues instead. Smart. Let’s do that.” She flashed a toothy grin, though a front tooth was missing.

Isabella blinked twice more.

The girl whispered again, already breaking her own rule. “Roger roger. Can’t be back here forever, since they’re about to find us. Mind if you follow my lead? I can take it from here. Oh, I wanna apologize now for the trouble. The Ghosts wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for me.”

… ¿Qué haces?

Isabella blinked one more time. For good measure.

Things just took a weird turn.

The Ghosts were after her? This girl? But that didn’t seem right at all.

What did she do?

The footsteps were nearing them, louder, sounding like a stampede. More than one person, more than just Lawrence. To Isabella, she was as good as caught, maybe even dead. This was very much it.

I shoulda taken the money and went back to Lawrence in the first place.

Isabella was about to curse for the sixth time, but she looked over to the girl hiding with her. The girl’s face hadn’t changed. Her toothy grin stayed.

She winked.

The girl then flipped onto her back. Isabella couldn’t see what she was doing, but she could hear it. A prolonged hiss.

It became louder, almost becoming something like a warning. The gang members noticed, asking about it.

Louder, then louder again.

It came to a crescendo.

“Now!”

The girl got out from her hiding spot. Isabella saw her feet. She was standing.

She jumped back.

Everything exploded.

One big bang, followed by crackling and popping. Also very loud. Screams, cries. Even Isabella shrieked. A bomb had definitely went off, and that girl was involved in a way.

Bomb. Girl. Loud. Ringing.

Pull.

Isabella was being pulled.

Forced onto her feet, moving towards where the blasts were coming from. Too disoriented to resist.

“Push them forward, not down!” the girl called out, making herself known. “Make it snappy.”

Isabella followed, but she didn’t follow. She lagged behind as the girl let her go and worked, pushing the Ghosts, backing them up. Few tried to fight back, but they were in the midst of the explosions, stunned, susceptible to being pushed around. They stumbled backwards, the girl moving them like cattle.

Only one other Ghost was unaffected.

“I’ll skin you for that!” Lawrence bellowed, though quieter from Isabella’s ears. “And for last time!”

“You need better hobbies, L-Boy!” the girl said back.

Lawrence started getting ready for his move. His counter.

“You’re up next!” the girl ordered, as she pressed on more bodies. “Get that last guy!”

Isabella woke right up. “I, I can’t do that! And he has a gun!” She hushed herself on that last word, as if she was trying not to remind Lawrence of the weapon in his hand.

“You’ll be fine!”

Is this girl freaking insane?

“Just go! I’ll back you up!” She sounded serious this time.

Reluctant, Isabella sprang to life.

She never considered herself to be agile, but she could move when the situation called for it. She could run. She hopped, pulling herself above the seats by the overhead bars. Putting her feet on the seats, she maneuvered over everyone.

“Get down! One more!”

The girl yelled.

Isabella dropped down, putting herself between the girl and the Ghosts, and Lawrence. He was a good three feet away.

She saw it fall in front of his face. Red cylinders, attached by a string, hissing. She’d played with those before, back in Mexico.

Firecrackers.

She didn’t see them go off.

It was loud, if not louder than before. But she was ready for it this time, she had turned and covered her ears. It crackled, popped.

Lawrence, however, wasn’t as prepared.

As soon as she was certain the firecrackers were done, she spun, then rushed to Lawrence. Isabella knew she wouldn’t be stronger than him, but the element of surprise was well in her favor.

Her shoulder rammed into his side. His ribs.

He cried out. More pain than she had expected. Sensitive? A previous injury?

As if severe burns weren’t sufficient.

Lawrence buckled, but Isabella held onto him so he wouldn’t fall. By the hair, she dragged him toward the front of the bus. He didn’t fight back.

They got to the front, and Isabella turned and kicked, and Lawrence tumbled down the steps. The top of his head hit the door.

Oh Dios mío that felt so good.

She looked at the driver, and he was drenched in sweat, bug-eyed. She wanted to hit him, too.

“Incoming!”

The girl joined Isabella, bringing the remaining Ghosts with her.

“Out of the chair, fatso!” the girl said.

Isabella took the initiative, putting her hands on the driver, pulling him up. Despite his heavy weight, he was out of his seat with ease.

“Move!”

The girl pushed past Isabella and grabbed the driver by the collar. She threw him down the same steps, atop a pile of sore bodies. The driver, the various Ghosts, then Lawrence.

Surprising strength.

We actually beat him…

“Nice!” The girl lifted a hand, and on instinct, Isabella gave her a high-five. “We’re on the same wavelength after all.”

“Ha, maybe.”

“But next comes the really really really fun part. Keep an eye on the Ghosts, and try to calm the other peeps.”

She fell into the driver’s seat, and started moving stuff around, like she knew what she was doing.

Isabella questioned her. “Exactly what-”

The bus sped off.

Isabella grabbed for a metal bar, preventing a fall. The other passengers jerked forward.

“What is she doing?” one of them asked. The woman, the mother. She tried standing, but the bus did a sharp left, then righting itself. The ride was bumpy.

“Just stay seated, everything is fine!” It wasn’t true, but it was the only thing Isabella had to say.

Things just took another, actual weird turn.

What is she doing?

Gripping the bar, holding on for dear life, Isabella shouted her question at the girl.

“What’s the deal?”

“I’m taking us out of here.”

“Do you even have a license?”

“I’m not old enough for one, you dummy.”

Some of the others in the bus caught that. They raised their voices, protesting.

“Stop the bus! Stop the bus!”

“Why is a little girl driving?”

“Jesus, please, someone else take the wheel!”

The bus swerved, harshly getting on another street.

“Pipe down!” the girl shouted. “I’m not taking us super duper far!”

“Then where?” Isabella asked. The whole bus was shaking from the speeds they were reaching.

The girl paused, eyes on the road. She took a right, and a deep breath.

“Hmm… oh, how about a little window shopping?”

“What-”

The bus veered again, but the girl didn’t correct the vehicle. Instead, it stopped very suddenly.

It crashed.

The opposite of slow motion. Everything happened so fast.

Glass crashing together. Metal and tires screeching. Deafening. A hard jolt, everything thrown forward. Violent. Too fast and too sudden to truly process. It just happened.

Isabella was standing when it just happened.

The abrupt stop made her ragdoll, and it was a rough fall to the floor, glass landing on and around her.

Blunt force and sharp stings. Pain of every variety, surpassing any known threshold. Inconceivable.

Isabella didn’t feel like moving. Couldn’t even twitch a muscle.

Couldn’t even question if she was still alive.

But it wasn’t her call to make.

“Dang, you’re still alive.”

Heard that voice before. Recently.

“People will be coming soon. Cops, more Ghosts. Can you stand?”

I can barely think.

“No go, huh? Here, I’ll help. I’d say we should take our time, but we can’t afford the luxury.”

Isabella felt hands on her, and she gasped. The stings. The pain. Intensified.

“Oof, okay. Looks like we’re gonna do this the hard way. Don’t hate me too much for this.”

The hands came upon her again, and grabbed. The pain reached newer and newer heights, and Isabella let herself block out what followed.

By blacking out.

Waking up was a long, nebulous process. She didn’t come to, not immediately. Instead, it was a long stretch of soft breathing, followed by the realization that she was indeed alive, and awake.

And with that realization finally becoming clear in her mind, Isabella opened her eyes.

Nowhere she knew. An old brick factory, somewhere. Was this still Stephenville? Streaks of dawn spilled through the cracks in the walls and ceilings. How long had it been?

Right. Lawrence. The bus crash. The girl. Help.

Even the stuff with Wendy. That felt like another lifetime. Was that all really the same night?

Oddly enough, it didn’t feel like this was the first time her brain had run this particular lap.

Isabella nearly did so herself, but her whole body seemed to scream in pain. Though, it was like a dull knife, now. Still hurt, but a bit of the edge had been taken off.

Standing was a great ordeal, but she had to do it. She was on her feet… after a minute.

No one. Nothing. Isabella was alone.

She checked her body. So very sore. Nothing broken, but scratches all over. It hurt. Small cuts across her arms and legs and face. And one really painful one on her forehead. From the way the skin was pulled, she could tell it was stitched up.

She was wearing a leather jacket, she didn’t have one before. Her shirt underneath, when she checked it, was more blood than white.

Oddly enough, she didn’t feel shocked about what she saw.

Lawrence. The bus crash. The girl. Wendy.

Piecing things together was hard, nearly impossible. She was worried that she was completely abandoned. It might have been quiet and calm in here, but she didn’t know what dangers might be lurking right outside, ready to screw her over once she stepped outside. She wasn’t sure what her first move should be.

Her stomach grumbled.

Maybe I should start with some food, first.

She started to leave, but she stepped on something. It was soft. Squishy. She stopped, and checked.

A teddy bear?

She picked it up, the pain coming back. She fought through it, because there was another thing there that caught her attention.

A note was attached, tied to the bear’s hand by a red string.

She undid the string, then opened up the note. She noticed how pretty the handwriting was.

Isabella read it.

To whatever your name is… sorry that I forgot to ask!

You can call me D, like Deep Throat, get it?

Isabella didn’t get it. Perhaps it was a reference of some kind.

She kept reading.

Anyways, sorry again for the whole bus thing, I was actually on my way out of the city to wait for things to cool down. I know I cause too much trouble for my own good okay, I just get bored sometimes!

So it was her fault that Lawrence came? Isabella still couldn’t believe it, her 9-1-1 call had to play a part, somehow.

Any-anyways, I crashed the bus into some clothing store to get the Ghosts off our trail. But nobody got hurt! Well, except you, Lawrence and those Ghosts, and the driver. I didn’t have time to check on the passengers so…

‘D’ drew a face. A sad face.

You were bleeding pretty badly, but thankfully there was nothing serious. I didn’t have time to bring my stuff, but I did my very best to patch you up. A cut on your forehead was the worst of it. And you were pretty responsive while I worked on you, so that’s good! Whew! Other than that, you’re all golden. Just don’t bathe with any lemons!

Isabella didn’t find that very funny. Everything stung.

So yeah, sorry about everything. I wanted to help you because you’re cute, and being a Ghost doesn’t fit you to be honest. You can keep the jacket as a gift, my way of making it up to you. Hope you dig it, it was originally Styx’s, if you know who that is.

She did. How did she get a jacket from him? Who was this anomaly?

And… cute? And she knew Isabella was a gang member?

Like Isabella needed another reason to think this girl was something else.

Well, the jacket’s not uncomfortable, Isabella thought. She’d might as well hold on to it.

Okay, now here’s the sucky part. I know this is going to sound bad, but I still need to lay low in another zip code for the time being, and I left all my stuff and money on the bus…

¿Qué?

Alrighty, this is goodbye! I don’t know if you’ll be staying in Wanderland, but I’ll definitely be back. If you’re ever in the area, come chase me down. Let’s play again sometime!

¿Qué? ¿Qué?

Love, D.’ She drew a smiley face.

Isabella immediately jammed her hands into her pockets, dropping the bear. Front pockets, then back pockets. Nothing. Empty. Nada.

That bitch…

She robbed me.

Isabella swore for the sixth and seventh time.

Quintuple fuck.

Previous                                                                                               Next

035 – Last Promise

Previous                                                                                               Next

“Don’t touch that!” Katy smacked Maria’s hand before she could move a piece. Maria pulled back, and massaged the back of her hand.

“Damn, it’s just a chess piece.”

“I said don’t touch that.”

My eyes moved back to my magazine. I flipped through some pages without reading it.

Thomas and Kristin wanted us together when the forty-eight hours were up. I couldn’t think of a more mindless way to pass the time.

But what choice did I have? Sneaking out and gathering more intel would be impossible, my mom would want to keep an eye on me all night.

At the very least, I could keep tabs on everyone that was close to me. My mom, Maria, the Thompsons. They wouldn’t slip from my grasp. Solace wouldn’t get to them.

Despite the certainty, there was still a palpable tension, an anticipation, that wouldn’t go away. Not until this was resolved, if that was even possible.

I tried not thinking about it. Tried.

Because we only had about an hour left.

“Can’t you listen for once in your life? Step away from the board.”

Uh-oh. Katy was pissed.

“Holy shit, I’m just sitting here.”

“You’re near it, and you’re driving me up the wall because of it. Just, here. Come here.”

I heard a shuffling. I closed the magazine, and tossed it beside me, on Katy’s bed. I watched Katy forcefully move Maria away from a coffee table in the middle of the her room. A chessboard placed on top.

That chessboard had always been something of an oddity. Some pieces were missing, for one, and the pieces that were on the board were placed on seemingly random squares. A white queen had no business being near a black pawn, especially since the rest of the white pieces were placed properly. The white king was nowhere to be found, and the only the black king remained of the black pieces, backed into a corner. Nothing about it was right.

But that wasn’t exactly why the chessboard was so odd to me. It was because I couldn’t count on one hand how many times I’d seen that chessboard set up properly, because that never once was the case. I couldn’t even lift a finger.

Every time I came over, the board was set up differently. Previously missing pieces returned, then others were gone, placed randomly across the board.

Seemingly.

“God, ow, let go.” Maria winced under Katy’s hard grip.

“It’s better if you don’t ask,” I said. “She’ll never tell you. She’s anal about that for whatever reason.”

“You don’t say.”

The pair only stopped when Katy moved Maria far enough from the chessboard, far enough so that Katy could be comfortable. Her room was large enough to warrant walking for a time with no interruptions. Almost as big as my room.

“Here, you sit by my bed and you stay,” Katy ordered.

“Am I a dog, now? Am I going to be sharing my meals with Annie?”

“It means you’re going to be staying outside if you don’t get your act together. My room, my rules.”

Maria breathed out loud, then folded her arms, but she sat. The added tension didn’t last long, though, Maria picked up the magazine I had put down, and flipped through it herself.

For a short while, we kept to ourselves. Katy sat at her computer, Maria with her magazine, and I responded to the few texts I received in the past thirty minutes. Nothing important, but it helped in taking my mind off things, if only for a little bit. I had gotten used to having to tap multiple times to get different letters and characters, and I was almost as fast as being on a regular smartphone. If just for myself, I’d chalk it up as something to be proud of.

Three girls, lounging around in pajamas, relaxing the night away. The scene would have been comfy, if it weren’t for the waiting, waiting for whether the news we’d be getting was good… or terrible.

I wondered how the others were managing. The others at the dinner party. Were they pretending like everything was fine, or were they afraid?

I couldn’t recall the last time I prayed for another person, and meant it, but I set my phone down, and lied down on the bed. I clasped my hands together, interlocking my fingers, and rested them on my stomach. I stared at the familiar ceiling.

I prayed. I prayed, hard.

“Let’s do something,” Maria said.

Katy didn’t respond. Neither did I.

“Hey, I’m bored,” Maria said.

“It’s hard to want to entertain ourselves under this kind of stress,” I said, still looking up.

“But we shouldn’t just sit here and do nothing. At least I shouldn’t. I’ll end up dying from waiting.”

“Quit it,” Katy said. I heard the clicking and clacking of a mouse and keyboard. “I don’t want to hear anything like that.”

“Fine, fine, but my point remains, I’m bored.”

I sat up, legs crossed, and Katy clicked one more time before turning.

“Did you have anything in mind?” Katy asked.

With all seriousness, Maria answered.

“Chess.”

“I am so done with you.”

Katy went back to her computer. I snorted, trying to contain my laughter.

“I’m kidding, kidding! God, you people can’t take a joke.”

“I need worthier jokes,” Katy said. “Step your game up if you want to entertain me.”

Maria scoffed, flipping the bird to the back of Katy’s head.

In her own little way, Maria was trying to make us feel better. And in a strange way, it was working.

Katy typed out a string of characters, ending with loud slap of a key. Guessing from the rhythm and sound, she was typing out a web address.

She spun in her chair, her elbow resting on her desk, her fingers pushing her hair up.

“What do you guys think?”

“About what?” I asked.

“Do you think Solace is really going to make good on their threat, tonight?”

“I see how it is,” Maria said. “When I mention it, I get berated, but it’s fine if you bring it up.”

“You were making light of things, I’m being real here.”

“You are so-”

“Cool it, ladies,” I said. Had to break them up somewhere, or someone would end up saying something they’d regret, and no one needed that one their plate. “Now’s not the time to be getting into it.”

Katy sank more into her chair, and Maria climbed up into the bed next to me. The waiting was taking its toll on them, I knew, and things were about to either end in sweet relief, or continue to tumble down.

I knew, because I was feeling the exact same way.

It was only a matter of minutes.

“I want to ask again, if I may?” Katy asked, looking to Maria, as if her permission was necessary.

Maria cut through her question, going right into answering it, instead. “I shouldn’t have a reason to think that Solace will. You know what your dad said, there was no evidence of any guest list being leaked out, and everyone who is on the list has to report to a nearby cop, every hour on the hour, until this thing is over, and so far nothing’s happened. We even have cops sitting outside the house right now.”

“Nothing’s happened because there’s still some time left. And there were over two hundred people at the party, not including staff. That’s a lot of variables, and with the police force as spread as thin as it is, there are no guarantees.”

“Katy, everyone’s still present and accounted for, trying to get at someone now would be asking for failure. And it’ll be the same in like… forty-eight minutes.”

Katy didn’t move a muscle. She wasn’t being convinced by Maria’s attempts to soothe her worries.

I chimed in.

“I totally get how you’re feeling, Katy,” I said, “But you’re just going to have to put some faith in your dad and the police, they’re doing the best they can, under the circumstances.”

And so am I.

“And remember what he said the day before yesterday? Giving us forty-eight hours turned out to be a big help, and we had the time to plan, to be prepared. The likelihood of something happening has significantly decreased. It has to.”

“Us? We?”

Katy’s face was scrunched up.

“Uh, you know what I mean.”

She clicked her tongue, twirling her hair. “You’re right, everyone’s working their ass off. I’m just running in circles by this point. It just sucks, being completely helpless. As if there was anything I could even do.”

“Yeah, just leave it to the big boys,” Maria said. “They got this.”

Katy raised her chin by a fraction.

“They better.”

They better. I shared that sentiment.

I sympathized with Katy, or maybe I even empathized with her, too. The stress of the past two days, dealing with pressures at school, and then this. Feeling helpless, unable to do anything, at this hour. Even with what I had discovered last night, not a lot of progress was made with that revelation.

Solace was Benny.

She had to be.

It was her message I found at that apartment, it was her old territory that the apartment was in. That had to be a message for me. It had to be her, or she had to be involved with Solace in some way. It made less sense if she wasn’t. The question left, then, was how.

I relayed my findings to Thomas as soon as I could, but I hadn’t had a chance to get back with him to see what had been done, or what the new game plan should be in general. Despite having to spend the night under his roof for the second night in a row, I couldn’t get a hold of him for a detailed discussion. I might be able to sneak one in later tonight, once everyone was asleep. I was certain that he wanted to talk with me, too.

If there was a way to ask Maria about Benny, without outing myself…

No news was not good news, in this case. The police might be able to prevent a death tonight, but Solace was still out there, and the threat extended until I revealed myself as The Bluemoon, or until we put a stop to it. Tomorrow, and the next day, were as crucial as this moment.

No, more crucial.

“Agh.” Maria made an odd noise, before putting her head on my lap. She coughed, thoughtfully covering her mouth.

“Looks like The Bluemoon’s not going to take off its mask,” Maria said.

I winced, turning away.

“Looks like.”

“How selfish. If it’s trying so hard to be a hero, wouldn’t giving in save more lives?”

The thought made me bite my tongue.

Would it?

That was one way of saving everyone, but it’d be my last. I still wanted, needed, to prove myself as a superhero, and giving up would be shooting myself and everyone I care for in the foot. Besides, I’d be letting Thomas down.

We’d been over this already.

“The Bluemoon could be working on their own plot to find and catch Solace,” I said, “Independent of the police or proper authorities.”

“Pfft, good luck then, because we’re all gonna need it.”

I knew this was her being sour, biting, but it still left me with a bad taste in my mouth. It reminded me that luck probably had a big part to play in this, and having to leave something this big to chance was scary. Really scary. As if I needed any more reminders.

News flash. I didn’t.

Katy returned to her computer. She put on a song, a hazy, atmospheric hip-hop track. It played in the background.

Nothing to do except sit here and wait. And the wait was killing me. Us.

Maria moved her head, and I felt her hair brush against my leg. She looked right up at me.

“You’ve really gotten super skinny.”

A chill ran through me. Deep. Cold.

We’re not getting into that now, are we?

“About that,” Katy whipped back around, and the song was paused, and time seemed to pause with it.

“Let’s talk about that for a little.”

“I’m game,” Maria said. She sat upright, and stared at me intently. “Sorry, Lexi, but you don’t get a say.”

Blindsided. Should have seen this coming. Should have been more careful.

Alarms were ringing in my head. Red. I was on alert.

“This doesn’t seem like a good time…” I started, doing all I could to come up with a way out of this, a way to move to another topic.

“It’s a great time for it actually,” Katy said. She held her hands up, a placating gestures, like she didn’t mean any harm. “There’s not a lot I want out of you, not right now. Think of this as a mini-pseudo-intervention. Some planning, but I think it’s good if we can get into this now, if only for a small exchange.”

The look in her eyes, she wouldn’t be so easily swayed this time around. She wanted a talk, and Maria was going to be her backup.

There’s no running away from this, is there?

I thought.

And as if a switch was flipped inside me, an odd sort of peace swelled within me. Like a train, or a truck, was about to hit me, and all I could do was accept it.

I gave Katy a look of my own. Tranquil. A certain ease.

The biggest lie I ever gave to my best friend.

That was how I saw it.

“What is it you want from me?” I asked.

She watched my expression change. Briefly, Katy struggled with her words, almost flummoxed.

“One, one question. All I ask of you, for now, is to answer one question.”

“I can manage that,” I said, knowing that it was very possible that I might not manage that. But the façade remained.

Katy cleared her throat.

“Have you been eating? Like, at all?”

Technically, you just asked two questions, but okay.

That was a question on everyone’s minds, I knew, and I couldn’t leave it unaddressed forever. I knew they wouldn’t. To pretend like I’d never be called out on it would be foolish. Especially since I already had, but I couldn’t worm my way out of this one.

And I wasn’t exactly planning to. Not this time.

As calmly as I did before, I gave Katy an answer.

“I have.”

Katy shifted her gaze. She didn’t look satisfied. Maria wasn’t exactly pleased, either.

I sighed, trying not to shiver.

“Look, I know you guys have been concerned for me, and you have every right to be so, because… because things haven’t been really good for me, lately. I’ve been dealing with a lot of shit that I’ll still not comfortable talking about. And that’s not including all of this stuff with Solace. It’s… overwhelming, and I know it’s selfish of me to say that since everyone’s going through their own stuff, they have their own problems…”

I trailed off. I was losing focus on what I meant to say.

I tried one more time.

“I feel like my head’s going to be a lot… clearer, once Solace is no longer a thing that’s in our lives. I’ll feel better, then. So, once that happens… I’ll tell you everything. I promise.”

I looked into Maria’s eyes, then Katy’s, as though I meant every word I said.

My heart kept pounding.

Katy nodded, saying, “I’ll hold you to that.”

“Me too,” Maria said.

With some relief, I replied, “Good.”

We sat in silence.

There was a knock on Katy’s door. It opened.

It was my mom.

“Everyone come down. It is almost time.”

We all nodded, then we moved as a group. Downstairs.

I was in the back, feeling like I just did ten-mile sprint.

I had no intention of telling them the truth. But, just for a while, I bought myself some time. Time to think, plan, and sell Katy and Maria different story. A believable one. Until then, they wouldn’t bother me about it, they wouldn’t push. They’d back off, leaving me to handle Solace. With Hleuco.

Maybe I’d change my mind once all was settled with Solace, but…

We’ll see when I get there.

At a bare minimum, my friends deserved something.

We went to the living room, Thomas and Kristin were standing in front of the TV, watching closely to a news broadcast. The broadcast had the courtesy of having a graphic of a giant timer play out behind the newscaster.

“Almost here,” Thomas said, his eyes not breaking away from the screen. He looked restless, but he also looked like he needed a full week’s rest. His dark eyebags were just one testament to that. Worse for wear, on all fronts. He still had on his suit, loose and hanging off his body.

The countdown continued.

There was only a minute left.

… and with no appearance of The Bluemoon, will the terrorist known as Solace strike once the timer concludes? The whole city is watching with bated breath.

The seconds were ticking down. Everyone was stiff. Thomas held his wife’s hand, tight. Katy was by his side. I was with my mom, her arm over my shoulder.

Maria was by herself. I pulled her in to bring her closer.

This was it. The moment of truth.

I almost wasn’t ready.

But time waits for no man.

Five.

Four.

Three.

Two.

One.

Zero. The timer behind the newscaster went to zero.

And there was nothing.

None of us moved.

And it seems that we are now five minutes past, and nothing has occurred, which is of course a good thing,” the reporter said. “We are now waiting on reports from SPD about the current situation.

“Ah hell yeah!”

Maria cheered.

We all immediately relaxed. Katy hugged her parents, and my mom patted my shoulder.

We did it, we actually did it.

Everything fell into place, and it worked.

I almost forgot that we still had to catch Solace, I was so relieved.

I looked to Thomas, and he was already looking at me. We shared a smile. We had this. This.

Let’s enjoy this moment, this victory. Tomorrow, we can

Breaking news-

Everyone stopped.

We’ve just received a report from police that judge Edgar Brown is not accounted for and is likely to be considered missing. The report comes-

“Damn!” Thomas hissed the word. He slammed a fist at the sofa. The trepidation and fear came back, except multiplied, greater.

“How!”

I watched, deeply hoping that this was a grand prank, and we were being played the entire time. I’d settle for total humiliation than the alternative, which was a death of a human being.

Please, let this be a prank.

We were back to watching the TV, unable to look away.

Now we’re hearing that local stations are receiving-”

The picture cut.

It was replaced with static, and a single word, in an old-style font.

Solace.

Good evening, to the so-called hero known as The Bluemoon.

The voice was distorted.

The forty-eight hours I allotted you have now run out, and you have failed to reveal yourself and remove your mask. And now, others will pay the price, all due to your choice.

The sound was filtered with high and low pitches, and I couldn’t discern the gender. It grated, since that could have been the real Solace speaking, but I couldn’t get anything out of it, couldn’t make it out. So close, so far.

And one, already, has paid that price. Edgar Brown was a father to three, a devoted husband for fifteen years, a man of good virtue. Of course, he was also a pillar of this corrupt city, one of the very few left. Now, a few good men must mourn the loss of a great one.”

I was breathless.

Solace continued.

But that matters not to you, does it, hero? You believe yourself to be above the law, attacking downtrodden, troubled citizens, and forcing your twisted brand of justice unto others. Edgar Brown’s death must be something of a convenience, isn’t it? As the pillars fall, something new can be built to replace them. Something of your own sick design.

I had to force myself, to remind myself, to breathe.

Solace continued.

If so, I propose a change. Come this time tomorrow, if you have not complied, I will kill two people, then three the following day, and so forth. Perhaps this is enough to spur a change of heart within you?

My fingernails dug into the inside of my palms. My jaws clenched together, grinding. A leap past furious.

I took a glance at Thomas. He was still, not doing much of anything.

I’m looking forward to seeing you tomorrow. Until then…

The screen cut back to the news. The newscaster was sitting there, confused as the rest of us, but we weren’t paying attention, anymore.

“You have got to be kidding me!” Maria’s voice neared a shriek at the end. Kristin was massaging her forehead, and Katy had to take a seat. My mom followed, sitting elsewhere.

More knocks. At the front door, this time, and more like bangs. Thomas went to get it.

Everyone else was busy coping. I needed to talk to Thomas. Still needed to, and even more, now.

I followed him to the door.

He opened it.

“Jeffery,” he said.

One of the officers who was assigned to watch over the house.

“Gomez wants to see you. It’s important, obviously.”

Thomas took a look back, and noticed me. He looked lost at what to do.

I didn’t move. Or I couldn’t?

He went back to Jeffery.

“My family… Gomez needs me now?”

“He’s just calling for you. Can’t say for sure how long it’ll take, what I can say is that I can escort you there and back. We’ve got Percy and Sumeet if you really want to be careful.”

“Thomas? What is it?”

The rest came to the front door. Kristin passed me and moved a step behind Thomas.

“Gomez is asking for me. Probably to strategize about Solace, now that they’ve changed the game.”

“You can’t go now, you don’t know what’s going to happen, we need you here. I need you here.”

Thomas paused, then started putting on his shoes, retying his tie. He hugged his wife.

“Honey, hon, it’ll be okay. Jeffery’s escorting me both ways, so you know I’ll be safe. I’ll come up with a better plan, and I’ll put an end to this. I promise. And I promise I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

He gave her a kiss.

“Dad!”

Katy pushed through everyone for a hug.

Thomas kissed the top of her head.

“Love you both, I’m sorry it ended up like this. See you soon.”

He hugged Katy one more time, then went outside, following Jeffery.

“Thomas!”

I called out.

He turned, while still moving forward. We shared a look. Determination. At that moment, I wasn’t Alexis, and he wasn’t Thomas.

I was Blank Face, and him Hleuco.

And we weren’t going to let this stand.

A mutual determination.

“Bye,” Thomas said.

That was good for now. It was confirmation that he wanted to talk and plan with me, after Gomez, and all the more that we shouldn’t give up.

We weren’t giving up.

That was a promise.

Thomas nodded, like he was actually seconding my thoughts, and he went off, to the cars and cops. Safe hands.

Kristin closed the door, then we backtracked to the living room. It was as though the wind was knocked out of all of them. No one was feeling very talkative.

“It’ll be okay,” I said, though I couldn’t muster a lot of conviction. “It’ll be okay.”

No one responded. It was disheartening. I looked at my hands, and they were shaking, despite me.

Who was I trying to convince?

Previous                                                                                               Next

034 – Fifty-Nine on the Tenth Hour

Previous                                                                                               Next

Never before did I want to forget a school day as soon as the bell rang.

Not until today.

Ever since news broke out about The Bluemoon, and the existence of people with abnormal capabilities came to light, the world watched the struggling city of Stephenville closely, thirsty for updates. It almost became routine. Check the weather, check the traffic on the highway, check for any recent sightings of The Bluemoon. Probably something a stay-at-home father kept an eye on, drinking a cup of coffee while the rest of his family was still asleep. In Chicago. However, down here, for me, the concept of a ‘routine’ was already a lost one.

Especially today.

How was I expected to focus on the movements and minutiae of a school day when I had a potentially literal ticking time bomb to handle? It was a good thing I didn’t have math today, because the only bit of calculation I could manage right now was subtraction.

Twenty-four hours left.

I knew things couldn’t continue like this, not at school. Days couldn’t keep blurring like this, couldn’t keep pushing my normal responsibilities off to the side, neglected. Because I knew I’d end up forgetting about it, and chances were slim that I would get back on track with missing homework, failed tests, and quizzes. Ms. Powers already got on my case about it, and I suspected the rest of my teachers would be lining up pretty soon.

But, even with me being conscious of that issue, I had to neglect my schoolwork for yet another night. How superheroes were ever able to juggle their two separate lives like how I saw in the few movies I watched, I’d never know.

Maybe I should watch them again, as a reference.

Another reason why I wanted to block today out of my mind was the entire student body itself. The split-second glance, the accidental meeting of the eyes in passing. I couldn’t stop myself from attaching another, insinuating meaning behind them.

The increased media attention on the city meant that everyone knew about the threat Solace made. The police and conscientious journalists tried their best to not reveal names, but their efforts could only go so far. I didn’t disclose my weekend plans with everyone, but I had no control over how loose their lips would be. If anyone knew, they didn’t say anything, but I couldn’t shake the feeling like I was already casted out and away. Didn’t help that I wasn’t up for talking with anyone, friends or acquaintances.

Maria, for her part, never told anyone about her being there, so her day went a bit more smoothly. Lucky. The one time she kept her personal life close to the chest, it benefitted her.

Lucky.

Katy, however, had it the worst out of all of us.

She thrived off of social interactions, fed off of it. I never thought of myself as an introvert, but I definitely wasn’t an extrovert on Katy’s level. The more people she had to talk to and with, the more energized and animated she became. Sometimes she’d end up taking things too far, like planning a birthday party at a manor in the middle of nowhere, but she meant well. She loved to talk, to gossip.

And if my school day was bad, I couldn’t begin to imagine how Katy was taking things.

Everyone would know who her dad was, by now. They would know what role he had in this. People would definitely avoid her, even if it wasn’t sensible. As if the threat would reach and affect them, too. Katy wasn’t used to this, wasn’t used to the tables being turned in this way. Like she was a freak, a black sheep. How was she holding up?

I wanted to talk with her, see how she was doing, but I didn’t have the chance. My mom took me to and from school, today.

I needed to clear my head, sort things out.

Dammit, I really do need a walk.

But did I have to do it in East Stephenville?

I strolled, hands in my pocket and wary of anything that moved.

Getting here wasn’t a hassle, just time-consuming. I had way more than enough money for the multiple buses it took to reach this part of town. But it was a lot of sitting, a lot of waiting for stops. I had a backpack with me, but not with all of my Blank Face stuff. My old mask, the baton, my knife. The essentials… essentially. I wasn’t out here on official ‘hero’ business. At least, it wasn’t my intention.

I had on a maroon hoodie and black pants. I tried to blend in with the worn, dark bricks that made up the buildings here.

As I walked, I fished the paper out of my pocket. I read it over again.

I looked around me.

Last time I was in the area, The Bluemoon was revealed to the world. And while it wasn’t the case for me, it was ground zero for everyone else. Simply walking around, taking a look at things, it was easy to tell how my actions had shaken the core of this part of town.

The Halloween Riots popped up all around the city, but it especially did some damage to the East side. Property all over was broken into, businesses robbed, windows shattered, and the garbage flew whenever the wind picked up. More than usual. The place became a mess, and no one wanted to clean it.

It wasn’t exactly a warzone, but the more decent places became less so, and the bad places became worse.

Certainly not the safest place to be at this late hour.

I kept walking.

Already, Thomas was giving me progress on the police investigation on Solace. The call that Solace made was traced back to the top floor of an apartment building in the area, but it was abandoned by the time SWAT teams arrived and raided the place. A dead end, right when we couldn’t afford to run into one.

But, there was a particular detail that stood out to me.

The building was right in the middle of what used to be El Carruaje territory.

That… was certainly intriguing.

My fight against El Carruaje was never publicized, neither was the stockpile of weapons that the gang had smuggled in. As far as I knew, El Carruaje had become a non-factor, and Benny was out of the picture. But it was still odd. Intriguing, the source of the call.

And that was where I stepped in.

Take a look around, try to find any clues that connected Solace and El Carruaje and report it back to Thomas via the pager.

I moved to the side when a woman in a short skirt and high heels passed me. I was still reading the rudimentary map Thomas drew out of me, finding my way, getting my bearings.

Finally, something to do, somewhere to start. Problem was, I had to be on my own for this, I had to figure out how I was going to get anything useful. I didn’t have a lot of time to work with, either. Less than twenty-four hours. Tonight was my only chance.

No pressure.

I had to find a way to get some information, but it wouldn’t do if I started running around here as Blank Face, I needed to be inconspicuous. My old mask was only as a precaution, and it wasn’t even my real mask. Not anymore. I couldn’t afford to cause another riot.

So I had to assume a third identity of sorts, I couldn’t use Blank Face as a veil to hide behind.

My sense of self is getting thinner and thinner.

A greasy, brown paper bag floated my way. With my next step, I lifted my foot higher so it wouldn’t touch me.

My best bet was to start at the area around the apartment building the call was traced back to. Old El Carruaje territory. It wasn’t that far, only two blocks away. It might be best if I checked the building myself.

Though, it would be faster if I used the rooftops.

I considered the idea. I would be saving precious time, but there was a risk of someone spotting me. But, it was night, I had the dark to use as cover.

A couple hops, and I’d be there.

I’ll just look left and right and left again. Like driving.

Man, I need to learn how, already.

A motorcycle zoomed by, rumbling. I waited until it was out of sight, then I crossed the street, towards an alley on the other side.

A series of footsteps, following behind me. I heard them. I took note.

I continued into the alley, regardless.

I stopped. A wall.

The buildings on either side weren’t high, I could scale them easily. From there, shouldn’t be a challenge to get over to that apartment building.

Just had to take care of these clowns first.

Cornered, but not concerned.

I put up my hood, then turned.

Five men, two women, all taller than me, except one. Actually, she didn’t look like a woman at all, maybe a teenager, if not younger.

The four others were in a line, blocking my way back onto the street. The girl was out of line, in front of them.

I stepped back, and they all took one forward. Except the girl.

“Hurry up so we can get back to the real work,” one of the men said. “You’re the last one, can’t ignore your duties forever, baby.”

Another one of them kicked the girl in the back, not enough to make her fall, but she was forced forward.

The girl’s hand flashed something, even in the little bit of light here. A knife.

She looked to me, then back to the others behind her. Hesitant, from her face and stance. Inward, weak. Her hair was in pigtails, and she wore a white shirt, black pants.

Something about her…

Actually, all of them were dressed in a similar fashion. White top, black pants or shorts.

“You put yourself at a disadvantage, wasting your time like this.” It was the woman, this time. She was heavyset, speaking with a slur, out of breath at the end of her words. “Everybody else had got their thousand within the week, and you have what, until twenty-four hours?”

The girl was quiet.

“And how much you got?”

The girl was quiet.

“How much!” the heavyset woman yelled.

The girl twitched, squeaked. “N-nothing!”

“Right, nothing. And what happens if you don’t get anything.”

“I-I don’t know.”

“And you definitely want to keep it that way, believe that shit. This is a ‘L’ you don’t wanna take.”

The possibilities ran through my head. Was this some type of initiation? A test? Looking at the girl as she was right now, there was no way she’d succeed in time. She’d be put on the chopping block, suffering whatever consequences were in store for her when she inevitably failed.

A girl, a prisoner to her circumstances. Jailed by them.

Five men, one woman.

This shouldn’t take long.

I spoke like I was reading lines in class, “Don’t hurt me. I’ll give you whatever you want, just don’t hurt me.”

The men laughed, the heavyset woman laughing even harder. “See? She’s making it easier for you!”

The girl was still frozen, but she looked at me, almost more relaxed than before. She believed me, that I’d make this easy.

I was about to make it easier.

I spread my arms apart. Exposing myself.

Appearing that way.

“Everything’s in my backpack, just please, don’t hurt me,” I said.

The other thugs were making a day of this, goading the girl as she finally advanced, towards me. I stood, waiting.

Anticipating.

She finally came within reach. Before she could react, I grabbed a hold of her arm, and pulled.

I jumped forward as I let go. She fell, and I landed, putting myself between the girl and her superiors.

They weren’t expecting that, to put it lightly. They backed away, and I used that to my advantage.

I lunged at the heavyset woman first, going for her arm. I grabbed it, then turned. Using my strength, I flipped her over my shoulder. Instead of slamming her onto the concrete, I let go at as she was coming down, throwing her into her accomplices.

I knocked one of them down with her, but the others got out of the way in time. Two of them drew out knives, the other whipped out a gun.

Huh.

It only now came to me, concerning the threat of a gun. They’d been pointed at me a few times, but I’d never had gun fired at me, or anywhere near my general vicinity. Despite trying to do this superhero thing for this long, guns had nearly been out of sight, out of mind, something I rarely had to deal with. A gun was never fired.

Let’s not make tonight an exception.

I rushed to the man with gun next, elbowing him across the chin. As the gun fell from his hand, I pushed him, and his back smacked against the brick wall. Another down.

The last two attacked at the same time, but I could deal.

I was already in the air before they could manage anything. I flipped backwards, and found myself behind the two.

Did I just do a backflip?

I didn’t have time to ruminate on it, though it was pretty cool. Like… doing a backflip.

I was on them before they could even turn around.

A similar tactic as with the man with the gun. I shoved the closer man into the brick wall. His face took most of the impact, blood trailing when he slid down the wall. Down.

The last man standing. Running, now. He was already out of the alley, across the street.

Whatever. No use in going after him. Pointless.

The others here weren’t in any position to move or be an issue. But sticking around wasn’t necessary.

I walked back down the alley, over to the girl I was trying to save.

She was still on the ground, backing away as I approached. She held out her knife, pointing it at me.

Crying, whimpering.

No good. Was she that intimidated by me?

“Stand,” I said, “I’m not trying to turn the tables and rob you. I helped you out, didn’t I?”

The girl went still, and met my eyes, pausing, as if she was thinking it over.

I took off my hood. I was fine with revealing my face, here. That fight back there wouldn’t incriminate me as The Bluemoon, even with a backflip. I extended a hand.

“Here,” I said.

After a moment, she put away her knife, and took my hand, instead.

I helped her up, then we walked out of the alley, stepping over some moaning bodies, my hand in hers. She was young enough that I didn’t feel weird about it, one way or another. I let go as we took a left.

Guess I’m walking.

The girl continued to walk with me. I could take her somewhere safe, and move on to the apartment building.

“What’s your name?” I asked, filling the air. Why not. She might have information.

“Isabella,” she said, barely above a whisper.

“That’s a pretty name.”

Had to give her mine, if I wanted to keep a conversation alive. I already showed her my face, after all.

“I’m… Wendy.”

That doesn’t mean I’m going to give you my real name.

Isabella didn’t respond, but I knew I was going to be pulling the weight in this.

“Who were those guys?” I asked. “They didn’t look like your friends.”

“They aren’t.”

“Who are they apart of? Who’s their boss?”

“The Ghosts, a splinter of another gang that broke apart recently. Some man named Lawrence.”

Isabella had the voice of a kid, but she didn’t sound like one. There was a weariness to her that broke my heart whenever she spoke.

But I had to keep her talking.

“Must have been scary back there, but aren’t you a little young to be getting involved in stuff like that?”

Isabella kept her eyes to her feet. “Yeah.”

“Where are your parents? If they’re close, I can take you, or maybe call a taxi or something.”

Isabella kept her eyes to her feet. “My parents aren’t here, no more.”

I felt a sting inside me. How fucked was this city?

“Sorry to hear that,” I said, steadily becoming uncertain on how to word things. “Is there anywhere I can take you? Anywhere safe?”

Isabella glanced up, but only for a moment. “No, I dunno, I’m new here.”

New?

“I’ve only been here for a week… ish,” Isabella said.

“Oh, then I have an idea. Follow me?”

Isabella didn’t object. She followed when I went another way.

Wait a minute…

And she does look familiar.

“You didn’t happen to come in by way of sitting in the back of a semi-trailer truck, did you?” I asked.

Now I saw her face. Surprise.

“How, how’d you know?”

“Just a guess,” I said, thinking quickly. “I try to keep my ear to the ground. Don’t worry, I’m not going to turn you in.”

“Oh,” was all she said about that. We crossed, then turned. We kept going.

Isabella was one of the people I found in that trailer yard. One of the illegal immigrants. That was where I saw her. Thomas was right, the people there got divided up among different gangs. But children? Putting them through trials like that?

How fucked was this city?

I remembered that Thomas was puzzled over their transport, being supervised by Styx’s Gang. I wondered if Isabella knew anything about that.

“You’re amazing,” Isabella then said, without any prompting. Softly.

“What, me?” I didn’t expect to hear that.

“You fought Georgie and Bronson and Jay and Samantha and them like it was nothing. I wish I could be that strong.”

I just pushed around a couple of losers, it wasn’t anything to applaud, I thought. She was overestimating me.

“I’m not that strong, not at all,” I said. “You know, I think you’re stronger. It takes a lot to be caught up in this and not end up being completely nuts.”

Her eyes were still facing forward, but I saw her cheek go upward. A smile?

“Who says I hadn’t?”

A joke. She was starting to feel better.

Now was my chance.

“Um, I hope you don’t mind too much, but I wanted to ask you some questions, while we walk?”

“Oh, sure, alright.”

I made a list of questions in my head, trying to make sure I wouldn’t end up forgetting anything. Not that I expected Isabella to be in the know.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

Ciudad de México.”

Mexico City, then.

“And how far is that from, say, Pátzcuaro?”

She took time to think about it. “That’s about four hours west. The truck came from there. Why?”

“Just thinking. Did you notice anything weird about your ride? Anything off?”

“I don’t follow.”

“Are you aware of Styx’s Gang?”

Isabella looked down, in every sense of the phrase. I didn’t need a verbal answer.

“They supervised your ride into the country, am I correct?”

Isabella nodded. “I heard the motorcycles during the last leg of the trip, we thought they were cops, but the sounds followed us all the way, until we finally stopped.”

“Do you know why?”

Isabella had a look on her face. She didn’t follow.

“The thing is, Styx’s Gang doesn’t deal in transporting immigrants, but apparently your ride was an exception. My question is, was there anyone in there with you that seemed… off?”

She started to slow her pace. I had to match her.

“We were all crammed in there for days,” Isabella said. She didn’t sound very fond of having to recall that memory. “Everyone kept to themselves, as much as they could in that space. I can’t say for sure.”

No luck there, then.

“But, maybe there was one person…”

I raised an eyebrow.

“But they came after we arrived here. They wore a mask.”

That’s not what I wanted to hear.

“I think I know who you’re talking about,” I said.

“At first, I thought they were with that motorcycle gang, but I wasn’t getting that vibe. Then I realized it was that hero I saw on TV. La luna azul.”

I had to look ahead when we crossed another street. Good to know I’m on the world stage.

“I couldn’t believe my eyes, but it wasn’t what I expected though,” Isabella added, “Cradling an arm, talking to themselves. It was very strange.”

I had to cut her off. “That’s not what I was getting at, I mean someone in the trailer, with you.”

“Why are you so curious about that?” Isabella asked.

Think fast. “I said it earlier, I try to keep my ear about the ground, get any dirt I can. In this city, it’s more valuable than cash.”

“Who are you?” Isabella asked, seemingly perplexed. “Is your name even Wendy? Are you part of another gang?”

Dang, she’s sharp. “Of course my name’s Wendy, and I’m just a third party. Wouldn’t catch me dead, being involved with a gang.”

“Okay…” Isabella pulled at her shirt, when a brief rush of wind blew towards us. I had to fix my bangs.

“When you put it that way, I guess another person stuck out.”

Oh?

“Who?” I asked.

La luna azul was speaking with someone I was with. A boy named Miguel. He helped with the arm, and then a man pushed through everyone, and kicked ‘em down. The motorcycle people came in right after, and after that…”

Isabella stopped there.

But now we’re getting somewhere.

“And who was that man? What did he look like?”

“Uh, he was a gringo, skinny but tall, and he had a buzz.”

“Buzz?”

“Buzz cut.”

A surge of anger came over me. I tried my best to recall that person. Fragmented memories, but I knew I was ambushed back at the trailer. I had pinned it to Styx, but that didn’t seem right, now that I put more thought into it. The first hits came from within the trailer, I was sure of it now.

So it was someone else.

I clenched a fist.

“What else do you know about the guy?” I asked, trying to keep my voice level.

“I dunno, he was by himself, didn’t say anything the whole trip. When it was time to get sorted out… he wasn’t among the rest of us. He was with the leader of the biker gang.”

This… was also intriguing.

Thomas might have been onto something. Maybe a person of interest was among those immigrants. But certain questions remained. Who? Why? Was it something for Blank Face and Hleuco to tackle?

Maybe it was because I was desperate for answers, for things to connect, but maybe that person was Solace?

Wishful thinking, at this point. I needed more solid info.

Another street crossed. We were getting farther from that apartment building, now, but that was okay.

“Have you heard of Solace? Do you know anything about that?”

“I heard of it, I don’t know anything about it.”

Didn’t expect you to.

I decided to ask her something else. Another subject.

“That boy, Miguel? Do you know what gang he ended up in? He might know something.”

She shook her head. Isabella looked sad. Did I touch a nerve?

“All of us got split up when the masked hero was attacked, not sure why. We were taken in different trucks. When we met up again, Miguel wasn’t there.”

I didn’t like the sound of that.

I wanted to press for more, about that man, but we were coming up on our destination. If it really came down to it, I could try and visit one of Styx’s Ferrymen, again.

A corner stop for a megabus was in the distance. People were already there, waiting. I pulled her into a nearby alley.

“You’ll have to take it from here,” I said.

“Take what from where?” she asked. I still had my own things to do, but at the same time, I didn’t want to leave Isabella on her own. I just had to trust in her strength.

I gave her a soft smile.

“How about this,” I said, moving my backpack so it was in front of me, slung across a shoulder. I opened it.

I was careful about not accidentally taking out my mask or weapons, but I took out a wad of cash, some change, and handed to Isabella.

She had a quizzical look to her, feeling the weight in her hands. “How much is this?”

“I think a thousand dollars?”

“A thousand-”

“Shh, hey, but it’s not for your gang. You take this, and you get the hell out of this city. You braved a long ride getting here, and I can’t begin to imagine how terrible that trip was, but it’d be all a waste if you were stuck in Stephenville.”

She held the money in her hands, still bewildered by the amount.

“Just do me a favor,” I said.

“Yeah?”

“Use that change, and go to the payphone by the bus stop. Call 9-1-1, tell them everything you know about the Ghosts. Tell them where your boss is. I’m sure they’ll find a charge that sticks. After that, take the bus out of here. You’ll have to be on your own then, but you seem smart enough to manage. Oh, and where you’ve been staying, is there anything there that can’t be replaced with cash?”

“No.” She sounded down about that being the case.

“Cool, that should be enough money to go as you are, no one will ask any questions if you can cough up enough dough.”

Isabella split the cash four ways, stuffing each piece into both front and back pockets. “But, how can I manage if I don’t stay with a gang? It’s hard to be by yourself.”

I put a hand on her shoulder. She didn’t tense up.

“It is hard, I’m not going to lie, but it’s going to be even harder if you get tangled up in that life even more. Don’t play with fire. Besides, I might not go so easy on you if I see you again.”

“Huh?”

“Just promise me you’ll do as I ask,” I said, trying to sound kind. Compassionate. “Or, at least promise me you won’t be about that life, anymore.”

Isabella nodded, her hair bouncy. “Sure, I promise.”

“Good.”

I put my other hand on her. I spun her around, then I gave her a light push forward.

By the time she could turn around, I was already on the rooftops.

The building was in ruin. It had lost the right to provide proper shelter and necessities to people a long time ago.

Dark and cold. Dirty and cracked. Degraded and crumbled.

I entered the apartment building through the front doors, putting on my mask as I entered. I made sure to check that no one was around before I moved in.

The SWAT team cleared out the area before me, and they were good. Bags of trash and debris were kicked to the side, every room and hall scouted and cleared. If there was a trap, they wouldn’t have missed it. I had no reason to doubt their capabilities on that front.

Which gave me a straight path to the room on the top floor, marked by Thomas on my map. Room 543.

There was no door, I walked right in.

As expected, as I suspected, nothing.

The room was as trashed as the rest of the apartment building, streaks of black marked the floors and walls and ceilings, the colored tagging making everything uglier. But the space was empty, nothing here except a single wooden table at one corner. Missing a leg.

Not much.

I still took some time to inspect every wall, fixating and focusing on every detail until my eyes hurt. There were electrical outlets, but nothing plugged in. No hidden camera, no secret microphone. Could there have been something they missed? Probably not, if they had found the room like this, too. They were trained for this, I wasn’t. I didn’t even know what to look for. What stood out here, aside from the very location of the building this room was in? There was little chance it was just a coincidence, there had to be something. Maybe the info I got from Isabella was enough, enough to start working out some theories with Thomas.

Maybe.

I searched over the room again.

The table in the corner. I hadn’t checked that.

No point in skipping it.

I moved to get a closer look. It was more banged up than I thought. Scratches all over the surface, droplets of dried blood. Not a lot in the way of dust, however. It was used by whoever was in here, whoever that was. An extension of the rest of the room, really, an extension of the damage and decay this building had seen.

So, nothing.

“Agh!”

I threw the table across the room. It crashed onto the opposite wall, breaking into two.

I had less than twenty-four hours to come up with a way to stop Solace. Twenty-four hours to foil his plan. But all I had was a few potentially unrelated details from a little girl and an empty room. That wasn’t nearly enough to prevent Solace from killing a person everyday until I gave myself up.

Dammit.

I was about to leave, but I looked at table again, more broken than before. It was on its side, the undersides of the two halves facing me.

I noticed there were even more scratches underneath.

I approached to get a better look. I read the marks.

‘Doris was here,’ a number promising illicit sexual acts if dialed, and other meaningless messages were scrawled out under the table. None really stood-

Hold it.

There was one.

I took a step back, and bent down, so I could read it easily.

Messy, scraped out in large letters, but it was hard to notice among all the other crap. Easy to gloss over, I could see SWAT officers brushing this off. They wouldn’t have known to discern this.

Unbelievable.

The table was broken, and the message was split down the middle. But I could still piece it together.

No cheating.

Previous                                                                                               Next

033 – Required Strength

Previous                                                                                               Next

It had taken up to three hours to make it to Katy’s place, from getting through the frenzy at the hotel, traffic, and making sure everyone was following and in step with the police escorts. Three hours.

Forty-five hours left.

Kristin dealt with the officers while Katy let us in.

The interior was dark, but it was no matter to me. I could have navigated this whole house blindfolded, I was that familiar with the place.

Her house was big, even for a two-story home. It had a modern design and chic to it that made it hard to believe it was in the same school district as mine. The whole neighborhood had that posh air, giving the impression that it was a safe place to be. Kristin insisted that we stayed together for the night, and this was the only place that could comfortably house everyone. I was itching to do more, myself, but maybe it was something we needed, after that ordeal.

Maybe it was something I needed.

Katy pointed to the slippers lined up by the door. “Should be enough for everyone. Try to make yourself at home.”

“Remind me to marry you, Katy,” Maria said. She made room for my mom to close the door. “I have got to get in on this.”

Katy responded, “How well can you cook and clean?”

“Once you taste my spicy fish tacos, you’ll be begging me to put a ring on it.”

This is the most anyone’s spoke since leaving the hotel, I thought.

Katy flipped a nearby set of switches, and the lights turned on throughout the house. We walked through the main hallway, Katy ahead of us. The stairs were to our right, and the kitchen opened up to our left. Katy stopped at the kitchen.

A gate was set up at the entrance. Plastic, about as high as my hip.

On the other side, a dog stirred.

“Annie, come here, come here,” Katy called in a high pitch.

“Ah, the legend herself,” Maria said. She’d heard all about Annie before, to the point that Maria had to demand that Katy never bring her up again, lest she lose the feeling in her upper lip.

Annie was a labrador retriever, the family pet, absolutely adorable, but she was getting up there in years. Her fur wasn’t as bright as it used to be, gray streaked her ears and the top of her head. She moved from her bed, sluggish.

She used to be so energetic and excited whenever guests came over. Now, she was more content with just sitting by their side in the living room.

But, she was still absolutely adorable, just looking at her made me feel a little better.

Katy folded the gate to let her pass, but the dog stopped halfway, seemingly confused. She tilted her head.

Katy ordered her again, “Annie, come here, let’s go outside.”

The dog didn’t budge, instead taking a more defensive stance.

Annie started growling. Baring teeth.

“Annie!” Katy had to snap at her, scold her. “Behave!”

Katy entered the kitchen, and grabbed Annie’s collar. She didn’t bite, but she did resist. Katy had to use actual force to tug her along.

Annie continued to growl as she went out of the kitchen. But, as she approached, she tried to break out of Katy’s hold, and lunge.

At me.

It was my mom, Maria, and myself, but I saw how Annie moved, where her eyes went, which person she attempted to get. The spring in her step, the sudden fire in her eyes. Even though I played and ran around the house with her when I was a kid, it was like I was a stranger to her, now.

No one seemed to notice that, however. Mom and Maria both backed up when Annie started trying to get on her hind legs, growling all the way. Katy had to hold her down.

“Agh, shoot. I think I’ll have to keep her outside,” Katy decided, her arms shaking from Annie’s movements, her gown getting stepped on by the dog.

Finally, after Katy’s repeated insistence, Annie complied, following Katy to the other side of the house. All by the collar, letting out a grunt or snarl on the way.

“Man, even the dog’s on edge,” Maria commented. I didn’t know what to think of that, myself.

The three of us continued into the living room. Large, the ceiling high with wooden beams, a wooden floor, white walls and white curtains. The farthest wall was essentially one big window. Katy was probably on the other side, with Annie.

The room and its furniture put recently built model homes to shame. Fancy, yet cozy was the best way I could describe it. Only a few spots here and there didn’t fit, didn’t mesh, and I knew enough to know that was Thomas’s doing. Knick-knacks from different countries, a doll from Japan sat on a small table in the corner, beside two tribal African masks. If anything, it added character.

On every shelf and table, however, had picture frames of the Thompson family. Some had all three of them, but most were just Katy as a kid, running in a field, or playing on a playground. One family photo had them standing in front of the Eiffel Tower. There was another picture where Katy was playing with a smaller, younger girl. On first glance, you’d be forgiven if you thought they were stock photos. Just the shots, the lighting, the expressions, the general aura of the pictures, they were humorlessly generic.

Then again, I didn’t have a lot of photos like that at my place, so who was I to judge?

My mom and I went to the sofa, Maria fell onto the loveseat. Her first time here, and she was already making herself at home.

A flat screen TV faced us. Huge, like a large chunk of the wall in front of us was simply missing, non-existent. Shelves at the bottom had the blu-ray player, and below that was a small cabinet with an extensive library of movies.

They had an extensive sound and lighting rig. But, the TV wasn’t on, the lights for the rig weren’t activated, either.

I could really go for a movie right now, I thought, but it didn’t seem appropriate, at the moment.

The silence was deafening. Not a single word was uttered.

I couldn’t sit still. I repositioned myself, crossed my legs, switched them, crossed my arms. There was more I could be doing, other than sitting here.

But what?

A clack, and a window at the farthest wall slid open. Katy stepped into the living room at the same time her mother did, coming from the hallway. They met us in the middle of the room.

Even with more people, the silence remained.

Someone… please…

Katy was the one to break it, a false levity, a nervous tinge, “Geez, everyone’s acting like someone died.”

“Too soon,” Maria said, moving around on the seat to be on her back. “No one’s died yet.”

“Stop that,” Kristin said, “No one here is going to die, and no one here is in any danger. I just spoke with the police officers outside, and they offered to do shifts and patrol the area for the night. And, I also just got off the phone with your father. He’s already done with his business at the hotel, and he’s on his way back home.”

She moved to sit by my mom, then putting an arm around her shoulder.

“Shiori? You and Alexis are more than welcome to stay the night if you’d like.”

“I’ve got some pajamas that should fit,” Katy added, “And of course y’all can sleep in my room.”

My mom looked at me for so long I thought she was considering against it. I almost wanted her to. But I didn’t have a way of projecting that without outright saying it.

I watched her closely, intensely. Every detail, I noted, I saw.

She then faced Kristin. “We’ll take you up on that, thank you,” my mom said instead.

Stuck here for the night, when the clock’s ticking. Fuck.

Kristin hugged my mom, and she received it warmly.

“Of course, the offer extends to you too, Maria,” Kristin said, getting up from the sofa. “You might want to contact your parents, first.”

“And your boyfriend,” Katy added.

Maria gave Katy a sidelong glance.

“I left a message,” Maria said, in a way that came off as apathetic. “They’ll see it.”

Kristin was aware enough to leave that alone, and addressed all of us at once. “I’d try to explain more, but I’ll let Thomas handle that when he gets here. He’ll have more of the details. I’ll be in the kitchen, see if I can’t whip up something to eat.”

“I’ll help,” my mom said, leaving the sofa. “I want to make myself useful.”

“By all means. Katy, did you take the dog out?”

“Yup,” Katy said, as she dropped onto the seat Maria was in, nearly sitting in her lap if Maria hadn’t gotten out of the way in time.

“Okay, good. In the meantime, why don’t you set up a movie for y’all to watch?”

She left after making the suggestion, and my mom followed. And somehow, their absence sucked what little air was left in the room.

It was still… still.

Between my friends, especially these two, it usually wasn’t hard to find something to talk about. But none of us uttered a sound. Katy didn’t bother trying to turn on the TV.

The looming words of that bomber. Solace. I knew they were on the minds of everyone here. How much was it affecting them?

“The…”

Maria sighed, failing to get a sentence out.

Katy and I looked at her.

She fixed her position, sitting properly, and Katy had to scoot over to give her space. Maria undid her hair, letting it fall around her. It was hard to read her face.

“The Bluemoon really creeps me the fuck out,” Maria said, timorous. It sounded like an opener to something else.

“Some hero,” Katy said. She gave me a look. Fleeting. Was that to have me say something, too? Or was there another implication?

I felt my skin go clammy.

All this second guessing, always having to watch my step, watch my words. It was killing me.

I kept quiet.

“No, like, I really hope it gives itself up,” Maria said, stammering, “I really fucking do. I’m tired of… hearing about it all the time. Can’t it just go away?”

From across the room, her words stung. Eduardo must have said something to her about me. But what, exactly? What was the fallout like on her end? What went down?

And Katy. Did my friends really hate The Bluemoon that much? Blank Face? Me?

I wanted to read their thoughts so bad.

“Why does it have to exist?” Maria asked, her face in her palms. “Why does it have to ruin everything?”

Tears. Any more, and the last thing I would end up ruining was myself.

Katy looked my way again, and I was starting to get scared.

Please don’t look at me.

Before I could try to do anything, I heard the front door open, then close. It wasn’t long after until Thomas revealed himself, coming into the living room.

Everything about him looked down. His jacket was unbuttoned, his shirt untucked in some places. His hair was a mess, and he wasn’t standing straight.

“Hi,” he said, weary, exhausted, tired.

“Dad!”

Katy got up immediately, and ran straight to him, nearly tackling him into an embrace. I couldn’t blame her, a very small part of me wanted to do the same.

I stood, anyways, and Maria followed, fixing her hair. My mom and Kristin came up from behind Thomas, both wearing aprons.

Everyone was in the living room.

Katy stepped back, finally letting her father go. With how things were going recently, that grueling silence would have returned, but Thomas curbed that like it was nothing.

“Is everyone okay?” he asked.

There were nods all around.

Thomas looked pleased, relieved. He chose to believe us.

“How about yourself?” Kristin asked. She approached Thomas and kissed him on the cheek. He leaned down for an easy reach.

“I’m holding up. There was nothing more I wanted than to go home with you all,” he said, “But I had to give a statement, work things out with the police, not to mention handle the press and their incessant questions…”

“Then I hate to do this to you, Dad,” Katy said, “But you’re going to have to answer some more.”

He exhaled, then forced a smile. “I would rather answer a million from you than one from those reporters.”

Thomas gestured, and we all moved, taking positions. Mom and I returned to the sofa, with Maria joining us. Kristin and Katy sat together on the other seat. Thomas stood, in front of the TV.

“I’ll just run down through everything I covered back at the hotel. Easier that way. Basically, it’s still too early to know if this ‘Solace’ will follow through with the threat, but everyone is going to be treating it like he will. Police are already starting investigations as we speak, like tracing where Solace’s call was coming from, and going through and asking everyone involved with the planning and running of the dinner, to see if there isn’t a clue.”

“Meaning they’ll be knocking on our door, very soon,” Kristin said. “Asking for me.”

Thomas nodded. “‘Suspicion’ is a bad word to use, but they’re not looking at you in that way, hon. However, they will need your assistance on this.”

“And they will have it.” She wrapped her arm around Katy, and Katy leaned on her.

I only now noticed that my mom had her hand on my lap.

“Do they really have a list of all of the guests?” Maria asked, blurting out the question. “Are we all potential targets?”

Had to go and say it, I thought, but I knew it was a concern that needed to be addressed.

‘Concern,’ being a very severe understatement.

“Can’t say for certain,” Thomas answered. “Nothing on that man beside the bomb and his clothes, and nothing he said confirmed that he had a supposed list. It could’ve all been for show, a bluff…”

“Or he wants us to not be certain, and have all of us constantly doubt and fear what we don’t know,” Katy said.

“Katy!” her mom exclaimed.

Katy leaned away from Kristin. “Well, couldn’t that also be the case? They’re trying to get us afraid, to be scared as shit, all over some damn hero that can jump high!”

Visibly exasperated. Her voice uneven, shaking. She was already feeling it.

Thomas sulked, shadows over his eyes.

“That’s… also a possibility. Once again, too early to say.”

“And once we can say, it’ll be too late,” Katy said, soft. She wasn’t looking at anything in particular. Kristin hugged her, even tighter.

Maria looked at Katy, Kristin, then to Thomas.

“Can’t you ask the guy?” Maria asked, “The bomber man? Wouldn’t he know something?”

“He was immediately taken to the hospital for injuries he sustained from wherever the hell he came from. Medics had found signs of internal bleeding, multiple organ failures, the works. I overheard them having to consider the possibility of a medically induced coma, but I hope it doesn’t come to that.”

“But…”

“But, this ‘Solace,’ whoever he, she, or they are, they knew what they were doing with the bomber. If the bomb didn’t kill him, his injuries weren’t that far behind. As of now, he might live, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be useful.

“Another reason why Solace might be a credible threat.”

I spoke, the first real words I said in hours. Everyone directed themselves to me.

But that was all I had in me to say.

Thomas agreed, “The nature of their announcement, the bomb, the fact that it could be remotely deactivated, the fact that the bomber could even get close enough to grab the mic away from me-”

He stopped himself, pinching the bridge of his nose. He maintained that position for a time, and I could hear the seconds ticking away in my head. The hours.

Thomas stayed that way, but he said, “Regardless, telegraphing the threat like that can actually work to our advantage. We know the scope of the threat, and we have a time limit to formulate a plan and start getting things in order so nothing happens when Solace’s supposed timer hits zero.”

He paused, taking another second, then put his hand down, looking at us individually, in the eyes.

“The number one priority is keeping everyone safe. Each and every one of you. All those good police officers and law enforcement aren’t going to rest until this situation is handled and dissolved, and I don’t plan to, either. Nothing is going to happen to you.”

No one said anything. I wasn’t sure if anyone believed him.

“What do we do in the meantime?”

My mom asked.

Thomas put a hand in his pocket, and took out a phone. It was ringing. He silenced it.

“Terrorists want to instill fear and disturb the minds of good people. The best way to undermine their efforts is to not let that fear get to you. We have to continue, heads held high, not just for ourselves, but for everyone. To show them that we’re made of tougher stuff, and that we don’t fold to such pressure.”

A last ditch effort to instill some confidence, I guessed, Putting on a show. I just want to find that fucker and…

What exactly, would I do if I got my hands on him?

Maria raised her hand. “Uuum, does this mean we still have to go to school tomorrow?” she asked out of the blue.

Weak, short laughs all around, me included. Even Thomas managed to find humor in the timing.

“Yes, Maria, I advise you should all go to school tomorrow,” Thomas said, with a tad more energy. “You shouldn’t use this as an excuse to skip a few classes.”

“Would you blame me if I did?”

“No, I guess I wouldn’t.”

“And The Bluemoon?” Katy mentioned, and immediately she brought the mood crashing down. “This would all be over if it gave itself up.”

It. Itself. No one ever used a gender pronoun towards The Bluemoon. Katy or Maria didn’t use it, and neither did Solace. Hardly anyone did. They truly didn’t think of me as one of them. A person.

I hung my head.

“Things would certainly be easier if he does,” Thomas said. “However, The Bluemoon is most likely operating on his own agenda, we can’t assume or trust that he will come forward. We’ll have to plan as if that’s not going to happen.”

He was answering for me. How accurate that answer was, I was beginning to have my doubts.

More and more second guessing.

It never ended.

I heard Thomas’s phone. Ringing, again.

“They don’t know how to leave a man alone. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll have to take this. I’ll be in the backyard.”

“Oh, Annie’s out there,” Katy said.

“All the more reason to go outside. I’ll be back shortly.” Thomas started making his way to the backyard.

Kristin called out to him as he left. “‘Each and every one of you’ includes you, too. Don’t push yourself, you’re not even officially the new DA yet.”

He waved without turning, and went outside. My mom and Kristin both left to go back into the kitchen.

That silence.

I can’t be here, with Katy or Maria. Not like this.

“I’m going to the bathroom,” I muttered. I left the sofa, then the living room.

Then to the stairs we passed earlier, and then up.

I found the bathroom easily, locking the door behind me. I was facing the mirror, hands pressed against the marble sink, but I couldn’t look at myself.

I saw it, I saw it all. From subtleties in my mom’s expression, to how Maria went from joking to morose and back again, to Katy’s trouble state. She showed it the most.

They were scared.

Anyone would be. It was understandable. Expected, even. But all I ever felt this whole time was anger. The fire to do something to get back at Solace. It was a war he started, and it would be a war I wanted to bring. I wanted to go back to my apartment, I wanted to get my costume and go out there. But…

But…

What good would that do?

I saw them all. How down they looked, the gloom that held them. Was this the only thing I’d ever provide as Blank Face? Fear, and people willing to capitalize on it? Did I do any good as Blank Face? I’d crippled a gang, stopped some crimes, fought against the cornerstone of the city’s underworld establishment, all for what? Who saw it that way? Who cared to look at it from that perspective? Or would everyone really prefer to have me gone, out of the picture?

My family, my friends, others. Their lives were at stake, now. Because of me.

Would it be better if I did give myself up?

Without looking at myself, I washed my hands. I was up here for too long, already. And thinking like this all the time… I’d lose my mind.

I turned off the faucet, and dried my hands, using a fancy towel on the rack beside me. I left the bathroom, and found Thomas waiting for me outside.

“AK,” he said, calling me by that nickname again.

“T-Thomas,” I said, unexpectedly. I patted my backside, and fixed my dress. My hands were still wet. “Everyone’s downstairs?”

“Yeah, Katy’s preparing a movie.” Thomas blinked, but he let his eyes stayed closed for a while. He had a shoulder on a wall, propping himself. He looked so done that he’d flop onto the floor if he didn’t have something to help him stay upright. “I’ve got more business to handle, so I’m heading into my office.”

“Okay.”

“How’re you feeling?” he then asked.

I answered honestly. “Keeping it together. Trying to, anyways, but I feel like I’m going to explode in any minute. I would say I’m drained, but you look the part more than I do.”

Thomas either nodded, taking in my answer, or he was already drifting elsewhere.

“That,” Thomas said, “But also, how are you feeling? Thirsty? Hungry? Stomach pains?”

“Oh, I’m getting to be a little thirsty, I guess. A small itch in the back of my throat. You… I was able to manage for the whole week.”

“That’s good. I suspect it won’t be that way for much longer.”

“No.”

“I’ll have to put that on my list of things to do. I tried thinking of possible ways I could get you blood, but nothing came up that wouldn’t automatically raise flags, of course. Can’t just go through the process of donating blood and ask to bring it home with you. Can’t just walk into a blood bank and ask for some, either. I’m more than aware of ‘gang doctors,’ but that’s underground, black market territory, so we’ll probably have to cross that out, considering our modus operandi. I’m really sorry.”

“No, I really appreciate you trying to help in that. You’ve almost put more thought into it than I have.”

And I don’t want to keep having you give up more and more of your blood to me.

I could see the timer ticking in my head, imagining what it would be like when it got to zero.

Thomas spoke when my imaginary timer reached ‘one.’

“I wanted to talk with you the most, about all of this,” Thomas said, “And yet, you ended up being the last in line.”

I didn’t know how to take that.

“Everything I said earlier still applies. What I didn’t mention is that the police will be doubling down on their lookout for you. This might be enough for the National Guard to make a move, too.”

I swallowed. Even more complications. Even more players in this sick game.

“This is gang related, right?” I asked. “Couldn’t Styx’s Gang be involved in this? They were the ones I revealed the Blank Face name to. The last thing Solace said, that ‘blank face in the crowd’ line. It has to be connected to Styx, somehow.”

“It’s a good assumption, very likely a correct one, but considering Styx and his gang, they’d only disseminate that information to others. I wouldn’t put this past them, but they might not be the true masterminds. Could be someone else.”

Even more complications. Even more players in this sick game.

I swallowed, again.

All of it was weighing down, crushing me. It wouldn’t take more for me to give out, entirely and completely.

I wanted to curse, but I didn’t. Thomas knew how I was, now. Part of me felt weird about it.

I was at a loss of what to say.

Thomas picked up my slack. “What do you want to do?”

What do I want to do?

I was just asking that, myself.

“What… What do I do?” I asked, voice unsteady. “People could die, all because of me. What am I supposed to do, if I don’t reveal myself?”

Thomas considered his response. He closed his eyes.

He opened them.

“You maintain. You maintain, and endure. This is what Blank Face has to be about. Unwavering, even in the face of threats and danger. Tougher stuff.”

I reiterated, “People could die, and it’d be all my fault. I don’t want that on my hands. I want to get Solace and stop him myself, but… I don’t know where to start. I wanted to go home, get my costume, but I’d be running blind. And I saw everyone’s reaction and… I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know. I don’t know if I can endure this. Maybe I should just give myself up, I-”

I had to force myself to stop my rambling.

Thomas was watching me, intently, and put his hand on my arm. He squeezed.

“Don’t you dare think for a second that you’re not worth existing. No matter what anyone says, no matter what anyone does, you belong. It might be hard for people to see it, but you’ve done good. At a sufficient minimum, you’ve done good by me. And if everyone gave up just because others didn’t think they belong, we’d be living in a much sadder, much scarier world.”

I was shaking my head the whole time, my eyes getting wet, my makeup starting to run. My normal life was already ruined, there was no getting out from this unscathed, personal life or just my person. Solace challenged me, and dragged along everyone else in order to do it. Even if Hleuco and I stopped Solace, the ramifications would last, linger. People would hate and fear Blank Face even more, and everything we had done against the gangs would be wasted. Even if Solace’s threats were just empty promises, irreparable damage was already done.

What could I hope to gain?

“Alexis, listen,” Thomas said. He pushed himself off of the wall and put his other hand on my other arm. “Don’t you dare think for a second that you’re alone in this, either. I’ve told you that much already. I’m here to help, I will help, and police will be indirectly helping you, too. They want to stop Solace just as much as you do. We’re going to get through this, together.”

I nodded. It was all I could do.

“Are we good?” Thomas questioned.

“Not good,” I answered, “But better.”

“You’ve got this, Alexis, just take it a day at a time.” Thomas let go, and walked past me, going deeper into the hall. “With that being said, I won’t be able to join you as Hleuco, not for the time being. Not with insisted police protection, press, and general preparations as the district attorney-elect.”

I figured as much, but I felt like choking, regardless.

“I can still contact you, feed you information so you’re not in the dark about how the investigation is going. Plans, too, if I think there’s something you can do. I’ll do the same about your blood situation, and if I can find anything about your true nature, but that last bit’s will have to really be in the back burner.”

“I don’t know if I could repay you for everything you’ve done,” I said, feeling guilty. “Out of everyone here, I’ve put you in the worst position.”

Thomas shook his head. “Back when I first met you as Blank Face, I was the one to approach you. I encouraged you to do more with your powers. If we really want to play the blame game, I gave myself the biggest cross to bear.”

He continued, “When you get up to my age, you end up with a lot of regrets, a lot of missed chances and overlooked opportunities. Your only options are to either forget about them, or work harder to not add another regret to that list. I will not turn you into a bullet point on that sad list.”

He slouched one shoulder, and rested on the wall again.

In my head, and for as long as I knew him, Thomas was nothing if not a pillar. Standing, never faltering to pressure, tension, stress. An absolute. Someone to look up to, and even admire.

Tonight, I saw a crack in that pillar.

“Good night, Alexis,” Thomas said, faintly. “Enjoy that movie, get some sleep, and when tomorrow comes, keep your chin up. I’ll be in touch.”

His office was at the end of the hallway, and I watched as he retreated into it. The door didn’t make a sound as it opened and closed.

I wondered how much of what he said was for himself, too.

With gradual, heavy steps, I went back down the stairs, back into the living room. The lights were a contrast from earlier. Everything was off except for the lights for the TV, and the TV itself. Everyone was around the TV, a light rom-com playing. A movie I’d seen before. Only Katy and Maria were up, eyes glued to the screen, eating popcorn. They didn’t acknowledge me coming in. Which was for the best, I didn’t want to show my face.

I sat next to my mom, praying she wouldn’t snore and bother the rest. I placed my head on her arm, and I focused on her breathing, the rise and fall of her chest. The television went blurry, and I closed my eyes, the sounds muffling.

A small bit of peace, a calm before the storm. I just wanted this moment to last, even for a second longer.

The time was displayed on the blu-ray player. I had checked it before I dozed off.

Forty-three hours left.

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