Interlude – Shiori

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「継続は力なり。」

That was what Shiori thought.

It had grown to be a bad habit, especially within the last few years, but she couldn’t help but think that may no longer be true. It helped with meeting the next day, sure, but when would things start coming to pass? How long would she have to wait?

The only way to find the answer was to keep going.

「毎日頑張ったら、大丈夫ですわ。」

The lights flickered above, or did she just blink?

Another quiet day at TRF Hair Salon. Shiori liked quiet days. Although, it was her turn to close up shop. Shiori wasn’t too thrilled about that.

Especially today.

Sirens, people shouting, a gunshot. The bland, generic pop music did little in overpowering the natural sounds of downtown Stephenville. Shiori swept some hair into the corner, to be collected and thrown away later.

Everyone else had gone home already. As much as she liked her coworkers, she did prefer to be on her own. She didn’t quite connect with them like they did each other, which, over the years, was something she learned to not be so concerned about. Besides, they were more comfortable speaking to each other in their own language, she never took the time to learn Vietnamese. Also, perhaps it spoke to something within her own personality. She was better off on her own. Something she didn’t think she shared with her own offspring.

Although, there was a safety in numbers, and it was getting late.

She checked the clock. And again. An hour until closing.

The front door opened, the metallic clinking that followed signaled a new customer. Shiori turned. She smiled.

“Welcome. Ah, hi, Thomas.”

Thomas Thompson. A prominent lawyer who owned a prominent firm located at the heart of downtown. Handsome, in the traditional sense, despite being well into his middle-aged years. Fit, too. The suit he had on was form-fitting, and it was clear that he exercised regularly. The only signs of his age were the small, thin crinkles by his eyes, an olive green. His hair was a little unruly, which could explain his being here. A subtle pompadour, slicked back by gel.

Attractive? Absolutely. It was an opinion that Shiori wouldn’t be shy about sharing to the man himself. She did not, and would not, of course, because that would be rather odd. To clarify, it was strictly an opinion of a platonic manner. Like describing a rose as red. Obvious, plain as day. But more importantly, other than stating a simple adjective, Thomas was married. And Shiori was good friends with Kristin, too.

Also, he was the father of Katy Thompson, her daughter’s best friend.

Thomas replied back, calm. “Hi, Shiori.” He walked through the front waiting area and towards Shiori’s chair. “Mind if I get a quick trim this late?”

Shiori shook her head. “No problem at all.”

Thomas sighed, relieved. “Thank you.” He sat down.

Shiori began getting her equipment ready, taking out her scissors and combs. “Just the usual?” she asked as she wrapped a gown around him to cover his suit.

“Just the usual.”

She started with the spray bottle, spritzing Thomas’s hair with water. She combed through his hair to get out the product, and to get started with the cutting.

“Busy on the weekend?” Shiori asked.

“Absolutely, otherwise I’d come tomorrow. In fact, it’s a good thing I happened to catch you at this time.”

“Good thing.”

“What about you? Busy this weekend?”

“Yes,” Shiori said, as she snipped away some hair. “I am. It’s my daughter’s birthday, tomorrow.”

Thomas scratched his chin. “Oh, that’s right. Katy said something about that. She seemed to be looking forward to it, herself.”

She trimmed a little more off the top.

“Yeah, she said something about planning a party for her tonight.”

She cut again.

「うるせっ。」

“I asked Alexis to come home early today.”

“I was probably wrong, then. Maybe she meant the weekend?”

Shiori continued cutting. Earlier in the morning, she had asked Alexis, her daughter and only child, to come home immediately after school ended. She had plans of her own towards celebrating her daughter’s birthday.

Against her own self-control, she went ahead and gave Alexis her birthday gift early, a black wristwatch. A simple but sleek design. A relic of a past she wished she could forget. But she wouldn’t tell Alexis that. Not yet. Maybe when she was older. And memories only meant something to those who had them. An item was simply an item. For now, she could just enjoy the gift as it was.

Next, was the meal she had planned. Fried chicken and miso soup. Those were Alexis’s favorite foods, back when she was younger, but Shiori hadn’t made that particular a meal in quite some time. She thought it would be a nice surprise, and a way for the two of them to spend some legitimate, quality time together. All throughout the week, she’d been visiting different farmer’s markets and Asian supermarkets, picking out the best ingredients to make the best versions of her daughter’s favorite dishes. A chore, but absolutely worth it.

To be honest, she was actually looking forward to it herself.

She just wanted to get home.

Thomas kept on the subject. “So, how old is she turning? Sixteen?”

“Sixteen this year.”

“Wow. Time flies. I remember when playing outside was enough to satisfy her and Katy. Now, it’s phones phones phones.”

Shiori chuckled. It was certainly true.

“It’s unbelievable,” Thomas said. “Now, they’re already getting ready to go to college. Does Alexis know where she wants to go, yet?”

Shiori paused. She too wanted an answer to that question. It wasn’t like she hadn’t asked, but the darting eyes, the mumbled words, the general unsure demeanor was much to be desired. Shiori decided not to push, for now, but things would have to get going on that front eventually. Alexis wasn’t going to be a little girl forever. Youth was valuable thing, but so loosely grasped by those who had it.

「もうわかてるよ。」

“She’s still trying to decide,” Shiori said, answering for her daughter.

“Still keeping her options open, then, not bad,” Thomas said, “Katy’s in the same boat, she’s looking at some of the Ivy League schools, and I’m fine with that, but it’d be nice if she stayed in-state. Certainly cheaper,” he said, before smiling, eyes closed. Shiori saw him in the mirror.

「おめでとうございます。」

Sirens, people shouting, this time closer, louder. Shiori glanced out to the windows by the entrance. Waiting if the fire of a gun would follow. But it was too dark to see outside. The bars protecting the window didn’t help either. So she waited, anxious.

Nothing.

Her body relaxed. Somewhat.

“Crazy town,” Thomas commented, picking up on what just transpired. His tone was light, despite everything.

“Should you really be coming around this part of town, anymore?” Shiori asked, concerned. “Too dangerous.”

“I should be saying that to you,” Thomas replied. “Besides, that’s exactly why I do what I do. These gangs and cartels think they can hold control in the city forever? Don’t think so.” Thomas sharply inhaled through his nose. “Got a pretty decent case tomorrow.”

“Is that so?”

“Certainly is so. We finally nailed one of the upper guys from the Colombian Cobras. If all goes well, and I hope it does… Honestly, it will only momentarily slow things down, but it’s something. The whole thing’s being televised, so, can’t mess this up. Because, if we can secure a win on this, that will help me get a win in the long run.”

Shiori nodded, silently, trimming away at more hair. She wasn’t terribly keen to the particulars about the rampant gang violence that plagued the city, like the different names and factions and leaders and how they were all related. She only knew what she needed to know. Keep your head down, and don’t stay out longer than you need to.

Every day, it seemed, there was something on the news about the latest in Stephenville’s crime epidemic. A drug bust gone wrong, a drive-by claiming both innocents and those not so, or just simple, random acts of depravity with no connection to anything greater except as a symptom of the setting. It was to the point that it became background noise, something that was easy to accept as a part of daily life. Thankfully, Shiori hadn’t experienced anything like that personally, but the thought was always in the back of her mind.

「他の場所に引っ越しましたら、いいだろうな。」

If it only wasn’t so damn expensive. Also, there was Alexis’s own personal feelings to consider. Her roots dug much deeper into this city than hers ever did, for good or for ill. Alexis would not be so fond about that proposition. She might act out, protest in her own way. And things…

「本当に、ダメよ。」

Shiori refocused on trimming Thomas’s sideburns. Now was really not the time to be dwelling on personal matters. That could come later.

“Good luck, and do your best,” was all Shiori said on the matter.

“Thanks,” Thomas replied, with a hint of cautious optimism.

Silently, Shiori continued her work, making sure each cut was made with precision, every trim clean and kept things symmetrical. She took the occasional step back, making sure things were even, eyeballing it. It was funny, in a sense. Years ago, people spent hours on her hair. Now, she was the one who was meticulously mulling over each strand on someone else’s head.

She slowly spun Thomas around in his chair, seeing how his hair looked from every angle.

「いいかな?まあ、いいじゃん。」

She took a towel and started brushing Thomas’s ears and neck, a signal that she was almost done.

Finally, she handed him a mirror, and let him see for himself.

“Okay?” she asked.

Thomas gave a careful inspection of his hair as well, running his fingers through his damp scalp, putting it up, imagining what it would be like with gel. He took his time.

He looked up at Shiori, and smiled. “Looks great.”

She grinned back, satisfied at his satisfaction. “Good. Would you like gel on now?”

“No, I’m fine,” he said, taking off the gown and getting out of his chair. “I should be getting home, honestly.”

“Okay.”

「私も。」

Shiori followed Thomas to the register, both taking their respective sides. She tapped on the register, inputting the cost of a single haircut.

“Nineteen ninety-five,” she said, “Cash or credit?”

“Cash,” Thomas stated, pulling out a wallet from his pocket. He handed her a bill.

“Fifty is all I have,” he said, almost apologetically.

“No problem.” She had to hide her envy that he could treat fifty dollars so casually. She punched in more buttons to calculate the change.

“Actually,” he said, stopping Shiori. “You can keep the change. Tell Alexis ‘happy birthday’ for me.”

It quickly became harder to mask her envy. “Oh, thank you very much.”

“No, thank you,” Thomas said, “For you service.” He turned, and faced the door that lead outside to Stephenville. “I’ve got it from here.”

“Good luck, again.”

“I appreciate it. ‘Walk straight with Thomas,’” he said, almost abashedly. “Wander no more.”

“See you again,” Shiori said, finally, then waved as he headed out the door. Clinging followed as it closed.

Shiori stood there, in the middle of the salon, tired yet excited. There was still quite a bit left to do, in terms of closing up shop. Checking inventory, cleaning up her station, sweeping… Her plate was full of things to do. And there was still dinner that she needed to prepare. It’d be a little late, but it would be worth it, she’d make sure of that. A quick check of her phone hadn’t shown any messages from Alexis, saying she was home. She should have made it clear to text her. She was a little worried, but not concerned. It would all be fine. She would go home, cook dinner, and they would enjoy a nice, peaceful meal between the two of them.

「それが、いいだね?」

That was what Shiori thought.

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008 – Mal

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An hour before midnight, and I was wrapped in a strange sense of déjà vu.

My back was stuck to the wall, alongside a painting, swaying back and forth to the music. There weren’t as many people, so I had some room to move. The music was louder as well, the rumbling bass filling up my ears, scooping out anything else until that was the only thing existing in my capacity of hearing. Not even my own thoughts were audible. Other than the tight space, it was the standard fare. The dim lighting, the bright neon flashes, questionable dancing. Consummation of various liquids and substances.

In other words, I haven’t felt more at ease in a long time.

A slurred voice, and a smack on the shoulder caught my attention.

Katy. With Maria.

Katy stumbled onto me, her hand running against the wall for balance. For a party, she was dressed pretty comfortably, wearing a very baggy grey sweater, with a checkered green button-up layered under it, as seen from the collar peeking out. Her jeans were slim but not tight, the only thing tight about her was her pinroll game.

Maria went for a different approach, but she still looked good. A plain white shirt, tucked into her black jeans. Simple, but classic. I really needed to take tips from these two. My shorts and ugly long sleeves weren’t going to cut it. I did have my watch, though.

“Hey guys,” I said, “How’s this place looking?” As a bit of compromise, I agreed to go out with the two, only if we went elsewhere. Katy didn’t mind making that concession, since, according to her, she had the connections to find other parties around the neighborhood. We tried a house before this one, but we didn’t last ten minutes before Maria shooed us out the door with no explanation.

Maria answered, “We’re staying here. Not like we have a choice.” She showed me what she had in one hand. I counted three bottles.

“Katy,” I said, letting my tone show. “Little early for that, isn’t it? We just got here.”

“Whatever,” she slurred back. Giving up all hope on standing on her own, she fell towards me. Her hands grabbed for my chest.

Her state of being was funny to see. “H-hey!” I laughed, trying to fix her arms and set them by her side. To keep her still, I put an arm around her.

“And I could say the same to you, too,” I said to Maria.

“Not really,” she said back, curt. She was never one for words.

I wasn’t about to argue with her. This past week had been the most abnormal week I’ve had… ever. A week ago, I couldn’t do an inch of things I was capable of now. And it had left me more than a little winded, mentally and emotionally. Maybe not physically.

I almost couldn’t believe that I made it through this week at all. On top of worrying about ‘normal’ things, like homework, volleyball, boys, I had all of this to deal with. Still do. There was still so much I had to consider and think about. Fun.

So, yeah, I decided to let myself take it easy, this time. I deserved this.

Katy began stirring in my grip. I had to adjust to keep her from falling over me.

Katy’s next words, I managed to make out. Barely. “You’re not… going hard enough,” she said, breathing out every word. You could cut her breath with a cleaver. It was thick with the smell of alcohol.

“I think you’re going hard enough for the both of us,” I said. “For all three of us.”

“No… more…” She put a red cup to my face, seemingly out of nowhere. That smell, like an unwanted friend. My stomach churned. I never wanted rum less in my entire life.

“I’m here, but I’m definitely not drinking anything tonight.”

“C’mon, just one…”

“What did I just say?”

“We haven’t done your birthday yet.”

“What does that even mean? Actually, where’s the cake, even?”

“It’s… somewhere here.”

“Good work, Katy.”

She exhaled again. “Just… one… drink… and… done…” Somehow, she lost her footing, and almost brought me down with her. Almost. I leaned us against the wall to stop us from slipping any more.

“Damn, girl,” I said, astonished at the level of inebriation she’d managed to achieve so early.

“Come… on… just…” She closed her eyes, her hands floating in front of her, searching for what I assumed was another drink. There was no way she’d listen to me like this.

“I’m trying to my keep myself in line here” I said, still trying to reason with her. “I mean, you still haven’t told me whose house this is.”

And more importantly, I don’t even think I can handle alcohol anymore.

“I did tell you! It’s… it’s… Par…”

Who?”

I looked to Maria, who smiled with a hint of sympathy.

I tried one last time, to appease Katy and to get her to slow down. “One drink, okay? And then you are the one who’s done.”

She nodded, sluggishly. I couldn’t tell if that was her agreeing to my terms and conditions, or that she trying to keep herself up.

I had to repeat myself to make sure she got it. “Just one drink. Just one. Then you’re done, ‘kay?”

She nodded, but she was nodding the whole time I was talking. Did she really hear me?

Damn, I told myself, I’m so gonna regret this. I checked the clock on the wall of the living room. Eleven o-nine.

Shit, I thought so.

All sense of time was robbed from me, and my head felt like someone was spinning it on a stick. Even when sitting as still as possible, I was spinning. You’d think I’d learn.

If I could be fair to myself, I did manage not to go as overboard as last time, I didn’t even drink half as much as before, like that made a tangible difference. I still felt awful. Surprised I could even drink any alcohol at all, given the taste of anything else besides water and… other things. Actually, it had tasted so bad anyways, I might not have been able to tell the difference.

I had to fight my own body in order to stand myself up, my movements slogged and heavy. Every inch of me creaked, aching with a pounding soreness. I hated myself every time I ended up like this, but at the same time, it was fun its own way, trying to function in this state. Like a game.

But, I ultimately succeeded, getting up on both feet. Katy was nearby, sleeping on a couch like a log. Down for the count. She wouldn’t get up until the morning. She should be fine, but she’d better not blame me if anyone were to draw on her face. I fixed her into a better position, just in case.

I hobbled through the house, passing people I didn’t know, and found myself in the kitchen. It was just me, but the place had already seen some destruction of others. Scraps of food, plates and cups, empty bottles were all over the floor and countertops. I was just glad this wasn’t my own home. Someone else could deal with this.

On a table, I found what was left of my cake. A single slice of double chocolate, up for grabs. Dang, missed my birthday cake again. I couldn’t eat it, but I felt my heart long for that decadent flavor.

Oh yeah. I remembered that Katy wasn’t the only one I came to this house party with. Mary… um… Maria. She should be around here somewhere. It had been a while, I should check up on her.

I turned back to the living room, and found the first person I bumped into. I stumbled through my question.

“Oh, her? I think she went outside with…” I didn’t catch what that last word was supposed to be, but it gave me the idea of stepping outside. At least it saved me the trouble of having to check the large house.

My face tensed up with effort as I pushed through the dancing crowd, holding on to every shoulder I passed. I made it to the door, and escaped outside.

Greeted yet again by the night chill that I hated. I’ve always been a summer person, and not just because of the lack of school responsibilities around that season. The sunlight on my face, the light sweat that gets worked up from just a few steps outside, I actually liked that sensation.

This was the complete opposite.

A rough wind ruffled trees and leaves on the lawn. I faced the rest of the neighborhood, and much like the party from a week ago, there was no one here. However, maybe from the street lights that dotted the cul-de-sac, all the cars that parked in a semi-circle along the perimeter, and the music that could be heard even out here, it didn’t seem that lonely.

I walked off the porch, and onto the front lawn. Grass brushed along my ankles. As I gazed above me, I had to try and remember why I stepped out here.

Finding Maria, right.

There was another sound out here, that wasn’t stuttering hi-hats. Different. More concerning.

A shout.

It came from around. A tad curious, and plenty worried, I lugged myself over to the source.

As I got more into earshot, what I heard wasn’t pretty.

“-said he’d be here, but he ain’t, so what we gonna do about that?”

“Guh, let go! Fuck, stop!”

What’s going on?

Even in the dark, I was able to make them out. It wasn’t hard. Two people. From the tightly tied back ponytail, heavy makeup, long eyelashes, I recognized it as Maria. Her expression, however, was one I didn’t recognize on her. Partial anger, some frustration, wholly fear. She was fighting back someone standing between me and her. A guy. But because I had no intrinsic talent for knowing people from their backs, I had no idea who this was, at all.

I shouted out at them. “Hey! What are you doing?” My voice left me faster than my rationality.

What was I doing?

He turned to me. A Latino-looking guy. His face contorted to a mean look. A large white shirt went down past his waist, almost to his knees. His pants were clownishly baggy as well. I didn’t know there were people who still dressed like this.

Maria had mentioned a boyfriend before, but I’ve never met him. She was always a little deflective whenever we brought up the subject of us meeting him. Two years of being together, and we’d never even seen a picture of the guy. Not even a name. It’d struck me as odd, but I didn’t want to upset Maria by continuously prodding her about it. She looked happy enough when she did talk about him, it seemed like.

But was this guy him? No, something was off, aside from the obvious abuse. Maria was the type when, if hit, she’d hit back three times harder. Of course, that meant little to a guy who could just hit back six times harder.

So then, who is this guy?

“Fuck you doing here!” he shouted back, his accent thick. Cartoonishly thick, like he embellished it for show.

“If you’re really going to harass a girl, you really shouldn’t do it next to a large house with a lot of people. Someone might find you.”

I really should think over my words first.

“Bitch, you stay outta this!” He pushed Maria down, slamming her to the ground. He then came towards me. Uh-oh.

If he was capable of doing all that to her, then doing any worse to me wouldn’t be below him. He threw a fist.

Weird, I saw him move so slowly. It didn’t even look like a punch, more like he was just leisurely stretching his arm out. Just a step to the side would have been enough. But my balance and coordination were more than compromised. I simply watched as the fist connected with my torso.

“Aah!” My eyes wanted to jump out of their sockets. I immediately curled up, grabbing my stomach, and bowled over.

I went down on my knees, coughing all the way. My insides were swirling around me, wanting to jump back up my throat. I covered my mouth to try and suppress that urge.

“Yeah, thought so,” he taunted. For good measure, he swung his foot upward, kicking me in the cheek. What was up with this guy? I knew I was supposed to recognize all of this as pain, but rather, everything felt muted and far away. I got sent one way, and fell back down.

He backed away, and was walking back to Maria, who still hadn’t gotten back up. Shoot. The situation had already escalated, and there was no way I could let this guy go back to her now. I reached out, and managed to get a hold of his ankle.

He stumbled, but didn’t fall over. It didn’t take much for him to shake off my grip.

“What do you want now, fucker!” he yelled, pulling me back up by my hair. If nothing else, I didn’t appreciate my hair being treated like that, I had spent some time on it.

When my feet got a good hold on the ground, I pushed him away. Had I pushed any harder, I might have fallen back down again.

He grunted, and lunged after me, throwing another punch. Naturally, being punched in the stomach and kicked in the face doesn’t suddenly make me awake and alert, and I was left standing in its path, watching as another punch came for me.

But dodging did not have to be my only option.

Carefully, I brought a hand out in front of me, the palm open to catch his fist. Seeing it all come together was odd, like we had rehearsed it beforehand, and I was just waiting for him to come to position. Good thing too, since it gave me some time to figure out which of his three fists was the real one.

Eventually, he did hit my palm, and I wrapped my hand around his. In my head, clouded by rum and whiskey, an idea came to me.

What if I just closed my hand completely?

With no conscious agreement, I adhered to that whim. I closed my hand. It was as easy as squeezing a rice ball.

“Fuuuaaaaaah!”

A bloodcurdling yell, and he fell to his knees. Incomprehensible, he blubbered and screamed while tugging at his wrist, trying to get away from me. A second, and then another when it finally clicked that I had just crushed this man’s hand.

Stunned, I let go, and he collapsed completely. He was reduced to a whimpering pile of clothes, with how baggy his shirt and pants were. He huddled over his hand, and I couldn’t see the extent of the damage.

Crap, I fucked up.

I backed away, trying to remove myself from the scene. Hopefully, with it being dark enough, and Maria knocked down and disoriented, she wouldn’t have realized that I was here. I turned around, and made my leave.

But my stomach had other plans.

A hot, distinctive liquid rushed up my gullet, and out my mouth. I vomited right there, only getting enough sense of myself at the last second to not mess up my clothes. In reality, it wasn’t that bad, considering what happened moments ago, it was inevitable.

No, what really worried me, was what I vomited.

The instant I felt my stomach churn, I expected a clear stream of liquid, and the smell of alcohol to fill my nose. I hadn’t eaten ‘real’ food in a few days, and as such, there shouldn’t have been any solids. Instead, a thick, dark mass of a runny substance came pouring out, and I was left in shock and horror.

I was throwing up blood, and a lot of it.

I stood there, letting this all take place, my ears filling with the mushy sound of liquid hitting soil and my own gagging voice. I knew I had to get out of here ten seconds ago, but all movement was seized from me, like my body thought it should prioritize doing this, above all else. Running away be damned.

When I did stop, I was standing in a puddle of black filth. So much for keeping my clothes clean. I hopped twice to get out of it while wiping my mouth and chin of any loose strands of drool. I mouthed the word ‘shit,’ and it certainly tasted like it. That, I had to say, woke me right up.

I gripped my stomach again, rumbling like the inside of a washing machine. I nearly doubled over in pain.

In exchange for a full stomach, it was replaced with an overwhelming thirst and hunger. All of the symptoms came back like a cancer. I was sweating bullets, and a chill electrified my skin. It was enough to forget about the soft throbbing of my face and my scalp.

I needed to curb this, pronto.

I looked back at the scene behind me. Maria clung to the wall, using it to get up. She wasn’t looking my way. Her not-boyfriend, whoever it was, was still curled on the ground, screaming and wailing in pain. Someone inside was bound to hear him and come this way. I needed to be gone by then.

Stomach twisting, and I stared at the helpless man. I let my mind wander.

No! Hell no!

I booked it, leaving the scene. Nothing mattered besides getting out of here.

Stop, Maria!

I immediately stopped right where I was, despite every bit of me wanted the exact opposite.

I couldn’t abandon my friend, not like when she was like that. But I couldn’t have her see me like this.

For a moment, I stood, struggling between running to find a rabbit to feed on, or run inside the house to alert others, yet risk people seeing me as I am.

Before I could make a decision, I was seized by the wrist, and yanked back.

Another man. He was in similar attire to the other guy, expect he had on a dark shirt. Equally baggy. A bandana covered his forehead.

A friend of that guy? Certainly no buddy of mine.

“You!” he yelled. He turned around, then looked back at me. “The hell you do?!”

My answer for him was a grunt, followed by a slap across the face. He let go as he fell, landing onto the dirt, a distance farther than any normal-strength slap would allow. Confused, but I was already used to that.

The aches spiked again, and with that, I fled the scene.

I got about halfway down the cul-de-sac before I tripped, my vision swimming and starting to fade. I groaned.

More sounds came from behind me. Yelling, the slamming of a door, a car starting. I was suddenly cast in a light.

Get up, get up, get up!

Thinking that was easy enough, performing that task was a whole other challenge. I staggered to my feet, and I had to concentrate on my next few steps. But the still-constant commotion from behind spurred me to move faster.

I glanced back. A car was facing me, revving up.

It sped ahead. And so did I.

I ran down the street, the car followed.

Shit, shit! They’re gonna kill me for this!

I turned to go another way, but the car sharply veered to keep up, accelerating faster.

It didn’t take long for the car to catch up.

I wheeled around. Nearly blinded by the incoming vehicle, I jumped, with no real plan of anything after that.

The car just missed the tips of my toes.

My landing was in no way graceful. I fell, hard, my shoulder taking the brunt of the fall. Couple that with the screaming agony in my stomach, I wouldn’t be far from passing out, now.

But the car, my pursuant, was delayed. Albeit briefly.

Once again, I was slow to my feet. I had to get going, the car was already starting to turn around.

Think outside the box. Where can’t a car go?

I looked around. It wasn’t hard, after giving it a few seconds. I ran towards a house, jumping onto the roof.

More shouting from behind. Whoever was chasing me must have saw. Oh well. Go.

I crossed the top of the house, and hopped down into a backyard. I went over a fence into another home’s backyard, and from there, made my way back onto a proper street. For now, those guys – whoever those guys were – shouldn’t be a problem.

I kept running like a madman, trying to find just one. A single rabbit. Down one road, turned onto another. Nothing. I saw them all the time, there had to be one around here somewhere. My stomach was yelling out, any more of this and I might go insane.

Briefly, I entertained the idea of crawling into a storm drain, searching for rats. Didn’t have to be rabbits, right? Stray cats, stray dogs. I’d deal with the potential case of rabies later, something had to satiate me in this very instant.

A car drove in my way when I got to an intersection. Alarmed, I leaped out of the way, the car swerving at the sudden movement. I continued running.

In every which direction, I ran pell-mell, trying to find anything that could help me. I abandoned any sense of direction a while ago, I was already long lost.

Finally, something dashed in the corner of my vision, and I hurt my neck in turning too fast. It was sitting idle in the middle of an intersection.

Found one. Pure black. I went straight for it.

Not even once breaking my stride, I reached down and snatching it by the neck, not even giving it a chance.

I’m so sorry, bunny, but you have to understand.

Somewhere isolated. Gotta find a place around here like that. I wasn’t familiar with this neighborhood at all.

Have to find a place, come on, come on. I kept running as I racked my brain to find a place.

Running like this, so sporadically, wasn’t doing me any favors. I stuck to one street, and sprinted down the length of it, animal in hand.

The road led to the edge of the neighborhood, turning into a small bridge over a stream. I could dip under there. Perfect. With the animal struggling under my clutch, I headed for it.

I dropped down five or six feet down into the running stream. My shoes immediately got drenched, but I paid no mind. In fact, I was probably better off for it, letting the water run between my toes. I rubbed them together to get some of the other gunk out.

I was completely shrouded in the dark as I walked under the bridge, but my vision was not compromised. Nothing here beside some rocks and trash. Colorful graffiti marked the concrete underside of the bridge. No sound beside the lightly running water.

My thirst roared out again, and I flinched. Stop wasting time. I gotta get this over with. The rabbit flailed around, but my grip was stronger. I wasted no time with pleasantries. I brushed back as much fur as I could, and bit into its neck. I drank like I hadn’t had water in days.

I didn’t know what was worse. The taste, or the horror of the realization.

“G-gwuah!”

Black streams sprayed like geysers through the cracks between my hand and mouth. My stomach once again shook and shuddered ferociously, as though it was trying to escape from my insides. Intestines felt like they were slithering and banging against the inside of me, and every inch of movement brought forth a pain that was previously unimaginable. All things considered. I took my hand away from my face, and against my own wishes, I vomited again.

Like an entire arm went down the esophagus, grabbing any bit of slimy meat it could, and pulling out with all of its might. It was very much like that.

I collapsed into the stream. My clothes steadily getting more wet as I stayed down. The water wasn’t particularly cold, but I was shivering. In contrast, the rabbit beside me would never move again.

Why, why? Why did that taste so horrid? The one time before wasn’t all that amazing, but it didn’t have to be. It just had to be good enough. Enough to tide me over until the next time. There had to be a reason for this.

Maybe this one was old?

Yeah. That had to be it. It was probably just old, and wouldn’t taste as decent as usual. That would explain why I was able to catch it with little trouble. Too old to move fast.

Yup, that had to be it.

I brought myself onto my knees. It took another concentrated effort to stand. Not standing straight, mind you, I was hunched over in an agonizing discomfort. But a proper posture was the least of my current worries.

Leaving the rabbit there, I walked out from under the bridge, trying to find my way back up. There were roots of a tree that extended from the base of the stream back to the side of the road. I wiped my hands on my clothes so they wouldn’t slip. I climbed up, getting back onto road.

No thoughts, just move. I ran down every street, turned every corner, hunting for anything. I only turned heels and went the other way whenever I saw someone on a midnight stroll or a car come my way.

Turned a corner, ran down a street. Turned a corner, ran down a street. Turned a corner, ran a street. Again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again.

Sweat and dirt water rolled down my neck. My breath got cut shorter and shorter as I rushed to find anything to drink, my thirst enflaming my throat, controlling my actions.

There. Another rabbit. I homed in on it.

“…”

“Ah.”

It ran away. I watched it go.

I was too tired. Too exhausted to take another step. It hurt too much to move.

I stood on the sidewalk. A car pulled up beside me. The opening and slamming of doors.

Allí estás!”

I turned. The guy before. The one I bitch-slapped from earlier. His bandana was wrapped around his mouth. He charged at me.

He yelled again, but I couldn’t understand it this time. He got right up to me, and his hands went around my neck.

I choked.

He pressed harder, and everything started to go black. Cold, wet, uncomfortable. I faltered back, but his hold remained. He shook me, and the darkness seeped into my vision even faster. Whatever the threshold was for handling such abuse, I had long surpassed that by a mile.

The only thing that seemed to cut through everything was a faint, sweet aroma. Perfume? Cologne?

Neither.

I opened my eyes, fully. I thrust my hand out, and my palm smacked against the man’s nose.

He flinched, faltered, and fell backwards. His fingers around my neck loosened, but I still collapsed with him.

We hit the pavement, my hand going for his throat as we descended. We shifted roles.

He opened his eyes, fully. Fear. “Stop! What you are-!” He choked, squelched a bit. He was muffled by his bandana.

I could imagine why he was so afraid.

All sorts of fluids leaked from my face. Snot from my nose, a mixture of blood and spit from my mouth, and tears streaming out my eyes and down my cheeks. I didn’t even shake from crying, I just let the tears run. Because I was so consumed with anxiety, anger, frustration, depression. For only a few days, I thought I had beat the system. The system that was thrust upon me, forcefully. Gamed it, in a way, to prevent myself from falling down a particular path I feared. I hated this week. A living nightmare. A personal Hell. I just wanted it to end. Because I didn’t want to live a life that wouldn’t let me eat. Forced me to consume something I didn’t want to. I felt like a prisoner to my circumstances, jailed by my thirst.

“I just want something to drink.”

Previous                                                                                               Next

007 – To Eat a Jackrabbit

Previous                                                                                               Next

The smell as I came in, it was no longer tempting. A shame, since it was what I now recognized as rice and soy sauce. It emanated from the kitchen, where I saw my mom, her back to me, hunched over the sink. She was washing dishes, and because she liked to work with background noise, the TV in the living room between us was on. She hadn’t heard me come in.

I pushed the door closed, harder than usual to make my entrance louder.

She didn’t budge. Was I already that deep in the red?

“Ma,” I said, raising my voice over the TV. Still nothing.

Ma,” I said again, this time louder. I hoped it didn’t seem like I yelled at her.

She finally turned to face me. She had no discernable expression.

“How was school?” she asked.

I shrugged. “It was good.”

She didn’t react.

“Sorry,” I continued, “We had a game today. We won.”

“Good,” she said. She let a short pause settle in, the sound of the TV coming in between us. Some cop show. “Have you eaten yet?”

“We went out to eat after the game.”

“Who were you with?”

“Katy… and some people from the team,” I made sure to neglect bringing up Brandon.

“Okay.” Another pause.

I took that as an opportunity. “Alright. Tomorrow’s Friday, and I still have a lot of homework, so…” I made a move for my room, walking through the living room, passing the TV.

“Come here,” she said, catching me off guard. I hesitated.

“I’ve really got a lot of-”

“Just come here.”

I set down my stuff, my sports bag and backpack. I walked into the kitchen, and found my mom facing me, water no longer running from the sink.

I was about to sweat. Worried about what could come next. A stern talking-to over this past week and weekend? Would I get grounded? From what, though? That shitty-ass phone? I guess I had my computer, but-

My mom extended her arm out to me, motioning me to come closer. “Come here.”

Really don’t want to. “What’s up?” I asked, trying to stay calm, casual. Wary, I got closer to her.

Her arm went around my shoulders, and she pulled me even closer. Tight. My chin brushed against the top of her head.

“You give me hug when you come home,” she said, completely serious. “You know already.”

About half of the worry fatiguing my body was instantly tossed away. But I didn’t show it on my face.

“Sorry,” I said.

My mom pointed to the food at the counter, placed in containers. “Why don’t you eat more?” She asked. “There’s still some soup and chicken.”

“Really, I’m good,” I answered, my voice scratchy. I coughed a bit. She was too close for comfort. Her neck was right there.

“Are you sure? You should eat more.”

“I’m sure,” I said as I broke away from the hug, and began sifting through the overhead cabinets for a glass. “I am a little parched though.”

As much fun as this was, I’d prefer to be back in my room. I got my glass of water, and headed out of the kitchen to get my bags and seek refuge.

“Alexis.”

I stopped, with doorknob right there. So close.

“Yes?”

“Is everything alright?” I had already passed the kitchen, so I couldn’t see her anymore. I only heard her voice.

“Everything’s fine,” I replied. Despite the very clear fact that everything happening to me at the moment was absolutely not fine, I didn’t want to get into that right now. I’d deal with it myself. “Everything’s good.”

I retreated to my room.

That actually went a lot better than I expected.

But, could that mean a really bad lecture later down the line? I didn’t know. Definitely wasn’t looking forward to that. My vocal cords scraped together with yet another cough. Like a reflex to that fear.

Just have to take it easy, if that’s even possible.

To take my mind off of the past few hours, I settled with doing my homework. I was actually looking forward to doing it.

Although settling in was easy, it turned out that doing my homework was arduous. Not the work itself, just some pointless math worksheets and Spanish vocabulary, but just having to bring myself to do it. Something kept nagging at me, the feeling of needing to do something else.

I dropped my pencil, and took a swig of water. After a deep breath, I went for my computer.

Sure enough, I found it online. Footage of me, on that night of the accident. If I had never seen this before, I definitely would’ve called bullshit. I could see why Brandon thought it was faked somehow. The person in this video, they moved too quickly, like some kind of creature.

The dash cam, however, was positioned in a way that the image cut off at the roof of the truck. You couldn’t actually see me jump away. The rest though, me knocking away the officer, pulling myself up and leaping to the roof of the truck. That was all there.

There was no real upside. Nothing I could pull away from this that would make me feel better. I found the website of the local news program that ran the story, an online written version. An interview with the EMS officer I had dealt with. Girl this, female that. He kept confirming that it was indeed a girl he dealt with. Even if the video was taken at night, even if it was a little hard to see, the words were right there, for everyone to read. No room for speculation. Awesome.

On the other hand, he wasn’t be able to identify her, thanks to the dark and that she was wearing a hood.

Alright, there was one upside, I thought to myself, Just one.

I reclined in my chair. My thirst and hunger were nagging at my consciousness even more, now, to the point that it had to be addressed. Like an alarm clock that I couldn’t turn off. I tried drinking more water, only to find that I had but a few sips left. Already?

I wanted more water – as if that would help – but I didn’t want to bump into my mom, in case she was still out there. Was that a pathetic thought? Absolutely, but I also wanted to avoid any conflict as much as possible.

How frustrating.

My head went to rest in my hands, and from the prickling feeling at the back of my neck, I knew I was about to heavily perspire. It was bad when I woke up this morning, getting worse and worse throughout the day. I had managed to fight through it for school and the game, but now, it was feral and impatient, clawing at my insides until it had been relieved of a certain, particular desire. All day, I tried to push it away, tried to ignore it. But I didn’t have that option anymore.

Dammit. I can’t take it. 

Alexis. Slow, deep breaths. Try to stay cool, calm. Collected.

I couldn’t.           

When I raised my head, and checked the time, thirty minutes had passed.

Dammit. I literally cannot even take it.

A knock on my door. I tensed.

“Alexis?” It was muffled from behind the door.

“Mom?” I sounded hoarse.

“I’m going to bed. I left the soup out.”

“Oh, okay, thanks.”

“Good night.”

“Night.”

A handful of seconds passed with silence. Did mom head to her room already?

I don’t care.

Without hesitating, I grabbed for a hoodie and my phone, and went out to the balcony. I secured a grip on the railing, and vaulted over.

I walked until I was deep into a suburb. It was a neighborhood I wasn’t unfamiliar with, just from simply living in the area for so long. Being so late and all, I was all alone as I roamed. Back when I was younger – a little younger – us kids used to play around at even this hour, but now parents were calling their children to come inside earlier and earlier as the years went by.

Every few steps, I was basked in the artificial light of a street lamp above me. After a few more, I was back in darkness. The more I walked, the tighter I hugged my midriff. A type of ravishing pain that could only come about from a few days of improper eating. I hunched over to try and wind down the grumbling. Had anyone seen me, I’d probably be mistaken for a bumbling hobo.

I inhaled a deep breath, but coughed as I exhaled.

I wanted to go for a walk to clear my head, but I only confused.

The very thought, the concept itself was something I despised having to just think about. The fact that this was something I had to seriously consider and wrap my head around. I clenched my fists, infuriated, remembering what happened back at the restaurant. Back at the game, with Eve. Back at that truck, when I discovered the woman. This awful realization.

Regular food sucked now. And the only thing that seemed to whet my appetite was…

I clenched again, even harder, until my fingernails dug into my palm.

Blood.

Blood. A bodily fluid that runs in humans and animals, transporting nutrients and oxygen to cells, giving them what they need to properly function in a living body. A fundamental necessity for life.

Unbelievable.

What was I, some kind of vampire? I didn’t even want to use the word vampire, since even that sounded more ridiculous than the situation I was currently having to deal with. And, didn’t vampires have an aversion to sun and stuff? I haven’t melted in the sunlight. Not yet, for all I knew. All food sucked now, and that would include garlic. What else? Anyone would die from a stake to the heart, and anyone would die from a bullet, whether or not it was made from silver. A shadow? If I didn’t have one, it would have been among the first things I’d notice. Counting rice? I used to count spare rice on my plate when I was bored at the dinner table. But that was due to me being a hyperactive kid, not due to any sprung-upon supernatural OCD.

The only similarity here was that I needed blood.

And even if I was a vampire, how was I supposed to get sustenance? Going after people was out of the question. I’d rather just starve to death instead. The day that happens would be the day I no longer considered myself a person. But then what? What were my alternatives? Maybe I could still technically eat regular food, but it was just really bad. Could I last a week eating like that? Could I last the rest of my life eating like that? I recalled the smell of food, now. The answer was a hard ‘no.’ But then what?

As though to answer my question, a shape moved in the dark. What I assumed was the dark, anyways, since it was sitting in the middle of the road, outside the range of the streetlamps.

A rabbit.

Walk around for long enough, whether it was an apartment complex or a suburb, it was almost guaranteed that you’d eventually come across one. Annoyingly common. I used to chase them all the time as a kid, but naturally, they were always too fast to catch. Dumb but agile creatures. Cute, though.

A bodily fluid that runs in humans… And animals.

I didn’t like the direction my thoughts were going, but the idea came to me regardless.

I stepped onto the street. There shouldn’t be any cars at this hour, but I was still careful. Making sure every step made no noise, I walked closer to the animal. When I was about eight feet away, the rabbit’s ear twitched.

It immediately broke into a run, scurrying left, off towards a house. By now, I’d just let it run off, but that would defeat the purpose of me being here. I straightened my back, preparing myself.

I too broke into a run, attempting to intercept it as it went directly to a bush. I surprised myself, as I already made it in between the rabbit and its escape route.

“All righty,” I said, talking aloud for whatever reason.

I threw out my arms, hoping to catch it. It shifted directions instantly, juking me to get to a fence past me. It slipped under a small hole in the wood, and got to the other side.

“Tricky bastard.” But I wasn’t going to give up so easily. My stomach had already begun to twist into knots. I blinked away tears as my thirst spiked in pain.

“Fuck.”

I jogged to the fence, and performed the smallest hop I could. I recalled the time at the barn. And the truck.

“Agh!”

This time, I underestimated it. I did get over the fence, but my foot got caught at the top, and I toppled over, my body thumping on dirt and grass.

Will I ever get the hang of this?

I got up, and dusted my clothes off. I was in the backyard of someone’s home. If I wanted to catch that rabbit, now was the time.

Searching the surprisingly small perimeter, I found it, still in a far corner. It probably calmed down, thinking it escaped me. Sorry, buddy, not this time.

I ran to its position, staying light on my feet, carefully observing the animal for any tells for where it would run.

It didn’t even look at me, but from the way it twitched, I knew it was going to go left.

I moved in accordance to it, shifted my weight properly, and crouched down, my knees pressed against my chest. From that position, I dove to intercept it.

“Gotcha!” I announced with some pride, feeling fur enter into my open hands.

I stayed on the ground for a moment, securing my hold on the animal. It wriggled and squirmed around, wanting to get free.

When I was sure I had a good hold, I stood up.

It continued to struggle in my hands, but I wasn’t going to yield so easily. “Ow!”

A sharp prick on my right hand. It bit me. I moved my hand away, and secured my grip elsewhere on its body. I watched as the small mark by my thumb disappeared.

What I had planned, I definitely couldn’t do in someone’s backyard. I leapt over the fence, properly this time, and returned to the neighborhood proper. I thought of where to go. I scouted over the different routes in my head.

The park. The only place that came to me. Not too far from here, and plus, there wouldn’t be anyone there. Shouldn’t.

Perfect.

Securing the rabbit in my arms, I jogged over there.

The park’s setup was simple. A simple playground, with a swing set on one side, and a playhouse made up of climbers and swings on the other. But I wasn’t here to play. I was more interested on what was past the playground. As I crossed the playground, woodchips crumpled under my feet.

I didn’t know whose bright idea was it to build a playground near a ditch, but there it was. The slope was steep enough that a wooden railing was built on the side that faced the playground to prevent kids from falling in, not that I ever heard of that happening. Like whoever put it here did it only to get any complaining parents off their back, and thought, ‘Good enough.’ The ditch itself was wide, and was filled with tall grass and a single tree. No one would see me here.

The railing went only up to my hip, so getting over wouldn’t be an issue. But I did have to brace myself when I landed on the slope, running to prevent a fall. I slowed down when I got into the waist-high grass.

When I was sure I was all good, I held the rabbit out in front of me. It still squirmed around, but it was more sluggish now.

“Tired?” I asked the rabbit. Why did I ask that?

I took a better look at it. It was so cute, with its fluffy white fur, and its round shape. There was some black on it, a splash of dark fur across the left shoulder. Other than that, it was wholly white. How it twisted and turned, looking for a way to escape, it broke my heart. But when another fine pang of pain almost caused me to bowl over, I remembered why I was here.

“Sorry,” I said, stroking its head. “I really am.”

While I stroked it, I brushed its fur, exposing what should be its neck. I stalled for a moment, watching as it no longer protested, and it just stayed still, breathing. It gave me second thoughts.

Was this even sanitary? I could heal from cuts and broken bones, but that didn’t necessarily mean I was immune to disease. I grimaced.

The now-constant pounding all throughout my body served as a decent reminder. I’d take the risk.

“Here I go.”

I bit into its neck. Immediately, my mouth was filled with blood and fur. I had to fight the urge to back away and spit it out, because, if I backed down now, I couldn’t bring myself to do it again. Plus, it was just gross. The feeling of the rabbit’s body writhing for a second, and then going limp, relenting all control, I’d never forget that.

I brought the rabbit away from my face, being careful to not get blood on my face or hoodie. I was now holding a dead animal. Probably a good idea to get rid of this.

Going further into the grass, I placed it down, setting it down in its final resting place. Silently, with all my heart, I thanked it for its sacrifice.

Walking back up the slope, I picked at my tongue, trying to get out every strand of fur. Some blood dripped down a corner of my mouth. A chill soothed the back of my neck. I was significantly less on edge than when I got here. I kept thinking back to the taste of that rabbit.

“Not bad.”

Like a thick raspberry jelly, few days old. Not exactly the best thing ever, but by god, it was better than literally everything else I had all day. All week. It disturbed me, just how much I was mulling over this. How good it tasted.

But I could drink it. That was the golden takeaway from all of this. I had an alternative. What a fucking relief. I nearly buckled down to my knees.

A vibration in my pocket. I went for the phone, checking the message. I read the message from Katy.

“How bad was it?” she texted.

Both hands were necessary to reply. I hated how I needed to press a number multiple times in order to cycle to the letter I wanted. Accidentally press it one too many times, and you’d have to cycle through it all again. It made texting slow and frankly, not fun. A simple reply that I could knock out in a second took me thirty times as long.

“Wasn’t bad, maybe bad later. L-O-L,” I said as I typed it, not bothering with punctuation and capitalization.

A reply already. “Good. Think you can take it easy?” I read.

A word was certainly easier than a sentence, my response coming much faster this time.

“Yes.”

Katy left it at that, no longer responding. I put the phone away.

Elated. My thoughts went back to my newfound discovery. An alternative. I had an alternative.

I wiped the blood, and the smile, that was smeared across my face.

“Alexis, Lexi!”

“Hey, vámonos.”

A smack to my arm almost led to me smacking my chin against the table. I caught myself in time, but it woke me up to where I was. Lone Star Chicken. Around lunch time.

“Get up, girl, we ‘bout to head out.”

“Huh, what’s going…” I mumbled. I faced the blurry images sitting in front of me. I pressed my wrist against my eyes, but that didn’t help at all.

“I said c’mon, I can’t afford another tardy no more.” From the Hispanic accent, I could tell the blurry shape to my right was Maria.

“I agree, let’s go.” And by process of elimination, the one on my left was Katy.

“Yeah, sounds… sounds good,” I said, still drowsy from my short nap. They both started coming into focus.

Katy was the first to voice her concern. “You okay? I’ll get you something.”

I raised my hand, the palm facing her. “Not hungry.”

“That’s not good. You can’t keep skipping lunch, you’re gonna get thinner.”

“Really, no need to worry.”

She pursed her lips, but arguing with me would be futile. After how many years, she should know that by now. She knew I was stubborn. Katy huffed out of her nose, and got up from the table, putting away her tray.

After we cleaned up, we headed out. When I got outside, I grabbed the sunglasses clipped to my sweater, and put them on. Maria drove us back to school.

Friday. As for now, my thirst, and appetite, had largely been curbed. I still got thirsty from time to time, but I could tell it was thirst for water, and not the ‘other’ thirst. Just somehow, within me, they were distinct sensations. And, I’ve also noticed that my other thirst was, in one way or another, tethered to my hunger for food. I was honest when I told Katy I wasn’t hungry. I hadn’t been at all since last night. Since I had rabbit for the first time. I did wonder how long until I had to feed again, though.

If I had known that I could never eat my favorite chicken sandwich ever again, I wished had I savored my last one a little longer.

We got to school in time, slipping into the mass of bustling students and making it into our respective classrooms. Just as the bell rang, I slipped into my seat, and put away my sunglasses. Made it by the skin of my teeth.

Thoughtlessly, my pen jotted down whatever it was my teachers said.

Classes ended one after another, with little homework for the weekend, which I liked. I didn’t want any more on my plate at the moment. The school day ended, and I left my English classroom with Katy, the bell ringing in the background. Between the two of us, we couldn’t look any less alike. She had on tight jeans and an even tighter red sweater, while I wore shorts, and a green and white striped long sleeve sweater. She had only her purse and a notebook, and I had my binder and my backpack slung over one shoulder. By looks, we were so mismatched.

Being on the second floor, it was always a hassle getting down, having to move with the mass of people who want to escape from the school and fall into the warm embrace of the weekend as soon as possible. It was Friday, after all.

“By the way,” Katy said, sparking up conversation, “Let’s go down to Braham this weekend. You never got to eat your birthday cake.”

I just kept looking forward.

“Sorry, maybe not this time.” I wasn’t ready to go back there again. Not so soon, anyways.

Katy pretended to stumble on the last step of the stairs. “Whoa, that’s not the Lexi I know.”

I rolled my eyes at her, and elbowed her in the arm. “And who is the Lexi you know?”

“The Lexi I know would have jumped at the chance to go anywhere, do anything.”

“I’m not that carefree. And what if I said I had some homework over the weekend? I still haven’t finished my project for Goldstein.”

“A paper and model representation of chemical bonding can wait.”

“What about my mom?” I brought up.

“What about her?”

“She’s not going to let me out the house that late. Not anytime soon.”

“You still have your rope, don’t you? We’ll go after she falls asleep. And we’ll be back before she ever wakes up. It’ll be fine.”

“You really thought this through, didn’t you?”

“Sure did. We don’t even have to invite Brandon this time around, keep your mind off of making a mess of yourself in front of him.”

“Wow, holding that over me?”

“Come on, it’ll be fun. Even more fun since we’ll be careful this time. I’ll hire a bodyguard, my eyes and ears.”

“You’re joking.”

“Between me and Maria, not even germs will be able to touch you. Maybe we can even get Maria’s boyfriend for some extra muscle.”

“You’re definitely joking.”

Katy shook her head. “Speaking of which…” she trailed off, and let the conversation die.

We got to the front hall of the school, but we couldn’t make our way out. From the other side of the hall, two boys in letterman jackets came running towards us. We stepped one way, and they stepped to block us. We stepped another way, and they blocked us again.

“Let’s just leave through another hall?” Katy suggested. I agreed.

“Hey hey! Hold on now!” one of the boys said. Eric.

“Lexis, Katy, sup!”

Katy raised her shoulders, crossing her arms as she did so.

“Hi.”

I gave the boys my own message with my body language, throwing my hands into my pockets, smiling.

Eric ignored my intended meaning, and winked my way. He was more brick wall than man, and I didn’t expect anything to get through his thick skull, anyways.

The thin, spindly blond beside him, Evan, nodded with a coy look. Whenever I saw those two together, something was about to go down. Those two were probably known more for their pranks than their actual performance on the football team.

“What is it this time?” Katy asked. Her voice was higher than usual. She raised her chin and tilted her neck.

Eric answered Katy with another question. “Either of you have cash?”

“How come?”

“Oh, nothing,” he said in a sing-song voice. It sounded off with how deep his voice actually was.

“You want money? You’ll have to earn it somehow.”

Evan spoke up. “We’re putting something together for Harry. Something of a little gift.”

My mind focused on the name ‘Harry.’

Harrian Wong. Some sophomore who had been in the sights of those two troublemakers for the past few months. Why exactly was he subjected to their practical jokes, I didn’t know. Was it because he was a foreign exchange student, just coming in from China? Maybe, but considering my being half-Japanese, they didn’t bug me about that.

They bugged me in other ways.

But, other than his ethnicity, I didn’t know much else about the guy. I only really knew him from his association with Eric and Evan. Meaning that this conversation wasn’t about anything good.

“What are you two planning this time?” I asked.

Eric winked. “Stick around, you’ll find out.”

I broke eye contact with him. “Nah.”

“Either way, I don’t have any money on me, sorry,” Katy said, her tone playful on that last word.

“Aw, I bet you can spare me something, babe,” Evan raised an eyebrow, reaching to stroke Katy’s hair.

Katy slapped his hand, but giggled anyways. On occasion, she still scared me.

“How about you?” Evan asked me, acting in much the same manner. Not that I didn’t want to play along, but I just wanted to go home. Coach let us off the hook for our performance at the game yesterday, allowing us a break. The stream of people leaving the school had already thinned out. These two were getting in my way.

“I’m with Katy. You’re not getting a cent if you don’t tell me.”

Evan dropped his shoulders, and his act. “We’ve been messing with Harry for a bit, and we wanted to make it up to him.”

Eric jabbed a thumb at Evan. “Yeah, that. We realized we were being assholes, we thought we were just joking around, but nah.” He shrugged.

“What is this so-called ‘gift’?” I probed. This seemed more like an interrogation than a casual conversation.

The boys glanced at each other. “That’s really between us,” Evan said, with no trace of any mischief. As he spoke, the bell rang. The last bell of the day, meaning that any students who had no legitimate business still being in school, academic or otherwise, they’d better get lost. Meaning I should already be out of the building.

Evan continued. “We’re only talking to you ladies since you were close. It’s really nothing if you don’t have nothing.”

I looked at the two of them, surveying them carefully.

They seem genuine enough…

“Ugh, here,” I fished into my backpack for my wallet, taking out a dollar and some cents. I held the money over Eric’s already outstretched hand.

“Hold it,” I said, pulling my hand away just as he was about to reach for it. “I don’t really get it, but I swear you better be serious.”

“No worries,” Eric said. “Cross my heart, hope to die, and all that shit.”

“And one more thing,” I said, pulling my hand away even more.

“What?” Eric asked.

“Brandon, has he said anything?”

Eric tilted his head. “Anything? About what? You?”

I was too embarrassed to say more.

“Hate to say it, babe, but no. Haven’t seen him around lately.”

I grunted, eyed him suspiciously, but the clock in my head began to tick louder. Wanna go home. I dropped the money into his grasp. Eric and Evan fist bumped, and they ran back down the hall, turning a corner, and they were gone.

Katy sighed. “Those two are just asking for something crazy to happen.” She turned to me, dropping the previous mask she wore for the boys. “And you. You’re coming with us to a party. This weekend.”

I exhaled. “We’ll see.”

“You mean we’ll see you there?”

“You’re delusional.”

She clicked her tongue. “Shut up. Saturday, Sunday, whatever, I’m going to pick you up, we’re going to get a cake, and we’re meeting up with Maria and we’ll party it up. This is happening.

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006 – Soiled Veil

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The screaming of Coach Tilly tore me out my daze.

“Barnett! You’re up!”

I shifted on the bench. Normally, I was cool and collected at a time like this. Now, a mixture of emotions churned within me.

It was loud. People cheering from every corner of the gym. Names, numbers, words of inspiration all crashed together to form an irritating cacophony. Signs were thrashed around, shaken back and forth too fast for anyone to read it and be motivated by whatever was written there. Everything kicked up to a sensory overload. And it was Coach that got through to me.

“Huh?” I responded. Coach caught my attention, but her words barely registered.

“I said you’re up! Eve got injured!”

And as it turned out, she was right. Coach was helping Eve get to the bench, her arm hung around Coach’s shoulder. Even with that much, she still limped on the way.

“Whoa, you okay?” I asked, immediately feeling dumb after doing so. I sometimes wondered why people asked that when it was clearly evident that things were not okay. But at the moment, I couldn’t help it.

Eve grunted as a way of answering my question. She sat at the open seat to my right. Looked like a sprained ankle, possibly from a bad fall.

She had scraped her arm, too, as evident by a bit of floor burn. A miniscule amount of red glistened on her elbow. From even that, I hated how my nose flared, how I swallowed. Stop.

I reached to my side, and swigged the fifth sip of my sixth cup of water.

“Get moving!” Coach barked.

Dang, my number was up, I thought. Forty-eight, to be exact, which was the number on the front and back of my uniform.

“Uh, I,” was all I stammered out. I got up so fast my head rushed. Just anywhere not here was good. I murmured something of a ‘Feel better’ as I hurried to position.

Left corner, close to the net. The fifth and final set, and while we were down one, a few more good plays would give us the fifteen points necessary. That constituted a win.

I concentrated on my breathing, sizing up the team that Saint Augustine High had brought as our opposition. Their blue and white uniforms clashed against our red and black. I could do this. I hoped. Honestly, I had very little confidence in how much I could accomplish without seriously freaking someone out, myself included.

Having scored the previous point, Augustine got to serve again. I kept my eye on the ball.

The whistle blew, and everyone sprang into action.

The ball bounced back and forth between the two sides. I largely stayed unmoving, meticulously focused on every movement of my muscles. I could’ve easily swooped in for the kill, but I didn’t want to be too risky. Something inside me kept me from moving, something I hadn’t felt on the court since middle school.

Nervousness.

Finally, the ball was set up perfectly, practically asking me to be aggressively spiked. I could do this. My muscles tensed. With a step forward, I moved in.

The cheering of twenty-something girls echoed into the night sky.

I was standing right outside the school. Not waiting for anyone, or anything in particular, more like I was trying to delay the inevitable. Even though I had worked up a bit of a sweat after the game, the fall air did quick work in cooling me down.

The rest of the team was being celebratory, as expected. Even if we didn’t get any farther than this, at least we won this game. My teammates were either surrounded by their boyfriends, or other friends and family who came to congratulate us on our win. I would normally be mingling among that crowd right about now, but I had other things on my mind that currently distracted me.

“Sup, bitch.”

I turned at the greeting. Katy, sporting a short red dress, her heels helping her dwarf me even more. A cute outfit, but a little much for a high school volleyball game, I felt like.

“Woof,” I replied.

“Let me be the first to say ‘congrats.’ For the little bit you were out there, you did good.”

“Thanks.”

“Everything’s in the car already. Backpack, sports bag. Your smelly clothes.”

“Thanks.”

“You all right? You’ve been off all day.”

That, was true. I skipped school yesterday, and while I did go to school today, I hardly paid any attention during class or whenever I was with my friends. My pencil stayed in my backpack, my eyes were stuck glued to a corner of the classroom, my mind elsewhere whenever someone tried to ask me something. I might as well have been absent.

All of my energy was going to not passing out at a growing ache, enflaming my esophagus.

“Wasn’t feeling good,” I said, dryly.

“You just played a game.”

“Um…”

Katy shrugged, accepting that non-answer. She stepped a little closer, a little too close, ready to change the subject.

“Aren’t you coming?” she asked, already wrapping her arms around mine and pulling me one way. “We were all planning on going out for pizza. Oh, Maria can’t make it. Said she had something else to do.”

I looked the other way, avoiding eye contact. “That’s fine. Maybe I should head home this time, too.”

“Why’s that?”

“Ever since I got back from the hospital, things have been awkward between me and my mom. Doesn’t help that I missed curfew on Tuesday, and stayed in my room literally all day yesterday.” I told the truth about Tuesday, partial as it was, and completely lied about yesterday.

“Next time remember to charge your phone,” Katy said. “Or remember to remind me to pick you up. And your mom can’t hold it against if you needed to take another day off. You had just gotten out of a hospital.”

“I guess, I think my mom understood when I told her that. But if I don’t go home now, she might think I’m avoiding her.”

“From what it sounds like, that’s exactly what you want to do.”

I really didn’t have a retort.

Katy took that as an opportunity to tug at my arm again, harder. “Then, isn’t that a good reason to come chill?”

“What awful reasoning,” I told her, “Come on, let go already. Plus, I said I don’t feel good.”

“What are you gonna do then? Walk home?”

“Um. Maybe.”

“Nuh-uh. I’ll take the blame for not picking you up on Tuesday, so I’m not letting you out of my sights. Especially with your currently weakened constitution, as you said. And plus, I’m your ride.”

I grumbled.

“Just tell your mom that I had to run some errands or something, and your place wasn’t on the way. Whatever. We can come up with something.”

I grumbled again, this time louder. She tugged my arm again, this time harder. And, like a light bulb, she brightened up, her face beaming. I never liked that look. That meant she had something up her sleeve.

“You know what? I wasn’t going to tell you this, but I’ve got some clothes in the back of my car. We’re getting you into something better than that, and you are coming with me, Alexis.”

“And why should I?”

“Because, he’s going to be there,” Katy said.

“He? He who?”

He.”

“Like I said, he-” A light bulb went up for me, too. “Oh.”

“Yeah.”

I knew it was against my better judgment, but I gave myself a second to think about it. I really don’t want to go home, though, I thought. Katy gave me her most nefarious grin when I met her eyes.

“Fine, let’s go.”

She led the way, taking me to her car. Her own car, not one of her father’s prized possessions. A red Mercedes. With her only mentioning ‘getting pizza’ to go off of, I assumed that would we were probably going to go the Plaza. While not exactly downtown, it was a pretty sizable outdoor shopping center, enough to even be referred to as the Plaza. Like Braham Manor, it was a good place to chill out with friends.

I sat in the back seat, changing out of my clothes into a deep blue spaghetti strap and a pair of black jeans. My bare shoulders were covered with a leather jacket. Katy didn’t have any shoes in my size, so my not-too-bad fit got knocked down twenty points thanks to my tennis shoes.

“What is with all this stuff?” I asked, fishing through the other clothes she had in the back, “Did you plan for this?”

“What? Did you say something?” Katy asked back.

I playfully smacked the side of her face. She briefly jerked on the road.

“Dammit, Lexi,” Katy said. We laughed.

When we got there, a decent line was already peeking out of the door of the restaurant, an Italian restaurant known as Poggio’s. And here I thought we were early. We recognized some friends from school, so we had no problem sliding somewhere in the middle of the line.

“Stay here,” Katy ordered me, before leaving her spot. She went up and down the line, and I lost sight of her as she turned a corner to go further back. In the meantime, I killed time by talking to other friends that happened to be beside me.

Katy hadn’t returned when I got to the front desk, the waiter asking me for a name and a number of the party, putting me on the spot with no answer.

“Party of four,” I heard Katy say, slapping my lower back as she came up from behind. She winked at me.

“Uh, yeah,” I said. I checked the group Katy brought with her. There were two others. Valerie, another one of my teammates. A tall, lanky brunette whose height made her movements a little awkward. Made for a hell of a volleyball player, though, her reach was amazing.

The other one, was someone I was expecting, but still not ready for. On the drive here, I also spent some time trying to psych myself up. I wanted to be able to talk to him without looking like a complete idiot.

“Alexis, hi,” he said. His perfect white teeth were literally shining when he smiled. Literally. An all-white outfit of a shirt and skinny jeans contrasted his dark skin. Two gold chains clanged together when he walked up to me. He was about a head or two taller than me, and I strained my neck to look up at him. Handsome, muscular, clean-cut. The perfect boy, the type I’d want to take home to my mom. Except she would have a heart attack if she saw a six-foot black guy walk into the apartment.

Okay, he wasn’t that tall, but he might as well be. With Valerie here, and Katy in her heels, I felt like a bug.

“Buh- Uh,” I coughed, and blushed. My gaze went straight to the floor. I murmured, “Hi, Brandon.”

You idiot.

“How are you?” His voice was deep, but had a comforting sooth to it. It only made me feel more jumpy than a trampoline.

“Good,” I lied.

“I watched you guys, by the way. Good job at the game.”

My face was on the verge of melting away. “Thanks.” For now, I could only manage one-word answers. One-syllable answers.

“Come on guys, we’re going,” Katy said, gesturing to the waiter who had our menus. She saved me from any more embarrassment.

The waiter walked us to our seat, a booth in the far corner of the restaurant. The restaurant tried to go for a casual dining style, with walls covered by 1950s era-themed pictures and paraphernalia. Grainy photos of Italian families, posters of the Godfather movies. It only accomplished the opposite effect, making the place seem cluttered instead. Not calm or casual at all.

“I don’t think I can do this,” I whispered into Katy’s ear on the way. The back of my spaghetti strap was sticky and wet, and it wasn’t from the sweat I worked up from the game.

“Stop worrying,” she whispered back, “Or do, doesn’t change the fact you’ll be sitting next to him.”

“You…”

“Is that a ‘You’re welcome?’”

Didn’t want to entertain her any more. I backed away.

We were led to our booth, and we took our seats, Brandon scooting in before patting the space beside him. I couldn’t meet his eyes as I sat nearer to the edge of the seat, keeping some distance between us. Did he notice? Valerie and Katy sat on the other side, with Katy directly across from me.

“Man, I’m like, so hungry,” Valerie breathed, leaning back. She fixed her hair, and flipped back and forth through the menu, ready to strike at any food item worthy of her appetite. It was only a matter of choice. Katy was less animalistic in her hunt, holding her menu in one hand, and putting her attention to her phone in the other.

I glanced around absentmindedly, unable to settle down.

“You alright?” Brandon asked. My throat went dry. When was the water getting here?

“I’m good, just…”

“Tired?”

“More than.”

“I hear you,” he said. “At least tomorrow’s Friday.”

“Me too.”

“I’m sorry?”

I twitched from a horrible realization. “No, I thought you said… you were also tired.”

Oh my god. I wanted to die already.

He went quiet, not saying anything for what felt like forever. I still couldn’t find it within me to look at his face, resorting to reading the description of the bruschetta crostini one more time.

I had been wondering how he was, since that Friday night, my birthday. Between the two of us, we shared a rather memorable night, but for ultimately different reasons. Was that why he seemingly distanced himself from me for the past week? The girl he spent part of his night… idly chatting with, making the news shortly after. That had a lot of eyes on him, I figured. I was lost on how to interpret that. Was he an asshole for doing that? Or did he intend to give me some space? I’d recently come out of the hospital, after all.

Part of me felt grateful for it. I couldn’t let him learn about what really happened to me, or what I had become. Under any circumstances. His avoiding me turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

So, should I really be here, right now?

I wanted to say more, and save this sinking ship of a conversation, but I was interrupted by the waitress, who came back with cold tap water in a cup. I leaned in to chug a half of it down before she even finished distributing the rest to the others. My thirst didn’t get any better.

We ordered. I only got a salad, really wasn’t up to eating anything. The others agreed on sharing a meatball and mushroom pizza.

“You sure you’re not hungry?” Katy asked, having raised an eyebrow when she heard my order.

I shrugged in response.

“Maybe you can have Brandon give you an extra slice?” she teased.

“No, I can’t do that.”

“I don’t mind,” Brandon interjected. “If it helps, really.”

“No, really,” I said, “It’s cool.”

“Hey,” Valerie said, cutting in, “If anyone’s getting an extra slice, it’s me.”

Brandon laughed, “Oh, it’s on.”

They left it at that. It didn’t feel all that great, having to turn Brandon down like that, but the longer I sat here, the more I regretted being here. An endless loop. Needed to be home, but didn’t want to deal with my mom. Damned if I do, damned if I don’t. Sitting here – even if a part of me wanted to – wasn’t doing me any favors.

Mercifully, the food came quickly, or my attention to what was going on around me had slipped completely, and the time in between just disappeared. Either way, it temporarily rescued me from my thoughts. A large pizza, and because I had no appetite to speak of, they were free to take what would have been my portion. I didn’t care.

The others tore right into the pizza, like vultures to a carcass. These guys were ruthless. I put a slice on my plate, just to keep up with appearances.

“Oh wow,” Valerie said, with a mouthful of pizza, “Look at that.”

Katy looked to her left, off in the distance. “That’s not real, is it?”

Brandon and I turned at the same time.

Near our table was an old television, bolted to the corner. It played the local news. Dash cam footage from a police car. The scene of a terrible car accident. A truck, more specifically. An EMS officer attempted to restrain a victim, who was critically injured. The victim managed to get out of the officer’s grasp, knocking him back, and the victim made their escape by bounding on to the roof of the truck, and disappearing from the shot.

“Oh… my… god…” I said, flabbergasted.

“Everyone’s been talking about it, but I think it’s fake,” Brandon said, “Look at how that thing moves, too freaky.”

Thing,’ ‘freaky.’ The words stung.

“E-excuse me,” I called out to a waiter was passing by our table, “Could you put on subtitles, please?”

The waiter noticed me, and nodded. He went for the TV, and pressed a button on the side.

The image of a middle-aged, overweight white woman appeared on the screen, her son tightly hugging her. His faced buried into her side, and he was hugging her, but he couldn’t fully coil his arms around her. I didn’t need to see the kid’s face, but I could assume.

I read the subtitles.

-Billy was crying and crying when I got here, talking about a girl who saved him. I’m just glad he’s okay.”

A reporter, off camera, asked a question. “Would you want to thank whoever saved your son?

The mother smiled, “Sure, I would.

It cut to the reporter, a man in a suit. “Also, the police have confirmed that the driver of the truck was texting while driving. The driver has sustained serious injuries, but is currently in stable condition.

The program then cut to other people at the site of the accident, but I stopped reading any more. I got the gist of it.

“You really think it’s fake?” Valerie asked, bringing me back to the table. Back to reality.

“Has to be, you tripping if you think it’s real,” Brandon said, “Look at how the camera is cut at the top of the truck. They say the person jumped above the trees, but we can’t see it. They probably just hopped off, where the camera couldn’t see.”

“But did you see how the truck nudged back a little? Some strength has to be needed to move a truck like that, right?”

“I don’t know, maybe it’s hooked to something?”

“What? Now you’re tripping!”

The two bickered back and forth, casual banter than anything legitimately confrontational. But it was of no matter to me, because I was slowly starting to disassociate from everything. Sounds going distant, faded. I felt lightheaded, nauseated. Wobbly. I drew a long breath, but I heaved instead.

“You okay?” Katy asked. “You’re a touch pale.” Katy was the only one to notice as I stared down at my plate, poking my salad, and sipping water from my straw. Her level of perception could be fearsome, sometimes.

I uttered a guttural noise, less than a non-committal answer.

“Come on, take a bite,” she picked up her pizza, “Here. I’ll feed you.”

The cheese on the pizza smelled awful. I leaned away, faltering. “Stop it.” Barely above a whisper.

“Don’t do that, it’s your favorite!” She pushed it more into my face. I leaned away more.

Any farther, and I’d fall out of the seat.

“Hey, I said stop!”

My upper body was already leaning too far over the edge, and I was about to fall. I brought my hand to the table to stop myself. But from the loud slam and the clatter of ceramic, I had a feeling I didn’t just calmly grip the wooden surface.

Moreover, I didn’t stop myself fast enough. A waiter carrying his order crossed my path, and my back bumped into his arm.

In cartoons or movies, this type of situation would’ve normally resulted in the food in question being thrown high into the air, before inevitably crashing back down. The more ridiculous the height, the funny it would be. Here, it was no laughing matter.

The waiter’s tray slid, the food soon falling after. Two pasta dishes and three drinks. An unbelievable mess, should all that food hit the floor. And I was about to fall into it.

I had leaned too far out, and salvaging my landing was all I could do. As I fell, even that seemed to take some time, everything slowed to a crawl.

But, it was too late. I twisted to face the floor in an effort to find a decent place to crash. I didn’t get the chance.

As soon as I turned, a blunt force struck my chin and neck. Hot and heavy. The waiter backed away, and I collapsed afterwards. I landed on hot plates. A distinct crack. A sting in my palm. A slushy, hot mess.

The whole restaurant fell into a hush.

“Dang it,” I said as I stood, summing it up. I opened and closed my mouth, testing my jaw. It throbbed. I pulled my shirt away from me to inspect the mess. “Dang it,” I repeated.

One of the orders was a plate of fettuccini alfredo, and it went all over my front. The white sauce clumped into globs around my chest, and some dripped from my chin onto the jacket’s collar, from when the plate hit me in the jaw.

Really? In front of Brandon?

“Lexi,” I heard from Katy. She got out of her seat to bring me a wad of napkins and a cup of water. “Let’s get you to the restroom.”

“Don’t.” I took the napkins, balling them up in my hand. “Don’t follow.” I turned away from her, and left in a hurry.

We were sat in the back, the restroom not even twenty steps away. But it was hardly a consolation. Others may not have seen it, but they certainly heard it. I went into the restroom.

It was rush job, trying to get rid of the sauce. When I ran out of the napkins, I used the paper towels from the dispenser beside the sink, soaking them in water, and dabbing it on my top and jacket. I repeated that process until the front was near see-through. After standing around, patting at it again with dry paper towels, it got dry enough until it was the bare minimum of being presentable. There were still dull-white stains streaked across, but it was good enough. The jacket proved easier to clean.

After I finished cleaning off my face, I rubbed the palm of my hand in the running water. One of the plates broke when it crashed onto the floor. It cut into my hand when I landed on it. There was no cut now, but I couldn’t afford to let Katy learn of a cut in the first place.

I looked over myself in the restroom mirror again, eyes red, head thumping. The beginnings of a headache, coming with force of a freight train. How many times was I going to be close to tears, thanks to this fucking week? How many times was this week going to fuck me over? Was this like some kind of divine comedy, a way for the universe to laugh at my expense?

No…

I fought the tears back, both for myself and in case someone else was in here. Two of the stalls were closed. I checked myself one last time, and zipped up my jacket.  

When I returned to the table, I had been gone long enough for the mess to be cleaned up, and generic chatter settled back into the restaurant. A ‘wet floor’ sign was placed where the mess used to be. Like a tombstone.

“Hi,” Katy said, giving a frail smile, “I am so sorry, Alexis.”

I shook my head. “It’s nothing. Not your fault.” I quickly glanced at Brandon, and back to Katy. “Could you just take me home? Sorry Val, Brandon.”

“It’s all good,” Valerie said, chewing into her fourth slice.

“Same here,” Brandon said, “Go on ahead. I’ll talk to you later, or something?”

“Yeah, or something,” I said. “See you guys.”

Katy got up from the table, fishing out a twenty out of her purse to leave on the table. Brandon and Valerie waved as we left. We got into Katy’s car, and she took me home.

Unlike the trip here, the whole drive back was dead silent.

We got back to my apartment at around nine-thirty, a quick check from my phone informed me. With my bags in hand, I got out of the car. I had changed back into my old clothes, and a cold draft touched the back of my now exposed neck.

“Thanks again for the ride,” I said to Katy. “Sorry about your clothes.”

Katy called out from the car, responding. “It’s nothing. You gonna be all right?”

I faced forward, unmoving. “No. But whatever.”

“‘Kay, I’ll let you be overdramatic for now. I’ll text you later?”

“Please?”

And with that, she took off. Her car was so quiet, I had to turn back around to check if she even left.

I walked to my apartment building, and had a foot on the first step on the stairs. A light shone through the windows. I knew they would be on, but that didn’t alleviate any concern. My pulse quickened.

The idea to sneak in did cross my mind, via the balcony, but that wouldn’t do me any good. I’d have to face the music eventually. Accept that the other shoe was about to drop.

No… this week isn’t even half-over.

Taking my keys out of my bag, I unlocked the door to the apartment, letting myself in.

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