013 – Everything Doesn’t Go Well, as I’d Hope

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“Now that I have a better look at you… You’re a lot smaller than I remember.”

“Keep your eyes on the road.”

“You’re like the size of a twelve-year-old. What is this?”

I nudged his shoulder, with enough force to make him briefly lose his grip on the wheel. The car jerked.

Jesus,” Eddie said, regaining control of the car. “You’re gonna get us killed!”

“I can afford to take that chance. Eyes on the road.”

The car rolled along speedily.

We were driving to East Stephenville, while not the worst part of the city, comparatively speaking, it certainly wasn’t the best, and unless you had some serious, pressing business to attend to, there was no real prerogative to go and simply visit.

But, today, we had a good enough reason.

Eddie – or Eduardo, as he introduced himself as in his email, ‘Eddie’ was probably some kind of nickname Maria had for him, and to think I was referring to him as that the whole time – was at the wheel, taking us to the destination. One of the few bases that El Carruaje had. Like Eduardo had mentioned, they weren’t one of the big name gangs in the city. Far from it. But they were still dangerous. I knew that much.

Benny was the name of the boss. A woman, and putting in Eduardo’s own words, she was ‘someone not to fuck with.’ Despite being the leader of one of the smaller gangs, she was secretive, and hardly met with the people at the bottom. She also kept a crew with her, a select few that she allowed to stay close. The middlemen between her and the rest of the gang. It was a hierarchy that was easy to understand.

The plan was simple, so simple that I felt it wasn’t enough in terms of going up against a drug cartel. Eduardo explained in his email that he was one of the low-ranking members, but he did have something of a lead as to what El Carruaje had planned. A shipment was recently dropped off at an El Carruaje-owned warehouse, and through his own info that he gathered, Eduardo knew that Benny would be sending one from her crew to do a thorough inspection.

Our plan was to simply intercept that process. If there was anyone who knew what Benny’s big plans were, they would be there. We could learn what they were planning, what the shipment was, if it was relevant, and find a way to stop Benny and El Carruaje, if possible.

Maybe dismantle them entirely, but that was a reach.

And I was nothing more than a gun that Eduardo could point and fire. But I was fine with that. They wouldn’t expect a masked individual to sabotage their plans, and if I messed with them enough, they would be more concerned over me than two small-time members quietly leaving the gang.

I was expecting a silent, wordless drive, with perhaps only music filling the air. But the music, an intense instrumental jazz song, was played low, and the soft volume seemed like a disservice to the energy the band was playing with. And Eddie – Eduardo – was more interested in prodding me with questions than letting the music stay between us.

“At the risk of crashing,” Eduardo started, “I want to ask a weird question. Is there more of you?”

“More of me what?”

“More of you with powers.”

“Oh,” I had to give that question some time, largely because I never expected someone to ask me that question. “That’s more a good question than a weird one.”

“What do you mean? You don’t know?”

I thought about that night, the night before my birthday. Whatever that thing actually was, I still wasn’t sure. I hadn’t even thought about that possibility. Could there be more of those things, out there?

More of me, if I thought about it that way.

“I’m not sure.”

“How are you not sure? How did you get your powers, then? Were you born with them?”

“No.”

“Then, how? The way you were jumped, like, that’s unreal. Were you bitten by, I dunno, a radioactive kangaroo?”

“Fuck off.”

“Wow. Okay, no problem, I’ll back off.”

Eduardo took a right. I kept my eyes to my side window, watching the scenery pass. I wasn’t concerned about someone seeing me in a mask, the window was tinted.

I decided to speak up again, although I was unsure of what to say. “It’s that… I’m not exactly one hundred percent used to this. And I didn’t exactly ask for this, either.”

“I get that,” Eduardo said, matter-of-factly. “From what I’ve seen in movies and shit, no one ever asks to get superpowers.”

Why did I even bother?

I rested against the door, like I was trying to physically distance myself from Eduardo as much as possible.

But Eduardo wanted to blabber on. “I can tell that I’m being annoying.”

“More than.”

Eduardo grumbled, but kept it at that. The music came back to my attention, and I was thankful for the bit of silence that came in.

“What other things can you do?” Eduardo suddenly asked. “Shoot laser out of your eyes? Fly? Create projectile suns?”

“Dammit, I thought we dropped the subject.”

“Hey, you have to be fair to me. I never talked to a person with real, actual superpowers before. That’s some real-ass shit, right there.”

“And stop calling them ‘superpowers.’”

“Isn’t that what they are?”

I complained, “Forget it. All I’m saying is, you wouldn’t want to wake up one day and be blindsided by all of this. It’s not as fun as it looks. I, I don’t even know why I’m telling you this. It’s not worth explaining.”

“That’s good, ‘cause you don’t have to. We’re here. Or as close as I can get.”

I looked ahead. It was between two other, decaying buildings. A warehouse, dirty and dusty. It was made of brick, and only two stories tall, and not even a block wide. Much smaller than I had imagined in my head. The metal door for an entrance was inviting enough, rusted and bent in some places. Torn police tape was stuck to the top left corner and the bottom right corner of the door. A fitting metaphor for this place.

Its very presence oozed sketchiness.

“Are you sure we can get this close?” I asked, “Are you sure no one’s around?”

Eduardo reassured me. “I’m positive no one’s here. That’s kinda the point.”

I wanted to protest further, but I stopped myself. I had to project some image of strength, of power, and casting doubts now would throw a wrench into things. And this was already set in motion. Couldn’t back out now.

I randomly tapped my fingers along my thigh. It was all I could do in order to not fidget, scratch my face, bounce my leg up and down, or do any other nervous ticks.

“Here,” Eduardo said, bringing me back to reality. He moved towards me. I tried backing away further, but the door was stopping me. He raised an eyebrow.

“Relax. Or you can do it yourself.” He backed away, and pointed to the glove compartment. “There are two walkie-talkies in there.”

Oh.

I reached under the dashboard in front of me, feeling for the handle. I opened the glove compartment, and found the walkie-talkies. I handed Eduardo one, and took one for myself.

“You know how these work?” Eduardo asked, waving the device around.

“I know,” I said, annoyed that he even had to ask. I’ve gone camping before, with friends.

“Cool, then let’s do this thing.”

Don’t need to tell me twice.

I got out of the car, and checked the sky.

It wasn’t that late out, the sun casting an orange hue on the sky, but I was concerned about whether or not I’d make it home on time. Chances are, I probably wouldn’t.

I reached back into the car, and took out my bags. My sports bag was emptied out of all its contents, so I folded it up, and put it into my backpack.

“You can leave that in here, you know,” Eduardo said, “You’re coming back, aren’t you?”

“No way,” I said. “I’ll feel a lot better if I have my stuff with me.”

“I’m not about to snoop through your stuff! You can go put it in the trunk if you want.”

“Thanks but no thanks.”

“Suit yourself. Well, I’m off to my hiding spot” he said. “Buzz me if you need anything, or when you’re done. If you do buzz me, I’ll assume that no one else is around to hear you. And to be safe, I won’t try to communicate with you.”

I saw Eduardo’s hand stick out of the car. He was leaning over to point at the warehouse door. “Side entrances are locked, of course, and there’s no point in trying to open that door. With that said, I don’t think you’ll have trouble getting in. Also, whoever Benny sends to check the shipment shouldn’t be bringing that many people to help. Five guys tops, including themselves. Nothing you can’t handle, I bet.”

Don’t overestimate me.

“Sounds good,” I said.

I patted myself down, checking that I had everything. Backpack, fanny pack, in it my knife and pepper spray, and now the walkie-talkie. I touched the back of my head, feeling the bun I tied my hair into.

Physically, I was ready. Emotionally, or mentally? Not so much.

I was about to go close the door, but I was met with Eduardo’s face. I couldn’t lie, the look on his face startled me. Hard, firm. Good thing I had a mask on.

Eduardo opened with, “I wanted to say, before you go…”

He trailed off, and broke the intensity of his stare.

“What?” I asked, prompting him.

“It’s nothing, I’ve been talking too much.”

“If it’s important, that’s when I don’t mind.”

“It’s not. It can wait.”

Saying that is only going to make this harder. But I didn’t respond. Couldn’t, since whatever more I could say probably wouldn’t be of any help. Also, I was catching myself trying to delay this.

“Then I’m out,” I said, turning.

“Good luck.”

“Sure.”

Eduardo drove off, heading to the predetermined place where he could park and hide his car, while staying close.

I walked around the building, disregarding the rusted metal entrance as a possibility. I found one of the side doors Eduardo mentioned, the handle wrapped in a chain and lock. Maybe I could break it, but that would defeat the purpose of an ambush. I ignored it, and moved on.

The wear and tear of neglect was even worse, upon closer inspection. Brick was weathered, foliage making their way through holes and cracks in the building. Cracks also stretched across the pavement.

Graffiti covered over everything else, so much graffiti that it told a story. I saw the faded markings of another group’s emblem, now obscured by the symbol of El Carruaje. Another gang had claimed this territory before. Did the old group move out? Or did El Carruaje manage to take over?

No distractions. I moved along. I couldn’t afford the mental energy on that, right now. Had to move and get into a good position.

The ruined state of the warehouse fortunately gave way to a few options. More than a few windows were broken in, enough for me to step through, and if I really wanted to, I could always try the roof. Wouldn’t be that difficult to make my way up there.

But, I wasn’t that desperate, so I hauled myself up through a window frame, the glass was all but gone. I hunched over to get through, careful to not cut myself from any small shards.

Gloves. I knew I was forgetting something. Gloves.

I found my way into the warehouse. The interior of the warehouse was essentially one large room, lined with rows of metal racks, forming long, wide aisles, connecting to a main corridor down the center of the building. The racks were only about ten feet high or so, and the ceiling was double that.

I decided to test the walkie-talkie. I pressed the button on the side, and held it down as I spoke.

“Mic check, one-two, one-two, can you hear me? I’m in, over.”

The walkie-talkie buzzed, and Eduardo’s voice came through, fuzzy.

I can. They should be almost there, if we timed this right. You in a good spot?

“No, over.”

Get going. Stay out of sight, and for your sake, don’t do anything too reckless.

“Thanks for caring, over.”

Welcome. And you don’t have to keep saying ‘over.’

“Isn’t that what people say?”

What people? Just get a move on.

“Alright, over.”

I put it away, and pressed forward.

To find a better vantage point, I scaled up one of the racks beside me. I reached the top, and had to maneuver over wooden boxes as I began my snooping around. I didn’t have much in the way of lighting, the fluorescent lamps attached from the ceiling were broken. Not that it would matter to me, anyways.

As I went along, it occurred to me that this place was more like a prop house than anything else. I passed by a life-sized animatronic of a lavender-smelling purple bear, stepped over a collection of busts used for holding wigs, and I had to jump over to another rack when a pile of netting proved too tough to walk over without tripping. Years of stuff, lost and forgotten.

Ah, I’m getting distracted.

My best bet for locating them was by the entrance, by the metal door. I leaped across the racks, trying to make as little noise as I could, heading towards what I believed was the front of the building.

A noise, one aisle over, closer to the main corridor. And then another. The clanging of sliding metal.

I was right. I headed that way.

I got to the source of the noise, and crouched over the edge of the rack to observe the four people below, entering the warehouse.

Four people, nice. That made things easy. But not too easy. They each had their own flashlight.

Three men, and a woman. Benny? For some reason, I didn’t think so. She was standing in the back, and from her posture, she wasn’t commanding any sort of presence.

A downside to the plan Eduardo and I came up with was that I had to pick out who among these four would be part of Benny’s main crew. I was sure that if I watched them long enough, I could figure it out. But, I could venture a guess, right now.

Probably the man at the head of the group, the one in the suit. An expensive looking one, too. He looked closer to the image of an Italian mobster rather than a member of the cartel.

He was in the middle of a sentence when I settled in to eavesdrop.

“… to make sure we have everything we need. We’re working against the clock, now, and we’re starting to be spread thin, but we can’t not be diligent.”

“You can thank Lawrence for the ‘spreading thin’ part,” the woman said.

“Does anyone even know what the fuck went down?” another one of them asked. “They all looked like they got hit by a fuckin’ bus.”

“Not really, Lawrence doesn’t wanna say,” the woman said. “Like he has some pride worth protecting.”

“Same with the others?”

“Yup. They’re a sad bunch.”

“And that’s why they’re out there, licking their wounds, and not here,” the man in the suit said. “Enough. Let’s get this done.”

Likewise, I thought.

I was right above them, and they had no idea I was there. There was something exhilarating about that, a rush bubbling inside me.

Certainly better than being seen.

I watched them go, down the main corridor, and take the fifth aisle to their left. They disappeared from sight, forcing me to move.

I dropped back down to the ground floor, and slowly followed their path. I peeked around the aisle to see all of them standing around large, wooden crates, situated at the bottom shelves of the racks.

“Hand me a crowbar,” the man in the suit ordered. One of the men handed him one, previously attached to his hip. I saw the holster of a gun there, too. I tensed. The man in the suit pried open a box.

I couldn’t see it from where I was, but I didn’t have to.

“Holy…” the woman said, “That is a lot. Isn’t this overkill?”

The man in the suit explained. “It’s what Benny wanted, but don’t expect we’ll be needing all of this.”

“But still, this is heavy. This is asking for war.”

War?

“It’s not going to be a war, it’s going to be a straight-up obliteration. They won’t know what’s coming, and by the time they do, we’ll have taken all of their shit, territories and all.”

“Everyone’s going to be up our asses for this.”

“That’s why we’re going to be smart about this. Trust in Benny, mija.”

The other men murmured, agreeing with the man in the suit. The woman said no more.

“Let’s get to counting. The first moving group will be coming in about an hour.”

A moving group? Eduardo never mentioned that. Did he not know?

Great. Just great.

My time was now cut way short. There were other coming to pick up those crates. I couldn’t let them leave this warehouse, not when the threat of war was somehow a possibility.

The man in the suit. He seemed to know what he was doing, leading the others. I designated him as my target.

They started working open the other boxes. That was my prompt. I had to make my move, and unlike last time, I had to be smart.

I had to assume they were all hostile, and that they all had guns. That made any encounter with them tricky at best, and tragic at worst. A head-on fight wasn’t the way to go.

Think, think.

I started by giving myself some distance from the scene, backing away so they couldn’t hear me when I tip-toed into an aisle opposite them. I looked around to see what I could do.

There was a set of drums on the third shelf of a rack beside me. Not exactly a drum set, but instead number of bass drums lined up together. A good hop brought me up to where they were. I looked for the biggest drum, and gave it good slap.

The sound reverberated throughout the warehouse.

I heard them from down the aisle.

“Did you hear that?” a voice called out. It sounded like the man in the suit. “Sounded like it came from there. Go check it out.”

I didn’t hear a word of assent, but I heard the footsteps coming my way.

So much for not being reckless.

Weird, referring to them as henchmen, but as far as I knew, that was what they were. I watched as the henchman – the henchwoman, I noted when she got closer – looked about with her flashlight. She walked slowly, wary, completely out of her element with how dark it was. Me? I no longer had that issue.

I perched over the edge of the shelf, waiting until she walked right below me. I took out my knife from my fanny pack, but I didn’t take out the blade. I gulped, trying to swallow down any second thoughts.

I dove.

My hand caught her mouth first, taking away her ability to scream. She toppled easily, offering little resistance.

Her flashlight was knocked away as she fell, and I moved to sit on her, my knees on her back, stopping her from reaching for it. The light shone on us, elongating our shadows. I knew that certain types of masks could change facial expressions at different lighting and angles. I wondered if the same effect applied to my cheap mask.

If so, what did she see?

I brought my knife to her neck, but only the handle, and pressed it against her skin. I wouldn’t dare bring the blade out.

My other hand was still covering her mouth, and the handle of my knife being where it was seemed to be an implicit enough threat for her. She didn’t struggle, and she didn’t try to scream for help.

Mom had given me a pocket knife for a reason, but I didn’t think this was the reason she had in mind.

I leaned in closer, so I could be heard without having to be too loud. “You. Know anything?”

She only stared up at me, glaring with an intensity I wasn’t used to.

“I know I have my hand on you,” I whispered, “And I’m about to take it off. You answer me, quietly, and your night will be a lot better for it. Trust me.”

A click, coming from behind. Subtle, faint, but I heard it. Someone else was coming, and they had a gun.

Shit. Now I was in a bind. I had to get away, and fast, but I had this woman to deal with. How would I knock out someone without causing serious injury?

No, I didn’t trust my own strength, not yet.

I got off of her, kicked the flashlight so it slid under a shelf, and then jumped away, leaving her unscathed.

I had left just in time, watching from a high-enough spot. A man came to tend to the woman. The one who had the crowbar.

“Get up! Here.” The man extended a hand, helping the woman up. It took her some time to reach for it, still rattled by her encounter.

“What happened to you? Did-”

He never got a chance to finish that sentence.

I had searched the props around me, trying to find anything that I could use. All that was usable were two old cue sticks, ones used for playing pool. I threw the first one, throwing it like I would a spear.

The cue stick struck him in the neck, preventing him from yelping in pain, even if he wanted to. Part of me wanted to shake a fist in celebration, but I couldn’t spare the time. I dropped back down with the other cue stick.

I didn’t waste a beat, striking him the across the face with the stick. A quick jab into his gut brought him down, and a knee to his chest for good measure. It might not have been enough to knock him out, but I caused enough pain to keep him down and out.

For the other, the woman, I put my foot on her throat, and tried using my words instead.

“And you. I don’t care who comes, or what happens, but you stay down for the next hour, or it’s not going to be my handle that I press into your neck.”

Again, a yell in the distance. There were two others left, and they must’ve heard the cue stick that I threw clatter against the ground, or the quick sounds of my brief scuffle. It wouldn’t be long before they made their presence.

To hurry her along, I pushed down on her throat some, until she started writhing and reaching for my foot, trying to push it off. I wouldn’t budge.

“Do I make myself clear, then?”

Begrudgingly, she nodded.

She was probably lying, but it was better than taking a risk and seriously hurting someone. Again. But, to be sure, I moved the man I just knocked down, and placed his body on top of her. I picked back up the closest cue stick, and once again, I went back up to the racks, staying hidden at the very top. The hit-and-run tactic was working well for me so far.

The last two men came into the aisle, including the man in the suit. They were running, now. Some time had passed since they sent in the first person to investigate, and suspicious noises didn’t help any.

Being in the dark, and being able to see, gave me the advantage, even if they had the firepower. It gave me the luxury of picking how I would strike, and something to hide back into should something go awry. It would be harder to hit what they couldn’t see.

And as if he heard my train of thought chugging along, one of the two men took out a flashlight of his own, and began investigating the aisle, searching through the shelves and props. I hid behind a box before the light could get to me.

I really hate flashlights, I thought.

I peeked my head out, taking a look, assessing the situation. They dropped their search, instead tending to the other two I knocked down. There wouldn’t be a better opportunity.

With purpose, I dropped, intending to land on top of the other other man. It turned into a crash, instead. My weight slammed into him, and the man collapsed into the pile of bodies I already amassed.

Another down.

The man in the suit tried swinging with his crowbar, but a fast swipe to his side with a cue stick solved that issue. He reeled, dropping it, and giving me another opportunity to hit him again.

I kicked him in the knee, and it bent at an odd angle. He crashed onto the floor, wailing in pain. Once, twice, three times, and another I beat him with the cue stick to keep him from getting up. I had lost count by the time it broke, and he had stopped moving, besides some shallow breathing.

I looked over my handiwork. Four people, adults, who probably had killed or were at least willing to, and I took out all of them. But, I recognized that I ended up going overboard. It amounted to numb feeling. In all honesty, I wasn’t sure what to feel. Satisfaction? Horror?

I loomed over the woman once more. “Clock’s still ticking. Stay there.”

She didn’t answer, but she was no longer a concern. I’d proven enough to her. To all of them.

I tossed away the broken cue sticks, and returned to the man in the suit.

It was annoying, having to keep referring to the supposed leader as the ‘man in the suit,’ but that was why I was here, in a sense. For information.

Before the man in the suit could react and help himself, I put a foot to his chest, pinning him down.

“Please don’t tell me the suit’s a rental,” I said, “I don’t have the money to pay for it.”

He didn’t stutter in his response, surprisingly. He spoke calmly, and deliberate. “Who are you?”

“That doesn’t matter, well, because my name sucks, honestly. What does matter is who you are. Name, please.”

He took his time to answer. “Roland.”

“Roland?” I crouched in front of him, “That’s a nice name.”

Roland’s face contorted into a mean mug, but even then, I could see the handsomeness that hid behind that expression. He looked rugged, tough, the type I could imagine in a magazine. Front cover.

Stop getting distracted again.

“Okay, Roland, this can either get a little better for you, or a lot worse. I have a few questions for you, and let’s see if you can answer them without too much trouble.”

“Fuck…” Roland took a breath, but his chest was constricted, thanks to my foot. “… you.”

I sighed until I was out of breath, little wisps of air escaping my lips. Interrogation was not something I’d ever expect to be doing at any point in my life, and any resistance Roland put worth was wasting my time. Others would be coming in, soon, and I had to find a way to keep those crates here.

“Let’s start with what’s in those crates,” I said. “Tell me.”

“Weapons.”

“What kind of weapons?”

“Why don’t you check for yourself? They’re right there. You might be so impressed, your mask will make a face.”

“Roland, it’s not smart to be fighting me like this,” I said. I brandished my knife. “Can’t you be good?”

Although subtle, I missed the first part of what he said. “… bebé. That knife is no good. Blade is too cheap. You’ve never used it before, and you’re too scared to.”

I shrugged, showing him the blade. There wasn’t enough light for him to see it clearly, but I had to make do. “Cherish the face you have right now, because it’s about to look really surprised.”

Roland grunted, saying something in Spanish.

My fanny pack made a sound. Was it Eduardo? If it was, it had to wait.

“You’re only making this harder for yourself,” I said. “I took you out, and your guys. By myself. Aren’t you a little scared? Even a smidge?”

Roland scoffed. “You do not scare me.”

How?

“Really forcing my hand, buddy,” I muttered. I brought my knife to his face, gliding it across his cheek. He barely responded.

“Pretty please?” I asked.

After a slow minute, Roland finally conceded. “What do you want?”

“I heard a little bit of what you said earlier. Who are you going after? Which gang?”

“Heh. All of them.”

“You’re not very funny.”

“Is that not the truth? We want to be on top in this town. We’ll be going up against everyone, eventually.”

This guy, going out of his way to be an ass.

I tried a few more questions, but I already knew where this was going.

“This Benny, that’s your boss, right? Know where I can find him easy?” I had to switch pronouns, to throw off any possible suspicion.

“Benny never stays in same place for long. Always moving.”

“Do you know where he’d be now?”

“No.”

I groaned. “He has to have a place he frequents, right? Strip club, restaurant, bar? Some kind of headquarters?”

Roland shifted his eyes, looking away. “Benny will kill me.”

“And I won’t?”

“No, you won’t.”

Damn this Roland. He was playing my bluff, and winning. I only had so much time to work with, and he was wasting it by being stubborn. I was almost amazed at how obstinate he was.

And there was a lot I could be getting out of him. I had to take advantage of this. More names, stashes of supplies. Of money. Anything that could hit Benny hard.

I’d give it thirty more minutes, and try to get as much info I could. After that, I’d have to deal with the crates of weapons.

Oh.

I felt a knot tie in my stomach. All this physical exertion, was starting to make me thirsty.

Maybe I didn’t have thirty minutes, anymore.

“Ay, Roland,” I said, “Got a phone?”

He refused to answer. I heard my fanny pack sound off again. What did Eduardo want?

“Ugh.”

I bent down, and searched his person. Jacket pocket. Found it easy.

“Thanks for nothing, dickhead,” I said.

“Pleasure…” he stopped to cough, “Is all mine.”

I got up and walked away, leaving all four of them behind. They wouldn’t be a problem. I picked up the pace, to the crates, walkie-talkie in one hand and Roland’s phone in the other.

I was at the main corridor when I spoke into the walkie-talkie. “I thought you said you wouldn’t be buzzing me up. What is it?”

No response from Eduardo. I pressed the button again.

“Since you’re on the line, El Carruaje’s planning a turf war against one of the neighboring gangs. They won’t tell who they’re going after, or how, or when, but I’ve secured the shipment. For now. Some people are coming to get them soon.”

Again, no response. Again, I pressed the button.

“There’s a fuckton of weapons stockpiled here, a lot of guns. Do you think it would be a good idea to direct some cops here, or find a way to sabotage the stuff that’s here?”

The walkie-talkie buzzed this time, from the other end. “That won’t be necessary. But I’m sad my plans won’t be a surprise anymore.

A female. It wasn’t Eduardo’s voice.

“Who is this?” I asked, my palms beginning to sweat.

I’ve been hearing a lot about a mysterious person messing with my boys. I couldn’t believe it myself, but then I thought, maybe they’ve been getting help from the inside, huh? And from what I’ve heard, these incidents have surrounded the same few people, and who do I find a few blocks away from my warehouse, with a walkie-talkie in his hand?

I swallowed, with nothing to say.

I don’t know who you are, or why you’re trying to interfere with my plans, but I do know one thing. Eduardo, it’s true that you want to take Maria and leave our family, right?

A shrill, distorted scream came from my walkie-talkie. I bit my tongue.

That’s what I thought. Okay. Hey, hey, shh, calm down, it’s okay. You want to leave us? Alright. Let’s go see Maria. She should be at home by this time. You two can leave together. Let’s take your car. You drive.”

I yelled, with no forethought. “No!”

Oh, and you. You can sit tight and stay there. Whatever it is that you’re trying to do, it ends tonight. If I see any other car or police coming after us, I’ll make the call, and have Maria killed before we can get there. You cannot stop me. But don’t worry, I’ll turn this thing on when we arrive, so you can hear every little detail.

Another voice suddenly jutted in, shouting.

Blank Face! You have to do something! Come-”

The line was cut off. Silence. I didn’t waste a second.

I started running.

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012 – The Things That Matter to Us

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I sat in front of my computer, stuck at what to say. What to type. Where would I even start?

I had to set up a whole new email account. Like I was going to let Eddie know my main one. No way. Exchanging phone numbers was also out of the question, I didn’t want anything to be tracked to my actual identity. This was a necessary precaution, albeit a little annoying. I had to come up with a whole new username and password.

Like, Blank Face. What kind of name was that? It was the first thing that popped into my head, but that didn’t mean I had to say it out loud. It sounded dumb. A lame thing to call myself, but deep down, I knew it ultimately didn’t matter. I didn’t have to commit to that name, and it wasn’t like this whole ‘superhero’ thing, as Eddie put it, was something I had to continue after everything here was said and done.

Hopefully.

‘This is Blank Face,’ I started typing. I almost gagged.

Fight through it, Alexis, I told myself, There are more pressing matters to deal with.

I wrote out my message to Eddie. Nothing too extensive. A simple introduction and a request for more in-depth information about El Carruaje. The boss’s name, any headquarters, basic operations, but mostly importantly, what exactly was the ‘something big’ that they were planning. It was a lot to ask for, a lot of information to go through, but knowing was a large chunk of the battle.

I finished typing up the email, double checked for grammar and spelling mistakes, and after a third reread, I sent it.

There was nothing to do but sit there and wait. And think.

When I got back to the parking garage, it wasn’t that difficult to find Maria, she was by Eddie’s car, phone to her ear. I kept my distance and snuck past her to get to my bags, hoping all the while that she wouldn’t gather the courage the get up and move around.

The car alarms were still blaring, but Lawrence and his men were already gone, even the one who I sent through car window. They didn’t touch Maria, which was a relief.

I waited, crouched by the yelling car, until my knees began to hurt, but Eddie successfully made his way off the roof I left him on, and met up with Maria. They didn’t exchange any words, they only hugged. Eddie took Maria into his car, and they left, leaving me to gather my belongings, change, and take a bus back to school. I made it in time for Katy to pick me up and take me home, none the wiser to the escapades I just returned from.

And now, there was this. Was this the help I had to offer? Could I really do anything to untangle Maria out of that web of gang activity and violence? If there was anything I could do, I told myself I would take that opportunity. Because I had the ability to do something, the power to help. With this, my powers, I capable of things that someone like Katy or Maria couldn’t even think of. They felt walled in, and I could very well soar over those walls.

And I certainly couldn’t stand by and do nothing. I had to do this. This was the card I could play, and I was ready to play it.

Let’s pray it works.

Slightly curious, and mostly bored, I decided to refresh my inbox. Nothing. Not that I expected an immediate reply.

No use in waiting around. I left my room.

My mom hadn’t come home yet, still at work at the hair salon. There was nothing to do, other than wait for Eddie to return my email. There was some homework that needed my attention, but I was too anxious to sit still and focus on something so small and inconsequential by comparison. Besides, it would make for a good excuse to skip dinner tonight.

I was too jittery on the inside. I wanted to get up and move. I needed to.

Impulsively, I turned on the TV, and started cleaning around the apartment.

As small a gesture as it was, I figured I could do something for my mom while she was out. And help out in a way that didn’t involve kicking other people’s ribs in. I dusted off table tops, curtains, the television itself, fluffed the pillows on the couch, took out the dishes from the dishwater and returned them to their proper place. The whole nine yards. With the TV droning in the background, I did a lot more than I initially planned. And it was a benefit for me, too. I was able to take my mind off of everything, zone out for a little while.

Maybe I should do this more often, I mused.

Alright, I was getting ahead of myself.

I worked my way back into the living room, capping off my small detour by turning off the TV. The whole room glowed. It was dumb, but I felt proud of myself for doing this much. I didn’t plan on pointing it out to my mom when she got home, nor would I care if she ended up not noticing at all. This was enough. It was good.

I went back into my room, refreshed. I checked my inbox, and found a reply waiting for me.

I sat down, and read the message.

“This is an absolute betrayal, a serious offense. I can’t believe y’all would do something like this.”

“You’re overacting.”

“And you, Alexis, you’re the worst. How could you keep something like this from me?”

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

“It’s only the mall,” Maria added.

“Yeah, the maaaall.” Katy dragged out the word. “And you went without me. That has to be some sort of felony, somewhere.”

“Relax, it’s not even the good mall,” I said.

Maria bounced off my point, “And, I only went with her because you weren’t there.”

Katy pretended to wipe tears from her eyes. “That hurts. That really hurts.”

The three of us weren’t exactly all smiles, but it was a breath of fresh air, compared to the last few days.

Katy was more than happy to see Maria meet up with us at the front of the school. I, too, was astonished to see her come back to us so soon, even though I asked her to. But, considering what happened the day before, I wouldn’t have put it against her if she didn’t come. But I was more so impressed at how composed she was. She had gotten better at hiding things from me and Katy. But I knew better. Mostly because I was there.

As for Katy, she had no idea. And she probably would never find out.

And, as if to lighten the mood between the three of us, Maria brought up our trip to the mall. Very major details excluded, but nevertheless, it was enough to get Katy playfully worked up.

We walked down the hall. A stream of students were heading to the cafeteria, ready for the break in the middle of the day. With so many people, we had a hard time going against the flow, and to leave the school through a side exit. We had plans to meet with some other friends for lunch. Mattie and Janine, and maybe William, he hadn’t quite confirmed if he was down to join us. I already had my excuses prepared, should any of them ask me why I wasn’t going to eat anything.

It was already lunchtime. I wasn’t hungry, but my stomach was in knots.

“Barnett!”

Easily going against the current of people was Coach Tilly. She walked with a speed that suggested that no one else was around her, but that wasn’t the case. People were scrambling to get out of her way. She approached us.

“Barnett, I hope you’re not about to leave school grounds for lunch.”

“No Coach,” I said, “We’re off to the cafeteria like good little juniors.”

“I appreciate you trying, but no.” She put a finger on a clipboard she was holding. “Since you’re here, mind if I talk to you for a few minutes?”

“Sure,” I said, hiding the added nervousness that was already creeping within me.

We stepped to the side, Katy and Maria waiting close by, but out of earshot.

Coach Tilly started. “I haven’t seen you at practice for the past few days. You should tell me if you can’t show up.

I hung my head. “Sorry, Coach. Things have been a little hectic, lately. Been busy.”

“Everyone’s busy. And they still manage to come to practice.”

There was little I could say in response to that. I said nothing.

But Coach said more. “The only reason why I’m on your case like this was because I wanted you to be on the starting line-up for the next game. You did well against Augustine, and I’ve seen you improving at practice. When you were at practice.”

I had to say something to that. “You were thinking of having me start?”

“I am. I was. But it wouldn’t be fair to the other girls who’ve been coming, showing up and giving it their all. Do you think that’s fair?”

“No.”

Coach gave me a hard gaze, making it impossible to look away. “Me too. I’m not doing this to be mean, I’m not even doing this to tell you I’m mad. I’m telling you this because communication is important towards building a team, and keeping trust within that team. I want you to know that.”

“Okay, I understand,” I replied, but I didn’t fully understand what that had to with the conversation. “I would apologize again, but I know you wouldn’t accept that.”

Coach’s face lightened up. “Now you’re catching on. Now, with that being said, may I be allowed to assume that you’ll be at practice, today?”

I gave my answer, loudly and clearly. Showing any hesitation in front of Coach would be spitting in the face of her mini-lecture.

“I won’t be able to make it.”

Coach only nodded, taking in my reply.

“Thanks for letting me know,” she said, before walking away.

It hurt to watch, but I had to give her the truth, after what she said. And I knew she wouldn’t press any further.

I rejoined my friends.

“You skip practice twice, and she’s already hounding you for it?” Katy asked.

“You’re good,” I said. “But she wasn’t that mad. Oh, before I forget. You don’t need to take me home today.”

“Why’s that?”

“Coach wants to run me ragged today, for missing practice. I’ll be out later than usual, and I’d feel bad if I make you hang around for too long, waiting for me.”

“I don’t mind too much,” Katy said. “I can do some shopping with Maria. At the maaaall.”

“Blah blah blah,” Maria intoned. “Get over yourself.”

“Nah, I’ll be alright,” I said, reiterating my point to Katy. “I’ll take a bus home.”

Katy shrugged. “If you say so.”

It sucked, having to lie right to Katy’s face like that, but I knew she would press further if I told her otherwise. I wondered if there would come a day when I came clean to Katy and Maria about everything. About my ‘powers,’ my appetite. But the longer I kept them in the dark about that, that day was pushed back even further.

And after tonight, I doubted that day would ever come.

We left the school, and went out for lunch.

The rest of the school day ended up being unremarkable. Certainly a good thing, but that made the day go faster than I would have liked. When that final bell rang, it didn’t signal the end of a school day, but instead, the beginnings of a really long night.

After leaving Mr. Stevens’s class and going a separate way from Katy, instead of going straight to the gym, I went to my locker on the first floor. I took out my sports bag, and made sure I had it secured right next to me. Checking that I had everything, I headed for a side exit out of the school, the same one we went through earlier at lunchtime.

My footsteps were drawn out and slow. I took my time, so that Katy and Maria would have already left the school grounds by the time I was out of the building.

I went the opposite way of the Strip, knowing full well that Maria would be there, waiting for her boyfriend. That he would be on his way to pick her up, and take her home. And some time after that, he would be meeting to pick up someone else.

Me.

And I was on my way to the meeting place.

I could’ve taken a bus, but I was getting low on funds, and I didn’t want to ask my mom for any more money than she was already giving me as an allowance. At least it wasn’t that far, and as thing were, I preferred to waste the time by going there by foot. Taking a bus would make me get there early, and I didn’t like standing around and waiting.

The details of our meeting was seared into my mind, I didn’t need to check anymore. I had been thinking about it all day. The time? Five, on the dot. The place? A non-descript location, the alleyway between the Highmount mall parking garage and that other building, the one I jumped across the day before.

A walk through the city was much different than taking a bus. In a bus, there was some sort of barrier between me and reality, the harsh truth of how messed up this city actually was. I was born here, in the city. And from the get-go, I was placed in a unique position. I didn’t live close enough to the city to experience the symptoms of this societal illness firsthand, but it was prevalent enough that I had grown to accept it as some kind of universal constant. Things are like this because they are. And I was about to get a true taste of that reality.

That taste would hardly be sweet.

The mall was few more blocks away. A few more blocks of cracks in the sidewalks, tags and markings on buildings, broken windows, littered streets. How did I not see this, before? Was I that blind?

Even with enhanced strength and healing, I hugged my bags even tighter.

I made it into the alley. Despite my long trip here, I was still early, so I hid behind a dumpster to change. Blue windbreaker, grey joggers, a blank white mask.

I brought some new things, as an extra precaution. Pepper spray, and my pocket knife. I placed them into a fanny pack, and strapped it to my waist. It wasn’t fashionable, but I wasn’t doing this to be seen.

A car rolled up by the alley, a black muscle car with a gold racing stripe. It honked three times. My cue. I adjusted the mask one final time, grabbed my bags, and walked up to the car.

I thought I was ready to play my card. I was so wrong. But there was no way I could back out now.

The window rolled down. A voice came out.

“Get in.”

I got in.

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011 – Bird Forced to Fly

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Eddie continued to plead with the men, perhaps to keep them stalled. It worked out for me, since I was still trying to prepare myself.

Qué haces? Leave her out of this!”

“She’s been a bitch to my boys, too. Leading us on, Jordan’s hand got broken because of her, from what I’ve heard. So yeah, I don’t think I’ll be leaving her out of anything.”

There was so much I didn’t know, so much I had to deal with, right now. Why were these guys here? What were they trying to get out of Eddie? Why did Maria need to be involved with this?

I held the mask in my hands.

This mask, I had found it at a store selling party goods. To be more specific, Maria found it, and showed it to me, telling me how creepy it looked. It was.

It was blank. A white face, holes for the eyes. A simple, plastic mask meant for a costume party, not to legitimately conceal my identity. The way it seemed to look back at me was unsettling, in an uncanny valley sort of sense. I ended up getting it, mostly because I thought I could use for Halloween this year.

Not today, not now.

I put it on.

My breaths were hot and heavy. Loud, too, since there was no hole for the mouth, just indentations where my lips could fit in to. My breathing filled my ears, and I was worried someone could hear me. I tried to calm myself, slow down, but it didn’t really work.

“Maria, how about you get to the car?” Eddie asked, his voice shaking as much as I was.

“Hell no, I ain’t letting these shitheads fuck with me, or you. Not anymore.”

I silently admonished her. What? Maria, now is not the time to be tough!

Eddie spoke for the both of us. “Maria, please!”

“Or you can come with us,” another one of the men said, “You’re gettin’ a ride either way.”

“Fuck you.”

I took a peek out through the window, looking as Maria stomped her foot and crossed her arms. I knew she was stubborn, but this was a whole new level.

I thought back to what Katy said. Idiot.

I sifted through my sports bag some more. I put on my old blue windbreaker, and put the hood up. Next was a pair of grey joggers, which I put over the shorts I was already wearing.

What was left in the bag were the things that were supposed to be in there. My uniform and towels.

The tension in the air, I could cut through it like butter. Things were about to escalate in a way that benefited no present parties, actually present or otherwise. I adjusted my mask, stroking the flimsy string that wrapped around my head.

The man Eddie referred to as ‘Lawrence’ laughed. But there was nothing funny about this. “Guess that’s how you wanna do it.” He started advancing towards them.

What do I do? I was all dressed up, but I had no plan of action. I was here, but now what?

Without realizing it, I put my hands on the car.

I nearly shrieked in surprise at the sudden car alarm.

A few of from that gang did yell, and Eddie, too. “Maria, run!”

I took that as my cue, as well.

I dashed out of my hiding spot, leaving everything else behind.

Move fast, catch them off guard. The car alarm was still going off, so all eyes were on me as I moved.

Five people, excluding Eddie and Maria. Maria finally got around to doing the sensible thing, and was running away. Three of them were already reaching for their waistbands. If that meant that they had weapons, I couldn’t give them that chance. I went for them first.

Animals. I had try and think of these guys as animals. Like rabbits. They were going to hurt Maria.

Oh, and Eddie, too.

But, I couldn’t just go all out. I didn’t even want to know what ‘all out’ meant for someone like me. I had to also be careful.

The middle ground was something I’d have to discover on my own.

I ran up to the closest guy, a man in an oversized shirt. I placed my hand on his chest, and pushed him back. He stumbled, and ditched his effort in getting a weapon. I continued his momentum with a kick to the groin. He groaned and fell, hard.

The second man already whipped out a knife. I felt my blood quicken even more.

He struck first, thrusting at me with a jab. But I had time to process his movements, and I had the chance to grab at his wrist with my free hand.

With my other hand, I-

“Agh!” I shouted.

I was pulled back, enough to let go of the man I was engaged with. My arms were restricted, and something pressed against my lower back. I couldn’t move.

Fuck, shit, fuck!

The guy in the red polo, Lawrence, stood right in front of me. With a gun pointed to my face.

“Who in the fuck are you?” He had to bellowed over the car alarm, spit flying out of his mouth.

I didn’t bother to answer. I squinted as I stared him down. Though I was curious if he could see that through my mask.

“I thought I asked you something!”

Again, I didn’t answer.

It was me, Lawrence, and the three men who held me in place. One man on each side, seizing an arm, and another behind me, the metallic clicking confirming to me that it was indeed a gun.

Because of course it’s another fucking gun.

Eddie stood not too far from Lawrence. Maria was well away from the scene. At least I had that going for me.

The only other concession made on my side was that I had taken out at least one guy. He was writhing on the ground, hands on his crotch.

My body was being yanked between fight or flight, but the gun pressed against my back kept me glued to the spot. Coursing with adrenaline, my energy instead went to my thoughts, the incessant car alarm simulating what was going on in my head. What could I do, what could I say, that could get me out of this? Right now, all I had was a disappointing nothing. And just because I had good healing, that didn’t mean I was willing to risk a bullet searing through my insides before I did heal. Until a viable, bright idea would miraculously descend upon me, I stood still.

I wanted to kick myself until I broke my leg, healed, and do it again. I should’ve brought my knife.

Lawrence interrupted my mental sprint. “Don’t wanna talk? Don’t make me skin you.”

I was in Lawrence’s – and his gun’s – sights, and me keeping quiet wasn’t easing him up any. He looked to the guy to my right, who had a hold of my right arm, and said something in Spanish. My B-minus wasn’t enough to know exactly what he said, but I heard the word máscara, and I doubted he was talking about taking the time to dolly themselves up right now.

The man beside me grunted in response, and took one hand off my arm. I knew he was about to reach for my mask.

This really was not going my way.

“Wait!” I shouted, my voice carrying over the car alarm.

The guy going for my face stopped, or must have, since my mask wasn’t removed yet, after some time. Lawrence faced me again, and straightened out his arm to me, holding his gun.

“The hell you want?”

I did my best to speaking calmly, hoping my mask would muffle the shakiness in my voice. “I just wanted to say, probably not a good idea to shoot that gun.” The silent, tough act wasn’t doing me any favors, so I tried something different.

“Why’s that?”

I scoffed, even though I was in no position to do so. “Are you an idiot? We’re standing in the middle of a parking garage, filled with cars, and a car alarm that won’t shut up. And you’re about fire a gun? It’s like you’re asking to get caught, literally red-handed.”

“Yeah? I think my finger and our feet are fast enough. Like right-”

“Whoa whoa, wait! Wait!” My knees went weak, but the two men’s grip on me was firm. I didn’t fall. Couldn’t.

Lawrence sounded a step past irritated. “What?”

“You’re holding your gun funny. Arm’s too straight. You’ll hurt yourself with the recoil.”

“You an instructor? You came here to lecture me on gun safety?” He was sneering, but he fixed his arm as he talked.

Don’t let him get back on task of shooting me. Keep talking.

But what could I say? Jokes? Stuff like that didn’t come to me naturally, and that would probably get me killed even faster. No jokes.

Doesn’t even have to make sense. Say something!

I thought back to the conversation earlier, when Lawrence interrupted Maria and Eddie, picking out any details I could recall.

“The boss. He, he sent me. Just in case.”

Lawrence tilted his head. “In case of what?”

“In case you fucked up, which you clearly are right now, since I had to come onto the scene.”

“Nice try. What’s the boss’s name?”

“He’s gonna be pretty mad when he hears about this. You can’t just do a simple thing? An easy task? A straightforward chore?”

“You didn’t answer the question!”

I don’t need to make sense, I just need to waste your time.

“So, yeah. Can you tell your boys to get off me? I don’t need this, the bossman’s gonna be pissed. Eddie, you told them, right? That I’m here to help you out.”

Eddie made a face and mouthed a word. ‘What?

Lawrence laughed. Too hard and too sudden to be genuine. Almost immediately, he stopped and spoke, too quickly for me to get another word in. “You know what? Fuck it, it’s too obvious you lying. I’m done with you now, bitch.”

My whole body tensed, probably popping a vein in the process. “Hold-”

A scream, loud and over the blaring car alarm. Eddie crouched, and lunged into Lawrence’s hip, knocking him over before he had a chance to react.

This was the best chance I was ever going to get.

With all my strength, I swung my right arm forward, throwing off the guy holding me. I underestimated my strength, since he let go and was flung away. I thought he’d crash into Lawrence and Eddie, but they were rolling on the ground, fighting over the gun. He flew through the windshield of a car instead, and another car alarm went off. The lopsided rhythm and the differing pitches only made things more hectic.

I wasted no time on the guy constricting my left arm, doubly so, since I still had a gun behind me to deal with. Moving my hand so I had a hold on his arm, I spun around. If he was the hour hand of a clock, he’d have moved from the nine position to the six position, clockwise. He slammed into the man behind me, knocking his gun away. I effectively moved fast enough to catch them both off guard. They slid a distance away, grunting in pain when they stopped. I hoped that was enough to keep them down. To be safe, I went and kicked the gun, sliding it under a car farther down the parking garage.

Lawrence and Eddie were still going at it, but Lawrence was getting the upper hand. He was on top, wrestling the gun out of Eddie’s hands. One good yank might have been enough to turn the favor to Lawrence, and I knew I wasn’t the only one who didn’t want that.

They weren’t too far, but I broke into a run. I headed for Lawrence, and prepared to kick, like running to kick a soccer ball. I hit him in the ribs. I felt something give way to my foot, then snapping. He howled in pain, and crumpled over to his side. That should be enough for him.

If they were moaning and groaning over their injuries, the two car alarms were too loud for me to hear them. None of them looked like they were in any position to be a threat again, so it seemed like I was in the clear. I fixed the string that held my mask in place, and adjusted my hood.

As I was doing that, Eddie was getting to his feet, taking apart Lawrence’s gun and tossing the pieces away. He was taking deep breaths, like a huge weight was finally taken off his chest, and he wanted to test his breathing.

I could sympathize. That was too close of a call, and my head was pounding from the adrenaline.

I really wanted to let this go, be done with this situation. But I couldn’t walk away, I wasn’t done here, yet.

I looked at Eddie. This was the guy who put Maria in this position. And for some reason, at the risk of her own life, she was willing to stand up for him. This guy. I couldn’t see why.

Noticing me, he started to say something to me, but between my pounding head and the two alarms, it just looked like he was mouthing to me again. If he wanted to talk, I’d have to move us to a better spot. The alarms might attract others, too.

Using too much force than I intended, I grabbed Eddie by the collar. He started to scream, struggle, but one easy lift off of his feet was enough to make him comply. With my hands still on him, I moved us to the side of the parking garage.

We were high up enough that I could see the roof of a building across an alley. It wasn’t that low a drop, but from my vantage point, it still looked terrifying. By myself, I was confident I could make that gap. Carrying another, though…

I propped a foot on the short wall that normally separated cars and a bad fall. I took a hand off of Eddie, just one, and pointed a finger at him.

“Wanna live?” I asked, “Hold tight.”

Eddie went from confusion, to sheer terror, to thrashing to get away from me. All in the span of a few seconds. But I proved to be too strong, and he couldn’t escape. To secure him better, I wrapped an arm around his torso, and twisted the fabric where I had him by the collar. In that time, Eddie probably had an opportunity to get out of my grasp and run away, but the implicit threat that came come standing so close to the edge made him compliant.

I leapt out of the building, with Eddie by my side.

A one-second drop at most, but Eddie wailing did not let up the entire time, blasting my ear with a deafening cry. On top of the wind rushing past, it was definitely loud.

Carrying Eddie came with the disadvantage of not being properly balanced when I landed. I hit the roof funny, Eddie weight forced me down, and I fell on top of him. I rolled off of him as soon as I realized where I was.

He was on his back, coughing, not trying to get on his own two feet. I had no issues on that front, but getting here wasn’t as hard on me as it was on him. To be fair.

I grabbed him yet again, and picked him right back up. I ignored his cries of protest, his yelling in Spanish.

“Ah! Aaaah!” he kept going.

Man, you will not shut up.

“Yo! Heh-low-oh?” I sang, drawing out the word.

“What are you doing?!”

“No, it’s more like what you’ll do for me. You’re going to tell me the backstory for everything that just happened, now.”

“Fuck, no, I mean, what the fuck are you doing?”

I brought him closer, slightly. “I don’t follow.”

“That’s it? You just want information? Even if you weren’t holding me like this, I’m still stuck on a roof with you! You have complete control of the situation! There, there’s no need to threaten me like this!”

Behind my mask, I looked like I just got slapped in the face. I felt dumb.

“Oh,” I muttered.

I let him go. He immediately collapsed onto his knees, heaving for air.

Why did I keep defaulting to some kind of tough guy act? It wasn’t doing me any favors. This thin, plastic mask was making me scary.

I stood over him, watching as he composed himself. He didn’t stand this time, though, he only sat, his head in his hands.

I gave him another minute to settle.

He spoke up, weakly. “I took a chance on you, because you said something about helping me out. But, shit. Did the boss really send you?”

“You should know by now that nothing I said back there was true. I was only trying to buy some time. You actually helped me out.”

Though I hate to say it.

He gave me a look. Bewildered? Like everything that just happened as finally settling in. “I guess, one some level, I thought so. But, who are you? What the hell are you? I’ve seen some crazy shit, but not that, people don’t move like that. What’s your deal?”

I still really don’t know. “Don’t worry about that,” I said.

“And what’s with the mask? You a superhero? An actual superhero with actual superpowers?”

Superhero? Superpowers? That was one way to look at it, maybe. And, while that was how I got this idea, I didn’t feel like a hero, and calling these new changes to my body as superpowers was sugarcoating it somehow. It didn’t sit well with me.

“Uh, I’m no superhero. I just happened to swing by.”

“Why’d you intervene, then?”

“Wait a second, wasn’t I supposed to be the one asking the questions? We’re getting off topic.”

Eddie put his head down, almost defeated.

“Alright, I told you enough. Now it’s my turn. That little conversation you just had with, Lawrence, was it? Give me the details.”

Eddie sighed. “Sorry to ask another question, but why?”

I ignored his inability to follow simple directions, and instead thought about Maria. “Let’s just say I’m tired of innocent people getting caught up in stuff that they don’t need to be caught up in.”

“Huh, in a weird way, you’re kinder than I thought.”

I don’t mean you, asshole.

But all I said was a tough, “We’re off topic. Again.”

He nodded while massaging his head, like he was rubbing a magic eight ball for answers. “Okay, um, what do you want?”

I started simple. “Who’s that Lawrence guy? Why was he coming after you?”

He ran his fingers through his hair. “Lawrence is part of El Carruaje. The right hand man of the boss, or at least he wants to be.”

“And you’re a member, too, aren’t you?”

He looked up, at me. Right in the eyes. “Yeah, but that’s the thing. I’m trying to get out.”

I didn’t expect him to say that.

“But as you saw, ain’t that easy. El Carruaje isn’t one of the bigger gangs in the city, but lately, they’ve been working to remedy that, and start performing operations deeper in the Eye. I wasn’t about to take part in that… expansion. It’s not why I joined.”

“Then why did you join?” I questioned him.

Eddie touched his chin, and looked away. “I was new to the area when I joined. It’s one of those situations where you have to know someone in order to survive. They were my ‘someone.’ It was also easy money, but that’s another story.”

I hated to ask, but I had to know. “And the girl? Is she also part of the gang?”

“My girlfriend? Like, yeah.”

My stomach dropped. Eddie really was Maria’s boyfriend, and she really was a member of a cartel.

“Why did she join? Did she tell you?”

He gave his answer some thought. More than I expected him to. “No, she hadn’t told me. We met through another, um, co-worker.”

Typical. Thanks, Maria. I had to move to another question take my mind off those confirmations for now.

“And you want to leave? But you can’t, because that would be some form of betrayal?”

“Pretty much. And with what the boss has been planning, and with how small we are, it’s an all hands on deck type of thing. I think, I know they know about my doubts, and they’re trying to beat the loyalty back into me.”

“And that just makes you want to leave even more?”

Eddie didn’t say anything, but it wasn’t difficult to gather what his answer would be.

After a little while, he uttered, under his breath, “I don’t know the exact details, but the boss is planning something. Something big. Whatever that means, I just know I can’t have Maria be in that sort of danger, I just can’t.”

Something big. I didn’t like the sound of that.

I looked at the man. Maybe man wasn’t the right word, he only looked to be a few years older than me. Disheveled, tired, but most of all, genuine. He seemed to mean what he said, that he wanted to leave. There was a hint of hope, there.

I asked my last question. “Is this girlfriend of yours, Maria, is she willing to leave with you?”

“I think so, yes.”

“Hmph,” I grunted. I straightened myself, then walked closer to Eddie. He stiffened.

“Do you have a plan? About how you’re going to ditch that gang?”

Eddie shifted where he sat. “Not really, no.”

“Then, I’ll help.”

He snapped his head back up, staring right at me, mouth agape. “What?”

“I said that I’d help you out, didn’t I?” I said. “I don’t have much of a plan either,” I clarified, “But I want to help you two leave that shit behind. If you’re serious about this, that is.”

“I am,” he said, serious, calm.

“Good,” I replied. I hastily asked another question. “Do you have an email? Any way I can contact you without having to meet in person?”

“Yeah, sure.” He told me the proper information, and I committed it to memory.

It certainly didn’t escape me, how much I was interfering with Maria’s life without her knowing, but there had to be some justification, here. Maria’s life was threatened, on multiple occasions, within days of each other. This couldn’t continue. Even if this, too, was dangerous, the alternative would be even more so.

This was for Maria.

But, this guy here? I still couldn’t shake off my anger at him, for attracting this type of risk towards Maria. Hell, I was starting to get mad at Maria, too, for even being a part of this at all. But she wasn’t here right now. Now that I thought about it, I didn’t know where she ran off to.

I turned, my back to him, and walked to the edge of the roof, facing the parking garage. Was it just in my head, or were the car alarms still going off? No, it was definitely both.

“Where are you going?” Eddie questioned me.

“Have to go back. That girl is still up there, and there are still five assholes there, too. Down for the count, sure, but they’re still around. I’ll go check on the girl, make sure she’s alright, and I’ll keep an eye on her until you get back. Then you go and take her somewhere safe, wherever that means to you. I’ll contact you later.”

And my bags are still up there, I thought, I hope nobody came across it.

Eddie didn’t say anything in response.

“Hurry,” I said. “I’m sure you can find your way down from the roof.”

“You’re leaving me here? Just like this?”

There was an irritation within me, poking at me every time he spoke. I couldn’t explain why, and I knew that it was completely irrational, but I felt it, despite myself. A feeling like I wanted to get back at him for something. Like he wronged me, personally.

“You weren’t a fan of dropping down here, right? You can find your own way down.”

“And what if I can’t?”

“Your problem, not mine.”

Eddie grunted, and if my back wasn’t to him, I would’ve imagined him flipping me off.

My body tensed, getting ready. “Just hurry before anyone else comes.”

“Dammit, stop, one last thing!” Eddie hurriedly slurred, stopping me before I could jump. “We should use some kind of code word, so that I know that it’s you when you contact me.”

“Wouldn’t me contacting you be enough?”

“Let’s not take any chances. Give me something. Like, for example, a name. Yeah, what in the world do I even call you?”

A name? I didn’t think that far ahead, and now I was put on the spot. I just thought of the first thing that came to me. I thought of my mask.

“Blank… Face…” I answered, with a lack of certainty, before leaping back up to the fifth floor with a hard push of my legs.

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010 – Hate and Separation

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El Carruaje?”

“They’re a branch of a Mexican cartel that set up shop in the city a few years back. My dad has dealt with them a few times before, in one way or another.”

“Fantastic. A cartel? What kind of luck is that?”

“I’m oddly conflicted, though. This is going to sound really bad, but I’m actually kind of relieved.”

“Relieved? How?”

“Yeah, they’re a cartel, but they’re relatively miniscule as far as operations go. Tiny fish in an unfortunately large pond. They’re not running anything terribly serious.”

“Are you hearing yourself? Did you already forget about that night? This is terribly serious.”

“And I get that. All I’m saying is that we know how bad it is, now. It’s bad, but not as bad as I initially feared.”

“Bad is still bad.”

“Acute observation, Alexis. It’s the difference between a knife… and a missile. If this was the Cobras, or even AZ-Tec, I’d be sweating a lot more than I already am.”

“I see what you mean, kind of, but is Maria right? Is there really nothing we can do about this?”

“What can we do? There’s a myriad of reasons why someone would join a gang. Anything we try to do, we’re liable to make things worse.”

“So we just do nothing?”

“For now, we can keep a closer eye on Maria. As close an eye as she’ll let us.”

“That’s hardly reassuring.”

“There is no reason to be hitting anywhere close to that particular beehive. It won’t end well for anyone.”

“But we can’t just leave it at that, can we?”

“As of right now, we have to. Does it suck? Totally, but we have our own wellbeing to worry about, too.”

“…”

“Ah, gotta go. Oh, El Carruaje means ‘The Chariot,’ by the way.”

“No shit. I am taking Spanish, thank you very much.”

“No problem! Tomorrow we can… I don’t know what we can do, to be honest. Talk in circles again? I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Bye.”

Katy hung up.

I folded my phone, closing it came with a soft, plastic clap. I set it beside me, and closely studied the details of my ceiling.

I didn’t want to get out of bed.

I thought back to all the times Maria had ignored texts, declined invitations, or bailed on us at the last minute because she had ‘something else to do.’ What was she doing, exactly? Why?

Thinking stuff like that wasn’t doing me any good.

“Alexis!” I heard from the door. My mom. She sounded strained.

Tossing those thoughts aside, I hurried to my feet, and left my room.

My mom was fine, curled up the couch, knees to her chest. She really was the most comfortable in the most uncomfortable positions. A phone in one hand, and a remote in the other. The TV was on, but it was muted.

“What’s up?” I asked, as I entered the living room. She didn’t answer right away, but her attention was still focused on the silent television. I wasn’t offended, she just got easily enraptured with her dramas.

I waved, and that got her attention. She took the phone away from her ear.

“I’ve been calling you,” she said.

“Oh. I was on the phone, too.”

She held the phone towards me.

“Hospital called. They want to know a good time for check-up appointment.”

I swallowed. There already were plenty of things I didn’t want to deal with, and doctors were one of them. A simple visit to a doctor might end with a total lockdown of the whole hospital, doctors and nurses in a frenzy, trying to get more out of me after they find out what I’ve become since my last visit down there. I didn’t want to put myself in a situation in which they’d find out about my body.

And, although I was certain the government didn’t do secret experiments on their own citizens, I wasn’t about to give them a reason to start.

“Um, do I need to go?” I asked.

“Do you not need to?”

I thought up of as many possible excuses as I could. Any would be good enough.

“It’s already been over a week, and I’m fine. So…”

She didn’t give any physical cue to my answer.

When she spoke again, I felt dumb for not realizing that she was talking to the phone sooner. “Alright, won’t be necessary. Yes, yes. Yes, she’s sure. Thank you.”

She hung up. She pressed a button on the remote, and sound came back to the TV. She hugged her legs closer to her.

“What in the world are you doing?” I asked her.

“I am watching TV,” she said, serious.

I turned to look at exactly what she was watching, trying to make out the standard definition picture the television was providing, listening to the fuzzy sound.

I somewhat recognized it. A major summer blockbuster. I saw the trailers a while ago, but I never went out to see it for myself. It was already on TV?

“Is it any good?” I asked her.

“It’s corny, but it’s on,” my mom replied.

“You can change the channel.”

“No. You can if you want.”

I chuckled. “Alright, I’m going back to my room.” I turned.

Before I could leave, she stopped me with a question. “Are you sure you don’t need to go?”

“I’m sure,” I said, facing her. It would be trouble if other people found out about me. For the moment, I’d be better off keeping this to myself.

“Are you hungry?” my mom asked, all of a sudden.

“No,” I lied, “I ate out again, with Katy. After practice.”

My mom shifted her arm, and scratched her leg. “You can’t keep doing that. I only make so much.”

I opened my mouth, but I didn’t answer. I couldn’t tell her that I hadn’t been eating at all. I definitely couldn’t tell her why.

I simply returned to my room.

I kept the light off, throwing myself onto my bed. Eyes back to the ceiling, I let my mind run over everything that happened today.

Like I hadn’t done that enough, already.

There had to be something I could do to help Maria. To help her leave that type of danger behind. How defeated and helpless she looked back then, that image didn’t mesh at all with how I normally thought of her. Partial anger, some frustration, wholly fear. Maria should never make that face again.

Tossing and turning in my bed, I finally rested on my stomach, with my cheek in the pillow.

I stared at the closet, across the room. I briefly thought of the movie my mom was watching.

Would that even work in real life?

Perhaps, perhaps not, but I thought it.

Katy said there was nothing we could do, and Maria said the same thing, but that was due to their own limitations of their human capabilities. Me? Those limitations were hardly relevant.

I caught Maria at the parking lot.

“Maria, wait up!”

She stopped, and looked back at me. She grimaced.

“What are you doing here?”

I briskly walked to her, my bags bouncing around me.

“Hi,” I said, getting closer.

“Didn’t answer me,” was her response.

“I know you’re doing the whole ‘ignoring me and Katy’ thing, but hey, it’s just me, see?”

She made a face, like I told her a lame pun, instead.

“Funny,” she said, “What is it?”

I would’ve made some sort of placating gesture, but with only one free hand, I wouldn’t resort to any half-measures. “Can’t remember the last time it was just us. Want to go somewhere?”

“You’re too obvious.”

“See? Now, we’ve already removed any and all pretense. I think I know a place you’d like to go.”

“Where?”

“Flash,” I suggested, referring to the boutique Maria mentioned wanting to go to, some time ago.

“You crazy? That’s on the other side of the city, and I don’t have my car.”

I thought about what that meant, her not having her car. She was going to be picked up again today, too.

“Bus?” I suggested.

She tapped my forehead, her nail poking my skin. “Takes even longer. Think.”

“Alright, maybe next time.”

Maria took her finger off of me, and I read her body language before she took any conscious action.

“What about the mall? It’s only fifteen minutes by bus.”

She blew into my face, and she messed up my bangs as it fell into my eyes. I blinked my hair out of the way.

Her posture slumped. “Why are you doing this?”

I cleared my throat, preparing to deliver a real answer. “I want drop the whole act, already. You doing this whole ‘keeping distance’ thing isn’t going to make anything better. Let’s just be friends.”

She didn’t anything for a little bit. I let her take her time.

“Does Katy know you’re here?” she asked.

“Nope.”

Another, longer pause.

“Don’t you have practice?” she asked.

I smiled. “I’d skip it for you, babe.”

She slouched again, giving up. “Just for a little bit.”

And with that, I actually managed to get through to Maria. We walked to the nearest bus stop, and caught it just in time.

The bus rumbled as it made its way towards the edge of downtown. Maria sat down beside me, engrossed in her phone. I was envious, but I was starting to get used to not having a smartphone to help pass the time. Because I had the window seat, I watched as cars and buildings passed us by. I counted the different graffiti that littered walls of buildings and windows, noted the shoes that hung from powerlines. One particular symbol, tagged on a sidewalk, caught my attention before disappearing out of sight as the bus took a turn.

An incomplete circle, a chunk missing so to form a letter ‘C.’ Lines extended inward towards the center, meeting at a not incomplete circle. Like a broken wheel of a chariot.

El Carruaje.

We made it to the mall. Highmount Mall, a decent-sized shopping center. There were bigger, cooler malls in Stephenville, but we didn’t have that type of time. Tomorrow was still a school day.

We walked in, and even though it was the middle of the week, a sizeable crowd moved through the different stores and major chains. As a pair, we strolled around.

“Want me to hold your bag?” Maria offered, reaching for my sports bag. “There’s a lot of people around.”

“No, no no. It’s good.” I switched hands, so she couldn’t grab it.

“Okay,” was all she said about that, and we kept going.

Good.

As far as checking out clothes, we started at an urban apparel shop. Pop punk music played in the background as we searched through what they had to offer.

I picked up a black t-shirt, emblazed on the chest was an exploding cat’s head, shooting lasers out of its eyes. “Cool, huh?”

She smirked at the imagery. Anyone would, considering how silly the shirt was. “Not my thing, but you could rock it.”

Gracias, but this isn’t ‘morning mist’ enough for me.”

I set it down, and we moved out, going to another store.

The second we entered, I knew we wouldn’t be staying for long. The way two of the workers looked at us, it bugged me. A lip, curled in distaste, before twisting to into fake smile. An instant switch, but I noticed.

We looked around, parsing the different items they had, comparing sizes, color, and prices. A worker approached us as I tossed some undergarments back into a pink basket.

“Can I help you two?” she asked, high-pitched.

Maria answered for us. “Just looking,” she said, facing her and being polite.

“Alrighty, you can let me know if you need anything. And ma’am, the smaller sizes are down the aisle, that way.”

She gestured, and I caught her glancing at Maria’s chest, and mine.

“Thanks,” Maria responded with a more neutral tone, but still appreciative of that information, nonetheless.

“Actually, I’m curious about something,” I said, getting the saleswoman’s attention.

“Yes?” she said, and faced my way. Everything about her seemed artificial, from her wide eyes to her smile and voice. I felt like I was being talked down to.

“Your line of colored contacts, do you know if those would be on sale anytime soon?”

“Oh, those are one of our many specialty items, those don’t go on sale. And, I don’t mean to be rude, but I wouldn’t recommend them. For someone with your particular eye shape, you might have some trouble getting them in.”

Maria and I traded looks. She opened her mouth wide, and closed it.

Woooow.

I looked back to the saleswoman, and thanked her. “I appreciate the heads-up, then,” I intoned, an octave higher.

She smiled one last time, and walked away. Maybe it was what they wanted, but that was a battle I had no intention of fighting. We promptly left, it wasn’t like either of us needed bras, anyways.

Maria led the way this time, taking us to the food court on the second floor. She went to get a smoothie for herself, and I found a place for us to sit. It didn’t take too long for Maria to come back.

“Is it more sad that it happened, or that I ain’t surprised?” she asked as she sat across from me.

“I’m already trying to forget about it.”

“What’s their fuckin’ beef, you know? Shit, I shoulda kicked that bitch’s ass.”

“White people,” I commented, in jest, “Am I right?”

“And c’mon, you work at the fuckin’ Highmount, like you couldn’t suck good enough make it at the Realm.”

“That might give ‘Flash’ a whole new meaning,” I said.

We both snickered.

“Speaking of white people,” Maria added, “Katy annoyed me too, yesterday.”

“I saw that.”

“And it’s not even fair. Why isn’t she getting all up in your business? You were straight up gone when… when I got back to the house. Katy was freaking over you, now she’s only freaking out over me.”

“I was passed out in the upstairs bathroom,” I said, “She didn’t find me until later.” I let that half-truth spill out from my mouth.

“It’s so typical. I hate that attitude of hers. Like she knows everything.” Maria gripped her smoothie harder, and I was afraid she might crush it in her hand, her drink spilling everywhere.

“Don’t beat her down, not when she can’t defend herself. She wants to look out for you. She wants you to give her the opportunity to. We both do.”

Maria put the smoothie down, which gave me some relief, and she traced her finger around the lid, instead. “Never mind. I don’t wanna think about it.”

The tone of her last word ushered in a sense of finality, and neither of us could find anything else to say.

But I tried.

“S-see? This is fun,” I joked.

She smirked again. “It sure is.” She brought the smoothie to her lips, taking a sip. She then passed it to me. “Want? It’s strawberry banana.”

“No, I’m good.”

“Hmph, thought you’d say that. Maybe it’s because I haven’t really seen you in a few days, but you’ve been looking-”

She didn’t get to finish that sentence.

“Maria!”

A boy came to our table. Tall, lanky. Hispanic. His hair was slicked back, the sides shaved. I didn’t recognize him by face, but the jacket he wore gave me all that I needed to know.

“Eddie!” Maria gasped, completely shocked. She stood up, the chair skidding behind her.

“You weren’t answering your phone, and all you said was you were going to be at the mall. How was I supposed to know where?”

Maria looked between me and the boy, completely at a loss. Another new side to Maria I hadn’t seen before. It was obvious that this was the last thing she wanted to have happened.

“Alright,” the boy – Eddie – said, “We need to go. I parked at the parking garage nearby. Did you get anything?”

She held the smoothie. “Just this.” Her voice was soft, confused.

“Alright. Let’s go,” he took her wrist.

“Whoa,” I said, standing up, my chair skidding back. “If she doesn’t want to go, then she doesn’t have to.”

Eddie gave me his attention, finally noticing I was here. “Hey, sorry about this, but we’re leaving.”

I thought back to yesterday, when Maria fled into this guy’s car, and he drove off.

I repeated myself. “If she doesn’t want to go, then…”

Maria shook her head. “It’s cool, Alexis. I should get going.”

“But…”

“Think you take the bus back home?”

I was confused. “Are you okay with this?”

She bobbed her head, signaling to me that she somehow was.

“If that’s the case, then cool.” I jabbed a finger in her direction. “You better be at lunch tomorrow. Katy’s been missing you.”

She gave me a peace sign. “I will.”

Eddie tugged, and she willingly came along. They walked off, leaving the food court and taking an escalator down. Standing at the table, I watched them go.

Everything about that was sketchy.

I grabbed my backpack and sports bag, and followed them.

I definitely felt like a creeper, hiding in the crowd and maintaining a distance from them as they left the mall. But my conscience couldn’t let me leave this alone. Not with things ending the way they did.

I watched them head into the parking garage, adjacent from the main parking lot. They got into a nearby elevator. Shoot, I had no way of knowing where Eddie parked. I changed course, going into the parking garage, but towards the stairs beside the elevators.

I ascended the stairs, by two or three steps, trying to get to the next floor before their elevator would, and waiting by the doors to see if I got the right floor. I was confident I could flee and hide before the door beeped and opened.

The elevator had beaten me to the fifth floor, it must have caught up while I waited up to ten seconds on each level. They were already walking down the garage, towards Eddie’s car. That, too, I was already familiar with.

Everything looked okay.

Alright, this is good enough, I thought. Maria was with Eddie, now, and I could only assume that he was going to take her home. I had no way of following them, anymore. Maria’s safety was now in Eddie’s hands. That was it.

Was this all I could do? Try to hang out with Maria as much as possible, to help mend the rift between us? And watch from afar, keeping Maria safe from a distance? A temporary solution, until Maria squared up and broke up with the guy. I hoped for that. Let her cut ties with him and that gang all on her own. She wouldn’t need my help, then.

I took a step back to the stairs, ready to leave.

But suddenly, I saw them.

Five men got out of a car, and started tailing the couple.

God please, no.

They hadn’t noticed me, since I immediately crouched low upon seeing them. I stayed far back, hiding behind the closest car. I couldn’t risk it and move any closer.

Conveniently, the car window wasn’t tinted, allowing me to keep an eye on the scene while still keeping myself hidden.

“Imma have to ask you to stop, homes,” one of the guys said. He was wearing a red polo shirt, buttoned up all the way.

Maria and Eddie wheeled around, Maria staying firm by Eddie’s side.

Eddie spoke, his voice now higher pitched. “Lawrence, now’s not the right time or place.”

“But I finally got a hold of you. The boss hasn’t appreciated you being so hard to find, you know.”

“The boss sent you? I don’t believe that.”

“You don’t have to. Boss wants you, and I’m here, now.”

“Please, you can’t do this, not now. Porfis.”

“I got a good idea, then, how ‘bout you come with me, and I’ll have my boys keep an eye on your girl.”

Word of agreement were exchanged between the other men. They sounded enthusiastic.

No.

I crouched lower, away from the window. Slowly, as not to make any noise, I set my bags down in front of me.

It was supposed to be a fluke, a dumb idea I concocted out of the blue. The last of my last resorts. Not only did I not expect to be actually doing this, but to actually be doing it so soon.

I opened the bag, and the mask was already staring back at me.

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009 – The Sound of Silence Makes Excuses

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“Alright everyone, get into groups and work on these handouts,” Mr. Stevens said, holding up a packet of busywork.

The class broke down into a chaos, with students either finding friends to socialize with while working, or to find someone who was smart enough to mooch off of.

As for me, I elected to keep my head down. If anyone wanted to be my partner, they could my guest. But they’d have to come to me.

“Alexis,” I heard Mr. Stevens, warning me. “Get up and start moving.”

Maybe later, I thought.

“Heads up,” I heard close to me. A weight pushed into my side, and forced me over the edge of my chair. They wanted to sit right up close.

I kept my response to only one word. “Why.”

I raised my head, and saw Katy. That would mean that Katy was in the first category of students, and I was in the second.

“Come on,” she said, “This packet won’t do itself. But that’d be cool if it did.”

I nuzzled my nose back into the crook of my arm. Hopefully that would be enough of a signal for her to leave me alone.

“Nope, you’re getting up!” She pulled at the collar of my jacket, choking me as it tightened around my neck. I coughed as I got up.

“Alright, alright! Geez.”

“There you are. God, you really do look awful.”

I wasn’t particularly offended, since even I knew that was true. I looked and felt like crap. My eyes were baggy, my hair unkempt, and I wasn’t exactly smelling like roses, despite having taken a shower. The only reason why I even came to school to simply fill the societal contract of attendance. If I had it my way, I’d be in bed for all eternity.

“I know.”

“Are you sick or anything? Cramps?” She leaned in to my ear, bringing her voice to a whisper. “Period?”

The sound of her voice so close to my ear made me jump. “No! That’s not until…” I looked up in thought, going through a calendar in my head. “No, wait, shut up!”

I punched her in the arm.

“Ow!” She recoiled, threatening to fall out of the chair. She was obviously being overdramatic, but I sensed a hint of truth in her yelp. I sensed it in my arm, too.

“Wow, seriously,” she said, rubbing her arm, “Volleyball really did do some wonders for you.”

I grunted, but I didn’t say anything, letting her come to her own conclusions. I wasn’t about to correct her.

“Anyways,” she said, picking up the packet, “As much as I’d like to work on this, oh, hi.”

I turned in the direction she was looking.

A boy had come up to us. Danny was his name. He wore a colorful, almost painfully bright shirt and skinny jeans. His hair was long, bangs covering one eye, and thin white lines extended from where his ears were supposed to be. The room was loud with people, but I could hear the music blasting from his head. Earphones, most likely.

He gave off the impression that he got the short end of the stick, having been unable to acquire a partner.

“Can I work with you guys?” he asked, under a soft breath. I almost didn’t see his mouth move.

“Uh, yeah, sure.” I mumbled in response. I looked to Katy if she was okay with a third wheel.

“Whatever,” she said. There was something there, in her tone. Annoyance?

He grabbed a chair and sat on one end of my desk, taking out his earphones and swooping his hair with a flick of his head as he sat down.

We got right to work.

“Uh,” an odd, awkward squeak came out of Danny. “What does this part mean?” He pointed to a line on his copy of the packet. I read it over, out loud.

“Find three key themes that are prevalent throughout the work, and explain what rhetorical strategies are used. Provide examples from the text.”

“I have no clue,” I said, my voice suddenly going hoarse, forcing me to clear it. “I didn’t actually read the book. Not really good at English. I mean, I am, obviously, you know what I mean.”

He shook his head, not really paying any attention to what I said. “Thought so.”

You know, maybe there was a reason why no one wanted to be your partner, I mused. No,  I shook my head. No, that was just me being grouchy.

“Oh, this? It was written in 1925, in Soviet Russia. One of the themes we can use is about how it’s impossible to change human nature. We’ve been talking a lot on extended metaphors, repetition, and analogies, in class, so I think examples of that will be the easiest to find.

Danny cocked his head in confusion, looking at Katy. “Whoa, what?”

“Yup,” I popped in, “Katy’s a genius.”

Katy was the definition of not judging a book by its cover. Especially since her ‘cover’ was so overpowering, it hardly suggested another side to her. She was energetic, loud, outgoing to a fault, which would land her in trouble more times than I could count. Falling asleep on a couch in a house she wasn’t familiar with after one too many drinks was only one of the many ways she’d test disaster.

Maybe genius wasn’t the right word, after all.

“Stop,” Katy said, waving a hand. “I’m not that smart.”

“Are you sure?” I replied back with a question, “What’s your class ranking again?”

She looked down. “Twenty.”

Twenty?” Danny’s jaw looked like it was about to collide with the floor. Alright, that was a bit of an overreaction, but I could see where he was coming from. No one would expect someone like her to be as good at school as she was.

“I just said it was nothing.”

“Nah, by next year, she could be the valedictorian, if she really wanted to,” I said to Danny.

“Really?” Danny shot a dumbfounded look at Katy.

“Stop it.” Katy blushed. This was a side of her that I didn’t see very often, might as well take advantage of it.

She continued, as though to answer for her hidden intelligence. “School work is such a drag. If I can get it done quickly and correctly the first time, then that just gives me more time for myself.”

To translate, I thought to myself, Gives you more time to play around.

“Really, valedictorian?” Danny asked, still reeling from the revelation.

Katy shrugged. “I guess, if I really wanted to. But that’s not the point. Also, for in-state colleges, I only need to be in the top ten percent of the class in order to be automatically accepted. I don’t need to be the best, I just need to be good enough.”

Sunken eyes and sullen grimace aside, I was content at the moment. I was well aware of all the vitriol that mentality had earned Katy. The student body’s intellectual elite failed in hiding their loathing, mostly due to how little she resembled them. She didn’t stay after school for tutorials, didn’t do any extra credit, rarely interacted with teachers, or participate in any late night study sessions. She simply did the bare minimum of what was asked for her, and it landed her that high of a position. I bet they considered it an insult that she hadn’t tried to get the top spot. For all their effort, she could easily swoop in and take it all away. But she didn’t, and gamed them all by relaxing at the bottom. The smart kids might have hated her for it, but I thought it was pretty hilarious.

Katy picked the packet back up and slapped the desk with it. “Alright, alright, enough about me. Let’s just get this thing done.”

Danny and I agreed with a nod, and returned to working. After a minute or two, all I accomplished was twirling my pencil around my fingers twice.

Breaking up the monotony, Katy said, “There’s something I wanted to bring up before…” she trailed off, glancing to Danny.

“And that is?” I ventured.

“We’re still on for later, right? After school?”

I nodded. “Yeah, I’ll skip practice.”

Katy gave me thumbs up. “Thanks, means a lot. I’m going to need that super strength of yours.”

I brushed some loose strands of hair behind an ear. “What?” I asked, trying to hide my rapidly growing concern the best I could.

“Like, some backup, another body.”

I bit my tongue before speaking again. “Oh, I’m worried about her, too, you know. I’d go without you asking.”

Katy groaned. “I know. I just hate that Maria keeps us at arm’s length. She’s been like that for as long as we’ve known her.”

“I feel you,” I said.

“And when you try to prod, try to get her to open up, she just pushes us even further. Like, she hasn’t been responding to my texts, and I bet she’s been skipping school just to avoid us. Like, what the-” she stopped, mostly to compose herself, and because Danny briefly gave her a glance. She exhaled, air harshly escaping out from her nostrils.

I was too exhausted to be as worked up as Katy, but I understood her frustration. Katy hadn’t seen Maria since the party, and only received vague, unclear details about what happened after seeing her so shaken up, and after a lengthy argument to try and get more from her, Maria left the place in a huff, speeding off in her car. She was okay, it seemed.

Of course, I learned of all of this after the fact. I didn’t return to the house until much, much later.

But, we compared notes, in a sense. Katy and I. She told me about Maria after-the-fact, and I tried to give as much details about Maria’s attacker as I could without outing myself, attributing it as secondhand information.

Combining that with common sense, the nature of that incident was disgustingly apparent. I hated how much it stared us in the face.

“Maybe she doesn’t want us to worry over her,” I brought up, alluding to shared conclusion, “Maybe she doesn’t want us to get involved.”

“Maybe,” Katy said, “But I want to get involved, even if it inconveniences her, even if she doesn’t want us to.”

“It’s not going to be easy,” I mentioned, “You know how she is.”

“An idiot?”

“I was going for stubborn, actually.”

“Same difference,” Katy said, “But my point remains. She doesn’t tell us anything, and I’m kind of tired of it. Especially if she gets hurt over it. We’ve known her for how long, now, like, since the start of high school?”

“Something like that.”

“And what? I feel like I barely know her, half the time. Most of the time. It’s ridiculous. I wish she’d tell us something, anything.”

I didn’t respond to that. At the same time, I could also sympathize with Maria. There were definitely some things I wouldn’t be so privy to share.

Now, more than ever.

Katy tapped a finger on the desk, quickly and loudly. “I’m just ready to get out of class. Wanna hurry and find her and- oh yeah.”

We had gotten so enraptured in our talk, we forgot about Danny and the packet.

“Hope you don’t mind a little bit of girl talk?” I asked him.

He shrugged. “Are you talking about Maria? Maria González?

Katy made a face, slightly perplexed. Finally, Danny said something that seemed to pique her interest.

“What of it?”

“I have math with her. She was in class, today.”

Katy leaned forward, her face twisting into something that wasn’t so pretty. Anger?

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah, she was arguing with the teacher about not doing her homework. Normally, she’s pretty cool, but yeah.”

Sounds like her.

Katy crossed her arms, and faced me. “Unbelievable. She’s actually avoiding us.”

“That’s… annoying,” I said, meaning it. I could see why she wanted some distance, but avoiding us outright? Not cool.

Katy frowned, “I’m so going to kill her.”

“Hey,” Mr. Stevens said, interrupting Katy and reminding us of where we were. “No killing. Get back to work.”

That was enough of a reminder for us to do just that. We finished the remainder of the packet in no time, largely thanks to Katy. We finished early, turned it in to Mr. Stevens, and there wasn’t much to do but sit and wait for the bell. Danny promptly returned to his desk without a word.

Eventually, the school day ended, and I followed Katy to her car.

“You know,” she told me as we dropped off our bags, “The one bit of info she’s shared with us, and it’s this.”

“Maybe we’re the idiots,” I said.

The plan was something Katy and I discussed during lunch earlier, with Maria being absent and all. A simple plan, but sometimes they were the hardest to execute.

Find Maria, and talk to her.

We headed there, walking off campus. Not exactly a place I frequented, but I knew about it.

The Strip, a nickname for the line of businesses that was within walking distance from the school. A pizza joint, barber shop, old-school arcade, laundromat, BBQ joint, in that order, covered. It was a popular spot for skaters, stoners, and slackers to go and waste time at.

It also attracted another specific set of kids with specific hobbies.

A particular group was crowded around the door of the arcade, a few guys, but mostly girls. They varied in terms of appearance, from the different colors of their clothing, to how they wore their hair or other accessories, they all suggested the same thing.

Some type of gang affiliation.

Maria had mentioned, a while back, that she occasionally hung around here. Until just recently, I didn’t think about what could’ve possibly meant. It wasn’t like every student who frequented here repped some kind of gang. At worst, I considered Maria to be one of the slackers.

They looked over us as we approached, not alarmed, not tense. Prepared. A certain glimmer in their eye.

Like we were some type of prey.

“Yes?” one of them asked. A black girl, in a white shirt. “How may I help you?”

Katy took the lead. “Looking for a friend. Sad to say, but chances are you might know her. Hangs here sometimes.”

“Gotta give me a name, first.”

“Maria.”

“I know a lot of Marias.” The girl’s tone grated, intentionally needling. I cringed at every word she said.

“Don’t have the time for that right now. It’s a common name, but there’s only one Maria who would possibly come here regularly. Couldn’t imagine why.”

The girl nodded, slowly, like she was mocking us. “Oh, that Maria.”

“It’s taking a lot of time to get an answer out of you. Has she been around, or not?”

The girl raised her hands. “Don’t know, not like I frequent here, either. You just caught me at a bad time.”

One of the boys in the group brought his hand up to his face. A joint. He inhaled, and blew the smoke up into the air. Somehow, most of it went to us, forcing Katy to flinch, and I fanned the air in front of me.

“Why are you so curious? You gonna get your daddy to lock up all these guys? Ruin all these families?”

I looked over Katy. So much for keeping that on the down-low. Her hands were on her hips, her chin up. She was still holding her ground.

“Do I know you? I’m just looking for my friend.”

“Oh my friggin’ goodness,” the girl whined. “You said it was taking long time to get an answer out of me, but it’s taking even longer for you to realize you’re not wanted. Why don’t you and shorty there just turn around and go?”

Shorty?

She didn’t give Katy a chance to counter. She brought out her hand, about to push Katy square in the chest.

It stopped halfway.

All eyes were on me.

Look,” I said, dry, wholly uninterested in this contest of egos. “We came here wanting to know a single piece of information. A simple yes or no question. Is that so hard?”

The girl’s glare was threatening, but she kept quiet. Her hand was still out, but I had her by the wrist.

She wasn’t going to say anything, not anytime soon.

I rolled my eyes. “Congratulation, you win. We’ll be going now. And you want to know how you can help me? Keep your hands to yourself.” I squeezed her wrist, just a bit.

The girl’s eyes went wide, big as saucers. I let go, and she immediately brought her hand close, massaging her forearm.

“No chill, Alexis, but it works,” Katy murmured to me, playfully.

The other girl, though, was seething. “You…”

“Hey! What the hell are you doing?”

We all turned.

Maria. In the flesh. She rushed at us, and in her gold-colored shirt, she looked like a bolt of lightning.

“What the hell are you doing here?” she asked again, clearly pissed.

“We can’t say hi?” Katy said, ignoring her question. “Nice place.”

Maria turned her scowl to me.

“Her idea,” I said, pointing to Katy.

“Come on, can we move this elsewhere?” Katy suggested.

“No,” Maria grunted, before looking at the group behind us, and waving them away. “Shoo.”

They somehow complied, walking farther down the Strip. Plenty of side-eyes were cast our way as they left, from that particular girl, especially. But I no longer cared to spare her another thought.

All three of us stood in a triangle formation, each of us taking our own corners.

A few days since that night, and I finally saw Maria again. Time didn’t give her a reprieve, either. Her appearance was as bad as mine. Her eyes were sunken, tired. Her hair and makeup weren’t up to her usual standard, and she was just overall haggard. It sucked to see her so disarrayed.

Katy spoke up first, “To answer your question in a timely manner, you weren’t going to let us come to you? Then, we’d force you to come to us.”

“Bitch,” Maria said, matter-of-factly.

Katy frowned. “Funny. Could say the same to you. Certainly have the heart of one.”

“Just go home.” Maria gestured at me, “Both of you.”

“How about you?” I asked, “Didn’t see your car parked on the way here.”

Maria hesitated, stopped in her tracks. “I’m being picked up.”

“By who? Your mom?”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“Why can’t we!” Katy pleaded, “The more you keep doing this, the more worried we’re going to get.”

“I said don’t worry about it.”

“Tell me about what happened at the party.”

Maria’s lit up with a fusion surprise and anger, and immediately went for Katy.

“Go away!”

“Maria, why-“

“I said go!”

“Hold it,” I interrupted, coming in between them before things escalated. I had my hands up, palms facing outward, like I was surrendering. “I know how you’re feeling right now, but try to get where Katy’s coming from. We’ve been friends for a minute, now, but sometimes, we hardly feel like we know you. You keep us at a distance, and then when something happens, we don’t know what to do. Like with that guy? He was definitely trouble, and if something like that were to happen again, someone might not be around to help. You might not be lucky.”

She squinted at me. “How do you know about that?”

I slipped up. “No, I’m just saying. You’re lucky you were by a house full of people. People who could hear any commotion.”

She shrugged it away. “Yeah, it doesn’t matter. You don’t know what to do because there ain’t nothing you can do. Nothing you should do.”

“And that doesn’t matter, too,” Katy said, staying firm. “Doesn’t matter if we can’t do anything, but we still want to know. Even if it’s bad.” She pointed to me. “Look at Alexis. Almost the same thing happened a week ago. At least she knows that she can chalk it up to alcohol poisoning.”

My eyes went up, looking away for a second.

There was a lull in the conversation, a pause that Katy had to break with a suggestion. “Look, I’m sorry we had to call you out like, but I wouldn’t do it unless I thought it was important enough. You don’t even have to tell us about that night, just tell me something, anything.”

I observed Maria, trying to make sense of any movement. She folded her arms, and she exuded irritation.

Stubborn.

Maria questioned us. “Why do you care so much?”

Before either of us could take that opening, a car pulled up behind Maria. A nice car. Not as nice as Katy’s, but nice.

It honked, twice.

“Who is that?” Katy asked.

“My ride,” Maria said, turning around. “I’m leaving.”

Katy took a step. “Let me introduce myself-”

Maria spun back, enough to stop Katy, and put me on alert. She pointed a sharp nail to her nose.

“Don’t.”

Katy was frozen, not afraid, but disappointed. There was no winning this, not anymore.

Not now.

Maria turned her back to us, and got in the car. It drove off.

Katy and I watched it go. Watched the car take Maria away from us.

“Did you get a chance to see who was inside?” Katy asked.

“No. Windows were tinted, and I wasn’t at a good angle to see inside when the door was open. You?”

“Kind of. Young guy, skinny. Couldn’t see the face.”

“Her boyfriend?”

“Possibly.”

That’s good, I managed to think, Less of a chance of it being that guy from the party.

“I saw his sleeve, though,” Katy continued, “On his jacket. A symbol.”

“You recognize it?”

“Oh yeah.”

That’s not good.

“Then, that’s it,” I said. “We’ll have to fight that battle another day.”

“How? Dang, it really was obvious right from the start. If she’s getting herself into that kind of trouble, what could we hope to do?”

I didn’t have an answer for her.

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