“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.”
“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.”
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.”
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
“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.
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.