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.
‘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.”
“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.
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?”
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.”
“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.
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.
I got in.