The ball struck the gym floor, bouncing behind me. I had moved a second too late, and the ball passed me by.
A piercing whistle followed.
“Alright girls! We’re calling it a day!” Coach Tilly yelled.
“Yes Coach!” we all responded.
The volleyball team split apart, quickly disorganizing. Some went straight to the lockers, others sat down to rest at the bleachers, and others grouped together to socialize. As for me, I stood at my position on the court, watching Coach Tilly approach. I’ve had a truck slam into me, guns pointed at me, and it was Coach that made my heart quicken with every step that brought her closer.
“Alexis,” she said as she arrived, intruding a little too much into my personal space than I would’ve liked. I resisted the urge to back away.
“This is what happens when you don’t come to practice everyday. You’re slacking off, you’re slower to get the ball.”
“I can feel it.”
“Honestly? All of you girls are good players, some are even great, but I watch y’all play, practice, and most will reach a level their satisfied with, and just stay there. I’m a coach, so I have to push y’all, but kids your age… Their skulls are thicker than I’d like them to be.”
“I hear you.”
“As I was saying, with the next game coming up so soon, I’d really like to see you try and improve before then. I was looking forward to having you play more aggressively. You were doing so good, before.”
My eyes went to the floor, looking at her shoes. “I know it’s unacceptable to be-”
“Look me in the eyes.”
My eyes snapped back up, meeting her intense gaze. I was taller than her, but it certainly didn’t feel like it. And the way she said that sentence brought my attention to her accent. Not too prominent to be a stereotypical drawl, but enough so that I noticed. I’d usually not even think about it, but here, every word she uttered came with a certain edge.
“Sorry,” I said again.
“You have nothing to be sorry over. We already talked about that yesterday. Don’t worry about it, just work on it. No one’s mad at you, no one’s going to hate you over this, just keep moving forward.”
I nodded. “Sure thing.”
While I replied, Coach looked me up and down, “And eat a burger while you’re at it. You can’t improve on an empty stomach.”
“I’ll be sure to do that,” I said, rubbing my chin.
“Good, then see you tomorrow,” Coach said, giving me a good slap on the shoulder, and she left the gym. I had just stopped sweating before she talked to me, but now I felt like a waterfall. It was hardly a long conversation, yet I wanted to curl up in my bed, and sleep until winter.
Before I had the chance to go and take refuge in the lockers, I was stopped again by Valerie and Eve.
“Alexis,” Valerie started, “Sucks to be you.”
“Yeah,” I agreed. “It does.”
“Aw, Valerie’s just bitter,” Eve said, “Coach was chewing her out yesterday over screwing up the drills.”
Valerie elbowed Eve in the side, and Eve laughed in response. “Hush up! She didn’t need to know that.”
“Not my fault you can’t hit for shit.”
Valerie bumped her arm into Eve, and Eve had to fix her stance, favoring a leg.
“Hey, Eve, how’s your ankle?” I inquired.
“It’s okay. Needs a little rest, is all. But it blows, all I can do is sit around and watch.”
“But you actually have a good reason to skip practice, don’t you?” I asked.
“I can still help around and stuff. I’m trying to be useful.”
“Good girl Eve,” Valerie said, “But she can’t keep her mouth shut.”
Eve took that as an opportunity to elbow her back, and Valerie staggered. “So, Lexi,” Eve said, looking back at me, “We hadn’t asked you yet. Where were you last night?”
I froze. “What do you mean?”
“You know, like, I was doing PT, and Valerie was out eating dinner.”
“Breakfast tacos at 6 P.M., it was great,” Valerie said, patting her stomach. “And I picked the food out with the daggers Coach spat at me.”
Eve reiterated, ignoring Valerie, “Lexi, what about you?”
Alarms would have been ringing in my head, but I could safely assume what she was talking about.
“Oh, I see what you mean. I was out, too. Jogging. Didn’t see it until I got back home.”
“Ah. But didn’t that blow your mind? I can’t believe we live in a world where people like that exist.”
“Really?” Valerie asked Eve, “I think it’s freaking terrifying, the more I think about it.”
“Don’t think about it too hard, then,” I said.
“Right? You’re just jelly, Val,” Eve said.
“In what capacity?
“Jelly that you don’t have hops like that.”
“That’s exactly it, Eve. Nail right on the head.”
Eve would have cracked up, she made the motions for it, tilting her head back, but she instead inhaled, sharply, lifting up a foot.
“You need to go sit down,” I suggested.
“That’s probably the smart thing to do,” Eve said. “Alright, see you tomorrow, Alexis.” Eve waved, turned, and Valerie followed.
“Buh-bye,” I said back, and they left.
That could’ve been a close one, I thought.
I fanned myself off with a hand, and I went to take a shower.
While the water ran down my body, I thought about what Coach Tilly said to me, and I tried working out a balance between her expectations and my actual capabilities.
It wasn’t that I had gotten worse since my absences, in fact, if I was allowed to be cocky, I could wipe the floor with my whole team, on my own. But it wouldn’t be due to any mastery of techniques or anything like that. I was simply better. Stronger, faster, in every way. I was capable of things that would break anyone who tried. I had yet to test where exactly my upper limits were, but they had to be a hell of a lot higher than anyone I knew. I didn’t train to be better, I just became it.
Of course, I couldn’t let Coach know that.
And why should I? Coach would focus even more attention on me, and I’d be found out almost immediately. If there was a way to capitalize on my superpowers and make an extra buck or two, I would be down, but as things were, the risk was too high, the benefits paling in comparison. It meant having to let Coach down, but I had to keep things on the down low, and attract as little attention to myself as possible. Now more than ever.
An unfortunate consequence, but it was necessary.
I finished my shower, letting the hot water drip down my body. It had gotten hot enough for steam to billow everywhere around me.
“Hey, Alexis!” I heard from a corner of the shower. It sounded like Tiffany, another teammate. A freshman. “It’s smoking in here! Isn’t that the Devil’s Mouth?”
The Devil’s Mouth was a nickname of a particular showerhead, notorious for being broken, splashing out water that was way too hot, no matter the setting. I must’ve been too lost in my own head to notice that had I walked under it. I looked at my arms. There were red marks all over my forearms and chest, but they were vanishing at a fast rate, and they were gone by the time I turned off the shower and spoke.
“I was just testing it. It’s still hot!”
Good work on the whole ‘attract as little attention to myself as possible’ thing.
Tiffany didn’t bother to question any further, and she left. I toweled myself dry, changed, and left the locker rooms with all of my stuff. I met up with Katy at the front of the school, waiting for me in her car.
I greeted her. “Yo.”
Katy was too busy on her phone to respond properly, giving a non-committal grumble instead.
I got in the car. “You ready?” I asked.
She tapped twice more on her phone, not looking at me. “… a cherry on top.”
“You okay there, Katy?”
Katy put her phone away. “Uh-huh. You should really get your license, already.”
“I… I probably should, shouldn’t I?”
“Not ‘probably,’ absolutely.”
She started the car, and we sped off.
“Any updates on Maria?” I asked, as we passed by the Strip, recalling the incident that happened there.
“Not since lunch, but I’m not too nonplussed about it this time around. I’ll give the girl her space.”
Space was something I was willing to give to Maria, but I couldn’t help but worry in the meantime. Did Eduardo tell Maria about me, about Blank Face? Did he take my advice and split up with her? What did Maria know, now? So many things I needed to know, but I couldn’t press Maria too hard and accidentally tip my hand. I already played with fire a little bit by telling Eduardo what I knew about Maria, and I needed to know how much that burned me, if at all.
If it was any consolation, Maria was fine during lunch, as lively and bubbly as ever. She didn’t say or suggest anything that I could use as a hint for any of the questions I had for her, sadly enough, but no news was good news, right? Was I okay in assuming that?
I was forced to leave it be.
I only seconded Katy. “Giving her space is probably for the best.”
“She’ll be fine. She’s tougher than she looks, and she already looks tough.”
Halfway down the street, traffic forced us to a stop. There was a light up ahead, but it was green. Cars around us were honking, trying to get things moving again, but it was useless. A crowd of people were blocking the way, marching down the intersection. They were shouting, carrying signs. Police were on cars and horses, guiding the line of people along.
Katy drummed her fingers on the steering wheel. “Dang, I thought I checked all the roads. People will protest over anything, nowadays.”
I frowned. It’s already begun, I thought.
I knew my public appearance would cause quite the stir, but I never expected the world to collectively lose their mind over it. The world. This made international news. It was the only thing anyone ever talked about all day. Even the teachers couldn’t stop talking about it, instead joining in the student’s speculation and general craze. A level of hysteria that I’ve never seen before. The atmosphere walking through the school was electric, and, even though phones weren’t allowed to be out, everyone was breaking that rule, looping the footage of me from every possible angle, trying to find that one flaw in my disguise that could potentially reveal my identity.
And all it took was a flimsy, plastic mask from preventing this from being a complete disaster. And my body shape, too, there was debate on the masked person’s gender. That helped in throwing any suspicion away from me.
Also, the world decided to give me a name without my permission. I was being referred to ‘The Bluemoon,’ a name even dumber than Blank Face. The reasoning behind it was because I was wearing blue that night, and a person with superpowers was an impossible, ‘once in a blue moon’ type of thing. I supposed.
A lot of excitement, and a lot of fear. As accidental is it was, I did stab a person on national television. People saw. And they wanted my head for it.
All of this fanfare, all of this fanaticism, from just a series of short video clips.
Imagine having to live with it. All day, everyday.
“‘Hashtag first contact,’” I said, referencing humanity’s summed up, viral thoughts on the matter, “‘Hashtag ‘where were you.’ What a time to be alive.”
“It’s like a modern-day witch trial,” Katy said, “Expect the witch is actually real.”
“It’s ridiculous. There’s nothing to gain by doing this. What do they expect, that he’ll suddenly show up and say hi?”
“We have proven, beyond a reasonable doubt, that superpowered-people walk among us. Apparently. Couple that with the footage of that girl a few weeks back, that’s enough evidence for people to believe that we live in some kind of comic book world now. To them, we’ve been living in a world either fantasy or science fiction this entire time, and we never knew it.”
“Truly the darkest timeline,” I said.
“Now, people are confused, scared, and if not that, angry. The whole world’s flipped upside down. Anything’s possible, and that frightens people, because the rules have been thrown out the window. And if you live in a democratic society, and you’re feeling any or all of those emotions, is there anything better than getting together with like-minded individuals who feel the same way, and air out your grievances in a civilly disobedient, but peaceful, manner?”
“You can always make memes on the internet and call it a day.”
Katy nodded, sagely. “Yeah, I guess you can.”
I massaged the side of my head. “It’s been less than twenty-four hours, and the world has lost all reason.”
“Better than starting a riot.”
“But you don’t think they’re overreacting, even a little?”
“There’s no precedent for this. You can’t make that call either way.”
“They’re chanting ‘death to the mask’ and ‘tear off their face.’ That’s hardly civil, or peaceful.”
“I did say ‘civilly disobedient,” Katy said, putting emphasis on that last word.
“You know what I mean.”
“Cool down, Alexis, it’s not like they’re protesting you.”
I held my tongue, and I noticed how dry it was.
We sat in wait, watching the parade pass. The noise had risen to annoying levels, and they weren’t even shouting anything comprehensible anymore, just various mindless obscenities. The signs they held were making less and less sense the more we tried to read them, from religious quotes to doomsday proclamations. One particular sign said ‘When’s the movie coming out?’ and Katy and I thought that was actually pretty funny.
Katy decided to wait them out by playing some music. Old school rap from the nineties. I wasn’t too familiar with the group, but the constant references to a specific type of sword style allowed me to guess with confidence. Katy started from the top of the album, and by the time we were told to ‘let our feet stomp,’ the last of the protesters cleared the street, and we were free to go.
We got back to my apartment just in time, despite the heavy setback. Curfew wouldn’t be beating me today. I thanked Katy for the ride, and proceeded to get out of the car.
“Before you go,” Katy said as I was getting out, “Keep your phone close, and actually be attentive to it for once.”
She winked, “You’re welcome.” She neglected to say more, and she drove off.
Cryptic for sure, but I was sure I’d find out what she meant soon enough. With no more chances for distractions, I went up the stairs, and to my apartment door.
I entered. My mom was already here, taking a nap on the couch. The TV was still on, repeating the events of last night. My blank face on the standard definition screen. I couldn’t escape that here, either.
I took off my shoes, leaving them by the door, and walked up the cocoon of blankets that was my mom. I tapped her on the shoulder to wake her up.
“Hi, Ma,” I said, greeting her with a kiss on the cheek. “You’re home early.”
“Yes,” she said, sluggishly, “Lucky me. How was school?”
“Alright. You can keep sleeping, I’ll just go do some homework and stuff.”
She made a sound, almost like she was purring, but she laid back and closed her eyes.
“This weekend. Do you want to go to the church?” she asked.
“I hadn’t thought about that place in years,” I said. St. Francis Xavier was a church my mom and I used to frequent back when I was younger, but we fell out of going over time. Other things in life popped up, and we learned that it wasn’t as high as a priority as we thought it was. Even without us, the church was still famous for being a hub for the Asian American community in Stephenville, hosting festivals all throughout the year that showcased the different cultures that made up that population. I still kept in semi-regular contact with some of the kids I went with back in the day, but that usually amounted to the occasional liking of a status update, or leaving a comment. Nothing too substantial.
But it had been so long since I was reminded of that place. Naturally, my mom bringing it up again had piqued my interest. “What brought that up?” I asked.
“Do you remember Mrs. Phan?”
“Ma, you’re killing me with all these nostalgia bombs right now.”
“She came in for a trim. She tell me they’re doing a barbecue, and she invited us.”
“And we’re going?”
“Maybe. She say we can take whatever’s left over back home.”
“That does sound like a good enough reason to return to the light of God,” I quipped.
My mom moved around on the couch, turning her back to me.
“Go do your homework.”
I stuck my tongue out, all in good fun, but I otherwise left my mom alone. Before I went into my room, I had to go into the kitchen to get myself a glass.
My mom would keep on sleeping, but I locked the door, just to be safe.
I cast my stuff aside, and went straight to my closet, opening it to get to a plastic bag. The plastic bag that had my dirty clothes, the ones I had yet to care of. I never threw them away. That might have labeled me as a hoarder, but I felt that I was justified by my circumstances. I found my old socks, soddened in blood, and my ruined black hoodie, a sweet fragrance lingering even now. I pushed them to the side. They were too old, now, too musty. They were begging to be cleaned, and I was aware that I had to find a way to do it soon. But, as for right now, they were to be ignored one more time.
I found the bandana, picking it out of the bag.
It was a token from an event I otherwise wanted to forget. The bandana from that guy who was chasing me through the neighborhood. His nose had been bleeding into the cloth, and I took it from him.
With only the bandana and the glass, I moved on to my bathroom, turning on the light.
I placed the glass right under the faucet of the sink, a little too hard, and I worried that I had cracked it. Stay calm, no need to rush, Mom’s asleep. I twisted the knob halfway, controlling the flow of water into the glass, so I didn’t accidentally spill anything.
I was way more manic the first time I did this, way more frantic, so there was a moment’s hesitation when I held the bandana right by the running water. I actually had time to consider what I was about to do. I wasn’t in a rush, knees wet in a gentle stream, hands cupped. However, I couldn’t let my hesitation prevent me from what I had to do. No way I could sugarcoat this – it was gross, disgusting – but it was better than nothing. I had to start brainstorming other possibilities, other methods, but until then, this would have to do.
I submerged half the bandana into the water, twisting it until some of the blood drained into the glass. I switched off the faucet just before the water was about to flow out.
The end result was an unappetizing concoction. I held the glass up to the light. It was a murky, sordid liquid, muddied with blood, sweat, and whatever else that got tracked into the cloth. Something moved in the pit of my stomach, threatening to jump out of my mouth, just by looking at what swam in the liquid. It wasn’t pretty, wasn’t ideal, but at the moment, I had little choice. Germs, disease, it couldn’t matter. I couldn’t afford to think how unsanitary this was.
Three… Three, three, two, one.
I took the glass like a shot, downing it in one gulp.
I didn’t know what was worse, that I had do it again within a week or that it didn’t taste that bad.
To be exact, it wasn’t as bad as it should have been. The taste was like drinking a sports drink that had been out and opened for a few days. Sweet, but you didn’t want to know what had gotten in there in the meantime.
The world was freaking out over what I could do, what would happen if they learned of what I had to drink?
The thought made me shiver.
I kept still for some time, focusing on keeping my ‘drink’ down. Really didn’t want to go through this again. Not so soon. I only stepped back into my room when I was sure I was okay to move.
My bed offered a warm respite, and I took it, throwing myself on top of the blankets. I decided to follow my mom’s example, and try to take a relaxing nap for myself.
How about if I sleep and forget all of this nonsense?
Yeah. The key word was try.
Those chants were echoing in my ears. Over and over and over. It was, in a strange way, both suffocating and exhilarating. Me, they were screaming over me. Because of me being whatever it was I was. They were freaking out, demanding answers, all from just a couple of minutes of me being out in public as Blank Face, or The Bluemoon, whatever they wanted to call me. They weren’t the only ones who wanted answers, but like me, those chances were looking slim.
Not liked it mattered. I had no plans on going out like that ever again. El Carruaje should be functionally dissolved, I parted ways with Eduardo, and I had faith that Maria would bounce back from this by a week’s time. Being Blank Face again was begging for more trouble. I had to keep a low profile, and start focusing on my personal life again.
I’m no superhero, and I have no need to go back out there again.
So, let them scream until they choked. I didn’t care. It all fell on deaf ears.