016 – Culture Shock

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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.

“Yes, Coach?”

“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.”

“Sorry.”

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.

Ah.”

“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.”

“Right.”

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.

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.”

“Most definitely.”

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.

Already?

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.”

“What for?”

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.

Oh well.

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.

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Interlude – Maria

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She clicked the lighter. She brought the warm glow close to her lips. She took a slow, drawn breath.

Maria exhaled, smoke filling her room.

It wasn’t something she did on the regular, but considering the past week, she figured it was something worth her while. She massaged her neck, popping it as she flipped through channels on the outdated TV. A cartoon, an American drama, a movie, a telenovela. She stopped at the telenovela, taking another hit of the joint as she watched a couple arguing.

She tried to sigh as her exhale, but she coughed, instead.

This past week was nothing short of hectic for Maria. She didn’t want to think about it anymore, but the events were too pressing, constantly nagging at the back of her mind. It made her tense, agitated, she couldn’t be around her friends in that condition. What she needed was a little relaxation, time alone to let things settle down again.

How long would that take?

Twice within a week, she was jumped. The first instance was at that party she went to with Alexis and Katy. The second time was at the parking garage, with Eduardo right next to her. She’d never been more scared in her life, but she put up a front, acting tough for both her boyfriend, and for herself. She wondered if she even convinced anyone.

And what made things worse was that it was almost all entirely her fault. Jordan, one of Lawrence’s homies, was asking around for Eduardo, and she knew of Eduardo and Lawrence’s relationship, or lack thereof. Whatever he wanted, she knew it wasn’t good. She tried to get them off Eduardo’s tail, telling Jordan to meet Eduardo in one place when he’d actually be elsewhere, completely ignorant to what she was doing.

The plan didn’t work for very long, though. Jordan had managed to find her, and pulled her out of that house, physically punishing her for leading them on like that. Her heartbeat sped up a little from remembering that incident, or was it because of the joint’s medicinal properties? But the fact remained. She could have died that night.

It was a miracle that she made it out of that situation intact. Barring some bumps and scratches, but much worse was threatened to her. It happened so fast, that she could only recall specific snippets of instances, but she knew one thing. She didn’t get out of it alone. Someone was there, and they helped her. She didn’t know who it was, maybe it was someone at the party, someone who wandered outside, able to hear her shouts and cries. Didn’t know who, didn’t know how, and she wasn’t going to ask around, especially with Alexis and Katy there. She was okay, and she tried to leave it at that.

If that person wasn’t there…

And yet, when Lawrence and his boys finally tracked them both down, she was the most scared, then.

Before she could sink any deeper into her thoughts, or her chair, the doorbell rang, followed by three heavy knocks, followed by another ring of the doorbell. Maria set down the remote. Someone was here, and they wanted to get in, badly.

And in this neighborhood, that was enough of a reason to be cautious.

She set her joint down on the ashtray on her desk, and left her room, leaving the TV on, and slowly went down the hall, through the living room, and to the door. She was considering taking something with her, a knife maybe, in case trouble found its way to her doorstep.

The door kept knocking, ringing, along the way. A voice on the other end kept calling out to her.

“Maria? Maria! It’s me, hey! Abre la puerta!”

Eddie?

She quickly dropped her guard, and went to open the door.

“Eddie?” she asked when she saw him, fully framed. He was in a different outfit from earlier that afternoon, when he took her home. His jacket was gone, replaced with a dark hoodie that was a size too small, and his shirt was a pastel blue. Didn’t match at all. And his hair was messy, streaks of dirt smeared his cheeks and chin. His eyes were puffy and red, like he hadn’t gotten sleep in days.

Maria tried to venture a guess as to why he was here. “Did you forget something?”

He didn’t respond, instead stepping forward and bringing his arms around her. She was immediately wrapped in his embrace, unable to move. Tight, snug. But also familiar and comfortable.

If not a little confusing.

“What are you doing here?” she asked, her mouth pressed against his shoulder, muffling her voice.

“Thank god,” Eduardo said, ignoring her, “You’re okay. Thank god, thank god…”

Hey,” she warned, and tried to push away. He only pulled in tighter.

“No one came by? Was anyone else here? Are you home alone?”

“I’m fine, what are you talkin’ about, you weirdo!”

Eduardo refused to answer, holding Maria until she had to accept that this was what they were going to be doing, now. They stayed like this for what almost felt like an eternity, until she heard the telenovela’s ending theme playing in the background, from her room. Maybe ten minutes, at most.

“What are you trying to pull?” Maria asked, her patience having finally run out, and she wedged her arms between them, and pushed away. Eduardo relented, finally letting her go, but not before planting his lips on her forehead, kissing her.

“Looks like I have time to explain,” Eduardo said. “Is your dad here?”

“He’s out.”

“‘Out,’ out? Or just out?”

Maria shrugged. “Both.”

“So you’re home alone?”

Maria placed her hands on her hips. “That hasn’t been a problem before. I can take anyone that tries to test me.”

“You sound pretty confident in yourself.”

She huffed. “That’s because I’m fucking awesome, bitch.”

Eduardo put his hands up. “Okay, whoa, the language isn’t necessary.”

“Yeah it is, bitch.” She sneered. And almost at the drop of a hat, she dropped her act, and went to the kitchen, opening the refrigerator.

“Do you want ice cream?” she offered, “There’s strawberry.”

“No chocolate?”

“I don’t like chocolate.”

“But I do.”

“Too bad, not your fridge.”

Eduardo inhaled, looked around, and sniffed the air. “Were you smoking?”

“Yeah, but I just started.” She tugged at her loose pants, her pink pajamas. “You did come at weird time, you know.”

“It’s weird times for everyone.” He pointed down the hallway, “Can I come in your room?”

“Anytime, but wait. I want my ice cream.”

Maria went back to preparing herself a bowl. She could tell that Eduardo was behaving oddly, scatterbrained for some reason. Whatever it was about, she’d give him his space, and let him take his time. When she was finished in the kitchen, she returned to her room, and found Eduardo already there, sitting on her bed and helping himself to the joint.

She reprimanded him. “Hey, at least ask.” She sat back in her chair, and placed her bowl of ice cream on the desk beside her.

She pouted. “And you took the remote.”

“Where’s my water?” he asked.

“You never asked.”

“Really? Thought I did.”

“Boy, you crazy.”

“Never mind, well, I’m guessing you haven’t seen it yet,” Eduardo said as he changed channels.

“Seen what?”

“You’ll see… I said I’ll explain.”

“Mhmm, I’m turning blue from waiting.”

Eduardo took another hit of the joint, and leaned back. “I apologize, Maria, but I haven’t exactly been honest with you, lately.” He looked her square in the eye. It was enough for Maria to realize that it could be something serious.

“The truth is,” Eduardo confessed, “I’ve been seeing another woman.”

Maria crossed her arms, and lifted an eyebrow. “Oh, really now? Was she prettier than me?”

“Can’t say. She wore a mask.”

“I didn’t know you were into that kind of thing. Coulda told me.”

“Eh. Masks are more trouble than they’re worth, it looks like.”

“Alright,” Maria said, before turning back to her bowl to get a spoonful of ice cream. “What is this actually about?” she asked, her mouth full.

“Here, I found it,” Eduardo said. He got onto the channel he was looking for. The news.

They both watched. Newscasters were talking about a car accident, showing footage from various angles. A lot of it was unclear, unfocused, but Maria was able to piece most of it together.

Two people, standing across from each other. One of them had a mask covering their face. The other one had a gun, pointed down at another person, slumped over.

Maria’s face went as pale as the moon. “Is… is that Benny? Is that you?”

Eduardo answered, softly, with only a single word. “Yes.”

“Isn’t that your car? How the hell did you get here?”

“It’s hard to explain.”

“In what way?”

“I mean, I took a taxi.”

Maria was dumbfounded. “What the hell were you doing? When was this? Just now?”

“This is what I was up to the past few days. I… wanted to go against Benny, the group. Remember what we talked about before? What it would be like if we left? I was trying to do that.”

“And this somehow accomplishes that? And who is that?” She pointed to the TV, at the masked figure.

“The woman I’ve been seeing.”

“The time for jokes is over, Eduardo. Fuckin’ tell me.”

“Oh, I was hoping you’d know,” Eduardo said, intently watching the TV.

“What? How would I know? How could I?” She looked again at the TV, this time watching the girl in the mask. The girl now had an arm up, showing a knife in her hand. Benny’s mouth moved, responding to the girl in some way, the audio bleeped for a second, and the sound was too distorted to make out what she had said. Subtitles were provided, though.

How is that even a legitimate threat, you’re standing all the way over there!

For Maria, watching Eduardo and Benny on the screen was not unlike airing out dirty laundry, except it was on a much larger scale, for everyone to see. She stopped herself from taking the joint from Eduardo, wanting to smoke it again.

“I only said that because,” Eduardo said, “Because she claimed to know you.”

“That girl? Why would she? She could be lying.”

“She knew your last name. I never told her that.”

Maria’s put her hands to her face, mouth agape, but found her fingers, cold, clammy. She looked again to the girl. This girl in blue, wearing that expressionless, freaky mask.

She was standing there, with a slight hunch, and from the subtitles, asking Benny to shoot her. This was someone that knew her? At least, knew of her last name?

She compiled a list of every girl she knew in her head. Who could possibly fit that bill? She thought of everyone. Katy? Alexis? Lorena? DJ? Jillian?

No, the hands aren’t the right skin tone. She dismissed the thought.

Then, who in the world is this?

“Eduardo, Eddie, did this woman of yours have a name?” Maria asked. “You had to have called her something.”

Eduardo massaged his back. “Her name’s Blank Face. And as much as she wants to deny it, she’s a superhero.”

“Excuse me?”

Maria soon found that it was unnecessary to even ask, she saw it for herself, even if she couldn’t believe what she saw.

It was like she simply disappeared. There, then gone. The masked girl – Blank Face – barely did so much as flinch before she was occupying the same space as Benny, and they both flew away from Eduardo’s body. Like she had teleported to Benny, and tackled her.

It wasn’t exactly like teleportation. There was movement, there, that Blank Face exhibited, before and as she moved, but Maria wasn’t expecting movement that fast, and her brain almost didn’t register what was happening in between. Astounding, terrifying. Literally unreal.

People don’t move like that.

Almost as instantly as she saw it, Maria squeaked in surprise. She wasn’t prepared to see that. Neither were the people holding the cameras, the footage immediately shook, and cut to another camera that had a better angle

“Jesus Christ, Eddie,” Maria said, “Tell me this is a prank, I told you, no more fucking jokes. I cannot believe this shit!”

“She’s the real deal,” Eduardo said, gravely. “Don’t know how, but I never seen anything like that before.”

“No one has,” Maria added. “What in the…”

Eduardo explained further. “And I was working with her. We found out the big thing that Benny was planning.”

Maria recalled the rumors, the hushed whispers amongst others in the gang. “What was it?”

“A turf war. Benny smuggled in weapons, a whole bunch of them. She wanted to pick a serious fight with the competition.”

Maria couldn’t believe what she was seeing on the TV, now she couldn’t believe what she was hearing.

Eduardo continued. “But Benny, she caught on, she found me. Benny was going to make me bring her, here.”

She couldn’t take anymore left hooks. Maria’s heart was thumping harder and harder, reverberating her entire body.

All of this was happening, while I was sitting here, smoking weed?

“But as you can see, she stopped her, Blank Face. We don’t have to worry about Benny, not anymore.”

Maria continued watching the TV, showing the incident from another angle, another phone. Benny was down, trembling, holding her shoulder. Blank Face was down, too, over Eduardo’s body. Police were standing around them, forming a circle. She soon found herself enraptured with finding out how the events onscreen would unfold, forgetting that Eduardo was sitting right beside her.

And, without the sudden burst of speed from before, Blank Face lurched forward, standing and picking up Eduardo. She jumped with no warning, out of frame of any camera, leaving the area, taking Eduardo along.

They were gone. The news station cut back to the news anchors, commenting on the footage. The headline parroted what Eduardo said previously. ‘World’s First Superhuman?

Maria turned away from the TV, and tried going for more ice cream. But it had melted somewhat, a small clump of the ice cream like an island in a sea of milk.

She looked at Eduardo, who was taking yet another hit. “Stop that,” she said, taking it away from him. She put it away, pressing it into the ashtray. “This is serious, apparently, why didn’t you tell me about any of this?”

Eduardo looked her in the eye, but he couldn’t maintain it. He looked away when he spoke. “I want to say it was so I could keep you safe, but it ended up being the complete opposite. Siento.”

“Ugh,” Maria sounded, pushing herself back in her chair. It was lot to process, for sure. She had to come up with more questions, glean more information, but her questions were disorganized and out of order.

She shut her eyes, and pinched the bridge of her nose. “Okay, so wait, let’s back this up. How did you even meet this, this Blank Face?”

And what kinda stupid-ass name is that, anyways?

“When Lawrence tried to get at us, you ran, she came then. She helped me, uh,  take care of him.”

“And what? You just decided to join up with this person and run up on Benny?”

“She offered to help. I didn’t know why, at first, but she did offer.”

Maria injected, “Why is it, I can believe that more easily than you saying you managed to fuck them up all on your own?”

“You didn’t believe me?”

She raised a brow in disbelief. “I didn’t say anything at the time, since it happened so fast, and we made it out… kinda okay, but you ain’t no fighter, Eddie.”

He looked down at his hands. “Guess I’m not.”

“But you are a dumbass, doing all this behind my back. This is real shit, Eddie, how could you?” But, all at once, a sharp prick of guilt, of self-awareness, struck her deep. Maria shook her head. “But you did have your reason, and I’m sure you thought they were worthy enough.”

He didn’t move.

Maria breathed, and extended a hand, massaging Eduardo’s shoulder. “I’m only a little bit kidding. But you’ve gotta remember, I worry about you twice as much as you worry about me.”

Eduardo chuckled. “Honesty from Maria, how nice.”

“Hey, you deserve it.”

Maria went for the remote, and turned off the TV. The ambient noise was silenced, and there was only the hum of the air conditioning.

Maria spoke, “Now what? If you’re here… what about Benny?”

“She’s… going to jail. Blank Face stopped the weapons from going anywhere else.”

Maria thought about Benny. She could count, on one hand, how many times she has met the woman in person. But she always left a lasting impression. Powerful, to encapsulate Benny in one word. Imposing, if she wanted to use two. And ambitious. Maria knew that just from how Benny held herself. She kept an eye to the future. Now, a prison wall will be all that Benny could see.

“They’ll string her up for that,” Maria said.

Eduardo talked as if he didn’t hear her. “Her little ‘family,’ El Carruaje, is done. That’s what Blank Face, I mean we, were trying to accomplish, give us our chance to leave.”

Our chance to leave. Maria thought about the past year and a half, her time in El Carruaje. She had joined because it was easy, it was less of a life choice than it was something she just fell into as she hung out with certain friends. Easy money, easy weed, a lot of highs with not a lot of lows. Surprisingly. And she met Eduardo, and that was even more of an incentive to stick around.

But things started changing in the past few months. In small ways. Maria could feel it, Eduardo knew it. A shift, coming from the top, reaching to the bottom. Internal politics degrading, people asking for more, sooner. Gossip about Benny, that she may be planning something big, regarding the future of the gang. It wasn’t what Maria had signed up for, an easy escape from a stressful home-life. She discussed it with Eduardo, who had come to the same conclusion on his own, and they both agreed to leave. But Benny had her own vision of the direction of the gang, and with things becoming as bad as they were, simply walking away could potentially mean suicide.

And now, thanks to this ‘Blank Face,’ an opening, a hole, was made for them to step through. But who did she really have to thank?

Maria scratched her head, still confused. “But, this Blank Face person, do I actually know her?”

“Now I’m worried,” Eduardo said, “And freaked out. She was saying all kinds of stuff about you, she knew your last name, she knew your hobbies. Are you sure you don’t know anyone like that? Because that would be wild, considering everything.”

Maria thought for any possible answer. Who knows me like that?

… Could it be Katy? Alexis? Those were the only two who were up in my business about all of this shit.

“What color was her hair?” Maria asked. “Did you see it?”

“Um, nah. She had a hoodie up the whole time.”

“Was she tall?”

“Not at all. Even you’re taller than her.”

Could it be… Is that even possible?

A…

“Maria?” Eduardo asked, concerned. “You look like you’re about to pull your hair out.”

Maria twitched a finger, and found it wrapped in her hair. She was twirling it in thought.

“Ah, ow. Nah, I’m alright.”

“I know that look. Did you come up with someone?”

Maria slowly took her fingers out of her hair, and made a mental note to comb it later. “No, I was just thinking. Doesn’t make sense.”

“Don’t actually beat yourself up over it, there’s still something else I wanted to talk about. Gimme the joint.”

“No, just tell me.”

Eduardo rolled his shoulders back, and rubbed some dirt off of his brow. He kept mumbling to himself, like he had forgotten how to speak and he needed to practice the motions. He fumbled through his words. “Right. Uh… The two of us, we, I think, we’ve, have to… I think we need to take a break, from the two of us, yeah.” Instead of complete a coherent sentence, he simply stopped altogether.

Maria immediately laughed when she realized he was done, harder than she wanted, but she still found it funny. “Ha! You don’t sound genuine at all!”

Eduardo forced himself to lift his head up. “Haha, yeaaaah. It was her idea, Blank Face, she suggested it.”

Maria said unapologetically, “Wow, what an asshole.”

“She wasn’t the nicest person, but she did try and help.” He shifted in place, and cleared his throat.

“And, she did have a point.”

Maria cleared her throat as well, exaggerating the gesture, mocking Eduardo. “Entertain me.”

“It isn’t only gonna be Lawrence. Jordan, Peter, Teeny, they’re all gonna want to have a ‘chat’ with me once word gets out about Benny. I can’t… I don’t want you to be around me if it goes down like that. Maybe, maybe, it’s best if I do stay low.”

Maria felt her body draining of heat, a chill coming. His tone. His face. He was serious.

“I’m not going to tell you again, no more joking around.”

“You don’t agree, Maria? You know what they can do, and that’s not even if they’re mad. I can’t stick around, if they think they can use you against me.”

“That won’t stop ‘em, with or without you around.”

Eduardo put his head in his hands. “You’re right, I don’t know anymore. I don’t know what to do.”

Maria stood to move from the chair to the bed, next to Eduardo’s side. She wrapped an arm around his shoulder, bringing him close. “Hey, as helpful as that Blank Face may have been, we’re not going to be putting any faith in some masked freakshow who may or may not know me. And you shouldn’t be blindly following her advice, either. We figure this out, we do it on our own terms, and we do it together. Do you understand me?”

“I gotcha,” he replied.

“But do you really, though?”

“I do,” he said, stressing the last word.

“Good, then cheer up, baby,” Maria said, accentuating her point with a pat on the back. “You’ve done enough on your own.”

“You know, you’re taking all of this surprisingly well,” Eduardo remarked.

“Do I have a choice? You gotta roll with it as it comes. Now come on,” she reached back to grab the joint, lit it, and started smoking it again. In her next move, she turned, and thrusted Eduardo down on the bed. “Since you here and all.”

“Whoa, really, right now?” he questioned, as Maria tugged on his collar. “I’m kind of sore, actually.”

“Buckle up, then. I said we’ll figure this out. Didn’t say we have to do it now.”

“Shoulda brought a mask.”

“Ha ha.”

Eduardo repositioned himself on the bed. He complained, “But seriously, everywhere hurts. I don’t think I can…”

It was Maria’s turn to kiss him on the forehead. “You’ll be okay. And I said it before, didn’t I? You can come anytime.”

Eduardo closed his eyes in thought, trying to decipher what Maria meant. He opened them.

“Oh, you are so fucking lame.”

Maria smiled. “See? You really do know me.”

Previous                                                                                               Next

015 – Bird Buried in Drowning Mud

Previous                                                                                               Next

Earlier in the day, Eduardo asked me if I had any other powers. I dismissed him, like the ones I had now weren’t enough on my plate.

Now? I wished I had something secret up my sleeve.

People were screaming, multiple police officers barking the same things at different times. My own heartbeat sounded like it was pounding in my head. A cacophonous chaos.

“Stay down! Hands in the air! Don’t move!”

Can’t everyone shut up?

A massive headache was about to hit me full on, and all this damn noise wasn’t helping any. I was trying to think, to process everything, and everything was turning into a distraction.

I was so tired.

Everything was hurting. Like I finished a marathon, sprinting. I burned up all of my energy. Every muscle in my body was throbbing, aching with stings. Throb, throbbing. Tender. I was out of breath. Weak, lightheaded. Could I even pick my hands up, anymore?

And worst of all, I was thirsty. The whole area around my neck was on fire, screaming for nourishment. I wanted it, I needed it. My entire body was heated, and I couldn’t shake off the feeling unless I got it.

Blood.

Breathe, I tried. It was hard. Not at this point in time. Didn’t have the luxury. I was still plagued by the stress of being in a blinding spotlight. Everyone could see me. Everyone would know what I was.

They would know.

I blinked, but everything was still blurry. Shapes of blues, projecting a maddening sound.

I thought I asked everyone to shut it, but apparently not. Still ordering me around, a million voices flooding my ears.

I had to deal with this, didn’t I?

I needed to get somewhere, to leave this place. But I could barely move, barely stand, barely do anything. Process. Put the pieces together. It was hard.

Mom. I was late for dinner. Homework. I was behind on some stuff. Coach T. She wasn’t too thrilled about my recent absences. Wait, no, these were distractions. My mind kept going to places that were irrelevant. Thinking of unrelated things that didn’t matter. Now I was being redundant. Focus, or at least try.

All from just pushing myself a little harder. I didn’t know my mind and body would shut down so easily, be so out of it from all of that.

Never doing that again.

I lifted my head up, trying to make as much sense of the scene as I could. Fuzzy, unclear images, but I did notice something.

The police, they weren’t getting closer. They stood in a formation, circling me, but they weren’t approaching.

Were they afraid?

Couldn’t blame them, in all honesty. They were hesitating, unsure of exactly what I was and what else I was capable of.

I’m still unsure, myself.

I could use this, though, their reluctance to come any closer. It bought me some time, valuable seconds to come up with a way out of here.

A million things ran through my mind. A million things to consider.

A voice snarled. “We said drop the knife! Hands up!”

I clenched my hands. The knife. I was still holding it. Could I do something with it? Fight? Fight my way out?

No violence.

Why was that my first resort? There had to be better solutions than that. I shouldn’t try to make this any worse. For me and for everyone here. Plus, there was the ‘couldn’t move at all issue’ that prevented that particularly awful idea from being a feasible one. I scrapped it as soon as I thought of it.

You’re still going make use of the knife, right?

Yeah.

Thought so.

At this juncture, doing anything would be better than doing nothing.

I brought my arms close, to my chest, and let myself collapse onto Eduardo’s body.

There were some gasps, the clicks of guns, but no sudden spikes in volume. No one fired. I knew they wouldn’t, or at least, I had betted on it, because the cops wouldn’t be done with evacuating civilians from the scene just yet. They couldn’t risk anything.

I could use that, too.

I heard a few footsteps try and test their luck, to inch closer, but they were sparse and wary. I only had a few more moments before they gathered enough courage to put me in handcuffs.

They started speaking amongst each other, formulating a plan. They had gotten close enough for me to hear.

“Robinson, go around the back, deal with Benny. We’ll handle this masked devil-thing.”

“Do we inform Mister about this? About Benny. We got that report, not too long ago. This sounds like something he’d need to know about.”

“We’ll talk about that later. First we have to clean this shit up.”

What were they talking about? Mr. Who? And Benny. They mentioned that name like they were familiar with it. Why?

It didn’t bode well with me, their manner of speaking, their familiarity with someone like Benny. I couldn’t leave here in handcuffs, and deep down, I knew I couldn’t let that happen to Eduardo.

I tried to concentrate on the task at hand. Eduardo wasn’t moving, aside from the slight rise and fall of his back. His breathing was shallow. He wouldn’t be getting up by his own volition. How badly did the car accident injure him? My guilt was becoming much harder to swallow.

“Eduardo,” I whispered, although frail. “Say something. Are you hurt? Concussion?”

He grunted, but he answered. “No concussion, but I’m not exactly sunshine and rainbows.”

“Cool. Don’t move, I’m going to try and get us out of here.”

He didn’t respond.

Under the cover of my own back, I worked. With my free hand, I wedged it between Eduardo’s torso and the cement, essentially hugging him with one arm. With my knife, I tried forcing in between my mask and lips, without stabbing myself. So inconvenient, but it wasn’t like I ever anticipated having to do this. The bottom of the mask kept getting in the way of the knife. It was taking too long, and I was getting frustrated, but I couldn’t be hasty, which made me even more frustrated.

The footsteps around us started becoming more frequent, faster. Orders given throughout the different officers to approach carefully. Any minute, now. Any second.

With one last push, I got the knife where I wanted it. The tip of the knife brushed against the tip of my nose. I briefly paused, almost reconsidering.

Before, on the rooftops, I didn’t have the time to be dramatic and consider what exactly I was about to do, I just had to do it. So soon after that, I was faced with yet another, similar situation.

The blade was to my lips. Red, soaked in Benny’s blood. I stuck my tongue out, licking the metal.

Aaaah!

A surge of energy. Electricity. A short but focused burst, a static shock throughout my whole body.

I shuddered.

The police halted. Couldn’t afford to revel in the feeling of drinking blood, despite loathing how good it tasted.

This was it.

I moved.

It wasn’t in a fast or graceful motion, but I got on my two feet, flipping Eduardo in my arms, carrying him like I would a bride, with one arm under his legs and the other supporting his back. The knife was uncomfortably stuck between my mouth and my mask. My mouth was opened in a funny position, I couldn’t close it.

The police ordered me again, but I didn’t bother to listen.

I licked the knife again.

As the resurgence of energy came, I took two steps forward before jumping away. I didn’t reach the height I wanted, considering the added weight and some fatigue that remained, but it worked. I touched ground amongst the civilians that made up the outer perimeter of the scene, now running away and crying out at the sight of me.

I was running, too, looking for an escape. My vision was getting better, clearer, letting me see exactly where I was going. But with every step, I flinched in pain. The more I ran, the knife was cutting into the corners of my mouth. But I couldn’t spit it out. The mask kept it stuck in its position. Besides, were was some leftover blood I needed.

Drool dripped down my chin as I ran across the street. The area was filled with cars stuck in place, unable to move or turn back due to the car accident. Part of me wanted to double back and check if other vehicle’s passengers were okay, but I’d have to leave that to more qualified individuals.

The cars here were becoming an obstacle, slowing down my progress. I stepped onto the hood of a car, hopped onto the roof of the next, and hopped again until I got to the sidewalk.

I now had more room to run forward without obstruction. I was leaving the police behind, but I knew that I couldn’t keep this up forever. I had to find a place where I could settle down and hide.

I searched my available options, and found my next course of action.

A nearby building was lower than the rest, with a balcony that overlooked a street. A restaurant-bar type of place. With the strength I had, I could manage that with one good jump.

I tried. I made it.

There were others here, too. Some were sitting at picnic tables, eating and drinking, while others were by the balcony, trying to sneak a peek at what was happening below. They didn’t expect someone to be coming up here.

As expected, there was a lot of commotion when I arrived.

I kept going, running past the surprised and confused, and I jumped again before anything significant could be done about my presence.

Another building, another rooftop. I was positive I’ve lost everyone who’d try to come after me, come after us, but it wouldn’t hurt to move farther away.

I crossed another rooftop, leaped, and landed. Eduardo grumbled, complaining from all of the bouncing from being in my hold, and the exhaustion was coming back faster and stronger than I had wanted. Also, the knife was piercing even more into my flesh.

Maybe it would hurt to move farther away.

But there was one roof I saw, and I knew I needed to get there. It was the top of an apartment building, with a clothesline clipping some clothes up. Not bad as cover goes, especially now, since it had gotten darker.

I was starting to accept that I would never be one for smooth landings. The last of my extra energy had given out, and I collapsed when I got to the apartment’s roof. Unfortunately for Eduardo, he had to be subjected to my fall, as well.

“Aghfghr!” we both cried.

I knew some time had passed, because I had forgotten where I was, and what I was doing. I flipped over, unable to be fully on my back because of my backpack. It took real effort just to get on my knees.

Eduardo wasn’t any better, also on his back. He coughed heavily, his chest heaving. He couldn’t see what was about to happen, what I was about to do.

I took that as an opportunity to fix myself. I lifted the mask away from my chin, and had to stretch my mouth open even more to spit out the knife. A few dots of blood splattered onto the roof, a gross mixture of Benny’s and my own. Blood and spit dripped from my mouth, and I wiped it away with my hand. I smacked my lips, like I was applying lipstick, and licked a bit of the residual blood that got on a finger.

Fuck me.

I tried communicating with Eduardo. “Oddwardlow,” I started, before recoiling in agony, and I closed my mouth. The cuts really did their work, digging deep into the corner of my lips, and they stung, bad.

That stinging eventually turned into a certain type of numbness, and I felt the cuts shrink, disappearing. It wasn’t long until they were completely gone, they were only minor injuries, in the grand scheme of things. Considering that I’ve actually survived worse, it was relatively nothing.

“Eduardo,” I said, able to speak again. “We have to keep going, but I can’t carry you forever. Who knows if they manage to find us up here?”

Eduardo had calmed down enough to speak as well, no longer coughing. “Why… you… brought me?”

His sentence was disjointed, but I got the meaning behind it. “The cops seemed to know Benny, or at least they knew of her. I don’t know, something about it didn’t feel right. When they find out about the weapons in the warehouse…”

When?”

“I called 9-1-1. I told them about the crates.”

“You did what?”

Worry crept up my spine, reaching my voice. “Was I not supposed to do that?”

“What? No, I dunno.” Eduardo started moving into a better position, sitting up, placing his arms behind him. “It’s better than leaving it out in the open.”

“Yeah, you’re right.”

I fixed my mask, setting it properly on my face, before trying to stand, but I felt a certain head rush that brought me right back down. I fell back on my butt.

“Dammit,” I hissed to myself. I didn’t want to look weak, feel weak, especially in front of Eduardo. And I didn’t have time to be weak. Had to hold out for a bit longer.

I wanted to leave and keep moving, but I also wanted to catch my breath. I figured we could spare a minute or two.

“I thought you were hiding. How did Benny get you?”

“I don’t know, I was looking out in every direction, too. I was careful. I was even about to move to another spot, just to be safe. But…”

“But?”

“Out of nowhere, there was a tap at my window, and it was her with a gun. I had to let her in, or she’d shoot.”

“Shit.” I had nothing else to say. I coughed, instead.

“So,” Eduardo said, in between heavy breaths, “What do we do, now?”

“You tell me. As far as Benny is concerned, she’s out of the picture, and hopefully for a long time. What does that say about the gang? Can they function without her?”

Eduardo pondered, looking at the clothes swaying in the wind as he did so. “Not really. She was at the top, and the crew she kept close to her will be scrambling to figure out who takes her place, and what to do in her absence. That’s a lot of reorganizing that needs to be done, and that’ll slow them down.”

“And if the police or any other gang find out about her plans?”

“Then The Chariot will have had its last ride.”

A sense of relief momentarily came over me. “Then, yeah. It ended up being a messy process, but I gave you your chance to leave the gang.”

Eduardo changed his posture yet again, this time leaning forward, hands in his lap.

“My chance to leave, huh?”

“After everything that went down, including the whole ‘crates of weapons’ thing, El Carruaje should be shaken up enough so that you leave without much noise,” I said.

“My girl, what about her?”

I thought about Maria. I knew that she should be okay, but I was worried regardless.

“We, you should go see her,” I said, “Check if she’s okay. Do you have money for a taxi, or something?”

He reached into the jacket he was wearing, a pocket on the inside. “I do,” he said, without taking out anything.

“Taxi should be a safe enough way to get there. I said this before, but I don’t think you heard me. Sorry about your car.”

“Don’t,” Eduardo said, shaking his head, “I’m not too pissed about that. I hated driving that thing around, anyway. It was never really mine.”

“Okay, then, that settles that. Go to her. And you’re going to have to tell her everything. I have a feeling she won’t appreciate seeing you on the news without you telling her first.”

“The news?”

“Yeah. I tried my best to hide your face, but people are going to be talking about this. Our escape wasn’t exactly subtle. Which brings me to my last point.”

I tried standing one more time, and this time, I was finally successful. I took it slow, being careful to get to my feet.

My words weren’t as slow to come out, though.

“You need to break up with your girlfriend,” I said, bluntly.

Eduardo shot me the most stunned look. There was even a little anger in there. “What? Are you shitting me?”

“You want to protect her, don’t you? You’re going to have to stay away.”

“Now is not the time to be doing that.”

“Isn’t it? There might be some from your old gang that have a score to settle with you. Especially if Benny decides to sell you out. And the police will mostly be after me, but they’ll be looking for you, too.”

He balled his hands into fists. “Then why did you take me?”

“You want to walk right out of a gang and into a jail cell? You weren’t going to last. I wouldn’t.”

Eduardo coughed again. “Shows how much you know. You get to hide behind a mask, you get to have superpowers.”

“They’re not as liberating as you think.”

“Fuck,” Eduardo said, under his breath. “Fuck this.”

“It’s up to you, in the end,” I said, conceding with him somewhat. “Your decision. I’m just telling the circumstances you’re in. We’re in.”

If nothing else, I at least planted the idea in his head.

I reached back down to pick up the knife, flipped the blade back in, and put it away. I had to wash it later.

“And what about you?” Eduardo asked. “What are you going to do?”

“I’ll keep looking after your girlfriend, of course.”

“Huh? How? You don’t even know her!”

Earlier this week, I had said something similar, myself. Even now, there was a lot I didn’t know about Maria, a lot of darkness that even I couldn’t see through. But I made my decision. She was my friend, and I was going to help her. And I was going to keep doing that.

And I had to give Eduardo something, in order for him to put his trust in me.

“Of course I do,” I said, like it was the most obvious thing in the world.

“What are you saying?” Eduardo questioned.

“Maria Gonzalez. She’s into fashion, loves strawberry, and she can’t say no to a good foreign flick.”

“Who…” he began to say.

“I’m not saying any more,” I said, “But I will ask you to trust me. You have your part to play, and I have mine.”

I walked to the edge of the roof, and looked down to find another fire escape.

“I’ll be going. There’s a fire escape here, so after a few more minutes, you can come down. I don’t condone thievery, but if you decide to take these clothes and change into them, I won’t stop you.”

And I know I just said that I don’t condone thievery, but getting some cash from you for a taxi would’ve been nice.

“Oh, and here,” I said, almost forgetting. I brought back out the walkie-talkie for the last time, and tossed to it Eduardo. He caught it.

“Leaving me on a roof?” Eduardo asked, shaky, his voice cracking at the end. “Again?”

“It’s not out of spite, not this time. I mean, I’d offer to carry you some more, but I’m spent, and the last thing you probably need is someone to uncomfortably rattle you around more.”

“It wasn’t that bad. It’s the closest thing I’ll ever get to flying.”

Part of me was taken aback at that point of view. “That’s one way to look at it.”

“And what do you mean, ‘not this time?’”

“Uh, goodbye, Eduardo.” And with any luck, I’ll never need to see you again. But that, I kept to myself.

“Yeah, bye.”

Having said my piece, I left it, and Eduardo, at that. I dropped down from edge of the roof, landing on the fire escape. I made it down to the alley, not exactly rushing, but not taking my sweet time, either.

The alley was empty, and dark enough that I could change without worrying about anyone. I checked above me, in case Eduardo was trying to be sneaky and curious. Nope. I dropped my backpack, and took out the sports bag inside. The mask was first to be taken off, and it felt so satisfying to finally get it off my face. I stuffed it into the bag, along with the jacket. It was like peeling off a second skin, with how much sweat had accumulated on the inside. The fanny pack was the next to go, and after I put away the joggers, I was back to being Alexis. No longer Blank Face.

I took out my phone, and checked my face from the reflection, cleaning off what I could. There were a few messages waiting for me. Some from Katy and Maria, probably from our group chat, a lot from my mom, and one from Brittany and Eve. Have to handle these later.

I left the alley, bags in tow, getting on the sidewalk. I didn’t recognize this part of town, but that wasn’t a big issue. I had enough money for a bus, and if nothing else, I’d have to walk the rest of the way. Not like I had a choice, otherwise.

The sounds of a helicopter zoomed overhead, flying by as I walked. Was it trying to search for me? I was equal parts relieved and terrified. Relieved to know that I successfully slipped under the radar, and terrified that they had went to this length to find me. Tomorrow, maybe even the weeks to come, I was certain that I would never hear the end of this night. People might be talking about it now.

I made it out of that situation, alive and intact. It already felt distant, like these were someone else’s memories. How did I manage to pull it off, even? Could this even be considered a success?

And my night wasn’t even close to being over. I had to find my way home, and it had gotten unreasonably late. I did give my mom a similar story like I did with Katy, but I still had some explaining to do. And somehow, that felt like the harder task.

People, pedestrians, passed me. They didn’t know, had no reason to suspect me. I was, in present appearance, a normal girl. Something about it was exciting.

Exhausted, sweaty, slightly dehydrated, I strolled into the night.

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014 – Only the Weak Among You Will be Sacrificed

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I ran out of the warehouse, out the metal door that was now open. It didn’t take me long to get back on the street, where Eduardo dropped me off.

Where is he, where did he go? Fuck!

This could not have gone down south any faster. Eduardo was taken against his own will, driving to Maria, and I had to prevent that somehow, on foot. How was I supposed to do that? Nothing could be worse than this.

I kept running. My mind was racing just as fast, doing everything I could all at the same time.

I pulled out the phone I took from Roland. A standard smartphone. I didn’t know the password to his phone, but I didn’t have to. I could still use it to make an emergency call.

I dialed 9-1-1.

It didn’t take long for the call to get through. “9-1-1, what is your emergency?”

“Agh!” I yelled as I ran.

The operator spoke softly, despite my panic. “Please calm yourself, and speak slowly. What is your emergency?”

I couldn’t get my words out. I was freaking out, and running faster than I ever had before. Running so intensely didn’t make for an easy conversation. But, it was either that, or take it slow and have Eduardo slip further away.

I made it to an intersection and turned left, and almost came into a collision with an incoming car. I jumped, letting the car pass under me. It honked, and I heard tires screech behind me as I kept on.

People were around, I knew that. There were some passersby, walking on the sidewalk. People in their own vehicles, waiting at the intersection. They saw me running faster than any normal human. They saw me vaulting over the car. For my part, I was outed. I was displaying my powers in public. At the very least, I had a mask on. But it only alleviated some of the vulnerability I was feeling. It took everything I had to push through it, and run.

I tried again, practically barking into the phone.

“East Stephenville the warehouse on Irving Street a lot of weapons someone has to go get them warehouse on Irving Street help!”

That was the opposite of calm and slow.

I didn’t wait to hear the operator’s response. I hung up, and threw the phone away. It slid across the street, falling into a storm drain nearby.

The next order of business was to locate Eduardo. The only idea I had of where to start was to go to where he was hiding. I knew the location, it was something we previously discussed.

A few blocks away from the warehouse. Five minutes by walking. By the time I was finished with my call, I was already there.

The parking lot of a church. There were some other vehicles here, too. A van, more than one motorcycle, but not Eduardo’s car. It wasn’t here. He wasn’t here.

My heart dropped.

Which way did he go? How far away was he? Who was the woman on the other end? Was that actually Benny? Was Benny with Eduardo?

So many questions, and I was running out of time.

Could I use the walkie-talkie again? Was it even turned on at their end? Maybe, but I could potentially provoke whoever had Eduardo hostage, and things could get even worse, even faster. I didn’t want to chance it.

For the moment, I put the walkie-talkie away.

The longer I was taking to find him, the more Eduardo was getting away. But I was hesitating, even though I knew that would waste even more time. I didn’t want to pick any random direction and blindly run off, inadvertently increasing the distance between me and Eduardo. It wouldn’t be wise, it wouldn’t be smart.

How can I find him? Use your brain Alexis, outside the box.

Right.

I couldn’t find him like this, not at street level. I needed a higher position, a higher point of view.

In East Stephenville, the buildings weren’t the skyscrapers that made up downtown, but they were tall, and I could get a better view from up there.

I looked back at the church. It was no cathedral, and the steeple that spiked up wasn’t any higher than the buildings that were around. No good.

I hurried, dipping into an alley between the church and another building. I stepped over a homeless man, sitting next to a dumpster, drinking a beer, undoubtedly watching as I found the fire escape, jumped to reach the lowest level, and rushed up the stairs. Don’t dwell on it.

When I got as high as the fire escape would let me, I had to jump again to reach the roof. I grabbed the edge, and pulled myself up, my arms aching.

I crossed the roof, perching on the other side, looking down at the street below. This was much better, I could see several streets down, a wider perspective. People walked about, cars cruising. Up here, I went unnoticed. I felt like an eagle, searching for prey.

Even as a kid, I was never really afraid of heights. To clarify, it was just that the idea of being afraid of heights had never occurred to me. Even then, being so close to the edge of a long fall should be cause for some caution, daredevil or not. But here? I didn’t feel much of anything in that regard. I wondered why. Adrenaline?

I tugged at the straps of the backpack that I just remembered I had on. That would explain some of the tenseness I was feeling. A literal weight on my shoulders. I wanted it off already.

Being here, crouched, it gave me an opportunity for a brief breather. My body was sore, a consequence of all the strenuous activity I wasn’t entirely used to. My throat was dry, almost scratchy. I licked my lips. The knot in my stomach was getting tighter, twisting to the point that I could throw up from the stress. The craving, the want for blood, was getting stronger. It was something of a catch-22. I had to rely on my above-average strength and speed, but the more I did, the more my craving grew.

But it was something I’d have to sacrifice, if I wanted to find them. If I wanted to save them.

For Maria, for Eduardo, and now for myself, I had to find that car, fast.

Something in the corner of my eye. I turned.

Tiny, far. Black, a gold stripe blazoned across the top of the body. Eduardo’s car?

Before I could get a better look at it, the distant shape had taken a right, going behind a building, and I lost sight of it. It was a hunch, but no other car around here matched that particular description, and I had to take a concrete action, soon.

It was a risk, but I took it.

I could catch up to the car if I ran, and I could cut the distance and time between us by half if I went across the rooftops. I tried to steel myself as quickly as possible. No time to be scared.

All I had to do was go.

I burst into a run as soon as I got up. The first step was to get to that street. The street that car just got on. I was sure that I could catch up, no car would ever dare drive in a way that would attract attention. Especially Eduardo, at the moment. He had to be inconspicuous.

It was sick, disgusting, that someone would force Eduardo to do this, but I could take advantage of that. Rather, it was because of that, that I had a chance.

A chance to save Maria.

The distance between buildings wasn’t that great. Comparatively speaking. I had never tried jumping far before, I’ve only tried going high instead of going long. But I was sure it was something I could handle.

I was sure of it.

My pace increased to a sprint, and my foot reached the edge of the rooftop. With a hard push, I was flying away from the building.

Not flying, exactly. What went up had to come down.

I was in the air long enough to want to scream, but I returned to solid footing soon enough. But my landing was hard, rough. I fell over, tumbling.

As I spun, I used my momentum to spring back up on my feet. I lost my bearings, and I had to reorient myself. I had landed farther than I had anticipated, in the middle of the roof of the next building over. My own strength kept throwing me for a loop. I had to keep that in mind.

But, it was definitely a step above tripping over fences.

Losing precious time, Alexis, I reminded myself. I brushed my shoulders, and pressed on.

My next attempt went a lot more smoothly. I didn’t use as much force in my legs this time, and I crossed the gap to the next building with no problem, landing properly and maintaining momentum. Running along rooftops like this, I felt like some kind of ninja. The fact that it had gotten darker since my wild chase added to that sense of immersion.

Wind was passing through my ears as I soared through the air, getting louder when my hood was flapping around. It did help in soothing my nerves, though. Also, the mask served to protect my face, letting a rush of air flow through my hair. It felt good, and if I wasn’t running to prevent my friend’s murder, it would’ve been relaxing.

Some buildings were taller than others, forcing me to draw more of my strength to reach that height, which led to a larger drop to get to the next building. Sweat was already sticking my hood to the back of my neck, and my mask was making my face feel stuffy and hot.

I should’ve brought some water.

By the time I got into a stride, I was standing over the street I needed to get to. Where I last saw what I thought was Eduardo’s car. My eyes darted around, searching everywhere. A corner grocery store, a liquor store, a couple walking, a blue truck, a manhole.

No no no no and no. Where is it?

There!

That was definitely it.

I saw the car, on the same street, but farther along. Eduardo was in there, and at least one unwanted passenger. I looked ahead, past some buildings, and saw a ramp that led to a highway. Were they headed there? If they got on that highway, it’d be impossible for me to catch up. I had to get to that car before then. But they were too far ahead, and even if I booked it as hard as my legs would allow, they’d get there before I could get to them.

I ran anyways.

As I went, I took out the walkie-talkie from my fanny pack. I leapt across the rooftops, parallel to the street below, homing in on the car. I was getting closer, catching up, but it wouldn’t be long before the car merged onto the highway, and everything would go to shit.

I yelled into the walkie-talkie.

“Eduardo! I can see you! Just hit the brakes, stop right where you are!”

Nothing. The car was going as fast as ever. My stomach sank, and it wasn’t from soaring through the air, atop rooftops. Did I have the wrong car?

No, it can’t be.

“Eddie!” I shrieked.

As if in response to me specifically, and not the walkie-talkie, the car halted, stopping in its tracks. Another car slammed into the rear, and they both skidded in different directions. As soon as it happened, both were no longer moving.

I wanted to punch a wall and shatter all of the bones in my hand. Couldn’t give a fuck if I didn’t heal from that. I didn’t intend for that to happen.

But, I had to put that in the back of my mind. There were other priorities at hand.

I moved to the edge of the building I was on, the alley waiting below. I dropped down onto the fire escape. The stairs rattled as I hurried.

I was back on the street in a flash. Cars and pedestrians had either slowed down or stopped entirely, looking at the scene of the accident I caused. I was hating myself more and more every second, seeing what happened, and while I added that as another priority to deal with, it would have to be at the bottom of the list, for now.

A larger crowd was starting to gather around the wrecked vehicles. I was going to try and push my way through, but that would only slow me down. I had no other choice, and the damage was already done, on that front.

I jumped over the crowd.

I heard cries of surprise when I touched down. Walking to the cars, I pretended they weren’t there.

Eduardo’s car was still, lifeless in the middle of the road. The back bumper took most of the impact, but the damage wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. There was a dent there, but nothing alarming. Was Eduardo okay? Were the people in the other car okay?

I approached the black car at brisk pace, but some reservation made my feet a little heavy. Once I got to that car, what would happen next?

Moving in, I swapped out the walkie-talkie for the knife. I had to be ready.

One of the back doors of the car swung open, and someone plopped out. A man. No one I knew.

He twitched. Still alive. That was a good sign.

The passenger door was the next door to open. The person who exited wasn’t as out of it as the first man.

A woman, this time. She was tugging at something, trying to take it out of the car with her. She managed to drag it out of the car before I got there, and I saw what it was.

Who it was.

“Eduardo,” I said, but I was sure no one heard that.

Eduardo collapsed onto the road, the woman putting a foot on his back. To make matters worse, she pointed a gun at him.

Like things weren’t already bad.

“You must be the thorn in my side,” the woman said, “I’m happy that I’ll be pulling you out soon.”

“Benny,” I said, assuming that was who she was. If it wasn’t her, then I was an idiot, trying to be dramatic with one-word statements.

The woman grinned. “Nice to meet you.”

It was Benny. The leader of El Carruaje. From what Eduardo had told me, I had made a mental image of what she might look like, and it was remarkably close to what I had in my head.

Latina, wearing a red blazer over a solid gold, form-fitting dress. Her eyes were sharp, like a hawk. Albeit a little younger than I had anticipated, but I was still pretty spot-on. She looked like someone that was used to having power, used to being at the top and controlling the movements of those below her. Had she not gotten rattled by a fender bender, her appearance alone would’ve been enough for me to not say another word.

“It’s over,” I said, loudly, “Look where you are right now. You’re surrounded. You’re pointing a gun at someone, in public. There’s nowhere to go, nowhere to hide. You’re done.”

The crowd that surrounded us began quickly dissipating, thinning out, at the mention of a gun. Others were shouting that fact into the air, to get those who weren’t as close to move out of the way. The noise of panic was getting louder.

“Does it look like I’m done?” Benny taunted, her gun still to Eduardo.

“Police will be here soon, they’re going to take you away. Please, drop the gun. We can do this without anybody getting hurt.”

“Who even are you? Who are you working for? Why? What’s with the mask?”

She’s engaging with me. Good. Let’s keep it that way.

“I’m nobody, just a blank face. No group ties. Why? It’s complicated, but I’m sick and tired of people getting hurt in this city. As for the mask? Well, I’m not as pretty as someone like you.”

She scowled. “I’m flattered.”

“You should be, you wouldn’t want what’s under this thing. Believe me.”

While speaking, I was inching myself closer to her and Eduardo, taking baby steps.

“Not another foot closer,” she suddenly ordered me.

I stopped.

“I see you. Trying to stall me? I can play that game, too. I have a lot more time than you think to shoot this boy, and getting his girl is simply a button away. You get any closer, both of them die.”

Sweat was rolling. Everywhere. She was five feet away, but it might as well have been a mile. How do I stop her?

Keep talking, then.

“When I said I was sick and tired of people getting hurt, I meant you, too. It doesn’t have to be like this, it shouldn’t. Back away, and drop the gun, please.”

With my arm moving excruciatingly slow, I showed her my knife, blade out.

“And I won’t have to use this.”

Benny jeered, “Are you fucking with me! How is that even a legitimate threat, you’re standing all the way over there!”

“If you haven’t figured out by now, I’m pretty fast. See? No car, no police help.”

“You cheated.”

“Fair,” I said, shrugging.

Eduardo stirred, beneath Benny’s foot, but he wasn’t getting up. Benny moved her arm, readjusted her aim to his head.

“I hate cheaters. They make me so sad.”

Was she talking to herself?

Benny continued, “You know what? I am done. And I will be taking all of you with me. Starting with this young man.”

I saw her finger move to the trigger.

“Benny, Benny!” I cut into her monologue. She looked back at me, her expression different.

I couldn’t make it out, exactly.

My mind was racing for any ideas, desperate for anything that could get us out of this in one piece. This was a standoff of the worst kind, and tensions were about to bubble up and explode. Sirens were sounding off in the background. They were getting closer. This was almost over.

My mouth was dry. There was one thing that might work. I had to improvise to get there.

Sacrifice myself.           

“You said you hate cheaters! I’m the biggest cheater there is! You don’t have to hurt them, but, you can, can…”

I was struggling to get my words out.

“Shoot me instead.”

She cocked her head to the side. “What?”

“Shoot me instead. Leave them alone.”

“How do you know I won’t just shoot you first, then kill him and his girl?”

“Then fine, you can do that. As long as you shoot me first, then we have a deal.”

“Sounds like a trap.”

“Not a trap,” I reassured her, “Like you said, I don’t have a legitimate threat against you, not with me standing here, with only a knife. And it wouldn’t be fair if I went unpunished. I was a part Eduardo’s scheme, I deserve a bullet.”

Benny eyed me, genuinely confused. “What are you?”

For once, I had no answer.

She didn’t say anything for a while, keeping me in her sight. With every passing second of that oppressive quiet, I thought I was getting closer to death from just standing there, waiting.

“Only because I want you to shut up,” Benny finally said, “You have your wish. I’ll kill you first.” She lifted her gun, moving it away from Eduardo.

Benny didn’t get to pull the trigger.

I rushed forward, faster than ever. So fast that it officially scared me. I crashed into her side, and she crumpled from the impact. Everything blurred for a second, I was almost blind, unable to register everything that was happening. I had tackled her, and we slid a foot before stopping. Only a weak whimpering to confirm that Benny was still alive.

I was laying on my side, fighting my own body to get up. It didn’t want to. I had sacrificed the last of my energy to stop Benny. I was spent, exhausted.

Dead tired.

But, staying down wasn’t an option. I had to try and try again, to stand.

It was a compromise, but I was able to get on all fours. It’d have to do.

I crawled over to Eduardo. No scratches, no injuries. But he wasn’t getting up.

My voice croaked. “Hey, hey,” I nudged his body, “Wake up, I got Benny, I got her.”

He shifted some. Not enough.

“We have to go, people are around. I’ll help you up, take you elsewhere. Sorry about the car.”

No real response from him. I sighed. I breathed in, with my nose.

I smelled it.

I looked down at my hands. I hadn’t noticed it before, everything was still slightly hazy. There was blood. And my knife blade was soaked in red.

When was this?

I wheeled around to Benny. She was bleeding, clutching her shoulder, her red blazer becoming a deeper crimson. My knife went into her? I didn’t remember, I couldn’t recall the sensation of pressing a blade into another person’s body.

“Freeze!”

I turned back around, not listening to the order. Several people in blue, surrounding us.

Police.

“Freeze! Hands behind your head! Now!”

It finally hit me, just how bad this was. There were still people around, not just bystanders, but police. People had phones, police officers had bodycams. I was surrounded, I was being filmed.

I was thirsty.

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