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 She massaged her neck, popping it as she flipped through channels on the outdated TV.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!”
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?”
“‘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.”
“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.
“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.”
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?
“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.”
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.”