020 – Broken Rules

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Brandon’s cousin and her friends relayed the plan to us, and it actually sounded like it would be a lot of fun. The place wasn’t that far, and it was another thing we could do. Sure, it took away from today feeling like a date with Brandon, but we agreed that we wouldn’t be long, and we’d have enough time after to go do something else. I had secured a second date with Brandon, anyways, so the low lights and scented candles could wait.

As for now, we were going to play paintball.

“Welcome,” an employee droned as we walked in. He was fumbling with a gun, setting it on a shelf above him. We had entered into the front lobby or ‘basecamp’ of Sheriff & Crook Paintball, a place that specialized in indoor paintball.

There were six of us. Me, Brandon, his cousin Jillian, and three others whose names I hadn’t gotten yet. Two other girls and a guy.

The establishment was located in a decent-sized warehouse, big enough to host at least two separate games at the same time, from what I heard from Brandon on the drive here. I heard about this place before, a lot of people I knew had been at least once, but I never had the opportunity to check it out myself. I had played paintball before, but that was a while back. Another reason why this ended up being worthwhile, I figured.

I was finally able to see what the big deal was about. I was glad, even if it meant having to be in another warehouse so soon.

I kept that to myself.

I followed the rest of the group to the front counter, which was also a display case featuring an assortment of different paint pellets and guns. The employee that ‘enthusiastically’ greeted us eventually met us there. His movements were slow.

“So, what’s up?” he asked. His brown hair was tied up in a bun, and the frame of his glasses were thick. He looked like he would be more interested in serving us coffee than a game of paintball.

“Here for a game,” Jillian said.

“Duh.”

She seemingly ignored that. “Is there any hyperball games going on right now?”

He pressed on a tablet by the register there, tapping on it a few times. “Um, yeah, both arenas have somethin’ going on right now. Give it maybe like nine minutes? That okay?”

“Perfect.” Jillian turned to the rest of us. “Does one game sound good?”

We nodded in assent.

“Then one game,” Jillian said to the employee. She turned back to Brandon. She nudged her head in the direction of the cash register.

“You were gonna have me pay?” Brandon questioned, puzzled.

“Mm-hmm,” she hummed.

“Was that why you came to the arcade? To swindle me?”

“I ain’t swindling you. You owe me from before.”

“From before what?”

Jillian made a smug expression. It wasn’t intended for me, but I felt offended by it.

“Do you want me to mention it now?”

Brandon made a perplexed look before he groaned, mildly annoyed. He stepped up to the register, wallet in hand.

“Thank you,” she said, in a sing-songy voice.

Something about her tone, it’s grating, I thought, And familiar. But, I didn’t want to think on it any more.

I also didn’t like whatever that interaction was about. But, I wasn’t close enough with Brandon to prod. Not yet, anyways.

“Thirty bucks for a game,” the employee said. He was a shining example of that famous Stephenville customer service. Or infamous, rather.

Without complaint, Brandon gave him a credit card.

“You guys all played before?” the employee asked. “You know the drill?”

We all nodded. I knew the drill enough, I figured.

“Need to rent equipment?”

Brandon nodded.

“Then that’ll be twenty bucks. Um, each.”

Brandon looked right at Jillian, eyes narrowed. “No way in hell am I paying that.”

Jillian laughed once. “I know, I know, we’ll cover ourselves there.”

We formed a small line, each ready to pay. I paid the appropriate amount, and looked over when he motioned to the armory side of the building, where we were free to pick whichever gun we wanted, all ready to go. He just had to unlock them from behind metal grates.

I wasn’t sure how I missed it. The lobby was pretty spacious, with tables and chairs set up by the windows on the farthest wall that you could look through and watch the other games. Doors were set up on either end of the room, leading into the different arenas. The armory was set up against the rightmost wall. Differents types of guns, different shapes and sizes. I didn’t know enough about the particulars to know what was what.

I stuck close to Brandon while we checked out the different guns. The others went elsewhere.

“Definitely didn’t expect this when I asked if you wanted to do something,” Brandon commented. It was like he was trying to apologize for something.

I reiterated what I had said before. “It’s cool. You didn’t know your cousin would show up out of nowhere, and I did randomly agree to come here. It’s not your fault.”

“Not my fault, but I still have to pay for it.” Brandon chuckled, which told me that he took the turn of events in stride.

“I’ve got you next time, then.”

“Cool.” He looked at a gun.

I wanted to pat myself on the back. A whole afternoon with Brandon, and things were going as smoothly as they ever could. I didn’t stumble or stammer over myself too much, and I managed to keep my cool, for the most part. Maybe there was a single, solitary benefit to being as busy as I was the past few weeks. My mind was taken off the stuff I would normally get hung up over, and now I could return to them refreshed, the worries I had not being as serious as before.

It was just the worries I did have now were deadly serious. Seriously.

“What gun you looking at?” he asked me. We started talking about something else.

I put a finger on my bottom lip, pondering over my different choices. I really didn’t know what the differences were between any of them, so I just went with what I liked, aesthetically.

Before I could go and declare my choice, I felt an elbow dig into my arm, and I was pushed to the side. I had to bring out my other hand and push against the metal grate in front of me to not get knocked over. It clanged.

“Oh, get that one Brandon! That one suits you!”

It was Jillian.

God fucking dammit, Jillian.

“Jill, watch where you’re going,” Brandon said, scolding her. “Alexis is right there.”

“Oh, didn’t see you there, sorry.”

I already fixed my stance, my hand off of the metal. I wore a smile.

“No big,” I said.

The fuck is wrong with you?

“But yeah,” Jillian continued, like I wasn’t there at all, “Let’s get going, our game is up. They’re pitting us up against another team that’s still sticking around.” She lifted up her gun, a green pistol with paint splatters on the handle. “See? Already have my gun. We’ll go get changed and we’ll see you in a bit.”

“Alright, just watch where you’re going.” Brandon said it again. I took that as him being on my side. Not that I needed it, but I appreciated the gesture.

I could’ve sworn I saw her roll her eyes. “Heard you the first time.” She left. Just like that. She joined her other friends and went through one of the doors leading into an arena.

Brandon shook his head, sighing. “Sorry about her,” he said. “She can get, well, you already saw it.”

I did see it. It was starting to come to me, but not completely. The way she talked, her tone. I’d heard it before, that was for sure.

“I won’t say anything, since she’s your family and all,” I said, “But you seem to already know what it is I would say.”

Brandon slightly grinned. “I’ll give you that. Yeah, we should actually get going.”

“Okay.”

We got the attention of another employee to help us get our weapon of choice. Brandon picked out a black gun, and I went for my original choice, a pink mechanical gun.

We went through the same door Jillian and her friends went through, leaving the lobby and entering the ‘arena.’ A much larger, expansive, but still enclosed space. It was what you’d expect a paintball field to look like.

Cover was few and far between, and only stood at about waist high. There were some bunkers, however, made of black-tubing. Meaning that, even if you were behind a wall, you still left too many openings that others could exploit. So constant moving was a necessity, creating a high-action, fast-paced energy and atmosphere. Situational awareness and speed was required. Which was exactly what I had. Meaning I knew I had to be careful.

We joined up with Jillian and her friends. They were all equipped with their gear, worn on top of their clothes. Except Jillian, who had put on a pair of paint-caked, heavy overalls before she could wear her gear. You weren’t allowed to play unless you were wearing the proper clothing, which begged a question I didn’t care to ask, mainly because I didn’t want to think about Jillian more than I needed to.

They all had their headgear on, which also protected the face, but I could still tell which one was Jillian. I didn’t like that I could.

One of her other friends, a girl, pointed to a heavy-duty box by the door we had come through. Brandon and I went to go get our own gear. I pieced together the most mismatched, off-color armor ever. My headwear was yellow, my vest blue, and my joint pads were a gross orange. I felt like an art supply shop threw up on me. But they were the only pieces in my size. Oh well.

At least Brandon looked much the same.

We rejoined the others.

“We look fucking awesome, I have to say,” the other boy said. “Like Power Rangers.”

“What Power Rangers team has two Black Rangers?” Jillian asked.

Everyone laughed.

I was lucky I had on my headgear, otherwise they’d see me crack a smile at that dumb joke.

Fuck you, Jillian.

A loud buzz sounded above, a signal that things were starting soon. With Jillian leading the way, we moved as a group, towards another group of six, standing in the middle of the field. From their build, I could guess that they were guys. College-aged, maybe. The headgear made it hard to tell.

“Hey!” one of them called out. He had the number ‘2’ spray painted across his vest. His squeaky voice was muffled by his headgear. “You the next batch of losers?” He pointed to me.

Why did he single me out? Cause I was shortest and probably least intimidating? What was I supposed to take from that?

“No, you are,” I said back, with little thought.

Wow.

There was no need to correct him, and now I felt stupid for doing so. I wasn’t good with jokes as Blank Face, so why did I keep trying?

Everyone snicked. The other team, even Brandon beside me.

“Nice going, Alexis, we sure got them,” he said.

I shrugged, rolling with it. “Anytime.”

The guy I started to refer to as ‘Number Two’ immediately stopped. “We’re doing elimination.” He pointed to his team, who were numbered one through six, spray painted across their vest. “Alright with you losers?”

“Yeah, yeah.” Jillian answered for us. “You’re not impressing anyone.” She waved them off, and that was enough for the opposite team to start huddling together.

Our team followed suit, picking a good place to start. I surveyed the field, thinking about how I should maneuver around.

If I wanted to, I could go in, and seriously do a number on those pricks. That way, we’d finish early, and Brandon and I could continue our actual date. Paintball was neat and all, but being around people like Jillian and Number Two was killing enough of my vibe to want to go and do anything else. Between the two of them, I felt like I was in the middle of an alley, between two large dumpsters, filled to the brim with rotting trash.

Okay, that was mostly due to my current feelings on Jillian spilling over to the other guy, but regardless…

If I wanted to, I could go in.

“So,” Brandon said, “I wanted to say. If you’re in a tight spot or something, just holler, and I’ll be there.”

I was still walking with Brandon. Checking around the the field, I had almost forgotten.

“How very macho of you, Brandon.”

“I try.” I could venture that he was joking, on some level, but he sounded pleased with himself. “Must be all this stuff I’m wearing. Makes me feel like I’m an action movie.”

“I’m wearing the same stuff too. That must make me twice as tough as you.”

“You think so?”

“I know so.”

“How very macho of you, Alexis,” Brandon said, spinning my earlier comment back at me.

“Ha ha, clever.”

I looked again. Everyone on our team went their own way. Brandon and I were the only ones who were still sticking together. Only now did the other team split up, moving into their own positions.

“Should we be talking strategy? How to take those guys out?” I asked.

Brandon adjusted his headgear. “We can if you want, but I don’t care if we win or lose this one. Jill might, but that’s because they’ll be staying here for a bit. We can go after a game.”

He is on my side. “Glad to know that we’re on the same wavelength, then,” I said, “I was thinking the same thing.”

“Cool,” he said. I had a feeling that was starting to become an inside joke. “I’ll make this quick, then.”

Me too, I thought.

We got into position as well, behind a small barrel. Another buzzing started over the speakers, a timer counting down. I heard the other team yell along. Perhaps an attempt at intimidation. I tightened my grip on my gun.

I breathed, focusing on finding a balance on getting this done fast, and not exposing myself to the world.

“Five, four, three, two, one!”

I jumped up, bursting past my cover, leaving Brandon well behind. I was the first to spring into action. The other team also went on the move, but I could track their movements easily. They were so sluggish. Like someone set a video in slow motion.

A guy was rushing from the corner of my vision. Like my team, he also had a number on his vest. Number Three. Shifting my weight, I dashed towards his direction.

Now, I was certain I wasn’t faster than a bullet, but I was at least faster than his finger.

I cleared the distance between us in only a few steps. My strategy was to just blitz my opponents, since I didn’t have much confidence in my aim. As long as I could close in fast enough, aiming didn’t have to be an issue.

After another step, I was within arms-length. I circled around him, so he wouldn’t see me as I rapidly came in. I readied my gun.

I took a shot at his back.

“Ah!” he cried out. He mumbled something else, which I couldn’t catch. Were we supposed to call out if we got hit? I should’ve asked. It had been some time since I played.

But I never played like this, before.

Someone new. Popped out of a bunker to my right. A number five. He was looking right me. I couldn’t just rush him anymore.

Instead, I ran towards nearby cover, then dove, to be safe.

I peeked out.

I saw him catch on, and hide back behind another piece of cover. He had to be crouching, behind one of the taller walls on the field, three feet high. I figured he’d wait until I came from either direction, and go from there. His tactic wasn’t hard to counter.

I ran towards the wall, and hopped.

I ended up overshooting it by a good foot, but for a moment, I was above him, and I saw him crouched by the wall, wary of his left and right. He was completely oblivious to my actual location.

With my gun out in front of me, I fired. He was out before I landed back down.

“Ay!” I heard a yell to my left.

Jillian. Brandon’s cousin. On her back, trying to get away from Number Two. He was walking slowly, but the shot was clearly his. Why wasn’t he firing?

I could’ve breathed out so hard my lips flapped together. People took themselves way too serious, sometimes.

Like you’re one to talk.

A third time, still a charm. I hurried towards my target, who was standing over Jillian, gun over her head. Gloating, probably. This should be good.

He never saw me coming. I only fired three successive shots, but my finger pulled the trigger four times.

He grunted, and fell down. I got him. I knew there were a few left, but I’d leave the rest to them. I more than played my part.

Standing over Jillian, I turned to her. I wished she wasn’t wearing her headgear, just to see her face.

“Here, I’ll help you up,” I stretched out a hand to her.

Nothing. She stayed down.

“You hurt?” I asked. “Need help?”

Something. She stayed down, but she mumbled.

“Come again?” I asked.

This time, she was audible.

“Thanks, shorty,” she said.

She threw her right arm out. She had her gun. One, two, three.

Three times, she pulled the trigger.

Three times, she shot me in the face.

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019 – Monachopsis

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Alcohol was an amazing thing. Courage distilled, a liquid capable of imbuing a certain power to whoever consumed it. Inhibitions cancelled, worries shrinking away, a tiny, insignificant dot, and you were free to enjoy yourself and worry not about the consequences.

I could go for some of that stuff, right now.

I stood before the lane. A foot forward, then another. My arm swung back, winding up. Another foot forward, and I brought my arm in front of me as well, releasing my grip. I tried not putting a lot of force into my throw.

I let go.

A gutter ball.

I clicked my tongue. I was never good at bowling.

Brandon laughed as I returned to where he was sitting. “Shouldn’t have used a sixteen-pound ball, then,” he said.

“Probably not,” I said, sounding a touch more disappointed than I expected to be. Still too scared of my own strength, I figured.

Lightwork. A big arcade at the Plaza. A sizable section of the space was an arcade, and Brandon had sent me a text yesterday, asking me out.

Naturally, I accepted.

But that was after spending the night before being wide awake, tossing and turning, fussing over every little detail, every reason to go or to decline. I’ve wanted to spend an afternoon alone with Brandon for a while now, but I didn’t want another incident, like the last time I saw him. Didn’t want to embarrass myself. But I didn’t want to be scared of myself, either. I had to learn how to live with this… condition, and I couldn’t live if I never tried.

Also, it was better late than never, since he was supposed to have texted me like over a week ago. This was way past overdue.

Also also, Katy had somehow managed to set this up from behind the scenes. If I declined Brandon, she would start casting some suspicion on me. I wouldn’t want her catching on. Her dad already got dangerously close.

Funny, that this was what kept me up at night, and after my first night as Blank Face, I slept like a rock.

But, in the end, I accepted.

I had to keep up appearances as a normal teenaged girl, after all.

When I did accept Brandon’s offer, I managed to change some of the details of his plan in my favor. He had to pick me up after lunch, and I had to be home before dinner. It would make refusing any potential offers for food a lot easier to do. And, despite how many times I’ve broken it, I did have a curfew in place. My mom knew I would be out with a friend, she just didn’t know who. She was too busy to ask, she had to get ready to go to the church for the barbeque.

Otherwise, Brandon’s plans stayed intact. And so far, things were going pretty well. No mention of The Bluemoon, or Blank Face, or anything. Just a nice, simple date. All I had to do was enjoy myself.

I was trying.

It was Brandon’s turn to go, so we switched places. I sat, while watching him make his choice at the machine that churned out bowling balls.

He had on a light pink shirt, and light denim jeans with several rips across the knees. His face was clean-cut, shaven, and his hair looked like it was recently trimmed, as well. He had put effort into this.

I had foreseen that. If I was going to go on this date with Brandon, I’d have to do it in style. I had on a beige long sleeves, with the front slightly tucked into my jeans, a loose pair with the cuffs rolled up until skin showed between them and my socks, my feet cozy in white slip-on sneakers. Subdued, yet fashionable. At least in my opinion.

Brandon picked up a ball, half the weight of the one I just used. “You want to learn how to bowl properly?” he asked. “Let a true pro show you how it’s done.”

“You’re a true pro?” I asked, eyebrow raised.

“Compared to you, I am,” Brandon said, sounding smug. “I know not to use a sixteen-pound ball.”

“Yeah, well…”

He assumed his position in front of the lane. I watched his back. He breathed, and stood still. The music overhead, sounds of balls hitting into pins, the people around us, they could’ve been a distraction, but they didn’t deter him. He looked particularly zen, at the moment. He breathed again, and I watched carefully as he went through the motions.

“It’s all-”

He stepped, then threw.

“-in the swing.’”

The ball slid down the lane, hitting a seven-ten split. The screen above me showed two silhouetted girls dancing, the numbers ‘seven’ and ‘ten’ spinning between them.

“I feel like there’s a lot more to it than that,” I said. I didn’t put it in my tone, but I was impressed.

Brandon went back to the machine, and tapped on the screen that was situated beside it. We had input our names on it earlier.

“Here, you try,” Brandon offered, taking a new ball from the machine, and meeting me where I sat.

“But’s still your turn.”

“You can take it. It’s the last round, and you’ve already lost.”

“Now you’re just teasing me. Salt in the wound.”

“Just take a shot,” Brandon said, smug. He gave me the ball using just one hand, placed in his palm. I grabbed it with two, and stepped up to the lane.

I saw why he was acting the way he was.

Small barriers had come up from the sides of the lane, raised as to prevent any balls from going in. He changed the setting on me.

I turned to Brandon, mouth agape. “Wow, you are such an asshole, Brandon.”

Brandon put on an exaggerated frown, like a kid who wasn’t sorry at all. “Watchu talking about?” He grabbed his soda that was by his feet, and took a sip, looking away.

“Hmph.” I faced back down the lane. I’ll show you, dick.

Internally, I sneered.

I positioned myself a few feet before the lane, feet together, holding the bowling in front of me, copying what Brandon was doing earlier. I wasn’t actually going to try and make this shot, but I wanted to get back at Brandon, in some way.

I brought my arm back, winding up. I stepped forward, swinging the ball in front of me.

Leisurely, the ball slid down the lane. It didn’t even roll, it just moved across the substance that made bowling lanes slick.

Eventually, it slowed to a stop, and the ball became stuck in the middle of the lane. It couldn’t fall into the sides, Brandon made sure of that.

“Aw, now that’s not fair.” Brandon laughed, “You spoilsport.”

“You asked for it,” I said. I made a face, trying to tease him back.

Brandon got back up from his seat, and came to me. “I’ll go set up the next game,” he said.

“Alright, I’m kinda thirsty, I’ll go get a drink?” I phrased it as a question for some reason. “You want anything?”

“I’m alright for now,” he said.

“I’ll be back in a bit, then.”

“Okie-doke,” Brandon said, picking up a ball, “Go ahead, take your time.”

I didn’t say any else, the agreement implied. I left the bowling lane and went to the other side. I didn’t go get a drink like I said, only standing around in the arcade. I looked at the different games that were available, the multitudes of people going around and playing, the loud music and bright lights crashing together. It was hard to focus. And I couldn’t relax, and allow myself to fully enjoy this date when there were other, heavier things that weighed on my mind. I thought I would be able to relax and enjoy myself, when Brandon sprung up the plans on me, but nope. Jittery, all around antsy, and too alert for my own good. I kept thinking about what Thomas had said to me, yesterday.

I kept thinking why he thought it was something I should be doing.

Why was it bothering me so much? I already turned him down, why wouldn’t my brain just let it go?

I lowered my head, and tapped my forehead with a finger, like my thoughts were tangible, and I could straighten them out with a physical interaction.

A hand on my shoulder. I immediately felt clammy. Exactly the kind of situation I wanted to avoid.

I turned around, hurried and flustered. “Brandon?”

There he was. I would’ve added ‘in all of his glory,’ but that would be too much.

“Hi,” Brandon said.

“I thought you were setting up the next game?” I asked. My words were slowed, paced, like a Neanderthal trying out the novel concept of ‘speech.’ He caught me while I was still deep in my thoughts, not that my thoughts were particularly deep, but I was startled out of my pondering.

Either he didn’t notice how I slurred that question, or he chose to ignore it. “Nah, we can do some other stuff,” he said. “Not going to get your drink?”

I shook my head. “No, and I was only kidding around, before. I’ll give you a proper game,” I said. “I promise I’ll beat you.”

He smiled. “That’s what I’m hoping for. Come on, let’s play a game, then.”

I gave him a smile of my own, though weaker than I wanted to show. Inside, my heart was bouncing off the walls.

I led the way, looking for a game we could play, and to take my mind off of the heavier stuff. That was why I agreed to come, anyways. The arcade was expansive enough that I had options. Fighting games, racing games, dancing games. No, the machines were too loud, too bright. Something else. I kept searching. There was a booth in the shape of a jeep, a shooting game, it looked like, based on the label on the side. Parasite Infestation, it was called. Isolated enough, and aiming a gun and pressing down a trigger wasn’t too hard. I slipped inside, and Brandon followed.

“Dark,” Brandon commented, the curtain falling in place beside him, the glow of the monitor illuminating his face.

“Did you want…” I started to say, soon realizing how poor a choice this game was. The space was too confined, and we were too packed together, my shoulder pressed against his bicep, and my butt slipped off the seat a little. Brandon was a few inches too tall for the booth, forced to lower his head, and slouch over. He tried to hide his discomfort, but I could sense it.

Brandon must have not heard me, since he picked up the plastic guns, attached to the console in front of us. “I got quarters,” he said.

I was briefly confused before remembering that the games here were fed quarters. This was an older establishment. “Go ahead, I’ll pay for the next game,” I said.

The quarters slid into the slot beside the console, clinging against the metal from the mechanism within. Brandon handed me a gun as the game started up. A dirt road opened up. Rain. Zombies appeared on the path, running, sprinting. Our goal was to shoot at them while making a getaway.

Between the two of us, one wasn’t a better shot than the other. We could fire as fast as our finger allowed, and there was little consequence to missing shots, since reloading was as easy as firing off-screen. The first level went by with no problem.

A cutscene started playing soon after, setting the scene of a chemical plant. The zombies this time around were glowing, and would blow up when shot at, meaning that they couldn’t get close, or we’d sustain continuous damage.

The challenge proved to be too difficult. We didn’t last very long. The difficulty spike was legitimately mean-spirited.

“You know what? I don’t mind trying out another game,” Brandon said.

“Agreed.”

We got out of the tiny vehicle, and I rubbed my eyes as light flooded back into my vision. Brandon walked around the booth, joining up with me.

“I’ll concede the next game to you,” I told him.

“Cool, cool. Wanna check out that one?” He pointed to a tower in a corner of the arcade. A strength tester. Slam a mallet down onto the button, and try to ring the bell at the top of the tower.

I immediately defaulted to avoiding it. “That one? Not fair. You’ll beat me too easily.”

“You don’t know,” Brandon said, behind a smug expression. “You might be stronger than me, after all.”

I absolutely am, by a mile. But once again, no point in saying that out loud. I kept mum.

This time, I followed him as we checked out the game. It reached the ceiling, the bell an inch away from touching the top.

Brandon read from the sign beside the tower. “Free to play, and you can get tickets based on how close you are to hitting the bell.”

“We should try to hit the bell, then.”

“Sounds easy enough,” he said, sounding confident.

“I saw prizes at the counter by the front. Let’s try to get something cool,” I suggested.

“Hell yeah.”

Brandon reached for the mallet first, which rested beside the small platform with the button on top, attached together by a cord. He stepped into a good position, and lifted the mallet above his head. His muscles tensed.

They were good muscles.

He slammed it down as hard as he could. A puck jumped up from the base of the tower. But, it only went a quarter of the way. As a reward for his effort, only five tickets were fed out of the side of the platform.

“Man, that sucks,” Brandon said, breathing heavy. “I can bench press about three hundred, and I can’t hit that thing?”

“That’s the catch,” I explained. “Can’t make it too easy.”

“Damn, thought I could impress you. Here, your turn.” He passed me the mallet.

“Uh.” I took it with both hands, and held it away from me like it smelled funny. “I think I’ll pass.”

“Aw, come on, give it a try.”

“Seriously, no.”

“Just hit it once. Once!”

I was put on the spot. My mind coming up with anything to get myself out of it. Anything. I mumbled, incoherent, looking back and forth between Brandon and the tower. Gripping the handle of the mallet until it hurt, I spoke without looking at him.

“If I beat you, you have to take me on another date. Payback for not texting me when you said you would.”

Terrible choice, brain.

I couldn’t bring myself to meet Brandon’s eyes, so I couldn’t see his reaction. Although, I did hear it.

“You’re mad about that.”

“Didn’t say that.” I looked at him.

Brandon scratched his elbow, far longer than necessary for any itch. “I’m really sorry about that, I got really busy, recently, and-“

“Hey, it’s alright, I get it.”

“I didn’t mean it like that, I-”

“I’m not mad, really. I’ve been busy, too. I don’t even know why I worded it like that. I just wanted to secure a second date out of you.”

Brandon frowned. “Is it wrong to say that you do look mad?”

I made a face, but I wasn’t teasing. “Kind of? But, no, I’m more happy that you randomly texted me out of the blue. Honestly.”

“I sense sarcasm.”

I wanted to curse, but that’d do me no good. My words weren’t getting through to him. I really wasn’t mad. Really.

“I’m not being sarcastic,” I said.

Brandon tried to keep going, “If you-”

“Can we drop it, please? It’s not a big deal.”

He nodded, slowly taking it in. “Sure.”

The thing was, I really wasn’t mad. There had been too much that happened since the last time I saw him that I barely gave him a second thought.

Not mad. If anything, I was a little let down..

“Scratch everything that just happened,” I said, shaking the mallet once. “That’s irrelevant, now. I hit that bell, I get that second date. Capiche?”

Brandon crossed his arms, and he grinned, a mischievous glint in his eye. “Then you’re on. But your chances were looking pretty good, regardless.”

I smirked. Things were moving back on track. I went to the button. I adjusted my hold on the mallet, getting ready to strike. I lifted it above my head.

This is gonna be-

“My gosh, Brandon!”

I turned my head, keeping my pose. A girl was running up to Brandon. She practically jumped at him, hugging him around the neck. If he wasn’t a football player, he’d be on the ground by now.

“Hey,” Brandon said, completely off guard, “What are you doing here?”

I’m thinking the same thing.

She was somewhere between me and Brandon in terms of height, though nowhere near as tall as Brandon. Her skin was dark, but lighter than Brandon’s. She had on a gray sweater, large enough to drape over what I assumed – hoped – would be shorts, and the hole for her head was wide so that it hung over one shoulder. And to tie it all together, her hair was up in a tight ponytail, bobbing back and forth as she backed away from Brandon, but still staying close.

Annoying.

She did, however, have a nose that resembled a pig…

Or was I trying to find something to poke at?

Actually, something about her seemed familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it.

“I’m with the squad,” the mystery girl said, “They asked me to come along. Small world.”

“I suppose so,” Brandon replied.

“Whatcha doing here? Just hanging around?”

“With a friend…”

Friend.

Brandon was still talking, “… Gonna go around the arcade some and-”

“Oh, cool! Let me join you!”

“You can’t just barge into other people’s plans. Besides-“

She cut him off, “Oh, you know what, I have a better idea! You should come with us and we’ll all-”

She squeaked, and jumped back, nearly out of her skin. Brandon was equally shocked.

The bell had rang, loud. Tickets were pouring out of the machine. I set the mallet down and made myself present among the other two.

“Hey Brandon, those tickets buy me that second date,” I said. I glanced at the girl. “Hi.”

It was like Brandon didn’t recognize me. “How… did you…” He shook his head, and pointed to the girl. “Sorry, this is-”

“Jillian, nice to meet you,” she extended out a hand for me to shake. The thought did come to me, to ignore her, but I tossed it aside, taking her hand. Wouldn’t do to make this any more of a problem.

“Alexis,” I said while we shook hands. My neck cracked when I lifted my head up to see her more clearly.

Standing here, my hand in hers. Again, that feeling. Have I seen her before?

She offered a brief smile before going back to Brandon, like she immediately forgot I was right there. “Anyways, like I said, we’re about to go do something else, oh, you two should totally come!”

She seemed really excited, for some reason.

“Sorry, Jill,” Brandon said, “This is kinda supposed to be a one-v-one situation.”

“Actually,” I said, putting myself more into the conversation. “Why don’t we join you?”

It was random, sudden, but I said it.

“Really?” Brandon asked, glancing my way. “You sure?”

“Sure,” I said, “I was ready to ditch this place, anyways. We can join Jillian for a bit and then we’ll go back to doing our own thing. Cool?” I looked to Brandon for his take on my suggestion.

He shrugged. “Cool.”

Jillian gave us a thumbs up. “Cool! I’ll go let ‘em know. Meet you outside!” She chirped the words, and ran down the arcade, towards a group of others I hadn’t noticed before. She chatted with them briefly before waving to us, and leaving the arcade. Two of them gave us a quick scan before they left.

If I was being conceited, I’d assume they were eyeing me, and me only.

My fingers tapped against my palms. Good thing I didn’t have the mallet anymore.

“Brandon, who was that?” I asked. I really wasn’t mad before, but I was about to be.

He answered. “Don’t worry. She’s my cousin. Man, she shoulda brought that up.”

I felt instant relief. His tone, his inflection, he didn’t sound like he was hiding anything. I believed him.

“Oh, cool,” I said.

“Why’d you want to join them?” Brandon asked a question of his own. “That came outta nowhere.”

I didn’t have a real explanation for him. It felt like something I would have done, before all of this. Before the powers, before the thirst. How did Katy put it?

‘The Lexi I know would have jumped at the chance to go anywhere, do anything.’

Something like that. I wanted to get some of my normal life back, and that was the closest thing to normal I’ve been in a very long time. In turning down Thomas, I made a choice, and I was going to stick with it. My priority was getting my own life in order, regain some lost normalcy, and this was another step to that goal. Others would have to wait.

I went ahead of Brandon, and called for him. “Ready to go?”

Previous                                                                                               Next

018 – Opening Statement

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This is what I get for trying to help.

There was a lesson here that I really should have learned by now.

Stupid, stupid Alexis.

Thomas was standing before me, hands in his pockets. He wore a crisp designer suit, light grey, dark blue tie. Typical of a lawyer of his caliber. His dark hair was clean cut, slicked back. He looked good.

But you shouldn’t be here.

I stood, unprepared to be standing in front of a family friend. I still held the pipe, the steel bent at my own power.

How much did he see?

He wasn’t moving, not reacting in any way. He simply looked.

Did he already have me figured out? Shit.

I was completely and totally screwed.

Thomas opened his mouth, slow, like he was thinking about what he was about to say.

“I see… so you’re…”

My fingers tightened around the pipe, the steel squishing slightly.

“A girl.”

That’s enough. I’m out of here.

I was fast. He’d never see me leaving. Never mind the bottles, I’d have to leave them.

I backed up, twisting around to-

“No!”

It wasn’t a yell, but a loud, yet even tone. Like I was being berated for doing something wrong.

The word, and who it came from, got the better of me, and I went still.

I repeated the word in a form of a question. “No?”

“I don’t have many acquaintances left in the SPD, but the ones I do have are on speed dial, and even without that, the entire department cannot wait to get their hands on you. I can have this whole block locked down before you can get off this street.”

I cursed under my breath. Shit. There was no way he was serious.

Thomas continued. “Or, you could come with me, and we can have a chat.”

“A, a chat?”

“Yes, I wasn’t anticipating to have you in front of me so soon. Perhaps I should consider myself lucky.”

And I definitely consider myself not.

“So, you can make this easy on yourself,” Thomas said. He eyes went down, to what was in my hands. “Drop that, if you could be so kind.”

He must have seen me bend the pipe with my own two hands, yet he was talking to me like I was any normal person. He really thought he had me.

Hell, he probably did.

Fuck this.

I dropped the pipe, the metal clattering on cement. The corners of Thomas’s lips curled upward. He took his hand out of his pockets, and fixed his cuffs.

“Thank you. Now, I believe proper introductions are in order. I’m Thomas Thompson. And you must be The Bluemoon.”

The interior was dark. Thomas’s leg bumped into a pile of bricks that I managed to avoid. The bricks knocking onto the floor sounded throughout the empty space.

Thomas didn’t say anything or complain about it, but I had a feeling he wanted to. He was one to care about his appearances, keeping things tidy, and getting dirt on his expensive dress pants was one way to seriously soil his day. I remembered a time when I was younger, I had drawn in crayon on the walls of Katy’s room. He forced me to clean it off. My mom had approved of the punishment.

Today was an exception, apparently, so he said nothing.

We were on the top floor of the building Thomas’s car was parked in front of. The entire building was devoid of life, trash bags piled in corners of rooms and under stairs, graffiti and deep scratches marked the walls. Whatever this place used to be, it had been a long time since it served that purpose.

Thomas led the way into what looked to be the remnants of an office space. A filing cabinet was on its side, drawers open, contents spilled. Some light had creeped into the room through an open window and cracks in the wall, allowing Thomas to move around more confidently. The only other thing in this space was a round, wooden table, no chairs. He walked to the window, looking out.

“Feel free to sit wherever you can,” he invited, still admiring the view.

I could’ve rested on the table, but the surface was too dusty, and black splotches of something deterred me from even wanting to stand next to it.

“I’m good,” I said. I had to place the bottles by my feet. I’d feel less at ease, otherwise, holding them while we had this conversation.

Thomas turned to face me, his back to the window. A thin light outlined the upper half of his body.

“Then I’ll get started,” Thomas said. “There’s quite a lot that needs to be said.”

“Hold on, hold on, I want to stop you real fast,” I said, interrupting. I purposefully lowered the pitch of my voice, with the purpose of disguising myself further. “How can you even be sure I am who you think I am? I could just be a normal person with an abnormal grip strength. I could’ve been another car thief.”

Thomas lifted a finger, pointing. “First of all, no, a girl of your stature shouldn’t be able to do that. But more importantly, I called you by a specific moniker, and you responded in a manner that suggested you knew who that moniker would refer to. You moved without protest or confusion. Also, your height matches with what I saw on the news broadcast.”

He breathed in, before concluding with, “I could go on, but I do have other appointments, and I didn’t exactly have this in my itinerary. From what I can see, it’s much the same for you, too, so I’ll have to try to make this quick.”

I shifted my weight a slight fraction. I relented somewhat. “The least you could do is call me ‘Blank Face.’”

“Blank Face? Is that your official name?”

“It’s the one thing I got to choose for myself, from all of this.”

“No objections there. Blank Face it is,” Thomas said, seriously.

Seriously, fuck.

It was almost comedic, this current situation. I was in a rundown building with my best friend’s father, wearing a paper bag over my head. On the surface, it was kind of funny, but the reality of this was much more sobering. This could be the end of everything, before I had a chance to start.

I didn’t show it, but it took everything I had to not lose my cool. Was Thomas about to confront me about being Blank Face, The Bluemoon, the world’s first public superhuman?

What did he have to say?

“I said I wanted to have a chat,” Thomas started, “But really, I just wanted to give you a suggestion.”

I folded my arms. “A suggestion?”

Thomas nodded. “Whatever it is that you were doing, that day,” he said, “Keep doing it.”

That was awfully vague, I thought. What was he getting at?

“Keep doing what, exactly?”

“To put it in an idealistic way, keep being a hero.”

I had no reaction or gesture. I just waited for him to say more.

“I was in my office. My secretary had to drag me out to see it. It was like time had stopped. Everyone was glued to some screen, watching you.”

He pointed at me, but it felt like a punch to the gut.

“I, like everyone else, was amazed at what I saw. The kind of thing you only saw in movies, except in our own backyard.”

And it’d be a terrible flick, to boot.

“But, for the next few days, it was clear that I had seen something different. People were protesting, angry, at another’s existence. I was puzzled.”

He had to have a point, somewhere. Get to it, please.

Thomas asked, “You were trying to take on the gangs, too, weren’t you?”

I stared at him. “In that one, specific instance, you could say I was.”

“That’s promising,” Thomas said, “That says something about you, that others seem to be glossing over.”

I would’ve went to cross my arms, but I was still doing that. “And that is?”

“That you have these… capabilities, and you chose to do good with them.”

I put a hand up to stop him. “Whoa, whoa. And you seem to be placing a lot of confidence in someone you don’t know. I had a reason for doing what I did back then, and now I have seven billion reasons for never doing it again. I’m not a full-time hero.”

Thomas brought a hand to his chin, thinking. “Then I’m confused. Is stopping car thieves just a hobby of yours?”

I tried to defend myself, to argue. “Th-that was an exception. I just happened to be…” I trailed off.

“To be?” Thomas asked.

I murmured, “Swinging by.”

“What an interesting observation,” Thomas said, like he was lightly mocking me.

I had to clear my throat. “Whatever hopes you have pinned on me, whatever you think I am, don’t bother. I’m not so altruistic.”

Thomas frowned a little. “I didn’t mean to suggest that you go on a one-man crusade against the Cobras or the Crips, but rather, lend a helping hand to the little guy. Like me.”

“I am not you,” I said, meaning it both literally and figuratively.

Thomas lowered his chin, and a long exhale was drawn out of him. “I will say, I’m not terribly shocked, but it’s still sad to hear.”

Sad to hear. Why was he so interested in me? What was his stake in this?

I wanted get out of this situation, but I now had questions of my own. “Why do you care, anyways? Why have this ‘chat’ with me?”

Thomas didn’t take the time to formulate an answer, instead going right into it. “I’m a corporate lawyer, I deal with big businesses, but I like to keep an eye on the little guy, from time to time. I consult on criminal cases that pique my interest. Not as an official attorney on the case, but as a favor. A helping hand, if you will, holding a blade to stick into the belly of the city’s underground.”

“Okay,” I said, a little lost at the sudden change of topic. I was already aware of his reputation as a consulting attorney, garnering attention for being a Good Samaritan. Naturally, he should have attracted enemies, but, as far as I knew, that wasn’t the case.

Or maybe I was just ignorant on that front.

Before I could dwell on that any further, Thomas’s speech was a higher priority. I kept listening.

“After I watched you, how do I put it, take out Benny, I immediately called James Gomez, the police chief and an old buddy of mine, to see if they had anything on you. There was nothing, of course, but he did tell me about a certain report.”

I scrunched my face, my tongue pinched between my teeth, but the expression would be lost on Thomas.

“A warehouse of Irving Street. A stockpile of weapons that had the potential to seriously light the fuse that ran under the feet of all the gangs in the city. Pistols, semi-automatics, bombs. And plenty of them.”

The word ‘bomb’ stood out to me. I never got to look inside those crates, myself. It was that bad, according to Thomas, and I stepped right into the middle of it, without knowing the full consequences.

All the more reason to never do that again.

Thomas continued, “And you prevented The Chariot from doing anything with them. Good job.”

“Didn’t feel like a good job,” I said, truthfully. “That was messy, if anything.”

“If anything,” Thomas said back, “You brought a gang to its knees. Crippled it. That’s something I’ve wanted to accomplish for a long, long time. And, you prevented a gang war from breaking out. That is commendable work, as messy as you claim it was.”

“I’m not claiming anything! The entire world wants my head, the gangs, the police, they’re all after me. Tell me that isn’t a mess.”

Thomas answered me, calm, like my paranoia was completely unwarranted.

“They’re after an image of you. A false image. If they want you so bad, you should show them something good. That’s what I’m asking of you.”

My eyes met the floor, my arms went to my sides. “I can’t.”

You don’t understand.

I then sighed. There was more I wanted to say, but the words weren’t going to come. What he had asked of me, I didn’t want to do. Simple as that. I declined. I could go, now.

My phone vibrated, a reminder of the outside world. I got a text.

Thomas started up again before I could do anything, taking advantage of the silence in our conversation. Dang.

“The reason why I wanted to meet with you, and say my piece, was because of what I saw that day, and what was confirmed to me, right outside. You may deny it, but you want to help, you want to do good.”

“How can you be so sure?” I asked, dreading what the answer might be – because he already knew Blank Face’s true identity – but I didn’t like how he was speaking to me, with so much confidence and certainty. I wanted to stop him from having that impression of me, even at the cost of my own self-image.

Thomas’s reaction wasn’t subtle. He lifted his chin slightly, and loosened his shoulders. He grinned, and it was the unique kind of grin that I had seen before. I could see where she got it from.

“Just a feeling.”

He loosened his tie. There was no air conditioning in here, so it was humid, stuffy.

And, on the drop of a hat, Thomas switched his demeanor to something more impersonal. He walked away from the window, and towards me.

I stood my ground, ready for anything.

He approached me, and fished out a small slip of paper out of his pocket. He handed it to me.

I took it.

“Looks like I’m not going to win you over,” Thomas said. “I hope I do, one day. And if that day comes, that’s my card. You wouldn’t be doing this alone, you know. I have resources I can offer. I can help you, as much as you’d be helping this city.”

I put it in my back pocket, looking back at him, saying nothing. Thomas kept on speaking.

“The whole world is watching you, Blank Face, and first impressions matter. I’m not asking you to be anything super, I’m just asking you to try doing something decent. Think about it.”

I took a step away from him. “Does this mean I can go?”

Thomas puffed out a breath, but he didn’t sound exhausted or frustrated. “You’re not old enough to vote, I’m guessing, so there’s no need to give you that spiel. You’re free to go, thank you for your time.” Thomas turned around, facing a corner of the poorly lit room we were in.

“I’ll stay up here for ten minutes,” he said, his back to me. “You can go, take off that silly bag, and go about the rest of your day. You can trust that I won’t intrude upon your privacy.”

I took him at his word, picking back up my bottles, and turning to leave, but I had to check back to see if he was still facing the other way. He was.

“Go,” he reassured me, still looking away. “Notice that I never asked about your origin, or how you came to be, if you’re the only one or the first of many, because frankly, it matters not to me. It could be anyone under that mask, but my words would be the same.”

I had enough trust in him to know that he was telling the truth, and I had some relief to know that he didn’t care to know who I was. I left, getting out of the building. When I got back on the sidewalk, the wind blew my bangs away from my face, the bottles were back in the paper bag.

Was that a close call?

I couldn’t say for sure.

I certainly didn’t see it going down the way it did, though.

I barely did anything besides stand around and talk, but my chest was pounding like I had been traversing rooftops. Thomas was a good guy, cool too, in a ‘dorky dad’ kind of way, as evidenced by many of Katy’s birthday parties, and from general interaction over the years, but today was a first. That was probably the most I’d ever spoken to Thomas, one on one, in my entire life. He showed me a different side of him. Fighting the gangs, encouraging me to be a hero, he was serious in all of that. To join him in his ‘noble cause,’ I supposed.

It was a lot to take in, bewildering.

A part of me was also mad at him. At the bare minimum, he had to have gathered that I was just a teenager. Why would he have asked me to purposely risk my life on a regular basis? I already managed to do enough of that on my own, lately, but that was another issue, entirely.

He read me wrong, off the mark ever so slightly. I had my reasons for doing what I did, they weren’t entirely selfless. I’d save a friend, over the faceless masses. And I was fine with that, but sticking my neck out again like that would be suicide. No thank you.

Sorry to have disappointed you, Thomas.

I walked, returning to the shopping center. The woman and her dog were long gone.

I remembered that my phone had vibrated. I reached for it to check up on any updates.

A text. I read it.

That was what Katy was talking about, a few days ago. ‘Your welcome,’ my ass.

With this, my lazy weekend was out the window, leaving me with mixed feelings. Earlier this month, I would have been excited, ecstatic. Now, anxiety gripped me in its talons, ready to swallow me whole.

Previous                                                                                               Next

017 – Rookie

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Nevertheless, this was no dream, and what was happening was reality.

It wouldn’t be very smart of me to deny that fact.

None of my problems would be solved if I stayed holed up in my room, never stepping out to see the light of day. None of them would disappear on their own. Though, it would be nice if they did.

I had to drink blood. Human blood. It was a necessity. The sooner I could accept that, as ghoulish as it was, the sooner I could do something about it.

What that ‘something’ was, I struggled to figure out.

How was I supposed to get blood? Going after people… had to be the last of last resorts. What about criminals? Gang leaders? The idea did come to me. Maybe I should spend my nights running around, giving bad guys bloody noses with one hand while holding a towel in the other. Could I just do that? Maybe being a superhero was for me, after all.

Maybe a better word was vigilante.

Bad guys, bad people do exist. Would anyone really care if someone gave them their just desserts? Briefly, I remembered Eduardo. He was a gang member, but he wasn’t a bad guy. He did rub me the wrong way at times, and I would admit for my part, it was undeserved, but he wasn’t evil, or malicious in any way. He had his circumstances for joining a gang. Which meant that others did, too.

Was my judgement of character good enough to decide who was worthy of a good punch in the nose? Maybe. Probably not.

I’d be better off volunteering at a blood bank.

As I debated with myself, going over everything in my head, I jogged.

It was the weekend, and I was free. Like, free. No parties, no big projects to worry about, nothing. It was still up in the air whether my mom and I would go to the church or not, but other than that, I had a significant block of time in which I could focus on myself. A free weekend. Liberating, really.

I got on another block, and continued, paying attention to every strain of my muscles, the rhythm of my breathing, the speed I ran.

Doing physical activities would seem counter-intuitive, since I’d become thirsty sooner, but I needed some actual practice with my super-enhanced body. I needed finer control, so I wouldn’t go around carelessly breaking things that I wasn’t physically supposed to break, or flying through volleyball nets. I had to keep things on the down-low, and knowing exactly how my body works was a step in the right direction.

A precaution, was what it was.

I ran down another block. I saw a telephone pole that was covered in sheets of paper. Multi-colored flyers of low-resolution images of me as Blank Face. ‘Wanted,’ they said. Not actual wanted posters, just printed papers from angry citizens.

I started slowing down.

God damn, it’s only the middle of October.

Everything, and I meant everything, happened so fast. It was almost inconceivable that it all took place within such a short time frame. It felt like seventeen weeks’ worth of events, really. I was astonished that I managed to keep it together to get this far. If you could call this keeping it together.

The wind brushed against my face. Chilly. I made a good call in putting on a sweater today.

I slowed to a stop once I started realizing the buildings around me were getting taller. Without being conscious of it, I ended up in the heart of downtown. From my place, where downtown began was ten miles, give or take. How long was I running again? I checked my watch. Noon. I started about forty minutes ago.

I really need to learn how to dial it down.

Since I was in the area, walking around wouldn’t be such a bad idea. I could take a break, regain my energy. As for getting home, I could take a bus if I really had to, but it’d be easier on my mom’s wallet if I could avoid that.

Or would Katy like to pick me up? Nah.

Not surprisingly, that run made me thirsty. Not for that, not yet, but for water. There should be water at a corner store, somewhere.

I checked around to see what I could find.

After going farther along, I found my way into a small shopping center, in the shadow of an office building. There were few people out and about in the area, making things easier on me. I didn’t find a corner store, but there was an Asian goods store. Good enough.

Metal clanged on glass as I pulled the door open. Door chimes.

I entered, and immediately the smell violated my nose. A pungent, putrescent stench. Bags on bags of rice, stacked neatly right by the entrance. I almost considered turning back around and going elsewhere, but this was another thing I needed to get used to. ‘Regular people’ food no longer had an appetizing aroma, and it was a requirement that I could stomach certain smells and odors, or risk being outed.

I’d also have to learn how to eat in front of people, too. Fake it enough to be convincing. ‘Dieting’ wouldn’t be an acceptable excuse forever.

Red and gold colored the interior of the store, various oriental snacks and knick-knacks were neatly displayed in aisles. It wasn’t just a store, I learned, there were a few tables at the other end of the space, and a menu above the counter. It was a restaurant, too.

It was my first time in here, but there was a certain familiarity about this place. Even the smell, while warped and distorted, brought me back to a younger time, a tinier me.

Already, I wanted to go back to a time like that.

The place was small, so finding the drinks wasn’t difficult. In refrigerators located at the back of the store, there were plastic bottles of green tea and water. I took a bottle of each. My mom might like the tea. There was nothing else I needed, so I went straight to the counter.

No one here. Now that I thought about it, no one greeted me when I came in. Was this place even open?

“Um, hello?” I called out to no one. “Got water, money too, if you like that.”

There was a clock by the register. A cat with a fat belly, the clock itself serving as the creature’s midriff. The second hand made three rotations before anyone came out to take care of me.

A skinny Asian kid in a white shirt passed through a curtain from behind the counter and met me at the register. Skinny, and I could’ve said mal-nourished if I wanted to be rude. His shirt looked like it was hanging off him rather than being worn. He had a deadpan expression as he tapped on the buttons.

“Hi,” he said, lifelessly.

If I’m a vampire, then you’re a zombie, dude.

I bobbed my head once, and gave him the bottles. He scanned them. He lifted his head.

Either he looked at me, or he gave me a look. I couldn’t tell from his sunken, reddened eyes. I straightened my back.

“You, Alexis?”

I gave him a look of my own. “Do you know me?” I asked, while simultaneously confirming my identity.

“I seen you around. At school.” He pressed another button. “Harrian.”

Harrian Wong. The kid Eric and Evan liked to tease. If using the word ‘tease’ put it lightly or harshly, I didn’t know the particulars to say for sure.

This was him.

“Oh, hey then. I didn’t know you worked here,” I said.

“My Aunt own the place. I help on weekends.” His accent was thick, but it was still easy for me to understand.

“That’s neat.”

His operating of the cash register was painfully slow, like this was the first time he was doing this. That might actually be the case.

“How did you find here?” he asked, looking over the buttons.

“I was in the area. Running.”

He tapped another button. “Do you like running?”

“I don’t hate it, but it’s something I have to do.”

“Oh.”

Harrian’s hand hovered over the machine, deciding what button he should be pressing.

Without being aware of it, he was pressing all of mine. He was so slow.

My mind went to where my wallet was. In the pocket of my shorts. I was willing to pay more for this to end already.

“Are you going to the church tomorrow?” he asked as he made his choice.

“Church?” I said, breathing out the word. He didn’t pick up the hint, my tone.

“The barbeque.”

“Oh, my mom and I haven’t decided yet. It’d be the first time we went in at least five years.”

“That long?” His eyes went to me, and back to the register, again. “Sorry.”

“For what?”

“I only ask because you, you’re Asian, I just assume you go to the church, too.”

“No biggie, people have asked me that before.”

Another button pressed.

Mine, and the register’s.

“What are you?” Harrian asked, like it was on purpose, what he was doing.

The question made me stiffen up. “In what way are you asking that question?” I asked back, cautious.

“Vietnamese? Chinese? Taiwanese?”

A deep breath, calming me. “Right. I’m Japanese, actually. If you want to be specific, I’m half.”

“Half?”

“White.”

“Ah. Were you born in Japan?”

“No, I was born and raised here. My mom moved from Japan a while back.”

“What about your da-”

I firmly set my hand down on the counter, rattling spare change and other loose items on the surface. Harrian jumped.

“You’re very curious about me,” I said, my voice hard. “Am I allowed to ask why?”

Harrian’s face changed to something readable for the first time since this exchange. Sheepish.

Harrian had nothing to say.

That was what I wanted, but now it bothered me.

“Is everything alright?” I asked.

When he did speak, his voice was brought down to a low tone. “I was just trying.”

“Trying?” I repeated.

He didn’t shake his head, or make any gesture. “Here.”

Harrian finally finished ringing me up, putting my bottles in a paper bag. I would’ve pursued this further, but this sad attempt of a conversation left me mentally drained and physically ready to leave. I handed him the cash.

“You can keep the change,” I said.

He gave me the paper bag, with my drinks inside.

“I’ll see you at school,” he said as I took the bag.

“Bye,” I said, trying to maintain my courteousness.

I left the store, the chimes ringing again as the door closed.

That kid was the definition of awkward. I can see why Eric and Evan would give him a hard time.

But, whatever, he’s harmless enough.

The farther away I got from the store, the more I tried to forget about it.

I still had some time to kill before I needed to head home, so I decided to check around the shopping center some more. See what was around.

Not a lot, from the looks of things.

There were a few points of interest, however. A jewelry store, a bookstore, a pet supply shop, all right next to each other. Points of interest, but not interesting enough for me to walk in.

A woman was walking her dog, coming my way. The dog was tiny, a cute little maltese, but upon approaching me, its face turned sour, and started barking. I didn’t expect it, and I backed away in surprise. I wasn’t even close enough to pet it.

“Shush, Coco,” the woman said in between her dog’s high-pitched yelps, clearly embarrassed. “She is never like this.”

“No worries,” I said, not thinking about it. I kept going, and went another way.

With the shopping center behind me, I soon came into a seedier part of town. I would have had no qualms about turning around and going back the way I came, but that was before I saw it.

Cars were parked along a sidewalk across from me, and one particular car was much nicer than the others. Someone else must’ve noticed, too, because they were huddled by the driver’s side door, working the handle.

A car thief? In broad daylight?

I looked around. No one else was nearby, and he didn’t seem to notice me. Should I stop him?

I had the power to, but was it my responsibility?

The car was black, and I couldn’t put my finger on it exactly, but something about the car seemed familiar to me. I didn’t know why.

I checked my surroundings once again. People either were not around, or they didn’t care to intervene. This city was decayed in a way I had never known before.

I know what I said before, but leaving now would turn me into an accomplice. Crap.

If I made this fast as possible, it shouldn’t a problem. Scaring him off shouldn’t be that hard.

Eh, and it’s a nice car. It’s not his to take.

I’ll do it.

But I didn’t bring my mask, since I had never planned on wearing it again. I had to improvise.

I bent down, and took out the bottles of the paper bag, setting them down, and poked two holes into one side. The bag went over my head, and I fixed it so I could see through the holes.

There, now I had a mask. I felt as stupid as I looked.

I gathered my bottles, one in each hand, and went to approach the man.

“Good day, sir,” I said when I was sure he could hear me.

He wheeled around, startled. Clearly, he was on edge. He spoke, testing his words.

“This one’s already taken, man.”

“Hunh?”

“This is my score, you better look somewhere else.”

I tilted my head, the paper bag I wore crinkling.

“Do I look like I’m here to help?”

He paused, the realization settling in. “Yes?”

I shrugged. “Is it the bag?”

He nodded.

“Figured.”

I was about to close in more to engage him, but I reconsidered. Things weren’t dire, like the other times I went up against bad guys. I could take him on my own. And I should probably try to not break him, too.

“Go,” I said after thinking it over.

Go?” he repeated back to me, saying it like it was a whole new word to him.

“I’m giving you a free pass. You can go, you just can’t take the car with you. Is that fair?”

“You lettin’ me walk away? Not gonna call the cops?”

“I’d hate for the cops to be here, even more than you would. Just go, and try not to steal anything else on your way out, okay?”

His eyes went one way, to his feet. A steel pipe.

He swung his arm down, picking it up and bringing to my head in one motion.

Ah, yes. Just what I wanted on my lazy weekend. A fight.

I didn’t even try. I caught the pipe with one hand, stopping him. The bottle I was just holding hit the ground after I blocked it.

I yanked the pipe away from him. Candy from a baby, and all that.

“Not cool,” I said.

I dropped the other bottle, and gripped the other end of the pipe. With some effort, I pressed inward, and bent the pipe in half.

The man watched, shaking.

“You, you’re,” he spluttered.

“I did warn you,” I said, “Go, or you’re getting a bloody nose.”

He listened this time, running like he had a tail between his legs. He was loud, incoherent as he bolted away from me. I should have probably went after him, in case he directed others to my presence. Or, I could just leave, too.

I looked at the pipe in my hands. I had bent it into a right angle.

My strength still found ways to leave me astonished.

Alright, I need to go.

“Hello there.”

A male voice.

I looked back.

That was why the black car seemed familiar.

A black BMW.

Katy’s black BMW.

More precisely, her father’s black BMW.

Thomas was standing right there. Like, right there.

That’s not good.

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