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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
“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.
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…”
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 hand 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?”