023 – Disfigured Conformity

epy arc 4 test

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The bank robbers fled across the street, and I tried my best to follow.

This was starting to become a little familiar.

Three people rushed out onto the busy street, attempting to hide in the swarm of people walking about. They were pushing, shoving their way through, with some resistance, but they were getting away, using the crowd as cover.

I stood over the edge of an overlooking building, weighing my options. I wasn’t concerned with anyone seeing me up here, they were more preoccupied with getting drunk or high to look up.

The street below was the infamous Temple Street, a historic street and entertainment district, known for the multitude of venues and bars that line down the whole path. Bands were playing, and drinks were making people boisterous. In short, it was loud, and it was only Monday night.

Traffic was blocked on this street, cars weren’t allowed through. Meaning that it was a freely flowing, never-ending party, a popular spot for those legally allowed to drink. And a few not so legal.

But that meant that there were a lot of people down there, perhaps too many. Especially today. Jumping down right now could cause a scare. Yet, at the same time, they were getting farther with every second I spent contemplating my decision. I needed to make a move soon.

It started to hurt, trying to keep my eyes on them. Everything was starting to blur together.

Almost half the crowd down there was wearing some kind of blue hoodie and grey pants. Even the robbers.

Eye spy with my little eye… a whole lotta bullshit.

I tried looking for something else that would differentiate them from the rest. The dark bags on their backs, the pointed shape of the masks they wore, their body language as they cut through the crowd.

Something sounded off in my right ear. I twitched, forgetting that I had an earpiece on.

I need constant updates, Blank Face, I don’t have eyes on the scene like you do. What’s the situation?

“Ironic that I have to call you ‘Hleuco,’ then,” I spoke, still looking below me. “They ran into Temple Street, lots of people. A hell of a lot of Blank Faces. I think I’ve lost a few of them when you called in.”

Ah, my apologies,” Hleuco said, but it didn’t sound like he meant it. “Just do what you can, then. For now, we’re just here to send a message. To scare them off. If it involves innocents getting hurt, then it’s not worth getting into.

“I hear you loud and clear. Now shut it, I’m trying to find them.”

Hleuco said nothing.

I tilted my head, trying to focus on a particular shape, hoping that was one of the three robbers I was chasing after. I already lost the other two.

There.

I looked in another direction, a few degrees to my right. Two people in blue were getting in a tiff. One of them looked more heavy-set than the other, but I recognized the bag the smaller man had on his back.

One is better than none, I thought.

I checked directly below me. The building I was on was a bar, and there was a line of people below me, waiting to get inside. Pirates, ghosts, sexy nurses, sexy Blank Faces. That was going way too far, in my opinion.

I glanced ahead once more to check if they were still there. They were. I could make this fast.

I moved to the side of the building, and dropped down into the alley.

No one was here to see me land, but even if there were, most were too drunk to notice or even care. I moved forward like it was nothing, getting off the sidewalk and going into the crowd myself. I had to maneuver past people and away from piles of trash and red cups.

I pushed through, getting to the two Blank Fakes. I ignored the yells and complaints spat at me for trying to cut.

“Bro!” the heavy-set one said, clearly having had one too many drinks. He wore a large blue hoodie and grey shorts, but he didn’t even have a mask. “You trying to start something, bumping into me?” He had a large hand on the robber’s shoulder, who was fighting to get out of his grip.

“Just let me through, you ass! I have to be somewhere!”

“You ain’t going anywhere unless you get on… on… your knees and beg!”

“For what?”

I didn’t give the robber a chance to get an answer. I grabbed his bag and pulled back, yanking him down.

With his hand on the robber, and his sobriety compromised, the heavy-set man fell forward, too, toppling on top of the robber himself.

That was one down.

I didn’t bother with taking off the robber’s mask. He was immobilized, under the weight of the fatter Blank Face, a true blue moon. It didn’t matter what he looked like, it only mattered that I stopped him.

Some people reacted, taking a step back to film the scene on their phones, but most just continued on, looking for another bar to drink in, another band to watch.

I searched around me, trying to find out what I should do next.

I knew there would be some cops in the area, but I had no way of getting their attention without attracting them to me, too. If I did, I could imagine that they would be more interested in me. No go, there.

This was the best I could, for now. Just trying to stop the robbers from making any more progress.

One down, two to go. Perhaps I needed to get back to a higher vantage point if I wanted to find the others. If they were even still on Temple Street.

Before I could make a move, the robber at my feet started hollering.

“That’s The Bluemoon! That’s him! He’s trying to trick me! Retreat!”

Didn’t take long for that to get people’s attention. Everyone turned.

Adrenaline kicked in even more. I was ready for anything.

A moment passed. Another.

Another.

No one reacted.

No one cared.

Right.

Everyone else here was in some sort of costume, and a lot of them were dressed like me. What was one tiny girl in a mask to them? Especially today. They paid me no mind, and many of them continued on, passing the scene, going elsewhere.

I followed, getting back on the sidewalk, and moved to stand in front of another bar. I stepped out of the way of a couple trying to get in.

“I got one of them, but I think it’s a bust,” I said into the earpiece. “It’s going to be impossible to find the other two by now, and I don’t think it’s worth it.”

I agree. They’ll have escaped, but they’re leaving one of their own behind. Don’t beat yourself up over this, you got most of them back at the bank.

“I’m not, and I won’t.”

Good. Not every day out will constitute a win. Now’s a good time to-

“Wait.”

I stopped him. Something else caught my ears.

An echo of something I just heard.

“Bluemoon! Bluemoon! Bluemoon!”

I heard it from various spots in the mass of people crossing the main street. It took a few more looks to realize that the people saying it were others dressed like me. Like Blank Face.

Not all of them, but a sizable group.

They were spread out, but they quickly congregated together, pushing others aside and knocking away those who apparently didn’t get the program. In a breath, that particular gang swelled in numbers. A large gang of those that resembled Blank Face were joining together, yelling all the way.

Others around me were equally puzzled as to what was going on, murmuring amongst themselves or pulling out their phones again to record, waiting for whatever was next.

I, too, waited.

As soon as most of the Blank Fakes convened, they broke up, sprawling in every direction. They attacked.

Bad.

The chaos was rapidly becoming a riot. They were pushing people, bashing car windows, breaking into storefronts, breaking into bars.

Okay, it already was a riot.

Others who weren’t trying to take part in those particular festivities were already fleeing, taking to the sidewalks while the more rowdy bunch took over the street, causing more destruction.

“Bluemoon! Bluemoon!” they continued to chant, at the top of their lungs.

I did not see this coming.

I wasted no time getting right into it. I pushed back onto the street.

I ended up in the midst of a smaller group of rioters in the middle of the road. Considering the present party’s appearance, and the general disorder of the situation, no one noticed that the real Blank Face was here, that the one they were screaming for was among them. I blended in too easily.

I moved amongst the crowd, trying to get to certain Blank Face impersonators who were wreaking the most havoc. I started with a guy standing on top of a police car, about to smash open the front windshield with a sledgehammer.

I stepped onto the car, sneaking up behind him.

Just before he could throw down the hammer and do some damage, I grabbed the head of the hammer. He pulled, but it wouldn’t work. It never would. All I did was hold it, but just that was too much for him.

He turned to face me. His mask was cheap enough that I could see his eyes bulge in fear.

Lightly, I pushed him.

He tumbled off the car, falling on top of two other rioters. They all collapsed into a heap.

Standing above everyone else, more people eventually noticed me. I was back in the spotlight again. The noise travelled in a wave away from me, with me being in the epicenter. Screaming, shouting.

At me.

A sea of blue, white faces staring back at me. The image was disorientating, discombobulating.

This is gonna be fun.

I was forced to continue on, jumping again when some rioters were brave enough to try and come at me, climbing on top of the car. I lost them when I went back into the blue sea of rioters. For once, my small stature helped me. I was hard to notice, and it was easy to hide in the confusion.

Another spot, another place to go. Somewhere else that needed my attention. Go.

While being pushed and bumped, I moved towards a store, several windows already shattered. No door was needed to enter.

Some innocents could be in here, in possible danger. I went in.

Not necessarily rioters, but looters. Troublemakers all the same. Several individuals were in the store, terrorizing those who tried to take refuge inside, threatening the workers to let open the cash registers.

I went to work.

Despite being in blue, I couldn’t apprehend anyone here, I wasn’t a cop. All I could do was stop them from what they were doing.

I worked my way around the store, starting at the counter with the cash registers, a man in a blue jacket had a worker by the throat. I called out to him.

“Need help, man?”

He looked my way. He let go of the worker to grab the register itself.

“Sure, you can start by-”

I threw out my hands.

He flew, his back hitting the wall behind him, chips and sodas falling down when he did. Out.

I glanced at the worker. She was already running, fleeing to the back of the store.

I went on to check out another aisle. Two more, dressed like me, emptying out the shelves into large white sacks. Sad that Blue Santa had to resort to this.

The store was small, so there wasn’t anyone else in here, but the party was still going on outside. Earlier, while I said that I wasn’t angry about the fact I didn’t get the other two bank robbers, I could still make up for it by taking out these guys, and getting back outside in a flash.

Quick and easy. They were pretty close together, and they hadn’t noticed me. I rushed the one closest to me, pressing into him with my shoulder. Even that was enough to knock him into his partner, taking them both down. No point in pulling punches, better off not throwing them at all.

The store was all clear, now. Though, I couldn’t say the same for the rest of Temple Street.

Broken glass crumpled under my feet when I went back outside.

Pure anarchy.

A street vendor’s stand was on fire. Several were. Guitars, drums, sound equipment were being tossed out of venues, breaking even more windows. Even more burglaries, robberies, happening out in public. Dust and smoke were being kicked up into the air, a certain gloom curtaining this turn of events. Wailing, gnashing. Deafening, almost.

Those who were participating in these crimes were people in blue, in grey, in masks.

There was no order to anything. Just things. Things were happening, it was overwhelming, and I had no idea what to do.

I took the easiest and most available option. I tried talking about it.

“You said you wanted constant updates,” I said aloud. “I don’t think I need to tell you what’s going on right now.”

Hleuco response was calm. Was I supposed to take comfort in that? “No need. The reports are coming in. People are taking today more seriously than I’d like.

Briefly, I closed my eyes, blocking out the world. Thinking.

I opened my eyes.

“How everything went to hell so fast, it doesn’t sit right with me. Maybe one of the gangs set this up?”

Maybe, hard to tell when things are so hectic. Anyone can go and mimic your costume. It’s too easy. I’ve mentioned before you needed a better one, didn’t I?

I neglected to respond. He had mentioned it before, and while I understood his sentiments, zipping up a windbreaker was way easier than whatever he had in mind. But this riot right here was forcing me to change my stance on the matter.

But I wouldn’t admit that out loud.

I’ll take your silence as you agreeing with me, then. But that’s not our current issue. This will keep up, and your name and image will continue to be dragged in the dirt. With that being said, with things as they are, there’s not a lot you can do to stop everyone. Alright, no point in wasting your time there, we can figure something out later. Riot police are already mobilizing, if you don’t want to be caught in their crossfire, best pull out now, and don’t do any more.

No need to tell me twice.

“Is the pick-up spot still viable?” I asked.

Should be, I’m a few blocks away. Head over, without anyone following, and I’ll meet you there. Out.

It didn’t sit right with me, having to leave this scene as it was. But I was outnumbered, ill-equipped, and completely incapable of handling a situation like this. I’d have to leave it to the trained professionals, to the people who were actually supposed to be doing this job. As if I had a choice in the matter.

This was a loss I had to take.

And so early in my superhero career, too. A shame.

I bolted for my exit, mowing down anyone in my way. I would have jumped to gain some distance and onto a rooftop, but as far as anyone knew, I was just another rioter, mixed in with the rest.

For a moment, I had to descend into the darkness.

I headed into an alley between two bars, the riot not getting any quieter as I got farther in. I checked, and double-checked for anyone else around. No one. With one jump, I crossed the street, into another alley, and bounded up a fire escape to get access a building’s roof. I ran and jumped to cross more rooftops.

I had it mapped out in my head. How many streets I needed to go, how many buildings I needed to cross. It wasn’t too far, but I was already getting tired. I’d been running myself ragged all night, and that wasn’t in the itinerary.

I was going to need blood, and soon.

Finally, I made it into another alley, dropping into it from a building above. A black van to my right was already parked in wait. I headed over with no delay.

The large side door slid open, revealing a man in a suit. Hleuco. His hair was slicked back, his face obscured by a mask resembling a bird. Large goggles covered the eyes, and the front extended out into a beak and covered the mouth. A plague doctor’s mask, he specified once before.

“Welcome back, Blank Face,” he said, his voice no longer in my ear. “At least, I’m sure it’s the real you.”

“It is,” I said, curt. I got into the van. He slammed it shut while I took a seat, crossing my arms. I made a noise in annoyance. The van sped off.

As we moved, Hleuco tapped a finger on the steering wheel. He was more composed than I was, but I knew he was just as frustrated.

“This was certainly more of a ‘trick’ than a ‘treat.’” he said.

I didn’t nod, or do anything otherwise. I could only provide a comment of my own, summarizing my fourth official night out as Blank Face.

“Worst Halloween ever.”

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Interlude – Brandon

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“You remember your cousin, Jillian?”

Brandon looked up, the name catching his attention. It was name he hadn’t heard in a long time.

“Kind of.”

“She’ll be staying with us for a little.”

“For a little what?” he asked his uncle.

“Until your aunt can get her shit together.”

“So, she’ll be with us forever?”

“You get the idea.”

Brandon went back to his game, unpausing it. He pulled his legs up on the couch. He continued playing, focusing on moving forward down a long hallway. Inhuman sounds echoed on the other side, but due to the level design, he was forced to continue straight. The lights flickered, and he swore he saw the image of a little girl, but he couldn’t turn back now. Also, the door behind him was locked.

He pressed forward, literally, and tried distracting himself from the atmosphere of the game by thinking about his cousin. The one he hadn’t heard about for quite some time.

The news was sudden, but he didn’t mind. Becky wasn’t around anymore, so they had a free room. He wasn’t too familiar with his extended family, he hadn’t seen any of them in years, but he couldn’t think of anything bad to say about Jillian. They had hung a few times, nothing memorable, but she was nice enough. Nothing bad to recall about her.

Her mom, though, he heard more than enough from his uncle.

Jill would be living here. Hmm.

The idea sounded like a decent change of pace. It wasn’t like he could play football anytime soon. Maybe she was into video games. He was wanting for someone to take that second controller. It had been a while.

Eyes not leaving the screen, Brandon decided to ask another question. “When’s she getting here?”

“Yeah, about that. Get ready, because we’re picking her up right now.”

Brandon’s attention again went away from the game. His character died, mauled by a little girl.

“Huh?”

Jillian reached across the table, taking yet another french fry. Brandon grunted again, but he let her commit her offense.

“You should say ‘you’re welcome’ one of these days,” he said.

“That’s for lames, though. We’re closer than that.”

“Says you.”

“Well, you’re letting me eat this as we speak.” To demonstrate, Jillian tossed the fry into her mouth, pleased with the taste. She chewed loudly, but she covered her mouth.

Lookin’ like a proper lady there, Jill.

Brandon wolfed down the rest of his burger. He was certainly hungry, but he also didn’t want to give Jillian the chance to steal a bite of his main course, too.

As he finished, wiping his hands and mouth with a napkin, he looked at Jillian.

It was like looking at a different person. Completely unrecognizable. Where was the girl he used to shoot hoops with, back in the day? Now, she wouldn’t look out of place in a ScHoolboy Q music video.

Bucket hat on her head, her face touched up in makeup. She wore trendy denim overalls, a strap slung over her shoulder, exposing her skin. She had traded the young, innocent aesthetic for something more mature, and she had done so long ago. She wore it well.

Jillian had her path in life, Brandon was sure of that. Like how he had his own, and now their paths have crossed into this particular burger joint. Brandon wondered how long their paths would continue to intersect, interweave.

Jillian eyed him funny while she sipped her drink. Brandon was still staring. “God damn, I’ll buy you fries next time.”

“Oh, no it’s not that,” he said, looking away, out the window beside them. He instead looked at a police car passing.

“Then what?”

“Nothing. How’s school so far?” Brandon asked, trying to switch gears. “It’s been about… a month now, I think?”

“You’re not my mom,” Jillian commented, matter-of-factly. She didn’t sound miffed or annoyed.

“And I don’t want to be. I’m just asking.”

“I know, and I’m just kidding. It’s been alright, teachers know to leave me alone, and I have some people I chill with, after school. Wouldn’t call them friends, but they cool.”

The word ‘friends’ stuck out to him.

“Where do you chill after school?” he asked.

“By those stores by the school, they call it something but I can’t remember right now.”

“You’d be better off joining a club or something, instead of wasting your time there.”

Jillian smacked her lips. “Don’t be telling me what to do. That’s it, I’m taking another one.” She picked up another fry from his plate. Brandon didn’t care.

“Do you have anything that interests you?” Brandon asked, “Any hobbies?”

She gave him a cold look as she ate. “Maybe I do.”

“Too scared to share?”

“No,” Jillian said, perhaps too quickly. “I just don’t see the point in sharing that.”

She went for another fry, but this time, Brandon retaliated. He lightly smacked her hand out of the way. She almost knocked over her own drink.

“Don’t be so salty,” she complained, frowning.

“That’s the last fry you take,” Brandon said. “Unless you tell me, then you can have the rest of the plate.”

Jillian pouted, she almost looked like a little kid again. Nostalgic, somehow, like he was holding a ball over her head that she couldn’t reach.

She fell back into her seat.

“I like to sing,” she said, with no hint of shame.

“How come I’ve never heard you?”

“I’m not gonna go around putting on a show for you and Uncle B. And, my mom used to sing, so I’d rather just find something else to be good at.”

Brandon scratched his neck. He might have touched upon a sour spot, there. But, it didn’t stop him from saying, “Either way, that’s a start. You can join… what do they call it, the singing club?”

Jillian scoffed. “You mean the choir?”

“Right, right.”

Jillian sighed. “But, there’s like white people, and stuff. They scare me.”

Brandon nodded, as if there was some universal truth that he understood, and sympathized with. He pushed the plate of fries away from him, and towards Jillian.

She wasted no time in helping herself. She spoke with her mouth full. “Enough about me, I haven’t asked you anything yet. Any girls you like?”

Brandon immediately felt a rush of heat go to his face. He didn’t expect the conversation to go there. He scratched his neck again.

“There is, hah, you’re such a dork,” she said, amused that she managed to get that reaction out of him. “Spill it.”

For some reason, a girl did come to mind. Courtney Brooks. A tall black girl who went to their school. She was on the girl’s basketball team, and a damn good player at that. Sweet, funny, and of course her body was top notch. They had hung out a few times, skipped school for lunch off campus, but nothing serious. He was thinking about asking her out one of these days, but he still needed to gather the courage to do so. Brandon couldn’t believe he even had to, he liked to think he had the confidence, the swag, to walk up to any girl and ask her out. But, here he was.

One of these days.

“No one, really,” he lied.

“Do you have a type, then? Don’t tell me you’re into white girls.”

Brandon raised his shoulders an inch. “Depends.”

“What else? You tryna get with any Asian chicks? Tryin’ to get them to go lo mein?”

Brandon tapped his foot once. “I’m about to take that plate away again.”

Jillian scrunched up her face, sneering. “I’m only screwin’ with you. Calm yourself.”

Brandon glanced away again, but another girl came to the forefront of his mind.

Alexis… he couldn’t recall her last name. A petite Asian girl who also went to their school. She was on the volleyball team, although he hadn’t heard any praise regarding her skills, if at all. He had talked to her on a few occasions, and she was nice enough. Kind.. and kind. The occasions were few, after all. If he was shallow, he would’ve ranked her body much lower than someone like Courtney. ‘Petite’ was certainly the right word.

If he was shallow.

Oh yeah, I almost forgot.

He recently had been invited to her birthday. They were holding it at an old plantation house at the edge of the city. Braham’s Barn.

That was in a week. Did he need to get her a gift?

I’ll think about it. Definitely not bringing Jill, though.

The broken chains swayed when the ball brushed against them.

The middle of the day, the middle of fall, but Brandon was heated.

“Ha ha ha!” Jillian cackled, as if they were the only ones on the court. “You suck ass!”

Brandon grimaced, ticked off by the way she was acting. Didn’t help that one of his friends was here, too.

Derek laughed along, “Bruh, you lucky your athleticism was in football.” He caught the ball as it came to him.

Brandon put his arms on his hips, and looked away. “Least I can still jump.”

“Whoa!” Derek protested, “White men can jump!”

“Yeah, on the moon, maybe.”

“Alright, buddy.”

Jillian stamped her foot down, clapping against the pavement. “This is funny and all, but are we gonna go now? Uncle B’s cooking spaghetti today, and I wanna be there when he finishes up the dinner rolls.”

“Almost done, Jill,” Brandon said. “I really wanna smoke Derek now and kick his ass.”

“You wish, buddy,” Derek teased. “You can’t take me, we’ve spent the last thirty minutes proving this point.”

“I wasn’t actually trying.”

“Oh, okay.”

Derek moved to the three-point line, directly in front of the net, and took three long steps back.

“Here,” he said, “If I make this, can I join you guys for spaghetti?”

“That has nothing to do with what we were talking about,” Brandon said.

“But I’m hungry, and spaghetti sounds dope as fuck right about now.”

Jillian made a noise, complaining. “Just make it, then. Uncle B’s got enough for everyone, but stop dicking around.”

Derek laughed, sticking his tongue out. “Sure thing.”

He took the shot.

The ball smacked against the face of the backboard, and it bounced past Derek before he could grab it. It rolled across the court, stopping at the other side.

The ball rolled dangerously close to the Nikes of a man at a bench, sitting with a gang of others. They all wore white. Members of the Royals.

Brandon swore under his breath, and could’ve sworn that he heard Jillian mutter something similar.

“I’ll get it,” Brandon said, taking the initiative, “I’ll be back in a minute.”

“I’m coming, too,” Jillian said, starting to move.

He didn’t protest. They both went towards the group. He heard Derek tag along behind them.

Careful, all we need to do is get the ball back.

They advanced, moving in silence, a contrast to how loud and boisterous the other group were being.

The other group continued talking amongst themselves when Brandon got there. They were ignoring them.

The ball was too close to the man’s foot, Brandon couldn’t just reach down and grab it. He’d have to ask for it.

Brandon steeled himself.

He had to be careful with the volume of his voice, his tone. Had to get their attention, but couldn’t get a rise out of them, either.

“Yo, mind if I grab that ball real quick?”

Of the group, only two paid him any mind. The man sitting down, and the other right next to Brandon. The others continued talking amongst each other.

“What you want, boy?” the man asked. Hard.

“Just want the ball, dawg.”

From his seat, the man picked up the ball, and stood. Brandon was tall, but he was tall.

Casually, he stalked over to Brandon and his crew. Mouth closed, Brandon pinched his tongue between his teeth.

“This ball?” the man questioned, holding the ball with one hand, shoulder level. The bottom of the ball was high enough to touch Brandon’s forehead.

“Yes, that ball.” Jillian was the next speak, despite Brandon. “Quit playin’ and just hand it over.”

Everyone went quiet.

Jillian, damn you.

They were outnumbered, outmatched, and probably outgunned. Brandon’s mind didn’t want to go to such a dark spot, but he couldn’t stop himself from doing so. No fighting, only flight.

If they could.

“Pssh, you got a mouth on you, don’t you?” another one of them said. “What else can it do?”

This is taking too long, things aren’t looking good.

“I can fuckin’ bite your dick off if you don’t stop playing.”

Jill!

“What the hell did you say?” the man with the ball said, aggravated. He stepped forward, and Brandon and Derek responded by stepping back. Jillian did not.

“Yah heard me,” she said, her cool not lost at all.

“Bitch I will-”

“Stop.”

Everyone did.

Another from the men in white. He moved to them, and the others parted to make way to Brandon and the man with his ball.

“Jay,” the other man said, presumably the leader of this group. “We’re here to kick it, not start trouble. We don’t need that.”

The man with the ball, Jay, didn’t delay. He returned the ball to Brandon, dropping it in his hands.

The leader nodded, happy with how things turned around. He directed himself to Brandon and Jillian. With a blinged-out hand, he waved them away.

“Y’all go.”

No apologies, or admittance of fault, but they took what they could get. Brandon and the others promptly left the court.

“Jill,” Brandon said as they turned the street, leaving the area, “You have to got keep yourself in check.”

Jillian spoke absentmindedly. “Who are those guys? If we were in Bedstine, we wouldn’t be here, talking about this.”

Did you even hear me?

“The Royals,” Derek explained, “Another gang.”

Jillian touched her chin. She was pondering over something, Brandon knew that much.

I really do have to keep an eye on you.

A very close one.

Brandon ran, trying to push past the crowd. A lot of people gathered. Too many.

He could manage, though. He was much taller than everyone else, and he was stronger. Getting through the bystanders was easy.

The police, not so much.

“Hey, you’re not allowed through, just like everyone else!” the cop ordered, loudly.

“Please, you don’t get it, that’s-”

The cop put his hand on Brandon’s chest, trying to push him back. Brandon immediately froze, fear seizing him, and he stepped back.

Probably dumb to do, Brandon thought, but he was going to try, anyway.

“You have to let me through,” he pleaded, “That’s my cousin.”

The cop turned back, looking over the scene again. After a short pause, he stepped aside.

Brandon ran again.

He followed the trail of cop cars, leading to the front of the Strip. His heart dropped when he saw an ambulance.

Jillian was in handcuffs, being led by two police officers. He yelled. Not sounds, or any tangible words, but they stopped when they heard him.

“Jill! What did you do?!” he yelled when he got to them.

She looked at him, her eyes puffy and red, dried blood caked on her nose. She wasn’t saying anything.

Can she, even?

“Don’t force her to speak,” one of the officers said. He had a thick moustache that moved when he talked. “Her nose is broken badly.”

Brandon had to wipe his palms on his pants leg, not looking forward to the answer to his next question.

“Then you tell me, what did she do?”

The mustachioed officer spoke like it was nothing big. “Assault with a deadly weapon. Attempted.”

Brandon’s heart couldn’t take much more abuse. It skipping, beating fast, dropping.

Yet he still found it in him to ask for more information.

“The other girl? Was she okay?”

The officer turned and pointed to an ambulance a little farther away. “You can ask her, if she’ll let you.”

Brandon’s eyes darted back and forth between Jillian and the ambulance in the distance. He grumbled.

Reluctant, he started to break away from Jillian and the officers. “I’ll be back in a minute, just don’t take her anywhere just yet.”

Neither officer said anything. Brandon went off running again.

He got to the ambulance. Certainly, now would be the time his heart gave out.

Alexis.

She was sitting at the back of the ambulance, legs dangling. A blanket covered her, and she looked haggard. Hair frayed, some strands stuck to her cheeks. She was staring at the ground, not focusing on anything around her.

Carefully, he walked. He wasn’t sure if his presence would spook her any further.

“Alexis,” he said, testing.

She responded, turning her head to him. The look on her face, it wasn’t one of shock or even anger. Rather, she just looked tired. But not physically exhausted, no, she looked like she was tired of being here. As if she was waiting to go and leave, and everyone was keeping her from doing so.

“Brandon,” she said, soft.

“Eric texted me, just now. Are you okay? Can I ask what she did?” Brandon wasn’t sure if it was he was allowed to ask, but he tried regardless.

“That bitch tried to stab me,” Alexis said, unapologetic about using the insult. “She had a knife.”

Brandon swore under his breath. He was afraid something like this might happen, but not like this, and not so soon. Despite himself, he had held onto the hope that Jillian would rise above her destructive tendencies.

“Uh, um,” Brandon stuttered out his next question. “Can I see? Are you hurt?”

Alexis turned away, breaking eye contact, but she started to move the blanket away from her body.

Her shirt was torn, her midriff exposed. Blood was stained where the fabric was ripped, but there was nothing there, he could see that clearly enough.

His eyes went downward. He’d seen her in those shorts before. They were never that dark, or damp. Jillian did scare her.

“Are you going to the hospital, at least?” Brandon questioned. “Don’t they have to check you out?”

“No, no, it’s really nothing. I’m not hurt, like, at all. I’m just waiting to be picked up by a friend.”

“You can’t just, I mean, if you’re absolutely sure you’re okay, then maybe, but…” Brandon couldn’t formulate a sentence, everything was too much, all at once.

Alexis looked up at him, and he gave up. She smiled. It was a soft, tired smile, a mask for a sadness that Brandon could recognize, but couldn’t point out where in her life it came from.

“You don’t have to worry about me,” she said.

Pushed away, once again. Brandon wanted to cry.

Night. The van sped along, the ride smooth. The music was loud, booming, but it eased none of the anxiety that held Brandon.

Six others were in the vehicle with him. He only learned half of their names yesterday.

The others, though, they were the homies.

But everyone was decked out in all black. A far cry from the white that represented the Royals.

“Don’t worry, B,” Jack, the boy next to him, said. One of the homies. “We’re in, then we’re out. We won’t take long, and we can split up the money however we need to. I can take out a few extra bands for you.”

Brandon raised his chin, and nodded. Honor among thieves, apparently, was a real thing.

Let’s pray.

They had come to him with the offer, and he accepted. A way to get some quick cash and pay for Jillian’s medical bills. At the tail end of his tirade, Uncle B had suggested suing the other family, as recompense for that girl breaking Jillian’s nose. Brandon immediately dismissed the idea. The suit wouldn’t hold up, Alexis had a solid argument in using self-defense, and considering how he found her, she seemed to be in enough danger to justify that claim.

He also simply didn’t want to interfere with Alexis’s life any further. He had a strong feeling that things weren’t going to work out before, but this more than sealed that particular deal. Maybe, sometime in the future, they could be good friends, at most.

The more important reason why they couldn’t pursue a lawsuit was that they simply couldn’t afford it. The money would sink them sooner than they could get anything out of it.

As for helping out Jillian, this was all they could do. She’d have to go through juvy on her own.

So many things on his mind, so many reservations. Brandon didn’t voice any of them, though. He couldn’t, wouldn’t. It was bad luck to do so. Even if there was one particular reservation he was sure they all shared, but no one said anything. Was there a reason to?

The rest of the drive, Brandon stayed quiet.

It was simple, the plan was. Six people, three pairs, two locations. A corner convenience store and a jewelry store down another street. The van would drop off a pair of people at one spot, another pair at the other, and would wrap around when both parties were ready. Lucas, the one at the passenger seat, would provide support and communication for Matt, the one driving. They were both more Jillian’s friends than his, but Brandon’s friends had trust in them, and he wasn’t about to say anything.

He just wanted to be done.

Brandon got partnered up with Jack, which helped. Better to do something illegal with someone you know, rather than with a complete stranger. They were the group that would be hitting up the convenience store, too, which was much easier than the jewelry store. In, out. It should be that easy. Jack had said so.

It should be.

They were beginning to pull up to the first stop. Brandon reached beside his seat to pick up the metal bat. Jack cocked his pistol. They both fixed the bags around their shoulders, and pulled down their balaclavas.

Another day, another struggle.

The van didn’t stop, it only slowed to a crawl. Brandon pulled the door open, and got out. Jack followed.

His mind raced. He didn’t hear the van speed off, or other ambient sounds of the city. Just his heart beating in his ears, the doors slamming opening, his rushing footsteps.

He would’ve shouted to get everyone down, but he didn’t have to. There wasn’t anyone else in the aisles. It would’ve been foolish to do so, too, since that would have alerted any shopkeepers or employees to their presence. Best take them by surprise, as much as possible.

Brandon moved. One employee at the counter, by the register. Manageable.

Now, he yelled, his deep voice carrying throughout the store. “You! As much money as you can put in this bag!”

He whipped around the bag, opening it more with one hand. Using the other, he held the bat above the employee’s head, threatening to swing it down.

The employee, a thin white male, mid-twenties, hesitated for too long. He was wasting precious seconds. Brandon looked over to Jack, who moved past him, and jumped over the counter.

One wave of the gun was enough to get the employee to move. He sprang open the register, putting in as much money as he could. There was another register beside him, meaning another load. Brandon knew the amount in a register would be anywhere from around one hundred to two hundred dollars, so they would be making at most four hundred, just from these two hits. There might be other stuff in the back, but that was Jack’s job to check.

Four hundred, plus whatever they pulled in from the jewelry store. Brandon was beginning to think that this might work out, after all.

No, don’t get cocky now.

The employee emptied out the first register, and Brandon only had to motion to the other with his bat to get him to move. The employee worked fast, to Brandon’s relief.

Jack returned from the back aisle, having checked around while the Brandon’s captive worked. “Got some extra stuff in the back,” he reported, patting his own bag. “It’s a good score. No one else is gonna be a problem here, too.”

“Good, so we good?” Brandon asked.

“Yeah.”

Just as Jack answered, his hip buzzed. The walkie-talkie that was connected them to the other parties. Jack picked it up.

“How’s it going on your end?”

A distorted blare. An alarm? A gunshot? No, wasn’t distinct enough.

However, they could make out the words.

Shit! It’s here! It’s too fast! I-”

The sound cut out. They no longer had a connection.

Brandon was already sweating, but he felt it getting worse.

What was going on over there?

Jack pressed a button to change frequencies. The walkie-talkie buzzed again, but this time the message was much more clear.

This is Lucas! Get outta there! Meet on Jefferson, we’ll get you at the corner!

“Hey!” Jack exclaimed into the device, “Tell me what’s happening!”

Jewels are a bust! We can’t get to them anymore! Just move!

Brandon and Jack exchanged looks. They agreed in silence.

They moved.

Brandon closed his bag as he ran, using his back to push open the door. They sprinted down the street, heading towards Jefferson.

Apparently, things weren’t going well. Something had tied up the pair at the jewelry store. Was it the police? A guard? Someone else? Brandon wished he could find out. He so desperately wanted to help, but it just wasn’t an option.

Derek and Adam. They were his friends, it was a bust, and Brandon and Jack were about to leave them behind.

Brandon bit his lip until it hurt, but he knew he had to keep going. He could wallow about it later, and he would. For now, they needed to cut their losses, and escape.

They got onto another street, running on the sidewalk. Other people were here, in the way, watching. They saw. They were witnesses. More losses to take, but the only thing they could do right now was to deal with it.

Brandon ran, having to push a woman out of his path. She tripped off of the curb, nearly being clipped by a car as it passed.

Another loss.

Jack barked again into the device. “We’re coming up on Jefferson! Where are you!”

Coming!” the device answered.

Sure enough, they were. The van reappeared from a corner further away, tires screeching. It was audible.

Brandon and Jack maintained their sprint, attempting to meet the van halfway. They were so close.

So close.

From above, it arrived.

A shape, that was all Brandon could describe it as from that distance. It seemingly appeared out of nowhere, from the rooftops above, coming down towards the van.

It landed, or moreso it crashed, slamming onto the hood of the vehicle. The van veered off in another direction, but it skidded to a halt before anyone outside out be injured.

The shape slipped off of the hood, too, and collided with the street. It was the first to move again, Lucas and Matt weren’t getting out of the van.

When the shape moved again, getting up straight, it was then when Brandon realized that it wasn’t a thing.

It was a person.

The Bluemoon, Brandon thought, He is real.

He had seen it on TV, online. Everyone in the world did. But there was nothing like seeing it for yourself. Nothing like seeing a real-life superhuman in action. They were actually real.

Even then, what he saw was still hard to believe.

Cast in a streetlight, The Bluemoon moved to the van, crossing the distance between them with an incredible jump. He had never seen anyone go that far or that high with a single bound.

Brandon turned to Jack. He had only now realized they were standing in place.

“What do we do?” he asked, weakly.

Jack’s mouth dropped. He was dumbfounded.

Brandon acted, regardless of Jack’s dawdling. He ran again, and swung the bat in front of Jack’s face to get his attention, nearly breaking his nose in the process.

“Let’s just move!”

They did, and the last visual Brandon had on the van was of the The Bluemoon opening the driver’s side door, with Matt stuck in place by the seat belt. Whatever The Bluemoon had in store for them, Brandon wouldn’t stick around to find out.

They went back the way they came, moving onto a different street when they saw the corner store. They were running for some time, now, and Brandon was confident they could find somewhere to hide, wait for things to cool down.

That confidence was immediately shattered by the shouting behind them.

“Split up!” Jack shouted, and forked down a different road from Brandon in a flash. Brandon didn’t question or argue anything, he simply went another way.

He went down an alley, searching for any backdoors to slide into. One, but a hard pull couldn’t open it. Locked.

Damn.

He moved on, coming out from the other end of the alley to another street. His legs were already aching, he couldn’t keep this up. Had to find a place to rest, at least. Catch a breath.

An old steel building, outfitted to be an auto repair shop. Under construction, or scheduled for demolition, or even a base of operations for Styx’s Gang. Brandon wasn’t sure, but the building looked like it hadn’t been used in decades, worn down and almost sad. In fact, a lot of the buildings closer to downtown were like that. A result of all the gang activity in the city.

Brandon was fully aware of this effect, why this decay came to be, but he couldn’t care less at the moment. He fled into the building.

He made his way into the garage. It was dark, meaning no one was around. Some light came in through the windows above, but it wasn’t enough to see clearly. Brandon could only barely make out the heavy machinery and equipment littering the spot. Cars and motorcycles both were stationed here.

Not a lot of dust, Styx’s Gang does work from here.

But, anywhere was better than being outside, where that thing was. He’d lay low in here. At least no one else was inside.

He did have his bat, too, but Brandon doubted that it would be much help.

He stuck to a corner, and crouched. All he could do now was wait.

The silence, the time to rest, gave Brandon a moment to reflect on what just happened. He prayed that splitting up would work, but he had no idea if The Bluemoon went after him or Jack, but what was he supposed to hope for? That The Bluemoon went after Jack instead? How could he think that?

The thought did cross Brandon’s mind. He felt ashamed, but mostly what he felt was regret. Regret that he agreed to this job, regret that he hadn’t been more assertive in helping Jillian, even when she didn’t want it. Regret that he didn’t help himself.

A clang. It tore Brandon away from his thoughts.

Another. Brandon was back to panicking again.

Sounds were ringing from the other side of the space, echoing throughout the garage. Footsteps. Getting closer.

You motherfucker.

Brandon was left with very little options. He couldn’t make a move, or he’d be immediately spotted, but if he stayed, he might eventually be spotted. He decided to take the lesser of the two risks. He stayed still.

The sounds stopped. The footstep gone. Brandon forced himself to not take another breath. The fabric of his balaclava soaked up his sweat.

Before he could try to come up with another course of action, he heard it.

Two subtle taps. Soft, but he heard it. The sounds weren’t far like the others, no, it was much closer.

Brandon lifted his head toward the direction he heard it.

He saw him.

The Bluemoon.

He was perched on the roof of a truck, lifted up by one of the car lifts. He was facing directly toward Brandon.

Even though Brandon was in a corner, in the dark, he was still spotted.

You motherfucker!

Brandon burst from his spot, going as fast as he could to another exit nearby. The back exit, by another corner. It wasn’t even on the other side of the garage. He could make it.

He could make it.

I can make-

“Aoffgh!”

It all happened too fast to register. Brandon found himself on the floor, his body sore. His years in football taught him how to take a fall, however, and he bounced back up on his feet. He spun around.

There he was. The Bluemoon. He was shorter than Brandon expected.

Brandon tried. He swung his bat, swinging with a strength that he didn’t know he still had. Adrenaline pulsated through him. Brandon aimed for his head.

The Bluemoon brought up an arm, and caught the bat in his hand. Brandon was struck with horror. The fact that he could catch a bat with his bare hands, stopping it mid-swing.

How strong are you?

With one sudden yank, The Bluemoon tore the bat from Brandon’s hands. Like candy from a child.

All too easy, unfortunately.

The Bluemoon thrusted with his other arm, pushing an open palm into Brandon’s chest. It was like getting hit by a metal bat himself.

He flew, going a distance. He banged against a wall, and dropped back down. Brandon wasn’t getting up this time.

He heard the bat get tossed away, sliding under something, somewhere. Much like his hopes of making a getaway.

Before he could even think to move, Brandon was pinned down by a single foot.

That same foot was taken off his back, and brought into his side. He was kicked over, flipped onto his back, his bag of money squished by his weight.

Brandon could hardly see, barely breathe, but he tried. The image was murky.

A dark figure hovered over him. A hooded figure, The Bluemoon had on a windbreaker fitting to his name. His face was obscured, the eyes in shadow.

All Brandon saw staring back at him was a blank face.

He shivered. He couldn’t move, couldn’t escape.

He was done for.

The Bluemoon put his foot on Brandon’s chest, deflating him. Brandon couldn’t take another breath.

“And here, we have the last mole to whack.”

The Bluemoon spoke, but the voice was higher pitched than he would have expected. It threw him off. Was he a kid? Maybe even a girl?

“Yeah, I think that’s it,” The Bluemoon said. “Then I’m done for the night. It’s getting late.”

The word weren’t directed to him. Is he talking to someone?

“Alright,” The Bluemoon then said, shifting his attention to Brandon. “Time to go.” He reached down and pulled off his balaclava.

Brandon closed his eyes, the fabric being pulled away from him. He kept shut, bracing himself for anything.

Anything.

But nothing came.

Brandon slowly opened his eyes again, and realized that he was allotted the time to do so. He saw the moon again.

The moon from a window above.

Huh?

Brandon was alone. The Bluemoon was gone, the sound of a metal door banging open. He left him alone.

Why?

Brandon had to take it slow as he got up. He found that his bag still wrapped around him, the money still there. The only thing The Bluemoon left behind was an unsettling fear, and confusion.

Why did he leave him be? What went down with Jack? The Bluemoon said something about the ‘last mole to whack,’ that would have to mean he got to the others. Brandon had to guess that he was singled out, but once again, why?

Was he simply not worth it to the superhero?

Was it worth getting into? No, Brandon felt like he survived an encounter with the Devil himself, but he was still in Hell. Sirens were coming, he could hear them. Red and blue lights tinged the edges of the windows, he could see them. He wasn’t entirely free.

Brandon wondered if he ever would be.

Previous                                                                                               Next

022 – Wrong Foot Forward

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This bitch wasn’t getting on my nerves. She was trampling on them. Like a fly that wouldn’t stop bugging you, no matter how many times you swatted it away. It’d buzz in your ear, you’d try to move elsewhere, but it’d keep following you, until you either went crazy, or you killed it.

Summarily, I could confidently say that I hated her, and I barely knew her.

I exited the school building, going the opposite way of the gym. I headed straight for the Strip. My pace was fast, hasty.

“Alexis, wait!”

Eric was following me, Evan and Harrian a few steps behind. They were closing in. “What are you even going to do?”

“I’ll find out when I get there,” I said, eyes forward.

“Then I shouldn’t have said anything. I’m not about to let you get hurt.”

“No one’s about to get hurt, and I can take her.”

“I’m not saying you can’t, just, Alexis-”

My arm was pulled back. I stopped.

Eric had me by the forearm. From the angle of the sun and where we were standing, I was cast in his shadow.

He looked where he was holding me, and immediately let go.

“Didn’t mean to do that, but I need your full attention,” he said. “Tell me exactly what you intend on doing.”

I came up with something on the fly. “Just gonna talk.”

“It doesn’t sound like that’s all you want to do.”

“If it goes there, and I’m not saying it will, but if it does, I can handle it. She’s nothing.”

Eric set his jaw square. He didn’t speak for some seconds. I quickly added a few more words before he could.

“You don’t have to come.”

I was speaking to all three of them. Others didn’t need to be around for this. Wasn’t necessary. I wasn’t even sure why Eric followed. Evan would go anywhere the other went, and Harrian was still a mystery to me.

Eventually, Eric spoke. “If she really was nothing, you wouldn’t be acting like this. Clearly, she’s pushed your buttons before.”

I looked at him, almost amazed. “You’re sharper than you look.”

He flashed a smile. “I get that a lot.”

While he was still in that mood, that headspace, I spun on my heels, and walked away.

“I’ll be okay on my own,” I said as I left.

“H-hey!” I heard from behind me. Eric.

They kept following me. By this point, I was beginning to get frustrated with them, too. I had already told them to buzz off.

For the final time, I spun back around. Eric stopped, with the other two right behind them.

I could feel the muscles of my face contort into an unfamiliar expression. Like a scowl. My lips set in a line, my eyes holding a strong, penetrating stare. If only I had a mirror.

“I’ll be fine on my own,” I said.

Eric started to open his mouth to argue, but he changed his mind, zipping it. He turned, and walked past Evan and Harrian.

“Let’s go,” was all he said.

I didn’t watch them go. Didn’t have to. My message was clear. I got through to them.

Now, it was time to get through to her.

Like I had said, I was only going to talk.

I made it to the Strip. Others were here, skating, or otherwise loitering around.

It wasn’t difficult in finding her. Even among her kind, the slackers and the stoners, she stuck out like a red, pulsating thumb, gushing with pus and other bodily juices.

She was standing in a circle, with others, her back to me. I recognized two of the girls that accompanied her during my date with Brandon. Somehow, I didn’t find it in me to be mad at them, my anger was too focused, too narrow.

Jillian.

I went straight for her.

“Jillian,” I said, trying to get her attention. She didn’t respond. Or maybe she wouldn’t. I knew she could hear me, and I was advancing closer.

I’d give her one thing. She had a knack for egging me on.

Jillian,” I said again, stressing the three syllables that made up her name.

She finally looked my way, and her expression almost made me pause.

There was no sense of recognition, no look of acknowledgement. As if she was looking through me.

As if she hadn’t the faintest clue to who I was.

“Yes?” she asked, like she was talking to a child. A condescending tone. It grated.

I disregarded the nuance. “I need to speak with you, can we move somewhere else?”

Her expression didn’t change. No response.

Patience, she’s just testing you.

I tried again.

“I won’t take too much of your time, don’t want to humiliate you in front of your friends.”

There, poked the lion enough.

That got the attention of the others, and seemed to get a rise out of Jillian, too. She stepped forward, breaking away from the group.

“Move,” she said, dryly.

I moved, even though doing so made it seem like I was following her order, but I couldn’t be bothered to care. I wanted to be done with her as soon as humanly possible, and get back to my own life.

We went around a corner. I took the both of us to the back of the long building chaining together some of the businesses here. Nothing here besides some dumpsters. Fitting, I thought.

We positioned ourselves to face each other. Maybe I shouldn’t have led the way. My back was to the wall, and where Jillian stood prevented me from returning the way we came. I could just simply walk the other way, down the length of the building to get back, but that wasn’t necessary. It’d be a sign of weakness in front of her, too.

I set my bags down. My backpack, too. Time to get right into it. Compared with talking to someone like Benny, this was nothing. A walk in the park.

I went first.

“I don’t know what the hell your problem is, but it stops now,” I said. “I don’t want you going around with my name in your mouth. It’s… freaking weird, and weird is not what I need more of at the moment.”

Again, standing there, no reaction. Was it her way of allowing me to continue?

I did, regardless.

“I’m willing to look past what you did on Sunday, at the paintball place. As fucked up as what you did was, I’ll look past it. I won’t even go one another date with your cousin, anymore. I’ve decided to cancel it. So there. I’ll cut my ties, leave him alone, and you can go do… whatever it is you want to do. I don’t care. I just don’t.”

Again, nothing, but I was about to wrap things up, anyways.

“I’ll leave you guys alone, all I’m asking is that you do the same for me. Okay? Just leave me alone, and we can go about our lives never seeing each other again.”

Jillian stood there, looking completely disinterested. It took a moment before she opened up to speak. Finally.

“No.”

‘No?’

“No?” I repeated, turning the word into a question.

Loudly, Jillian exhaled, drawing out the sound until it became a low moan.

“You don’t really get it, do you? You can marry Brandon for all I care, I don’t give a shit.”

She spoke, but the words didn’t make sense to me.

“Why?” I asked, honestly perplexed. “Why are you doing any of this? Why waste the energy, the breath? You’ve done way more shit to me than I ever done to you at this point. It makes no sense.”

I was beginning to think she had some sick obsession with me, or at least a personal vendetta. If what she had just said was true, this would be going way past the point of reason. And I had to know why.

So much for making this quick.

I tried, one more time.

“I’m trying to be decent, here, and this is what is you give me?”

She made a face, like I was speaking in another language. Complete nonsense.

“Wow, how super of you. Do you want a prize?”

I clenched my fists.

Jillian shrugged, taking a moment before talking again. “Do you really want to know why? It’s because there’s something about you that’s off.”

In a second, I became confused, and concerned.

Did she know?

“And that something is?” I asked, worried about the answer.

Jillian answered. “I saw the look in your eyes, that day. I can’t explain it, but it scared me. Actually scared me. It was like looking into the eyes of an animal that was about to eat you alive. Eyes that looked at you like you were less than human. Like prey. For days, I couldn’t get it outta my head.”

I gulped. What was she going on about?

“And I fuckin’ hated it. I hate being looked down upon. Especially by someone as short as you. I don’t give a shit about what you do, because one day, I’m going to make you feel like how I did, that day. I’m going to make you feel small, I’ll look at you like you ain’t nothing but shit.”

She was that insecure. Over a look. How rattled was she over something I never even considered?

This much, apparently.

But I wasn’t going to let her damaged psyche push me around. Not today. Not ever.

I spoke. “And you want to bully me over your frail sense of self? I don’t think so. What else are you gonna do, stuff me in a locker, ambush me in a bathroom? You got lucky once, but I promise you that’s all you’re going to get. I was more than capable of dropping this entirely, but I’m not about to let you walk all over me just so you can reaffirm your place in the world. Fuck off, bitch.”

I picked up my bags, my backpack, and walked in her direction. I knew she would stand her ground, but I continued. We were going nowhere, talking like this, and I didn’t want to be in her presence any longer.

“Out of my way,” I said, sensing a threatening undercurrent in my words.

Finally, she did move, but not to make way for me. Instead, she rushed forward, to me.

Oh, yes yes yes.

My bags flopped on the ground. I let them go.

I stepped back to give me some space between me and her, and for me to evaluate what her move would be.

She swung her right arm. A wide swing, no technique or skill in her attack, just blind hope for it to connect.

It wouldn’t.

I blocked. I reached out, and stopped her with my hand. Her arm was in my grip.

Fluid, with no delay, I pressed, tightening my hold. A similar trick from when I first encountered Jillian. Like that time, her eyes widened, fearing I might actually break it. I wouldn’t go that far, even if I felt like she deserved it.

I stepped back again, and pulled, throwing her off her balance and tugging her to me.

With my other hand, I guided her, pushing her past me as she fell. I let go. Jillian went into the ground. Using my momentum from pushing her, I returned to my bags and swept them up in one swift move.

It was that easy.

“There,” I said, “Back where you belong.”

I put my back to her, feeling sickly smug yet undeniably satisfied. I probably made it worse, but I had put her in her place. It felt good.

I started walking away. I’d have to deal with her again, but at least I had this over her. A win.

I heard a shuffling behind me, a patter of steps. Jillian had gotten up and started running to me again. I could applaud her tenacity, but that would require a level of respect that simply was not there.

Once more, I faced her, the weight of my bags swinging my arms slightly. I felt like taunting her.

“You not going to-”

Uck!

My bags dropped again.

A piercing in my stomach, my lower abdomen.  Sharp. Unexpected. Cold.

My lower lip trembled.

Jillian had stabbed me in the stomach.

You really did that.

Her body was pressed against mine, so I couldn’t see what she had thrusted into me, but the cold metal narrowed down my options.

A knife. She had pulled a knife on me.

Where did that come from? No, didn’t matter right now, because right now, it was in me.

I winced, water collecting in the corners of my eyes, the pain rushing through me. I couldn’t speak, say anything. My breaths were stunted.

So much for just talking.

I couldn’t speak, but I could move.

My hands immediately went for her shoulders, gripping tight. I saw her struggle, from both my strength and coming to terms with she had just done. Now wasn’t the time for second guessing.

I considered that for the both of us. No second guessing.

I pulled my head back, winding up, then I brought it forward, slamming my forehead into the bridge of her nose. I headbutted her.

The impact forced her back, and Jillian was falling again. I felt the blade slide out out my stomach, it’s uneven path slicing the roof of my intestines. Scrambling. I could vomit.

The weapon dropped out her hand, landing beside us. It was red. It was a knife.

Oh, no no no.

She had drawn blood from me, but I got her, too. Jillian’s nose was bleeding, flowing red. It smelled so good.

My hand went to her face, pressing into her mouth and nose. She tripped over herself, leaning back too far. She went to the ground again.

I looked at my hand, drenched in red. I moved to Jillian, looming over her. Blood had gotten into her eyes, and she was whimpering in pain, her hands to her face. She couldn’t see me.

“You’re officially a psychopath,” I said, noting the irony.

I licked my fingers.

Damn this taste.

Too delicious.

I feel like I actually could get used to this. The clarity is addicting.

I brought a finger to my midriff, feeling around. Nothing. My stomach was already stitching itself up, healing, but the scene here was already a mess. Jillian was still bleeding, I had a hole in my shirt, streaked in red, and there was still the knife here to deal with. People might come to investigate soon, especially with the racket Jillian was raising.

Come up with something. Think.

I sprung into action. I bent down, opening up my sports bag, and took out a tall bottle of water. I popped the top off, and began spilling some of the water on the knife, washing away most of the blood. I made sure to conserve enough water, but I managed to clean it off. Any blood that was still here would be Jillian’s.

I spilt more of the water around us, around me, and I sat down next to my sport bag. Using the last of the water, I splashed it on my abdomen and shorts. I put the empty bottle back in the bag, and zipped it closed.

I let myself fall onto the ground, onto the wet cement. My clothes were wet, now, my hands too, and I wiped my mouth.

This should be convincing enough.

I screamed, and footsteps followed.

The place wasn’t hard to find. Getting there was the challenge.

The buildings here were tall, but they were office buildings, with brightly lit windows and people working. Someone could spot me if I wasn’t careful, even if it was this late into the night.

The city bustled below, cars sounding off, people just as loud. They had no idea.

I told myself I wouldn’t do this again, and yet, here I was.

I had everything on. Grey joggers, blue windbreaker, the mask. The wind was strong up here, serene, and it separated me from the noise below.

Soothing.

I checked the windows of the building across from me again. Everyone looked distracted enough. This was my chance.

It was an old building, quite a few floors, with a few windows on each floor really being an entrance to a balcony overlooking the street below. I was aiming for a balcony on the thirteenth floor, which was set lower than the building I was on. It was also one of the few windows that had no light shining through it.

Once I make the plunge, I thought, There’s no going back. You know that, right?

I asked myself that.

I do.

I leaped.

After a solid thud, I landed perfectly. I had crossed the street, successfully. I was sure of that. No use standing out in the open, though. Briskly, I walked to the window.

I wasn’t going to delude myself, I still didn’t want to do this, but she had opened my eyes. Jillian. There really was a fucked up world out there, full of people who had no business freely being around others. Capable of harm, capable of much more. I had seen a bit of it when I went against El Carruaje, but they were an organization, a group of people working towards something bigger. Too hard, too dangerous to tackle on my own, and I didn’t. I had help. I needed it.

But Jillian? She was one person, a psychotic individual. Her, I could handle. People like her.

If it wasn’t me, it would’ve been someone else. Jillian would’ve gotten to someone who didn’t have powers like I did, and they’d be seriously hurt, with lasting consequences. I’d make it my job, to stop people like that, before they got to anyone else. Because I could take it, whatever they threw at me.

Bring it on.

I got to the window, and found it hard to peek through. I knocked four times.

The seconds were tense. And after ten, the window clicked, and opened outward. I saw him.

Thomas.

He had the faintest expression of amusement. An ‘I told you so’ kind of look.

“I’m glad to see you again, and so soon,” he said.

“Likewise,” I said sarcastically.

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021 – Blend, Smear

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I fell backwards. I hit the ground. A thin layer of artificial grass provided some cushioning.

Some.

I felt pummeled. Like a world-class boxer just went to town on my face. My brain was scrambled. Thoughts not coming together quite right. Maybe a memory or two got knocked out of my head, somehow. Perhaps a math equation.

Was this enough for a concussion?

No, it wasn’t that bad, all things considered. I had taken worse. Way worse. I was just taken by surprise. I wasn’t expecting it. As a result, I fell.

My faceplate took the brunt of the hit – the hits – but the hard plastic was thrust against my upper lip and nose. That had to leave a mark, if not break my nose entirely. I practically took it at point-blank range.

I went to the ground, more in shock than in pain. My healing immediately kicked in.

The numbing throb in my head started slowing in tempo, another type of feeling settling in. I felt my nose move a fraction, and immediately felt like I could breath again. Like I had forgotten that I could. My nose had definitely bruised.

The pain was dissipating, now, my healing doing its job, but I was now more confused than anything else.

What was that for?

“That’ll teach you to not stand over me.”

That voice. Grating.

Probably Jillian.

“Don’t go around getting the wrong idea,” she said. “You ain’t better than me.”

The more she spoke, the more dots I was able to connect. Why I thought she was familiar.

She called me something before, before she shot me in the face.

‘Shorty.’

It was an idiotic nickname, a laughable attempt at an insult, but I remember being called that, once before.

She, Jillian…

Paint had covered my faceplate, and it was hard to see. Some light cut through, but then it dimmed some. She was standing over me.

“It’s more like this, get it?” she intoned. “Know your place.”

The fuck?

“How is your ego that fragile?”

I managed to ask that. It came out clearer than I thought it would.

I couldn’t see her face, but I was sure she had a reaction.

“Quit talking.”

She shot her paintball gun again, this time to my chest.

It was solid hit. A clean punch.

If I was able to talk clearly before, I couldn’t now.

My body twitched at the hit, but I otherwise stayed down, still stunned from what just transpired.

I heard shuffling above me, the sound going away. She ran off. What a coward.

Did… did that just happen?

I was so confused.

In the end, getting hit by a paintball gun was relatively low on my new threshold for pain. I got back on my feet easy, right away.

Externally, I was okay. I barely broke a sweat, and I didn’t get any paint on my clothes. Internally, I was fuming.

I was already annoyed with Jillian for intruding upon my date with Brandon. Now that I actually knew who she was, not only did things come together, I was mad at the fact that they had to come together like this.

She was the girl at the Strip, the one that was pissing off both me and Katy. She was also Brandon’s cousin.

Because of course she was.

I wasn’t sure if she knew about my powers. Didn’t seem like it. She would’ve brought it up. But she did know of me and Brandon. She deliberately went and stepped outside of her home today to sabotage my date, she had to. It was the only thing I could speculate about this. The only thing I couldn’t figure out was why.

Why?

I tried wiping the paint away from my faceplate, but I ended up smearing it. The different shades of color blended into a murky, dark mess. I tried again, and it got a little better, but not by much. When my faceplate cleared up a little more, I crouched down on my knees, hands out, looking for my gun. I had dropped it when I got shot. It took some time to locate it. It somehow ended up at the base of a chest-high wall. How it got there, I could only guess.

I picked it up. Taking my time, I began to maneuver my way off of the field.

Another announcement, declared overhead.

The game has concluded. All players return to the front of the field.

I took that as a reason to remove my headgear, unfastening my other equipment.

I reconvened with the others at the front, by the door leading back into the lobby. Brandon was there. So was Jillian.

Everyone was starting to take off their equipment, returning them to the boxes. The team we went up against weren’t around.

“Alexis, hey,” Brandon said after he returned his stuff. He met me at one of the boxes. “Sick moves out there, Jesus Christ.”

I rubbed my nose, as if I could fix it myself. Which, in a sense, I actually could. “I guess.”

“As soon as we started, man, you left me in smoke. That was actually really dope.”

“It ain’t nothing,” I said, trying to force levity in my voice. “Just wanna get out of here.”

“We can, now. Because of you, we destroyed those other guys. They were so salty they went back to the lobby without saying anything.”

“Good,” I said, “They deserve it.”

Deserve it, I thought.

I tried not to, but I looked at Jillian, who already had her equipment off. She was talking with her friends. Talking like nothing happened. She was laughing, joking.

Like nothing happened.

If I was ever out for blood…

I blinked, realizing where I was. I had to put conscious effort towards unclenching my fists. I didn’t notice how tense I became while watching her. How agitated I was. I was ready to run up on her, make her bleed with my own two hands. I could do it, too. No knife needed.

I wouldn’t, though. Couldn’t.

As fucked up as it was, there was no point in making a fuss about it. The less attention I brought upon myself, the better, and apparently I had raised enough attention with Jillian.

Fuck this, this isn’t worth it.

“Wanna move on?” I asked Brandon, putting forth idea of leaving. I tried masking my regret, my anger, with a higher intonation.

It seemed to work. “I’m down,” Brandon said, as cheery as ever. It wasn’t his fault, I didn’t even want him to know, but his demeanor stung me.

I smiled.

“Cool.”

I didn’t bother with any other pleasantries. I promptly left, leaving everyone behind. Brandon could go say bye to the others, to Jillian, if he wanted, but I’d count myself out.

I returned my gun by simply leaving on the counter. I saw Number Two sitting on a chair, looking into the other arena. He still had his headgear on, but I could tell he was as angry as I was. Something about his body language. All he had to brood about, though, was losing.

Wait, wasn’t he around when I got shot? Why didn’t he do anything? Say anything? Was losing so bad to him, that he’d disregard anything else?

Fuck that guy, too, then.

This day took a sour turn really fast, and I had to do my best to salvage it.

I made it out of the building, and waited outside. It didn’t take too long for Brandon to follow. Good, I didn’t want to be left alone with my thoughts.

We walked to Brandon’s car. For now, I’d power through this, keep on moving. Jillian would only be an issue if I made her into one. There were other things worth concerning myself over, but even that could wait.

“What did you think?” Brandon asked, “You have fun?”

“I did have fun,” I answered. There was some truth there. The game itself, aside from how it ended, was a blast. That, I had no problems with. I could be honest about that.

“So, where to next?” Brandon asked as we moved. “You drink coffee?”

Literally impossible, but I wouldn’t phrase it like that.

“Not a fan, really,” I said, “Too bitter.”

“You’re aware you can put in sugar, right?”

“I’m aware, Captain Obvious,” I said, forcing myself to act more casually. Unnaturally acting natural. “Just not a coffee girl.”

“That’s why I ask,” Brandon said. We got to his car, and I went over to the passenger side.

“I mean, I don’t mind going to a cafe or whatever,” I said, “I just won’t get anything. Besides, it’ll be a good place to cool down, take a break.”

A break is really what I need, right now.

Brandon nodded, satisfied. “Cool.”

Maria slapped my shoulder, expressing her disbelief.

“You’re not gonna go out with him again?”

I would’ve shrugged, but I had my bags with me. No need for the effort.

“It’s… “ I tried searching for the word. “What’s the word?”

“Moronic? A waste?”

“Complicated?” I ventured. “It’s complicated.”

“Complicated how?” Maria wasn’t having any of it. “The date didn’t go down that badly, did it?”

I got shot in the face. Three times.

“It’s just something I don’t want to pursue anymore,” I explained, vaguely.

“This isn’t a career you’re pursuing, Alexis.” Katy interjected, and I remembered she was here, too. “This is a boy we’re talking about. Much more important.”

“Sorry to disappoint, guys,” I said. We turned to move down the hall. “As much as I wanted it to before, it’s not gonna work out.”

Katy whined, her disappointment obvious. “I’ll let you go for now, Alexis, since you have your practice. But we’re not done here. You going to give us the full deets about your date, eventually.”

“And I only just now found out you ever went on one,” Maria said. “I’m offended.”

We went to a flight of stairs, slowing down our pace as everyone else was trying to squeeze their way down. “Not much happened,” I said. “Nothing to report.”

“Yeah, yeah, we could do this all day,” Katy said, “And we won’t get anywhere. Go, text me when you’re done.”

“Imma dip, too,” Maria said. “No point in hanging around like I used to.”

I felt a sense of accomplishment, there. It was the small stuff. Just that could’ve made my week.

“See you,” I said, splitting up with them when we passed the front doors of the school. With their backs to me, I couldn’t help but sulk.

It had been a few days since my date with Brandon. After my date had ended, Katy kept pestering me with texts about how it went. I ignored them, didn’t want to talk about it. Kept quiet about it too, over the next few days. Katy didn’t push any more until just now, I guessed she’d wait until I was comfortable with sharing more. Which I wasn’t, and she was already losing her patience. It was understandable, she helped facilitate and set this up between me and Brandon.

She just didn’t see Jillian throwing a wrench in things.

Speaking of which, I started seeing her around school more often, like a word I just learned and suddenly it popped up everywhere, except I wanted to forget it. Mostly standing around in the hallways, in between classes, but I could pick her out from a crowd. Was she always there, or was I just going crazy?

Maybe it was both.

I hadn’t seen her after school, barring that one time we looked for Maria, so I was spared of her presence for now. Good.

Conversely, I hadn’t seen or heard from Brandon since. Maybe he already got the message, or caught on to the fact that there wouldn’t be one. Even though I ‘secured’ that second date.

Man, fuck Jillian.

I headed towards the gym on the other side of the school, trying to find something else to think about. Like that fact that I probably needed to drink blood soon. I could feel it in my throat.

I stopped when I saw Eric and Evan by a vending machine. Harrian was with them.

I remembered when I went into the Asian goods store, when I chatted with Harrian. It had been a few days since, and I had a chance to reflect on everything. I wasn’t exactly on my best behavior that day. Even if I did have my reasons.

Normally, I would’ve kept going, but this time, I approached.

“What are you two clowns up to?” I asked.

They turned to me, with a dumb grin plastered on their faces. Calling them ‘clowns’ was an apt description.

“Oh, hey Alexis,” Eric said, his deep voice rumbling.

“I hope you’re not bothering Harrian,” I said, looking to the boy in question. I didn’t know him that well, having only talked to him back at the store, and even then, I couldn’t get a read on his expressions.

“We’re not bothering anybody,” Evan said, “We were just laughing.”

“At what?”

“Not at anything, Harry just made a joke.”

A joke?

I almost did double-take to Harrian. Putting it lightly, the last thing I would’ve considered Harrian to be was funny.

I squinted. “Now I want to know what the joke was.”

Harrian glanced elsewhere. He spoke, but his voice still carried that dull tone.

“You wouldn’t get it.”

Eric and Evan broke down into laughter again, and if I had a magnifying glass, I might have seen Harrian’s upper lip move a bit, a smile trying to escape.

So you do have a personality. That’s a relief.

“See?” Eric said, shoulders shaking, “Told you we made it up to him.”

“Yeah, we’re practically family now,” Evan added.

“I wouldn’t go that far,” Harrian said. “My Aunt would hate to be related to you two.”

“Damn,” Evan leaned back and winced, like Harrian’s comment actually stung. “Too savage, man.”

I watched the three of them converse. I really wanted to know the story there, what exactly happened to get to this point, but that wasn’t any of my business. If nothing else, I was happy for them. Eric and Evan were working on getting their third musketeer.

“Didn’t mean to intrude then,” I said, “I was going to do the whole ‘stick up for the little guy’ bit, and win some cosmic brownie points, but it looks like things are alright, here. I’ll get going.”

“Wait, Lexis, hold up,” Eric said. His voice wasn’t as jaunty as before. He managed to stop me.

“Yeah?”

“You know Jillian, Brandon’s cousin?”

I wasn’t so enthused to hear that question. “I’m familiar.”

“She’s been asking around about you. Even went to me and Evan.”

I felt myself tense. “Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“What was she asking about?”

“Just anything. What you like to do after school, what classes you have. Stuff like that. We didn’t tell her anything, promise.”

“I appreciate it,” I said.

“Yeah. I like Brandon and all, but I’ve heard about her, and… like, Brandon doesn’t like to admit they’re related unless he absolutely has to, so something’s definitely off with her. I don’t know, just thought I’d let you know, before anything bad happens.”

Anything bad. I had no idea what her problem was, or why she was asking around about me, but this was becoming borderline creepy. I didn’t want her to be trouble, but it seemed like she was making trouble on her own. Had to do something about it now, nip it in the bud. Get to the bottom of this, as it were.

“Do you know where she hangs?” I asked, making sure.

“From what I’ve heard,” Eric said, “She usually chills at the Strip. Wait, you’re going, now?”

“Sure,” I said, serious. For whatever reason, Jillian wanted me, and she was going to get me.

Round two, I figured.

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