I fell backwards. I hit the ground. A thin layer of artificial grass provided some cushioning.
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.
“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.
It was an idiotic nickname, a laughable attempt at an insult, but I remember being called that, once before.
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.”
“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.
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.
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 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.”
“Not at anything, Harry just made 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.
“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?”
“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.