Dark clouds stretched above me. Heavy, like it could rain at any moment, the threat literally hanging over my head. Huge, too, and I distracted myself by imagining what it would be like if they were really huge floating islands, and a civilization of people had been living up there for centuries, completely separate from us land-dwellers. What kind of food would they eat? How did they travel from cloud to cloud?
I heard Hleuco approach up from behind. I didn’t turn or react, I simply looked ahead.
The city was nothing like New York, with the iconically tall buildings and the sheer amount of them, but Stephenville had a skyline of its own, scraping its own name into the sky. The center of my line of sight held a higher concentration of buildings, taller too. An area colloquially referred to as ‘The Eye,’ the roughest part of town, and where the more prominent gangs held the most influence and power. Even with my powers, I was still an ant, compared to the bosses within those towers. Impossible, to do anything about them now. Not like that was what we were working towards, or anything. Our aspirations were a lot smaller.
I looked, once again feeling a sense of self-doubt, second guessing myself. Should I really be doing this?
Hleuco took a position a few feet away from the roof’s edge. As for me, I was sitting, my legs hanging. It was chilly up here, even with a windbreaker.
We were on a roof of an abandoned factory, in an older district. The ‘hood,’ if I wanted to put a label on it. It was the closest thing to a headquarters we had, not that we had done any refurbishing or renovations towards making it a base of operations. More of a meeting place, I supposed, far enough off the grid that no one besides crackheads and their dealers would enter.
However, that meant that I had to travel pretty far to make it here. Forty-five minutes, walking when two buses took me as far as they could.
I need to learn how to drive, and soon.
Actually, first, I need a car.
“You could’ve told me you were already here,” Hleuco started, breaking me away from my thoughts.
“I came up from another way,” I explained, dryly, “The roof here is big, so I thought I’d stay in one place.”
“You have your earpiece, don’t you?”
“I needed a breather.”
“I said it was urgent for a reason.”
“Kept you waiting, huh?” I asked, not concerned.
“Only a few hours, but it’s not as if time is of the essence.”
“That’s a relief, then,” I said. I didn’t care how late I was. I had to wait for my mom to go to bed before I could head out. That was a drawback he’d have to learn to deal with. Not my fault I was the only superhuman available at his beck and call.
I didn’t apologize, nor attempt to justify my tardiness. Was not in the mood.
“In any case, there’s a lot we need to discuss, and now there’s not much time,” Hleuco said, taking my small wisecrack in stride. “But this is something we need to address.”
I heard a cushioned drop of what sounded like clothes onto concrete, then the crinkling of paper while he talked.
“Thanks to the so-called ‘Halloween Riots,’ the people are asking for a real witch trial out of you.”
“How reassuring,” I said. Lightly, I kicked my legs out in front of me, letting them swing.
Hleuco continued to explain the situation, a situation seared into my consciousness for the last few days. “Public perception was wary at least, fearful at most. But now?” The crinkling paper came back, and he paused. He exhaled, before saying, “They want to burn you at the stake. Not the best foot forward when you just started being a superhero.”
“I didn’t do this to be loved,” I said, nonchalantly. “Not a concern.”
“Perhaps it’s not a concern in a personal sense, but it’s a concern nonetheless. If these riots continue into the next few days, the governor is considering sending in the National Guard to come after you.”
That got to me. I wasn’t aware of that potential measure. “You’re kidding, right? Tell me you’re kidding?” I looked at him for my answer.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
What I heard from Hleuco was him tearing into a bag. He was suited up, and had his mask on, but not on properly. It was lifted up, the mouth-beak section over his eyes, and he was eating a burger.
“You were late, so I had time.”
“But right this very second, though? You’re mixing signals.”
“I still have some leftovers, want a few?” he offered, showing me the greasy paper bag.
Again, my stomach did a flip.
“Um, I’m good,” I said.
“Hmm, more for me.” He dug into some french fries, left in the bottom of the bag.
Without realizing it, he was rubbing it in my face.
“Tasty?” I asked, harshly.
“Very,” he answered, his mouth full.
“Okay, can we get back to the point, now? You were the one complaining about wasted time.” I set my sights back on the city.
“Sure.” The paper bag rustled some more. I heard him set it down.
“Nothing confirmed,” Hleuco said, “It was only reported earlier this morning. The governor’s considering it, but that’s enough for us to have to seriously change how we do this moving forward, assuming of course, we want to move forward.”
“I’m just going to get this out of the way now, so I don’t have to waste any more time. Do you feel like quitting?”
That question came at me from nowhere. It was a big question, too, one that I had to take seriously. I pushed myself away from the lip of the roof, and stood, facing Hleuco.
“Why are you asking this, now? Didn’t we just start?” I asked.
Hleuco had fixed his mask in the meantime, and looked at me front and center. A big duffel bag was by one foot, and crumpled litter by the other.
“I ask because the gangs are already retaliating,” Hleuco said. His mask’s beak cupped over his mouth, carrying it, making it sound bigger. “No civilians are dead, but plenty have been injured from being caught up in a riot. And it’s not just those riots. You saw it with the bank robbers. They were using your image while committing a crime. Doesn’t stop there, and it hasn’t. Crimes all over the city are reported being committed by those in blue hoodies and grey pants. Robbery, arson, home invasion. The riots have continued, too, though smaller and faster to be stomped out than that first one on Temple Street. Isolated incidents, but connected by a single, blue thread. It’s clear what’s going on, here.”
Behind my mask, I hid my concern. And the occasional flinch of pain whenever my throat or stomach ached.
I pressed further. “Would you care to be more clear?”
Hleuco drew in a breath before explaining, saying, “Let’s go back to the initial riot on Temple Street.”
“I’d rather not.”
“Listen. Several were apprehended and arrested, all from various gangs. From Axel, the Thirteen-Dogs, even leftovers from The Chariot. Not one gang, but several. You were partially right, before, when you asked if a gang was behind it. Turns out there were more.”
That was exactly what I needed to hear at the moment. More complications. I never wanted to be more wrong in my life.
I flinched again. My stomach.
“And it wouldn’t even be a hard collaboration to organize, I’d imagine,” Hleuco said. “Just show up in one place, in dress code, then go to town. Even if they lose people in the process, the gangs did their damage. And the people they did lose? At least they went down for a cause. People like to think that.”
Hleuco reached back behind his head. He was undoing his mask, removing it, revealing the man behind it.
He set his arms beside him, his mask in one hand. His eyes were baggy, dog-tired, but he stood straight, his posture firm. He fixed his hair with his free hand.
“So I want to ask you again, do you want to quit?”
The question struck me in an odd way. The way he laid out those particular cards, the way he was dealing this out, it made it seem like he wanted me to call it quits.
Again, mixing signals.
I called him out on it, instead of answering. “You were the one who encouraged me to do something with my powers, to do more to help others. Now you’re asking if I want to walk away, after only a week or so doing this?”
Thomas shook his head. “I’ll never not encourage you to help people with your abilities, all I’m asking is, with these circumstances, are you willing to move forward? No one could have anticipated this, and having to tackle this issue will be asking more of you than you initially offered to put on the table. How did you put it, when you just came through my window, back then? ‘Go after the small fries?’
“Not exactly how I said it.”
“Semantics. I stand by what I said when we first met, but I’m not dumb. I recognize how young you really are, the life that mask is trying to protect and hide. I only gave you my proposal because I knew you were aware of the danger, you dealt with it, and you walked away unscatched. You have potential, you have promise, and I want cultivate that. But, this isn’t your main responsibility, and it never has to be. You don’t owe this city anything, and you’re too young to owe this city your life. You don’t have to go that far. If you’re going to fight, you’ll need to come up with your own reason.”
The words rang clear within me, but they were like a ringing alarm that would wake me up every morning. I’ve heard it before.
“You’ve mentioned this already,” I said, “When I came to see you. You’re retreading.”
“I’m reaffirming,” Thomas said, correcting me. “Our original plan of going after petty criminals isn’t going to hold water when they’re tossing molotovs. We will have to change our game plan, not terribly so, but it is in order.”
“What an argument,” I commented. “It’s like you actually want me to walk away from this.”
“I won’t reiterate, otherwise we’ll be going in circles. I’ll simply wait for an answer.” He checked a watch on his free hand. “Though, if we wanted to get to the other thing I had planned, you’d need to be quick.”
My mask hid the slight smile I had. I was amused. “Putting me on the spot, then.”
I turned away from him, my eyes again on the city. I went all the way out here just for this? My whole neck and torso were hurting, stinging, and I had already mentally prepared myself to do some superheroing tonight, even if I’d end up falling asleep in class the next day. I needed an outlet, something to take my mind off of that disaster of a dinner.
And I actually needed dinner, too. Not that Thomas had to know that.
He was right, though, I had to give him that. This wasn’t what I signed up for. I had agreed to do work like this as long as it was simple, an easy engagement, with monetary compensation. Two or three times a week, depending on my schedule, I’d ride in a van, or run along rooftops, stopping whatever crime or wrongdoing I’d come across. Hleuco would relay whatever information I needed, usually the movements of the police, all from some complicated police scanner he’d managed to procure. It was as straightforward as you could get, an avenue to not be myself for a while, to assume another identity. As Alexis, my powers – my thirst – hindered and interfered with my day-to-day life. A source of stress. As Blank Face, I could at least direct my strength towards something that wasn’t myself. The thirst was still a problem, though, hanging over me like the dark clouds above. Agreeing to be a superhero was equal parts for myself, and for whoever I could help. But, according to Thomas, those parts were already becoming disproportionate.
Already, we had to change things up.
On the other hand, I didn’t sign up for any of this at all. But, I should have come to terms with that some time ago. Honestly? Still working on it.
I still needed an outlet, a recreational channel for my powers. And, as a more pressing, immediate matter, I was still thirsty. I needed to be out right now. I just had to find a way to slip that minor detail past Thomas.
With my answer, my mind made up, my resolution steeled, I looked across to Thomas. He was still, waiting. Still waiting.
“I’m still in,” I said, after thinking it over.
“Oh?” he asked, sounding like he didn’t expect that.
“I’m saying you’re right, but I won’t quit just yet. We just got started. Let’s show them something good.”
“So, you’re telling me we’re on the same page on this?”
I clicked my tongue. “Looks like it, but don’t point it out like that. It makes me want to take back what I said.”
Thomas smirked, like he was entertained, or relieved. “Then I say no more, just take this.”
He bent down, picking back up the larger bag at his feet. The way he lifted it suggested that its weight was pretty hefty. He tossed it at me, swinging it underhand.
It crashed at my feet.
“And this is?” I inquired.
“Your new costume.”
“The gangs and riots are smearing your image, and it’s working. The public will hate you, if they don’t already. It’ll be difficult continuing this if they associate you as another element of the rampant crime in the city.”
“But don’t people out there realize that this is a scheme on the gangs’ part? A trick?”
“Some might see through it, but it’s easier to want you out of the picture now, then want to see you maybe achieving some good in the future. Audiences love to hate.”
I tugged at the hem of my jacket. “And you think a new costume is going to change it.”
“It’s a step. This is less imitable, harder to come by. And, if I might add, it’s more striking, too. It’s enough to differentiate yourself from the fakes. Visually speaking. You may have been working on a new one on your own, but I took the liberty of piecing together my own version. I hope you don’t mind.”
I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t put much stock into my ‘costume’ when I first came up with it, but I couldn’t deny that I’ve developed some attachment to my current getup. It became familiar, recognizable, comforting when I was out doing uncomfortable things. It was admittedly strange to feel this way towards some clothes and a mask, but if old army veterans could maintain a sense of pride in their old uniforms, I could hold that sentiment towards a beaten-up windbreaker and joggers.
But, I was curious at what Thomas had come up with.
I tapped the tip of my foot on the ground, fixing my shoe. I breathed audibly.
I got down on my knees, and zipped open the bag. I peeked inside.
“This is what you came up with?” I asked, still investigating.
“I’ve left some other stuff in there for you, but just try it on. No worries, I’ll look the other way.”
Thomas didn’t expect or wait for a reply from me. He moved, walking away, his back to me.
I had thought about why he was seemingly so disinterested and uncaring about my true identity. The best friend of his only daughter. Considering how I was, what I had become – whatever that was, exactly, – wouldn’t anyone want to know who was under this mask? Yet, he seemed to want to respect that. Was there a reason why? I couldn’t stop myself from putting that train of thought into motion.
Could it be that he already knew?
No, I thought. Wouldn’t make sense. I knew Thomas, he would’ve immediately said something the second he found out. He wouldn’t have let me get this far. He simply wasn’t interested, I had to suspect. There were more important things on his mind, other motives. Like he said, it could be anyone under this mask, but his words would be the same.
That, I knew.
When Thomas got farther away, I changed into what was in the bag. I removed my windbreaker, then my fanny pack with my knife and pepper spray, but I kept my joggers on. I wasn’t willing to expose myself that much, not while outside, and definitely not while Katy’s dad was right there, back to me or not. Not my style.
Hastily, I removed my mask, and swapped it with the one in the bag. I adjusted it to fit my face, and fixed the different straps that wrapped around the back of my head. I tried to clean off the right lens with my hand, but it smudged, leaving a mark, and I left it at that.
Next came the parka, and I zipped it up, snapping the metallic buttons together once I put back on the fanny pack. The parka went past my waist, stopping right at my butt.
Last came the gloves, which I found next to an unattached handle of a thing. Black leather gloves. I put them on.
The only thing I didn’t wear were the pants at the bottom.
I stood, flipping the hood up.
“Um, I’m ready!” I called. My new mask distorted my voice even more than my old one. It sounded deeper, even more muffled. “Ready!” I called again, to account for it.
Thomas came back, fixing the straps around his mask, too. I couldn’t see his expression when he checked me out.
“You didn’t change into the pants,” was what he said.
“I thought we were trying to stop crimes, not be involved in our own.”
I couldn’t see his expression, his reaction, but a pause was all I needed.
“Not what I intended,” Hleuco said.
“Fucking around,” I said back, “Just fucking around.”
“Alright. That aside, I think it works. You look good, or rather, you look proper.”
I shifted in place. The jacket was heavier than I was used to, and the mask covered my face entirely, and it would be harder to take off. This was going to be an issue if I was planning on finding blood tonight. Which I was.
A small complaint which I couldn’t raise.
“I tried keeping the silhouette of your original look,” Hleuco explained. “While making it more utilitarian, built to last. Truth be told, I was quite fond of the rough draft of a costume you had at first, so I just wanted to build upon it, improve it.”
“No, I, you’re right. This is better,” I said. There was a certain nervousness, there, that I didn’t expect. This really did feel like a costume, like effort was made to be and dress the part of a superhero.
This is better, but it’ll take some getting used to.
Hleuco concurred, “Great. Now, we head out. We’re behind as it is, and this took longer than I anticipated. Come along, I’ll explain on the way.”
He moved again without any confirmation on my part, and I had to follow, stuffing my old mask and windbreaker into the bag as I went.
“So, what’s next?” I had to ask. “A new costume couldn’t be the only thing you had in mind.”
“No, it isn’t,” he said as we left the roof, going through a door that led us down some stairs. The added echo of our steps and his masked voice made me really have to listen. “We were going after the smallest of fries, the game that didn’t matter. That’s fine and well, but that means no gang has any incentive to take us seriously. And they don’t, otherwise they wouldn’t be playing dress up. If we want to make an impact, we will have to show them that we are serious, and that we mean business. No more picking up what we can. Now, we play for keeps.”