*These are to be read right to left, then from top to bottom. Click them to see a larger version. Enjoy!
“Hold still,” my mom said, as she lifted my bangs away from my eyes. She cut.
I had my eyes shut tight.
We were on the balcony of our apartment. We both had aprons on, to not get hair on our clothes. I was faced towards the edge of the balcony, the railing, with the city in the distance. The wind was soft, brushing against my cheeks. We were in the shade, but still warm from the time of day. Calming, if not for the fact my mom was here, essentially in my room.
Don’t open the closet, please don’t come up with a reason to open the closet.
Everything was in there. Everything. Tucked under boxes of toys, old clothes, blankets, just any old junk I could use to hide my Blank Face stuff. And all of that was tucked into the bag that came with my new costume, which was supposed to be as inconspicuous as anything else. Mom had no prerogative to go snooping around my stuff, but I couldn’t stop myself from being tense.
The scissors being so close to my eyes only added to my anxiety.
My mom snipped some hair, and some fell onto my face. I crinkled my nose.
I had to prepare my room for when she’d come in. Bags of chips at my computer desk, some opened, some empty. The apple from school was there, too, a chunk taken out to make it look like a bite mark. In reality, it was all smoke and mirrors, a few chips and scraps flushed down the toilet to give the image that I was snacking at my computer. To her, it looked like I was eating, right?
It had better look like that.
“Your coach called me again, yesterday,” my mom said, out of the blue. We were doing just fine, being here without words. Now she wanted to converse.
“What about?” I asked.
“She was asking about why you haven’t been coming to practice.”
“What did you tell her?”
“That you were going to focus on your studies for a while. I hope I wasn’t lying to her.”
“No, you weren’t. I’ve had to skip in order to catch up with some stuff.” I intentionally kept it vague, sparring a few details in order keep a straighter story. Divulging more than I needed to wasn’t necessary.
Plus, it would be easier on my conscience.
“Are you looking for colleges yet?” my mom then asked. I guessed it was some tangent from what she brought up earlier, about Couch Tilly. The connecting thread being school.
“I’m kind of starting,” I said, fudging it. “Haven’t really looked into much, yet, but…”
“Do you know where you want to go?”
Honestly, in this moment, I was putting more thought into this now than I ever did in the past months combined. “Um, maybe somewhere local? Or at least in-state. I probably won’t be able to get into any of the big universities, though. Actually, who knows? I could get lucky.”
Rambling. Pretty much telling her I haven’t thought about it at all.
“How about your friends?”
The truth was easier to tell, there. Funny how that worked. “Katy’s probably going to one of the big universities here, but I don’t think she’s against the idea of going out-of-state. Maria, the girl you met the other day, I’m not sure, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have an idea. She likes to keep things to herself.”
Like I have to, now.
My mom cut some more hair, and brushed. “You’re not worried about not seeing them after you’re done with high school?”
“We’re still juniors, Mom, and graduation is over a year away.”
My mom exhaled, or maybe she scoffed? “Time moves by faster than you think. I wouldn’t take anything for granted.”
The way she said that, her tone. There was a weight to it, that made me consider her words.
She cut, and I was quiet.
The rest of the haircut went by uneventfully. Peacefully, really. There wasn’t a lot we had to talk about, and not a lot I had to offer, myself. I only wanted to get this over with. I still had to test my makeup.
And, I was still concerned over the stuff in my closet.
“Here,” my mom said, indicating to me that she was done. She combed my hair, and brushed my neck and shoulders. She handed me a mirror to look for myself.
It looked good. Of course it did. Mom was mom. I didn’t really trust anyone else to get so close to me with scissors.
I twirled my hair, tucking a lock behind my ear, checking how it looked from every angle. I noticed something.
My mom had trimmed my hair, so it brushed the top of my shoulders rather than going a touch past them, and my bangs sitting right at the top of my eyebrows. Upon closer scrutiny, it made me look a year or two younger. I looked more like a kid than ever.
Also, my mom had cut my hair in a way to better frame my face, to hide that I had been losing weight. Had I not been the one going through this, I would’ve been fooled, myself. My mom knew to do that, it was in the back of her mind. My weight loss had become apparent enough for her to do something about it, to make her own workaround.
I could probably style my hair in enough ways to better look my age, but even considering that my mom had to do this…
Blank Face was affecting my life in ways I hadn’t anticipated.
Have to be more perceptive.
“I like it, thanks Ma,” I said, having to fudge the truth again. I did like it, but I also felt like I needed a new backpack with a cartoon character on it.
Maybe I was exaggerating, but it was my gut reaction.
“That will be twenty dollars,” my mom said.
I returned the mirror. “Can I just work it off?”
My mom fixed my hair again. “I suppose that works.”
“How about I throw in a hundred massages, and a hundred backrubs?” I asked sarcastically, before getting to work, helping my mom clean up the balcony from my excess hair and her supplies. Between us, it didn’t take long to get things back in order. My mom took the aprons, she’d put them away in a hamper in her room.
We walked back inside, going through my room to return to the living room. I knew there wouldn’t be anything that would compel her to suddenly go through my closet, but I still held my breath.
“Don’t eat in your room,” my mom said, looking at my desk. “You’ll leave crumbs, even if you’re careful.”
Without a word, I collected the trash as I walked passed it, throwing it away when I got to the trash can in the kitchen.
Success. We left my room, with no real incident.
Knock, knock. Before I could go for a glass of water, someone had knocked on the door.
“I’ll get it,” I said, changing course. Mom continued to her room.
Opening the door, I saw a face I hadn’t seen in years.
Scratch that, make that two.
“Mrs. Phan,” I said, taken aback.
Mrs. Phan hadn’t aged a day. I thought there was a glitch in the universe.
She was somewhere between me and my mom in terms of height, give or take an inch, but I already felt my presence shrinking away. A tough lady, no doubt about it, and from just standing at the door, I knew that time hadn’t chipped away her edges.
She stood, firm, but still friendly. White blouse, and loose jeans, Mrs. Phan looked like she could be anyone’s mother, but instead, she decided to take care of St. Francis Xavier. For as long as I knew her, she was in charge of the administrative stuff for the church, also organizing events, coordinating Sunday school and youth groups, even handling the funds. If it was allowed, she’d probably want to hold mass, too, do the homilies.
Mrs. Phan was pretty hardcore.
With her was Justin, a boy I used to go to church with. He stuck around, I supposed.
He was Vietnamese, like Mrs. Phan, but they weren’t related. His hair was curly, unlike Mrs. Phan, and he was more lax in his posture. If Mrs. Phan had a kid of her own, I couldn’t imagine she’d allow them be so loose.
“Hello there, Alexis, nice to see you after some time,” Mrs. Phan said, kindly. “You’ve grown.”
“You think so?”
“I know so, just one look at you is all it takes.”
“Anyways, uh, what’s up?” I asked the both of them.
“Is your mother home, I’d like to speak with her,” Mrs. Phan said. She then beckoned for Justin, who bent to pick up a cardboard box that was beside him.
“You can,” I heard my mom say, before I could answer for her. She had come to the door. “Hello, Linda.”
“Shiori. Mind if I come in, I won’t be long. I brought some food, it’s for you.” Mrs. Phan tapped the top of the box Justin held. He made a pained face, his arms straining. How heavy was that box?
“We’re not a charity,” my mom said, deadpan.
Ma, hold on.
My mouth went agape, as if I was about to apologize for my mother’s brazen rejection.
Mrs. Phan was unfazed.
“Of course not, Shiori, but can I not visit and bring something to offer as well?”
I was still fixated on Mrs. Phan’s unchanging, warm visage. I didn’t see my mom as she took her time deliberating.
“Come in,” she said, clearly after thinking it over.
“Thank you,” Mrs. Phan said. I stepped to the side, to let them both in. They both removed their shoes. My mom led the way, bringing them both into the kitchen, where Justin set the box on the table.
I shut the door, unsure of what to do next. Was I supposed to be around for whatever Mrs. Phan had to say to Mom? Or could I just retreat into my room for now?
Justin left the kitchen, crossing the apartment and heading my way.
“Wassup,” he said, casually. “It’s been a minute.”
“Definitely more than a minute,” I said.
With a hand, he gestured to the two behind him. “She said it won’t be long, but it will be. Do you have somewhere we can kill some time?”
In the apartment, the only viable option was my room, if we wanted to be away from my mom and Mrs. Phan. But I couldn’t have that. The farther away he was from my room, my closet, the more at ease I’d be.
Besides, my room was a tad messy. I didn’t want any boys poking their heads around while it wasn’t at its best.
Somewhere else, then.
“Wanna go for a walk?” I suggested.
“Fine by me.”
I called to my mom. “Ma, we’re going to go for a walk, is that okay?”
She looked at me from the kitchen. She was already sitting at the table, Mrs. Phan was taking food out of the box, putting them into a refrigerator.
“Do you have your phone?” she asked.
“I do,” I said, remembering my shit-tier flip phone. If I could, I’d buy a new one with my Blank Face money.
“Then, be careful, watch where you’re going. Both of you,” she said.
“We will,” I said, speaking for both me and Justin.
I was dressed warm enough already, wearing my mom’s old sweatshirt and shorts. I grabbed my shoes by the door, putting them on, and Justin went for his, too. Then, we went outside.
We strolled into the nearby neighborhood, suburban houses surrounding us. It was so different from downtown, a whole different energy. I felt like I could walk without having to watch my back.
Sometimes, a car would pass, or we’d stop to say hi to an old person watering their lawn, but otherwise, Justin and I could have a conversation, largely undisturbed.
“Still there at the church, huh?” I said to Justin.
“Yup, mostly for the youth group. It’s something to do on the weekend. We’re all still there, actually, the whole gang.”
“No way, even Emily?”
“Damn, now I feel super guilty, it’s like I ditched you guys. It’s gonna be lonely when I’m the only one in Hell.”
Justin smirked. “Nah, you’re good. We don’t do much but hang around and play games. Sometimes we help around, do volunteer work.”
“Like driving Mrs. Phan around?” I asked.
“Hey, it’s easy work, and it beefs up my résumé.”
We walked, continuing down a sidewalk. I hadn’t seen Justin since my middle school years, but it didn’t seem like time created too big a gulf between us. I could talk comfortably, I just had to watch my words, pick them with care, and not share anything too personal, or revealing.
“So, how are you holding up?” Justin asked. “I don’t follow you on social media, so you’ll have to catch me up the old school way.”
“The old school way? That’s doable. I just got into volleyball around the time I stopped going to the church, and just focused on that this whole time.”
“Gave up one thing for another?”
“It’s not quite like that. There were other factors. Like my mom had picked up a second job at that time, and I had to pick a new extracurricular thing that didn’t involve driving out of our way every weekend and using up gas.”
And, personally, I never felt like I fit in completely, there…
Like I’d ever say that out loud.
Justin responded with a sound. “Hmm.”
“Hey, it was my mom’s reasoning.”
“Like I said, you’re good. I’m not going to hold anything against you.”
“So thrilled to hear that.”
I stepped onto a small pile of leaves. There was an audible crunch. Fall really was here.
“Ha, you’re just as sarcastic as I remember,” Justin commented.
“Oh absolutely, I recall you used to make Mrs. Phan go ballistic because you kept talking back. It was really funny.”
I tried to recall, but my memory of that specific instance was foggy at best. “I can barely remember, but I somehow feel proud of young me.”
“Glad to know you’re still the Alexis I remember. Like, even though it’s been forever, you’re still the same height. It’s like you never grew up.”
“Hey, Mrs. Phan said I grew!”
“She was just being nice, Alexis.”
“Then that hurts, that really hurts. I don’t think I could ever properly heal from that.”
“You’ll get over it.” He looked at me, at the top of my head. “Maybe not.”
“Stop it, if you keep saying stuff like that then I’m really not going to get any taller.”
“But, after so many years of volleyball, you think you’d gain an extra inch or so. All that jumping around and stuff.”
“Don’t tell me you came seemingly out of nowhere just to bully me?”
“No, I originally came here to beef up my résumé, remember? This is just a little something for myself.”
Without thinking, I playfully punched him in the arm.
Justin grabbed his arm, nearly bowling over. His path went uneven, and he had to put a foot ahead of him, off the sidewalk, to catch his balance.
“Whoa, ow, now that’s a hit.”
I drew back, berating myself in my head. “My bad, I wasn’t trying to-”
“No, you’re good, you’re good, I just… wasn’t expecting that. That’s all.” He massaged his arm, letting out a deep breath. And he kept doing it.
I realized he was just fucking around by this point.
“Now you’re just being a little bitch,” I said, lightheartedly. “I might just go back and tell everyone you were beat up by a girl, if you keep overacting like that.”
Justin countered, harshly. “Hey, it’s whatever year it is, girls are tougher than ever. I can bitch however much I want.”
I smiled, glad that I had found some levity in this situation, this circumstance. It was a good break from everything. Without being aware of it, Justin was helping me out. More than he’d know.
No talk of The Bluemoon, no mention of any crazy gang nonsense. It was refreshing, relaxing.
A change of pace towards something familiar.
We continued on our walk, aimlessly as we chattered. There was nowhere particular where we wanted to go. We were approaching a park, the line of houses beside us ending at a trail leading up to it. I knew this park, I had been here before. A handful of times when I was younger, and another time in early October, when I was very, very thirsty, and very desperate.
I bit my lip.
“Kinda tired of walking,” Justin said, pointing down the trail. “Wanna sit on the swings, like real kids?”
I probably could’ve gotten away with refusing, but for what purpose? That park was already starting to bring back painful, sad memories, but I’d live an even more painful and sadder life if I avoided every place that triggered something in me.
This too, I had to fight past.
“No objections,” I said.
We went to the park, getting to the playground proper. We weren’t only ones here. Four kids, dressed like they were in middle school, were running around, chasing each other with plastic swords of various neon colors. Justin and I each took to our own swing, watching them as they ran and yelled.
“What are you doing tomorrow?” Justin asked, as we listlessly looked forward.
“Why do you ask?”
“Do you remember Zoey?”
“Black hair, brown eyes, a gap in her tooth that she used to stick bits of corn in between? Definitely.”
“Hardy-har. It’s her birthday, and we’re doing a get together. Maybe you can come, see the old crew again. We might even go down the Barn, later.”
The Barn. Braham Barn.
I didn’t even consider it for a second.
“I can’t,” I said, “I already have plans for tomorrow. My mom just cut my hair for it.”
“Agh, that’s too bad. I’m sure they would have liked to see you again. And, by the by, Zoey doesn’t have that gap anymore, and she’s dyed her hair. She’s fine, now.”
I looked at him. “No way, you two?”
He nodded, looking so smug it bothered me for a second.
“Good for you,” I said, meaning it, “Tell her I said ‘happy birthday.’ And can I give you guys a piece of advice?”
“Don’t go to the barn, tomorrow. Literally do anything else.”
Confused, he asked, “How come-”
Ahead of us, one of the kids yelled. It didn’t sound like an exclamation of fun, or enjoyment, but rather one of help.
Each kid had their own different colored plastic sword. The one with the bright red sword was crying, trying to run away from the other three. He wasn’t as fast as they were, and when they closed in, they swung, hard and fast. Audible from where we were sitting. A sweep of the leg, the back, and he was on the ground. The other kids waited until he got up, and made some distance before chasing him again.
He continued to cry, and they continued to run.
“Aren’t they playing a little too rough?” I asked Justin, “Where are their parents?”
“I don’t see any cars parked. Probably just walked in like we did.”
“They’re practically beating him up. That’s fucked.”
“I’m sure it’s just kids being kids.”
“No, that’s too far. Come on.” I left the swing.
I can’t leave this be.
“Alexis! Where do you think you’re going?” Behind me, I heard a chain jangle. Justin was following me.
“Back me up, or no. I’ll stop them.”
“You can’t just do that!”
“And why’s that?”
Justin didn’t have a rebuttal. He just grunted, and came with.
We crossed the playground, through the playhouse, and to where the kids were running on the field. The boy was on the ground, curled in a ball, the other kids no longer waiting for him to stand. They beat him with their swords.
One of the bullies was a girl, I noted.
They hadn’t noticed us coming. I shouted when I was about four feet away.
“Get away from him!”
They turned, ceasing their volley of attacks on the boy. He kept crying for a father that wasn’t here.
“What for?” It was the girl that spoke, speaking to me like I was dumb.
“For roughhousing your friend, though, I’m not sure you’re legally allowed to be friends, anymore.”
“But he’s the bad guy,” another kid said. A boy. In that same tone like he was talking to a slower person. “Don’t you see his saber? We’re the good guys because we have lighter colors.”
Are you insane?
“Does it look like I care? You’re only playing a game, don’t get carried away.”
“Bleh, we are playing, you just don’t get it,” the girl said.
“The only thing I ‘get’ is that you don’t understand the concept of simple empathy.”
“Get outta here.” It was the other boy. “Why don’t you go and suck that guy’s dick?” He puckered his lips toward Justin, who was standing to my left.
The kids snickered like they were about to piss themselves. Like the idea of saying bad words was still novel to them.
Jesus Christ, what shit kids these are.
I shook my head, then walked forward. Despite their big words earlier, they let me through. I went to the boy on the ground. Shaking, sobbing.
I sat by him. “Hi, hey, don’t worry. They’re going home, now, they won’t be bothering you anymore. After they leave, you can call whoever you need to call, and get this sorted out. You can borrow my phone, if you need to.”
The rustling of grass, the stamping of feet. From behind.
“We’re not going anywhere! You can’t tell us what to do!”
I stood, spinning around when I heard something cut through air. The girl was swinging down her green sword, straight for my head.
I caught it in my hand easily, at the same time blocking the boy’s blue sword when he tried to strike my right side.
The other boy’s purple sword, he never tried to attack. I simply looked at him, and he was frozen.
I flicked my wrist, and flipped the girl’s sword out of her hand. It flipped again, and I caught it by the hilt. I still held the blue sword by the plastic blade.
I pressed the girl’s sword against her clavicle. I glowered at all three of them, my expression twisting.
Justin was still here, astounded. I kept my voice low, but so the kids could still hear me.
“There’s a dead rabbit at the bottom of that ditch. Unless you want something similar, scram.”
From their quivering mouths, I knew they wanted to cry now, too, but they summarily scrammed, running back down the trail, away from us. From me.
I blinked, as if I was coming back to my senses. I was in a different mode there, for a bit. A different headspace.
I dropped the swords at my feet. The boy with the purple sword was the only one who got to keep his.
Justin approached, slow. Unsure what to say, judging from his face. He didn’t rush himself.
“Damn, that was… pretty hardcore. Are you really Alexis?”
I blinked again.
“Yes, of course I am. That was nothing.”
“‘Nothing’ my ass. I think you gave those kids nightmares for life.”
I had to shake myself out of it. Go back to being Alexis.
“Never mind that,” I said, “Help me out real quick.”
Justin came closer, aiding with getting the bullied boy back on his feet. We checked if he was okay, checked for any bruises. None, it seemed, which was a relief. I had the boy call for someone to come pick him up. He didn’t need to borrow my phone, he had his own.
And it’s better than mine, if I may add.
We waited with him, until a car sped into the parking lot across the field. His father, it seemed like, came running for him. The father thanked us before questioning his son for what happened, and for names. We didn’t stay for that part, I had a hunch they’d get it sorted out.
“Let’s head back,” Justin said, “They’re probably done by now.”
I faced him, then nodded.
We returned to my place.
I wanted to say something, offer up another conversation, but there was a certain air to Justin, now. I could sense that he wasn’t up for it.
I bit my lip.
We got to the door, and I knocked. I didn’t bring my keys. They wouldn’t be going anywhere.
It was Mrs. Phan that opened the door.
“Alexis, I was just leaving. Are you ready, Justin?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he answered.
Mrs. Phan and I switched places, with her stepping out of the apartment, and me going in.
“Hope I see you two soon,” Mrs. Phan said, behind her never-changing, friendly demeanor. She bowed her head. I returned the favor with my own.
“Me too,” I said. “See you, Justin.”
Justin bobbed his head, and made a peace sign. But he didn’t say anything.
They left, and I closed the door.
“Where did you go?” my mom asked, as I came in. She was washing dishes in the kitchen.
I shrugged. “Around.”
“Like, we went to the park, I guess. Oh, what did Mrs. Phan want to talk about?”
A ceramic clink, and my mom was finished with the dishes. She dried her hands, then brought a hand to her chin.
“She was asking if I wanted to come back, join one of the committees.”
“I told her I think on it.”
“Are you, though?” I asked.
“Maybe.” She looked pleased with herself.
I wonder if that’s all they talked about.
But, I wasn’t going to put too much thought into it. That was my mom’s decision to make.
“I’ll be in my room,” I then said, heading towards it.
“Okay. We have food for dinner now. Just… heat it up whenever you’re hungry.”
I went into my room, going straight for my closet.
I sifted through everything, until I found my mask. I held it in my hands.
The party was tomorrow. So many people, maybe even media. If I wanted to make it out in one piece, I had to put a better effort into being Alexis. Because, clearly, there were still visible cracks on that front.
I moved the mask into another angle, and saw my reflection in the lenses.
Why was it, that it felt like ‘Alexis’ was another mask to wear in front of others? No matter what, it seemed like there was always something I needed to hide.
Which ‘me’ was me? Who was I, really?
I raised my head, squinting. Head rush.
Ms. Powers stood at the head of the classroom, displeased.
Delayed, I made a sound in response. “Hmm?”
That didn’t help any.
“I’d be less offended if you spent my class on your phone the whole time, rather than sleeping.”
But I don’t care what you have to say.
Sleepily, I pulled a strand of hair out of my mouth, pushing some back behind my ear. I rubbed my thumb right under my eye.
“Sorry, didn’t mean-”
The bell cut me off.
Everyone started getting up, gathering their belongings, chatting amongst themselves. I followed, sweeping up my binders and journals into my arms, keeping them close to my chest. I got out of my chair, and started leaving the classroom, looking for Brittany. I wanted to walk and talk with her as we headed to our next class.
I stopped, then turned. Ms. Powers was at her desk, sitting. She motioned for me. She looked stern.
Reluctantly, I walked up to her, I clutched my school stuff tighter, closer.
“Yeah, Ms. Powers?” I asked, my pitch a bit higher.
She took a look past me before saying anything. Waiting until everyone has filed out of the classroom?
Ms. Powers put her hands together, resting them in her lap. “What’s going on, Alexis?”
I answered her like I did before. “Hmm?”
She pressed her lips to a line, and tilted her head to the computer beside her. “You’ve missed several homework assignments in the last few weeks, you haven’t done very well on the last few quizzes, and you’ve been out of it in that time, too. We have a test coming up, do you know that?”
“I do, yeah.” I vaguely remembered Ms. Powers mentioning something like that, but I was pretty confident that it wasn’t for another week or so. I’d study later.
She had an eyebrow raised at me. “There’s a lot of material there that I don’t think you have a grip on, yet. Are you going to be okay?”
I considered my chances. I could make a passing grade on it, possibly. Worst case scenario was that I’d have to beg Katy to help and tutor me, even though she might not be entirely familiar with the material. She was taking a more advanced class.
“I think I will be.”
Her accusatory expression remained. “We’re only in the first half of the school year, so you have time to turn things around, but, if you don’t get a handle on this soon, it’s going to be a lot harder on you later.”
Are you already saying that I’m going to fail this class?
“I’ll make sure that it doesn’t come to that,” I said, trying to remain cheery. We only had five minutes for a passing period, and it took three minutes to get to my next class. I’d end up being late if Ms. Powers didn’t end this soon.
“I’m asking if there’s anything you’re having trouble with. I have after school hours, so I can help with whatever you’re having trouble on. Some students from the math club show up, too, so you can get help from your peers if you’re uncomfortable with me over your shoulder.”
I wanted to roll my eyes, but there was no way I could get away with it. Plus, she was actually being reasonable. I’d feel awful if I kept up an attitude.
“Sure, definitely. I’ll swing by if I need it.”
I wasn’t sure if I meant that. I’d still prefer Katy helping me out.
Ms. Power’s whole, rotund body relaxed some, like I had just let go of holding mochi, and was watching the snack slowly return to its original shape.
“I’d really recommend it,” Ms. Powers said. “You were a good student, Alexis, you just need to get your priorities straight.”
Oh, I know.
“Is it because you’re in the middle of volleyball season?” Ms. Powers asked. “Is Coach T running you too ragged to study at home?”
I drummed my fingers on my binder, four quick successive taps. “It’s not volleyball. It’s something… more personal.”
Ms. Powers made a face. Concern, I recognized. “Oh, alright then.”
I could hear them behind me. Kids from the next class coming in to take their seats. The bell would ring again soon, and I’d get a tardy.
“Uh, Ms. Powers? I gotta head to my next class. Otherwise…”
Her eyes widened, slightly. Ms. Powers rocked back in her seat, then forward, using the momentum to get to her feet.
“I apologize for keeping you. Go, go.”
“But don’t forget what I said!” She called out as I left the classroom.
“Sure thing!” I said back. With seconds on the metaphorical timer, I rushed to my next class.
Valerie had her elbows on the table. She whined.
“Man, this is terrible. I wanna go out for lunch.”
“Can’t,” Eve said. “Staff and teachers have upped their game during lunch hours. They’ll check anyone walking outside, asking for a school ID. I’d rather not take that chance.”
“Right?” I agreed, “These new rules are such ass.”
“Watch what you say,” Jenny said, grinning. “Someone might be listening.”
I agreed with her. Sometimes, being secretive was more important than any ounce of honesty. I glanced around in the bustling cafeteria.
The school’s atmosphere had changed in recent weeks, a certain electricity in the air that made everyone antsy. The new rules, the stricter policies, stricter teachers, and the addition of another school cop made for a particularly new environment that the student body hadn’t quite adjusted to just yet. I could almost say there was a sense of paranoia, if I wanted blow things out of proportion.
All because of one person.
I would have found it interesting, if I didn’t have to keep watching my back.
“You gonna be okay with just that?” Eve asked, pointing to the apple I had in front of me. I hadn’t taken a bite out of it, for reasons known only to me.
“I’m not hungry right now, so I’m gonna save this for later, probably during Mr. Richard’s class.”
“That’s your prerogative,” Eve said, “But you’ll turn to dust if you keep up with that diet. You actually have to settle and stop, you know?”
“I do know.”
“Coach is going to get on your case about it, too, if she hasn’t already.”
“If I’m not at practice, it’ll be harder for her to do that.”
Brittany cut in, this time. “You’re not coming today?”
I put my hand on my notebooks, set beside the apple. “I have to start super studying for tests and stuff, especially math. If I don’t, I won’t have a practice to go back to.”
I was sitting in a group of my volleyball teammates, but, if this cafeteria wasn’t so full of people, and was also a lot smaller, I would’ve felt like I was suddenly being interrogated.
Not that I didn’t love these girls, but I couldn’t find Katy and Maria in time. My teammates found me first.
“It’ll be alright,” I said, both lying and deflecting. “Pretty soon, I’ll be back to warming the benches for you.”
The table laughed.
The other girls went off into their own conversations with each other, and I decided to look into my notebook. Maybe I’d try to get some studying done, for once.
“By the way, Alexis, how were things with Brandon, before…”
Valerie, sitting across from me, had asked that unfinished question. But that was enough to get the attention of the others here.
“What even happened there, anyways?” Eve asked.
Jenny answered, “Got caught with armed robbery, along with other accomplices that belong to the same gang. That’s more than enough to get him expelled, but, even if it wasn’t, I don’t think we’ll be seeing him anymore. Not for the rest of the school year.”
“God damn, you seem to know a lot about this, Jenny.”
Jenny flipped her hair. “What can I say? It’s juicy stuff. I even heard that The Bluemoon helped catch him.”
There were gasps from everyone at the table.
I tried to mimic their shock as much as I could, but I was more concerned over the fact the conversation moved to that topic.
“Yeah, Alexis, didn’t you go on a date with him, just before that?” Valerie asked, bringing that topic back to me. Which I feared.
Word spreads, doesn’t it?
As much as I didn’t want to answer that question, I’d earn some unneeded suspicion if I refused to address it.
“We did, I guess, but it really didn’t feel like a date, to be honest. It was more like two friends hanging out.”
“Ouch. The friend zone?”
That was a small revelation. Oh, it so totally was that, wasn’t it? That blows.
I let it a fake chuckle. “Yeah, that exactly. It… just didn’t work out. Simple.”
Not the full truth, but the general strokes were there. I didn’t mention Jillian.
“But did you know he did gang stuff?” Valerie asked.
“That was a surprise to me,” I said. That part, was the complete truth. “He didn’t seem like that kind of guy.”
“Ah, what could’ve been. Such a tragic love.” Valerie stuck her tongue out.
I recalled the time I saw Brandon. It was the first time Hleuco and I worked together. What luck. I was floored when I saw him, couldn’t quite process it. I freaked out, and I ran, unintentionally leaving him hung out to dry. Maybe I thought I gave him a good enough chance to make his own escape, but I could have been guessing under my own metrics. A personal price, a personal consequence, for being Blank Face. It was hard to get over, but I wasn’t going to let something like that stop me so soon.
As awful as that thought was.
“It was never going to work out, looking back at it now,” I said, “But it’s still heartbreaking, hearing about what happened.”
Valerie then looked deflated, “Man, stop trying to make me feel bad for wanting to joke around.”
Everyone at the table laughed again, but it was more downplayed, this time.
The conversation continued, but over another subject. It wasn’t before long the bell rang, and everyone had to leave for class.
My group split apart, saying goodbye, then we went to our respective classes.
Before I got to the stairs to reach the second floor, I came across the scene.
Two teachers, and a cop, were in the middle of stopping a student who was also leaving the cafeteria. They were talking to him, and he had a serious expression on his face. Upset that he was caught? He might as well have painted a target on his back.
Most students minded their own business, and kept moving, but a few watched as the teachers led the boy down the hall, in the opposite direction of where he was originally going. He looked forward, and I saw in detail why they had stopped him. Everyone did.
He was wearing a blue hoodie.
The school had rules that prohibited wearing colors that might insinuate gang affiliations, but what could you do if the whole spectrum of the rainbow was used for colors? It was never the most well-enforced rule, but recently, the school had updated the dress code. No one color was allowed to dominate an article of clothing. It had to either be all-black, or have some design or pattern that allowed another color to be incorporated. No blank shirts with strictly one color, pretty much. A hard rule to follow, honestly, it made a third of my wardrobe unwearable at school. Today, I had to wear a black school sweater, with the school mascot across the chest. A bat.
In the face of that rule, another update to the dress code was that you weren’t allowed to wear blue hoodies.
The Halloween Riots were still going, after all, and the school didn’t want any reference or image of that appearing in the building. Why? I wasn’t sure. Maybe the administrators didn’t want a possibility of a riot breaking out here, but that seemed unlikely to me.
Maybe it was an extension of the gang affiliation rule.
Either way, this student broke a rule, now he was being reprimanded for it.
He passed me, and he broke his forward gaze to glance at me.
I felt a spike in temperature, however slight.
He doesn’t know, of course he wouldn’t.
Impossible, absurd, didn’t make sense.
But I was still about to sweat.
The cop was following behind the teachers, and addressed me as he walked by.
“Nothing to see here, go to class.”
I stuttered, “O-okay.”
I hurried along, like a good student was supposed to.
With each step up the stairs, my paranoia increased. If that was what the school wanted, then they passed with flying colors.
The bell had sung its last tune for the day. Every student did their best to try to make it out of the building as fast as they could, and be free… until the next morning. I was more lax in my step, walking at a pace that the elderly would have been annoyed by.
My last class of the day had me in the back of the school. Because of that, the gym wasn’t far, not much of a walk. But today, I wasn’t going that way.
After getting to my locker, and stuffing all of my belongings into my backpack, I took one of the side doors, leading outside. Figured I’d get some fresh air while I wrapped around to get to the front of the school.
Crossing the back parking lot, I passed some kids standing around, smoking cigarettes. I turned the corner, and nearly bumped into someone who was absentmindedly standing too close to the turn.
“Oh, Harrian, hi,” I said.
“Hello,” he responded, as despondent as ever. He was in black, too, but his clothes were baggier, his hair covering his eyes. He reminded he of a grim reaper. If he actually was one, though, I’d suspect there would be even more people on Earth. Not a lot of energy or pep in his movements.
“Watchu doing here?” I asked. “Waiting to be picked up?”
“I, um, I’m meeting with those two guys?” He phrased his answer weirdly.
“Those two guys?” I asked back. I tried a guess. “Eric and Evan?”
Slowly, he nodded.
“Neat, how’s that going? Do you hang out with them a lot?”
Doesn’t exactly answer the question.
“But you’re going to go chill with them today, right?”
Harrian shrugged. “I guess so. Eric just ask me to come here after school ended, today.”
“Sounds fun,” I said, with not a lot of fun inflected in my voice, admittedly. I should probably move along, but something compelled me to stick around for a little longer.
“You went to the barbeque, right? How was that?”
“Good. There were games and food and stuff, a lot of the Asian kids from here went to it.”
“Oh? Who went? Jasmine, Mary?”
“I only recognized their faces.”
“Okay,” I said. “Did you do anything there?”
“I volunteer. Help out at different booths, and organize different events.”
“Wow, that’s actually really impressive.”
“I was so tired, I thought I was going to die.”
I almost laughed at the statement, but I didn’t, even though I was sure it was a joke. “Been there, almost done that.”
“I’m not sure I follow.”
“I was trying to say to that I’ve been so tired I thought I was going to die.”
Harrian paused, in thought.
“Oh no, isn’t that a big deal? People die every year from overwork, especially in Japan.”
“Wait, no, that’s not, that’s not what I was getting at.”
“No? Because it’s an issue that doesn’t get talked about a lot. Did you know, according to the Japan Times, that 23 percent of 1,743 Japanese companies surveyed said that they have employees who worked more than 80 hours of overtime a month? And twelve percent said that some employees work more than 100 hours? And that last year, 96 people died from brain and heart illnesses linked to overwork? Other countries across the world have a similar issue, too.”
I frowned, “And the two of us, talking here, isn’t going to help solve it.”
He actually frowned in return. “No sadly.”
A second, then several, passed.
How did we go from a barbeque to the overwork epidemic plaguing Japan?
Is he just dense, or a genius?
The conversation was losing air, and I wanted to abandon it. I had other things to get to, after all.
“I have to go, I’ll see you around, Harrian,” I said. “I wouldn’t want to keep you from the boys when they get here.”
I moved to leave, but Harrian had begun to speak, and that gave me pause.
“… zài jiàn.”
I scratched my head. “Didn’t catch that, exactly.”
“I just wanted to say ‘see you later.’ In Mandarin.”
“How nice of you,” I said, genuine.
“What’s ‘good bye’ in Japanese?”
Put on the spot. I didn’t have a response prepared. My knowledge of Japanese was pathetically sparse, despite all the years of my mom trying to teach me.
I searched in the recesses of my memory.
I put my hands in my pockets, and I tilted my head.
“The only word I can think of is ‘sayonara.’ But I think people don’t typically say that. It implies a sort of finality. Don’t quote me on it.”
Harrian accepted that. “Good enough.”
He stood, almost in anticipation.
Did you actually want me to say it?
If I say that, will you let me leave?
I tried not to look fazed. I’d entertain him, for the moment.
He waved, and I left, going towards the front of the school.
Harrian was an odd guy, with an odd way of speaking and with an odd way of presenting himself. But, he seemed well-meaning. In only a few minutes, I had the oddest conversation I would ever have ever. And somehow, I doubted it was going to be my last one with him.
“How does this look?” Katy stepped out of the changing room, wearing a dark blue gown, black heels. She struck a pose.
I laughed until I started coughing. Maria cackled.
Katy puffed out her cheeks with a pout, turning red. “I’m being serious, here.”
“I’m being serious here, too,” Maria said, “You look like a host for a game show.”
“Katy, sorry, but I’m with Maria,” I said, “But I am ready to take that cruise to the Bahamas.”
Between the two of us, we made even more of a racket. Women from other changing rooms poked their heads out to stare, but we hardly cared.
Katy, however, was not so enthused. “Screw you guys. I like it, I’m buying it.”
She went back into the changing room.
“Wait, wait,” Maria said, trying to catch her breath. “Did you even check the tag, it’s not on sale.”
“I don’t know the price, and I don’t care to know,” she said from inside the changing room. “I’m buying it, screw you guys.”
Through our pointed teasing, we pleaded with Katy to not buy the dress. She didn’t listen. She left the changing room, storming past us to get to the register. After she purchased that extravagant piece of fashion, we exited the pricey store from the upper end mall known as the Realm.
Instead of taking me straight home, Katy took us here. Maria agreed to tag along.
The Realm wasn’t strictly a part of the upper districts that made up a richer part of town, but it was a start, a sort of hub where the upper middle class citizens liked to spend their time, and where the upper class would go to kill theirs, when there was nothing else to do. The stores here were nice, the employees were nice, everything looked nice. It was a good place to be. To be. Purchasing anything was another question entirely if you were just a normal working person.
We continued to walk around, Maria and I took in the glitz and glamour of the stores and pretty people. Granted, we were probably taking things too seriously, but it wasn’t like we got to be here every day, much less right after school. For myself, anyways, I tried to enjoy my time here.
I was following advice given to me.
“Now we need to find dresses for you two,” Katy said, pointing to me and Maria.
“Why?” I asked, “And like we can afford anything from here. As if.”
“We can find what you like, and we’ll look for cheaper alternatives elsewhere.” Katy tapped her head. “Trust me, I got this.”
“What is this for, again?” Maria then asked. We stood in a line to take an escalator down.
“My mom’s planning a small gathering on the weekend,” Katy explained, almost coming across as tired.
“I’m not willing to believe anything your mom does as ‘small,’” I said.
“It’s for my dad, Mom wants to celebrate.”
I had a feeling she was understating things.
We reached the fourth floor, and checked out other stores, here.
“Celebrate what? Their anniversary?” Maria asked.
“No, it’s lamer than that.”
“Doesn’t sound like any party I want to go to.”
“Shut up. I want you to go, Maria, consider this your invitation. You can’t refuse either, Alexis, my mom’s already invited your mom.”
“Wasn’t planning on it?” I said in a funny way. I had a feeling I knew what Katy was referring to, and if I was right, that could really screw me over.
Part of me wanted to refuse.
“But what is it?” Maria asked, more adamant.
Katy looked reluctant to share, but she couldn’t withhold details forever. Through an uncharacteristically bashful look in her eyes, Katy explained.
“My dad’s been running for public office for the better part of the year, now, and the day for voting on it is about to come up. My mom is so confident that he’s going to take it that she’s been planning the whole thing ahead of time.”
“Isn’t that putting the cart before the horse?” Maria asked.
“My mom won’t stop talking about the polls, and I’ve seen it myself. It’s pretty dismal for the other guy.”
“If that’s so, then congrats. What’s the job?”
“DA. District attorney.”
“What do they do?”
“In the case of this city, he’s going to go up against the gangs. Personally.”
Maria looked like she just got shot. “Oh shit. Good thing I’m…”
Maria stopped, but she didn’t know what Katy and I already knew.
“Why’d you never bring it up before?” Maria asked instead, grilling into Katy at this point.
“It wasn’t relevant to bring up, and I didn’t think he’d actually get this far.”
We continued towards another store, checking the options inside.
I could see why Katy was so apprehensive about bringing this stuff up. She knew all too well about her dad’s public efforts over fighting the crime in the city. Officially making himself a public figure would complicate matters even more, and give him a wide scope of enemies and detractors to deal with.
If she only knew what else Thomas was up to, in the midst of this.
More than twenty-four hours since the attempted ambush of Styx’s Gang, and I was trying to follow Thomas’s advice, to help myself before I could help out others. I was… working on it. In my time as Blank Face, I had neglected some personal stuff that I should have been on the ball about. School, friends, my personal life, they were all put on hold while I tried to figure out these powers… and this thirst.
Things were starting to fall apart, and if it wasn’t for Thomas’s intervention, it was liable to get worse.
In the end, we all have secrets we want to keep.
“Anyways,” Katy said, disappointed with what this store had. “It is what it is, now. Let’s keep checking around.”
We took another escalator down. We checked a store, the name Italian, and the prices made the dresses not desirable at all. Not that they weren’t pretty – they were – but they were so unobtainable.
Even with the money Thomas had paid me for my nights as Blank Face. I felt guilty for accepting it before he knew, guiltier still after he did know. I offered, but he refused to take it back.
Right now, despite it being in cash, I couldn’t use it now, not with Katy and Maria being curious. Especially Katy.
Which had raised another concern I didn’t know I should have had.
Does Katy know I’m Blank Face?
Thomas admitted to figuring out who I was the second he saw me in person. Was there a similar case with Katy? She was smart, she could have pieced things together as the weeks passed. Dammit.
I was afraid to ask, afraid to find out. Because if I tried, and I was wrong, then I would have inadvertently spilled the beans before I was ready.
Thomas was a unique case as far as revealing my identity went. We went through a considerable amount in a short span of time, more than anyone should go ever through. And, in more ways than I could imagine, Thomas had saved my life.
Even if they were my friends, even if they were my best friends, I wasn’t ready to just tell Katy and Maria everything. Not yet. Once I got a grip on the other stuff in my life, the stuff I had been neglecting, then I’d consider it.
Katy was smart, insightful, and Maria had a way of surprising me. For now, I’d have to be wary of them.
As shitty as that was…
“Katy, let’s call it a day, we still have time to find a dress,” Maria said eventually. She pointed to the window roof, where the sunlight peeked through. An evening glow.
“Fine, we can head out,” Katy said, caving in. “I refuse to believe you’ll find anything that works.”
“Fuck you, I already have dope shit at home, believe that.” Maria sounded confident, and I could bet she had every reason to be. “It’s her you should be worried about.”
She directed that to me. I had to defend myself.
“Hey, I can clean up nice when I want to. Don’t you fret, Katy, I saw some decent pieces here, I’ll use those for inspo for finding something later.”
Katy huffed. “You two better be smoking when I see you there.”
Maria and I almost synced up. “I’m insulted that you’d question that.”
With that, we decided to make our way down to the first floor. Our way out to a parking lot was through a large department store. Of course, we had to at least look at the clothes they had, and smell the perfumes they had available. Worth it.
After some time, we took to leaving the Realm, getting outside.
A girl was standing outside, around the doors, trying to get people’s attention.
“Any information on the Bluemoon, please! We’re looking for any information about Stephenville’s watchful protector! Any help is appreciated!”
She was trying to hand out fliers, papers of differing, bright colors. Hardly anyone took them.
“Crazies,” I heard Katy mutter. I wasn’t willing to go that far, but to think there were fanatics just as much as there were detractors.
As if she could hear us, the girl came our way, stopping us. She held out a flier to us.
“If you have any information, please don’t hesitate to contact us!”
Is this some kind of organization?
The girl wasn’t any older than the three of us, though strangely familiar.
“Not interested,” Katy said, handling it quickly. She stepped past the girl, and Maria followed. I was a step behind, looking at the girl, still curious at her curiosity about the Bluemoon. As I passed, I took the flier from her hand.
Her glance to me turned into a hard, intrusive stare. Then, a wide-eyed stare. She looked me up and down.
She grabbed my hand.
“I know you!”
My heart sank.
I looked at this girl again. Loose denim jeans, striped shirt, with each stripe a different color. But I recognize her hair. Dyed a deep purple, cut into a bob that bounced.
The girl from Braham Barn, from when I went back after discovering my powers. I scared off her and her friends. They saw me. I didn’t have a mask, back then. I wasn’t Blank Face yet.
Stephany? Her name was something like that.
Her hold on me was tight. If I tried to be forceful, it might cause a bigger scene.
“Yeah, oh my god, it is you! I can’t believe I finally found you!”
I looked back. Katy and Maria were staring back, confused.
“Come with me, just for a second,” Stephany said, tugging at my arm, “I just want to talk. It’s really you, the-”
I couldn’t let her continue.
Everything would come to an end if I let her. Everything.
I didn’t have a lot of cards to pull, except one.
“Hey, excuse me!” I said, getting her attention, and stopping her.
“I don’t know you, and we’ve never met. We don’t all look the same, you know. If you have an Asian friend, that doesn’t mean you can pick on anyone else and say you know them. That’s messed up.”
Stephany’s face turned as red as a tomato. Others were looking at us as they went on with their day.
“I didn’t, that’s not what I was trying to get at,” Stephany said, distressed. Her grip loosened. “I thought-”
“Oh, you thought. Clearly not enough thought went into what you just did.”
Someone else came up to us. A mall cop.
“Is there a problem, here?”
“No, officer,” I said, “I was just leaving.”
I pulled, and my arm went free. I walked away, leaving the girl and the cop behind. I returned to my friends.
“What was that about?” Maria asked, half-grinning.
“Mistook me for someone else,” I explained. “Happens all the time.”
“Hah, I feel you.”
We continued down the parking lot. My heart beating like it was about to jump out of my chest.
Such a small encounter, but that was still too close of a call.
I checked the flier I took from her. Bright orange. ‘The Bluemoon Fan Club’ was printed across the top, followed by an address, contact information, and meeting times.
“A bunch of crazies,” Katy commented, seeing that I was reading the flier. “Following a bigger crazy.”
I folded the paper, and put it in my back pocket. Might have to deal with this later.
“Man, I ain’t gonna lie,” Maria said, “The Bluemoon freaks me the fuck out.”
We’re still on that subject?
“Yeah?” Katy said.
“I mean, yeah, but… don’t really want to get into it right now. Just wanted to say that.”
She trailed off. She had another point, but she didn’t want to say.
Couldn’t press her on it.
“I can see where you’re coming from,” Katy said. “That Bluemoon proved that two plus two equals five. Nothing makes sense, anymore, and people are still trying to cope, however they can.”
“If you think two plus two equals five, Katy,” I said, “Never mind about asking you to help me with my math class.”
“Ha, ha,” Katy said, flat, “What did you need help with?”
“What do you know about Algebra Two?”
“Enough to write the book on it.” Katy grinned. “I can help, just tell me when.”
Good, the conversation went elsewhere, away from myself, essentially. Maria’s car was parked closest to the mall, so we split up with her first, before heading into Katy’s car. We started the drive back to my place.
A whole day, working towards getting my life back together. A whole week without the mask. Somehow, it felt like it was going to be harder than anything else I had ever done.
The music was loud. Loud enough that he didn’t hear the chair collide with the wall, tools scattering into the air, then banging onto the floor.
It was a sort of rage that was utterly recreational. A push, and that was all that was needed for him to go off. Like his moods lived on a swing. All it took was a simple push.
Recreational, yet fulfilling. He needed this. Craved it. The freedom to do, the freedom to be. Addicting, and he was his own supplier.
And here? He also had the freedom to destroy.
Everything in the garage was his. The sports cars, the vintage motorcycles, the guns. Organized according to manufacturers, then year. Everything in the condominium was his. To be precise, he owned the whole building. The crown jewel of his decades of hard labor. Building an empire wasn’t easy, but it certainly was rewarding.
The vehicles were clean, the walls white, the area well-lit. A complicated sound system blasted the music throughout the garage, a deep bass rumbling mirrors and windows. Guns rattled where they were situated on a wall, but they wouldn’t fall. The cleanliness didn’t necessarily fit Styx’s nature, but it didn’t have to. He had the means to afford it, and the means to indulge himself in it.
However, despite the otherwise well-kept status of the garage, there was one third of the space that he allowed to be dirty. The innermost section of the garage. His workstation, where he kept his projects and other endeavors. Here, was where he was most free. Tools and knives and guns were strewn about, dirt marks were streaked across the floor and walls. Dark splotches of paint and blood touched the ceilings. Various tables with various tools and gadgets, randomly placed, unlike how his cars and motorcycles were lined up. He liked the contrast, how things didn’t necessarily go from one to the other.
He liked the chaos.
Again, Styx roared. It strained.
As he let himself come down from his fit, he grabbed a towel off of a table, wiping sweat off of his body. He was shirtless, wearing only black skinny jeans and black boots. Tattoos of different images were sketched across his chest, torso, and arms. Pagan, tarot, Lovecraftian.
Styx bent down where the chair had landed. He picked up a wrench, gripping it tight in his hand. He turned, then stopped.
He went to another metal table, where other tools laid, available. A remote was there, too. Without having to lift it, he pressed a finger on a button. The music was immediately cut.
“Victor,” Styx said, but he didn’t hear himself. A high ringing had replaced the noisy, industrial instrumental.
‘Victor’ answered with a lift of his chin.
His clothes were simple, but it was all he had time to procure. Things were moving, quickly, and Victor had little in the way of leisure time. A white shirt, tucked into blue denim jeans. Light brown boots. Round, large sunglasses adorned his face.
He ran his fingers through his hair, despite the bandages wrapped around his palm. Though, there wasn’t much there, thanks to his buzz cut.
“I’m surprised you haven’t blown out your ears yet,” Victor said, having to raise his voice for Styx to hear. The proper security measures were set up across the building, even though it wasn’t necessary. Anyone who knew, knew to stay away.
After one of Styx’s men escorted the two back to the condo, and after the two spent some time catching up, Styx had told Victor the different words and numbers necessary to let himself in. Told. Styx trusted he wouldn’t write it down, and was confident in Victor’s ability to memorize a few letters and digits.
Victor had taken the wooden stairs down to the garage, the glass door behind him. A large, brown paper bag sat at his feet.
“You were okay with being out in the open?” Styx asked instead, as if Victor’s concern wasn’t worth addressing. “No issues?”
“None. I know how to keep my head down.”
“Don’t want to spoil your arrival to the Feds?”
“Oh yeah, I prefer being the uninvited guest. Makes things interesting. Especially if I bring gifts.”
Styx nodded. His brow was still furrowed, his eyes wild, like he was still maintaining a hold on the anger that gripped him not too long ago. He creeped over to the middle of the garage, towards his bike, to actually get some work done on it.
“It’s just a few scratches, Styx, I don’t see why you need to tune up the whole-”
Styx cut him off.
“They fucked up King of Pentacles!” he bellowed at the top of his lungs, referring to his bike. “I’ll whip the bitch who did it!”
King of Pentacles. The motorcycle was a mechanical embodiment of Styx’s career in the underground. Originally a used bike he stole almost thirty years ago, he’d built upon it, adding where it was needed, stripping away where it was least efficient. Now, it was a bike that perfectly represented his status in the city. Not how he viewed himself, necessarily, but how others should view him.
An all-black custom chopper. Sleek, elegant, but with a edge to it that made people steer clear of it, turning another way if they simply saw it parked, somewhere. Styx preferred functionality over aesthetics, but it worked, here. The large engine at the bottom resembled something of a ribcage, and the headlight was encased in a plating that resembled Cthulhu. Asymmetric slits allowed light to bleed through, with tentacles reaching forward to hold the front tire. It had a form, but nothing definite, concrete. It left things to the imagination, and most didn’t want to be around to ponder over it.
And Styx saw where scratches defiled the bike, where dents fucked up his handiwork. Though few, and negligible, it make his blood boil.
Angrily, Styx went back to finishing the final touches on his bike. If anyone could work the nuts and bolts of a motorcycle with anger, it was Styx.
“We’re not even taking King of Pentacles to the meeting,” Victor said. “You can fix it later.”
“This is my bike,” Styx replied, in a much more reserved manner. “You know that.”
“And you know I know that, I’m just telling you that it can wait. The meeting’s in an hour, and you’re the only one with clearance to take me.”
Styx twisted with the wrench, making more adjustments. “I don’t give a fuck. Everyone can wait. You, Mister, and those fucks. My shit takes precedence over their shit.” He yelled, as though to verbally form an exclamation point. It rang throughout the garage. That, he heard.
“Then I have no choice but to wait.” Styx heard Victor walk through the workstation, picking up the chair that Styx had thrown, and sat in it.
“Man, this city hasn’t really changed much since I left,” Victor said. “More of the same. Except, there’s actually more. More gangs, more drugs, more shit. I commend you for keeping things together.”
“It’s easy,” Styx said, keeping it short.
“I’ll say. You’re living lavish. I’d comment and suggest that the wealth has made you soft, but it clearly hasn’t.”
Styx didn’t respond, focusing too much on King of Pentacles.
From behind him, Victor murmured, or spoke at a normal enough volume that Styx couldn’t pick it up. The ringing was only now starting to subside.
“Yeah?” Styx questioned.
“Right, the music. I was talking… there’s one new player in all this, huh?”
Styx knew exactly what he was talking about. Who, to be precise.
“‘The Bluemoon.’ Or, didn’t you mention another name?”
“Your humor is still on point, Styx. No, I mean an actual name.”
“Last night, when I got a call from a police station that I’m good with. John told us everything. Told us it went by ‘Blank Face.’”
“That was it. If it went by another name, couldn’t it just be another super… thing?”
“That’s a whole different question. All I know is, that’s the same one that came by the yard. The physical description matched up. It was a good thing I kept watch, in the distance.”
“Blank Face, huh.”
Then, Victor laughed, without warning. Styx kept working.
“The hell? I’m not impressed at all!” Victor exclaimed. “I was thinking it’d be some terrifying figure, but all I saw was some clown with a limp arm. What kind of hero can I just kick out the back of a truck, and you come in to break their arms. What a little bitch.”
Styx giggled to himself. It was manic, uneven in pitch. “Heh, lil’ bitch.”
“That’s why I had to ask if that really was The Bluemoon I’ve seen on TV. It shouldn’t have been that easy.”
“That was our Blueballs for sure, but does it really matter? The meeting is still happening, they still want to talk about this.”
Victor sighed, letting out another chuckle. “Hah, I get it, though. There’s more to it than that, and that’s what they’re pissing themselves over. We’ll all go over it then. But, I’m not going to say it didn’t take the wind out of my sails, even just a bit. I sit for thirty-six hours in the back of a truck, smelling like shit, only for it to be almost unbelievable easy to take the hero out. Do you see what I’m getting at?”
“Maybe being a ‘hero’ isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.”
Styx pulled away the wrench, and patted the leather seat of the bike. He stood, facing Victor. “Don’t get ahead of yourself. If taking out Blueballs was all he needed you to do, Mister wouldn’t have asked for you. And what you perceive to be a minor threat is still a threat. You don’t get to where I am by underestimating bitches.”
Victor lifted his hands, placating. “I know, I know. I’ve got work to do.” He groaned.
Victor casted a glance at Styx. “What about you? You scared of this, thing? It escaped, went after your guys, last night.”
Styx answered plainly, truthfully. “Me? Nah. If anything, I’m curious.”
Victor stared at Styx, and he stared back. Blankly.
Victor dropped his shoulders, grumbling, and lazily pointed to a corner of Styx’s workstation. “Um, I was trying to find a way to bring this to your attention, but… Aren’t you going to introduce me?”
Styx looked, and remembered that the man tied to a chair was there.
He was blindfolded, with no clothes, save for his underwear. Twitching, shaking. His mouth shuddered, but no sound came forth.
He dripped of blood and sweat and tears, his blindfold most dark where his eyes should be. His chair was placed on top of multiple mats, placed into a large square. Normally used for dogs, the mats caught the blood and urine that slid down the chair’s legs.
“My payment for agreeing to see through you crossing the border. You might recognize him, you sat by him for thirty-six hours.”
Victor frowned. “This is why society agreed to put value into things like green paper.”
Victor shifted in his seat. Not because he was alarmed, Styx knew, but because he went to reach for his phone. Styx took that as a chance to check his, too.
“Bored?” Victor asked, looking at his phone.
“Stress reliever,” Styx replied, while looking at his, “And practice for when I get that bitch who fucked King of Pentacles.”
“The more things change, the more they stay the same, then.”
The man was becoming audible, now, but no one paid heed to him. The man whimpered while Styx checked his phone.
Victor put his phone away. “So, you almost finished, here? I’ll leave a better impression if I show up early. You know, like an actual professional.”
“Eh.” Styx put his phone in his pants pocket. “Let me get my stuff, then.”
Victor griped again, as he got out of the chair. “Styx, if you’re so bored being here, in this city, why haven’t you left, yet? You could’ve visited me.”
“Yes, again. Nothing’s honestly tying you down, you could leave anytime you want, let the city burn behind you while you see the world.”
“Like what you did?”
Styx looked to Victor, his chin tilted up some to make up for the height difference. He had no expression. “That’s what makes us different. You wanted to see the world, I wanted to make my own.”
Victor smiled. “And that’s the only difference?”
Styx’s lack of expression stayed.
Victor then nodded, as if taking it all in. “I suppose that still makes me Remus, and you Romulus,” he said.
“Careful, I haven’t killed you yet.”
“If it ever comes to that, you’ll die, too,” Victor said. “Of boredom.”
Styx actually cracked something of a smile to that, though twisted, unhinged.
Before Styx could let the moment get the better of him, he turned, retrieving his leather jacket, putting it on over his bare torso. He didn’t bother to bring a gun. His presence would be enough. Victor followed, taking the paper bag he brought in with him.
“You can pick which car we take,” Styx said.
Styx took to a corner of the room. Fitting, to how much of a role he played in this. A willing, listening participant, but not necessarily an active one.
Others began filing in, sitting around a round table. Some were in more casual wear, but most elected to wear suits. Mostly men, but two women were in attendance, already waiting.
Styx rested his tongue on his upper lip.
Victor sat next to him, watching as the rest came into the high-rise restaurant. The room was dimly lit, sensual, if Styx wanted to be poetic, which he sometimes liked to be. A light jazz tune wafted about the area, almost as if the room had housed the essence of this music, and the building, the floor, the room, was built in accommodation to it.
Styx looked at them all, uncaring. They weren’t even a third of the gangs that had a hold on the city.
He listed the names of the different mobsters. Arthur, Brian, Cassius, D’Angelo, Edward, Forest, Gary, Hayden, Inez.
All separate, yet connected by a single thread…
And they were completely oblivious.
“Is Mister gonna make it, Styx?” It was D’Angelo, calling from across the room. Leader of one of the Italian mobs.
“No,” Styx replied, at half the volume. “He’s sitting it out. I can fill him in, if he wants.”
D’Angelo motioned to the whole room, as everyone took their seats. “This isn’t enough for him to show? This isn’t important enough to appear in person, for once?”
“It may look that way to stupider eyes, but I am not his keeper. If he found a more pressing matter to deal with instead, that’s on him.”
“He called the meeting!”
“Calm down, D’Angelo,” Inez said, ushering him to sit. “We can still have a discussion and act without him. So let’s try to be punctual.”
D’Angelo sat, and Inez looked pleased with herself. The leader of a cartel on the south side. A real cougar with the power to dominate. So badly, Styx wanted to fuck that grin right off of her face.
He tried to keep still.
“Let’s get started then, brother,” Forest said, pointing to Victor. “Man of the hour.”
Victor took that cue, leaving his seat to approach the circle. He brought his bag with him.
“That’s what I am. ‘Kay, I’ll make the introduction short. Most of you, we go way back, and it’s nice to see you all again.” He gestured with a small bow to the table.
“The rest of you who are not familiar, I’m probably the reason why you’re at this table, today, and absolutely the reason why Mister can afford to miss such a meeting. To be cocky, I produce results.”
Some of the mobsters exchanged glances. The ones who didn’t know him. The naïve ones.
“To all you new folk, don’t waste the energy trying to decide whether or not I’m the real deal. I am. Let’s all just accept that, and we’ll all be a lot richer for it, in the end.”
Victor set the paper bag down on the table, next to Arthur. Arthur pointed to it, and Victor motioned, letting him take a peek inside.
Styx leered to himself when he saw Arthur’s reaction.
“Are you mad? What are you thinking, bringing-”
“Now, now,” Victor interrupted. “Let’s not get so irritable so soon. You’ll find that it may come in handy, one day.”
Arthur grumbled, and passed the bag down for Brian to look inside. His reaction was more understated, Styx saw, but he couldn’t quite hide the fear. Brian passed the bag down, and the bag made its round trip. The ones who already had a rapport with Victor masked their trepidation well. The others did not.
Styx knew Victor was making a show of things, but it was only because he had to confidence to do so. The repertoire.
“Let’s start with the obvious, yeah? Why are we all here, today, having a meeting over a light breakfast?”
The mobsters looked amongst each other.
“Tough crowd,” Victor said. “Then, I won’t tiptoe around it anymore. The Bluemoon. Or ‘Blank Face,’ from what I’ve heard on the streets.” Victor put his hands into air quotes when he said ‘Blank Face.’ “A very indecisive individual, this one.”
Victor started snapping his fingers, looking expectant.
“What do we want to call this individual? Bluemoon, Blank Face, hero, vigilante, monster…”
“Lil’ bitch,” Styx yelled out.
“Thanks for that, Styx, but I’ll just go ahead and use ‘Blank Face.’ If that’s what they want to be called, then I’ll respect their wishes.”
Hayden, the other female mob boss, leaned in with her elbows on the table, her chin resting on her hands. “Are you going to at least pretend that you’re taking this seriously?”
Styx squinted. One of the naïve ones.
“Oh, I am. Wouldn’t want to waste a perfectly good sightseeing opportunity. Yes, this Blank Face has been causing some trouble for the lot of you. Even its very existence raises some issues. Coupled with the fact that the National Guard might sweep the streets to find the vigilante, and not to mention all the media coverage placed on the city because of it, that’s a lot of eyes on things we don’t want to be looked at, no?”
Hayden fell back into her seat. Styx couldn’t see it from his view, but he read that she crossed her legs.
Victor kept going. “This may be unprecedented, but we’re not blind and in the dark. There are some things we do know about Blank Face. I’m sure all of you have heard by now, but Blank Face decided to pay me a visit, last night.”
A few had worried expression. Styx knew what that would imply, that he was incapable, or vulnerable, to an assault by Blank Face or another party. That he somehow slipped up, able to be taken advantage of. He hated that implication. He could have pushed, and killed any one of them for thinking that, if he wanted to.
Styx had an outlet for his frustrations at home.
A feeling stirred within Styx.
Arthur spoke. “Is that why you’re trying to act so nonchalant about this? To save face after seeing the devil?”
Victor was motionless, not responding to that comment.
“We were close to capturing it,” Victor said, fixing his sunglasses, “Maybe even closer to killing it, last night. I was able to subdue it and distract it enough for Styx to do his thing. Two broken arms, strangulation, at least. Who knows what we managed internally. Blank Face managed to walk away from that.”
Suddenly, there was no room for levity. The table was dead quiet.
“How, how are you so sure?” It was Cassius who had to balls to say something.
Styx spoke. Everyone turned their heads. “Our transport of Blank Face was interrupted, and it got away. My men told me afterwards that Blank Face was soon active, moving like nothing ever happened.”
Victor gave Styx a thumbs up. “Which brings me to my next point. Bla-”
“You’re fucking telling us that thing can’t die!”
The voice was too on edge, too shrill, to point to a source. Panic was rushing into the hearts of the mobsters, at the revelation. Styx took a glance at his phone.
“Everyone, please, settle yourselves!” Victor had to raise his voice to be heard above the uproar. “You’re going to scare our hard working servers!”
Some turned, Styx did, too. A small team of young waiters stood, flustered at what to do. One had a platter of crepes and omelets. Another had his hands around an intricately designed cart, with pancakes and cups of coffee on it. But he was still.
Styx silently judged as the mobsters started to right themselves, straightening their backs. Victor gave the servers the okay to approach.
“To address the table’s concerns,” Victor said, “It appears that Blank Face has some sort of improved healing. But, do not let that scare you. Blank Face can be taken down, and it may be easy for it to get back up, that point remains. We just need to hit back, hard. Harder.”
“And how do you propose to do that?” someone asked. Styx couldn’t tell.
Victor, now, had started walking around the table. Styx only saw the back of his head, but he knew what his expression would be. He mouthed it in time with Victor.
“I’m working on it.”
“You’re… working on it?” Forest.
“Yes, my man, working on it. I’ll give you the proper pitch when I have it more developed, probably by later tonight, so I’m hoping I’ll have your… support.”
“We’ll see if it’s good enough for that.”
“Thank you very much. I don’t want to spoil what I have right now, but I’m thinking something theatrical? We have people in masks, now, performing magic and tricks. I suggest we play into that a bit.”
“Wait, people?” Inez questioned, stressing that second word.
“Oh, I almost forgot! Everyone was losing it a moment ago…” Victor scratched his throat, before saying, “Blank Face isn’t working alone.”
Styx could feel it in the room, the panic coming back, but no one wanted to fall into it. Not anymore. Styx remained calm.
“‘Fraid not. One of Styx’s Ferrymen were interrupted by Blank Face, earlier in the night, before it came to us. A van came to get him. A man in a bird mask accompanies Blank Face.”
The two women went pale. Styx, instead, seethed at the mention of the van. “There’s… there’s more of them?”
Victor shook his head. “That’s one of the things we don’t know. I’m inclined to say yes, just to be careful.”
Murmurs among the mobsters, unsure of what to make of the possibility of at least two superhumans working against them. Styx couldn’t help but think of ways to rip them apart, instead. And if they could recover from that, then more fun for him.
“What more do we know of this man in the bird mask?” Inez asked.
“Not much, but they were probably in constant communication with each other.”
Styx had realized that Victor never mentioned how they got interrupted by the van, how it crashed into King of Pentacles. At this meeting, too many details were coming out that were frightening the mobsters. It wouldn’t do to have them completely chicken out and not want to hear Victor’s plans. Or was it better that he play into that, getting more support?
Or, was Victor trying to protect Styx’s rep? As if he needed it, but, if so, Styx appreciated the effort.
D’Angelo cut into his pancake, then ate, chewing slowly. After washing it down with coffee he asked, “And you think you can take them on, not knowing what you don’t know?”
“Oh, I can. The battle isn’t as uphill as you’re insinuating it be. The whole world is even more fearful of Blank Face. By the by, I love the riot idea. I say we do more of that, while we’re at it.”
The different members of the table nodded. Styx loved the idea, too.
“If we play our cards right, this might turn out to be a problem that solves itself. Again, more details to come.”
Forest raised his cup, looking around for a waiter. “Ah, man, that’s enough of the Blank Face talk, for now. Getting me sick to my stomach. Brother, we’ll patiently await your pitch.”
Victor had wrapped around the table, his back to Styx. He brought both hands up. Peace signs.
While the others got to their breakfast, Hayden asked, “Is there anything else we want to bring up?”
Arthur set down his fork. “There’s one thing.”
Victor leaned close. “Hmm?”
“Don’t know the name, sorry.”
“He’s a lawyer. Pain in the ass, with the potential of becoming a bigger one.”
“Elections for the next DA are coming up, and it looks like he’s going to take it. We had our guy, John Cruz, but the public adores Thompson. He’s squeaky clean, going on a platform of ‘hope’ and ‘courage’ in the face of adversity. ‘Wander no more,’ he says. It’s bullshit, but they’re eating it up.”
Victor fixed a sleeve. “Squeaky clean does present a problem.”
“Him being in office isn’t going to help us any. Harsher punishments on any alleged corruption in the police force, and he’s advocating for harsher punishments for any possible connection to any gang activity, however minute. He was instrumental in bringing down one of the Cobras. They’re still shaken up about it.”
“No.” Victor looked legitimately disheartened, hearing that. He brought a finger to his chin, thinking.
“So you understand why I brought it up? If he can do that much without holding an official office…”
Victor snapped his fingers. “Say no more, I can take care of it.”
No one did say more, seemingly satisfied. Everyone continued eating. A minute with only small talk, then Victor walked back to Styx, bringing his bag with him.
“Doing okay?” Victor asked.
Styx grunted, non-committal.
“Hey, I’ll need your help in this, in all of this.”
“As long as you keep it entertaining.”
“I’ll plan around it.”
They both smiled, Styx’s much more menacing. Victor was a man of his word, and he was looking forward to it as much as he was.
Styx was ready to push.
Eldritch in nature, but the pathos was universal.
A terrifying creature, masquerading as something that made sense. As an image that could be fathomed, but there was a far greater horror that existed beyond its corporeal existence.
A concept, an idea. Symbols. It had a form and it could consume.
Its physical construct tore into another. A smaller, more base shape. Humanoid. Soft, fragile, delicate.
To assign an identity to the lesser being would assign a level of importance. It needed no such thing.
The greater being made shreds of the lesser. Curved, twisted teeth, from the mouths of the seven heads. It ate, swallowed, but not for nourishment. Rather, to ravage. A spiteful, terrifying creature.
It lurched, and another head took over. A familiar face, a distorted version. Once conjuring warm, nurturing sentiments, only now served to service a stronger mental agony to the lesser being. The inner organs of the lesser spilled out from its abdomen, and from the teeth of the greater.
With a wide movement, a shift of parts, the greater switched visages. A perverted, curled variant of a friendlier guise. A string of organs was torn away as the switch was made.
The lesser being felt a certain betrayal. Familiar faces in an unfamiliar context. It ate at its spirit, as much as the greater being did. Whittling down, but never to zero.
The process repeated. Five more heads. The world. It ate at the lesser being.
And the lesser being could do nothing but endure.
Chained to a mountain, with the curse of forever life. This state of being was forced upon the lesser one, with no choice but to suffer.
The greater took, and the lesser restored itself, and the greater took again.
Life. A cruel act of kindness.
I came to. Awake, but not alert. Groggy, really.
A dream. Judging from my breathing, the initial panic when I woke, it was more like a nightmare. But, when I tried reaching, trying to recall what exactly it was, it only pushed the images away further. Then, it was gone, forever forgotten. A phantom memory. Only the feeling lingered.
And I was free to try and figure out where I was.
It was dim in this small, cramped space. I was sitting on a wooden seat, built into the wooden compartment. Looking straight ahead, there was an elaborate pattern of crosses in the upper half of the wall in front of me. The crosses were actually holes, and I should have been able to peek through, but a dark screen prevented me from doing so.
I couldn’t stretch my arms or legs out all the way. It was that cramped.
I exhaled, trying to stay calm. A hushed sound.
I soon came to the realization that I still had my mask on.
I was still in costume. Fanny pack, and when I patted my jacket, the baton, too, was still on my person. I had everything on me.
My hood was down, strands of hair sticking to the back of my neck. It was stuffy, in here.
Upon inspecting again, the wall to my right was actually a small door. I’d have to hunch to get through. It didn’t appear to be locked. Could I just leave? Was this a trap?
Worse yet, was I kidnapped?
“Blank Face. Good morning, again.”
A disembodied voice spoke from the other end of the screen. I couldn’t see who it was coming from, but I didn’t have to. I could do place it, no problem.
“Hleuco,” I said, rasp. “Thomas.”
“Rise and shine,” he said, with no particular emotion behind his words. “Try not to move too much, you don’t want to fall and hurt yourself. Stay still.”
“Where, where are…” and I trailed off. Hard, coming up with words and how to say them. Still out of it.
“Where are we? We’re somewhere safe, I can tell you that. Try to help yourself, and get your brain going again. Can you guess?”
I wanted to complain, to whine, but I probably needed to get my bearings on my own. It’d help me be more alert, faster, and I would be able to talk properly.
Fuck, but I’m so sleepy.
I took my time, looking around, despite the space allowed, despite how unresponsive my body was being. The setting was not unfamiliar, albeit a little anxiety-inducing. I’d been in spaces like this, before, though the situation was quite different. Usually it was much more oppresive. I laid my eyes on the pattern of crosses in front of me, again.
“A confessional?” I asked.
“Good job, you’re correct,” Hleuco confirmed. “St. Elizabeth, to be exact.”
I bobbed my head, aware that he couldn’t see. I’d been here once or twice, years back. A small cathedral. I knew my home from here, I could walk if I had to.
But, could I? I was still too drowsy to do much of anything, except sit here.
In a sense, I was trapped.
“How… What…” So many different questions I wanted to start with, but I didn’t know which to commit to. Which avenue of thought to pursue first.
“Take your time,” Thomas said. It didn’t sound like he had his mask on. “There are a lot of bases to cover, and there is no need to rush.”
His reassurance almost served to make me even more on edge, but I took his advice. Start simple, and go from there. What was the most pressing thing I wanted to know, right this second?
“A lot, so you’ll have to be more specific. What do you remember?”
I tried to think. “I was… dragged by my neck, no, before that, ambushed by Styx’s Gang, then… that first thing. Everything after… it’s all too blurry, right now.”
It was hard to try. Only pieces of images came back to me, and so vague that I couldn’t find the words to articulate those images. What was potent, however, were the feelings they brought back. Pain. Panic. Desperation. It was enough for me to stop trying, completely.
“No, that’s good enough,” Thomas said. “You don’t have to strain yourself. But, you’re right. Styx’s Gang managed to get the upper hand, and they took you out of the trailer yard. I wasn’t that far from where I dropped you off, so I saw them as they passed by. My deepest apologies for having not stopped them in time, I had to drive around, guess their route so I knew where to come in and cut them off. It wasn’t the best of plans, considering how I stopped them, but we were in a bit of a pinch, there.”
Quietly, I agreed.
Thomas continued, asking, “You really don’t know what happened past that, do you?”
I sighed. “No.”
“You had your earpiece, I knew that for a fact. I tried communicating with you, telling you where we could rendezvous and make a proper retreat. And you were talking, just not to me.”
“What?” I looked to the dark screen in front of me.
“I’m not going to make any assumptions about you, or your mental state, but you weren’t taking in anything I was saying to you, and you… went off to do your own thing.”
I could tell from his words, his tone, he was stepping around something. I was drawing up a blank. Was it that bad?
“Through your… aimless chatter,” Thomas said, “I was able to find you. You were alone, in the bottom of a drained pool, and unconscious. I feared the worst, but I brought you to the van, regardless. Thankfully, you were coming in and out of consciousness, which said enough, to me. Going all the way back to the factory would have made us sitting ducks if someone managed to follow us all the way out there. Too out in the open, with no other places to hide. And I wanted to check on you as soon as possible. This church was secluded enough, with all the backroads and corners. Abandoned, too. Even God left this place behind.”
The cloud surrounding my brain was clearing up some, but not by much.
“Was anybody hurt?” I found myself asking, not really sure why.
A small pause, but I took notice.
A small bit of relief, but I took it. It helped. I relaxed somewhat, pressing my back to the wall behind me.
“So, what now?” I asked. My relief was abruptly cut short. “Wait. Did you say ‘morning,’ a bit ago?”
“It’s a quarter until seven,” Thomas said.
My stomach did a flip. I was going to be late for school, if not miss it altogether. Right now, I was fighting sleep, but I’d probably crash as soon as I was safe at home. On a normal schedule, my mom usually had work before I even got up, so there would be no issue, there, but Katy might be peeved if she came by to pick me up, and I wasn’t… available.
Aside from the night before my birthday, this would be up there as one of the worst nights I ever had. Ever.
I brushed aside the time factor for the moment. “Yeah, what next?”
“I think we’ve waited long enough. If anyone, gang, police, or otherwise, were to come in and get us, they would have done so already. We’re in the clear.”
I let the relief sink in. At least I could call this night officially over.
“But, I was hoping you and I could have another chat, if you don’t mind?”
My relief was snatched away, again.
“About what?” I intoned, trying to accentuate my tiredness, expecting him to take the hint.
I didn’t offer another word.
Thomas picked the conversation back up. “It didn’t matter much to me, your origins, or how you came to be. I know I’ve said that before, but I’ve come to realize how shortsighted that was.”
My continued silence was an opening for him to go on.
“In your, how should I put it, heightened state, you were mentioning wanting to drink something. I forgot to bring it up before, but, after I found you, you were mumbling similar musings in the van, in your brief periods of lucidity. You may not remember, but, tell me, what was this ‘juice’ you were talking about?”
I felt a chill, my blood running cold. I was potentially being called out on the one thing I didn’t want to talk about. For the life of me, I couldn’t recall saying anything about ‘juice,’ but it wouldn’t take a genius to figure it out, on my end.
“You said the word on multiple occasions. I’d normally not put so much attention on such a word, my own daughter has outgrown the need to pester me about wanting some, but it seemed so important to you. I have my own suspicions, but I’d like for you to tell me, yourself.”
I lifted a hand, and I thought about opening the door and leaving the confessional. I didn’t want to talk about this, not now, not ever. I couldn’t let that particular secret get out, or else I’d be even more fucked. People were already rioting about the fact that I existed, what would happen if they learned that I needed blood? What then?
Honesty isn’t your only policy, I thought.
“I’m just as stumped there, too,” I lied. “I don’t know what that could possibly mean.”
Seconds passed. Quiet seconds, with my hand towards the handle of the door.
“That’s bullshit,” Thomas said, blunt. I had never heard him curse in my life. “Give me the truth, Blank Face.”
My hand grabbed the handle, and it twisted with a click, but I didn’t open it, not yet.
“You’re antagonizing me,” I said, just as bluntly, “That’s not cool.”
“If that’s how you choose to see it, Blank Face, then okay. But, you know what I mean, don’t you, you’re just refusing to say. But, hey, I’m not holding you hostage, all I want is a simple answer to a simple question. Go ahead, run if you want to, but I’ll know that you’ll fold at the slight presence of fear. I’ll know that you’re a coward. And that’s not cool.”
I inched the door open, letting a draft slip into the booth, cooling my neck. I realized how slightly dry my throat was. I was becoming more alert, now, more aware, and that allowed me to finally have enough strength to be angry.
How dare he.
I looked at my hand, watching how it went in and out of focus.
“You don’t fucking know me,” I told Thomas, the family friend. “You don’t know what I’ve fucking been through. Don’t you dare call me a coward.”
“Then show me you truly aren’t one. Or instead, tell me. You’re willing to go out, night after night, taking on criminals, but you’re scared of a little, tiny word? Even I know you’re better than that.”
Out of impulse, I screamed, rasp. I threw myself back, my shoulder hitting the wall opposite the door. The door went back to being closed.
He was prodding me, egging me on, and I let myself fall right into it. I wanted to hate him for being so obvious, but I’d hate myself more if I had let him think he was right.
You have no idea what I’ve been through.
A pointed ache pierced my stomach.
I didn’t speak for some time. Thomas didn’t, either.
Damn me, damn you, Thomas, and damn this whole world.
I opened my mouth, partly.
I said it, drained of all life. Exhausted. My posture wasn’t straight, my shoulder on the wall beside me, my arms dropped on my lap. I stared down, staring at the prayer card that had fallen to the floor. Our Father.
Telling the truth had sucked all the life out of me.
What was Thomas’s reaction, on the other side? Shock, fear, hatred? I would never know.
A minute passed. The longest one ever.
“Blood?” Thomas repeated, finally saying something, and it was an encouragement to go on.
Defeated, I did. “I can’t eat normal, human food. I need to drink blood. A package deal with these powers. And I really need it. I guess, if I go too long without properly feeding, I tend to lose myself to the thirst. It… what’s the word? It sucks.”
“And, until you showed your powers in public, you’ve lived all this time without attracting any attention?”
“No. I haven’t lived with this, for that long. I’ve only had my powers for about a month now.”
“I see. How did you get them, then, if I may ask?”
That entire night flashed before my eyes. In order to avoid choking up, or tensing up just thinking about it, I had to remove myself from that memory. Report it, as if I was speaking about another poor soul.
“Attacked, by an unknown assailant. Mangled, ripped apart. Left for dead. But…”
“But you survived,” Thomas said.
“If you could call it that,” I said.
I heard from the other side of the confessional, where Thomas was. A single wooden tap.
“You’ve seen fear, Blank Face. You met it head on. It may have… gotten to you, but it didn’t defeat you. From what I’ve seen, from what you’ve proven to me, you had gotten right back up, and you wanted to use that experience to help others, when they couldn’t help themselves. At a bare minimum, you are a survivor, and you are braver than anyone I know.”
I hiccuped, fighting back tears. No, Thomas, you’re wrong.
Thomas spoke again, despite me. “To branch off what you said earlier, does that mean there’s another one like you, out there? More of you?”
I had to keep my answers short, my emotions getting the better of me. “No. Don’t know.”
“Did you ever try to investigate, try to find out?”
“No, kind of, little bit.”
“I went back, to where it happened. Nothing. Then, after that, I, I…”
“Been busy ever since.”
I heard a shuffling on the other end, shifting. An exhale.
“Do you even know what you are, exactly?” Thomas asked.
“No… I’d call myself a vampire, but that’s not quite right. I’m not too sure.”
“I have a feeling this was a conversation you’ve needed, but never got,” Thomas said. “Am I wrong?”
I didn’t say anything.
“Thought so. Let me tell you this, then. As you are, you may very well be the only one of your kind, vampire, ghoul, whatever. But that does not mean that you are alone. Do you understand me? It may be hard, it may even seem impossible, but there are people out there who can and will lend a helping hand. You just have to find them, you just have to try.”
For a moment, I let the words resonate.
Another quiet minute, though it felt less grueling.
“Did I make any sense, there?” Thomas asked, getting to me. “Was I clear?”
I was unmoving, still in that slumped position.
“Good. Now, for some less important matters. Our next order of business. I propose we hold off on our masked activities for a time.”
Putting my arms on the seat, I situated myself back to an upright position. “What?”
“I have some last-minute campaigning to do this coming week, and I want to dig more into what you found at the trailer yard. And to do both, I need time. Truly. Something was off about those people you found. Styx’s Gang isn’t known to deal in human trafficking, and there were no drugs or guns in there, too. I’ve already come up a theory. Not people, but a specific individual, hiding amongst a group of normal, illegal aliens.”
“That’s why I need time. I still want to do a more honed in, focused approach against the gangs, so I’ll need time to research and better plan ahead for our next outing. If you truly want to, you can go back to dealing with random, petty crimes in the meantime, but I suggest you take a break, too. Some time off will serve us both well.”
“What about the riots? Or us trying to establish a new image?”
“People lose interest over time. It’s human nature to become bored. The riots will eventually decline to manageable level. As for image, we have all the time in the world to get the public to change their minds, once we strike the gangs more strategically.”
“It feels like running away,” I said. “Like we’re cowards.”
“There’s nothing wrong with the act of running way,” Thomas said, “If it’s a means to survive. Just make sure you can hit back twice as hard when you come back, later down the line. And that’s what we’re going to do. Hit back, twice as hard.”
I leaned back. I do like the sound of that.
“Or, I can it put it this way,” Thomas said. “In the bag I gave you, the one that had your new costume, there’s one thousand dollars, the standard payment. I’ll throw in another grand. I’m paying you to take time off.”
I was hit with a wave of mixed, turbulent emotions. Gratitude, guilt, embarrassment, disgust, but some relief, too. Like a weight was lifted, that I had been carrying for so long that I had forgotten about. I told someone, another human being, about my true nature, and I was still here, living and breathing. It wasn’t the end of the world.
A test, barely passed. But barely passing was still considered good enough.
I was going to take it.
“Sure,” I said, “I can sit still for a while.”
“Alright,” Thomas then said. I heard rustling from his end, a door opening. “I think we’ve been stuck in here for long enough. Let’s get a move on. Unless…”
He trailed off.
“Yeah?” I asked.
“Unless you have anything else to say. We are in a confessional, after all.”
I considered it. Seriously considered it. But my heart was pounding, aching. Would I be pushing my luck? Taking things too far? Would it become a burden to him, if I told him now, after everything he got out of me? Presumptuous, to put it into words.
But the words he just said came back to me.
‘There are people out there who can and will lend a helping hand. You just have to find them, you just have to try.’
Another test, the final one of the night.
Despite myself, I couldn’t form the words, couldn’t articulate them. They were too heavy. I simply went for taking off my mask.
I opened the door, and got out. My heart was beating, hard.
I faced Thomas, who had his mask in his hand, too. He didn’t have his suit jacket or his tie, his sleeves rolled up to his forearms. His hair was unruly, and he looked about as weary as I probably did.
He smiled. A soft, understated one. Like I had told him a bad joke he’d heard before.
“Alexis,” he said, and it was all I needed to hear.
“You knew,” I said, too tired to find any more anger in me. “For how long?”
“I knew the second I saw you, to be perfectly honest. It wasn’t the best disguise. Come on, a paper bag? And I’ve chaperoned you and Katy on countless Halloweens. I know what your voice sounds like in a mask.”
If I had the energy, I would have died from laughter. “Then why didn’t you tell me?”
“You were clearly still trying to get your bearings on the whole thing,” Thomas said. “I didn’t want to throw you off when you were still on such shaky ground. I was willing to wait, until you were more prepared, more certain in yourself, and then I’d let you come to me, whenever you were ready. I’m sorry I kept you in dark about this, I’ll have to beg for your forgiveness.”
I did manage a chuckle, this time. “I can’t fucking believe this.”
“No cursing,” he said, behind a tired grin.
I stepped forward, and immediately my leg buckled under me. Still too drained to do much of anything.
Thomas came right before I could collapse, and caught me, wrapping his arms around me in an embrace. Both our masks dropped to the floor of the dark cathedral.
We stayed like that for a time. We were both in an odd standing position, leaning into one another for each other’s support, and we were both too spent to move. Didn’t want to fall.
And, for me, it was something I didn’t know I needed.
My face was buried into his shoulder, and I could smell the sweat that overpowered his aftershave.
“How are you holding up, AK?” Thomas asked, referring to an old nickname he gave me, back when I was a kid. I wasn’t the biggest fan of it, then. “Feeling okay?”
I wasn’t sure if he could hear me, but I spoke into his shoulder. “I feel so frustrated.”
A soft laugh. His body swayed.
“The only thing free in life is frustration,” he said.
I believed him.