“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?