We moved as a squad, fresh as we could possibly be, ready to have a blast.
The ballroom opened up before us, and, speaking for myself, it took my breath away.
The room was wide, expansive. Intricate gold patterns weaving throughout the walls and ceiling. Even the carpet was nice to look at, red and gold fractals. A chandelier shined above our heads, glistening from every angle. The room was more wide than it was high, but that was its only limit, being in a five-star hotel.
Still the prettiest room I’d ever been in.
A band was playing on the stage at the head of the room. A singer, a guitarist, a pianist, a bassist, and a drummer, all in suits, performing smooth jazz. It added to the ambiance.
All in all, it was actually kind of neat.
Round tables were set up throughout, with fancy glasses and fancy utensils. People were already eating the food and enjoying themselves.
Everyone was dressed up for the occasion. Fancy suits for the men, lovely dresses and gowns for the ladies. Even the waiters and servers were gussied up, in black button-ups and white bowties, matching aprons. The people here looked so good it was intimidating, present company included, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have butterflies in my stomach, but I’d have to get over it.
I had to.
Katy was wearing that blue gown, because of course she was. I had to swallow my words, though, because she was actually rocking it. Her hair was styled into a side-swept dutch braid, not tightly tied, but loose and natural. Her makeup wasn’t heavily applied, going for more subtle touches. The only daring application made was her lipstick. Cherry red.
She had all the other game show hosts beat, in my opinion.
Maria, on the other hand, went for the opposite approach. She had on a black lace dress. Simple, but there was elegance there that I typically didn’t associate with Maria. It was a nice fit, showing off a figure I was jealous over. Her hair was tied back, a clean look. Compared to Katy, Maria’s makeup was more heavily applied, but tastefully done, highlighting her eyes and cheeks, her lips a deeper red.
Maria promised that she had ‘dope shit’ to wear. I believed her, and she delivered.
Me? I could only try my best to keep up.
A red dress. Nothing fancy, but with my matching heels, it elevated me to Katy and Maria’s level.
Well, close enough.
A low, square neckline, scoop back, with the length of the dress reaching my mid-thigh. As for me, my makeup was even more minimal than Katy’s, but I did have some added blush on my cheeks. It wasn’t much, but it was more pronounced that it should have been, my mom explaining that it was because my skin had gotten so white, recently.
If I had a better phone, I’d take more selfies to compare.
I fixed my hair, a curled bob.
Ogling the sights, we all moved to find our table. It was in the middle of the room, equal distance to the food and the band. Not far at all, if I was hungry.
Which I was, just not for what was served here.
“And here we are,” Katy said, leading us to our table. A card was placed on top, with all of our names on it. “It’s a prime location. Food’s right there, and all eyes are on us.”
“Great, exactly what I need,” Maria said. “Everyone can see me as I inhale my dinner.”
“More bang for their buck, then,” I added. “People get more entertainment for the night.”
Maria ribbed my side, and I laughed, hiding my own concern about being easily seen. Being out in the open.
Really have watch my back, here.
“Feel free to start the show early, if you want to, Maria,” Katy said, “I’m probably going to get something right now.”
“I’ll come with,” Maria said. “I don’t give a f… I don’t mind.”
“Alexis?” Katy turned my way.
“I’ll just sit for now,” I said, shaking my head a little, “I’ll get food later.”
“You better. The oysters here are to die for.”
“Oh, I’ll start with that,” Maria said, and they both went off, dipping into the mass of people moving about.
My mom and I took seats at the table.
I listened to the sounds around me, the music just barely over the hum of people conversing. Mom hadn’t said a word since we got into the hotel and met up with Katy and Maria, and she still had nothing to say for herself. She sat, back straight, her eyes wandering around, occasionally looking back at the band.
I noticed she would look at the singer, specifically.
I waved my hand to get her attention. “Ma, what do you think?”
“It’s big,” was all she said.
Of course it is.
I wasn’t too perturbed by her seemingly nonexistent enthusiasm. If any excitement was there, she was keeping it inside. Keeping it to herself. I was sure of that. No offense was taken or intended. That was just how she was wired. The type of person she was.
I looked over the people around us. No one I knew. Everyone was from a social or political circle that I simply was not aware of. I caught small instances of the passing conversations. The weather, a court hearing, how the housing project up in Malibu was going. And I could’ve sworn I caught a muttered mention of ‘The Bluemoon.’
So, no one was talking about anything I was terribly interested in.
I noted a few people buzzing about, flashes of light periodically blasting whatever direction they were looking. Photographers.
Really, really, had to watch my back.
Following my mom’s example, I decided to watch the band perform, the pianist’s fingers floating over the keys, the bassist being the unsung foundation the song was building from. The drummer keeping time.
The singer… was decent.
I checked my watch. The one my mom gave me for my birthday. Four minutes had passed.
“We’re back,” I heard Katy say in a sing-song way. I scooted my chair to my left to make room for her. She sat, and so did Maria.
And so did Katy’s mother and father.
“Shiori, Alexis, I’m so thrilled you two could make it,” Katy’s mother said. Kristin.
Unlike my mom and I, you could tell that Kristin was Katy’s mother. That wasn’t to say she wasn’t pretty herself, she pulled off her white dress nicely.
Between Katy’s mom and dad, I wasn’t sure where she got her smarts. Probably from both of them. Kristin occasionally taught Language classes at universities, flying out to speak at seminars. Regarding knowledge in general, Kristin was a source. Not to mention the connections she had to plan this thing.
The Thompsons were one power family. Seriously.
My mom nodded, “Thank you for inviting us. This is quite the event.”
“Don’t say that, this was the best I could do on such short notice,” Kristin responded, clearly minimizing the effort. “All I hope is that you enjoy yourself.”
“We will,” my mom said.
“Kristin, honey, I wish you had less time to put this together,” Thomas said, “I’m not used to all these old people congratulating me.”
Kristin lightly smacked him on the shoulder. “You’ll be working with those ‘old people’ soon enough. They’re part of the community, too, you know.”
“Yes, but, can’t they be more interesting?”
She hit him on the shoulder again. Thomas grinned.
He looked the same as ever, maybe more tired. But, his suit was nicer, and he still found it in him to be cheery.
“Leaving that aside,” Thomas said, “Hello, ladies.” He gestured to my mom, me, and Maria.
The three of us returned our own form of ‘hello.’
“How are you, Thomas?”
“What is up?”
Thomas nodded. “Shiori, I wanted to stop and swing by for another haircut before all of this, but I couldn’t the time.”
“It’s understandable,” she said.
“Alexis,” Thomas then said, looking at me right in the eyes. “Any updates?”
My heartbeat upped in tempo, and I almost broke eye contact.
“Trying to keep it together,” I answered.
“Good to hear, really good to hear,” he said, with far more concern than he should have let on.
Idiot, I thought, You’re not Hleuco right now. Don’t talk like that while we’re here.
I ended up glancing away when he started speaking with Maria. I folded my arms, rubbing an elbow. This was not ‘keeping it together.’
“And you must be Maria,” I heard Thomas. “Katy’s told me a lot about you.”
“Oh, I really hope not,” Maria said.
“Please tell me Katy’s been a good friend to you, I’d hate for her to be giving you trouble.”
“I wouldn’t say ‘good,’ but she tries. And you wouldn’t believe the trouble she gets us into.”
A gurgled, choking sound, followed by a hacking cough.
“Maria!” Katy berated.
Abrupt and heartily, Thomas cracked up. I looked back up, and saw Thomas wipe an eye with his thumb. He still had a bandage around it. Back at the church, after our conversation. From when he pricked himself with my knife. A temporary, improvised solution.
My makeup amplified the flush of red coming to my face.
A man walked to Thomas, putting a hand on shoulder for his attention. Thomas stood, they shook hands, and got to talking.
Thomas turned his attention back to the table. “It appears I’m needed elsewhere,” Thomas said, “I’ll be back whenever these people feel like giving me mercy. Hon, Katy, I’ll see you, Shiori, always a pleasure to see you again, and Maria, it was my pleasure meeting you. And Alexis…”
My heart started racing again.
“Keep keeping it together.”
He took his leave, following the other man towards another group, it looked like.
Leaving me red as an apple.
Unintentionally, I looked down, to hide behind my food. I reached for my fork and…
Right. I didn’t have food. Couldn’t have food. Almost forgot.
To my left, my friends were eating. To my right, my mom and Kristin were still conversing. I was left with nothing to do. Nothing to do with all my restlessness.
I just sat there, trying to maintain my composure, keep it together. I picked up on the conversation my mom and Kristin were having.
“… reminds me, and I know this would be asking a lot of you, but I think it would be absolutely delightful if you could sing for us. I can arrange something with the band.”
“Oh, no, I can’t,” my mom said, “I’m out of practice, too.”
“For someone like you, I bet it’s like riding a bike.”
“Hold on, you sing?” Maria interrupted from across the table, from my mom’s point of view.
“Sang,” I said, deciding to put myself into the conversation, and to answer for my mom. “She was a singer before she came here. I thought I told you this already?”
“You probably did, doesn’t mean I heard it. Or cared to remember.”
“Nice to know you put so much stock in what I have to say.”
“That was a long time ago,” my mom said, looking at the band again. Something in her eye.
I saw it.
“Aw, at least I tried. I’m sure Thomas would love it,” Kristin said, “I know I would.”
Mom lowered her chin, ever so slightly.
It wasn’t entirely true, what my mom had said. She wasn’t out of practice completely.
She did sing, still would. While she was cooking or cleaning, cutting my hair. Humming to herself, too. She was good. Really good. Despite a distinct rasp, there was a soft, soothing quality to her voice, but a power to it when she wanted to reach for a higher note. She liked to sing, I knew. Somewhere, deep down inside, she still had a passion for it. I just knew it.
Which made me wonder why she had put such a restriction on herself. About singing in public. When Mom first met Kristin and Thomas years ago, she wasn’t shy about sharing what she used to do, before coming to America. But, she didn’t share everything. Even to me. Even when I’d ask about her past, being in Japan, she didn’t share much. I barely even knew my grandparents. Over time, I just learned not to bring it up.
Sometimes, my brain would bring that conundrum back to me, and I’d be annoyed to no end. Like an itch I couldn’t get. Why did she stop singing?
I had some theories of my own.
Perhaps, my being born had something to do with it.
Or maybe… it was his fault.
The timid emotion within me immediately warped into something more rotten. Duller, though, after some odd years.
A… Alexis, neither time or place. You’re at a party, right now. Act like it.
It was no struggle to realign my feelings from that. Set myself straight. Years and years of practice.
I brought myself out of my head, and back into the moment. Katy and Maria were just about finished with their food, exchanging words as they ate. Kristin had already left, and so did my mom. Probably hungry, now.
I looked at my watch, before speaking up.
“Dressed up like this, doesn’t it feel like prom?” I asked Katy and Maria.
“Prom? No way,” Maria said, in between a bite of a steak. “It’s just people here… existing. And there’s not enough people our age. And it’s not trashy enough.”
“Your idea of prom is a trashy one?” Katy questioned.
“All I’m saying is, prom will be better. Trust.”
Prom wasn’t until next semester, yet it felt so far away. With every day being its own battle, it was hard to believe I could even make it that far.
Maybe I should make it a goal, something to look forward to.
I know the old Alexis would be excited for that.
“Let’s have the trashiest prom ever, then,” I said, turning the thought in my head into a pact.
“Hell yeah, girl,” Maria said, tapping her fork and knife together.
Katy looked just as thrilled, if not more so. “Sounds like a grand old time. I’m down. Especially since my dad won’t be there.”
We all looked at each other, and we shared an air of something playfully sinister.
Maria creased an eyebrow, pointing to the fork in front of me. “When you gonna get food? Katy was right, I could kill for another oyster. Good thing I don’t have to.”
I gave it some thought. “I guess it’s time to grab a plate. You coming?”
“Nah, I still have plenty left.” Maria motioned over her plate. She’d been eating this whole time, but I still couldn’t see the white of the plate, underneath the food.
“You can get seconds,” I said, “It’s not like they’re going to run out anytime soon.”
“These are my seconds.” Maria pointed to another part of her plate, “And these are my ‘firsts.’ So, when I get up, I can get thirds, see?”
“Barely. Okay, I’m going.”
“Right behind you,” Katy said, “I’ll come with.”
I didn’t mind, the more the merrier. We left the table, and crossed the room. My mom opted to stay.
The line of food stretched, a length down one wall that could feed a small village. And it looked expensive, with dishes and ingredients I couldn’t name. The smell, however, I could attribute a single word, easy.
It was like running into a burning building. I took a plate, and started putting some food down, without thought or care. I didn’t get too much, I still had to figure out how to get around actually not eating this.
Katy followed after me, getting her own food.
“What was that, just before?”
Under her breath, Katy asked me a question. She was leaning towards me.
Not so merry, after all.
“What was what?” I asked back, scooping up half a spoonful of mashed potatoes.
“When my dad was at the table, you were acting all weird while he was talking with you.”
I went straight to denying it. “Was I? I didn’t think I was acting weird. Who’s acting weird?”
“You are. I’m not kidding around, Alexis. Honestly, it’s not just that. You’ve been weird for longest time, and it’s not only me. Maria’s noticed, too.”
Fuck. Have they? Was all my work and effort been for nothing?
A pit in my stomach, and it wasn’t from the food.
Okay, part of it was.
Without a word, I continued down the line of food, picking up something here and there.
“Alexis,” Katy said.
I couldn’t face her. “Yes?”
“Can’t you tell me what’s going on?”
“There’s nothing to say because there’s nothing going on,” I said, like it was as clear as day.
“Don’t do this to me, Alexis. Remember when you and I went to find Maria to confront her about avoiding us? Now it’s me and Maria, trying to get through to you. Why do you think we stopped by your place, the other day? This was something we wanted to go over for a long, long time.
If everything fell apart, right this second, at this juncture, it’d mean the end of me, and everyone I cared about. People were after me, protesting and rioting in the streets, all due to me existing. Even if I trusted Katy and Maria about keeping a secret, what about Thomas, what about Kristin? What about my mom? So many variables, so many places where something could slip out, and I didn’t want them to become a target.
I can’t let that happen.
But my friends were already suspicious of me. Been suspicious. I had to assuage their worries if I wanted to protect them.
Which meant I had to lie through my teeth. Again.
“Uuuh,” I started, thinking.
A loud, but muffled tap sounded throughout the room.
Reach, reach. What could I use, instead? What was a plausible enough excuse that I could use? What was acceptable?
My grades. Volleyball. Coach T. That could work, I just had to spin it well enough. Enough to be convincing.
“-uum. Okay,” I said, “The truth is, I’ve been working with-”
Thomas. His voice took command of the whole room.
We turned around.
Thomas had taken his place at the head of the room, in front of the stage where the band was. He had a mic in his hand, tapping it. The sound reverberated across the room.
“Hello, everyone. I wanted to say a word or two. Actually, my wife wanted me to, so here I am.”
Several laughed, from what now was an audience.
Katy whispered to me. “We’re not done here, what were you going-”
“-wanted to thank my beautiful wife, Kristin, for arranging this extravagant party and her tremendous support, and my even more beautiful daughter, Katy, for all her support throughout my campaign.” From even that far away, Thomas could still point out his daughter, raising a hand to wave at her.
Dropping away all the tension from before, she waved back, beaming. Everyone had turned to either see her or Kristin, then went to applaud. Pictures were snapped. I turned to have my back facing them. I poked at some food. Since Katy wasn’t looking, I started inching away.
After the clapping died down, Thomas continued. “A lot, and I mean a lot, of my friends and colleagues had some very choice words for me when I announced that I was running. None of which are worth repeating here, otherwise this becomes a therapy session, but I noticed an underlying tone from those words, all coming from the same place. Fear.”
Utensils kept hitting the bottoms of plates, from what I could hear. Some weren’t paying attention to Thomas. But I couldn’t see who, I was still facing the other way.
“Fear of what?” Thomas asked, though rhetorically. “Fear for my well-being? A fear of something greater? Considering the city I will be operating in as the next district attorney, their concern may be understandable, but that’s exactly the reason why I decided to run in the first place. Because this city never got its chance to shine, never got a chance to put its best foot forward. People from the outside looking in, they don’t know what this city truly has to offer, the loving and kind folk that truly make up the core community. A community that, unfortunately, hasn’t had a chance to raise their voice and say, ‘we exist.’”
Thomas paused, to space out his speech.
“I was born and raised in Stephenville, my parents owned a small pharmacy out on the city limits. They didn’t have much, but they helped, when and where they could. My father gave his free time to the local schools and churches, my mother organized and ran food drives, among so many other things. They loved their community, and the community loved them back. And I’ve tried my best, my whole career, to accomplish a percentage of what they’ve done. I want to be a voice for those who don’t have one. Change. It will be a long process, it will be more than tiring, and change can be slow, I know. I might not get to see what this city becomes, when it does blossom. But I want to be its best foot forward.”
“Those who don’t truly know this city, they call it the ‘Wanderland of the South.’ Which was where I got my slogan from. ‘Wander no more.’ Yes, it is corny, I’m not afraid to admit that.”
“But that’s why I chose it, because it’s so important that-”
The lights cut out for a second.
Noise over the speakers. Grunting. Struggling. I spun around.
A man had wrestled the mic out of Thomas’s hands, shoving Thomas out of the way. Before Thomas could rush at him, the man spoke into the mic.
“Don’t touch him, he has a bomb.”
I could see the fear sweep over everyone. I could feel it in myself.
Thomas stood, hunched, not moving. Security personnel at the sides of the room were stopped, too, unsure of what to do.
For me, I dared not move, but I was tense.
The man moved again, this time unbuttoning his shirt with one hand. He seemed to be in a hurry, fumbling with some of the buttons.
Then, I saw exactly why.
He took off his shirt, revealing a vest underneath. Wires extended across his torso, plugged into different metallic cylinders and boxes. A large timer was across his chest, ticking down the numbers.
And we’re already too late.
“Good evening,” the man spoke into the mic.
In that instant, the timer jumped up. To thirty seconds.
And it started going down again.
“I would like for things to r-run smoothly, while I have the floor,” the man said, and the timer reset again, “I wouldn’t want to make a m-mess of this kind, poor volunteer. Alright, fine, he’s not a volunteer.”
He went still, and nobody moved. The timer went back down, past nineteen.
The more he talked, the more I realized that English was a second language to him. He had a Hispanic accent.
Fuck is going on?
And am I supposed to do something?
The man’s face was swollen in the eyes, with wounds down his neck, and down his arms, visible from where I was. There were probably more under his vest. He looked tortured.
How did this guy get in here?
He walked forward, slow, closer to the center of the room. People tried to back away, but they were restricted to their chairs, their tables. No one knew what would set him off, in a very real and grim sense.
The timer went to ten before he spoke again.
“Here are the rules. You let this man speak, and the timer doesn’t go all the way down. You touch him, you in any way interfere with him, you call for help, I let the bomb go off. And this thing’s quite the firecracker. Do not test me.”
So, that was the situation.
We were at the mercy of this bomber, forced against his will by an unknown third party. He moved his head, and I saw a wire go from his ear, into his a device on his vest. An earpiece. He was being fed words to say, repeating after someone. Thirty seconds on the clock, and we’d all die if it reached down to zero. The only thing standing in the way of that was that man. He had to keep talking.
My mom, Maria, Thomas. I found Kristin on the opposite end of the room, back to the wall, hand over her mouth. They were all closer to the man than Katy and I.
That timer can not go down to zero.
I wanted nothing more than to spring into action, and bring them all to safety. Or stop that man, somehow. But even I wasn’t faster than an explosion. I couldn’t get to them in time, I wasn’t faster than the push of a trigger. I couldn’t do anything.
I was ultimately powerless.
He had to keep talking.
Please, I don’t care what you say, keep talking.
Fifteen on the timer.
“All this talk about community, yet you ignore the loudest voice,” the man said. “The ones most afraid, the ones most in need, and o-ones who need reassurance that all is still right in this world. I will be the one to lead this city to a true glory. Call me… Solace.”
“This city has been… infested by a monster. A real monster that preys on the i-innocent with their very being. More real than any supposed evil that corrupts this city. The Bluemoon.”
Many squirmed in their seats.
“There have been no answers, only disturbing questions. Where did it come from? Why does it attack? Who is under that m-mask? The people have spoken, with their impassioned actions, but I bring their word.”
“And yet, you all sit here, consuming delectable food and drink, ignoring the rest of us? How dare you. You all deserve to d-die.”
His words filled the room, and it there was such a disconnect with what he said and how he said it. Scared, faltering, it didn’t fit with the ‘for the people’ tone the words of his speech were going for. It resulted in a jarring, harrowing atmosphere.
He didn’t speak, but the timer continued. Was it the third party, this Solace, purposefully letting the time go by?
I was sweating, cringing every second he was silent. Twelve.
The only sound over the speakers was the man’s whimpering, sad and desperate.
People were crying around me. I couldn’t bring myself to look for Katy, my eyes fixated on that timer.
“S-so I come w-with an ultimatum!” The man weeped.
The crowd cried more, all at once. The timer jumped back up to thirty.
“The Bluemoon must reveal themselves, and take off that mask in public. If it does not comply… I kill a random person in this room, for everyday you don’t come forward. I have a list of those who were invited.”
No. You wouldn’t.
The hysteria increased tenfold, but many forced themselves to stay in their seats. Though most were already at the edge of them.
As for me, I was already shaking.
Mom, Maria, Katy, Kristin, Thomas. Myself. Even if we made it out of here, we weren’t safe. They had our names. Without being aware, this Solace already had Blank Face’s civilian name.
A cold shiver down my spine, electric.
I had gotten so numb that I almost wanted it to go all the way down.
But it didn’t.
“Y-you have forty-eight hours, for our message to reach you, Bluemoon, and for you to act. Then I begin my hunt. The people have spoken, and they demand a penalty from those who failed to act on their behalf. And, one last word, that must absolutely get out. Whoever you are, you are not human, and you are not one of us. You will never be a blank face in the crowd. Goodnight, and Godspeed.”
The timer turned off, the number vanishing, followed by a high beep, descending in tone. The man collapsed, hitting the floor, and everyone lost it all at once. People yelling, screaming, crying, running. Security loudly ordering people to vacate the building, police surrounding the downed man, yelling for a bomb squad.
I stayed put. I was incapable of movement. I could barely keep it together.
It was the hard yank of my arm that forced me to drop everything and move.
“Come on, Alexis!” Katy shouted, “We have to get out of here!”
I followed, almost limply. I searched over the hectic swarm of people.
Mom, Maria, Kristin…
I found Thomas, staring right at me, circled by his own posse of police. A hard, angered stare. A look I had never seen before.
Because they knew. Solace knew.
His last words. ‘A blank face in the crowd.’ He couldn’t have said it like that without a reason. Solace knew my real name. And it was enough of a clue for me to know what we were up against. And Thomas was aware of that, too.
This was gang-related.
“Everyone’s leaving! We’ll meet them outside!”
Katy pulled me along, and I was consequently torn from Thomas’s icy stare. I had to work in pushing through a crush of bodies trying to get to the exit, everyone exploding in trepidation. Fear.
Inside me, that fear was shaping into something else.
That Solace. He or she came here, threatened my friends, my family, and simultaneously called out both me and Thomas. Blank Face and Hleuco. While I didn’t know how, I was going to make sure they’d regret that. Terribly.
Solace might have won this battle, but the war had just begun.