Physically, mentally, emotionally spent. I was at the end of my rope. And the rope was on fire.
I was burned-out.
I didn’t get the gift of sleep. I was on the floor, unmoving, eyes to the ceiling, my mind running, until daylight started slipping through the windows. Everyone woke up before the alarm, and I woke up with them. Or got up, rather. Though, I couldn’t imagine anyone else getting a wink, not after what happened last night.
Judge Edgar Brown. I had never heard of the name before, but he was at that party, he was targeted, and now he was dead. Didn’t know anything about him, what he was like, his hobbies, what his kids were like, what he liked to do with his family. But he was a person, the center of his own world and universe, and we failed in stopping the destruction of that world. Gone. No more. Dead.
The guilt slowed my steps down the stairs, until I was falling behind.
I failed to think about anything else, but I kept trying. I lumbered into the kitchen, joining everyone for breakfast.
My mom was already up, helping Kristin prepare the food. Kristin herself was on the phone, talking while cooking bacon. The smell wasn’t appetizing.
“I won’t apologize this time, Sumeet, what’s keeping him? Don’t give me that! He can’t spare a second just to say a word? Where’s Jeffery?”
Dang, Kristin was going in on that Sumeet guy.
I grabbed a seat at the table, Katy and Maria on the other end. The dog was outside.
“What’s that all about?” I asked as I rubbed in one eye. Crust stuck to my hand when I moved it away. Ew.
Katy explained, “Dad hasn’t back home yet from last night, so she’s been freaking out. I don’t think she went up to her room.”
“She’s been down here all night?”
“Seems that way.” Katy fixed her disheveled hair, tying it up. It flew apart at the ends.
“I’m worried too, but this isn’t the first time my dad’s pulled all-nighters, they’ve even ramped up in the last month or so. He can get pretty absorbed with his work when he wants to. There were times when I didn’t see him for a couple of days.”
She put her fork in her mouth, but there was no food, there. She was biting on the metal.
Maria picked up her own spoon, then put it down. “It might be the norm for you guys, but considering what’s been going down, you can’t blame your mom.”
Katy set her fork to the side. “I’m not, and I won’t.”
Now I was beginning to worry.
Thomas wasn’t the type to go a length of time without informing someone of his activities. During our outings, he demanded updates from me, and I could expect the same from him. It was a mutual respect that I appreciated, coming from the one person who saw Blank Face as something other than a monstrosity. It meant a lot to me, and it wasn’t a notion I expressed to him as often as I would have liked to.
So, if Thomas isn’t even contacting his wife…
I put myself in check. Couldn’t be thinking that way, or I’d come apart, completely.
“Maybe he’s just asleep at his desk, or stuck in some absurdly long meeting,” I said, “We’ll probably see him tonight.”
It felt like I said that mostly for my own sake.
“We better,” Katy said, with no energy.
I watched my friends as they picked at their utensils, spinning them around. We never had a sleepover with the three of us before, but I always thought it would have been fun. We’d sit and chat over boys, watch a movie, maybe get into the stereotypical pillow fight, for kicks. Maybe even try and squeeze a game of chess out of Katy and her strange chessboard.
We did some of those things, but…
I never expected it to be like this, under these circumstances.
“Don’t talk with that tone,” my mom said, coming to the table. She set down different dishes for us to eat. “Not that you are rude, but it’s discouraging.”
“Sorry then,” Katy said.
“Don’t apologize, just eat.” My mom then went to putting food on all of our plates. Eggs, bacon, and an extra helping of rice for me. I was so out of it that I didn’t even protest.
Though I should have.
Kristin stepped out of the kitchen, continuing to rant on the phone. I had no one to bail me out from my breakfast. Not even Solace.
The food looked delicious, though, I couldn’t say much for the taste.
The bacon glistened in oil and juice, the eggs a bright golden color. The rice was steaming, fluffy. To think, my mouth would have watered at the sight of it, maybe over two months ago.
And the smell coming from the food did the opposite of reinvigorating me. It drained, leaving me even less willing to face the rest of the day.
And it served as a reminder that I was becoming thirsty, again.
I tried not to show it on my face. I tried not to act. It was like walking on eggshells, letting any tells slip now would be a certain and complete disaster. Had to stay calm, had to maintain my composure.
I pushed my plate away.
“Maria, do you want like, half of my food?” I asked. “I’m not too hungry.”
Maria’s look was telling. She would have rather had me eat. But, she still agreed to take a load off of my shoulders, reaching across the table for my food. “This is only because I want to eat food your mom made.”
Maria took some food, then took some more.
“Maria, that’s more than half,” Katy said.
Maria glowered at Katy. “Look, Ms. Barnett looks like she’s a good cook, okay? Can I live?”
“But my mom helped cook, too…”
She took until there was about enough for three big spoonfuls. She wasn’t about to make things easy.
My mom went over the sink, moving on to washing pots and pans. “You eat, Alexis, you need energy. But hurry, we will be late if we don’t leave soon. I will be taking you all today.”
Ah, that’s right, I thought, We still have school.
The food was like a void, and it was staring right back at me. Three bites. If I ate this, it’d help in quelling some of the worries my mom and my friends had. It wouldn’t be by much, but it was something.
And that was all I needed for now.
Especially after ‘promising’ to tell my friends everything, after Solace was defeated.
I gathered some food with my spoon. A little bit of everything. Rice, bacon, egg. I knew a day like this would come.
I swallowed, before food even entered my mouth.
It was considered rude, but I placed my left elbow on table, resting my head in my hand. I situated myself away from everyone, facing downward. Discreet.
With my right hand, I took the first bite.
For Edgar Brown… rest in peace.
The rice and egg had the consistency of mud, the bacon was like cardboard.
Harder to chew, harder still to swallow.
But I did, and it burned.
I almost gagged.
I gathered the second bite, the spoon much heavier, now.
I put it in my mouth, like I was force-feeding myself. Well, I was.
For Thomas, Hleuco. Together, we can take Solace down.
Leftover rice was starting to cling to the insides of my mouth, as if I had eaten dirt, and bits of soil were stuck. The egg tasted rotten, somehow reminding me of a skunk. Dead, on the side of the road, decaying and smelly. The smell, condensed to a taste.
I almost threw up, right then and there.
I took a minute to stop myself from trembling. From shaking.
The third and final spoonful. The most daunting one of all.
And for myself. I wish it would all end, already.
I went right into it, sliding it between my lips.
If my arm wasn’t propping my head up, I would have slammed my chin onto the edge of the table, passing out.
I couldn’t describe this one. It made my mind go blank, hurting me on every front. Physically, emotionally, mentally.
It was just fucking awful.
Every bit of me was screaming to run. My mind going cloudy. Chewed, then swallowed, doing all that I could to keep it down.
The next part was critical to everything. I had to get up, and leave.
But, could I?
I powered through it, had no choice but to. Dropped the spoon, stood, then shuffled along the perimeter of the kitchen. My hand ran along the counter and wall for balance.
I tried to enunciate as clearly as possible.
“Imma try shower…”
Only my mom responded, Katy and Maria were eating their own food, Maria even going for seconds. “Collect your clothes and sleeping bag, I can get them later when I come back.”
I nodded once, sluggishly, then I left. I didn’t move any faster up the steps, or into the bathroom.
I stripped, entered the shower, and let the water run.
In the gloom, all alone, I had the freedom to let everything out.
Katy, Maria, and I all met back at the kitchen, cleaned up and ready to go. I had my backpack, Katy had a purse, and Maria had nothing at all.
Kristin and my mom were sitting at the table.
“I cannot believe this,” Kristin said. She had hung up the phone. “All I want is to talk to him.”
My mom consoled her. “He’ll be back, Kristin. He’s passionate about his work, and we have to do our part too.”
Kristin nodded, sleepily.
“And you also need rest. We don’t want Thomas coming back and you’re not awake to greet him, do we?”
Kristin nodded sleepily, again. She snacked on a piece of bacon while she talked. “No, we don’t. Speaking of which, will you and Alexis be spending the night with us again?”
My mom glanced at me, and I tilted my head towards the front door.
“I appreciate the offer for us to intrude for another night, but I think it is best for us to start staying at our apartment. We can’t be here forever, and I do not want to be a burden.”
“You two are anything but a burden,” Kristin said. “You’re welcome anytime, and you can stay for as long as you need. If you want, you and Alexis can move in and live with us. Maria is also welcome.”
My mom gave her a look. “That’s not reasonable. I still have work, and we can’t leave the apartment unattended for too long.”
“Same here,” Maria said. “Don’t wanna overstay my welcome.”
Kristin responded with a weak smile. “That was my poor attempt at a joke. You go do what you have to, Shiori, Maria. I can arrange for an officer to come by and check on you guys every now and then, if you’d like.”
My mom offered a similar expression. “I will be sure to let you know.” She turned to the three of us. “Let’s get going.”
Kristin dropped the other strip of bacon she was about to eat. “Shiori, let me take them. You’ve already taken credit for cooking breakfast.”
That made my mom give her a sterner look. “No, you stay here, eat, and then you sleep. If I come back and you’re still up, I will put you down myself.”
Maria whispered to us, “Damn, your mom is giving orders to your mom.”
“Mom, let Shiori take us,” Katy said, out loud. “We’ll really be late if we don’t leave now, and Mom? I have a feeling Shiori might make good on her word.”
Kristin sat back, and started chewing on bacon again. “Not might, will. Go, I’ll take a nap.”
My mom accepted that, then left the kitchen, then the house. The rest of us had to hurry to catch up, or she’d somehow leave us behind. We all managed to hop into my mom’s blue van in time.
The drive to school was rather uneventful. I would have liked for some meaningless chatting to come and pass the time, but no one offered up anything to start with. Solace must have been weighing on everybody’s mind.
My mom drove us up to the front of the school, and we filed out as soon as she stopped.
“Thanks for the ride, Ms. Barnett,” Maria said. “You’re the best.”
My mom made a small gesture. “I will be back here when school ends. Alexis, I get your stuff together, and we go back home after I drop off Maria and Katy.”
I needed a second to realize she was talking to me. Still out of sorts.
“That’s cool,” I said, mildly. In truth, I was itching to be back home. I wanted to have easy access to my Blank Face things again.
“Bye,” my mom then said, and she went off.
The three of us moved as a group, entering the school. Loud as ever, with kids bustling and hurrying to their classes. Some gave us looks. I knew that had some effect on Katy and Maria.
But, there was no time to relax, we had to start our day.
Before we could go our separate ways, we were approached by a woman.
“Katy Thompson, Maria Gonzalez, and Alexis Barnett?” She listed us off, wording it like a question.
Cautiously, we nodded.
“Good morning, you three,” she then said, as kindly as one could.
“Good morning,” Katy said back. She had delegated herself to speak for us. I was cool with it.
“Principal Kirk would like to see you.”
The woman’s name escaped me, but I was not unfamiliar with her. She was one of ladies who ran the front office. A secretary.
“It won’t take too much of your time, you’ll be done before your first class ends.”
Maria interjected, “Are we in trouble already? We just got to school.”
The woman didn’t take it as very funny, answering her directly. “I assure you, you’re not in trouble. All three of you, please come follow me.”
The three of us exchanged some looks, but there wasn’t really much of a choice in the matter.
We followed her towards the front office.
The number of students out in the hall were thinning, giving us room to walk without bumping arms.
I caught sight of Harrian from across the hall.
He didn’t notice me, and I only noticed him because of how hard he was trying to not be noticed. Decked in all black, head down, hands in his pockets, and if he was any faster, he’d get called out by a teacher. He seemed to be in a hurry.
Harrian turned my way, but he still didn’t see me. I got a better look at his face. Haggard. He was skinny, but I could tell that he hadn’t been eating, even from a distance. Shadows were cast on his eyes and cheeks, and his mouth hung open, like he didn’t have enough energy to lift his jaw. He looked weak.
He didn’t come any closer. His eyes went wide, then he spun on his heels, returning the way he came.
Okay… that happened.
If I wasn’t so out of it myself, and if I wasn’t headed to the principal’s office, I would have let myself be more curious as to what that was about. But, from my handful of interactions with him, he was always a bit odd, and I did have my own business to take care of, as both Alexis and Blank Face. Harrian would have to be a lower priority.
Still following the woman, we went around a corner, going towards a side entrance of the front office. The hallway was nearly empty, now.
“Coming up behind you!”
“Let me get that for you, ladies.”
Eric and Evan. Right before the woman hold put her hand on the knob, the duo passed us and opened the door.
“What are you two doing here?” Katy asked as we continued inside. Faculty and some students were here, busy with differents tasks and errands. A lively atmosphere. We passed the front counter, heading into the faculty area.
“Student aide,” Eric answered, “Printing papers, stacking papers, filing those papers, and sometimes, go around school to give people pink slips. They don’t seem to like those.”
“It’s a blast,” Evan said.
“You two are involuntary student aides,” the woman added, “Don’t act like you want to do this.”
“Aw, come on, Mrs. K.” Eric slouched his shoulders and hunched forward, but he still towered over all of us. “We’re liking it now, promise!”
Evan nodded along, agreeing with Eric.
“What are you in for?” I asked.
“It’s either that or detention,” Eric said. He didn’t offer any more, but he didn’t sound too bummed over it, either.
“This way,” the woman said, going another way in the office, down a smaller hallway where the principal and assistant principal’s offices were.
“It’s nothing, but I can explain some other time,” Eric said.
“I don’t really care,” Katy said, straightforward. Normally, she’d play along with their fooling around, but she wasn’t having it, this time. “Like how we have our own thing.”
“Fair.” Eric started going in the opposite direction, another hall. “We’re this way, got more papers to print.”
“Then stack, then file,” Evan said.
“Yup, and it is fun, Mrs. K!” Eric’s voiced boomed across the halls, but ‘Mrs. K’ didn’t respond. She was standing, hands resting behind her back, facing us. In front of Principal Kirk’s office.
We split up without a proper ‘see you later,’ the boys going to do menial work, and us girls going to do… another thing. I still didn’t know what this was about.
Mrs. K waited until all three of us entered the office before closing the door. She didn’t come in with us.
It wasn’t my first time coming in here. At least I wasn’t alone, this time.
Principal Kirk’s office was like any other principal’s office. Neat and tidy, muted colors, with a few personal touches to make it his own. Namely, a picture frame of his family, and a Van Halen record on his wall. Signed.
The principal himself was typing at his computer. Average looking, he looked nice in a suit, but he wasn’t Thomas. For someone his age, he sure didn’t show the signs of his number. His hair was still chestnut brown, neatly combed back. He had circular framed glasses, but they didn’t look old-fashioned on him. Stylish, in fact.
He stopped what he was doing when he heard Katy pull at the first chair.
“Ah yes, here y’all are, feel free to take a seat,” he motioned to the chairs in front of his desk.
He was prepared for us to come. Three chairs were set, normally there would be only two. Two of the chairs were supposed to be here, they kept in line with the general aesthetics of the room. Wooden, with cushions on the seat. The third chair was clearly pulled from another room. A metal folding chair. It didn’t match with anything in here.
Katy and Maria took the cushioned seats. I settled for the metal folding chair, dropping my backpack beside me.
“How are you all today?” he asked, sounding chipper. It bothered me, or maybe that was a testament to how fucked up I was, mentally and emotionally. It was coloring how I perceived others.
“We’re trying,” Katy said, answering for us again. It wasn’t even much of an answer. We were just… trying.
Trying to do what?
“It’s better than not giving up,” he replied, his tone still the same. I couldn’t argue with him, there.
Principal Kirk came across as the kind of guy who would have been popular when he was in high school, he had that air, that charisma, about him. Maybe he was even a captain of the football team. Though, looking at it another way, it was like he never left high school.
He closed the monitor of his computer, then he gave us his full attention, resting his elbows on the desk, putting his hands together.
“I’ll try to make this snappy, and let you go about your day. Now, from your parents, I’ve heard about the… ordeal, that y’all are going through, and it truly tears me apart that you girls have to go through something of this magnitude.”
I didn’t need to see my friends’ faces to confirm for myself, I could already guess what they were thinking.
Nothing but empty words.
“But,” Principal Kirk said, as if to counter my line of thinking, “Luckily for me, I don’t have just my condolences to give.”
I blinked, the extent of how much energy I was willing to spend. I fought back a yawn.
“I haven’t run this through your parents yet, but I’ve spoken with your teachers, and they’ve all agreed to let you continue your courses from home.”
Katy fixed her seat, briefly lifting herself up so she could scoot her chair forward. She was curious.
“You’ll have to elaborate,” she said.
“The school has a duty and responsibility to provide a safe environment for our students to feel comfortable in. However, given that this is a… special circumstance, we, the school, are willing to overlook your attendance on campus for as long as you need.”
“You’re saying we don’t have to come to school?” Maria asked.
“If you feel safer spending the day in the comfort of your own home, the school will not penalize you for doing so. Of course, you will still have schoolwork. The school will email you the lessons, notes, assignments, and reviews for all of your classes, put together by your different teachers. It’ll be in one big file. You complete it from home, send it back, and your teachers will grade it.”
“What about tests or quizzes? Don’t we have to come to school to take those?”
“We will accommodate you on that as well. It’s up to your teachers, but they might change the format, making it multiple choice, or depending on how well you do on your assignments, they might forgo tests, entirely.”
Maria fell back into her chair. Obviously, she was into this.
“Of course, this is all up to you,” the principal said, “Well, it does require your parents’ consent, but this is your decision. Whatever you feel is best for you, we’ll go with that. Want to go home? No problem. Want to come to school? More power to you. This is all about what makes you comfortable.”
The effort Principal Kirk was putting in to get that idea through our heads was admirable. He wanted us to be taken care of, he wanted us to feel safe. Did it suck that the Solace situation had gotten so out of hand that it was affecting the school administration? Sure, but they were trying, and doing their part, too. It might have been a small gesture, but it was going a long way. A small light in an ever-consuming darkness.
“Do we have to make that decision now?” Katy asked.
Principal Kirk shook his head. “Not now, not this instance, though you can, if you’ve come to a decision already. Just let me know anytime, and I’ll make the necessary preparations. All I ask for now is to talk to your parents about this, and give this some serious thought.”
It was an alluring option, I wouldn’t lie. Time away from school could be a big help, it meant time away elsewhere. Mom would be out of the apartment, and I would be free to-
We all turned to Maria.
“You’ve already made your decision, Maria?” Principal Kirk said. “You don’t need to discuss this with your father?”
“He won’t mind. It might actually be better. Yeah, I’m sure.”
The principal nodded. “Understood, stick around after we’re done here, and I’ll get things going for you.” He then faced me and Katy. “I don’t suppose either of you have already decided?”
Katy spoke first. “I really appreciate the offer, I do, but I’ll decline. I can tough it out here, at school.”
So Katy decided to stay? Does this have something to do with Thomas talking about not folding to pressure? Tougher stuff?
Principal Kirk sat back, his hand still together, resting on his lap. “I’ll respect that decision, too. We do have extra officers on campus for some added security. I can promise you, you are as safe here as you are in your own home.”
His eyes then went to me. It was my turn.
I want to discuss this with Thomas, too. See if we can’t meet or plan during normal school hours. Maybe even some Blank Face action in the afternoon.
I put my finger to my chin. My eyes went elsewhere.
“I’ll have to talk with my mom about this. She’d want to be in the know before I make a decision.”
Principal Kirk accepted that, too. “That’s just as fine with me. And remember, this is an option that will always be available to you. Katy, if you happen to change your mind, I’ll be more than willing to move in that direction. And Alexis, just let me know either way, after you’ve spoken with your mom.”
“Will do,” I said, “Thank you, though, you didn’t have to go that far.”
“Oh, we do. It wouldn’t be right if we stood here and did nothing. Like I mentioned, it’s our duty and responsibility.”
Duty and responsibility. The words repeated and looped in my head. Somehow, it was reassuring.
Principal Kirk changed his position, tapping a key on his keyboard. His computer woke up.
“I know it’s not a lot of fun for me to have called you down here and talk about boring tests and quizzes, but it is important. Is there anything else you’d like to say to me? Any questions?”
The three of us exchanged looks again. I got the general impression that we were just about done, here.
“I think we’re good,” Katy said, speaking for all of us. “Thanks again.”
“Then that settles it,” Principal Kirk said, getting back onto his computer. “Hope to hear from you soon, and I hope this situation gets resolved as fast as possible, as safely as possible. Maria, stay right there, and we’ll get started. You’ll need to bring back a permission slip for your father to sign.”
“Guess I can’t leave with you,” Maria said to me and Katy. “See you later?”
“Yeah, see yah,” Katy said.
“We’ll text you when we’re out of school,” I said. We got up, taking our stuff with us.
“Oh, Katy, tell your dad the school has his back,” Principal Kirk said.
“Sure,” Katy said, “I’ll let him know as soon as I see him.”
I kept to myself for that one.
Katy and I left the principal’s office, Principal Kirk and Maria getting right to work. We took the same path back of the office, and we were back in the hallways of the school. We didn’t run into Eric and Evan on the way.
The hall was empty. Not even a kid walking around with a hall pass. Somewhere in between going to the front office and conversing with Eric and Evan, the bell rang, but I never heard it.
“Maria’s really gonna stay at home?” I asked. We moved to the front of the school. My locker was on the other side of the building.
“I don’t fault her for that,” Katy said, “Deep down, I think she’s the most freaked out by the whole thing.”
I agreed with her by saying, “I don’t fault her, either.”
“And you?” Katy asked.
“Are you going to end up taking Principal Kirk’s offer?”
Not even deep down, I was definitely considering it. “It depends on what my mom has to say about it. She’ll probably want me to keep coming to school, but I might be able to convince her if I really wanted to.”
“Do you really want to?”
Again, she asked me. She really wanted a direct answer.
“I do. It’d be nice if I could. It’s just that, if my mom says no, that’ll be the final word.”
Katy nodded, slow. It almost looked like she was shaking her head, too.
And that was the final word between us for that morning. We split to go to our classes, located at different ends of the building.
On my way, I stopped to take a sip at a nearby water fountain. The sips turned to gulps, as I was spending more time there than I should.
I tried getting myself back into the mind of being just a student, to being just Alexis, but other things were too prominent, too heavy.
I wish things could go back to the way they were.
I remembered when all I had to deal with were due dates and test grades. And now, I was handling deadlines of the most literal kind.
Because, in less than twenty-four hours, if nothing happened, we would be going through the same thing all over again.
No, no no no, no no no no no no no.
This was the same thing all over again.
I staggered into the closet. My mom left me alone, letting me retreat into my room.
I clawed through piles of clothes and boxes. Bits of dust had settled in my absence.
Ripping open the bag, I found the mask. I yanked it out, hugging it close.
I collapsed to the floor, I curled up into a ball.
My chest was pounding, my heart was sinking.
My whole body, my very being, felt like it was on fire.
The end of my rope.
Solace came back, on the TV, posturing like he or she always did. They listed off more names, and they rattled in my head, echoing and echoing and echoing and echoing.
I wasn’t able to do anything. Not in time. Even if it was just another pair of eyes, it was enough to keep me locked up in my apartment. Like a bird in a cage.
I couldn’t cry, couldn’t tear up. I shook, I trembled.
A wide range of emotions, that I wasn’t sure what to call it. Anger? Horror? Panic? Dismay? It was everything, all at once, until it wrapped back around and became nothing.
A certain sadness.
The names Solace said…
Edgar Brown… Linda Day…