The service ended early in the evening. It was dark, and it would only get darker.
Thomas didn’t make it.
Time of death, four forty-five in the morning. Cause of the death, severe bodily injury below the neck, various infections, multiple organ failure, complications during surgery…
Severe blood loss.
He died in his sleep. They tried, the doctors said, but his condition was too grave by the time he reached the hospital.
Maybe if he arrived a second sooner, maybe if an entire night wasn’t wasted in trying to find him.
A lot of maybes.
Apparently, Thomas had already made plans for his family to be taken care of, in the event that something were to happen to him. Not that they particularly needed it, Kristin was as much a breadwinner as her husband was, but the gesture was there. It was in writing.
As for him, he would have wanted to donate his body to science. Cremation was the second option. Given everything that happened to him, a choice had to be made. His family discussed it, and decided to do the latter.
The memorial took place a week after he passed. Enough time for family and friends to come into town, fly in from another state.
Even James Gomez showed up.
It was still a small gathering, relatively speaking. Kristin preferred it to be a private service, and that was what she got.
Everyone had something to say, to give their piece about a man they cared about. Preaching to the choir, perhaps, but it was a way to vent, to cope with the news. Everyone needed it. To give a eulogy, and to hear one.
Mom sang. She was great.
We all did our best to try and celebrate the life of Thomas Thompson, rather than mourn his death. But it was like a heavily overcast day. The sun was out, but the clouds colored our perception of things.
It was quiet when the memorial started, it was quiet when it ended. Everyone filed out of the funeral home, with hardly a word being whispered.
Dark, heavy clouds hung over our heads. A static feeling that sat in the air. It was going to rain, and it was going to rain hard.
In the crowd of people, I found Katy, and I drifted towards her. She didn’t get off the porch right away, instead sitting on one of the porch swings. I joined her.
Her feet were planted flat on the floorboard. My big toe grazed it.
It was just her profile, but it was the best look I had of her all week.
Her hair was done up nicely, curls lightly moving in the wind. She had on makeup, but the edges of the one eye I could see were fudged a bit, the eye itself irritated and red. Her cheeks puffy, the edge of her mouth would occasionally tremble, the more I looked at it. She wore a dress. Black.
She was dressed well. Of course she was. To slack off now would be an offense to her father’s memory. I was sure she thought about it like that. I was sure she was right.
Silence yawned as neither of us said a word.
Minutes came and went, nothing.
“Hey,” I finally said, though it was more of a sound than it was a word.
Katy didn’t move.
“Hi,” she said back, seemingly out of breath.
Silence started settling back in.
I could imagine what she was feeling. ‘Bad’ was probably a good guess. ‘Sad’ was another. But there was very likely other emotions thrown in the mix, each with their own potency, and how Katy would respond to those emotions would be completely unique to her.
I had to really be careful if I wanted to talk with her.
But it was hard, coming up with anything to say.
“Hey,” I ended up saying again. It was the best I could come up with.
“What do you want, Alexis?”
Her tone struck a raw wound in my heart. Cold.
But, it was a start. A question I could answer.
“I just want to sit next to you, is all. Maybe talk, if you’re up for it.”
I mentioned sitting next to her, but there was noticeable space between me and Katy. Another person could sit there comfortably.
Katy breathed, and it was shaky.
“What else is there for me to say that I hadn’t already said back there?”
Her standing at the podium, by a large portrait of her father. He was smiling in that picture, she was much less energetic. She took her time with her eulogy, making sure every word was delivered clearly, with intent. Clearly, it had taken a lot out of her.
It also showed just how strong Katy truly was.
“It was really good,” I said, summing it up in four words. But, in no way did it represent the full weight her speech had on everyone. How heavy and suffocating it was on my chest.
“I tried,” Katy said. “I’m trying.”
In a way, her own four words to sum everything up.
“It’s been a… weird week,” Katy said. Her gaze kept forward, looking out, languid. A car drove across the street ahead, but it was hardly noticeable.
“I can… imagine,” I said, choosing my words very, very carefully.
“Nearly lost my perfect attendance streak. I’d oversleep sometimes, he liked to call from work to wake me up.”
“And dinner at home is awkward now. It’s not that we haven’t had nights where he was late and we had to eat without him… but, I’ve just been eating in my room, recently.”
Something welled up in my throat, preventing me from even uttering a sound to acknowledge that I heard her.
“And yesterday? It was early in the morning, but I woke up because Mom was… You know, too hard and all. I found her in his office, his study. Hadn’t, it hadn’t been open since… There were pieces of trash, crumpled paper, used tissues and clippings and stuff. Coffee rings on his desk. Is it weird, that, I almost didn’t want to throw it away, or clean it up? Is that weird?”
Every word, felt like a punch to my windpipe. But I had to get it out, somehow.
“No, it isn’t.”
That was all I could manage.
“I just, it…”
Katy’s voice cracked.
“It’s just that-”
Cracked again. Her eye twitched.
“I’m, I’m ready for the punchline. I’m ready for the rug to be pulled out from under me again, and this is just one elaborate, cruel joke. He’ll come out from under some curtain I forgot to check, he’ll smile mischievously, and we’ll all have a big laugh. I’m ready to be played the Fool. Capital ‘F.’”
I could only speak in whispers, as if all the wind was knocked out of me.
“I feel the same way.”
That was when she turned. She stared me down, dead in the eye.
Ice. A shiver went through me. Behind her eyes, there was only a glimmer of life and energy. Normally there would be so much more. Cold, now.
“Maybe I’ve been played the fool this whole time.”
This conversation had been going so slow, the awkward pauses were starting to become the norm.
Was that directed at me? At another topic?
Katy sighed, her shoulders dropping. Her gaze wandered elsewhere.
“I was still asleep when that stuff at city hall took place. I had to hear about it online, before Uncle James called us. Everyone pretty much concluded that he was a terrorist, or at least he was involved…”
“That’s just straight up incorrect, and you know that,” I said. I felt like I had to interrupt, there, even though it should have been obvious to everyone who showed up. Or anyone with a brain. “He was taken and set up. Mr. Gomez held a conference saying that was the case, and he had Edgar Brown and Linda Day publicly make statements to back that up. Nobody actually thinks that he was…”
“But people did, even if it was just for a second. That can taint a reputation, like when you’re convicted of murder, and it turns out, years later, that it wasn’t you. It sticks like gum in hair, and he… Dad doesn’t deserve that.”
“If people can’t understand that, then they aren’t the kind of people you want to hear any opinions from,” I said. “I almost want to say that it’s obvious, but that’d be too much, right now.”
The corner of her lip twitched, ever so slightly. Up.
“I need the obvious to be made out to me, actually. It helps, well, I don’t know how it does, but it does.”
I couldn’t take my eyes off of Katy. Every minute movement, every twitch of the muscle. How she tried to keep still. She was barely keeping it together, hanging by her last thread.
It ached, to watch her like this.
A flicker in my eye, and I rubbed at it.
Maybe trying another topic? Something less of a touchy subject?
“Um, well, I missed you, you know, I haven’t seen you for a week,” I said. “What have you been up to?”
I nearly flinched at my own wording. Something told me that I could have asked that better.
Katy didn’t seem to react to that, but she wasn’t really reacting much to anything.
“Playing chess,” she finally answered.
“With who, your mom?” I asked.
“What are you trying to do, Alexis, huh? Why are you talking to me?”
That threw me off.
“Like I said, I just want to talk and catch-”
“Talk about what? About how Dad is gone and I’ll never see him again? About how I heard about him being killed… twice? About all the stuff he wanted to do that he can’t anymore? He so desperately wanted to be district attorney, and he got elected, only to not be able to do anything with that position. And, also, he was thinking about a family vacation after I graduated high school. He was hinting at wanting to go to Japan, actually, saying how it’d be nice to invite you two, you and Shiori. But it can never happen, not anymore, not like that.”
Speechless. I couldn’t say any more, even if I wanted to. I never knew that last point, and it only served to add to the weight of it all, how much of a hole Thomas had left behind. In all of our lives.
But Katy, she continued.
“I was trying to be nice and entertain you, Alexis, but I can’t, alright? I can’t. I don’t want to talk. Not about me, or your whole fucking thing, okay, nothing. I’m not, I’m not there yet. Maybe I’ll be there one day, and I’ll call you and we can talk all the livelong day, until our lips bleed and fall off of our mouths. You can get what you want then, tell me whatever, but not now. Not now.”
Her words hung in the air, and it numbed me. I’d never heard her talk that way before, though, she’d never been in this kind of situation. This was uncharted territory, emotionally.
Had to frame it that way. Couldn’t blame her for being short with me, after all she’d been through this past week. I understood where she was coming from, in a sense. We were all suffering the same loss, but we had to take it in our own, individual way.
If she needed a punching bag, I was willing to take the hits. I deserved it.
I hung my head, and looked out ahead. Nothing but empty blackness, if I chose to ignore the street and cars and houses. I did, and I was in the center of it all.
Neither of us shared a word after that.
A hand settled on my shoulder. I looked.
“Can I sit?” she asked, behind a weak, almost pitiful smile. Like she read the atmosphere, and was trying to see what she could do.
“Be my guest,” Katy said, but she got up, and left, disappearing into a group of stragglers who were just now leaving the funeral home. They noticed her and got out of the way.
Maria took her place, sitting beside me. Relatively speaking. She was about an inch or so closer.
“Ouch,” Maria said, but her voice was still light. Sympathetic. “I was hoping I could talk to her… guess not?”
“Yeah,” I said, “Guess not.”
“I guess I can settle for talking with you, then.” Maria smiled softly again, and bumped my arm with her elbow. “How are you?”
I was willing to talk… and tell, but that feeling was directed to Katy. I wasn’t ready for a conversation with Maria.
I was, however, willing to do what I could.
“I’m not sure how to put it into words,” I said. “It’s a whole bunch of feelings that clash together, individually they’re sharp, distinct, but blending it with everything else muddles it, blunts it, until it just ends up being a numbed… nothingness.”
What the hell did I just say?
“Wow,” Maria said, taking half a minute to process whatever the hell I just said, “I don’t think I’m qualified to take all that apart.”
That actually managed to prompt a small laugh out of me. “Don’t worry about it. It’s something I can just bottle up inside and drink down.”
Maria nodded. “Certainly not the best idea, but I’m with you, there.”
“Yeah, but enough about me. How’ve you been holding up?”
“Doing good… everything considered. I don’t have to go to school at least, so I can just sit at home and do whatever I want, without having to worry about that… other stuff. So that’s neat.”
“That’s right, you took the offer,” I said. “I’m actually considering it myself, now. I was going to tell Katy, but, I couldn’t find a way to bring it up.”
“You can bring that up another time, no big deal.”
“I don’t want her to think I’m abandoning her,” I said, “Or something.”
“I doubt she’d take it like that,” Maria said, reassuring me.
Maria leaned into the bench, and we started swinging. “It really is sad, and I really feel for Katy, too, but it’s also kinda… weird, for me. I was surprised when Katy texted me the invite.”
“I mean, who do I know here outside of you and Katy? Yes, Thomas, obviously, but I didn’t get the chance to know him that well, sadly. I’m not family, or even a family friend. I’m pretty sure, out of everyone here, I knew him the least.”
“There’s nothing wrong with that,” I said. “It’s not like it’s a contest to see who can pay the most respect.”
“I suppose,” Maria said. She pushed against the floorboard to keep us rocking back and forth. “I just rationalized that I’m here for Katy, and to just see the damn girl. Haven’t seen her all week.”
“Same here. Good luck trying to talk to her though.”
“I bet, she’ll need her space.”
The bench swung forward, and I felt my feet leave solid ground, just for a second. I felt like I was about to fly away.
I rubbed at my eye again. A flicker.
I rubbed until I started seeing things. Brown blobs.
“You good there?” Maria asked.
I put my hands away from my eyes, blinking.
“It’s like a bug got in there,” I said.
“It has been hot, lately,” Maria said. “It’s going to suck when it rains.”
I rested my hands beside me, still blinking. We were swinging slowly, and it gave me a chance to get my thoughts back in order.
“What are we going to do?” I asked.
“About Katy. Maybe you caught a bit of it before you came over here, but, I’m afraid she might not be herself for a long time.”
The bench swung back, and I felt that singular moment where we were about to go forward again, and my legs felt the heaviest.
Maria stuck her feet out, and we stopped.
“There’s nothing we can do about it, not exactly. Katy’s taking it how she’s taking it, and she needs to let those feelings ride out, and take her wherever they take her. And she has a good head on her shoulders, she wouldn’t let herself do anything drastic. She’s way smarter than me, at least.”
Maria laughed to herself. It was delicate.
“People are used to the status quo, right, they hate change. Even accepted, natural changes, we spend a huge amount of time planning and preparing for it. Like graduating high school, and going to college. So big, crazy, sudden changes? People hate those the most. Because everything tends to change along with it, and people get caught off guard, and then they don’t know how to react. So they overcompensate, they get more intense than what might be necessary, they freak out. Panic. There’s going to be bumps along the way when they try to right themselves again, and get used to the new status quo.”
Briefly, Maria paused.
“If anything, yeah, you and I will just have to be there to soften the bumps for Katy.”
Those words settled within me.
“That’s… incredibly poignant of you,” I said, amazed. As amazed as one could be at a time like this.
Maria smiled, but there was a hint of sadness, there, that I hadn’t noticed before.
“No matter how many times… It never gets any easier.”
Before I could respond, or react, I heard someone calling for me.
“Oh, that’s my mom,” I said, “Looks like we’re heading out. Text you later?”
We both got up from the bench, and we hugged. A prolonged hug, and the longer it lasted, the more it actually helped.
But, we couldn’t stay like that forever. We broke away, walking off the porch together, then going our different ways. I joined my mom, Maria went to her own car.
Maria and I left the conversation on that note, and that note rung into the open air.
My mom and I took our time getting to the van, which was parked at a lot a block away. We were stopped twice by others who were going the same way, people who wanted to compliment my mom on her singing. I had to stand by, waiting until they were done providing their accolades.
We eventually made it to the van. We got in, but Mom didn’t start it up right away.
“Something the matter?” I asked.
“No, it’s nothing.”
She started the van, and proceeded to take us on the road, the funeral home behind us.
The ride was quiet, the radio kept off.
I decided to say something.
“Um, Ma, maybe it doesn’t mean much since you’ve already heard it like a million times, but you were good.”
Mom’s face was still largely neutral, but I was sure she appreciated the comment.
“I could have done better. I didn’t get enough time to practice.”
“Well, you unprepared is better than some stuff I’ve heard on the radio.”
“Now you’re just patroning me.”
“It’s ‘patronizing,’ Ma, and I’m not. I mean it. It was cool that other people got to hear you sing, since you don’t do it much, out in public.”
“No, but now I sort of regret not doing it before.”
“Why? Because they’ve asked to hear you before?”
Mom didn’t answer, or she was too focused on making a turn to provide one.
“Kristin seemed to like it,” Mom then said, after the turn. “At least there is that.”
Mom then turned on the radio, a radio host talking about some bible verse. I started to tune it out, lazily dragging a finger across the face of my watch.
My thoughts went to what Katy said. A vacation. A dream that would never come true. I wanted to bring it up to Mom, but it seemed like it would be in bad taste. I finally zipped it.
Turning to face the window on my side, I watched a single droplet of water hit the glass. Then, another. Then more.
The rain came down harder by the time we got back home, but I had a feeling that it’d only get stronger throughout the night. We rushed inside for refuge from the weather. We forgot to bring an umbrella.
We each went into our own rooms, Mom turning on the TV beforehand. Knowing her, she liked to let the TV run even if she wasn’t actually planning on watching. She liked using it as background noise to not make the apartment feel so lifeless.
I went into my room, making sure to close the door behind me. In doing so, my eye flickered yet again.
The lights were still off, but a shape passed from one corner of my room to the other. A deeper black.
After turning on the lights, I rubbed my eye, moving to check that corner.
Nothing there. Just the edge of my computer desk, with nothing but wires and plugs underneath. No bug or rat.
Great, I was seeing things.
I returned to my original course of action. I stepped inside my walk-in closet, and got undressed.
I slipped into an oversized white shirt, and turned to look for some pajamas. My eyes wandered over to the pile of my old ‘hero stuff.’
I breathed out, hard, but it came out shaky, instead.
I bent down to inspect the pile, the bag, then opened it.
My old blue windbreaker, my old grey joggers. A bag of dirty clothes I hadn’t gotten around to cleaning yet.
My old mask, a blank face that stared back at me.
After it was all said and done, this was all I had left of that time. Most of the things that he had given me had gone up in flames. It might as well have never existed.
But, that costume did exist, and the events that took place while I wore that costume still happened. And I had to face that truth.
Thomas was gone.
And I had a part in it, if not being completely responsible.
My fault, one way or another.
If only I hadn’t accepted Thomas’s offer in being a hero, if only I had done more in trying to find Thomas faster that night. I replayed it all, in my head. Where I could have done better, all in all.
But, it was all just speculation. Wishful thinking.
I had failed. And, above all else, I was a failure.
If only I wasn’t me.
I was all cried out, already, there weren’t any more tears to squeeze out of me. So I moved to other modes of expression. But it wasn’t enough, maybe it would never be enough. Through the cuts, the peeled skin, the burns, the eating, the insomnia, it was all I could do in order to feel something. And no amount of powers or healing could fix a very particular, pointed wound.
The only thing left was to quit, entirely. Give up.
Katy needed space, and so would I.
Solace hadn’t made a move since the riot at city hall. No announcements, no hijacked television stations, nothing. It made for the days following the riot more tense than they were already, but nothing came of Solace afterward. I hoped that remained the case.
Nothing but more questions, but I didn’t want to be in the business of finding those particular answers.
This was a hit that landed too close to home, and that meant that things were closing in on me. Katy, Maria, Kristin, Mom, they all deserved an explanation, and as much as I wanted to give them one, who – or what – I was, was still up in the air. Too many distractions made my focus stray elsewhere. Dealing with my changes, the gangs, Solace, it all stacked too quickly for me to get any foothold on my new place in the world.
They all deserved an explanation, and I needed to start gathering the pieces so I could give them one, one day.
The National Guard came into the city to help clean up after the big riot, and announced a short-lived presence in the city to help restore and maintain peace. The FBI even announced that they were going to launch an official investigation against Solace and Blank Face. All the more reason to stop sticking my neck out.
And that was the end of it. Just like that.
No more Hleuco, no more Solace. No more Benny, no more Styx. No more Gomez. And I didn’t have a spare fuck to give about a ‘Mister.’
I was done.
Finished. Over. I was out of the game. Tonight, much like how Thomas was reduced to ashes and buried, I had done the same to Blank Face. The Bluemoon had set.
Alexis, any updates?
A voice. In a flash, I threw the mask and the bag back into the corner of the closet, then spun. My mom? Did she see me? Was she calling?
Again, nothing. The closet door was open, but there wasn’t anyone outside.
The voice sounded real, like someone else was here. But, no one was around. If there was, there’d be a problem.
I rose to my feet, carefully stepping out of the closet. Just me, standing in my own room. Actually, as my eyes did a once-over across my room, it was feeling less and less like my own room. Like I was sleeping over at someone else’s place.
It was an isolating feeling, one that-
Do you feel like quitting?
I almost jumped out of my skin.
There it was, that voice. Except it was much clearer this time, but much less distinct.
It sounded like my own, except a few notches deeper, with a masculine tone underneath it all. It sounded deformed.
And it didn’t seem to come from one source, or one direction, it seemed to be coming from every direction.
Oh my god.
“Who’s there?” I asked out loud, unsure of what answer I’d get, if I even wanted an answer. Getting one could mean any number of things.
Then, quiet. It extended for some time, until there was a light ringing in my ears, having to stand there and try to focus on any sound that wasn’t rainfall.
My eye flickered again, and-
I’m a lawyer, not a doctor.
My head whipped in one direction, and I was looking at the sliding doors that led out to the balcony.
No one was there. No one.
But there was.
A shadow, standing outside. Not completely solid, there was an idea of a shape.
Water hit the glass doors. It wasn’t hitting it.
Nothing there, there was no face, but I looked and it stared back.
What do you want to do?
“What, what do I do!” I screamed out, without thinking, as though it was an automated response to my own thoughts.
No, these weren’t my own thoughts. Couldn’t be.
I screwed my eyes shut, and dropped to my knees.
Raw, fire. My throat felt like I was drinking acid.
Hands fell upon me. I squirmed.
I jerked away, and I felt my arms hit against something. I collapsed to the floor, but I fought to get to my bed, struggling all the way. I grabbed the blankets, then spun across my bed so I’d get wrapped in them. Faster than trying to get under.
I was face to face with my mom. She was white.
“What’s wrong? Why are you screaming?”
My mom’s mouth moved. Words came from them. Real words.
I was screaming?
My heart was still racing, like I had just finished a hard set of volleyball. Gasping for breath, it was hard trying to get out my own words.
“B- bug, thought I saw a bug,” I lied.
My mom gave me a look. Disconcerting. Disbelief.
Under the bed.
“A cockroach, u- under the bed, I dropped something, and it just came out of nowhere. Scared the living hell out of me.”
Everything, except for that last part, was a lie. But, I had a feeling that the one part that was true, I was really selling it.
My mom’s body posture said it all. She had relaxed. She took a step to me, and I shifted to back away. My body posture said it all.
She looked sad at my reaction.
That’s promising. That says something about you, that others seem to be glossing over.
Stop talking to me.
“Stop-” I almost started, but I put a hand over my own mouth, shutting myself up.
My mom had gone stiff, again.
The both of us were frozen in time. Neither of us moved, waiting for the other to give in.
It was my mom who gave in first.
“I go to heat up tea,” she said, at a careful whisper. “It will be ready in fifteen minutes. You have some, and you sleep early.”
I couldn’t move, but nothing I did or said now would have changed her mind.
My mom took to leave my room, closing the door.
And I was alone again. Ears ringing, drenched in sweat, hair on ends.
Every alarm in my head was blaring to not look back at the glass doors again, but I did anyway, turning at a snail’s pace.
The shape was still there, irregularly defined. Staring.
I looked again, but this time, I looked at the rain.
And then it disappeared.
The darkness, the rain hitting the glass. Dots. My brain was filling those dots to form a shape it wanted to see.
Why it wanted to see it though…
It was beyond me.
A cruel joke. My mind playing tricks on me.
I had been in a burning building, and I was sweating even more, here.
What the hell was that?
I pulled the covers over my head, and I curled into a fetal position. My eyes were opened wide.
“What’s happening to me?” I asked aloud. It came out hoarse, rough, choked up at the end.
My question was answered with silence, and that silence was as telling as it was deafening.