The sun was shining, not a cloud in the sky. Somewhat fitting, considering how blue the atmosphere was.
St. Francis Xavier had been trashed.
Windows broken, statues dented and graffitied over. Crosses knocked and flipped around. The east wing was burned to the ground. Papers got caught in the wind, flying around, pews had been thrown outside and ripped apart. Paintings, too, tossed out and cut open. The church and offices had been gutted, its innards laid out to rot in the sun.
The church itself was no cathedral, but it was a temple, a place of worship. It was sizable, large enough to house a decent number of people. A symbol.
And it had been reduced to a shell of its former glory. As it stood now, it couldn’t serve its core purpose.
All this, in just a matter of days.
Shiori, Mother, went first, leading the way, maneuvering through the damage. I was behind her, followed by the two girls who wanted to accompany us.
Katy and Maria were their names.
All around us, others were picking up the pieces. Cleaning up, doing what they could to help. Mostly those from the church’s community, but others offered their help after news broke out. Outsiders.
A few squads of police were here, supervising the crews and volunteers, sometimes giving out their own orders. Firetrucks and firefighters moved to the burnt wing of the church.
A lot of people, a lot of moving parts, but weather itself was serene. Cool. Mother and I had to wear a light jacket to keep warm. Maria needed only a fitted sweater, and so did Katy, though she was wearing all black.
We entered into the gathering space just outside the church’s front doors, wide open and dented in places. Mother led us to a group being addressed by a short woman. Not elderly, but almost there. The woman noticed us, and dismissed the group with a word.
“Shiori, it’s good to see you,” the woman said. She looked sullen, with little energy to her words. She didn’t appear to have gotten much sleep, recently. “And you too, Alexis.”
That was me. I needed a moment to respond, but the situation didn’t call for me taking my time.
That’s Mrs. Phan.
Mother answered for the both of us. “Good to see you, too, Linda. It is a shame that it has to be under these circumstances.”
Mrs. Phan nodded, then she glanced around. She frowned.
“It happened at night, I was already asleep. I woke up to so many calls and messages, but it was already too late, and I couldn’t do anything. I was powerless.”
Again, she looked around, then back down. As if there was a faint hope that, if she were to check one more time, this would all seemingly go away, never to have happened. That hope was immediately squandered.
“Maybe if I was here, I could have done something, stopped them somehow. But I was slacking. Maybe this is my fault, my faith wasn’t strong enough. Maybe this is what happens when your faith isn’t strong enough. This happens.”
Mrs. Phan was just talking to herself by now. Repeating herself, rambling, looking as if sleep was a foreign concept to her…
I could imagine her completely breaking, if rebuilding the church was simply not an option. What would happen to her, then? How would she rebuild herself?
I was curious.
Mother put a hand on her shoulder. Firm.
“You are plenty strong, Linda, this is not a strike against you. Let’s go, tell me what we can do to help, and you take it easy the rest of the day.”
“But,” Mrs. Phan said.
She would’ve said more if Mother didn’t cut her off. “If nothing else, I will make sure you take a break today. Now, breathe in.”
Mrs. Phan breathed in.
“And breathe out.”
Mrs. Phan breathed out. It wasn’t much, but some tension did leave her body. The effect was visible.
She moved her hand, removing Mother’s hold off her shoulder. She stood straighter, now.
“Thank you, Shiori, and God bless you,” Mrs. Phan said. She cleared her throat, then handed out proper orders. “Shiori, I’ll have you come with me, I’ll need your help with the moving group. And Alexis?”
“Yes?” I said, responding to that name.
“You and your friends go to Justin. He’s leading the youth group and watching over their efforts in cleaning up. You can help there.”
“Alright,” I said, and I had to stop myself there.
I didn’t want to ask who Justin was.
But another question might serve me better.
“Where is Justin?” I asked.
Mrs. Phan pointed to her right, a small field. A sizable group of kids my age were there, sorting through junk, pushing and moving carts and wagons.
“He should be there,” she said.
“Alright,” I said again, and I headed out, Katy and Maria following me. Mother went with Mrs. Phan, to provide her own support.
“Is it just me, or did that lady give me a funny look?” Maria asked. Providing a comment.
“Just you, I don’t think she saw us at all,” Katy said.
They talked amongst themselves, but I continued. We reached the field Mrs. Phan specified.
What exactly was here, I couldn’t tell, it was beaten until it became unrecognizable. No section of the church’s premises was spared, it seemed.
Chips of wood, broken beams, tattered cloth. And a fuck ton of mushy gourds.
We watched our step, but we stayed at the edge of the mess, watching kids go back and forth to clean up.
I was the only one to be addressed, but all three of us turned.
A boy, jogging our way. White shirt, brown shorts, and yellow gloves. A bandana on his forehead, damp with sweat.
He stopped just short of colliding into me, breathing hard. He took a second before he spoke up again.
“Wassup,” he said. “It’s been a minute, hasn’t it?”
“Definitely more than just a minute,” I said, as though on autopilot.
“Man, when was the last time you were here?” he asked, while removing a glove. “Must be forever.”
“Probably,” I said.
“Oh, and you brought some extra hands, that’s nice.”
I stepped aside, and Katy and Maria moved in.
“I’m Justin, nice to meet you.”
They shook hands.
“I’m Maria, sorry to hear about your church.”
“Justin, and yeah, it’s pretty bad.”
The two of them shook hands, too.
Justin put his glove back on again, and crossed his arms. “It’s bad, but it was way worse earlier, so we’ve been making progress, which is good. People have been coming and going throughout the day, too, helping whenever they have the time. A lot of them don’t even come here, so, if anything, it’s definitely moral support. Just seeing you lovely ladies lifts the spirit.”
The sun was getting in my eyes, so I couldn’t see Katy or Maria’s reaction. For my part, I didn’t have much of one.
Justin cleared his throat
“But anyways, yeah, there’s still a long way to go, but we’ll get there. You guys ready to do some work?”
We all answered simultaneously.
Justin nodded, satisfied. “Sweet. Come with me, and I’ll get you some gloves.”
He started back the way he came, and we came with. The table wasn’t far, placed on the same field where all the kids worked, and was topped with gloves, tools, and a cooler with energy drinks and bottles of water.
“Here you are,” he said, handing each of us our own pair of gloves. “Help yourself to the drinks if you’re feeling lightheaded, or need a breather. You’re volunteering your time, and as long as you’re here, you’re being a big help in one way or another. Do you know how long you’ll be here?”
The three of us exchanged looks. Something told me that Katy would have taken that, but this wasn’t her ballpark. Not here.
And it wasn’t mine, quite frankly, but the fact remained.
“As long as you need us for.” I gave a non-answer, but Justin looked like he accepted it.
“Awesome, maybe I’ll take advantage of that.” He snickered, but no one ended up played along.
He cleared his throat again.
“Right, um, let’s get started. Katy and Maria, can you join that crew with the carts there, and Alexis, you up for some lifting?”
I nodded. “Sure.”
“Then let’s break. Thanks again, guys.”
Maria glanced at me, then to Katy, but she was already leaving. Maria looked like she was about to say something, considered, then left to join Katy.
It was me and Justin, now. Together, we headed out.
We wrapped around to the other side of the ruined field. A snapped wooden beam on its side, in the grass. This piece was about seven or eight feet, making me wonder how tall the whole thing was. I stopped at the closest end, and Justin went to the farther part.
“We’re moving this off to the concrete there,” Justin called out, facing the nearby lot for emphasis. “Along with all the other wood parts. It’ll be picked up later.”
“Sure,” I said.
“Careful, it’s heavy.”
He lowered himself, squatting down and squaring his shoulders. He grabbed the beam with both hands.
I did the same, but I just bent down.
“On ‘three,’” Justin said. “One, two, three!”
The beam lifted, but my end went up much faster. Justin nearly lost his balance.
“Holy- Alright then, let’s go.”
We moved as a unit, I walked backwards, and Justin made sure I didn’t bumping into anyone or anything. I looked, and saw Katy and Maria doing their own jobs, picking up mush and dropping into carts to be sent away.
“Here,” Justin said, and I was brought back to this particular instance.
We were on the lot, near a stack of wood. Not very neatly arranged, maybe more like a pile.
Justin counted to three, and we dropped the beam into the clump. Dust was thrown in the air.
“You’re really stronger than you look,” Justin said. “It wasn’t heavy for you?”
“To be fair, you’ve been out here all day, I guess, you’re more worn out. I just got here,” I said.
“Oh yeah, I guess you’re right.”
We stepped out the way for another pair with their own bits of wood to come in, and we headed back to do it all again.
“What was this supposed to be?” I asked. I couldn’t step over orange mush again and not get curious.
“The church was selling pumpkins and squashes, stuff like that. The youth group was running it.”
“But it’s not Halloween anymore.”
“I know, but people were still buying them. Like, Thanksgiving just passed, so I guess people wanted their pumpkin pies. Have you ever had pumpkin pie?”
“Me neither. And I guess you can’t get one from us, anymore, not for a while.”
Justin chuckled to himself, but it sounded forced, uneasy. It didn’t last.
“Dammit,” he said at the end.
The next few trips back to the pile of wood were wordless, other than Justin occasionally warning me about bumping into someone. We fell into a rhythm, and the work flew by without a hitch, even without any chatter. We crossed paths with Katy and Maria every now and then, but we were getting too tired to exchange any words.
We dropped the last wooden beam, and then we were done. With that part of the process, at least.
There was still smashed pumpkins and squashed squashes to get to, and pieces of the tattered tent to pick up.
Nowhere near done, but progress was made.
Justin removed his bandana, and wiped his brow.
“Thanks a lot, Lexi, really means a lot for you to be here and help out. Especially since you haven’t been around for a bit.”
“It’s nothing,” I said, just to say it.
“Man, I’m ready to take a break. Wanna come get a drink with me? I think the others are around, you should come say hi. We’ll all catch up.”
“I’m not sure if I’m up for that,” I said, trailing away at the end.
“Ah, come on, I know it’s not the best circumstances for a reunion, but I bet they’ll be down to see you again. It’ll be interesting, at least.”
That, I could agree with.
I searched among the other kids working, for Katy and Maria. Couldn’t find them. Did they run off somewhere?
Even considering everything between me and them, I caught myself looking for them.
But they weren’t here.
I looked back at Justin, who was waiting, eyebrow raised.
“Sound good to you?” he asked.
Reluctant, I answered, “I suppose.”
With that being the decided factor, we went to the tables to put back the gloves. Justin got an energy drink for himself, and I took a water. Justin gestured and moved, and I was forced to tag along.
“Should be this way,” Justin said. “If they aren’t lazing around, color me shocked.”
We walked across one of the parking lots, going around an office building. As we headed towards the front of what looked like the church’s event center, I saw them.
A group of teens, chatting away. Smoke flew away from some of their heads, and some had their own drinks taken from the cooler. They were dressed in trendy, fitting streetwear.
They immediately noticed us. Me. There were cheers.
“Holy shit, it’s you.”
“Wow, long time no see.”
“Hey, looks like the dead can come back, after all.”
My eyes roved over the people, smiling, happy at the sight of me. Obviously, connections were supposed to be here. I blinked.
I have no idea who any of you are.
The circle opened up somewhat, giving us room to slip in.
The faces. The eyes. The smiles. They were all being wasted on someone who wasn’t present.
“Hi guys,” I said, trying to inflect some emotion, but I was already regretting being here. This might not go well. I needed to be cautious.
“Want a hit?” someone beside me asked. A girl. I looked down at what she had in her hand. A vape.
“No, I’m good,” I said.
She shrugged, and took a puff of her own. Smoke dissipated into thin air.
“How’s it been with you, Alexis? Doing okay, considering everything?”
Another from the group. A boy, taller than the rest. For the life of me, I couldn’t pin down his name.
“Considering everything,” I said, “I’m doing what I can to be okay.”
“Super duper,” the boy said. “You can say we’re all doing the same.”
There were nods all around. More puffs of smoke as another gesture of assent.
“I can’t believe people went out of their way to do this,” another girl said. “All because another asshole kind of looks like us, kind of.”
“To think, the dicks that did this were less than half the people coming to help clean up now, and it’ll take the whole day to finish, if not longer.”
“Maybe if you guys got a move on, we’d finish faster,” Justin said.
The group laughed, as if they knew he was actually joking. Dismissing him.
“Hey Alexis, you gonna be here all day, or do you have to go school later? We all ditched our classes to be here.”
The tallest boy addressed me again.
I didn’t know how to answer without making things awkward.
I just had to go right ahead and tackle it directly.
“They shut down my school for a while,” I said. “And with how it’s already December, they threw in the towel and called this the early start of the break. Like this place, the school needs time to pick up the pieces.”
The boy’s eyes widened, and then he looked away, scratching his head. Embarrassed.
“Right, fuck. I forgot you went… I’m sorry.”
“Nice going, Andrew,” a girl said.
“And thank you for rubbing it in, Jasmine.”
Justin interjected. “Yeah, you didn’t mean it, Andrew, don’t worry.” He then turned to me and said, “Sorry to hear what happened at your school, by the way. I can’t even comprehend what that must have been like.”
Images flashed in my mind’s eye. Clear. The clearest of any memory I had access to.
It was a good thing, too. I needed them to be clear. I needed to remember.
“Hectic,” I said, putting the entire experience to a single word. It certainly was that.
“Did you know him?” a girl asked. The one that berated that ‘Andrew.’ Jasmine.
She lowered her voice to a near whisper when she specified a name.
The general atmosphere of the group changed. Everyone tensed up, averting gazes, shifting in place.
The fact that his name carried such a weight to it…
Jasmine still had her eye on me, waiting for an answer. I had to bring my thoughts back to that day.
I only ever had one memorable interaction with him. Anyone else was either so inconsequential I couldn’t recall, or a connection to those particular memories were simply gone.
But, I did see him that one time, at his most extreme, his most focused. He knew what he wanted, and he knew what the cost was, the consequences. Yet he continued in the face of that.
I barely knew Harrian Wong, yet, and the same time, I knew more about him than most ever would.
“We weren’t friends, if that’s what you’re asking,” I said. “I never really knew about it until after it happened. We ran in different circles.”
Jasmine looked relieved to hear that. “Good, good, you’re not associated with a freak like that.”
“Don’t say that,” a boy said. Not the tallest one. “He went to Francis Xavier. Sure, all he did was sit in the back and not talk to anyone, but we probably knew him better than Lexi did.”
Jasmine looked torn to hear that. “But, I was just saying, and…”
She didn’t finish her sentence, just stopping right there. She rolled her eyes and looked away.
The girl next to me passed her vape to Jasmine, and she helped herself.
Justin took a swig of his drink, then exhaled, loud. He put his arm around a girl on the other side of him, and kissed the top of her head. His girlfriend?
Justin spoke. “The last two days have been, like you said, hectic. Granted, it pales in comparison to what you’ve been through, but still. After the media caught wind of Harrian, it’s like we inherited a bit of that negative press, too. The looks we get when we walk in the halls, the way people walk around us, it’s as if we did it, we had something to do with this.”
“Yeah, and it’s not just us, the ones who actually come here,” Andrew said. “A friend of mine, he doesn’t come here, but he goes to the same school as me, he got jumped on the way to his car. Some Mexican gangbangers wanted to pick a fight with him, all because he looked like Harrian. And you know what’s funny? He’s not even Chinese, he’s fucking Korean, for fuck’s sake.”
Justin added, “People are already calling this the worst thing to ever happen on school grounds, and on top of the terrorists that started the whole thing, and the rumor that the Bluemoon is a student at Stephenville High School, and is an Asian-American too…”
“All of us get targets on our back,” Jasmine said, in between a puff of smoke, “Without ever asking for it.”
The group’s mood changed again, this time more morose. I had a feeling they came here, not to just ditch school, not just to help fix up the church, but to lick each other’s wounds. And the only thing they were getting in return was pity.
I wouldn’t have guessed that the aftermath of the incident at school could affect a whole population of people. But it was a minor setback, in the grand scheme of things.
Behind a mask, it wasn’t going to matter what my race was.
“Hey, Alexis,” the girl at Justin’s side said, getting my attention. “Does the Bluemoon go to your school?”
The ears of everyone else perked up. They all looked at me, again.
I knew the conversation would move to this, in some way. I wanted to avoid that by not being here.
I had to answer how a regular person would. Like Alexis.
I took a sip of my water, then answered, “I wouldn’t know, and even with what happened, I wouldn’t think so. If the Bluemoon really did go to my school, they wouldn’t have let something like that happen, right?”
There were various gestures all around.
“That’s probably true…”
In their haze of uncertainty, I took a step back, taking myself out of the group.
“It’s been great seeing all of you again,” I said. “But I should probably get back. I came with other people, and they might be looking for me if I’m gone for too long.”
Jasmine made a sound. “Aw, I was hoping you’d come chill with us for a bit longer. We were going to go and get phở in about an hour. It’d be nice if you could join us.”
“I agree,” Andrew said. “There’s some new guys, but it’ll be like the whole gang’s back together. The OG Francis Xavier youth group. It’d be lit as fuck.”
“Definitely,” another said.
This was the part where I was supposed to consider the offer, but the will to do so just was not there.
You never fit in with them back in the day. You were the only Japanese kid there, and the only one who was half-anything. Mom didn’t make as much money as their parents, and they teased you over the clothes you showed up to bible school in. Maybe they didn’t mean it, maybe it was only in jest, but you stopped coming the second you didn’t have to.
The thought spilled into my head, slow, like hot magma. Intrusive, and it felt like holes being seared into my brain. New connections.
Memories I had, memories that I had to be told about. Forced to remember. And it came with pain.
I absolutely had no intention of coming along with these people, but now I had another reason not to.
“We’ll see,” I said, my head lowered an inch, from the coming aches. “I’ll still be here for the next hour or so, I’ll just play it from there.”
“Fair,” Justin said. “And the rest of you, break time’s over. Back to work, before Mrs. Phan woops y’all herself.”
The rest of the group spoke all at once, most of it a jumble from all the different voices. But they all started to disperse, going elsewhere, in pairs or groups of three.
“See you, Emily,” Justin said to the girl by his side. “I’ll walk with Alexis.”
“Hmph, do anything funny, and it’s gonna be the end of you. Not us, you.”
The girl, Emily, warned him.
“Don’t be crazy, I won’t do anything funny, I’m not even much of a funny guy. Isn’t that right, Alexis?”
Justin and Emily both looked in my direction.
“Um, yeah, it’s true, he’s not funny at all,” I said.
They both laughed, but I didn’t see the humor in what I said. I just told it as I saw it.
“Okay then, I’ll catch you two later,” Emily said. “It was good to see you again, Alexis. Hope to see you soon, and under better circumstances.”
“Same. Good to see you all again.”
Then, before I could take another step back, Emily opened her arms, and approached me.
I was wrapped into a hug before I could do or say anything about it.
Restricted, frozen, stuck in the moment. I didn’t need this, right now.
I wedged my arms between us, and nudged, prompting her to stop. She did.
“Bye,” I said, waving. I turned before anything else could happen. Justin followed.
We started heading back the way we came.
“See, that wasn’t so bad,” Justin commented as we walked. “Just like old times.”
Was it like old times? I wouldn’t have known.
We returned to the field, and some progress was made in our absence. Nothing significant, but noticeable.
I couldn’t find Katy and Maria. They weren’t here.
We reached the table with all of the gloves and tools. We both threw away our drinks. Justin started removing his gloves, and I copied him.
“Before we get back to work, mind if I show you something?” Justin asked.
“Show me what?”
“Don’t worry, it’s nothing that’ll freak Emily out, I just wanted to take you inside the church.”
“Oh, okay. Fine.”
“Cool, let’s head.”
Justin took the lead, and we changed course, heading to the church itself.
Every door was broken into, the glass panels gone. We stepped through the door, rather than opening it.
The light from outside immediately gave way to the dim, hollow interior.
If the outside was bad, the inside of the church received the worst of it. Smeared with dirt marks and graffiti, and other streak of stuff with a smell that made my imagination do the rest.
“Watch your step, no one’s cleared this place out yet. To be honest, we’re not supposed to be in here, more qualified people will take care of this place, but the rest of us got to go through here, and I wanted you to see it, too.”
“Why me?” I asked.
“Because you’re one of us,” he said.
I didn’t respond to that sentiment. Even when my thoughts were laughing otherwise.
Justin led us to the main, central area of the church. Aisles and pews were either knocked down or missing, some even charred. Stained glass windows at the sides were shattered, the walls carrying a red and blue and green hue wherever pieces of glass reflected the light elsewhere. There was supposed to be a table in the middle of the room, where a majority of the service would take place, but it was gone. Nowhere around.
The place had such an emptiness to it. Uncanny, even for me. If this was the house of God, then he had already moved out.
As we moved, Justin pointed to the head of the room, the chamber. He lifted his finger up.
“Look there,” he said.
I looked, and saw what he was referring to. Larger than life-sized effigy of Christ, arms splayed, legs together. Nailed to a wooden cross. The crucifix. It was untouched, unsullied by the damage surrounding it.
“This whole place got fu- messed up, and yet they couldn’t touch that,” Justin explained. “It didn’t get messed with. Isn’t that, I don’t know, kind of cool?”
“That’s because it’s so high up,” I said. “Who could reasonably touch that without wasting time? If you wanted to cause damage before anyone could stop you, you’d be better off getting what’s immediately around you.”
“Man, you’re such a spoilsport,” Justin said, frowning. He looked back to the figure. “I know I’m the head of the youth program and everything, but I’m not like the Pope when it comes to stuff like this. Even then, I couldn’t help but feel something when I saw it, you know? I showed the others, and they said the same. They said it helped. I don’t know, I just thought you might feel the same way.”
I looked again, and saw the bloodied corpse of a man nailed to wood. The figure itself wasn’t defamed or damaged, but, in a sense, it was already ruined. The man himself.
“Maybe,” I said.
“Well, at least you saw it.”
“No, I, uh, I appreciate the sentiment.”
I couldn’t tell if that was a lie or not.
“You’re welcome, oh hey, I’m surprised to see you here.”
Justin turned when he finished that sentence, and I realized he wasn’t talking to me. I turned, as well.
Sitting at the front aisle was Katy and Maria, both looking our way as we reached them.
“There you are,” I said.
“Here we are,” Katy said back, monotone.
“Who let you guys here?” Justin asked. “Not that I mind, but right now it’s kind of off-limits.”
“The priest did,” Maria said. “We were asked to go help fix up the offices, and he was there, and noticed Katy. Apparently, um…”
“He used to know my dad,” Katy explained, a somber look in her eyes. “He was a supporter of his back when he ran for DA.”
“DA?” Justin repeated.
“Oh, yeah. Oh, your dad was…”
Justin managed to stop himself before he said something completely stupid. But he was already too late. He hit that sore spot, and it showed on Katy’s face.
That, I could recognize.
Justin scratched the back of his head, clearly ashamed of himself. “Sorry, I wasn’t trying to-”
“I know,” Katy said, curt. “Anyways, Father Chris wanted to show us this, probably for the same reasons you brought her.”
She didn’t look at me when she said that. ‘Her.’
“Where’s Father now?” Justin asked.
“He left to do more work. Said we could be here as long as we wanted. We were just talking.”
Talking about what?
Justin sniffled, wiped his nose.
“Okay, but we probably should go. We might get in trouble if we overstay our welcome. It is off-limits for a reason, the building’s not exactly up to code.”
Katy and Maria traded looks.
“Sure,” Maria said, and they both got up and left, passing us without another word.
It was clear they were on the same page about something. If it had anything to do with me, I had to be ready. Even now, they were obstacles.
We have to watch our backs around them. Around everyone. You know this.
Justin moved to catch up. Before I did the same, I glanced back up at the figure above.
A pained expression, but a resigned one. If anyone were to help him, he wasn’t expecting it, and it would have to be of their own accord.
To try and rebuild the peace that was once here, or to find a new peace for myself. I had already tried the former, numerous times.
Checking again, I had noticed something else, too.
By the front, where the choir would be situated, a young girl sat in one of the chairs. Her face scratched out.
What do you want to do?
I heard that voice ask.
“What do I do?” I started, as if on autopilot, but I corrected myself. “I know exactly I want to do. Let’s just pray we don’t run out of time.”
I could imagine the taste on my lips. Sweet.
I turned my back, and saw the shadowed-Hleuco standing before me. Between me and the others.
His feathers ruffled, even though no wind could affect him here.
I stepped forward, joining him, and we left the church.