“Can’t remember the last time I was up here,” Katy said, flat. She rested her arms on the railing, feeling the wind in her hair.
I tapped my foot.
“Shit, I’ve never been up here,” Maria said, joining her. “Hey, and the view isn’t too bad. Do you come out here often, Alexis?”
I crossed my legs, and my arms.
I was sitting in a chair beside Maria, farther from her than she was to Katy. Behind bars, I saw the city.
“Every now and then,” I answered. During my time as a ‘hero,’ I used the balcony as my way of going in and out of the apartment.
But, there was no reason to bring up that bit of info.
Our volunteering at the church ended around noontime, and aside from giving our condolences to Mrs. Phan and Justin one more time, we left without a fuss. I didn’t bother to seek out those other kids to say farewell, either.
Mother offered to cook lunch back at the apartment, since we were already all together. Katy and Maria were up for it. I wasn’t, but I couldn’t exactly voice that sentiment. I had to go along with it, with everyone. Reluctantly.
She prepared miso soup and fried chicken. It was apparent that I used to have some kind of connection to those particular dishes. The extra company of little girls that sat with us at the table, lounging on the couch, eating their own fill, each with their faces scraped away…
At least, it made it easier to keep my head down, be quiet, and eat.
The food tasted awful, of course, but I had learned how to hide it. It sat like a weight in my stomach. I’d have to throw it up later, when I had time.
Which was the problem I had, now.
Lunch was over, Katy and Maria got what they came here for. Why were they still hanging around?
I remembered those kids back at the church.
Licking wounds. Pity.
My foot tapped, my legs crossed and uncrossed. I sat back and leaned forward.
Please, let the sun set faster.
“How’d you even get this deal, anyways?” Maria asked, ripping me away from my thoughts and planning. “Getting the master bedroom all to yourself is quite sweet.”
She was talking to me. I’d rather not, but it was unavoidable.
I looked away from the city to see into the glass door, my room. I saw a girl a few years my junior, in her bed, typing away at her phone. Giggling.
I looked elsewhere, back, on the balcony, and saw brief flashes of a toddler, tightly hugging her mother, delighted over something.
The images drilled, and it actively hurt to try and look at. Like staring at the sun.
“Shi- My mom, she let me have this room, back when we moved in.”
“Really? She just gave it to you?”
My head ached the more she forced me to put thought into it. “Yes. She prefers smaller spaces, I guess.”
“Your mom’s from Japan, right? Did she grow up in a apartment there, too?”
If I tried to reach that far back, that hard, for such an insignificant detail, my head would split open.
“I really don’t know,” I said.
A sound, not from Maria, but from Katy.
“You don’t know where your mom grew up?” Maria asked.
“She’s never shared much about her time there. She’s never brought it up, and I just learned not to ask.”
That didn’t require strenuous brain power to say. As if it was a lesson that truly left a mark on my very being.
“I can give you that,” Maria said. “No diss, but she does seem kind of… standoffish?”
Even I could see it. Clear. The description fit.
“No diss,” I said. “That’s about right.”
“But, like, don’t get me wrong, Shiori’s awesome, she just also has this side to her, you know, like, I can’t get her mad, no matter what, or she’d fucking kill me, or worse.”
I smirked, almost in spite of myself.
“That’s what Asian parents are like,” I said.
Then, right there, a moment came and went. An opening to continue the conversation, but no one took it. Maria didn’t.
A breeze gently passed, and hair brushed into my face. I briefly had the thought of getting it cut.
Maria clicked her tongue, seemingly out of nowhere.
“Hard to believe it’s already December,” Maria said. “Barely feels like it.”
She’s forcing it.
This time, Katy answered her, her tone as dry as ever. “It’s because it’s been so warm. It’s only ever really chilly in the morning, other than that you’re good with a jacket. We can’t even get a proper winter.”
“I bet it’ll get colder later, probably around Christmas or New Year’s,” Maria said. “Hey, do you guys have any plans for the holidays?”
No answer, from me or from Katy. Enough time passed that it should have meant something.
Maria fixed her hair, removing a strand that flew into her mouth.
“Same,” Maria said, breathing out the word.
I had enough awareness that I could see what she was trying to do, but I just didn’t have the will or care or investment to play along. They were friendly, and the connection between me and them existed, but it was becoming frail, nearly vestigial. I couldn’t claim it as my own.
Doing so would be lying to myself.
But, I also recognized that I couldn’t neglect that part of my life altogether. It was a chore, but it was a necessary one. A role I had to play, a mask I needed to wear.
In a perfect world, I would have no need to be here. I would have no need for this.
Yet, here I was.
At least for now, I’d have to act as Alexis Barnett.
“I legit don’t know what I’ll be doing around that time,” I said, throwing Maria a bone. “Hopefully I’ll just be chilling, getting some peace and quiet.”
“Yeah, some of that would be nice,” Maria said. “Things just keep happening. I need a damn break.”
“Snowball effect,” Katy said. She didn’t say anything more than that.
“What do you mean?” Maria asked.
Katy remained silent for a time.
“Nothing,” she finally said.
Maria fixed her hair again, then looked at me. I noticed her stare. It was a very specific kind of stare. Was I supposed to know what she was thinking? Reading between the lines?
A sort of mutual understanding, but I couldn’t deliver on my end. That particular meaning was lost on me.
I broke eye contact, and I gave a half-hearted shrug. An empty gesture, but it should’ve been enough for Maria. She could ascribe her own meaning in that.
My foot started tapping again, and I leaned back, observing the other two. Katy had her phone out, her attention focused there. Maria was taking in the view of the city, doing her best to keep up a brave face. She tried, but I somehow managed to see the cracks.
This wasn’t working. At all.
None of us were up for talking, and none of us could face each other for any meaningful length of time. Even for me, at a distance from it all, it was blatantly clear. Katy was still reeling from the death of her father, and Maria had to stand at the sidelines if she wanted to support her. And I, on principle, preferred that distance to maintain.
On top of everything else, the attack at the school was still fresh on everyone’s minds. That alone would force any normal person to retreat inward.
It wasn’t unlike trying to push together magnets of the same end. There was bound to be a resistance, from every side.
And if you push too hard, what would happen when you suddenly let go?
“All the pieces fly away,” I said to myself.
“Did you say something?” Maria asked. Must have heard me.
“Um, nothing,” I said. I sounded like Katy, there.
Maria grumbled, then turned around, her back against the railing. “Man, you people need to stop with the subliminals. Freaks me out.”
“My bad,” I said.
“Sorry,” Katy said.
We spoke at the same time.
“Sorry,” I said.
“My bad,” Katy said.
We did it again.
An awkward pause followed.
Maria was the one to break, laughing at our expense.
She kept laughing.
Then some more.
“I’m okay,” Maria said, between fits. Oddly pitchy. “It’s okay, see, it can be okay, just laugh at something whenever, it can help. Just fucking saying.”
She rubbed, massaged at her eyes using her sleeve. When she pulled away, her eyes were red.
“Ugh, fuck,” she said. “I am so fucking lame.”
The connection between us, I felt it shoring up. Despite me. A tug at my chest that I couldn’t explain.
I used the new, more intense awkward pause, and retreated into it. No one said any more.
We all retreated.
I wasn’t sure how much time had gone by when Mother came to check in on us.
“Hi,” she said, soft, stepping onto the balcony, door left open. She had a tin bowl in her hands. “I cut up apples, please help yourselves.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Barnett,” Maria said, immediately going for them. “They’re great.”
Katy went next, taking her arms off the railing, phone falling back into a pocket.
“Thanks,” she said, dry.
And that meant I had to have a turn.
“Thanks, Ma,” I said. I would’ve fumbled if I had to say more than one and a half words.
I grabbed two slices, and ate them. I chewed fast, then swallowed like I was drinking water.
Mush, wet. Like grounded-up fish guts. It repulsed. Mother had washed the apples before cutting, which did help, it made them easier to bring down.
And it would make them easier to bring back up.
“Tastes good,” I lied.
“I leave them here for you?” she suggested.
“Actually,” Katy said, after wiping her mouth. “I’ll have to get going, now. Mom called, and I’ve got some errands to run.”
“Are you sure?” Mother asked.
Katy cast glance at the two of us. At Maria. At me.
“I’m sure,” she said.
“I guess,” Maria said, unsure of herself, “That’s it for me, too. Don’t wanna overstay anything.”
“It’s no problem,” Mother said. “Of course you’re welcome.”
“But, I loved the food, though,” Maria said, as if to save face. “I’ve never had authentic Japanese before. It was delish.”
“It was,” Katy added. “Thanks again, Shiori.”
Katy started, passing Mother to leave. I got out of my seat. It was only proper, when guests were leaving.
“Bye,” I said, watching Maria follow, as they both left.
“Bye,” Katy returned, without turning back. However, I noticed Maria steal a glance.
They crossed my room, leaving through the other door, into the living room. From there, the front door was their exit.
“You won’t see them off?” Mother asked, facing me.
My hand went over my stomach.
“I really need some fresh air. But I’ll see them again.”
That last bit sounded more like a premonition than a blessing.
Mother lifted the bowl of apples to me. “Do you still want?”
I took a slice.
“You can leave the rest in the kitchen,” I said. “I might get some more, later.”
Mother nodded, then left the balcony, and I got the door for her. I spun back, and rested my arms on the railing.
I looked back at the city, uncaged.
I tossed the apple away, the slice falling into grass below.
The wind picked up again, and I took a deep breath. The headache was starting to subside.
I didn’t like reaching into older, useless connections. It diluted my thinking. Making me less me, and giving purchase to another thing. Her.
Granted, some connections, memories, were necessary, like my time as Blank Face. Others, if I could, I’d drop them immediately. Trim the fat, as the saying went.
In a perfect world, I would have no need to be here.
It was another reason why I was pressed for time. The last thing I wanted was to doubt myself.
Which was why tonight was so crucial.
If I was to do this again, I had to make some serious changes. I had to do this right. No more blindly jumping about, grasping at straws. I needed to go about this with a plan in mind.
If I wanted to play for keeps, I needed to prepare a hand to play.
Now this was more like it.
Standing on the edge, the thrill of being so high up. Overseeing everything, the city completely unaware. The cold, beaten only by the rush of adrenaline pumping through my veins. The sight and sounds were present, but far away. From up here, everything seemed so small.
The feeling of plastic on my face.
This was true freedom.
My costume underwent some more changes. It was all makeshift, I’d have to make do with what I had for just a little longer.
I ditched the blue. Better to distance myself from that image, than risk more trouble by dressing as the blue demon everyone was hunting. Better yet to ditch that identity entirely.
Functionally speaking, however, I was still married to the idea of wearing hoodies and windbreakers. I couldn’t seem to get myself away from that concept. On that front, all I did was swap the blue for red.
The mask I had on was my old one, the first one I ever used. It was simple, and barely identifiable. It worked. But I did make some changes to its look. I darkened the sockets around the eyes and the edges of the mask, to shape it more like a human face. As an added touch, I applied some red paint onto the lips. Following the phantoms that wandered around my apartment, I managed to find old, forgotten material, and used it to touch-up my mask.
After that were the smaller essentials. Bag, extra clothes, cash, gloves, knife.
The final result, with everything working in tandem, with mask on and hood up, I didn’t look like someone wearing a mask. I looked like a whole new person.
Not a costume, but a form to call my own. I wasn’t Blank Face, I wasn’t the Bluemoon, and I especially was not Alexis Barnett. I’d need a name, but that could wait.
Standing above the city, I was me.
We’re just us.
Then, I moved.
It was exhilarating, refreshing. A much needed opportunity to stretch my legs and really extend my abilities. I had to keep focused on the path ahead, watching out when I had to jump higher to reach the next building, and bracing myself when the drop was that much lower. It kept my mind running, as much as my body.
I crossed gaps, careful not to overextend and lose my footing. I knew how to maneuver over obstacles, the vents and air conditioning units. Ducking, sliding when necessary.
You’ve gotten better at this, I told myself. The thought alone was liberating. From my old self, old limitations.
I checked the sky as I moved through the air, and he passed overhead.
He had feathers, a beak, it wasn’t that much of a leap for him to have wings, too.
Coming out from his back, his wings were as large as they were long, to support something of his height and weight. Jet black. It was hard to make out in the night, but he was gliding more than he was actually flying. One flap of his huge wings was enough to go a long distance.
When he passed the moon, the light pierced him for a moment, and he’d vanish, only to materialize as he left that sphere of influence.
I fought the urge to cheer as I soared through the air a final time. I stopped, landing right before our destination.
Hleuco was already there, perched on the roof of the adjacent building. It took four flaps for him to beat me to the police station.
Here we are.
I kept low, stalking to the edge of the roof to check the windows of the next building.
There he was, just like last time. Working at his desk.
A visual was all I needed, and I moved again, dropping down to the fire escape that was mounted to the wall. I had become light enough to not make too much noise when I landed.
I went up to the window of his office, and something caught my eye.
Blank Face’s message was still here from the last time, etched with a black marker, but bits of the letters were reduced to mere smudges. Probably from the rain we had gotten recently.
He had covered up the original message with a scrap of notebook paper, taped from his side of the window. And when the rain came and went, he forgot to take it down.
There was something humorous in that, and it almost gave me pause. I had to remind myself not to laugh and give myself away.
Good thing I had come prepared. I slipped out another marker from the side of my bag, and wrote out a new message on the window. I finished by drawing an arrow, pointing to the scrap of paper.
I put the marker back, then knocked on the window. In the next breath, I was already ascending up the remainder of the fire escape. As I drew in another, I already was up on the roof.
I didn’t situate myself atop the cement roof enclosure, over the roof access door. Not like last time. I just stood at the door, arms folded. Waiting.
Hleuco was gone, leaving me with time to concentrate. I shut my eyes to regain certain connections to better prepare myself for the meeting.
My foot began to tap.
He was really taking his sweet time.
The door creaked when it finally opened, and I opened my eyes, ready. I saw Gomez as he stepped onto the roof. The door shut on its own as he approached. He saw me, and I saw his hand move slowly toward his side. His hip.
“It’s me, Blank Face,” I said, to reassure him.
Even though I don’t care much for that name, anymore.
Gomez’s hand stopped, instead going into a pocket. He bobbed his head in a nod.
“Rebranding, are we?” he questioned. “I think I’ve only ever seen you with your proper costume once, and that was the first time you showed up here.”
“Rebranding is a good way of putting it,” I said.
Gomez’s expression changed, his heavy mustache accentuating his frown.
He looked drained, beaten down by recent events. His cheeks a little sunken in, what little of his hair left frayed at the ends. Add on top the decades of wear, tear, and stress a job like his dished out…
He looked like a husk of James Gomez, Chief of Police of the Stephenville Police Department.
His voice reflected that, too, when he spoke. Hoarse.
“A lot has happened since the last time I saw you, and dare I say, a lot has happened because of you. You’re very popular, if you weren’t aware. Lot of people want to get their hands on you, yet you come to visit me. Can’t tell if I should be grateful.”
He took a step towards me. Then another.
“Maybe I should call it in, it’d be so easy. Like I mentioned the last time you were up here, one press of a button, and you’re done. I have you. And I put all of this bullshit behind me and finally start seeing a therapist. God knows I need one.”
He wouldn’t actually turn me in, would he? I’d probably be able to get away if he did, but it’d be an inconvenience, a door shut in my face.
I stood, tense, watching his every step, every twitch or movement. If he was going to pull something, I could stop him, break his arm, send him off the ledge.
I could, but I shouldn’t.
I had to actively tell myself no. That wouldn’t do me any good.
Let’s save the energy for someone else.
Gomez continued, interrupting my thoughts.
“You’ve been awfully quiet. Tell me, do you still think you’re the good guy? The hero?”
It was that question that derailed my train of thought. What did this have to do with anything? How was that relevant?
Behind my mask, I looked at Gomez right in the eye.
No, he was being serious.
I bit my tongue.
I had to answer him, and I had a feeling that there was a right answer to his question. Piss him off, and I’d lose the point of being here in the first place.
I gave him my answer.
“I’m after the bad guys, the people responsible for this whole mess. Solace, Styx, Benny, they’ve gone too far without having lost anything in return. I want them to pay, and I want to take from them the equivalent of what they’ve taken from everyone else.”
What they’ve taken from us.
Gomez blinked, slow, taking in my response. His eyebrow furrowed.
“Eye for an eye, don’t you know what happens when the whole world operates like that?”
I had no answer, there, and I was running out of patience.
“We’re getting sidetracked. I came here because I need your help. I’m looking for Benny. If she’s still in the city, I’m going to find her.”
“Just Benny?” he asked.
“She’s a start. Is she still here?”
Gomez removed a hand from his pocket, and rubbed his mustache, fixing it.
“She could be. Honestly? I’m inclined to say yes.”
Exactly what I wanted to hear.
“How do you know for sure?” I asked, almost excitedly so.
“I don’t know for sure, but given what I know of this city and the situation, she won’t get too far without getting caught. Border’s even more tight, now, thanks to her own actions, and considering the… culture, here, there’s a nice price on her head.”
“Meaning,” I offered.
“Meaning everyone’s going to want to cash in. Gangs… and some of my own men, with secondary loyalties.”
“It’s a manhunt from all sides,” I said, summing it up.
“Precisely, and if every movement might get you sniffed out, then the best bet is to stay put, and pray for some miraculous opening. If she’s smart, she’ll have holed herself up, wherever she is.”
I nodded, taking it in.
Those were good odds, but it came with the added challenge of everyone being a player in the game of finding her.
It wouldn’t be easy, but it could be done.
“That’s reassuring,” I said. “We find her, and we have a very big piece of the Solace… conspiracy, for want of a better word. From the weapons found back at that warehouse, we know that The Chariot was involved. If she can’t give us anything, fine, but we still have the person who led the attack at Stephenville High School.”
“Stephenville High School,” he repeated, and it came with a harrowing note. “You know she was behind it?”
“I know some of her crew were brought into custody.”
He fixed his mustache again.
“I see. Is that why you’re looking for her, because it’s personal?”
I could almost see the scenery change around me, and I was back in that bloody, messy, classroom. Where I woke up.
“Thomas was personal,” I said, bringing myself back. “This is another matter. She called me out, and people, kids, suffered for it. This is…”
Personal in a different way. Therapeutic, using your own words.
But I just trailed off, instead.
I couldn’t gauge Gomez’s exact expression, but it wasn’t pleasant.
“Don’t bring up his name, not like that, not here. His funeral wasn’t that long ago. Maybe you were there?”
The mention of his name brought back Hleuco. He stood by Gomez, head cocked, like observing prey.
“In spirit,” I said, glancing at the shadow figure. “But we’re getting sidetracked again.”
If I wasn’t getting what I needed out of Gomez, I was wasting time. “I know that not everyone of Benny’s crew made it out of the school, some were left behind. If you have them in custody, I’d like to pay them a visit. Any one of them will do.”
“Ah.” He bobbed his head, again, then said, “They’re not here. We don’t have them.”
“They’re not what? Where are they?”
Gomez explained. “They attacked and destroyed a public school, and terrorized the students and staff inside that school. We arrested them, but we had to hand them over. They’re in a federal prison, now. They might even end up being deported, but it’s too soon to tell.”
Fuck. I hadn’t considered that, I didn’t see that coming.
“You’re saying I can’t get to any of them?” I asked.
“I can give you the address, but breaking into a heavily-guarded, federal prison is more trouble than any of them are worth. You’d be better off asking random strangers on the street, but I rather you not do that.”
I glanced away, thankful for my mask. Gomez couldn’t see the anger behind it.
Dammit, dammit. I needed them to get to Benny, and Gomez was someone I could actually turn to. Sofia, Samuel. Any of the others I incapacitated. If they were being treated, they were probably under watch, too. Alone, I couldn’t get to them, and Gomez was right. It wouldn’t be worth it.
I clenched a fist, forcing myself to calm down, and I addressed Gomez again.
“I need anything you have that can lead me to Benny. Please. One of your men, they’d have to know something. Just give me a minute with them, I’ll get what I need out of them.”
Gomez stepped away, walking to one end of the roof. “I’m not in the business of handing over police officers for you to dangle and drop down multiple stories.”
I followed him, but I didn’t move too close to the edge. Didn’t want to be seen from up here.
“You gave me Sumeet,” I said, reminding him.
“I gave you a chance, at a time when my hands were tied. And when you were out, setting the city ablaze, I was able to gather enough intel and men to come back and help you. And we got pretty damn close, too. We had him, we got Thomas back.”
His head dropped a fraction.
“In the end, it wasn’t enough, but it was something,” he said. “It was a decent, even good, effort, to save something tangible.”
“How is that any different from now?” I asked.
“Now? This time, with Benny, the damage has already been done. You finding Benny isn’t going to save anyone, or bring anyone back. Not all of the perpetrators were caught, but some were. And the kid that took lives, along with his own… It goes without saying that he’s not around anymore. With or without Benny, people are going to find a way to heal from that.”
“What about bringing Benny to justice?”
Gomez laughed. It took me by surprise.
“Nothing of what you told me tonight has convinced me for a second that you want to turn her in.”
Turning, he jabbed a finger in my direction.
“From what I’ve gathered, you’re not looking for justice, are you? You’re looking for revenge.”
Revenge. The word resonated within me.
Was that what I was looking for? Was that what I wanted?
No, it wasn’t the ends. But the means?
Again, the word resonated.
“You’re really not going to help me?” I asked, disappointment showing in my voice.
Gomez walked back from the end of the roof. He passed me.
“I can’t, and I won’t,” he answered. “Not like this. I really must be crazy, because I still have some respect for you, and I’m not about to be complicit in whatever you’re going to do to Benny, if or when you do find her. I’m giving you a chance to walk away and just let this be. Let proper authorities do their jobs.”
He continued walking, heading to the door. I started moving to stop him.
“And what if I can’t?” I asked.
Gomez stopped right at the door, hand on the knob. He moved his shoulders to get a decent look at me.
“Then that wouldn’t be very super of you, would it?”
I set my jaw, my teeth gritting. Even Hleuco made a gesture. Feathers raised, chest puffed out.
“Dammit, Gomez. Work with me, here.”
“This is the part where I’m supposed to say ‘I’m sorry,’ but I won’t. Goodbye.”
He opened the door, and he left, leaving me alone on the rooftop. Dry.
Fuck. Dammit. Shit.
I wheeled around, and stormed off. I jumped to another rooftop and ran.
Damn Gomez, damn him. And damn me for not being able to convince him. He was my best bet on getting my hands on someone who could lead me to Benny, and now I had nothing. Not having custody of her crew was one thing, but actively trying to talk me out of pursuing her?
A myriad of different words flew through my head. Hypocrite was one of them.
I vaulted up to a taller building, and kept going. I was running to let off steam. Cool my head.
It wasn’t working.
What I needed was Benny, to find her and hurt her. To make it even. To make it fair.
Blank Face had tried to find her. Now, it was my turn. How hard is it to locate one fucking woman?
A shrill screech stopped me in my tracks. With a foot near the edge of the roof, I peered into the alley below.
A woman, running, chased by three men. Crossing from one street, hoping to escape to the other. But the men were faster, catching up on her.
She screeched again.
I almost responded as reflex, lifting my foot to prepare for a descent, but I stopped myself.
Police cars sped to the end of alley, cutting them all off. Lights on, the sirens sounding off. The woman threw her last remaining effort into a short, hard sprint, and she fell into the arms of an officer, already getting out of the car.
I heard the shouting and commotion below, the cops telling the attackers to freeze, get down, hands behind their head. They froze, and complied, and the cops moved in. The situation ended as soon as I happened upon it.
Too bad, I needed an outlet. Blood would do me some good, too.
The world really doesn’t need a Blank Face, does it?
I watched as the cops cuffed the men, taking them into the cars, illuminated red and blue. Thinking.
If Gomez wasn’t going to hand me over any cops, should I just pick them out myself? I might find someone who knew a thing or two. A clue.
No, I dismissed the idea. More trouble than it was worth. Do that, and I’d end up in a similar situation to that night. The night I set the ‘city ablaze,’ as Gomez put it. Running about, wildly, leaving behind a smoke trail of chaos.
Another approach, then. Couldn’t do this like before. I had to think laterally.
I looked ahead, and saw Hleuco, perched on the roof of the building across from me. Seeing him gave me an idea.
Head over, without anyone following, and I’ll meet you there. Out.
It might not be the most efficient way of going about things, but it was a start.
I leapt again, crossing the gap. Hleuco unfurled his wings, taking to the air at the same time.
I knew where I needed to go, and how to get there. But it wouldn’t be by rooftop.
I would need to make a call. But, to do that, I’d have to find a payphone. And learn how to use one.