I stirred, tossing and turning, pulling covers up over my head.
In another plane, I was on the move.
Benny was there, sprinting down the street. Running for dear life.
Her strides were long, her movements fast. It was impressive, in a relative sense.
Impressive for a human.
She ran, passing others, pushing them down when they got in her way. She wasn’t being very quiet about her trying to escape.
“Get out of my way!” she yelled, her voice straining, wild. “Get, get the fuck out of my way!”
Watching her like this, struggling to make distance, knowing that it was futile…
It was cute.
I spun, changing directions. I dropped from the ledge, heading down.
I landed in the middle of the street, where Benny tried to cross. She stopped, dead in her tracks.
She stared at me, and she looked like she was seeing a ghost. Her eyes were wide, red, her face drained of all color. She was tense, so tense that the slightest bit of movement caused her whole body to jitter in fits. She tested a step forward, reconsidered, and tested a step back, reconsidering again.
She knew. There was nowhere to go for her, nowhere to run. Try anything, and I’d simply find her again.
Sweat glistened off her cheeks. Her mouth was agape, lower lip trembling. Eyes focused straight ahead, at me. Tears streamed from the edges, mixing with the sweat.
There was no hope to be found in that expression.
That face, that face.
That was exactly the kind of face I wanted to see from her. The kind of face I was dreaming of.
I wanted to see it up close.
Savoring every second of that image, I took my first step towards her. Then the second.
Benny didn’t move.
There she was, and here I was. Finally. I had her. She couldn’t hide from me, or slip away like before.
She had no one to rely on, no one to save her in the last second. It was just me, and it was just her.
It was everything I ever wanted.
I opened and closed my hands, an attempt to focus myself. My pace hastened the closer I got.
So close, so close.
I could taste it.
I was walking forward, then I wasn’t anymore.
A hit, and I was sent flying the opposite way.
The wind was knocked out of me, my throat seized and locked up. I couldn’t get anything in, or out. I couldn’t breathe.
I tried getting my bearings, but the scene started to change. The night sky was cut off, a white plane rushing over my field of view, yawning and stretching until every speck of black was gone, and shining my eyes with light.
The surface folded at a right angle, moving right in front my path.
The back of my neck hit the wall, and I heard something crack. I slid down, collapsed on the floor. My arms fell close to my sides.
It’d be another thirty seconds before I could move my head, but I had a sinking feeling about where I was.
Against the tile were slow, steady steps. The situation was flipped. I was unable to move, and they were taking their time.
I saw legs come into my frame of view. Grey joggers, a blue jacket stopping right above the waist.
My stomach dropped.
They approached, until they were right at my feet. I only saw the legs, now.
They crouched, and I could their face. A blank face. The eyes were blacked out, the face cracked in places, like a broken doll. Head tilted, it studied me carefully.
Its lips didn’t move when it spoke.
“You think you can get rid of me that easy?”
Its voice was twisted and distorted, like it was being broadcasted through an old, busted radio.
I had my mask, but I smiled all the same, projecting an air of superiority.
“It was easy, and I can do it again.”
“Is that what you think? Don’t be so foolish. Look around you. Everything you have, everything you are, it’s all mine. You’re merely a co-pilot, and you still need me to guide the way.”
“I don’t need you,” I said, but even I knew how false that was.
“Don’t make me laugh. You feel it too, don’t you? You’re incomplete, and you draw on me as a resource. You and I both know that grinds away at you, and gives me that much more purchase. A stronger foothold.”
I drew my arms closer beside me, slipping my fingers out of sight. I felt the warm sensation wrapping around my neck. I was healing, but I didn’t dare move. Not yet.
I was also taking the time to formulate an answer. Something it couldn’t punch a hole through.
“You don’t have anything to say? No rebuttal, a refusal of the facts? How-”
Its head snapped back, black ooze spraying from one eye socket. The knife stayed in place.
My hand moved as a blur, from my side to its eye. I brought my hands back down to help myself up.
That was my answer.
It fell onto one side, hands shaking as they hovered over the knife. Wanted to pull it out, but the pain that followed would be significant. It hesitated.
Benny was gone. Taken away from me once again. And once again, it was all its fault. Her.
I lifted a foot over its face, over its hands.
“Don’t be stupid,” I said. “Or, at least don’t blind yourself by your stupidity. I draw upon you to get a better sense of myself, and I know what I want, now. I’ll prove that I don’t need you, or any of your connections.”
I slammed my foot down, pushing her hands into the handle of the knife. The blade sinked deeper.
I spoke over the screaming.
“Don’t forget, you put yourself here, at the bottom. You wanted this. Stay where you belong, stay down.”
Above even the screaming, a larger, louder noise began to blare. Enough that it was tearing apart the classroom. The walls cracked, the ceiling falling into pieces-
I woke up in a frenzy.
I threw the covers away from my head, gasping for air. I blinked, and water dripped down the sides of my face.
I winced. Light was in my eyes, and an alarm sang in my ears.
Holy fuck, fuck, fuck that.
That was a nightmare, a dream, but it was so vivid. My heart was racing, and I was still in bed. I searched for something I could use to realign myself, bring my mind back to here, this room.
Nothing here was mine.
I changed position, pushing my head into the pillow. I had to will myself to calm down. My hand drifted to find the alarm, on the small table by the bed. I had to feel my way towards it, but I eventually pressed the button.
The silence that followed was somehow louder than the beeping alarm.
I stirred, tossing and turning, pulling the covers back over my head. I tried forcing myself back to sleep, but it was useless. I was awake.
But I elected to stay in bed for a while longer.
In trying to cool my head, I thought back to the night before. The early morning.
The meeting went on for another hour before it we wrapped it up, and we called it a night. Or rather, an early morning. I declined D’s offer to take me somewhere closer to home, for obvious reasons. I went off on my own, over a few streets and rooftops, and found a bus back, instead.
Mother… Shiori was fast asleep when I returned to the apartment, and she would be gone, should I check right now. She’d have to go to work.
And I had things to do, too, but ten more minutes in bed wouldn’t hurt.
I tossed and turned again, trying to feel where the coldest part of the bed was. Trying to find the most comfort.
It was such a fight, just to find comfort in sleep. A struggle. As if I was forced to put in effort to take it easy, to relax. My mind and thoughts were already way ahead of me, and I had to reign it back to the now.
Now, I couldn’t stop thinking about later tonight.
I was anxious in a way that electrified my body, screaming at me to get up and do something. A nervous energy that was begging to be burned. Not unlike my thirst, but this was asking for something else.
Torn between a want and a need. I wanted it to be night so I could go out and join the others, but I needed rest. I had to gather as much energy as possible, so I could be alert, aware, and awake, even in the later hours. The night that Alexis – Blank Face – was looking for Thomas… I wasn’t looking for a repeat of that, for myself.
I’ll succeed where she couldn’t. I have to. I have to.
I repeated the words in my head, like counting sheep, hoping to soothe my restless mind, and get an extra bit of sleep. It didn’t really help.
There were so many other factors to consider. So many ways this could go.
Anything could happen, tonight. A miscalculation here, a bad guess there. A minor slip-up early on that spirals into disaster. Simple bad luck. Should something happen, I had the ability to be flexible, but if too many cogs spun out of control, if too many things went wrong…
Would I be able to bounce back? Regroup, and try again? Maybe, but it’d be difficult, and it might even be too late, once I got my ducks in a row again. Benny might be gone.
It had to be tonight, and it had to be a success.
Yet, it all hinged on a motley crew of sorts.
I wondered how strong the truce really was, especially between D and Lawrence. There was a troubled history, there, and that meant friction, temporary ceasefire or no. Especially on Lawrence’s part. And I couldn’t say for sure whether or not that friction would eventually rub him the wrong way.
One of the reasons he even agreed to work together was so he could kill D if he saw fit. He practically jumped at the chance. I had to watch out for him.
And there was the girl herself. D.
She was an anomaly, I even told her that myself, but that still made her hard to pin down. Who was she, really, and how did someone like her end up in a situation like that? What did the letter ‘D’ even stand for? She stole Thomas’s van, dealt drugs to petty gangs, and when the deal went south, she was willing to risk everything to save herself.
I almost admired her tenacity.
But, she also agreed to help me. She even offered. Why?
Could she really be trusted? Could she really prove herself?
There was only one way to find out.
Tonight, it was her idea. She pitched it. We’d see if it worked out.
I flipped myself on my back, my arm over my eyes. Blocking the light.
A motley crew. A gang, a girl, and me, whoever that was.
But, in working towards the same goal, that should be enough to keep everyone in line. Probably. Hopefully.
Tossing, turning. I pulled the covers away from my head, and I gasped for open air again. Being so lost in my thoughts, I nearly forgot to breathe. Sweat lightly soaked the back of my shirt, sticking skin to fabric.
That nightmare was still fresh in my mind, and the anxiety of tonight was killing me.
I shifted one more time, pushing my eyelids open to stare at the ceiling. I could feel it in the muscles of my eyes and the aches in my body. I slept okay, but another hour or two wouldn’t hurt. I just couldn’t find it within me to get anymore rest. I was too agitated.
Taking heavy breaths, I crawled out of bed. I left the room, trying to clear my throat.
It took me a second, having to place the voice to a name, and realizing a voice was here in the first place.
It was Mother. Shiori.
She was in the kitchen, sitting at the table in the middle. She wore a silk, velvet bathrobe, a white towel wrapped over her hair. Her hands were around a mug, a finger tracing around the open lid.
“Morning,” I said back, confused. “What are you doing here?”
“Am I not allowed to be in my own home?”
“You know what I mean. Why aren’t you at work?”
This complicates things, you being here.
“Not going to work. Going to the church.”
“There’s still stuff to do, and I plan on helping.”
“What about work?”
Shiori spun her mug around, her fingers going around the handle. “My co-workers are coming with me.”
At least she was leaving the house. Not as complicated as I feared.
Satisfied, I continued into the kitchen, towards the cabinet. I started getting myself a glass of water.
“Do you want coffee?” Shiori asked.
“No,” I said. “Can’t have it.”
“I have coffee when I was your age. Not like everyday, but sometime.”
You mean ‘had coffee,’ and ‘sometimes?’ How long have you lived in this country?
I filled my glass with water from the refrigerator. I drew out a long gulp. Cold. Exactly what I needed.
I was about to leave, bring my glass with me, but Shiori stopped me again.
Oh come on.
I didn’t want to respond to that name, or play that role so early in my day. But Shiori was giving me no choice.
“Your friends stopped by earlier.”
“From the church, Justin and Emily.”
Oh, them. I had already forgotten about them. It didn’t feel like it was only yesterday. Felt like weeks ago, honestly.
“Okay?” I said.
“They invited you to go with them and watch movie, and eat lunch. But you were still sleep, but maybe you can meet them later.”
Trivial. Not interested.
“Sure,” I said. “Might be fun.”
I had to go out, grab a few things before tonight, but that wasn’t Shiori’s business. If she thought I was out with friends instead, I was fine with that.
“I’ll go get ready then,” I said, about to leave the kitchen.
“Stay right there.”
Tension coursed through me. I froze, wary.
Shiori got up from the table, and walked to me.
I recalled the dream I had earlier. In my hand was a glass of water. If I struck the counter beside me, I’d have something much sharper.
I halted that particular thought process.
I let Shiori approach.
She stopped at less than an arm’s length away, and looked deep into my eyes. Her gaze remained there.
It was disconcerting.
“Look,” Shiori said. “I’m taller than you again.”
She had to tilt her head up to look at me.
Shiori raised her hand over the towel bundled up over her head. She moved her hand, half a foot over the top of my head.
“I’m taller now.”
Was that supposed to be a joke?
I could feel my time being wasted away. I wanted out.
“That doesn’t count,” I said.
“I’m your mother, it counts.”
I made a face.
“Do you still have your watch?” Shiori asked, out of nowhere.
Shiori made a face.
“The one I got you for your birthday, don’t tell me you lost it already.”
The watch. I had a vague recollection over what she was talking about. I tried not to press my mind towards getting a clearer picture.
“I didn’t lose it,” I said. “It’s around, somewhere.”
Shiori mumbled something in Japanese. The meaning was lost on me.
“Uh,” I said, finding an excuse to leave. “I’ve got to shower if I want to meet up with Justin and Emily. Gotta get going.”
Shiori’s eyes continued to peer into me, like she was searching for something. She blinked, looking away.
“I remember when you were so small. I had to keep reminding you, over and over, to stop tugging at my pants. You never wanted to leave my side.”
Somehow, that prompted a connection, and I couldn’t stop it. It hit me, harder than any truck or van could.
The memories, the relationship with this woman. I recognized point A, and saw point B for what it was. Now, her looking in my eyes actually meant something.
My heart was tugged one way.
“People change,” I said, voice wavering. “They grow up.”
Shiori, Mother, nodded. “But you didn’t have to grow up so fast.”
A piercing strike. I would have doubled over if I wasn’t already moving, heading back into my room.
I closed the door, harder than I intended.
I was breathing hard. I clutched my chest, and my heart was beating as if I had just spent the whole morning running.
This isn’t good, this isn’t good.
I wished Shiori had left by the time I got out of bed. It would have made this so much easier.
Between that, and the dream I just had, it only added pressure for tonight. No matter what, it absolutely had to be a success. Or I’d lose more than Benny.
I’d lose myself.
I placed the glass by the table at the bed, next to the alarm. I moved into the closet.
Opening my bag, I sorted through my costume. The red windbreaker, the dark joggers, the mask, no longer blank, painted over by my own efforts.
This isn’t good.
Nothing here was truly mine. It was borrowed, taken, repurposed. Sure, I picked out these clothes myself, modified them in my image, but it wouldn’t be enough. I couldn’t genuinely claim anything here.
And there was a certain danger, to that.
Being here, in this apartment, the memories and connections came in small but continuous intervals, like a being feed through an IV drip. Eventually, it would build, and my sense of self would be washed away.
We can’t have that.
I put down my stuff, hiding it for later. I got back to my feet, feeling very conscious over my body, aware of every inch of movement, and the seed of doubt, if I could claim this vessel as mine.
I’d have to, if I wanted to continue.
I started undressing, getting ready for a shower, tossing the pajamas into a corner of the closet.
Tonight was a step towards that affirmation I needed. I had to prepare for it.
That preparation involved getting some items for D. Stuff she apparently needed. Stuff like firecrackers.
The light gave way to night, and I never felt more centered.
This was it, right here. The moon, the handful of glimmering stars above, the countless lights below. Cars, buildings, streetlights. The business of it all. There was a pulse, a rhythm to how everything and everyone moved. A certainty.
And standing over it all, outside of that pulse, that certainty, that system. It was liberating.
My own pulse quickened as I continued to observe the city’s skyline.
Footsteps, coming from behind. Not one, but several. My eyes stayed on the city.
They stood at either side of me. To my left, Lawrence. To my right, D. Hleuco was in the skies, enjoying the open air.
Lawrence had a new set of bandages over his face. His expression was stern, making him look older than he was. He had on a denim jacket, a white turtleneck underneath. Denim pants, leather boots. If he was trying to go for a classic gangster look, it wasn’t a bad attempt.
D was dressed similarly from last night. An oversized biker jacket, a choker around her neck. She was wearing a skirt, but with striped tights, this time. If it was anyone else, it’d seem like they were playing dress up, but she sold her look pretty well.
I was in costume. Mask on, hood up, bag strapped around my back. Very aware of how none of it was mine. V’s.
“Ah, the classic ‘brooding vigilante looking over rooftop bit,’” D said. “I like it.”
I didn’t entertain her with a response. I wasn’t in the mood.
“Everyone’s getting ready, and we’ll all be in position within the hour,” Lawrence said. “I like the uniforms, it’s a good touch.”
“Right on schedule,” I commented.
“We can move fast when we have to.”
“Good to hear,” I said, eyes down to the street below. Two vans and a car were parked in front of the Mexican restaurant. People were going back and forth from the restaurant’s entrance and the vehicles, loading boxes and other equipment.
“Speaking of,” D said, “Here.”
She poked my shoulder, and my eyes went from the street to her hand. She opened up her palm, revealing the earpiece in her palm.
“We each have one,” she said, tilting her head, pushing her hair over an ear. She was already wearing her own. “This should be good in keeping tabs with one another. But don’t talk too much, I don’t need to be updated on every second of your life.”
I nodded, and I took the earpiece. I fit it into my right ear, adjusting my hood once it was in place.
I pressed it, turning it on.
“And Lawrence will be communicating with his group, and relaying anything relevant back to us. That way, there aren’t a million voices in our heads.”
I would have commented, there, saying that it wasn’t that hard to parse through it all, but I didn’t.
I glanced in Lawrence’s direction, curious at how he was taking everything.
He was watching his crew below, his head down, some hair over his eyes. I only had a good view of one side of his face, but I could sense the general vibe. His lips were set in a line, his eyebrow slightly furrowed. As though he was holding onto some tension without realizing it.
“Second thoughts?” I asked.
There was a delay, and then he turned his head, noticing me. His eyebrows furrowed even more.
“Hell no, I don’t back down from nothing. Fuck that.”
Then I saw his expression change. It was slight.
“I want to know, is this something you expected to happen?”
“Expected what to happen?”
“This. With your whole ‘hero thing,’ picking a fight with almost every gang in the city, Solace, Benny, did you ever expect to be working with someone like me, and someone like her?”
He gestured towards D, then to the crew below.
“Did you ever expect to agree on a plan as insane as this?”
Lawrence to my left, D to right, Hleuco soaring in the skies above. I recalled what I thought about this lineup, earlier. A motley crew.
I didn’t look at Lawrence when I answered, “Did you?”
I heard a small noise, the brushing of denim when he folded his arms.
“Course not. I ask, because I was thinking to back before all this started, when I joined El Carruaje. Back then, I was just a dumb kid, chasing highs. I wanted the easy life, and a gang like that seemed like the way to go.”
Another small noise, this time coming from D. I caught her expression. Apologetic. Like she’d heard this story hundreds of times, and now I had to be subjected to it.
That was probably exactly it.
Lawrence continued. “Even just two years ago, El Carruaje was different. There were no schemes, no hidden plans, at least, not that I was aware of. It was just a bunch of kids selling drugs, and bunch of kids taking them. The parties, the access. It was all there, and it was all easy to consume.”
He lowered his head, looking down again.
“But then I met the rest of Benny’s crew. I saw the power they wielded, the command in their voices. They gave orders, and we listened. Suddenly, the weed and parties weren’t as exciting anymore. That was where the real high was. That power.”
“And that’s why you wanted to join Benny’s crew?” D asked, like she was reading from a script.
“That’s why. I wanted that for myself. To command, to give orders and have people listen.”
“Then, congratulations,” I said. “You finally got what you wanted.”
Lawrence didn’t move, but a sharp exhale escaped from his nose.
“Maybe, but now it’s a matter of defending that position, or proving myself to others. It’s never just the one thing, it’s everything that comes with it. All this time chasing highs, eventually the lows are going to hit you.”
I struggled to find the point in this, why he was giving me his life story. There was a reason why I came up here by myself.
“Why are you telling me this?” I asked. “Are you trying to talk yourself out of it?”
Lawrence scoffed. “Hell no, I’m in this all the way. I’ll do what I have to. I’m just saying, it’s funny how things fall into place sometimes. Tell me two years ago that I’d be here, in this position, I’d call you crazy.”
The word repeated itself in my head. Crazy. That was one way to put it. Maybe it was even funny, when looking at it from another angle. Life was unpredictable, and it had a way of dealing out bad hands. It was why people hated being asked where they saw themselves in five years. Impossible to answer, and a good answer just meant satisfying whoever asked.
No one truly has a way of knowing. Was Alexis able to predict this?
No, she wouldn’t.
And all the better for it.
Some time passed, with no one adding anything else to say. Lawrence stepped back from the roof’s edge.
“I’ll be heading out now,” he said. “Shouldn’t be too long before we’re all in order. I’ll give the signal, and I’ll concede the play to you. It’s your call.”
“Thanks,” I said.
“Anything else? Do you have a gun?”
“Don’t need one, I have my knife.”
“Is that enough?”
I turned away from my view of the city, and faced Lawrence.
“I’m more than enough,” I said.
Lawrence looked amused at that answer. “Suit yourself. Well, I’m off. Good luck, V… D.”
“Good luck!” D said for the both of us.
“This better fucking work,” he told her, grim.
“It will, and if it doesn’t, we can laugh about it later.”
Lawrence narrowed his eyes.
“Watch yourself,” he said, but he took his leave, and I went back to looking over the city.
They seem to be getting along, if I can call it that. Could be worse, though.
“Don’t mind him,” D said, as Lawrence was heading back down, unable to hear her. “He’s just psyching himself up.”
Couldn’t fault him for that. This was a big move, a power move, and that meant risks.
Even pawns can be nervous.
“What about you?” I asked. “Anything you want to say?”
D lifted her shoulders.
“Um, not really. I said that I was going to help you, and I intend to do exactly that. I’m excited.”
“You even got the stuff I asked for,” she added.
“Is this like your version of putting a magnifying glass to an anthill?”
D snapped her fingers. “Yeah! That’s a great way to put it!”
Her enthusiasm over what was to come forced a laugh out of me.
“You’re like the funhouse mirror version of youth,” I said.
“Matter of perspective. Everything distorts when you put it through a looking-glass.”
I chuckled. Funny, that I felt more like myself, here, even when among complete strangers.
Hleuco flew overhead, and I saw the moon. I moved my wrist, checking the time.
“You should get going,” I said. “It’s almost time.”
“Sure,” D said, and she backed away from the edge. “Keep an ear out. L-Boy will give you his confirmation, and so will I. After that, we’ll be waiting on you to give us the go-ahead.”
“I’m ready when you are.”
“Now we’re talking, I’ll catch you later.”
D left, going back the way she came. Her footsteps weren’t paced at a steady rhythm, one foot following the other. There was a beat to it. She skipped her way to the exit.
She was so calm. How? Even if it was her idea, it wasn’t unnatural to harbor concerns. Yet she seemed cool, calm, and more collected than any of us.
An anomaly for sure.
I, in contrast, was restless. Itching to go, ready for action. I was centered, and I was prepared to push that energy outward. I was alert, aware, and awake.
A good sleep had done me some good.
I stayed still, unmoving from my spot on the roof, watching the city. I saw Lawrence’s crew finishing up their work, getting into their vehicles. They started up, and drove off. The vans went one way, the car went another.
For the remaining time I was waiting, Hleuco swooped low, landing by my side.
He’d been quiet lately, I noticed. I wondered if that meant anything.
In wait, observing the buildings and the farther skyline, Stephenville took on other qualities. Cars drove by, not rushing to go anywhere. People walked, usually by themselves, hurrying to get indoors. There was activity, but it wasn’t busy. It was akin to a slumbering giant.
Imagine poking that giant with a hot spike.
Before my thoughts wandered even more, a voice buzzed in my ear. Mechanical.
“This is Lawrence, everyone’s in position. Ready to go.”
I didn’t answer right away. I kept waiting.
Another minute came and went before I heard anything from D.
“Sorry, sorry I’m late! Had to check up on some last minute things. But I’m good now, ready to go.”
Two confirmations. One remained.
There was certain pressure, having the final word, knowing that there was no going back once that word was uttered. But, I was ready to make that move. I wasn’t lying when I said it.
This is it. This is my move. The hand I’ll play, to use another metaphor.
The pawns were in place, the bishop already in position. It made me wonder where I was on the board.
If I may be so bold, I would liken you to the queen.
Queen. I wasn’t sure I liked that label. Compared to the king, the most vital piece, the queen could be disposed of. It could be sacrificed.
But, it did fit, in another sense. The queen wasn’t bound by the same rules as the other pieces. Pawns could only move forward, one at a time. Bishops, though less limited, could only move in a specific fashion.
Queens, however, had the least limitations. The most important piece, second only to the king. They could move. Forward, backward, sideways, diagonally. They had power, and they had freedom.
I inhaled, deep, and exhaled just as strong.
“Ready to go,” I said, firm. “Payback time.”
My heart started beating faster. I was waiting for a response.
And then, the response came. Not from Lawrence or D. It wasn’t verbal.
The response was heard, felt, then seen.
I heard the booming, I felt the soft rumble, I saw the smoke.
This was why I was so fixated on the skyline. I wanted to see the before, and the after.
Plumes of smoke rose from various points, blending into the night sky. Flickers of orange and red flared, gnawing to take a piece out of the oppressive black. Sirens sang, and people screamed. The pulse of the city quickened, the beast startling awake.
This was my play.
D had suggested smoking Benny out. But how would we accomplish such a feat?
We used fire.