Benny was bound, wrists and ankles. She couldn’t move, fight back, or otherwise escape.
A chill ran up my spine.
We were in the abandoned factory, where Hleuco and Blank Face used to convene, back when Hleuco was still corporeal, and where I first encountered D. It was secluded, people would only come here if they knew about it, and few cared to remember. And at this hour, no one else was going to be wandering in here. The perfect place to hide a body, if it ever came to that. It was still up in the air.
I was still thinking about it.
I watched as D fixed the last zip tie. A hard tug, and Benny flinched.
“That’s the last of them,” D said, getting up from behind Benny. D went around her and joined me.
“Thanks,” I said.
Benny was on the floor, sitting on the tarp that used to cover up Hleuco’s van. We were on an upper level, overlooking the ground floor and machines. Inside a managerial office, situated in the very back of the factory, probably so the supervisor could watch over the sweating, tired workers break their backs while he sat comfy, leaning back in an air-conditioned room. We didn’t get that luxury, though. An abandoned factory meant no power, and the only lights that were available were backup flashlights D and I found in a nearby closet. The room was lit, though dim, the flashlights placed in a half-circle around Benny.
The whole setup looked like a ritual. Or maybe even a sacrifice.
With the lights, I still had to be careful. It was a good idea to bring the tarp.
If the ground floor was dusty, this place was even worse for wear. Pipes and tools were strewn about, along with dirty needles and broken bits of glass. There was enough dust that I had to watch my step, it was too easy to slip and fall.
The corner of a corner. No one was going to find us, here.
Benny groaned, shifting her arms and legs, trying to find what little allowance we gave her.
“Even without these, I’m in no position to run or fight. This is a bit much, don’t you think?”
“Chalk it up to paranoia. I’m used to things suddenly going wrong, all at once, so forgive me if I don’t leave anything up to chance.”
She shrugged, herself.
“That’s a feeling I know all too well.”
She went quiet, and we stared at each other, an uneasy silence settling in. Not unlike the one from earlier, in the kitchen, but it was nice to definitively have the upper hand this go around.
A black skirt, with leggings to match. The skirt was tight fit, preventing her from sitting properly, giving the bindings, and she had to position herself so her legs were folded underneath her, feet together.
So, that’s what you’re wearing.
Sitting there, with her arms tied behind her back, her legs tied under her, completely powerless. Her hair had loosened from the different scuffles and being moved around, strands falling in front of her face. She exuded anger, though. I could see the scowl. She had no control or hold in this situation, here, yet she did what she could to exercise her remaining slivers of agency. Her expression.
There was a quality to her, that I couldn’t quite place, but the sensation was real. Carnal.
Ah, I couldn’t take my eyes off of her.
Benny broke the silence. “Sitting here, in the dark, where it’s cold and filthy and why the hell is it damp-”
She coughed, probably from some dust catching in the back of her throat.
“This is fun and all, but I have to ask, why did you even bring me out here? I thought you were going to give me up, already.”
From the corner of my eye, I saw D shoot me look, but my attention stayed squarely on Benny.
“I don’t know,” I said.
Benny gave me a funny look. Her voice wavered as she asked me her next question.
“Are, are you going to kill me, or are you leaving that up to the powers that be?”
D’s look and Benny’s stare remained on me. They were curious. I was too.
“I don’t know,” I said again.
Benny’s expression and body language both expressed different reactions. Her body relaxed some, but her face was stark terror.
“You don’t know?”
“You have to understand, I’ve been chasing after you for a long, long time. Now that I have you… I’m struggling to figure out what comes next. When you’re so focused and driven to a specific goal, and for so long… And when you finally do get it, see, I don’t know.”
I stopped, failing to have made any point, or any sense.
“Can’t say I’m all that flattered,” Benny said. “Having taken so much space in one person’s mind.”
“What can I say? That’s just how it happened. I… we, gave up a lot over the weeks in order to just be in the same room with you. And now, here we are.”
“Sounds like you’ve developed something of an obsession for me,” Benny said.
I didn’t reply to that.
Another break in the conversation, a period of silence.
Benny shifted, groaning again when the restraints dug deeper into her skin.
“Ironically, you’re indecision on killing me or not is killing me,” she said. “If you tell me either way, at least I’ll know, and I can come to terms with whatever happens.”
“Just wait, you’ll know in time,” I told her. “I’m still figuring it out.”
Benny grunted from the restraints, and coupled with the uncertainty of her ultimate fate, resulted in a more pained expression.
I was getting more of a satisfaction just from looking at her than doing anything else. I could stay here until the sun rose.
I saw a glow emanating from right beside me. D had taken out her tablet.
“You might want to figure it out sooner rather than later,” she said.
“Are we short on time?” I asked, still watching Benny.
“No, but the other Ghosts are going to be worried if we take too long, and Jordan can’t stay in the hospital room forever. With Lawrence out of commission, they’re going to need someone to take orders from.”
“Will they listen to us? This was a joint effort, not one person was supposed to lead the rest.”
“It’s not one person, it’s us two, and it’s better than nothing, and I’d like to think we earned enough of their trust if we ever need to take point. Like right now.”
D lifted her tablet. “I can communicate from this, but they’ll appreciate it more if we call the shots in-person.”
I watched Benny. She was still, now, listening to our conversation. But we weren’t trying to be discreet, exactly.
“Sooner, rather than later, huh?” I said. “That does move things up a little.”
“Sorry,” D replied, as if this was something she had control over.
“No need,” I said. “It’s better this way. If you give me all the time in the world, I’ll probably never come to a decision. I work better with my back against the wall, thinking on my feet.”
D hummed. “I feel that.”
I moved to crouch in front of Benny, getting on my knees.
“Lucky you, looks like you’ll get your answer sooner than you thought.”
“Fun,” Benny said, with no fun to be found in her voice.
I took off my bag, setting it aside. Then, I threw a hand into my pocket. I drew out my knife, revealing the blade. Dried blood caked the sharpest point, trailing down until it was reduced to a smear.
I set it down, placing it between me and Benny, the tip of the blade pointing to her. She was stiff.
“I mentioned that I’m struggling to find out what to do with you, that I’ve spent so much time and energy pursuing you that I haven’t put enough time and energy towards what follows.”
Benny was watching me, wary.
“But, that doesn’t mean I’ve come up completely blank. I do have a few ideas.”
Benny’s eyes grew to saucers.
“I thought about hurting all of your crew first, the rest I didn’t get to, back at the school. Demoralize you, bring you lower before it was even your turn. Then, I would hurt you, in every way I could think of. Take out your eyes, cut off your tongue, burning your skin. I’d take breaks, so I could be thorough. And then, once I’ve harmed you enough, I would kill you.”
Terrible, terrible things. But I was saying them like they were easy.
Her lower lip trembled, but no sound was produced.
I went on. “Things changed though, naturally. I joined up with D and the Ghosts, and now it’s no longer just about me. Not anymore. I won’t be able to get around to hurting your crew, but that’s such small setback, and the Ghosts need you to be somewhat recognizable, if they want to cash you in for a prize. That takes some of my ideas off the table. Out of courtesy, I won’t be making a mess of your face, that’s for sure. And personally…”
I stopped myself.
Benny looked at me with confusion. A sharp anxiety. The wait really was killing her.
“Damn,” I said, “I never expected it to go down like this.”
“What, what do you want from me, exactly?” Benny asked. She was leaning back, as if she was afraid of what my answer would be. “Revenge?”
“From you? I want you to pay, for what you did at the school, for your involvement with Solace. For bringing me here. All of it, you’re responsible for all of it.”
Benny took a deep breath, shuddering as she exhaled.
I thought about what Gomez asked me, between ‘justice’ and something more… intimate. It wasn’t too long ago, but it felt like forever.
“Yeah,” I said.
“I hate to burst your bubble, but I can’t be responsible for everything, not when it comes to revenge. That takes some action on your part, an active hand to get what you want. You didn’t have to join up with Lawrence and that young girl, you didn’t have to set half of Eastside of aflame, you didn’t have to threaten me using my closest friend. I may have pushed you, but you chose to keep falling, and drag me down with you.”
“You didn’t have to attack the school,” I said back. “You didn’t have to join up with Solace.”
“I didn’t have a choice, on that last part.” Benny sounded downcast, broken.
“But,” she said. “You are right. I recognize, now, that I was blinded by that desire for vengeance. That’s why I attacked the school. You hit me, and I wanted to hit back harder. But look where it brought me, brought you.”
“It’s too late to start feeling sorry for yourself.”
“Please, the last thing I feel right now is sorry. Regret, though, that’s a whole other matter.”
She looked back at me, meeting my eyes. Level.
“V, right?” she asked.
“Right,” I said.
Benny fixed her posture, not making a sound, the restraints probably numbing any feeling, there.
“We both pushed each other. We both fell, and we both dragged each other down. In our pursuit of revenge, it made us do hideous things. A chain of increasingly hideous things, and led us down into this hellhole. That’s what revenge does to you. It corrupts you, V, and it changes you, inside and out. It makes you ugly.”
“You’re very easy on the eyes, for someone so ugly,” I said. “I hope I age as well as you.”
She shook her head. “You don’t get it, do you? Or maybe you’ve made up your mind, and you don’t want to hear anything different. This… it’s a spiral of destruction, and it’s not going to end with one of us leaving here alive. It’s going to continue. Someone we hurt along the way, or something we did, it comes back. It’s a cycle. Maybe she stabs you in the back, one day.”
She pointed with her lips, pointing to D. I didn’t turn to look at her.
“I haven’t been in the city for that long, but her reputation precedes her. And I’ve seen it myself, too. Petty pranks. Nothing too damaging, until tonight. But, my point is, from what I’ve heard and seen, the whole world is a joke to her. What’s to say that she isn’t making a mockery of you, right now?”
“Are you trying to waste my time?” I asked. “Distract me, until I either run out of time, or you come up with something better?”
Benny shot me a look.
“Maybe,” she said.
“D, how long do we have?”
D answered. “Um, about an hour and a half. We do have to be back, but as of right now, it’s not super urgent.”
A noise, coming from Benny. It sounded like a snarl.
“An hour and a half,” I repeated. “That’s not bad at all. You know what? I decided what I want to do.”
Benny stiffened again, hearing that. “And that is?”
I sat, my butt on the tarp, my legs crossed. I inched myself so I was closer to Benny.
“Why not? Even though you’re tied up and everything, you’re still willing to run your mouth. And honestly, I’m willing to listen. There’s a lot I want to ask you, actually, and I can imagine there’s a lot you want to ask me. So let’s do it.”
Benny opened her mouth, then closed it. Unsure of what to do or say next.
I threw in another point for her. “This might be your opportunity to convince me not to kill you. I can’t say the Ghosts, or whoever they hand you to, will show you that same mercy, but my offer’s there.”
Benny dropped her head a little, but it didn’t last long. She straightened herself, facing me again.
“I’ll take what I can get,” she said. “You start.”
She was a gang leader. She was used to power. She maybe even craved it, and was looking for as much power as she could consolidate, given her position, her situation.
It was admirable.
I smiled, remembering I had on a mask.
“Okay then, let’s start at the very beginning.”
Benny tilted forward, eyes down as she talked.
“I didn’t ask for any of this, it was forced upon me.”
“But you went along with it, and let those circumstances shape you,” I said. “Somewhere, on that path, there had to be a point where you could stop.”
“Are you admonishing me, V?”
I fell silent.
“I’m not,” I finally said. “Just an observation. I was much the same way.”
“Whatever happens,” Benny said, “Just make sure nothing happens to Roland. Just let him get back to Mexico.”
It was the third time she asked that.
“I make no promises about that last part, but nothing’s going to happen to Roland as long as you’re here, and your crew doesn’t pull anything.”
It was the third time I answered that.
“You care about your people a lot,” I said.
“Of course I do, they’re family. They’ve protected me my whole life, and I tried to protect them.”
A tear fell from one eye.
“And I failed.”
I didn’t really have a follow up. I was the reason why she failed.
I felt for her, in that moment. I had the memory of wanting to protect someone, and to fail, catastrophically. The tears wouldn’t come, however, that part of me was sectioned off, to be discarded.
But the memory was still there. I understood, and let Benny shed tears for the both of us.
“You say you want to kill me, but have you actually done it before? Take another person’s life?”
Flashes of memories surfaced. From a time I didn’t want to recall.
“Maybe. I’ve incapacitated people, using more strength than what was reasonably necessary. Maybe I left them to die. I can’t say for sure.”
“So, no, you haven’t.”
I squinted at her.
“Consciously, no. Have you?”
“I haven’t. That wasn’t my thing. If it ever came to that, I left it to the others. But I always tried diplomacy, first. Always.”
“Honor among thieves?” I asked. “Or among mobsters?”
“Something like that. People deserve fairness, even the worst of them. It’s a principle I tried to follow. A personal philosophy. No cheating.”
“The world isn’t fair,” I said, not to object, but as a general observation. “People aren’t fair, they cheat each other, and they get back at each other. At least you tried, but the world ended up beating you down, didn’t it? It broke you.”
Benny met my eyes.
“It broke you, too.”
“Tell me about Solace.”
Benny didn’t move.
“And Mister, too.”
Benny jerked her head up.
“If you’re going after him, then you are insane!”
“I’m just asking for information,” I said.
Benny slouched again.
“I don’t know much, honestly, about either of them. You’d be disappointed.”
“I’ll be the judge of that. But just tell me what you do know, for now.”
“Or,” I added, “I might have to bring Roland into this, again.”
Benny made a sound. Between a cry and a snarl.
“That’s not fair,” Benny said.
“I’m sorry,” I responded, meaning it.
“If you had the chance to start over, do it all again, would you change anything?”
“You don’t think you would?”
“I think… people are incredibly stubborn, and, even if I was taken back to the beginning, I can’t imagine a reality where I don’t make the same mistakes.”
“That’s a rather stubborn thing to say.”
“I still see myself as ‘people.’”
“So you believe in fate? That you were meant to be here?”
“Not… exactly. I believe in moving forward, and learning from the past. My mistakes define me just as much as my successes do. If I could go back, do things different, I wouldn’t be me, and I’m not sure I want that.”
“I see. I can’t believe I agree with you on that.”
“We’re truly ugly people, aren’t we?”
“Ha, you could even say ‘hideous.’”
I sat back, more drained than I had anticipated.
“Thirty minutes,” D said. A reminder for me, and a sentence for Benny.
“Thanks for the heads-up,” I said to D. I turned back to Benny. “That went by faster than I thought it would.”
Benny’s face was hard to read, a dark look in her eyes.
“That’s too bad. I was hoping we’d go for a while longer.”
“I’m already beat. This, on top of everything else that happened tonight, I’m shocked you can go another round.”
“You should be the one with the endurance. You’re still young, after all.”
Benny lowered her head.
“And besides, my life is sort of depending on it.”
I looked at Benny. There was something… different, about her.
Nothing explicit had changed, though. She was still there, restrained, sitting on the tarp. Couldn’t run, couldn’t hide. The gold blazer, the black leggings. Her ponytail, her tan skin. Her makeup. She was still Benny.
Yet, there was that quality to her.
Benny looked at me.
No. Something was different, but not with her. With me.
The dim of the flashlights illuminated her, illuminated us, and there was a warmth to it, that I hadn’t noticed before. A certain sentimentality, and she glowed in that light.
It wasn’t the traditional sort, but there was beauty, there, that struck me in a way that managed to leave an impact.
We looked at each other. The silence was shared, but it had different meanings for each of us.
Then, I broke that silence.
“I won’t kill you.”
Benny arched an eyebrow.
“You… won’t kill me.”
She said it slow, deliberate, as if repeating it made it more real.
It did. I had made up my mind.
“I tried to find it in my heart, the anger I would need to hurt you, and then to end your life. And funnily enough, I didn’t even need to try that hard. It was easy. It’s just… right there, sitting on top of everything else. But, digging a little deeper, I found something else. Something new.”
“And that was?”
“An understanding,” I answered.
“Don’t pity me,” she said, growling the second word.
I shook my head.
“Not pity. I don’t want you to look at me in that way, so I won’t do the same for you.”
“How noble of you,” Benny said. She started struggling with the restraints around her ankles. “Now help me up.”
I let her struggle a bit more, until she realized she wouldn’t receive any help.
Slow, but Benny caught on. She stopped moving, and stared back at me, very carefully.
“You’re fucking kidding me,” she said, voice breaking before she finished. She sounded like she was either about to laugh or cry.
“It’s not what you think,” I said, as if to reassure her. “I have another thing in mind.”
“What?” she asked. In that one word, I could hear it so clearly. Trepidation.
I answered not with words, but with actions. I removed my gloves, setting them by the knife. With my hands free, I felt how cold the air was on my skin.
I touched my face, and felt the mask. The hard, cold plastic.
I hid my face with my hands, lowering myself. I undid the strap around my head.
The mask clattered to the floor.
I raised myself, taking off my hood. Benny and I looked at each other.
She took it all in, studying my face. Her eyes darted from one detail to the other. Up, down. From my forehead to my chin. Not a freckle or mole would slip by her, it felt like.
I pushed some hair away from my face, fixing it. I averted her gaze. The sudden and heavy attention had me strangely flustered, but it was also what I wanted. A paradox.
“I’m not at my best right now,” I said, just to say something. “I’ve had a busy night.”
I waited for a comment, a response from Benny. None came. The now all-too familiar stillness returned.
Couldn’t avoid it forever. A sharp inhale through my nose, and I faced Benny.
Shadows were cast on her face. Hard to read.
“Hey,” I said.
“You’re… just a kid,” she said, nearing a whisper. “You’re just as young as her.”
She was referring to D.
“I’m not that young,” I said. I made my back straight, so the shadows would fall differently on my face. “Surprised?”
“Not surprised, no. When I… visited the school, I had an idea in my head of who to look for. You’re not too far removed from that image. Maybe you’re a little thinner, a little more pale, but that isn’t what scares me.”
Benny chuckled, or at least she tried. It came out more strained.
“What does scare me, is this sickening feeling at the pit of my stomach. It feels like I’m staring death in the face.”
Slow, nervous, I put my hands on Benny’s shoulders. It took an ungodly amount effort to get them to not shake.
“I’m afraid I can’t do anything about that,” I said.
Gently, I removed Benny’s blazer. It fell to a bundle behind her. She still had her sleeves on, due to the bindings.
I worked on the buttons on her shirt next, undoing them. My hands felt like they were moving on their own.
Benny reacted, and she went still, stiff. Exhaling softly, then more pronounced as I got to the lower buttons. I had robbed her of the ability to vocalize, to protest.
Wrong, this was all wrong.
But I didn’t stop.
I was drawing it out, taking longer to undo the next button. Not to waste time, not to question myself, but to stay in the moment. To turn it into a picture in my head. Framing it.
I finished the shirt, and pushed the fabric off her shoulders. She was still wearing the sleeves, but I had gotten to what I wanted.
Her shoulders were exposed, and my eyes trailed see to what else touched the open air. Her chest, rising and fall as she breathed. Her stomach. A thin, white line of skin peeked out from the waistline of her skirt. Benny gasped as my finger grazed it.
I wouldn’t go farther than this.
Benny managed to get out some more words, between periodic, shallow breaths. “If… you’re not intending to… kill me… what, exactly, are you planning?”
What was I planning?
I searched for an answer.
I spoke, but I found it almost impossible. Shaky, and soft.
“I still hold you responsible for everything. This, me. There’s… a catharsis that comes with finally getting what you want.”
“Yes, and it’s a very sweet taste.”
“Um, I can leave if you want, put a sock on the door.”
That didn’t come from Benny. Someone else? But I was sure it was just the two of us.
Hazy, getting to my head. It was cold, but my body was heating up. My fingers traced around Benny’s shoulder, her skin smooth with sweat. I felt her body heat.
I leaned closer.
Benny remained there, making it easier for me to remove a strap off one shoulder, letting it hang. My lips brushed against goosebumps.
If I had left it there, it would have been a kiss.
But there was more to come.
I held her with my hands, keeping her in place. She’d want to move. I wouldn’t let her.
I opened my mouth.
My tongue grazed a salty taste, and then my teeth brought forth a sweeter flavor. Red.
Small noises, smaller sips, and this continued until I had my fill.
I found myself at the top of the factory, the breeze in my face and hair.
The air was fresher here than in the city. It soothed, and helped in bringing my thoughts back to other matters.
It was cool, calm, and I hadn’t felt more collected. But, could I call this peace? The question gnawed at the back of my mind, raw.
I walked, and Hleuco landed ahead of me, waiting for me as I approached.
He looked worse for wear. His feathers were ruffled, matted in some places, sticking out in others. He slouched, and leaned one way, favoring a leg. I remembered how he’d raise his chest, giving off a sense of pride and power. Standing tall. Now, it took all he had just to keep standing.
Hleuco was standing, though, meaning like me, he had won.
I saw what he had in his beak, what was stuck in blood and feather. Bits of a blue windbreaker.
I heard his voice.
I smiled, soft.
“We did good, didn’t we?”
I continued walking, passing him. He stayed as I crossed the roof, heading for the edge. I found D there, sitting.
I sat with her, setting my mask beside me.
Our legs dangled, and it was long way to the bottom. Should an accident occur, only one of us would have been able to survive that drop. Yet she was sitting here without a care in the world.
D gave me a glance, then turned her attention back to the city.
We watched the skyline for a while. The smoke was all but gone, now, but even from here, I could see the wisps that were left. All that remained of what was once a greater fire.
“You’re late,” D said. “We’re late.”
“Are we in trouble?”
D raised her shoulders, then dropped them.
“Nah. I’ve been in contact with them, but we really should be heading back.”
D gestured again.
“But, now I need a break.”
“I would say I’m sorry, but it would only half true.”
“No biggie,” D said. “Hard to believe we actually pulled this off.”
“Yeah, it’s been a long and crazy night.”
“We ended up cutting it close, but we got lucky.”
D rubbed her hands together in her lap for warmth.
“It’s the kind of luck that makes you wonder if something truly terrible is just around the corner.”
I didn’t want to think about that.
“Either way,” I said. “You managed to prove yourself to me. Congratulations.”
D made a fist, and drew it in close.
We laughed a bit, briefly amused by the exchange.
As D settled back down again, she fixed her jacket.
“Oh yeah. How’s… um, the lucky girl?” she asked.
Who else was she talking about?
“Not a concern,” I answered. “Benny’s not getting up.”
That was all I was willing to offer.
D didn’t press for more details. “You’re carrying her back to the van, though. She’s heavy, and my arms are tired.”
“Will do,” I said.
“So, you finally got her, in more ways than one. All that’s left is to give her up to the Ghosts, and you don’t have to be there for that. Your part is done.”
Done? I didn’t feel done.
“What’s next for V?” she asked.
What was next for me? I couldn’t go back to the apartment. That wasn’t home for me. I couldn’t go back to being Shiori’s daughter, or Katy and Maria’s best friend. They weren’t connected to me. I couldn’t go back to a life that didn’t fit, to fill a hole that wasn’t shaped like me.
And I didn’t want to.
Styx, Solace, Mister. The girl at the center of it all. Not everything off the list was checked off.
There’s still much to do. The fire still burns.
I answered her.
“I won’t pull back, that’s for damn sure. I’ll press forward. Don’t count me out just yet.”
“I like that,” D said, sounding satisfied. “You’re up for another game. I’m hyped.”
The breeze picked up, strong enough that it pushed, and I gripped to the ledge to stay in place. It was cold.
It died down, and I could relax again.
“Sorry to disappoint, but that’s not really my thing. Also, I kind of can’t.”
Turning to D, I realized that I had grabbed her arm, as if to secure her as well.
I let her go. “That, I can apologize for.”
“You don’t have to. I don’t mind that, particularly. No one’s going to object to holding hands with a pretty girl.”
“Hm?” I asked.
D looked at me. This time it was longer than a glance. “Yup, you are seriously pretty.”
I wasn’t expecting to hear that. “Um, thanks. I’ve never been told that before.”
Me, as in V, and not her.
“Really?” D questioned. “There had to be someone who’s told you that before. Like a boy at school, or your grandma? I dunno.”
“Nothing I care to remember,” I said. “Sorry.”
“Eh, it’s whatever. But I hope it made you feel better.”
I had to think about it. It was a compliment, but that sort compliment was better suited coming from a boy. I’d even accept it coming from anyone else’s grandmother.
“It did, I think. Thanks again.”
“Happy to oblige.”
We spent another minute looking towards the city again. The smoke was all clear, now. From a distance, it was like nothing had happened at all.
The hectic buzzing, the chaos. We’d have to return to it, eventually. Sooner, rather than later.
Another minute passed.
“I thought you were going to say more,” I said. “About me showing my face.”
“Um, besides having a tiny bit of… something, on your upper lip, then no. If not that, gosh, you’re already fishing for compliments?”
Flustered, I wiped my lip. “Not that. Earlier, when I was trying to get back to E-One, I had gotten… distracted.”
“I had to gather myself together, to keep myself going, and that involved, um, raising my voice a notch or two.”
“Make that like ten notches. You almost blew out my ear back there.”
“Sorry, again. I wanted to ask, also because your stunt back at the restaurant nearly gave me a heart attack, but, while I had gotten distracted, did you pick up anything, especially at the end?”
“At the end?” D asked. She put a finger to her chin, thinking. “Not really, no. Again, you almost blew out my ear, and I was focusing on other things. You can’t expect me to catch everything, especially when it didn’t sound like it was something I was supposed to catch.”
“I suppose so,” I said.
“And, about my stunt, anyone in Benny or Christian’s position would jump at that kind of bait, even if it was true or not. They were desperate, and I took that to my advantage.”
I got my clarification, but I couldn’t take any relief in that. A strange part of me expected her to know.
Want her to know.
“Was there something I had to catch?”
I held my tongue. I tasted juice in my mouth. Intoxicating.
I made my choice.
“My name,” I said. “I want to give you my name.”
“Is it not ‘V?’” D asked.
“It’s more a placeholder, for lack of a better word. I’ve already shown you my face, so I guess my real name would follow.”
“Shucks, you don’t have to, but if you’re up for it, then I won’t stop you.”
She turned to face me.
“I’ll give you mine, too.”
I wasn’t expecting to hear that, either. “It’s not ‘D,’” I asked.
“Placeholder,” was all she said, with a wide smile. Toothy, with a gap.
“Hm,” I said, giving myself some time to think. Tonight wasn’t just about finding Benny. It was about finding where I stood, how I functioned without her. Alexis. Without her connections and memories. And I did pretty well, when all was said and done. I got what I wanted, and I didn’t stumble where she would have fallen. I proved myself, as much as D proved herself. I didn’t need Alexis. Not anymore.
I’d rejected her memories, and her connections, and I succeeded. I won.
A flurry of feathers. Hleuco flew over our heads.
I watched him go, joining other birds in the distance. As he got smaller, he tested himself with a flap of his wings, but he’d falter, flounder in the air. He settled to keep his wings level, more of a glide than flight itself.
He slowly became a dot, and then he was gone. There was something melancholic about his departure. A sort of finality to it.
I willed him good luck.
I turned my attention back to myself.
Alexis had never declared a name to the world. That was her first mistake, the first stumble. She let the world give her a name, stamp an identity on her. Their perception on her warped, despite her attempts, and the world fought back. They rejected her, wanted her gone. She didn’t shape herself properly, and instead let others give her a shape neither wanted. She tried to get take back her name, her identity, but it was too little, too late.
Names were important, names were everything. Names held meaning, not only for the individual person, but to others. And she’d called herself Blank Face. No wonder she was overwritten.
She was a white canvas, painted over in blue. Now, red and black.
Names were important, names were everything.
I’d need a new name.
Like the dying spurts of a candle, I felt a spark. A faded memory, a connection that Alexis had. Brief and fleeting to her, but to me, I would use that. Another rock to build upon.
I returned to D, giving her a smile of my own, and we exchanged first names.