It hadn’t occurred to me just how much I took my leadership position for granted, not until I had to go through the fallout of botching the El Paso job. This last week was nothing if not a harsh wake-up call, or a splash of water in my face, about the responsibilities of my role. Unlike being whatever it was that gave me my powers, being a gang leader wasn’t a natural thing. It had to be earned, and the foundation of that was built on trust.
That had been shattered by the time I got back to Stephenville.
I could see it in the eyes of the other members, in their postures as D and Lawrence had everyone come meet us when we returned. Word spread fast, apparently, and not everyone was happy with what they heard.
It was varied, but the general sentiment was mutual, shared. Some shifted their gazes away, others glared at me straight on. Hard to avoid, when I was at the center of it all. Nothing I wasn’t used to, but getting it from people who were supposed to be in my corner… it didn’t help, in any case.
When we got back, Lawrence seemed to take it in stride, but he was also on an assortment of different painkillers, being propped up by D. He was off on his own ride, and I had just gotten back from mine. Now, all that was left was the come down. And that was a slow, numbing, gradual descent into self-flagellation and self-loathing. A thick miasma of an atmosphere that was hard to parse, harder still to get out of.
Which, which was…
I don’t know.
And that atmosphere was palpable throughout the rest of the week, clouding my vision, my mindset, and my general disposition. Every movement, every passing thought, was being met with second and third guesses, every stare and whispered breath made me more and more conscious over all of my decisions. Picking up and turning over the same stone, time and time again, becoming a bad habit.
Those seeds of doubt had finally taken root, and this was what bloomed. An ugly flower with more thorns than petals.
If only there was a way to nip it in the bud. Or was it too late?
I don’t know.
All I knew was that there was a lot to do, and it would take time before everything would straighten out, reach a new equilibrium. It wouldn’t be the same, but it would have to do.
It’d have to.
Challenge after challenge, constant struggling with no end in sight. It was such a tiny, fleeting draft of an idea, but it flickered in my mind, anyways.
That, maybe, it was better that I give up, or that I had never tried at all.
A small pressure on my head, right between my elbow and my temple, pushing against me. Rain tapped against the other side of the glass, like a weird sort of role reversal of the whole fish in the bowl thing. Except I didn’t want to put myself in the position of a helpless creature, exactly, but…
I don’t know. That’s where I am, I guess.
But, whatever. In the grand scheme of things, none of this mattered. It all stacked together, adding up but still not amounting to much, leaving me being nothing but-
I startled a little, lifting my head. The pressure became a fading throb, lessening as I shook my head, slight.
Sarah, at the driver’s side.
She was facing me, her hands off the steering wheel. Lips upturned, slight, her eyes crinkling a little. If there was ever an expression to project ‘patient’ onto, it was that one.
“We’re here,” she said. I could hear it in her voice, too. Patience.
But, I didn’t want to keep everyone waiting. I didn’t want to be what held everyone back.
The only response I could offer was a nod, enough of a signal for everyone to start getting out of the van.
I braced myself for the rain. It came down harder, merciless even, hammering down on us as if each drop was attempting to pound us into the cement. Punching, stomping me into the curb, and it would have, if I didn’t put past the minimum effort in standing up, standing my ground. With how tired and done I was feeling, that particular tug of war would have favored the opposition, had the door leading inside not been only a few paces away.
Sarah threw the door open, the hinges creaking, announcing our arrival. Even over the rain. Assholes.
Heads turned. Eyes stared.
Another sort of role reversal. I had gotten out of the water for a chance to breathe, but now I had found myself burning up in the glare of others.
My own subordinates.
They were all moving about and working as we came in, the majority of them taken a moment to pause what they were doing and put their focus on us, instead. Me, more than likely.
It was only for a moment, but time seemed to stretch for so long that it might as well have been for an eternity.
Dozens upon dozens of spotlights, a stage I once thought I could stand on with confidence, and a part I once thought I could play, but now, I doubted my ability to deliver those lines with conviction. The queen.
I’m still on the board, but I’m not in a good position.
I was stuck on what direction to take.
Through the blinding glares, I peered past them to take in the rest of the base.
One of the headquarters for the Fangs. Deep in the heart of our territory in West Stephenville, an emptied out museum we took over and renovated. Like the Whiterose Hall for Music and Theater, where we had taken Granon for our first encounter with him, the Free Grant Museum of Arts was supposed to be a community center that encouraged students do partake in after-school programs, joining art classes with peers instead of joining gangs. But, like the theater, it lost out on the appropriate funds and eventually had to shut down. It had taken some work, and some time, but we had enough hands on deck, and we got the museum up and running again… for Lawrence. The museum wasn’t open to the public anymore.
One of the headquarters, because it was agreed that each of the leaders would have their own, spreading out, taking over more bases as the territory expanded. We were still in the process of getting everything together. Lawrence had just gotten his and was ready to go, D was in the planning stages now that she had a place in mind, and I was still undecided on where I’d set up shop. There were some options, but part of me would rather wait until the territory expanded into places where I’d have better choices.
But, I couldn’t see myself having a base if this was what I’d return to.
We were in the lobby of the museum, branching off into the different wings of the building, available to us from there. Lawrence’s office would be in the back, straight ahead, but there was a sizable crowd of people between us and our destination. Carrying boxes, checking inventory, doing last-minute checks on wiring to make sure it held up after a week or two. And most had paused, brief, to look at us as if we were intruding. Even though they were all members of my gang.
It was only for a moment, but the tension coming from each glare, each spotlight… it was tactile. Pulling, tugging at me, in every direction, until I came apart.
Was that what they intended? Did that want that?
It made me feel so alien. So other. I was very conscious of the droplets of water on my face and glasses, how my clothes weighed me down.
Paranoia. A miasma by any other name would be just as toxic.
A nudge from behind, like the wind from before, except I was made to move, this time.
D moved to the side of me, her hand still between my shoulder blades.
“Come on,” she said, putting more force there, where she was touching me.
I complied. As a group, we made the first move, and everyone else went right back to work. Only for a moment, we were all locked in a kind of stasis, a symptom of what could be a larger issue. What would happen if I had to give an order at a critical juncture? Would they drag their feet, delay, or fight me on my decision? It would be hard to say for sure until we were in that exact situation, but at the same time, I didn’t want things to get that bad.
I’d have to do something about that. Another box to put on the list. There were so many boxes, already.
Sarah cleared the way, getting in front so others would have to get out of the way. She was in a weird position, as well, being one of the people who worked under me while still comfortable being at my side. She could maneuver through both circles with ease, which made her a big help.
I felt bad for having to rely on her. D, as well.
Like bodyguards protecting a celebrity, Sarah and D and Isabella made a barrier around me, putting space between us and them. Space that shouldn’t be there, but we’d have to work around that.
We ducked into a door past the main exhibit hall, leading into the back area of the museum. The walls immediately shrunk in dimensions, choking us so we had to walk in less of a group, and more of a line. D took point, leading the way. I was a step behind her, lagging a little.
Then, after finding a set of stairs leading up, and down another hall, we made our way over to Lawrence’s office.
The door, an off-white wooden slab with subtle, winding engraving, wasn’t open, but D pressed against the surface of it anyways. She reached for the handle, then pressed both hands against the door, palms flat, fingers splayed, and threw her weight onto the door. It took some doing, some real effort or some genuinely good acting on D’s part, but she managed to sell the image that the door was heavy.
It gave our entrance, and our intrusion into his office, that much more weight.
Lawrence was waiting for us.
He was sitting on the other side of his office, the room dim, with wisps of smoke floating through the air. Lit by the window behind him, rain pelting the glass, soft greys became white brushstrokes against the dark hues that enveloped Lawrence and the room. Across the space, there were white patches of light gave shape and form to the shadows. I saw Lawrence, I saw his desk, I saw how he sat, favoring a side, the only other color in here was a burnt orange, by where his lips would be, glowing periodically.
Burning orange, then a soft white, tracing thin, hazy lines into the air.
“What the heck is this?” D asked, stomping into the room. With how delicate the atmosphere was in here, each step came down like thunder.
“You… kept me waiting,” was the answer from Lawrence. It sounded slurred, slowed in a way. But measured. As though he had to put effort in not tripping over his words.
Where Lawrence was sluggish, however, D was fast as lightning.
She crossed the distance in a sprint, disappearing into the shadow, patches of light falling on her on occasion. The shape of Lawrence vanished, swallowed by dark, the burnt orange gone as well. I heard ruffling and a bit of a struggle, and when I saw the orange light again, it was on the floor, quickly being stomped out.
“No smoking,” D said, harsh.
“I needed to something to take the edge off.”
“That’s why I gave you those meds. Your prescription. Don’t mix it with other junk.”
“A little bit isn’t going to do anything too bad. Don’t… worry, I know what I’m doing.”
“If you know what you were doing, then you wouldn’t be self-medication. Mixing that stuff while you’re already on something is just a recipe for disaster. So stop it. Last thing I need is for you to fall into a drug-induced coma, or you get a seizure or a heart attack or something, okay?”
“It’s clean weed, D, I got it from the boys down there. It’s stuff we sell. And I didn’t even take that much, before you got here. And it helps. So-”
“I said stop, okay, I said it. I don’t need another-”
D twitched, going quiet. The outline of her twisted around, facing us. As if she realized that she wasn’t alone.
Dropping her shoulders, head lowered, she stepped to the side, and I could see Lawrence’s outline again. Light cut through blinds to shape him.
“Do you need a light in here?” I asked, experimentally moving inside.
Lawrence replied. “Probably not the kind of light you’re offering, so no, I’m good.”
I was fine with that. I wasn’t like I couldn’t see in the dark, anyways, and there were more important things to fuss over about. The lights stayed off.
My eyes began to adjust to the dimness, and I was finally able to see Lawrence as I approached. He was dressed to relax, or at least be as comfortable as possible, while still being presentable. A sweater one size too big, the hole for his head hanging open, revealing the white undershirt he had underneath. He had one leg propped up on his desk, slim fit acid-washed jeans and a cream seashell colored shoe upon closer inspection. He was resting it by a laptop, but by the lack of any lighting reflection off him, I could tell that it was on a sleep mode.
As relaxed as he appeared, the expression he wore was one of restraint, his eyes part of the way scrunched while his jaw was set, square. Holding back from showing any of the pain he was feeling. Which was fair, he still had to wear a bandage on his chin, covering the stitches.
He was still suffering from residual aches from his multiple bouts with Granon, and had the lower half of his face split open by Styx. I could see why he’d want to find reprieve in any way possible, be it at the bottom of a pill bottle, or at the end of a joint.
Lawrence scratched his neck, close to the stitches. He was being ginger with it, not wanting to irritate the skin there, probably.
“How was the barn?” he asked.
D looked at me. I wanted to look and see if Sarah was still here. I had left her by the door when I walked into the office after D.
“A bust,” I replied, looking back at Lawrence. “Nothing left there. Doesn’t help that we went when it’s raining as hard as it is. Everything’s been cleaned out and washed away.”
“We found a bunch of puddles, though,” D said. “Lots and lots of them.”
Easy to tell, that Lawrence didn’t like hearing that. He looked to the side, over to D. She must have done something, judging by his sudden frown. He moved his hand from his neck to his nose, pinching the bridge of it, looking up.
“So that’s it, just like that? You’re just going to give up?”
I wasn’t sure if that question was pointed or more general in scope.
My turn to look at D, and all she did was tilt her head.
“We don’t have to,” I answered, in both meanings. “That barn was our best lead though, and we couldn’t turn up anything.”
“That’s why you don’t delay, Wendy, because the opportunity slips away from you. Fuck. You don’t let chances disappear when they’re right there.”
“Yeah, I get it, I don’t need to hear it twice.”
“I think you do. You’re surprisingly stubborn.”
Fuck. Like I needed this right now.
I turned, glancing back. Sarah was here. Which made everything more complicated.
It was good that she was here, that I still had her, but it sucked that she had to see this. There was space between us, too, now that I was in D and Lawrence’s company, the leaders of Los Colmillos. As much as I wanted- needed her here, she didn’t belong.
“You’re dismissed,” I told her. “Thanks again, for everything.”
Sarah gave me a nod.
“Of course. Anytime.”
She took her leave, the heavy door slamming behind her. Not because of any lingering emotion, but because the door was that damn heavy, apparently.
After that sound rang out, it gave way to the rain. Tapping on the window, incessant, like a unsolicited visitor, trying to get in.
I turned back to Lawrence.
“It’s not the first time I went down to Braham Barn,” I said. Jumping back into the previous discussion, but it felt like a non-sequitur.
“When?” Lawrence asked.
I sifted through broken memories, loose connections. I didn’t like that I had to plug some of them back in.
A shock coursed through me, like a tiny bit of static, but across my whole body.
“Back when I first got my powers, a couple days after the incident that took place there. I went back. It was the same then, too. Nothing.”
Lawrence lifted a brow. He shifted, leaning more into that side he favored. He grunted.
“You didn’t mention that before.”
I took a second before I answered. Images flashed in my head. Alexis. The barn. Testing her newfound strength on some picnic tables. That moment was the most clear, since it was one of the few times her powers ever gave her a sense of wonderment. That feeling was all her own, I couldn’t take that away from her, not that I wanted to. I’d rather keep my hands off, regarding that.
“It just came back to me,” I explained, “But yeah, it wasn’t like I didn’t try. Didn’t find anything then, either.”
“So you just wasted your time by going there again, even when you knew you wouldn’t find shit?”
I lowered my eyes. Lawrence was irritating when he was a little high.
“It’s… complicated,” I said, “I have a new set of eyes now, metaphorically speaking. I brought others, too, different perspectives. Still came up blank.”
“We all tried,” D said. “It’s big deal that Wendy even wanted to go back. Seriously.”
“This isn’t a therapy session,” I commented, voice hushed. Stupid, to bring up that tidbit.
Lawrence didn’t seem to catch it, though, continuing the conversation with another point.
“And you still didn’t find anything?”
“I don’t know what else to tell you.”
“Then you go at it from another angle. I don’t know your whole origin story, but there has to be some record of it. Cops used to stop by there for drugs. Check those.”
D interjected. “You have been smoking, because you’ve forgotten the cops we have to deal with. Chances are good that they’d covered things up, without even realizing what they covering up. You’re right, that barn was a hot spot for drugs back in the day, so the less attention places like that, the less trouble and heat on them. Wouldn’t shock me if this thing did get covered, but got buried in the back pages of the paper or at the bottom of someone’s feed. We probably wouldn’t get anything out of it.”
Lawrence coughed, sounding strained at the end.
“You wanted another perspective, there’s one. Don’t let this one slip past you, too.”
D and I exchanged a glance. Fleeting.
“I can look into it for you, Wendy, if you like,” D said. She winked. “It wouldn’t even be hard. I know how to get past Uncle J’s back when he’s not looking.”
Uncle J. James Gomez. She really had nicknames for everyone.
“Sure,” I said to D, and for Lawrence as well. “We’ll give it a shot.”
Lawrence leaned on his side some more, failing to suppress a groan. He sounded like an old man.
“It’s a start. Just don’t go about this all half-heartedly. That’ll just piss me off even more.”
“God,” I said, “Maybe you do need a light.”
D flashed me a look. With how the shadows fell on her face, she looked scary.
Lawrence laughed a little. Sounding strained.
“Ha, ow, not maybe, I do, but that’s beside the point. Alright, fine, I won’t keep bugging you about it, since it seems like you give enough of a shit. Let’s move onto other business.”
“Yes, please,” I said.
Moving onto other business was good, and it helped that business was good. Despite my fuck up, the gang was doing pretty well, growing at a steady rate and building momentum. Granon wouldn’t have come after us if we hadn’t been doing something right. And all we had to do was keep at it. Getting numbers, looking after the terrority, and eyeing rival gangs to go after, ourselves. That particular plan was still in effect. We had beaten out the Thunders and the Royals, and, though our dealing with Hóngshuǐ ended in a stalemate, there were still others that owed us, other doors to knock down. Other business.
“What’s next on the agenda?” D asked.
Lawrence lowered his chin, letting the shadows take more of his face. He was starting to look more and more the part of a mob boss. If we weren’t on the same team, and if I didn’t have powers, I could see myself wanting to shrink under his gaze.
He really was the face of this gang.
“Maintenance and expansion,” Lawrence said. “We get back on track with everything we were doing before Wendy left for El Paso. There’s a lot we need to check up on, especially here in town, and if we want to keep growing, we’ll have to start scoping out potential targets. Other gangs.”
“Y’all got any suggestions for gangs?” D asked.
“Lawrence knows them better than I would,” I said. “What do you think?”
“I think,” Lawrence started. He scratched his chin. “We’re going to be swinging above our weight pretty soon. What’s left on the list are either individuals with nothing else to offer, or gangs that squat at a place without really holding anything there, or they’re just too fucking far. I’d like everything to connect, it makes coordinating and communication much easier. If we get split up, fragment ourselves, that leaves us with openings for others to exploit.”
“It’s not going to be easy,” I said, “I don’t know how above our weight you want to swing, but that comes with the risk of us getting smacked back down, no chance of getting up.”
“You think I don’t know that? We’ll play it smart, gather some intel. If we do lock on a bigger gang, like the Cobras or something, we can go for their smaller holds, inching in on parts of their territory that they aren’t as secure over.”
“Buffer zones,” D said. “The bigger the gang, the more hold you have on the city, meaning a lot of smaller groups might try to size you up to prove themselves, or police might have to come knocking just to keep appearances. That what those zones, or forward bases, are for. Leftover scraps for them to chew on. Like remoras to sharks.”
“I’d never heard of these,” I said.
“Insider secret,” D offered, with sing-songy tone.
I considered the plan that was being suggested.
“So if we take these bases for ourselves, we would be able to grow the gang a little bit at a time. Growth, while still pacing ourselves.”
“We’d have to be careful, though,” Lawrence said. “Take enough of those bases and they’ll have to retaliate. This isn’t like taking candy from a corner store. They have the power to wipe us out, make it look like we were never here in the first place. Worse than a war. Obliteration.”
A tug, a reflex. This was the part where I’d say that we had the power to wipe them out to. Referring to myself.
I held my tongue. I couldn’t even fake it.
Instead, I ventured with, “So we should start scoping out some places, then. See who we can hit first, and who. No one, specific target is in our sights yet.”
“I can start on that,” D said. “I know where to look.”
Lawrence nodded, more assured now. “Then I’m putting you on that for now. No need to rush, let’s just get our ducks in a row first.”
“Agreed,” I said. “Now, what’s next? Anything that needs to be taken care of here?”
“A lot,” Lawrence said. “If D is going to be working on expansion, then you’re taking care of maintenance. Check around the terrority, touch base with the locals. Make sure our presence is well established. If there’s any trouble or problems, take care of it.”
“Any in particular that’ve cropped up recently?”
Shadows dug into his grimace.
“Some. Maybe. Few of the boys have mentioned someone snooping around, talking to the locals, asking questions. A lot of questions, which to me means too many.”
“What kind of questions?”
“Like who’s occupying the territory now, what happened to the previous occupants, any rumors, leads.”
I didn’t like the sound of any of that.
“Oof, sounds like a real journalist,” D said. “Scary.”
In one word, D voiced my concerns for me.
The idea of someone out there, asking about us, trying to get information… it gave me a sense of creeping dread. As if I had been stabbed with my own knife.
“I haven’t been able to get much else on this person,” Lawrence said. “Age, name… all I have is they might be a woman. White.”
“Might be?” I questioned.
“The reports conflict. Some say it was a male, others say female.”
“More than one journalist, then?” D suggested. “Super scary.”
Two words, now.
“That doesn’t make this any easier,” I commented. “We don’t need anyone sticking their nose where it doesn’t belong, and not at this juncture.”
Lawrence gestured, the look on his face suggesting that it hurt to do so.
“I hadn’t heard anything about them in a while, which still worries me. It’s just something I heard during the daily reports.”
“Something to keep in mind then,” I said. “I’ll be on the lookout.”
“Me too,” D said. “What else we got?”
“There’s… something I need to bring up.”
There were just two others here, but I back up a bit to better gauge the room’s reaction.
Lawrence looked at me, D did too. The rain seemed to tap harder on the window, bodily crashing into the glass.
It was like being the spotlight again.
“Yes?” Lawrence asked.
“It’s the others,” I said, breathing out. “There’s some tension between me and those we have working for us. Ever since I got back from El Paso. It’s hard to explain, but… it’s there.”
I wanted to put air quotes on the word ‘some,’ but I didn’t have the energy to lift my arms, move my fingers.
“You’ll be fine,” D said. Her voice was pitched higher than usual. Fake. “It’s all just in your head.”
“I’m tired of everything being in my head,” I exhaled. I must have had some kind of expression on my face, or how the shadows hit mine, because D dropped any pretense of being chipper. Just for a split second, but I caught it.
“No, you’re right,” Lawrence said. “Doesn’t surprise me. We’ve been keeping them in the dark about certain stuff, like how we operate. There’s cliques, now, ever since we started taking in more people. Those who were on the come up with me, us, they’re more in the know than the newer guys, and I can bet they have some reservations over having to take orders from a thirteen year old girl.”
“Hey, whoa,” D said. She made a victory sign. “I’m not thirteen.”
“My point stands.”
“And they’d feel frustrated if they don’t get anything clear on V, or her relation to the Fangs,” I said. “Reggie, Tone… Sarah. People like them know. Doesn’t mean everyone does.”
“It’s an open secret,” D said. “It was always designed to be that way. If it gets out, fine, that’s how it was supposed to work. But we do have to get out in front of it by a smidge. Once locals or other gangs pick up on what’s going on, before we get any bigger, they’ll started getting their ducks in a row and it’ll be harder to make any more headway.”
We could pace ourselves, but we also couldn’t. We were racing against an abstract timer, having to beat it before it reached zero.
I voiced other thoughts.
“We still have to do something about our own people. The locals and our members. I don’t want to be on bad terms with them. That’s just complicates everything even more.”
“Then don’t fuck up next time,” Lawrence said. Like it was easy.
“Thanks,” I breathed.
Lawrence groaned, moving in his seat. He brought himself forward, elbows propped up on the table. He scratched his chin, and flinched.
“But that’s what this next part is for. There was a stumble, sure, but it didn’t end in a complete failure. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be here, talking about it. All that’s left is to just, you know-”
“Keep swimming?” D offered.
“Shut up,” Lawrence moaned, and D laughed. “But sure, go with that. And, Wendy?”
“Being disliked by your workers, or feeling that kind of distance? It comes with the job. The opposite might even be unnatural. As long as you keep your head on straight, and have a good vision for the future, it all falls into place. Don’t beat yourself up over it.”
“Sounds easier to say that do.”
“Too bad, time to get to doing. You two have your assignments. I’d help you out, but I still feel like complete shit.”
Lawrence twitched, his hand hovering under his bandage.
“Styx really did a number on you,” I said. The comment was more meant for him, but I could feel it reflecting back on me, as well. “We’ll have to do something about him, too.”
“Like what? He’s practically untouchable. Go after him, that’s guaranteed obliteration.”
“He’s like a storm,” D said. “If you see it in the distance, try and get away. If you can’t, all you can do is let it do its damage, and pick up the pieces later.”
Pick up the pieces. That was all I kept doing, in the months after the incident at the school.
“Sure,” I said, resigned.
Rain kept knocking, the light outside tinged grey. I wasn’t at my best.
“I’ll go out first and get started,” D said. “I’ll take the van, if you don’t mind.”
“There’s a spare umbrella at the door,” Lawrence said. “You can take that if you’d like, Wendy.”
“Sure,” I said.
“We can meet up later, Vivi. I’ll get you dinner?”
Then, we all broke from the discussion. D went first, heading out, her hand touching mine, rubbing it before passing me.
“D?” Lawrence said, pressing a button on his laptop. A soft light illuminated face. “Send me everything you took. Now.”
She didn’t respond right away.
“Go easy on her.”
The door slammed. It was just the two of us.
I had the distinct impression that he wanted me to stay back.
Lawrence stood up. I could see how hard it was for him.
“Am I being unreasonable?” he asked. “I don’t think I am. I try to be fair, Wendy, I really do. It helps when you’re a leader, and it’s invaluable when you’re on a team. It’s diplomatic.”
He asked again. “Am I being unreasonable?”
I answered, uncertain, “I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t be.”
Lawrence glanced down. He tapped at his laptop, and turned it around. The screen faced me.
Not a suggestion. An order.
Reluctant, I looked.
Red and white. There was so much of the former that it took time for it to sink in. Blood-soaked tile.
Splashed about, streaked in some places, pooling in others. There was so much I could smell it from here. In the deeper, darker sections of the liquid, there were gouges in the tile, chunk torn out and missing, as if someone had gone through and picked at it with a jackhammer. There was a whole length of destruction in that vein. The word choice even fit, considering all the blood.
Lawrence brought his hand on the keyboard, fumbling with it since the laptop was facing me. He pressed an arrow key.
A wider shot. The arrangement of tiles lined up and spread out far enough for me to see that it was a hall. It seemed familiar, but there was even more blood.
It soaked and streaked the walls, even the ceiling, and in this particular photo, it had been taken while some blood dripped down, a thin line connecting the top and bottom of the hallway.
And the veins.
Spiraling down the length of the hall, gouges were made into the tile and brick, slashing across the floor, the wall, the ceiling, the other wall, and farther down the floor. A spiral. The damage was bad enough that it had broken through some pipes in the floor and ceiling, releasing some water, and taking out lights above.
Lawrence pressed the arrow key again.
I saw body parts. A hand. A leg. Granon’s body.
Despite myself, or perhaps because of myself, I looked away.
“Look,” was all Lawrence said. I heard the sound another pressed key.
Even more reluctant, even more disgusted, I looked.
Water, wood. More familiar and more recent.
“What is this?” I asked.
“Braham Barn,” Lawrence explained. “D sent these to me just now. Look.”
He kept cycling through the pictures. They were all of the interior of the barn. The floor, the walls, the high ceiling, the walls on the other side… back to the floor.
I looked at where the water had collected, how it pooled in some places. Puddles. So many puddles.
Lawrence fished out his phone, reading off of it. “Here’s the description that came with the pics. Also from D. ‘Spiral pattern matches the damage observed in the Lunar Tower service hallway, however, less deep considering the dimensions of the barn’s interior. Wood breaks differently as well, but the end result is similar enough to start gathering a conclusion. Also explains the holes in the ceiling, allowing more rain to get in.’”
He put his phone down by the laptop, and cycled through the rest of the photos. Different gouges at different angles. I even saw myself, standing in the distance, talking with Sarah.
When were these taken? While I wasn’t looking?
Then, the photos circled back to the first one. With all the blood and gore.
Lawrence pushed his laptop down. It closed with a slap. I felt like I had been slapped in the face.
“What happened at the Lunar Tower?”
My mouth was open, but that was more my jaw hanging. Frozen, like a chill went through me, turning the water that had settled on me into ice.
“Tell me,” Lawrence ordered.
“I,” I started. In one hand, I balled up a fist. In the other, I cracked the knuckle of my middle finger. “I was looking Granon, but he got to me first. In that hall. Shot me, had me in a lock. He-”
I pressed my finger again, but it had already cracked.
“He cut off my finger.”
“And then?” Lawrence asked.
Both my hands were fists, now.
“That,” I said, referring to the pictures. “The rest really is a blur to me.”
Lawrence sighed, rough.
“Let me see your hand.”
There was hesitation, but no delay. I brought my hand out. My right hand.
Lawrence took it in his. He wasn’t being gentle.
“The middle one.”
“Still there,” he said, brushing it away. My arm fell to my side.
My head stayed angled towards the laptop, but my eyes went up. Lawrence. I was shrinking under his gaze.
“Whatever happened in that hall, it happened before in that barn. Maybe you didn’t remember it then, but you would have picked up on it if you had seen these pictures when D offered, initially. You looked, but you refused to see.”
“I get it. I know what you mean.”
“Do you? I don’t like half-hearted bullshit, Wendy, in fact I fucking loathe it. If you’re going to not put in the proper effort, then you might as well not do it at all, and fuck over all of us in the process. And I didn’t take the risk in working with you, and D, just so you can fuck me over.”
“I’m not, we won’t.”
“You better not.”
I watched as Lawrence threw both hands into his pockets. He talked as he worked.
“There’s something inside of you, Wendy, I don’t want say ‘monster’ but humans can’t do that on their own. Some facet or side-effect of your power that you’ve never been aware of. And if you don’t get a grip, it’s going to get a hold of you instead, and the last enemy you want to make right now is yourself.”
“What, so you want me to start cutting off my appendages and see what happens?”
He drew out both hands. A lighter and joint in his left, and a raised middle finger in his right. He lifted his right hand to me.
“You have value, Wendy, you have your use in this gang. After all, I agreed to rename the gang in your image. So I’m giving you one more chance. Don’t make it your last one.”
Each word hit me like rainfall. The message was clear. In fact, it was explicit.
Lawrence didn’t respond right away. Careful, he dropped back into his seat, and proceeded to light the joint.
“You have your assignment. Get to it.”
He took a puff.
“And don’t tell D. I don’t want to hear it.”
I nodded, just going along with the flow, by this point.
Dismissing myself, I left the office, gathering what I needed. With a light flick of my wrist, the door swung open.
Isabella met me across the hall.
“Forgot you were here,” I said, still walking. Footsteps dragged. Isabella followed.
“As long as you need me, I’ll be around.”
“Good,” I said, dreading the moment when I’d have to open the door out into the museum proper. “We’ve got, ugh, we’ve got shit to do.”