110 – Living Dying Message to the World

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I sobered up real fucking quick.

Quick and skittish, my eyes went up and down the length of my arm. Or what was left of it

What was left of it?

Half.

The lower half was missing at the elbow.

It just was not there.

I couldn’t even find it anywhere on the ground. I couldn’t even pick it up and try to reattach it myself. If that was even something I could do.

The lower half of my right arm was simply gone. It had… dematerialized.

And I wasn’t healing.

Nothing was coming out. Nothing was coming out.

I knew that already.

The sight of it though, sent through me a pervading sense of dread, with how the skin was cracked and hard as stone. Charred black, with even some veins that ran up from the wound, seeped deep with the color.

It wasn’t any injury I had seen before. Or anyone, possibly, for that matter.

Gingerly, my fingers reached towards the blackened stump. It wasn’t even throbbing or thrumming with any pain, it was just there, mocking me with how it wasn’t healing, that particular power somehow deciding now was the time to be shy. I was as irritated as the skin appeared to be.

The beginnings of a headache waxed, the pangs as high as the moon above, and as full, too. I blinked and shook my head to reorient myself. I couldn’t put all my thoughts on that arm. Not forever.

Not when we have death standing right before us.

I looked up again.

The form was still standing there, the figure. The Shape. Small in the distance, hard to distinguish much by moon and lamplight. Sex, age, actual height, it was nearly impossible to determine from here.

From here.

And yet they managed to blow half my arm off.

There was already some distance between me and them…

I started to put some more.

I ran.

I picked myself up and took off in a direct line away from the form. Stumbling, since I instinctively tried to push myself off the ground using both hands, and remembering I only had the one now.

The last thing I saw of the Shape as I turned was of it standing there, still as a statue, arm still outstretched. Holding whatever it was that reduced the full length of my arm to just the elbow, and stopped my healing from working.

A crack of light split the air behind me, and a boom of thunder followed. Another one.

I ducked, getting off the street and towards some buildings, an attempt to find some cover. There was a tea kettle ringing in my ears, so sharp, it was as if the sound penetrated through my skull and brain and out the other side. I wobbled as I moved from street to sidewalk, back to a proper pace once feet found grass.

What the hell were they shooting at me with?

Couldn’t even turn back to find out, which made a certain terror grip me even more tight.

They missed that time, but we’ve never been all that good with our luck. Please, keep moving.

I fucking knew that already.

I kept moving.

I was heading to what looked like tenements. They didn’t appear to be well held together, or even occupied, so I had no qualms about breaking and entering. As long as I could put some more distance and things between me and that. Them.

Every push of the leg came with an astounding power. I crossed the distance with a speed that would have blown away any top-tier athlete. Now, it was just a mad dash of desperation. Nothing graceful or impressive about it.

Moving to crawl up the side of the tenement, climbing my way up the side of a fire escape.

I crashed back down, shoulder digging into dirt.

Straightening myself, I was about to leap again and reach for the metal grating, when it came to me again, like a recurring nightmare, that I had tried to grab with my right hand first. It was a mistake I couldn’t afford to keep making.

Then the fire escape became a path I couldn’t afford to take.

Another instance of thunder, lighting flooding into my eyes for a flash, and the tearing and screaming of metal happened.

The fire escape had been blasted apart, to pieces, sharp in both pitch and debris. Shards sliced through the air, some sliced through me, sticking into my skin. I covered my face and turned away, and ended up raising one and a half arms in the doing.

Stumbling again away from the blast, I rolled with that momentum to keep moving.

Keep moving, keep moving.

I couldn’t keep pushing our luck.

Setting both arms down, I looked at the side of the tenement. The entire fire escape had collapsed, and it had torn down some of the brick wall with it. Several holes made themselves known to me. Wide enough for me to jump through.

I jumped.

Over the heap of metal and brick, I pushed myself through a part of the wall that had fallen out, practically flying through it. The hole there was almost like a wall in and of itself, a thin gossamer of black, a veil of absence. I broke through it and attempted to hide among the shadows, for what might be the last time.

Right inside was what appeared to be an apartment. The shell of one, anyways. There didn’t seem to be any sign of a current tenant, just the traces and marks leftover by previous residents, streaked across one another over the years, a film of dirt and abandonment smeared over the walls. History, too, with each skid of a shoe against the corner when a foot kicked it off, a mattress forgotten, having once been the only accompaniment to countless nights, tossing and turning away dark hours and darker anxieties, leaving when the sun shone through the glass, it wasn’t cracked before but it was now, that light going by the name, paranoia.

Morning hadn’t arrived yet. I was in the dark. I moved through the apartment like a ghost.

Broken and exposed doorways led me into a hall. Crossing it into another apartment.

The rotting door split open with a kick, and I stepped over a mushy carpet, sodden with something, leaving weighted footprints in the material. The tenement wasn’t unlike a corpse, already dead but decaying into something deeper, more base.

It was easy to imagine what happened, here. There was a community, neither big or small, but sizable enough to be affected by what was coming. Crime. Drugs. The gangs that brought them. The system. The tenements had turned into a territory, and the gang that was supposed to maintain the area didn’t put all that much care into it. They just needed it for the real estate, a place to set deals and meetings, among other things. Couldn’t be any less concerned with how they suffered the residents. One by one, the lifeblood of this place, and in this case this very building, drained, and soon was left a hollow husk, and even the gang lost interest, dropping their business here like they would a toy.

Parasites.

I ran through the dead veins of the building, each footstep like a small but ultimately futile pulse. This wouldn’t be enough to return any sense of life to this place, and it might not even be enough to save my own.

The pulses became harder, faster. I picked up the pace. I would not let this be the walk of the dead.

I entered a space more desolate than the first, more grim in the pictures these walls painted. Messy brush strokes of blood, darkened red, some in handprints, others applied with splatters. Shaped into some sort of Rorschach, blotches forming a spiral.

There was an art to it, if one could find beauty in death. Me? My sensibilities had been warped and twisted long ago.

Descending deeper in the dark, I passed something that reflected but a glimmer of light. It actually made me stop and look.

A mirror, broken and shattered, pieces missing. Starting from a point, a bullet hole, the cracks spiraling out. The mirror leaned against a wall, able to take in my full body.

Or was it mine?

The person in the mirror was disheveled, destroyed, looking at it another way. But in a way, there was no other way about it. Clothes were torn, didn’t even resemble a costume anymore. No gloves, no shoes. No mask. Their hair had gotten longer, and now it was uneven and choppy, sticking out and sticking on some places on their face.

Their eyes were heavy, baggy, overflowed with tears. Bits of human food and human blood were stuck around the chin. One and a half arms, legs, and clothes had been splashed with a certain mess and other detritus. Having sunk deeper and deeper to the very bottom, among the gloom that had already drifted there.

Was this what awaited me there, at the bottom? Was that me now? A skeleton of a thing, with long shadows drawn across the body, making it more ungainly, terrifying, no longer human. Or maybe it was never a human after all, with whatever was hiding under the skin finally rising to the surface, seeping through and exuding an ugly atmosphere, ready to subsume everything in its path. A certain change. My own Metamorphosis.

I couldn’t recognize myself, if there even was a self to recognize.

Shaking my head, my vision starting to flicker.

Another crash of thunder came from behind, and I went back to running… if not for my life, then for the one in the mirror, that broken and shattered person, with pieces missing. I ran for them.

I felt the whole building rumble from underneath my feet. I wasn’t supposed to be getting distracted, not here, not now. No time to question or consider anything, all physical and mental effort had to go towards survival, preservation. Even if it meant losing my mind in that pursuit, losing more things along the way.

The pieces fell as I found myself in a master bedroom. I wasn’t the only one in here.

A mother and a daughter. The younger one was held by the older, being sung to, a familiar melody. The room had an aroma that wafted about. Something sweet, but it was different. Not sweet like a strawberry jam, it was somehow deeper than that. Nostalgic even. The song reached my ears, that aroma hitting a core that stirred, a spiral direction.

The pair swayed together, a dance, slow and relaxed, a wishful trance. They seemed to not notice my intrusion. The ringing in my ears seemed to be in tune with the mother’s song.

No other exits. I’d get stuck here. Why had I gone this way?

The building began to rumble again.

I wanted to call out to them, but…

Make your own exit. Leave them. We’ve done it before.

We had, hadn’t we?

Before anything louder came crashing down around me, I pushed forward, past the couple, breaking them apart, and towards the thin wall on the other side. I leaned into it, favoring my half-arm, the shoulder, and the wall came tumbling down, with me following through it.

Then the bedroom exploded, turning into dust and debris.

The intense force was enough to send me rolling, but I was back on my feet and running.

Now forward like a pawn. Forward, forward.

I listened to the voice. Letting it guide me, letting it make me into whatever it needed me to be. Letting it use me. I’d let it. For us, for us. Forward. Forward.

And so I rushed. Forward. Breaking through every wall, every scene I’d come across. Another mother and daughter sharing a meal, fried chicken and miso soup, a girl sitting by herself, at the foot of a door, weeping with a great shame that she couldn’t quite place, and another sitting at a balcony, watching the city beyond it, imagining a fire large enough to consume it all

Most of the scenes, so many of them, all alone.

One by one by one by one, it all came crashing down to the back of me.

Each of them, those people, disappeared in the dust, as if they were being systematically eliminated. I couldn’t save them, even if I wanted to, even though I did want to. I was having too much trouble in saving myself.

With each blast, each crash of thunder, sweat rolled down my neck like hail. If I wasn’t running for my life, I would be shivering cold.

What was chasing me, what was making me run so fast? This was no human, this was a monster. Then what did that make me?

An animal? A mouse? As blind as three mice?

Was this all that was left for me? Endless running? Running in circles? Spirals? Countless questions in which I’d have no answers?

Pathetic. Pitiful. Laughable.

I laughed again.

If we can’t escape, we could try and stop them. Just one strike would be enough. Just one.

As many as a snake would need?

Yes, just like that. And we have the teeth for it.

We did, didn’t we?

We do.

Then, there.

Listening to the voice, so hot that it was melting my brain again. Oozing a grey matter that splashed and coated the already filthy walls when I turned my head.

Turning again, going out another way. Spiraling back around.

The tenements were becoming a labyrinth, and I was becoming lost within them. Limbs flailing in a mad dash, an ugly sight indeed. But that was fine. It was okay. Because, if I could buy just enough time for us, we could just make it out okay. We’d be fine.

I’d just have to strike. And I only needed one.

Following where I thought the thunder was coming from, seeing a cloud of accumulated dust kicking into the air, swirling the hall, I weathered it and ran through.

Silence fell upon my ears, or my madness was becoming so sharp that it began to dull other senses.

I stalked, or haunted, or hunted, whichever it was, I would soon find out, or I’d find them. Or they’d find me. I had to find them, I couldn’t let them find me. Because that wouldn’t be a good thing. No, no, it would not.

There there.

There.

I swore I saw a form in the dark. My eyes surely wouldn’t play a trick on me now, would they? Of course not.

There they were. Standing there. Still as always. Couldn’t be human, possibly a monster. Maybe like me.

I’d just have to strike. And I only needed one.

Grinning at the idea, teeth baring, I thirsted for one.

There.

I leapt with a strength that would have crushed anyone else.

I heard a single instance of a boom of thunder. Not in the direction of the Shape I was looking at.

I was crushed.

Sent through the wall, spinning. I had twisted and tried to dodge. Tried. Because it but a mere attempt.

A pathetic, pitiful, laughable attempt.

The impact was hard enough to send me flying through wood and glass. Splinters and chips were sticking out of me. Even more. I felt like a flower that was blooming shards of shrapnel.

I tried to shake myself off. Couldn’t do that. I tried to brush or pick out the fragments but I couldn’t do that either.

A harsh chill subdued me when I looked and saw why.

My left arm, from the joint of the shoulder.

Everything below.

It just simply wasn’t there.

Wild jerks of the torso. Reaching with arms that weren’t there, feeling with fingers that weren’t there. A dreamlike sensation. A phantom pain.

But the hurt of it, all too real. It turned me as red as an apple.

I threw up, and I barely had the arms to wipe it off.

Panicking, freaking out, losing it, I struggling to get back to on my feet. Turning onto my stomach, wincing when I lifted myself with my right stump, I pushed with my feet. I slipped, face hitting the floor, and with my rear up, I dragged myself until the top of my head hit a wall. I shifted positions, then slid up the wall with an insect-like crawl until I could stand.

Head was spinning.

I looked again.

From the shoulder, just like the elbow. The skin had been turned hard and burnt. The wound was hot and quickly cooling, and there was no indication that it would heal and get better.

There was no indication that any of this would get better.

I looked around.

No sign of what attacked me. The form. The Shape. The dust was begin to settle on this new equilibrium.

It’s not going to last. You’ll lose your balance. Forget about fighting back, just run. If you can’t lose them, if you can’t fight them, run.

The floor rumbled again. I was on shaky ground.

Run!

I followed that directive.

There was a glass door, a balcony leading back to the cold outside. I didn’t have the hands to throw it open.

Whatever. I was losing the sense to care anymore. I was almost welcoming the pain, at this juncture.

The glass fell around me in a burst when I went through it. Raising the stump to my face in a sad attempt to protect myself. It didn’t do shit. Funny.

A free fall, but I hardly felt free at all.

No hands to aid in my landing. I collapsed instead into a heap of my own bones. Broken.

Those bones healed, allowing me to stand yet again. My powers were mocking me, now, too. I couldn’t regrow my limbs, but I could heal just enough to keep going. Just enough to keep suffering. Just enough to live these moments in agony.

Just enough.

There had to have been a wild look in my eyes. I was searching for some kind of respite, anyone or anything that might deliver me from this.

None. No one else with me, nothing that could be of any use. As useless as I was proving to be.

I was so alone.

I wasn’t even human. Hadn’t been for some time. Why was I acting as if I was saving a human life? Wouldn’t this all be for nothing?

Stop that.

Fuck this. Fuck everything.

I wanted break this. I wanted to end it all. Burn it all down. Fuck it all up. I hated this shit for so long. The world that made me this. The girl that had brought me here. Hated me.

Don’t.

Wouldn’t it be better if I just fucked off and disappeared? Quit while I was still ahead? Quit while I still had a head?

I laughed at that, even though it was a terrible idea. I’d be heard, I was still being followed.

By something, by someone.

Swaying, as if I was sleepwalking now, through what was certainly a terrible dream, every step heavier than the last, head buzzing, body throbbing, as though that light rain continued to fall down on me. But that thrumming passed through me and the core as waves, and I swayed and swayed some more.

I was losing it, but there was a very real possibility that I never had it at all.

The tenements around me turned into towers, tipping over and threatening to topple. Or was I faltering that much already? I wasn’t used to the weight on my shoulders, or lack thereof, wanting to move or stretch an arm but I couldn’t and it only frustrated me further and…

Fuck.

Fuck this. Fuck everything. Fuck me.

Seriously.

God fucking dammit.

This isn’t a joke anymore. Stop playing around.

Make me.

What else was there? What more could I do?

There wasn’t an answer for some time.

I moved as though I was floating. Blood dripped down and stained my hair, face, eyes. It waaaas getting harder to seeee…

But you were doing so well before.

Well? That could considered a good job? Fuck that.

Maybe I should just search for a place to rest instead. Like a dog searching for place to rest. In peace.

Because victory was no longer an option.

What did that guy say? Someone said something. It was an animal.

To have some dignity. It would be better, wouldn’t it?

They’re still there. They all are. If you need a drink, we can go back.

Go back?

Weren’t we trying to leave that place?

How bad was it getting, that I couldn’t quite remember why anymore?

I just had the general sense that everyone and everything was out to get me.

So thirsty…

I did need a drink.

I needed to heal myself up.

These wounds, scarred and blackened.

Would it work?

There’s no other option.

No other option.

In other words, no choice.

Without thinking about it anymore, because there wasn’t much of a mind left to use, I staggered and spun, nearly stumbling over like I did so many times before.

Gathering all the strength I had left, what little there was. Putting it into the last two proper limbs I had.

One foot ahead of the other.

Things rushed past. Tall things. Big grey lumbering things. I couldn’t even recognize them anymore, not that they were ever particularly memorable to me but the concept of them were becoming lost on me.

I just saw colors, blurring and blending and bleeding so hard that I was becoming blind to them.

Moving without thinking. Spiraling back to where I had started from. Someone, somewhere, would see this, read this, and they would laugh, I bet. Just as I was doing right now.

Oh, to be this fucked up.

There was almost a freedom in losing myself in depravity.

It was a gut feeling that led me to where I was going, wherever that was. A spot for drink. Hunting for the dead like vultures.

But my wings were clipped. Jumping, flying became impossible, so I was left scrambling like a little mouse instead. A crossbreed between so many different creatures, but right now I was displaying the most feeble of them all. The prey.

All we need is a sip. Just one drink.

Just one drink. Yes. That was all we needed.

Just one drink.

In our stomach, in our throat, burning and yearning for something to give us our fill. Just one drink.

Our eyes landed on big bright ball in the black sky again. The moon? The sun? The world itself?

Watching. Like it always did.

So high up over everything or everyone. Where we had always wanted to be.

Why?

We used it like we would a star, letting it guide us again.

Just one drink.

Trailing after it like dust, in our stomach and throat, our nose, we could sense that we were going back the way we came. Just one drink.

Faster, faster.

Just one drink.

Smaller lights passed overhead, an orange, hazy glow. Could feel it, getting closer. Closer.

Sure it was there. Sure of it.

So close. We were so close.

We tripped.

Thunder.

Couldn’t get back up again. Wouldn’t.

Snapping back into a tangible reality, though it felt as flimsy as old cobweb, I soon recognized the situation for what it truly was.

Absolute hopelessness.

All that running for nothing. All for naught. Just a description of a struggle.

My right leg, from around the knee.

Only things around that I could see above me were streetlights, all blinking red. Looking around, from how the roads stretched, I was at an intersection. On the ground, flatlining in the middle of a crossroads.

But I was so close.

I never really had a chance. Not one.

Spiraling down, spiraling and spiraling, until I was at dead center. And what did that make me?

The target.

I didn’t hear the voice again.

Crawling was useless. Barely had the strength for it now.

On my stomach. Used what little power I had left to turn over on my back. The moon above, wasn’t there. Clouds were cutting through its light.

Or the tears were welling up too much.

Blinking didn’t help any.

Through the murky waters, I saw a form creep into my vision, blocking the light. A Shape.

Hard to make out, even at this distance.

Small, not much taller than someone like… a letter. Boy or girl, impossible to tell or even guess at. They wore a coat, or some sort of uniform, the colors neutral. They were completely silent.

Somehow… this wasn’t so unfamiliar to me.

They raised… that thing. Obviously some type of weapon. Nothing I had ever seen before. It opened out, spiraled out like snakes untangling. Black as my charred wounds.

Pointing it.

My left leg, from the base of the thigh.

Thunder.

Whole body was on fire.

They were as quiet as I was loud, screaming for a relief that would never come. Not for me. Not for us.

Then, without a word, without any regard for my squirming or wailing, the weapon pointed to my chest, right above my heart. It spiraled out again.

Feeling my chest twisting and tightening up, I swallowed, felt it scrape, dry, fruitless. I let my eyes close, slow.

And then I waited.

But nothing came. No flash, no thunder.

Was I being denied that, too?

Reluctant, wanting this to be over already, I looked once more.

They weren’t there, directly above. Off to the side, still pointing that thing at me. As if I was still somehow a threat.

Someone else was there instead. A man in grey.

Neither of them I knew. A world I had never ventured into. Now they were here, in mine. And they were about to end it.

The man in grey, for reasons only aware to him, because I surely lost the ability and will to even conceive of doing such a thing, smiled. The man in grey smiled.

And then he spoke.

“Hello to you, Meine Kreuzung.”

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109 – We are Innocent

epy arc 16 vamp

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The cat and the mouse.

One chasing the other. One being chased by the other.

An endless game. A constant loop. A part of nature.

A cycle.

For a little bit there, I was the cat. The one doing the chasing. Needing food. Always needing more. Taking what they took from me.

What did they take from me?

Everything.

My name. My sense of self. My ability to just stand still and be okay.

Those were the crimes I was accusing them of.

But.

Didn’t I end up taking those things from myself as well? In my chase, I invariably lost things along the way.

What were the crimes against me? Who committed them to who? Or was it just another cycle in an endless loop?

I threw myself into this. The world is, so therefore the outcome remains the same. No matter what.

No matter what.

Stick a hand in fire, it will burn. Each and every time.

In chasing after mice, I threw myself into the world. The fire. I burned.

But so does everyone else. In chasing after their own mice.

So what did I gain? What did I manage to take back for myself? Or did I have more to lose?

The world is spiraling into entropy, and all of us are just along for the ride.

No matter how many times the world turns, the cycle is all the same. Some may shuffle around to new positions, but it is always the same result. Every choice, every path, it seldom will change so it will always lead to this. From the beginning, it was always going to bring me here. All of us.

If I hadn’t gone outside that day.

No.

Because it was me, because it was that day, and all those previous days were those previous days, I would always step out into that cold night, walking on the path that would inevitably bring me here.

Each and every time. Like starting over a novel from the beginning. The cycle would loop back to here.

Here and now.

A car crash. A chase. The mice had set their own trap. The same cycle, but now the positions had shuffled.

So now I was the mouse.

And it

Was like coming out from a haze, a dream. A nightmare. But the terror was still very present, and very real.

Nauseous, discombobulated, dizzy. All over again.

Water splashed into my face and I choked, screamed, choked again. The water was hot.

“She’s up. Look at her, she’s shaking.”

There was laughter, a sickening note in the air.

My jaw was tight, teeth grinding, skin sizzling, and that voice was right, I was shaking. From both the heat and the suddenness of my coming to.

Feverish to the point of boiling. Then I was splashed again.

I heard other sounds now, outside of my gurgle and the laughter that surrounded me, taunting me. The tinny and tiny clattering of metal, distinct, and the hard knocks of wood, grating and skidding and screeching across a surface.

Harsh gasps for air, spitting and sputtering out hot water, dripping down my face and my hair, my clothes were soaked.

I couldn’t wipe my face.

My hands.

As the heat started to subside somewhat, blinking away water and now tears, I could start to feel the restraints.

Shackles and chains.

Locked into a wooden chair, my limbs framed across the arms and legs and tied so tight I couldn’t budge a finger. Enhanced strength wouldn’t amount to anything when I had zero room to move. The sheer weight on me was too much to bear, discouraging me to even try.

I spat more water, feeling some drool down the corner of my mouth, trailing off my chin. My tongue felt as heavy and dry as a brick.

Thirsty.

I was thirsty. But, it shouldn’t have been that long since the last time I-

Convulsing, trembling, hurting. Laughing and clattering and knocking and grating and skidding and screeching. The cacophony peaked again for a third crescendo.

I was panting and shaking like a wet dog, steam probably coming off my body, if I could see. Hair was starting to stick and poke into my eyes now.

Screaming, shivering harder. White hot. Blinded by pain and agony of which did know bounds, because I was it, and it encompassed me.

Couldn’t move an inch, aside from the chair skidding across the floor, slick with water, but not enough for me to spill over. I stayed sitting, steaming.

There was no cooling down from this. I couldn’t. As water dripped and soaked into my clothes and skin, I really felt as if I was melting.

Blood boiling.

“You’re up. Welcome back.”

I sucked in some air, some water coming with it. A vain attempt for a drink.

No sound came out from me. Nothing voluntary, anyways. A few wheezes. The rattling of chains.

“Need a little more? Here.”

I blinked again, and my vision cleared enough that I could catch the image of a rabbit standing in front of me, winding his arms back, holding a bucket. Water swirling inside, piping hot.

Hoarse, panicked, and even pitiful, I forced out a scream.

“No, no, please no!”

The rabbit stopped, swinging the bucket down but not spilling out the contents a fourth time. The rabbit set the bucket. Then someone else moved to collected it and positioned themselves where I couldn’t see.

My head was hanging, low, hair that wasn’t sticking into my face and eyes were pointing straight to the floor, dripping wet. There wasn’t a part of me that was dry. Breathing like a fish out in the open, exposed, dying.

I coughed again, and my whole body pounded. Hard.

Jaw hanging open, a long string of saliva stretching down, swinging slightly as I shook.

That voice called out to me again. A song. Sounded so far away, even though it probably was not.

“You ain’t thirsty? You’re call. We’ll be here a loooong time. To talk. So let’s talk.”

It was fucking near impossible to get my bearings on my surroundings, my self, much less how I even got here. Not even a blur. More like a smear, memories blending together, turning a once-blank canvas into something messy. Sloppy. Couldn’t even venture a guess at what the full image conveyed. Didn’t even want to. It was too ugly.

I closed my eyes instead. Focus on anything else but that.

Here. How to get the hell out of here.

“Wha… aaaaa…”

“She can’t even talk. How about squeal? Can you squeal, little mouse?”

It wasn’t laughter this time, or, there was a possibility that I was losing the ability to comprehend. The voices echoed around and even in my head. Ringing and ringing and ringing and ringing some more.

“Alright, I was going to give you the courtesy of going first, but you’ve seemed to want to concede things to me. Fine by me. I’ll start.”

My eyelids felt like they were wired shut, now. Opening them was akin to digging hands into the earth and splitting it in half from there. A monumental task for someone, something, so miniscule.

“A question. Just one. You into Chinese?”

I breathed. It came out hard and hoarse.

“We had some time so I had Toby Wong get some takeout for everyone. Isn’t that right, Toby?”

“I did, I did.”

“And what, exactly, did you bring back?”

“Fried crispy pork chop, deep fried pork intestine, beef with broccoli, kung pao beef, sizzling steak with black pepper but it stopped sizzling a while ago, sauteed shrimp, sesame chicken, moo goo gai pan, roast duck, and lo mein. Oh, hot and sour soup, too.”

“Hot and sour too, sounds like a mouthful.”

“That’s because it is. Got a lot of mouths to feed, apparently.”

“You’re right, Toby. Apparently we do.”

“What are you hungry for? I’ll let you have the first pick.”

“Um, let’s see here… I’m partial to lo mein myself.”

“Then lo mein it is.”

Other sounds. Crinkling plastic and popping of cardboard. Footsteps.

“What’s in it?”

“In it? It’s lo mein.”

“Like chicken, beef, shrimp, what are we, ah, here we are.”

“Got it all. Combination.”

“Went all out, very nice. Here, get me that.”

“Here you are.”

“Smells good.”

“Smells fucking good.”

“But, I think we should have our esteemed guest of honor take the first bite. What do you say?”

“Sounds like a great idea to me.”

“And the rest of you, what do y’all say?”

There were cheers and claps all around.

Then it got quiet. Short of my own haggard breathing.

Footsteps.

A sharp stabbing into my face that broke past my lips into my teeth going through my tongue down my gullet choking me and choking me and choking me and choking me-

-Something else was shoved down my throat. Intestines. Fish guts. Slime. Pig shit. Bugs. Snails. Dirt. Fingernails. Glass. Dust. Mud. Grime. Bile. Blood. Blood. Blood. Blood. Blood. Blood-

It was my blood.

I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t fight back. I couldn’t do anything except suffer.

I suffered.

I fought, or tried, but I was too tired, my restraints biting into my arms and legs.

Hair pulled back, neck exposed with trash continuing to be forced down into it like clogged a chute. Couldn’t take any more.

Completely involuntary, I threw myself forward, folding up. I moved faster and harder than whatever had me by the hair had anticipated, and a handful of it tore out from the roots.

I started hacking the stuff out, or tried, but it was all too much. Overload. Nothing came out, or I didn’t feel it. Every one of my senses had hit red. Nerves raw.

More than just saliva was hanging from my lips now. A strand of something. Bits of others. And they all had a foul, worse than foul taste to them.

Moaning, dry heaving. Suffering.

“I don’t think she likes Chinese all that much.”

“No, Toby, I don’t think she does.”

It wasn’t even registering to me, what anyone was saying. Where I was. How I got here. Who I was.

“Hey, look at me when I’m talking to you.”

Head pounding, face like it was splitting open, skull throbbing so hard it might crack.

“Have some dignity. For your sake. It would be better that way.”

I lifted myself. Somewhat. I angled my head towards the direction of the voice, but that was the best I could do. That was about all I could do.

“Can’t… see…”

Which was true. Everything weighed on me.

“Oh? How about another wash?”

I screamed like it was a reflex. Jaws tearing apart.

“No anything but that no!”

Didn’t even sound like me. Didn’t know who that was.

“Then open your fucking eyes.”

It was work. But I managed. As if by a miracle. But there was no good fortune to be found here.

The lights were low, but they were blinding to me. Hard to see, near impossible. So I didn’t try.

Blinking tears and other things.

The voice spoke. Somewhere in front of me.

“God damn, you’re still alive. So it really is you.”

“Whatever… I am, sure, it’s me.”

“I want to hear you say it.”

“What…”

“Say it.”

“V.”

“The hell is a Vee?”

Defeated, I corrected myself. I didn’t want to get into it now. “Bluemoon.”

I couldn’t see, but I could feel a certain stillness run through the space of where I was, wherever I was. But that constant threat of violence was still there, hanging over me. It sat around me like a fog.

“Isn’t that a relief. And do you know who I am?”

“No…”

“Good, because it doesn’t fucking matter who I am. What matters is that we have you, and we stand to get a lot out of that.”

“I don’t have anything. Wherever you found me, you already took everything I had.”

“No, not everything. Because I wanted to make certain. I’m a careful sort, you see, I need to know what I have, when I have it. Nothing worse than having the rug swept out from under you. I’m sure you can imagine.”

“Yeah… I can…”

“When I found you, half of your body stuck in a gutter, in a pool of blood but with no visible wounds, I had a feeling. A small feeling, that I didn’t recognize at the time. But it grew, oh yes, it grew, until I could no longer ignore it and I had to tackle it head on. And that’s what I’m doing right now. Tackling it head on.”

I didn’t really have a response to that. I couldn’t even guess at what the voice’s real intentions were. If there were any.

“The others, they lasted about as long as you’d expect. Redness, irritation. Swelling in some parts. Even blisters, but that’s to be expected when you’re going for full. Do you know what full is?”

I didn’t answer.

“Full, as in full-thickness. There are four categories. Superficial epidermal, which affects only the outer layer. Redness, swelling, the usual. Superficial dermal, which reaches down the second layer. Nerve endings and blood vessels practically pop. Then there’s deep dermal or partial-thickness, which gets pretty bad, this is where you see the blisters. Heard you might not even feel anything at all. Looking at you, though, that didn’t seem to be the case. And then there is full-thickness. The most serious of skin burns.”

Breathing went hard again, feeling a chill. I was feeling a chill the entire time.

“It’s basically a third-degree burn. It can turn the skin to leather. Wax, even. Red to black, as the burn melts away the skin and deepens the color of your tissue. Most of them don’t even make it past a partial without passing out, later unable to sit or lean against anything because there are too many of those damn blisters. You, though? You. You just sat there and went through three washes hot enough to burn a man to a crisp. From the top of his head, to the tip of his dick.”

A sharp stabbing into my face that broke past my lips into my teeth going through my tongue down my gullet choking me again.

Again.

That sharp force went to my arms, where the chain were. From underneath, I could feel the sleeves being pulled away, sliding between skin and restraints, the water having made things slick.

“I don’t see a fucking bubble on you! Where? Nowhere, that’s where! I can’t find one, I don’t see any!”

I was being rocked in my chair. Hard. A weight completely overtaking me.

Then I fell over. The floor had been made slippery, after all.

This was sloppy. This was a mess.

“Stop!”

“Let go!”

“Please!”

No one would listen.

Or maybe I wasn’t able to actually say anything at all.

Struck across the cheek. Stuff flicked out of my mouth.

“Get me the bucket!”

I started seizing again.

“The other bucket!”

Pulling against my restraints, not breaking them, but I was able to make my hands a little more free. I could wiggle my fingers. I wiggled them.

“I want you see this, too, because this is really something. This when I knew I really had something.”

The weight was taken off my body. Footsteps and other sounds, circling me.

“Open your eyes!”

I opened my eyes.

Still unable to see, but I could feel. My sense of touch had been ratcheted up to heights previously thought inconceivable.

Tiny dots, hitting my face. Like someone was flicking me with pebbles.

“Open them!”

“I am!”

“Do you see this?”

More pebbles. I twitched with each bit of contact. And they were numerous.

I had to will my vision to come back to me. The fog around me finally solidifying into… something. Something terrifying.

Hazy doubles formed back together into show me creatures. A dog, a monkey, even a horse. The one standing over me, the one who I knew was doing all this to me, was the rabbit.

Reaching into a bucket, grabbing a handful and tossing them at me. Peppering me with small white dots.

More and more.

“You know what these are?”

He wouldn’t stop.

“They’re yours!”

I flinched as they hit me. Then he dumped the rest of the bucket over me.

They fell like heavy snow.

Now that I was in a pile of them, it was easy to register. I screamed again.

Teeth.

Incisors. Canines. Premolars. Molars. Incisors. Canines. Premolars. Molars. Incisors. Canines. Premolars. Molars. Incisors. Canines. Premolars. Molars. Incisors. Canines. Premolars. Molars. Incisors. Canines. Premolars. Molars. Incisors. Canines. Premolars. Molars. Incisors. Canines. Premolars. Molars. Incisors. Canines. Premolars. Molars. Incisors. Canines. Premolars. Molars. Incisors. Canines. Premolars. Molars. Incisors. Canines. Premolars. Molars. Incisors. Canines. Premolars. Molars. Incisors. Canines. Premolars. Molars. Incisors. Canines. Premolars. Molars. Incisors. Canines. Premolars. Molars. Incisors. Canines. Premolars. Molars. Incisors. Canines. Premolars. Molars. Me.

I was buried in a pile of incisors and canines and premolars and molars.

All of them were mine.

I wouldn’t stop screaming. The girl, tied to the chair that had been tipped over, among a sizable collection made of her own teeth, would not stop screaming.

“They wouldn’t stop popping back out, no matter how many I took out, no matter how long you were out. Couldn’t fucking believe my eyes. They just kept coming and coming and coming, over and over, isn’t that crazy? Isn’t that fucking insane?”

The bucket was thrown down, hitting me at one temple and when my head whipped back the other temple hit concrete. I wasn’t seeing teeth now just stars.

“So we’re going to be here for a long, long time. Got enough food for all of us to have our fill and keep going. Got enough for you, too, even if you have enough fucking teeth to fill over a hundred fucking mouths!”

I was dizzying enough to throw up. So I did.

“Christ… You’re allowed to take a break.”

“Not now Toby.”

“I’m just saying, Dong-Yul was offering up a lot of dough for the Bluemoon. Dead or alive. More alive.”

“Dong-Yul can go get his fucking dick boiled, okay? I don’t give a fuck what that fucking gook has to say.”

“Alright man, it’s your call. Whatever you say.”

“God damn right it is. And what I say is, we’re not done with this little mouse. She threw all of us into this shithole, we’re taking her even deeper with us.”

“One call, they’ll be here in a minute, and we get to walk away millionaires. All I’m saying.”

“Another word from you like that and I’m putting you in that chair next.”

“All I’m saying.”

“That’s three, maybe three and a half. Fuck it. Help me get her up.”

In the haze that clouded my mind, I was only able to gather a few details. Few, but crucial.

They would be here any minute. They. Dong-Yul, maybe even Mrs. Carter and Styx too. The others at the table.

Could finish them off here, but I was reduced to something even lesser than dirt.

Had to get out of here and recuperate.

I felt hands on me, on the chair by my restraints. I did what I could. I moved my fingers.

Even as they lifted me, I moved my fingers.

That was all I had. Moving my fingers. That was my only available option towards an escape.

How pathetic. How sad. So pitiful I could laugh.

So I did.

I started to laugh.

Laughed so hard I cracked.

“The hell is wrong with her?”

“If you have to ask, Toby… Set her down there.”

They set me upright, but there was nothing up or right about me. I kept laughing, my fingers wiggling like worms.

“Hey, what the fuck are you on?”

A strike across the face. I didn’t even. I didn’t care about anything.

Laughter.

I couldn’t help it anyways, much less myself.

Another strike. Then a third.

“Who said you can find this funny? Who?”

Laughing. Fingers. Worms.

“How about this then, huh?”

The rabbit reached for one of my fingers and pulled it back. So far back that the fingernail was an inch close to my wrist. Eyes widened and I started crying.

“We cut your fucking finger off, how do you like that? Or maybe your whole hand even? Lord knows you’ll get it back. How does that sound!”

A cold fine point pressed into the finger, right above the knuckle.

I didn’t like the sound of that, but I also kind of liked the sound of that.

I was nothing but hysterical.

A cold fine point pressed deeper into the finger, right above the knuckle.

Then it cut right through.

And then it all was wrong.

Pain. Fire. Excruciating.

Screaming. Crying.

Not just me.

All wrong.

Again.

It got everywhere. Over everything. Blood and guts and gore and arms and legs and heads.

I saw sliced through the matter. Cutting the air itself.

Obsidian tendrils out of where my middle finger was supposed to be. Slinking, slicing, cutting through the air like a snake.

A snake with more than head.

They moved in spirals. Cold, in touch and indifference, leaving things in bits and pieces.

There were screams. Some didn’t last very long. Others never seemed to end.

I watched as the blood fell like rain.

And then it was over.

It happened fast.

Eyes wider still as the snakes, blacker than the shadows, spiraled and hit against something, somehow absorbing it. The finger that had been removed. Mine.

Then the tendrils retreated, slinking back where they came from.

I saw my finger return to me. Black for a second but then the color returned, as if it was being filled by something.

The force of everything was strong enough to knock and break the restraints there, and that arm was free.

Rain still seemed to fall in here when I worked on the rest of my bindings.

Then I was free. Or at least, I wasn’t in that chair anymore.

I looked around.

The dead and the dying. Bodies stacked from the floor to the ceiling. My eyes were hurting and bleeding but I could see that much. My eyes wouldn’t deceive me now.

Animals. Dogs, monkeys, horses, a cat and a mouse. rabbits. This place had been turned into a slaughterhouse. Sounded like one with the squeals, smelled like one with the blood.

I rubbed at my wrist, then hands. All ten fingers were accounted for.

I stared at each of them. Long enough that ten almost became twenty. Then thirteen. Twelve. Thirteen.

I knew I had to get out of here. I heard there were others coming.

But I was so thirsty.

I stumbled over to one of the bodies. The rabbit.

Removing the head, I saw its face. It kind of looked like me. Some of the others who didn’t look like animals looked like me. But only on a superficial epidermal level.

Animals. Had to try and think of them as animals.

I bit into one of the rabbit’s puffy cheeks. Juices spilled out as if I was squeezing a fruit instead.

Fruit.

Something told me to do more than just have a drink. I listened.

I clamped down, teeth going deeper until it broke past the skin and the underlying muscle. The meat.

Half of the rabbit’s face was in my stomach by the time I was full. Replacing all the dirt and trash that had been stuffed in there earlier.

Now I felt so much better…

The bodies bloomed and became like the equinox. A passing thought. That I wanted to become as beautiful as them. To become anything. Something.

The thought passed, and there was nothing else. Nothing that needed to be understood, nothing that needed to be made clear to me. Because I knew now. I saw it for myself. The snakes. The animals.

With something nice and filling in my stomach, my throat washed with a sweet drink, I began my march. My march into darkness.

But I tripped first. Slipped on something.

Blood and guts and teeth. I picked myself up and marched onward.

I found my way outside. Wherever I was. Feeling a light rain continued to fall. All around my body, I felt a slight buzzing, as though something was swimming or slithering, right beneath the surface.

Outside. Wherever I was. I wasn’t lost, because I had no place to go, or a goal in mind.

I just had to go. Didn’t matter where. Didn’t matter how. It made no difference to me.

No difference to me.

No difference.

I walked the streets. It was dark, so it was either late or early. No difference to me. No difference.

My feet were bare, heels scraping along the pavement. Where I walked was segmented and changed color. One foot on black, the other on white. I turned a street and I was soon walking across a checkerboard.

I was getting thirsty again. I was getting… hungry again. I’d need more.

I would have taken more, too, if I hadn’t left that place so early. Why did I leave so early?

Oh, they were after me. They. All of them.

Misses Sticks and Carther. There were more too but I couldn’t name them. I just knew they were after me. They. All of them.

I could take them. I knew I could. But I wasn’t in a good position. I had to get somewhere else. I had to take stock of things. I had to rest.

Vision wandering like I was. I saw the moon.

Pale and round and swollen and beautiful. Like a single, unblinking eye. Watching over me. Watching over everyone. It saw all and it understood all. So high up. I was envious of the moon.

I tripped again.

Picking out bits of teeth and other matter out between my toes, I got up and started again.

I thought about who the moon would be watching.

Everyone. People. People I knew. Parts of faces. Parts of words. Letters.

D. I wanted to see D again. I was sure she’d know what to do. She was so small but she was so smart. She always had an answer. Even if it was smart one.

Who else?

Isabella and Lawrence weren’t here. I wouldn’t be able to see them anymore.

Sarah. I’d never be able to see her again. I felt cold.

Someone else. Their name on the tip of my tongue. Almost clear…

Claire.

She wanted something from me. For me. Hard to recall it now.

Until then, I’d keep on this path. Wherever this one led.

There were others that were coming to me. But they weren’t for me. Someone else. But their image kept getting caught in the glint of my shattered, fractured mind.

Turning to another corner, a foot catching on something and I fell.

Get up, you can’t let it end here.

I got up, but not before spitting out a fang. I had hit the ground funny and laughed. A new one grew back in.

Walking like this, on a seemingly endless path though I knew there would be an end eventually, I felt the closest thing to what I could ever consider to be peace. Wandering like this, with only wanting to take the next step, one bare foot ahead of the other. I was free. Free to live. Free to die. But a voice was telling me to keep trying.

Keep trying.

I would. For their sake. As if I had been hardwired, this entire time, to do just that. Resigned to that.

Thank you. We’re almost there. Just a little more.

Just a little more. Almost there. Welcome.

Didn’t stop moving. Not even when the concrete began to gnaw on the soles of my feet, turning them red and raw, bleeding and healing with every step.

No other ugly, disgusting wounds on me. I walked, and was the closest to okay I had ever felt in a long time.

As long as I kept walking, I would be okay. Or at least the closest thing.

I looked again. Saw the moon. Watching me. Like the other times I checked. Thought it was something else but it was just the moon. Like always.

Then the moon shed a tear.

Dropping from the sky like rain, it landed there. There, on the street. An open area in a city desperately trying to get some sleep for the night.

A form.

Someone was standing in the middle of the space.

I saw them, and they saw me.

And it was as if a piece fell into place, in a puzzle I would never be able to step back from and take in entirely. But a piece did fall into place. A partial piece.

Just from seeing them alone. Just as I was alone.

My salvation.

They had been following me this entire time. For this moment. For me.

Muscles tensing, the bubbling and buzzing within me festering stronger.

Without thinking, I moved myself a tad closer. I began to hunch over on all fours, crouching like I was about to pounce. Step by step, I inched forward while keeping my eyes on them.

I shivered. But it didn’t.

Tried saying something, but it came out wrong.

Kehkehkeh…”

Didn’t sound human.

But I’d listen to the voice. I would not perish here. I didn’t want to die like the animal I had become, the monster I had always been. This would be my final defiance.

I would have my fill.

The form moved. Pointing. They weren’t any taller than the little girl who apparently had reduced herself to but a letter.

An instrument. A plaything. In their hand it opened up like an umbrella. Obsidian.

Among the rainfall, there was a rumble. Far away. Like a single instance of a boom of thunder.

I fell over.

That wasn’t supposed to happen a fourth time.

I checked where it hurt. It started to hurt so much.

My right arm, from around the elbow.

Everything below.

It just simply wasn’t there.

I waited for the tendrils to come back and help me. Save me. But they never came. Instead, black, charred flakes scabbed over the fresh wound. Nothing was coming out.

Nothing was coming out. Nothing was coming out.

Nothing was coming out.

Those four words.

I did not heal.

A wave of despair washed over, and a squealing pierced the night sky.

Previous                                                                                               Next

Interlude – Claire

Previous                                                                                               Next

The worn-down taxi cab was twice older than Caleb and Willem, seven and five respectively. As familiar with this hunk of junk as she was her own children. The air freshener – now stale – that was hanging from the rearview, shaped like a pinetree. The paper dragon that Caleb cut and taped together, resting lopsided on the dash. A tiny, tiny chunk of vomit by a windshield corner she couldn’t reach, from when she had no choice but to bring baby Willem for a day. Now, thank god for Kim.

A place more familiar to her than her own apartment. When she sat, hands on the wheel, she was in her own little world. A home she could take with her to see the world, or in this case, Stephenville.

People would come in, sitting in the back, bringing with them their own stories, their own worlds. She would get to travel, and, for a brief moment, get a glimpse at all those different worlds, all from the comfort of her own. To make a decent living out of it… wasn’t such a bad deal.

Claire sat in her own little world, bathed in the dark of an alley. Waiting, silent.

She was never a fan of sitting in silence. It meant shutting out the world, or at least a part of it. She didn’t want that. She wanted to be here, be there, be present. To be able to drive through it.

Claire turned the dial and let a little bit of the world in.

“-continues to ravage the streets of Stephenville as the city enters another calendar day of civil unrest.

You’re pretty kind to just be calling it civil unrest, Slims.

Is ‘protests’ a better word?

Maybe.

But what are they protesting?

It’s a whole thing down there with the Asian American community. A whole damn thing. They’re tired of all the abuse and discrimination that’s been brought down against them lately.

But we’re seeing everyone on the streets, and I mean everyone. Asian, Black, Caucasian, we’ve got the whole A-B-C all the way to Z of people just painting the town red. It’s unreal.

It’s real enough for us to talk about it.

So we’ve got all those people, just tearing up what they can… you know what gets me?

And what’s that?

What gets me is all the theatrics around it. Some of these outbursts are planned of and some of the other outbursts are just chain reactions from the first category of outbursts. But the first category… you see all these people with masks. It’s a mob, really, a whole gang of fools just doing these coordinated attacks. Did you hear about a string of car bombs, blowing up major roads into the city?

No I haven’t.

Ever since that superhero started coming on the scene… the Bluemoon, right?

Yeah. Heard it was a girl though.

Ever since the Bluemoon started coming on the scene, now everyone’s trying to get a piece of that blockbuster weekend superhero spectacle action, except now it’s not stuck to being in the movies, it’s happening out there in real life with real lives at stake. It’s only going to get worse, and now the National Guard is going to have a harder time getting in because of the roads!

I heard the government is considering labeling the city as uninhabitable. Turn it into a No Man’s Land type of situation.

Well, let’s hope it doesn’t get to that point, Jimbo.

It was a channel Claire had grown to be very familiar with. Late 94 with DJ Slims and Big Jim, or Jimbo for short, even though it was the same amount of syllables. They weren’t exactly the brightest bulbs that illuminated her night drives, but they were entertaining, and that was enough to be better than silence.

Claire continue to listen in on the old men’s banter.

And to speak on theatrics, Jimbo, you never did answer my question.

Which question?

What word would you use to describe the situation over in Stephenville?

The situation over in Stephenville? Actually, it reminds me a whole lot of the situation we once had here in our own backyard.

You… ah, that’s right.

Back in the-

When cellular phones were still referred to as cellular phones, I can recall.”

It was a whole thing back then too. A whole damn thing.

Oh yes, it was. Didn’t last as long nor was it as bloody.

Well, we’ll have to see about that first part, Jimbo. The second part I can agree with.

Still pretty bloody though.

Oh yes, still pretty bloody.

Over the old men bickering, Claire heard a heavy thump somewhere behind her taxi. She took a look through her rearview mirror, but it was too dark into the alley to see anything.

Another sound, right after. A passenger side door opening, and the boss sliding in.

Claire waited for the order.

“Drive!”

That was the order.

Claire drove out of the alley and into the street.

She turned the dial and let a little bit of the world out.

“Never did answer the question,” she murmured to herself.

“Yeah?”

“Yes boss?”

“Oh, thought you were asking me something.”

Eyes on the road, watching traffic and for any other potential obstacles, like the police or black vans or a bike or everyone, Claire drove. Her hands were steady on the wheel.

When she started, she was competent enough as a driver, but everyone started out that way. Then she got better, and over time she got better than the other drivers she had started out with. And then, she got to be rather good at her job.

And now, all those years, that learned skill and experience, were all being put to the test. All on the account of the young woman sitting in the backseat of her taxi.

Boss.

Claire could recall the first time this young woman took that seat and told her to drive. She could recall what she had on her mind that night. Making enough to make ends meet for that month. Rent and other bills and Willem’s birthday coming up. She was listening to Slims and Big Jim then, too.

The night that followed, and every subsequent night that followed whenever she got that call, and had that young woman sit in the back of her cab, had branded themselves into her memory. Searing, hot. Forever leaving an impression.

And impressed she was, or was it fear? Or even something else? Because, when Claire had the young woman not in her cab, but sitting across from her in her own apartment, she didn’t see what everyone else wanted to see. The superhero, the supervillain, the monster, or whatever shape people needed in order to fit a specific context or understanding.

She saw a teenager, a child. Someone even younger than the young woman who sat in her cab for the first time, shrouded in darkness. And for those minutes, sitting in her kitchen, basked in the stark, artificial light, she saw someone as they really were. Presented in their entirety.

A girl, tired, sleepy, hair frayed at the ends and sticking up and out in parts. Eyes low and baggy, hiding behind glasses that caught the light, as if in attempt to obscure that part of her, to not reveal too much about herself. But it was too little, too late. The mask was already off, in a sense. Perhaps without being conscious of it herself, she wanted to show something of herself to someone, even if she couldn’t help but put a wall up, here and there.

And it spoke to something within her nature, despite her nest being rather full. But Claire couldn’t just take the money and walk away now, if it meant leaving this young woman behind.

“How did it go?” Claire asked. She asked as if she really cared, because she really did.

The taxi rolled along, the ride smooth. Claire was able to peek through the rearview again.

The boss stayed in the back, leaning so her face remained traced in shadow. Her mask was off, her hood down, but she still felt a need to hide somewhat.

She seemed to be working at something, her arms moving back and forth.

“Went about as well as you’d expect,” was her answer.

“I didn’t have any expectations, aside from you making it out okay.”

“Oh, well, thanks then. At least I managed that.”

“You didn’t burn the place down like last time. I’d consider that a step up.”

“Oh yeah. I wouldn’t do that Santino a second time. But there are plenty others who still need their turn. So let’s not waste another second.”

“Going as fast as I can, boss.”

Fast as she could, but not too fast. Still had to stay inconspicuous. Claire checked behind her again through the mirror, and caught a bright light. She blinked, and it was gone. But it was never there.

The Panorama in flames. That image had burned itself well into her mind.

“Are you planning to set fire to every place you go tonight?”

“I have my plans. Your job is to take me to where I have to be to execute those plans. Don’t you worry about what I do or do not have planned when I get there.”

But I can’t help but worry when I look at you.

Claire didn’t dare voice that.

Her eyes were back on the road, she signaled for a turn. She already knew where their second stop of the night was.

The radio droned. Slims and Jimbo were still prattling on current events like how older people tended to do. Better than silence, but not good enough.

She heard lips licking together. A sound of metal hitting or going into something. When Claire checked, a quick glint caught her eye.

Better to keep her eyes to herself.

“Actually, boss, I guess I could ask you this question, if you don’t mind?”

“Depends, but I’m up to hearing it.”

“Once this is all over, and I hope I’m not prying too much, boss, but once you’re done here, what’s next?”

A long, drawn beat of radio drone and the hum of road.

“What’s next…”

“Any plans?”

“I don’t think I have plans that go that far.”

It sounded like it an admittance more than anything else, a confession.

“I’ll have to figure that out if I get there. But I can’t even afford to have that in my mind right now. This is what matters. Right now, right here. Tearing, burning down as much as I can. Until I get through everything and everyone, or if I get stopped first.”

“Seems to me you don’t mind too much if it’s the latter.”

“Claire?”

“Yes boss?”

“You are prying too much.”

Hearing that, somehow, it stung.

“Allow me to apologize,” Claire said.

A soft breath from behind. It lasted long enough to sound shaky, falter, then ultimately shatter.

“It’s just… yeah. Let me do my thing, and you help me to do that thing. And let’s just leave it at that, alright?”

There was a tension in the air that Claire was more than familiar with. Like the moments after Caleb had thrown a fit over not getting thirty more minutes of a cartoon before going to bed, the harsh quiet that soon followed when he’d have to understand that he wouldn’t get what he wanted, a lesson he had to learn night and night again. She had the patience for it, but that tension was still there, and every night, that rubber band would be pulled.

It sat heavy in the air like static from a radio. Except in here, it had been dialed up to eleven.

The young woman was sitting back there, working on her own business, and ordering Claire to mind hers. And Claire was more than able, even when every maternal instinct within her was telling her to reach out and… not push, but pull. Bring her in. Her own nest was full, but that inclination was still there. She couldn’t deny it.

But she would have to ignore it. In this cab, she wasn’t a mom, she was a driver.

And isn’t that just a shame.

Claire took another turn, going down another road. Not another word was uttered until they arrived at their destination. The second stop of the night.

“Alright,” she said. The word felt heavy in her mouth.

Claire put the taxi in about the same place as before. By the sidewalk.

The door opened and shut without so much as a ‘see you later.’ Not this time. She was already on the move. Which was disappointing.

Claire went back into the flow of traffic, back to silence.

She raised the volume again.

“-long until this coalition begins to, what’s a good word for it, devours itself.

How you figure, Slims?

Happened last time. The Koreans were mad as hell because the police were down at Little Tokyo, not Koreatown, because all the city centers bordered there. Things weren’t so pretty between them Asians once it all settled back down.

Things weren’t so pretty with everyone.

Point is, Jimbo, Stephenville doesn’t have a Koreatown, do they?

Don’t have a Little Tokyo neither.

Oh boy. That’s not going to bode-

Well, there’s still time for things to simmer down. We can see how it plays out then.

And that, we shall. I think it’s time to take some late night calls. We got one here from, oh, our hometown of West Vineland. Welcome to Late 94 with your host Slims and my buddy Jimbo…

Claire missed the rest of the call. She would have kept listening, but a faint yet more pronounced noise stole away her attention.

In the thin sliver of mirror, a pinetree dangling off from it, a plume of smoke started billowing into the night sky. Another one. Far too late to consider these as isolated, incendiary incidents. They have long since been a trend.

Way down the street, Claire could see the building. Morricone’s, the Italian restaurant they had visited earlier in the day.

A rumbling rocked the building. Claire thought she felt it through the tires.

The red brick building kept breathing out the smoke. Claire inhaled, gulped, and breathed out too.

Ragged and threadbare, the driver’s seat safety belt had ran through the loop by Claire’s head so many times that it was near paper-thin. Wearing a shirt or a bra, she was that used to it around her body. Never before had it pressed this hard into her chest, digging that far into it. Her foot on the pedal, flat on the floor.

“Shit!”

Later in the night, and it wasn’t silent anymore.

The taxi tore through the street, following the action. Chasing after it. To be more precise, chasing after the the black muscle car thirty feet away.

Sharp, a right around a corner. No warning. The black muscle car flexed its stuff and turned on a dime. Smooth, almost gliding across the pavement, before the tires gripped for traction and bursted into a line again.

Tires and brakes squealed when Claire turned.

She rounded the corner. It wasn’t sharp or even right at all. No amount of coins could cover the difference. Thirty feet became fifty.

Rough, skidding and skipping, kicking up bits of concrete. Nowhere near as graceful.

But that wouldn’t be enough to slow down Claire.

She fixed her hands on the wheel, holding them firm, in place. She played with the brake and gas pedals, switching between them to at least ride it out instead of spinning out. All things considered, Claire didn’t spin out.

Gas to the floor again, and she was going straight, narrowly missing a separate vehicle. Wrong place, wrong time. The light was red the whole time.

The chase continued.

Claire was still on the tail of the black muscle car, but she had lost any purchase on them she might have had. Fifty was becoming sixty. At this rate, she would have lost them completely.

Wind whipped through a window in the back.

“We’re losing them!”

Her voice was almost whisked away from how fast they were going.

Claire gripped the wheel harder, knuckles going white.

Her own voice could be heard just fine.

“You want me to drive? I’m driving!”

She couldn’t believe she was doing this a second time. Or, maybe she could, but her mind was on about a hundred other things at the moment.

Like catching up to that black muscle car, like the fact that they were facing oncoming traffic, like how she had to swerve between vehicles, hearing them honk as the zipped past. Like how the taxi was rattling as the speedometer steadily tilted more and more to the right. Like how she was doing this a second time.

Like the fact that she was also getting shot at.

“Boss!”

Claire tried to scream that, anyway. Wasn’t sure if it came out as a word or just a general shriek.

She got a reply regardless.

“Yeah!”

Then the young woman fired shots of her own.

Claire screamed again. Not a real word.

She didn’t have a gun before. Did she? Claire didn’t remember a gun being a factor last time. The last time she had to race through the streets of Stephenville. But there was one now. There definitely was one now.

The ringing in Claire’s ears were testament to that.

A high pitch that pierced through her hearing, but she kept her focus on her focus, just so she could continue to charge ahead while still avoiding every obstacle coming at her. Some very large, others not so much.

The taxi veered to the left, dodging a truck and more bullets.

“Keep to the left, they’re taking the turn!”

Claire adjusted while her boss continued to fire.

Her boss was hanging out the side of the open window, mask and all. Gun in hand, popping off in the direction of the black muscle car, and other perceived threats. For the latter, Claire would have to let her be the judge of that. She didn’t like leaving that up to someone so young.

Hard to remember how they got here. Too hectic, too sudden. The boss got back into the taxi after Morricone’s, said something about an Inez being served their last meal, then they were off to their next stop and then-

A bullet pinged off the windshield. Didn’t break, but a line like lightning cracked along one edge of the thing. Claire screamed again.

That.

And then that.

It was a bumpy transition to the next street. The taxi clipped the corner, hitting a trash can, contents flying out. People dove out of the way.

People who were way too close.

Claire yelled. “You have to stop them already! We can’t keep going-”

“-Faster! Just a little more!”

Claire yelled again, but her foot was back to being flat on the floor.

Thing was, the money really was that good. Yet the price was seeing a world too seedy for her comfort.

Or was she considered a part of it, now?

No time to think on that.

The taxi gained, somehow, the black muscle car swerving, more wild than before. A popped tire? The boss kept firing.

“There!” she called out into the wind. “Got the tire! Peace Phoenix Plaza! Pick me back up-”

But she had already left.

The boss jumped out of the speeding taxi, going well over seventy miles an hour. Claire kept on going straight, finding it easier now. There wasn’t a body hanging off the side of the taxi, and she was going the correct way down the street, now.

Rolling off the momentum from all the action, she got ready to steer. The black muscle car was slowing down.

From above, a figure landed on the hood of the car. An impact hard enough to dent, hard enough to pin the car in place. After a hard bend off the road, knocking into another car and the pole on the way, the black muscle car was finally put to a stop.

Claire slowed down some, steering around the crash, slipping by before anyone else could. Putting as much distance between her and that as possible.

By the impact, another car screeched to a halt, people getting out. A second black muscle car.

She was being chased too?

That thought hadn’t even occurred to her. Was the boss firing rounds to keep them at bay?

Before she could consider the answer, the first black muscle car, the one they were chasing, burst into a great ball of flames. Claire could feel the sweat trickle down the back of her neck.

She turned and got away.

Putting several roads and a mile between them, Claire knew where to go. Peace Phoenix Plaza. It wasn’t that far from here.

Claire started heading in that direction. With the police presence spreading thinner and thinner, once she got the taxi in flow with normal traffic, near other taxis, she was able blend back into the background, as if she had never stood out. The chase couldn’t have lasted more than several minutes. But that was enough to age her. She couldn’t afford that loss of time, though, she still had a whole motherhood ahead of her.

As she drove, Claire fixed Caleb’s paper dragon on the dash, setting it upright.

She arrived at the Peace Phoenix Plaza, the park close to the area considered the Eye. The word ‘plaza’ still applied, because it was built as one, it still was one. ‘Phoenix’ fit, now than ever. When Claire looked in the distance she saw the namesake statue on fire. Police were blocking off the entrance, redirecting anyone who happened to pass by.

So much for ‘Peace.’

Claire turned the taxi around, setting in park at loop where other taxis would wait for any possible passengers. Close enough.

She waited.

Time to breathe, time to think. Didn’t even want to listen to Late 94 right now.

She remembered having to race people to airports, or even runs to get people out of the city. But it was nothing like this. Or the last time she had the young woman in her taxi.

Claire also remembered that time, that last chase. A van. No guns, but just as insane. Because the driver of that other van was a little girl. Where was that girl now?

She only had a glimpse of that world, but it was so ugly, so wrong. Yet, there she was.

From inside, she inspected the damage to the taxi. The hairline crack on the windshield, a few dents across the hood. She couldn’t see if there were any bullet holes punched into the vehicle, but she didn’t want to go outside and check. She was too scared to, as if something worse would happen if she ventured outside.

At least in here, she was in the comfort of her own world.

Claire checked a switch by the center console. Still off. The sign on top wouldn’t light up. She wasn’t available for any other business. The business she was in now was too crazy.

No, not business, trouble.

At least the sign is still up there, this time.

She just wanted to get home and back to her kids.

Time ticked until the ticking became unbearable, and Claire turned the ignition to save gas. The taxi went still, the rumbling rust bucket wheezing no more.

Was the boss even coming back? How long was she expected to wait? They didn’t have any line of communication outside of maybe her phone. But everytime she called, it was through a different phone.

Her bag was still in the back, with all kinds of heat Claire didn’t want to be stuck with. Someone else had better take it, because it wasn’t hers.

She ran her fingers through her hair, fixing it.

Christ.

The door open and someone threw themselves in a hurry.

Claire turned the key and was back on the road before a young woman tell her to-

“Drive!”

They left the general area of the park, the flames of the Phoenix finally being extinguished. Claire checked.

“You alright boss?”

She had to check on her, too.

The young woman was going through her bag while she answered, her thoughts seemingly elsewhere.

“You mean in an existential sense?” She paused. “Sorry. We’re fine. There’s no heat on us. Can’t say the same for Edward and Gary.”

Who the hell was Edward and Gary?

Now, the only way she’d be able to sleep tonight was if she could really believe these people deserved, whatever the hell her boss did to them. Claire didn’t put her thoughts there.

“I meant,” Claire said, “Are you alright?”

“What, yeah, me? I’m fine. Don’t worry about me.”

Claire pressed her lips together, firm, before speaking again.

“When you’re doing the things you do, and I’m watching you do them, makes it a lot harder not to. At least when I’d drop you off somewhere, you go off and I try not to think about it. But now…”

She trailed off, unsure what she was trying to say, or what she was getting at.

“Now what?”

Claire drove, not answering, now just pretending as if she didn’t hear.

“Is that all for tonight? It’s getting late, and I wouldn’t want you to push your luck. Or, maybe you’re done now?”

That last question came more from wishful thinking.

“Nowhere near done. Got a whole list left.”

Claire felt her heart sink.

“But we don’t have to run through it all tonight.”

Sinking deeper.

“Don’t you think you’ve had enough? That you made your message clear?”

The young woman zipped up her bag, holding something smaller. An orange streetlight filled the interior for a quick second, and Claire looked away. Back to the street.

“There is no message, and I’ve nowhere near had enough. I’m sorry Claire, but I’ll need you for one more night.”

“One more-”

“These stops took longer than I had anticipated, especially that last one. It worked out in the end, but that was a lot of time lost. But you’re right, shouldn’t push our luck. So, one more night.”

Now with a new destination in mind, Claire now drove with more purpose. Home.

“You can’t just spend your nights throwing away your-”

The young woman reached across to the front of the taxi, tossing a heavy wad of wrapped bills.

“I’ve got a few thousand to spend and throw away right here.”

Claire would have said more, but the young woman was busy with something else now. Apparently taking a drink of something.

Claire took the wad, feeling the weight. Buying her silence, buying her cooperation. But there had to be a cost, somewhere, from both sides, that couldn’t ever be recurred. Sinking.

The taxi rolled on, going through the world, a world on fire, a world Claire was no longer familiar with. And in the taxi, there was another world she felt she had some responsibility to at least… do something. She thought of Caleb and Willem.

But the cost? A few thousand she might end up throwing away.

Claire set the money in the seat. It was a price she was willing to wager.

The steering wheel itself was loose, when left alone it leaned a tad to the right, which made going straight a bit of a hassle. Claire remembered when she first reported it to Bill, her real boss, and he had her send it in for a repair, among other things. It came back worse, but enough other stuff had been fixed that Bill couldn’t justify sending it back for the one issue. She learned to deal with it.

Claire prepared to make a right, loosening her grip on the wheel. She let it slide out of place before turning it all the way.

The sun went up and down, a half-circle across the sky. Now it was moon’s turn, hovering above them.

Another turn, another night.

Claire drove while the young woman sat in the back.

If there was any consolation, it was in that there wasn’t much to do during the day. For Claire, anyway, her boss had gone out after… after breakfast, and didn’t return until the sun began to set. Her kids had come home from school and were already in bed, but not with countless question on if their guest would be joining them for dinner, and why she wasn’t at dinner, and why wasn’t home for bedtime, because it was way past bedtime. Claire had ran out of answers by the time the young woman got back.

And now they were back, back out on the streets, on the prowl. Claire hoped this would be the last time she’d have to do this. For her own sake, and for the young woman.

A sharp hiss.

“Yes boss?” Claire asked, by reflex.

The young woman looked at her through the mirror, momentarily confused.

“Oh, it’s nothing. I think.”

“If it’s not nothing, then I might need to know about it,” Claire said. “Might have to chase after it. Or get away from it, apparently.”

The young woman grinned, small. For now, her mask was off.

“It’s really nothing. I just keep seeing things,” she said. “I think.”

“You get enough sleep?”

“Not really.”

“This a regular thing? I hope it’s not a bad habit.”

“Oh it is,” the young woman said, almost laughing. “It most certainly is.”

Claire frowned. She couldn’t help it.

She spoke like she was talking to either Caleb or Willem. “That’s no good. Everyone needs rest, and sometimes they need it more than they need food, or, you know, whatever it is you had for breakfast.”

“I know. But there’s no rest for the wicked.”

“Wicked. Is that how you see yourself?”

“It’s how I see myself sometimes.”

“And other times?”

“Could you turn down the radio there?”

“Oh.”

Claire turned it down, she hadn’t realized it was on that loud. She had gotten so used to DJ Slims and Big Jim’s voices that she could tune them out, easy.

But Claire also noticed that the young woman didn’t answer the question. How much of that was intentional, she didn’t know.

Would she let that go?

Even if she did, she still had something she wanted to say.

“Boss…”

“Claire.”

“I think it would be good for you to start thinking what you want to do after you’re done here.”

There was a long beat. Nothing. Not even Late 94 to brush away the silence.

All the young woman said was, “Prying.”

“I know I am,” Claire said. She was terse. “But I think it’s important for you to have some goal or priorities in mind that aren’t… this.”

“Too late for that,” was what she got. “Too late for me.”

Claire shook her head, still watching the road.

“No it’s not, it’s not. It’s never too late. There’s always a way, you just have to want to find it.”

Another, longer beat. Then the young woman spoke.

“Claire, I have a lot of respect for you. Now more than ever. You’re reliable, you’re kind, patient, and all those other wonderful things. Maybe you hear that a lot, maybe you even think they’re just normal, but trust me, from what I’ve seen and the people I’ve met, that’s a real rarity. Lying and cheating and stealing, that’s what it takes to survive in the world I’ve been in, but that means people will try and to do the same thing to you. So I can’t go back to normal, or all those other things, because I’ll always have to watch my back. Even now, I have to keep low in case any of those people are plotting things that I’m not aware of. Part of the reason why I was gone all day.”

“I hope you won’t bring any trouble to my home, then,” Claire said. “Whatever happens to or around this taxi, fine, this is its own world, but not there, not my home.”

“I won’t, and I didn’t.”

“But,” Claire breathed, “That’s not the point. You sound so… you’re not even going to give it a try? Finding something that isn’t this?”

“This is all I know.”

“You can learn!”

Claire stopped the taxi, parking it to the side. The young woman’s back straightened, sitting up.

“Hey, we don’t have time to waste.”

Claire turned around to face her. The young woman.

A teenager, a child. Whatever life this child had led to get here, in the back of her taxi, probably enough to fill over a hundred chapters in an opus, Claire might never know the details to, but she still saw the youth in her. She hadn’t been completely soiled. Or in that soil, there was still a chance for roots to grow, become something new.

Something that wasn’t this. Revenge and blood and fire. There had to be more to her world than that.

“What’s your name, boss? Not the mask’s name, yours. I noticed you never told me.”

The young woman’s lip curled up, slight.

“Call me Vee.”

“Vee?”

“Like the letter.”

“Okay, V, what I’m trying to get at is, I refuse to believe that there’s nothing else for you. I’m just choosing not to believe it. And while I hate to bring up that I have more years on you, because you probably have a lot more packed into yours, but I’ve seen my fair share, too. Redemption. I’ve taken people to as many drug dens as I have hospitals and rehab centers. Sometimes it’s the those same people for both. And sometimes, they truly do get better. I’ve seen it happen, is what I’m trying to tell you. From the lowest and darkest places, to even just a few rungs up, but it’s not nothing.”

The young woman, V, listened. Not that she had any choice to.

Claire watched for any sign, as intently she would her own child. A brow, a lip, the flutter of an eye, to indicate that she’d at least listen.

She got one of those things.

“Has it gone the other way?” she asked. “From rehab back to the drug dens.”

Claire frowned again.

“I’m not going to lie to you and say that doesn’t happen. It’s not realistic. But that’s-”

“Not your point. I know. I hear you.”

Claire’s lips formed more of a straight line now.

“But why do you care?”

Claire smiled. That was easy.

“Looking at you, someone has to.”

V went silent, and Claire would have to wait. But that was a silence Claire could sit through.

“Okay,” V then said, “Fine. I can… Maybe it’s worth a shot.”

“More than you know,” Claire said, smiling wider now, “I can help you too, if you’d like. Look up some stuff, find some options. Schooling, if you’re interested. If you don’t want to be in a system or record there are plenty of libraries that hold classes to teach basic trades, not to mention-”

V raised a hand. Claire stopped.

“Hold it. I still have my plans. And you still have a job to do.  All that can wait until after tonight. Alright?”

Claire nodded. It would have to do.

“Alright. After tonight. We can do it.”

V then gestured. “Then please.”

Nodding again, Claire put the car on drive, adjusted the steering wheel, and moved on once again.

“So, Irving Street, as nostalgic as it is, we didn’t visit it yesterday. What’s there?”

For whatever reason, Claire was feeling more chatty now.

Through the rearview, V started getting to work with her bag. Mask and guns and knives.

“No need to know.”

“Considering how your plans changed last night, especially with that chase scene, I’d like to know what I’m getting into this time.”

V sighed.

“Heard something while I was out today. Did some scoping. Apparently the leader of the gang that’s spearheading these riots, is using the warehouse on Irving as a base of operations.”

“That place seems to switch hands quite often.”

“Apparently. Worth a check now that it’s dark and I can drive.”

“I’m driving.” Claire smiled to herself. “But that’s okay. We’re coming up on it now.”

“Yeah.” V had her mask halfway down her face, over her eyes.

Across the street, a cement truck with the large cylindrical tank crossed the intersection, perpendicular to them. The truck was slow, and Claire had to slow the taxi as a consequence.

“You want me to put the taxi in the same place as before?”

Claire never got the answer to that question.

A harsh suddenness, a certain violence that encircled them and took away all control.

The world, spinning out of control.

The steering wheel leaned far more to the right than ever before, nearly a complete revolution. Useless. So were the brakes and the gas.

Her body went slack, limbs flailing, unable to take back their own volition. Just noise and pain and crash and broken glass and twisted metal.

Violence, suddenness, harsh. Over as soon as those things happened.

Coming to was a whole other thing. A whole damn thing.

Claire coughed herself awake, a sharp pain all around her.

Hanging by the ragged and threadbare belt. She was hanging upside down. Arms over her head, but to the ground.

Coughed again. The pain sharper. Something was broken.

Her vision was filled with colors that ran together, but she could make out some details. Not something, everything.

The pinetree was hanging the wrong way as well, the paper dragon lost. The thin crack of the windshield had burst into a spiderweb.

Complete and total silence. The heavy ringing and the blood flowing the wrong way made it hard to hear.

In a very real sense, her world had been turned upside down.

“V?”

Came out muffled, but she could make out her own voice.

“Anyone?”

No answer for either question.

Vision still murky, Claire looked through the glass of the rearview. It was broken now. But through the shards, she couldn’t see the young woman she had as her passenger and boss. In fact, it looked like the door to the side had been opened.

Claire moaned.

Then the door to her side opened.

Claire saw feet. Shoes. Upside down. Right-side up.

The legs then bent. She saw not a face but… a clown? Now Claire was the one seeing things.

“Got the driver here. Still alive, though barely. If anyone has a gang doc on hand we could help her out.”

Claire groaned, trying to indicate something. Anything, by this point.

Another pair of feet entered the frame. The beak of a bird swooped down and was pointed at Claire. It swooped back up.

“Forget about her. Where’s V?”

A third pair now. They didn’t check inside the taxi but they sounded young. Younger than the young woman.

“They’re after her right now. Told you she’s fast.”

“But still… shit. The block was fucking locked down, too.”

“She’s out in the open now, that’s what matters. We just need to keep her moving, never rest, and she’ll fall into someone’s hands. Either ours, or the police, I can see the helis in the distance. When that happens we’ll pick her up.”

“Better be soon. Last thing I need is for someone else to get a hold of her. I want to see her. Look at her right in the face. I want her to know it’s me.”

“You know, there’s a chance she might not recognize us at all. And come on, can someone get her out of there?”

“D, tell Mrs. Carter and Styx we’re moving up. I am not letting her get away.”

“No big, Big Sis!”

Claire was starting to lose consciousness again. Unable to understand anything, it was almost better to fall back to sleep, and hopefully wake up somewhere else, somewhere safe.

She thought about her kids. She thought about Kim. She thought about V.

Hers was full as it was, but she was willing to nest another egg. The egg being V’s world. But now, it might be close to being cracked and destroyed.

And there was nothing she could do about it now. Claire was stuck, in the worn-down taxi cab.

Previous                                                                                               Next

108 – Friendly Fire

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I got up.

My eyelids flashed open, fast and strained. I panicked at the suddenness of it and woke up frenzied.

“Agh!”

A jolt passed through me, sending my body up and tumbling. Too early to be conscious of who I was, where I was, or what was happening, I was already falling-

Agh!”

It wasn’t a long descent.

Something stabbed me, right between the ribs, and my breath was stolen from me. I gurgled, and flipped over to pull the thing out of my side. In my haste, the back of my head hit another something.

I growled, not even a real sound that could be formed or understood with letters. The underlying and growing emotion was still there, though. Irritation.

Going for another tactic, I just stayed still instead. I waited, and waited, so things could settle. My head cleared and I was able to get a grasp of myself again. Relatively speaking.

Claire’s head popped up from the top of the couch.

“You alright?”

She had a look on her face that she’d might have given to her own kids. Concerned, but not terribly concerned.

I groaned.

Working back to my feet, my brain catching up to my surroundings. I tried to talk through it.

“Had a… I woke up weird and fell off the couch. This thing… I landed on this thing.”

I kicked the toy truck away. It slid under-

“-The table there, hit my head against that. It’s…”

“Wow,” Claire said, her head nodding. “Talk about a rude awakening.”

I had to pull my hand out of a bundle. I just realized I was wrapped in a blanket.

I started to massage the back of my head. “I could go without this particular discussion, actually.”

“Are you usually that clumsy, or is spastic a better word?”

“Clumsy? No, or I hope not. It’s more a cosmic thing. As for being spastic? I really hate that I’d have to give you that.”

“Maybe it was just that bad of a dream, then.”

After giving the back of my head a good enough massage, I fixed up my hair.

“If it was… I don’t remember. But, whatever, let’s just forget about it. I know I already have.”

“Fair enough boss.”

Looking past Claire, at the rest of the living room and the kitchen behind her, I asked, “Is it just us now?”

“Yes ma’am. Kim took the kids already and then went to work, herself. But work for her started even earlier, Caleb and Willem really wanted to meet you.”

“They did?”

“They were pretty excited about the idea of someone sleeping over. But she had to get them dressed and packed up and out the door, and they’re old enough now to know that it’s rude to bug someone while they’re getting their rest up.”

“If Kim had to work so hard, where were you in all of this?”

Claire pointed towards the kitchen.

“Getting breakfast ready. You want some? Made enough for everyone, and that includes you. Room and board, I suppose. Might as well get your money’s worth.”

There was a small but awkward pause, probably only ever felt by me. I broke the silence but that feeling remained stuck to me.

“I’ll go without, this time.”

“You better be sure about that, boss, we’ve got a long day ahead of us. You should get something to eat before we head about.”

“I’ll manage. Trust me.”

“No no no,” Claire said, already moving back to the kitchen. She started getting together a plate of eggs and bacon, with a croissant on the side. A glass of orange juice on the other side.

I was beginning to feel a little cornered.

“You’re not staying at a hotel. You could have, but you didn’t. You’re staying with us, and one of the many rules under this roof is… you have to have breakfast. You might be able to skip breakfast at a hotel, but you cannot here.”

She then added, “Sorry, boss, that’s just how it is.”

“You’re a strict parent.”

“Someone has to be.”

“How detailed is this rule, though? Do I have to eat what you’ve cooked, or am I allowed to have some… um… leftovers I brought with me.”

“Breakfast is breakfast, and in my domain, you must eat. But, if you happened to bring something, then feel free to help yourself with that instead.”

“I’ll do that then.”

Tossing my blanket to the couch and making my move into the kitchen, I kept an eye on Claire. Not because I had any reason to be wary of her, but I was hesitant on how I’d approach the topic, if I would even have to approach the topic at all. Preferably, I wanted to avoid it.

Claire was still getting the food together. I wasn’t sure if that plate was still for me.

But her back was to me, her attention somewhere else.

I inched to the fridge.

Then I froze.

“You’re positive you don’t want anything here? The bacon is a little overcooked but I do have some pride in my eggs. I can cook them in my sleep. You might say they’re over easy for me!”

“Did you?” I asked. “Cook them that way?”

“Sunny side up,” Claire answered. “Good morning, boss, by the way.”

“Morning,” I said, still watching her back. I inched forward again. “And… I’ll have to pass on the fresh food, not that I don’t believe you.”

“Suit yourself. Might as well go for seconds. It’ll be a long day, right?”

“Could be,” I said, and I finally made it over to the fridge. Slow and laborious, with more strength than I’d ever need because I was trying to be cautious about it, I opened fridge door.

The door popped open without a sound, but I soon learned it was impossible to bypass the low but ever present hum of the cold machine itself. As if it was mocking me with its flat tune, jaws wide open with food, breathing out but never inhaling. It exuded a bad attitude.

Claire turned partway to me. I froze again, and felt frozen as the fridge continued to breathe on me.

“Yeah?” I asked, after a beat of nothing happening.

“I…” Claire started, but she then hopped to another train of thought. “I was going to say something but the eggs again, but now I’m just looking at you leaving the fridge open for too long.”

“Oh, um…” I looked inside the fridge itself. My stuff was untouched, exactly where I had left it. Paper bags with packs of blood inside.

I had just woken up, and my first challenge of the day was breakfast.

No choice but go for it. I had to reach for one of the bags, all while being seen doing it.

“Bit early for a drink,” Claire commented, a frown forming on her face, “In time and in age.”

“It’s um… it’s not alcohol. Well, the effect might, more or less, be the same but… it’s not what you think it is.”

“What is it then?”

The one question I didn’t want to be asked.

“Uh…”

“If you didn’t want to have breakfast with me, you can go have yours on the couch. Watch a little TV. Just don’t spill anything.”

“Oh…”

“Could you close the fridge please, boss?”

“Oh.”

I closed the fridge, shutting the thing up.

“Well, I mean,” I started, but I still wasn’t sure on what I would say, or if I really wanted to say anything. Was Claire giving me an out to just be on my own for the moment, or was it better to be upfront about this, now?

“Yes boss?”

I sighed, holding the paper bag close to me.

“Just so you know, I’m not trying to, uh, freak you out or anything, and I probably should have given you the heads up last night, but it looks like there wasn’t any issue this morning, so that’s good, but the last thing I want is for an incident to happen especially with your kids around so-”

“Boss?”

“Yeah?”

“You’re rambling.”

I sighed again.

Pinching open the bag, I titled the thing to Claire. Not too far open for her to peek inside, though, the true contents were obscured in shadow.

“It’s blood,” I told Claire, “Human blood.”

Claire stood there, still turned partway. She didn’t move… but it seemed as if her eyes widened by a fraction.

And… there it was. Several fractions. Now it was noticeable.

“Blood…” she repeated with a breath, “Like… red liquid that flows through living things?”

“Yeah.”

“And this blood… it’s from people?”

“Yeah.”

“And you drink this blood, like a, um, vamp-”

“Whatever word you’re thinking of, that’s the one I’ve been using. It’s more of a placeholder, though.”

Claire nodded, slow.

“Okay.”

She turned back to her food. My eyes her to the back of her head again.

“Storing it in my… is that a biohazard?”

“Judging from prior experiences, it hasn’t been an issue.”

“Okay.”

Another long, drawn out beat.

“Hey, boss?”

“Yes?”

“I think I lost my appetite, would you mind buying me a new one?”

“Sure, Claire, I can spring for that.”

“Thanks, boss.”

She was still, I moved. I went for my bag, and pulled out some more stacks of cash. Within the ballpark of a thousand dollars. Give or take. I set them on the table for Claire, and I made my way back to the couch. I found the remote and turned the channel to the news.

On the inside, I felt like an idiot and wanted to slap myself silly, but I kept myself alert as I worked my pack. The pack with my breakfast in it.

It was a plastic bag, with my juice filled inside. There was a small zipper at the top, one that could be sealed and resealed, leaving it airtight when closed.

I tilted the bag so the juice would collect at one end, until I was able to zip the bag open without worrying about a spill. I was careful when I brought the opening to my lips, taking small sips.

Tasted as sweet and fresh and delicious as ever. Which compounded the guilty feeling in my stomach that grew as it filled. Something this good and sugary couldn’t have possibly been healthy for me.

Yet, there I was, sitting on this couch, drinking it as easy as water. And needing it just as much.

“That is just a show, isn’t it?”

I coughed, leaning forward and covering my mouth with a hand, strategically placing it under my chin so I wouldn’t splatter or spill. My face was as flushed as the juice I was drinking when I said, “What, what? I didn’t-”

“It’s still just as crazy as it was last night, or this morning, rather.”

Oh.

After a check quick for any mess and finding none, I looked back up and saw the TV.

That’s what she was talking about.

The news.

A program was on, a live feed of the different… incidents that were flaring up and down the city, spreading like wildfire.

Riots in the streets, people ransacking stores and other business, traffic held up because of literal fires, grey smoke reaching up to white clouds, snuffing them out. There were only so many in the police force to handle the ever-increasing violence, and it was easy to imagine Gomez again, sitting in the dark of his home, his only sanctuary with a semblance of control, except maybe he was losing even that, now, given how dire and fucked up this situation was getting.

But, part of that was brought on himself. I had offered him assistance, and he tried to spit a bullet in my face.

“Definitely a shitshow,” I said, swallowing, tasting a bit of sweet, the flavor dancing across my tongue and teeth.

“And we’re going straight into that.” There was a noticeable pause that followed, the only sounds were of ceramic tapping, utensils across a plate, probably.

“We are,” I said.

“You know, boss, you never actually mentioned what you’re set out to do. I know I have to drive you around and all, but for what?”

Another pause, but that was more for myself. Knowing that Claire was looking in my direction, now, I finished up my breakfast, cleared my trash, and stood up, wiping a lip.

I looked at Claire.

“Might be easier for everyone if I don’t give you the particulars on that. For now, just drive.”

I saw that Claire was in the middle of a bite of eggs. Fork halfway between her plate and her mouth. She dropped the fork back down.

“Worse than the blood thing?”

I gave her another stack of cash for that.

“May I use your shower?” I asked, a total non-sequitur.

Claire took the extra stack, and flipped through the bills. I saw her nostrils flare up as she brought the money a tad closer to her nose.

“Down the hall, first door on your left. I’ll go get you a towel after I finish up my eggs here.”

We were all packed and ready to go. Claire was fresh out of the shower after me, and had everything she needed for the day. I did, too.

The cold bit at us as we stepped out of the apartment building, as if it wanted us to stay inside, wanted me to stay inside. No fucking way. I’d fight against the weather, too, if I had to.

Claire led us over to where she had parked the taxi. It wasn’t very close, mostly for precaution, tucked in a corner alley between a general store and a local bookstore. She had to duck a lot of her calls from her actual boss, demanding to know where she was, but more importantly, his cab.

Before we headed out on official business, I had offered her a suggestion, and it seemed to do the trick, in that Claire’s phone went silent right after.

A slight variation of the truth. That she had picked up a passenger who asked for an extended trip to the nearest river, and had paid the fare with an obol. She would be returning promptly upon completion of this journey.

It worked. As I figured, it wasn’t the first time something like this happened. Which was more sad than anything else.

But it was one less thing to worry about, and we were able to continue.

We got into the taxi, and Claire peeled us out of the corner, and we were on our way.

Onto our first stop.

Claire’s apartment was farther away from the Eye. We’d spiral towards the center, hitting different stops as we went. Get info where I could, strike where I saw an opportunity. Then we’d spiral outward, hitting any places I might have missed, or where I now saw openings. Repeat and repeat again. A continuous spiral. An endless loop. A snake eating its own tail.

Watching the city fly past me, a pane of glass being the only thing separating me and the total turmoil right outside. We toured through the jungle as the fire consumed and fueled the natural state of things.

Enough of the city had been broken and that things weren’t beginning to work, anymore. The streets coiled, we were unable to go straight to our first stop. Detours. Maybe it spoke to something grander about how things were. Maybe it was yet another setup to yet another joke.

But I wasn’t here to listen, and I wasn’t in the mood to be humored.

I saw the fire, I saw the smoke. I saw those who were holding the matches. I saw those who were looking to snuff out the flames. I also saw the flames reaching something like an intense sunburst, out of control. It made me wonder if, or how long until, those fires would turn around and begin to eat each other. And what that would even look like.

It was like racing against a fuse. I had to beat the heat, in a manner of speaking.

“We’re coming up close, boss.”

My hands went to my things, as if for security.

“Took us long enough.”

“I’m sure you’d understand why.”

“I do.”

“How far did you want-”

“Here’s good.”

Claire slowed the taxi as we approached. The blended colors of the portrait past the glass began to separate and take their own forms.

A block up ahead, its own building. Made of red and brown brick, stacked to look like an old factory, it probably was one, many decades ago. Now, it was an Italian restaurant by the name of Morricone’s.

I knew of it because of D’s briefing on the territory, once before. Back when I was still with the Fangs, when we had D get as much info on those other gangs as possible, the ones at the table. How did that already feel like a lifetime ago, though? Probably because it was.

I prepared myself as Claire put the taxi to a stop, putting us by the curb. A block between us and the restaurant. I would have to walk the rest of that distance by foot.

I had my hands on my bags for reassurance, but I knew that I couldn’t bring them with me. Not inside, and not with how I was getting in.

I got out, and poked my head back into the taxi.

“Shouldn’t take too long,” I told her, “But if it does…”

“I’ll wait for you boss,” Claire replied. “As long as it takes.”

All I could do then was give her a nod, smiling. Maybe my feelings on her were a little misplaced, given how bright her eyes would get in the sight of money, but I didn’t want to put those feelings anywhere else.

I stepped away from the taxi, and for now, we took different paths. Claire to the street, and I moved to the sidewalk, going right into Morricone’s.

The place was expensive. From the sights to what I heard and smelled. The architecture was stark, with plenty of room for people and atmosphere. There was a minimalistic sense to the interior design, only going for rustic pieces, tables and chairs, lights that were kept low for the ambiance. Where the eye didn’t have much to appreciate, it was left to the other senses to add. Light jazz music swung overhead and through our ears, and the smell of the food, wafting from all the plates and from the kitchen somewhere, seemed to somehow justify the exuberant prices the menus would be willing to set. I knew the place smelled expensive by how much I hated what attacked my nose.

Trash and decay. It offended.

The line through the waiting area… there wasn’t one. But the place wasn’t empty, not by any long shot. No physical line, then. The people who could eat here, they’d wait through a reservation. Weeks in advance.

I was able to get right to the front. A server was watching me approach the whole time, curious that someone could even think to just… walk in here.

The server spoke up before I got to him. “We only accept those who have a reservation.”

“And if I have one?”

“We’re not expecting anyone else half past noon. It’s noon.”

“I could be here early.”

“If you’re putting it like that, then you don’t have a reservation at all.”

“Could I not just be given a seat and have a meal?”

“Again, if you’re putting it-”

“-Putting it like that, right. But I have money?”

“Money doesn’t buy you everything.”

“Are we really having this conversation right now?”

“Do you really have any business with us?”

I blinked, the first heavy pause since walking into the restaurant.

I could recognize the effect D had on me during our time together. That irreverence. It was a tangible thing.

“I was wondering if I can get a job here.”

The man’s face screwed up to a tight expression. Holding back a laugh, I suspected.

“We’re not hiring.”

“Are you the manager?”

There was a pause on his end before he said, “No, I’m not.”

“Then you really can’t speak to that, can you?”

Another pause. Another beat.

“May I speak with them?” I asked. “The manager?”

“The manager isn’t in right now.”

“Could I swing to the back and leave a note by the door?”

“If you have anything to say to him, I can make sure to pass it on.”

Somehow, I didn’t believe a word of anything he just said.

I didn’t want to pull this card, but now I might just have to.

“Well, if he’s not in now, could you tell him that D’Angelo sent me?”

The server looked taken aback.

“Did you say…”

“D’Angelo? Yeah. He said the manager here would have something for me if I asked and mentioned his name.”

The more I stood here and spoke, the more at a loss the server looked.

“May I… may I get your name?”

“I could just come back and catch the manager another time.”

The server shook his head, as if he couldn’t believe a word of anything I just said. But, unlike me, he relented.

Motioning over to another server beside him, he pointed to me, then jerked a thumb in some general direction behind him.

Looking back at me, he said, “Consider yourself lucky.”

Another server began to lead me away, I walked and shrugged at the first server.

“Been forced to make my own luck.”

And with that, I was led through the restaurant. The server made us stick to the side of the main dining area, probably so there would be less eyes on me. To be fair, I wasn’t quite dressed for the occasion, only wearing a heavy grey sweater and the skirt I had quickly stashed when I left my apartment in a hurry. A far cry from the formal attire that was implied.

We reached the back, going past the kitchen and farther into the building. The smell of the cooking insulted my nose.

I was grateful when the server managed to get us out of there, taking me to a door at the end of the hall. A name on the label, made of gold.

Ronaldo Morricone.

The server knocked.

A voice came from the other side of the door. “Yes?”

“Got someone here for you. Looking for a job. Said they were sent by Mr. D’Angelo.”

A beat.

“Come in!”

The server looked at me before he left. If I had any more to lose, I would have considered it to be a warning.

I went through the door.

A small office, but it wasn’t cramped. Simple, clean, with a natural and slick look from the oak desk and shelves.

Contrast that with the man at the desk. Large, he looked fat but something to me suggested it was all muscle. An expensive looking suit, probably worth more consider he would have had to have it tailored to him.

Soft trails of smoke floated around us. He pulled a fat cigar out of his mouth, his voice gruff.

“And the fuck are you? Should got you wiped off the face of the earth for speaking D’Angelo’s name without the proper permission.”

“I’ve more than earned the proper permission. And it’s Wendy, by the way. Or was. But that’s the name that has the most use for me in this case, anyways.”

Ronaldo Morricone stared at me, hard, his brown forming a thick, solid line.

“He’s mentioned me.”

“The name ain’t unfamiliar. He continues to be impressed with you.”

So word hasn’t spread about…

“I don’t see why, personally, but I am flattered.”

“What can I do you for, then? If you know my cousin, you have no need for a job.”

I put my hands in my pockets.

“I’m in the middle of looking for work.”

I scrunched up my nose. I hadn’t noticed it at first, with how heavy the cigar smoke was. But now I saw it.

“Looks like I caught you during lunch. Sorry about that. What is that?”

He nudged the plate to the side. “Carbonara, fresh from the kitchen.”

“Sounds good. How’s the taste?”

“If you got business with me, little girl, I suggest you make it quick. Now, take your hands out of your damn pockets and address me properly.”

I shrugged. “I was just curious.”

“Curiosity’s a bitch and a killer. Don’t waste my motherfucking-”

The desk rattled and skidded. Food kicked up and spilled into a mess. The plate had cracked in half.

And all I did was take my hands out of my pockets.

Things settled around us, but nothing rested easy.

I was standing on top of the desk, now, lifting the heavyset man by the collar. The plate at his desk was split down the middle, the meal spilling across the surface, the sauce smearing.

Ronaldo Morricone was choking, coughing up bits of food, completely taken by surprise.

“You fuck- If you got a direct line to my cousin, what do you need me for?”

“I don’t need him, not yet. He can wait. I need you, and you better cooperate, or I’ll cut out every bit of fat from your body, set it on your carbonara and feed it to you.”

He gurgled, but he didn’t say no.

“Inez,” I told him, “I know she comes here quite often. That she even has reservations for tonight, like she does every week. A personal favor for continued business with your cousin, is that right? Blink if I’m right.”

He blinked.

“When she comes, and I’m not asking for much, but when she comes, all I’m asking is that you lock the doors and walk away. Can you do that?”

I shook him.

“Blink if you can do that for me!”

He blinked.

I dropped him. He collapsed onto the floor, gasping for air and clutching his neck.

“Now don’t try anything funny,” I said, “Because I’ll know. And not only will I do exactly what I just threaten you with, but I would have had time to come up with more. Now do you understand me?”

He didn’t have to, but he blinked for a third time.

“Good, see you tonight, Morricone. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to make a call. Direct line.”

Night had fallen. And others would soon follow.

That was the plan anyways.

Starting with footfalls. Claire and I got out of the apartment one more time, and walked the path to the taxi. It was starting to be familiar, now that we had gone back and forth, and now we were going back again. It wasn’t yet an all the way, worn down path, but it was familiar enough that my eyes and mind were able to wander as we walked.

Trailing upwards, I gazed upon something, or at least I thought I did.

By the roofs, closer to the moon, the smoke blurring away the edges of that flat circle of nighttime. A strange figure.

I tried to lock in on it, my stare lingering on that point in space. Then the image fuzzed out, and other senses stole my focus from me.

“You’re about to hit that pole, boss.”

“Oops,” I said, moving out of the way. I readjusted my bag.

“What are you staring off for?”

“I… nothing. It’s nothing. Thought I was seeing things again.”

“Again?”

“Nothing. Again. Complicated.”

I straightened myself. My path and my bag. Couldn’t get distracted so easily.

“What if you did?” Claire asked. “Or were?”

“What does that mean?”

“What if you did see something, or what if you were seeing things again?”

I looked up one more time. In that direction. More a glance than a stare, now. I wasn’t even sure what I saw, then.

“Then that would be terrifying in either case.”

“How about we go for the third, unspoken option?”

The silence that walked with us the rest of the way back to the taxi served as a decent substitute, in lieu of a spoken answer.

We left the silence outside as we got in the taxi once again, and we drove off into the night.

But we weren’t done yet. Nowhere near close. The night had just begun.

I made myself more in tune with the moment. Forced myself to. If I let myself wander now, I might not be able to set myself straight.

Focus.

This was something I had to do. Not because I enjoyed it. But I wasn’t even sure what I enjoyed, anymore, or if that was something I had ever actually felt.

I’d imagine it would be too late to dwell on it, now.

The drive wasn’t long, as we returned to the Eye. We passed a few of the stops we had taken on our initial trip. The order wasn’t based on location, now, it was priority. We were going to start with the easy ones first.

Easy, yet it would somehow be the most difficult.

It was a somber ride as the taxi rolled on.

“We’re here,” Claire said, with a bit of patience. “A street over, like you asked.”

Either I had focused too much, or I ended up wandering, despite my efforts. The drive wasn’t as long as I expected. I clutched my bag tighter.

“Do you want me to stay right here?” she asked, “I can keep the blinkers on.”

“No,” I said, “Somewhere else, like last time.”

“Like last time. I still remember that day.”

“Me too.”

This time, I grabbed my stuff and hopped out of the taxi. We separated again, coordinated. Planned.

I walked, my head tilting up.

Even in the distance, the building towered above us.

Panorama.

The nightclub was bouncing and glowing with life, very different from when I last left it, burning to death. The place had time to spring back up. I even felt happy for him.

That fleeting feeling then dashed away as I ran into an alley.

I went right to work, not a second to waste. Opening my bag as I moved, I changed into my costume, getting my weapons and putting my mask on last. When I was ready, I began my ascent up the urban jungle, prepared to leap.

And I leapt.

The rooftops, the movements, they were all so familiar, and I was almost gliding over the surfaces and the gaps, maneuvering through and over things with the ease of riding a bike. Smooth, fast. I had gotten better at this.

As the wind ran through my hair, the fact that I was so high up over everything or everyone… that never got old.

I supposed there was something I enjoyed, after all.

As soon as I had that realization, I had arrived at my destination. The first stop of the night.

I looked down at the club.

Just as I had remembered it, many months ago. A hazy sense of déja vu.

The glass ceiling of the Panorama. The flashing neon lights, the different levels and floors, people dancing and trying to have a good time. The namesake panoramic wall of lights. They still kept that damn thing.

If this went well enough, I wouldn’t have to go in there. I had made enough of a mess the first time.

I traced the side of the building, walking on the edge. To scope out the rest of the club, first.

The back half was still there, maybe it was remodeled in some places, but it looked about the same as before.

A private loft. Open air, complete with a pool and a bar and a few patrons looking to enjoy the night.

There weren’t as many people as last time, same with the club. I could imagine why. Not many would want to go out when the night sky was thick was smoke and pierced with screams.

And there I saw him.

Sitting at a table, not too far from the pool. Surrounded by a few of his personnelle. Not too many, but they were there. He was having a meal by himself.

Not for long.

I took a moment to steel myself. It was a necessity.

I closed my eyes, breathing in, then out.

I took to the air. High as my legs would allow.

Up, then down.

So much easier than last time.

My feet didn’t crash through glass, and I wasn’t reduced to a heap when I landed. It was a solid landing, meaning my presence had a proper introduction, and all the attention was on me. Attention I’d intend to use.

I moved forward with my momentum, leaping over the pool and to the table where he was. The first target.

But I had to clear the ones he had around him, though.

The first one crashed when I pounced on top of him, folding like a chair. It reminded me of how I landed when I first broke into the Panorama.

The second had the good sense to react, reaching for a gun. Still crouched over, I dug into a pocket and flung my arm out. The knife appeared right between his collarbone, and he went down, choking. I had aimed for his shoulder.

The third now had the time to go for his gun and fire. I was knocked back. I didn’t know what he intended to hit, but my shoulder exploded with pain.

My jaw was tight as I fought through, wound already healing. Leaping again, I slammed him down, and crushed the bones in his hand for good measure. He wouldn’t be firing that gun ever again.

The rest, I didn’t worry about, they hadn’t even entered my mind. The civilians lounging in the bar and the pool were already springing for the exits, screaming and panicking at the sudden gunshot and the fight that had broken out. The only one who didn’t move at all was him.

“D’Angelo,” I said, as facing, staring at him from behind my mask. “Don’t move. Don’t call for help.”

D’Angelo had remained sitting at his table, some food still hanging from his mouth. He fixed himself then said, “You.”

“More than you’d know.”

“What is it you want? I do have an appointment.”

“I have an appointment, too. May I have a seat?”

Sitting back now, D’Angelo gestured for the chair. I took my seat.

It was just us, now, minus the downed guards around us, but they weren’t a factor, anymore. The music bumped through the club across from me.

“Help will be coming,” D’Angelo said, “Or some for of it. You let people leave. They’ll tell someone, and they’ll come investigate. And if it comes to it, they’ll retaliate.”

“You don’t need to worry about what they will or will not do,” I said. “You worry about yourself. And your meal. Please, keep eating. Wouldn’t want your dinner to get cold.”

Cool, tempered, D’Angelo spun red, thick noodles around a fork. He ate.

I asked him, “How’s it taste?”

“You seem to have a penchant for showing up whenever things are most hectic. Like a sign, or a symbol of what’s to come.”

No answer, I asked instead, “And what is to come?”

He swallowed a bite. He stared me right in the eye.

“Death. Destruction. The Devil himself, looking to enjoy the fruits of his labor.”

“I don’t know if I’m getting any enjoyment from this. It’s just more something I have to do.”

“And the other two?”

“I’d have to give you that.”

D’Angelo reached to the side of the table. I tensed.

He lifted a cane, the same cane I’d seen him walk with before. He rapped the edge of the table. A clang rang out.

“You seem to take, that’s all you can really do. And we’ve had a lot of trouble trying to fight back, as I’m sure you know. To me, you are the embodiment of entropy, and it seems like the only way not lose any more is to have less to lose. And even then… you would find a way to reduce.”

“Goes both ways.”

“How so?”

“I didn’t come here to talk about me.”

“What did you come here to talk about, then?”

He was looking at me, and I was looking at him. Staring into my eyes, or in the general direction of where they would be.

I slid the mask down my face.

His eyes widened.

“Wendy?”

“You gave me your card, remember? The first time we met?”

“Yes, I remember.”

I breathed, then spoke, clear and without hesitation.

“I don’t have much time left, and you, D’Angelo, you’ve got even less. Figured I might give something to you before this came to an end.”

“But you still want something from me. You’ll still take something.”

“I’d apologize, but I have a feeling you wouldn’t take to it so well. Just know that, if I did, it would be genuine.”

“How thoughtful.”

“Tell me about Mister. Is he even fucking real?”

“I know a man we called Mister. That’s about as real as it gets.”

“Dammit D’Angelo, please. Where can I find him?”

“Good luck. Haven’t seen the man we called Mister since before all this started. Before you ever showed up. And by this point, why would you ever expect him to come back?”

I squared my jaw so hard it started to grind.

“Mrs. Carter.”

“You don’t find her. She finds you. Same with Styx.”

“So if I raise enough hell, they’ll come crying to me?”

“Everyone will be coming to stop you. Just try to pick them out of that mob.”

“I might just try that.”

“Haven’t you raised enough hell, Wendy? Haven’t you done enough?”

“Either everything burns, everything, or I burn out in the process.”

D’Angelo continued to eat. I was impressed that he still had an appetite.

“How far back were you planning something like this? I’m curious.”

“Your cousin said something about curiosity.”

“I know he did. Indulge me.”

“The first time we met.”

“At the hotel?”

I corrected him.

“Here.”

“Ah.”

D’Angelo wiped his lower lip with a napkin. Poised, with a bit of grace and dignity.

“There’s nothing else I can tell you. Nothing you wouldn’t already know, I’d suspect. All I have left now is to finish this meal.”

“May I stick around until then?”

“Of course. If it means anything, I’m still very impressed by you. I don’t think that’ll change.”

“Thank you, Santino.”

He took another bite. Only a few left.

“Morricone’s cooking has only gotten better with time.”

“That’s good to hear. I bid you goodnight, Santino, before I forget.”

“Yes, it’s a good night indeed.”

The air was cool, and for a moment, it was even calm. I sat with Santino D’Angelo until he was finished.

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