034 – Fifty-Nine on the Tenth Hour

Previous

Never before did I want to forget a school day as soon as the bell rang.

Not until today.

Ever since news broke out about The Bluemoon, and the existence of people with abnormal capabilities came to light, the world watched the struggling city of Stephenville closely, thirsty for updates. It almost became routine. Check the weather, check the traffic on the highway, check for any recent sightings of The Bluemoon. Probably something a stay-at-home father kept an eye on, drinking a cup of coffee while the rest of his family were still asleep. In Chicago. However, down here, for me, the concept of a ‘routine’ was already a lost one.

Especially today.

How was I expected to focus on the movements and minutiae of a school day when I had a potentially literal ticking time bomb to handle? It was a good thing I didn’t have math today, because the only bit of calculation I could manage right now was subtraction.

Twenty-four hours left.

I knew things couldn’t continue like this, not at school. Days couldn’t keep blurring like this, couldn’t keep pushing my normal responsibilities off to the side, neglected. Because I knew I’d end up forgetting about it, and chances were slim that I would get back on track with missing homework, failed tests, and quizzes. Ms. Powers already got on my case about it, and I suspected the rest of my teachers would lining up pretty soon.

But, even with me being conscious of that issue, I had to neglect my schoolwork for yet another night. How superheroes were ever able to juggle their two separate lives like how I saw in the few movies I watched, I’d never know.

Maybe I should watch them again, as a reference.

Another reason why I wanted to block today out of my mind was the entire student body itself. The split-second glance, the accidental meeting of the eyes in passing. I couldn’t stop myself from attaching another, insinuating meaning behind them.

The increased media attention on the city meant that everyone knew about the threat Solace made. The police and conscientious journalists tried their best to not reveal names, but their efforts could only go so far. I didn’t disclose my weekend plans with everyone, but I had no control over how loose their lips would be. If anyone knew, they didn’t say anything, but I couldn’t shake the feeling like I was already casted out and away. Didn’t help that I wasn’t up for talking with anyone, friends or acquaintances.

Maria, for her part, never told anyone about her being there, so her day went a bit more smoothly. Lucky. The one time she kept her personal life close to the chest, it benefitted her.

Lucky.

Katy, however, had it the worst out of all of us.

She thrived off of social interactions, feed off of it. I never thought of myself as an introvert, but I definitely wasn’t an extrovert on Katy’s level. The more people she had to talk to and with, the more energized and animated she became. Sometimes she’d end up taking things too far, like planning a birthday party at a manor in the middle of nowhere, but she meant well. She loved to talk, to gossip.

And if my school day was bad, I couldn’t begin to imagine how Katy was taking things.

Everyone would know who her dad was, by now. They would know what role he had in this. People would definitely avoid her, even if it wasn’t sensible. As if the threat would reach and affect them, too. Katy wasn’t used to this, wasn’t used to the tables being turned in this way. Like she was a freak, a black sheep. How was she holding up?

I wanted to talk with her, see how she was doing, but I didn’t have the chance. My mom took me to and from school, today.

I needed to clear my head, sort things out.

Dammit, I really do need a walk.

But did I have to do it in East Stephenville?

I strolled, hands in my pocket and wary of anything that moved.

Getting here wasn’t a hassle, just time-consuming. I had way more than enough money for the multiple buses it took to reach this part of town. But it was a lot of sitting, a lot of waiting for stops. I had a backpack with me, but not with all of my Blank Face stuff. My old mask, the baton, my knife. The essentials… essentially. I wasn’t out here on official ‘hero’ business. At least, it wasn’t my intention.

I had on a maroon hoodie and black pants. I tried to blend in with the worn, dark bricks that made up the buildings here.

As I walked, I fished the paper out of my pocket. I read it over again.

I looked around me.

Last time I was in the area, The Bluemoon was revealed to the world. And while it wasn’t the case for me, it was ground zero for everyone else. Simply walking around, taking a look at things, it was easy to tell how my actions had shaken the core of this part of town.

The Halloween Riots popped up all around the city, but it especially did some damage the East side. Property all over was broken into, businesses robbed, windows shattered, and the garbage flew whenever the wind picked up. More than usual. The place became a mess, and no one wanted to clean it.

It wasn’t exactly a warzone, but the more decent places became less so, and the bad places became worse.

Certainly not the safest place to be at this late hour.

I kept walking.

Already, Thomas was giving me progress on the police investigation on Solace. The call that Solace made was traced back to the top floor of an apartment building in the area, but it was abandoned by the time SWAT teams arrived and raided the place. A dead end, right when we couldn’t afford to run into one.

But, there was a particular detail that stood out to me.

The building was right in the middle of what used to be El Carruaje territory.

That… was certainly intriguing.

My fight against El Carruaje was never publicized, neither was the stockpile of weapons that the gang had smuggled in. As far as I knew, El Carruaje had become a non-factor, and Benny was out of the picture. But it was still odd. Intriguing, the source of the call.

And that was where I stepped in.

Take a look around, try to find any clues that connected Solace and El Carruaje and report it back to Thomas via the pager.

I moved to the side when a woman in a short skirt and high heels passed me. I was still reading the rudimentary map Thomas drew out of me, finding my way, getting my bearings.

Finally, something to do, somewhere to start. Problem was, I had to be on my own for this, I had to figure out how I was going to get anything useful. I didn’t have a lot of time to work with, either. Less than twenty-four hours. Tonight was my only chance.

No pressure.

I had to find a way to get some information, but it wouldn’t do if I started running around here as Blank Face, I needed to be inconspicuous. My old mask was only as a precaution, and it wasn’t even my real mask. Not anymore. I couldn’t afford to cause another riot.

So I had to assume a third identity of sorts, I couldn’t use Blank Face as a veil to hide behind.

My sense of self is getting thinner and thinner.

A greasy, brown paper bag floated my way. With my next step, I lifted my foot higher so it wouldn’t touch me.

My best bet was to start at the area around the apartment building the call was traced back to. Old El Carruaje territory. It wasn’t that far, only two blocks away. It might be best if I checked the building myself.

Though, it would be faster if I used the rooftops.

I considered the idea. I would be saving precious time, but there was a risk of someone spotting me. But, it was night, I had the dark to use as cover.

A couple hops, and I’d be there.

I’ll just look left and right and left again. Like driving.

Man, I need to learn how, already.

A motorcycle zoomed by, rumbling. I waited until it was out of sight, then I crossed the street, towards an alley on the other side.

A series of footsteps, following behind me. I heard them. I took note.

I continued into the alley, regardless.

I stopped. A wall.

The buildings on either side weren’t high, I could scale them easily. From there, shouldn’t be a challenge to get over to that apartment building.

Just had to take care of these clowns first.

Cornered, but not concerned.

I put up my hood, then turned.

Five men, two women, all taller than me, except one. Actually, she didn’t look like a woman at all, maybe a teenager, if not younger.

The four others were in a line, blocking my way back onto the street. The girl was out of line, in front of them.

I stepped back, and they all took one forward. Except the girl.

“Hurry up so we can get back to the real work,” one of the men said. “You’re the last one, can’t ignore your duties forever, baby.”

Another one of them kicked the girl in the back, not enough to make her fall, but she was forced forward.

The girl’s hand flashed something, even in the little bit of light here. A knife.

She looked to me, then back to the others behind her. Hesitant, from her face and stance. Inward, weak. Her hair was in pigtails, and she wore a white shirt, black pants.

Something about her…

Actually, all of them were dressed in a similar fashion. White top, black pants or shorts.

“You put yourself at a disadvantage, wasting your time like this.” It was the woman, this time. She was heavyset, speaking with a slur, out of breath at the end of her words. “Everybody else had got their thousand within the week, and you have what, until twenty-four hours?”

The girl was quiet.

“And how much you got?”

The girl was quiet.

“How much!” the heavyset woman yelled.

The girl twitched, squeaked. “N-nothing!”

“Right, nothing. And what happens if you don’t get anything.”

“I-I don’t know.”

“And you definitely want to keep it that way, believe that shit. This is a ‘L’ you don’t wanna take.”

The possibilities ran through my head. Was this some type of initiation? A test? Looking at the girl as she was right now, there was no way she’d succeed in time. She’d be put on the chopping block, suffering whatever consequences were in store for her when she inevitably failed.

A girl, a prisoner to her circumstances. Jailed by them.

Five men, one woman.

This shouldn’t take long.

I spoke like I was reading lines in class, “Don’t hurt me. I’ll give you whatever you want, just don’t hurt me.”

The men laughed, the heavyset woman laughing even harder. “See? She’s making it easier for you!”

The girl was still frozen, but she looked at me, almost more relaxed than before. She believed me, that I’d make this easy.

I was about to make it easier.

I spread my arms apart. Exposing myself.

Appearing that way.

“Everything’s in my backpack, just please, don’t hurt me,” I said.

The other thugs were making a day of this, goading the girl as she finally advanced, towards me. I stood, waiting.

Anticipating.

She finally came within reach. Before she could react, I grabbed a hold of her arm, and pulled.

I jumped forward as I let go. She fell, and I landed, putting myself between the girl and her superiors.

They weren’t expecting that, to put it lightly. They backed away, and I used that to my advantage.

I lunged at the heavyset woman first, going for her arm. I grabbed it, then turned. Using my strength, I flipped her over my shoulder. Instead of slamming her onto the concrete, I let go at as she was coming down, throwing her into her accomplices.

I knocked one of them down with her, but the others got out of the way in time. Two of them drew out knives, the other whipped out a gun.

Huh.

It only now came to me, concerning the threat of a gun. They’d been pointed at me a few times, but I’d never had gun fired at me, or anywhere near my general vicinity. Despite trying to do this superhero thing for this long, guns had nearly been out of sight, out of mind, something I rarely had to deal with. A gun was never fired.

Let’s not make tonight an exception.

I rushed to the man with gun next, elbowing him across the chin. As the gun fell from his hand, I pushed him, and his back smacked against the brick wall. Another down.

The last two attacked at the same time, but I could deal.

I was already in the air before they could manage anything. I flipped backwards, and found myself behind the two.

Did I just do a backflip?

I didn’t have time to ruminate on it, though it was pretty cool. Like… doing a backflip.

I was on them before they could even turn around.

A similar tactic as with the man with the gun. I shoved the closer man into the brick wall. His face took most of the impact, blood trailing when he slid down the wall. Down.

The last man standing. Running, now. He was already out of the alley, across the street.

Whatever. No use in going after him. Pointless.

The others here weren’t in any position to move or be an issue. But sticking around wasn’t necessary.

I walked back down the alley, over to the girl I was trying to save.

She was still on the ground, backing away as I approached. She held out her knife, pointing it at me.

Crying, whimpering.

No good. Was she that intimidated by me?

“Stand,” I said, “I’m not trying to turn the tables and rob you. I helped you out, didn’t I?”

The girl went still, and met my eyes, pausing, as if she was thinking it over.

I took off my hood. I was fine with revealing my face, here. That fight back there wouldn’t incriminate me as The Bluemoon, even with a backflip. I extended a hand.

“Here,” I said.

After a moment, she put away her knife, and took my hand, instead.

I helped her up, then we walked out of the alley, stepping over some moaning bodies, my hand in hers. She was young enough that I didn’t feel weird about it, one way or another. I let go as we took a left.

Guess I’m walking.

The girl continued to walk with me. I could take her somewhere safe, and move on to the apartment building.

“What’s your name?” I asked, filling the air. Why not. She might have information.

“Isabella,” she said, barely above a whisper.

“That’s a pretty name.”

Had to give her mine, if I wanted to keep a conversation alive. I already showed her my face, after all.

“I’m… Wendy.”

That doesn’t mean I’m going to give you my real name.

Isabella didn’t respond, but I knew I was going to be pulling the weight in this.

“Who were those guys?” I asked. “They didn’t look like your friends.”

“They aren’t.”

“Who are they apart of? Who’s their boss?”

“The Ghosts, a splinter of another gang that broke apart recently. Some man named Lawrence.”

Isabella had the voice of a kid, but she didn’t sound like one. There was a weariness to her that broke my heart whenever she spoke.

But I had to keep her talking.

“Must have been scary back there, but aren’t you a little young to be getting involved in stuff like that?”

Isabella kept her eyes to her feet. “Yeah.”

“Where are your parents? If they’re close, I can take you, or maybe call a taxi or something.”

Isabella kept her eyes to her feet. “My parents aren’t here, no more.”

I felt a sting inside me. How fucked was this city?

“Sorry to hear that,” I said, steadily becoming uncertain on how to word things. “Is there anywhere I can take you? Anywhere safe?”

Isabella glanced up, but only for a moment. “No, I dunno, I’m new here.”

New?

“I’ve only been here for a week… ish,” Isabella said.

“Oh, then I have an idea. Follow me?”

Isabella didn’t object. She followed when I went another way.

Wait a minute…

And she does look familiar.

“You didn’t happen to come in by way of sitting in the back of a semi-trailer truck, did you?” I asked.

Now I saw her face. Surprise.

“How, how’d you know?”

“Just a guess,” I said, thinking quickly. “I try to keep my ear to the ground. Don’t worry, I’m not going to turn you in.”

“Oh,” was all she said about that. We crossed, then turned. We kept going.

Isabella was one of the people I found in that trailer yard. One of the illegal immigrants. That was where I saw her. Thomas was right, the people there got divided up among different gangs. But children? Putting them through trials like that?

How fucked was this city?

I remembered that Thomas was puzzled over their transport, being supervised by Styx’s Gang. I wondered if Isabella knew anything about that.

“You’re amazing,” Isabella then said, without any prompting. Softly.

“What, me?” I didn’t expect to hear that.

“You fought Georgie and Bronson and Jay and Samantha and them like it was nothing. I wish I could be that strong.”

I just pushed around a couple of losers, it wasn’t anything to applaud, I thought. She was overestimating me.

“I’m not that strong, not at all,” I said. “You know, I think you’re stronger. It takes a lot to be caught up in this and not end up being completely nuts.”

Her eyes were still facing forward, but I saw her cheek go upward. A smile?

“Who says I hadn’t?”

A joke. She was starting to feel better.

Now was my chance.

“Um, I hope you don’t mind too much, but I wanted to ask you some questions, while we walk?”

“Oh, sure, alright.”

I made a list of questions in my head, trying to make sure I wouldn’t end up forgetting anything. Not that I expected Isabella to be in the know.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

Ciudad de México.”

Mexico City, then.

“And how far is that from, say, Pátzcuaro?”

She took time to think about it. “That’s about four hours west. The truck came from there. Why?”

“Just thinking. Did you notice anything weird about your ride? Anything off?”

“I don’t follow.”

“Are you aware of Styx’s Gang?”

Isabella looked down, in every sense of the phrase. I didn’t need a verbal answer.

“They supervised your ride into the country, am I correct?”

Isabella nodded. “I heard the motorcycles during the last leg of the trip, we thought they were cops, but the sounds followed us all the way, until we finally stopped.”

“Do you know why?”

Isabella had a look on her face. She didn’t follow.

“The thing is, Styx’s Gang doesn’t deal in transporting immigrants, but apparently your ride was an exception. My question is, was there anyone in there with you that seemed… off?”

She started to slow her pace. I had to match her.

“We were all crammed in there for days,” Isabella said. She didn’t sound very fond of having to recall that memory. “Everyone kept to themselves, as much as they could in that space. I can’t say for sure.”

No luck there, then.

“But, maybe there was one person…”

I raised an eyebrow.

“But they came after we arrived here. They wore a mask.”

That’s not what I wanted to hear.

“I think I know who you’re talking about,” I said.

“At first, I thought they were with that motorcycle gang, but I wasn’t getting that vibe. Then I realized it was that hero I saw on TV. La luna azul.”

I had to look ahead when we crossed another street. Good to know I’m on the world stage.

“I couldn’t believe my eyes, but it wasn’t what I expected though,” Isabella added, “Cradling an arm, talking to themselves. It was very strange.”

I had to cut her off. “That’s not what I was getting at, I mean someone in the trailer, with you.”

“Why are you so curious about that?” Isabella asked.

Think fast. “I said it earlier, I try to keep my ear about the ground, get any dirt I can. In this city, it’s more valuable than cash.”

“Who are you?” Isabella asked, seemingly perplexed. “Is your name even Wendy? Are you part of another gang?”

Dang, she’s sharp. “Of course my name’s Wendy, and I’m just a third party. Wouldn’t catch me dead, being involved with a gang.”

“Okay…” Isabella pulled at her shirt, when a brief rush of wind blew towards us. I had to fix my bangs.

“When you put it that way, I guess another person stuck out.”

Oh?

“Who?” I asked.

La luna azul was speaking with someone I was with. A boy named Miguel. He helped with the arm, and then a man pushed through everyone, and kicked ‘em down. The motorcycle people came in right after, and after that…”

Isabella stopped there.

But now we’re getting somewhere.

“And who was that man? What did he look like?”

“Uh, he was a gringo, skinny but tall, and he had a buzz.”

“Buzz?”

“Buzz cut.”

A surge of anger came over me. I tried my best to recall that person. Fragmented memories, but I knew I was ambushed back at the trailer. I had pinned it to Styx, but that didn’t seem right, now that I put more thought into it. The first hits came from within the trailer, I was sure of it now.

So it was someone else.

I clenched a fist.

“What else do you know about the guy?” I asked, trying to keep my voice level.

“I dunno, he was by himself, didn’t say anything the whole trip. When it was time to get sorted out… he wasn’t among the rest of us. He was with the leader of the biker gang.”

This… was also intriguing.

Thomas might have been onto something. Maybe a person of interest was among those immigrants. But certain questions remained. Who? Why? Was it something for Blank Face and Hleuco to tackle?

Maybe it was because I was desperate for answers, for things to connect, but maybe that person was Solace?

Wishful thinking, at this point. I needed more solid info.

Another street crossed. We were getting farther from that apartment building, now, but that was okay.

“Have you heard of Solace? Do you know anything about that?”

“I heard of it, I don’t know anything about it.”

Didn’t expect you to.

I decided to ask her something else. Another subject.

“That boy, Miguel? Do you know what gang he ended up in? He might know something.”

She shook her head. Isabella looked sad. Did I touch a nerve?

“All of us got split up when the masked hero was attacked, not sure why. We were taken in different trucks. When we met up again, Miguel wasn’t there.”

I didn’t like the sound of that.

I wanted to press for more, about that man, but we were coming up on our destination. If it really came down to it, I could try and visit one of Styx’s Ferrymen, again.

A corner stop for a megabus was in the distance. People were already there, waiting. I pulled her into a nearby alley.

“You’ll have to take it from here,” I said.

“Take what from where?” she asked. I still had my own things to do, but at the same time, I didn’t want to leave Isabella on her own. I just had to trust in her strength.

I gave her a soft smile.

“How about this,” I said, moving my backpack so it was in front of me, slung across a shoulder. I opened it.

I was careful about not accidentally taking out my mask or weapons, but I took out a wad of cash, some change, and handed to Isabella.

She had a quizzical look to her, feeling the weight in her hands. “How much is this?”

“I think a thousand dollars?”

“A thousand-”

“Shh, hey, but it’s not for your gang. You take this, and you get the hell out of this city. You braved a long ride getting here, and I can’t begin to imagine how terrible that trip was, but it’d be all a waste if you were stuck in Stephenville.”

She held the money in her hands, still bewildered by the amount.

“Just do me a favor,” I said.

“Yeah?”

“Use that change, and go to the payphone by the bus stop. Call 9-1-1, tell them everything you know about the Ghosts. Tell them where your boss is. I’m sure they’ll find a charge that sticks. After that, take the bus out of here. You’ll have to be on your own then, but you seem smart enough to manage. Oh, and where you’ve been staying, is there anything there that can’t be replaced with cash?”

“No.” She sounded down about that being the case.

“Cool, that should be enough money to go as you are, no one will ask any questions if you can cough up enough dough.”

Isabella split the cash four ways, stuffing each piece into both front and back pockets. “But, how can I manage if I don’t stay with a gang? It’s hard to be by yourself.”

I put a hand on her shoulder. She didn’t tense up.

“It is hard, I’m not going to lie, but it’s going to be even harder if you get tangled up in that life even more. Don’t play with fire. Besides, I might not go so easy on you if I see you again.”

“Huh?”

“Just promise me you’ll do as I ask,” I said, trying to sound kind. Compassionate. “Or, at least promise me you won’t be about that life, anymore.”

Isabella nodded, her hair bouncy. “Sure, I promise.”

“Good.”

I put my other hand on her. I spun her around, then I gave her a light push forward.

By the time she could turn around, I was already on the rooftops.

The building was in ruin. It had lost the right to provide proper shelter and necessities to people a long time ago.

Dark and cold. Dirty and cracked. Degraded and crumbled.

I entered the apartment building through the front doors, putting on my mask as I entered. I made to sure check that no one was around before I moved in.

The SWAT team cleared out the area before me, and they were good. Bags of trash and debris were kicked to the side, every room and hall scouted and cleared. If there was a trap, they wouldn’t have missed it. I had no reason to doubt their capabilities on that front.

Which gave me a straight path to the room on the top floor, marked by Thomas on my map. Room 543.

There was no door, I walked right in.

As expected, as I suspected, nothing.

The room was as trashed as the rest of the apartment building, streaks of black marked the floors and walls and ceilings, the colored tagging making everything uglier. But the space was empty, nothing here except a single wooden table at one corner. Missing a leg.

Not much.

I still took some time to inspect every wall, fixating and focusing on every detail until my eyes hurt. There were electrical outlets, but nothing plugged in. No hidden camera, no secret microphone. Could there have been something they missed? Probably not, if they had found the room like this, too. They were trained for this, I wasn’t. I didn’t even know what to look for. What stood out here, aside from the very location of the building this room was in? There was little chance it was just a coincidence, there had to be something. Maybe the info I got from Isabella was enough, enough to start working out some theories with Thomas.

Maybe.

I searched over the room again.

The table in the corner. I hadn’t checked that.

No point in skipping it.

I moved to get a closer look. It was more banged up than I thought. Scratches all over the surface, droplets of dried blood. Not a lot in the way of dust, however. It was used by whoever was in here, whoever that was. An extension of the rest of the room, really, an extension of the damage and decay this building had seen.

So, nothing.

“Agh!”

I threw the table across the room. It crashed onto the opposite wall, breaking into two.

I had less than twenty-four hours to come up with a way to stop Solace. Twenty-four hours to foil his plan. But all I had was a few potentially unrelated details from a little girl and an empty room. That wasn’t nearly enough to prevent Solace from killing a person everyday until I gave myself up.

Dammit.

I was about to leave, but I looked at table again, more broken than before. It was on its side, the undersides of the two halves facing me.

I noticed there were even more scratches underneath.

I approached to get a better look. I read the marks.

‘Doris was here,’ a number promising illicit sexual acts if dialed, and other meaningless messages were scrawled out under the table. None really stood-

Hold it.

There was one.

I took a step back, and bent down, so I could read it easily.

Messy, scraped out in large letters, but it was hard to notice among all the other crap. Easy to gloss over, I could see SWAT officers brushing this off. They wouldn’t have known to discern this.

Unbelievable.

The table was broken, and the message was split down the middle. But I could still piece it together.

No cheating.

Previous

033 – Required Strength

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It had taken up to three hours to make it to Katy’s place, from getting through the frenzy at the hotel, traffic, and making sure everyone was following and in step with the police escorts. Three hours.

Forty-five hours left.

Kristin dealt with the officers while Katy let us in.

The interior was dark, but it was no matter to me. I could have navigated this whole house blindfolded, I was that familiar with the place.

Her house was big, even for a two-story home. It had a modern design and chic to it that made it hard to believe it was in the same school district as mine. The whole neighborhood had that posh air, giving the impression that it was a safe place to be. Kristin insisted that we stayed together for the night, and this was the only place that could comfortably house everyone. I was itching to do more, myself, but maybe it was something we needed, after that ordeal.

Maybe it was something I needed.

Katy pointed to the slippers lined up by the door. “Should be enough for everyone. Try to make yourself at home.”

“Remind me to marry you, Katy,” Maria said. She made room for my mom to close the door. “I have got to get in on this.”

Katy responded, “How well can you cook and clean?”

“Once you taste my spicy fish tacos, you’ll be begging me to put a ring on it.”

This is the most anyone’s spoke since leaving the hotel, I thought.

Katy flipped a nearby set of switches, and the lights turned on throughout the house. We walked through the main hallway, Katy ahead of us. The stairs were to our right, and the kitchen opened up to our left. Katy stopped at the kitchen.

A gate was set up at the entrance. Plastic, about as high as my hip.

On the other side, a dog stirred.

“Annie, come here, come here,” Katy called in a high pitch.

“Ah, the legend herself,” Maria said. She’d heard all about Annie before, to the point that Maria had to demand that Katy never bring her up again, lest she lose the feeling in her upper lip.

Annie was a labrador retriever, the family pet, absolutely adorable, but she was getting up there in years. Her fur wasn’t as bright as it used to be, gray streaked her ears and the top of her head. She moved from her bed, sluggish.

She used to be so energetic and excited whenever guests came over. Now, she was more content with just sitting by their side in the living room.

But, she was still absolutely adorable, just looking at her made me feel a little better.

Katy folded the gate to let her pass, but the dog stopped halfway, seemingly confused. She tilted her head.

Katy ordered her again, “Annie, come here, let’s go outside.”

The dog didn’t budge, instead taking a more defensive stance.

Annie started growling. Baring teeth.

“Annie!” Katy had to snap at her, scold her. “Behave!”

Katy entered the kitchen, and grabbed Annie’s collar. She didn’t bite, but she did resist. Katy had to use actual force to tug her along.

Annie continued to growl as she went out of the kitchen. But, as she approached, she tried to break out of Katy’s hold, and lunge.

At me.

It was my mom, Maria, and myself, but I saw how Annie moved, where her eyes went, which person she attempted to get. The spring in her step, the sudden fire in her eyes. Even though I played and ran around the house with her when I was a kid, it was like I was a stranger to her, now.

No one seemed to notice that, however. Mom and Maria both backed up when Annie started trying to get on her hind legs, growling all the way. Katy had to hold her down.

“Agh, shoot. I think I’ll have to keep her outside,” Katy decided, her arms shaking from Annie’s movements, her gown getting stepped on by the dog.

Finally, after Katy’s repeated insistence, Annie complied, following Katy to the other side of the house. All by the collar, letting out a grunt or snarl on the way.

“Man, even the dog’s on edge,” Maria commented. I didn’t know what to think of that, myself.

The three of us continued into the living room. Large, the ceiling high with wooden beams, a wooden floor, white walls and white curtains. The farthest wall was essentially one big window. Katy was probably on the other side, with Annie.

The room and its furniture put recently built model homes to shame. Fancy, yet cozy was the best way I could describe it. Only a few spots here and there didn’t fit, didn’t mesh, and I knew enough to know that was Thomas’s doing. Knick-knacks from different countries, a doll from Japan sat one small table in the corner, beside two tribal African masks. If anything, it added character.

On every shelf and table, however, had picture frames of the Thompson family. Some had all three of them, but most were just Katy as a kid, running in a field, or playing on a playground. One family photo had them standing in front of the Eiffel Tower. There was another picture where Katy was playing with a smaller, younger girl. On first glance, you’d be forgiven if you thought they were stock photos. Just the shots, the lighting, the expressions, the general aura of the pictures, they were humorlessly generic.

Then again, I didn’t have lot of photos like that at my place, so who was I to judge?

My mom and I went to the sofa, Maria fell onto the loveseat. Her first time here, and she was already making herself at home.

A flat screen TV faced us. Huge, like a large chunk of the wall in front of us was simply missing, non-existent. Shelves at the bottom had the blu-ray player, and below that was a small cabinet with an extensive library of movies.

They had an extensive sound and lighting rig. But, the TV wasn’t on, the lights for the rig weren’t activated, either.

I could really go for a movie right now, I thought, but it didn’t seem appropriate, at the moment.

The silence was deafening. Not a single word was uttered.

I couldn’t sit still. I repositioned myself, crossed my legs, switched them, crossed my arms. There was more I could be doing, other than sitting here.

But what?

A clack, and a window at the farthest wall slid open. Katy stepped into the living room at the same time her mother did, coming from the hallway. They met us in the middle of the room.

Even with more people, the silence remained.

Someone… please…

Katy was the one to break it, a false levity, a nervous tinge, “Geez, everyone’s acting like someone died.”

“Too soon,” Maria said, moving around on the seat to be on her back. “No one’s died yet.”

“Stop that,” Kristin said, “No one here is going to die, and no one here is in any danger. I just spoke with the police officers outside, and they offered to do shifts and patrol the area for the night. And, I also just got off the phone with your father. He’s already done with his business at the hotel, and he’s on his way back home.”

She moved to sit by my mom, then putting an arm around her shoulder.

“Shiori? You and Alexis are more than welcome to stay the night if you’d like.”

“I’ve got some pajamas that should fit,” Katy added, “And of course y’all can sleep in my room.”

My mom looked at me for so long I thought she was considering against it. I almost wanted her to. But I didn’t have a way of projecting that without outright saying it.

I watched her closely, intensely. Every detail, I noted, I saw.

She then faced Kristin. “We’ll take you up on that, thank you,” my mom said instead.

Stuck here for the night, when the clock’s ticking. Fuck.

Kristin hugged my mom, and she received it warmly.

“Of course, the offer extends to you too, Maria,” Kristin said, getting up from the sofa. “You might want to contact your parents, first.”

“I left a message,” Maria said, in a way that came off as apathetic. “They’ll see it.”

Kristin was aware enough to leave that alone, and addressed all of us at once. “I’d try to explain more, but I’ll let Thomas handle that when he gets here. He’ll have more of the details. I’ll be in the kitchen, see if I can’t whip up something to eat.”

“I’ll help,” my mom said, leaving the sofa. “I want to make myself useful.”

“By all means. Katy, did you take the dog out?”

“Yup,” Katy said, as she dropped onto the seat Maria was in, nearly sitting in her lap if Maria hadn’t gotten out of the way in time.

“Okay, good. In the meantime, why don’t you set up a movie for y’all to watch?”

She left after making the suggestion, and my mom followed. And somehow, their absence sucked what little air was left in the room.

It was still… still.

Between my friends, especially these two, it usually wasn’t hard to find something to talk about. But none of us uttered a sound. Katy didn’t bother trying to turn on the TV.

The looming words of that bomber. Solace. I knew they were on the minds of everyone here. How much was it affecting them?

“The…”

Maria sighed, failing to get a sentence out.

Katy and I looked at her.

She fixed her position, sitting properly, and Katy had to scoot over to give her space. Maria undid her hair, letting it fall around her. It was hard to read her face.

“The Bluemoon really creeps me the fuck out,” Maria said, timorous. It sounded like an opener to something else.

“Some hero,” Katy said. She gave me a look. Fleeting. Was that to have me say something, too? Or was there another implication?

I felt my skin go clammy.

All this second guessing, always having to watch my step, watch my words. It was killing me.

I kept quiet.

“No, like, I really hope it gives itself up,” Maria said, stammering, “I really fucking do. I’m tired of… hearing about it all the time. Can’t it just go away?”

From across the room, her words stung. Eduardo must have said something to her about me. But what, exactly? What was the fallout like on her end? What went down?

And Katy. Did my friends really hate The Bluemoon that much? Blank Face? Me?

I wanted to read their thoughts so bad.

“Why does it have to exist?” Maria asked, her face in her palms. “Why does it have to ruin everything?”

Tears. Any more, and the last thing I would end up ruining was myself.

Katy looked my way again, and I was starting to get scared.

Please don’t look at me.

Before I could try to do anything, I heard the front door open, then close. It wasn’t long after until Thomas revealed himself, coming into the living room.

Everything about him looked down. His jacket was unbuttoned, his shirt untucked in some places. His hair was a mess, and he wasn’t standing straight.

“Hi,” he said, weary, exhausted, tired.

“Dad!”

Katy got up immediately, and ran straight to him, nearly tackling him into an embrace. I couldn’t blame her, a very small part of me wanted to do the same.

I stood, anyways, and Maria followed, fixing her hair. My mom and Kristin came up from behind Thomas, both wearing aprons.

Everyone was in the living room.

Katy stepped back, finally letting her father go. With how things were going recently, that grueling silence would have returned, but Thomas curbed that like it was nothing.

“Is everyone okay?” he asked.

There were nods all around.

Thomas looked pleased, relieved. He chose to believe us.

“How about yourself?” Kristin asked. She approached Thomas and kissed him on the cheek. He leaned down for an easy reach.

“I’m holding up. There was nothing more I wanted than to go home with you all,” he said, “But I had to give a statement, work things out with the police, not to mention handle the press and their incessant questions…”

“Then I hate to do this to you, Dad,” Katy said, “But you’re going to have to answer some more.”

He exhaled, then forced a smile. “I would rather answer a million from you than one from those reporters.”

Thomas gestured, and we all moved, taking positions. Mom and I returned to the sofa, with Maria joining us. Kristin and Katy sat together on the other seat. Thomas stood, in front of the TV.

“I’ll just run down through everything I covered back at the hotel. Easier that way. Basically, it’s still too early to know if this ‘Solace’ will follow through with the threat, but everyone is going to be treating it like he will. Police are already starting investigations as we speak, like tracing where Solace’s call was coming from, and going through and asking everyone involved with the planning and running of the dinner, to see if there isn’t a clue.”

“Meaning they’ll be knocking on our door, very soon,” Kristin said. “Asking for me.”

Thomas nodded. “‘Suspicion’ is a bad word to use, but they’re not looking at you in that way, hon. However, they will need your assistance on this.”

“And they will have it.” She wrapped her arm around Katy, and Katy leaned on her.

I only now noticed that my mom had her hand on my lap.

“Do they really have a list of all of the guests?” Maria asked, blurting out the question. “Are we all potential targets?”

Had to go and say it, I thought, but I knew it was a concern that needed to be addressed.

‘Concern,’ being a very severe understatement.

“Can’t say for certain,” Thomas answered. “Nothing on that man beside the bomb and his clothes, and nothing he said confirmed that he had a supposed list. It could’ve all been for show, a bluff…”

“Or he wants us to not be certain, and have all of us constantly doubt and fear what we don’t know,” Katy said.

“Katy!” her mom exclaimed.

Katy leaned away from Kristin. “Well, couldn’t that also be the case? They’re trying to get us afraid, to be scared as shit, all over some damn hero that can jump high!”

Visibly exasperated. Her voice uneven, shaking. She was already feeling it.

Thomas sulked, shadows over his eyes.

“That’s… also a possibility. Once again, too early to say.”

“And once we can say, it’ll be too late,” Katy said, soft. She wasn’t looking at anything in particular. Kristin hugged her, even tighter.

Maria looked at Katy, Kristin, then to Thomas.

“Can’t you ask the guy?” Maria asked, “The bomber man? Wouldn’t he know something?”

“He was immediately taken to the hospital for injuries he sustained from wherever the hell he came from. Medics had found signs of internal bleeding, multiple organ failures, the works. I overheard them having to consider to consider the possibility of a medically induced coma, but I hope it doesn’t come to that.”

“But…”

“But, this ‘Solace,’ whoever he, she, or they are, they knew what they were doing with the bomber. If the bomb didn’t kill him, his injuries weren’t that far behind. As of now, he might live, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be useful.

“Another reason why Solace might be a credible threat.”

I spoke, the first real words I said in hours. Everyone directed themselves to me.

But that was all I had in me to say.

Thomas agreed, “The nature of their announcement, the bomb, the fact that it could be remotely deactivated, the fact that the bomber could even get close enough to grab the mic away from me-”

He stopped himself, pinching the bridge of his nose. He maintained that position for a time, and I could hear the seconds ticking away in my head. The hours.

Thomas stayed that way, but he said, “Regardless, telegraphing the threat like that can actually work to our advantage. We know the scope of the threat, and we have a time limit to formulate a plan and start getting things in order so nothing happens when Solace’s supposed timer hits zero.”

He paused, taking another second, then put his hand down, looking at us individually, in the eyes.

“The number one priority is keeping everyone safe. Each and every one of you. All those good police officers and law enforcement aren’t going to rest until this situation is handled and dissolved, and I don’t plan to, either. Nothing is going to happen to you.”

No one said anything. I wasn’t sure if anyone believed him.

“What do we do in the meantime?”

My mom asked.

Thomas put a hand in his pocket, and took out a phone. It was ringing. He silenced it.

“Terrorists want to instill fear and disturb the minds of good people. The best way to undermine their efforts is to not let that fear get to you. We have to continue, heads held high, not just for ourselves, but for everyone. To show them that we’re made of tougher stuff, and that we don’t fold to such pressure.”

A last ditch effort to instill some confidence, I guessed, Putting on a show. I just want to find that fucker and…

What exactly, would I do if I got my hands on him?

Maria raised her hand. “Uuum, does this mean we still have to go to school tomorrow?” she asked out of the blue.

Weak, short laughs all around, me included. Even Thomas managed to find humor in the timing.

“Yes, Maria, I advise you should all go to school tomorrow,” Thomas said, with a tad more energy. “You shouldn’t use this as an excuse to skip a few classes.”

“Would you blame me if I did?”

“No, I guess I wouldn’t.”

“And The Bluemoon?” Katy mentioned, and immediately she brought the mood crashing down. “This would all be over if it gave itself up.”

It. Itself. No one ever used a gender pronoun towards The Bluemoon. Katy or Maria didn’t use it, and neither did Solace. Hardly anyone did. They truly didn’t think of me as one of them. A person.

I hung my head.

“Things would certainly be easier if he does,” Thomas said. “However, The Bluemoon is most likely operating on his own agenda, we can’t assume or trust that he will come forward. We’ll have to plan as if that’s not going to happen.”

He was answering for me. How accurate that answer was, I was beginning to have my doubts.

More and more second guessing.

It never ended.

I heard Thomas’s phone. Ringing, again.

“They don’t know how to leave a man alone. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll have to take this. I’ll be in the backyard.”

“Oh, Annie’s out there,” Katy said.

“All the more reason to go outside. I’ll be back shortly.” Thomas started making his way to the backyard.

Kristin called out to him as he left. “‘Each and every one of you’ includes you, too. Don’t push yourself, you’re not even officially the new DA yet.”

He waved without turning, and went outside. My mom and Kristin both left to go back into the kitchen.

That silence.

I can’t be here, with Katy or Maria. Not like this.

“I’m going to the bathroom,” I muttered. I left the sofa, then the living room.

Then to the stairs we passed earlier, and then up.

I found the bathroom easily, locking the door behind me. I was facing the mirror, hands pressed against the marble sink, but I couldn’t look at myself.

I saw it, I saw it all. From subtleties in my mom’s expression, to how Maria went from joking to morose and back again, to Katy’s trouble state. She showed it the most.

They were scared.

Anyone would be. It was understandable. Expected, even. But all I ever felt this whole time was anger. The fire to do something to get back at Solace. It was a war he started, and it would be a war I wanted to bring. I wanted to go back to my apartment, I wanted to get my costume and go out there. But…

But…

What good would that do?

I saw them all. How down they looked, the gloom that held them. Was this the only thing I’d ever provide as Blank Face? Fear, and people willing to capitalize on it? Did I do any good as Blank Face? I’d crippled a gang, stopped some crimes, fought against the cornerstone of the city’s underworld establishment, all for what? Who saw it that way? Who cared to look at it from that perspective? Or would everyone really prefer to have me gone, out of the picture?

My family, my friends, others. Their lives were at stake, now. Because of me.

Would it be better if I did give myself up?

Without looking at myself, I washed my hands. I was up here for too long, already. And thinking like this all the time… I’d lose my mind.

I turned off the faucet, and dried my hands, using a fancy towel on the rack beside me. I left the bathroom, and found Thomas waiting for me outside.

“AK,” he said, calling me by that nickname again.

“T-Thomas,” I said, unexpectedly. I patted my backside, and fixed my dress. My hands were still wet. “Everyone’s downstairs?”

“Yeah, Katy’s preparing a movie.” Thomas blinked, but he let his eyes stayed closed for a while. He had a shoulder on a wall, propping himself. He looked so done that he’d flop onto the floor if he didn’t have something to help him stay upright. “I’ve got more business to handle, so I’m heading into my office.”

“Okay.”

“How’re you feeling?” he then asked.

I answered honestly. “Keeping it together. Trying to, anyways, but I feel like I’m going to explode in any minute. I would say I’m drained, but you look the part more than I do.”

Thomas either nodded, taking in my answer, or he was already drifting elsewhere.

“That,” Thomas said, “But also, how are you feeling? Thirsty? Hungry? Stomach pains?”

“Oh, I’m getting to be a little thirsty, I guess. A small itch in the back of my throat. You… I was able to manage for the whole week.”

“That’s good. I suspect it won’t be that way for much longer.”

“No.”

“I’ll have to put that on my list of things to do. I tried thinking of possible ways I could get you blood, but nothing came up that wouldn’t automatically raise flags, of course. Can’t just go through the process of donating blood and ask to bring it home with you. Can’t just walk into a blood bank and ask for some, either. I’m more than aware of ‘gang doctors,’ but that’s underground, black market territory, so we’ll probably have to cross that out, considering our modus operandi. I’m really sorry.”

“No, I really appreciate you trying to help in that. You’ve almost put more thought into it than I have.”

And I don’t want to keep having you give up more and more of your blood to me.

I could see the timer ticking in my head, imagining what it would be like when it got to zero.

Thomas spoke when my imaginary timer reached ‘one.’

“I wanted to talk with you the most, about all of this,” Thomas said, “And yet, you ended up being the last in line.”

I didn’t know how to take that.

“Everything I said earlier still applies. What I didn’t mention is that the police will be doubling down on their lookout for you. This might be enough for the National Guard to make a move, too.”

I swallowed. Even more complications. Even more players in this sick game.

“This is gang related, right?” I asked. “Couldn’t Styx’s Gang be involved in this? They were the ones I revealed the Blank Face name to. The last thing Solace said, that ‘blank face in the crowd’ line. It has to be connected to Styx, somehow.”

“It’s a good assumption, very likely a correct one, but considering Styx and his gang, they’d only disseminate that information to others. I wouldn’t put this past them, but they might not be the true masterminds. Could be someone else.”

Even more complications. Even more players in this sick game.

I swallowed, again.

All of it was weighing down, crushing me. It wouldn’t take more for me to give out, entirely and completely.

I wanted to curse, but I didn’t. Thomas knew how I was, now. Part of me felt weird about it.

I was at a loss of what to say.

Thomas picked up my slack. “What do you want to do?”

What do I want to do?

I was just asking that, myself.

“What… What do I do?” I asked, voice unsteady. “People could die, all because of me. What am I supposed to do, if I don’t reveal myself?”

Thomas considered his response. He closed his eyes.

He opened them.

“You maintain. You maintain, and endure. This is what Blank Face has to be about. Unwavering, even in the face of threats and danger. Tougher stuff.”

I reiterated, “People could die, and it’d be all my fault. I don’t want that on my hands. I want to get Solace and stop him myself, but… I don’t know where to start. I wanted to go home, get my costume, but I’d be running blind. And I saw everyone’s reaction and… I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know. I don’t know if I can endure this. Maybe I should just give myself up, I-”

I had to force myself to stop my rambling.

Thomas was watching me, intently, and put his hand on my arm. He squeezed.

“Don’t you dare think for a second that you’re not worth existing. No matter what anyone says, no matter what anyone does, you belong. It might be hard for people to see it, but you’ve done good. At a sufficient minimum, you’ve done good by me. And if everyone gave up just because others didn’t think they belong, we’d be living in a much sadder, much scarier world.”

I was shaking my head the whole time, my eyes getting wet, my makeup starting to run. My normal life was already ruined, there was no getting out from this unscathed, personal life or just my person. Solace challenged me, and dragged along everyone else in order to do it. Even if Hleuco and I stopped Solace, the ramifications would last, linger. People would hate and fear Blank Face even more, and everything we had done against the gangs would be wasted. Even if Solace’s threats were just empty promises, irreparable damage was already done.

What could I hope to gain?

“Alexis, listen,” Thomas said. He pushed himself off of the wall and put his other hand on my other arm. “Don’t you dare think for a second that you’re alone in this, either. I’ve told you that much already. I’m here to help, I will help, and police will be indirectly helping you, too. They want to stop Solace just as much as you do. We’re going to get through this, together.”

I nodded. It was all I could do.

“Are we good?” Thomas questioned.

“Not good,” I answered, “But better.”

“You’ve got this, Alexis, just take it a day at a time.” Thomas let go, and walked past me, going deeper into the hall. “With that being said, I won’t be able to join you as Hleuco, not for the time being. Not with insisted police protection, press, and general preparations as the district attorney-elect.”

I figured as much, but I felt like choking, regardless.

“I can still contact you, feed you information so you’re not in the dark about how the investigation is going. Plans, too, if I think there’s something you can do. I’ll do the same about your blood situation, and if I can find anything about your true nature, but that last bit’s will have to really be in the back burner.”

“I don’t know if I could repay you for everything you’ve done,” I said, feeling guilty. “Out of everyone here, I’ve put you in the worst position.”

Thomas shook his head. “Back when I first met you as Blank Face, I was the one to approach you. I encouraged you to do more with your powers. If we really want to play the blame game, I gave myself the biggest cross to bear.”

He continued, “When you get up to my age, you end up with a lot of regrets, a lot missed chances and overlooked opportunities. Your only options are to either forget about them, or work harder to not add another regret to that list. I will not turn you into a bullet point on that sad list.”

He slouched one shoulder, and rested on the wall again.

In my head, and for as long as I knew him, Thomas was nothing if not a pillar. Standing, never faltering to pressure, tension, stress. An absolute. Someone to look up to, and even admire.

Tonight, I saw a crack in that pillar.

“Good night, Alexis,” Thomas said, faintly. “Enjoy that movie, get some sleep, and when tomorrow comes, keep your chin up. I’ll be in touch.”

His office was at the end of the hallway, and I watched as he retreated into it. The door didn’t make a sound as it opened and closed.

I wondered how much of what he said was for himself, too.

With gradual, heavy steps, I went back down the stairs, back into the living room. The lights were a contrast from earlier. Everything was off except for the lights for the TV, and the TV itself. Everyone was around the TV, a light rom-com playing. A movie I’d seen before. Only Katy and Maria were up, eyes glued to the screen, eating popcorn. They didn’t acknowledge me coming in. Which was for the best, I didn’t want to show my face.

I sat next to my mom, praying she wouldn’t snore and bother the rest. I placed my head on her arm, and I focused on her breathing, the rise and fall of her chest. The television went blurry, and I closed my eyes, the sounds muffling.

A small bit of peace, a calm before the storm. I just wanted this moment to last, even for a second longer.

The time was displayed on the blu-ray player. I had checked it before I dozed off.

Forty-three hours left.

Previous                                                                                               Next

032 – Invitation

Bonus                                                                                               Next

We moved as a squad, fresh as we could possibly be, ready to have a blast.

The ballroom opened up before us, and, speaking for myself, it took my breath away.

The room was wide, expansive. Intricate gold patterns weaving throughout the walls and ceiling. Even the carpet was nice to look at, red and gold fractals. A chandelier shined above our heads, glistening from every angle. The room was more wide than it was high, but that was its only limit, being in a five-star hotel.

Still the prettiest room I’d ever been in.

A band was playing on the stage at the head of the room. A singer, a guitarist, a pianist, a bassist, and a drummer, all in suits, performing smooth jazz. It added to the ambiance.

All in all, it was actually kind of neat.

Round tables were set up throughout, with fancy glasses and fancy utensils. People were already eating the food and enjoying themselves.

Everyone was dressed up for the occasion. Fancy suits for the men, lovely dresses and gowns for the ladies. Even the waiters and servers were gussied up, in black button-ups and white bowties, matching aprons. The people here looked so good it was intimidating, present company included, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have butterflies in my stomach, but I’d have to get over it.

I had to.

Katy was wearing that blue gown, because of course she was. I had to swallow my words, though, because was she was actually rocking it. Her hair was styled into a side-swept dutch braid, not tightly tied, but loose and natural. Her makeup wasn’t heavily applied, going for more subtle touches. The only daring application made was her lipstick. Cherry red.

She had all the other game show hosts beat, in my opinion.

Maria, on the other hand, went for the opposite approach. She had on a black lace dress. Simple, but there was elegance there that I typically didn’t associate with Maria. It was a nice fit, showing off a figure I was jealous over. Her hair was tied back, a clean look. Compared to Katy, Maria’s makeup was more heavily applied, but tastefully done, highlighting her eyes and cheeks, her lips a deeper red.

Maria promised that she had ‘dope shit’ to wear. I believed her, and she delivered.

Me? I could only tried my best to keep up.

A red dress. Nothing fancy, but with my matching heels, it elevated me to Katy and Maria’s level.

Well, close enough.

A low, square neckline, scoop back, with the length of the dress reaching my mid-thigh. As for me, my makeup was even more minimal than Katy’s, but I did have some added blush on my cheeks. It wasn’t much, but it was more pronounced that it should have been, my mom explaining that it was because my skin had gotten so white, recently.

Had it?

If I had a better phone, I’d take more selfies to compare.

I fixed my hair, a curled bob.

Ogling the sights, we all moved to find our table. It was in the middle of the room, equal distance to the food and the band. Not far at all, if I was hungry.

Which I was, just not for what was served here.

“And here we are,” Katy said, leading us to our table. A card was placed on top, with all of our names on it. “It’s a prime location. Food’s right there, and all eyes are on us.”

“Great, exactly what I need,” Maria said. “Everyone can see me as inhale my dinner.”

“More bang for their buck, then,” I added. “People get more entertainment for the night.”

Maria ribbed my side, and I laughed, hiding my own concern about being easily seen. Being out in the open.

Really have watch my back, here.

“Feel free to start the show early, if you want to, Maria,” Katy said, “I’m probably going to get something right now.”

“I’ll come with,” Maria said. “I don’t give a f… I don’t mind.”

“Alexis?” Katy turned my way.

“I’ll just sit for now,” I said, shaking my head a little, “I’ll get food later.”

“You better. The oysters here are to die for.”

“Oh, I’ll start with that,” Maria said, and they both went off, dipping into the mass of people moving about.

My mom and I took seats at the table.

I listened to the sounds around me, the music just barely over the hum of people conversing. Mom hadn’t said a word since we got into the hotel and met up with Katy and Maria, and she still had nothing to say for herself. She sat, back straight, her eyes wandering around, occasionally looking back at the band.

I noticed she would look at the singer, specifically.

I waved my hand to get her attention. “Ma, what do you think?”

“It’s big,” was all she said.

Of course it is.

I wasn’t too perturbed by her seemingly nonexistent enthusiasm. If any excitement was there, she was keeping it inside. Keeping it to herself. I was sure of that. No offense was taken or intended. That was just how she was wired. The type of person she was.

I went to looking over the people around us. No one I knew. Everyone was from social or political circle that I simply was not aware of. I caught small instances of the passing conversations. The weather, a court hearing, how the housing project up in Malibu was going. And I could’ve sworn I caught a muttered mention of ‘The Bluemoon.’

So, no one was talking about anything I was terribly interested in.

I noted a few people buzzing about, flashes of light periodically blasting whatever direction they were looking. Photographers.

Really, really, had to watch my back.

Following my mom’s example, I decided to watch the band perform, the pianist’s fingers floating over the keys, the bassist being the unsung foundation the song was building from. The drummer keeping time.

The singer… was decent.

I checked my watch. The one my mom gave me for my birthday. Four minutes had passed.

“We’re back,” I heard Katy say in a sing-song way. I scooted my chair to my left to make room for her. She sat, and so did Maria.

And so did Katy’s mother and father.

“Shiori, Alexis, I’m so thrilled you two could make it,” Katy’s mother said. Kristin.

Unlike my mom and I, you could tell that Kristin was Katy’s mother. That wasn’t to say she wasn’t pretty herself, she pulled off her white dress nicely.

Between Katy’s mom and dad, I wasn’t sure where she got her smarts. Probably from both of them. Kristin occasionally taught Language classes at universities, flying out to speak at seminars. Regarding knowledge in general, Kristin was a source. Not to mention the connections she had to plan this thing.

The Thompson were one power family. Seriously.

My mom nodded, “Thank you for inviting us. This is quite the event.”

“Don’t say that, this was the best I could do on such short notice,” Kristin responded, clearly minimizing the effort. “All I hope is that you enjoy yourself.”

“We will,” my mom said.

“Kristin, honey, I wish you had less time to put this together,” Thomas said, “I’m not used to all these old people congratulating me.”

Kristin lightly smacked him on the shoulder. “You’ll be working with those ‘old people’ soon enough. They’re part of the community, too, you know.”

“Yes, but, can’t they be more interesting?”

She hit him on the shoulder again. Thomas grinned.

He looked the same as ever, maybe more tired. But, his suit was nicer, and he still found it in him to be cheery.

“Leaving that aside,” Thomas said, “Hello, ladies.” He gestured to my mom, me, and Maria.

The three of us returned our own form of ‘hello.’

“How are you, Thomas?”

“Hi.”

“What is up?”

Thomas nodded. “Shiori, I wanted to stop and swing by for another haircut before all of this, but I couldn’t the time.”

“It’s understandable,” she said.

“Alexis,” Thomas then said, looking at me right in the eyes. “Any updates?”

My heartbeat upped in tempo, and I almost broke eye contact.

“Trying to keep it together,” I answered.

“Good to hear, really good to hear,” he said, with far more concern than he should have let on.

Idiot, I thought, You’re not Hleuco right now. Don’t talk like that while we’re here.

I ended up glancing away when he started speaking with Maria. I folded my arms, rubbing an elbow. This was not ‘keeping it together.’

“And you must be Maria,” I heard Thomas. “Katy’s told me a lot about you.”

“Oh, I really hope not,” Maria said.

“Please tell me Katy’s been a good friend to you, I’d hate for her to be giving you trouble.”

“I wouldn’t say ‘good,’ but she tries. And you wouldn’t believe the trouble she gets us into.”

A gurgled, choking sound, followed by a hacking cough.

“Maria!” Katy berated.

Abrupt and heartily, Thomas cracked up. I looked back up, and saw Thomas wipe an eye with his thumb. He still a bandage around it. Back at the church, after our conversation. From when he pricked himself with my knife. A temporary, improvised solution.

My makeup amplified the flush of red coming to my face.

A man walked to Thomas, putting a hand on shoulder for his attention. Thomas stood, they shook hands, and got to talking.

Thomas turned his attention back to the table. “It appears I’m needed elsewhere,” Thomas said, “I’ll be back whenever these people feel like giving me mercy. Hon, Katy, I’ll see you, Shiori, always a pleasure to see you again, and Maria, it was my pleasure meeting you. And Alexis…”

My heart started racing again.

“Keep keeping it together.”

He took his leave, following the other man towards another group, it looked like.

Leaving me red as an apple.

Idiot.

Unintentionally, I looked down, to hide behind my food. I reached for my fork and…

Right. I didn’t have food. Couldn’t have food. Almost forgot.

Fuck.

To my left, my friends were eating. To my right, my mom and Kristin were still conversing. I was left with nothing to do. Nothing to do with all my restlessness.

I just sat there, trying to maintain my composure, keep it together. I picked up on the conversation my mom and Kristin were having.

“… reminds me, and I know this would be asking a lot of you, but I think would be absolutely delightful if you could sing for us. I can arrange something with the band.”

“Oh, no, I can’t,” my mom said, “I’m out of practice, too.”

“For someone like you, I bet it’s like riding a bike.”

“Hold on, you sing?” Maria interrupted from across the table, from my mom’s point of view.

Sang,” I said, deciding to put myself into the conversation, and to answer for my mom. “She was a singer before she came here. I thought I told you this already?”

“You probably did, doesn’t mean I heard it. Or cared to remember.”

“Nice to know you put so much stock in what I have to say.”

“You betcha.”

“That was a long time ago,” my mom said, looking at the band again. Something in her eye.

I saw it.

“Aw, at least I tried. I’m sure Thomas would love it,” Kristin said, “I know I would.”

Mom lowered her chin, ever so slightly.

It wasn’t entirely true, what my mom had said. She wasn’t out of practice completely.

She did sing, still would. While she was cooking or cleaning, cutting my hair. Humming to herself, too. She was good. Really good. Despite a distinct rasp, there was a soft, soothing quality to her voice, but a power to it when she wanted to reach for a higher note. She liked to sing, I knew. Somewhere, deep down inside, she still had a passion for it. I just knew it.

Which made me wonder why she had put such a restriction on herself. About singing in public. When Mom first met Kristin and Thomas years ago, she wasn’t shy about sharing what she used to do, before coming to America. But, she didn’t share everything. Even to me. Even when I’d ask about her past, being in Japan, she didn’t share much. I barely even knew my grandparents. Over time, I just learned not to bring it up.

Sometimes, my brain would bring that conundrum back to me, and I’d be annoyed to no end. Like an itch I couldn’t get. Why did she stop singing?

I had some theories of my own.

Perhaps, my being born had something to do with it.

Or maybe… it was his fault.

The timid emotion within me immediately warped into something more rotten. Duller, though, after some odd years.

A… Alexis, neither time or place. You’re at a party, right now. Act like it.

It was no struggle to realign my feelings from that. Set myself straight. Years and years of practice.

I brought myself out of my head, and back into the moment. Katy and Maria were just about finished with their food, exchanging words as they ate. Kristin had already left, and so did my mom. Probably hungry, now.

I looked at my watch, before speaking up.

“Dressed up like this, doesn’t it feel like prom?” I asked Katy and Maria.

“Prom? No way,” Maria said, in between a bite of a steak. “It’s just people here… existing. And there’s not enough people our age. And it’s not trashy enough.”

“You’re idea of prom is a trashy one?” Katy questioned.

“All I’m saying is, prom will be better. Trust.”

Prom wasn’t until next semester, yet it felt so far away. With every day being its own battle, it was hard to believe I could even make it that far.

Maybe I should make it a goal, something to look forward to.

I know the old Alexis would be excited for that.

“Let’s have the trashiest prom ever, then,” I said, turning the thought in my head into a pact.

“Hell yeah, girl,” Maria said, tapping her fork and knife together.

Katy looked just as thrilled, if not more so. “Sounds like a grand old time. I’m down. Especially since my dad won’t be there.”

We all looked at each other, and we shared an air of something playfully sinister.

Maria creased an eyebrow, pointing to the fork in front of me. “When you gonna get food? Katy was right, I could kill for another oyster. Good thing I don’t have to.”

I gave it some thought. “I guess it’s time to grab a plate. You coming?”

“Nah, I still have plenty left.” Maria motioned over her plate. She’d been eating this whole time, but I still couldn’t see the white of the plate, underneath the food.

“You can get seconds,” I said, “It’s not like they’re going to run out anytime soon.”

“These are my seconds.” Maria pointed to another part of her plate, “And these are my ‘firsts.’ So, when I get up, I can get thirds, see?”

“Barely. Okay, I’m going.”

“Right behind you,” Katy said, “I’ll come with.”

I didn’t mind, the more the merrier. We left the table, and crossed the room. My mom opted to stay.

The line of food stretched, a length down one wall that could feed a small village. And it looked expensive, with dishes and ingredients I couldn’t name. The smell, however, I could attribute a single word, easy.

Revolting.

It was like running into a burning building. I took a plate, and started putting some food down, without thought or care. I didn’t get too much, I still had to figure out how to get around actually not eating this.

Katy followed after me, getting her own food.

“What was that, just before?”

Under her breath, Katy asked me a question. She was leaning towards me.

Not so merry, after all.

“What was what?” I asked back, scooping up half a spoonful of mashed potatoes.

“When my dad was at the table, you were acting all weird while he was talking with you.”

I went straight to denying it. “Was I? I didn’t think I was acting weird. Who’s acting weird?”

“You are. I’m not kidding around, Alexis. Honestly, it’s not just that. You’ve been weird for longest time, and it’s not only me. Maria’s noticed, too.”

Fuck. Have they? Was all my work and effort been for nothing?

A pit in my stomach, and it wasn’t from the food.

Okay, part of it was.

Without a word, I continued down the line of food, picking up something here and there.

“Alexis,” Katy said.

I couldn’t face her. “Yes?”

“Can’t you tell me what’s going on?”

Fuck, fuck.

“There’s nothing to say because there’s nothing going on,” I said, like it was as clear as day.

“Don’t do this to me, Alexis. Remember when you and I went to find Maria to confront her about avoiding us? Now it’s me and Maria, trying to get through to you. Why do you think we stopped by your place, the other day? This was something we wanted to go over for a long, long time.

Oh, fuck.

If everything fell apart, right this second, at this juncture, it’d mean the end of me, and everyone I cared about. People were after me, protesting and rioting in the streets, all due to me existing. Even if I trusted Katy and Maria about keeping a secret, what about Thomas, what about Kristin? What about my mom? So many variables, so many places where something could slip out, and I didn’t want them to become a target.

I can’t let that happen.

But my friends were already suspicious of me. Been suspicious. I had to assuage their worries if I wanted to protect them.

Which meant I had to lie through my teeth. Again.

“Uuuh,” I started, thinking.

A loud, but muffled tap sounded throughout the room.

Reach, reach. What could I use, instead? What was a plausible enough excuse that I could use? What was acceptable?

My grades. Volleyball. Coach T. That could work, I just had to spin it well enough. Enough to be convincing.

“-uum. Okay,” I said, “The truth is, I’ve been working with-”

Thomas. His voice took command of the whole room.

We turned around.

Thomas had taken his place at the head of the room, in front of the stage where the band was. He had a mic in his hand, tapping it. The sound reverberated across the room.

“Hello, everyone. I wanted to say a word or two. Actually, my wife wanted me to, so here I am.”

Several laughed, from what now was an audience.

Katy whispered to me. “We’re not done here, what were you going-”

“-wanted to thank my beautiful wife, Kristin, for arranging this extravagant party and her tremendous support, and my even more beautiful daughter, Katy, for all her support throughout my campaign.” From even that far away, Thomas could still point out his daughter, raising a hand to wave at her.

Dropping away all the tension from before, she waved back, beaming. Everyone had turned to either see her or Kristin, then went to applaud. Pictures were snapped. I turned to have my back facing them. I poked at some food. Since Katy wasn’t looking, I started inching away.

After the clapping died down, Thomas continued. “A lot, and I mean a lot, of my friends and colleagues had some very choice words for me when I announced that I was running. None of which are worth repeating here, otherwise this becomes a therapy session, but I noticed an underlying tone from those words, all coming from the same place. Fear.”

Utensils kept hitting the bottoms of plates, from what I could hear. Some weren’t paying attention to Thomas. But I couldn’t see who, I was still facing the other way.

“Fear of what?” Thomas asked, though rhetorically. “Fear for my well-being? A fear of something greater? Considering the city I will be operating in as the next district attorney, their concern may be understandable, but that’s exactly the reason why I decided to run in the first place. Because this city never got its chance to shine, never got a chance to put its best foot forward. People from the outside looking in, they don’t know what this city truly has to offer, the loving and kind folk that truly make up the core community. A community that, unfortunately, hasn’t had a chance to raise their voice and say, ‘we exist.’”

Thomas paused, to space out his speech.

“I was born and raised in Stephenville, my parents owned a small pharmacy out on the city limits. They didn’t have much, but they helped, when and where they could. My father gave his free time to the local schools and churches, my mother organized and ran food drives, among so many other things. They loved their community, and the community loved them back. And I’ve tried my best, my whole career, to accomplish a percentage of what they’ve done. I want to be a voice for those who don’t have one. Change. It will be a long process, it will be more than tiring, and change can be slow, I know. I might not get to see what this city becomes, when it does blossom. But I want to be its best foot forward.”

People applauded.

“Those who don’t truly know this city, they call it the ‘Wanderland of the South.’ Which was where I got my slogan from. ‘Wander no more.’ Yes, it is corny, I’m not afraid to admit that.”

People chuckled.

“But that’s why I chose it, because it’s so important that-”

The lights cut out for a second.

Noise over the speakers. Grunting. Struggling. I spun around.

A man had wrestled the mic out of Thomas’s hands, shoving Thomas out of the way. Before Thomas could rush at him, the man spoke into the mic.

“Don’t touch him, he has a bomb.”

I could see the fear sweep over everyone. I could feel it in myself.

Thomas stood, hunched, not moving. Security personnel at the sides of the room were stopped, too, unsure of what to do.

For me, I dared not move, but I was tense.

The man moved again, this time unbuttoning his shirt with one hand. He seemed to be in a hurry, fumbling with some of the buttons.

Then, I saw exactly why.

He took off his shirt, revealing a vest underneath. Wires extended across his torso, plugged into different metallic cylinders and boxes. A large timer was across his chest, ticking down the numbers.

And we’re already too late.

Five.

Four.

Three…

“Good evening,” the man spoke into the mic.

In that instant, the timer jumped up. To thirty seconds.

And it started going down again.

Twenty-nine.

Twenty-eight.

“I would like for things to r-run smoothly, while I have the floor,” the man said, and the timer reset again, “I wouldn’t want to make a m-mess of this kind, poor volunteer. Alright, fine, he’s not a volunteer.”

He went still, and nobody moved. The timer went back down, past nineteen.

The more he talked, the more I realized that English was a second language to him. He had a Hispanic accent.

Fuck is going on?

And am I supposed to do something?

The man’s face was swollen in the eyes, with wounds down his neck, and down his arms, visible from where I was. There were probably more under his vest. He looked tortured.

How did this guy get in here?

He walked forward, slow, closer to the center of the room. People tried to back away, but they were restricted to their chairs, their tables. No one knew what would set him off, in a very real and grim sense.

The timer went to ten before he spoke again.

“Here are the rules. You let this man speak, and the timer doesn’t go all the way down. You touch him, you in any way interfere with him, you call for help, I let the bomb go off. And this thing’s quite the firecracker. Do not test me.”

So, that was the situation.

We were at the mercy of this bomber, forced against his will by an unknown third party. He moved his head, and I saw a wire go from his ear, into his a device on his vest. An earpiece. He was being fed words to say, repeating after someone. Thirty seconds on the clock, and we’d all die if it reached down to zero. The only thing standing in the way of that was that man. He had to keep talking.

My mom, Maria, Thomas. I found Kristin on the opposite end of the room, back to the wall, hand over her mouth. They were all closer to the man than Katy and I.

That timer can not go down to zero.

It can’t.

I wanted nothing more than to spring into action, and bring them all to safety. Or stop that man, somehow. But even I wasn’t faster than an explosion. I couldn’t get to them in time, I wasn’t faster than the push of a trigger. I couldn’t do anything.

I was ultimately powerless.

He had to keep talking.

Please, I don’t care what you say, keep talking.

Fifteen on the timer.

“All this talk about community, yet you ignore the loudest voice,” the man said. “The ones most afraid, the ones most in need, and o-ones who need reassurance that all is still right in this world. I will be the one to lead this city to a true glory. Call me… Solace.”

Twenty-five.

“This city has been… infested by a monster. A real monster that preys on the i-innocent with their very being. More real than any supposed evil that corrupts this city. The Bluemoon.”

Many squirmed in their seats.

Nineteen.

“There have been no answers, only disturbing questions. Where did it come from? Why does it attack? Who is under that m-mask? The people have spoken, with their impassioned actions, but I bring their word.”

Twenty-one.

“And yet, you all sit here, consuming delectable food and drink, ignoring the rest of us? How dare you. You all deserve to d-die.”

His words filled the room, and it there was such a disconnect with what he said and how he said it. Scared, faltering, it didn’t fit with the ‘for the people’ tone the words of his speech were going for. It resulted in a jarring, harrowing atmosphere.

He didn’t speak, but the timer continued. Was it the third party, this Solace, purposefully letting the time go by?

I was sweating, cringing every second he was silent. Twelve.

The only sound over the speakers was the man’s whimpering, sad and desperate.

Nine.

People were crying around me. I couldn’t bring myself to look for Katy, my eyes fixated on that timer.

Five.

Four.

Three.

Two.

One-

“S-so I come w-with an ultimatum!” The man weeped.

The crowd cried more, all at once. The timer jumped back up to thirty.

“The Bluemoon must reveal themselves, and take off that mask in public. If it does not comply… I kill a random person in this room, for everyday you don’t come forward. I have a list of those who were invited.”

No. You wouldn’t.

The hysteria increased tenfold, but many forced themselves to stay in their seats. Though most were already at the edge of them.

As for me, I was already shaking.

Mom, Maria, Katy, Kristin, Thomas. Myself. Even if we made it out of here, we weren’t safe. They had our names. Without being aware, this Solace already had Blank Face’s civilian name.

A cold shiver down my spine, electric.

Twenty.

Sixteen.

Eight.

I had gotten so numb that I almost wanted it to go all the way down.

But it didn’t.

“Y-you have forty-eight hours, for our message to reach you, Bluemoon, and for you to act. Then I begin my hunt. The people have spoken, and they demand a penalty from those who failed to act on their behalf. And, one last word, that must absolutely get out. Whoever you are, you are not human, and you are not one of us. You will never be a blank face in the crowd. Goodnight, and Godspeed.”

The timer turned off, the number vanishing, followed by a high beep, descending in tone. The man collapsed, hitting the floor, and everyone lost it all at once. People yelling, screaming, crying, running. Security loudly ordering people to vacate the building, police surrounding the downed man, yelling for a bomb squad.

I stayed put. I was incapable of movement. I could barely keep it together.

It was the hard yank of my arm that forced me to drop everything and move.

“Come on, Alexis!” Katy shouted, “We have to get out of here!”

I followed, almost limply. I searched over the hectic swarm of people.

Mom, Maria, Kristin…

Thomas.

I found Thomas, staring right at me, circled by his own posse of police. A hard, angered stare. I look I had never seen before.

Because they knew. Solace knew.

His last words. ‘A blank face in the crowd.’ He couldn’t have said it like that without a reason. Solace knew my real name. And it was enough of a clue for me to know what we were up against. And Thomas was aware of that, too.

This was gang-related.

“Everyone’s leaving! We’ll meet them outside!”

Katy pulled me along, and I was consequently torn from Thomas’s icy stare. I had to work in pushing through a crush of bodies trying to get to the exit, everyone exploding in trepidation. Fear.

Inside me, that fear was shaping into something else.

That Solace. He or she came here, threatened my friends, my family, and simultaneously called out both me and Thomas. Blank Face and Hleuco. While I didn’t know how, I was going to make sure they’d regret that. Terribly.

Solace might have won this battle, but the war had just begun.

Bonus                                                                                               Next

Omake.01 (Bonus)

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4koma interlude 1

4koma interlude 1 part 2

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031 – Demon in the Closet

Previous                                                                     Bonus

“Hold still,” my mom said, as she lifted my bangs away from my eyes. She cut.

I had my eyes shut tight.

We were on the balcony of our apartment. We both had aprons on, to not get hair on our clothes. I was faced towards the edge of the balcony, the railing, with the city in the distance. The wind was soft, brushing against my cheeks. We were in the shade, but still warm from the time of day. Calming, if not for the fact my mom was here, essentially in my room.

Don’t open the closet, please don’t come up with a reason to open the closet.

Everything was in there. Everything. Tucked under boxes of toys, old clothes, blankets, just any old junk I could use to hide my Blank Face stuff. And all of that was tucked into the bag came with my new costume, which was supposed to be as inconspicuous as anything else. Mom had no prerogative to go snooping around my stuff, but I couldn’t stop myself from being tense.

The scissors being so close to my eyes only added to my anxiety.

My mom snipped some hair, and some fell onto my face. I crinkled my nose.

I had to prepare my room for when she’d come in. Bags of chips at my computer desk, some opened, some empty. The apple from school was there, too, a chunk taken out to make it look like a bite mark. In reality, it was all smoke and mirrors, a few chips and scraps flushed down the toilet to give the image that I was snacking at my computer. To her, it looked like I was eating, right?

It had better look like that.

“Your coach called me again, yesterday,” my mom said, out of the blue. We were doing just fine, being here without words. Now she wanted to converse.

“What about?” I asked.

“She was asking about why you haven’t been coming to practice.”

“What did you tell her?”

“That you were going to focus on your studies for a while. I hope I wasn’t lying to her.”

“No, you weren’t. I’ve had to skip in order to catch up with some stuff.” I intentionally kept it vague, sparring a few details in order keep a straighter story. Divulging more than I needed to wasn’t necessary.

Plus, it would be easier on my conscience.

“Are you looking for colleges yet?” my mom then asked. I guessed it was some tangent from what she brought up earlier, about Couch Tilly. The connecting thread being school.

“I’m kind of starting,” I said, fudging it. “Haven’t really looked into much, yet, but…”

“Do you know where you want to go?”

Honestly, in this moment, I was putting more thought into this now than I ever did in the past months combined. “Um, maybe somewhere local? Or at least in-state. I probably won’t be able to get into any of the big universities, though. Actually, who knows? I could get lucky.”

Rambling. Pretty much telling her I haven’t thought about it at all.

“How about your friends?”

The truth was easier to tell, there. Funny how that worked. “Katy’s probably going to one of the big universities here, but I don’t think she’s against the idea of going out-of-state. Maria, the girl you met the other day, I’m not sure, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have an idea. She likes to keep things to herself.”

Like I have to, now.

My mom cut some more hair, and brushed. “You’re not worried about not seeing them after you’re done with high school?”

“We’re still juniors, Mom, and graduation is over a year away.”

My mom exhaled, or maybe she scoffed? “Time moves by faster than you think. I wouldn’t take anything for granted.”

The way she said that, her tone. There was a weight to it, that made me consider what her words.

She cut, and I was quiet.

The rest of the haircut went by uneventfully. Peacefully, really. There wasn’t a lot we had to talk about, and not a lot I had to offer, myself. I only wanted to get this over with. I still had to test my makeup.

And, I was still concerned over the stuff in my closet.

“Here,” my mom said, indicating to me that she was done. She combed my hair, and brushed my neck and shoulders. She handed me a mirror to look for myself.

It looked good. Of course it did. Mom was mom. I didn’t really trust anyone else to get so close to me with scissors.

I twirled my hair, tucking a lock behind my ear, checking how it looked from every angle. I noticed something.

My mom had trimmed my hair, so it brushed the top of my shoulders rather than going a touch past them, and my bangs sitting right at the top of my eyebrows. Upon closer scrutiny, it made me look a year or two younger. I looked more like a kid than ever.

Also, my mom had cut my hair in a way to better frame my face, to hide that I had been losing weight. Had I not been the one going through this, I would’ve been fooled, myself. My mom knew to do that, it was in the back of her mind. My weight loss had become apparent enough for her to do something about it, to make her own workaround.

I could probably style my hair in enough ways to better look my age, but even considering that my mom had to do this…

Blank Face was affecting my life in ways I hadn’t anticipated.

Have to be more perceptive.

“I like it, thanks Ma,” I said, having to fudge the truth again. I did like it, but I also felt like I needed a new backpack with a cartoon character on it.

Maybe I was exaggerating, but it was my gut reaction.

“That will be twenty dollars,” my mom said.

I returned the mirror. “Can I just work it off?”

My mom fixed my hair again. “I suppose that works.”

“How about I throw in a hundred massages, and a hundred backrubs?” I asked sarcastically, before getting to work, helping my mom clean up the balcony from my excess hair and her supplies. Between us, it didn’t take long to get things back in order. My mom took the aprons, she’d put them away in a hamper in her room.

We walked back inside, going through my room to return to the living room. I knew there wouldn’t be anything that would compel her to suddenly go through my closet, but I still held my breath.

“Don’t eat in your room,” my mom said, looking at my desk. “You’ll leave crumbs, even if you’re careful.”

Without a word, I collected the trash as I walked passed it, throwing it away when I got to the trash can in the kitchen.

Success. We left my room, with no real incident.

Knock, knock. Before I could go for a glass of water, someone had knocked on the door.

“I’ll get it,” I said, changing course. Mom continued to her room.

Opening the door, I saw a face I hadn’t seen in years.

Scratch that, make that two.

“Mrs. Phan,” I said, taken aback.

Mrs. Phan hadn’t aged a day. I thought there was a glitch in the universe.

She was somewhere between me and my mom in terms of height, give or take an inch, but I already felt my presence shrinking away. A tough lady, no doubt about it, and from just standing at the door, I knew that time hadn’t chipped away her edges.

She stood, firm, but still friendly. White blouse, and loose jeans, Mrs. Phan looked like she could be anyone’s mother, but instead, she decided to take care of St. Francis Xavier. For as long as I knew her, she was in charge of the administrative stuff for the church, also organizing events, coordinating Sunday school and youth groups, even handling the funds. If it was allowed, she’d probably want to hold mass, too, do the homilies.

Mrs. Phan was pretty hardcore.

With her was Justin, a boy I used to go to church with. He stuck around, I supposed.

He was Vietnamese, like Mrs. Phan, but they weren’t related. His hair was curly, unlike Mrs. Phan, and he was more lax in his posture. If Mrs. Phan had a kid of her own, I couldn’t imagine she’d allow them be so loose.

“Hello there, Alexis, nice to see you after some time,” Mrs. Phan said, kindly. “You’ve grown.”

“You think so?”

“I know so, just one look at you is all it takes.”

One look?

“Anyways, uh, what’s up?” I asked the both of them.

“Is your mother home, I’d like to speak with her,” Mrs. Phan said. She then beckoned for Justin, who bent to pick up a cardboard box that was beside him.

“You can,” I heard my mom say, before I could answer for her. She had come to the door. “Hello, Linda.”

“Shiori. Mind if I come in, I won’t be long. I brought some food, it’s for you.” Mrs. Phan tapped the top of the box Justin held. He made a pained face, his arms straining. How heavy was that box?

“We’re not a charity,” my mom said, deadpan.

Ma, hold on.

My mouth went agape, as if I was about to apologize for my mother’s brazen rejection.

Mrs. Phan was unfazed.

“Of course not, Shiori, but can I not visit and bring something to offer as well?”

I was still fixated on Mrs. Phan’s unchanging, warm visage. I didn’t see my mom as she took her time deliberating.

“Come in,” she said, clearly after thinking it over.

“Thank you,” Mrs. Phan said. I stepped to the side, to let them both in. They both removed their shoes. My mom led the way, bringing them both into the kitchen, where Justin set the box on the table.

I shut the door, unsure of what to do next. Was I supposed to be around for whatever Mrs. Phan had to say to Mom? Or could I just retreat into my room for now?

Justin left the kitchen, crossing the apartment and heading my way.

“Wassup,” he said, casually. “It’s been a minute.”

“Definitely more than a minute,” I said.

With a hand, he gestured to the two behind him. “She said it won’t be long, but it will be. Do you have somewhere we can kill some time?”

In the apartment, the only viable option was my room, if we wanted to be away from my mom and Mrs. Phan. But I couldn’t have that. The farther away he was from my room, my closet, the more at ease I’d be.

Besides, my room was a tad messy. I didn’t want any boys poking their heads around while it wasn’t at its best.

Somewhere else, then.

“Wanna go for a walk?” I suggested.

“Fine by me.”

I called to my mom. “Ma, we’re going to go for a walk, is that okay?”

She looked at me from the kitchen. She was already sitting at the table, Mrs. Phan was taking food out of the box, putting them into a refrigerator.

“Do you have your phone?” she asked.

“I do,” I said, remembering my shit-tier flip phone. If I could, I’d buy a new one with my Blank Face money.

“Then, be careful, watch where you’re going. Both of you,” she said.

“We will,” I said, speaking for both me and Justin.

I was dressed warm enough already, wearing my mom’s old sweatshirt and shorts. I grabbed my shoes by the door, putting them on, and Justin went for his, too. Then, we went outside.

We strolled into the nearby neighborhood, suburban houses surrounding us. It was so different from downtown, a whole different energy. I felt like I could walk without having to watch my back.

Sometimes, a car would pass, or we’d stop to say hi to an old person watering their lawn, but otherwise, Justin and I could have a conversation, largely undisturbed.

“Still there at the church, huh?” I said to Justin.

“Yup, mostly for the youth group. It’s something to do on the weekend. We’re all still there, actually, the whole gang.”

“No way, even Emily?”

“Oh yeah.”

“Damn, now I feel super guilty, it’s like I ditched you guys. It’s gonna be lonely when I’m the only one in Hell.”

Justin smirked. “Nah, you’re good. We don’t do much but hang around and play games. Sometimes we help around, do volunteer work.”

“Like driving Mrs. Phan around?” I asked.

“Hey, it’s easy work, and it beefs up my résumé.”

“Smart.”

We walked, continuing down a sidewalk. I hadn’t seen Justin since my middle school years, but it didn’t seem like time created too big a gulf between us. I could talk comfortably, I just had to watch my words, pick them with care, and not share anything too personal, or revealing.

“So, how are you holding up?” Justin asked. “I don’t follow you on social media, so you’ll have to catch me up the old school way.”

“The old school way? That’s doable. I just got into volleyball around the time I stopped going to the church, and just focused on that this whole time.”

“Gave up one thing for another?”

“It’s not quite like that. There were other factors. Like my mom had picked up a second job at that time, and I had to pick a new extracurricular thing that didn’t involve driving out of our way every weekend and using up gas.”

And, personally, I never felt like I fit in completely, there…

Like I’d ever say that out loud.

Justin responded with a sound. “Hmm.”

“Hey, it was my mom’s reasoning.”

“Like I said, you’re good. I’m not going to hold anything against you.”

“So thrilled to hear that.”

I stepped onto a small pile of leaves. There was an audible crunch. Fall really was here.

“Ha, you’re just as sarcastic as I remember,” Justin commented.

“Really?”

“Oh absolutely, I recall you used to make Mrs. Phan go ballistic because you kept talking back. It was really funny.”

I tried to recall, but my memory of that specific instance was foggy at best. “I can barely remember, but I somehow feel proud of young me.”

“Glad to know you’re still the Alexis I remember. Like, even though it’s been forever, you’re still the same height. It’s like you never grew up.”

Hey, Mrs. Phan said I grew!”

“She was just being nice, Alexis.”

“Then that hurts, that really hurts. I don’t think I could ever properly heal from that.”

“You’ll get over it.” He looked at me, at the top of my head. “Maybe not.”

“Stop it, if you keep saying stuff like that then I’m really not going to get any taller.”

“But, after so many years of volleyball, you think you’d gain an extra inch or so. All that jumping around and stuff.”

“Don’t tell me you came seemingly out of nowhere just to bully me?”

“No, I originally came here to beefs up my résumé, remember? This is just a little something for myself.”

Without thinking, I playfully punched him in the arm.

Justin grabbed his arm, nearly bowling over. His path went uneven, and he had to put a foot ahead of him, off the sidewalk, to catch his balance.

Whoa, ow, now that’s a hit.”

I drew back, berating myself in my head. “My bad, I wasn’t trying to-”

“No, you’re good, you’re good, I just… wasn’t expecting that. That’s all.” He massaged his arm, letting out a deep breath. And he kept doing it.

I realized he was just fucking around by this point.

“Now you’re just being a little bitch,” I said, lightheartedly. “I might just go back and tell everyone you were beat up by a girl, if you keep overacting like that.”

Justin countered, harshly. “Hey, it’s whatever year it is, girls are tougher than ever. I can bitch however much I want.”

I smiled, glad that I had found some levity in this situation, this circumstance. It was a good break from everything. Without being aware of it, Justin was helping me out. More than he’d know.

No talk of The Bluemoon, no mention of any crazy gang nonsense. It was refreshing, relaxing.

A change of pace towards something familiar.

We continued on our walk, aimlessly as we chattered. There was nowhere particular where we wanted to go. We approaching a park, the line of houses beside us ending at a trail leading up to it. I knew this park, I had been here before. A handful of times when I was younger, and another time in early October, when I was very, very thirsty, and very desperate.

I bit my lip.

“Kinda tired of walking,” Justin said, pointing down the trail. “Wanna sit on the swings, like real kids?”

I probably could’ve gotten away with refusing, but for what purpose? That park was already starting to bring back painful, sad memories, but I’d live an even more painful and sadder life if I avoided every place that triggered something in me.

This too, I had to fight past.

“No objections,” I said.

We went to the park, getting to the playground proper. We weren’t only ones here. Four kids, dressed like they were in middle school, were running around, chasing each other with plastic swords of various neon colors. Justin and I each took to our own swing, watching them as they ran and yelled.

“What are you doing tomorrow?” Justin asked, as we listlessly looked forward.

“Why do you ask?”

“Do you remember Zoey?”

“Black hair, brown eyes, a gap in her tooth that she used to stick bits of corn in between? Definitely.”

“Hardy-har. It’s her birthday, and we’re doing a get together. Maybe you can come, see the old crew again. We might even go down the Barn, later.”

The Barn. Braham Barn.

I didn’t even consider it for a second.

“I can’t,” I said, “I already have plans for tomorrow. My mom just cut my hair for it.”

“Agh, that’s too bad. I’m sure they would have liked to see you again. And, by the by, Zoey doesn’t have that gap anymore, and she’s dyed her hair. She’s fine, now.”

I looked at him. “No way, you two?”

He nodded, looking so smug it bothered me for a second.

“Good for you,” I said, meaning it, “Tell her I said ‘happy birthday.’ And can I give you guys a piece of advice?”

“Shoot.”

“Don’t go to the barn, tomorrow. Literally do anything else.”

Confused, he asked, “How come-”

Ahead of us, one of the kids yelled. It didn’t sound like an exclamation of fun, or enjoyment, but rather one of help.

Each kid had their own different colored plastic sword. The one with the bright red sword was crying, trying to run away from the other three. He wasn’t as fast as they were, and when they closed in, they swung, hard and fast. Audible from where we were sitting. A sweep of the leg, the back, and he was on the ground. The other kids waited until he got up, and made some distance before chasing him again.

He continued to cry, and they continued to run.

“Aren’t they playing a little too rough?” I asked Justin, “Where are their parents?”

“I don’t see any cars parked. Probably just walked in like we did.”

“They’re practically beating him up. That’s fucked.”

“I’m sure it’s just kids being kids.”

“No, that’s too far. Come on.” I left the swing.

I can’t leave this be.

“Alexis! Where do you think you’re going?” Behind me, I heard a chain jangle. Justin was following me.

“Back me up, or no. I’ll stop them.”

“You can’t just do that!”

“And why’s that?”

Justin didn’t have a rebuttal. He just grunted, and came with.

We crossed the playground, through the playhouse, and to where the kids were running on the field. The boy was on the ground, curled in a ball, the other kids no longer waiting for him to stand. They beat him with their swords.

One of the bullies was a girl, I noted.

They hadn’t noticed us coming. I shouted when I was about four feet away.

“Get away from him!”

They turned, ceasing their volley of attacks on the boy. He kept crying for a father that wasn’t here.

“What for?” It was the girl that spoke, speaking to me like I was dumb.

“For roughhousing your friend, though, I’m not sure you’re legally allowed to be friends, anymore.”

“But he’s the bad guy,” another kid said. A boy. In that same tone like he was talking to a slower person. “Don’t you see his saber? We’re the good guys because we have lighter colors.”

Are you insane?

“Does it look like I care? You’re only playing a game, don’t get carried away.”

“Bleh, we are playing, you just don’t get it,” the girl said.

“The only thing I ‘get’ is that you don’t understand the concept of simple empathy.”

“Get outta here.” It was the other boy. “Why don’t you go and suck that guy’s dick?” He puckered his lips toward Justin, who was standing to my left.

The kids snickered like they were about to piss themselves. Like the idea of saying bad words was still novel to them.

Jesus Christ, what shit kids these are.

I shook my head, then walked forward. Despite their big words earlier, they let me through. I went to the boy on the ground. Shaking, sobbing.

I sat by him. “Hi, hey, don’t worry. They’re going home, now, they won’t be bothering you anymore. After they leave, you can call whoever you need to call, and get this sorted out. You can borrow my phone, if you need to.”

The rustling of grass, the stamping of feet. From behind.

“We’re not going anywhere! You can’t tell us what to do!”

I stood, spinning around when I heard something cut through air. The girl was swinging down her green sword, straight for my head.

I caught it in my hand easily, at the same time blocking the boy’s blue sword when he tried to strike my right side.

The other boy’s purple sword, he never tried to attack. I simply looked at him, and he was frozen.

Easy.

I flicked my wrist, and flipped the girl’s sword out of her hand. It flipped again, and I caught it by the hilt. I still held the blue sword by the plastic blade.

I pressed the girl’s sword against her clavicle. I glowered at all three of them, my expression twisting.

Justin was still here, astounded. I kept my voice low, but so the kids could still hear me.

“There’s a dead rabbit at the bottom of that ditch. Unless you want something similar, scram.”

From their quivering mouths, I knew they wanted to cry now, too, but they summarily scrammed, running back down the trail, away from us. From me.

I blinked, as if I was coming back to my senses. I was in a different mode there, for a bit. A different headspace.

Weird.

I dropped the swords at my feet. The boy with the purple sword was the only one who got to keep his.

Justin approached, slow. Unsure what to say, judging from his face. He didn’t​ rush himself.

“Damn, that was… pretty hardcore. Are you really Alexis?”

I blinked again.

“Yes, of course I am. That was nothing.”

“‘Nothing’ my ass. I think you gave those kids nightmares for life.”

I had to shake myself out of it. Go back to being Alexis.

“Never mind that,” I said, “Help me out real quick.”

Justin came closer, aiding with getting the bullied boy back on his feet. We checked if he was okay, checked for any bruises. None, it seemed, which was a relief. I had him call for someone to come pick me up. He didn’t need to borrow my phone, he had his own.

And it’s better than mine, if I may add.

We waited with him, until a car sped into the parking lot across field. His father, it seemed like, came running for him. The father thanked us before questioning his son for what happened, and for names. We didn’t stay for that part, I had a hunch they’d get it sorted out.

“Let’s head back,” Justin said, “They’re probably done by now.”

I faced him, then nodded.

We returned to my place.

I wanted to say something, offer up another conversation, but there was a certain air to Justin, now. I could sense that he wasn’t up for it.

I bit my lip.

We got to the door, and I knocked. I didn’t bring my keys. They wouldn’t be going anywhere.

It was Mrs. Phan that opened the door.

“Alexis, I was just leaving. Are you ready, Justin?”

“Yes, ma’am,” he answered.

Mrs. Phan and I switched places, with her stepping out of the apartment, and me going in.

“Hope I see you two soon,” Mrs. Phan said, behind her never-changing, friendly demeanor. She bowed her head. I returned the favor with my own.

“Me too,” I said. “See you, Justin.”

Justin bobbed his head, and made a peace sign. But he didn’t say anything.

They left, and I closed the door.

“Where did you go?” my mom asked, as I came in. She was washing dishes in the kitchen.

I shrugged. “Around.”

“Just around?”

“Like, we went to the park, I guess. Oh, what did Mrs. Phan want to talk about?”

A ceramic clink, and my mom was finished with the dishes. She dried her hands, then brought a hand to her chin.

“She was asking if I wanted to come back, join one of the committees.”

“Are you?”

“I told her I think on it.”

“Are you, though?” I asked.

“Maybe.” She looked pleased with herself.

I wonder if that’s all they talked about.

But, I wasn’t going to put too much thought into it. That was my mom’s decision to make.

“I’ll be in my room,” I then said, heading towards it.

“Okay. We have food for dinner now. Just… heat it up whenever you’re hungry.”

“Cool.”

I went into my room, going straight for my closet.

I sifted through everything, until I found my mask. I held it in my hands.

The party was tomorrow. So many people, maybe even media. If I wanted to make it out in one piece, I had to put a better effort into being Alexis. Because, clearly, there were still visible cracks on that front.

I moved the mask into another angle, and saw my reflection in the lenses.

Why was it, that it felt like ‘Alexis’ was another mask to wear in front of others? No matter what, it seemed like there was always something I needed to hide.

Which ‘me’ was me? Who was I, really?

Previous                                                                     Bonus

030 – Fragile Ego

epy arc 5 look

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“Alexis!”

I raised my head, squinting. Head rush.

Ms. Powers stood at the head of the classroom, displeased.

Delayed, I made a sound in response. “Hmm?”

That didn’t help any.

“I’d be less offended if you spent my class on your phone the whole time, rather than sleeping.”

But I don’t care what you have to say.

Sleepily, I pulled a strand of hair out of my mouth, pushing some back behind my ear. I rubbed my thumb right under my eye.

“Sorry, didn’t mean-”

The bell cut me off.

Everyone started getting up, gathering their belongings, chatting amongst themselves. I followed, sweeping up my binders and journals into my arms, keeping them close to my chest. I got out of my chair, and started leaving the classroom, looking for Brittany. I wanted to walk and talk with her as we headed to our next class.

“Alexis.”

I stopped, then turned. Ms. Powers was at her desk, sitting. She motioned for me. She looked stern.

Not now.

Reluctantly, I walked up to her, I clutched my school stuff tighter, closer.

“Yeah, Ms. Powers?” I asked, my pitch a bit higher.

She took a look past me before saying anything. Waiting until everyone has filed out of the classroom?

Ms. Powers put her hands together, resting them in her lap. “What’s going on, Alexis?”

I answered her like I did before. “Hmm?”

She pressed her lips to a line, and tilted her head to the computer beside her. “You’ve missed several homework assignments in the last few weeks, you haven’t done very well on the last few quizzes, and you’ve been out of it in that time, too. We have a test coming up, do you know that?”

“I do, yeah.” I vaguely remembered Ms. Powers mentioning something like that, but I was pretty confident that it wasn’t for another week or so. I’d study later.

She had an eyebrow raised at me. “There’s a lot of material there that I don’t you have a grip on, yet. Are you going to be okay?”

I considered my chances. I could make a passing grade on it, possibly. Worst case scenario was that I’d have to beg Katy to help and tutor me, even though she might not be entirely familiar with the material. She was taking a more advanced class.

“I think I will be.”

Her accusatory expression remained. “We’re only in the first half of the school year, so you have time to turn things around, but, if you don’t get a handle on this soon, it’s going to be a lot harder on you later.”

Are you already saying that I’m going to fail this class?

“I’ll make sure that it doesn’t come to that,” I said, trying to remain cheery. We only had five minutes for a passing period, and it took three minutes to get to my next class. I’d end up being late if Ms. Powers didn’t end this soon.

“I’m asking if there’s anything you’re having trouble with. I have after school hours, so I can help with whatever you’re having trouble on. Some students from the math club show up, too, so you can get help from your peers if you’re uncomfortable with me over your shoulder.”

I wanted to roll my eyes, but there was no way I could get away with it. Plus, she was actually being reasonable. I’d feel awful if I kept up an attitude.

“Sure, definitely. I’ll swing by if I need it.”

I wasn’t sure if I meant that. I’d still prefer Katy helping me out.

Ms. Power’s whole, rotund body relaxed some, like I had just let go of holding mochi, and was watching the snack slowly return to its original shape.

“I’d really recommend it,” Ms. Powers said. “You were a good student, Alexis, you just need to get your priorities straight.”

Oh, I know.

“Is it because you’re in the middle of volleyball season?” Ms. Powers asked. “Is Coach T running you too ragged to study at home?”

I drummed my fingers on my binder, four quick successive taps. “It’s not volleyball. It’s something… more personal.”

Ms. Powers made a face. Concern, I recognized. “Oh, alright then.”

I could hear them behind me. Kids from the next class coming in to take their seats. The bell would ring again soon, and I’d get a tardy.

“Uh, Ms. Powers? I gotta head to my next class. Otherwise…”

Her eyes widened, slightly. Ms. Powers rocked back in her seat, then forward, using the momentum to get to her feet.

“I apologize for keeping you. Go, go.”

I turned.

“But don’t forget what I said!” She called out as I left the classroom.

“Sure thing!” I said back. With seconds on the metaphorical timer, I rushed to my next class.

Valerie had her elbows on the table. She whined.

“Man, this is terrible. I wanna go out for lunch.”

“Can’t,” Eve said. “Staff and teachers have upped their game during lunch hours. They’ll check anyone walking outside, asking for a school ID. I’d rather not take that chance.”

“Right?” I agreed, “These new rules are such ass.”

“Watch what you say,” Jenny said, grinning. “Someone might be listening.”

I agreed with her. Sometimes, being secretive was more important than any ounce of honesty. I glanced around in the bustling cafeteria.

The school’s atmosphere had changed in recent weeks, a certain electricity in the air that made everyone antsy. The new rules, the stricter policies, stricter teachers, and the addition of another school cop made for a particularly new environment that the student body hadn’t quite adjusted to just yet. I could almost say there was a sense of paranoia, if I wanted blow things out of proportion.

All because of one person.

I would have found it interesting, if I didn’t have to keep watching my back.

“You gonna be okay with just that?” Eve asked, pointing to the apple I had in front of me. I hadn’t taken a bite out of it, for reasons known only to me.

“I’m not hungry right now, so I’m gonna save this for later, probably during Mr. Richard’s class.”

“That’s your prerogative,” Eve said, “But you’ll turn to dust if you keep up with that diet. You actually have to settle and stop, you know?”

“I do know.”

“Coach is going to get on your case about it, too, if she hasn’t already.”

“If I’m not at practice, it’ll be harder for her to do that.”

Brittany cut in, this time. “You’re not coming today?”

I put my hand on my notebooks, set beside the apple. “I have to start super studying for tests and stuff, especially math. If I don’t, I won’t have a practice to go back to.”

I was sitting in a group of my volleyball teammates, but, if this cafeteria wasn’t so full of people, and was also a lot smaller, I would’ve felt like I was suddenly being interrogated.

Not that I didn’t love these girls, but I couldn’t find Katy and Maria in time. My teammates found me first.

“It’ll be alright,” I said, both lying and deflecting. “Pretty soon, I’ll be back to warming the benches for you.”

The table laughed.

The other girls went off into their own conversations with each other, and I decided to look into my notebook. Maybe I’d try to get some studying done, for once.

“By the way, Alexis, how were things with Brandon, before…”

Or not.

Valerie, sitting across from me, had asked that unfinished question. But that was enough to get the attention of the others here.

“What even happened there, anyways?” Eve asked.

Jenny answered, “Got caught with armed robbery, along with other accomplices that belong to the same gang. That’s more than enough to get him expelled, but, even if it wasn’t, I don’t think we’ll be seeing him anymore. Not for the rest of the school year.”

“God damn, you seem to know a lot about this, Jenny.”

Jenny flipped her hair. “What can I say? It’s juicy stuff. I even heard that The Bluemoon helped catch him.”

There were gasps from everyone at the table.

I tried to mimic their shock as much as I could, but I was more concerned over the fact the conversation moved to that topic.

“Yeah, Alexis, didn’t you go on a date with him, just before that?” Valerie asked, bringing that topic back to me. Which I feared.

Word spreads, doesn’t it?

As much as I didn’t want to answer that question, I’d earn some unneeded suspicion if I refused to address it.

“We did, I guess, but it really didn’t feel like a date, to be honest. It was more like two friends hanging out.”

“Ouch. The friend zone?”

That was a small revelation. Oh, it so totally was that, wasn’t it? That blows.

I let it a fake chuckle. “Yeah, that exactly. It… just didn’t work out. Simple.”

Not the full truth, but the general strokes were there. I didn’t mention Jillian.

“But did you know he did gang stuff?” Valerie asked.

“That was a surprise to me,” I said. That part, was the complete truth. “He didn’t seem like that kind of guy.”

“Ah, what could’ve been. Such a tragic love.” Valerie stuck her tongue out.

I recalled the time I saw Brandon. It was the first time Hleuco and I worked together. What luck. I was floored when I saw him, couldn’t quite process it. I freaked out, and I ran, unintentionally leaving him hung out to dry. Maybe I thought I gave him a good enough chance to make his own escape, but I could have been guessing under my own metrics. A personal price, a personal consequence, for being Blank Face. It was hard to get over, but I wasn’t going to let something like that stop me so soon.

As awful as that thought was.

“It was never going to work out, looking back at it now,” I said, “But it’s still heartbreaking, hearing about what happened.”

Valerie then looked deflated, “Man, stop trying to make me feel bad for wanting to joke around.”

Everyone at the table laughed again, but it was more downplayed, this time.

The conversation continued, but over another subject. It wasn’t before long the bell rang, and everyone had to leave for class.

My group split apart, saying goodbye, then we went to our respective classes.

Before I got to the stairs to reach the second floor, I came across the scene.

Two teachers, and a cop, were in the middle of stopping a student who was also leaving the cafeteria. They were talking to him, and he had a serious expression on his face. Upset that he was caught? He might as well have painted a target on his back.

Most students minded their own business, and kept moving, but a few watched as the teachers led the boy down the hall, in the opposite direction of where he was originally going. He looked forward, and I saw in detail why they had stopped him. Everyone did.

He was wearing a blue hoodie.

The school had rules that prohibited wearing colors that might insinuate gang affiliations, but what could you do if the whole spectrum of the rainbow was used for colors? It was never the most well-enforced rule, but recently, the school had updated the dress code. No one color was allowed to dominate an article of clothing. It had to either be all-black, or have some design or pattern that allowed another color to be incorporated. No blank shirts with strictly one color, pretty much. A hard rule to follow, honestly, it made a third of my wardrobe unwearable at school. Today, I had to wear a black school sweater, with the school mascot across the chest. A bat.

In the face of that rule, another update to the dress code was that you weren’t allowed to wear blue hoodies.

The Halloween Riots were still going, after all, and the school didn’t want any reference or image of that appearing in the building. Why? I wasn’t sure. Maybe the administrators didn’t want a possibility of a riot breaking out here, but that seemed unlikely to me.

Maybe it was an extension of the gang affiliation rule.

Either way, this student broke a rule, now he was being reprimanded for it.

He passed me, and he broke his forward gaze to glance at me.

I felt a spike in temperature, however slight.

He doesn’t know, of course he wouldn’t.

Impossible, absurd, didn’t make sense.

But I was still about to sweat.

The cop was following behind the teachers, and addressed me as he walked by.

“Nothing to see here, go to class.”

I stuttered, “O-okay.”

I hurried along, like a good student was supposed to.

With each step up the stairs, my paranoia increased. If that was what the school wanted, then they passed with flying colors.

The bell had sung its last tune for the day. Every student did their best to try to make it out of the building as fast as they could, and be free… until the next morning. I was more lax in my step, walking at a pace that the elderly would have been annoyed by.

My last class of the day had me in the back of the school. Because of that, the gym wasn’t far, not much of a walk. But today, I wasn’t going that way.

After getting to my locker, and stuffing all of my belongings into my backpack, I took one of the side doors, leading outside. Figured I’d get some fresh air while I wrapped around to get to the front of the school.

Crossing the back parking lot, I passed some kids standing around, smoking cigarettes. I turned the corner, and nearly bumped into someone who was absentmindedly standing too close to the turn.

Harrian Wong.

“Oh, Harrian, hi,” I said.

“Hello,” he responded, as despondent as ever. He was in black, too, but his clothes were baggier, his hair covering his eyes. He reminded he of a grim reaper. If he actually was one, though, I’d suspect there would be even more people on Earth. Not a lot of energy or pep in his movements.

“Watchu doing here?” I asked. “Waiting to be picked up?”

“I, um, I’m meeting with those two guys?” He phrased his answer weirdly.

“Those two guys?” I asked back. I tried a guess. “Eric and Evan?”

Slowly, he nodded.

“Neat, how’s that going? Do you hang out with them a lot?”

“Sometimes.”

Doesn’t exactly answer the question.

“But you’re going to go chill with them today, right?”

Harrian shrugged. “I guess so. Eric just ask me to come here after school ended, today.”

“Sounds fun,” I said, with not a lot of fun inflected in my voice, admittedly. I should probably move along, but something compelled me to stick around for a little longer.

“You went to the barbeque, right? How was that?”

“Good. There were games and food and stuff, a lot of the Asian kids from here went to it.”

“Oh? Who went? Jasmine, Mary?”

“I only recognized their faces.”

“Okay,” I said. “Did you do anything there?”

“I volunteer. Help out at different booths, and organize different events.”

“Wow, that’s actually really impressive.”

“I was so tired, I thought I was going to die.”

I almost laughed at the statement, but I didn’t, even though I was sure it was a joke. “Been there, almost done that.”

“I’m not sure I follow.”

“I was trying to say to that I’ve been so tired I thought I was going to die.”

Harrian paused, in thought.

“Oh no, isn’t that a big deal? People die every year from overwork, especially in Japan.”

“Wait, no, that’s not, that’s not what I was getting at.”

“No? Because it’s an issue that doesn’t get talked about a lot. Did you know, according to the Japan Times, that 23 percent of 1,743 Japanese companies surveyed said that they have employees who worked more than 80 hours of overtime a month? And twelve percent said that some employees work more than 100 hours? And that last year, 96 people died from brain and heart illnesses linked to overwork? Other countries across the world have a similar issue, too.”

I frowned, “And the two of us, talking here, isn’t going to help solve it.”

He actually frowned in return. “No sadly.”

A second, then several, passed.

Wait…

How did we go from a barbeque to the overwork epidemic plaguing Japan?

Is he just dense, or a genius?

The conversation was losing air, and I wanted to abandon it. I had other things to get to, after all.

“I have to go, I’ll see you around, Harrian,” I said. “I wouldn’t want to keep you from the boys when they get here.”

I moved to leave, but Harrian had begun to speak, and that gave me pause.

“… zài jiàn.”

I scratched my head. “Didn’t catch that, exactly.”

“I just wanted to say ‘see you later.’ In Mandarin.”

“How nice of you,” I said, genuine.

“What’s ‘good bye’ in Japanese?”

Put on the spot. I didn’t have a response prepared. My knowledge of Japanese was pathetically sparse, despite all the years of my mom trying to teach me.

I searched in the recesses of my memory.

I put my hands in my pockets, and I tilted my head.

“The only word I can think of is ‘sayonara.’ But I think people don’t typically say that. It implies a sort of finality. Don’t quote me on it.”

Harrian accepted that. “Good enough.”

He stood, almost in anticipation.

Did you actually want me to say it?

If I say that, will you let me leave?

I tried not to look fazed. I’d entertain him, for the moment.

“Sayonara, Harrian.”

He waved, and I left, going towards the front of the school.

Harrian was an odd guy, with an odd way of speaking and with an odd way of presenting himself. But, he seemed well-meaning. In only a few minutes, I had the oddest conversation I would ever have ever. And somehow, I doubted it was going to be my last one with him.

“How does this look?” Katy stepped out of the changing room, wearing a dark blue gown, black heels. She struck a pose.

I laughed until I started coughing. Maria cackled.

Katy puffed out her cheeks with a pout, turning red. “I’m being serious, here.”

“I’m being serious here, too,” Maria said, “You look like a host for a game show.”

“Katy, sorry, but I’m with Maria,” I said, “But I am ready to take that cruise to the Bahamas.”

Between the two of us, we made even more of a racket. Women from other changing rooms poked their heads out to stare, but we hardly cared.

Katy, however, was not so enthused. “Screw you guys. I like it, I’m buying it.”

She went back into the changing room.

“Wait, wait,” Maria said, trying to catch her breath. “Did you even check the tag, it’s not on sale.”

“I don’t know the price, and I don’t care to know,” she said from inside the changing room. “I’m buying it, screw you guys.”

Through our pointed teasing, we pleaded with Katy to not buy the dress. She didn’t listen. She left the changing room, storming past us to get to the register. After she purchased that extravagant piece of fashion, we exited the pricey store from the upper end mall known as the Realm.

Instead of taking me straight home, Katy took us here. Maria agreed to tag along.

The Realm wasn’t strictly a part of the upper districts that made up a richer part of town, but it was a start, a sort of hub where the upper middle class citizens liked to spend their time, and where the upper class would go to kill theirs, when there was nothing else to do. The stores here were nice, the employees were nice, everything looked nice. It was a good place to be. To be. Purchasing anything was another question entirely if you were just a normal working person.

We continued to walk around, Maria and I took in the glitz and glamour of the stores and pretty people. Granted, we were probably taking things too seriously, but it wasn’t like we got to be here every day, much less right after school. For myself, anyways, I tried to enjoy my time here.

I was following advice given to me.

“Now we need to find dresses for you two,” Katy said, pointing to me and Maria.

“Why?” I asked, “And like we can afford anything from here. As if.”

“We can find what you like, and we’ll look for cheaper alternatives elsewhere.” Katy tapped her head. “Trust me, I got this.”

“What is this for, again?” Maria then asked. We stood in a line to take an escalator down.

“My mom’s planning a small gathering on the weekend,” Katy explained, almost coming across as tired.

“I’m not willing to believe anything your mom does as ‘small,’” I said.

“It’s for my dad, Mom wants to celebrate.”

I had a feeling she was understating things.

We reached the fourth floor, and checked out other stores, here.

“Celebrate what? Their anniversary?” Maria asked.

“No, it’s lamer than that.”

“Doesn’t sound like any party I want to go to.”

“Shut up. I want you to go, Maria, consider this your invitation. You can’t refuse either, Alexis, my mom’s already invited your mom.”

“Wasn’t planning on it?” I said in a funny way. I had a feeling I knew what Katy was referring to, and if I was right, that could really screw me over.

Part of me wanted to refuse.

“But what is it?” Maria asked, more adamant.

Katy looked reluctant to share, but she couldn’t withhold details forever. Through an uncharacteristically bashful look in her eyes, Katy explained.

“My dad’s been running for public office for the better part of the year, now, and the day for voting on it is about to come up. My mom is so confident that he’s going to take it that she’s been planning the whole thing ahead of time.”

“Isn’t that putting the cart before the horse?” Maria asked.

“My mom won’t stop talking about the polls, and I’ve seen it myself. It’s pretty dismal for the other guy.”

“If that’s so, then congrats. What’s the job?”

“DA. District attorney.”

“What do they do?”

“In the case of this city, he’s going to go up against the gangs. Personally.”

Maria looked like she just got shot. “Oh shit. Good thing I’m…”

Maria stopped, but she didn’t know what Katy and I already knew.

“Why’d you never bring it up before?” Maria asked instead, grilling into Katy at this point.

“It wasn’t relevant to bring up, and I didn’t think he’d actually get this far.”

We continued towards another store, checking the options inside.

I could see why Katy was so apprehensive about bringing this stuff up. She knew all too well about her dad’s public efforts over fighting the crime in the city. Officially making himself a public figure would complicate matters even more, and give him a wide scope of enemies and detractors to deal with.

If she only knew what else Thomas was up to, in the midst of this.

More than twenty-four hours since the attempted ambush of Styx’s Gang, and I was trying to follow Thomas’s advice, to help myself before I could help out others. I was… working on it. In my time as Blank Face, I had neglected some personal stuff that I should have been on the ball about. School, friends, my personal life, they were all put on hold while I tried to figure out these powers… and this thirst.

Things were starting to fall apart, and if it wasn’t for Thomas’s intervention, it was liable to get worse.

In the end, we all have secrets we want to keep.

“Anyways,” Katy said, disappointed with what this store had. “It is what it is, now. Let’s keep checking around.”

We took another escalator down. We checked a store, the name Italian, and the prices made the dresses not desirable at all. Not that they weren’t pretty – they were – but they were so unobtainable.

Even with the money Thomas had paid me for my nights as Blank Face. I felt guilty for accepting it before he knew, guiltier still after he did know. I offered, but he refused to take it back.

Right now, despite it being in cash, I couldn’t use it now, not with Katy and Maria being curious. Especially Katy.

Which had raised another concern I didn’t know I should have had.

Does Katy know I’m Blank Face?

Thomas admitted to figuring out who I was the second he saw me in person. Was there a similar case with Katy? She was smart, she could have pieced things together as the weeks passed. Dammit.

I was afraid to ask, afraid to find out. Because if I tried, and I was wrong, then I would have inadvertently spilled the beans before I was ready.

Thomas was a unique case as far as revealing my identity went. We went through a considerable amount in a short span of time, more than anyone should go ever through. And, in more ways than I could imagine, Thomas had saved my life.

Even if they were my friends, even if they were my best friends, I wasn’t ready to just tell Katy and Maria everything. Not yet. Once I got a grip on the other stuff in my life, the stuff I had been neglecting, then I’d consider it.

Katy was smart, insightful, and Maria had a way of surprising me. For now, I’d have to be wary of them.

As shitty as that was…

“Katy, let’s call it a day, we still have time to find a dress,” Maria said eventually. She pointed to the window roof, where the sunlight peeked through. An evening glow.

“Fine, we can head out,” Katy said, caving in. “I refuse to believe you’ll find anything that works.”

“Fuck you, I already have dope shit at home, believe that.” Maria sounded confident, and I could bet she had every reason to be. “It’s her you should be worried about.”

She directed that to me. I had to defend myself.

“Hey, I can clean up nice when I want to. Don’t you fret, Katy, I saw some decent pieces here, I’ll use those for inspo for finding something later.”

Katy huffed. “You two better be smoking when I see you there.”

Maria and I almost synced up. “I’m insulted that you’d question that.”

With that, we decided to make our way down to the first floor. Our way out to a parking lot was through a large department store. Of course, we had to at least look at the clothes they had, and smell the perfumes they had available. Worth it.

After some time, we took to leaving the Realm, getting outside.

A girl was standing outside, around the doors, trying to get people’s attention.

“Any information on the Bluemoon, please! We’re looking for any information about Stephenville’s watchful protector! Any help is appreciated!”

She was trying to hand out fliers, papers of differing, bright colors. Hardly anyone took them.

“Crazies,” I heard Katy mutter. I wasn’t willing to go that far, but to think there were fanatics just as much as there were detractors.

As if she could hear us, the girl came our way, stopping us. She held out a flier to us.

“If you have any information, please don’t hesitate to contact us!”

‘We’re?’ ‘Us?’

Is this some kind of organization?

The girl wasn’t any older than the three of us, though strangely familiar.

“Not interested,” Katy said, handling it quickly. She stepped past the girl, and Maria followed. I was a step behind, looking at the girl, still curious at her curiosity about the Bluemoon. As I passed, I took the flier from her hand.

Her glance to me turned into a hard, intrusive stare. Then, a wide-eyed stare. She looked me up and down.

She grabbed my hand.

“I know you!”

My heart sank.

I looked at this girl again. Loose denim jeans, striped shirt, with each stripe a different color. But I recognize her hair. Dyed a deep purple, cut into a bob that bounced.

Shit.

The girl from Braham Barn, from when I went back after discovering my powers. I scared off her and her friends. They saw me. I didn’t have a mask, back then. I wasn’t Blank Face yet.

Stephany? Her name was something like that.

Shitty shit.

Her hold on me was tight. If I tried to be forceful, it might cause a bigger scene.

“Yeah, oh my god, it is you! I can’t believe I finally found you!”

I looked back. Katy and Maria were staring back, confused.

Oh shit.

“Come with me, just for a second,” Stephany said, tugging at my arm, “I just want to talk. It’s really you, the-”

I couldn’t let her continue.

Everything would come to an end if I let her. Everything.

I didn’t have a lot of cards to pull, except one.

“Hey, excuse me!” I said, getting her attention, and stopping her.

“I don’t know you, and we’ve never met. We don’t all look the same, you know. If you have an Asian friend, that doesn’t mean you can pick on anyone else and say you know them. That’s messed up.”

Stephany’s face turned as red as a tomato. Others were looking at us as they went on with their day.

“I didn’t, that’s not what I was trying to get at,” Stephany said, distressed. Her grip loosened. “I thought-”

“Oh, you thought. Clearly not enough thought went into what you just did.”

Someone else came up to us. A mall cop.

“Is there a problem, here?”

“No, officer,” I said, “I was just leaving.”

I pulled, and my arm went free. I walked away, leaving the girl and the cop behind. I returned to my friends.

“What was that about?” Maria asked, half-grinning.

“Mistook me for someone else,” I explained. “Happens all the time.”

“Hah, I feel you.”

We continued down the parking lot. My heart beating like it was about to jump out of my chest.

Such a small encounter, but that was still too close of a call.

I checked the flier I took from her. Bright orange. ‘The Bluemoon Fan Club’ was printed across the top, followed by an address, contact information, and meeting times.

“A bunch of crazies,” Katy commented, seeing that I was reading the flier. “Following a bigger crazy.”

I folded the paper, and put it in my back pocket. Might have to deal with this later.

“Man, I ain’t gonna lie,” Maria said, “The Bluemoon freaks me the fuck out.”

We’re still on that subject?

“Yeah?” Katy said.

“I mean, yeah, but… don’t really want to get into it right now. Just wanted to say that.”

She trailed off. She had another point, but she didn’t want to say.

Couldn’t press her on it.

“I can see where you’re coming from,” Katy said. “That Bluemoon proved that two plus two equals five. Nothing makes sense, anymore, and people are still trying to cope, however they can.”

“If you think two plus two equals five, Katy,” I said, “Never mind about asking you to help me with my math class.”

“Ha, ha,” Katy said, flat, “What did you need help with?”

“What do you know about Algebra Two?”

“Enough to write the book on it.” Katy grinned. “I can help, just tell me when.”

“Cool, thanks.”

Good, the conversation went elsewhere, away from myself, essentially. Maria’s car was parked closest to the mall, so we split up with her first, before heading into Katy’s car. We started the drive back to my place.

A whole day, working towards getting my life back together. A whole week without the mask. Somehow, it felt like it was going to be harder than anything else I had ever done.

Previous                                                                                               Next

Interlude – Styx

Previous                                                                                               Next

The music was loud. Loud enough that he didn’t hear the chair collide with the wall, tools scattering into the air, then banging onto the floor.

Styx roared.

It was a sort of rage that was utterly recreational. A push, and that was all that was needed for him to go off. Like his moods lived on a swing. All it took was a simple push.

Recreational, yet fulfilling. He needed this. Craved it. The freedom to do, the freedom to be. Addicting, and he was his own supplier.

And here? He also had the freedom to destroy.

Everything in the garage was his. The sports cars, the vintage motorcycles, the guns. Organized according to manufacturers, then year. Everything in the condominium was his. To be precise, he owned the whole building. The crown fruit of his decades of hard labor. Building an empire wasn’t easy, but it certainly was rewarding.

The vehicles were clean, the walls white, the area well-lit. A complicated sound system blasted the music throughout the garage, a deep bass rumbling mirrors and windows. Guns rattled where they were situated on a wall, but they wouldn’t fall. The cleanliness didn’t necessarily fit Styx’s nature, but it didn’t have to. He had the means to afford it, and the means to indulge himself in it.

However, despite the otherwise well-kept status of the garage, there was one third of the space that he allowed to be dirty. The innermost section of the garage. His workstation, where he kept his projects and other endeavors. Here, was where he was most free. Tools and knives and guns were strewn about, dirt marks were streaked across the floor and walls. Dark splotches of paint and blood touched the ceilings. Various tables with various tools and gadgets, randomly placed, unlike how his cars and motorcycles were lined up. He liked the contrast, how things didn’t necessarily go from one to the other.

He liked the chaos.

Again, Styx roared. It strained.

As he let himself come down from his fit, he grabbed a towel off of a table, wiping sweat off of his body. He was shirtless, wearing only black skinny jeans and black boots. Tattoos of different images were sketched across his chest, torso, and arms. Pagan, tarot, Lovecraftian.

Styx bent down where the chair had landed. He picked up a wrench, gripping it tight in his hand. He turned, then stopped.

Acknowledgement.

He went to another metal table, where other tools laid, available. A remote was there, too. Without having to lift it, he pressed a finger on a button. The music was immediately cut.

“Victor,” Styx said, but he didn’t hear himself. A high ringing had replaced the noisy, industrial instrumental.

‘Victor’ answered with a lift of his chin.

His clothes were simple, but it was all he had time to procure. Things were moving, quickly, and Victor had little in the way of leisure time. A white shirt, tucked into blue denim jeans. Light brown boots. Round, large sunglasses adorned his face.

He ran his fingers through his hair, despite the bandages wrapped around his palm. Though, there wasn’t much there, thanks to his buzz cut.

“I’m surprised you haven’t blown out your ears yet,” Victor said, having to raise his voice for Styx to hear. The proper security measures were set up across the building, even though it wasn’t necessary. Anyone who knew, knew to stay away.

After one of Styx’s men escorted the two back to the condo, and after the two spent some time catching up, Styx had told Victor the different words and numbers necessary to let himself in. Told. Styx trusted he wouldn’t write it down, and was confident in Victor’s ability to memorize a few letters and digits.

Victor had taken the wooden stairs down to the garage, the glass door behind him. A large, brown paper bag sat at his feet.

“You were okay with being out in the open?” Styx asked instead, as if Victor’s concern wasn’t worth addressing. “No issues?”

“None. I know how to keep my head down.”

“Don’t want to spoil your arrival to the Feds?”

“Oh yeah, I prefer being the uninvited guest. Makes things interesting. Especially if I bring gifts.”

Styx nodded. His brow was still furrowed, his eyes wild, like he was still maintaining a hold on the anger that gripped him not too long ago. He creeped over to the middle of the garage, towards his bike, to actually get some work done on it.

“It’s just a few scratches, Styx, I don’t see why you need to tune up the whole-”

Styx cut him off.

“They fucked up King of Pentacles!” he bellowed at the top of his lungs, referring to his bike. “I’ll whip the bitch who did it!”

King of Pentacles. The motorcycle was a mechanical embodiment of Styx’s career in the underground. Originally a used bike he stole almost thirty years ago, he’d built upon it, adding where it was needed, stripping away where it was least efficient. Now, it was a bike that perfectly represented his status in the city. Not how he viewed himself, necessarily, but how others should view him.

An all-black custom chopper. Sleek, elegant, but with a edge to it that made people steer clear of it, turning another way if they simply saw it parked, somewhere. Styx preferred functionality over aesthetics, but it worked, here. The large engine at the bottom resembled something of a ribcage, and the headlight was encased in a plating that resembled Cthulhu. Asymmetric slits allowed light to bleed through, with tentacles reaching forward to hold the front tire. It had a form, but nothing definite, concrete. It left things to the imagination, and most didn’t want to be around to ponder over it.

And Styx saw where scratches defiled the bike, where dents fucked up his handiwork. Though few, and negligible, it make his blood boil.

Angrily, Styx went back to finishing the final touches on his bike. If anyone could work the nuts and bolts of a motorcycle with anger, it was Styx.

“We’re not even taking King of Pentacles to the meeting,” Victor said. “You can fix it later.”

“This is my bike,” Styx replied, in a much more reserved manner. “You know that.”

“And you know I know that, I’m just telling you that it can wait. The meeting’s in an hour, and you’re the only one with clearance to take me.”

Styx twisted with the wrench, making more adjustments. “I don’t give a fuck. Everyone can wait. You, Mister, and those fucks. My shit takes precedence over their shit.” He yelled, as though to verbally form an exclamation point. It rang throughout the garage. That, he heard.

“Then I have no choice but to wait.” Styx heard Victor walk through the workstation, picking up the chair that Styx had thrown, and sat in it.

“Man, this city hasn’t really changed much since I left,” Victor said. “More of the same. Except, there’s actually more. More gangs, more drugs, more shit. I commend you for keeping things together.”

“It’s easy,” Styx said, keeping it short.

“I’ll say. You’re living lavish. I’d comment and suggest that the wealth has made you soft, but it clearly hasn’t.”

Styx didn’t respond, focusing too much on King of Pentacles.

From behind him, Victor murmured, or spoke at a normal enough volume that Styx couldn’t pick it up. The ringing was only now starting to subside.

“Yeah?” Styx questioned.

“Right, the music. I was talking… there’s one new player in all this, huh?”

Styx knew exactly what he was talking about. Who, to be precise.

“Yeah.”

“‘The Bluemoon.’ Or, didn’t you mention another name?”

“Yeah, Blueballs?”

“Your humor is still on point, Styx. No, I mean an actual name.”

“Last night, when I got a call from a police station that I’m good with. John told us everything. Told us it went by ‘Blank Face.’”

“That was it. If it went by another name, couldn’t it just be another super… thing?”

“That’s a whole different question. All I know is, that’s the same one that came by the yard. The physical description matched up. It was a good thing I kept watch, in the distance.”

“Blank Face, huh.”

Then, Victor laughed, without warning. Styx kept working.

“The hell? I’m not impressed at all!” Victor exclaimed. “I was thinking it’d be some terrifying figure, but all I saw was some clown with a limp arm. What kind of hero can I just kick out the back of a truck, and you come in to break their arms. What a little bitch.”

Styx giggled to himself. It was manic, uneven in pitch. “Heh, lil’ bitch.”

“That’s why I had to ask if that really was The Bluemoon I’ve seen on TV. It shouldn’t have been that easy.”

“That was our Blueballs for sure, but does it really matter? The meeting is still happening, they still want to talk about this.”

Victor sighed, letting out another chuckle. “Hah, I get it, though. There’s more to it than that, and that’s what they’re pissing themselves over. We’ll all go over it then. But, I’m not going to say it didn’t take the wind out of my sails, even just a bit. I sit for thirty-six hours in the back of a truck, smelling like shit, only for it to be almost unbelievable easy to take the hero out. Do you see what I’m getting at?”

“Yes.”

“Maybe being a ‘hero’ isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.”

Styx pulled away the wrench, and patted the leather seat of the bike. He stood, facing Victor. “Don’t get ahead of yourself. If taking out Blueballs was all he needed you to do, Mister wouldn’t have asked for you. And what you perceive to be a minor threat is still a threat. You don’t get to where I am by underestimating bitches.”

Victor lifted his hands, placating. “I know, I know. I’ve got work to do.” He groaned.

Victor casted a glance at Styx. “What about you? You scared of this, thing? It escaped, went after your guys, last night.”

Styx answered plainly, truthfully. “Me? Nah. If anything, I’m curious.”

“Nice.”

Victor stared at Styx, and he stared back. Blankly.

Victor dropped his shoulders, grumbling, and lazily pointed to a corner of Styx’s workstation. “Um, I was trying to find a way to bring this to your attention, but… Aren’t you going to introduce me?”

Styx looked, and remembered that the man tied to a chair was there.

He was blindfolded, with no clothes, save for his underwear. Twitching, shaking. His mouth shuddered, but no sound came forth.

He dripped of blood and sweat and tears, his blindfold most dark where his eyes should be. His chair was placed on top of multiple mats, placed into a large square. Normally used for dogs, the mats caught the blood and urine that slid down the chair’s legs.

Styx shrugged.

“My payment for agreeing to see through you crossing the border. You might recognize him, you sat by him for thirty-six hours.”

Victor frowned. “This is why society agreed to put value into things like green paper.”

“So?”

Victor shifted in his seat. Not because he was alarmed, Styx knew, but because he went to reach for his phone. Styx took that as a chance to check his, too.

“Bored?” Victor asked, looking at his phone.

“Stress reliever,” Styx replied, while looking at his, “And practice for when I get that bitch who fucked King of Pentacles.”

“The more things change, the more they stay the same, then.”

“Aye aye.”

The man was becoming audible, now, but no one paid heed to him. The man whimpered while Styx checked his phone.

Victor put his phone away. “So, you almost finished, here? I’ll leave a better impression if I show up early. You know, like an actual professional.”

“Eh.” Styx put his phone in his pants pocket. “Let me get my stuff, then.”

Victor griped again, as he got out of the chair. “Styx, if you’re so bored being here, in this city, why haven’t you left, yet? You could’ve visited me.”

“That again?”

“Yes, again. Nothing’s honestly tying you down, you could leave anytime you want, let the city burn behind you while you see the world.”

“Like what you did?”

“Yes.”

Styx looked to Victor, his chin tilted up some to make up for the height difference. He had no expression. “That’s what makes us different. You wanted to see the world, I wanted to make my own.”

Victor smiled. “And that’s the only difference?”

Styx’s lack of expression stayed.

Victor then nodded, as if taking it all in. “I suppose that still makes me Remus, and you Romulus,” he said.

“Careful, I haven’t killed you yet.”

“If it ever comes to that, you’ll die, too,” Victor said. “Of boredom.”

Styx actually cracked something of a smile to that, though twisted, unhinged.

Before Styx could let the moment get the better of him, he turned, retrieving his leather jacket, putting it on over his bare torso. He didn’t bother to bring a gun. His presence would be enough. Victor followed, taking the paper bag he brought in with him.

“You can pick which car we take,” Styx said.

Styx took to a corner of the room. Fitting, to how much of a role he played in this. A willing, listening participant, but not necessarily an active one.

Others began filing in, sitting around a round table. Some were in more casual wear, but most elected to wear suits. Mostly men, but two women were in attendance, already waiting.

Styx rested his tongue on his upper lip.

Victor sat next to him, watching as the rest came into the high-rise restaurant. The room was dimly lit, sensual, if Styx wanted to be poetic, which he sometimes liked to be. A light jazz tune wafted about the area, almost as if the room had housed the essence of this music, and the building, the floor, the room, was built in accommodation to it.

Poetic.

Styx looked at them all, uncaring. They weren’t even a third of the gangs that had a hold on the city.

He listed the names of the different mobsters. Arthur, Brian, Cassius, D’Angelo, Edward, Forest, Gary, Hayden, Inez.

All separate, yet connected by a single thread…

And they were completely oblivious.

“Is Mister gonna make it, Styx?” It was D’Angelo, calling from across the room. Leader of one of the Italian mobs.

“No,” Styx replied, at half the volume. “He’s sitting it out. I can fill him in, if he wants.”

D’Angelo motioned to the whole room, as everyone took their seats. “This isn’t enough for him to show? This isn’t important enough to appear in person, for once?”

“It may look that way to stupider eyes, but I am not his keeper. If he found a more pressing matter to deal with instead, that’s on him.”

“He called the meeting!”

“Calm down, D’Angelo,” Inez said, ushering him to sit. “We can still have a discussion and act without him. So let’s try to be punctual.”

D’Angelo sat, and Inez looked pleased with herself. The leader of a cartel on the south side. A real cougar with the power to dominate. So badly, Styx wanted to fuck that grin right off of her face.

He tried to keep still.

“Let’s getting started then, brother,” Forest said, pointing to Victor. “Man of the hour.”

Victor took that cue, leaving his seat to approach the circle. He brought his bag with him.

“That’s what I am. ‘Kay, I’ll make the introduction short. Most of you, we go way back, and it’s nice to see you all again.” He gestured with a small bow to the table.

“The rest of you who are not familiar, I’m probably the reason why you’re​ at this table, today, and absolutely the reason why Mister can afford to miss such a meeting. To be cocky, I produce results.”

Some of the mobsters exchanged glances. The ones who didn’t know him.  The naïve ones.

“To all you new folk, don’t waste the energy trying to decide whether or not I’m the real deal. I am. Let’s all just accept that, and we’ll all be a lot richer for it, in the end.”

Victor set the paper bag down on the table, next to Arthur. Arthur pointed to it, and Victor motioned, letting him take a peek inside.

Styx leered to himself when he saw Arthur’s reaction.

“Are you mad? What are you thinking, bringing-”

“Now, now,” Victor interrupted. “Let’s not get so irritable so soon. You’ll find that it may come in handy, one day.”

Arthur grumbled, and passed the bag down for Brian to look inside. His reaction was more understated, Styx saw, but he couldn’t quite hide the fear. Brian passed the bag down, and the bag made its round trip. The ones who already had a rapport with Victor masked their trepidation well. The others did not.

Styx knew Victor was making a show of things, but it was only because he had to confidence to do so. The repertoire.

“Let’s start with the obvious, yeah? Why are we all here, today, having a meeting over a light breakfast?”

The mobsters looked amongst each other.

“Tough crowd,” Victor said. “Then, I won’t tiptoe around it anymore. The Bluemoon. Or ‘Blank Face,’ from what I’ve heard on the streets.” Victor put his hands into air quotes when he said ‘Blank Face.’ “A very indecisive individual, this one.”

Victor started snapping his fingers, looking expectant.

“What do we want to call this individual? Bluemoon, Blank Face, hero, vigilante, monster…”

“Lil’ bitch,” Styx yelled out.

“Thanks for that, Styx, but I’ll just go ahead and use ‘Blank Face.’ If that’s what they want to be called, then I’ll respect their wishes.”

Hayden, the other female mob boss, leaned in with her elbows on the table, her chin resting on her hands. “Are you going to at least pretend that you’re taking this seriously?”

Styx squinted. One of the naïve ones.

“Oh, I am. Wouldn’t want to waste a perfectly good sightseeing opportunity. Yes, this Blank Face has been causing some trouble for the lot of you. Even its very existence raises some issues. Coupled with the fact that the National Guard might sweep the streets to find the vigilante, and not to mention all the media coverage placed on the city because of it, that’s a lot of eyes on things we don’t want to be looked at, no?”

Hayden fell back into her seat. Styx couldn’t see it from his view, but he read that she crossed her legs.

Victor kept going. “This may be unprecedented, but we’re not blind and in the dark. There are some things we do know about Blank Face. I’m sure all of you have heard by now, but Blank Face decided to pay me a visit, last night.”

A few had worried expression. Styx knew what that would imply, that he was incapable, or vulnerable, to an assault by Blank Face or another party. That he somehow slipped up, able to be taken advantage of. He hated that implication. He could have pushed, and killed any one of them for thinking that, if he wanted to.

He didn’t.

Styx had an outlet for his frustrations at home.

A feeling stirred within Styx.

Arthur spoke. “Is that why you’re trying to act so nonchalant about this? To save face after seeing the devil?”

Several laughed.

Victor was motionless, not responding to that comment.

“We were close to capturing it,” Victor said, fixing his sunglasses, “Maybe even closer to killing it, last night. I was able to subdue it and distract it enough for Styx to do his thing. Two broken arms, strangulation, at least. Who knows what we managed internally. Blank Face managed to walk away from that.”

Suddenly, there was no room for levity. The table was dead quiet.

“How, how are you so sure?” It was Cassius who had to balls to say something.

Styx spoke. Everyone turned their heads. “Our transport of Blank Face was interrupted, and it got away. My men told me afterwards that Blank Face was soon active, moving like nothing ever happened.”

Victor gave Styx a thumbs up. “Which brings me to my next point. Bla-”

“You’re fucking telling us that thing can’t die!”

The voice was too on edge, too shrill, to point to a source. Panic was rushing into the hearts of the mobsters, at the revelation. Styx took a glance at his phone.

“Everyone, please, settle yourselves!” Victor had to raise his voice to be heard above the uproar. “You’re going to scare our hard working servers!”

Some turned, Styx did, too. A small team of young waiters stood, flustered at what to do. One had a platter of crepes and omelets. Another had his hands around an intricately designed cart, with pancakes and cups of coffee on it. But he was still.

Styx silently judged as the mobsters started to right themselves, straightening their backs. Victor gave the servers the okay to approach.

“To address the table’s concerns,” Victor said, “It appears that Blank Face has some sort of improved healing. But, do not let that scare you. Blank Face can be taken down, and it may be easy for it to get back up, that point remains. We just need to hit back, hard. Harder.”

“And how do you propose to do that?” someone asked. Styx couldn’t tell.

Victor, now, had started walking around the table. Styx only saw the back of his head, but he knew what his expression would be. He mouthed it in time with Victor.

“I’m working on it.”

“You’re… working on it?” Forest.

“Yes, my man, working on it. I’ll give you the proper pitch when I have it more developed, probably by later tonight, so I’m hoping I’ll have your… support.”

“We’ll see if it’s good enough for that.”

“Thank you very much. I don’t want to spoil what I have right now, but I’m thinking something theatrical? We have people in masks, now, performing magic and tricks. I suggest we play into that a bit.”

“Wait, people?” Inez questioned, stressing that second word.

“Oh, I almost forgot! Everyone was losing it a moment ago…” Victor scratched his throat, before saying, “Blank Face isn’t working alone.”

Styx could feel it in the room, the panic coming back, but no one wanted to fall into it. Not anymore. Styx remained calm.

“You’re joking.”

“‘Fraid not. One of Styx’s Ferrymen were interrupted by Blank Face, earlier in the night, before it came to us. A van came to get him. A man in a bird mask accompanies Blank Face.”

The two women went pale. Styx, instead, seethed at the mention of the van. “There’s… there’s more of them?”

Victor shook his head. “That’s one of the things we don’t know. I’m inclined to say yes, just to be careful.”

Murmurs among the mobsters, unsure of what to make of the possibility of at least two superhumans working against them. Styx couldn’t help but think of ways to rip them apart, instead. And if they could recover from that, then more fun for him.

“What more do we know of this man in the bird mask?” Inez asked.

“Not much, but they were probably in constant communication with each other.”

Styx had realized that Victor never mentioned how they got interrupted by the van, how it crashed into King of Pentacles. At this meeting, too many details were coming out that were frightening the mobsters. It wouldn’t do to have them completely chicken out and not want to hear Victor’s plans. Or was it better that he play into that, getting more support?

Or, was Victor trying to protect Styx’s rep? As if he needed it, but, if so, Styx appreciated the effort.

D’Angelo cut into his pancake, then ate, chewing slowly. After washing it down with coffee he asked, “And you think you can take them on, not knowing what you don’t know?”

“Oh, I can. The battle isn’t as uphill as you’re insinuating it be. The whole world is even more fearful of Blank Face. By the by, I love the riot idea. I say we do more of that, while we’re at it.”

The different members of the table nodded. Styx loved the idea, too.

“If we play our cards right, this might turn out to be a problem that solves itself. Again, more details to come.”

Forest raised his cup, looking around for a waiter. “Ah, man, that’s enough of the Blank Face talk, for now. Getting me sick to my stomach. Brother, we’ll patiently await your pitch.”

Victor had wrapped around the table, his back to Styx. He brought both hands up. Peace signs.

“Super.”

While the others got to their breakfast, Hayden asked, “Is there anything else we want to bring up?”

Arthur set down his fork. “There’s one thing.”

Victor leaned close. “Hmm?”

“Thomas Thompson.”

“Don’t know the name, sorry.”

“He’s a lawyer. Pain in the ass, with the potential of becoming a bigger one.”

“I’m listening.”

“Elections for the next DA are coming up, and it looks like he’s going to take it. We had our guy, John Cruz, but the public adores Thompson. He’s squeaky clean, going on a platform of ‘hope’ and ‘courage’ in the face of adversity. ‘Wander no more,’ he says. It’s bullshit, but they’re eating it up.”

Victor fixed a sleeve. “Squeaky clean does present a problem.”

“Him being in office isn’t going to help us any. Harsher punishments on any alleged corruption in the police force, and he’s advocating for harsher punishments for any possible connection to any gang activity, however minute. He was instrumental in bringing down one of the Cobras. They’re still shaken up about it.”

“Sebastian?”

“Yes.”

“No.” Victor looked legitimately disheartened, hearing that. He brought a finger to his chin, thinking.

“So you understand why I brought it up? If he can do that much without holding an official office…”

Victor snapped his fingers. “Say no more, I can take care of it.”

No one did say more, seemingly satisfied. Everyone continued eating. A minute with only small talk, then Victor walked back to Styx, bringing his bag with him.

“Doing okay?” Victor asked.

Styx grunted, non-committal.

“Hey, I’ll need your help in this, in all of this.”

“As long as you keep it entertaining.”

“I’ll plan around it.”

They both smiled, Styx’s much more menacing. Victor was a man of his word, and he was looking forward to it as much as he was.

Styx was ready to push.

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