Interlude – Claire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is ‘protests’ a better word?

Maybe.

But what are they protesting?

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

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

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

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

And what’s that?

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

No I haven’t.

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

Yeah. Heard it was a girl though.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which question?

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

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

You… ah, that’s right.

Back in the-

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

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

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

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

Still pretty bloody though.

Oh yes, still pretty bloody.

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

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

Claire waited for the order.

“Drive!”

That was the order.

Claire drove out of the alley and into the street.

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

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

“Yeah?”

“Yes boss?”

“Oh, thought you were asking me something.”

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

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

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

Boss.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Going as fast as I can, boss.”

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

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

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

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

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

Claire didn’t dare voice that.

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

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

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

Better to keep her eyes to herself.

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

“Depends, but I’m up to hearing it.”

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

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

“What’s next…”

“Any plans?”

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

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

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

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

“Claire?”

“Yes boss?”

“You are prying too much.”

Hearing that, somehow, it stung.

“Allow me to apologize,” Claire said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And isn’t that just a shame.

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

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

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

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

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

She raised the volume again.

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

How you figure, Slims?

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

Things weren’t so pretty with everyone.

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

Don’t have a Little Tokyo neither.

Oh boy. That’s not going to bode-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shit!”

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

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

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

Tires and brakes squealed when Claire turned.

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

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

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

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

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

The chase continued.

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

Wind whipped through a window in the back.

“We’re losing them!”

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

Claire gripped the wheel harder, knuckles going white.

Her own voice could be heard just fine.

“You want me to drive? I’m driving!”

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

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

Like the fact that she was also getting shot at.

“Boss!”

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

She got a reply regardless.

“Yeah!”

Then the young woman fired shots of her own.

Claire screamed again. Not a real word.

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

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

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

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

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

Claire adjusted while her boss continued to fire.

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

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

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

That.

And then that.

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

People who were way too close.

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

“-Faster! Just a little more!”

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

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

Or was she considered a part of it, now?

No time to think on that.

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

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

But she had already left.

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

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

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

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

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

She was being chased too?

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

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

She turned and got away.

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

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

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

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

So much for ‘Peace.’

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

She waited.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, not business, trouble.

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

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

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

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

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

She ran her fingers through her hair, fixing it.

Christ.

The door open and someone threw themselves in a hurry.

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

“Drive!”

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

“You alright boss?”

She had to check on her, too.

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

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

Who the hell was Edward and Gary?

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Now what?”

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

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

That last question came more from wishful thinking.

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

Claire felt her heart sink.

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

Sinking deeper.

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

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

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

“One more-”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another turn, another night.

Claire drove while the young woman sat in the back.

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

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

A sharp hiss.

“Yes boss?” Claire asked, by reflex.

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

“Oh, it’s nothing. I think.”

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

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

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

“You get enough sleep?”

“Not really.”

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

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

Claire frowned. She couldn’t help it.

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

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

“Wicked. Is that how you see yourself?”

“It’s how I see myself sometimes.”

“And other times?”

“Could you turn down the radio there?”

“Oh.”

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

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

Would she let that go?

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

“Boss…”

“Claire.”

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

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

All the young woman said was, “Prying.”

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

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

Claire shook her head, still watching the road.

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

Another, longer beat. Then the young woman spoke.

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

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

“I won’t, and I didn’t.”

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

“This is all I know.”

“You can learn!”

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

“Hey, we don’t have time to waste.”

Claire turned around to face her. The young woman.

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

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

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

The young woman’s lip curled up, slight.

“Call me Vee.”

“Vee?”

“Like the letter.”

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

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

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

She got one of those things.

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

Claire frowned again.

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

“Not your point. I know. I hear you.”

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

“But why do you care?”

Claire smiled. That was easy.

“Looking at you, someone has to.”

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

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

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

V raised a hand. Claire stopped.

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

Claire nodded. It would have to do.

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

V then gestured. “Then please.”

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

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

For whatever reason, Claire was feeling more chatty now.

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

“No need to know.”

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

V sighed.

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

“That place seems to switch hands quite often.”

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

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

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

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

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

Claire never got the answer to that question.

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

The world, spinning out of control.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coughed again. The pain sharper. Something was broken.

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

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

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

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

“V?”

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

“Anyone?”

No answer for either question.

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

Claire moaned.

Then the door to her side opened.

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

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

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

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

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

“Forget about her. Where’s V?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No big, Big Sis!”

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

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

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

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

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108 – Friendly Fire

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I got up.

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

“Agh!”

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

Agh!”

It wasn’t a long descent.

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

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

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

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

“You alright?”

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

I groaned.

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

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

I kicked the toy truck away. It slid under-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fair enough boss.”

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

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

“They did?”

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

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

Claire pointed towards the kitchen.

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

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

“I’ll go without, this time.”

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

“I’ll manage. Trust me.”

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

I was beginning to feel a little cornered.

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

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

“You’re a strict parent.”

“Someone has to be.”

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

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

“I’ll do that then.”

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

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

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

I inched to the fridge.

Then I froze.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is it then?”

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

“Uh…”

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

“Oh…”

“Could you close the fridge please, boss?”

“Oh.”

I closed the fridge, shutting the thing up.

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

“Yes boss?”

I sighed, holding the paper bag close to me.

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

“Boss?”

“Yeah?”

“You’re rambling.”

I sighed again.

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

“And this blood… it’s from people?”

“Yeah.”

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

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

Claire nodded, slow.

“Okay.”

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

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

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

“Okay.”

Another long, drawn out beat.

“Hey, boss?”

“Yes?”

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

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

“Thanks, boss.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That is just a show, isn’t it?”

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

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

Oh.

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

That’s what she was talking about.

The news.

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

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

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

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

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

“We are,” I said.

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

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

I looked at Claire.

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

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

“Worse than the blood thing?”

I gave her another stack of cash for that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Onto our first stop.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We’re coming up close, boss.”

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

“Took us long enough.”

“I’m sure you’d understand why.”

“I do.”

“How far did you want-”

“Here’s good.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trash and decay. It offended.

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

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

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

“And if I have one?”

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

“I could be here early.”

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

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

“Again, if you’re putting it-”

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

“Money doesn’t buy you everything.”

“Are we really having this conversation right now?”

“Do you really have any business with us?”

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

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

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

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

“We’re not hiring.”

“Are you the manager?”

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

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

Another pause. Another beat.

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

“The manager isn’t in right now.”

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

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

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

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

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

The server looked taken aback.

“Did you say…”

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

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

“May I… may I get your name?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Been forced to make my own luck.”

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

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

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

Ronaldo Morricone.

The server knocked.

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

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

A beat.

“Come in!”

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

I went through the door.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He’s mentioned me.”

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

So word hasn’t spread about…

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

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

I put my hands in my pockets.

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

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

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

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

“Sounds good. How’s the taste?”

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

I shrugged. “I was just curious.”

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

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

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

Things settled around us, but nothing rested easy.

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

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

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

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

He gurgled, but he didn’t say no.

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

He blinked.

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

I shook him.

“Blink if you can do that for me!”

He blinked.

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

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

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

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

Night had fallen. And others would soon follow.

That was the plan anyways.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you staring off for?”

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

“Again?”

“Nothing. Again. Complicated.”

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

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

“What does that mean?”

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

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

“Then that would be terrifying in either case.”

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

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

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

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

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

Focus.

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

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

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

Easy, yet it would somehow be the most difficult.

It was a somber ride as the taxi rolled on.

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

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

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

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

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

“Me too.”

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

I walked, my head tilting up.

Even in the distance, the building towered above us.

Panorama.

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

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

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

And I leapt.

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

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

I supposed there was something I enjoyed, after all.

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

I looked down at the club.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And there I saw him.

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

Not for long.

I took a moment to steel myself. It was a necessity.

I closed my eyes, breathing in, then out.

I took to the air. High as my legs would allow.

Up, then down.

So much easier than last time.

My feet didn’t crash through glass, and I wasn’t reduced to a heap when I landed. It was a solid landing, meaning my presence had a proper introduction, and all the attention was on me. Attention I’d intend to use.

I moved forward with my momentum, leaping over the pool and to the table where he was. The first target.

But I had to clear the ones he had around him, though.

The first one crashed when I pounced on top of him, folding like a chair. It reminded me of how I landed when I first broke into the Panorama.

The second had the good sense to react, reaching for a gun. Still crouched over, I dug into a pocket and flung my arm out. The knife appeared right between his collarbone, and he went down, choking. I had aimed for his shoulder.

The third now had the time to go for his gun and fire. I was knocked back. I didn’t know what he intended to hit, but my shoulder exploded with pain.

My jaw was tight as I fought through, wound already healing. Leaping again, I slammed him down, and crushed the bones in his hand for good measure. He wouldn’t be firing that gun ever again.

The rest, I didn’t worry about, they hadn’t even entered my mind. The civilians lounging in the bar and the pool were already springing for the exits, screaming and panicking at the sudden gunshot and the fight that had broken out. The only one who didn’t move at all was him.

“D’Angelo,” I said, as facing, staring at him from behind my mask. “Don’t move. Don’t call for help.”

D’Angelo had remained sitting at his table, some food still hanging from his mouth. He fixed himself then said, “You.”

“More than you’d know.”

“What is it you want? I do have an appointment.”

“I have an appointment, too. May I have a seat?”

Sitting back now, D’Angelo gestured for the chair. I took my seat.

It was just us, now, minus the downed guards around us, but they weren’t a factor, anymore. The music bumped through the club across from me.

“Help will be coming,” D’Angelo said, “Or some for of it. You let people leave. They’ll tell someone, and they’ll come investigate. And if it comes to it, they’ll retaliate.”

“You don’t need to worry about what they will or will not do,” I said. “You worry about yourself. And your meal. Please, keep eating. Wouldn’t want your dinner to get cold.”

Cool, tempered, D’Angelo spun red, thick noodles around a fork. He ate.

I asked him, “How’s it taste?”

“You seem to have a penchant for showing up whenever things are most hectic. Like a sign, or a symbol of what’s to come.”

No answer, I asked instead, “And what is to come?”

He swallowed a bite. He stared me right in the eye.

“Death. Destruction. The Devil himself, looking to enjoy the fruits of his labor.”

“I don’t know if I’m getting any enjoyment from this. It’s just more something I have to do.”

“And the other two?”

“I’d have to give you that.”

D’Angelo reached to the side of the table. I tensed.

He lifted a cane, the same cane I’d seen him walk with before. He rapped the edge of the table. A clang rang out.

“You seem to take, that’s all you can really do. And we’ve had a lot of trouble trying to fight back, as I’m sure you know. To me, you are the embodiment of entropy, and it seems like the only way not lose any more is to have less to lose. And even then… you would find a way to reduce.”

“Goes both ways.”

“How so?”

“I didn’t come here to talk about me.”

“What did you come here to talk about, then?”

He was looking at me, and I was looking at him. Staring into my eyes, or in the general direction of where they would be.

I slid the mask down my face.

His eyes widened.

“Wendy?”

“You gave me your card, remember? The first time we met?”

“Yes, I remember.”

I breathed, then spoke, clear and without hesitation.

“I don’t have much time left, and you, D’Angelo, you’ve got even less. Figured I might give something to you before this came to an end.”

“But you still want something from me. You’ll still take something.”

“I’d apologize, but I have a feeling you wouldn’t take to it so well. Just know that, if I did, it would be genuine.”

“How thoughtful.”

“Tell me about Mister. Is he even fucking real?”

“I know a man we called Mister. That’s about as real as it gets.”

“Dammit D’Angelo, please. Where can I find him?”

“Good luck. Haven’t seen the man we called Mister since before all this started. Before you ever showed up. And by this point, why would you ever expect him to come back?”

I squared my jaw so hard it started to grind.

“Mrs. Carter.”

“You don’t find her. She finds you. Same with Styx.”

“So if I raise enough hell, they’ll come crying to me?”

“Everyone will be coming to stop you. Just try to pick them out of that mob.”

“I might just try that.”

“Haven’t you raised enough hell, Wendy? Haven’t you done enough?”

“Either everything burns, everything, or I burn out in the process.”

D’Angelo continued to eat. I was impressed that he still had an appetite.

“How far back were you planning something like this? I’m curious.”

“Your cousin said something about curiosity.”

“I know he did. Indulge me.”

“The first time we met.”

“At the hotel?”

I corrected him.

“Here.”

“Ah.”

D’Angelo wiped his lower lip with a napkin. Poised, with a bit of grace and dignity.

“There’s nothing else I can tell you. Nothing you wouldn’t already know, I’d suspect. All I have left now is to finish this meal.”

“May I stick around until then?”

“Of course. If it means anything, I’m still very impressed by you. I don’t think that’ll change.”

“Thank you, Santino.”

He took another bite. Only a few left.

“Morricone’s cooking has only gotten better with time.”

“That’s good to hear. I bid you goodnight, Santino, before I forget.”

“Yes, it’s a good night indeed.”

The air was cool, and for a moment, it was even calm. I sat with Santino D’Angelo until he was finished.

Previous                                                                                               Next

107 – Power Up

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Having stripped away everything, all that I was, it didn’t give me a lot in the way of people I could go to for help. Friends or those I would have considered family.

Couldn’t go to D. Wouldn’t. She’d have her hands full with the Fangs, and, according to Sarah, they weren’t so fond of me, to put it lightly. If I stuck my neck out anywhere near her, D’s hand might be forced to strike me down. I wouldn’t put her in that position. I wouldn’t put myself in that position.

I’d leave her alone. Probably for the best.

The fact remained, however, that my options were limited. But they weren’t zero.

I would just have to make my own luck.

Stalking the streets of the city, I searched for stress and strife.

Trash and debris drifted by my shoes and several feet away, like tumbleweeds. The wind itself breathed a hollow note, ringing in my ears. It gave a musical quality to the rhythmic crunch and crinkling of glass under each step.

There were other noises, farther into the distance. Sirens, screams and shouts, even a shot. I was seeing the aftermath of that disorder, the smoke rising above rooftops with no chimneys. The city was seething all around me, letting out yelps and barks, as if to warn anyone who might try and come closer. I heeded the warning, but I continued onward. I had left myself no other choice.

Until then, though, I was alone with my thoughts. And not the illusory kind.

I kept myself on high alert, eyes and ears open, watching and listening for anything that moved, anything that could make a noise. Extending my reach much farther than what my physical wingspan would suggest.

And after pulling all that in, everything gathered and taken stock, I was made starkly aware of my situation.

That I was alone, but I wasn’t by myself. Not quite.

More my ears than my eyes. In front, there wasn’t anything to keep my guard up for, aside from the very principle of just being in the city. Trash and debris here, smoke there.

Not ahead, then. Behind.

Listening, I picked up on faint but perceptible sounds. They weren’t too defined, too shapeless to be honed in on, but they were there, and they told me enough. That they were deliberate, that they were trying to dampen any audible clue of their approach but they could only do so much. One person would find it easy to blend into city’s ambiance, but several? Not as much, and that proved to be a setback.

And, it also told me that they were certain their numbers would make up for their lack in covertness. They were confident.

They were a crowd, they were coming up on me, fast, and they didn’t want me to be aware of them just yet.

Too late.

I maintained my stride, though, in keeping with the act, except I was an active participant in it, now. I walked down the road, paved by anger and frustration and retribution against ill intentions. It was a familiar path, so I walked with purpose, able not to dwell too much on the distractions around me. No more detours.

The street was long, with a lot of forks to the side. Alleys. A foggy, muted memory drifted into the gaze of my mind’s eye, clouding it for a moment, before being blinked away.

Something, not unlike this, had happened before. At that time, Alexis Barnett had gone down one of the alleys. Now, it was my turn.

The street turned at a corner. The light was red.

I stopped there and waited.

The shapeless sounds behind me stopped where they were and waited.

Still looking ahead, I almost smiled to myself.

Keeping my eyes on the light and my ears focused in the other direction, I considered the identity of my potential pursuers.

The Fangs were my first thought, it wouldn’t have been so far-fetched that they had found me already. Even if I was nowhere near their territory. They would be racing, like I was, to find the one who had wronged them and take them apart, piece by piece. And I did a lot wrong.

In my case, I had more than one that I was after, and I had to get to them before the Fangs got to me.

Whoever it was behind me, I’d have to shake them off.

I mentally checked and double-checked everything I had brought with me. The bag strapped around a shoulder.

Was there anything I could take out right away to defend myself? I knew where everything was, even though I had packed them all in a hurry. The knives I had grown to be rather familiar with, the guns less so. I could still go for either to arm myself, though.

Was there a chance I could take them without arming myself, going with just my bare knuckles? There was, but it wouldn’t be smart. A group was following me, and while I probably had the collective strength of all of them, I’d learned better now than to take those kinds of chances.

Something in hand, I knew I’d need that much, but to instigate? Not here, not with these guys. Wouldn’t be worth the time it would take to kick them to the curb. Nope, I had places to be and people I needed to find, and doing both required time. Something that was slipping between my fingers. I knew that much.

Time starts now, V, it’s ticking already.

As it went.

But I stayed there at the light, waiting. When the light turned, I’d just keep walking, and let them make the first move. If they were wanting to start something, anything, only then would I look to end it, for their sake.

The light turned.

I walked, and kept walking. The sound behind me picked up again. I wouldn’t dare turn around.

Listening still for the creeping stalk, I directed myself towards other sounds, the sirens, the screams and shouts, more than one shot, now. I was headed there anyways, but if I was being followed, I might be able to deter them from going any further, or farther. Scare them off.

Keeping straight, going where things would be warmer.

They didn’t stop.

Louder. Hotter now.

They continued.

Closer.

Hot.

I-

“Get the fuck back, skinhead.”

-Turned, and saw who had been on my tail.

People, as I had figured, but not quite what I was expecting.

One person. White, bald, skinny, but considering how he went with a sleeveless denim vest even in this weather, I could see that he was fit, or he’d been working on getting there at least. Tattoos crept down his arms and fingers, reaching up to his neck and jawline. Younger or older, it was hard to tell, his face looked like it had seen too many fights, blurring his natural features. Either it aged him, or the callouses kept things in place. In a sense.

Mean looking guy, overall.

One person. The only one here who matched that description. The rest weren’t mean, but stern.

The ‘skinhead’ wasn’t facing me when I had turned, not directly. Instead, he had positioned himself to the edge of the sidewalk, his back to the road, so he could get a view of the opposition he had on each side.

And the one across from me.

A group. About the stark opposite from the skinhead. They all had hair, for one.

For the rest, however, they were all Asian. Different in size, in build. Trying to be conspicuous about the firearms they had at their sides, but not really. I could see them, and the skinhead could see them, too.

“Farther than that, asshole.”

Someone else from the group across from me.

The skinhead, the asshole, gave the group a hard stare, then at me, then back again. Keeping a mean looking attitude, as if he wasn’t deterred after having been followed himself, and now cornered. His feet were planted firm into pavement, his chin was level, and his head seemed cool.

He didn’t move.

I just watched.

At the head of the group, a guy called him out a third time.

“Crazy time we live in, huh? Never had to ask a cracker motherfucker if they know English or not.”

No budge.

Several clicks and arms motioning at the skinhead’s direction. Firearms.

“You understand this? You’ve got three seconds to walk into middle of the street and let a car drag you across the pavement. Change incoming traffic for the rest of them.”

A few laughed at the small joke, but they were still dead serious.

Not a lot of seconds left-

The skinhead backed away a step, then another, and turned at the third. Hands in his pockets, seemingly still coolheaded, he walked towards the middle of the street, then passed it, crossing the whole thing.

Before he could step onto the other side, a crack rang out into the open air, and the skinhead hit the ground, his lips and chin splitting open as it kissed the curb. Blood pooled onto the street and sidewalk itself, where he dripped from the hip and face, respectively.

My chin, my jaw had to picked up from the ground, too. At least I was able to. Even I hadn’t expected that.

The group then formed a loose circle around me. Not to threaten, but almost like a protective barrier.

“You okay sister?”

The crack of the gun was still ringing in my ears.

“Beg your pardon?” I asked.

It was the guy at the head of the group who was addressing me.

“Skinhead there was tailing you for about a block or two. Good thing he was dumber than shit, or he would have noticed us sneaking up on him, sneaking up on you. Lucky us, lucky you.”

“Lucky lucky,” I said, mostly just to test my own hearing again. And, as if to test my sight and make sure I wasn’t under any spell or illusion, “You still shot him down.”

“Hey, I told him to go to the middle of the street and wait for a car to hit him. He went past the middle, and he didn’t wait. He asked for it.”

He isn’t moving anymore.”

The guy put his gun away, tucking into the back part of his jeans. The rest of the group remained on guard.

“Don’t tell me you feel bad for him? Trust me, sister, that asshole was going to do much worse to you if he got his hands on you. Part of the reason we started putting together groups, doing patrols. Lookouts. We have to start watching each others backs, because ain’t nobody else gonna to it for us.”

This guy sounds a lot like Dong-Yul, a voice told me.

I didn’t disagree.

“Hard to drum up sympathy for him,” I said, “But I would have been fine if he really was stupid enough to pick a fight with me. Not that I didn’t appreciate you stepping in when you did, though.”

The guy motioned to the group. “What’s done is done, and it’s better to move in a crew, anyways. Where you headed?”

I fixed the bag around my shoulder, feeling the shifting weight of my guns and knives and costume inside. “Anywhere there’s trouble, but it looks like it found me instead.”

The guy laughed. “Maybe! Hey, now that I think of it, you look familiar. We met before?”

I paused, wary.

“Don’t think so,” I answered, careful.

He snapped his fingers.

“Shit, we have for sure! Wellport, remember? A girl, Jasmine? She brought you over, she commented on your glasses. A lot happened during that crazy fucking night, but I can remember that.”

My glasses now were a crushing weight on the bridge of my nose, feeling like it would split my entire face in half.

“I can remember that, too,” I said. “Definitely a… crazy night.”

“What was your name again… Wendy, right?”

Somehow, I found myself nodding, calm, and not in a fake way. Like the calm someone might have felt if they jumped off a building. Except, in my case, I’d survived more than once.

And after the first time, nothing else mattered anymore.

I nodded again, more assured.

“But that’s something of a government name,” I said. “And right now, I’m a bit of an anarchist.”

The guy laughed.

“Andrew, by the way, and good! Because we’ll need some of that right about now. Hey, why don’t you run with us? Before our detour here, we were on our way to a… demonstration, I guess you could call it. I got a truck, and room for one more in the back. Jasmine will be there.”

He brought her up as if that would entice me. It… somehow sort of did.

I gave the guy, Andrew, my answer. A third nod.

“Wendy!”

Jasmine gave me a hug. A hug from the side, since I still had my bag with me.

“Didn’t know we were there already,” I said, pulling away. Faster than I probably needed to.

What would

A certain someone flashed in my mind, couldn’t help it. I dismissed the thought, just as quick.

“We’re all fam here, you know, we have to be.”

“I see you with the rhetoric, you don’t need to convince me.”

Jasmine grinned, I recognized that expression.

“Well, it’s good practice, for those who still need convincing.”

I grinned back.

As if on a general principle, I was beginning to gain an understanding on what fueled these people, now, and that particular understanding was running thicker than water. Anger and frustration, a need for blood. Those things fueled me, too.

A certain pressure had been made to boil under a certain population in Stephenville, and they were now finally jumping out of the pot, and they weren’t very happy. They were ready to turn around and kick the pot over, spilling everything out and setting the whole thing on fire. On principle, I was right there with them.

I was in the group with Jasmine and Andrew now, and that was group just one of many others.

A huge crush of people flooded the streets of Stephenville.

Too many to count, and yet there were even more who hadn’t gathered, doing their own damage elsewhere. Part of the bolstered numbers were because of the fact that not everyone here was a part of that certain population, but they showed up regardless, probably just to raise more hell than to stand and march in solidarity, but I’d imagine that their help would be otherwise appreciated.

Cheers and chants scraped my ears, and there was no rehearsed direction or plan to this parade. Being here, acting like a part of the procession, I was at the mercy of the crowd, meaning that I was at the mercy of random chance and chaos. It was definitely a demonstration. A demonstration in disorder, but a demonstration nonetheless.

With my hearing and the rest of my sense working overtime, I thought I heard Alexis Barnett’s name in that chorus, among others. But I didn’t focus too much on it, I wouldn’t let that affect me, now.

I hugged my bag, tighter.

“Should have left that at the truck,” Andrew said, raising his voice into my ear. Still wasn’t a fan of loud, but I had no choice but to deal.

“Better safe than sorry!” I replied back.

“What’s in there anyway?”

“You hear about Andrew shooting a guy on the way here?”

I raised my voice into Jasmine’s ear. She seemed alright about leaning over to catch it.

“I didn’t shoot him on the way here, I shot the motherfucker before we got in the truck to get over here.”

“Same difference!” I said to Andrew.

“I heard!” Jasmine replied. “You don’t know him yet but he’s trying real hard to be hard ever  since this thing blew up! Wants to prove himself!”

“I don’t have to prove shit!”

“Then why are you trying so hard?”

Jasmine grinned again, and gave Andrew a playful smack across the arm.

I watched these two, I’d seen them before. Back at Wellport. Jasmine had to kill someone to save me, and Andrew didn’t bat an eye. And now, it was Andrew’s turn, but he didn’t have to go that far for me this time, but he did. They were so cavalier about it.

Not that I was any position to cast judgement, myself. I wasn’t. But it had still given me pause, each time, I could still feel it take a toll, a heavy note that rang through me, clear as a bell.

It made me wonder, brief, what had led them to that point. What was the path that brought them here?

Then I remembered mine, and how much it didn’t really matter. Not in the long run.

Something to take away from them, I supposed.

I kept talking so Andrew wouldn’t inquire any more about my bag.

“You know who started this whole thing?”

“You mean the parade?” Jasmine asked.

“Not what I’d call it, but sure.”

“What would you call it then?”

I thought about it.

“A stampede,” I answered.

“Stampede? That does carry the appropriate weight, to it.”

“The kind of weight that tends to crush.”

“Hell yeah, dude. But actually, I couldn’t tell you who put this thing together, only because I really don’t know. Shit like this goes through a grapevine, and I’m too low on the thing to really know where it came from. I just go where I’m needed, and do what I need to do.”

“Sure, I understand that. Doing the same thing, myself.”

Jasmine gave me another half-hug, her arm staying there for seconds longer.

“Dude! I knew we’d click the second I saw you.”

I felt warm. The crowd around us, pushing, and clothes I had to wear for the weather. The season still had some time before things started springing up again.

A certain someone flashed in my mind again. The connection was cut, but the feeling was still there, exposed and raw. Had to dismiss it again, even faster.

Warm, but I was still cold on finding what I was after. Or rather, who.

As a contrast to my limited options in terms of help, my list of targets was long, and it was only a matter who I’d get to first.

Styx, Mrs. Carter, Dong-Yul, all of the gangsters with a seat at the table. D excluded. Maybe. Probably. It was still a good policy to stay clear of the Fangs.

But with D excluded that still included a lot of people. People with their own people, protecting them, a force I shouldn’t underestimate. Would Jasmine and Andrew be able to help? They were neither friends nor family, just a convenience. But were they a convenience I could use?

Somewhere ahead of us, the crowd roared.

I replied to Jasmine.

“And I was thinking you might be right,” I said. “Hey, what are your plans after this?”

“After this? Getting the fuck out of here and making sure pigs don’t come following us and bringing their shit with them. Why? Thinking of coming with?”

“I was thinking about it. If you’ll have me. I wanted to meet with whoever was spearheading these, um, demonstrations. The guy at Wellport, with the tiger mask.”

“Oh, Helly and Skelly?”

“If you want to call them that, I’m not stopping you.”

“I do, actually, thank you very much. But, actually, I haven’t seen him up close, or any of the masked dudes, much less seeing them without.”

“So you’ve been following orders from people who haven’t shown you their face? What if they look nothing like you? Or us, rather.”

Jasmine was about to answer, but the crowd roared again. Still somewhere up ahead, but closer. She had settled for a simple look in the meantime.

When the uproar died down enough, she responded with, “Doesn’t really matter to me. We’re out here, now, we’re making noise and best of all, they can’t ignore us. That’s all I give a shit about.”

Not much else I could say about that beside a quick, “Fair.”

The uproar rose back to life, louder and more present. It took my attention and centered it towards itself.

Jasmine and Andrew and the rest of the group looked ahead as well.

“What’s going on over there?” Andrew asked.

“Don’t know,” Jasmine said, “Why don’t you check? You’re taller than me or Wendy.”

Andrew listened right away, starting to pushing between people. Despite how cramped and crowded it was, people gave him room to slip through.

The parade continued, crawling down the streets like a centipede.

A wave of sound hit, it was loud, and then the physical equivalent came. Threatening to crush.

Forward momentum was lost. People started falling back. The uproar was getting closer and reached a higher pitch.

Something was wrong.

Jasmine was already turning. She looked right into my eyes.

“Flood’s coming this way, start swimming!”

I spun, or more like I was yanked the other way. Jasmine had pulled on the strap of my bag, and I almost lost my footing.

“Hey!”

She refused to let go, instead pulling even harder, taking me with her.

“No room to push back here, we have to move!”

‘My bag-”

“Come on!”

She kept pulling, forcing me to move along.

Not everyone had their wits about them, being more interested in yelling and raising some kind of disturbance. Once the tide turned in the other direction, they hadn’t been focused enough to adapt accordingly.

People had been falling back, and now they were falling. Crushed by an incoming stampede.

I pushed through the crowd, keeping in step with Jasmine. If she tripped while still holding onto me, I would be the only one who could even get back up.

“I’m with you, just let go already!”

She finally did.

Andrew managed to catch up with us, but not without having to knock someone else over. He went and answered the question before Jasmine and I could save a breath to ask it.

“Cops coming in to shut things down! Riot gear, rubber bullets. Choppers!”

“Choppers? Like-”

Copters. Helicopters!”

It was getting so loud that it was hard to catch everything Andrew was saying, and he was right there.

“Back to the truck!” he yelled. I heard that.

The group that Andrew had with him, and I had tagged along with, already dispersed into the rushing crowd, lost or maybe even flattened. I was only aware of Andrew and Jasmine, and I’d need at least one of them if they were going to be useful in getting me close to at least Dong-Yul.

With each step we ran, however, the prospect of that seemed to diminish, like I was getting farther away from that goal.

“Try over here!”

Jasmine grabbed for my bag and pulled again, but only to steer me in another direction. She soon released me.

The three of us pushed to the edge of the stream. I followed as Jasmine led us into an alley.

“Keep running!”

We kept running.

The alley was wide enough to accommodate the three of us, running side by side. Some others were starting to get the same idea, now, the stampede starting to spill out to the sides of the street.

We weren’t the only people who had that idea, apparently.

A block of metal rolled out to the other end of the alley. An armored vehicle. People started spilling out of that.

Jasmine skipped to a halt, turning on a heel.

“This way!”

She spun us around again, but instead of heading back to the street, there was another path perpendicular to the one we were on. She had us turn onto that.

I ran with them, and had to watch my speed. I didn’t want to make myself stand out.

We made it out, but from what I heard coming from our backs, we were lucky. The street opened up and we had much more room to move.

Andrew started to take the lead, taking us over to where he had parked the truck.

Again, he wasn’t the only one with that idea.

Over at the lot, a block away. More armored vehicles, beams of light illuminating the ground, gliding over everything. A quick check upward revealed the source, the helicopters Andrew had mentioned earlier.

“Fuck! They’re cutting us off!” Andrew shouted.

“Can we make it on foot?” That was from Jasmine. “It’s not like they can catch everyone!”

“Not far!”

They started running, past the block where Andrew’s car had been parked, the armored vehicles and police cars being right there. Cops were standing in formation like soldiers.

I ran with them, and saw more cars coming our way, the tops of them bursting with red and blue lights.

This won’t last, I realized, It’s already running out of gas now.

We changed directions, moving onto another street. More people here, cops and rioters alike, as the latter started to spread out more evenly to blocks around the initial demonstration. The police worked to introduce their idea of peace.

They started firing into the crowd.

People fell. I didn’t see or smell blood, but people were being rendered immobile, thrown flat to the ground. None of them were made to be as bloody as the skinhead from before.

Andrew spun, arms flailing, face to the pavement. He had gotten hit.

Then I tripped.

A hard punch to the back, in an area not any larger than a dime. I felt my spine crack with pain, and my legs turned to jelly.

I had the sense to turn, so I wouldn’t land on my bag and accidentally pop the packets of blood open.

My shoulder rammed into the side of something sturdy. My healing worked to set my back straight again. I hadn’t fallen over completely.

Jasmine was already pulling me back up.

“Dude, you okay?”

Beside me, something beige in the night. A taxi parked next to the sidewalk. No one inside, and the windows were cracked, stray rubber bullets making targets of other things.

But I did see a number printed on the side of the vehicle, and that had gotten my mind running again, pulling me out of the daze of having been shot.

“Andrew? The truck?” I asked.

“Lost him, it’s too hard to find him in this. His truck is stuck with a bunch of cops!”

“You have a car?”

A bitter and impatient expression crossed her face.

“Parked in the same lot. Come on Wendy, we can still get out of here on foot!”

“You have a phone?”

I had lost mine at the church, and I didn’t have another one to pack at my apartment.

Not that I would tell her that.

“Why?” she asked, but she was getting it out for me. She helped pull me up too, from the side of the taxi.

She handed me the phone, and I took off.

Another street close by. More cops heading to block the stampede off.

I ran harder, crossing an intersection. The police cars came in between me and the other two.

“Wendy!”

I didn’t stop.

Not for the cops, not for Jasmine or Andrew. I abandoned them and their uselessness.

It wouldn’t have worked, not with them, but they did manage to give me another idea.

Still running, I dialed the number that had come to me out of that daze, and made the particular arrangements, tossing the phone soon after.

Never before did the mundane stand out to me by such a large margin. The hum of rubber on road, the mechanical clicks of a turn signal, the white noise chatter of a jumbled radio chatter.

My blood was still pumping hard, so hard that it thrummed in my veins, and I found it difficult to sit still and relax, even if there was nothing threatening about my immediate surroundings.

Just a strange sense of déjà vu.

“Gotta say, boss, I never thought I’d hear from you again.”

“Funny how it all works out,” I said, as if on instinct.

The taxi rolled across the street.

I was sitting in the back, shoulder against the door. Half-open eyes watched as the scenery past the window sped by, the colors of the city smearing together, painting an even more chaotic image than before.

Anarchy, on the other side of that glass. Which made the relative quiet of the taxi’s interior all the more deafening.

I tried to kill some of that monotony. When I spoke up again, I almost thought I was screaming.

“How have you been, Claire? Last time I saw you I… I guess you could say it was a lifetime ago.”

Claire kept her eyes on the road as she crossed the lights and made the turns. The meter climbed up and up.

“Nothing worth reporting. Found myself keeping an eye on the news more often now.”

“Oh yeah? What do you see?”

“The shit I’m seeing right now.”

I chuckled, dry a bit.

“You boss?” she asked.

I shrugged, not knowing if she would have caught that or not through the rearview. “Been giving you something to watch, I guess you could say.”

It was Claire’s turn to chuckle. Just as dry.

The taxi continued its snaking path around the city, the meter running just as long. The ride itself was smooth, so smooth that it had become a noticeable thing. The more Claire drove, the less traffic seemed to get in her way.

“Have you been busy tonight?” I asked.

“Very,” she answered, “Ever since the riots broke out across the city, everyone’s taking any opportunity to leave while they still can. That includes us cab drivers. Been getting like six or even seven people crammed into the back at a time, all begging me to get as far away from the Eye as possible, no matter how costly it got. Haven’t been getting this much action since the city allowed rideshares… or the times I had you as a passenger, actually.”

I grinned at that.

“Suppose this time won’t be any different?”

Then I dropped that grin.

“Let me ask you something, Claire,” I said.

“Sure boss.”

“You call it action, but, I’m sure you’re aware of the danger as well. You’ve been taking people out of the city, driving past and through all the crazy… might not be long until it’s officially considered a warzone, from what I’ve seen. Anyways, it’s real, and it’s present. You haven’t thought about leaving as well?”

The ride was quiet for another moment.

“Of course I thought about it, but I also see an opportunity, here. Being busy means having had more customers, which means the pay’s been better than ever. And as far as danger, I know how to drive. You’d know by now.”

“I do,” I said, feeling more certain. “Your family still doing okay?”

“They are.”

She had left it at that.

The drive continued with that relative silence. The meter ticking like a clock, but only in one direction, never wrapping around.

“Hey boss?”

“Yes?”

“You hopped in and said ‘drive’ but, you never said where.”

“About that,” I said, “I actually want to leave it up to you. Where is the safest place you can think of, or the place you want to be the most?”

“The most? Um, maybe Sicily? I haven’t had a vacation in over ten years.”

“Somewhere your taxi can take us,” I said.

“There’s a diner at the edge of town. Are you hungry?”

“A little thirsty, honestly, but that can wait. Where else? I’ll need somewhere I can return to, rest up and stay low for an hour or two if possible.”

“How long are you expecting to use my services?”

“For as long as I need you. I’ll do my best to not take too much of your time.”

“I have to return the cab at the end of my shift, you know. That’s in a few more hours.”

Reaching into my bag, I pulled out a fraction of the money I had taken with me. It was only fraction of my total funds, but it more than covered the current fare.

I passed to Claire, who weighed it in her hand. She didn’t flip through it, the stack’s thickness indicated to her all she needed to know.

“Sorry Claire, but your shift has gotten a lot longer.”

“I can see that now, boss.”

The door swung open, creaking, light from the hallway creeping in. Claire flipped a switch somewhere inside the foyer, and the rest of the apartment opened up.

“Make yourself home, boss. For now.”

I brought my bag in with me. I was about to slip off my shoes, but Claire gestured, suggesting that I didn’t have to.

Following her deeper into the apartment, I looked around. Not a lot of room, and sparse of decoration, but it did looked lived in. Toys were strewn in places on the floor, and uneven lines of what looked like crayon and markers were scribbled across the wall, none them reaching higher than my hip.

Claire led me to the kitchen. Plastic tupperware and plates were collected on one side of a sink, and unfinished bowls of macaroni and cheese were left on a counter. Three glasses of milk filled at different levels had been left at a table.

Lightly tapping a toy car away with her foot, Claire went to the table, collecting the glasses of milk and setting them by the sink. She moved on to the fridge, opening it.

“Go ahead and take a seat. You said you were thirsty, and looks like we have…”

“Milk?” I asked, taking a seat.

“Orange juice. Fresh out of milk.”

“I’m fine, but thanks. Uh, do you happen to have brown paper bags? Like something to pack a lunch with?”

“I have kindergarteners, of course I have those.”

“Mind if I borrow a few? And some space in your fridge to store some stuff?”

Claire looked at me, eyes filled with suspicion, but she moved across to the pantry. She handed me several folded baggies. More than enough.

“Thank you,” I said.

Claire, for her part, had gotten a glass of juice for herself, and went to sit across from me at the table. She took a sip, and sighed when she finished.

An awkward beat.

“Never seen your face before,” Claire then said, barely below a normal speaking volume, probably as to not disturb the kids. “You usually have the mask, right? Or a hoodie, if I remember correctly.”

“And?”

“You’re young,” she said, breathing the word ‘young,’ “You’re older than my kids, obviously, but you’re still so young.”

I didn’t get offended over that. If anything, I thought she would have commented on another aspect of my appearance. Part of the reason why those riots were happening in the first place.

“Is that going to be a problem?”

Claire shook her head.

“No problem, no, but… I’m sorry if this is too personal a question, do you have parents?”

I felt something kick, somewhere in my heart.

“I do. I did.”

Claire frowned a bit. Not disappointed, but sympathetic.

“I know this isn’t my place to say, then, but I can’t imagine how they might feel, if they’re still around to feel anything. As a mother, it would break my heart to see any of mine being out there, getting into trouble like you tend to do.”

“What are their names?” I asked, a little too quickly, “Your kids?”

“Caleb and Willem.”

“Where are they now?”

Claire lifted her chin, pointing down a hall to my right.

“Their room. Sleeping. Or they should be.”

I went for my bag, opening it. On the table, I placed more stacks of cash. More and more until there seemed to be more green than there was the brown surface of the kitchen table.

Claire watched, more than astonished.

“Well, Claire, if you help me, you will be guaranteeing that little Caleb and Willem will never have to get into my kind of trouble, or any other kind.”

Still eyeing the money, I saw the glint in her gaze. Also the concern within.

“But the price for that guarantee… you’re inviting me into that world of trouble.”

“It’s only for a day, maybe even less than that. I just need someone who can drive me around, and a place for me to recuperate. That’s all.”

“That’s all? That’s a lot.”

“I’m hoping what’s on the table can cover any inconveniences.”

Another silent beat. Claire roved the money with a curious, hungry eye.

I talked.

“There’s more where this came from, if you need it. Just say the word. It was a lucrative business, having led a gang, and even if my connections aren’t what they used to be, I can still get you more. I know where things are stashed, how you can sell them. After tomorrow, you never have to work another day again.”

“That is a lot of money, Claire.”

We both turned.

From the hall that Claire had pointed to earlier, a woman had leaned against the wall. An Asian woman, about Claire’s age, maybe mid-thirties, wearing pink pajamas with white dots.

Watching us watching her, she then moved to the sink, picking up one of the glasses of milk. She started finishing it.

“Did I wake you?” Claire asked.

The woman finished the drink, moving onto the next one.

“I’m a light sleeper,” she said, taking a sip, “Ah, but I usually stay in bed with my eyes closed if I wake. Heard the door, used to that. But then I heard talking, and a voice I hadn’t heard before.”

She looked at me when she said that, drinking her milk.

“Sorry then,” Claire said. “This is… my boss, for the next twenty-four hours or so. Still working that out. And this is Kim. She’s my-”

“Partner?” I offered.

“Roommate,” Claire said. “Just a roommate.”

“Pleasure,” Kim said. She reached over for my hand to shake. I gave it to her.

Her hand was cold. It sent a shock through me. Eerie to the point of nearly pushing away my concentration and filling me with anxiety, instead.

“You felt that too?” Kim asked.

“Not sure what that was,” I said.

Kim let go, finishing her second glass. “Curiouser and curiouser.”

“Kim works in social services, and other jobs around the city. Though she has never been super specific in what she does.”

Kim gave Claire a look. “It’s money on the table, less chunk of rent you have to worry about.”

Claire nodded. “You’re right about that.”

“Speaking of, you want to explain what’s all this about?”

Claire drank more of her juice. Now I was starting to get thirsty for my own drink.

“My boss here is asking me to be her personal chauffeur for the next day. Might be a whole day thing, but she says she’ll try to make it less.”

“I understand the sudden burden I’m bringing you and your family, and Kim as well, so I’ll do what I can to make it quick.”

“What are you thinking, Claire?”

She turned to Kim.

“Money is money, and this might almost be worth it. Boss, how early did you want to start?”

“Early as possible, but I’d still want us to get as much sleep as possible tonight.”

“Kim? You mind taking the kids to school tomorrow before you do… whatever it is you actually do?”

“Sure, no problem.”

Claire took another moment, taking in all the money again. There was a lot here, and I was willing to offer more for the trouble.

She turned to me.

“Then I’m in, boss. We’ll start as early as possible.”

A relief surged over me.

“Thank you so much, Claire.”

Kim had already finished the last glass of milk, setting them all into the pile on one side of the sink. She yawned.

“I’m heading back to bed. I’ve got the kids, Claire, no worries. And Ms. Boss? It was nice seeing you, and I hope I’ll see all of you again in another time.”

Waving at me, Kim then went back down the hall, disappearing behind a door. The door shut.

“She’s…”

I started to say, but I stopped.

“Will she be cool?” I asked instead.

“She will be,” Claire said. “She’s someone I trust. Someone I trust enough to let live with us. Kim moved here from Las Estrellas a couple years back.”

“Las Estrellas?”

“Yeah. She was telling me about the riots that took place there back when she was a kid. Seems like this kind of stuff happens in cycles. First it was her, now you.”

“There were riots back then? Like the ones now?”

“Well, I’d say we’re living in crazier times, but she’d know more about that than I would. You would have to ask her.”

“That can wait, then.”

Claire sighed.

“It definitely can. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll go check on my kids. Feel free to use the couch. I’ll be back to get you some blankets.”

“Thank you again, Claire.”

“You can thank me when this is over. See you in the morning, boss, I’ll be ready when you are.”

Claire got up and did as she had said, going to check on her kids first. Now that I was alone, I took the paper bags and stuff my blood packs into them, sliding them into any free spots I could find in the fridge.

Then, I crashed on the couch, too tired to change, not that I packed the clothes for it.

I set my glasses on a nearby coffee table, readjusting myself when I felt something sticking into my lower back. A toy truck, this time.

Crash was an appropriate word for things.

In one night, my whole life around me crashed down. I salvaged what I could, and now I had to work with what I had.

It wasn’t much, but it was something.

And if there was anything I was at least decent at, it was getting back up again after a crash.

Previous                                                                                               Next

106 – Mate

epy arc 15 burn

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When I came to, I was alone. Dizzy, discombobulated, nauseous. Then, there was the gradual realization that I was upside down.

I moved a leg, and discovered that I couldn’t. It was stuck, tangled in something, and I couldn’t even wiggle a toe.

Hand? Tight. Struggling against another something, couldn’t figure out what. I was able to wiggle a finger, but not by a lot, and it wasn’t like I could reach or grasp anything.

Both hands. Both arms. Pressed together, crossed, squeezing against my chest in a big ‘X.’

My whole body. Couldn’t move, and couldn’t feel much outside of a tight knot in the pit of my stomach. I was very aware that my feet were above my head. Upside down.

Head?

Could move that.

I looked around, squinting, trying to peer through an oppressive dark. Too tired, my vision still swimming through the murky waters of fatigue. There was some light, but it didn’t break past that gloom.

Where the hell was I? Was this hell?

That…

I shook my head. Had to. Too ridiculous to seriously believe. But, no other possibilities were coming to me. My thoughts weren’t catching up to me fast enough.

Where then?

How did I get here? Why? When? Where am I, again? What the fuck?

Who am I?

Didn’t know.

Didn’t know. Didn’t know. Didn’t know. Didn’t know. Didn’t know.

I didn’t know my own name.

A name wouldn’t form, not even a letter to guess. No matter the question, I kept drawing up blanks.

It was worrying, but I had just woken up, blood was probably flowing to my head for minutes too long, and I was fucking upside down. My thoughts and answers were probably scattered somewhere below me, down there. I needed to get down there, I needed to get grounded.

I kept shaking, feeling the restraints. Digging into me like claws or talons. I shook my head, the only part of me that was free.

Something slipped off my face.

It spun in the air, catching a fleeting glint of light, and I recognized it as mine. A pair of glasses.

They fell, or rather they seperated from me, as if, they too, were frustrated by my lack of progress.

I tried listening, as if my glasses could tell me anything on the way down, like how long the drop was.

They said nothing.

Which brought with it its own message, but I didn’t like what I heard.

Nothing.

I stopped struggling, shaking. I reconsidered my options, as few as I had. If I managed to break out of whatever it was that that tied me up- upside down, I might just fall into something worse. There was nothing but a deep blackness below, or was it above me? Hold on, no, below me, for sure, for sure.

Nothing but a deep blackness below, and if I got myself free, I wouldn’t be free for long, only plunging after my glasses into a literal abyss, I probably didn’t need sight, where I’d end up.

Or down.

Now wasn’t the time for jokes.

But what else could I do?

I screamed.

The sound seemed to stretch in every direction. Fading out, not even a faint echoed returned to me.

I screamed again. Harder, louder.

Even my own voice wanted to leave me, never to return. My own voice.

I laughed until it became a scream again. Raw. Painful.

Was I dead? Or some kind of limbo? Maybe there was no abyss above or below me, because I was already within it, suspended in the middle of the bottomless pit. Gloom and dark all around me, I had already been swallowed.

Sickening, if I wasn’t dead I was sick, with an agony longer than the chains that had me bound.

Hold on. Hold it. Bound.

Chains?

I shook myself again, shimmying, and heard a distinct rattling, a small clink of metal. I craned my neck, saw them for myself.

Snaked all around my body, coiling around my limbs and torso in a deathgrip. Glints of light had been caught, too, making it easier to see the outline. Chains.

I couldn’t look up too far, I’d have to bend my body for that, and that was impossible. I didn’t know how far the chains extended away from my person, or what I was attached to. But, nothing about where I was seemed real, so a very possible answer could have very well been… there wasn’t anything at all.

But I couldn’t…

I refused to stay here, like this. There was no peace to be found in a place like this, by myself, with not even a letter of a name to attach my thoughts to. Just an ever growing, ever present madness.

So fuck that. And fuck me if I couldn’t get myself out of here.

I fought. I struggled, but I fought.

The chains clinked and clanged together as I squirmed within their confines, tugging at them, trying to find some purchase I could use to buy my freedom.

I pulled my arms out, links of metal digging into the cloth of one arm, flesh in the other. I winced as they pinched and bit into skin, but I kept going. Even if it was mad for me to do so. There wasn’t much room for anything else, in my mind.

My muscles tensed, my body ached. Fighting, struggling.

Purchase.

Hearing more than some jangly clinks, I heard cracks. Metal against metal, tugging and pulling in both directions so hard as to compromise their structural integrity. I didn’t know I had it in me. I didn’t know I was that strong.

I’d use it, anyways. I wasn’t about to let that go.

The pains small but sharp, but I didn’t care. I kept going until I cracked. Until the chains cracked, until I heard a crack.

I heard a crack.

Somewhere along the length of chain, there, closer to my arms. Getting looser, giving me more room to dig in a little more.

Few more cracks, even more room. I started shaking hard, near convulsing, putting my legs and back and even my hips into it. Until I’d burst into scraps of metal.

Gritting my teeth, I either heard more cracks of chain, or it was from something in my jaw. I didn’t stop.

There, I could move an arm, not by much, but better than I was able to before. I pulled and tugged even harder.

Then I yanked.

Intertwining metal fingers finally splayed open, breaking, releasing their grip on me. I wasn’t wholly free, but my arms were, and-

I fell. Plunged.

But I wasn’t completely free of my bindings, I broke the chains around my arms, but my legs were another story.

I had figured by how I was bound, that the snake around my legs and feet would keep me suspended in its coil. No such thing. Instead, the snake seemed to take offense to my attempted escape, and decided to take itself down, me with it.

Not a straight descent, an arc. In a spiral, but I was also swinging down, like a pendulum.

I was falling and falling fast, even though the chain was still taut. Swinging and swinging, lower and lower, faster and faster. Descending yet it felt like I wasn’t heading in any particular direction. All sense of time and placement had escaped me, like my glasses and my voice, so I was spinning for what seemed like hours, descending and ascending several times. Spinning out of control, not that I ever had any in the first place.

Couldn’t even scream, and I wanted to.

Couldn’t laugh, and I would have even went for that.

There was no sound when it all finally stopped, and I hit rock bottom.

All breath left me as I crashed, life and soul. It was a flat drop, no momentum to lessen the impact, just one hit, all focused into one point.

I heard more than the chains break. Bones, too.

In my last few moments of clarity, I noticed how my chin had settled onto the ground, or rather how it didn’t.

My nose wasn’t buried into dirt or surface. Rather, open air, the sweetest of scents meeting my nostrils, a punch compared to intense sensory deprivation I’d been subjected to since being reborn in the dark.

A shiver colder than chains grabbed and shook me. Hard.

There’s a deeper drop than this.

Then, one more dizzying spin of confusion, and my consciousness was the last thing to abandon me.

“Eyes open, wanderer. Or have you lost your sight, too?”

I opened my eyes.

Blackness. In a way, it wasn’t nothing.

But, in all actuality, there was nothing.

Without a breath to respond, arms and hands groped out, feeling ground to push up from. I had found ground, I realized, a surface to start getting my bearings from.

I slipped, landing on my shoulder. I wheezed, deflated.

“How sad. I’m disappointed.”

I felt that my eyes were open, but I couldn’t see.

A voice, I had my ears. I followed that.

“Is this all you really are, when you’re alone? Crawling like an insect?”

I continued to crawl. I had no other means to move.

The voice was talking to me, taunting me. Goading me for a response, though it probably was aware of my general lack of ability, as much as a discarnate voice could even be aware.

My dry tongue sat limp in my mouth, closing it for a second, I tasted a warm, sweet coating against the back of my teeth.

I crawled a pace faster. I clenched my jaw.

“How pitiful, just stop. Trying harder only makes it that much more pathetic.”

I spat my words out, venom flying out between my teeth.

“What’s pathetic, is expecting something out of nothing. How sad is that?”

“If you could only see yourself now.”

I can’t, I thought, but I had ran out of breath to say that. I carried on.

Crawling for some miles, or a foot out in front of me. I didn’t even know anymore, the effort felt all the same, and the progress seemed meaningless.

I continued, despite all nonsense and logic, dragging myself through a cold absence, a cryptic abyss. I was tired, but the voice persisted.

“If this is the best you can do, the most you can come up with, than I suggest you give up now. Actually, you know what, please, please just stop. It physically makes me cringe to see you keep going-”

I shrieked and clawed forward, like a wild and dirty and disgusting and sick animal and I thrashed and gnashed my teeth like it meant something but it didn’t mean anything because I reached for nothing and got nothing.

Collapsed to the ground.

Laughter. Wasn’t mean.

“Come on, get up.”

The words were said like it was easy. But the words were friendly, not at all menacing or demeaning.

Easy. Matter of fact.

Up.

I reduced the sentence down to its very essence. The intention. Struggling, fighting, dying, I pulled myself up, leaning a bit, my head bobbing a bit. I was on my butt.

And it finally just occurred to me that I wasn’t in chains anymore. Still didn’t have my glasses.

But I looked.

“Isabella,” I breathed.

The little girl smiled.

I saw her in full view, her black hair, tied into pigtails, the tan skin, the jacket several sizes too big, the backpack that she always kept on her back, hands gripped on the straps like she was about to go on a ride.

She was crouched over me, looming, despite her stature, her head cocked to the side, curious, like I was stray cat that had approached her.

Maybe a part of that was right. Being astray.

I, we were in complete darkness, yet I could see her clear.

My hands moved on their own, to my face, wiping my eyes, slapping myself across the cheek until it stung.

When I looked again, she was still there. This was all real. Somehow.

“Where are the hell are we?”

Back to the first question.

Isabella shrugged.

“Is that really the most important question?”

A moment to catch my breath.

“Feels like it an important thing to establish,” I said,

Isabella shook her head, pigtails swinging. “Nope.”

“No?”

“When do you think you can start walking?”

“What?”

“Moving forward, there’s still quite the distance for you to go. Quite the distance.”

“I can barely stand, you just asked me to sit.”

“Can’t stay here forever. Unless you want to, but that wouldn’t be exciting, would it?”

“Try me,” I said. “I’m serious.”

“I’m being serious, too.”

“How the hell did we get here?”

Question two.

“You really don’t know anything, do you?”

“I’m working on it.”

“Work harder.”

I grunted.

“You don’t remember?” Isabella asked. Asking the obvious. She cocked her head the other way. Swaying slight, back and forth. “Because I do.”

I stared at the girl, for so long she almost became unrecognizable. I blinked, and it was Isabella again.

“You mind sharing?” I asked of her.

“Nope.” She continued sway. “I don’t mind one bit.”

Glaring at her, I started, “Could you not-”

“You attacked them. Killed some of them, too.”

Attacked and killed. Those words froze me, still.

“Who-”

“You know who. Well, I know, but the lines have gotten pretty blurry now.”

“The Fangs,” I said, as though I didn’t believe it, myself. “But that doesn’t make any sense.”

“What does, really, when it comes to someone like you?”

“I don’t understand.”

“Of course you don’t. You open yourself to distractions so you get distracted. It’s simple, honestly. Hard to grasp for someone like you but it is simple.”

“You’re saying I attacked them… because they were distracting me?”

“You killed them because you kept wasting time with things that didn’t matter. And somewhere, deep in the back of your mind, something was telling you that enough was enough.”

Isabella raised a finger, but tapped the side of her head.

“And you finally listened.”

“That doesn’t make any fucking sense,” I said.

Isabella frowned, then pouted like how a kid would.

“But saying it was stress or guilt is too boring! I’m trying to help you here!”

“You call that help?” I questioned, my head feeling heavier by the second.

“It’s something,” Isabella said. She smiled again. “I’m trying. We’re trying.”

I looked at her. That girl. Isabella. So small and young.

There was a hard tug in my chest, seizing my heart tight and threatening to tear right out of my body and leave me dead, if this wasn’t some kind of afterlife already.

Her smile was as real as anything here, which gave me reason for doubt to enter and fill the cracks of my shattered mind.

Stress. Guilt.

Tug.

“Isabella,” I said, just to say it, and frame her in both my mind’s eye, and my actual sight. “You died because of me.”

The girl flinched. I saw a pang of sadness right before she composed herself again.

“There were very many factors. You… were one of them, but not the sole reason.”

“You died because of me.”

I repeated it. I felt like it needed repeating.

“Don’t blame yourself for what happened to me-”

“You died because of me.”

There was a pause. Silence and darkness. Emptiness.

Isabella’s lips were set in a straight line.

“You’re wasting your time, talking about this,” she said, voice tight. “That’s not what’s important, here.”

“It can be, Isabella, it should be. I was responsible for you, and for so many other people. And I wanted you to stick even closer, as if that’d make you safer. At the end of the day… I couldn’t save everyone, and that included you.”

Isabella breathed, shaky. “It doesn’t matter.”

“I am so sorry, Isabella, I really-”

“The fuck is this pity party?”

Isabella turned. It wasn’t my voice.

I turned, too.

Out from the shadows, walking with his back straight and his head high. His hair was slicked back and his suit prim and proper. He walked with a cool confidence he normally wished he had.

“Lawrence,” I said.

He gave me, us, a nod. He stopped about a foot away from Isabella. Closer to her, but farther from me.

Lawrence was standing, Isabella was crouching, and I was sitting.

I said his name again, sounding like I was out of breath.

“Lawrence…”

A grin went across his face, yet he didn’t seem pleased.

“Better than calling me by a fucked up nickname.”

“You liked them and you know it,” Isabella said.

“You don’t know shit.”

“I know as much as you, maybe even more.”

“You don’t know shit.”

“Nope,” Isabella said, smirking.

I watched them bicker, a normal moment during a strange time, which only made it even stranger.

“I am so sorry, Lawrence.”

I gave him those words, too. As I was, here, now, it was all I had to give.

Lawrence glanced at me from the side. “What do you have to be sorry for?”

“It was my fault, too, that you…”

That particular wound was still too fresh. Hurt, to even consider.

“And Reggie…”

All the other Fangs I had pulled out of my mouth.

“Oh that?” Lawrence questioned. Cool, smooth, he reached into his pocket and popped something into his mouth.

No. I knew what that something was.

“Don’t give me that bullshit,” he said, crushing the pill between his teeth. “Not for me, anyway. I don’t need to hear it.”

“Sounds like someone does need it.”

Lawrence shot a harsh look at her, but left it at that. Isabella didn’t seem fazed by it.

“I guess I’m as good as dead, too.”

They both turned their eyes to me.

“What makes you say that?” Lawrence asked.

“Well,” I started, “You’re gone, and Isabella…”

“That don’t mean fucking nothing, okay?”

“If anything,” Isabella said, “You’ve never been more alive, more free.”

“I don’t get it,” I said.

“You keep saying that but that’s not the issue here.”

“Then what is it?” I asked. “The issue?”

“We need to get you sorted the fuck out,” Lawrence said. “Because, as you are right now, you’re a fucking mess.”

“Thanks,” I said.

“So don’t worry about me, and don’t about this little girl or any other, and can you forget about the Fangs and all that shit too. We’re all… superfluous. We’re distractions.”

“And you’re planning to do… what then?”

Lawrence smiled.

“Distract you for a bit longer.”

He positioned himself in front of me, Isabella to the side. Feet flat, shoulders and back straight, head down, facing me. There were no shadows in the contours.

He popped another pill into his mouth, and then, clasping his hands together, spoke to me.

“Let’s get started.”

I wasn’t sure what we were starting.

“How are you?” he asked.

I leaned to the side. It was slight.

“How am I? What does that have to do with anything?”

“How are you?” he asked again.

“What? I don’t know, I’m fine.”

“How are you feeling?” Lawrence asked.

“How am I- fuck,” I said, several touches irritated. “I don’t know. Irritated, angry. Frustrated.”

“Do you think before you act?”

“Do I-”

I was about to talk back again, but I felt like I could guess as to what his response would be.

“Generally,” I answered instead.

“Do you spend your leisure time wisely?”

“I don’t really get to have leisure time.”

“Do you have a tendency to act before thinking?”

“I… probably more than I’d like to admit. Generally.”

“Have you failed more when acting on impulse than consideration?”

“Probably the former, I guess. I haven’t really kept score.”

“Would you say you have failed more times than you have not?”

“I wouldn’t so far as to say that. Like I said, haven’t kept score.”

“Do you enjoy spending your time on long car rides?”

“Don’t know how to drive. No.”

“Do you define yourself by your success?”

“I don’t have much else. Sure.”

“Do you often dwell on your failures?”

“Dwell… Can’t say I don’t.”

“Do you often dwell on your failures?”

“I already answered that.”

“Do you often dwell on your failures?”

“Fuck… Yes, I do.”

“Are your failures a source of frustration for you?”

“Yeah, they are.”

“Does this all seem familiar to you?”

“To me? Not particularly. Look, Lawrence, I don’t see how-”

Isabella, this time.

“Still don’t see?” She looked to Lawrence. “Keep going.”

“Keep going- what the fuck are we-”

“For the next series of questions please answer as quickly as possible, while making them as short as possible,” Lawrence said. “Do you feel like you have purpose in your life?”

I frowned and growled, yet I felt compelled to follow along. A tug.

“Yes,” I answered.

“Do you believe a higher power will save you?”

“No.”

“Do you believe you are worth saving?”

“No.”

“Do you believe you can save yourself?”

“Working on- by myself… No.”

“Are you true in your intentions?”

“Yes.”

“Do you see through your own lies?”

“Maybe. I really don’t understand that one.”

“You do. Yes you do.”

“I don’t. That’s to you and the question.”

“Are you afraid of dying?”

“I’m afraid of disappearing.”

“Have you ever taken a life?”

“I have.”

“Who?”

“Too many.”

“And do you regret this?”

“Some of them. You and Isabella. My own men. Reggie. Thomas Thompson… Memory’s fuzzy.”

“Is that what you believe?”

“It is.”

“Would this regret serve as cause of frustration for you?”

“I’d say it would.”

“Would you describe yourself as paranoid?”

“Very-”

“Are you easily distracted?”

“-paranoid. But only… what? I was still thinking about the last question you asked.”

“Are you slow to anger?

“Uh, no.”

“Are there things you would like to change about yourself?”

“Yes.”

“What are they?”

“Everything.”

“Examples?”

“My attitude. My appearance. My ability.”

“Are you constantly picking up new hobbies?”

“Don’t really have any hobbies to begin with.”

“Are you overwhelmed by your work?”

“Yes.”

“Are you stressed by your work?”

“Yes.”

“Do you ever feel like quitting?”

“Yes.”

“Will you quit?”

“I won’t.”

“Even if you break down?”

“No.”

“Even if you suffer all the more?”

“No.”

“Even if you burn out?”

“No.”

“Even if you find something or someone else?”

“I… Quitting isn’t an option.”

“Aside from work, does anything else matter to you?”

“Yes. Not anymore, I guess.”

“Are you willing to burn out?”

“Yes.”

“Are you willing to burn?”

“If that what it takes.”

“What are you after?”

“Peace.”

“For yourself?”

“Yes.”

Lawrence paused. For what seemed like an eternity, for so long that I could go mad and wrap back around to sanity, he was still. Still. Still he was still.

Then Lawrence asked the next question.

“And who are you?”

I opened my mouth, but no sound came out.

“What is your name?”

Several different names came to me, but none of them felt too honest to say.

“I don’t think I have one,” I said, uncertain.

“Yes you do. What is your name?”

“I don’t know.”

“What is your name?”

“I don’t know.”

“What is your name?”

“I don’t know.”

“What is your name?”

“I don’t know.”

“What is your name?”

“I don’t know!”

“Tell me your name.”

“I don’t know which one to pick!”

My hands went to my head, fingers getting twisted into hair. I fell forward, on my knees, my forehead pressing into the cold ground. With no answer to give, I screamed instead.

Raw, pain, the anguish. The yelps of a dying animal. Sad.

“No more distractions,” Isabella said, “Keep it simple.”

“I… I…”

My fingers gripped tighter on my head, as if I was pressing down on a lid, the contents inside boiling and bubbling, about to burst. But my skull was throbbing, feeling heavy, and there was only so much pressure I could take.

I couldn’t stop boiling.

Names kept driving into my head, hitting me over and over, each with the force of a truck. More names than any one person needed.

Letters assembling and reassembling, words being flipped and taken apart, falling between my grasp like sand.

A… Lexis… Wen… V, V… D…

“I can’t, I can’t pick, so many letters, so many so many so many-”

“Hey.”

Hands on my face. Not mine.

Lifted.

Isabella.

Her face close to mine, her hands trailing to mine, until she pulled them away and placed them into hers, setting them between us.

She hushed me quiet. Trying to calm me.

I calmed, in fits and starts. I hiccuped and choked up, but I wasn’t shaking as hard.

“It’s okay, here, it’s okay…”

“I don’t… I can’t…”

“It’s okay, that’s what we’re here for, that’s what you’re here for. We’re sorting you out, one more time. Let’s hope it’s the last.”

I swallowed, hard, a taste of something sweet in my mouth.

“Get rid of everything that doesn’t matter. You’ve don’t it once before, haven’t you? Friends, family, Fangs. No more. But you still need people, though, of course, but let’s stay simple. Their function, what they can do for you, how they move on the board. And you are on that board, too, so we should make you simple too. Break you down, reduce you to the essential parts and the essential parts only.”

“Alexis?”

“No.”

“Wendy?”

“Too many connections now, too. Simpler.”

“V…”

“Better, that’s so much better. Good job!”

“What is your name?”

“V. My name is V.”

“Good. V, there is something inside you. Deep down you know this. Deeper still you’ve seen it. Maybe you want to call it a monster, a parasite, maybe you want to call it something else. But that doesn’t matter either. What matters, is what you’ll do with it. You might not know what you are, but you know who, right?”

“Yes. V.”

“So the question isn’t how you got here, or what you are, or any of that bullshit… It’s, what are you going to do next?”

What am I going to do next?

“I’m going to burn everything. This city, this world is fucked up as it is, so I’ll just fuck it up some more and force everyone to rebuild from the ashes.”

“Least you have an answer. Think we’re done here.”

“We are.”

“Come on, get up.”

Isabella helped me to my feet.

“Time starts now, V, it’s ticking already. Not a luxury you have, so you’ll have to get right to it. You’ve called yourself a queen, but the game can still be played without her.”

“So our suggestion is, make the moves you can while you’re still able. It’s your gambit now.”

“I understand.”

“Perfect.”

“You might want this.”

Isabella handed me something. When I raised it and inspected it for myself, I saw that they were my glasses.

A small crack had formed along the edge of one lens. Barely perceptible, but it was there.

I wiped some of the dirt and blood off with a sleeve, the one sleeve I had. Doing the best I could, all I could do, I cleaned the lenses.

Then I put my glasses back on. Blinking. Seeing again.

“Thank you,” I said, with more clarity than I ever had before. There was a fire had that been lit within me. The fuse felt short, but until then, I’d move before the boiling and the bubbling gave way to the actual explosion.

“Don’t mention it. Now come on, we’re losing precious time.”

“We are,” I said, and it was as if our voices we’re coalescing into one, along with all the others who had a hand in getting me here. Us.

And then Isabella was gone. Lawrence too. Just the darkness that surrounded me. V.

And with them gone, the dark descended in pitch, swallowing me up even more. The opposite of what was happening inside.

But that was fine.

I walked through the valley of the shadow… knowing very acutely what could come for me, and soon.

It was still dark when I let myself in. The sun would be rising soon, so I’d have to take my leave before then.

Looking through the glass, I didn’t see anything out of place. Sliding it open, I introduced a soft breeze. A few papers on a nearby table fluttered with the light wind, but nothing got too disturbed. I stepped out from the overhang and let myself in.

Not through the front, no, too risky to try that. Had to get by other means. Just in case. Paranoia had walked in, wearing my skin.

My apartment. Though, I supposed it wasn’t my apartment anymore.

I moved through it with a supreme familiarity, gliding to where my room would be, when I still claimed ownership of this place.

Grabbing everything I needed, grabbing everything I would ever need, stuffing it into a bag that I could carry on one shoulder. Costume, mask, weapons. Guns and knives. An extra set of clothes for good measure. I found a skirt that I was hazy on if it was actually mine, but in my rush I shoved it in, anyways. I still had the room.

I made sure to cram in stacks of cash. Being the leader of a gang had resulted in a decent cash flow.

Leaving my closet and room, and moving right along to the kitchen. The fridge.

Packets of blood, squeezing the remaining space in my bag with them. No reason to leave any behind, I took them all.

Zipping up the bag, I put the strap around my shoulder, giving it a pat. For any other person, they would have had trouble walking with the weight, let alone running and jumping. But I wasn’t any other person. I’d manage just fine.

I started to take off.

“Wendy?”

I spun around, already on edge. I was ready to strike.

Not out from the shadows, rather a light went on. A lamp illuminated them and their soft features that I had come to be intimately familiar within the past week.

I didn’t say anything when I saw Sarah.

“I know it’s you, Wendy, it really can’t be anyone else.”

Everything and everyone inside me was shouting for me to just leave right away. My feet were flat on the floor.

“It’s not,” I said, “Sorry.”

It was Sarah’s turn to be silent.

I saw the phone in her hand, how a finger hovered over a bright screen.

“Did D ask you to wait for me here?”

“I volunteered.”

“Are you going to call it in?”

“I don’t know.”

Her finger stayed in place.

“D is looking after the Fangs herself,” Sarah said. “Trying. The rest… they aren’t so happy with what happened, how it happened, and how fast it happened. They want to go after you, and I don’t think D has the power to stop them.”

“And you doubt you have the power to convince them otherwise, too.”

Sarah nodded.

“Do you agree with them? That you want to go after me?”

Sarah shook her head.

I breathed. More stable than I had expected, but there was a slight tremor.

“Then this is your last chance, Sarah. Leave now, and don’t look back. Because if you do, and I see you again out there, I can’t and I won’t guarantee your safety.”

Sarah looked particularly hurt, hearing that. It hurt me, too, seeing that.

“So this is it?” Sarah questioned. She dropped her phone, arms hugging her body. “You’re really going to do it like this?”

“It is,” I answered. I took a step towards the window. “I am. I have to.”

“Can I-”

Sarah had stepped forward after me, arms unfolding, wanting, reaching.

But my eyes weren’t on her anymore. They were on the city, with the pale dots of fire and thin drawn lines of smoke in the distance.

I was reminded of two paintings. The one I had caught a glimpse of while in my apartment. The false idol, the lie I had bought into, thinking I could make it real for myself.

The other, through watery eyes as the height and descent got to me, looked a lot like what I was seeing now. The one from the Mazzucchelli. A city on fire.

Stephenville was my canvas, and I had my tools. And now, after stripping everything else away, I was ready to paint my masterpiece.

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