Interlude – Thomas

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Peru – Sixteen years before present

The waves slid across the sand, white foam bubbling in its wake.

Thomas let the cool waters run across his feet.

Sunlight beat down on his face. Bright, hot. He was going to get a sunburn if he stayed like that for another minute.

I can’t remember the last time I was this happy.

A hand gently landed on his shoulder. Warm, comforting. Inviting. It was a touch he wasn’t quite used to, not yet, but at the same time, he didn’t want to lose that spark. That electricity. It was all so new to him.

Even with plenty of space on the beach, he still sidestepped to let his girlfriend stand beside him. They held hands.

They watched the waves come to them, then away.

They watched, then watched some more.

This was a moment, and they were in it.

“Already trying to go out and get cigarettes?” Kristin asked.

Thomas kept his eyes on the water. He smiled.

“You know I don’t smoke.”

“That doesn’t exactly answer my question.”

“I’m not going anywhere. Not now, not ever.”

“Is that so?”

“One hundred percent.”

Kristin bumped her shoulder against Thomas, only getting right above his elbow. She interlocked their fingers.

“Big words. Only time will tell.”

They were big words, but Thomas was up for it, up for the challenge. If not just to surprise himself, but Kristin especially. Scary? It was terrifying, down to the bone. Commitment was heavier than anything even Atlas could carry.

Thomas closed his eyes, seeing red from how bright it was out here. When he opened them again, he was staring right at Kristin.

At Kristin, and at her.

“Are we crazy for this?” Thomas asked, though he already knew what Kristin would say.

She kept her eyes to the ocean.

“We are crazy, and we get crazier with every passing day. Every passing month. We are long past the point of takebacks.”

A door closed, but Thomas didn’t think of it in that way.

“Good, good. I wouldn’t want to.”

She made a sound. A hum. Barely audible over the waves.

“You keep talking like that, I’ll start to think the opposite.”

Thomas put his hands behind his head, stretching. “What would it take to convince you, then?” He gulped. “A ring?”

Kristin made a face. A playful shock.

So cute.

“Slow your horses there, cowboy.” Kristin then shook her head. “But who am I to talk?” Delicately, she pressed her hand against her stomach. Through her shirt, a noticeable bump.

“Another day then?” Thomas suggested.

“Another day.” Kristin agreed.

He left it at that, satisfied.

Amongst the waves, Thomas watched her listlessly.

He didn’t know how many minutes passed when she finally noticed him.

She blushed.

“Stop.”

“Stop what?”

“Stop being such a loser.”

“If I’m a loser, then what does that make you?”

Kristin puffed out her chest.

“A winner. I’m the one who scored.”

Thomas almost snorted. What kind of logic was that?

“You certainly think highly of yourself,” Thomas said.

“I do. Get used to it, or you’ll be in for rough ride.”

Thomas rubbed his cheek with his free hand. “But, rough rides can be good.”

Kristin bumped him again, this time harder, more force.

He swayed one way, then back.

“Am I going to have to get used to that, too?”

“Keep getting smart with me, you just might.”

Chuckling, Thomas let go of her hand, and put his arm around her. He brought her close, tight, before falling to his side, bringing her with him.

She let out a high, shrill squeak as they dropped, water splashing around them.

Kristin was in the water, Thomas on top of her. Both wet.

“And you’re going to have to get used to that,” Thomas said. He couldn’t come up with a better comeback.

“Don’t do that!” Kristin said, scolding him. Salt water splattered from her lips to his face. “This isn’t some dumb movie where you can just do that!”

Smooth, Thomas. But Thomas was sure that a small part of her appreciated that kind of gesture.

I think.

Maybe it was a very small part of her that appreciated it.

“Now I’m wet,” Kristin said, complaining about the obvious. She propped herself up to get the water out of her hair. She groaned.

“That reminds me, Spacey wanted you back at the headquarters in ten minutes. You’re due an extra shift.”

Thomas grinned, almost vulpine. “He should know by now that if he sends you, we’re both going to be late.”

“Don’t joke about this. I can tell his patience with you is thinning.”

Thomas thoughts went to the boss, though he didn’t want them to. “I suppose I can’t fault him for feeling that way. A six-month volunteering program and I just… fooled around for most of it. Really, you did this to me.”

“Excuse me?”

“Yes, distracting me with your feminine ways.”

“I don’t think so, buddy. You don’t get to be absolved from this.”

“Oh, so I’m just a buddy to you?” Thomas asked. He mouthed various positions, moves, references. “Do you give those out to all your buddies like party favors?”

Kristin pouted. “Don’t be so base. I only do that for pals.”

Thomas frowned. “When you talk like that, it’s hard to tell if you’re serious or not.”

“Then don’t change the subject. And get off of me.”

Before he let her go, Thomas kissed the top of her head, then he moved, letting her free. Though, neither of them moved to leave the beach. They stayed, sitting in the water.

“I thought we were leaving now,” Thomas said.

“Yeah, but it did take a long time to find you, and it’s so damn hot. I think Spacey can wait while we cool ourselves off.”

Thomas didn’t object to that. They still had some weeks left of the program left, he’d pick up the slack then.

And, more time alone with Kristin was never a bad thing.

Never.

I’m so glad I met you.

“What do you want to talk about?” Thomas asked her, already lost in her eyes.

“We don’t have to talk about anything,” Kristin said, twisting her hair, getting water out. “We can just sit here.”

“We can, and while I agree that nothing’s more pure and beautiful than these silent, unspeakable memories, I like to talk.”

“That you do.”

Thomas took her hand, submerging it into the water between them. She leaned on him.

“I thought of a name.”

“You have?”

“Couldn’t help it. It’s a girl, right?”

“Right you are.”

“Since it’s a girl…”

“Wait, let me guess.”

He paused, tilting his head. Waiting.

“It’s Katy, isn’t it?”

He smile widened. “You are good.”

“Get used to it,” she said, melodically.

He could feel himself falling for her even more. Deeper and deeper.

“Can you guess why?” he asked.

“I’m not a mind reader. I may think highly of myself, but you’ll need to have more realistic expectations of me.”

“Ah, that’s no fun.” Thomas squeezed her hand. “I picked ‘Katy because, it’s like the ‘K’ from ‘Kristin,’ and the ‘T’ from my name. Also, ‘K.T.’ would be her initials, as well.”

His explanation hung in the salty air. A breeze cooling them.

Kristin didn’t offer up a response. She just snickered.

That snicker grew into a heartier laugh.

“Oh my god, you are such a loser!”

Dumbfounded, stupefied, and dismayed. Thomas hadn’t expected that response.

“Hey, if you hate it, you can just say so!”

In between her fits of laughter, Kristin tried to get words out. Her body was shaking.

“No, I don’t hate it… I love it.”

He felt like he was being thrown for a loop. “You what?”

“I said I love it.”

“Do you actually?”

Yes,” she said, now stern. “I had my own ideas for names, but I adore that reasoning. I really want to use it.”

Thomas sat back, shocked that he could even be more satisfied. Katy. The name rang in his ears like a bell. Clear and bright. Like the sky above him. Endless possibilities. But there would be two constants in his future, now. He felt unstoppable.

“Katy.” He said it out loud, to make the idea solidify even more in his mind. He was going to be a father.

“My folks are going to love you,” he said.

“Of course they will. I’m me.” She pressed more of her weight onto him, leaning on him more. Relying on him more.

He couldn’t stop smiling like a big dumb stupid idiot.

“I love you,” he said to her, for the hundredth time.

“I know,” she said to him, for the hundredth time.

Stephenville – Ten years from present

Thomas stood tall, firm. Confident. And he exuded that confidence because he knew. He had all the facts, the statements, and the jury would be eating out of his hand once he was fully through with him. This wasn’t going to end well for the other guy. Or the other guy’s other guy.

It wouldn’t be easy, but Thomas would have been disappointed if it was.

The homestretch.

He was going to have some fun.

“Good morning,” Thomas said, apt. He stayed at the podium. Weren’t supposed to move around and make a show of things like in shows or movies. These proceedings were usually slow, laborious. A lot of patience, waiting, and listening. For the audience, anyway. For Thomas, he might as well be skydiving.

“Morning,” the witness said back, with no life at all. She was in a suit of her own, drab colors, sitting at the stand. Her hair was tied, but it was done poorly, strands sticking out. There was a microphone situated in front of her, but she was sitting away from it. She didn’t look like she wanted to be there.

Who did?

Thomas started.

“Ms. Jessica Quinn, how long have you been the CEO of Tate and Mono Construction?

“Seven years, give or take.”

“So, relatively new at the job?”

“Relatively, yes.”

“Thank you, ma’am. Just double-checking for myself, I apologize that I’ll have to continue like this for a few more questions. Feel free to relax while I gather my thoughts.”

Jessica didn’t relax. Thomas continued with his questioning.

“Okay, Ms. Quinn, you spearheaded the construction projects in King District, am I correct?”

“Yes.”

“For how long, and what were the projects, exactly?”

“Different housing projects, apartments, homes, offices. My men loaded stuff, dumped stuff, put the hammer to the nail. The whole shtick. And about six months.”

She answered the questions, just not in the right order.

I see.

“And thank you for giving me the whole shtick. Now, as well all know, the reason why you are called up there today is because your ‘whole shtick’ hasn’t gone through the usual procedure, disturbing many residents and businesses, and some of those resident and business happen to be our clients.”

Thomas tapped his fingers on the podium.

“They filed a complaint to you, and not much has been done in the wake of that. Now, here we are.”

Quinn didn’t react to anything Thomas was saying. And he was loving it.

“Ms. Quinn, what was King District like, before Tate and Mono came to do its business?”

“Decent.”

“Decent? Do you mind expanding on that?”

“I can’t explain it, it was just decent. That’s not too hard to grasp.”

“I’ll need a proper answer if only to get a better picture of the situation.”

“Fine, it was fucking Candy Land.”

Some in the audience behind him found that humorous. Thomas, not so much.

“Permission to treat the witness as hostile?”

Judge Edgar Brown hardly gave it a thought. “Granted.”

Thomas kept questioning, but now he could ask leading questions. “Streets were clean, people were friendly, a little rough, but what neighborhood doesn’t have an issue or two? Would you say that’s an accurate description of King District, Ms. Quinn?”

She yawned. “Yeah.”

He glanced at Phillips, Quinn’s lawyer, who was biting the end of his pen.

Cool it, Thomas. Don’t get too excited.

“And what was King District like during Tate and Mono’s time in the area?”

She didn’t say.

“Streets weren’t as clean, the people were hesitant to go outside, rougher overall. Would that be accurate to your experience there?”

“I guess.”

Thomas nodded. “One particular bad apple started making roots around that time, right? The Path, a branch of a Japanese mafia group. The Yakuza. Their men have been causing quite the ruckus in the district since Tate and Mono started their construction, with reports that the Path’s men have been coming and going through buildings your company were responsible for, is that correct?”

“Objection,” Phillips said, “That’s speculation.”

“All the evidence is here, sir,” Thomas pointed to his stack of papers at the folder, “Numerous arrests close to these buildings, drugs, weapons found nearby. This is all written down and documented stuff, and this is more than just some noise complaints. I thought you knew this, Phillips?”

“Alright Thomas, enough,” Judge Brown said. “Do you have a point?”

“One I’m eager to make.”

With little enthusiasm, the judge said, “Overruled.”

Thomas tapped his fingers again, faster. “Ms. Quinn, among noise complaints, have these other more, serious grievances have been brought to your attention?”

Thomas could see her neck glisten under the fluorescent lights. Sweat?

“Keep in mind that you are under oath, Ms. Quinn,” Thomas said, reminding her.

“They have,” she answered.

“And what has been done about it?”

“We never encountered any issue with any outside party or the like, and our construction sites were clean of any illicit materials or contraband.”

“So, nothing?”

“Nothing.”

“Thank you, Ms. Quinn. To switch gears here, you’re still a small company, relatively speaking. This is a big project you’ve undertaken, who’s employed you for these buildings?”

A noted lapse.

“Ishida Hitoshi,” she answered.

“That’s a big name, a big name for a big company overseas.”

Quinn didn’t comment or respond.

And now, the clincher.

“That’s also I name I recognize as part of a big controversy in Japan, with rumors that he has very strong connections with the Yazuka, and-”

“Objection, this is hearsay!”

Phillips leaped out of his chair, furious. “That has nothing to do with this case.”

“I think it has everything to do with this case,” Thomas argued. “If those connections are true, it lines up with what we’re hearing about the buildings Tate-”

Judge Brown stopped them. “Both of you, here.”

They both approached the table. Thomas was ready for what was to come, what could come.

The judge leaned closer, whispering, “Thomas, what are you trying to pull?”

“I’m simply raising an important detail that should be relevant in this case. If Ishida Hitoshi is in league with the Yakuza, people should be looking into what the hell he’s doing in Stephenville.”

If,” Phillips nearly spat the word. “If that’s true, but any claims about that here are unsubstantiated, you have no evidence, and it’s not relevant, and you didn’t submit any of this. You’re making a mockery of this court and this case.”

“It is relevant, Phillips. The writing’s on the wall, yet no one is willing to read it, and I’m left wondering, why? And if you want evidence, look to the countless victims that have been coming forward in the last three years. Also, I can bet you Randolf and his boys can find a connecting thread if they decided to show some initiative. The only one making a mockery of this court is that woman on the stand.”

“Shut it, Thomas,” Judge Brown said. “I’ll be the one to decide if there’s any mockery here. Thomas, let’s say this is looked into, and what you’re saying is true, then this whole case turns into something else entirely, and you are out of here. Is that what you want?”

Thomas was beaming on the inside, but he couldn’t show it, not here. “Criminal activity is a factor here, and I want that recognized. I’ll throw the Hail Mary, someone else can score the touchdown.”

Phillips was fuming. “This is unnecessary.”

Judge Brown wasn’t looking pleased with Thomas. “You better know what you’re doing, or this is it for you. Go back.”

They left the judge. Thomas did know what he was doing, because that probably was it for him.

Stephenville – A week after Loving v. Tate and Mono Construction

“Thomas.”

A man stood next to him, holding a beer. James Gomez. Shorter than Thomas, more stout, but with more muscle than him. A head full of hair, a thick mustache. Both were in fashionable, yet casual wear.

“Thanks for coming,” Thomas said.

“Thanks for… inviting me.” James had to duck when a ball flew too close to his head. He was more concerned over not spilling a drop than he was about the kid who threw said ball. “I’m not a huge fan of children’s birthday parties, though.”

“I invited you, you knew what this was, and you showed up, regardless.”

“At this point, I’ll take anything to get out of the office.”

“Even to arrest me for malpractice?” Thomas asked. “A two-for-one deal? I give you a beer, and you give me handcuffs.”

“No, I wouldn’t do that, but I should. That was a dumb stunt you pulled back there. I heard about it through the grapevine.”

“My bosses are breathing down my neck, drowning me in mindless work. Death threats, many of which are written in Japanese. An earful from the wife, which was the worst of it.”

“God damn,” James said, his voice lowered. There were kids around. “You gonna be okay? With your wife and kid, you have to look out for them, too.”

“It’s nothing but big talk on the gang’s part. They do anything, it’ll implicate them, and then the Path is done for. They’ll keep their distance.

“You sound rather confident about that.”

“I have to be. I’ll admit, it was dumb, but it’ll be worth it soon enough?”

Thomas said it like it was a question.

“I can’t give any details,” James said, “But we’ve traced the money. You were onto something.”

Thomas let himself show the emotion inside him. Gratification. He was beaming.

“But why’d you have to go about it that way?” James asked. “You could have just sent in a tip, or better yet, tell me.”

“Tips are too slow. You’re good, James, but your position isn’t. You’re still new, like me. You don’t have the pull to launch an entire investigation. I saw the circumstances, saw my chance, and I took it. Putting it out like that really got things moving, didn’t it?”

“At the cost of your credibility and reputation?”

“If you’re good at what you do, you can get credibility back, and I’m great. And my reputation is with the people.”

“Why be a corporate lawyer then? If that’s the way you think, you’d be better off in the DA’s office.”

Thomas watched the kids play.

“Big companies mean big money, and big money means more for the little guy. I’ll come down, when the time’s right.”

“When? When I’m police chief?”

Thomas nudged him. “Probably.”

“Whoa there, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”

“Why not? Dream big, do bigger. You’ll be the new police chief, and I’ll be the new district attorney. Together, we’ll rule Stephenville as…”

“Friends?” James ventured.

“I was going to go with pals.”

James didn’t get it, taking a swig of his drink, instead.

“Could be interesting,” James said.

“Could be real,” Thomas said, correcting him. “This city means a lot to me, you know that more than anyone else. It kills me every time someone asks why I haven’t left yet, why I haven’t packed up and moved. I want them to see what I see in it. It’s not perfect, but I can help, I know I can.”

James drank some more, then said, “Real powerful words there, pal, but don’t beat yourself up over it. You’re not a hero, you can’t put all that weight on your shoulders.”

Thomas agreed, “You’re right, I can’t. I’ll need people. People like-”

“Daddy!”

Katy came running to him, her face twisted up, and she was wailing.

“Yes sweetie?” He had to crouch to meet her at eye level. The way she was acting, it was unbecoming of her pretty pink dress. He had to get to the bottom of this, pronto.

“Alexis took my gun and she keeps shooting me but I told her to stop but she keeps doing it and I’m-”

“Hey hey, hey there.” Thomas had to rub her back, calm her down. She was hiccupping.

“I’ll have a talk with her, I’m sure she’s just gotten too excited again. She doesn’t mean anything by it.”

Katy was shaking her head, rubbing her cheeks with fists.

“I wanna get her back, I wanna get that gun back.”

Where do kids come up with this stuff?

Thomas massaged her again. “That’s not what I’m trying to instill in you. Go get some cake, and you’re making up with Alexis. No one gets that toy gun until this party’s over. Understand?”

She hiccuped. “Understood.”

“That’s my girl.” He let her run off to get cake, and he stood, his back hurting a little.

“Kids these days,” James said.

“You’re telling me,” Thomas said. “Sorry about this, James.”

“Go do your thing, I’ll go have another one of these, and I should be up to hear about Kristin’s summer in India one more time.”

“Make sure she mentions the story about the”

“The Yamarāja. I know, I know.”

He shook hands with James, then excused himself.

Stephenville – Three weeks from present

“Car chase going into Williamson Avenue. It’s red, and the only one going that fast. Police might lose it if this goes for any longer. What do you think about lending a helping hand?”

I’m thinking I’m done with the warm ups. Time for some real action.

Hleuco grinned to himself. He liked it whenever Blank Face showed some enthusiasm, even if it was behind a layer of playful arrogance. It meant that she was getting something out of this. And it meant that she wasn’t completely doom and gloom.

He shifted in his seat, moving away from the complicated connected system of scanners and laptops, to the wheel in front of him. The van started.

With the different channels yelping into his ear, he got out of the parking garage, and drove.

The equipment was outdated, but it was functional, and it served a purpose. Gifts from Gomez. Whenever new stuff came in, the old stuff had to be taken out to make room. And James knew how much he liked antique trinkets.

The van was old, too. Unmarked, bought with cash, kept away in a location disclosed only to Blank Face. He knew the city, the ins and outs. Learned from the best, and the worst, when it came to hiding things. It was a bitch to have to walk to every night he needed to use it, but its purpose was well worth a little pain in his legs.

His foot was heavier on the gas pedal than usual, and not because he was too sore to lift it up more. He needed to keep up with the car, and keep up with Blank Face, so he could be in a good position to pick her up and make a getaway. It was imperative that they kept things as simple as possible, as clean as possible. They weren’t attempting to save the world, they were just attempting to make it nicer. Even if by a margin.

And the girl has school tomorrow, can’t let her be out too late.

“Update, please,” Hleuco asked.

Can’t see it yet, but I do see the cars tailing it. Fuck me, they’re fast.

Please don’t say ‘fuck me,’ Hleuco thought.

“Can you get to it?”

Yeah, if it would turn to the right, I could intercept it from up top.

Hleuco kept an ear out for anything interesting. Anything new.

He relayed what he was hearing.

“Police are setting up a blockade, it can’t make a right anymore.”

Fuck me.

Hleuco shook his head as he drove, knowing she couldn’t see him.

Shut up.

“They’re attempting to trap the car on Williamson. They’re mobilizing faster than I thought.”

What does that mean for me?

“Seems to me they might actually have this one under control now. I’m impressed.”

Great. So all I did tonight was just get some exercise?

“Don’t sell yourself short. Mrs. Azikiwe wouldn’t be sleeping soundly right now if you hadn’t gotten her cat out of that tree.”

I won’t stop selling myself short.

Hleuco took the comment in stride. He sped down the street he was on, still mindful of the speed limit, other cars, and lights. It’d slow him down in getting to Blank Face, but she could make up for that with her own speed and mobility.

The fact that she even had that type of speed and mobility…

He was still having trouble wrapping his head around it. Blank Face had powers, strength beyond compare. No one had seen anything like it, ever. The world was still reeling from the revelation, what it meant, what was to come. How, and why.

It was a day that wouldn’t ever fade over time. It had become something of a pop culture lexicon. A meme, as the kids put it. ‘Where were you when the first superhuman made themselves known?’

Hleuco, Thomas knew. He was in his office, watching the whole thing unfold. Watching the potential.

A hero, here, in Stephenville of all places.

And he was able to work with her on this. On being an actual hero. Providing guidance. He would have felt privileged about the partnership, if the sheer coincidence didn’t shake him to his core.

With something so big, they had to take small steps. That meant limiting her shifts to more manageable times throughout the week, picking and choosing what petty crimes she’d handle, and monitoring police activity so they wouldn’t be in her hair as much. All to help instill the idea that her great power should be married with a greater sense of duty.

To better steer her in that direction, establishing rules was important.

Exercise extreme caution. Avoid overextending power for oneself or unto others.

Constant communication is necessary. Updates should be regularly provided and orders must be promptly followed.

Anything else was common sense.

He thought those rules were simple enough when he came up with them, but establishing them early was crucial. This had never been done before, there was no precedent. Blank Face was strong, and by her own admittance, already stabbed someone. Accident or not, that needed to be curbed, avoided in the future. He worried that she might want to escalate if things weren’t in check.

Which was why he also invested in precautions. He prayed he never had to use them.

There were many kinds in Stephenville. Those who were good, those who weren’t so, and those who turned and became lost. He only wanted Blank Face to be the former.

Thomas didn’t want another one in that last category. Not again.

Hey, Hleuco, you still thirsty for an update?

Her voice brought his conscious attention back to the road. He clicked the left turn signal, then turned.

“Always.”

I’m on Williamson now, but the car keeps tearing through blockades.

He tuned his ear to the police broadcasts. She was right.

“The car’s modified?”

It’s going fast as fuck, everyone’s jumping out of the way since it’s just plowing through everything. Cars and vans. I think the front’s been reinforced.

“Where are you right now?”

I’m ahead of everyone, so I’m seeing it all, it’s just…

A pause.

Fuck!

“What’s wrong?”

It broke through the last blockade. A… a bus is coming from the left at an intersection. A school bus.

“At this hour?”

Anyone could be in there! Shit, at this rate they’re going to collide.

Again, a pause.

I’m going.

Hleuco almost stomped on the breaks, but there were others around him. He had to keep driving.

“That’s a big no, Blank Face. You’re going to come back here right now.”

And let people die? I can stop the car, there’s still time.

Hleuco threw caution to the wind, listening to the police and getting a better sense of where to go.

He stomped on the gas.

“Blank Face, if you’re even thinking about it-”

I don’t have time to argue. I’ll update you in a bit.

He passed up a car, crossing a red light. The city flew past him.

“Blank Face!”

He kept driving, and the police kept blabbering on. He punched the button to shut them up. He only wanted to hear Blank Face.

But there was no one on the other end.

Fuck me, Hleuco thought.

With another turn, he was close as he could get to Williamson Avenue. The police blockades worked both ways. He drove down a street that ran parallel.

Sweat dripped down the steering wheel. His heart beat so hard it hurt.

The machines beside him whirred, the van’s tires rolling down the concrete. A screaming sound.

Silent.

He drove.

Quiet.

Still no answer.

It was maddening.

Hleuco started slowing down.

Not another one…

Not another regret.

He moved a finger to turn on the police-

Hleuco? I’m at-

Hleuco went to a full and complete stop. The van and everything inside it rocked. Cars honked as they passed.

He ran his hand through his hair, nearly pulling strands out from the root. He was so happy he was mad.

“Repeat that, Blank Face?”

I’m at an alley over on Baxton, by a pharmacy. Is it a good pick-up spot?

That was a block down, secluded enough. It worked.

“It works,” Hleuco said slowly, “Stay there, don’t move. Be there soon.”

I hear you.

Now you hear me, he thought. But he drove to get her.

His chest wouldn’t ease up.

Before he got to the spot, he reached back to the seats behind him. He put on his mask as he went. A memento from his time in Europe.

He needed an identity too, some gesture to make Blank Face feel less alone in her role as a hero. Hleuco. From the name haliaeetus leucocephalus. The bald eagle.

He needed a mask, too. She couldn’t see his face as it was now. Not now.

The door slid open. Blank Face stepped in. They left.

“I’m back,” she said. It was good to hear her voice without the mechanical filter. That was what he wanted to hear.

“Count your blessings,” he said, “You’re lucky you made it out of that okay. But don’t push that luck.”

“I’m with you on that.” She was breathing hard, panting. Whatever she did took everything out of her. “My arms are killing me.”

How strong are you, Alexis?

The van rolled on, and Thomas was ready to call it a night.

Present

He checked to see if he had everything on him. He did. Wallet, phone, keys.

Thomas got into the car, Jeffery closing the door for him.

The vehicle pulled out of the driveway, and they went.

Jeffery was usually more talkative, but he was mute, now. Thomas wasn’t that lively, either.

Solace got Edgar. He’s dead.

He was at his wit’s end, but he was too sick of everything to exert effort for a reaction.

He just sat.

Solace got Edgar, and he was dead. Because Blank Face and Hleuco pushed too hard, pushed the gangs too far, too fast, and Solace was born from their desperation. He thought he calculated it right, he thought they were disrupting just enough that it would not come to this.

Thomas was cognizant of the fact it would have been an uphill battle. Public opinion of Blank Face was plummeting, and they hadn’t yet reestablished her name as being Blank Face.

Uphill, but he didn’t expect it to become this steep.

No, these criminals are superstitious, cowardly. Especially in the face of an actual threat. I should have taken that into more consideration.

His thoughts poured over every detail, every bit of information in the past forty-eight hours. What connected, what made sense, what was a legitimate clue?

Thomas made a fist with each hand.

He had to give it up to Solace, they were thorough. Nothing came up when they investigated the event staff, and of course nothing came up when they went to Kristin. The only lead was the apartment they traced the signal back to. Nothing but bricks and wood.

Except a message to Blank Face.

Blank Face – Alexis – was positive the message was directed to her, by the leader of El Carruaje, a now-defunct gang, and Blank Face’s first foe. When she informed him of this, he tried to inquire about the woman who ran that gang, Benny. Her record, whether or not she was actually incarcerated.

Of course, everyone was scrambling over Solace. Of course, they were too busy to look into a small fry.

Thomas wasn’t the district attorney, not yet. He could only do so much as he was. No one answered to him, they would only consider what he had to say.

After forty-eight hours, all any of them could do was try and prevent this. But it didn’t work.

Lost in his thoughts, Thomas caught a glimpse of an intersection as they passed it. The sign.

Gomez’s office isn’t this way.

“Jeffery, are we meeting with Gomez elsewhere?” Thomas asked.

Jeffery kept driving.

“Jeffery? I-”

The officer whipped his arm back, pointing a gun to Thomas.

Thomas backed up as far as he could, which was hardly at all. His hands went up.

“Just, just be quiet, or I’ll shoot. Not another word. And if you do anything else except sit there and keep those hands up, I’ll shoot.”

Thomas didn’t try him. Jeffery’s finger was already on the trigger. Thomas put his hands above his head.

Behind the car, a resounding, deep grumble rocked Thomas’s ears. He would have liked to turn and investigate, but there was no need to set off Jeffery.

Looking wasn’t even needed. He could see from the rear view mirror, and that distinct tone of that sound.

It was Styx’s bike. Styx was here.

So this was how…

And he considered Jeffery a pal, too.

He was fucked.

Previous                                                                                               Next

Interlude – Isabella

Previous                                                                                               Next

“You’re positive you didn’t forget anything?” The man eyed her carefully. She felt like she was being judged for a crime, waiting for a verdict.

In a way, she was. She wasn’t supposed to be here.

“Just myself,” Isabella answered.

The man, the driver, didn’t avert his hard gaze.

“The trip is eight hours, are you sure you’re going to be okay without any anything to bring? Not to mention, you have to purchase a ticket online.”

Isabella stared up at the driver, and he stared her down. He was more like a pig than a man, overweight, large nose, balding. Not the most friendly appearance.

Her chances of getting on the bus weren’t looking good.

She knew she had to start making haste. She already made the call, so she’d be finished if she stuck around for whatever the aftermath would turn out to be. Like a fire under her butt.

She had to go.

‘No one will ask any questions if you can cough up enough dough.

The words of that lady, Wendy, came to her. The lady that saved her.

No use trying nothing.

She reached into her back pocket, and took out a small brick of cash. It was but one of four. The most amount of money she’d ever seen in her entire life. She flipped through it, pulling out two fifty dollar bills.

Isabella stuck out her hand, holding one hundred dollars.

“Is this enough for a ticket?”

The man’s eyes softened to those of wonder, then confusion. Then, a glint in his eyes.

He didn’t take too long to think it over, however. He moved his head.

“You sit in the back, and you don’t make a sound,” he said. Isabella took that as a sort of warning.

Wordlessly, Isabella got on the bus, taking the few steps to reach the driver. Smoothly, she slipped him the money, and he accepted it with a nod.

Gringos must really be easy to pay off.

Isabella moved down the bus.

The bus wasn’t full, she had her pick if the driver hadn’t given her stipulations. But, it wasn’t empty, there were people here she probably could not pay off.

A man in his late fifties, wearing a suit, talking on a phone. A teenage girl, fiddling with her phone. A boy with his mother, both already napping. There was another girl here, too, closer to her age, but she actually had luggage to bring. The rest started to blend together, the features starting to look too familiar. Unless they were famous, Americans all looked the same to her.

No one paid her any mind as she passed by, going down the aisle to get to the very back. The seats here were unoccupied, and she was able to make herself comfortable, lifting up the armrest in the middle so she could rest her legs.

The bus started, thrumming with life, then drove off.

Isabella leaned her head against the window beside her, watching the city pass.

At least I got a view this time.

She had barely just started getting used to things in Stephenville, and already she had to relocate. It was sudden, too, and now she was going to step foot in a new city, empty-handed. Again.

Well, she did have nine hundred dollars to her name this time.

Though, maybe she would have better chances if she moved elsewhere. The gang and cartel situation here was only marginally better than the one back home, but Stephenville still had way too much baggage attached, and it wasn’t very friendly to outsiders. Southern hospitality was as foreign a concept as she was.

All that, she learned in a week of being here.

Part of her did wish she could stay longer, though. She wanted to see the local celebrity one more time. La luna azul.

Isabella’s stomach grumbled. She massaged her shoulder.

Relocating might have been a good idea, but it was one she hadn’t planned for. That ‘Wendy’ practically pushed it on her. Nine hundred dollars might pull her through the next week, but there were so many other things to worry about. Like, where would she stay? What were the gangs like there? The cops? How would she make money? She was underage, no official papers on her. Illegal, in multiple senses of the word. Not many places would want to take her in, or they might get in trouble, too. Maybe an orphanage?

See, how am I to survive without a gang? They can provide for me, kind of.

The word ‘orphanage’ struck her again.

Her chest welled up. She probably was one by now, if she wasn’t already. It was why she had to flee, they were going to come for her next, and string her up. Isabella had given up hope on seeing her parents ever again, before any of this began. A harsh reality.

Isabella closed her eyes. There were no more tears to shed.

A lot to handle, more than she was reasonably capable of. But, it would have to come later. In eight hours, approximately. She’d deal, then. She would have to. Or she’d never survive.

For eight hours, she would rest. She needed it. To make the most of an unexpected, and shitty, situation.

The bus stopped.

Isabella half-opened her eyes.

That was fast.

She heard the other passengers. Whispers, questions. They weren’t in the know.

Meaning we’re not supposed to stop.

Other voices came into the mix. Outside, yelling, barking orders. Coming from her side of the bus. She checked the window.

She quickly ducked under her seat, cursing under her breath.

Lawrence.

He, and a small crew of his Ghosts, were circling around the bus. Tapping at the windows, tapping at the door. Searching, looking for something. Isabella could only think of one thing they’d want.

Me.

She cursed under her breath again. She made the call like Wendy asked, and told the operator on the other end everything the Ghosts were doing. The skirmishes for territorial expansion, the attempts to get their own slice of the drug trade, the screwed up initiation games for the newbies. And which studio apartment Lawrence was running the whole thing in. She told them everything. Everything she knew. And, through one way or another, Lawrence found out. Fuck.

From what she had seen from the window, she was barely out of the downtown area. Still in the city. Double fuck.

And she saw that the majority of the Ghosts had guns. Triple fuck.

Surrounded. Trapped. Isabella was the fish in this particular barrel. Even so, her mind still went to ways she could make it out of here. As alive as possible.

There was a restroom in the back, but they’d definitely check there, and that would make her a sitting duck, and another analogy. The emergency exit above also wouldn’t do, not with all the Ghosts still ‘haunting’ the area around the bus. The window beside her wouldn’t open, the most it could do was let a little air in. And there was still there issue of multiple hostiles outside. And their cars.

She was stuck here, through and through.

Quadruple fuck.

And with being stuck, it was better to be hidden than to escape and be instantly caught. Luck was all she had.

She stayed put.

If this was a setup by Wendy… she was gonna be pissed.

The yelling and knocking then ended, only because the door was opened.

Footsteps rushed in.

“Thank you, sir.” Isabella heard Lawrence thank someone, probably the driver. No brainer. If Isabella could convince the driver with some cash, there was nothing that said that Lawrence couldn’t.

Pudrete en el infierno.

She tried pressing herself closer to the floor, shimmying under the seats. Sticky, all around icky. Not a pleasant experience. And, while she was small, the space was smaller. Not much in the way of cover.

Isabella held her breath.

“What’s the meaning of this?” Finally, a passenger spoke up. Probably the old man.

“A not-so-routine inspection,” Lawrence responded, “But we won’t take too much of your time. We know you all have places you need to be, and you still have a long trip ahead of you. Ah, the door, please.”

The door closed, squeaking as it shut. Isabella cursed for a fifth time.

Lawrence continued with his orders. “Check every person, every row. Be thorough. We ain’t letting that bitch get away.”

She could hear them get to work, walking down the aisle and harassing the other passengers. Zippers were opened up, things dropping to the floor. Isabella wasn’t that small.

They’re taking advantage of those poor folk, all because of

“Yo!”

Isabella moved her head, shifting her gaze.

Someone also dropped to the floor, a row over. Facing Isabella. A leather jacket, light jeans, a choker. Short brown hair. Deep blue, almost indigo eyes, and something about them carried a feeling of mischief, not concerned in the slightest. Gringo.

The other girl her age.

She whispered, but excitedly, like she was sharing a secret she wasn’t supposed to, but telling someone was more fun.

“Mind if I steal from you? I’m lucky I made it here before he opened the door, or I woulda been a goner. Man, can’t go three steps without running into some trouble, am I right or am I right?”

Isabella blinked. Who…

The girl nodded fast. “Another good idea. We’ll communicate using nonverbal cues instead. Smart. Let’s do that.” She flashed a toothy grin, though a front tooth was missing.

Isabella blinked twice more.

The girl whispered again, already breaking her own rule. “Roger roger. Can’t be back here forever, since they’re about to find us. Mind if you follow my lead? I can take it from here. Oh, I wanna apologize now for the trouble. The Ghosts wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for me.”

… ¿Qué haces?

Isabella blinked one more time. For good measure.

Things just took a weird turn.

The Ghosts were after her? This girl? But that didn’t seem right at all.

What did she do?

The footsteps were nearing them, louder, sounding like a stampede. More than one person, more than just Lawrence. To Isabella, she was as good as caught, maybe even dead. This was very much it.

I shoulda taken the money and went back to Lawrence in the first place.

Isabella was about to curse for the sixth time, but she looked over to the girl hiding with her. The girl’s face hadn’t changed. Her toothy grin stayed.

She winked.

The girl then flipped onto her back. Isabella couldn’t see what she was doing, but she could hear it. A prolonged hiss.

It became louder, almost becoming something like a warning. The gang members noticed, asking about it.

Louder, then louder again.

It came to a crescendo.

“Now!”

The girl got out from her hiding spot. Isabella saw her feet. She was standing.

She jumped back.

Everything exploded.

One big bang, followed by crackling and popping. Also very loud. Screams, cries. Even Isabella shrieked. A bomb had definitely went off, and that girl was involved in a way.

Bomb. Girl. Loud. Ringing.

Pull.

Isabella was being pulled.

Forced onto her feet, moving towards where the blasts were coming from. Too disoriented to resist.

“Push them forward, not down!” the girl called out, making herself known. “Make it snappy.”

Isabella followed, but she didn’t follow. She lagged behind as the girl let her go and worked, pushing the Ghosts, backing them up. Few tried to fight back, but they were in the midst of the explosions, stunned, susceptible to being pushed around. They stumbled backwards, the girl moving them like cattle.

Only one other Ghost was unaffected.

“I’ll skin you for that!” Lawrence bellowed, though quieter from Isabella’s ears. “And for last time!”

“You need better hobbies, L-Boy!” the girl said back.

Lawrence started getting ready for his move. His counter.

“You’re up next!” the girl ordered, as she pressed on more bodies. “Get that last guy!”

Isabella woke right up. “I, I can’t do that! And he has a gun!” She hushed herself on that last word, as if she was trying not to remind Lawrence of the weapon in his hand.

“You’ll be fine!”

Is this girl freaking insane?

“Just go! I’ll back you up!” She sounded serious this time.

Reluctant, Isabella sprang to life.

She never considered herself to be agile, but she could move when the situation called for it. She could run. She hopped, pulling herself above the seats by the overhead bars. Putting her feet on the seats, she maneuvered over everyone.

“Get down! One more!”

The girl yelled.

Isabella dropped down, putting herself between the girl and the Ghosts, and Lawrence. He was a good three feet away.

She saw it fall in front of his face. Red cylinders, attached by a string, hissing. She’d played with those before, back in Mexico.

Firecrackers.

She didn’t see them go off.

It was loud, if not louder than before. But she was ready for it this time, she had turned and covered her ears. It crackled, popped.

Lawrence, however, wasn’t as prepared.

As soon as she was certain the firecrackers were done, she spun, then rushed to Lawrence. Isabella knew she wouldn’t be stronger than him, but the element of surprise was well in her favor.

Her shoulder rammed into his side. His ribs.

He cried out. More pain than she had expected. Sensitive? A previous injury?

As if severe burns weren’t sufficient.

Lawrence buckled, but Isabella held onto him so he wouldn’t fall. By the hair, she dragged him toward the front of the bus. He didn’t fight back.

They got to the front, and Isabella turned and kicked, and Lawrence tumbled down the steps. The top of his head hit the door.

Oh Dios mío that felt so good.

She looked at the driver, and he was drenched in sweat, bug-eyed. She wanted to hit him, too.

“Incoming!”

The girl joined Isabella, bringing the remaining Ghosts with her.

“Out of the chair, fatso!” the girl said.

Isabella took the initiative, putting her hands on the driver, pulling him up. Despite his heavy weight, he was out of his seat with ease.

“Move!”

The girl pushed past Isabella and grabbed the driver by the collar. She threw him down the same steps, atop a pile of sore bodies. The driver, the various Ghosts, then Lawrence.

Surprising strength.

We actually beat him…

“Nice!” The girl lifted a hand, and on instinct, Isabella gave her a high-five. “We’re on the same wavelength after all.”

“Ha, maybe.”

“But next comes the really really really fun part. Keep an eye on the Ghosts, and try to calm the other peeps.”

She fell into the driver’s seat, and started moving stuff around, like she knew what she was doing.

Isabella questioned her. “Exactly what-”

The bus sped off.

Isabella grabbed for a metal bar, preventing a fall. The other passengers jerked forward.

“What is she doing?” one of them asked. The woman, the mother. She tried standing, but the bus did a sharp left, then righting itself. The ride was bumpy.

“Just stay seated, everything is fine!” It wasn’t true, but it was the only thing Isabella had to say.

Things just took another, actual weird turn.

What is she doing?

Gripping the bar, holding on for dear life, Isabella shouted her question at the girl.

“What’s the deal?”

“I’m taking us out of here.”

“Do you even have a license?”

“I’m not old enough for one, you dummy.”

Some of the others in the bus caught that. They raised their voices, protesting.

“Stop the bus! Stop the bus!”

“Why is a little girl driving?”

“Jesus, please, someone else take the wheel!”

The bus swerved, harshly getting on another street.

“Pipe down!” the girl shouted. “I’m not taking us super duper far!”

“Then where?” Isabella asked. The whole bus was shaking from the speeds they were reaching.

The girl paused, eyes on the road. She took a right, and a deep breath.

“Hmm… oh, how about a little window shopping?”

“What-”

The bus veered again, but the girl didn’t correct the vehicle. Instead, it stopped very suddenly.

It crashed.

The opposite of slow motion. Everything happened so fast.

Glass crashing together. Metal and tires screeching. Deafening. A hard jolt, everything thrown forward. Violent. Too fast and too sudden to truly process. It just happened.

Isabella was standing when it just happened.

The abrupt stop made her ragdoll, and it was a rough fall to the floor, glass landing on and around her.

Blunt force and sharp stings. Pain of every variety, surpassing any known threshold. Inconceivable.

Isabella didn’t feel like moving. Couldn’t even twitch a muscle.

Couldn’t even question if she was still alive.

But it wasn’t her call to make.

“Dang, you’re still alive.”

Heard that voice before. Recently.

“People will be coming soon. Cops, more Ghosts. Can you stand?”

I can barely think.

“No go, huh? Here, I’ll help. I’d say we should take our time, but we can’t afford the luxury.”

Isabella felt hands on her, and she gasped. The stings. The pain. Intensified.

“Oof, okay. Looks like we’re gonna do this the hard way. Don’t hate me too much for this.”

The hands came upon her again, and grabbed. The pain reached newer and newer heights, and Isabella let herself block out what followed.

By blacking out.

Waking up was a long, nebulous process. She didn’t come to, not immediately. Instead, it was a long stretch of soft breathing, followed by the realization that she was indeed alive, and awake.

And with that realization finally becoming clear in her mind, Isabella opened her eyes.

Nowhere she knew. An old brick factory, somewhere. Was this still Stephenville? Streaks of dawn spilled through the cracks in the walls and ceilings. How long had it been?

Right. Lawrence. The bus crash. The girl. Help.

Even the stuff with Wendy. That felt like another lifetime. Was that all really the same night?

Oddly enough, it didn’t feel like this was the first time her brain had run this particular lap.

Isabella nearly did so herself, but her whole body seemed to scream in pain. Though, it was like a dull knife, now. Still hurt, but a bit of the edge had been taken off.

Standing was a great ordeal, but she had to do it. She was on her feet… after a minute.

No one. Nothing. Isabella was alone.

She checked her body. So very sore. Nothing broken, but scratches all over. It hurt. Small cuts across her arms and legs and face. And one really painful one on her forehead. From the way the skin was pulled, she could tell it was stitched up.

She was wearing a leather jacket, she didn’t have one before. Her shirt underneath, when she checked it, was more blood than white.

Oddly enough, she didn’t feel shocked about what she saw.

Lawrence. The bus crash. The girl. Wendy.

Piecing things together was hard, nearly impossible. She was worried that she was completely abandoned. It might have been quiet and calm in here, but she didn’t know what dangers might be lurking right outside, ready to screw her over once she stepped outside. She wasn’t sure what her first move should be.

Her stomach grumbled.

Maybe I should start with some food, first.

She started to leave, but she stepped on something. It was soft. Squishy. She stopped, and checked.

A teddy bear?

She picked it up, the pain coming back. She fought through it, because there was another thing there that caught her attention.

A note was attached, tied to the bear’s hand by a red string.

She undid the string, then opened up the note. She noticed how pretty the handwriting was.

Isabella read it.

To whatever your name is… sorry that I forgot to ask!

You can call me D, like Deep Throat, get it?

Isabella didn’t get it. Perhaps it was a reference of some kind.

She kept reading.

Anyways, sorry again for the whole bus thing, I was actually on my way out of the city to wait for things to cool down. I know I cause too much trouble for my own good okay, I just get bored sometimes!

So it was her fault that Lawrence came? Isabella still couldn’t believe it, her 9-1-1 call had to play a part, somehow.

Any-anyways, I crashed the bus into some clothing store to get the Ghosts off our trail. But nobody got hurt! Well, except you, Lawrence and those Ghosts, and the driver. I didn’t have time to check on the passengers so…

‘D’ drew a face. A sad face.

You were bleeding pretty badly, but thankfully there was nothing serious. I didn’t have time to bring my stuff, but I did my very best to patch you up. A cut on your forehead was the worst of it. And you were pretty responsive while I worked on you, so that’s good! Whew! Other than that, you’re all golden. Just don’t bathe with any lemons!

Isabella didn’t find that very funny. Everything stung.

So yeah, sorry about everything. I wanted to help you because you’re cute, and being a Ghost doesn’t fit you to be honest. You can keep the jacket as a gift, my way of making it up to you. Hope you dig it, it was originally Styx’s, if you know who that is.

She did. How did she get a jacket from him? Who was this anomaly?

And… cute? And she knew Isabella was a gang member?

Like Isabella needed another reason to think this girl was something else.

Well, the jacket’s not uncomfortable, Isabella thought. She’d might as well hold on to it.

Okay, now here’s the sucky part. I know this is going to sound bad, but I still need to lay low in another zip code for the time being, and I left all my stuff and money on the bus…

¿Qué?

Alrighty, this is goodbye! I don’t know if you’ll be staying in Wanderland, but I’ll definitely be back. If you’re ever in the area, come chase me down. Let’s play again sometime!

¿Qué? ¿Qué?

Love, D.’ She drew a smiley face.

Isabella immediately jammed her hands into her pockets, dropping the bear. Front pockets, then back pockets. Nothing. Empty. Nada.

That bitch…

She robbed me.

Isabella swore for the sixth and seventh time.

Quintuple fuck.

Previous                                                                                               Next

035 – Last Promise

Previous                                                                                               Next

“Don’t touch that!” Katy smacked Maria’s hand before she could move a piece. Maria pulled back, and massaged the back of her hand.

“Damn, it’s just a chess piece.”

“I said don’t touch that.”

My eyes moved back to my magazine. I flipped through some pages without reading it.

Thomas and Kristin wanted us together when the forty-eight hours were up. I couldn’t think of a more mindless way to pass the time.

But what choice did I have? Sneaking out and gathering more intel would be impossible, my mom would want to keep an eye on me all night.

At the very least, I could keep tabs on everyone that was close to me. My mom, Maria, the Thompsons. They wouldn’t slip from my grasp. Solace wouldn’t get to them.

Despite the certainty, there was still a palpable tension, an anticipation, that wouldn’t go away. Not until this was resolved, if that was even possible.

I tried not thinking about it. Tried.

Because we only had about an hour left.

“Can’t you listen for once in your life? Step away from the board.”

Uh-oh. Katy was pissed.

“Holy shit, I’m just sitting here.”

“You’re near it, and you’re driving me up the wall because of it. Just, here. Come here.”

I heard a shuffling. I closed the magazine, and tossed it beside me, on Katy’s bed. I watched Katy forcefully move Maria away from a coffee table in the middle of the her room. A chessboard placed on top.

That chessboard had always been something of an oddity. Some pieces were missing, for one, and the pieces that were on the board were placed on seemingly random squares. A white queen had no business being near a black pawn, especially since the rest of the white pieces were placed properly. The white king was nowhere to be found, and the only the black king remained of the black pieces, backed into a corner. Nothing about it was right.

But that wasn’t exactly why the chessboard was so odd to me. It was because I couldn’t count on one hand how many times I’d seen that chessboard set up properly, because that never once was the case. I couldn’t even lift a finger.

Every time I came over, the board was set up differently. Previously missing pieces returned, then others were gone, placed randomly across the board.

Seemingly.

“God, ow, let go.” Maria winced under Katy’s hard grip.

“It’s better if you don’t ask,” I said. “She’ll never tell you. She’s anal about that for whatever reason.”

“You don’t say.”

The pair only stopped when Katy moved Maria far enough from the chessboard, far enough so that Katy could be comfortable. Her room was large enough to warrant walking for a time with no interruptions. Almost as big as my room.

“Here, you sit by my bed and you stay,” Katy ordered.

“Am I a dog, now? Am I going to be sharing my meals with Annie?”

“It means you’re going to be staying outside if you don’t get your act together. My room, my rules.”

Maria breathed out loud, then folded her arms, but she sat. The added tension didn’t last long, though, Maria picked up the magazine I had put down, and flipped through it herself.

For a short while, we kept to ourselves. Katy sat at her computer, Maria with her magazine, and I responded to the few texts I received in the past thirty minutes. Nothing important, but it helped in taking my mind off things, if only for a little bit. I had gotten used to having to tap multiple times to get different letters and characters, and I was almost as fast as being on a regular smartphone. If just for myself, I’d chalk it up as something to be proud of.

Three girls, lounging around in pajamas, relaxing the night away. The scene would have been comfy, if it weren’t for the waiting, waiting for whether the news we’d be getting was good… or terrible.

I wondered how the others were managing. The others at the dinner party. Were they pretending like everything was fine, or were they afraid?

I couldn’t recall the last time I prayed for another person, and meant it, but I set my phone down, and lied down on the bed. I clasped my hands together, interlocking my fingers, and rested them on my stomach. I stared at the familiar ceiling.

I prayed. I prayed, hard.

“Let’s do something,” Maria said.

Katy didn’t respond. Neither did I.

“Hey, I’m bored,” Maria said.

“It’s hard to want to entertain ourselves under this kind of stress,” I said, still looking up.

“But we shouldn’t just sit here and do nothing. At least I shouldn’t. I’ll end up dying from waiting.”

“Quit it,” Katy said. I heard the clicking and clacking of a mouse and keyboard. “I don’t want to hear anything like that.”

“Fine, fine, but my point remains, I’m bored.”

I sat up, legs crossed, and Katy clicked one more time before turning.

“Did you have anything in mind?” Katy asked.

With all seriousness, Maria answered.

“Chess.”

“I am so done with you.”

Katy went back to her computer. I snorted, trying to contain my laughter.

“I’m kidding, kidding! God, you people can’t take a joke.”

“I need worthier jokes,” Katy said. “Step your game up if you want to entertain me.”

Maria scoffed, flipping the bird to the back of Katy’s head.

In her own little way, Maria was trying to make us feel better. And in a strange way, it was working.

Katy typed out a string of characters, ending with loud slap of a key. Guessing from the rhythm and sound, she was typing out a web address.

She spun in her chair, her elbow resting on her desk, her fingers pushing her hair up.

“What do you guys think?”

“About what?” I asked.

“Do you think Solace is really going to make good on their threat, tonight?”

“I see how it is,” Maria said. “When I mention it, I get berated, but it’s fine if you bring it up.”

“You were making light of things, I’m being real here.”

“You are so-”

“Cool it, ladies,” I said. Had to break them up somewhere, or someone would end up saying something they’d regret, and no one needed that one their plate. “Now’s not the time to be getting into it.”

Katy sank more into her chair, and Maria climbed up into the bed next to me. The waiting was taking its toll on them, I knew, and things were about to either end in sweet relief, or continue to tumble down.

I knew, because I was feeling the exact same way.

It was only a matter of minutes.

“I want to ask again, if I may?” Katy asked, looking to Maria, as if her permission was necessary.

Maria cut through her question, going right into answering it, instead. “I shouldn’t have a reason to think that Solace will. You know what your dad said, there was no evidence of any guest list being leaked out, and everyone who is on the list has to report to a nearby cop, every hour on the hour, until this thing is over, and so far nothing’s happened. We even have cops sitting outside the house right now.”

“Nothing’s happened because there’s still some time left. And there were over two hundred people at the party, not including staff. That’s a lot of variables, and with the police force as spread as thin as it is, there are no guarantees.”

“Katy, everyone’s still present and accounted for, trying to get at someone now would be asking for failure. And it’ll be the same in like… forty-eight minutes.”

Katy didn’t move a muscle. She wasn’t being convinced by Maria’s attempts to soothe her worries.

I chimed in.

“I totally get how you’re feeling, Katy,” I said, “But you’re just going to have to put some faith in your dad and the police, they’re doing the best they can, under the circumstances.”

And so am I.

“And remember what he said the day before yesterday? Giving us forty-eight hours turned out to be a big help, and we had the time to plan, to be prepared. The likelihood of something happening has significantly decreased. It has to.”

“Us? We?”

Katy’s face was scrunched up.

“Uh, you know what I mean.”

She clicked her tongue, twirling her hair. “You’re right, everyone’s working their ass off. I’m just running in circles by this point. It just sucks, being completely helpless. As if there was anything I could even do.”

“Yeah, just leave it to the big boys,” Maria said. “They got this.”

Katy raised her chin by a fraction.

“They better.”

They better. I shared that sentiment.

I sympathized with Katy, or maybe I even empathized with her, too. The stress of the past two days, dealing with pressures at school, and then this. Feeling helpless, unable to do anything, at this hour. Even with what I had discovered last night, not a lot of progress was made with that revelation.

Solace was Benny.

She had to be.

It was her message I found at that apartment, it was her old territory that the apartment was in. That had to be a message for me. It had to be her, or she had to be involved with Solace in some way. It made less sense if she wasn’t. The question left, then, was how.

I relayed my findings to Thomas as soon as I could, but I hadn’t had a chance to get back with him to see what had been done, or what the new game plan should be in general. Despite having to spend the night under his roof for the second night in a row, I couldn’t get a hold of him for a detailed discussion. I might be able to sneak one in later tonight, once everyone was asleep. I was certain that he wanted to talk with me, too.

If there was a way to ask Maria about Benny, without outing myself…

No news was not good news, in this case. The police might be able to prevent a death tonight, but Solace was still out there, and the threat extended until I revealed myself as The Bluemoon, or until we put a stop to it. Tomorrow, and the next day, were as crucial as this moment.

No, more crucial.

“Agh.” Maria made an odd noise, before putting her head on my lap. She coughed, thoughtfully covering her mouth.

“Looks like The Bluemoon’s not going to take off its mask,” Maria said.

I winced, turning away.

“Looks like.”

“How selfish. If it’s trying so hard to be a hero, wouldn’t giving in save more lives?”

The thought made me bite my tongue.

Would it?

That was one way of saving everyone, but it’d be my last. I still wanted, needed, to prove myself as a superhero, and giving up would be shooting myself and everyone I care for in the foot. Besides, I’d be letting Thomas down.

We’d been over this already.

“The Bluemoon could be working on their own plot to find and catch Solace,” I said, “Independent of the police or proper authorities.”

“Pfft, good luck then, because we’re all gonna need it.”

I knew this was her being sour, biting, but it still left me with a bad taste in my mouth. It reminded me that luck probably had a big part to play in this, and having to leave something this big to chance was scary. Really scary. As if I needed any more reminders.

News flash. I didn’t.

Katy returned to her computer. She put on a song, a hazy, atmospheric hip-hop track. It played in the background.

Nothing to do except sit here and wait. And the wait was killing me. Us.

Maria moved her head, and I felt her hair brush against my leg. She looked right up at me.

“You’ve really gotten super skinny.”

A chill ran through me. Deep. Cold.

We’re not getting into that now, are we?

“About that,” Katy whipped back around, and the song was paused, and time seemed to pause with it.

“Let’s talk about that for a little.”

“I’m game,” Maria said. She sat upright, and stared at me intently. “Sorry, Lexi, but you don’t get a say.”

Blindsided. Should have seen this coming. Should have been more careful.

Alarms were ringing in my head. Red. I was on alert.

“This doesn’t seem like a good time…” I started, doing all I could to come up with a way out of this, a way to move to another topic.

“It’s a great time for it actually,” Katy said. She held her hands up, a placating gestures, like she didn’t mean any harm. “There’s not a lot I want out of you, not right now. Think of this as a mini-pseudo-intervention. Some planning, but I think it’s good if we can get into this now, if only for a small exchange.”

The look in her eyes, she wouldn’t be so easily swayed this time around. She wanted a talk, and Maria was going to be her backup.

There’s no running away from this, is there?

I thought.

And as if a switch was flipped inside me, an odd sort of peace swelled within me. Like a train, or a truck, was about to hit me, and all I could do was accept it.

I gave Katy a look of my own. Tranquil. A certain ease.

The biggest lie I ever gave to my best friend.

That was how I saw it.

“What is it you want from me?” I asked.

She watched my expression change. Briefly, Katy struggled with her words, almost flummoxed.

“One, one question. All I ask of you, for now, is to answer one question.”

“I can manage that,” I said, knowing that it was very possible that I might not manage that. But the façade remained.

Katy cleared her throat.

“Have you been eating? Like, at all?”

Technically, you just asked two questions, but okay.

That was a question on everyone’s minds, I knew, and I couldn’t leave it unaddressed forever. I knew they wouldn’t. To pretend like I’d never be called out on it would be foolish. Especially since I already had, but I couldn’t worm my way out of this one.

And I wasn’t exactly planning to. Not this time.

As calmly as I did before, I gave Katy an answer.

“I have.”

Katy shifted her gaze. She didn’t look satisfied. Maria wasn’t exactly pleased, either.

I sighed, trying not to shiver.

“Look, I know you guys have been concerned for me, and you have every right to be so, because… because things haven’t been really good for me, lately. I’ve been dealing with a lot of shit that I’ll still not comfortable talking about. And that’s not including all of this stuff with Solace. It’s… overwhelming, and I know it’s selfish of me to say that since everyone’s going through their own stuff, they have their own problems…”

I trailed off. I was losing focus on what I meant to say.

I tried one more time.

“I feel like my head’s going to be a lot… clearer, once Solace is no longer a thing that’s in our lives. I’ll feel better, then. So, once that happens… I’ll tell you everything. I promise.”

I looked into Maria’s eyes, then Katy’s, as though I meant every word I said.

My heart kept pounding.

Katy nodded, saying, “I’ll hold you to that.”

“Me too,” Maria said.

With some relief, I replied, “Good.”

We sat in silence.

There was a knock on Katy’s door. It opened.

It was my mom.

“Everyone come down. It is almost time.”

We all nodded, then we moved as a group. Downstairs.

I was in the back, feeling like I just did ten-mile sprint.

I had no intention of telling them the truth. But, just for a while, I bought myself some time. Time to think, plan, and sell Katy and Maria different story. A believable one. Until then, they wouldn’t bother me about it, they wouldn’t push. They’d back off, leaving me to handle Solace. With Hleuco.

Maybe I’d change my mind once all was settled with Solace, but…

We’ll see when I get there.

At a bare minimum, my friends deserved something.

We went to the living room, Thomas and Kristin were standing in front of the TV, watching closely to a news broadcast. The broadcast had the courtesy of having a graphic of a giant timer play out behind the newscaster.

“Almost here,” Thomas said, his eyes not breaking away from the screen. He looked restless, but he also looked like he needed a full week’s rest. His dark eyebags were just one testament to that. Worse for wear, on all fronts. He still had on his suit, loose and hanging off his body.

The countdown continued.

There was only a minute left.

… and with no appearance of The Bluemoon, will the terrorist known as Solace strike once the timer concludes? The whole city is watching with bated breath.

The seconds were ticking down. Everyone was stiff. Thomas held his wife’s hand, tight. Katy was by his side. I was with my mom, her arm over my shoulder.

Maria was by herself. I pulled her in to bring her closer.

This was it. The moment of truth.

I almost wasn’t ready.

But time waits for no man.

Five.

Four.

Three.

Two.

One.

Zero. The timer behind the newscaster went to zero.

And there was nothing.

None of us moved.

And it seems that we are now five minutes past, and nothing has occurred, which is of course a good thing,” the reporter said. “We are now waiting on reports from SPD about the current situation.

“Ah hell yeah!”

Maria cheered.

We all immediately relaxed. Katy hugged her parents, and my mom patted my shoulder.

We did it, we actually did it.

Everything fell into place, and it worked.

I almost forgot that we still had to catch Solace, I was so relieved.

I looked to Thomas, and he was already looking at me. We shared a smile. We had this. This.

Let’s enjoy this moment, this victory. Tomorrow, we can

Breaking news-

Everyone stopped.

We’ve just received a report from police that judge Edgar Brown is not accounted for and is likely to be considered missing. The report comes-

“Damn!” Thomas hissed the word. He slammed a fist at the sofa. The trepidation and fear came back, except multiplied, greater.

“How!”

I watched, deeply hoping that this was a grand prank, and we were being played the entire time. I’d settle for total humiliation than the alternative, which was a death of a human being.

Please, let this be a prank.

We were back to watching the TV, unable to look away.

Now we’re hearing that local stations are receiving-”

The picture cut.

It was replaced with static, and a single word, in an old-style font.

Solace.

Good evening, to the so-called hero known as The Bluemoon.

The voice was distorted.

The forty-eight hours I allotted you have now run out, and you have failed to reveal yourself and remove your mask. And now, others will pay the price, all due to your choice.

The sound was filtered with high and low pitches, and I couldn’t discern the gender. It grated, since that could have been the real Solace speaking, but I couldn’t get anything out of it, couldn’t make it out. So close, so far.

And one, already, has paid that price. Edgar Brown was a father to three, a devoted husband for fifteen years, a man of good virtue. Of course, he was also a pillar of this corrupt city, one of the very few left. Now, a few good men must mourn the loss of a great one.”

I was breathless.

Solace continued.

But that matters not to you, does it, hero? You believe yourself to be above the law, attacking downtrodden, troubled citizens, and forcing your twisted brand of justice unto others. Edgar Brown’s death must be something of a convenience, isn’t it? As the pillars fall, something new can be built to replace them. Something of your own sick design.

I had to force myself, to remind myself, to breathe.

Solace continued.

If so, I propose a change. Come this time tomorrow, if you have not complied, I will kill two people, then three the following day, and so forth. Perhaps this is enough to spur a change of heart within you?

My fingernails dug into the inside of my palms. My jaws clenched together, grinding. A leap past furious.

I took a glance at Thomas. He was still, not doing much of anything.

I’m looking forward to seeing you tomorrow. Until then…

The screen cut back to the news. The newscaster was sitting there, confused as the rest of us, but we weren’t paying attention, anymore.

“You have got to be kidding me!” Maria’s voice neared a shriek at the end. Kristin was massaging her forehead, and Katy had to take a seat. My mom followed, sitting elsewhere.

More knocks. At the front door, this time, and more like bangs. Thomas went to get it.

Everyone else was busy coping. I needed to talk to Thomas. Still needed to, and even more, now.

I followed him to the door.

He opened it.

“Jeffery,” he said.

One of the officers who was assigned to watch over the house.

“Gomez wants to see you. It’s important, obviously.”

Thomas took a look back, and noticed me. He looked lost at what to do.

I didn’t move. Or I couldn’t?

He went back to Jeffery.

“My family… Gomez needs me now?”

“He’s just calling for you. Can’t say for sure how long it’ll take, what I can say is that I can escort you there and back. We’ve got Percy and Sumeet if you really want to be careful.”

“Thomas? What is it?”

The rest came to the front door. Kristin passed me and moved a step behind Thomas.

“Gomez is asking for me. Probably to strategize about Solace, now that they’ve changed the game.”

“You can’t go now, you don’t know what’s going to happen, we need you here. I need you here.”

Thomas paused, then started putting on his shoes, retying his tie. He hugged his wife.

“Honey, hon, it’ll be okay. Jeffery’s escorting me both ways, so you know I’ll be safe. I’ll come up with a better plan, and I’ll put an end to this. I promise. And I promise I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

He gave her a kiss.

“Dad!”

Katy pushed through everyone for a hug.

Thomas kissed the top of her head.

“Love you both, I’m sorry it ended up like this. See you soon.”

He hugged Katy one more time, then went outside, following Jeffery.

“Thomas!”

I called out.

He turned, while still moving forward. We shared a look. Determination. At that moment, I wasn’t Alexis, and he wasn’t Thomas.

I was Blank Face, and him Hleuco.

And we weren’t going to let this stand.

A mutual determination.

“Bye,” Thomas said.

That was good for now. It was confirmation that he wanted to talk and plan with me, after Gomez, and all the more that we shouldn’t give up.

We weren’t giving up.

That was a promise.

Thomas nodded, like he was actually seconding my thoughts, and he went off, to the cars and cops. Safe hands.

Kristin closed the door, then we backtracked to the living room. It was as though the wind was knocked out of all of them. No one was feeling very talkative.

“It’ll be okay,” I said, though I couldn’t muster a lot of conviction. “It’ll be okay.”

No one responded. It was disheartening. I looked at my hands, and they were shaking, despite me.

Who was I trying to convince?

Previous                                                                                               Next

034 – Fifty-Nine on the Tenth Hour

Previous                                                                                               Next

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

Not until today.

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

Especially today.

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

Twenty-four hours left.

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

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

Maybe I should watch them again, as a reference.

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

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

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

Lucky.

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

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

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

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

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

I needed to clear my head, sort things out.

Dammit, I really do need a walk.

But did I have to do it in East Stephenville?

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

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

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

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

I looked around me.

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

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

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

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

I kept walking.

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

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

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

That… was certainly intriguing.

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

And that was where I stepped in.

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

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

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

No pressure.

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

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

My sense of self is getting thinner and thinner.

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

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

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

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

A couple hops, and I’d be there.

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

Man, I need to learn how, already.

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

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

I continued into the alley, regardless.

I stopped. A wall.

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

Just had to take care of these clowns first.

Cornered, but not concerned.

I put up my hood, then turned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something about her…

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

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

The girl was quiet.

“And how much you got?”

The girl was quiet.

“How much!” the heavyset woman yelled.

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

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

“I-I don’t know.”

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

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

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

Five men, one woman.

This shouldn’t take long.

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

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

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

I was about to make it easier.

I spread my arms apart. Exposing myself.

Appearing that way.

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

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

Anticipating.

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

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

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

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

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

Huh.

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

Let’s not make tonight an exception.

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

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

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

Did I just do a backflip?

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

I was on them before they could even turn around.

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

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

Whatever. No use in going after him. Pointless.

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

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

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

Crying, whimpering.

No good. Was she that intimidated by me?

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

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

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

“Here,” I said.

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

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

Guess I’m walking.

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

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

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

“That’s a pretty name.”

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

“I’m… Wendy.”

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

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

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

“They aren’t.”

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

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

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

But I had to keep her talking.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New?

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

“Oh, then I have an idea. Follow me?”

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

Wait a minute…

And she does look familiar.

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

Now I saw her face. Surprise.

“How, how’d you know?”

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

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

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

How fucked was this city?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who says I hadn’t?”

A joke. She was starting to feel better.

Now was my chance.

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

“Oh, sure, alright.”

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

“Where are you from?” I asked.

Ciudad de México.”

Mexico City, then.

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

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

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

“I don’t follow.”

“Are you aware of Styx’s Gang?”

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

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

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

“Do you know why?”

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

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

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

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

No luck there, then.

“But, maybe there was one person…”

I raised an eyebrow.

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

That’s not what I wanted to hear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh?

“Who?” I asked.

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

Isabella stopped there.

But now we’re getting somewhere.

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

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

“Buzz?”

“Buzz cut.”

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

So it was someone else.

I clenched a fist.

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

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

This… was also intriguing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Didn’t expect you to.

I decided to ask her something else. Another subject.

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

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

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

I didn’t like the sound of that.

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

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

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

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

I gave her a soft smile.

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

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

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

“I think a thousand dollars?”

“A thousand-”

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

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

“Just do me a favor,” I said.

“Yeah?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Huh?”

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

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

“Good.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was no door, I walked right in.

As expected, as I suspected, nothing.

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

Not much.

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

Maybe.

I searched over the room again.

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

No point in skipping it.

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

So, nothing.

“Agh!”

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

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

Dammit.

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

I noticed there were even more scratches underneath.

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

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

Hold it.

There was one.

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

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

Unbelievable.

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

No cheating.

Previous                                                                                               Next

033 – Required Strength

Previous                                                                                               Next

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

Forty-five hours left.

Kristin dealt with the officers while Katy let us in.

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

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

Maybe it was something I needed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the other side, a dog stirred.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Annie started growling. Baring teeth.

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

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

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

At me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But what?

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

Even with more people, the silence remained.

Someone… please…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kristin hugged my mom, and she received it warmly.

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

“And your boyfriend,” Katy added.

Maria gave Katy a sidelong glance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was still… still.

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

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

“The…”

Maria sighed, failing to get a sentence out.

Katy and I looked at her.

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

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

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

I felt my skin go clammy.

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

I kept quiet.

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

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

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

I wanted to read their thoughts so bad.

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

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

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

Please don’t look at me.

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

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

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

“Dad!”

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

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

Everyone was in the living room.

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

“Is everyone okay?” he asked.

There were nods all around.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Concern,’ being a very severe understatement.

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

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

“Katy!” her mom exclaimed.

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

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

Thomas sulked, shadows over his eyes.

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

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

Maria looked at Katy, Kristin, then to Thomas.

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

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

“But…”

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

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

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

But that was all I had in me to say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do we do in the meantime?”

My mom asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Would you blame me if I did?”

“No, I guess I wouldn’t.”

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

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

I hung my head.

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

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

More and more second guessing.

It never ended.

I heard Thomas’s phone. Ringing, again.

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

“Oh, Annie’s out there,” Katy said.

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

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

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

That silence.

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

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

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

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

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

They were scared.

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

But…

What good would that do?

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

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

Would it be better if I did give myself up?

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay.”

“How’re you feeling?” he then asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“No.”

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

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

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

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

Thomas spoke when my imaginary timer reached ‘one.’

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

I didn’t know how to take that.

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

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

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

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

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

I swallowed, again.

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

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

I was at a loss of what to say.

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

What do I want to do?

I was just asking that, myself.

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

Thomas considered his response. He closed his eyes.

He opened them.

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

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

I had to force myself to stop my rambling.

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

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

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

What could I hope to gain?

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

I nodded. It was all I could do.

“Are we good?” Thomas questioned.

“Not good,” I answered, “But better.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tonight, I saw a crack in that pillar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forty-three hours left.

Previous                                                                                               Next

032 – Invitation

Bonus                                                                                               Next

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

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

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

Still the prettiest room I’d ever been in.

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

All in all, it was actually kind of neat.

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

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

I had to.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, close enough.

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

Had it?

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

I fixed my hair, a curled bob.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Really have watch my back, here.

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

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

“Alexis?” Katy turned my way.

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

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

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

My mom and I took seats at the table.

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

I noticed she would look at the singer, specifically.

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

“It’s big,” was all she said.

Of course it is.

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

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

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

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

Really, really, had to watch my back.

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

The singer… was decent.

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

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

And so did Katy’s mother and father.

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

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

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

The Thompsons were one power family. Seriously.

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

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

“We will,” my mom said.

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

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

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

She hit him on the shoulder again. Thomas grinned.

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

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

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

“How are you, Thomas?”

“Hi.”

“What is up?”

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

“It’s understandable,” she said.

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

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

“Trying to keep it together,” I answered.

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

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

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

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

“Oh, I really hope not,” Maria said.

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

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

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

“Maria!” Katy berated.

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

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

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

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

My heart started racing again.

“Keep keeping it together.”

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

Leaving me red as an apple.

Idiot.

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

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

Fuck.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You betcha.”

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

I saw it.

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

Mom lowered her chin, ever so slightly.

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

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

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

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

I had some theories of my own.

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

Or maybe… it was his fault.

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

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

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

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

I looked at my watch, before speaking up.

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

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

“Your idea of prom is a trashy one?” Katy questioned.

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

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

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

I know the old Alexis would be excited for that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Barely. Okay, I’m going.”

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

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

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

Revolting.

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

Katy followed after me, getting her own food.

“What was that, just before?”

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

Not so merry, after all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay, part of it was.

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

“Alexis,” Katy said.

I couldn’t face her. “Yes?”

“Can’t you tell me what’s going on?”

Fuck, fuck.

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

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

Oh, fuck.

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

I can’t let that happen.

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

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

“Uuuh,” I started, thinking.

A loud, but muffled tap sounded throughout the room.

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

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

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

Thomas. His voice took command of the whole room.

We turned around.

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

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

Several laughed, from what now was an audience.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thomas paused, to space out his speech.

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

People applauded.

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

People chuckled.

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

The lights cut out for a second.

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

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

“Don’t touch him, he has a bomb.”

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

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

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

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

Then, I saw exactly why.

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

And we’re already too late.

Five.

Four.

Three…

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

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

And it started going down again.

Twenty-nine.

Twenty-eight.

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

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

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

Fuck is going on?

And am I supposed to do something?

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

How did this guy get in here?

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

The timer went to ten before he spoke again.

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

So, that was the situation.

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

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

That timer can not go down to zero.

It can’t.

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

I was ultimately powerless.

He had to keep talking.

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

Fifteen on the timer.

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

Twenty-five.

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

Many squirmed in their seats.

Nineteen.

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

Twenty-one.

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

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

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

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

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

Nine.

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

Five.

Four.

Three.

Two.

One-

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

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

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

No. You wouldn’t.

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

As for me, I was already shaking.

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

A cold shiver down my spine, electric.

Twenty.

Sixteen.

Eight.

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

But it didn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mom, Maria, Kristin…

Thomas.

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

Because they knew. Solace knew.

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

This was gang-related.

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

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

Inside me, that fear was shaping into something else.

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

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

Bonus                                                                                               Next

031 – Demon in the Closet

Previous                                                                     Bonus

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

I had my eyes shut tight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It had better look like that.

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

“What about?” I asked.

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

“What did you tell her?”

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

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

Plus, it would be easier on my conscience.

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

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

“Do you know where you want to go?”

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

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

“How about your friends?”

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

Like I have to, now.

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

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

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

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

She cut, and I was quiet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have to be more perceptive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scratch that, make that two.

“Mrs. Phan,” I said, taken aback.

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

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

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

Mrs. Phan was pretty hardcore.

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

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

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

“You think so?”

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

One look?

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

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

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

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

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

Ma, hold on.

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

Mrs. Phan was unfazed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Definitely more than a minute,” I said.

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

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

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

Somewhere else, then.

“Wanna go for a walk?” I suggested.

“Fine by me.”

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

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

“Do you have your phone?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No way, even Emily?”

“Oh yeah.”

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

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

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

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

“Smart.”

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

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

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

“Gave up one thing for another?”

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

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

Like I’d ever say that out loud.

Justin responded with a sound. “Hmm.”

“Hey, it was my mom’s reasoning.”

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

“So thrilled to hear that.”

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

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

“Really?”

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

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

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

Hey, Mrs. Phan said I grew!”

“She was just being nice, Alexis.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Without thinking, I playfully punched him in the arm.

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

Whoa, ow, now that’s a hit.”

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

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

I realized he was just fucking around by this point.

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

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

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

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

A change of pace towards something familiar.

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

I bit my lip.

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

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

This too, I had to fight past.

“No objections,” I said.

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

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

“Why do you ask?”

“Do you remember Zoey?”

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

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

The Barn. Braham Barn.

I didn’t even consider it for a second.

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

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

I looked at him. “No way, you two?”

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

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

“Shoot.”

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

Confused, he asked, “How come-”

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

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

He continued to cry, and they continued to run.

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

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

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

“I’m sure it’s just kids being kids.”

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

I can’t leave this be.

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

“Back me up, or no. I’ll stop them.”

“You can’t just do that!”

“And why’s that?”

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

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

One of the bullies was a girl, I noted.

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

“Get away from him!”

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

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

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

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

Are you insane?

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus Christ, what shit kids these are.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Easy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weird.

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

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

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

I blinked again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I faced him, then nodded.

We returned to my place.

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

I bit my lip.

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

It was Mrs. Phan that opened the door.

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

“Yes, ma’am,” he answered.

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

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

“Me too,” I said. “See you, Justin.”

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

They left, and I closed the door.

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

I shrugged. “Around.”

“Just around?”

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

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

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

“Are you?”

“I told her I think on it.”

“Are you, though?” I asked.

“Maybe.” She looked pleased with herself.

I wonder if that’s all they talked about.

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

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

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

“Cool.”

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

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

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

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

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

Which ‘me’ was me? Who was I, really?

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