I yawned, wanting to rub an eye, but I was too lazy to take off my glasses. Too much work.
One new thing I learned about myself. I wasn’t much of a morning person.
The early hour brought a certain chill. The sun wasn’t out yet, and while the months were getting closer to what was supposed to be spring, the weather could still dip below sixty when it wanted to. To someone else, that was probably laughable, but I had gotten used to the warmer temperatures that came with living in the South. Anything that dropped past a certain threshold was liable to make me shiver.
And with a certain static in the air, I shivered even more.
I zipped my jacket up higher, flipping the hood up.
It felt weird, wearing a hood while not in costume. It hadn’t occurred to me how much of a regular thing I turned… not regular. I had come to associate wearing something over my head, my face, with activities involving being V, the other me. Getting into a scrap, taking out people, putting on another identity. It put me on edge. Which would help, if I was actually in a scrap, but I wasn’t in any implicit danger. Not here, not now.
I walked between the different groups of people. There was space between the clusters, but there wasn’t any real order in the placement or space, so my path snaked around as I moved and observed. The people were all busy tending to themselves or their groups, not really paying any mind to me as I passed. Some gave me passing glances, but they didn’t last, and they went back to getting ready. All were sitting down, some had cut-up tarps to sit on, some only had the cold concrete.
The total count was one hundred and three. Men, women, children.
It felt weird.
Their faces were ones of… despair. Maybe with it being so early, my perception of things were exaggerated. I couldn’t exactly have coffee to perk me up. People looked tired, worn out, worn down, and despondent. There wasn’t any hope or glimmer of life in their eyes.
Again, it was probably because the sun wasn’t up yet.
One of them glanced, but it wasn’t in passing. I caught it.
A little girl, sitting on concrete. She looked to be about D’s age. She wasn’t with a group, and there was no one around looking after her. She was completely alone.
Well, not completely.
She had a teddy bear, which made me think of D again. It sat in her lap, her arms wrapped around it. She hugged it tight.
Her eyes stayed on me. A blank expression on her face.
It made me stop, staring back. Fighting my natural inclination to keep going and look away.
The girl didn’t, or wouldn’t, break her gaze. Did she want something?
Before I could think of any possibilities, the girl waved by moving the bear’s hand.
It was a cute little gesture. I caught myself waving back.
I was trying to avoid this sort of thing.
Because what was left of these people’s lives were in my hands.
“Cargo?” I repeated.
Styx nodded. He smiled. Probably a cause for concern.
“What kind?” I asked.
Styx smiled wider.
“I’m still getting them together. Final count’s at the end of the week. You’ll know by then.”
He avoided answering directly.
Meaning he’s got something up his sleeve.
Definitely a cause for concern.
Styx lifted a finger, pointing upward.
“So, let me break it down for you, and set it straight. I’m preparing some cargo that’s to be sent across the border, to Mexico. Mexico City, to be exact, with some drop offs going as far south as Oaxaca.”
“You’re telling me we’re going to-”
“Did I fucking say you could talk!”
Styx bellowed. I shut my mouth.
He cleared his throat before starting again. It was a scratchy, rough sound.
“You’re going to be supervising the transport of that cargo, making certain it gets to the border in one piece, and in tact. If even one fucking thing ends up missing, I’ll fucking vomit in anger.”
That… was certainly one way to put it.
“And you don’t have to go down that far,” Styx said. “I’ve got a guy. Marco Montez. You’re going to meet him at the border.”
Styx spun his finger. The helmeted and long-haired Ferrymen moved, and moved fast. By the time Styx stabbed his finger onto the surface of the table, they had materialized a map, unfolded it, and placed it on the table to face us. His finger hit exactly where he meant it to. The border between us and Mexico. But it was more to the left, farther than I expected.
“He’ll take over things from there,” Styx said.
His finger moved again, sliding across the map. Over to where we were, right now. Stephenville.
Styx kept moving his finger back and forth between the two points. His nail started scraping and tearing a hole through the paper.
He continued, regardless.
“The trip will be taking you west. El Paso, to be exact. About seven hundred miles, or eight to ten hours, give or take. I suspect it’s going to take you longer than that, though, given that you’re not speeding off to a vacation. You’ll have to be deliberate, doing periodic stops, checking on everything, making sure the path ahead of you is clear and the path behind you isn’t being picked up on. Keeping the work of this in mind, I’ll give you twelve hours, thirteen hours tops. Take however long you need to get back.”
Styx took his finger off the map. He had torn a line between Stephenville and El Paso, and I could see the surface of the table underneath. A black line marked the path we’d have to take. The long journey we’d have to embark upon.
Just the sudden prospect of going on a road trip, it gave me pause.
I tried to gauge D and Lawrence’s reactions. D was hard to read, and Lawrence was harder still. But, to be fair to him, he was sort of preoccupied with that beatdown he gotten from Styx, earlier. I’d cut him some slack.
I would have tried to glean anything from Styx’s face, but it would be like trying to read a foreign language. I’d, more likely than not, be completely off base, and I’d most likely offend.
There was a slight opening in the conversation. If I was talking with anyone but Styx, I would have taken it.
“Now would be the time for questions,” Styx said.
“What’s the cargo going to be transported in?”
Lawrence asked that question. I had ruled him out, but he managed to contribute something. I didn’t consider how much of a fighter he was.
“I got trucks for you to move the stuff with. Eighteen-wheelers. You probably only need one but I’m ordering at least two just in case. Standard dimensions, about forty feet in length, ten feet wide, and about twelve feet high. Doesn’t really matter, but I’m just giving you an idea of how big this thing really is.”
To illustrate, Styx got up from his seat, and set his hand on his crotch. I was about to avert my eyes before he moved his hand out, in front of him.
I realized he was making his point with a rude gesture.
“It’s really fucking big,” Styx said, spelling it out.
The gesture was unnecessary, but, in a sick and wrong way, it did give the job a sense of weight. This was serious, apparently. A long road trip to the border? And what were we transporting? Drugs, weapons? Some other kind of contraband? I couldn’t begin to guess what it could be, but with Styx telling us the dimensions of a standard trailer, it told me that there was going to be a lot of it.
Really fucking big.
“And drivers?” Lawrence asked, “It takes a different kind of license to drive one of those things. And it’s going to take time before any of us can get one.”
Dammit, I really needed to learn how to drive.
Styx pointed to the person sitting between us.
“She can drive one.”
He said it like it was so obvious.
Lawrence tried, but he shook, going into a coughing fit, and every cough made him hurt more. D rubbed his shoulder as he attempted to settle back down.
“As Lawrence was trying to say,” I said, having found my opportunity to get a word in, “You’re asking for us to get pulled over if D gets behind the wheel of something so big. If that happens, we’re done for, and whatever you want us to supervise the transport of gets lost.”
“I know how to drive one,” D said.
I looked at her.
“I don’t doubt your ability to, but that’s still too much of a risk, and it’s really unneeded.”
Turning back to Styx, I said, “And I know you were probably kidding when you brought that up, but there’s no way any of us will be capable of driving across the state in an eighteen-wheeler, much less getting the license in time.”
“I know how to drive one,” D said again, which much more emphasis.
I didn’t look at her this time.
Styx looked disinterested, bummed out, as if he was expecting a certain reaction but didn’t quite get it out of us. As long as it wasn’t a lead up to more violence, because that violence would only find its way to one other person. I couldn’t get any lasting damage, and it didn’t seem like he would touch D.
Or… maybe he would, or did, but that was a can of worms I was trying not to open or even get close to.
I had to work this conversation in a way that didn’t lead to another beatdown on Lawrence.
“Then find drivers,” Styx said. “Or I’ll… fucking find someone, fuck, you were supposed to play along, there. D, I thought you had my back?”
“For your information, Styx, I’m sitting on this side of the table, this time. I’m not here to play with you.”
Styx made a face. Was I supposed to interpret that as being disappointed?
“Is that so?” he asked.
“Well then, I guess I really will be on my own from now on. How sad.”
His expression changed again. At this juncture, I couldn’t trust that any tell or sign from Styx was genuine. It all had to be a trick to keep us on our guard. Constantly putting us on our back foot.
Styx breathed, fixing his jacket.
“Any other questions?”
“Not questions, but concerns. I’m just failing to see why you’d want us to take on this job, even outside of it being one of your favors. Wouldn’t it be too much of a risk, sending us out on a job we don’t have any experience in? From the sounds of it, this cargo has to be a big deal, so trusting us with taking care of it seems like throwing caution to the wind. I don’t know, but this seems too heavy a responsibility for us to carry. Plus, isn’t this your forte, Styx? You do this sort of thing all the time, why put this particular job on us, now?”
It wasn’t surprising, that Lawrence would have reservations about the nature of this favor. They weren’t bad points to raise. And with this favor coming from Styx, it was even more cause for worry.
Styx put his hands on his hips. He looked downward.
“You’re right. This is a big fucking deal. The biggest, actually. And it’s compounded when you consider that, after the first hour of your trip, you’ll be in no man’s land. The same protections and safeguards that helped shape this city won’t be granted to you once you leave it. Cops out there have no reason to look the other way. In fact, they’ll be closer to bloodhounds, and they’ll sniff you out the second they catch a whiff of anything. And it will be even more arduous once you get to El Paso. The pigs there know the game, and they know what to look for, what to smell for. There is a trick to it, but it would only come through having done this route several times, learning the ins and outs. Experience.”
He took a second, and everything settled in.
Even more points as to why this job was such a risk. We weren’t ready to handle a task like this. It was too dangerous, too risky, our necks sticking out too much. The last thing I wanted was to screw this up and fuck up everything. There would be a lot riding on this, on us, if we were to undertake the job, not just the cargo. Styx’s work could be in jeopardy, our gang could potentially lose a lot of its momentum and a chunk of its leadership, depending on who we sent out. And Stephenville’s underground would get yet another shock to its foundation, after so many already.
And with us, me, being at the center of it, I might not make it out of the fallout.
These were seeds of doubt, for sure, but Styx might realize that we would be in over our heads if we took this.
Styx, with his hands still at his hips, lifted his head, and faced each of us down.
“I still want you to go.”
Hearing that hit harder than any punch I could have delivered. Good thing I was already in a seat.
“You… what?” Lawrence questioned, the confusion in his voice said it all.
Styx answered like the concerns Lawrence raised, and the ones Styx himself brought up, weren’t valid.
“I know what I’m doing. I have prep for my setup, so I can have my final and ultimate punchline. One last joke, then it’s off into the sunset. Wow, I really am getting sentimental in my old age.”
“You’re quitting after this?”
“I don’t quit, I never quit. But it will be quite… boring, for some time, after this. I suppose you could call it a form of death.”
“You still want us to do this? Why do I get the feeling that this is some trap?”
I wanted to get to the heart of the matter, and call Styx out directly. If he was adamant about this, there had to be a reason.
Setups, punchlines. Jokes. Styx wasn’t even trying to hide that he was leading us into… something.
“Not a trap,” Styx said. “If all goes smoothly, which it should, and if you plan it well enough as you go, I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t be back by the end of the day, or early morning of the next, depending on traffic. You’re not even doing the hard part of the job, once you meet with Marco, he’ll take the cargo off your hands, and it’s an easy ride back home. And it’s not as though you’ll be completely out of your element.”
Styx pointed to D again.
“She knows, I’ve taken her on this route hundreds of times.”
I knew I shouldn’t be surprised, but that only raised more questions.
“She should know the trick to it, otherwise I’ve been a terrible teacher.”
“That doesn’t excuse the fact that the nature of this job brings too much risk on it’s own, no matter how many tricks you throw into it,” Lawrence said. “And do you really expect to put this much of an obligation on a little girl?”
“I can do it,” D said.
“There has to be something else you could get us to do-”
It was like a switch flipped in Styx’s head. He jumped, not unlike how I would jump, using my power. He used his, getting up high enough to put himself over the table. He slammed both feet down, hard.
The table flipped.
My arms were resting on the surface, Lawrence had his arms there, too. The kick of the table forced our arms up, and I had to push my chair back so the wooden edge wouldn’t clip my chin. Lawrence wasn’t as fortunate to have the strength to move so fast.
Lawrence’s chin was sent pointing upward, his chair leaning back too far. With a gurgled noise, Lawrence fell to the floor.
“Styx! You, ugh!”
D dropped out of her seat to fall right beside Lawrence, tending to him once again. I stayed in my chair, but my mind and body were kicked into another gear, in case another fight broke out. Adrenaline was pumping through me, and I was ready to flow through it.
The table was flipped on its side, leaning over. I couldn’t see Styx from my point of view, with it being raised.
Then, I heard grunts, the sound of other people moving.
Styx’s head reappeared, popping up. He was being helped by his own men.
He got to his feet. In his hand was the map, or part of it. It had been torn to pieces after Styx… blew up. It was a larger portion of it, with the line Styx scratched out still there. It had torn wider, though, tearing through most of the country. A hole, instead of a line.
“You lot are so arrogant, thinking you can keep breaking the rules that bind you. The rules I set. Mother Hydra, Father Dagon, Cthulhu, let’s see if you deep croaking fucks can fathom that. Break those binds.”
Back on his feet, Styx started tearing up the map even more, tossing the pieces across the fallen table, sprinkling them on Lawrence. The bits of paper stuck to blood.
His chin had been split open.
“You came to me for help, and I provided it. On multiple occasions. And now, when I want to call in those favors, what I’m owed, you want to back down? I really don’t fucking think so.”
Of the three of us, I was the only one who was paying any attention to Styx. Lawrence was out, and D was screaming and panicking over the rush of blood flowing from the lower half of Lawrence’s face. She patted it with her shirt, her jacket, Lawrence’s shirt and jacket, the red seeping through everything.
Someone had to be here, in the moment, with Styx. I was the only one available.
“Fine,” I said, raising a hand to placate him. “We’ll do it.”
“There is no permutation that will let you get away from this, Vampiregirl. The consequences will catch up to you. You wanted my help, now I get what I’m owed in return.”
Vamp- what? What kind of name was that?”
Styx tore up the last of the paper, then made a thing of wiping his hands and showing he had no more scraps left, making his palms face us. D kept picking the bits of the map off of Lawrence’s cheek and his upper lip. Some collected by his chin, but she seemed too scared to put her fingers anywhere near it.
A hard clap sounded throughout the room.
“Stitch him up,” Styx said, hands together.
More Ferrymen moved, breaking from the perimeter that surrounded us. Again, in silence, they worked fast and in sync with one another, there was a system to it. One of them took Lawrence, two others went for D, in case she started kicking, which she did, and more pulled out medical kits and towels and other equipment to clean Lawrence up.
Styx stared at me the whole time. I couldn’t avoid it for very long. For all my strength, I couldn’t move a muscle.
I stayed there, sitting, letting Styx do whatever the fuck he wanted.
“Okay then, looks like everything’s straightened out. I’ll get you in touch with Marco so you two can coordinate, and I’ll contact you again once I have the cargo in full and ready to go. Good luck.”
Nothing good or lucky about this.
I put my hand down, putting both in the pockets of my hoodie. I looked away, and walked elsewhere, trying to act like that small exchange never happened. I tried checking on the other people, but my eyes wanted to wander back over.
It was hard to touch on why, exactly.
Putting my focus somewhere else, I watched people from my gang work and get everything prepared. Fueling the truck, checking the air of each and every tire, testing the brakes and axles, cleaning the interior of the trailer, and starting to hand out brown paper bags to those sitting down. Every individual got one, every child under ten was allowed another depending on how many was left before we departed.
Their lunch. It was my idea.
The people turned when shadows were casted over them, their gazes following up until they saw my people, bags in hand. I found Sarah among those passing them out. She handed the bag over, and I saw a little bit of light glimmer back into their eyes. Parents opened their bags and showed a chocolate bar to their child. The child’s eyes lit up, too.
Maybe it was a stupid, simple sentiment, but it made me smile.
It was a fucked up situation, and one I could imagine Styx having orchestrated just so he could see the looks on our faces when we found out what kind of ‘cargo’ we were transporting. I could still hear his cackling, ringing in my head. Was this his final, ultimate joke? It wasn’t very funny, and I certainly wasn’t laughing along.
For one reason or another, these people had went through the grueling effort to illegally immigrate into this country, and now, for one reason or another, they had to go back. More grueling effort. More sitting in the dark, more sweltering heat from being pressed against other sweaty people, more stress of getting caught by police or border patrol. And that was only the first part of their journey. They still had to cross the border back into Mexico, and it wasn’t like it was any safer for them, there.
And I had to ensure a safe passage for them. All one hundred and three of them. Lawrence had told me that up to two hundred people could fit into one of those trailers. But that was for coming into the country. Much less would want to leave after going through all the effort to get there.
Yet, here we are.
I wasn’t going to judge, to pry or ask. I just had to get the job done.
Sarah had a whole cardboard box of bagged lunches. She made her way to me as she kept passing them out.
“Hi Voss,” she said.
“Kind of weird, to be in this position, don’t you think?”
“I’m thinking a lot more things than just weird.”
“Can’t say. There are kids around.”
Sarah handed out another bag.
“Nervous?” she asked.
“I guess,” I said.
“You don’t have to do this if you don’t want to. There’s still some time to switch the plan around, somewhat.”
“No there isn’t. This is happening, and it’s happening now. There’s no one else that can do this. It has to be me.”
“No ‘buts’ about it,” I said. “Take it from your Voss.”
Another bag passed.
“Besides,” I said, walking up to Sarah, reaching into the box. “It’s not like you’re not coming.”
I grabbed a bag and left, maneuvering between the spaces of people.
Difficult, to put a finger on what compelled me to move to where I was going. But I walked, bag in hand.
“Morning,” I said.
I had walked up to the little girl I saw earlier.
Hispanic, her hair dark and long, in pigtails. She was wearing a leather jacket, and with the teddy bear she was holding, it drove the D comparison that much stronger.
Something about her…
Her face didn’t have any of that youthful energy or naivety that I’d expect from a kid. Rather, she looked downcast, tired. Part of that could be from it being so early, but it looked like it went… deeper, than simply the time of day.
All by herself. She didn’t have a parent or guardian around.
“Morning,” she said.
Despite her looking so down, she was looking up at me, her eyes squinted, her brow furrowed. As if she was studying me.
Being under a large amount of scrutiny, by someone so small, it felt weird.
Just give her the bag and be done with it.
“Here you are,” I said, giving her the paper bag. “Your lunch. There’s some candy in there, but, don’t tell anybody.”
She took the bag, taking a peek inside. She closed it, looking back at me.
I couldn’t tell if she appreciated it.
I’d put that towards a ‘maybe.’
Breaking her stare, the girl put the lunch bag away, in a backpack that was placed beside her.
Zipping it back closed, she resumed her staring.
She definitely wants something from me.
“Anything else you need?” I asked.
She drew out the sound. I could hear the youth in her voice, in that.
A chill went through me. Wasn’t the weather.
“Do, do I know you?” I asked, feeling a certain trepidation.
“So you are Wendy, I thought you looked familiar. But you were in the distance, and I didn’t want to call you over because it might have been awkward, but then you came over and started talking and then I knew for sure. You cut your hair and got glasses, and it looks cute by the way, but it’s definitely you. Oh my gosh.”
Why was I feeling legitimate fear? From a little girl?
“Do I know you?” I asked, forcing myself to sound level.
The girl frowned. “Oh, you don’t remember?”
Again. For a third time.
“Do I know you?”
The girl held the bear, pulling it closer.
The name hit, and I hadn’t braced myself. It was like smelling a fragrance that could take someone back to an earlier time in their life. The sights, the sounds, it all came back like a cancer. Something clicked, and a connection was made.
My eye flickered.
I scratched around my eye, avoiding smudging my glasses.
“Isabella?” I repeated. I had to hear the name come out of my own mouth. I still couldn’t believe it.
“You helped me get away from the Ghosts, back when they were forcing me to do those messed up initiation games.”
“Yeah, I hear you.”
I moved my hand from my eye to my temple, rubbing it hard. A headache.
“I remember,” I said.
I fucking remember.
“What, what happened? You didn’t leave the city?”
“It, uh, it was a long story. Or maybe it wasn’t that long, but that happened a long time ago.”
She brought her hand to her hair, pushing her bangs up. I saw a smooth white line that contrasted against her tan skin.
“It didn’t work out,” Isabella said.
The details were still muddied, but I recognized the broad strokes, and that was a problem, in and of itself. I thought I had taken myself out of that headspace, and out of that world entirely. But Isabella was here, and, through no real fault of her own, she had given me a grim reminder.
That world had a possibility of rearing its ugly head at any given time. That identity.
Isabella put her hand down, fixing her hair. Then they went around the stuff bear again.
“So you’re going back to Mexico?” I asked. I immediately recognized how dumb it was to ask that. Of course she was, otherwise she wouldn’t be here.
Isabella took it in stride, anyways. “I tried, believe me, I did. But it…”
Her voice cracked. A glimmer in her eyes, but it wasn’t from any happy feelings. Her eyes were wet.
“It just didn’t work out,” I said, finishing the thought for her.
Isabella nodded, her face in her sleeve.
I gave her the time she needed. It would be awful to walk away now.
Isabella lifted her head, a little bit of red around the eyes. She ignored it as she continued the conversation.
“I’m surprised to see you here. I thought you said you weren’t part of a gang.”
Did I say that?
I rubbed my cheek, and scratched the back of my head.
“Um, right, about that…”
Before I could come up with anything to say, another voice cut through the awkward silence.
I turned in the direction of the voice.
D came running at me, her feet clapping against the cement, cutting it too close when she turned corners around people. If she wasn’t being careful, she would have tripped over someone or kicked their lunch bag. Thankfully, she arrived while avoiding disaster.
“There you are! We were looking for-”
D stopped, and turned.
Isabella was standing, now, and any semblance of brooding she had before was dashed. She was animated, shaking, her jaw and her bear was dropped. Wide eyes were getting wider.
She was attempting to get words out, but all I heard were strained whimpers.
“You, I, you, you-”
“Yo…” D said, but it was without the usual fervor that I’d come to associate with that greeting. She was probably just as confused as I was.
Isabella jumped out at D, and they both fell.
A small scuffle, with Isabella on top of D, shaking her. She had her by the collar of D’s jacket. Isabella snapped, and she was trying snap D.
“You bitch! You’re the one who robbed me! You made me get into that shit and you crashed that fuckin’ bus! Bitch!”
She screamed more, but it was in Spanish. I missed the rest of it.
D flailed back and forth, her eyes rolling back, her tongue hanging out. That was how I knew she wasn’t taking any of this seriously.
People’s attention shifted to us. More than we needed.
I swooped in before it could get any worse.
“Whoa there,” I said, picking up Isabella by the back of her jacket. I only needed one arm to get her away from D.
Isabella tried a kick, but it hit air, and she stopped then and there, letting her arms and legs dangle. It was as if I was holding a cat by the back of its neck. She had completely shut down.
“Cool it,” I said. “Now’s not the time.”
“Okay,” she answered, voice small.
I set Isabella down, back on her feet. D was getting back to hers in the meantime.
Crossing my arms, I said, “Now, what was that all about?”
Isabella paused, she seemed like she needed a moment before she could respond. I gave it to her.
“I ran into that girl, right after we split up. I still remember that day. She was on the bus that the Ghosts attacked, and she roped me into helping her get out of it. And then she crashed that bus!”
The infamous bus crash. I’d heard it from Lawrence. This girl was there for that, too.
“And then she stole the money you gave me!”
I didn’t recall that.
“How much money?” I asked.
Isabella brought her voice to a whisper, but she still sounded heated.
“One thousand dollars.”
Shit. Alexis was balling, back in the day.
I looked at D.
“Is this true?”
D was fiddling with her fingers, avoiding eye contact.
“I mean, it could be, it sounds like something I would do.”
I rolled my eyes.
“D,” I intoned.
She let out a nervous chuckle.
I adjusted my posture, crossing my arms again.
“Isabella,” I said, focusing on her. “I know it’s probably too little, too late, but D? You should apologize.”
D grabbed the front of her skirt, twisting it a bit. Nervous.
If she needed time, I’d give her that luxury, too.
“I… I’m sorry, Isabella.”
D bowed, her head low, almost comically so. The gesture was exaggerated.
She stayed that way for a long time. It started to get embarrassing.
“That’s quite enough,” I said. I lifted her back up with one arm.
“Whoa, head rush.”
Isabella looked at D, then me, and the D again. Now it was her turn to be confused.
“So, you two know each other?”
“Oh yeah!” D grabbed for my arm, getting closer to my side. “Vivi and I are practically sisters.”
“Stop,” I said, pushing her off, my hand in her face, messing with her hair. “Goofball.”
“What?” Isabella asked. “Wendy, I just, what? You’re part of a gang, and you’re working with her?”
“I suppose it’s a lot to take in,” I said. “Long story.”
I could almost see the gears turning in Isabella’s head. It still hadn’t sunk in for her, not yet.
“But why? I don’t get it.”
Isabella looked really disappointed about this revelation.
“What, are you jealous of me and Vivi?” D asked.
I nudged D with my elbow.
Isabella was exasperated, that much was obvious.
“No,” she said, but I noted a hint of something there, regardless. “And why are you calling her ‘Vivi?’ Her name is Wendy.”
“It’s a nickname,” D said.
“But that doesn’t even make sense.”
“Oh yeah it does. ‘Wendy’ starts with the letter ‘W,’ but in Spanish, it can be pronounced as either doble u, or-”
“Doble ve,” Isabella finished.
“See, now you got it.”
“I didn’t even know that,” I said. “That, I guess that’s clever.”
“Ha, thank you.”
“Oh my god,” Isabella said, “Oh my god.”
“Now I feel like I have to apologize,” I said. “It seems like I’ve let you down.”
Isabella looked flustered. She stepped back, and picked the teddy bear back up.
“Maybe you did? You really helped me, back there. I thought I was going to die, if I didn’t finish that initiation game in time. But you showed up, and you beat up those guys. It was, it was awesome. You saved my life, Wendy. And now you’re here, a part of this gang. It’s, I don’t know.”
“Well, she’s not a part of the gang,” D said.
“She’s not?” Isabella looked my way. “You’re not?”
My turn to look away. I stammered.
“It’s not that. It’s not like I’m a part of it, so much as I’m-”
Yet another voice.
It was Lawrence, he approached with a careful, measured step. Every inch of progress came with a metallic series of clicks and snaps. Lawrence was using crutches.
“Don’t make me raise my voice to find you,” he said.
I took a glance to Isabella, to see how she was handling this.
If her initial reaction to seeing D was to tackle and beat her up, then it was the complete opposite with Lawrence. She backed up even more, her foot hitting against the backpack behind her. Shaking, scared. Subdued.
“You really have to be fucking kidding me,” she whispered.
Hearing her curse, it was jarring. Comparing Isabella with D again, the latter was a saint, in that regard.
“Oh,” Lawrence said. “I remember you. Long time no see.”
Isabella brought the bear up, nearly covering her face, putting it between her and us.
“I think this is the worst day of my life,” she said. “I think I’m going to throw up.”
“Please don’t,” Lawrence said, “We just finished cleaning the trailer.”
Her face turned green anyways.
“This whole thing is being run by the Ghosts?” Isabella asked. “Do you still do those initiation games?”
Lawrence looked at me and D, then Isabella.
“The Ghosts are long gone. Spirited away. We’re operating under a new name, now. Los Colmillos.”
“Los Colmillos? The Fangs?”
D struck a pose, forming a sign with both hands, two victory signs. She put them close to her face, her mouth.
“See, now they look like fangs, and one’s a ‘V,’ and another ‘V!’”
She shook each hand as she made her point.
Lawrence spoke, ignoring D.
“And as for those games, those were during a more desperate point in my career, my life. We don’t play like that anymore.”
Isabella only shook her head in response.
I wanted to reach out and put my hand on her shoulder, or something, but it didn’t seem appropriate.
“It’s a new name, a new operation. We’re not like those other gangs, trust me.”
Isabella looked back at me, truly appearing distraught. Like I had told her Santa wasn’t real.
She muttered something in Spanish, and finished off with, “This is the worst day of my life.”
More metallic clicks, and Lawrence shuffled over to me. He tapped the wristwatch he was wearing..
“No time for no crime,” he said.
I nodded, understanding him.
She sounded so down.
“I have to go, we can catch up a bit more later, okay?”
“I doubt I want any more updates. Just get me in that trailer, already.”
That… well it didn’t feel good, having to hear that.
“Catch you later,” I said. “D?”
D didn’t sound very enthused to go, either. All that energy she just had was gone. She looked like she had something to say, but she decided against saying anything.
With my two partners beside me, we moved as a group, taking Lawrence’s walking speed into consideration. When we got far enough, I took a glance back, and saw Isabella sitting back down on the cold cement, teddy bear on its stomach, tossed a foot away.
Her eyes glimmered.
The light was snuffed, disappearing as I stepped through. Dark. I had to lead the way.
I kept the door open as D helped Lawrence into my apartment.
Our meeting with Styx had concluded, leaving us free to gather our thoughts, plan accordingly, and in Lawrence’s case, to lick wounds.
D had brought the van around, and we went straight here. From the Gonnishi, my place was closer than the territory, and we didn’t have time to waste. Lawrence needed to be looked at one more time, and we needed to discuss this.
I found the switches by the wall, and flipped them for D and Lawrence. Better lighting than the ones from the hallway.
D took the lead, now, taking Lawrence over to the couch in the living room. The steps were slow and careful, D making sure Lawrence wouldn’t hurt himself, or worse, open up those stitches again.
She set him down, being ginger. Lawrence grumbled and groaned, regardless.
I circled around the couch, standing across D and Lawrence. I tossed my bag with my costume in it, landing on the floor, by the couch.
I spoke first.
It was the first word uttered between the three of us in a hour or so.
“Shoot,” D said, agreeing with me, but her attention was still on Lawrence. She checked the stitches.
A rough line, running from one corner of Lawrence’s mouth, crossing down to the other side of his chin. The immediate area around the wound was clean, Styx’s men really did know how to clean up a cut. Was it experience from having to deal with such an insane boss like him?
The cut and stitch work were clean, but I couldn’t say the same for everything around it.
Blood stained his collar and shirt, with red flecks on his nostrils and cheeks, small bits the Ferrymen missed. There were darker splotches farther down his clothes and neck, but it wasn’t anything a wash couldn’t get out. I hoped. Lawrence was really getting beat down, lately. It would be like salt in those wounds if he couldn’t salvage his clothes after this.
D had some of Lawrence’s blood on her clothes, too. She didn’t seem to care.
“So…” I started, but it was hard to find the words needed. How was I supposed to lead this conversation, when one of us was rendered unable to talk? D was still here and able, but I was the next oldest after her, I felt as if I had some responsibility, there.
“How you feeling, Lawrence?”
I asked something else instead. For now.
Lawrence’s head was hanging down a bit, his chin pointing down. Despite that, he still gave me a thumbs up.
D spoke for him, too.
“He’ll be fine. Just don’t talk for a while, okay?”
Lawrence responded by opening his hand, palm facing the floor. He shook it.
“Maybe not him, but we have to talk about this,” I said. “About Styx.”
D got in one more look at Lawrence. She sat back into the couch, next to him. Her feet were up, her shoes were still on. I didn’t care.
“Then let’s talk.”
“Please, please tell me he was so hocked up on crack or something and he’ll forget all about this tomorrow.”
D shook her head.
“Believe it or not, you’ll never meet a more sober guy than me.”
D was right. I couldn’t believe it.
I lowered my head, fixing my glasses. My hand twitched as I tried to cool myself.
“Then, there’s no getting out of this, Styx called in his favor, and we have to do it. Thing is, how?”
“He laid it out pretty clear for us. A long road trip.”
“A whole day of travel,” I said.
“Have you ever been to El Paso?” D asked.
“I haven’t. You?”
“It’s alright. It’s dry.”
“You mean like weather or that’s the kind of place it is?”
I tapped my foot. I wasn’t irritated at D, but this fell into my lap, and it was so sudden. The idea of a road trip. Going elsewhere, when so much of my time and energy was spent and focused here.
“I just don’t like how this was sprung up on us,” I said. “I knew that Styx would pull something, and I knew it would be soon, but like this? This sucks.”
“That’s just how he is. You can’t so much predict what he does next, you just have to roll with whatever he throws at you. Even I get caught off guard with him, after all this time.”
I dreaded asking, but it was too strange to not question.
“Yeah, about that. What’s the story between you two, anyways?”
I didn’t miss that D turned away. She didn’t even turn to check on Lawrence. Then, as if she realized it herself, turned the other way.
“I asked a question,” I said.
“Is it relevant?” D replied back, still examining Lawrence. Intently, closely.
“You tell me. Is it? You went to him when we were going after Benny, and again when we had to deal with Granon. And some other third time that I don’t know what for.”
“Not relevant,” D replied. She still wasn’t facing me.
“D, we owe Styx three favors because of you. This is only the first one. I can’t even begin to imagine what else he has in store of us. Sure, his help ended up being instrumental in putting us where we are today, but we’ve accrued some debt from that, and I didn’t even know we were in debt with Styx because you never told us about it. We were almost blindsided with this.”
“But we weren’t!”
D snapped. She faced me.
“We knew Styx would be coming, and like I said, you can’t predict what he’ll do, but we knew he’d do something. We weren’t blindsided. And you said before that you didn’t give a flip about why I know him. No excuses, just do better next time, remember? So why do you care about it now?”
“That was a different principle, a different matter.”
“No it literally isn’t.”
“That was before I saw it for myself. The way you got right up to him, hitting him like some annoying sibling would, and he wasn’t doing anything to stop you, I don’t know. It just begged so many questions, and I couldn’t help but ask one of them.”
Her lips pressed, firm. She was wearing a choker, and she kept playing with the metal loop, pulling at it.
“Getting to El Paso won’t be easy. Styx is right, it’s going to be tough as heck if you don’t know what you’re doing.”
“Hey,” I said.
D grunted, and I sensed real anger.
“My history with Styx doesn’t have any relevance here. I still would have went to him anyways, since I’d still be in the position I’m in, and he’d still be in the position he’s in. That’s just how it works, in this city. That other stuff is completely ancillary. Honestly.”
Wow. She really didn’t want to get into it.
“It is going to be tough,” I said.
I conceded. In the now, there were more important matters that needed urgent attention. I didn’t need a history lesson. Maybe later, but not now.
“Any idea what the cargo might be?”
D let the metal loop slip between her fingers.
“It could be anything, and I mean anything. Drugs, guns, maybe shipments of both. That’s usually what Styx handles. But if it’s that route, and he’s making us do it as a favor… I wouldn’t be shocked if it’s people.”
People. The possibility hadn’t even occurred to me.
“Do you really think he’d put that on us?”
“Really? Yes, I do. Just don’t be surprised if he does.”
I breathed in.
“I’ll try not to.”
People complicated things, even if they didn’t mean to. If that was what the cargo really was, then that made this favor even more tough. It was exactly the kind of thing Styx would pull for a laugh, I’d bet.
A big fucking deal.
I’d put that on the side, for now. Consider everything else.
“Styx mentioned you’ve taken this route before? And apparently you’ve been over to El Paso.”
“I have, it’s been some time though. I’d need a refresher, or I could just remember stuff along the way.”
“Okay,” I said, nodding. “You’ll have to fill me in as I go. Make sure to keep your tablet with you all day, that day.”
“I won’t have to if I’m… Wait, wait no. Wendy, no.”
She realized what I meant.
“I’m the only one who can do this,” I said.
“But you’re not, you’re literally not.”
“Lawrence can’t make the trip, no thanks to Styx, and I know you’ll want to look after him until he’s one hundred percent. And if this route is everything Styx described, and you corroborating, then there’s always a risk of something going wrong, and I can’t guarantee your safety if you’re around, as much as I’d want to. You’ll be better off here, in Stephenville.”
“Wendy, I can-”
“This part of the plan is final,” I said. “I’m serious. We need someone taking care of business back in the city, in our territory, and we can’t do that if two of us are out on a trip, and the other is temporarily out of commission.”
Lawrence groaned, shuffling around in the couch. D put a hand on his chest, and that was enough to get him to stay down.
“Quit it,” D warned.
“Point stands,” I said. I felt bad, using Lawrence’s various injuries to prove a point, but they weren’t bad points.
“How are you going to know what you’re doing out there? You’ve never even been out of Stephenville, before.”
“It’s not like I won’t have you. Keep your tablet with you and charged, we can keep a call going that lasts all day. I’ll provide you updates as I move along, and you can give your input from there. If there’s anything I’ll need to look out for, or, knock on wood, if anything happens, what to do in case of that. D, you work best when you’re elsewhere, at a distance. Let’s take advantage of that.”
“What about drivers?”
“It’s not like you can drive down all those miles on the interstate and have no one bat an eye. There has to be someone in the gang with the proper license. We’ll find them.”
“And you? You’re just going to sit shotgun the ride there?”
I tilted my head a little. “Is that not good?”
“No, Wendy, if you’re supervising cargo transport, don’t put yourself so physically close to it. If the truck gets pulled over or something, you’re going be stuck, and you’re done for. You have to take another vehicle, like a RV or camper, so you can run interference if you have to. Actually, you know what? That’s exactly what we’re doing. I’ll rent a RV, and you go in that. If you don’t want me around, let me do that, at least.”
“It’s not that I don’t want you around, D. You’ll just be at your best back here.”
D punched one of the couch pillows beside her. Not near Lawrence.
“Why are you actually like this!”
It took me a second to process that outburst. It had echoed throughout my apartment, and in my head.
I opened my mouth.
We both looked at Lawrence.
He was struggling to sit up properly, lifting his head, his chin. Pushing himself with his arms.
“D’s right. You… keep doing… this.”
“Doing what?” I asked.
“Darn it, Lawrence,” D said, dropping the anger she had just displayed. Concern, now. “You’re opening your stitches. Please, for once in your life, take it easy.”
Lawrence closed his eyes, and when he opened them, he was looking at her.
“As if you’d really let me.”
D got up from the couch.
“I’m getting a towel, and some ice. You’re about to start bleeding again.”
D walked, or maybe she stormed off, heading back farther into my apartment.
It was just me and Lawrence.
There was a growing silence, and I didn’t want it to be there.
I placed myself on the couch, where D had been sitting.
“Feeling better?” I asked.
When Lawrence answered, it was muttered, pained. His face was starting to swell.
“Give me more painkillers.”
I gave a slight smile, sympathetic.
“I’m right, though,” I said. “You know I’m right. Lawrence, you can’t expect to go on this trip in that condition, and D is competent, more than competent, but there’s a risk in bringing her, too. She’ll be a bigger help if she stays back. Taking care of the gang and the territory is more important. If I fuck this up, which I pray I don’t, we can go from there. But it doesn’t make sense to put too much of our manpower on something that should just be a side thing. A distraction.”
Lawrence gave me the same look he gave D. Eyes closed, then, when opened, staring right at me.
“Just… please don’t make this a thing. It’s a bad habit.”
Eyes closed, opened, looking elsewhere.
“So this is your place.”
A non sequitur. D had given him some painkillers on the way here, but how drugged up was he? Or was it finally starting to kick in?
“It is,” I said.
“Empty? No, there’s stuff around.”
“Where? I don’t even see a painting. Just that black, void looking one.”
“That’s because you’re staring at the TV, and it’s off.”
Lawrence made a noise. Shaking, wincing, but his lips were curled upward. Was he trying to laugh?
“What else do you have here?”
“There’s my room, back there, some food in the kitchen if you want any. I’m not sure if you should try opening your mouth that wide, yet.”
“But you don’t eat food. Don’t need food.”
“It’s all of D’s candies and snacks. I let her fill up my fridge and pantry as long as she’s paying for it herself.”
“D… picked this apartment for you…right?”
“She did, yes.”
“The TV and furniture too?”
“Is there anything here that’s yours?”
I looked, and saw D in the kitchen. She was holding a towel, and a pack of ice.
“Can I get your help in here please?”
I left the couch, and Lawrence, and went into the kitchen.
D pointed to a shelf. “I need a glass, I can’t reach it.”
I reached up, grabbing it. I had to get on the tips of my toes, though.
“There,” I said.
“Fill it with some water? Lawrence needs something to drink.”
I went to the fridge, taking out a pitcher of water. I filled the glass.
“Don’t make Lawrence talk when he doesn’t have to,” D said.
I set the glass and pitcher down on a counter.
“Sorry. He’s talking all sorts of crazy though. I think the drugs are starting to get to his head.”
“He’s hardheaded to begin with. Stubborn. You’re pretty similar, too.”
“You don’t have to shoulder everything all on your own,” D said. “I thought I told you this already.”
“Did you? Sounds vaguely familiar.”
D, being serious?
“I’m kidding,” I said. “But no one else is available to do this part of Styx’s favor. And it’s not like I’ll be completely by myself. Everyone will be helping, it’s just that I’m the only one who can handle that particular part. And I’ll only be out for a day. It’s a favor for Styx, but if all goes well, we’ll be done with it like that, and it’s on to the next thing.”
I snapped my fingers as I said the word ‘that.’
“Don’t be stubborn, Wendy, people don’t like that. And some people really really don’t like that.”
Somehow, that came off as a threat.
“It’s not stubbornness if the circumstances force certain actions,” I said.
D sighed. She opened her mouth.
“After we handled the thing with Dong-Yul, I was hoping we’d take a visit to that barn, see if we couldn’t find any clues.”
“We can still do that,” I said, partly dismissive. “We’ll just have to put it off for now. Something did get in the way.”
A distraction, I thought.
D shook her head. “How many things are you going to let get in the way?”
That sounded very pointed.
“Just this one, I promise.”
I bit my tongue afterwards.
D wrapped the towel around the ice pack.
“I’ll do one more look at Lawrence, and we can start. I’ll make some calls, rent that RV, and get our people moving. I’ll brief you on what to look out for while on the road and in El Paso. We get in contact with this Marco guy, and when Styx comes back to us with the cargo, we’ll be ready.”
“Sounds like a plan,” I said.
I picked up the glass of water, and walked with D, back to Lawrence. Plans were in motion, now, and things would be moving very soon.
Things were moving now. People and vehicles. It was almost time.
D, Lawrence, and I were standing in the back, watching as our men opened the back door of the trailer.
Starting with the larger groups, families, then to individuals. That way, we could guarantee that everyone who needed to stick together were able to, and those going by themselves weren’t in anyone else’s way. Though, that last part would be pretty much impossible, given the limited space.
Everyone started filing in, being led and directed by our people. Herded in like cattle.
“This really puts it into perspective,” I said.
“Styx wasn’t lying when he said it was a big fucking deal,” Lawrence replied. He still had the stitches, but he was able to talk more clearly. Or he was just fighting through the pain better.
“One hundred and three people. And I can’t let even one of them get hurt, or get caught, or worse. I hope a fight doesn’t break out in there.”
“Right. So don’t fuck this up.”
I would have hit him with my elbow, but he’d suffered enough, already.
“Last chance to change your mind,” D said. She was cheerful before, when Isabella was here, but none of that was present, now. “I can come with you.”
I shook my head.
“I’m not changing my mind. It’s been settled. I need you here.”
D muttered. “Stubborn dummy.”
I didn’t offer a response.
“We’ll hold it down from here,” Lawrence said. “D and I. Trust us to do that, and we can do the same for you.”
“That’s all I ask,” I said.
“I’m surprised Styx isn’t here, actually. I had a feeling he’d swing by to see this, maybe say a few more words to freak us out.”
“Good thing he’s not, then.”
“But now I’m left wondering where he could be, and that freaks me out.”
I stopped myself.
“You already know.”
“Same goes for you.”
D had spoken.
More people were getting into the trailer. It had gotten to the point that it looked like we reached max capacity, but there was a sizable group left to go. A little less than half.
The rest started squeezing in, people pushing into one another. I saw some trying to protect their lunch bags, only for it to get flattened by the oncoming crush of bodies. I frowned.
“Hopefully it doesn’t rain today,” I said, checking the sky. The clouds were darker than when I last saw them. Darker than the sky above them.
“It’ll rain,” Lawrence said. “Definitely.”
“Boo,” D said. “You’re being a stick in the mud.”
“What I mean is, it’ll probably rain later in the day. Afternoon, probably. And it’s only in Stephenville. Weather’s supposed to be clear everywhere west of us. It’s the other side that’ll get drenched.”
“Good timing,” I said, sarcastic.
About a quarter of the people left, mostly the individuals, now. A woman, with only the clothes on her back. A tall man with a buzz cut… and Isabella. She had her backpack, the head of the teddy bear sticking out. The bag wasn’t huge, but it protruded, and anything inside would be getting mashed together by the tight fit of people.
And she was the only kid going on this journey all by herself. Every other kid I saw had someone with them. But not Isabella.
“D,” I said.
“Grab Isabella, bring her here.”
“Just go, before she gets in there. And don’t be obvious about it.”
I sensed that D had her reservations, but she didn’t voice them as she ran, catching up to Isabella and tapping her on the shoulder. Isabella turned, and D pointed our way.
Grabbing her by the wrist, D brought Isabella over. No one else noticed.
“What, what is it now?” Isabella asked, sounding more tired than ever. Sleepy.
“The three of us had to put this transport together, but I’m the one that will be supervising the actual moving of you guys. I’ll be in a separate vehicle. It’s a RV. If you want, you can ride with me.”
She lit up, hearing that.
“Oh my gosh, that is so much better than being in that smelly thing. Thank you, Wendy, you’re a lifesaver!”
It was still chilly out, but I felt a little warmer.
“Hey, we cleaned those, just so you know,” Lawrence said.
“Come on, let’s get going.” I turned to Lawrence. “Before they close the doors, let them know they’ll be down one in the trailer, but not to worry. Tell Tone, too.”
I motioned to Isabella. “Come on.”
Isabella and I walked over to another part of the lot. D followed. There were other trailers, but they were in park, not attached to a truck, and not in use. The RV was parked somewhere in between two trailers, out of view from everyone else.
“I wanted to say, before you left, I think it’s cool you still have the bear and jacket I gave you.”
“Oh, this? I thought about getting rid of them after meeting you again, but it’s still cold, even with all those people, and I already made this thing my own.”
Isabella pointed at the bear behind her, using her thumb.
“Ah, that’s super sweet of you.”
We arrived at the RV. It was a rental, so it wasn’t extravagant, but it would work. Inside, it had the essentials. Chairs, a bed, a sink and microwave and fridge, among other things that I probably wouldn’t need. The exterior was white, with blue stripes running across the sides of the vehicle. It was on the smaller end, but it was originally going to be just for me… and Sarah. We had room for one more.
I approached Sarah at the side door of the RV.
“We got one coming with us,” I told her.
Sarah lifted a walkie-talkie. “Just heard it from Tone, we’re good to go. Hello there.”
“Hello,” Isabella said.
They shook hands, exchanging some words in Spanish.
“Alright, other than that Voss, we’re ready. All we need is your word.”
Sarah took over things from there, helping Isabella get into the RV. I turned back to D.
“How come I can’t come with you but she can?” D asked.
“I think you know why,” I said.
“I know, it’s still not fair.”
I put my hand on her head. She knocked it away before I could ruffle her hair like I usually do.
She was still mad.
Lawrence showed up, swinging forward with his crutches.
“Everything’s good. Ready when you are,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Any last words?”
“Don’t phrase it like that.”
“Um, if there is anything, there’s this kid, Nathan, back at the territory. I was supposed to meet with him about tagging certain places with our sign, marking things as officially ours. That’s not until, when was it?”
“Not for a few days, but I’ve got it covered,” D said.
“Okay, thank you.”
“Anything else?” Lawrence asked.
“Then, that’s it, I think.”
I breathed out, hard.
“I’m off to El Paso, guys, see you soon.”
“Good luck, Wendy, you got this.”
It was nice, getting encouragement from Lawrence.
That brought me down a few notches.
“I’ll call when I get out of city limits.”
“I heard you.”
No point in sticking around, then.
Feeling bummed, I waved, and I got into the RV.
I saw Isabella, who made herself at home, sitting in one of the padded chairs at the back, eyelids heavy.
I crossed the length of the RV, meeting Sarah at the driver’s seat.
“I’m ready,” I told her.
She nodded, and started the RV. She relayed the message into her walkie-talkie. Tone replied back, a mechanical tone.
We started moving.
I moved myself back to the other side of the RV, where Isabella was. I found another seat by her, and sat.
I found my bag of stuff that I packed for the trip. Less than when I stayed at the Lunar, but I did have my costume.
The RV got off the lot, onto the street, and it was a longer drive until we got onto the highway.
Curiosity getting the better of me, I stood, and checked the back window. Isabella roused.
The eighteen wheeler.
It followed us. Seeing Tone driving the truck, and knowing who was inside the trailer, and being out in the open, made that feeling of trepidation come back even stronger.
Then the heavy sound of a motor.
From my left, the right side of the truck, a motorcycle appeared. Black, the fringes of it appeared monstrous in nature. I saw the rider.
He motioned with a salute, then making a victory sign with hand.
Styx beamed, and I stepped away from the window.
That’s how he wants to see me off?
He was fucking with us.
Isabella managed to sleep through the rumbling of the engine, but it kept me up until we officially left the city. After what felt like an hour or more, the sound faded into the distance, Styx probably taking an exit somewhere along the highway. I could hear Styx cackling in my head, laughing at a joke I wasn’t in on.
Then, we left Stephenville. It was half past three in the morning. Seven hundred miles, ten hours, give or take, to the west. El Paso. And there was still the trip back.
I breathed, feeling shaky, but at the same time, there was an eerie calm, too.
Putting dark clouds, and darker sentiments behind me, it almost felt nice, to get away from the city, to take a break from it all.