048 – Balancing Act

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“Can’t remember the last time I was up here,” Katy said, flat. She rested her arms on the railing, feeling the wind in her hair.

I tapped my foot.

“Shit, I’ve never been up here,” Maria said, joining her. “Hey, and the view isn’t too bad. Do you come out here often, Alexis?”

I crossed my legs, and my arms.

I was sitting in a chair beside Maria, farther from her than she was to Katy. Behind bars, I saw the city.

“Every now and then,” I answered. During my time as a ‘hero,’ I used the balcony as my way of going in and out of the apartment.

But, there was no reason to bring up that bit of info.

Our volunteering at the church ended around noontime, and aside from giving our condolences to Mrs. Phan and Justin one more time, we left without a fuss. I didn’t bother to seek out those other kids to say farewell, either.

Mother offered to cook lunch back at the apartment, since we were already all together. Katy and Maria were up for it. I wasn’t, but I couldn’t exactly voice that sentiment. I had to go along with it, with everyone. Reluctantly.

She prepared miso soup and fried chicken. It was apparent that I used to have some kind of connection to those particular dishes. The extra company of little girls that sat with us at the table, lounging on the couch, eating their own fill, each with their faces scraped away…

At least, it made it easier to keep my head down, be quiet, and eat.

The food tasted awful, of course, but I had learned how to hide it. It sat like a weight in my stomach. I’d have to throw it up later, when I had time.

Which was the problem I had, now.

Time.

Lunch was over, Katy and Maria got what they came here for. Why were they still hanging around?

I remembered those kids back at the church.

Licking wounds. Pity.

My foot tapped, my legs crossed and uncrossed. I sat back and leaned forward.

Please, let the sun set faster.

“How’d you even get this deal, anyways?” Maria asked, ripping me away from my thoughts and planning. “Getting the master bedroom all to yourself is quite sweet.”

She was talking to me. I’d rather not, but it was unavoidable.

I looked away from the city to see into the glass door, my room. I saw a girl a few years my junior, in her bed, typing away at her phone. Giggling.

I looked elsewhere, back, on the balcony, and saw brief flashes of a toddler, tightly hugging her mother, delighted over something.

The images drilled, and it actively hurt to try and look at. Like staring at the sun.

“Shi- My mom, she let me have this room, back when we moved in.”

“Really? She just gave it to you?”

My head ached the more she forced me to put thought into it. “Yes. She prefers smaller spaces, I guess.”

“Your mom’s from Japan, right? Did she grow up in a apartment there, too?”

If I tried to reach that far back, that hard, for such an insignificant detail, my head would split open.

“I really don’t know,” I said.

A sound, not from Maria, but from Katy.

“You don’t know where your mom grew up?” Maria asked.

“She’s never shared much about her time there. She’s never brought it up, and I just learned not to ask.”

That didn’t require strenuous brain power to say. As if it was a lesson that truly left a mark on my very being.

“I can give you that,” Maria said. “No diss, but she does seem kind of… standoffish?”

Even I could see it. Clear. The description fit.

“No diss,” I said. “That’s about right.”

“But, like, don’t get me wrong, Shiori’s awesome, she just also has this side to her, you know, like, I can’t get her mad, no matter what, or she’d fucking kill me, or worse.”

I smirked, almost in spite of myself.

“That’s what Asian parents are like,” I said.

Then, right there, a moment came and went. An opening to continue the conversation, but no one took it. Maria didn’t.

A breeze gently passed, and hair brushed into my face. I briefly had the thought of getting it cut.

Maria clicked her tongue, seemingly out of nowhere.

“Hard to believe it’s already December,” Maria said. “Barely feels like it.”

She’s forcing it.

This time, Katy answered her, her tone as dry as ever. “It’s because it’s been so warm. It’s only ever really chilly in the morning, other than that you’re good with a jacket. We can’t even get a proper winter.”

“I bet it’ll get colder later, probably around Christmas or New Year’s,” Maria said. “Hey, do you guys have any plans for the holidays?”

No answer, from me or from Katy. Enough time passed that it should have meant something.

Maria fixed her hair, removing a strand that flew into her mouth.

“Same,” Maria said, breathing out the word.

I had enough awareness that I could see what she was trying to do, but I just didn’t have the will or care or investment to play along. They were friendly, and the connection between me and them existed, but it was becoming frail, nearly vestigial. I couldn’t claim it as my own.

Doing so would be lying to myself.

But, I also recognized that I couldn’t neglect that part of my life altogether. It was a chore, but it was a necessary one. A role I had to play, a mask I needed to wear.

In a perfect world, I would have no need to be here. I would have no need for this.

Yet, here I was.

At least for now, I’d have to act as Alexis Barnett.

“I legit don’t know what I’ll be doing around that time,” I said, throwing Maria a bone. “Hopefully I’ll just be chilling, getting some peace and quiet.”

“Yeah, some of that would be nice,” Maria said. “Things just keep happening. I need a damn break.”

“Snowball effect,” Katy said. She didn’t say anything more than that.

“What do you mean?” Maria asked.

Katy remained silent for a time.

“Nothing,” she finally said.

Maria fixed her hair again, then looked at me. I noticed her stare. It was a very specific kind of stare. Was I supposed to know what she was thinking? Reading between the lines?

A sort of mutual understanding, but I couldn’t deliver on my end. That particular meaning was lost on me.

I broke eye contact, and I gave a half-hearted shrug. An empty gesture, but it should’ve been enough for Maria. She could ascribe her own meaning in that.

My foot started tapping again, and I leaned back, observing the other two. Katy had her phone out, her attention focused there. Maria was taking in the view of the city, doing her best to keep up a brave face. She tried, but I somehow managed to see the cracks.

This wasn’t working. At all.

None of us were up for talking, and none of us could face each other for any meaningful length of time. Even for me, at a distance from it all, it was blatantly clear. Katy was still reeling from the death of her father, and Maria had to stand at the sidelines if she wanted to support her. And I, on principle, preferred that distance to maintain.

On top of everything else, the attack at the school was still fresh on everyone’s minds. That alone would force any normal person to retreat inward.

It wasn’t unlike trying to push together magnets of the same end. There was bound to be a resistance, from every side.

And if you push too hard, what would happen when you suddenly let go?

“All the pieces fly away,” I said to myself.

“Did you say something?” Maria asked. Must have heard me.

“Um, nothing,” I said. I sounded like Katy, there.

Maria grumbled, then turned around, her back against the railing. “Man, you people need to stop with the subliminals. Freaks me out.”

“My bad,” I said.

“Sorry,” Katy said.

We spoke at the same time.

“Sorry,” I said.

“My bad,” Katy said.

We did it again.

An awkward pause followed.

Maria was the one to break, laughing at our expense.

She kept laughing.

Then some more.

“I’m okay,” Maria said, between fits. Oddly pitchy. “It’s okay, see, it can be okay, just laugh at something whenever, it can help. Just fucking saying.”

She rubbed, massaged at her eyes using her sleeve. When she pulled away, her eyes were red.

“Ugh, fuck,” she said. “I am so fucking lame.”

The connection between us, I felt it shoring up. Despite me. A tug at my chest that I couldn’t explain.

I used the new, more intense awkward pause, and retreated into it. No one said any more.

We all retreated.

I wasn’t sure how much time had gone by when Mother came to check in on us.

“Hi,” she said, soft, stepping onto the balcony, door left open. She had a tin bowl in her hands. “I cut up apples, please help yourselves.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Barnett,” Maria said, immediately going for them. “They’re great.”

Katy went next, taking her arms off the railing, phone falling back into a pocket.

“Thanks,” she said, dry.

And that meant I had to have a turn.

“Thanks, Ma,” I said. I would’ve fumbled if I had to say more than one and a half words.

I grabbed two slices, and ate them. I chewed fast, then swallowed like I was drinking water.

Mush, wet. Like grounded-up fish guts. It repulsed. Mother had washed the apples before cutting, which did help, it made them easier to bring down.

And it would make them easier to bring back up.

“Tastes good,” I lied.

“I leave them here for you?” she suggested.

“Actually,” Katy said, after wiping her mouth. “I’ll have to get going, now. Mom called, and I’ve got some errands to run.”

“Are you sure?” Mother asked.

Katy cast glance at the two of us. At Maria. At me.

“I’m sure,” she said.

“I guess,” Maria said, unsure of herself, “That’s it for me, too. Don’t wanna overstay anything.”

“It’s no problem,” Mother said. “Of course you’re welcome.”

“But, I loved the food, though,” Maria said, as if to save face. “I’ve never had authentic Japanese before. It was delish.”

“It was,” Katy added. “Thanks again, Shiori.”

Katy started, passing Mother to leave. I got out of my seat. It was only proper, when guests were leaving.

“Bye,” I said, watching Maria follow, as they both left.

“Bye,” Katy returned, without turning back. However, I noticed Maria steal a glance.

They crossed my room, leaving through the other door, into the living room. From there, the front door was their exit.

“You won’t see them off?” Mother asked, facing me.

My hand went over my stomach.

“I really need some fresh air. But I’ll see them again.”

That last bit sounded more like a premonition than a blessing.

Mother lifted the bowl of apples to me. “Do you still want?”

I took a slice.

“You can leave the rest in the kitchen,” I said. “I might get some more, later.”

Mother nodded, then left the balcony, and I got the door for her. I spun back, and rested my arms on the railing.

I looked back at the city, uncaged.

I tossed the apple away, the slice falling into grass below.

The wind picked up again, and I took a deep breath. The headache was starting to subside.

I didn’t like reaching into older, useless connections. It diluted my thinking. Making me less me, and giving purchase to another thing. Her.

Granted, some connections, memories, were necessary, like my time as Blank Face. Others, if I could, I’d drop them immediately. Trim the fat, as the saying went.

In a perfect world, I would have no need to be here.

It was another reason why I was pressed for time. The last thing I wanted was to doubt myself.

Which was why tonight was so crucial.

If I was to do this again, I had to make some serious changes. I had to do this right. No more blindly jumping about, grasping at straws. I needed to go about this with a plan in mind.

If I wanted to play for keeps, I needed to prepare a hand to play.

Now this was more like it.

Standing on the edge, the thrill of being so high up. Overseeing everything, the city completely unaware. The cold, beaten only by the rush of adrenaline pumping through my veins. The sight and sounds were present, but far away. From up here, everything seemed so small.

The feeling of plastic on my face.

This was true freedom.

My costume underwent some more changes. It was all makeshift, I’d have to make do with what I had for just a little longer.

I ditched the blue. Better to distance myself from that image, than risk more trouble by dressing as the blue demon everyone was hunting. Better yet to ditch that identity entirely.

Functionally speaking, however, I was still married to the idea of wearing hoodies and windbreakers. I couldn’t seem to get myself away from that concept. On that front, all I did was swap the blue for red.

The mask I had on was my old one, the first one I ever used. It was simple, and barely identifiable. It worked. But I did make some changes to its look. I darkened the sockets around the eyes and the edges of the mask, to shape it more like a human face. As an added touch, I applied some red paint onto the lips. Following the phantoms that wandered around my apartment, I managed to find old, forgotten material, and used it to touch-up my mask.

After that were the smaller essentials. Bag, extra clothes, cash, gloves, knife.

The final result, with everything working in tandem, with mask on and hood up, I didn’t look like someone wearing a mask. I looked like a whole new person.

Not a costume, but a form to call my own. I wasn’t Blank Face, I wasn’t the Bluemoon, and I especially was not Alexis Barnett. I’d need a name, but that could wait.

Standing above the city, I was me.

We’re just us.

Precisely.

Then, I moved.

It was exhilarating, refreshing. A much needed opportunity to stretch my legs and really extend my abilities. I had to keep focused on the path ahead, watching out when I had to jump higher to reach the next building, and bracing myself when the drop was that much lower. It kept my mind running, as much as my body.

I crossed gaps, careful not to overextend and lose my footing. I knew how to maneuver over obstacles, the vents and air conditioning units. Ducking, sliding when necessary.

You’ve gotten better at this, I told myself. The thought alone was liberating. From my old self, old limitations.

I checked the sky as I moved through the air, and he passed overhead.

Hleuco.

He had feathers, a beak, it wasn’t that much of a leap for him to have wings, too.

Coming out from his back, his wings were as large as they were long, to support something of his height and weight. Jet black. It was hard to make out in the night, but he was gliding more than he was actually flying. One flap of his huge wings was enough to go a long distance.

When he passed the moon, the light pierced him for a moment, and he’d vanish, only to materialize as he left that sphere of influence.

I fought the urge to cheer as I soared through the air a final time. I stopped, landing right before our destination.

Hleuco was already there, perched on the roof of the adjacent building. It took four flaps for him to beat me to the police station.

Here we are.

Back again.

I kept low, stalking to the edge of the roof to check the windows of the next building.

There he was, just like last time. Working at his desk.

James Gomez.

A visual was all I needed, and I moved again, dropping down to the fire escape that was mounted to the wall. I had become light enough to not make too much noise when I landed.

I went up to the window of his office, and something caught my eye.

Blank Face’s message was still here from the last time, etched with a black marker, but bits of the letters were reduced to mere smudges. Probably from the rain we had gotten recently.

He had covered up the original message with a scrap of notebook paper, taped from his side of the window. And when the rain came and went, he forgot to take it down.

There was something humorous in that, and it almost gave me pause. I had to remind myself not to laugh and give myself away.

Focus.

Yeah, yeah.

Good thing I had come prepared. I slipped out another marker from the side of my bag, and wrote out a new message on the window. I finished by drawing an arrow, pointing to the scrap of paper.

‘COME CLEAN!’

I put the marker back, then knocked on the window. In the next breath, I was already ascending up the remainder of the fire escape. As I drew in another, I already was up on the roof.

I didn’t situate myself atop the cement roof enclosure, over the roof access door. Not like last time. I just stood at the door, arms folded. Waiting.

Hleuco was gone, leaving me with time to concentrate. I shut my eyes to regain certain connections to better prepare myself for the meeting.

Waiting.

My foot began to tap.

Waiting.

He was really taking his sweet time.

The door creaked when it finally opened, and I opened my eyes, ready. I saw Gomez as he stepped onto the roof. The door shut on its own as he approached. He saw me, and I saw his hand move slowly toward his side. His hip.

“It’s me, Blank Face,” I said, to reassure him.

Even though I don’t care much for that name, anymore.

Gomez’s hand stopped, instead going into a pocket. He bobbed his head in a nod.

“Rebranding, are we?” he questioned. “I think I’ve only ever seen you with your proper costume once, and that was the first time you showed up here.”

“Rebranding is a good way of putting it,” I said.

Gomez’s expression changed, his heavy mustache accentuating his frown.

He looked drained, beaten down by recent events. His cheeks a little sunken in, what little of his hair left frayed at the ends. Add on top the decades of wear, tear, and stress a job like his dished out…

He looked like a husk of James Gomez, Chief of Police of the Stephenville Police Department.

His voice reflected that, too, when he spoke. Hoarse.

“A lot has happened since the last time I saw you, and dare I say, a lot has happened because of you. You’re very popular, if you weren’t aware. Lot of people want to get their hands on you, yet you come to visit me. Can’t tell if I should be grateful.”

He took a step towards me. Then another.

“Maybe I should call it in, it’d be so easy. Like I mentioned the last time you were up here, one press of a button, and you’re done. I have you. And I put all of this bullshit behind me and finally start seeing a therapist. God knows I need one.”

He wouldn’t actually turn me in, would he? I’d probably be able to get away if he did, but it’d be an inconvenience, a door shut in my face.

I stood, tense, watching his every step, every twitch or movement. If he was going to pull something, I could stop him, break his arm, send him off the ledge.

I could, but I shouldn’t.

I had to actively tell myself no. That wouldn’t do me any good.

Let’s save the energy for someone else.

Gomez continued, interrupting my thoughts.

“You’ve been awfully quiet. Tell me, do you still think you’re the good guy? The hero?”

It was that question that derailed my train of thought. What did this have to do with anything? How was that relevant?

Behind my mask, I looked at Gomez right in the eye.

No, he was being serious.

I bit my tongue.

I had to answer him, and I had a feeling that there was a right answer to his question. Piss him off, and I’d lose the point of being here in the first place.

I gave him my answer.

“I’m after the bad guys, the people responsible for this whole mess. Solace, Styx, Benny, they’ve gone too far without having lost anything in return. I want them to pay, and I want to take from them the equivalent of what they’ve taken from everyone else.”

What they’ve taken from us.

Gomez blinked, slow, taking in my response. His eyebrow furrowed.

“Eye for an eye, don’t you know what happens when the whole world operates like that?”

I had no answer, there, and I was running out of patience.

“We’re getting sidetracked. I came here because I need your help. I’m looking for Benny. If she’s still in the city, I’m going to find her.”

“Just Benny?” he asked.

“She’s a start. Is she still here?”

Gomez removed a hand from his pocket, and rubbed his mustache, fixing it.

“She could be. Honestly? I’m inclined to say yes.”

Yes.

Exactly what I wanted to hear.

“How do you know for sure?” I asked, almost excitedly so.

“I don’t know for sure, but given what I know of this city and the situation, she won’t get too far without getting caught. Border’s even more tight, now, thanks to her own actions, and considering the… culture, here, there’s a nice price on her head.”

“Meaning,” I offered.

“Meaning everyone’s going to want to cash in. Gangs… and some of my own men, with secondary loyalties.”

“It’s a manhunt from all sides,” I said, summing it up.

“Precisely, and if every movement might get you sniffed out, then the best bet is to stay put, and pray for some miraculous opening. If she’s smart, she’ll have holed herself up, wherever she is.”

I nodded, taking it in.

Those were good odds, but it came with the added challenge of everyone being a player in the game of finding her.

It wouldn’t be easy, but it could be done.

“That’s reassuring,” I said. “We find her, and we have a very big piece of the Solace… conspiracy, for want of a better word. From the weapons found back at that warehouse, we know that The Chariot was involved. If she can’t give us anything, fine, but we still have the person who led the attack at Stephenville High School.”

“Stephenville High School,” he repeated, and it came with a harrowing note. “You know she was behind it?”

“I know some of her crew were brought into custody.”

He fixed his mustache again.

“I see. Is that why you’re looking for her, because it’s personal?”

I could almost see the scenery change around me, and I was back in that bloody, messy, classroom. Where I woke up.

“Thomas was personal,” I said, bringing myself back. “This is another matter. She called me out, and people, kids, suffered for it. This is…”

Personal in a different way. Therapeutic, using your own words.

But I just trailed off, instead.

I couldn’t gauge Gomez’s exact expression, but it wasn’t pleasant.

“Don’t bring up his name, not like that, not here. His funeral wasn’t that long ago. Maybe you were there?”

The mention of his name brought back Hleuco. He stood by Gomez, head cocked, like observing prey.

“In spirit,” I said, glancing at the shadow figure. “But we’re getting sidetracked again.”

If I wasn’t getting what I needed out of Gomez, I was wasting time. “I know that not everyone of Benny’s crew made it out of the school, some were left behind. If you have them in custody, I’d like to pay them a visit. Any one of them will do.”

“Ah.” He bobbed his head, again, then said, “They’re not here. We don’t have them.”

“They’re not what? Where are they?”

Gomez explained. “They attacked and destroyed a public school, and terrorized the students and staff inside that school. We arrested them, but we had to hand them over. They’re in a federal prison, now. They might even end up being deported, but it’s too soon to tell.”

Fuck. I hadn’t considered that, I didn’t see that coming.

“You’re saying I can’t get to any of them?” I asked.

“I can give you the address, but breaking into a heavily-guarded, federal prison is more trouble than any of them are worth. You’d be better off asking random strangers on the street, but I rather you not do that.”

I glanced away, thankful for my mask. Gomez couldn’t see the anger behind it.

Dammit, dammit. I needed them to get to Benny, and Gomez was someone I could actually turn to. Sofia, Samuel. Any of the others I incapacitated. If they were being treated, they were probably under watch, too. Alone, I couldn’t get to them, and Gomez was right. It wouldn’t be worth it.

I clenched a fist, forcing myself to calm down, and I addressed Gomez again.

“I need anything you have that can lead me to Benny. Please. One of your men, they’d have to know something. Just give me a minute with them, I’ll get what I need out of them.”

Gomez stepped away, walking to one end of the roof. “I’m not in the business of handing over police officers for you to dangle and drop down multiple stories.”

I followed him, but I didn’t move too close to the edge. Didn’t want to be seen from up here.

“You gave me Sumeet,” I said, reminding him.

“I gave you a chance, at a time when my hands were tied. And when you were out, setting the city ablaze, I was able to gather enough intel and men to come back and help you. And we got pretty damn close, too. We had him, we got Thomas back.”

His head dropped a fraction.

“In the end, it wasn’t enough, but it was something,” he said. “It was a decent, even good, effort, to save something tangible.”

“How is that any different from now?” I asked.

“Now? This time, with Benny, the damage has already been done. You finding Benny isn’t going to save anyone, or bring anyone back. Not all of the perpetrators were caught, but some were. And the kid that took lives, along with his own… It goes without saying that he’s not around anymore. With or without Benny, people are going to find a way to heal from that.”

“What about bringing Benny to justice?”

Gomez laughed. It took me by surprise.

“Nothing of what you told me tonight has convinced me for a second that you want to turn her in.”

Turning, he jabbed a finger in my direction.

“From what I’ve gathered, you’re not looking for justice, are you? You’re looking for revenge.”

Revenge. The word resonated within me.

Was that what I was looking for? Was that what I wanted?

No, it wasn’t the ends. But the means?

Again, the word resonated.

“You’re really not going to help me?” I asked, disappointment showing in my voice.

Gomez walked back from the end of the roof. He passed me.

“I can’t, and I won’t,” he answered. “Not like this. I really must be crazy, because I still have some respect for you, and I’m not about to be complicit in whatever you’re going to do to Benny, if or when you do find her. I’m giving you a chance to walk away and just let this be. Let proper authorities do their jobs.”

He continued walking, heading to the door. I started moving to stop him.

“And what if I can’t?” I asked.

Gomez stopped right at the door, hand on the knob. He moved his shoulders to get a decent look at me.

“Then that wouldn’t be very super of you, would it?”

I set my jaw, my teeth gritting. Even Hleuco made a gesture. Feathers raised, chest puffed out.

“Dammit, Gomez. Work with me, here.”

“This is the part where I’m supposed to say ‘I’m sorry,’ but I won’t. Goodbye.”

He opened the door, and he left, leaving me alone on the rooftop. Dry.

Fuck. Dammit. Shit.

I wheeled around, and stormed off. I jumped to another rooftop and ran.

Damn Gomez, damn him. And damn me for not being able to convince him. He was my best bet on getting my hands on someone who could lead me to Benny, and now I had nothing. Not having custody of her crew was one thing, but actively trying to talk me out of pursuing her?

A myriad of different words flew through my head. Hypocrite was one of them.

I vaulted up to a taller building, and kept going. I was running to let off steam. Cool my head.

It wasn’t working.

What I needed was Benny, to find her and hurt her. To make it even. To make it fair.

Blank Face had tried to find her. Now, it was my turn. How hard is it to locate one fucking woman?

A shrill screech stopped me in my tracks. With a foot near the edge of the roof, I peered into the alley below.

A woman, running, chased by three men. Crossing from one street, hoping to escape to the other. But the men were faster, catching up on her.

She screeched again.

I almost responded as reflex, lifting my foot to prepare for a descent, but I stopped myself.

Police cars sped to the end of alley, cutting them all off. Lights on, the sirens sounding off. The woman threw her last remaining effort into a short, hard sprint, and she fell into the arms of an officer, already getting out of the car.

I heard the shouting and commotion below, the cops telling the attackers to freeze, get down, hands behind their head. They froze, and complied, and the cops moved in. The situation ended as soon as I happened upon it.

Too bad, I needed an outlet. Blood would do me some good, too.

The world really doesn’t need a Blank Face, does it?

It didn’t.

I watched as the cops cuffed the men, taking them into the cars, illuminated red and blue. Thinking.

If Gomez wasn’t going to hand me over any cops, should I just pick them out myself? I might find someone who knew a thing or two. A clue.

No, I dismissed the idea. More trouble than it was worth. Do that, and I’d end up in a similar situation to that night. The night I set the ‘city ablaze,’ as Gomez put it. Running about, wildly, leaving behind a smoke trail of chaos.

Another approach, then. Couldn’t do this like before. I had to think laterally.

I looked ahead, and saw Hleuco, perched on the roof of the building across from me. Seeing him gave me an idea.

Head over, without anyone following, and I’ll meet you there. Out.

Of course.

It might not be the most efficient way of going about things, but it was a start.

I leapt again, crossing the gap. Hleuco unfurled his wings, taking to the air at the same time.

I knew where I needed to go, and how to get there. But it wouldn’t be by rooftop.

I would need to make a call. But, to do that, I’d have to find a payphone. And learn how to use one.

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047 – Latae sententiae

epy arc 8 bite

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The sun was shining, not a cloud in the sky. Somewhat fitting, considering how blue the atmosphere was.

St. Francis Xavier had been trashed.

Windows broken, statues dented and graffitied over. Crosses knocked and flipped around. The east wing was burned to the ground. Papers got caught in the wind, flying around, pews had been thrown outside and ripped apart. Paintings, too, tossed out and cut open. The church and offices had been gutted, its innards laid out to rot in the sun.

The church itself was no cathedral, but it was a temple, a place of worship. It was sizable, large enough to house a decent number of people. A symbol.

And it had been reduced to a shell of its former glory. As it stood now, it couldn’t serve its core purpose.

All this, in just a matter of days.

Shiori, Mother, went first, leading the way, maneuvering through the damage. I was behind her, followed by the two girls who wanted to accompany us.

Katy and Maria were their names.

All around us, others were picking up the pieces. Cleaning up, doing what they could to help. Mostly those from the church’s community, but others offered their help after news broke out. Outsiders.

A few squads of police were here, supervising the crews and volunteers, sometimes giving out their own orders. Firetrucks and firefighters moved to the burnt wing of the church.

A lot of people, a lot of moving parts, but weather itself was serene. Cool. Mother and I had to wear a light jacket to keep warm. Maria needed only a fitted sweater, and so did Katy, though she was wearing all black.

We entered into the gathering space just outside the church’s front doors, wide open and dented in places. Mother led us to a group being addressed by a short woman. Not elderly, but almost there. The woman noticed us, and dismissed the group with a word.

“Shiori, it’s good to see you,” the woman said. She looked sullen, with little energy to her words. She didn’t appear to have gotten much sleep, recently. “And you too, Alexis.”

That was me. I needed a moment to respond, but the situation didn’t call for me taking my time.

That’s Mrs. Phan.

Mother answered for the both of us. “Good to see you, too, Linda. It is a shame that it has to be under these circumstances.”

Mrs. Phan nodded, then she glanced around. She frowned.

“It happened at night, I was already asleep. I woke up to so many calls and messages, but it was already too late, and I couldn’t do anything. I was powerless.”

Again, she looked around, then back down. As if there was a faint hope that, if she were to check one more time, this would all seemingly go away, never to have happened. That hope was immediately squandered.

“Maybe if I was here, I could have done something, stopped them somehow. But I was slacking. Maybe this is my fault, my faith wasn’t strong enough. Maybe this is what happens when your faith isn’t strong enough. This happens.”

Mrs. Phan was just talking to herself by now. Repeating herself, rambling, looking as if sleep was a foreign concept to her…

I could imagine her completely breaking, if rebuilding the church was simply not an option. What would happen to her, then? How would she rebuild herself?

I was curious.

Mother put a hand on her shoulder. Firm.

“You are plenty strong, Linda, this is not a strike against you. Let’s go, tell me what we can do to help, and you take it easy the rest of the day.”

“But,” Mrs. Phan said.

She would’ve said more if Mother didn’t cut her off. “If nothing else, I will make sure you take a break today. Now, breath in.”

Mrs. Phan breathed in.

“And breath out.”

Mrs. Phan breathed out. It wasn’t much, but some tension did leave her body. The effect was visible.

She moved her hand, removing Mother’s hold off her shoulder. She stood straighter, now.

“Thank you, Shiori, and God bless you,” Mrs. Phan said. She cleared her throat, then handed out proper orders. “Shiori, I’ll have you come with me, I’ll need your help with the moving group. And Alexis?”

“Yes?” I said, responding to that name.

“You and your friends go to Justin. He’s leading the youth group and watching over their efforts in cleaning up. You can help there.”

“Alright,” I said, and I had to stop myself there.

I didn’t want to ask who Justin was.

But another question might serve me better.

“Where is Justin?” I asked.

Mrs. Phan pointed to her right, a small field. A sizable group of kids my age were there, sorting through junk, pushing and moving carts and wagons.

“He should be there,” she said.

“Alright,” I said again, and I headed out, Katy and Maria following me. Mother went with Mrs. Phan, to provide her own support.

“Is it just me, or did that lady give me a funny look?” Maria asked. Providing a comment.

“Just you, I don’t think she saw us at all,” Katy said.

They talked amongst themselves, but I continued. We reached the field Mrs. Phan specified.

What exactly was here, I couldn’t tell, it was beaten until it became unrecognizable. No section of the church’s premises was spared, it seemed.

Chips of wood, broken beams, tattered cloth. And a fuck ton of mushy gourds.

We watched our step, but we stayed at the edge of the mess, watching kids go back and forth to clean up.

“Alexis!”

I was the only one to be addressed, but all three of us turned.

A boy, jogging our way. White shirt, brown shorts, and yellow gloves. A bandana on his forehead, damp with sweat.

He stopped just short of colliding into me, breathing hard. He took a second before he spoke up again.

“Wassup,” he said. “It’s been a minute, hasn’t it?”

Justin.

“Definitely more than just a minute,” I said, as though on autopilot.

“Man, when was the last time you were here?” he asked, while removing a glove. “Must be forever.”

“Probably,” I said.

“Oh, and you brought some extra hands, that’s nice.”

I stepped aside, and Katy and Maria moved in.

“Katy.”

“I’m Justin, nice to meet you.”

They shook hands.

“I’m Maria, sorry to hear about your church.”

“Justin, and yeah, it’s pretty bad.”

The two of them shook hands, too.

Justin put his glove back on again, and crossed his arms. “It’s bad, but it was a way worse earlier, so we’ve been making progress, which is good. People have been coming and going throughout the day, too, helping whenever they have the time. A lot of them don’t even come here, so, if anything, it’s definitely moral support. Just seeing you lovely ladies lifts the spirit.”

The sun was getting in my eyes, so I couldn’t see Katy or Maria’s reaction. For my part, I didn’t have much of one.

Justin cleared his throat

“But anyways, yeah, there’s still a long way to go, but we’ll get there. You guys ready to do some work?”

We all answered simultaneously.

“Yeah.”

“For sure.”

“I am.”

Justin nodded, satisfied. “Sweet. Come with me, and I’ll get you some gloves.”

He started back the way he came, and we came with. The table wasn’t far, placed on the same field where all the kids worked, and was topped with gloves, tools, and a cooler with energy drinks and bottles of water.

“Here you are,” he said, handing each of us our own pair of gloves. “Help yourself to the drinks if you’re feeling lightheaded, or need a breather. You’re volunteering your time, and as long as you’re here, you’re being a big help in one way or another. Do you know how long you’ll be here?”

The three of us exchanged looks. Something told me that Katy would have taken that, but this wasn’t her ballpark. Not here.

And it wasn’t mine, quite frankly, but the fact remained.

“As long as you need us for.” I gave a non-answer, but Justin looked like he accepted it.

“Awesome, maybe I’ll take advantage of that.” He snickered, but no one ended up played along.

He cleared his throat again.

“Right, um, let’s get started. Katy and Maria, can you join that crew with the carts there, and Alexis, you up for some lifting?”

I nodded. “Sure.”

“Then let’s break. Thanks again, guys.”

Maria glanced at me, then to Katy, but she was already leaving. Maria looked like she was about to say something, considered, then left to join Katy.

It was me and Justin, now. Together, we headed out.

We wrapped around to the other side of the ruined field. A snapped wooden beam on its side, in the grass. This piece was about seven or eight feet, making me wonder how tall the whole thing was. I stopped at the closest end, and Justin went to the farther part.

“We’re moving this off to the concrete there,” Justin called out, facing the nearby lot for emphasis. “Along with all the other wood parts. It’ll be picked up later.”

“Sure,” I said.

“Careful, it’s heavy.”

“Okay.”

He lowered himself, squatting down and squaring his shoulders. He grabbed the beam with both hands.

I did the same, but I just bent down.

“On ‘three,’” Justin said. “One, two, three!”

The beam lifted, but my end went up much faster. Justin nearly lost his balance.

“Holy- Alright then, let’s go.”

We moved as a unit, I walked backwards, and Justin made sure I didn’t bumping into anyone or anything. I looked, and saw Katy and Maria doing their own jobs, picking up mush and dropping into carts to be sent away.

“Here,” Justin said, and I was brought back to this particular instance.

We were on the lot, near a stack of wood. Not very neatly arranged, maybe more like a pile.

Justin counted to three, and we dropped the beam into the clump. Dust was thrown in the air.

“You’re really stronger than you look,” Justin said. “It wasn’t heavy for you?”

“To be fair, you’ve been out here all day, I guess, you’re more worn out. I just got here,” I said.

“Oh yeah, I guess you’re right.”

We stepped out the way for another pair with their own bits of wood to come in, and we headed back to do it all again.

“What was this supposed to be?” I asked. I couldn’t step over orange mush again and not get curious.

“The church was selling pumpkins and squashes, stuff like that. The youth group was running it.”

“But it’s not Halloween anymore.”

“I know, but people were still buying them. Like, Thanksgiving just passed, so I guess people wanted their pumpkin pies. Have you ever had pumpkin pie?”

“I haven’t.”

“Me neither. And I guess you can’t get one from us, anymore, not for a while.”

Justin chuckled to himself, but it sounded forced, uneasy. It didn’t last.

Dammit,” he said at the end.

The next few trips back to the pile of wood were wordless, other than Justin occasionally warning me about bumping into someone. We fell into a rhythm, and the work flew by without a hitch, even without any chatter. We crossed paths with Katy and Maria every now and then, but we were getting too tired to exchange any words.

We dropped the last wooden beam, and then we were done. With that part of the process, at least.

There was still smashed pumpkins and squashed squashes to get to, and pieces of the tattered tent to pick up.

Nowhere near done, but progress was made.

Justin removed his bandana, and wiped his brow.

“Thanks a lot, Lexi, really means a lot for you to be here and help out. Especially since you haven’t been around for a bit.”

“It’s nothing,” I said, just to say it.

“Man, I’m ready to take a break. Wanna come get a drink with me? I think the others are around, you should come say hi. We’ll all catch up.”

The others?

“I’m not sure if I’m up for that,” I said, trailing away at the end.

“Ah, come on, I know it’s not the best circumstances for a reunion, but I bet they’ll be down to see you again. It’ll be interesting, at least.”

At least.

That, I could agree with.

I searched among the other kids working, for Katy and Maria. Couldn’t find them. Did they run off somewhere?

Even considering everything between me and them, I caught myself looking for them.

But they weren’t here.

I looked back at Justin, who was waiting, eyebrow raised.

“Sound good to you?” he asked.

Reluctant, I answered, “I suppose.”

With that being the decided factor, we went to the tables to put back the gloves. Justin got an energy drink for himself, and I took a water. Justin gestured and moved, and I was forced to tag along.

“Should be this way,” Justin said. “If they aren’t lazing around, color me shocked.”

We walked across one of the parking lots, going around an office building. As we headed towards the front of what looked like the church’s event center, I saw them.

A group of teens, chatting away. Smoke flew away from some of their heads, and some had their own drinks taken from the cooler. They were dressed in trendy, fitting streetwear.

They immediately noticed us. Me. There were cheers.

“Alexis!”

“Holy shit, it’s you.”

“Wow, long time no see.”

“Hey, looks like the dead can come back, after all.”

My eyes roved over the people, smiling, happy at the sight of me. Obviously, connections were supposed to be here. I blinked.

I have no idea who any of you are.

The circle opened up somewhat, giving us room to slip in.

The faces. The eyes. The smiles. They were all being wasted on someone who wasn’t present.

“Hi guys,” I said, trying to inflect some emotion, but I was already regretting being here. This might not go well. I needed to be cautious.

“Want a hit?” someone beside me asked. A girl. I looked down at what she had in her hand. A vape.

“No, I’m good,” I said.

She shrugged, and took a puff of her own. Smoke dissipated into thin air.

“How’s it been with you, Alexis? Doing okay, considering everything?”

Another from the group. A boy, taller than the rest. For the life of me, I couldn’t pin down his name.

“Considering everything,” I said, “I’m doing what I can to be okay.”

“Super duper,” the boy said. “You can say we’re all doing the same.”

There were nods all around. More puffs of smoke as another gesture of assent.

“I can’t believe people went out of their way to do this,” another girl said. “All because another asshole kind of looks like us, kind of.”

“To think, the dicks that did this were less than half the people coming to help clean up now, and it’ll take the whole day to finish, if not longer.”

“Maybe if you guys got a move on, we’d finish faster,” Justin said.

The group laughed, as if they knew he was actually joking. Dismissing him.

“Hey Alexis, you gonna be here all day, or do you have to go school later? We all ditched our classes to be here.”

The tallest boy addressed me again.

I didn’t know how to answer without making things awkward.

I just had to go right ahead and tackle it directly.

“They shut down my school for a while,” I said. “And with how it’s already December, they threw in the towel and called this the early start of the break. Like this place, the school needs time to pick up the pieces.”

The boy’s eyes widened, and then he looked away, scratching his head. Embarrassed.

“Right, fuck. I forgot you went… I’m sorry.”

“Nice going, Andrew,” a girl said.

“And thank you for rubbing it in, Jasmine.”

Justin interjected. “Yeah, you didn’t mean it, Andrew, don’t worry.” He then turned to me and said, “Sorry to hear what happened at your school, by the way. I can’t even comprehend what that must have been like.”

Images flashed in my mind’s eye. Clear. The clearest of any memory I had access to.

It was a good thing, too. I needed them to be clear. I needed to remember.

“Hectic,” I said, putting the entire experience to a single word. It certainly was that.

“Did you know him?” a girl asked. The one that berated that ‘Andrew.’ Jasmine.

She lowered her voice to a near whisper when she specified a name.

“Harrian?”

The general atmosphere of the group changed. Everyone tensed up, averting gazes, shifting in place.

The fact that his name carried such a weight to it…

Jasmine still had her eye on me, waiting for an answer. I had to bring my thoughts back to that day.

I only ever had one memorable interaction with him. Anyone else was either so inconsequential I couldn’t recall, or a connection to those particular memories were simply gone.

But, I did see him that one time, at his most extreme, his most focused. He knew what he wanted, and he knew what the cost was, the consequences. Yet he continued in the face of that.

I barely knew Harrian Wong, yet, and the same time, I knew more about him than most ever would.

“We weren’t friends, if that’s what you’re asking,” I said. “I never really knew about it until after it happened. We ran in different circles.”

Jasmine looked relieved to hear that. “Good, good, you’re not associated with a freak like that.”

“Don’t say that,” a boy said. Not the tallest one. “He went to Francis Xavier. Sure, all he did was sit in the back and not talk to anyone, but we probably knew him better than Lexi did.”

Jasmine looked torn to hear that. “But, I was just saying, and…”

She didn’t finish her sentence, just stopping right there. She rolled her eyes and looked away.

The girl next to me passed her vape to Jasmine, and she helped herself.

Justin took a swig of his drink, then exhaled, loud. He put his arm around a girl on the other side of him, and kissed the top of her head. His girlfriend?

Justin spoke. “The last two days have been, like you said, hectic. Granted, it pales in comparison to what you’ve been through, but still. After the media caught wind of Harrian, it’s like we inherited a bit of that negative press, too. The looks we get when we walk in the halls, the way people walk around us, it’s as if we did it, we had something to do with this.”

“Yeah, and it’s not just us, the ones who actually come here,” Andrew said. “A friend of mine, he doesn’t come here, but he goes to the same school as me, he got jumped on the way to his car. Some Mexican gangbangers wanted to pick a fight with him, all because he looked like Harrian. And you know what’s funny? He’s not even Chinese, he’s fucking Korean, for fuck’s sake.”

Justin added, “People are already calling this the worst thing to ever happen on school grounds, and on top of the terrorists that started the whole thing, and the rumor that the Bluemoon is a student at Stephenville High School, and is an Asian-American too…”

“All of us get targets on our back,” Jasmine said, in between a puff of smoke, “Without ever asking for it.”

The group’s mood changed again, this time more morose. I had a feeling they came here, not to just ditch school, not just to help fix up the church, but to lick each other’s wounds. And the only thing they were getting in return was pity.

I wouldn’t have guessed that the aftermath of the incident at school could affect a whole population of people. But it was a minor setback, in the grand scheme of things.

Behind a mask, it wasn’t going to matter what my race was.

“Hey, Alexis,” the girl at Justin’s side said, getting my attention. “Does the Bluemoon go to your school?”

The ears of everyone else perked up. They all looked at me, again.

I knew the conversation would move to this, in some way. I wanted to avoid that by not being here.

I had to answer how a regular person would. Like Alexis.

I took a sip of my water, then answered, “I wouldn’t know, and even with what happened, I wouldn’t think so. If the Bluemoon really did go to my school, they wouldn’t have let something like that happen, right?”

There were various gestures all around.

“Maybe.”

“Yeah, right.”

“That’s probably true…”

In their haze of uncertainty, I took a step back, taking myself out of the group.

“It’s been great seeing all of you again,” I said. “But I should probably get back. I came with other people, and they might be looking for me if I’m gone for too long.”

Jasmine made a sound. “Aw, I was hoping you’d come chill with us for a bit longer. We were going to go and phở in about an hour. It’d be nice if you could join us.”

“I agree,” Andrew said. “There’s some new guys, but it’ll be like the whole gang’s back together. The OG Francis Xavier youth group. It’d be lit as fuck.”

“Definitely,” another said.

This was the part where I was supposed to consider the offer, but the will to do so just was not there.

You never fit in with them back in the day. You were the only Japanese kid there, and the only one who was half-anything. Mom didn’t make as much money as their parents, and they teased you over the clothes you showed up to bible school in. Maybe they didn’t mean it, maybe it was only in jest, but you stopped coming the second you didn’t have to.

The thought spilled into my head, slow, like hot magma. Intrusive, and it felt like holes being seared into my brain. New connections.

Memories I had, memories that I had to be told about. Forced to remember. And it came with pain.

I absolutely had no intention of coming along with these people, but now I had another reason not to.

“We’ll see,” I said, my head lowered an inch, from the coming aches. “I’ll still be here for the next hour or so, I’ll just play it from there.”

All lies.

“Fair,” Justin said. “And the rest of you, break time’s over. Back to work, before Mrs. Phan woops y’all herself.”

The rest of the group spoke all at once, most of it a jumble from all the different voices. But they all started to disperse, going elsewhere, in pairs or groups of three.

“See you, Emily,” Justin said to the girl by his side. “I’ll walk with Alexis.”

You’ll what?

“Hmph, do anything funny, and it’s gonna be the end of you. Not us, you.”

The girl, Emily, warned him.

“Don’t be crazy, I won’t do anything funny, I’m not even much of a funny guy. Isn’t that right, Alexis?”

Justin and Emily both looked in my direction.

“Um, yeah, it’s true, he’s not funny at all,” I said.

They both laughed, but I didn’t see the humor in what I said. I just told it as I saw it.

“Okay then, I’ll catch you two later,” Emily said. “It was good to see you again, Alexis. Hope to see you soon, and under better circumstances.”

“Same. Good to see you all again.”

Then, before I could take another step back, Emily opened her arms, and approached me.

I was wrapped into a hug before I could do or say anything about it.

Restricted, frozen, stuck in the moment. I didn’t need this, right now.

I wedged my arms between us, and nudged, prompting her to stop. She did.

“Bye,” I said, waving. I turned before anything else could happen. Justin followed.

We started heading back the way we came.

“See, that wasn’t so bad,” Justin commented as we walked. “Just like old times.”

Was it like old times? I wouldn’t have known.

We returned to the field, and some progress was made in our absence. Nothing significant, but noticeable.

I couldn’t find Katy and Maria. They weren’t here.

Still?

We reached the table with all of the gloves and tools. We both threw away our drinks. Justin started removing his gloves, and I copied him.

“Before we get back to work, mind if I show you something?” Justin asked.

“Show me what?”

“Don’t worry, it’s nothing that’ll freak Emily out, I just wanted to take you inside the church.”

“Oh, okay. Fine.”

“Cool, let’s head.”

Justin took the lead, and we changed course, heading to the church itself.

Every door was broken into, the glass panels gone. We stepped through the door, rather than opening it.

The light from outside immediately gave way to the dim, hollow interior.

If the outside was bad, the inside of the church received the worst of it. Smeared with dirt marks and graffiti, and other streak of stuff with a smell that made my imagination do the rest.

Justin continued.

“Watch your step, no one’s cleared this place out yet. To be honest, we’re not supposed to be in here, more qualified people will take care of this place, but the rest of us got to go through here, and I wanted you to see it, too.”

“Why me?” I asked.

“Because you’re one of us,” he said.

I didn’t respond to that sentiment. Even when my thoughts were laughing otherwise.

Justin led us to the main, central area of the church. Aisles and pews were either knocked down or missing, some even charred. Stained glass windows at the sides were shattered, the walls carrying a red and blue and green hue wherever pieces of glass reflected the light elsewhere. There was supposed to be a table in the middle of the room, where a majority of the service would take place, but it was gone. Nowhere around.

The place had such an emptiness to it. Uncanny, even for me. If this was the house of God, then he had already moved out.

As we moved, Justin pointed to the head of the room, the chamber. He lifted his finger up.

“Look there,” he said.

I looked, and saw what he was referring to. Larger than life-sized effigy of Christ, arms splayed, legs together. Nailed to a wooden cross. The crucifix. It was untouched, unsullied by the damage surrounding it.

“This whole place got fu- messed up, and yet they couldn’t touch that,” Justin explained. “It didn’t get messed with. Isn’t that, I don’t know, kind of cool?”

“That’s because it’s so high up,” I said. “Who could reasonably touch that without wasting time? If you wanted to cause damage before anyone could stop you, you’d be better off getting what’s immediately around you.”

“Man, you’re such a spoilsport,” Justin said, frowning. He looked back to the figure. “I know I’m the head of the youth program and everything, but I’m not like the Pope when it comes to stuff like this. Even then, I couldn’t help but feel something when I saw it, you know? I showed the others, and they said the same. They said it helped. I don’t know, I just thought you might feel the same way.”

I looked again, and saw the bloodied corpse of a man nailed to wood. The figure itself wasn’t defamed or damaged, but, in a sense, it was already ruined. The man himself.

“Maybe,” I said.

“Well, at least you saw it.”

“No, I, uh, I appreciate the sentiment.”

I couldn’t tell if that was a lie or not.

“You’re welcome, oh hey, I’m surprised to see you here.”

Justin turned when he finished that sentence, and I realized he wasn’t talking to me. I turned, as well.

Sitting at the front aisle was Katy and Maria, both looking our way as we reached them.

“There you are,” I said.

“Here we are,” Katy said back, monotone.

“Who let you guys here?” Justin asked. “Not that I mind, but right now it’s kind of off-limits.”

“The priest did,” Maria said. “We were asked to go help fix up the offices, and he was there, and noticed Katy. Apparently, um…”

Maria stopped.

“He used to know my dad,” Katy explained, a somber look in her eyes. “He was a supporter of his back when he ran for DA.”

“DA?” Justin repeated.

“District Attorney.”

“Oh, yeah. Oh, your dad was…”

Justin managed to stop himself before he said something completely stupid. But he was already too late. He hit that sore spot, and it showed on Katy’s face.

That, I could recognize.

Justin scratched the back of his head, clearly ashamed of himself. “Sorry, I wasn’t trying to-”

“I know,” Katy said, curt. “Anyways, Father Chris wanted to show us this, probably for the same reasons you brought her.”

She didn’t look at me when she said that. ‘Her.’

“Where’s Father now?” Justin asked.

“He left to do more work. Said we could be here as long as we wanted. We were just talking.”

Talking about what?

Justin sniffled, wiped his nose.

“Okay, but we probably should go. We might get in trouble if we overstay our welcome. It is off-limits for a reason, the building’s not exactly up to code.”

Katy and Maria traded looks.

“Sure,” Maria said, and they both got up and left, passing us without another word.

It was clear they were on the same page about something. If it had anything to do with me, I had to be ready. Even now, they were obstacles.

We have to watch our backs around them. Around everyone. You know this.

I did.

Justin moved to catch up. Before I did the same, I glanced back up at the figure above.

A pained expression, but a resigned one. If anyone were to help him, he wasn’t expecting it, and it would have to be of their own accord.

To try and rebuild the peace that was once here, or to find a new peace for myself. I had already tried the former, numerous times.

Checking again, I had noticed something else, too.

By the front, where the choir would be situated, a young girl sat in one of the chairs. Her face scratched out.

Unsightly.

What do you want to do?

I heard that voice ask.

“What do I do?” I started, as if on autopilot, but I corrected myself. “I know exactly I want to do. Let’s just pray we don’t run out of time.”

I could imagine the taste on my lips. Sweet.

Perfect.

I turned my back, and saw the shadowed-Hleuco standing before me. Between me and the others.

His feathers ruffled, even though no wind could affect him here.

I smiled.

I stepped forward, joining him, and we left the church.

Previous                                                                                               Next

Interlude – Harrian

Previous                                                                                               Next

[一种语言永远不够。]

The thought had hit Harrian like a brick to the face, jolting his jet lag-addled brain awake.

Everything was foreign. The people, the sights, the sounds, the smells. Foreign from him, foreign from each other.

Harrian included himself in that, as well.

He was as much a foreigner to this place and to everyone as they were to him. Everyone was different, in their own separate worlds, just out of reach. So many different barriers that needed to be overcome, just to get to know someone.

How he expected to connect to anyone, here, was beyond him.

What was the phrase, again?

He tried remembering if there was a Mandarin equivalent.

Like a fish out of water.

Exactly.

Already, Harrian was doubting himself.

It didn’t help that Auntie was over an hour late.

Harrian clutched his bags and luggage, keeping them closer. He was beyond exhausted, but he couldn’t afford to let his guard down. Being in an unfamiliar place, with unfamiliar people, was putting him on edge, and all he wanted was to relax.

He wondered where Auntie was, if she was even heading to the airport right now. He wondered if she even got his texts before his phone died. He couldn’t call, his phone wasn’t set up to work internationally, yet.

They were supposed to get that taken care of once she had picked him up.

All Harrian had on him was his tablet. He sent some emails, but no response from Auntie there, either.

Nothing to do but wait, keep an eye around him. Make sure nobody got too close to his things.

Wait, and wait some more.

He’d been waiting for so long, the baggage carousel had rotated out all the luggage that was on his flight, and was already working on a new group of arrivals. Out of the group he arrived with, he was probably one of the remaining few. When his plane landed and they were free to go, he ran to baggage claim to find a good spot to get his stuff. He found that good spot, claimed his baggage, and waited, and waited, and waited some more.

A vulgar, mean phrase entered his mind. No. Shouldn’t think that, not about family.

He tried to form his thoughts in English. For practice.

That is what I get for trusting others.

But, in spite of his annoyance, sitting and moping would do him no good. He still had his tablet, and there was some battery left. Taking it out of a bag by his side, he turned it on, and loaded up the next episode of a popular medieval fantasy series.

With English subtitles. He was still practicing.

He put in some earphones, and began to watch.

Harrian got about halfway through the episode before something kept nagging at him.

“Yo!”

Harrian had been hearing bits and pieces of other people’s conversation while he watched, but this, in particular, stood out to him. It seemed more directed.

Yo.”

Is this what is known as ‘rapping?’

“请问。”

That perked his ears.

Harrian turned to his left, taking his earphones out. He raised an eyebrow.

A little girl. A white girl. An American girl. Her hair was short and brown, her eyes a mystifying blue that he’d never seen before. Like the color of the sky, and not the smoggy grey of the city. The real sky.

Harrian was captivated, if not confused and concerned, as well.

A little girl. A white girl. An American girl. Standing before him. Yet she spoke his tongue?

“你会不会讲普通话?”

Harrian asked.

The girl shook her head. “No, no, not really. I had some time on the flight so I decided to get some reading done. Mind if I take this?”

Harrian looked to where she pointed. One of his bags that he had set in the seat beside him.

“Um,” Harrian said.

“The seat, silly, I want to sit next to you.”

His eyes went back to her, staring blankly.

She stared back, her face in a bashful expression. Cute.

“Can I?”

Harrian jolted back to his sense.

“Yes, right, of course!”

He hurried to put his tablet and earphones back in the bag and set it down, off the seat. Using his feet, he kicked the bag under, securing it there.

The girl offered a bow. “谢谢。” She then took the seat, smiling as she got settled.

Harrian didn’t know what to make of any of this.

She set her only bag in her lap, then extended a hand to him.

“What’s your name?” she asked.

“Harrian Wong,” he answered. He thought back to his English textbooks. “And what is your name?”

“My name? You can call me ‘D.’”

“Dee?”

“Like the letter.”

“Oh, I see.”

The girl – D – giggled. “That’s three letters.”

Harrian tilted his head. “Hm?”

Her giggle turned into a full, hearty laugh.

“You’re a funny guy, Harrian!” she said, chortling.

Harrian glanced away, flustered. Nothing like this was ever covered in his textbooks.

He took a moment to regain his composure, then faced her again, studying her in a different light.

She had on a light denim jacket, completely white in some splashes of her sleeves. Black tights, or some kind of fitting pair of sweatpants.

What really stood out him, however, was the belt that coiled around her neck. He recognized it as a sort of fashion statement, but seeing it stated by a girl so young made him question if what he was seeing was real.

Back where he was from, girls with her appearance only showed up in fuzzy television sets and imported magazines. Yes, he recognized that she was but a child, but aside from the flight attendants who helped lead him to his connecting flights, he’d never interacted with American girls before.

Or any girls, for that matter. He wasn’t the most popular guy back home.

Harrian couldn’t help but keep his guard up.

A question was about to leave his mouth when D sat back, reclined her head and groaned.

“Man, they’re really keeping us waiting, huh?”

“Waiting?”

She shifted her eyes so she could see him. “Yeah, we’re in the same boat, or plane, I guess. I’ve been sitting here, waiting for my ride to show up. I noticed you were doing the same for a hot minute, so I decided to come over here. Might as well kill time sitting with someone else.”

Harrian nodded, more disappointed than he wanted to admit. She didn’t come over here for him, specifically. Anyone could have been sitting in this chair, and she’d come all the same.

D put her hand on the armrest between them.

“But, you seem like a nice guy, so I guess I’m getting more than I asked for,” she said.

Harrian felt his face go warm, more delighted than he wanted to admit. He did what he could to not show it.

But, before he could get too swept up in the emotion, some things about her stood out to him.

“Excuse me, D?

She made a sound, like a pur. “Hm?”

“Were you on the same flight as me?” he asked.

“I think so? I came in from LA and I claimed my baggage here.” She pointed to the carousel ahead of them. “I didn’t take an international flight, though, if that’s what you’re insinuating.”

“Insinuating?” He’d never heard a word like that before.

“Implying.”

“I see.”

Harrian nodded once, the meaning a little more clear to him.

“You flew by yourself?” Harrian then asked.

“Yup.”

“I am impressed. This was my first time flying.”

“It’s nothing, I’ve done it before. And I mean, I still need those flight attendants to escort me around, I’m still underage.”

Underage, right.

He stole a glance at her again, and she was shuffling through a pocket of her jacket, removing earphones and her phone. Listening to music, probably.

Shame.

He wanted to talk with her some more, and anything was better than staring into space, waiting for Auntie. But, he didn’t know where to take the conversation.

“Is this your final destination?”

D noticed him looking, staring now. Harrian had to move his gaze away.

“No, actually, I still have a drive to S… Ste…”

He knew the name of the city, he’d heard it in his head and read it a million times over, but saying it was another matter.

“Stephenville?” D offered.

It clicked in his head, and he remembered.

“Yes, Stephenville. I am to study there next semester.”

D perked her head up.

“That’s cool, and a crazy coincidence, too. I’m actually headed that way, myself.”

“You are?”

“Yup, I’m from there, and I’d be there already if my ride wasn’t late.”

“I understand.”

D hummed, as if to acknowledge that she heard him, and she went back to her phone and wires.

There, Harrian recognized. The conversation would end here if he didn’t say anything else.

He didn’t want that.

Harrian wanted to take the reigns of the conversation, this time.

“What is it like, in Stephenville?” he asked.

He was curious, he’d heard the stories, but firsthand accounts were alway more intriguing.

D leaned his way, untangling the wires.

“What’s it like?” she repeated back to him.

Harrian had to reiterate.

“I heard that it can be a really bad place sometimes. Is that true?”

“Hmm,” D said, thinking. She placed a hand on her face, and looked right at Harrian.

“It’s definitely a dog eat dog kind of city.”

Harrian made a face, making clear his confusion.

“I don’t understand.”

“You know, eat or be eaten, take or be taken from. You can’t afford to let yourself wander in a place like that.”

Harrian watched her, listening, trying to keep up.

What was the word? Metaphor? He didn’t quite get the exact meaning, but the tone wasn’t anything particularly promising.

“Sounds scary,” Harrian commented. He felt a pang of regret about asking, but better to know now than be caught off guard.

D shrugged. “I mean, it’s not unlike any other big city. Just keep an eye out at all times and be alert, you’ll never know when someone might sweep the rug out from under you.”

Harrian nodded again, clutching his bags, tapping his foot on the luggage underneath him.

“Thank you for the advice,” he said, earnest.

In return, D smiled a toothy smile, though a front tooth was missing.

“No problem! Speaking of which…”

D put one of her earbuds in one ear, and handed Harrian the other.

“Wanna listen to some music?”

Harrian took the offered earbud. “Are you sure?”

“Yeah, of course, let’s try and unwind. Anything helps when you just got done flying for twenty hours.”

Harrian found himself in agreement. Flying for twenty hours, plus layovers, delays, language barriers, and doing it largely by oneself, took a toll on him, and he wanted nothing more than to unwind. Listening to music with a nice girl was definitely better than doing nothing, and the music could add a cozy crutch for him to rely on. He wouldn’t be forced to come up with anything to say.

Harrian looked at the earbud, to D, then back to the earbud.

“Don’t worry,” D said, taking Harrian out of his thoughts. “They’re clean.”

He felt an embarrassment, again.

“That was not what I meant,” he said, trailing off to a mumble at the end.

Without another word, Harrian placed it in his ear. The music was already playing.

Light, easy-going music, with a jazzy undertone. A female singer, crooning in an Asian language, but not one he understood.

He wasn’t too big into music, but even he could sense a retro feel to the sound, the mix.

“What is this?” he asked, his eyes getting heavy.

“Not sure, just picked it up. Late nineties, I think. It’s just old pop music.”

“Ah,” Harrian said.

“I’d try and read the name, but kanji trips me up, and I’m beat.”

‘Beat’ meant tired, Harrian knew that much.

“I agree,” he said, before starting to unwind.

Harrian focused on the music, blocking out the bustling airport around him. It worked. The music soothed, the singing relaxed him. His eyes closed completely, and the drowsiness and jet lag got the better of him, and he began to fall asleep-

“Harrian!”

Harrian woke up.

In surprise, he lurched forward, his bags almost slipping off of him. He caught them, though, before anything could happen.

He moved his head, and saw the person he was waiting for.

“Auntie,” he said.

Auntie clasped her hands together, head lowered.

“I’m so sorry, but work wouldn’t let me leave early for you, and of course it had to be rush hour when I could leave. I know you were waiting, but I hope it wasn’t too bad?”

“No, it was not,” Harrian said. He noticed that he didn’t have the earbud, anymore. No music.

“Awesome! Alright, let’s get you out of here, I’ll help you with your bags.”

Harrian nodded, collecting his bags and-

He froze.

Harrian checked his sides, the seats next to him.

Gone. The girl was gone.

Harrian checked under his seat.

Gone. The bag was gone.

The one with his tablet and earphones.

She didn’t, she wouldn’t…

He looked around, panicked but still tired. Everyone and everything was a blur to him.

How long was he asleep? When did she leave? Could he still find her?

Too scatterbrained and worn out to make a concrete decision, he looked back to Auntie.

“What? What happened?” she asked, rightfully worried.

He tried to find the words, and he thought back to what the girl had told him.

“I think the rug has been swept under me,” Harrian replied.

[蠢驴。]

Harrian worked, busy as a bee.

He couldn’t say the same for his partner.

For the last half of class, Mr. Graham had paired everyone up to work on exercises over today’s lessons, and he had paired Harrian up with Jaclyn, a cheerleader.

He tried not having any expectations, but he was left disappointed.

She could have at least asked him how to handle a problem or two, and he’d be more than happy to help, but she seemed more interested in chatting with the girl beside her than practicing how to find the surface area of a cube.

He was fine with that. It was fine.

No expectations.

“And, oh my gosh, when everyone rushed in at the end, I did not see that coming!”

“I know, right? I couldn’t stop posting about it, I felt like such a geek.”

“So worth, though. But how are they even going to make another season when they just killed off all my favorite characters like that?”

“That’s the thing, I don’t know. If you want to find out what happens next, you’ll have to read the books.”

“Oh really? Nah, I’ll just wait, then.”

Harrian was right there, it was impossible to block out their conversation. And he knew what they were talking about.

Popular. Medieval fantasy.

He spoke before he could stop himself.

“I saw it too.”

Jaclyn stopped halfway through her next sentence, and both girls turned to him.

“Saw what?” she asked.

“That episode. I saw it too. I watch that show.”

The girls didn’t say anything in response. Was that to prompt him to elaborate further?

He took that prompt.

“I also couldn’t believe it when that wedding scene happened, but Bogart was my favorite, so it was a good thing he was not in the throne room. Who was your favorite that-”

“Were we talking to you?”

Jaclyn interrupted him.

It threw him off. Harrian sputtered.

“I just, you were talking about, and I wanted to-”

“Were we talking to you?” Jaclyn asked again, more pointed this time.

That point hit him in the chest. Dejected, Harrian returned to his papers.

“No you weren’t.”

The girls didn’t acknowledge that he answered them, and went back to talking amongst themselves.

Harrian didn’t like the feeling that sat inside his chest.

No expectations.

He worked another problem, and finished another. Putting his mind elsewhere helped. Anything to distract him from his unfortunate reality. That he was Harrian Wong.

The bell tolled.

Finally.

Harrian was released from another long day at school.

He couldn’t wait to go home.

He scooted his table back to its original position, away from Jaclyn’s. He packed his stuff together, filing away the sheet of exercises. Anything left unfinished had to be done for homework, but Harrian had a good grip on the material. He’d complete it in time for the next class.

Picking everything up, he checked his classmates around him, Jaclyn. He’d wait for them to leave first, so they wouldn’t see him as they left. So they wouldn’t think of him.

It had already become routine. The norm. And it had gotten to the point where he didn’t think much of it anymore.

He was just waiting for it to be over.

Endure.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

His time in America wasn’t turning out to be what he wanted. A change of scenery should have done him some good, to get away from the stress from back home. Father agreed to him studying abroad, although reluctantly, he would have rather not tackled the problem of his son being so weak head on.

He’ll grow up to be a man on his own, Father had said. Those who can’t grow up and take the world on their own deserve to be stomped out.

So he was cast out here, and Harrian was to grow, and find a world he could take on his own.

It didn’t quite turn out that way.

Even in another county, even in another language, Harrian was still Harrian.

The more things changed, the more they ended up staying the same.

Harrian resigned himself to that.

He walked over to his locker, hurrying now. The buses left in ten minutes, and he still needed to go to his locker on the other end of the school. He was no athlete, but it was doable, and more often than not, he could make it.

He just had to hurry, and pray they wouldn’t bother him.

There, his locker. At least it was on the first floor.

Spinning the dial, entering the code, Harrian got it open in no time flat.

He threw his stuff into his bag.

Come on, hurry, faster.

A foot entered his field of view, moving in a flash. Harrian drew his hands away.

The locker was kicked closed.

Shadows fell around him.

“Oh shit!”

No, no.

A small, inconsequential thought, but he noticed he could worry in English.

That had to account for something.

Harrian turned around.

Two boys. Men, if he compared their size and weight to him.

Eric and Evan.

Both football players, both taller and stronger than him. Both situated to his left and right.

Whenever he saw these two together, something was about to happen. And usually, that ‘something’ would happen to him.

Nowhere to move, nowhere to run.

Harrian immediately went on the defensive, if ‘defensive’ meant wanting to curl up into a ball and disappear.

“What?” was all Harrian could ask.

The taller and wider of the two boys, Eric, answered with his deep voice.

“Sorry, Harry, I’m actually really sorry for hitting your locker, but we were just in a hurry, and we didn’t want to miss you.”

“Same, it’d suck if you left already,” Evan said.

Harrian had no real expression on his face, his body ready to jump at whatever Eric and Evan were going to do next.

By this point, he couldn’t put it past them to not try anything, even though they had already done everything.

What else was left?

Evan approached, and Harrian backed up, but he found himself against the lockers.

Evan put his hands up.

“Hey man, that’s actually why we’re here. We… wanted to apologize.”

Apologize?

Harrian had to make sure he knew the meaning of that word.

Express regret for something that one has done wrong.

These two had done plenty wrong.

“For?” Harrian asked, unsure of everything.

“For being really shitty to you,” Eric said, filling it in. “We, Evan and I, we recognized the pranks and stuff we pulled weren’t exactly cool, and so we wanted to apologize for everything. Sorry.”

Harrian looked at both of them again. Their expressions were one of genuine regret.

Did Harrian believe it?

There was a lot to be sorry for. Missing lunches, ruined art projects, a light tap in the back of the leg so he’d trip in the hall. Anything and everything.

Something would happen, and he’d turn and see the sneers, and hear the laughter. He would see those two.

Harrian fantasized about standing up to them, telling them off, getting back at them in some way. It never happened. It would never happen. Harrian was aware of his own weakness. And worse yet, he didn’t want to tell anyone about it. He could admit it to himself, but he couldn’t admit it to the world.

Then being here would mean it was all for nothing.

But, despite everything they had done, Eric and Evan were here, in front of him, telling him that they were remorseful about their actions.

Too convenient, too easy.

Being cornered by the two, however, they didn’t give him an option other than going along with it.

“Is this true?” Harrian asked. His head started throbbing, remembering what they did last time.

“It is,” Evan said. “We usually do shit like that with our friends and teammates, and they’re big enough to take it, but we realized that we weren’t there with you yet, so there was a, um, what’s the word?”

“Disconnect,” Eric said.

“Yeah, that. Again, we’re sorry, and we wanted to make it up to you by being friends.”

“Being friends?” Harrian repeated it back, but even when saying it himself, he couldn’t believe it.

They wanted to be friends with him, now? With Harrian?

“Yes, friends,” Eric said, reassuring him. “And to make it up to you, we got you a little something.”

Harrian went back to being concerned, again.

Eric extended a hand, his fist as meaty as a full-sized ham, and showed him what he had.

Chocolate bars.

“This premium stuff, right here,” Eric said. “The best the school vending machines had to over.”

“And there’s more where that came from, too,” Evan added. “Just ask us anytime, and we’ll hook you up.”

Harrian stared at the candy, unsure of what to make of all of this. This was their sign of goodwill? Chocolates?

He did like chocolates, though, he really did.

Was that enough to make up for all the pranks? Were they really just harmless pranks, only done to those Eric and Evan were close to?

Harrian wasn’t sure, anymore.

“Come on, take them,” Eric said, bringing his hand closer. “They’re actually really good.”

Harrian wanted more time to consider, but he remembered that he was against the clock. The bus would leave soon.

It was Friday, all Harrian wanted was to sit at home on his computer, maybe play some games. He wanted a break.

“Okay,” Harrian said, quietly. He took the chocolates off of Eric’s hands.

They both gave him, and each other, a thumbs-up.

“Nice,” Evan said. “Alright, Harry, that’s all we came here for, and we’re sorry again for being such dicks. If you ever want to chill or do anything just let us know.”

“Okay,” Harrian said, quietly, staring at the chocolates.

“See you,” Eric said, and they left, giving Harrian the space he so desired.

He continued to stare at the chocolates.

He didn’t have to do anything, and he was given candy and their friendship. And they asked for his forgiveness.

They seemed genuine enough, too.

The gesture was starting to get to him.

Maybe it was worth it, coming here. Maybe he could learn a thing or two about connecting with others.

Maybe he could learn to be better than just simply being Harrian.

Oh yeah.

The bus.

Harrian still had a bus to catch.

He turned, opening his locker again, grabbing his backpack. He stuffed the chocolates into a pocket on the side. Then, after he was certain he had everything he needed for the weekend, Harrian ran off to catch the bus.

[蠢驴。蠢驴。]

“What’s ‘good bye’ in Japanese?”

Harrian asked.

Alexis stared back at him. The expression she had gave him pause. For an instant, he forgot to breathe.

Cold.

It made him question if he had said something wrong.

She threw her hands into her pockets, tilting her head.

“The only word I can think of is ‘sayonara.’ But I think people don’t typically say that. It implies a sort of finality. Don’t quote me on it.”

She actually answered him, to his relief, he worried that was taking too much of her time already.

He wanted to make a comment on how she answered with an American accent, how it was a little funny to hear coming from her, but he knew he was keeping her. Her face said it all. Her eyes.

Harrian accepted that.

“Good enough,” he said, summing it all up. He’d let her go. She need not to waste her time with him.

She remained there, standing, as if there was more to the conversation.

Did he miss something? A cue to say more? He knew he was no social butterfly, so perhaps there was something else he needed to add.

He couldn’t think of anything.

Did she maybe want to hear more stats about the Japanese workforce?

Harrian considered it.

“Sayonara, Harrian.”

Alexis spoke up.

Oh, I see.

She wanted to say properly, with that Americanized accent?

For his sake? No, he couldn’t be so, so presumptuous.

She wasn’t used to speaking in another language, and he could tell. Her lips were set in a line, as if uncomfortable after folding to produce such foreign sounds. Her expression was equally neutral, perhaps shy, if he really wanted to stretch it.

Cute, he couldn’t help but think.

Alexis grinned slightly, then turned to leave, going about the rest of her day, whatever that meant for her.

Harrian waved as she turned, watching her leave. Checking her out.

He… would, but only in a sort of far-off, unbelievable fantasy. Maybe if he was more confident in himself, he’d talk to her more, ask her out when they became closer friends. Maybe, but he knew better. She was totally out of his league, and he was…

He was Harrian.

Harrian looked again, but Alexis was already gone, out of his line of sight. He tried to stop thinking about it, about her, but his brain wouldn’t let him. A successful interaction with someone of the opposite gender. Rare. Of course his brain wanted to go over it, picking at every single detail.

He was Harrian.

Did she enjoy talking to him? Potentially, she was the one to initiate it. Did she like him? Enough to want to start a conversation, he supposed, but didn’t he get on her nerves, back at Auntie’s shop? Potentially, but he didn’t know the root cause.

I was just trying to better connect with her.

He let himself wander in his thoughts.

With the amount of interactions he had with her, he could count them on one hand, but there was something about her that drew his interest. Alluring, to put it in a word, now that his English was getting better.

Something about her.

Her eyes. Something about her eyes…

“Hey man, did you wait long?”

Harrian blinked, and his attention was back to the real world.

Evan was approaching, as chipper as ever.

A friend. One of the only ones.

”I did not,” Harrian said, hiding the truth. He did wait for some time, but he did show up early.

“That’s good. Let’s dip, then.”

“Yes, let us dip.”

Harrian picked up his bag, and followed Evan to his truck. They arrived, Evan getting the passenger side door for Harrian.

“Oh, thank you,” Harrian said.

Problemo nada, my man.”

Harrian got in the truck, his bag at his feet. His hands were still on the straps. Four points of contact with his belongings, at all times.

Even with people he knew, he learned his lesson.

“Where’s Eric?” Harrian asked, as Evan got into the driver’s seat.

Evan started the truck, and worked on backing out of the spot.

“We’re gonna meet him there,” he said. He didn’t specify where ‘there’ was.

Harrian felt like he should ask, but music started up as soon as the truck did. A rap song that he wasn’t familiar with. Loud, and it startled, and Harrian quickly forgot what he had in mind to say.

The truck left the school, and they headed out. Harrian looked to see if he could see Alexis as they crossed the parking lot. He couldn’t.

Eyes on the road, Evan adjusted the volume.

“Did you catch the new episode last night?” Evan asked him.

Harrian knew exactly what he was talking about. “I did.”

“I think it’s the best one yet, even though they keep wrecking the main character. I’m surprised he’s even still alive.”

“Me too,” Harrian said. He almost said more, but he’d be spoiling it for Evan, by that point. The best parts were still to come.

“Shit, I might start reading the books after this season wraps up, and that never happens.”

“I happen to have whole series, if you would like to borrow a book.”

Evan glanced at Harrian, even though the truck was going pretty fast, now.

“Really? You’d do that?”

“Yes, I would.”

“Wow,” Evan said, scratching his chin. “That’s pretty dope of you, thanks. I’ve actually got something for you, too. I’ll show it to you when we meet up with Eric.”

Harrian nodded, but he felt warm and fuzzy, inside. He looked forward to whatever Evan had planned.

Things had started to turn around once Harrian had accepted Eric and Evan’s apology. The two actually became his friends, for one, and Harrian started feeling more comfortable being in America, speaking English, and being himself.

It was a feeling he thought he’d never experience.

Being with – hanging out with – Evan himself helped in that feeling. He had a class with Evan, an art class, and what once used to be a class he dreaded, became one he now looked forward to. Evan was funny, charismatic, lively. The kind of person Harrian wished he was.

Harrian made it a point to learn something from him.

“It definitely is nice to get out every now and again, right?” Harrian asked, starting another conversation.

“Definitely, but man, things have been going off the fucking deep end recently.”

“The deep end?”

“You know, with the whole Bluemoon thing, and all the riots and stuff. To think it’s all happening here, in Stephenville.”

The Bluemoon thing. Harrian heard about it, seen it on the news. The vigilante superhero taking on the notorious gangs. It sounded like something he’d read in comic books, but there he was, leaping over buildings in a singular bound. It was incredible, and a little scary.

To think it was all happening in the city he transferred to.

“Hopefully it doesn’t get too bad,” Harrian said, wishing aloud.

“Same here. If the Bluemoon is actually trying to make this city better off, he better do it right. Otherwise, with all these riots, he might as well burn everything down himself.”

That was a scary propostion, but Harrian didn’t comment on that.

“Anyway, how about you?”

“Me?”

“Yeah, what would you do if you had superpowers? Like, strength or flying or something?”

The question made him ponder. He daydreamed about it before, but that was before Eric and Evan made their peace with him. Now? He was content.

“I’m not sure,” Harrian answered. “I probably couldn’t fight gangs or criminals.”

“No? I’m up for beating up some bad guys. With strength like that, it’s probably a piece of cake.”

Harrian shrugged, and watched cars pass by. “Probably.”

“But who knows? There was a time when that question would have been purely hypothetical. Now, oh, here we are.”

Harrian peered out from the front window. Gray towers were replaced with brown fields of corn.

They were entering into a rural part of town.

“Where is this?” Harrian asked.

“This, is Braham Barn.”

The truck got off the road, and onto a trail. Harrian saw the broken-down barnhouse come into view. Another truck was there, parked.

Harrian had never heard of this place.

The truck rolled to a stop, and Evan put it into park.

“Come on, we’re here.”

Evan hopped out of the truck, and Harrian followed. He decided to leave his backpack behind.

“Here,” Evan said, meeting up with Harrian. “Take this.”

He handed Harrian a large bundle. Harrian grabbed it, and unfolded it.

“A jacket?”

“Put it on, it’s gonna be chilly inside the barn.”

Harrian listened, putting on the jacket, zipping it up. It was heavy, and thick with a strange odor.

“What are we to do here, anyway?”

“Run.”

The word stood out to him. The tone sour.

He moved to face Evan, but he was already in the distance, running back to the truck.

Why-

Then, he heard it.

Barking.

Then, he saw it.

Out of the field, two dogs burst from the vegetation. Rottweilers. Sprinting.

Toward Harrian.

Instinct and panic kicked, and Harrian turned to run.

Nowhere to go, except the widening mouth of the Braham Barn.

Faster, faster, faster.

Harrian ran, but he was no athlete, he couldn’t outrun animals. They were built for this, evolved to do better.

They were hunters. And he was prey.

The dogs caught him as soon as he passed through the doors, falling into the darkness.

Merciless. Powerful.

Violent.

They tore at him to shreds.

His limbs were yanked this way and that. Covering himself was useless when his arms could get pulled away again.

Teeth sank into his sides. Digging. Tooth and nail. Claws. Dark. Panic. The hurt.

No, no, no, no no no no no no no no.

Fabric flew into the air. Spit. Growling, barking.

He didn’t have the breath to scream. Pulled by the beasts. Made into a meal.

They wouldn’t stop. They wouldn’t stop. They wouldn’t stop.

Wouldn’t stop biting, wouldn’t stop gnawing.

Stop stop stop.

Where was anyone? Where was everyone?

Powers. They were talking about powers, earlier. What he would do if he had them.

He’d save himself.

Harrian reached with his power. Focusing control.

And then he remembered he didn’t have any. Of course. He was just a human. He was just Harrian.

Stop stop stop stop stop stop stop.

A sharp whistle cut through the everything.

Then, it did stop.

The dogs turned tail, and backed away.

Harrian, for his part, could no longer move. Face messy with tears and sweat and snot.

His brain could not process what had just transpired.

On the wooden floor, the high ceiling above, consumed in darkness.

Laughter.

He heard laughter.

Getting louder. Getting louder.

Unbelieveable.

“Oh my god, shit, shit, sorry Harry, sorry.”

“I can’t, I can’t! I’m so sorry!”

Sorry. Words used when people apologized. When expressing regret for something that one has done wrong.

But why were they still laughing?

Dark, but Harrian saw their faces when they looked down at him.

Eric.

Evan.

Their laughter was dying down, they were rubbing the corners of their eyes.

“Man, you shoulda seen how you were running, flopping like a fucking fish!” Eric said.

“You would not make it onto the team with that top speed, my dude.”

Harrian opened and closed his mouth, gasping for air.

“See? He really does look like a fish!”

Laughter again.

Harrian breathed out his word.

Why?”

One of them answered. His ears were ringing too much to discern the voice. It was deep, though.

“Why? Well, because some gangs are looking to score with some new dogs, and I told them Rover and Russel were the best in town. People are beefing up in any way they can, now that there’s a hero in town.”

“We actually legitimately need the money, too. Can’t keep kicking vending machines forever.”

No, no, no.

Harrian was speechless. Mostly due to being out of breath, but the betrayal cut deeper than any knife.

“Did you get it?” one of them asked.

“Yeah, it’s all here. Once they see how fast they can go, others will come begging.”

“Dope.”

It? It? It?

All here?

Tape. Film. Camera. They filmed it, him, everything.

“You’ll… be in trouble.”

Harrian whispered.

“What’s that? Hey, get the jacket off.”

“Right.”

One of them went to work, taking the jacket off of him. They rolled him, so they could pick it up.

“Damn, it’s all fucked up now. How’s he?”

“He’s good. Nothing on him.”

“Not a scratch?”

“None.”

“Dope.”

None? None? Impossible. How? He was torn to shreds. He felt it.

“You’re going to get in trouble for this.”

Harrian managed to get that out. Clearer.

“Huh?”

Someone bent down to see him. The smaller of the two.

“You gonna tell on us?”

“Yes… I will.”

Laughter.

“You tell on us,” one of them said, “And those gangs will kill you if you stop them from getting any more protection. You tell on us after, who’s gonna believe you? I don’t see a single scratch on you, and those gangs would probably kill you for that, too. Probably do it with the dogs.”

Harrian’s breathing hitched.

“Tell you what. You did good, so we can give you a cut of whatever we get, if you want. And look, we’ve been cutting class pretty often recently, so we probably have a detention coming our way. We’ll take that punishment, and we’ll think really hard about what we did, here. Right?”

“Yeah, we really are sorry. But it is a fuckton of money, and I really do need it.”

“There you go! Here, there’s a twenty, you can take the bus back. Here’s your backpack, too, we didn’t touch it.”

Harrian heard the bag land beside him. The money fluttered, then landed on his face, stuck to his cheek from the tears and sweat and snot.

“And here.”

Another thing fell right by his eyes. He saw it.

Chocolate.

“See you, Harrian.”

“Wait,” he whispered, but they didn’t hear him. They were already leaving.

He heard the footsteps fade, the trucks start, the vehicles driving off.

Then Harrian was alone, on the floor, the rug swept out from under him.

Cruelty such as this knew no reason.

It was not supposed to be like this.

If Auntie lived somewhere else, if he hadn’t met that girl, starting his experience here on the wrong foot.

If they hadn’t done this. If he chose to not come to this country.

No… no.

This was his fault. His weakness. It happened back at home, and it happened here. He let this happen. He wasn’t strong enough.

He let himself be taken from.

[蠢驴。蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴。蠢驴。]

You understand now, do you?

Harrian did-

Back against the wall, everyone was shouting.

He couldn’t hear the music.

Harrian’s attention was brought back to the now.

The school. Terrorists. People looking for the Bluemoon.

Here?

One of the terrorists barged into the room, pointing his gun at them.

He thought he was going to die. Right then, right there.

But another came in. A person with a paper bag over their head. They had moved so fast that Harrian could barely register it.

The Bluemoon?

No, it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered. Nothing else mattered.

The gun was knocked out of the man’s hands. He recognized the model. AK-47. Painted black. 7.62 by 39 millimeter cartridges. He did some research after the barn.

There it was. The gun. And Evan was here too.

Everything flashed before his eyes. His time in this country.

You know what you want, don’t you?

Harrian did.

Idiot. Stupid donkey of a kid.

You failure.

Nothing else mattered.

Nobody understood him. No existing language could possibly describe his rage in a way that was accurate, in a way that connected.

It wasn’t enough.

Nobody understood him.

But one day, they will.

Harrian ran, and swept the rug out from everyone else.

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046 – Supernova

Previous

I was fast, I could overtake people with just my speed alone. It was one of my assets when it came to being a superhero. It gave me an advantage, it gave me value.

People had guns, but I was faster than those people. Even if they had a tool to level the playing field, more often than not, I still had them beat. I was still much faster than they were.

But, in the most critical of critical moments, I wasn’t faster than this finger, this pulled trigger. The bullets that followed.

Flown into a barrage of metal and destruction.

I was torn to ribbons, and then the others. I lost the breath needed to vocalize the pain.

Oh.

My head whipped back, cracking.

Eyes rolled in the back of the sockets. I was thrown back, along with the splattered blood and the picked-apart meat.

In a very real sense, I was killed.

Previous

Continue reading

045 – Trigger

Previous                                                                                               Next

Blood soaked the walls, dripped from the ceiling. I had to watch my footing so I wouldn’t slip.

What the fuck happened here?

My skin crawled, but my mouth was salivating. Two very different – but very real – reactions.

Had to go another way, there was too much here to even-

A flicker in my eye, and it was all gone. The hallway was empty.

Well then.

Hesitant, I traveled down the hall.

Benny had just finished her most recent message, the pattern had already been established.

Melanie Wu.

Something about the names she was using, the people she was abusing

They were all Asian names.

Not only did Benny know that I went to this school, but she also knew my race. More salt to the wound. But it did make me wonder what people thought the Bluemoon’s race was, before this.

White, I supposed.

It was obvious she didn’t know my ethnicity, though. She was taking a scattershot approach, making a guess with every Asian girl in the school she could get her hands on. Vietnamese, Chinese, it didn’t matter.

Going by the three names she listed, she must have been going by a school registry, sorting by girls with Asian last names.

And your last name is ‘Barnett,’ it’s hardly ethnic.

I couldn’t even take any comfort in that, Benny was targeting people who looked like me, or looked half like me. I wasn’t even fully Asian.

I wasn’t even fully anything.

Forge on, block it. You don’t need to concern yourself with that, now. Work on defeating Benny. Working on humiliating her. Mutilating her.

Thing was, I was already blocking it out.

I chose to pretend it didn’t happen, to continue as if I’d never heard it. If I didn’t, then I’d be worse off, and I wouldn’t be able to take another step in doing what I had to do. Couldn’t let it get to me.

If I was worse off, then everyone else would suffer for it.

Thing was, I had to keep telling myself that.

Time was also a critical element, here, and more people would suffer with every second I wasted. Before I could go after Benny directly, I had to disarm as many of the bombs as possible, taking some of her crew out along the way. Give her less of a leg to stand on, once she was fully in my sights.

That’s not it.

I was closing in on a corner, slowing, so I wouldn’t give myself away. The only other times I’d seen these halls so empty were at the end of the day, usually after practice. Seeing them like this, at noon? Even with the lights on, even with the elevator music, the place seemed desolate.

Teachers and students alike were locked up in their classrooms, afraid to go out into halls they traversed every day. Benny was holding the entire school hostage, and no one from the outside was doing anything about it.

No police, no national guard, no one.

Could they, even? Was the threat of explosives really sufficient in keeping outside forces glued in place? Was there something I was missing?

I didn’t want to have to do this by myself. I needed someone, anyone.

You have someone. Me.

I reached the end of the hall, crouched down. I kept an ear out, but I hadn’t heard anything but the music, my own footsteps, and my own breathing as it crinkled the paper bag I was wearing.

The hallway turned on a right angle, I couldn’t see into the next hall without peeking out, potentially revealing myself to one of the bad guys.

I checked the wall in front, facing the hall. A glass case, holding some of the trophies our different sports teams won over the years. I saw the trophy the volleyball varsity team won last semester.

A glass case, and a reflective surface.

I saw the image of a man patrolling the hall, the image getting smaller. He was walking away.

Had to check again, to make sure it wasn’t some kind of mirage my mind was making up. Another trick. It wasn’t. That man was there, real, corporeal.

And I needed to get to him, if he had a way to stop the bombs.

Easier said than done.

If he was anything like Sofia, he’d have a gun on him, a big one. Going in headfirst wouldn’t be a smart move, unless I was asking to be shot at.

Had to find a way around to him, but how?

I moved from my corner where I was hiding, going back the way I came.

There, a door. Just a slit of a window, but it was dark inside.

I peeked in. I was more comfortable doing that than checking around a corner.

A computer lab, lit only but tiny bulbs and the graphics of screensavers on the monitors, swirling around and changing shape. No one was inside.

The door opened, and I slipped inside. When I closed it behind me, I made sure to pull it hard.

Compared to how quiet the hallway was, it might as well have been a gunshot.

I crossed the room. By the corner of an adjacent wall was another door.

The computer labs here at school were generally pretty big rooms, accessible from different doors, meaning one could enter from different halls.

Not that this guy would know, he wasn’t familiar with the school like I was.

I approached the door, taking a look through the small window. It was dark enough that I wouldn’t be noticed. Still, I wasn’t about to press my face into the glass.

There he was.

He wasn’t dressed like he was prepared to take over a school, more like he was here to fix up a heater. A gray uniform, topped with a gray hat. A belt with different tools at his hip. The gun in his hands did detract from that image, however.

I had a lot of guns pointed at me, in recent times, and not one of them was fired at me or in my general vicinity. I wasn’t about to have that change, today.

I had to lead him here.

He had turned in response to the sound I made earlier, moving to investigate. Coming back my way, but he wouldn’t know to come through this door.

A similar tactic, then.

I didn’t use the door itself to make noise, rather the knob. I twisted it, and then immediately let go. It flipped back into place, making noise along the way.

The man was close enough to have heard that. I took a step back from the door, readying my knife, situating myself in the space between the door and the nearest wall.

It was all tall order, what I was trying to accomplish, but if I broke it up into smaller steps, easier plans, then I might be able to pull this off on my own. Might.

The first small step was to take this guy down, and see if he could provide any assistance with the temporary disarming of at least the first explosive.

Easy enough.

Before I could go over the plan in my head one more time, the door started to open, and I immediately went stiff.

The door creaked as it yawned wider. Stephenville High School was an older school, and not exactly the most well-maintained. It wasn’t hard to find the cracks, even when you weren’t looking.

The door swung open some more, and I saw the man step into the room through the small window. The door was positioned between me and him, now, it only took one good look for him to notice me. Good thing I was in the dark.

The lights immediately turned on. The switch was by the door. Right.

Added pressure for me to move.

The man walked away from the door, and it started to close on its own.

I was already in motion before it could close all the way.

My foot met the back of his leg, and I kicked, folding it in. He was brought to a knee without even knowing what hit him.

I closed in even more, bringing the knife around him, the flat part of the blade touching his throat.

“Do as I say, or this knife is the last thing you swallow,” I said, nearing a whisper. “Put the gun’s safety on, then drop it.”

The man didn’t move for a while. I pushed the blade even more, to the point that I was afraid that I might actually pierce his skin.

“You don’t want me to repeat myself,” I said.

The man finally listened. He held the gun up, fumbling with it. I heard a subtle click.

“Toss it to the middle of the room,” I said.

He tossed it, the weapon sliding out into the open. Easy for others to find, later.

It was a pistol, I noticed. Sofia was a lot more armed than this guy.

Something to take note of.

“Hands up,” I said.

He listened, raising his hands. Empty.

“I’m just going to get right into it,” I said. “Do you have the coolant needed to take out the bombs?”

The man mumbled something. I couldn’t understand him.

I flipped the knife around in my hand. Knifepoint to jugular.

“What did I say about making me repeat myself? You’re making me repeat myself.”

He gulped, and I felt his Adam’s apple move under my knife.

He answered me, finally. “I do have it. It’s in my belt.”

“So you know how to disarm it, or at least take it out for a while?” I asked.

“Yeah, you just spray it on the bomb.”

“Okay. Anything else in your belt, any other weapons?”

“No, just basic tools.”

“Then get up. Keep your hands up, too.”

The man started to lower his arms, stop, then raise them back up. Hesitating?

“On your feet,” I said, having to repeat myself. “The bomb in the gym is the closest one. If you have the spray, then you’d have to know where exactly each bomb is located. Are there any of your friends around?”

“I’m the only one patrolling this part of the building, if that’s what you mean. Can’t say where the others are, exactly.”

“Good enough. Now, for the last time, get the fuck up. And if you try anything now, just know I can do worse without the knife.”

With gradual movements, the man returned to his feet. I had to move my arms away from him, placing the knife on his back, pointed end digging into fabric. He was much taller than me, I realized.

He seemed to notice, as well.

“Can you?” he asked.

“I can. A knife is a weapon people know, it’s familiar. Throw a knife, or even a gun, into any situation, you can reasonably guess what the damage is going to look like. Believe me when I say, you don’t know me. You don’t know the damage I can bring you, just as myself.”

“Hm, I have a feeling I know who you are, Bluemoon.”

I poked him with the knife. Any more, and I would have actually stabbed him.

“Walk,” I said.

He took the first step, and I was right behind him. His hands were still up, my knife was still on his back. It made for getting through the door somewhat tricky, I had him pressed to the wall while I opened it with my free hand, but it wasn’t impossible.

We made it to the hall, then we moved to the big gym. The first bomb.

The music cut once again.

I tire of this, Bluemoon. There’s only so much blood I can spill in your name. Why are you making this so difficult for me?

I pushed open the door into the gym. The intercom carried in here, and it was infinitesimally louder.

Harder to block out of my head.

I just want you, Bluemoon, you and you only. I said no one had to be hurt, and what’s happened since? You let three people die, and maybe a fourth, if I’m about to guess wrong, again. For even someone like me, that’s just cruel.

I pushed the man again with my knife, prodding him to go faster.

“Where is it?” I asked. I had to speak over the intercom, over Benny.

“It’s at the end of those bleachers, at the farthest corner,” he answered, looking in that direction.

I poked him again. “Faster.”

He picked up the pace, taking us to the back of the bleachers.

Benny was still blabbering as we walked. A second voice had made themselves known. Another student.

I didn’t catch their name. I didn’t want to catch their name.

Please tell me you’re actually the Bluemoon?” Benny asked them.

I couldn’t stand to hear anymore of this. I couldn’t bear it. My mind so wanted to retreat to something else, to listen to something else.

Then listen to me.

It scared me, just how much I considered it, in that moment.

“There,” the man said as we turned. His hands were still up, but he pointed in the general direction.

“Alright, I’m letting you put your arms down, so you can do your thing,” I said, cautious. “I’m watching you, though, this isn’t your opportunity to be brave.”

“Fine,” he said. He set his arms down, slow, moving more confidently once his arms were at his side. My knife was still on his back, a not-so-subtle reminder.

He stepped under the bleachers, the metal seating above blocking some of the light. Some light managed to cut through, however, so we weren’t completely in the dark.

We didn’t even have to go that far. I ducked my head to avoiding hitting a beam, but the man stopped soon enough.

“Here it is,” he said, looking down. “Can I?”

I stepped around him to get a better view of the thing. My knife always pointing his way.

A sports bag, big enough to carry different kinds of equipment. No one would have seen this if they weren’t looking for it. Maybe if they were, there was a high chance they could’ve missed it.

“I already gave you my warning, go ahead,” I said.

The man sighed, but he bent down, unzipping the bag.

I saw the bomb.

It looked more like something to be mailed than something that could explode. A package, really. Black tape was strapped around the manila box, with a ‘caution, fragile’ symbol taped at the base of the device. The only thing particularly off about it was the metal box attached at the top of the device. That, and the fact that it was pulsing with a green light.

My entire body went stiff. That thing could go off at any second, if Benny willed it.

It brought back ugly memories, too. Memories I wished I never had.

The dinner party, where Solace made the first move. The bomb that was strapped to that nameless man, Solace talking through him. The riot at city hall, the last time anyone heard anything official about Solace. The bomb that was strapped to Thomas, tortured into speaking on Solace’s behalf. The explosion.

I could still recall how powerful that blast was, how deafening it was. How hot it was when the impact came over me. Couldn’t get it out of my head, my ears would ring at night, and I’d wake up the next morning, soaked in sweat.

The sight of a bomb like that, here, it made my knees weak.

The man reached for his belt, taking out a can. He popped the lid off, aimed it right at the bomb, then pressed down. A white spray spewed out of the nozzle.

Benny was still going, trying to goad me. Had to ignore her, couldn’t let her affect me.

But she’s already gotten to you.

My eye flickered.

That voice. It seemed to come from everywhere at once.

There was no need to turn my head. I looked, and it was there.

It had no definite features. It was darker than the shadows around it, and I was able to make out its shape by looking for what was missing, rather than what was actually there.

Its shoulders were broad, but its limbs were long, thin. So was its waist.

Tall. I craned my neck to take in its full height.

No definite gender. But it had a tangled version of my own voice. A deep bass lying underneath that scooped and filled my ears when I heard it.

Not a man, not a woman, no way was it a person. It was a thing. And it wasn’t an illusion, it wasn’t my brain making a false image out of something already there. It was there, it took up space, and that was not a very good sign.

I looked where its eyes were supposed to be. Nothing there. A blank face.

“Who are you?” I asked, words coming out on their own. I braced myself for whatever the answer may be.

It answered, but it had no mouth to use, and what I could only guess was the thing’s ‘voice’ resounded in my own head.

Now, I believe proper introductions are in order. I’m Thomas Thompson. And you must be The Bluemoon.

It was as if I’d stabbed myself with my own knife. Striking a wound that had yet to fully heal.

“No you’re not,” I said, saying it more for myself than to inform that thing. I gripped my knife even harder.

“Yes I am.”

I looked towards the direction of that voice. “Huh?”

The man was half turned around, half looking back at me. Still crouched.

“I said I’m Samuel.”

“Okay?” I questioned him.

“You asked me who I was and I gave you my name? Never mind, I’m done with the-”

A crash of a noise interrupted him, and it was like a cannon went off right by my ear.

I seized up. I fell, hugging my body, expecting a wave of heat swallowing me up, an impact like being hit by a truck. The knife slipped out of my hand as I cupped my ears.

Dammit, even my own body was fighting against me. I didn’t even have control over my very self. An attack on all fronts. Mind and body. Giving way for another thing to take hold.

And that scared me.

LIke a pop, the sound didn’t last, but the effect already had me in its talons. I clutched my head, in shivers.

My mind was in shreds, and so desperate to cling on to something to help put itself together.

Then listen to me.

I listened.

That was just the gunshot from the intercom. The bomb didn’t explode. But I heard footsteps. Samuel is getting away. Get up. Stop him.

My eyelids dragged themselves open, and I saw that Samuel was gone. The thing, the shape, was also missing. Only me.

Move, stop Samuel, kill him.

I moved.

I found the knife easy, snatching it back up. I had to duck to avoid a beam or two, but they weren’t too much in the way of obstacles. I was out of the bleachers’ underside, and got onto the gym floor.

That man, Samuel, was halfway down the gym. If I was just a normal human, he’d escape if I chased after him now.

If.

Stop Samuel, kill him.

I dashed with the first step, then took to the air with the second. I flew across half the length of the big gym.

I aimed it perfectly. I kicked my feet out as I closed in on Samuel, striking him between the shoulderblades. He collapsed like a rock.

I angled it so I landed with me sitting on his back, keeping him down. My knife found its place by his neck, just to be careful.

“Did I say you could leave when you were done?” I said, nearly out of breath, heart pounding.

“Can’t blame me for… trying,” Samuel said back, equally fishing for air.

“Suppose not, but it’s not going to be your smartest idea, I’ll see to that. But about the bomb, it’s done?”

“Agh, yes, it is.”

“So you just spray it and that’s enough?”

“Just about. When the light turns off, that’s it.”

I took a moment to collect my thoughts. The music started up once more, reverberating in the gym. An echoed quality.

“The bomb in the auditorium, where exactly is it?”

“In the pit.”

The pit? Oh, that was where the band played during musicals. Between the first row of seats and the stage itself, if I remembered correctly. I wasn’t exactly into plays.

“And the one in the cafeteria?” I asked.

“It’s, ow, under one of the tables, on the second level.”

“And those locations are clear of people?”

“Should be, probably.”

That was enough out of him. I had to wrap this up.

“Do you have any means of communication between you and your crew?”

“Walkie-talkie,” Samuel answered, strained.

“Where?”

“Other side of my belt.”

I reached to his side, finding it. Samuel’s face was laid down on the gym floor, facing one side. I placed the device by his mouth.

“Tell them you found the Bluemoon,” I said. “That you have him cornered in the boys’ restroom in A-Hall, upstairs. That I’m in my usual costume, blue hoodie and white mask. Deviate from that by a single word, then I’m gutting you.”

I pressed down the button on the side. Samuel spoke into it.

“Hey, everyone, I’ve got the son of a bitch, cornered in the bathroom of… A-Hall, upstairs. I need some backup.”

He paused for a breath.

Estoy min-”

I lifted my finger off the button. I moved my knife.

“You’re done, Samuel,” I said.

Kill him.

The knife went into his leg. And then again. And again.

His pained screams echoed in the gym, until I couldn’t hear the music.

Had to stop myself. I wasn’t here just for him. Benny still needed her turn.

“You’re staying here,” I said, even though he probably couldn’t hear me. “Thanks for all the help though.”

I got on my feet, taking out the duct tape. He fought, struggled, but I managed to tape his hands behind his back. No need to tie his legs. He wouldn’t be walking for a while.

I took the spray and walkie-talkie from him, too. He wasn’t going to need it.

I put everything but my knife into the pockets of my borrowed hoodie, and started to head out of the gym, Samuel bleeding behind me.

As the gym doors closed, I stuck the blade under my paper-mask, licking the blood off.

It gave me what I needed to take the next step, and take it faster.

I headed to the next bomb, the closest one.

The auditorium.

Sofia referred to it as the ‘theater,’ but that was probably what she meant. Given where I was, it was closer than the cafeteria…

And so was the upstairs restroom in A-Hall.

That restroom was in the farthest corner of the school, from my relative location. Maybe Samuel’s message wouldn’t attract everyone, but the prospect of me being cornered in a restroom should have been an attractive one. I could bet that a majority of Benny’s crew would want a piece of the action.

Hopefully, that cleared the way to the second bomb.

I walked faster, but I wasn’t hasty. Right angles were still hair-raising to go around. I could run into anybody, at anytime.

With a knife in my hand, I tried to be ready.

I rounded a corner, and in an instant, I rounded back, pressed on the wall. Someone there.

Shit, did they see me? Were they coming my way?

I waited, prepared for a fight.

No one came.

I took a breath, readying myself again. I peeked around the corner.

No one there.

Dammit, I thought I saw someone.

I continued on my way, picking up the pace even more.

I ended up farther back into the school, the hallways giving way to the workshops where the more ‘hands-on’ classes were held. The theater kids would spend a lot of their time here preparing props for their plays. There were even classes on how to fix up cars.

Planks of wood were stacked on the floor, tools left behind. Buckets of paint left open. Doors shut, garage doors slid down. More students and teachers were behind those doors, the lockdown in effect here, as well.

Going this way led to the auditorium, but the proper entrance was another way. If I went past the workshops, I’d be going in by way of the back door.

There. A ramp into a black door, the last one in the hall. I maneuvered up the ramp, and tested the knob. Unlocked.

I went into the auditorium.

The sound of the door was unassuming when I opened it, but it boomed as it closed behind me. All dark, but that wasn’t an issue. I moved without a problem.

I entered stage left, or was it stage right? Whichever it was, I moved across until I was front and center.

I peered into the darkness.

The music couldn’t reach me here, and it was silent. The only sounds were my footsteps and heartbeat and breathing, and they felt like they were amplified in volume. There was no one to be found here, too. No one in the rows of seats. It was as if I was transported somewhere else completely, far removed from the situation happening at my own school. It was as if it I no longer had a problem to solve.

In the darkness, I had freedom.

Let’s take this freedom, and keep it for ourselves. Let’s run and hide in the dark.

I massaged my temples.

Life wasn’t that simple.

I took another step forward, and descended into a deeper blackness. I fell into the pit.

I landed square on my feet, among more empty chairs. No instruments here, I doubted the band kids would leave those behind.

Looking around for the second bomb didn’t take up too much time. I found it in the center of the pit, where the maestro would stand.

Bent down, guarded, I unzipped the bag.

A pulsing light.

The second bomb, and another piece of what I was starting to realize was a strange puzzle.

The first bomb was under some bleachers, the second was in the pit of the auditorium. Should these have exploded… They’d cause some damage, sure, but there was no one around to be hurt by the explosions. And they were hidden under stuff, things that would serve to soften the blow, even if it was minimal.

Definitely interesting.

Why, though? The bombs were very much alive, so Benny had to have gone into this expecting that they might go off, and she obviously had no qualms about killing kids

Then…

Why put the bombs in such lowkey places?

Think, Alexis, don’t be so dense. People hate that.

Unless…

Benny had no intention of killing anyone. It was a farce, putting on a show to get me to come out. Her at the intercom, was it all pretend?

That’s a nice thought, maybe even a real possibility. Does that change anything?

It didn’t. I still wanted to get back at Benny. Hurt her.

Kill her?

I didn’t answer.

I pulled out the spray, and worked on disabling the bomb, being careful about not touching the bomb itself.

The device was covered in the white spray, until there was more white than bomb. I removed my finger, stopping the stream. I couldn’t afford to waste all of it.

I held my breath.

Using my free hand, I wiped away white goo from the bulb, where the light pulsed.

Worst case scenario, I had my healing. But, this was still a bomb I was dealing with. I didn’t want anymore explosions, no more loud sounds.

No light. Success.

Two bombs down, one to go. And one Benny still standing.

Soon.

Even with the detonator knocked out, I didn’t dare move the bomb. I simply jumped out of the pit, landing back onto the stage. I left the way I came, but I was entering into the light, this time. I squinted as I hurried, having to adjust to how bright it was.

No shadowy figures in the complete darkness, I realized. I was unsure of how to take that.

Even the music offended. Had Benny taken another life, I wasn’t there to hear it.

As I returned to the ‘real’ school hallways, a strange feeling welled up in me. Two bombs, defused, in relative quick succession of each other. Unbeknownst to Benny, she didn’t have those two particular cards to play, not anymore. There was one more bomb left, but if I was fast enough, I could defuse the situation entirely, and make it out okay.

I had a chance, right?

I heard laughter. It wasn’t from an external source.

I figured.

Next stop was the cafeteria, and just getting there was a challenge. My distraction wouldn’t hold forever, I had to assume that Benny and her crew had already went back to searching around the school for me, redoubling their efforts. They’d be spread out, now.

I held my knife, prepared.

Blood started leaking from the walls and ceilings. When I blinked, they were gone.

It’s as if the harder you try to maintain a grip, the easier it is to slip. Just let go.

So many things I needed addressed, if I just had the time to address them. But things just kept happening. So many other things that took the now away from me.

Let me take over. You’re stupid, Alexis, you’re unfit. You’re too bound by your name to do what needs to be done. What should be done. Anyone else in your shoes could do better. Anyone.

I accelerated into a run.

You let four people die. Benny’s right, that is cruel. Do you know why you let them die? Do you know why you’re doing this instead of finding help for Coach Tilly?

I ran faster.

I want to tell you, let me tell you. It’s because-

“Fuck off!” I yelled.

I turned into a new hallway. Two men. Two guns.

They had stepped into this hall at the same time I did. It wouldn’t have mattered if I was quiet or not. I spotted them at the same time they spotted me.

One of them ran ahead, drawing his gun. A rifle. I wouldn’t give him the time to take aim.

I sped up, moving toward a wall of lockers. I hopped, then managed to run along the wall for a few steps, my momentum keeping me up.

His arms jerked awkwardly. He wasn’t used to having a target that moved like this.

I closed in, then pushed away from the wall. A kick to his head was sufficient. I landed before he crashed down.

Threat of guns, no firing. Couldn’t have that.

I looked where to move next, the next target. He would have been farther back, so I had his rifle to worry about. He’d have time to aim.

He was gone.

But a door was ajar. It wasn’t, before.

A door to a class.

Eyes wide, I ran.

I flung the door open, and I entered the classroom.

The gunman was in the center of the room, rifle pointed to the class.

This was an art class, made of students from different grades. An elective class, meaning there were a lot of students.

And that man had his gun in their direction.

He had split them up into two different groups, one group taking a corner, the other hugging the connecting wall. Mrs. Irons, the art teacher, was in the group in the corner. I had this class last year.

They were scared. I was scared for them.

The gunman saw me come in. He positioned himself so he could face me, while still training his rifle at them.

“Take another step, and they’re all-”

I was a blur before he could finish.

Can’t let this happen, no way. Have to do something, try something. Can’t let him shoot.

Those thoughts were my own. They were clear, resonant.

I attacked as I rushed.

With an empty but closed hand, I slammed his chest with enough force to break bones. With the knife, I stabbed him in the arm.

He dropped like a fly, and so did his rifle.

Momentum still had me, and I kept going. I stopped when I crashed into a row of tables, in front of the two groups the gunman had split up.

My back ached. Seeing stars, seeing things.

But there was a moment of quiet. Nothing was fired. I stopped him.

I did it.

Had to hurry, before more of them came. Had to get to the cafeteria.

I clambered to my feet, checking if the paper bag was still covering my head. It was.

I checked everyone else, to see if they were okay.

They weren’t.

They weren’t even looking at me.

Someone behind me.

Aching, I wheeled around.

My heart sank into my stomach and leapt into my throat. Back and forth.

“Harrian,” I said, under my breath.

Harrian Wong, carrying a rifle.

A million thoughts sped through my scrambled mind.

Where’d he come from? Why’d he have a gun?

No.

Harrian had this class, he couldn’t just pop out of nowhere. I just hadn’t noticed him in the frenzy. And that gun was from the gunman from just now, he’d picked it up.

And his eyes.

I’d felt anger before, I’d felt frustration. I’d let it course through my veins and consume me, I’d let it control my actions. I was feeling it now.

This was different. It was so much more pure, potent, focused. I could see it in his eyes.

Hatred.

But why?

Stunned, floored, I followed Harrian’s gaze.

My heart. Back and forth.

I saw him.

Evan, of Eric and Evan, among the group in the corner, except the former wasn’t here. Thin, spindly, blond, and very pale. Sweating bullets.

That was why.

Connections made. Their whole thing, this whole time, it was all a lie.

Oh no.

“Harrian!” I shouted, already moving-

He didn’t respond with words, but with the pull of a trigger.

Harrian fired.

Previous                                                                                               Next

044 – Hide & Seek

Previous                                                                                               Next

Frozen, color drained, all the blood in my body feeling as though it stopped circulating. Realistically, that sensation only lasted some odd seconds, but it might as well have lasted for years on end.

There were very few things in this world that would do that to a person. Maybe once, perhaps twice, it’d happen to them.

Yet for me, that feeling just kept coming.

And this was the strongest that feeling had hit yet.

Fuck.

The intercom came back on.

Bluemoon, or Blank Face, whatever the fuck you want to call yourself, you’ve been a goddamn thorn in my side the second this all started. And all from the safety and comfort of a fucking mask. That’s cheating, you know that? But no more. That mask can no longer protect you. I know you’re a student here. I know that you’re actually a girl.

I battled with the urge to vomit all over the floor. I had to settle with ugliness sitting inside me.

The voice was female, I could gather that much. With that talk about cheating, and the fact that there was only really one female I’ve explicitly dealt with during my time as Blank Face…

It made for an easy guess.

And that’s why we’re here,” Benny said, “To end it. Willingly give yourself up, and we’ll all be on our way. No one has to get hurt.

There was a pause. Seconds came and went. Then minutes. It wasn’t like I was in a position to respond directly.

Very well. If that’s how you want to play this game, then, so be it. I’ve got my crew all over the premises, we will find you. And, this goes out to everyone else, but don’t bother contacting anyone from outside. There’s explosives placed at key points in the building, and I have access to the cameras. If I see anyone trying to enter, or trying to leave…

She left it there. The threat was implicit enough.

The only one who is in any position to spare you people is the ‘hero’ herself. And as for you, Bluemoon, I’m giving you five more minutes to come clean, to make yourself present and known. After that, and still nothing, I’m making my own guess.

There was a click, then nothing. Before any of us could relax, sound came back on the intercom.

Music.

Not just any music, it was the music that played during passing period, in between classes. Light elevator music, easy to tune out. Except now, there was an eerie, overbearing quality to it.

Passing period was about five minutes. She was giving me a timer.

Fuck this.

How was this possible, how was this happening? How did Benny manage to find me, and find me here, of all places, when I wasn’t able to get to her? Was she doing this as a part of Solace? Another one of those ‘games’ like from before?

Whatever Benny did, whatever trick she pulled to get here, it was fucked, unfair.

Like salt in a wound, the music kept playing, and I crawled back into the chair, though hunched. Eve and Coach Tilly were getting up, too.

“This is a dream, right?” Eve asked, voice shaky, her eyes as wide as saucers. “This has to be some kind of joke or prank or something.”

I averted my eyes.

I wish it was.

“Stay calm, everyone,” Coach Tilly said, sounding surprisingly level. “We’ll get through this if we stay calm.”

She was including herself in saying that, I noticed.

“Who was that?” Eve asked, “Is the Bluemoon really a student here? And did they say it was a girl? Why are they coming after it here?”

“That’s a lot of questions,” Coach Tilly said, “Luckily I can answer all of them with just one answer, I don’t know.”

The music played. The pit in my stomach grew.

Eve sat back down, backing into the corner of the room, by the door. It was November, it was raining outside, but the cold hadn’t gotten inside the building.

Regardless, Eve was shivering.

“Then, what do we do? Do we just… sit here?”

Coach wiped her forehead with her sleeve. Her brow was glistening with sweat. “I don’t know. It’s either that, or go out into the hall, but I can’t risk that, not with students. Not with my players.”

“We have our phones? Can’t we try something?”

Coach’s phone was on her desk. She picked it up, looking at it. She shook her head.

“Phone works fine, but if what they’re saying is true, I don’t want to be the reason why-”

Her voice cracked, and she went mute. Coach Tilly fell into her chair.

Eve pulled out her phone.

“Eve, you can’t-” I started.

“Internet doesn’t work,” she said.

“What?”

“It won’t let me connect, I can’t go online.” Eve then laughed, a touch manic. “Okay, I know that I’m going to sound really stupid right now… This is definitely the real deal.”

Her eyes went wide again. “Oh god, oh god.”

She looked like she was on the verge of hyperventilating. For my part, I was right behind her.

Eve,” Coach Tilly said, putting heavy emphasis on her name, “You need to not let yourself freak out like that. And Alexis?”

I lifted my head. Coach was watching me, close.

“Same goes for you. You’ve been quiet.”

I had been quiet, but I was having trouble process any of this. Was this the end of everything? Should I give myself up? If I did, Coach Tilly and Eve would be the first people to find out. Two people who had nothing to do with this. What would they do if I told them? Would they let me leave the room? Would Benny stick to her word, as far as innocents were concerned?

The music continued. Years of it playing in the background while I walked from class to class… Never before did it have such a presence.

And there wasn’t much of the song left to play.

I wanted to hit something, the wall beside me, make it break. I couldn’t, obviously, and that made me feel like shit.

Coach Tilly attempted to address me again. “Alexis? Don’t go into shock now.”

I opened my mouth, or rather, I just let it hang. It was hard to vocalize.

“I’m… here,” I said. “I’m here. Present.”

“Good to have you,” Coach said.

I tried swallowing, but my throat was dry. More ways than one.

“Is there anything we do know?” Eve asked. Her eyes looked glossed over, unfocused. Retreating more into her corner.

Coach massaged her head, hands over ears. Blocking out the music, I surmised.

“There are only so many places you can access the school’s intercom,” she said. “Whoever’s talking has to be somewhere in the front office. Maybe the nurse’s office, but that might be a stretch.”

I bent back down in my chair, clutching my stomach.

Was there a way I could get to the front office and stop Benny without getting caught? No, it was improbable, if not impossible. The logistics of it were too complicated. I was limited to what we had here, in Coach Tilly’s office, and even then, there weren’t a lot of resources at hand.

Shit, I was stuck, and the metaphorical clock kept ticking. I wanted the song to never end.

I spoke up, getting out my first lengthy sentence in what felt like hours. “Coach, can you contact anyone from the front office? See what’s the situation over there?”

“Maybe, but,” Coach had her phone in her hands, staring at it. “Contacting anyone there might put them in jeopardy, we’re in the dark about how it is over there.”

She lowered her phone, her expression dark.

“This isn’t a fight for the three of us to take on,” she said. Completely unaware about the irony of her statement. “This isn’t our place to do anything. We can only hope that whatever that person is saying is true. That the Bluemoon is here, and will come forward.”

My heart fluttered, like a bird in a cage.

I’d never seen Coach Tilly like this before. I’d never seen Eve like that.

Watching them like this, seeing another side of those you had known for years, I might as well be meeting them for the first time. They were so unrecognizable.

I broke.

And then the music cut out.

A few clicks, the amplified sound of someone picking up a phone.

I gave you a time limit, and you didn’t comply, Bluemoon. I’m very disappointed.

All three of us were looking up at the ceiling, staring at a distinct circle affixed there.

Now this is where I make my first guess. You, what’s your name?

There was an abrupt moment of ruffling, like someone was passing a phone to someone else.

A second voice. The verge of tears.

Suzie Nguyen…”

That name…

I was breaking out into a cold sweat. I heard a faint sound in the distance.

That abrupt ruffling, again.

Are you the Bluemoon?

Benny was back on.

The device was being passed back and forth between the two of them. Crackling and popping of the signal.

No, I’m not, god please, I’m not that thing.

How can I be so sure?

I’m not! Please! Isn’t it obvious I’m-

She was interrupted. A loud bang sounded off, distorting the speakers. It cut out again, I didn’t hear the whole thing ring out.

We all screamed, anyways.

Someone gone. Lost. Forever. All because of me. All because of the fucking Bluemoon.

I jumped out of my seat. I lost my sense of where I was, what was happening, who I was. I had a mouth, and I just had to scream. Rage backed by something within me, deeper.

A hand went over my mouth, and I was pushed into the wall behind me. The desk banged in place, several books fell out of the shelves.

Eve had her hands on me, pushing me back, keeping me down.

“Shut up!”

Her hand caught my mouth while it was still open, her palm pressed against my tongue.

That taste.

Thoughts in my head were screaming to bite into her hand. It took all of my willpower to back down.

Neither of us said anything, but it wasn’t quiet. The music returned. Light, jazzy elevator music.

Eve glared, pulling her hand away, a line of spit following. She wiped her hand at her side, cleaning it.

“Dammit, Alexis, we missed that next part because you wouldn’t shut up.”

She backed up some more, resting against the edge of Coach’s desk, placing her hands beside her. Her eyes went to the floor, grimacing.

“Don’t be so hard on her, Eve,” Coach said, somber. She turned her attention to me. “They put the music back because they’re starting the timer again. Five more minutes, and then they make their next ‘guess.’”

Coach’s face looked green as she said it, like the words carried an illness with them.

My back was to the wall, figuratively and literally.

Benny was going to have another person killed. Another student, who went to this school.

First Thomas, now this. Suzie.

I wasn’t very acquainted with her, but I knew of her, and it pained me all the same.

Oh my god, holy shit, holy fuck, holy shit

I caught sight of Eve again, and I had to will myself to breathe in, then breathe out. Slow. Cool it for a moment. I couldn’t afford to let myself freak, not here. The tension was already layered on thick, and it was only getting more palpable, and noxious.

But something had to be done. Couldn’t just sit here. Or more innocents would…

I want to throw up.

There was a waste bin by Eve, could I relieve myself real fast?

Get it together, Alexis. You know what you want to do.

“Get out,” I said aloud, anger in my tone.

Coach Tilly and Eve both turned to me. Confusion.

Oh.

I breathed, finding some mental footing again. Marginal. “How, how are we going to get out of this?”

Coach had returned to her chair, arms crossed. She looked as if she aged ten extra years.

She talked, with no emotion. “We’re going in circles now, Alexis. They want that Bluemoon thing, who is apparently here, and they want the rest of us stuck in one spot. If we move, and try anything, and get caught, it’s only going to get worse. Everything’s pinned on that one person, if they’re actually here.”

Music played. The timer continued.

“This went way too far, way too fast,” Eve said, nearly out of breath. “Doesn’t the Bluemoon know this is serious? Why wouldn’t they just give it up, already? Someone’s already-”

Her voice cracked again, and she just stopped there, looking even more downcast.

My chest was beating until it hurt, my eyes kept darting from my feet to the door. My feet to the door. My feet, the door. Feet, door.

Get Benny, find Benny. Paint the walls with her. Eat. Drink. Eat.

Flicker.

I tugged at my collar, airing myself off. I scanned the small room again, at a loss of what to do.

The room was getting smaller. Claustrophobic, amplified by the four of us. Not a lot of space to compose ourselves and-

Wait.

Me, Coach Tilly, Eve…

And that.

The edge of a man’s outline, in the corner of my eye. It evaded a direct look when I moved my eyes to catch it, floating to stay in the edge of my vision.

Black. Shadow.

It slinked as it moved, sliding across the wall, growing taller as it went from one corner to the other, closing in on me. I had to lift my head as its head reached the ceiling, a tendril-like arm stretching to touch my face and-

Alexis, we need to get out of here. You need to get us out of here.

I backed away again, into my own corner, knocking into the chair I was once sitting in. Eve jumped, avoiding it as it rolled to her.

“Alexis, what the fuck are you on?”

The tone and her choice of words drew my attention back to Eve. Her look was more worried than confused. Drawn in, shielded, like she was handling a snake, ready for when it would inevitably bite.

I had to tell myself to run my hand through my hair. A normal action in an attempt to stabilize myself.

I glanced around, one more time. Just the three of us. The music continued playing, the notes harrowing, piano keys drilling into my head.

“Nothing, I’m alright,” I said, utterly failing to sound convincing. I couldn’t even convince myself.

“Right…” Eve said, trailing away. She didn’t relax.

Damn, I couldn’t stand to be in here.

Then a noise clattered, different from anything else we’d been subjected to, recently. Coach Tilly and Eve turned their head in response. I did too.

Coming from right outside.

Another sound, same direction, muffled.

Voices.

Not the ones in my head.

“Get down, get down,” Coach Tilly whispered, but she still stressed her words.

We all got down, crouching.

“Who’s out there?” Eve asked, whispering.

“For one last time, Eve, I’m not in a position to tell you,” Coach responded. “Keep quiet, and keep low.”

Eve did the latter, but ignored the former. “Is the door locked?”

“I can’t lock that door from the inside.”

Shit.

“Do you think we can turn off the lights?” Eve asked.

The voices returned, this time louder. Talking, responding, but there was only one discernible tone to it. Only one person?

“It’s too late,” Coach said, “Here, crawl here behind my desk, we’re switching places.”

Neither of us were in a position to argue. We waited for Coach to move away from her desk, closer to the door. Eve slipped under the desk first. I was right behind her.

The space was limited, cramped. Vision compromised. I bumped shoulders with Eve.

We only had our hearing.

Four knocks on the door. Not the friendliest knocks I’d ever heard.

No response, not from any of us.

I heard the fumbling of the metal knob.

The door opened. Not from our end.

“You.”

A woman. Not deep, but still menacing. “Why are you on the floor?”

She was addressing Coach Tilly.

Coach answered her, sounding surprisingly firm, given everything.

“The school’s on lockdown, it was part of our drills. This is a school, in case you didn’t know.”

“Oh, I’m more than aware. Are you the only one in here?”

I felt Eve go completely still.

“I am,” Coach said, hard.

“I’m inclined to take a quick look around. Sorry, part of our drills.”

I felt myself go completely still.

“There’s no one else in here,” Coach said. “Just me.”

“Maybe I believe you, but I want to see for myself.”

“Don’t, I’m the only one-”

“You-”

Sneakers squeaking on tile. The grunts between two people. Signs of a struggle.

An all-too familiar click.

Not Coach too.

It was as if some other force had taken over. I sprung to action.

I pushed myself up, hands on the desk. I kicked my legs up, feet pressed on the wall behind me.

I only had a fraction of a second to process the situation. More than enough time.

Legs against the wall, a hard push, and I sent myself over the desk, slamming my body into the woman that was fighting with Coach.

Blurry.

The resulting crash took me out of the office, the woman under me. We hit the wall opposite the door, the woman’s back taking most of the impact.

I was back on my feet as the woman slid to the floor, hands to her side, empty. Dazed.

I moved on instinct, what I felt I needed to do. I grabbed her by the ankles, and pulled her back into Coach’s office.

“Holy fuck, the hell was that?”

Eve was hollering in my ear. She had gotten out from our hiding spot.

“Close the door,” I said as I came in. I was oddly cool about things. “No yelling.”

Eve had enough wits about her to listen. She stepped over the woman, getting the door.

I let go of her ankles, going to the woman’s collar. I picked her up to prop her against the corner of the room, I kept my hands on her, one on her neck, the other over her eyes. I was crouched to be at her level, one knee pressed between her legs, a foot on her hand.

She wasn’t going anywhere. Not unless I had a say in it.

I took a glance behind me, and Eve was standing over me, hands on her head, taking everything in. She wasn’t doing a very good job.

Shit.

Eve stammered. “Okay, okay, you need to tell me what-”

“In a minute, but we need to watch our language. No names.”

Why?”

“Because these people hold grudges, as you can see. If you give them a name and a face, they’ll go to the ends of the earth to get back at you.”

“No, as in, why would you know that?”

Shit, shit.

If my mind was a book, I flipped through the pages of my memory.

“Remember Jillian?” I said. “Brandon’s cousin?”

“Jillian? You mean that one… She’s Brandon’s cousin?”

“Yeah. Let’s just say she runs with these kinds of guys, and I’ve been on the receiving end of their kinds of grudges, once before”

Eve only had one word to say at that, one sound. “Oh.”

I had left some details out, fudging others, and I didn’t mention that I was currently on another receiving end of such a grudge, but I gave her a decent enough picture to work with.

“How’s Coach?” I asked, changing course before Eve could dwell on it for too long.

“Ah, I… Fuck, she’s not responding. She must have gotten hit in the head by her gun-”

“Gun? Where is it now?”

“On the floor, I kicked it away.”

This isn’t good, and it’s only getting worse.

The voice was sing-songy.

One thing at a time.

I had to come up with something.

“Keep her head up, do we have ice?”

“There’s ice in the breakroom.”

So there was none here.

Think, but couldn’t think too hard. Or I’d be inviting more unknown elements into my headspace.

“I can get ice,” I said. I turned to the woman I had pinned. “We just need-”

The music stopped.

Of all times.

It was as if the world itself stood still.

You are testing my patience, Bluemoon. I’m surprised you can be so cruel to your fellow classmates.

Benny…

A certain fire was starting to spark within me.

It’s time for my next guess. And your name is?

Elena… Zhang…

Again, that name…

Are you the Bluemoon?

Then, crying. The sound of crying coming out from the speakers above. Going throughout the entire school. Everyone was hearing this.

I’m not-”

Interrupted by a distorted fuzzy bang.

I gritted my teeth, lowering my head a fraction. Seeing red. Eve shrieked behind me.

You two, start cleaning this up. Ah, seems like I was wrong again. But I will eventually be right. It’s all up to you, Bluemoon. You have five more minutes.

Phone hanging up.

Music.

The timer started again.

Choking.

I opened my eyes, and I saw that my fingers were around the woman’s neck. Getting tighter.

I stopped myself.

“You,” I said to her, low, so it stayed between us. “Answer, truthfully, with a nod or by shaking your head. Any other friends of yours in the hallways right outside?”

She shook her head.

I shifted a little to get another view of Eve.

“You go into the breakroom, you get the ice.”

Eve pointed to herself.

“Me?”

Who else?

“Yes, you, I need to keep this one here.” I moved the woman’s head, tapping the back of her skull against the wall. I wasn’t exactly being careful with her. “And hurry. It’s not like in movies. If someone’s out, then it’s dangerous. We need to do what we can until someone else can treat her more properly. Go!”

She sprang at that last word, leaving the office in a sprint, despite her ankle. The door was shut behind her.

I went back to the woman.

“I’m allowing you to talk, now. Tell me everything you know,” I said. “Starting with your name.”

She didn’t try to fight or stall me. She knew her place.

“Sofia. Are you the Bluemoon?”

“Thank you, Sofia, and no, I’m not. And I’m the only one who gets to ask any questions around here, not you. The person on the intercom, where are they doing it from?”

Leaving out details was crucial. Wouldn’t do to let slip I knew it was Benny.

“Front office.”

“How many of you are there, around the school?”

“There’s a lot of us, I’m not sure.”

Liar.

“Ballpark it,” I said, seething.

“Definitely more than twenty, less than forty?”

She’s fucking with you. Kill her.

I shook my head.

I asked another question. “Those explosives, where are they, and can they be disarmed?”

“Are you telling me a kid is going to take out every single explosive?”

I gripped her neck harder, restricting more airflow. She started writhing. I released, then gripped, then released again.

“Answer the questions.”

She answered, ragged. “There’s three bombs. One in that big gym, one in the theater, the last one’s in the cafeteria. As for disarming them, you can’t, you’d need a bomb squad.”

She. They. Benny. They’re the real monsters. Do it. Spill them all.

Concentrate.

I needed every ounce of concentration, and even that was slipping away.

“But there is a temporary fix. Some of us are carrying coolant spray, in case something goes wrong with the detonator. Hitting the bomb with that should knock it out of commission for at least a whole day.”

That, I could use.

“Do you have that spray on you?” I asked.

“I don’t, you’d have to get it from someone else, but I doubt they’d give it up so easily.” Sofia tried moving her head, getting my hand out of her eyes. I pushed her back into the wall to get her to stop.

“Are you sure you’re not the Bluemoon? All this talk, these questions you’re asking, it doesn’t sound like something a normal kid would concern herself with.”

“I’m not who you think I am,” I said, keeping my tone as neutral as possible. “But what makes you so sure that the Bluemoon is even here? You might be wrong, the Bluemoon might be somewhere else. Another school, or they might not even be a student. If they were here, they would’ve answered you, already.”

Sofia reacted. It made me sick.

“We know. The Bluemoon will make her move, eventually, and that’ll be the end of her. How many people die until then is all up to her.”

“It’s already the end for all of you, aren’t you aware of that? How do you expect to escape from this?”

I had Sofia’s eyes covered, but I could still see the lower half of her face. She reacted, again. A sickening smile.

“We all go to Hell,” she said. “All of us. The only choice we have is how soon we get there.”

You could snap off her head right here. Drink the juice that drips from the moist end.

Before I could react or respond, Eve came back.

“Got ice,” she said, without me having to ask. She moved to Coach, out of my field of view.

“Good, do what you can. I’ll…” I looked at Sofia, then to the door.

“I’ll go find the nurse.”

Eve immediately stood back up.

“You are not going out there, and you are not leaving me here.”

“I’m not leaving you, I’ll be back, and I’ll be coming back with help. Coach can’t afford to be in that condition for too long, and between the two of us, we’re not equipped to help.”

“Are you freaking insane? You’re going to go out there, and get yourself killed. There’s more of them out there, and we got found out just from sitting here. What if someone else comes while you’re gone?”

I didn’t have an answer for her, not for that last part. Another factor I had to deal with.

But I had to deal with this.

“I’m not going to get myself killed, that’s a promise. I won’t be gone for that long. The nurse’s-”

“Her office is right by the front office, where all the other fucking terrorists are! How are you going to get there and back without getting caught?”

“I’m fast, I can sneak-”

“No, just no!”

Eve was on the edge of being entirely hysterical, the situation getting to her. She wasn’t accustomed to this sort of stress, not used to having to deal when things suddenly fell out from under her. Not used to taking action.

She was just a regular girl.

And you are not Alexis. Not anymore.

“I have to do something,” I said. “We have to do something. Coach might not die from that injury, but do you want something bad to happen as a result of it, something that might last?”

I let the word hang in the air, despite how heavy it was, filled with all the guilt I could put into one syllable.

I continued, “We’re losing time, not just because of Coach, but the music. I’m going.”

More silence from Eve. I took that as my ‘permission’ to leave.

Before I could go ahead and do that, I needed to do something about Sofia. Even if I had her down, her very presence was still a concern.

“Is there any duct tape?” I asked.

“Um, I don’t see any.”

“Check the drawers in the desk.”

I was too in the way, Eve had to step on the desk and over to get around.

Metallic clanging, papers rustling…

“Here,” she said.

“Give it to me,” I said. I took my hand away from Sofia’s throat, reaching to Eve.

She placed it in my open palm, and I went to work. I used it liberally, there was a lot available. I started with her eyes, moving fast so she couldn’t get a glimpse of us. Some hair got stuck underneath the tape, but I wasn’t here to be gentle. Another strip of tape went over her mouth. I got off her, then flipped her to her stomach. I worked to tie her hands behind her back. Her feet, too, for good measure.

I tore the last piece of tape I needed, and set it. I noticed a sheath strapped to her hip.

A pocketknife.

I took it, slipping it into my own pocket.

Even after what happened with Jillian, I didn’t see the need to bring a knife with me to school. Nothing happened since. Not until this.

Even though it was against school rules, I wished I had started bringing it with me.

Lesson learned.

“There,” I said, as I finished, “That should do it. Keep her in a corner, keep an eye on her…”

I finally caught sight of the gun Eve was talking about. A black rifle. I wasn’t much of a gun fanatic to know its exact name.

“… and keep her as far away from that as possible. Don’t even touch it anymore.”

I noticed Coach as well, on her back, eyes closed, head raised by the bag of ice Eve brought.

It made me want to slam Sofia into the wall again, just for Coach’s sake. And a little bit of my own.

“What if someone else tries to come in?” Eve asked.

I spoke as I got up, grabbing my stuff, seeing what else was worth bringing. “Move the desk and block the door, it swings into the room.”

Eve seemed to accept that, she didn’t ask about any other options. Barring the door was all she’d have as far as defenses go, and I was rather sure that she wasn’t keen on using the gun herself.

I checked through the stuff I had brought in here, to no avail. Just my notebooks and textbooks. My backpack was in my locker. I set what I might need on one side. The remaining duct tape, the paper bag that Coach had given me, my new uniform inside. I made a note of the knife in my pocket.

Unprepared and Ill-equipped, all around. I didn’t have anything I could use to carry everything I might need. And I was uncertain in how exactly I would disarm three fucking bombs before I made my way to Benny.

Not to mention that Coach Tilly needed someone to give her proper treatment.

This was impossible.

Think on your feet, it’s what got you this far.

It was also what brought me this low.

Even so, even without much of a plan, I went for the door, anyways.

“I’m heading out,” I said, carrying the paper bag and duct tape in my hands. “Stay safe, and take care of Coach.”

I didn’t say anything for Sofia.

“One second.”

I turned.

“Take my jacket.”

Eve unzipped her hoodie, an inoffensive beige, and tossed it to me. I caught it.

“Anything to help you stay on the down low. The pockets are pretty large, you can carry a lot with you.”

“Eve…” I was about to say more, but she shook her head.

“Just hurry and go, because this is really freaking me the hell out, and the less I have to see you, being all freaky, the less my brain starts making connections it really doesn’t want to.”

I swallowed, hard. Connections. This really was the beginning of the end.

Fuck.

I wanted to stay and refute her, tell her she’d be wrong in making that connection, but I didn’t have the luxury.

I left, Eve closing the door behind me.

I changed.

It was a patchwork of a costume, a baggy hoodie, a paper bag over my head, holes poked into it. I threw out the uniform, leaving it behind. A roll of duct tape in a jacket pocket, a knife in the pocket of my jeans.

I stepped out into the hallway of the school proper, just as the music cut off for a third time.

Previous                                                                                               Next

043 – Revealing Bell

Previous                                                                                               Next

August 25, 2014

I wasn’t outside for that long, but the heat was starting to get to me. Well, not me exactly, but my makeup.

This line needs to move faster.

Those upperclassmen had it easy. They could just walk right into the school and chill wherever they wanted, hanging out until classes would start.

But, for us freshmen? We were stuck waiting in a line to get our schedules for the semester.

Around a hundred teenagers, filled to the brim with nervous energy, worried over the next four years in high school, and we were forced to keep still, and stand in a line.

It was hardly fun.

The line was so long that it snaked, going out of the doors of the school gym, wrapping around the building. Scratch that, the line led into the smaller of the school’s two gyms, meaning there were more people in a smaller space, making the line go slower, meaning I had to stand out for even longer and…

Ugh.

This is so freaking lame.

A minute passed, with everyone only collectively moving about half a foot. I wasn’t that far back, but I still wanted to be inside rather than out here. It was still summer, and summer here meant that it was several degrees hotter than hot. Like… something that was really hot.

Like a really hot boy, whatever.

The point was that the heat would end up ruining my outfit that I had meticulously planned out the night before, and the bit of makeup I applied. Not enough so that Mom would notice, but, with the amount I applied, maybe I’d look a little bit more mature than I usually did. I was sick and tired of always being mistaken for a little kid, I wasn’t that small.

I was in high school now, high school, I was more than ready to start growing up a little, doing grown up stuff.

If this line would only move faster.

We all shuffled our feet forward, and I finally saw the doors when I went around the corner. Still a ways to go, but complaining wasn’t going to make us move faster.

I checked behind me, to see how people were doing in the back. The line was getting longer, and I saw some other freshmen walking back and forth down the length of the line, trying to find anyone they were comfortable cutting in line to meet with. Some were successful, others resigned to going all the way back. No one really cared either way, it wasn’t like we were lining up to get concert tickets or anything.

I wasn’t one of the successful ones, even though I thought I came early. I didn’t see any of my friends from middle school, even Katy was nowhere to be found.

So, here I was, stuck. In between some people I didn’t know.

Speaking of Katy…

I pulled out my phone, and went to check my different social media feeds. The phone connected to the school’s internet with ease. Yeah, we were at school, but I wasn’t in the building, and the day hadn’t started yet, no one should raise a fuss over it.

A few new notifications, so I checked them. I tapped to like some pictures, reblogged some funny posts and status updates. A decent way to pass the time, certainly better than standing around and doing nothing.

No text back from Katy. I was beginning to wonder if she’d end up missing the first day of school. The first day of high school, no less.

That would be like… super duper bad.

“Hey!”

I seized up when something slapped me in the shoulder blade. My fingers tightened around my phone, holding for dear life. I put a foot out to prevent myself from bumping into the person ahead.

“Eep!”

A lame sound just squeaked out of me.

Woops.

I caught myself, but the girl ahead of me was already staring back, eyebrow raised.

I, in turn, squared my shoulders and glared at the person responsible. But the act didn’t last long when I saw who was responsible.

“Katy!” I exclaimed excitedly.

Katy grinned, her lips vulpine. She put one hand on her hip, and slung her arm over my shoulder, in a sort of half-hug. I returned the favor, greeting her how girls did.

“Oh my gosh, how are you?” I asked as we broke the hug. As we split, Katy kept herself close to me. Sneaky sneaky.

Ça va bien,” Katy responded, “Et toi ?

I puffed my cheeks in a pout. “No fair, I’m taking Spanish this year, not French.”

Je suis désolé– I mean, sorry, but I’m still a little jetlagged from the trip. My brain’s still in ‘France mode.’”

I drew out the sound. “Aw, I’m so jealous, I wish I could go to places like that. Was it fun?”

“It was super fun, we went sightseeing and saw all the ‘touristy’ places, but, get this, because my mom spends so much time over there, we were granted like the best access. Even the museums were awesome. Tell me, who else gets to see the Mona Lisa up close and personal, with no crowd in sight?”

My jaw dropped. “Get out of here, that sounds so dope!”

“I know right?”

“Can you tell your parents to adopt me already?”

“Depends if we have enough room in our place. You might end up staying with Annie.”

“Worth, if it means you taking me on trips to France.”

“By that point, the only place I’m taking you is the backyard.”

I stuck my tongue out at her, and lightly smacked her on the arm. The line moved a smidge more.

As we moved, my eyes caught the black straps across Katy’s shoulders.

“Whoa, cute bag,” I said, “Looks expensive.”

She turned so her back was facing me, showing off her bag. All black, small. Petite, rather. A gold letter ‘G’ across the front.

“That’s because it is,” Katy said. She spun around to show off the rest of her outfit. An oversized white shirt, tight white denim jeans, and black boots that almost reached her knees.

She continued, “Got it while I was over there. All designer, by P-”

I stopped her. “If another French word comes out of that mouth, I’m tearing your tongue out and throwing it as far as I can.”

Katy made a face, playfully shocked. “Ever so violent, Lexi. Good to know your temper hasn’t… tempered.”

“Well, then, don’t push me that far,” I said, making sure to lay on the sarcasm as thick as possible, to the point of overcompensating. “I actually tried to make myself look good for the first day of high school. Unlike you.”

“Whatever do you mean? You look good,” Katy said, and I could tell she was telling the truth. “I look good.”

“Yeah, but not all of us have fancy clothes we can just randomly pick out and automatically kill it. Some of us, you know, have to make do with what we have.”

I glanced down at my clothes, but I tried not to look down on them. Converse shoes, classic black, the white laces even brighter in the sun. Denim shorts, lightly ripped. A white shirt, long enough to tuck in the front. And a black, light fabric long sleeve on top of that, a flower pattern going across the whole thing.

My backpack wasn’t designer. Just a regular backpack you’d see anywhere.

Most of this stuff was taken from the bargain bins of different stores, pieced together over the summer, when my allowance could afford it. I didn’t look down on them, no, putting these articles together actually made a good outfit.

But Katy’s was better.

Katy gave me another look. “Stop beating yourself up like that, it’s not healthy. Listen, we’re both hot, so let’s make these next four years rock.”

I had to force a grin. “Nice half-rhyme there.”

“Thanks, I half-try.”

We continued chatting, catching up somewhat, with Katy telling me more about her trip. Nobody paid Katy any mind, considering that she did cut in line.

Having my best friend helped make the time tick faster, and we finally made it into the gym.

Whoa.

There were a bunch of people in here, and the gym’s acoustics made it sound like there were even more people. Mostly other freshmen, going into other, smaller lines in front of tables lined up and down the length of the gym. Waiting to get schedules. Other freshmen had already gotten theirs, and were walking around, either trying to find their friends or just trying to find the way out.

“I’m that way,” Katy said, pointing. “Of course ‘T’ has to be all the way over there.”

“Ha, I guess I’m lucky for once,” I said. “Mine’s right here.”

“Then, I’ll see you in a little.”

We went into our respective lines, maneuvering through the crowd to find where our lines started. The hard part was already over, waiting-wise, and I got to the front pretty fast.

“Barnett,” I said.

The woman manning the ‘B’ section nodded and flipped through folders in a cardboard box on the table, labeled as such. She didn’t take long.

“You don’t look like a ‘Dylan,’” the woman said, “So you must be Alexis. Alexis Ki… Barnett.”

She took a stack of papers out of the folder and box. My hand was already out, expectant.

She stopped short before I could grab for it.

“You look familiar.”

Not a question, but it did call for a response, an answer. I looked up at the woman.

Blonde, and not that much taller than me. Even with the air condition, it was still hot, but she had on a tracksuit.

Her eyes were intense. Studying me.

An adult.

“Do I?” was all I had to say back.

“I think I’ve seen you at a game, somewhere?”

Something clicked in my head.

“I played volleyball at my old middle school,” I said.

“That’s it!” she said, snapping her fingers. “Normally I wouldn’t have caught that, but maybe seeing your face in a gym again brought it back to me.”

“Right,” I said. I just wanted my schedule. People were still waiting, behind me.

Not that I could just say that, could I?

“Well, here you are.” the woman set the stack in my hand. It was weightier that I initially thought.

The woman continued, “I’m Coach Tilly, by the way. Are you thinking about playing in high school?”

“Yes,” I said, even though I wanted to get a move on. Why lie about volleyball? “Definitely.”

“Great, we have a general meeting and tryouts in about two weeks. Oh.” The coach raised her chin, peeking. “Sorry to keep you, there’s more info about it in the student handbook.”

“Thank you,” I said, meaning it. That made it easier for me, as far as finding out how to join the volleyball team. The only question was if I was good enough to even make the team.

Coach Tilly smiled, exuding a warmth, there. I quickly waved as I took my handbook and left.

Pushing through more, much taller people, I found Katy in the crowd, conversing in a ring of other freshmen. I nudged her to get her attention.

Katy nodded, and broke away from the group. Some acquaintances from my old middle school, some from the other middle schools but came here. Katy and I both waved and smiled at them as we left the gym.

As we explored the school, we flipped open our respective packets, reading.

“What’s your first class?” Katy asked.

“Let me check.” I flipped through the packet I received earlier. It had everything about the school, the rules, dress code, school calendar, locker info… and class schedule.

“Pre-AP World Geography,” I said. “You?”

“Pre-AP Algebra-Two. Is geography your only advanced class?”

“English, but that’s it. No way can I do math.”

“I’m taking all Pre-AP, ha.” Katy really sounded like she was rubbing it in.

“Yeah yeah, what don’t you have?” I asked, “Nerd.”

It wasn’t anything to actually be perturbed over. We shared a chuckle and continued on.

We were out of the gym, but the territory was still largely uncharted. Every hall we traversed seemed bigger than the last. Posters advertising clubs and upcoming events, some better drawn than others. Some signs were in Spanish, others in French. Maps telling us where we were, what hall this was. Computer labs, chemistry labs. Doors leading back outside, but there were still places to go from there.

Other kids were in the hallways, too. Upperclassmen. They were either standing around, relaxed, leaning on the wall behind them, or they were walking like they knew where they were going and how to get there. With purpose. They were familiar with the school.

And they all looked like adults.

Katy and I were in a different grade from them, but we all went to the same school. We were one of them, now.

It was like what I’d seen in TV, the movies, my mom’s favorite cartoons and dramas.

High school.

Electrifying, even if thinking so was corny. Hey, I could admit to that.

“So this is Stephenville High School,” I said, summing up my thoughts. “Feels weird to be here.”

“Eh, we’ll be used to it in a week, and after a year we’ll be going to parties and doing all sorts of crazy stuff,” Katy said, “Just you wait.”

“I’m not sure what you mean by ‘crazy stuff,’ but I’m down.”

“Alright, let’s not get too ahead of ourselves.”

“C’mon, we’ve got four years here, let’s make the most of them.”

Katy and I exchanged looks. A mutual agreement.

We moved into another hallway, and the amount of things happening here nearly overloaded my senses. Students moving, pushing to go one way. Students standing around like before, but in much bigger clusters, chatting away. A couple tucked between two sets of lockers, making out. A teacher had to step out of his classroom to shoo them away.

This was a kind of lawlessness I wasn’t used to before, and it energized.

“Oh shoot,” Katy said, bringing my focus back to the now. “What was your first class again?”

“World Geography.”

“Oh, then you have to go. That’s in D Hall, upstairs. I saw it on the map. And the first bell is about to ring soon.”

I checked our surroundings again. There were more people moving than loitering, and they were hurrying. Not much time left.

And I didn’t know my way around the school. Not yet.

“Aww heck,” I said, turning to go back the way we just came. Much less crowded. “Katy, I’ll see you later!”

Katy continued down the packed hall. “Sure, lunch?”

“Uh-huh!”

And then we split up from there, preparing to tackle our first day of high school.

I jogged to find my first class, the bell about to ring.

November 28, 2016

The bell had already rung. I slipped into the only empty desk, on the farthest side of the room. Eyes followed as I made my way.

“You’re tardy, Alexis,” Ms. Powers said, watching me as I sat, hand still on the chalkboard. “Did you get a late slip?”

“No, I did not get a late slip,” I said, just barely holding myself back.

“You do owe me one, or that’s a mark on your record. Don’t forget that.”

I grunted, but she wouldn’t have been able to hear me. I settled in and put my notebooks on the desk.

“Psst, Alexis, you alright?” someone asked from behind me. A boy. Jacob.

“I’m good,” I lied.

I set a textbook on my desk, then propped my arm up on the surface, resting my head.

Just two more classes, and I was out of here.

If only it were that easy.

I thought I could make it through just one more day, one more full day of school. I was wrong.

It was a torture to be here. I got no sleep from the night before, much less from the week before, and the result was leaving me with a loose grip on myself. My head felt as if it was being beaten in from the inside, the impacts reverberating throughout my body. As if I was having an allergic reaction to this place itself. The school. The atmosphere.

Especially the atmosphere. The rain crashed down, we could all hear it, even from inside the school. It hadn’t let up from last night.

A dull haze.

But this wasn’t right, I knew that much. The old Alexis would have, at minimum, tolerated a regular school day like anyone else, or had a handful of enjoyable moments of social interaction with friends to power through. Looking forward to volleyball practice when the day ended. Regular, mercifully menial things.

This though, this? The ‘me’ as I was, now? It was like jamming a square into a circle. In theory, it was possible, but something would have to give way, something would have to break.

Either me, or this.

Papers flipping, out of sync. Everyone was turning pages in a book. I hadn’t even opened mine, yet.

I flipped it open.

I couldn’t understand any of it.

No, the words, the numbers, that I could get, but the formulas and concepts…

At least some things hadn’t changed.

Ms. Powers was already going into her lecture, but I already had her drowned out. As far as I remembered, no homework was due today, so I had a chance to get some peace-

“Alexis, can you do example number eight on the board for us?”

And quiet.

Murmurs among students, pages flipping, pencils and pens scratching away at the inside of notebooks. The clock ticking away seconds.

“Alexis?”

More seconds, ticked away.

Alexis.”

I raised my head, not because of the word itself, but the tone.

Ms. Powers was looking right at me, stern.

“Yes?” I asked.

“Please come up to the board and complete example eight.”

I grunted again, a hair louder, but not to irritate Ms. Powers even more. More as an outlet for myself.

I took my textbook with me, going up to the board. I had enhanced strength, yet my feet were heavy.

“What page again?” I had to ask, taking the chalk from Ms. Powers.

“Page one-four-five, section five.” She didn’t sound happy to give the answer.

I flipped to that page, and stared at the problem. Then I stared some more.

I put chalk to board, copying the equation, the numbers. Putting the ‘X’s and ‘Y’s and funny looking ‘F’s where they belonged.

I stopped.

Another significant block of time was wasted away. Someone sneezed.

“Are you stuck?” Ms. Powers asked me.

“I don’t know how to start,” I said, “Or even where.”

The numbers were turning into undecipherable hieroglyphs the more I looked at them.

“Start by isolating your variables, and take out what you don’t need. This should be review for you.”

This might as well be another language. I supposed, in a sense, math was one, but it wasn’t universal for me.

“I don’t, I can’t…” I dropped my arm to my side, the chalk leaving the board.

Ms. Powers sighed.

I made the next move, back to my desk. Ms. Powers didn’t stop me.

“Amy, you do number eight.” She ended up asking someone else.

I fell back into my seat, head back to resting on the desk.

Aww fuck.

Sit here, and be normal. That was it. That was all I had asked of myself.

I couldn’t even do that.

Everyone probably thought I was dumb for no longer being able to grasp the basic concepts. One of the idiots. I supposed I could concede that.

But, if to only be a little fair to myself, I hadn’t been in a proper frame of mind for quite some time.

You got that right.

I closed my eyes.

When I opened them again, class had ended.

My other classmates were already up and ready to go. I lagged behind, gathering my stuff.

“Alexis,” I heard from behind, just as I was about to leave the classroom.

Internally, I groaned, but still I went over to Ms. Powers at her desk, my steps even heavier.

Ms. Powers was in her chair, and the chair was in her, in another sense. Her rotund body folded over the armrests. The effect wasn’t that pronounced, she wasn’t that big, but the chair did look like it was a part of her.

I stifled a giggle.

Ms. Powers started off. “I’m very concerned, Alexis, your grades have been slipping more and more. Not much improvement since the last time we spoke like this.”

No answer.

“You still haven’t come in to do a makeup test for the most recent one, and you have a pile of quizzes to correct… and you’re only turning in half of the homework I assign, and half of those have just been wrong.”

Again, no answer.

“How have your other classes been going?” she asked.

I shrugged. “Okay. Been managing.”

“So it’s just my class, then? My class is the one that’s giving you the most trouble.”

I didn’t answer, only because I didn’t know how to respond.

Ms. Powers exhaled, and her body seemed to deflate with her. “I’m not going to give a long-winded lecture over that now, since I have another class coming in, but I do want you to see me after school. The midterm is in less than a month, and if you really buckle down and get to work, you might be able to start next semester with a passing grade.”

“Yeah.”

Ms. Powers sat there, as if waiting for me to say more, but I didn’t. I could see her face almost contort into a frown.

She spoke again. “Principal Kirk spoke with me, told me about what’s happened. I understand it’s been hard, but you can’t forget, or neglect, the responsibilities you have as a student.”

She gestured to the door, “Go, I’ll see you after school.”

Saying it as a matter of fact, almost like an order.

“And you don’t need to worry about the late slip,” she added. “No need.”

“Oh, thanks”, I said, then I left the classroom.

The next class was far more forgiving. It came and went without incident. The lunch bell tolled.

I didn’t go to the cafeteria, I didn’t even try to leave campus. I went straight to the office, instead.

As it happened, there was a line here. Wasn’t the biggest fan of those.

Then again, who was?

I was the only one in line whose shoulders weren’t wet. Another student, her parents, and a group. Workers, it looked like, wearing the same construction uniform.

The line actually moved along, which was a nice change of pace. The workers picked up their bags and were allowed to enter the office proper. They disappeared after they turned a corner.

Then I was up.

“Is Principal Kirk in?” I asked the lady manning the front desk.

“Hold on a second,” she said instead. She picked up the office phone beside her. A cord attached the phone itself to a base. She positioned it between her ear and her shoulder, pressing a number on the base.

“Yes, can Mia Tran, Elena Zhang, and Stacy Phan please come to the front office? Okay, bye.”

She hung up the phone, and finally addressed me.

“Name and ID?” she asked, as she chewed on gum. Smacking.

“Alexis Barnett…” I started, then provided her my school ID.

“What is this for?”

“I wanted to ask about possibly doing my schoolwork at home. He extended that offer to us a week back.”

“I know what you’re referring to,” she said, typing at her computer. “Principal Kirk is actually no longer available, but…”

She stopped typing, and turned to the printer beside her. She handed me the form that sputtered out of it.

“Get a parent and your teachers to sign it, then come back here,” she said. “Principal Kirk will take it from there.”

“Thanks,” I said, folding the paper in half. “Do coaches have to sign it too?”

“Um, if you’re in a team, then yes.”

“Then I’ll start with her, thanks again.”

She didn’t respond as I left, she was more interested in whatever she was typing. I left the office and took the shortest route to the small gym. The halls were sparse with people, as everyone went to lunch.

Right before I got to the gym itself, I went through a door that led me into another hall. One way led to the locker rooms, then the gym.

I went the other way. The coaches’ offices.

Voices.

Wait.

I listened.

Not my own, and clearly from other sources.

But, for a moment, I felt trepidation.

I followed the sounds into the breakroom. Coach Bronson and Coach Taylor were chatting.

Coach Tilly was with them.

I knocked on the open door.

They turned.

“Hey, if it isn’t the Beast from the East,” Coach Bronson said. His words were slathered in a Southern drawl.

“Hey,” I said.

Coach Tilly snapped her fingers at him, “Don’t call her that. Did you need something, Barnett?”

I lifted up the folded form, putting it into view. “It’s a personal thing, do you…”

She picked up where I left off. She nodded and got up. “We can move to my office. The rest of you, find something better to do.”

The other two coaches chuckled, but they left us alone. They followed Coach Tilly out of the breakroom, but they left the area entirely. Coach Tilly and I went into her office.

Her office wasn’t bad, as far as space went, but it wasn’t the Principal’s office. Her desk was cluttered with papers and paperweights and journals. Fitness and health and diet books filled the small shelf on one wall. Nothing on the other wall but posters relaying the same kind of information. She’d need the room to get to the other side of her desk.

It also lightly smelled of sweat. But being by the gym would do that.

We both sat on our respective side of her desk. I dropped my stuff, and gave her the paper. She looked at it, quick. She set it down.

“You’ve gotten this far, skipping practice without my permission, why do you need it now?”

I bit my lip.

“Go on, Alexis, you have a mouth, tongue, working jaw. Use them.”

I moved around a bit in my seat. I tried to relax myself. I found that I couldn’t.

“I wasn’t doing it deliberately, there’s been…”

I couldn’t find the words so easily.

“There’s been what?”

Vampire. Monster. Hero. Killer. Tell her you’re a demon.

I broke away, glancing at a wall. A poster, a diagram of the human body, limbs splayed. Organs and veins visible. Its eyes followed me.

I blinked, shook my head, reoriented myself. Its eyes looked straight ahead.

“There’s been a lot going on,” I said.

Vague, but whatever.

Coach Tilly sighed, taking the paper again. She leaned back.

“I’m not that sour about it, everything considered. I heard about what happened with Katy’s father. I know you’re good friends with her and all. My condolences.”

As if I needed another reminder. I sat there, taking the blow once again, in full force.

“Broke my heart,” I said, my voice hitched at the last word. Coach must have caught that, it wasn’t very subtle.

“Where’s Katy right now?” she asked.

Good question.

I made my best guess. An inference, really. “She’s out for lunch… somewhere.”

“Eating in the cafeteria like a good little junior?”

“Let’s give her the benefit of the doubt,” I said.

“Okay, I can do that, but you haven’t been keeping tabs on her?”

I looked away, casting a glance somewhere else. “We’ve kind of decided that giving each other some space would be the best.”

“And that’s something you both agreed to do?”

Was it?

“Something like that,” I said. “It’s complicated, and probably for the best. I’d actually go so far as to say it’s necessary.”

Coach Tilly usually had an easy-to-read face. She carried such a passion inside her that her expressions were a sort of amplified version of what she felt, internally.

The face she had right now was much more confused and subdued.

“Hey, you know what? I’m a coach for a high school volleyball team, not a psychologist. If that works for you, it works.”

“Yup.”

Coach Tilly scrunched up her nose, breathing in, then out. She set the paper down, reaching for a pen.

“I hope you make good use of your time away from school,” she said, as she signed her name on a dotted line.

I thought about what I had in mind. Start by going back to Braham Barn, looking for anything I missed. If I had to tear the thing down, plank by plank, literally, then that was what I had to do. I probably owed Gomez another conversation, even though I intended to retire the Blank Face shtick. See where he stood, what else was left to do in that regard. If Solace had somehow dissolved into a non-issue, I needed to know for sure. If not…

Good luck to him.

It would be nice to be able to come clean to my loved ones about me, about everything. It also would have been nice to have Thomas back, but that was impossible, now. Even if I had the clearest details in the world about who I really was, I wondered if they’d accept me all the same. Or if they’d cast me out, not unlike a leper.

The thought of that made me reconsider it all.

“I hope so, too,” I said, verbalizing my thoughts.

She gave me the form, and I took it back. She then moved, bending down under her desk. When she came back up, she had a white paper bag. Medium sized, about the size of my head.

Coach set it down, then pushed it to me. “Here.”

I took it, setting it on my lap. A staple sealed the folded paper at the top.

“What’s this?”

“You would have known about it, had you been to team meetings, but I had put in an order for new uniforms. New design, same colors, of course, but the girls say it’s more comfy, it’s snug.”

“A brand new uniform.” I could barely remember the last time I wore my old one, or even played volleyball. It felt like some ancient tradition, now.

“Neat,” I said.

“Yes, and you’re still a part of the team, even though you’re not around. But, I want you to have it. Something to come back with, when you come back.”

I tried picturing a day in which I did come back. Playing with the girls, as a team, doing something I was actually good at.

Nothing but a dream, now.

“Thanks, Coach,” I said, honestly expressing my gratitude.

Coach seemed content at that, smiling a little. “Good. Now, Barnett, anything else you need from me? I think the lunch period is almost over.”

“I think that’s it,” I said.

“Alright, then, can you get the door? Looks like someone wants in on this pity party.”

“Hm?”

I turned to the door. Sure enough, someone was at the other end, their head visible through the small window.

The handle was within arm’s reach. I opened it.

“Alexis, hi.”

It was Eve.

“My gosh, hey,” I said.

“Are you coming back?” she asked.

Another gut punch. I could see the excitement in her eyes. It’d suck to cut her down.

“Just the opposite,” I said.

I saw her expression change.

Like ripping off a thousand bandaids.

“Enough about me though,” I said, “How’s the ankle?”

“Oh, this?” She lifted up her foot, gauze and bandages wrapped around the ankle. She rotated it easily. “It’s fine, I just need to keep up with my PT, then we’re golden. I was just swinging by to get some more pointers from Coach. Need all the help I can get if I wanna go pro.”

“Really? You’re wanting to go all the way?”

Eve lifted her chin up, beaming wide. “Of course, I think I can, and Coach does too.”

I looked at Coach, she shrugged.

“If she thinks she can… Maybe?”

“Hey!” Eve exclaimed.

We all burst into a laugh. Though it was at Eve’s expense, she took it in stride.

“That’s why you need to come to practice, Lexi,” Eve said, “We can spar.”

“I’m game,” I said, just talking to talk. “But I might be a little rusty.”

“We’ll just see about-”

A siren.

Wailing. A constant sequence of the same note, over and over. The sounds hit.

We all leaped. Like we just got blindsided with a jumpscare.

Eve shrieked, cupping her ears and dropping to the floor.

I covered my ears as well.

“What is that!” I had to yell in order to be heard.

Coach Tilly answered, yelling back, “It’s not the lunch bell! Get the door!”

I got it, quickly moving my arm to shut it. The volume didn’t decrease, it was that loud.

“It’s the alarm for a lockdown! Get on the floor!”

I followed her order, dropping out of my seat to get lower. Hands still on my ears.

So loud, and it wasn’t letting up. Endless, ever present, no respite. My focus was too caught unaware to question why the school was even on lockdown.

If noise could actually force a physical impact, this was the equivalent of being kicked into the ground, and kept there with repeated kicks.

Then, it stopped.

It just stopped.

As slow as glaciers, my hands moved away from my ears. Ringing, but as an echo, not nearly as loud. Easy to tell that the alarm had ceased.

Eve was still discombobulated, hands over her head. I was in too low of a position to see Coach Tilly’s reaction.

And then another sound came on. I heard it. Bile crept up my throat as I listened.

That should have gotten your attention. No, not ‘their’ attention, but yours, Bluemoon. I know that you’re here. I know.

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