Eldritch in nature, but the pathos was universal.
A terrifying creature, masquerading as something that made sense. As an image that could be fathomed, but there was a far greater horror that existed beyond its corporeal existence.
A concept, an idea. Symbols. It had a form and it could consume.
Its physical construct tore into another. A smaller, more base shape. Humanoid. Soft, fragile, delicate.
To assign an identity to the lesser being would assign a level of importance. It needed no such thing.
The greater being made shreds of the lesser. Curved, twisted teeth, from the mouths of the seven heads. It ate, swallowed, but not for nourishment. Rather, to ravage. A spiteful, terrifying creature.
It lurched, and another head took over. A familiar face, a distorted version. Once conjuring warm, nurturing sentiments, only now served to service a stronger mental agony to the lesser being. The inner organs of the lesser spilled out from its abdomen, and from the teeth of the greater.
With a wide movement, a shift of parts, the greater switched visages. A perverted, curled variant of a friendlier guise. A string of organs was torn away as the switch was made.
The lesser being felt a certain betrayal. Familiar faces in an unfamiliar context. It ate at its spirit, as much as the greater being did. Whittling down, but never to zero.
The process repeated. Five more heads. The world. It ate at the lesser being.
And the lesser being could do nothing but endure.
Chained to a mountain, with the curse of forever life. This state of being was forced upon the lesser one, with no choice but to suffer.
The greater took, and the lesser restored itself, and the greater took again.
Life. A cruel act of kindness.
I came to. Awake, but not alert. Groggy, really.
A dream. Judging from my breathing, the initial panic when I woke, it was more like a nightmare. But, when I tried reaching, trying to recall what exactly it was, it only pushed the images away further. Then, it was gone, forever forgotten. A phantom memory. Only the feeling lingered.
And I was free to try and figure out where I was.
It was dim in this small, cramped space. I was sitting on a wooden seat, built into the wooden compartment. Looking straight ahead, there was an elaborate pattern of crosses in the upper half of the wall in front of me. The crosses were actually holes, and I should have been able to peek through, but a dark screen prevented me from doing so.
I couldn’t stretch my arms or legs out all the way. It was that cramped.
I exhaled, trying to stay calm. A hushed sound.
I soon came to the realization that I still had my mask on.
I was still in costume. Fanny pack, and when I patted my jacket, the baton, too, was still on my person. I had everything on me.
My hood was down, strands of hair sticking to the back of my neck. It was stuffy, in here.
Upon inspecting again, the wall to my right was actually a small door. I’d have to hunch to get through. It didn’t appear to be locked. Could I just leave? Was this a trap?
Worse yet, was I kidnapped?
“Blank Face. Good morning, again.”
A disembodied voice spoke from the other end of the screen. I couldn’t see who it was coming from, but I didn’t have to. I could do place it, no problem.
“Hleuco,” I said, rasp. “Thomas.”
“Rise and shine,” he said, with no particular emotion behind his words. “Try not to move too much, you don’t want to fall and hurt yourself. Stay still.”
“Where, where are…” and I trailed off. Hard, coming up with words and how to say them. Still out of it.
“Where are we? We’re somewhere safe, I can tell you that. Try to help yourself, and get your brain going again. Can you guess?”
I wanted to complain, to whine, but I probably needed to get my bearings on my own. It’d help me be more alert, faster, and I would be able to talk properly.
Fuck, but I’m so sleepy.
I took my time, looking around, despite the space allowed, despite how unresponsive my body was being. The setting was not unfamiliar, albeit a little anxiety-inducing. I’d been in spaces like this, before, though the situation was quite different. Usually it was much more oppresive. I laid my eyes on the pattern of crosses in front of me, again.
“A confessional?” I asked.
“Good job, you’re correct,” Hleuco confirmed. “St. Elizabeth, to be exact.”
I bobbed my head, aware that he couldn’t see. I’d been here once or twice, years back. A small cathedral. I knew my home from here, I could walk if I had to.
But, could I? I was still too drowsy to do much of anything, except sit here.
In a sense, I was trapped.
“How… What…” So many different questions I wanted to start with, but I didn’t know which to commit to. Which avenue of thought to pursue first.
“Take your time,” Thomas said. It didn’t sound like he had his mask on. “There are a lot of bases to cover, and there is no need to rush.”
His reassurance almost served to make me even more on edge, but I took his advice. Start simple, and go from there. What was the most pressing thing I wanted to know, right this second?
“A lot, so you’ll have to be more specific. What do you remember?”
I tried to think. “I was… dragged by my neck, no, before that, ambushed by Styx’s Gang, then… that first thing. Everything after… it’s all too blurry, right now.”
It was hard to try. Only pieces of images came back to me, and so vague that I couldn’t find the words to articulate those images. What was potent, however, were the feelings they brought back. Pain. Panic. Desperation. It was enough for me to stop trying, completely.
“No, that’s good enough,” Thomas said. “You don’t have to strain yourself. But, you’re right. Styx’s Gang managed to get the upper hand, and they took you out of the trailer yard. I wasn’t that far from where I dropped you off, so I saw them as they passed by. My deepest apologies for having not stopped them in time, I had to drive around, guess their route so I knew where to come in and cut them off. It wasn’t the best of plans, considering how I stopped them, but we were in a bit of a pinch, there.”
Quietly, I agreed.
Thomas continued, asking, “You really don’t know what happened past that, do you?”
I sighed. “No.”
“You had your earpiece, I knew that for a fact. I tried communicating with you, telling you where we could rendezvous and make a proper retreat. And you were talking, just not to me.”
“What?” I looked to the dark screen in front of me.
“I’m not going to make any assumptions about you, or your mental state, but you weren’t taking in anything I was saying to you, and you… went off to do your own thing.”
I could tell from his words, his tone, he was stepping around something. I was drawing up a blank. Was it that bad?
“Through your… aimless chatter,” Thomas said, “I was able to find you. You were alone, in the bottom of a drained pool, and unconscious. I feared the worst, but I brought you to the van, regardless. Thankfully, you were coming in and out of consciousness, which said enough, to me. Going all the way back to the factory would have made us sitting ducks if someone managed to follow us all the way out there. Too out in the open, with no other places to hide. And I wanted to check on you as soon as possible. This church was secluded enough, with all the backroads and corners. Abandoned, too. Even God left this place behind.”
The cloud surrounding my brain was clearing up some, but not by much.
“Was anybody hurt?” I found myself asking, not really sure why.
A small pause, but I took notice.
A small bit of relief, but I took it. It helped. I relaxed somewhat, pressing my back to the wall behind me.
“So, what now?” I asked. My relief was abruptly cut short. “Wait. Did you say ‘morning,’ a bit ago?”
“It’s a quarter until seven,” Thomas said.
My stomach did a flip. I was going to be late for school, if not miss it altogether. Right now, I was fighting sleep, but I’d probably crash as soon as I was safe at home. On a normal schedule, my mom usually had work before I even got up, so there would be no issue, there, but Katy might be peeved if she came by to pick me up, and I wasn’t… available.
Aside from the night before my birthday, this would be up there as one of the worst nights I ever had. Ever.
I brushed aside the time factor for the moment. “Yeah, what next?”
“I think we’ve waited long enough. If anyone, gang, police, or otherwise, were to come in and get us, they would have done so already. We’re in the clear.”
I let the relief sink in. At least I could call this night officially over.
“But, I was hoping you and I could have another chat, if you don’t mind?”
My relief was snatched away, again.
“About what?” I intoned, trying to accentuate my tiredness, expecting him to take the hint.
I didn’t offer another word.
Thomas picked the conversation back up. “It didn’t matter much to me, your origins, or how you came to be. I know I’ve said that before, but I’ve come to realize how shortsighted that was.”
My continued silence was an opening for him to go on.
“In your, how should I put it, heightened state, you were mentioning wanting to drink something. I forgot to bring it up before, but, after I found you, you were mumbling similar musings in the van, in your brief periods of lucidity. You may not remember, but, tell me, what was this ‘juice’ you were talking about?”
I felt a chill, my blood running cold. I was potentially being called out on the one thing I didn’t want to talk about. For the life of me, I couldn’t recall saying anything about ‘juice,’ but it wouldn’t take a genius to figure it out, on my end.
“You said the word on multiple occasions. I’d normally not put so much attention on such a word, my own daughter has outgrown the need to pester me about wanting some, but it seemed so important to you. I have my own suspicions, but I’d like for you to tell me, yourself.”
I lifted a hand, and I thought about opening the door and leaving the confessional. I didn’t want to talk about this, not now, not ever. I couldn’t let that particular secret get out, or else I’d be even more fucked. People were already rioting about the fact that I existed, what would happen if they learned that I needed blood? What then?”
Honesty isn’t your only policy, I thought.
“I’m just as stumped there, too,” I lied. “I don’t know what that could possibly mean.”
Seconds passed. Quiet seconds, with my hand towards the handle of the door.
“That’s bullshit,” Thomas said, blunt. I had never heard him curse in my life. “Give me the truth, Blank Face.”
My hand grabbed the handle, and it twisted with a click, but I didn’t open it, not yet.
“You’re antagonizing me,” I said, just as bluntly, “That’s not cool.”
“If that’s how you choose to see it, Blank Face, then okay. But, you know what I mean, don’t you, you’re just refusing to say. But, hey, I’m not holding you hostage, all I want is a simple answer to a simple question. Go ahead, run if you want to, but I’ll know that you’ll fold at the slight presence of fear. I’ll know that you’re a coward. And that’s not cool.”
I inched the door open, letting a draft slip into the booth, cooling my neck. I realized how slightly dry my throat was. I was becoming more alert, now, more aware, and that allowed me to finally have enough strength to be angry.
How dare he.
I looked at my hand, watching how it went in and out of focus.
“You don’t fucking know me,” I told Thomas, the family friend. “You don’t know what I’ve fucking been through. Don’t you dare call me a coward.”
“Then show me you truly aren’t one. Or instead, tell me. You’re willing to go out, night after night, taking on criminals, but you’re scared of a little, tiny word? Even I know you’re better than that.”
Out of impulse, I screamed, rasp. I threw myself back, my shoulder hitting the wall opposite the door. The door went back to being closed.
He was prodding me, egging me on, and I let myself fall right into it. I wanted to hate him for being so obvious, but I’d hate myself more if I had let him think he was right.
You have no idea what I’ve been through.
A pointed ache pierced my stomach.
I didn’t speak for some time. Thomas didn’t, either.
Damn me, damn you, Thomas, and damn this whole world.
I opened my mouth, partly.
I said it, drained of all life. Exhausted. My posture wasn’t straight, my shoulder on the wall beside me, my arms dropped on my lap. I stared down, staring at the prayer card that had fallen to the floor. Our Father.
Telling the truth had sucked all the life out of me.
What was Thomas’s reaction, on the other side? Shock, fear, hatred? I would never know.
A minute passed. The longest one ever.
“Blood?” Thomas repeated, finally saying something, and it was an encouragement to go on.
Defeated, I did. “I can’t eat normal, human food. I need to drink blood. A package deal with these powers. And I really need it. I guess, if I go too long without properly feeding, I tend to lose myself to the thirst. It… what’s the word? It sucks.”
“And, until you showed your powers in public, you’ve lived all this time without attracting any attention?”
“No. I haven’t lived with this, for that long. I’ve only had my powers for about a month now.”
“I see. How did you get them, then, if I may ask?”
That entire night flashed before my eyes. In order to avoid choking up, or tensing up just thinking about it, I had to remove myself from that memory. Report it, as if I was speaking about another poor soul.
“Attacked, by an unknown assailant. Mangled, ripped apart. Left for dead. But…”
“But you survived,” Thomas said.
“If you could call it that,” I said.
I heard from the other side of the confessional, where Thomas was. A single wooden tap.
“You’ve seen fear, Blank Face. You met it head on. It may have… gotten to you, but it didn’t defeat you. From what I’ve seen, from what you’ve proven to me, you had gotten right back up, and you wanted to use that experience to help others, when they couldn’t help themselves. At a bare minimum, you are a survivor, and you are braver than anyone I know.”
I hiccuped, fighting back tears. No, Thomas, you’re wrong.
Thomas spoke again, despite me. “To branch off what you said earlier, does that mean there’s another one like you, out there? More of you?”
I had to keep my answers short, my emotions getting the better of me. “No. Don’t know.”
“Did you ever try to investigate, try to find out?”
“No, kind of, little bit.”
“I went back, to where it happened. Nothing. Then, after that, I, I…”
“Been busy ever since.”
I heard a shuffling on the other end, shifting. An exhale.
“Do you even know what you are, exactly?” Thomas asked.
“No… I’d call myself a vampire, but that’s not quite right. I’m not too sure.”
“I have a feeling this was a conversation you’ve needed, but never got,” Thomas said. “Am I wrong?”
I didn’t say anything.
“Thought so. Let me tell you this, then. As you are, you may very well be the only one of your kind, vampire, ghoul, whatever. But that does not mean that you are alone. Do you understand me? It may be hard, it may even seem impossible, but there are people out there who can and will lend a helping hand. You just have to find them, you just have to try.”
For a moment, I let words resonate.
Another quiet minute, though it felt less grueling.
“Did I make any sense, there?” Thomas asked, getting to me. “Was I clear?”
I was unmoving, still in that slumped position.
“Good. Now, for some less important matters. Our next order of business. I propose we hold off on our masked activities for a time.”
Putting my arms on the seat, I situated myself back to an upright position. “What?”
“I have some last-minute campaigning to do this coming week, and I want to dig more into what you found at the trailer yard. And to do both, I need time. Truly. Something was off about those people you found. Styx’s Gang isn’t known to deal in human trafficking, and there were no drugs or guns in there, too. I’ve already come up a theory. Not people, but a specific individual, hiding amongst a group of normal, illegal aliens.”
“That’s why I need time. I still want to do a more honed in, focused approach against the gangs, so I’ll need time to research and better plan ahead for our next outing. If you truly want to, you can go back to dealing with random, petty crimes in the meantime, but I suggest you take a break, too. Some time off will serve us both well.”
“What about the riots? Or us trying to establish a new image?”
“People lose interest over time. It’s human nature to become bored. The riots will eventually decline to manageable level. As for image, we have all the time in the world to get the public to change their minds, once we strike the gangs more strategically.”
“It feels like running away,” I said. “Like we’re cowards.”
“There’s nothing wrong with the act of running way,” Thomas said, “If it’s a means to survive. Just make sure you can hit back twice as hard when you come back, later down the line. And that’s what we’re going to do. Hit back, twice as hard.”
I leaned back. I do like the sound of that.
“Or, I can it put it this way,” Thomas said. “In the bag I gave you, the one that had your new costume, there’s one thousand dollars, the standard payment. I’ll throw in another grand. I’m paying you to take time off.”
I was hit with a wave of mixed, turbulent emotions. Gratitude, guilt, embarrassment, disgust, but some relief, too. Like a weight was lifted, that I had been carrying for so long that I had forgotten about. I told someone, another human being, about my true nature, and I was still here, living and breathing. It wasn’t the end of the world.
A test, barely passed. But barely passing was still considered good enough.
I was going to take it.
“Sure,” I said, “I can sit still for a while.”
“Alright,” Thomas then said. I heard rustling from his end, a door opening. “I think we’ve been stuck in here for long enough. Let’s get a move on. Unless…”
He trailed off.
“Yeah?” I asked.
“Unless you have anything else to say. We are in a confessional, after all.”
I considered it. Seriously considered it. But my heart was pounding, aching. Would I be pushing my luck? Taking things too far? Would it become a burden to him, if I told him now, after everything he got out of me? Presumptuous, to put it into words.
But the words he just said came back to me.
‘There are people out there who can and will lend a helping hand. You just have to find them, you just have to try.’
Another test, the final one of the night.
Despite myself, I couldn’t form the words, couldn’t articulate them. They were too heavy. I simply went for taking off my mask.
I opened the door, and got out. My heart was beating, hard.
I faced Thomas, who had his mask in his hand, too. He didn’t have his suit jacket or his tie, his sleeves rolled up to his forearms. His hair was unruly, and he looked about as weary as I probably did.
He smiled. A soft, understated one. Like I had told him a bad joke he’d heard before.
“Alexis,” he said, and it was all I needed to hear.
“You knew,” I said, too tired to find any more anger in me. “For how long?”
“I knew the second I saw you, to be perfectly honest. It wasn’t the best disguise. Come on, a paper bag? And I’ve chaperoned you and Katy on countless Halloweens. I know what your voice sounds like in a mask.”
If I had the energy, I would have died from laughter. “Then why didn’t you tell me?”
“You were clearly still trying to get your bearings on the whole thing,” Thomas said. “I didn’t want to throw you off when you were still on such shaky ground. I was willing to wait, until you were more prepared, more certain in yourself, and then I’d let you come to me, whenever you were ready. I’m sorry I kept you in dark about this, I’ll have to beg for your forgiveness.”
I did manage a chuckle, this time. “I can’t fucking believe this.”
“No cursing,” he said, behind a tired grin.
I stepped forward, and immediately my leg buckled under me. Still too drained to do much of anything.
Thomas came right before I could collapse, and caught me, wrapping his arms around me in an embrace. Both our masks dropped to the floor of the dark cathedral.
We stayed like that for a time. We were both in an odd standing position, leaning into one another for each other’s support, and we were both too spent to move. Didn’t want to fall.
And, for me, it was something I didn’t know I needed.
My face was buried into his shoulder, and I could smell the sweat that overpowered his aftershave.
“How are you holding up, AK?” Thomas asked, referring to an old nickname he gave me, back when I was a kid. I wasn’t the biggest fan of it, then. “Feeling okay?”
I wasn’t sure if he could hear me, but I spoke into his shoulder. “I feel so frustrated.”
A soft laugh. His body swayed.
“The only thing free in life is frustration,” he said.
I believed him.