Epilogue – Katy

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She started with the most important things. Hair, makeup, outfit. Getting herself ready, and making sure everything else had been set up and perfect.

Because, if just one thing was off, just one, the whole night would be ruined.

And we can’t have that, can we?

Not a chance.

It was first things first, though. She checked herself in the mirror.

Hair was on point. Of course it was. She had done it herself. Tied in a French braid, not a single strand was loose or out of place.

Makeup. From the foundation to the baking itself, the final result had given her life. It was totally worth putting in the time to touch it up after rushing back here so she could work on everything else. A few seconds to spare made all the difference.

Then, her outfit. There was no way she was going to spend an entire school day sitting around, walking to different classrooms, bumping into other students in the halls, getting her best clothes all frumpy and wrinkled. That was like the last thing she wanted.

No, the last thing she wanted was for the night to go poorly. She had trust in herself, that she would be coming correct, but her responsibilities didn’t stay with just her. She had others to look out for, make sure they were alright. It was important. It was crucial.

But, for now, her outfit.

An olive green baggy field coat, the color going great with her eyes. A black sweater, the brand name stylized and on fire. Her skirt was denim, loose, hanging around her knees, ripped in certain places so the threads would hang. Then her kicks, simple off-white skate shoes, grey striped long socks that she purposefully bunched around the knees. It was a simple look, but it gave her the confidence she needed, that she could actually pull this off.

That confidence was already there, though, but more wouldn’t hurt, especially when it came from coordinating a cute fit. She knew that she wouldn’t be alone, either. She had others to look out for, but they were looking out for her too.

And together, they were going to get this done right.

Fixing her hair one last time, she set it into place before checking her phone. It was blowing up. No way she could respond to all of them.

But she found the ones that absolutely needed a reply. A group chat. She read through the most recent texts then sent a few of her own. Immediately, her replies were sent scrolling past the top of the screen. It was like they didn’t even read them.

But she got another text. Outside of the group chat.

Maria.

Asking if there was anything extra they’d need to bring for tonight. She thought it over.

Nope.

She sent her reply. She had it covered. The only thing she needed from Maria was to scope the place out before they’d get there.

Maria replied. She was on it.

She smiled.

Everything is coming together. The pieces are moving into position.

Checking herself in the mirror one more time, she liked what she saw. The final piece.

No, there was one more.

The queen.

And she was about to go collect her.

Grabbing her bag and keys, she headed out of her room.

But not before catching her mom on the way down the stairs.

“You’re heading out too?”

Already at the door, stepping into a pair of white heels. They weren’t cute, but they were classy.

“I am. I thought I told you this. Rehearsal dinner at the hotel?”

“Oh I know, but it’d be weird if we just passed each other without saying anything.”

“Then come up with something better to say.”

“Wow.”

Her mom stood straight, stamping her foot down. The heel clicked. She was smiling.

“You’re welcome to come with.”

“I’d rather go for spontaneity on the night of. Besides, I have my own-”

“Oh, tonight?”

“Yeah.”

“Well tell her I said-”

“I will.”

“But don’t be out too late. I want you home on this side of midnight.”

She nodded.

“Sure Mom.”

She gave her a look.

“Did you tell Dad that you’d be out?”

She gave her a look. A beat.

“Dad’s not here.”

“If you tell him he’ll hear you.”

Her mom got the door, opening it.

“Shoot, I’ll be late. You stay safe, and keep an eye on your friends.”

“Why do I have to?”

“Because Lord knows someone has to.”

Her mom winked, then reacted as if she was still surprised that she hadn’t left yet.

“Oh! Alright I’m off, you stay-”

“I know Mom, and I’ll do the other thing too!”

They both left the house, both eager to start their nights.

Katy sat with one foot flat on the floor, the other crossed over her leg. Deep in thought, so deep that she could drown.

To keep herself afloat, she kept an eye on the things around her.

The window beside her, watching as people passed, walking by, faces down, wholly engrossed in their world and concerns, their troubles and tribulations weighing heavy on their mind, turning their focus narrow and inward. Passing by, passing each other, only being aware enough of their surroundings as to not collide with anyone else. Minding their own business.

The entrance of the place, watching as people entered, coming in, faces up, looking at the menu above them, their attentions directed outward for but a brief moment. They’d speak with the girl at the front, who had to be entering the last hour of her shift, judging from how she kept scratching her neck, tapping her fingers on the register, and by the time she punched in their order, having to wait for it, and collect it once their name was called, those people would have already retreated back into their own worlds again, taking small sips, as if they were satisfied with their limited scope on everything. Their minds back to their business.

That was the problem, Katy figured. People were so easy to be absorbed in only their own concerns, that they would hardly, if ever, peek out of their shells and question just what the hell was going on around them. If everyone kept their eyes closed, then whatever they couldn’t see would be considered as normal.

But this wasn’t normal, it was just easy to pretend. The world was on fire, and nobody seemed to care.

The last thing Katy kept an eye on was her own reflection in her coffee, swirling in the black. Twisting. Spiraling.

Sitting alone, in several respects, it seemed.

Then the front door swung open, loud, and her eyes and the eyes of others darted up.

They had bursted in with little regard for anyone else, skipping light on their feet, skipping right to the front of the line, to the girl who had stopped tapping her fingers on the register, surprised at this person’s sudden entrance and approach.

Some raised their voices to complain, but more looked to see if there was a parent or guardian around to claim them… this kid. There wasn’t.

The kid had her arms propped on the counter, hopping up and down. She was already speaking over any complaints others might have.

“Hot chocolate please!”

The girl working the front punched in the order. The faster she got this kid out of the way, the sooner things would smooth back over. For Katy, just she found the whole thing funny.

Because to them, she really was just a kid.

“And do you like have marshmallows too?”

“Yeah.”

“How many can you put until you can’t see the drink anymore?”

“Enough so you can’t see the drink anymore.”

“Okay, how much-”

“Don’t worry about it.”

The girl started tapping again.

“Oh are you sure?”

The kid asked too loudly.

“I’m sure.”

The kid then smiled, wide enough to notice a gap in her teeth.

“Thank you!”

For courtesy, the kid… Doris, no, D, tossed out some cash anyways, then skipped to the side to wait for her drink. She caught Katy’s eye, smiled wide again, and turned around, hopping in place.

Katy couldn’t let herself get too mad at D, it was as useless as getting worked up over the weather. It was simply out of her control.

That didn’t stop her from giving D a slight glare, even with her back to her, ready for when-

D turned back around, drink in hand, rushing over to the booth. If D had noticed Katy’s expression, she didn’t acknowledge it. She skipped on over, not spilling a single drop from the ceramic saucer and cup.

“Yo!” D said, finally giving Katy a proper greeting. If that could even be considered proper. “Mind if I sit and oppose you?”

“You mean opposite me?”

“Okay,” D said.

Katy took a sip of her own, then said, “The more things change.”

“Hey, that’s not fair, I let the lady keep the change.”

Katy rolled her eyes at that.

D spun her cup so she could better see the logo. She glanced at the people sitting around them. Only now, did she try to take stock at what was around her.

“Cafe Sharktooth, what’s with this place?”

Katy set her cup down, into the saucer. It made a light clanking sound.

“There’s nothing with this place. It’s just convenient. I needed somewhere we can meet, and I thought of here. That’s it.”

D shrugged, still staring at her cup. Her drink.

“Yeah, they should have put more marshmallows.”

Katy pursed her lips together. She drew a breath across the top of her coffee. The image of her rippled.

A lot was on Katy’s mind. Concerns. Troubles. Her own business. But she knew to keep her eyes open to her surroundings. Stay alert. Stay diligent.

“Bitter?”

Katy looked at D again, a slight shake of her head.

“Over what?”

D pointed with her lips.

“I’m asking if your coffee is bitter. You didn’t put anything in it?”

“I didn’t really want to.”

“Whoa,” D said, “Whoa whoa. The world of grown-ups sounds pretty spooky.”

“Don’t put so much thought into it.”

“But there has to be a reason, right? There has to be a reason for everything.”

“That? Coming from you? I thought people who need a reason to do things are trash in your eyes.”

“I wouldn’t go so far as to say that,” D said, smiling with her eyes closed, “It’s just more fun that way. My way. But that’s why I asked.”

“And that’s why I told you not to put so much thought into it.”

“Oof, you sure you don’t need some sugar?”

Katy breathed.

“If you’re not going to take this seriously, we can end this right now,” Katy said, “You don’t have to be here, and neither do I.”

D threw her hands up in an attempt to placate Katy. But it just looked like she was messing around some more.

“Whoa whoa whoa! What happened to you Big Sis? You did get so bitter. And cold. You should like really super lighten up, it’s already summer you know!”

Her only response was to raise her chin by a fraction. Katy was patient. She’d have to be, when dealing with someone like D. No, only when dealing with D, because there wasn’t anyone else like her.

She took the time to look out the window again. People passing. Minding their own business.

It was summer already.

Katy’s thoughts drifted to the time passed. The things lost along the way.

“So, any updates?”

Refocusing, Katy looked back at D.

She had a mouth full of hot chocolate and marshmallows, but made a point to finish it before adding, “I imagine that’s why I’m here.”

“You’re here because I need help, and I’m able to admit that and do something about it.”

“Sounds like a lot of work for me.”

“Depends on the work.”

D propped her elbows on the table. Katy considered saying something but didn’t.

“But before that… I want to hear from you, first.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s been forever. Yeah, come on. It’s summer, the sun’s out, I… we should be out there playing! So… enlighten me.”

Katy sighed. Listless. Drifting to that lost time again. Those things.

“There is… nothing worth mentioning.”

D pouted.

“Come ooooon, that can’t be true! You should tell me something. Anything.”

“And why should I?”

D tilted her chin down, slight, batting her eyes.

“Because we’re family, aren’t we? We’re practically sisters. And sisters basically share everything.”

“You have a severely skewed sense of sisterhood,” Katy said.

D shrugged.

“So it doesn’t have to be everything. That’s fine. Just give me something, anything.”

Then D grinned. Her ‘little sister,’ but they had something that ran deeper than any blood relation.

She was playing with her, Katy knew. To D, everything was a game. But that was fine too. Katy wasn’t unfamiliar with the rules. She played along.

“You tell me what you want to know, then.”

She watched as D put some serious consideration into it. Or, it was more likely that she was just messing around some more. Actually, knowing her, it was absolutely the latter.

“Oh!” D said. She jumped in her seat and snapped her fingers. “Let’s start with school. That’s always a good place to start. Yeah. School! How’s school?”

“You sound like Mom,” Katy said.

“Well, it’s been some time since I’ve last stepped into a classroom. I’ve forgotten what it’s like. Tell me about it.”

Katy answered. Not the actual question, but what D had implied instead. It was part of the game. D wouldn’t act so direct unless she was working at something else.

“What’s to say? It’s not like it changed since the last time you stepped in one. School is… school. The classes, the hallways, the textbooks. The… people. The uncomfortable silences, the uneasy tension, the lack of spirit, the passing whispers and stares. The plastered smiles. Everyone minding their own business. It’s all… normal.”

D tapped a finger on her chin.

“Hm. Sounds boring.”

“Like I said. Nothing worth mentioning. At least I don’t have to worry about it anymore.”

“There has to be something,” D said. She wouldn’t let it go. “Give me something juicy. I thirst for whatever is fun and interesting. That’s my vice. I’d ask you yours, but I think I already know it.”

Katy raised an eyebrow.

“And that is?”

D tapped her chin again, then wagged her finger. Back and forth.

“No way, Big Sis, I asked first.”

Katy fought the urge to gesture or react in any way. D was playing with her. Another move.

So Katy made a move of her own.

“Maria. You remember her?”

“For sure. When you brought up asking for help I was wondering where she was. I absolutely adored her mask. Wish I had the chance to talk with her about it.”

“You’ll have to hold your peace on that a little longer. We’re not exactly on speaking terms anymore.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah.”

“And by not exactly, you mean not at all?”

“Yeah,” Katy said, hating that she had to tip her hand further.

“And why’s that?”

Katy looked into her coffee cup. About half empty.

“Couldn’t say for sure. You’d have to ask her that. But, what I can say is that Maria doesn’t want to see me either, and that would include you, by extension. So don’t bother her, she won’t entertain you, like how I have the bad habit of doing.”

“I could do with a guess?”

“Don’t forget. If you’re not going to take this seriously-”

“Don’t pull that card! So lame! That’s like saying the only way to win the game is to not play.”

“Am I wrong?”

“Uh, yeah, you are. It’s not fun if it ends up being one-sided. As long as there’s a game to play, each side has a chance to win. So I’m on one side-”

D indicated to her cup of hot chocolate and marshmallows. Half full now.

“-And you’re on the other.”

D indicated to Katy’s coffee.

“So let’s play. And don’t be lame.”

Katy had her fingers around her cup, then she set them flat on the table, then underneath the table itself, resting between her legs.

“I don’t want to guess because I don’t want to do that to her,” Katy said. “I still see her as a friend, even if she literally doesn’t want to see me. I don’t know. Maybe she hated what I was getting her involved in, maybe she hated how it escalated, or that it had to escalate. Maybe she didn’t want it as badly as I did.”

Katy clenched her hands, forming fists. Where D couldn’t see.

“All I can do is guess. She ghosted me, after that night. And she’s never been one to be so open about herself.”

“Is that what you wanted help for? If she might talk?”

Katy shook her head.

“You want me to keep an eye on her now?”

Katy shook her head again.

“Nothing like that, no. If she’s done, then she’s done.”

She tried keep her voice from shaking in saying that. She didn’t try hard enough. She wasn’t even sure if she believed it herself.

D was staring. It made Katy want to look away.

If that was juicy enough for D, she didn’t mention.

Was that enough to win that round?

“You cut your hair.”

Katy looked up. It took a second for her thoughts to catch up, too.

“You only just now noticed?”

D brought the cup back up to her lips, half-drinking the hot chocolate, half-eating the marshmallows.

Katy frowned, but there wasn’t any actual hard feelings. She touched her hair like a habit, fixing it where it needed to be fixed. At its new length, new to D anyways, her hair barely brushed her shoulders.

D copied her, flicking her own hair and fixing her bangs. Playing it up.

“Looks just like mine!”

“As if.”

“You know,” D said, sitting back now, hair twirling around a finger, “She kept her hair around that length, too.”

It was as though D had twisted a knife. The weapon already sticking out of her side.

Katy flinched. She knew that D had caught that, but she kept her cool, or tried to, brushing her hair one more time.

She took another sip from her drink, thinking to herself, wondering just what the hell was she trying to accomplish now.

“I miss her, you know.”

Katy’s attention snapped back to the booth she was in. D sitting across from her, tugging at her choker.

“That’s the third time you said that,” Katy said.

“You don’t feel the same way?”

“Depends on who you’re referring to.”

“You know exactly who I’m referring to.”

“Fourth time,” Katy said, “And no, I don’t.”

D smirked. A slight show of her gap in her teeth.

Katy felt that twist again.

In order to put her mind on something else, Katy started reaching for the bag beside her.

“Don’t.”

Katy looked up.

“Can we do this somewhere else?”

Katy pulled her hand away.

“Did you have somewhere else in mind?”

Katy was trying to avoid that twisted feeling a third time.

“I do. I want to show you something.”

This wasn’t going according to plan. Not that she really had a plan in mind, but…

That was the point. She had business she wanted to tend to. And she needed help.

“Fine. We’ll go your way. For now.”

Lifting the cup, tilting it so the bottom pointed to the ceiling, D finished the rest of her drink. Slamming it down, her mouth was full of chocolate and marshmallows. Katy was afraid that D would speak and spray all over her face… but she didn’t. She actually had the manners to talk without her mouth being full.

“Then let’s go! Finally, we can go outside!”

Katy would have said something, that they weren’t going out to play… but she didn’t. She knew how D worked, or rather how she didn’t want to see things as work. If she wanted D’s help, she’d have to make it interesting, keep her interest. That meant giving her a game to play.

And if she had to see it like that, too… fine.

Maybe that was what this was, the whole time. A game.

Katy finished her drink and joined D when she hopped out of the booth, heading out of the coffee shop, getting ready for round two.

She sang along on the drive there. A rap song, and she knew every word.

The bass rumbled through the black BMW. Her father’s car.

She had her hands loose on the wheel, speeding a good ten miles above the limit. But she was taking the back roads, with not a single vehicle around. No one around to impede her. So she hit the gas a little harder, heard the engine growl, and felt the slight curve of the street underneath her tires as she swerved.

At the top of her lungs, she rapped as the song moved into the hook.

Drank in my cup, I ain’t seeing straight, blood in my mouth, I ain’t seeing straight!

The engine went harder as ten became fifteen.

One mo’ shot to the head, I ain’t seeing straight, I might die tonight, but I’m feeling great!

The higher speeds the car reached, the more she reveled in the mean, couldn’t-give-less-of-a-fuck attitude of the song. She turned the volume up.

The bass boomed, and she could feel it in her chest. Part of the reason why she liked using this car. It had a great audio system, and it paired well with the music she liked. The beat thumped against the speakers, making the sound more rich and full. The lyrics, too, were more clear, and made it more fun to sing along to.

She could drive like this all night, if the road allowed, getting lost in it all, without a single worry.

But, there was somewhere she had to be. Things she had to keep in mind. Important things.

She thought about what her mom said.

As the car went around a bend, she let it slow. She turned the volume down to a more acceptable level, too.

Stay safe and keep an eye on your friends.

She’d do that, in fact she was off to do that at this very moment. After all, what would they do without her?

Probably wander off and get lost, that’s what.

Her thoughts were getting away from her. Right now she had to focus on this. That was her primary concern.

She was going to pull this off, it was all going to come together.

Almost at the end of the road. No one was around. She signaled a turn anyways.

She was almost there. And she couldn’t wait.

D had arrived first, pushing the heavy doors open with all her might.

Katy followed her inside.

There was an absence of sound, so oppressive that it stole her voice away. The halls and aisles, they were as hallowed as they were hollowed.

St. Elizabeth had been gutted and ripped apart, and it had been left to rot.

Wooden rows were made into splinters, seat cushions and pages from hymnals torn and turned to shreds. Glass shards littered the floor, most of it swept to the side, but a lot was not. There was just too much of a mess, here.

Bullets and their casings too. Katy and D watched their step.

They walked deeper into the church. Their footsteps carried through the building, echoing out, showing just how empty this place had become. Desolate. Abandoned by God, and even the Devil.

D led Katy to the front row, still intact, somehow. The altar up ahead was crushed to pieces, and Katy saw the crucifix, the arms and legs were removed from the body. As if they had been sliced off.

She noticed deep marks were gouged into the tile and stone, almost like claw marks. When Katy checked behind her, she saw similar damage done to the floor, wall, and ceiling of the church. A spiral of destruction.

Katy took a seat first, setting some stuff beside her. D plopped down onto a cushion on the floor.

When Katy finally spoke, it was a near whisper.

“I remember the last church I visited. St. Francis Xavier. That one got trashed too. But not nearly as bad as this one.”

“This one was pretty bad,” D said. From where she sat, she looked around the church, Katy watching how her eyes traced a path, making a circle. Or a spiral.

“May I ask how bad?”

Katy asked, wary, watching her still.

D’s gaze was elsewhere, and Katy noticed a shine in the corner of them. Just a smidge of water catching what little light was in here. She blinked it away.

Finally, D answered.

“Pretty bad.”

Katy nodded. She wouldn’t pry that much. Even D had her boundaries.

She wondered, then, just why D chose this location to reconvene. What did she have in mind?

Katy wanted to ask, but there were more important things to get to.

But, D herself was important, too. Someone she wanted to keep an eye on.

“We can go somewhere else,” Katy said, “If this isn’t going to work for you.”

D tugged at her choker, blinking.

“No, it’s fine. I’m fine. I come here when I can, clean up here and there, but there’s just so much and… yeah.”

“I can see that.”

D kept looking around, gaze wandering. Katy let her take all the time she needed. She could be patient.

“I miss her.”

“You’ve already told me that.”

“But it’s true. The last time I saw her, it was here. The last time I could see her as a sister. Not as a plaything, but as someone to play with.”

“I told you what you were getting out of helping me that time. You knew the risks involved.”

“Of course I knew, but how could I have known that it’d come to this? I got more than what I asked for, and I had a lot of fun. But I also stood to lose a lot, too, and that scared me. Friends, people I started to see as family. Lawrence… and her. And then it happened, I did lose all those things, and now I’m here, and all I can do now is just… sweep the pieces away.”

“Are you saying you have regrets?”

“I’m too young to have regrets.” D leaned back, arms behind her, propping her up. “But I do wonder… just who the real winner is, in this little game of yours.”

Katy didn’t respond to that. She didn’t like where this was going.

D took in a deep breath, and exhaled hard.

“I’m curious, Big Sis, if I had to play with you again, what do I stand win?”

“Closure,” Katy answered, without missing a beat.

“Closure. Why? What more do you need?”

“I didn’t… She got away from me. That wasn’t supposed to happen. I wanted to see her, face to faceless. I wanted my eye on her.”

“For what? So you two could talk?”

“If it came down to it.”

“What would you have talked about?”

Katy answered without missing a beat. It was something that had been on her mind for a very long time.

“Why she ran away, why she left us all behind. Her friends, her mom. Maria. Me. Why didn’t she tell me. She was my best friend. I was supposed to look out for her, and she was supposed to have my back. And for her to just… fucking throw all of that away. I want to know why.”

D leaned to one side.

“Do you think she’s still alive?”

Katy missed that particular beat.

“She had better fucking be, because I’m not done with her yet. Even if it means dragging her out of Hell myself, even if it means becoming a monster. I will find her. And then, and only then, do I get to put her back there, and I leave her to burn.”

D’s gaze moved to Katy. There was a sadness in them, something that went beyond her age. Pity, too.

That angered her.

“How long has it been… No one’s heard anything since. And besides, who is to say the person you lost has been gone even before all this? You don’t know a thing about who you’re after.”

“You’ve kept me in the loop, you gave me updates.”

“I gave you what she was doing, you never cared about who she was. Did you ever? Or were you just wanting to satisfy your irresponsible sense of egoism?”

“Excuse me?”

“Let’s say you really do get what you want, and she’s sitting right here in front of you, right now. I think you might disappointed with what you end up getting.”

“That will be for me to decide.”

D maintained that look of pity. A slight smirk. It aggravated her.

“Funny, we’ve been talking about the same person, yet two very different people. The one you’re looking for… Alexis Barnett? Sorry to say, but I never met her. I don’t know her. The one I did know, Wendy, she didn’t want to have anything to do with Alexis. She hated her, rejected her. She wouldn’t, or couldn’t, tell you a single thing, she refused to look at that part of herself. And now they’re both gone.”

Katy crossed her arms.

Then, D moved her hand into her jacket again, pulling something out.

D continued.

“The last time I saw her was in here. I said… something, I don’t know, it was the wrong thing at the wrong time. But I saw it in her eyes. The very instant my Vivi winked out of existence. Everything that followed… There was no going back from that.”

D threw her hand out at Katy, something flying in her direction. Katy caught it.

A chess piece. A black queen.

“And there’s no point in trying to continue. The game is over, Big Sis. I suggest you give it up, too.”

Katy squeezed the piece in her hand, feeling it press into her palm. The sharp point of the queen’s crown could stab into her, if she put enough pressure. She was just shy of it.

“A simple no from the beginning would have sufficed.”

D shrugged.

“Bad habit.”

Katy glanced down at the stuff she had brought with her. The bags and files… things she didn’t have a chance to bring up and discuss, and D led her all the way here just to shut her down.

She clenched her jaw, teeth grinding together.

Giving it up… that was impossible. Even if it seemed easy, because everyone else had given up already. Maria was gone, Shiori had moved back to Japan, seemingly abandoning all hope of ever seeing her daughter again. Uncle J let himself deteriorate, close to meeting her father, and her own mother taken the first steps in a backslide… Everyone was giving up, everyone was acting like this was normal.

She couldn’t accept that.

It was all so…

D asked her, sudden, “Do you know what your vice is?”

“And what is that?”

“Frustration.”

Katy almost laughed. She could hardly believe how this was going now.

“Is that so?”

“That’s my assessment.”

Katy leaned back into her seat, arms still crossed.

She looked at the broken cross at the altar, she looked at the confessional past that, busted and collapsed in different places.

Katy thought about what D said.

“The only thing free in life… I bet he told her that, I bet she believed him.”

“And you?”

“It’s hardly free. In fact it cost me everything. But I’m willing to pay that price again.”

D reached for her choker again, tugging at it.

“Then I’m sorry I can’t help you a second time around.”

“I’m sorry too. I guess you have changed.”

“And you stayed the same.”

Katy opened her mouth.

By imposing too great a responsibility, or rather, all responsibility, on yourself, you crush yourself!

Katy and D both turned around.

The doors of the church were being thrown wide open, blinding daylight punching through the oppressive dark they were sitting in.

A long figure cut a hole in the light, standing with their arms out. They walked, holding that pose, trying to make their entrance more grand.

As they progressed down the aisle, more joined them, stepping into the church. From the outlines, Katy could see helmets. Biker helmets.

They filed out into the different rows, or where the rows would be, if the church hadn’t been made into temple ruins instead. They stood in position. Every row the first figure passed, was another row the bikers filled up with their numbers.

Katy stared at Styx as he and his gang infiltrated, intruding on her plans. What little plans she had left now.

They marched towards Katy and D, then to Katy herself.

Her heart pounded heavy as he hopped and spun and landed in the seat next to Katy. He crossed one leg over the other, and put one arm around her.

She couldn’t look at him anymore. It was too sudden. She tried to look at D, who as surprised as she was. Or was that another play as well?

Styx spoke close to her ear.

“An important lesson, a hard one to learn. Some manage to be lucky, like you and I…”

With a bony finger, he gestured between them.

“And other’s, well, they do get crushed.”

Styx then pointed ahead, to the ruined crucifix, the altar underneath.

“What the heck are you doing here?”

D asked when Katy could not.

Styx didn’t look at her, but he did answer.

“Just happened to be in your area, so I swung by to thank you all for… thank you, just, thank you.”

Styx was nodding, bobbing his head, eyes closed, whispering to himself. It was like he was crying. Katy was unsure of what to make of anything, anymore.

“Thank you, truly, because I would have never been able to bear witness to such a beautiful punchline if it hadn’t been for your setup. I would have never been able to do it on my own, seems like I still have some things to learn in my old age.”

Katy could feel the warmth from his arm, wrapped around the back of her neck. Like a serpent. She clutched the chess piece, feeling its sharpness dig into her skin.

“Mister and Mrs. Carter would like to express their gratitude as well. Because of you, everything went splendidly. Because of you, we were able to scale down our operations in light of the recent and increased attention on Stephenville. Because of you, we were able to develop an infrastructure that allowed us to continue at a sufficient level to this day. Because of you, I was able to laugh louder than I ever had in years. Because of Victor, because of John Cruz, because of Alma, because of Dong-Yul, because of the Thompson Act, because of you.”

“Don’t me throw me in with them,” Katy said, “You wolves thinned the herd yourselves.”

“No no, you did your part, looking after Blueballs, keeping tabs, with her being your eyes and ears.”

Styx pointed to D, now. D squirmed.

“And all that was left for me to do was nudge things here and there for the desired effect. My most perfect joke. What a lovely fool, I think I’ll miss her too.”

Katy was losing what little patience she had left. And she thought she had enough to spare.

“If you’re just here to sing your praises, then there. You’re welcome. You can leave now.”

The arm around her neck tightened in its grip. Katy shuddered. An instant regret.

Non, noir comme du jais, non. You see, you don’t have just my thanks, but my services as well. If you are up to the offer.”

Katy traded a look with D. Nothing.

“What services?”

Styx indicated to the bag beside Katy. “Looks like you have a lot to unpack, and D here refused to answer the call. All I’m saying is, you can ring me. Ring ring.”

Katy felt a prickling sensation, creeping up her spine. She wanted to move, but she couldn’t, knowing how dangerous someone like Styx was. This was a game she wanted to get out of.

“How did you even…”

“Open it. Show me.”

She briefly considered any other potential options. She squeeze the chess piece again.

Could she even refuse someone like Styx? She had seen his work before, she had seen how it lost her a father.

She wouldn’t make the same mistake as him. Or her. Styx wasn’t one to be underestimated.

Katy reached for the bag, setting it in her lap. With Styx’s wide stare on her, she pulled at the zipper.

Files, documents, photos. Notebooks. Even hard drives upon hard drives of stored information. Katy sifted through the work.

“This is everything Natalie Beckham and Oliver Morgan left behind. You remember them? Of fucking course, you had her kill them too. Every scribbled note, every recording, every bit of data, every interview, it’s all here.”

“Yes, the thought of that crossed my mind. Those two… ever the revenants, living on through their work.”

Katy considered that. Maybe revenant was the right word for all of this.

She sifted through the notes in front of her When she spoke again, she was thinking aloud.

“We warned them, that they would be targeted. And they’re not fools, or maybe they were in the end, but they had enough experience to know that themselves. They wouldn’t need us to tell them that the invitations to John Cruz’s event was a trap, but they went anyways. And we tried to mitigate things on our end, so they wouldn’t get killed.”

“We did,” D said, “I tried.”

“But they went anyways, and they got killed. And they left me with all of… this.”

Katy flipped through a page, and something caught her eye.

She pulled out that particular piece of paper, and her heart thumped. Almost as hard as the moment she learned that her father had passed away. Almost.

“Everything they had on her.”

Alexis Barnett’s smiling face. Wide, genuine, free. Not a care in the world. It haunted Katy, it taunted her. Made her all the more frustrated.

The queen stabbed at her even harder.

“I don’t know why, but they left me with the burden of the truth, as they knew it. But there’s still… there’s still glaring holes, and I need help filling them in.”

“You need help,” Styx said, “And I’m offering my wide-reaching tentacles.”

“You?” Despite her fear, Katy had to suppress the urge to scoff. “The last thing I need is to be used in another setup, or be made into your next punchline. Thanks, Styx, but no fucking thanks.”

Styx cackled. With him being so close, it startled her.

“You’re good, you really are. Smart. Just like your father.”

That fear turned into something much colder. Sharper.

She was already close, but then she moved even closer, past the leather jacket, past bare skin, and between the ribs.

Katy stabbed into Styx the pointed chess piece.

A shock ran throughout the entire church. Through D, through Katy, through the rows and rows of Ferrymen behind her.

The only one who wasn’t shocked was Styx himself. A low chuckle ran through him instead.

He pulled back, taking his arm off of Katy. He used it to pull back his jacket, looking down. He wasn’t wearing a shirt underneath, so thin lines of blood were free the trickle down from the wound. The base of the queen was barely sticking out. Katy had pressed in, and pressed in hard.

Styx kept chuckling.

Katy couldn’t bear to hear more of it. More of Styx, more of D, more of this sick, fucked up world.

“I am nothing like him. He, who made it his fucking business to try and shape this city, this world, into his own image. Fuck that. I want to burn this shit to the ground. This world, and the other one that’s out there, the one that stole Alexis Barnett from me and turned her into… something else entirely. It’s in the shadows, and I want to take a torch to that fucking world and set it alight.”

And then she added, just to hear herself say it, “And I’m nothing like her either.”

Styx was laughing harder now.

Frustrated, Katy got out of her chair, collecting the files that had spilled over during her sudden outburst.

She thought how useless this was, how pointless. Like she was being mocked for even trying to focus on the most important things.

She hated her old self, she rejected them. She didn’t even want to consider that past person and those past thoughts as herself, anymore. To think she had let herself fall into that trap, once before. To be like everyone else. To have given up and just be normal. It was pitiful. And she wasn’t about to make that mistake twice.

She gathered her things and got prepared, she looked at D. Her little-

No.

Katy spoke to her.

“I’ll find her, and with her the truth. I’ll fill in the blanks, and I’ll get it down the very letter. This is your last chance, D. Grow up.”

As she feared, D shook her head.

Adieu, Katy.”

Lesson learned. She’d do it herself.

Then she turned, running now, running away.

Leaving them all behind, Katy pushed the doors open, the light momentarily blinding her.

She used the moonlight to guide where she’d park. Avoid the lamppost, since they were too direct. The moon was a softer source, she could sit in the shadows and become imperceptible, especially from a good distance. The black paint of the car helped, too, blending in with the dark.

Those were the details she had to think about. Important details. She didn’t want to make it too obvious, just be careful, just to be safe.

See Mom? Just as you asked.

She smiled to herself.

Finding a decent spot, in a corner by some shrubbery, she moved the car into position and set it to park.

Turning the music down all the way, she took out her phone and sent out a text. Not to the group chat, and not to Maria either. Someone else.

Setting her phone down, the only thing left for her to do was wait. And she couldn’t wait.

Ugh, I am so ready to leave.

Tapping her foot, shaking her leg, looking out from across where she had parked.

Such a slowpoke.

She groaned, already impatient. She wanted to turn her music back up, but she felt that might jinx things somehow. That she might attract some unwanted attention, that she might get caught. Better to play it safe.

To pass the time, she went through everything in her head one more time. Just to make sure she had everything in order, so tonight would go perfect.

She put to mind her own business.

Drinks? Got that covered. There’s gonna be more there too. Music? Got that covered too. Everybody’s got their invites… Him? Check. And her? Waiting on this bitch to hurry up and get in here.

She checked herself in the rearview mirror. And again.

Hell yeah. This is gonna be great.

More than great. Perfect.

She really couldn’t wait.

Then, before her patience could wear any thinner, she saw her.

Running across the length of the parking lot, staying close to the shadows, only the faintest of glimmers falling on one side of her body. A fitting sweater, and… was that a new skirt? It looked cute on her.

Her long hair ran free in the light wind. She raised a hand to fix it, then waved in the direction of the car.

The queen herself.

Hurrying over, the passenger side opened, and she hopped in.

“Present,” Alexis said.

“You definitely look like one, birthday girl, should have put a bow on you too.”

“Shut up, we’re still a few hours out from that.”

“Shit, what time is it?”

Alexis raised her hand again, pulling back a sleeve. A black watch adorned the wrist. A simple and sleek design, the face was blank, no numbers or markings, with only thin gold lines used to mark the time.

“Three hours until the big day,” Alexis said.

“I’m liking that watch, early birthday gift?”

“Yeah, my mom couldn’t wait until tomorrow, so she gave it to me before I went to school.”

“That is so sweet. But hey, speaking of…”

“It’s cool. She’s still at work. I think she wanted to have dinner with me tonight, but we should be good.”

“And you’re certain she won’t be mad at you for skipping?”

Alexis paused for a beat.

“Of course she’ll be mad, but with how late it is already, I’m more certain that she’d rather just go straight to bed when she does get home. She probably won’t notice that I’ve been out, and we can just have dinner over the weekend.”

She put the car in drive. “If you say so.”

“We’ll be fine. I’m not missing this party for the world.”

They both smiled.

“Not to hype you up or anything, but I pulled out all the stops so this night would go perfect. Maria’s scoping out Braham Barn as we speak, she’s got the cake already, and a good number of your volleyball friends are on route right now. Not to mention all the college kids that’ll be there just because it’s the weekend. It will be lit.”

“If that was you trying to temper my expectations, then you did a terrible job.”

“I’ll do you one worse then. He is going to be there.”

“He who?”

“You know who.”

Even in the dark, she could see Alexis start to blush.

“Oh fuck, Katy, you didn’t.”

“I so did.”

“No, that’s it. I’m getting out of here. I’m going home.”

She peeled out of the parking spot. Tires squealing.

“No way, Lexi,” she said. “Brandon will be there, you will be there, and you two will hit it off and it is going to be-”

“Perfect, I know,” Alexis said, a nervous smile on her face.

“Then get yourself together, Lexi, this is all for you. So, are you ready to go in there and party your ass off or not?”

The car hit the road, speeding off. She glanced at her best friend.

Alexis took a deep breath, as though she was about to dive head first into something crazy. Because she was, absolutely, but she wouldn’t be alone. There would always be someone watching over her, keeping an eye on her, reading her.

But for now, she was going to have some fucking fun.

“Yeah,” Alexis said, nodding, smiling wider. “I’m ready. Let’s give them hell!”

Quit                                                           Continue

 

Interlude – Alexis

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The girl, lying there at the crossroads, bloody and broken, close to dying a dog’s death, stared up with a foggy gaze at the man in grey who stood above her. Blinking once, twice, eyes starting to glaze over. A miserable display, but there wasn’t much left for her to show.

No name, no self, not even any limbs to affect the world around her.

Not much left at all.

“You…” the girl said, or breathed, rather. A repeat of what she had just heard, or acknowledging the man in grey? Even the girl didn’t know for sure, she was losing her focus, her grasp on things.

The man in grey made a face. The girl couldn’t guess on what it conveyed.

He didn’t respond, not right away, not with words. He instead removed something from his coat pocket, a uniform with a neutral color. A device.

Clicking a button at the top, a light glowed, and he held it to the girl’s face. Her eyes, shining the light right into them.

The girl winced, blinking some more, but not closing her eyes. She was still in a daze.

“You can still see? That does not surprise me but it does… intrigue me.”

The man in grey spoke with a slight accent, but the girl couldn’t pin down where it might have come from. He continued to move the light from one eye to the other, examining her, studying her.

“Pupils respond accordingly, breathing has gone stable, infection rate is… You have become quite the host, haven’t you? The Red Queen has found quite the crown in you.”

She couldn’t understand these words, and she didn’t care to understand them. The only meaning she got out of them was fear. The fear. What she couldn’t understand, she had to instead be afraid of. A way of survival, preservation. And somewhere, deep into the very core of her being, still kicked and screamed as if there was a chance.

That instinct bubbled up within her, rising to the surface, manifesting as squirms and wriggles. Writhing in pain and using that sensation to further more movements, however limited.

She’d swim in that pain, even drown in it, if it meant getting to live a little longer.

But she couldn’t understand why she was fighting so hard, even now, and that scared her even more.

To swim in a circle. A spiral.

The man in grey clicked away the light, and returned it to his coat pocket.

“No no, we can’t have that. You see, it took all the running you could do, just to keep in the same place. Do you know that one? So the queen and the crown will be coming with us.”

That only made the girl swim harder.

“I don’t want to, I don’t want to. I want to go home, I want to go home! It’s almost midnight, she’s waiting for me, at home. Mother, my mother. I need to see her. Home. Need to see her. Waiting and waiting. Should have never went outside. Shit, I knew it. I knew it, shit… shit…”

She kept on until she was incoherent, muttering words that made sense to her and only her. Until they were almost like incantations to her, binding her mind into some sort of spell. Hypnotizing.

Standing straight, the man in grey continued to look down at the girl. At her efforts.

“Nolla.”

The Shape beside him moved in response. If that was an order or a name, the girl didn’t know.

Stepping in close, aising that weapon again, aiming it deliberately above her heart.

The girl froze, a chill running through her blood.

“You mustn’t make this so difficult,” the man in grey said, “For me, but especially for yourself.”

She snarled.

“Dignity, right?”

Then she stopped, lying flat again on the concrete.

“Shit…”

Her eyes started to well again.

Standing above her, the two lost their definite shapes as the tears fell like rain. She knew how terrible she looked, how ugly she felt, but this was beyond her, now. She had lost all control of the situation, and her grasp on herself was loosening as well. Falling like rain, falling to pieces.

It was all too much to bear.

She continued to sob, as if that meant something. She wept and mourned her own uselessness, wishing she could abandon it and herself, as she had always done before, when things have proved to be too difficult. To fragment, discard, and disassociate.

But she could no longer. Not here. Not when she was at the end of all roads, to the point that they began to intersect and weave and cross into one another, there was nowhere else for her to go.

Unable to run, unable to hide.

No more turning back.

The man in grey answered what truly was the girl’s sad display.

Wunderkind, there really is no need to fret. If you wish to see your mother again, then you are quite in luck after all.”

Hearing that enough to calm her for a moment. But only for a moment.

“Wha… what?”

The man in the grey nodded.

“Yes. She would be pleased to see you, I’d imagine. And, speaking strictly for myself, I know I am pleased to finally meet with you. Nolla tries not to show it too much, but a game of chase wouldn’t have lasted this long if there wasn’t any enjoyment to be had.”

The first form the girl had encountered, the Shape, Nolla, remained as still as ever. Still silent, still unmoving, and still seemingly without feeling.

The girl tried to take in a deep breath, but the air she sucked in was shaky, and was exhaled as a wheeze. She hiccuped again.

“Are you… calling this… a game?”

She asked, almost in disbelief.

“I am not trying to call this anything, little one, except, perhaps, a family reunion.”

“A… family…”

The girl didn’t finish that thought. Or couldn’t. Either way, it didn’t really matter.

“It may be a more… sentimental way of putting it, but I am a man of sentiment, so you will have to forgive me that. I hope you will.”

“I don’t understand,” the girl said, which was beginning to sound like a mantra. Or maybe it always was one. Either way, it didn’t really matter. Not anymore.

“That’s quite alright. You will in due time. I suppose we can make do with some informal introductions, since we will have to get a move on.”

The man in grey gestured to the Shape beside him, still aiming that thing squarely above the girl’s heart, which was beating at a increasingly rushed beat by the minute.

“This is Nolla, your… half-sibling. Yes, that’s about right. As for me, well, there’s not much to say about me at all. Ein Landarzt, perhaps, but you may refer to me as… your grandfather.”

The man in grey… Grandfather.

“Grandfather,” the girl said, the word slathered with as much venom and blood as she could spit, some of it actually dripping down her face, “You have no fucking idea how much shit you put me through…”

Various images came to her, flashing past her eyes. All the pain, all the hardship, the misfortune that was enough to fill over a dozen novels, all of them filled with pages and pages of torment and misery. If there was any happiness it was but a fleeting moment, a glimmer of light gliding across the surface of a waterfall that would only ever go in one direction. That sun and that water, they were two very physical, very separate things, and their meeting was only a transient experience.

This chase between a cat and a mouse…

Losing her gang and the few meaningful connections she had there…

Losing the life of a child she made herself responsible for in a demented roadtrip across a hellish landscape…

Losing her very self in a too-bright hallway, one of many steps in a spiral descent into destruction…

Grappling with her sense of purpose and identity in a pursuit of vengeance…

Losing her mind in place where she thought she would have been the most safe, a school…

Losing her best friend’s father…

Throwing her life and those orbiting it into chaos for some misguided sense of justice…

Hiding herself behind a mask, from a world which she knew would hate her, and did…

Seven days in Hell. Seven very long days.

That hour before midnight, at a time when she wasn’t even supposed to be out.

It shouldn’t have been like this.

But also…

It seems like it was always going to be like this, from the start.

A cycle.

“This is all your fucking fault,” the girl said, seething, but also knowing just how wrong she was.

Grandfather shook his head.

“While I am sympathetic to your situation, as anyone would and should be, I unfortunately cannot assume any responsibility to what you have done to yourself. I mean, look at you, you’re so thin. A shame to see a grandchild of mine having starved themselves to such a state. Meat, you know, all things have meat on their bones, why didn’t you take any?”

The girl only stared, hard, with hatred. For both herself, her grandfather, then that vision exploding to the world at large.

Grandfather only continued. He shrugged.

“Though, as someone who should, in theory, assume a parental role of some capacity, I do feel as if some blame can be shifted over to me. My apologies, sincerely.”

The girl was as silent as Nolla, now. She tried not to think of it as some shared trait between… between half-siblings.

“Because the truth is I have been watching you for quite some time. It was hard not to, considering how busy and very public you have been. I desperately wanted to meet with you and have you brought back as well, but as I mentioned, the spotlight stayed on you, and it was much too bright. So I waited. And now, it seems to have dimmed enough.”

Grandfather gestured to the night sky, hands together. There was a certain… meaning to it. Like a prayer.

“And now, here we are. I am sorry that it took me so long.”

Then, Grandfather gestured again.

Nolla didn’t move, their arm still frozen in place, despite holding something that looked to be rather heavy. It was the weapon that moved. Spiraling, the black tendrils charging with energy, humming and even crackling. The girl imagined it laughing at her.

Speaking over the low buzzing of the instrument, the plaything.

“Oh, and how inconsiderate of me. Enkelkind, I never got your name.”

“Name?”

The girl raised her head, brief, before dropping it again. Tired.

“Yes, little one, your name.”

Those various images hadn’t stopped running through her mind. Endless and repeating, looping, like a snake eating its own tail.

They repeated until they seemed real and corporeal, something she could retreat into. So she did. For she had nowhere else to go.

She searched for her answer there.

“My name is…”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

been

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

here

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

before…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fields of dried vegetation, swaying in a light wind that also brushed against her face and hair. A dirt path that seemingly stretched forever.

The girl walked along this path. She didn’t care how long it would take her until she got to the end, or if there even was one. She walked.

A feeling in the pit of her stomach. Her heartbeat was steady. She couldn’t quite name it.

But she also felt as though she could figure that out if she kept walking.

So she did just that. She kept walking.

It was nighttime. She was fine with that. She was used to the dark.

She walked for long time.

Her perception of time seemed to have dulled, or maybe that particular sense had left her forever. She was fine with that too.

She kept walking.

The girl listened to the bristling leaves, the dirt shuffling underneath her feet as she dragged them slightly. The fields went by, she watched the scenery pass. Listlessly.

To the key of this, she listened.

Eventually, or maybe instantly, the girl wasn’t sure of which, the girl arrived at the end, because all things had one after all. There would be no exception here. Not for her, and certainly not for this.

At the end of the dirt path was a house. Or a mansion, to be more specific.

Imposing and harrowing, yet also hollow, a husk of an old life. One full of pain and sin and violations. All that was left for it now was to be left alone and die and decay.

She wasn’t sure if she had been walking to this place, or returning to it.

Either way, it was the perfect place to rest.

The girl let herself in.

The interior of the mansion appeared to be in better shape than what she saw outside. Not that it surprised her, but it wasn’t what she had expected. She expected old, dusty furniture, wallpaper peeling off the walls, faded colors and a musky smell, like old wet wood. Being inside now, she saw none of that. The opposite, in fact, was true. The place was clean.

Letting herself deeper into the mansion, she had a look around. There wasn’t anyone else present, and it was quiet. It was serene, actually, just having a chance to walk through the area and not be concerned with anything else. A certain… tension, that would usually hold a tight grip on her heart, but in this instance, it wasn’t there.

Strange. She wasn’t used to that.

Finding herself in a large common room, she immediately realized that she wasn’t alone after all.

Sitting by themselves, on a couch at the other side of the room. The light in here was limited, only a few stray beams, but the girl could see well enough. Leaning on one side, eyes closed, head back, they were asleep. Quiet, even calm.

Drawn like a magnet, the girl crossed the space without really thinking about what she was doing, or about to do. She didn’t want to disturb them from their slumber, but something about them… allured her.

About halfway, before the girl could ever reach out and touch them, they stirred. The girl stopped.

They got up on their own, waking, rubbing at an eye and scratching under their chin. They yawned, a graceless and inconsiderate sound, but they didn’t seem to know that they had to consider anyone else at all.

Pushing their hair away from their face, the girl confirmed that they were a she. Stirring some more, yawning again, the other girl blinked until she could properly take in her surroundings. It didn’t take long for her to notice that she wasn’t alone, herself.

About to stretch, she stopped, then covering her open mouth with a hand. Eyes darting away, she looked embarrassed. The first girl couldn’t help but feel endeared by it, which made her share in that embarrassment as well.

Then she blurted out a greeting.

“Hi!”

They stared at each other.

The first girl wanted to cover her open mouth too, but more just slap herself. She hated how stupid she sounded.

They stared at each other for some time.

It was the second girl who broke the silence. Her light bout of laughter filled the home. Tinged with nervousness, but she laughed anyways.

“Hi!” the second girl said back, still struggling to calm back down. She covered her face more.

Which only made the first girl more aware of herself, standing there, feeling like an idiot, because she felt that she probably was one, but it was made much more clear to her now.

“Can I at least take a seat?” the first girl asked.

Between those fits of laughter, the second girl patted the cushion next to her.

Still unsure of herself, but the first girl moved despite that. Taking a seat next to her companion.

The second girl finally managed to put her fluttered laughs in check, and the silence returned. But it was different silence. There was a new note to it. Somehow.

“Hi,” the first girl said, giving it another shot. Came out less awkward this time.

She got a nod in response. “Hi.”

Another pause. A beat.

“Sorry for waking you.”

“No you’re good, I probably shouldn’t have been sleeping for that long anyways. Uh, do you have a name?”

Odd, the first girl felt as if she had already been asked that. But here, in this place, with her, without any of the usual tension that gripped her, she found that she could answer that question, despite some initial consideration.

“It’s, uh, it’s V.”

“V?”

“Like the letter?”

“Is that like a nickname? Who names themselves after just a letter?”

V folded her arms, a bit annoyed at that.

“Well, there’s Wendy.”

“There you go, that’s a pretty name.”

V… Wendy unfolded her arms.

“I’d ask you yours, but I think I already know.”

The second girl nodded, slow, and when she did answer there was a lot less consideration for it.

“Alexis.”

The name hit her like a truck, but Wendy remained sitting, back straight. She had braced for that impact.

Wendy breathed.

“Well, Alexis, I’ve run out of lies to tell, so I’ll just come out and say it. We’re fucked.”

Alexis frowned.

“You couldn’t have put it some other way?”

“There is no other way to put it. We are fucked.”

Alexis grimaced at every utterance of that word. She held up a hand.

“Got it. Thanks.”

Seeing her here, being with her, it was almost overwhelming. No, not almost. It was.

She had braced for it, but that impact still hit hard.

Dots hit her lap, wet. Without realizing it, while she spoke to her, Wendy had been crying.

Her hands reached out, until they found firm shoulders. Wendy dropped her head down, and continued to weep.

“I am so… sorry…” Wendy said between bursts of sobs, “I thought I could be better than you… I thought I would have been able to surpass you if I just threw you away… But, in the end, I just made it all worse. I fucked it all up!”

In contrast to Alexis, Wendy was shaking, bawling hard at her own self-loathing. It was all too much to bear.

Then something touched her face. Wendy flinched.

Wiping away the tears, thumbing just underneath her eyes, Wendy felt her cheeks go dry. Fingers worked in holding and helping her, tender.

When Alexis spoke, it was with a certain sageness. A reserved wisdom.

“It’s okay, Wendy, it really is. You don’t have anything to be sorry about.”

“But, but…”

“But nothing. You did an amazing job, taking care of things while I was asleep here. You protected me, took all the heat when I wasn’t able to. You know, I should be the one apologizing, I put you to all that and you never asked for it. It’s my fault.”

Wendy shook her head, and kept shaking. She didn’t want to hear it. She didn’t want to be told that.

“That’s not true, it isn’t. I should have… I should have been better, I should have done more… I should have asked for help…”

“A lot of shoulds,” Alexis said, “But that’s kind of the conceit, isn’t it? You always find an easier way around things once you get a chance to look back and see how you went through it the first time… that was a clunky way of putting it, I’m sorry.”

Wendy shook her head again, nuzzling herself into her counterpart’s shoulder now.

“Don’t be, I know what you mean. Hindsight is a bitch.”

Alexis laughed a little.

“That’s it.”

They stayed there for what felt like the better part of an hour, but time was a forgone concept, now. It didn’t matter. Wendy even had the faintest of hopes that they could stay like this forever.

That hope was soon dashed, however, when she felt the slightest of nudges, indicating to straighten herself back up. Wendy did so, blinking away more tears.

Alexis still had her hands on Wendy, to wipe her eyes.

“You’re so much stronger than you think, Wendy, I’m sure you’ve been told this?”

“If I have, I don’t remember.”

“Come on, there was that… what was her name? Sarah?”

Wendy felt her cheeks go warm. She was scared that Alexis might feel that too.

“Her? Please, I don’t even know what that was.”

“That was real, Wendy, that was yours. I can’t take that from you.”

Wendy tilted her head, leaning more into one Alexis’ palms.

“But if you do want to get into it… what have you done, Wendy?”

Closing her eyes, Wendy thought about it. They came to her like dreams. And she spoke of them.

“What have I done? I left home. Your home, our home, I left it behind so I could try and make my own name for myself, my own sense of self. I found others, we joined together and made a gang. D, Lawrence, and yeah, Sarah. We took over a territory, and I wanted to make it in my image. But I still had to figure out what that image was. Who I wanted to be, that kind of person… I still had a lot to figure out.”

Taking in everything, listening with intent, Alexis closed her eyes for a beat, and then opened them again.

“Okay, and what have you failed to do?”

Eyes closing again, Wendy thought about that too. They came to her like nightmares. Her voice trembled.

“What have I failed to do? I took too long, I stalled. I didn’t go about things a certain way, or I deliberately avoided looking at certain things. Who I really was, what was inside… our true nature, our shared heritage. I lied and ignored it because I didn’t want it to affect me, even though I relied on its power. But that type of thing doesn’t just go away, and it threatened to swallow me up, and it even did, on several occasions. Chewed me up and spat me out, and I still turned a blind eye to it. In the end, that made me lose sight of myself.”

“You’re not defined by what’s inside anymore than I am,” Alexis told Wendy, “But yeah, I suppose that does hold some importance, doesn’t it? We should have been…  a lot more diligent, in that respect.”

It was Wendy’s turn to laugh.

“Yeah, we should have.”

“A lot of shoulds.”

Wendy raised her hands, holding Alexis by the wrist. She didn’t want Alexis to pull away.

Then they looked at each other, deep within each other’s eyes. A shared link. A newfound connection.

“I don’t want to disappear,” Wendy said. Admitting it. Saying it out of nowhere but she meant every bit of it. “I thought I did, but I really… really don’t. I’m so scared. I don’t want all my effort to go to waste.”

“I know,” Alexis said, a warm tone, a hint of melancholy. “I’m in the same boat as you.”

“And that boat is sinking,” Wendy said.

“I know,” Alexis said again. “But that’s just how it goes. We take, and we get taken from. Drink, and be drained. Rinse and repeat until it’s over, and then it starts all over again. But… it wasn’t all bad. Some good things happened too. Like-”

“I know,” Wendy said for herself. “Like kicking butt in paintball?”

“Or playing games with D?”

“Jumping over rooftops?”

Alexis smiled.

“I was going to say the same thing.”

“Beat you to it,” Wendy said, smiling now too.

It was easy to sit here in this moment and be absorbed in it, the experience sublime. Forever, to stay in here and never venture out there again. Here, things seemed actually okay, and that was the greatest surprise.

Then, what little light was in this space vanished, winked out of existence. Something outside interfered, as if to eclipse this moment.

Wendy watched Alexis.

Her smile dropped, her lips forming a line. Stoic.

She had a feeling on what was about to happen. If time mattered here, it would have been designated as midnight.

Moving in conjunction, in consideration with one another, Wendy and Alexis both set their arms down. But their hands remained clasped together, fingers intertwined.

“Your hands are cold,” Wendy said.

“Mom always told me that. Do you remember?”

“Yeah, I do.”

Another beat. There was already so many.

Alexis got up from the couch.

Wendy refused to let her go.

“But I have to,” Alexis said. Her eyes weren’t on Wendy anymore, instead to the door, on the other side of the space. To the outside.

“Don’t,” Wendy said. She pleaded. “Stay here. Alexis. Please. You can go back to sleep.”

Alexis shook her head, hair swaying slightly.

Wendy continued, begging now.

“I don’t want to…”

Her voice broke.

Alexis’ did, but she spoke anyways.

“I know you don’t. But you… we won’t. At least, I don’t think so. Not for some time. Eventually, at the very, very end, we all become ash, picked up by the wind. To dust we shall return. In time we’ll all be forgotten, but that’s okay. In our time, our time, we did what we could, we affected the world around us. We gave it our all. We fucking tried. You can’t say that we didn’t, right?”

“Right,” Wendy said.

“It was all too much to bear, huh? But I didn’t have to do it by myself. I owe you so much, Wendy.”

“Isn’t that what this is still?”

Alexis shrugged. And slight, silly laugh.

“Oh well. When you say it, you become it.”

“A monster?” Wendy suggested.

“I was going to say fool.”

“Close enough.”

Alexis looked from Wendy to the door, again, and again. Now it was her turn to have tears in her eyes.

“I’m glad I got to talk with you. It was sad, but it was sweet too.”

Still sitting on the couch, Wendy tried to come up with something else to say. Anything, to make her stay a little longer.

“I want… fuck… now-”

But all words were failing her. At this critical moment.

Alexis took the lead again. Wendy let her go.

Raising a hand, raising her index and middle fingers, Alexis waved.

“V for victory?” Alexis asked, as if to make sure.

Mustering the last of her courage, Wendy returned to Alexis the same gesture. The same symbol.

“Peace,” Wendy said. She could tell Alexis liked that answer.

There was nothing else to say. Nothing else that could be said.

Alexis set her hand down, and turned. She started walking, heading to the door.

“Funny…” she then added, like an afterthought.

“What?”

“We never did learn how to drive.”

Wendy tilted her head, and when she did, she regretted it, as a sudden weariness began to overtake her. Or, there was a chance it had been there the entire time, and she was finally allowing herself to submit to it. She leaned more into the couch.

“And you never learned how dangerous it is to walk alone at night!”

Her final protest.

It was met with a laugh.

“Yup, I never learn!”

Then Alexis was out the door, passing that threshold, her image blending into the dark, dissipating.

And then she was gone.

Wendy blinked, and when she did, she regretted it, as her eyes were steadily becoming heavier and heavier. Head too. Entire body.

She leaned over all the way, until she had fallen on the couch, taking the place of the girl who was just here moments ago. Sleeping.

And now it was her turn to sleep.

Wendy let her eyes close shut, and then she dreamed dreams, until she drifted like ash, and returned to the dust.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ll

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

be

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

back

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

again…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

She found her answer.

“Alexis… My name is Alexis.”

The man in grey, the one who called himself grandfather, took in that answer and acknowledged it.

“Alexis… do you know what that name means?”

“I don’t.”

“It has its origins from Greece. From the Greek alexo, meaning to defend, or to help.”

“Oh, I see.”

“Do you believe that name to suit you? Names are very important, if you did not know.”

“I do,” Alexis said, “But I couldn’t say for sure, if that name really suits me. I could barely defend or help anyone, much less myself.”

She breathed.

“But I’ll wear that name. I never chose it… it was given to me, but I’ll wear it all the same. I’ll shoulder the burden… all I have are my shoulders anyways. I won’t draw up a blank anymore, and I won’t be reduced to a letter. I’m done playing make believe. This isn’t a game anymore.”

Grandfather nodded, as though he understood, but she couldn’t give a damn whether or not he did. Those words were never meant for him, Alexis knew. This was never about him.

The tears had stopped falling. She had stopped crying some time ago, but she had been made into such a mess that it was hard to tell the difference. Red as an apple. But that was fine. She accepted that unsightly version of herself, too.

Grandfather then righted himself, glancing sideways to Nolla.

“Yes, I agree. Once the children are done playing they must return to home. And your mother is terribly sick and deathly worried about you. I am certain that, once you two are reunited, she will start to feel much better. All because of you.”

Alexis kept silent.

Still looking at the half-sibling, Grandfather tilted his head towards Alexis.

“Now if you please, let us begin the journey back.”

Nolla’s only indication that the order was recognized was the spiraling of the weapon, the tendrils moving into place again.

Over the humming, she heard a faint whisper, a dreamlike murmur before falling completely into a slumber.

To die will be an awfully big adventure.

It would be, and it had been.

Alexis moved.

Rolling onto her stomach in what she guessed to be the last second, she just narrowly dodged the impact that had been deliberately aimed for her heart. Instead it clipped her in the back, obliterating her shoulder blades.

It burned her, but she was numb to the pain now. Or rather, it was inconsequential to her. This was temporary, it would soon be over.

She didn’t see Grandfather’s reaction, but she did hear it.

“Nolla! You aim right or there is no going back!”

No going back.

Exactly right.

Alexis heard that instance again, that thin static before the thunder. It was about to boom again.

She propped herself up with her half-arm, her half-leg, readying herself.

Her back to the weapon, she knew it was spiraling again, trying to hit a specific piece of Alexis. Maybe Nolla could get a clean shot from the back. Alexis wouldn’t let Nolla get that chance.

Her eyes were wide open now. Level, focused.

Then she spun around, pushing herself up with that ruined arm and leg. Even with those limbs, she still had some significant strength stored within them.

Enough to send her entire body flying.

It was only by a few inches, but it was all she needed. Enough to mess with Nolla’s aim.

Alexis felt the thunder, hitting her full-body.

The fire encompassed her, burning from the inside out, until she was of ash.

And as she returned to the dust, Alexis had but a single, already passing dream.

Always making the same mistakes. Stumbling in the same spot, every time. No matter how many times I do it again and again. I’m such a mess.

I bet if I started from the beginning again, I’d end up right back here.

But…

I think it was worth it.

I think it was worth the trouble.

Because…

Through my bruises, the blood, being beaten black and blue…

Something bloomed.

Something I could have learned to love.

Something that, given time, would have grown and become beautiful.

So, yeah…

If given the chance to start over, I wouldn’t change a thing. Not one thing.

So yeah.

I guess that’s about it.

Good night!

And so it was.

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Omake.04 (Bonus)

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4koma interlude 4 part 1

4koma interlude 4 part 2

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Omake.03 (Bonus)

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4koma interlude 3 part 1

4koma interlude 3 part 2

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Interlude – V

Previous                                                                     Bonus

Everyone was already talking by the time the girl got inside.

Darn, the girl thought.

She shuffled over to her seat. It wasn’t her seat, exactly, there was no assigned seating. But that was the funny thing about getting to choose their own seats, everyone ended up sticking with the same ones. Easy, to settle into a routine of sorts.

Three long tables, placed together to form three-fourths of a square, the opening faced a whiteboard at the head of the room. The girl grabbed her usual seat at a corner of the makeshift shape, closest to the board, and farthest from everyone else.

No greetings as she settled in, everyone was too busy to notice her.

About three minutes left before things got started. The girl tried to find a conversation, an opening for her to jump into. She didn’t find any.

Darn.

Jasmine sat right next to her, but she was deep in a discussion about a movie that just came out. The girl hadn’t seen it yet, Mom didn’t get the chance to take her to the movies on Saturday. Money was always tight around this time of year.

She could try with Andrew, but he still had his headphones on, nodding to whatever he was listening to. Probably some rock band she’d never heard of.

Emily was closer, but she was way too preoccupied with Justin, who kept picking at her hair and joking about her height… even though they were all sitting down. Like their seat arrangements, it was routine for them, too. The jokes never got too bad, or mean-spirited, it was more like teasing. Maybe Justin was letting on more than he intended with the constant pestering.

Maybe.

The girl looked around, but there were no good openings. Everyone was too busy for someone like her. She resigned to staying quiet, keeping to herself.

She hated keeping to herself. She hated having nothing to do. She’d even settle for reading a book.

There was a bible within her reach. Was she that bored?

Yes, she was, but the boredom didn’t last long. Mrs. Phan entered the room, and a hush followed. Everyone was quiet.

“Good morning, class,” Mrs. Phan said, accent heavy. “And Merry Christmas.”

The class answered in unison. “Merry Christmas, Mrs. Phan.”

None of the levity from earlier was present, the same levity the girl wanted to get in on. It was instead replaced by a heavy feeling of anxiety. If one fell, the girl could hear a pin drop, and the floor was carpeted.

Mrs. Phan was short, about the same height as the girl, but her presence stood well above the rest. Her hair was long but done up, styled and kept in place with hairspray, with a swoop across her forehead. A retro look, but it aged her.

Her sweater was a bright red, with snowflakes and reindeer knitted on, with black pants and shoes to finish the look. The end result was tacky, but it was fitting for the season.

If it was Mrs. Phan’s intention to look this way, to lighten up the mood, the effect was marginal. Everyone’s lips remained sealed. They were waiting for her.

Mrs. Phan then started off the discussion for the hour.

“So, what week are we on in this Advent season?”

“The third week,” the class answered, all at once.

“Correct. And what color is the candle on the wreath?”

Mrs. Phan pointed to a corner on the whiteboard. A wreath was up in the corner, crudely drawn in marker.

“Pink.”

“Correct again, but Lilly, I didn’t hear you there, speak up next time, okay?”

A squeak, from the table opposite the girl. Lilly. She was quietest person in class, second only to the girl herself. Not that she wanted to be in that position. It was a reluctant quiet.

Mrs. Phan went on with the review. “So that means it is the third Sunday of the Advent season, and next week is Christmas, the birthday of Jesus.”

A small ‘woo’ came from one of the kids. Mrs. Phan turned to try and find the culprit, but no one was caught. Even the girl couldn’t find who was responsible.

Mrs. Phan went back to the board, and continued writing.

“Alright, this season is a very important time for us as Catholics. In fact, the season doesn’t end until well into January. Does anyone know what else happens during Christmas time?”

She put a pause in her writing, and looked back to the class.

“How about… ah, Alexis?”

The girl felt a pang of panic. Her name was up.

The girl… Alexis, examined the board for a hint. Nothing. Mrs. Phan’s handwriting wasn’t the best, and it was most likely just an itinerary for the hour.

She looked to the other kids for help. No luck there. They looked either too bored or too disinterested to offer an answer, or whisper anything. Most weren’t even looking her way. Not even Jasmine, and she was right there.

Alexis was completely alone.

She turned back to Mrs. Phan, hoping the expression on her face would be enough, that she had no idea what the answer was. Didn’t work, Mrs. Phan still looked expectant.

Darn.

The question was vague, the correct answer unclear. Alexis thought back to last Sunday, but she couldn’t remember that class very well. She hadn’t paid much attention.

Something about… God, and Jesus… and giving.

No hints, and her friends weren’t going to help. Alexis was on her own in this.

She ventured a guess.

“Um… Santa comes and gives gifts to all the good boys and girls?”

Mrs. Phan raised an eyebrow, then raised it some more, as if to inject ire in a neutral, at most curious expression.

She wasn’t satisfied with that answer.

Here and there, kids snickered. They were silenced as Mrs. Phan asked, “Would you like to give that another try, Alexis?”

Ugh.

She was going to make her try again? Alexis really didn’t know, and putting her more on the spot wouldn’t do anyone any favors. It was a waste of time.

Alexis was a waste of time.

But, she made the others laugh a bit. That was worth it, in part.

And if she didn’t know the answer… might as well have some fun.

“Yeah,” Alexis said, leaning back into her seat, “Santa’s gonna come and give everyone presents. And because Jesus was born on Christmas, and he was extra good, he got like, three presents that day!”

Alexis held up three fingers to accentuate her point.

The joke landed, sort of. Not necessarily by execution, but rather by how inappropriate it was, and Mrs. Phan’s reaction. Her face twisted, opening her mouth wide, and yelled.

But it was drowned out by laughter. The joke sort of landed, after all. The other classmates were tittering and giggling, and looking at Alexis. She wasn’t sure if they were laughing with her or at her, but they were laughing all the same.

Looking her way, smiling, showing teeth. Giving her attention.

It filled Alexis with a strange sense of satisfaction.

Mrs. Phan continued to yell, but the sound was farther, now. The laughter overtook it, and filled the girl’s ears.

Then, the scene collapsed, with only the faint ringing of laughter remaining, and the pieces changed, new actors and props moving onto the set.

A new scene was being recalled.

An intimate one, but also equally not so.

The girl… and a boy. Already the details were muddy.

There was Alexis, but the boy’s name wasn’t recalled. His face was blurry, too, smeared like an oil painting, damaged by water.

Even the setting was nondescript. Four walls, a window, a door. A bed.

Alexis sat on the bed as the boy made sure to lock the door.

His name and face were lost, the details maybe even dropped on purpose. It could have been anyone. But the context rooted this moment and gave it meaning.

Alexis had only met the boy a few weeks ago. The tall, athletic type, that much was certain. They were in the same class, and their desks were right next to one another. It helped that the teacher allowed the class to work in pairs…

They had gotten to talking, going from mere acquaintances… to something more. Not boyfriend and girlfriend, but the awkward step before that.

The boy didn’t even have to do much, and what he did do hardly impressed her. Some lame jokes, some corny compliments.

But she was in the mood for lame, for corny. And she was looking for what the boy had provided in spades.

Attention.

She wasn’t getting it from the kids at Sunday school, part of the reason why she ditched them. There was a barrier, a subtle but effective wall around them that she couldn’t get over. And she had a hunch as to why.

She was too different from them.

Something like that didn’t matter at her school, though. She’d found friends, and activities she could do with those friends. Like sports. Partying.

Other stuff. Stuff she’d never done before.

The boy turned, facing Alexis. He approached her, slow in his steps, giving her time to take off her shirt.

The fabric flew over her eyes, and the boy was much closer, now. He leaned in, and she met him head on.

The scene collapsed before anything more could happen.

New actors, new props. Everything was moved around.

Another recall.

The new scene started with an explosion.

“God, it’s like you’re looking for a reason to be pissed off!”

The words spat out of the girl’s mouth before she was fully conscious of them.

Her mother’s face twisted, turning sour. The feeling churned in the girl’s stomach. She stood her ground though. Tried to.

They were in the kitchen, arguing over something. Emotions were too high, now, too hot for either of them to remember what exactly this argument was about. Something about the spilled coffee on the table, maybe? Maybe, but it seemed too trivial, too trite.

This was a long time coming, then, for both sides. Bubbling tempers, the lids shaking, needing only a spark for everything to blow up.

And blow up it did.

Her mother took a second to formulate a response, words to throw back at her daughter.

“I would not be like this if you did just listened to me the first time.”

She wasn’t yelling, but she matched Alexis in intensity. Holding back just enough to let Alexis know that there was more to come, should she push her there.

Alexis pushed.

“I was just about to get around to it, if you could have just waited like one second!”

She saw her mother open her mouth to respond, and threw out more words before she could.

“That’s your thing, you’re impatient and you jump the gun, all the time! Can’t you just cool it, for like a minute?”

She saw a twitch, a small delay in her mother’s movements. Riled, blinded, she took that opening.

“Maybe that’s why that guy left you, right?”

Stinging. Burning. Like a grenade that went off too early. Friendly fire.

Everything stopped. The weight of her words brought their world to a screeching halt.

Her mother… it was as if all life was drained from her. Her skin was white, her eyes had a dreary look to them. Hollow.

Alexis was stunned. The regret was immediate. But it always seemed harder to take it back, especially when emotions flared.

She was moving before her mother could attempt another word, trying to get out of the kitchen. Her mother was closer to the faucet, so the path wasn’t blocked. A stroke of luck.

She left the kitchen, fleeing to her room, the door slamming behind her.

She leaned, and found herself on her side, down. It hadn’t registered to Alexis that she fell.

Tears started streaming, not down her face, but across the bridge of her nose, past one ear.

It wasn’t true. Not one word she said was true.

Her mother could be uptight, but Alexis knew she was patient, how forgiving she was to her daughter. She could cool it, for much longer than a second.

And that guy didn’t leave her… he left them. He never came back. She never got the chance to learn his name.

She didn’t want to. Fuck that. Fuck that guy.

She knew she’d have to go back out there. She’d have to apologize. She wanted to.

But…

She didn’t have power to stand up now. She’d stay down, keep herself down.

Here, at the bottom.

I’m a terrible person.

As the tears fell, so the scene, collapsing all around the girl.

But, a new scene wasn’t being recalled. The stage was left blank.

It was just the girl, in an ever-expanding expanse of darkness.

She opened her eyes, and looked at her bare arms and legs. Her bare torso.

Scars, enough to outline her entire body. Bruises marked her skin, colored it, like blotches of paint on a canvas.

She wasn’t embarrassed, or ashamed of the blemishes. They defined her, gave her a shape.

All that she was, and all that she would be.

Here, there was no Alexis, no other labels. Just the core underneath it all. The scars.

The girl tested her voice, and it carried in the darkness, echoing forever.

“I don’t get it. Why show me that, all that ugliness. Is this your idea of a stronger foothold?”

No voiced answer. The darkness emitted.

“Oh.”

The darkness swam, forming faint, weak images. As if being seen through static.

Less ugly scenes, scenes that were less taxing to share. Playing on a playground, running on a track, helping in the kitchen. Pleasant, but the grainy filter distorted the images, making it impossible to get a proper view.

The darkness relented, and the scenes dissipated.

“You want the same things I do, huh? Alright, I get it now.”

The voice echoed, reaching into the darkness, affecting it. The darkness rippled in response.

The girl managed a smile.

“I guess I’m capable of understanding, I managed with Benny. Okay, you… no. There aren’t really winners and losers in this, are there? Not me, not you.”

The girl breathed after what felt like an eternity, and it rejuvenated.

“It’s us.”

Spoken as an objective fact. The truth.

The darkness reacted.

It slinked, moving over arms and legs. The scars and bruises were being washed away. A warm sensation hit the core. A healing that was long overdue.

“It’s not going to be pretty, I’ll tell you that right now. But we’ve gotten used to it, haven’t we? The ugliness.”

An absence was now starting to settle in, spaces where darkness once occupied. White. It began to solidify, taking its own shape.

A checkerboard.

“Take a deep breath, because it’s as close to a heaven as we’re going to get. It’ll get much hotter from here on out.”

The darkness pulsated, as if it understood. An agreement.

It finished, and the scars and bruises were gone. Not one mark was left.

The arrangement was simple, clean. Some darkness remained, keeping the checkerboard pattern.

Under her own power, the girl stood.

“Let’s burn it all to the fucking ground.”

“Hey, Alexis?”

V responded. “Yeah?”

“You’re kinda spacing out there. You okay?”

V smiled, warm. “I’m okay.”

Justin gave her another look over, but he sat back, letting it go.

Emily jabbed him in the arm. “Stop looking at her like that.”

“Ow, what’d I do?”

Too late, the damage was done. Emily turned up her nose, and looked away from Justin. Where she was irritated, he was equally confused.

V found the whole thing amusing.

They were in a Vietnamese restaurant. Phở Nam, at the Asian market, somewhere in the edge of downtown, away from the bigger buildings. A nice change of pace, to not have buildings towering above.

Justin and Emily had reached out again, to hang out with Alexis. Grab some lunch, maybe catch a movie later. Spending a day with the OG Francis Xavier youth group… except the rest of them couldn’t make it. V wasn’t particularly surprised, or disappointed.

The couple felt that three wasn’t enough of a crowd, though. They heavily suggested that Alexis could invite anyone, bring them along. V immediately knew who to reach out to.

Katy was on her phone, and Maria sipped from a small bowl of soup. They were all around a table, waiting for their food.

It was a calm scene, the atmosphere lowkey. Nothing to worry about, nothing that would ruin their day. They could just sit, and be okay.

V checked her watch.

“Emily, babe, I wasn’t actually…”

Justin kept trying to explain himself to Emily, but he was badgering her by this point. She looked like she was having none of it, but the gesture was exaggerated. She was teasing him.

“If you get me a molten lava chocolate cake after this,” Emily said, her voice high, “I might be able to look the other way.”

Justin scrunched up his face. “You’re just toying with me, aren’t you?”

“I dunno, am I?”

His concerned expression dropped, replaced by a grin.

“Ah, fuck you,” he said, then took a sip from his own bowl of soup.

“How long have you two been together?”

It was Maria that asked.

Emily dropped her act to answer. “Oh, couple years, I think. Beginning of high school.”

“Last day of school, actually,” Justin said, wiping his lip with a napkin. “But it was during freshman year. I asked you out right by your locker.”

“That’s right, but does that really count? I remember saying no, then.”

Maria gave a look of shock.

“You said no?”

Justin looked hurt. “You weren’t supposed to tell people that.”

“But it’s true, and she asked. I can’t just, you know, lie.”

“Fine. But hey, she did say yes about a week later, so who really won in the end?”

Justin pointed two thumbs in his direction.

“This guy!”

Emily rolled her eyes, groaning at him. She seemed to mean it, that time.

“Babe, I was kidding, I was joking…”

Maria laughed at Justin’s expense. Justin seemed annoyed, but he rolled with it. All in good fun.

V checked her watch again.

“It’s alright,” Katy said, finally off her phone. “We still have time for a movie, if you haven’t crossed that out, already.”

“Oh, um, right.”

V had to tell herself to stop checking.

“Speaking of,” Justin said, “Is there anything good out right now?”

“There’s that Water… Shape… something movie,” Emily said. “That looks interesting. But, man, that’s too recent. I’m not very fond of crowded theaters.”

“Same, girl,” Maria said. “I’d rather wait until I can stream it at home. That way, I can stay in bed and watch a movie with my own damn popcorn.”

“That sounds like a dream.”

Emily lifted a hand, and Maria matched her, a solid high five.

They’re getting along, V noted. That’s good.

It wouldn’t be perfect, but it could be good.

V tapped a finger on the table, downing half her glass of water.

Katy asked, “Something on your mind, Alexis?”

V spun her straw around the lid of the glass.

“Nothing really. Just waiting.”

“Just waiting?”

“Yup.”

Katy proceeded to make a comment, but V couldn’t quite catch it. The tone was odd, though. Not accusatory, but it was pointed.

“Damn, it’s loud,” V said, her voice raised in turn.

“It is pretty busy,” Justin said, looking around the restaurant. “Even at this hour.”

“Ever since, uh…” Emily stammered, eyes darting around. “Ever since he… did the things, people have been flocking to these places. It’s been rough couple of weeks.”

“Like a kind of refuge?” Maria asked.

“Kind of, I guess.”

Just from listening, it was easy to tell the place was busy. People were talking, conversing, shouting in Vietnamese across tables to call waiters. Noon during the holiday season already made things hectic, but another factor added to all the activity.

Harrian was the he, and him attacking a school were the things. A big incident like that meant big ramifications, and they stretched far and wide. A whole subsection of the city’s population were thrusted into the public consciousness, and neither were used to it. People who were already used to being hidden in plain sight, and a light that was too sudden, too harsh, and too bright. It lead to a push and pull from both sides. It lead to friction.

Here, it was Katy and Maria who were in the minority. The rest of them were those who wanted to find a place to feel at ease. To hide in plain sight. Refuge.

It was either this, or another riot. And this city had already seen more of its share fair of those. The cage was being rattled one too many times.

Here, there was peace, as relative as it was.

“I’m, dang, sorry guys,” Emily said. “I didn’t mean to bring that up. I’m not trying to be a downer.”

“It’s alright,” Katy said. “It’s not nothing, but it’s alright. That kind of thing affects a lot of people. We’re not that special in that regard.”

“But you,” Emily started, but she had the decent sense to not press that point. She shut herself up.

“Happy thoughts, guys,” Maria said, filling the dead air. “Happy thoughts.”

Katy threw in another comment before that dead air could come back again. “Saying it like that makes it more awkward.”

The group chuckled, trying to lighten the mood. V had joined in to keep appearances.

With everyone distracted, she stole a glance at her watch for a third time.

Maria gave it another try. “Emily, the reason why I thought you two were so funny earlier was because I kind of did the same thing, too.”

“What thing?” Emily asked.

“When my boyfriend asked me out, I didn’t give him a yes until like, six months later.”

Emily gave a her own look of shock.

“Holy shit, six months?”

“It’s a long story, obviously, but yeah, it took a while before I realized I was being dumb, and then I went to him. I’m still baffled at how he didn’t get another girl at that time.”

“Oh. Handsome guy?”

“Oh yeah,” Maria said, sounding proud.

“Aw, sounds like he was hoping you’d change your mind.”

“That’s what I tell myself.”

“Geez, I think I’d kill myself if I ended up waiting six months,” Justin commented, out of the blue. “Or, maybe I would have found someone else by then?”

Emily made a grunt.

“Please, you’re lucky that I gave your ass a chance!”

Justin looked physically pained to hear that, with Maria and Emily laughing at him again, sharing another high five.

“How about you two,” Emily said, turning to V and Katy. “Single?”

V and Katy looked at each other. V gestured for Katy to go first.

“I am,” Katy said. “And I’m not exactly looking for a guy, either.”

“Fair.” Emily looked at V, moving her eyebrows up and down. “And you?”

V brought her glass close, drinking more of her water.

“Same here,” V said. “Not interested at the moment.”

“That, I don’t believe. You’re hiding it, but you’re practically glowing.”

Glowing?

“I am not,” V said.

Emily’s eyebrows hadn’t stopped going up and down. “Don’t lie, we’re all friends here. I have a good eye for stuff like that. Something happened, and it was recent. Come on, spill the tea, girl.”

The sudden attention on her was more than she needed. V had to fight herself from checking her watch again.

She settled for drinking more water.

“No no,” Emily said. “Don’t hide behind your water. I wanna hear the details.”

A bubbling sound. V had ran out of water, her straw getting more air now than anything else.

“You must be seeing things, then,” V said. “Because you’re wrong. There are no details, and even if there were, and there aren’t, I’m not up to sharing.”

Emily pouted. “Ah fine, I’ll let you off the hook.”

She shot V a look though, the corners of her mouth folding up. She resembled a cat.

“For now.”

“She’s just being shy,” Katy said, giving V a sidelong glance. “Usually you can goad Alexis into sharing a few stories. She actually has some good ones. Remember the lake?”

V didn’t even try, but she knew there was a barrier, there. A mental block.

“I do,” V lied. “But I still don’t want to get into it.”

Katy’s glance lingered, but she then dropped it, moving on. V briefly squinted at her.

“We can talk about other stuff,” Katy said. “Like Maria’s boyfriend. This is the most I’ve heard of him… ever. I’m actually kind of shocked.”

“I’m full of surprises,” Maria said.

“Keep surprising me. I want to hear all-”

A shout had cut into everything. Katy talking, the restaurant bustling.

“You fucker! I been waitin’ for thirty goddamn minutes! When am I getting served?”

A man, standing up from his table, his chair sliding back away from him. It was cold out, somewhat chilly in here, but he had on a baggy white shirt and jeans. A bandage over one hand.

Mexican, just from his face alone, and he was probably the tallest one here, mean mugging anyone who was looking up at him.

He had a crew with him, sitting at the table. Dressed in a similar fashion. They didn’t seem disconcerted about their friend’s behavior. Unconcerned, maybe even disinterested.

The man yelled at the nearest waitress.

“You speak English?”

The waiter struggled to get out a word.

The man yelled some more.

“Fuck, speak English! We’re in America. I’m here, you’re here, speak some fucking real words!”

He spread his arms, fast and hard. He almost swiped at the waitress, who backed away, hitting a table. Water and tea were spilled all over.

“Fuck!” he yelled again, arms high. It was as if he was being mad just to be mad. Like putting a show.

“What a dick,” Emily said, under her breath. It was certainly one way to put it. Everyone’s lunch was ruined, the atmosphere spoiled.

Sitting in her seat, Katy looked tense, unsure of what was to come next. Maria retreated into herself, trying to appear smaller.

V checked her watch. She waited.

“Sir, please calm down.”

A woman walked to the angered man, hands in a placating gesture. Vietnamese, probably the manager.

The man’s face contorted.

“Calm down? How I can fucking calm down? We be waitin’ for a fucking hour by now!”

“Sir, you said thirty minutes.”

The man just yelled.

“See? No fucking wonder everyone’s been beating on you squity-eyed fucks! You’re all the same.”

Words mattered. They affected people. And they riled up the crowded restaurant.

Everyone began to voice their protest.

Yelling, shouting, it all mixed into a cacophonous wall of sound. Even Justin heated up for a moment, yelling out a profanity, then sitting back in his chair.

The man didn’t care. He was looking around, egging people on, getting a rise of them. He took his time, staring down each and every person.

He was facing V’s table when others started getting up, too. From the other tables, looking to pick a fight with the man.

“I think it’s time for you and your friends to leave,” one of them said. Another man.

“I agree,” another said. A girl.

The man clearly did not agree.

“Sit your flat-ass down, or I’ll make you.”

He lifted one side of his shirt, revealing a holster he had on his hip.

V got up from her seat.

“Alexis?” Katy questioned.

“Hey, dick,” V said. She ignored Katy.

The man turned. He wasn’t that far, and she was loud enough.

He took a second longer that needed to get a look at her face, as if he was studying her.

“Fuck you doing here?” he asked.

“If you’re really going to harass a girl, you really shouldn’t do it in a restaurant with a lot of people. Someone might catch you.”

V had thought over her words.

The man chuckled.

“Bitch, you stay outta this!” He lifted his shirt move, reaching for his gun.

Everyone moved. Everyone jumped out of their seats. Most ran away from the man. A select few dared to run towards him.

V was among that select few.

“Alexis!”

She heard Katy from behind.

“Damn you, don’t!”

V ignored her for the last time.

She was fast, faster than anyone else here. She got to the man first.

But his hand was faster. He was already holding the handgun.

V swung with her arm, aiming for-

No.

A finger was faster than an arm.

The shot rang out.

V dropped.

She could have gotten back up, sprang back to her feet, but she didn’t. She stayed down. Her ears ringing. Head aching.

Past that were the sounds of more commotion. Screaming, shouting. Fighting.

She wasn’t hurt, no bullet had even grazed her, but V didn’t get up.

V played dead.

Loud. Tables being flipped over. Metal on tile. Some water dripped on V’s head as stuff got thrown around. She didn’t move.

V felt hands on her. Then, she felt the floor move away from her.

She was being lifted.

She tried moving her arms, her legs. Budging just a little. Nothing. She was being held tight.

“We’re moving out!”

The man. He sounded close.

Bobbing. Rough. They were running, and she was being taken with them.

Cold. The door has swung open, exposing her to the weather outside. She felt a chill.

The men didn’t break stride. Another shot rang outdoors.

A hard stop. She heard the rumbling of an engine.

“No! Put the others in the back, this one stays here, alone!”

The man was barking orders.

Footsteps, moving fast. Doors sliding open and closed. Fast. They were working with haste.

V was tossed, landing on leather.

Tires screeched as the door slid closed.

The van was at top speed as it pulled away, leaving the restaurant behind.

V clenched her hands, making fists. Counting down from ten. Getting her focus back. Loud sounds really did get to her.

The van sped through corners, making the turns tight. V was jostled around, and it was hard to make herself upright.

She felt more hands press into her body, keeping her steady. Small.

“Almost there! If we can make it to that back road, we’re in the clear!”

A yell, but the voice was small. Young.

The ride was fast, then bumpy, speeding along anyways. It continued for several minutes.

“Wakey wakey.”

That was directed to her. V opened her eyes, slow, finding that she screwed them tight.

She needed time to get her bearings.

A girl was watching her, looking after her with care. Her arms were out, holding her, as the drive jerked them around. Neither were of them were wearing seatbelts.

She saw V come to, and gradually moved her hands away. She was smiling as V managed to sit properly.

V pushed her hair back, fixing loose strands.

“How are we doing on time?” the girl asked, still watching V. She had a phone in her hand, now, taking only small, needed glances. Her eyes were on V, otherwise.

Someone else answered. The driver.

“Good on all counts. Decoys are in place, and everyone’s moving on their assigned routes with no trouble.”

“Awesome.”

V was blinking, checking her watch. A simple but sleek design, an all-black face with no numbers or markings, with gold hands. It was a quarter to one.

She had this watch during the Eastside raid. She had it with her.

I really am a sentimental one.

She looked up and saw D, with her trademark grin. She gave her a nod.

“You’re late, Dor-,” V said.

“That’s my grandmother’s name,” D said. “Operation was a success, we’re off to Wanderland, now. We can do whatever we want. Play chess all day, feed our curious appetites, whatever. We never have to grow up. So sit back, relax, and enjoy yourself, it’s about to get extra fun.”

D smiled wider.

“Or, would you rather have something to drink?”

She looked pleased with herself for making the various references.

The girl managed to return one of her own, deciding to indulge her. It didn’t feel forced.

“Something sweet, please,” Wendy said.

Previous                                                                     Bonus

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 is premium stuff, right here,” Eric said. “The best the school vending machines has to offer.”

“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.

Previous                                                                                               Next

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.

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