Interlude – Harrian

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[一种语言永远不够。]

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

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

Harrian included himself in that, as well.

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

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

What was the phrase, again?

He tried remembering if there was a Mandarin equivalent.

Like a fish out of water.

Exactly.

Already, Harrian was doubting himself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wait, and wait some more.

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

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

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

That is what I get for trusting others.

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

With English subtitles. He was still practicing.

He put in some earphones, and began to watch.

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

“Yo!”

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

Yo.”

Is this what is known as ‘rapping?’

“请问。”

That perked his ears.

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

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

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

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

“你会不会讲普通话?”

Harrian asked.

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

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

“Um,” Harrian said.

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

His eyes went back to her, staring blankly.

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

“Can I?”

Harrian jolted back to his sense.

“Yes, right, of course!”

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

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

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

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

“What’s your name?” she asked.

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

“My name? You can call me ‘D.’”

“Dee?”

“Like the letter.”

“Oh, I see.”

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

Harrian tilted his head. “Hm?”

Her giggle turned into a full, hearty laugh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harrian couldn’t help but keep his guard up.

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

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

“Waiting?”

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

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

D put her hand on the armrest between them.

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

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

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

“Excuse me, D?

She made a sound, like a pur. “Hm?”

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

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

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

“Implying.”

“I see.”

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

“You flew by yourself?” Harrian then asked.

“Yup.”

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

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

Underage, right.

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

Shame.

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

“Is this your final destination?”

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

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

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

“Stephenville?” D offered.

It clicked in his head, and he remembered.

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

D perked her head up.

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

“You are?”

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

“I understand.”

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

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

He didn’t want that.

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

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

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

D leaned his way, untangling the wires.

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

Harrian had to reiterate.

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

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

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

Harrian made a face, making clear his confusion.

“I don’t understand.”

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

Harrian watched her, listening, trying to keep up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No problem! Speaking of which…”

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

“Wanna listen to some music?”

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

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

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

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

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

He felt an embarrassment, again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ah,” Harrian said.

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

‘Beat’ meant tired, Harrian knew that much.

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

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

“Harrian!”

Harrian woke up.

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

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

“Auntie,” he said.

Auntie clasped her hands together, head lowered.

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

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

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

Harrian nodded, collecting his bags and-

He froze.

Harrian checked his sides, the seats next to him.

Gone. The girl was gone.

Harrian checked under his seat.

Gone. The bag was gone.

The one with his tablet and earphones.

She didn’t, she wouldn’t…

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

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

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

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

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

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

[蠢驴。]

Harrian worked, busy as a bee.

He couldn’t say the same for his partner.

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

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

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

He was fine with that. It was fine.

No expectations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Popular. Medieval fantasy.

He spoke before he could stop himself.

“I saw it too.”

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

“Saw what?” she asked.

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

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

He took that prompt.

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

“Were we talking to you?”

Jaclyn interrupted him.

It threw him off. Harrian sputtered.

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

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

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

“No you weren’t.”

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

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

No expectations.

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

The bell tolled.

Finally.

Harrian was released from another long day at school.

He couldn’t wait to go home.

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

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

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

He was just waiting for it to be over.

Endure.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

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

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

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

It didn’t quite turn out that way.

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

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

Harrian resigned himself to that.

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

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

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

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

He threw his stuff into his bag.

Come on, hurry, faster.

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

The locker was kicked closed.

Shadows fell around him.

“Oh shit!”

No, no.

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

That had to account for something.

Harrian turned around.

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

Eric and Evan.

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

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

Nowhere to move, nowhere to run.

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

“What?” was all Harrian could ask.

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

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

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

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

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

What else was left?

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

Evan put his hands up.

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

Apologize?

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

Express regret for something that one has done wrong.

These two had done plenty wrong.

“For?” Harrian asked, unsure of everything.

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

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

Did Harrian believe it?

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

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

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

Then being here would mean it was all for nothing.

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

Too convenient, too easy.

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

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

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

“Disconnect,” Eric said.

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

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

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

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

Harrian went back to being concerned, again.

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

Chocolate bars.

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

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

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

He did like chocolates, though, he really did.

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

Harrian wasn’t sure, anymore.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He continued to stare at the chocolates.

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

They seemed genuine enough, too.

The gesture was starting to get to him.

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

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

Oh yeah.

The bus.

Harrian still had a bus to catch.

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

[蠢驴。蠢驴。]

“What’s ‘good bye’ in Japanese?”

Harrian asked.

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

Cold.

It made him question if he had said something wrong.

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

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

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

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

Harrian accepted that.

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

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

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

He couldn’t think of anything.

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

Harrian considered it.

“Sayonara, Harrian.”

Alexis spoke up.

Oh, I see.

She wanted to say properly, with that Americanized accent?

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

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

Cute, he couldn’t help but think.

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

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

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

He was Harrian.

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

He was Harrian.

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

I was just trying to better connect with her.

He let himself wander in his thoughts.

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

Something about her.

Her eyes. Something about her eyes…

“Hey man, did you wait long?”

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

Evan was approaching, as chipper as ever.

A friend. One of the only ones.

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

“That’s good. Let’s dip, then.”

“Yes, let us dip.”

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

“Oh, thank you,” Harrian said.

Problemo nada, my man.”

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

Even with people he knew, he learned his lesson.

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

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

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

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

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

Eyes on the road, Evan adjusted the volume.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Really? You’d do that?”

“Yes, I would.”

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

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

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

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

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

Harrian made it a point to learn something from him.

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

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

“The deep end?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Anyway, how about you?”

“Me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They were entering into a rural part of town.

“Where is this?” Harrian asked.

“This, is Braham Barn.”

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

Harrian had never heard of this place.

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

“Come on, we’re here.”

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

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

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

“A jacket?”

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

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

“What are we to do here, anyway?”

“Run.”

The word stood out to him. The tone sour.

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

Why-

Then, he heard it.

Barking.

Then, he saw it.

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

Toward Harrian.

Instinct and panic kicked, and Harrian turned to run.

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

Faster, faster, faster.

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

They were hunters. And he was prey.

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

Merciless. Powerful.

Violent.

They tore at him to shreds.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stop stop stop.

Where was anyone? Where was everyone?

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

He’d save himself.

Harrian reached with his power. Focusing control.

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

Stop stop stop stop stop stop stop.

A sharp whistle cut through the everything.

Then, it did stop.

The dogs turned tail, and backed away.

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

His brain could not process what had just transpired.

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

Laughter.

He heard laughter.

Getting louder. Getting louder.

Unbelieveable.

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

“I can’t, I can’t! I’m so sorry!”

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

But why were they still laughing?

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

Eric.

Evan.

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

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

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

Harrian opened and closed his mouth, gasping for air.

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

Laughter again.

Harrian breathed out his word.

Why?”

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

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

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

No, no, no.

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

“Did you get it?” one of them asked.

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

“Dope.”

It? It? It?

All here?

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

“You’ll… be in trouble.”

Harrian whispered.

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

“Right.”

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

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

“He’s good. Nothing on him.”

“Not a scratch?”

“None.”

“Dope.”

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

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

Harrian managed to get that out. Clearer.

“Huh?”

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

“You gonna tell on us?”

“Yes… I will.”

Laughter.

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

Harrian’s breathing hitched.

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

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

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

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

“And here.”

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

Chocolate.

“See you, Harrian.”

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

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

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

Cruelty such as this knew no reason.

It was not supposed to be like this.

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

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

No… no.

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

He let himself be taken from.

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

You understand now, do you?

Harrian did-

Back against the wall, everyone was shouting.

He couldn’t hear the music.

Harrian’s attention was brought back to the now.

The school. Terrorists. People looking for the Bluemoon.

Here?

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

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

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

The Bluemoon?

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

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

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

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

You know what you want, don’t you?

Harrian did.

Idiot. Stupid donkey of a kid.

You failure.

Nothing else mattered.

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

It wasn’t enough.

Nobody understood him.

But one day, they will.

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

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045 – Trigger

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

What the fuck happened here?

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

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

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

Well then.

Hesitant, I traveled down the hall.

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

Melanie Wu.

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

They were all Asian names.

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

White, I supposed.

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

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

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

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

I wasn’t even fully anything.

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

Thing was, I was already blocking it out.

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

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

Thing was, I had to keep telling myself that.

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

That’s not it.

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

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

No police, no national guard, no one.

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

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

You have someone. Me.

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

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

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

A glass case, and a reflective surface.

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

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

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

Easier said than done.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There he was.

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

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

I had to lead him here.

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

A similar tactic, then.

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

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

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

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

Easy enough.

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

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

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

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

Added pressure for me to move.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something to take note of.

“Hands up,” I said.

He listened, raising his hands. Empty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, just basic tools.”

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

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

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

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

“Good enough. Now, for the last time, get the fuck up. And if you try anything now, just know I can do worse without the knife.”

With gradual movements, the man returned to his feet. I had to move my arms away from him, placing the knife on his back, pointed end digging into fabric. He was much taller than me, I realized.

He seemed to notice, as well.

“Can you?” he asked.

“I can. A knife is a weapon people know, it’s familiar. Throw a knife, or even a gun, into any situation, you can reasonably guess what the damage is going to look like. Believe me when I say, you don’t know me. You don’t know the damage I can bring you, just as myself.”

“Hm, I have a feeling I know who you are, Bluemoon.”

I poked him with the knife. Any more, and I would have actually stabbed him.

“Walk,” I said.

He took the first step, and I was right behind him. His hands were still up, my knife was still on his back. It made for getting through the door somewhat tricky, I had him pressed to the wall while I opened it with my free hand, but it wasn’t impossible.

We made it to the hall, then we moved to the big gym. The first bomb.

The music cut once again.

I tire of this, Bluemoon. There’s only so much blood I can spill in your name. Why are you making this so difficult for me?

I pushed open the door into the gym. The intercom carried in here, and it was infinitesimally louder.

Harder to block out of my head.

I just want you, Bluemoon, you and you only. I said no one had to be hurt, and what’s happened since? You let three people die, and maybe a fourth, if I’m about to guess wrong, again. For even someone like me, that’s just cruel.

I pushed the man again with my knife, prodding him to go faster.

“Where is it?” I asked. I had to speak over the intercom, over Benny.

“It’s at the end of those bleachers, at the farthest corner,” he answered, looking in that direction.

I poked him again. “Faster.”

He picked up the pace, taking us to the back of the bleachers.

Benny was still blabbering as we walked. A second voice had made themselves known. Another student.

I didn’t catch their name. I didn’t want to catch their name.

Please tell me you’re actually the Bluemoon?” Benny asked them.

I couldn’t stand to hear anymore of this. I couldn’t bear it. My mind so wanted to retreat to something else, to listen to something else.

Then listen to me.

It scared me, just how much I considered it, in that moment.

“There,” the man said as we turned. His hands were still up, but he pointed in the general direction.

“Alright, I’m letting you put your arms down, so you can do your thing,” I said, cautious. “I’m watching you, though, this isn’t your opportunity to be brave.”

“Fine,” he said. He set his arms down, slow, moving more confidently once his arms were at his side. My knife was still on his back, a not-so-subtle reminder.

He stepped under the bleachers, the metal seating above blocking some of the light. Some light managed to cut through, however, so we weren’t completely in the dark.

We didn’t even have to go that far. I ducked my head to avoiding hitting a beam, but the man stopped soon enough.

“Here it is,” he said, looking down. “Can I?”

I stepped around him to get a better view of the thing. My knife always pointing his way.

A sports bag, big enough to carry different kinds of equipment. No one would have seen this if they weren’t looking for it. Maybe if they were, there was a high chance they could’ve missed it.

“I already gave you my warning, go ahead,” I said.

The man sighed, but he bent down, unzipping the bag.

I saw the bomb.

It looked more like something to be mailed than something that could explode. A package, really. Black tape was strapped around the manila box, with a ‘caution, fragile’ symbol taped at the base of the device. The only thing particularly off about it was the metal box attached at the top of the device. That, and the fact that it was pulsing with a green light.

My entire body went stiff. That thing could go off at any second, if Benny willed it.

It brought back ugly memories, too. Memories I wished I never had.

The dinner party, where Solace made the first move. The bomb that was strapped to that nameless man, Solace talking through him. The riot at city hall, the last time anyone heard anything official about Solace. The bomb that was strapped to Thomas, tortured into speaking on Solace’s behalf. The explosion.

I could still recall how powerful that blast was, how deafening it was. How hot it was when the impact came over me. Couldn’t get it out of my head, my ears would ring at night, and I’d wake up the next morning, soaked in sweat.

The sight of a bomb like that, here, it made my knees weak.

The man reached for his belt, taking out a can. He popped the lid off, aimed it right at the bomb, then pressed down. A white spray spewed out of the nozzle.

Benny was still going, trying to goad me. Had to ignore her, couldn’t let her affect me.

But she’s already gotten to you.

My eye flickered.

That voice. It seemed to come from everywhere at once.

There was no need to turn my head. I looked, and it was there.

It had no definite features. It was darker than the shadows around it, and I was able to make out its shape by looking for what was missing, rather than what was actually there.

Its shoulders were broad, but its limbs were long, thin. So was its waist.

Tall. I craned my neck to take in its full height.

No definite gender. But it had a tangled version of my own voice. A deep bass lying underneath that scooped and filled my ears when I heard it.

Not a man, not a woman, no way was it a person. It was a thing. And it wasn’t an illusion, it wasn’t my brain making a false image out of something already there. It was there, it took up space, and that was not a very good sign.

I looked where its eyes were supposed to be. Nothing there. A blank face.

“Who are you?” I asked, words coming out on their own. I braced myself for whatever the answer may be.

It answered, but it had no mouth to use, and what I could only guess was the thing’s ‘voice’ resounded in my own head.

Now, I believe proper introductions are in order. I’m Thomas Thompson. And you must be The Bluemoon.

It was as if I’d stabbed myself with my own knife. Striking a wound that had yet to fully heal.

“No you’re not,” I said, saying it more for myself than to inform that thing. I gripped my knife even harder.

“Yes I am.”

I looked towards the direction of that voice. “Huh?”

The man was half turned around, half looking back at me. Still crouched.

“I said I’m Samuel.”

“Okay?” I questioned him.

“You asked me who I was and I gave you my name? Never mind, I’m done with the-”

A crash of a noise interrupted him, and it was like a cannon went off right by my ear.

I seized up. I fell, hugging my body, expecting a wave of heat swallowing me up, an impact like being hit by a truck. The knife slipped out of my hand as I cupped my ears.

Dammit, even my own body was fighting against me. I didn’t even have control over my very self. An attack on all fronts. Mind and body. Giving way for another thing to take hold.

And that scared me.

LIke a pop, the sound didn’t last, but the effect already had me in its talons. I clutched my head, in shivers.

My mind was in shreds, and so desperate to cling on to something to help put itself together.

Then listen to me.

I listened.

That was just the gunshot from the intercom. The bomb didn’t explode. But I heard footsteps. Samuel is getting away. Get up. Stop him.

My eyelids dragged themselves open, and I saw that Samuel was gone. The thing, the shape, was also missing. Only me.

Move, stop Samuel, kill him.

I moved.

I found the knife easy, snatching it back up. I had to duck to avoid a beam or two, but they weren’t too much in the way of obstacles. I was out of the bleachers’ underside, and got onto the gym floor.

That man, Samuel, was halfway down the gym. If I was just a normal human, he’d escape if I chased after him now.

If.

Stop Samuel, kill him.

I dashed with the first step, then took to the air with the second. I flew across half the length of the big gym.

I aimed it perfectly. I kicked my feet out as I closed in on Samuel, striking him between the shoulderblades. He collapsed like a rock.

I angled it so I landed with me sitting on his back, keeping him down. My knife found its place by his neck, just to be careful.

“Did I say you could leave when you were done?” I said, nearly out of breath, heart pounding.

“Can’t blame me for… trying,” Samuel said back, equally fishing for air.

“Suppose not, but it’s not going to be your smartest idea, I’ll see to that. But about the bomb, it’s done?”

“Agh, yes, it is.”

“So you just spray it and that’s enough?”

“Just about. When the light turns off, that’s it.”

I took a moment to collect my thoughts. The music started up once more, reverberating in the gym. An echoed quality.

“The bomb in the auditorium, where exactly is it?”

“In the pit.”

The pit? Oh, that was where the band played during musicals. Between the first row of seats and the stage itself, if I remembered correctly. I wasn’t exactly into plays.

“And the one in the cafeteria?” I asked.

“It’s, ow, under one of the tables, on the second level.”

“And those locations are clear of people?”

“Should be, probably.”

That was enough out of him. I had to wrap this up.

“Do you have any means of communication between you and your crew?”

“Walkie-talkie,” Samuel answered, strained.

“Where?”

“Other side of my belt.”

I reached to his side, finding it. Samuel’s face was laid down on the gym floor, facing one side. I placed the device by his mouth.

“Tell them you found the Bluemoon,” I said. “That you have him cornered in the boys’ restroom in A-Hall, upstairs. That I’m in my usual costume, blue hoodie and white mask. Deviate from that by a single word, then I’m gutting you.”

I pressed down the button on the side. Samuel spoke into it.

“Hey, everyone, I’ve got the son of a bitch, cornered in the bathroom of… A-Hall, upstairs. I need some backup.”

He paused for a breath.

Estoy min-”

I lifted my finger off the button. I moved my knife.

“You’re done, Samuel,” I said.

Kill him.

The knife went into his leg. And then again. And again.

His pained screams echoed in the gym, until I couldn’t hear the music.

Had to stop myself. I wasn’t here just for him. Benny still needed her turn.

“You’re staying here,” I said, even though he probably couldn’t hear me. “Thanks for all the help though.”

I got on my feet, taking out the duct tape. He fought, struggled, but I managed to tape his hands behind his back. No need to tie his legs. He wouldn’t be walking for a while.

I took the spray and walkie-talkie from him, too. He wasn’t going to need it.

I put everything but my knife into the pockets of my borrowed hoodie, and started to head out of the gym, Samuel bleeding behind me.

As the gym doors closed, I stuck the blade under my paper-mask, licking the blood off.

It gave me what I needed to take the next step, and take it faster.

I headed to the next bomb, the closest one.

The auditorium.

Sofia referred to it as the ‘theater,’ but that was probably what she meant. Given where I was, it was closer than the cafeteria…

And so was the upstairs restroom in A-Hall.

That restroom was in the farthest corner of the school, from my relative location. Maybe Samuel’s message wouldn’t attract everyone, but the prospect of me being cornered in a restroom should have been an attractive one. I could bet that a majority of Benny’s crew would want a piece of the action.

Hopefully, that cleared the way to the second bomb.

I walked faster, but I wasn’t hasty. Right angles were still hair-raising to go around. I could run into anybody, at anytime.

With a knife in my hand, I tried to be ready.

I rounded a corner, and in an instant, I rounded back, pressed on the wall. Someone there.

Shit, did they see me? Were they coming my way?

I waited, prepared for a fight.

No one came.

I took a breath, readying myself again. I peeked around the corner.

No one there.

Dammit, I thought I saw someone.

I continued on my way, picking up the pace even more.

I ended up farther back into the school, the hallways giving way to the workshops where the more ‘hands-on’ classes were held. The theater kids would spend a lot of their time here preparing props for their plays. There were even classes on how to fix up cars.

Planks of wood were stacked on the floor, tools left behind. Buckets of paint left open. Doors shut, garage doors slid down. More students and teachers were behind those doors, the lockdown in effect here, as well.

Going this way led to the auditorium, but the proper entrance was another way. If I went past the workshops, I’d be going in by way of the back door.

There. A ramp into a black door, the last one in the hall. I maneuvered up the ramp, and tested the knob. Unlocked.

I went into the auditorium.

The sound of the door was unassuming when I opened it, but it boomed as it closed behind me. All dark, but that wasn’t an issue. I moved without a problem.

I entered stage left, or was it stage right? Whichever it was, I moved across until I was front and center.

I peered into the darkness.

The music couldn’t reach me here, and it was silent. The only sounds were my footsteps and heartbeat and breathing, and they felt like they were amplified in volume. There was no one to be found here, too. No one in the rows of seats. It was as if I was transported somewhere else completely, far removed from the situation happening at my own school. It was as if it I no longer had a problem to solve.

In the darkness, I had freedom.

Let’s take this freedom, and keep it for ourselves. Let’s run and hide in the dark.

I massaged my temples.

Life wasn’t that simple.

I took another step forward, and descended into a deeper blackness. I fell into the pit.

I landed square on my feet, among more empty chairs. No instruments here, I doubted the band kids would leave those behind.

Looking around for the second bomb didn’t take up too much time. I found it in the center of the pit, where the maestro would stand.

Bent down, guarded, I unzipped the bag.

A pulsing light.

The second bomb, and another piece of what I was starting to realize was a strange puzzle.

The first bomb was under some bleachers, the second was in the pit of the auditorium. Should these have exploded… They’d cause some damage, sure, but there was no one around to be hurt by the explosions. And they were hidden under stuff, things that would serve to soften the blow, even if it was minimal.

Definitely interesting.

Why, though? The bombs were very much alive, so Benny had to have gone into this expecting that they might go off, and she obviously had no qualms about killing kids

Then…

Why put the bombs in such lowkey places?

Think, Alexis, don’t be so dense. People hate that.

Unless…

Benny had no intention of killing anyone. It was a farce, putting on a show to get me to come out. Her at the intercom, was it all pretend?

That’s a nice thought, maybe even a real possibility. Does that change anything?

It didn’t. I still wanted to get back at Benny. Hurt her.

Kill her?

I didn’t answer.

I pulled out the spray, and worked on disabling the bomb, being careful about not touching the bomb itself.

The device was covered in the white spray, until there was more white than bomb. I removed my finger, stopping the stream. I couldn’t afford to waste all of it.

I held my breath.

Using my free hand, I wiped away white goo from the bulb, where the light pulsed.

Worst case scenario, I had my healing. But, this was still a bomb I was dealing with. I didn’t want anymore explosions, no more loud sounds.

No light. Success.

Two bombs down, one to go. And one Benny still standing.

Soon.

Even with the detonator knocked out, I didn’t dare move the bomb. I simply jumped out of the pit, landing back onto the stage. I left the way I came, but I was entering into the light, this time. I squinted as I hurried, having to adjust to how bright it was.

No shadowy figures in the complete darkness, I realized. I was unsure of how to take that.

Even the music offended. Had Benny taken another life, I wasn’t there to hear it.

As I returned to the ‘real’ school hallways, a strange feeling welled up in me. Two bombs, defused, in relative quick succession of each other. Unbeknownst to Benny, she didn’t have those two particular cards to play, not anymore. There was one more bomb left, but if I was fast enough, I could defuse the situation entirely, and make it out okay.

I had a chance, right?

I heard laughter. It wasn’t from an external source.

I figured.

Next stop was the cafeteria, and just getting there was a challenge. My distraction wouldn’t hold forever, I had to assume that Benny and her crew had already went back to searching around the school for me, redoubling their efforts. They’d be spread out, now.

I held my knife, prepared.

Blood started leaking from the walls and ceilings. When I blinked, they were gone.

It’s as if the harder you try to maintain a grip, the easier it is to slip. Just let go.

So many things I needed addressed, if I just had the time to address them. But things just kept happening. So many other things that took the now away from me.

Let me take over. You’re stupid, Alexis, you’re unfit. You’re too bound by your name to do what needs to be done. What should be done. Anyone else in your shoes could do better. Anyone.

I accelerated into a run.

You let four people die. Benny’s right, that is cruel. Do you know why you let them die? Do you know why you’re doing this instead of finding help for Coach Tilly?

I ran faster.

I want to tell you, let me tell you. It’s because-

“Fuck off!” I yelled.

I turned into a new hallway. Two men. Two guns.

They had stepped into this hall at the same time I did. It wouldn’t have mattered if I was quiet or not. I spotted them at the same time they spotted me.

One of them ran ahead, drawing his gun. A rifle. I wouldn’t give him the time to take aim.

I sped up, moving toward a wall of lockers. I hopped, then managed to run along the wall for a few steps, my momentum keeping me up.

His arms jerked awkwardly. He wasn’t used to having a target that moved like this.

I closed in, then pushed away from the wall. A kick to his head was sufficient. I landed before he crashed down.

Threat of guns, no firing. Couldn’t have that.

I looked where to move next, the next target. He would have been farther back, so I had his rifle to worry about. He’d have time to aim.

He was gone.

But a door was ajar. It wasn’t, before.

A door to a class.

Eyes wide, I ran.

I flung the door open, and I entered the classroom.

The gunman was in the center of the room, rifle pointed to the class.

This was an art class, made of students from different grades. An elective class, meaning there were a lot of students.

And that man had his gun in their direction.

He had split them up into two different groups, one group taking a corner, the other hugging the connecting wall. Mrs. Irons, the art teacher, was in the group in the corner. I had this class last year.

They were scared. I was scared for them.

The gunman saw me come in. He positioned himself so he could face me, while still training his rifle at them.

“Take another step, and they’re all-”

I was a blur before he could finish.

Can’t let this happen, no way. Have to do something, try something. Can’t let him shoot.

Those thoughts were my own. They were clear, resonant.

I attacked as I rushed.

With an empty but closed hand, I slammed his chest with enough force to break bones. With the knife, I stabbed him in the arm.

He dropped like a fly, and so did his rifle.

Momentum still had me, and I kept going. I stopped when I crashed into a row of tables, in front of the two groups the gunman had split up.

My back ached. Seeing stars, seeing things.

But there was a moment of quiet. Nothing was fired. I stopped him.

I did it.

Had to hurry, before more of them came. Had to get to the cafeteria.

I clambered to my feet, checking if the paper bag was still covering my head. It was.

I checked everyone else, to see if they were okay.

They weren’t.

They weren’t even looking at me.

Someone behind me.

Aching, I wheeled around.

My heart sank into my stomach and leapt into my throat. Back and forth.

“Harrian,” I said, under my breath.

Harrian Wong, carrying a rifle.

A million thoughts sped through my scrambled mind.

Where’d he come from? Why’d he have a gun?

No.

Harrian had this class, he couldn’t just pop out of nowhere. I just hadn’t noticed him in the frenzy. And that gun was from the gunman from just now, he’d picked it up.

And his eyes.

I’d felt anger before, I’d felt frustration. I’d let it course through my veins and consume me, I’d let it control my actions. I was feeling it now.

This was different. It was so much more pure, potent, focused. I could see it in his eyes.

Hatred.

But why?

Stunned, floored, I followed Harrian’s gaze.

My heart. Back and forth.

I saw him.

Evan, of Eric and Evan, among the group in the corner, except the former wasn’t here. Thin, spindly, blond, and very pale. Sweating bullets.

That was why.

Connections made. Their whole thing, this whole time, it was all a lie.

Oh no.

“Harrian!” I shouted, already moving-

He didn’t respond with words, but with the pull of a trigger.

Harrian fired.

Previous                                                                                               Next

044 – Hide & Seek

Previous                                                                                               Next

Frozen, color drained, all the blood in my body feeling as though it stopped circulating. Realistically, that sensation only lasted some odd seconds, but it might as well have lasted for years on end.

There were very few things in this world that would do that to a person. Maybe once, perhaps twice, it’d happen to them.

Yet for me, that feeling just kept coming.

And this was the strongest that feeling had hit yet.

Fuck.

The intercom came back on.

Bluemoon, or Blank Face, whatever the fuck you want to call yourself, you’ve been a goddamn thorn in my side the second this all started. And all from the safety and comfort of a fucking mask. That’s cheating, you know that? But no more. That mask can no longer protect you. I know you’re a student here. I know that you’re actually a girl.

I battled with the urge to vomit all over the floor. I had to settle with ugliness sitting inside me.

The voice was female, I could gather that much. With that talk about cheating, and the fact that there was only really one female I’ve explicitly dealt with during my time as Blank Face…

It made for an easy guess.

And that’s why we’re here,” Benny said, “To end it. Willingly give yourself up, and we’ll all be on our way. No one has to get hurt.

There was a pause. Seconds came and went. Then minutes. It wasn’t like I was in a position to respond directly.

Very well. If that’s how you want to play this game, then, so be it. I’ve got my crew all over the premises, we will find you. And, this goes out to everyone else, but don’t bother contacting anyone from outside. There’s explosives placed at key points in the building, and I have access to the cameras. If I see anyone trying to enter, or trying to leave…

She left it there. The threat was implicit enough.

The only one who is in any position to spare you people is the ‘hero’ herself. And as for you, Bluemoon, I’m giving you five more minutes to come clean, to make yourself present and known. After that, and still nothing, I’m making my own guess.

There was a click, then nothing. Before any of us could relax, sound came back on the intercom.

Music.

Not just any music, it was the music that played during passing period, in between classes. Light elevator music, easy to tune out. Except now, there was an eerie, overbearing quality to it.

Passing period was about five minutes. She was giving me a timer.

Fuck this.

How was this possible, how was this happening? How did Benny manage to find me, and find me here, of all places, when I wasn’t able to get to her? Was she doing this as a part of Solace? Another one of those ‘games’ like from before?

Whatever Benny did, whatever trick she pulled to get here, it was fucked, unfair.

Like salt in a wound, the music kept playing, and I crawled back into the chair, though hunched. Eve and Coach Tilly were getting up, too.

“This is a dream, right?” Eve asked, voice shaky, her eyes as wide as saucers. “This has to be some kind of joke or prank or something.”

I averted my eyes.

I wish it was.

“Stay calm, everyone,” Coach Tilly said, sounding surprisingly level. “We’ll get through this if we stay calm.”

She was including herself in saying that, I noticed.

“Who was that?” Eve asked, “Is the Bluemoon really a student here? And did they say it was a girl? Why are they coming after it here?”

“That’s a lot of questions,” Coach Tilly said, “Luckily I can answer all of them with just one answer, I don’t know.”

The music played. The pit in my stomach grew.

Eve sat back down, backing into the corner of the room, by the door. It was November, it was raining outside, but the cold hadn’t gotten inside the building.

Regardless, Eve was shivering.

“Then, what do we do? Do we just… sit here?”

Coach wiped her forehead with her sleeve. Her brow was glistening with sweat. “I don’t know. It’s either that, or go out into the hall, but I can’t risk that, not with students. Not with my players.”

“We have our phones? Can’t we try something?”

Coach’s phone was on her desk. She picked it up, looking at it. She shook her head.

“Phone works fine, but if what they’re saying is true, I don’t want to be the reason why-”

Her voice cracked, and she went mute. Coach Tilly fell into her chair.

Eve pulled out her phone.

“Eve, you can’t-” I started.

“Internet doesn’t work,” she said.

“What?”

“It won’t let me connect, I can’t go online.” Eve then laughed, a touch manic. “Okay, I know that I’m going to sound really stupid right now… This is definitely the real deal.”

Her eyes went wide again. “Oh god, oh god.”

She looked like she was on the verge of hyperventilating. For my part, I was right behind her.

Eve,” Coach Tilly said, putting heavy emphasis on her name, “You need to not let yourself freak out like that. And Alexis?”

I lifted my head. Coach was watching me, close.

“Same goes for you. You’ve been quiet.”

I had been quiet, but I was having trouble process any of this. Was this the end of everything? Should I give myself up? If I did, Coach Tilly and Eve would be the first people to find out. Two people who had nothing to do with this. What would they do if I told them? Would they let me leave the room? Would Benny stick to her word, as far as innocents were concerned?

The music continued. Years of it playing in the background while I walked from class to class… Never before did it have such a presence.

And there wasn’t much of the song left to play.

I wanted to hit something, the wall beside me, make it break. I couldn’t, obviously, and that made me feel like shit.

Coach Tilly attempted to address me again. “Alexis? Don’t go into shock now.”

I opened my mouth, or rather, I just let it hang. It was hard to vocalize.

“I’m… here,” I said. “I’m here. Present.”

“Good to have you,” Coach said.

I tried swallowing, but my throat was dry. More ways than one.

“Is there anything we do know?” Eve asked. Her eyes looked glossed over, unfocused. Retreating more into her corner.

Coach massaged her head, hands over ears. Blocking out the music, I surmised.

“There are only so many places you can access the school’s intercom,” she said. “Whoever’s talking has to be somewhere in the front office. Maybe the nurse’s office, but that might be a stretch.”

I bent back down in my chair, clutching my stomach.

Was there a way I could get to the front office and stop Benny without getting caught? No, it was improbable, if not impossible. The logistics of it were too complicated. I was limited to what we had here, in Coach Tilly’s office, and even then, there weren’t a lot of resources at hand.

Shit, I was stuck, and the metaphorical clock kept ticking. I wanted the song to never end.

I spoke up, getting out my first lengthy sentence in what felt like hours. “Coach, can you contact anyone from the front office? See what’s the situation over there?”

“Maybe, but,” Coach had her phone in her hands, staring at it. “Contacting anyone there might put them in jeopardy, we’re in the dark about how it is over there.”

She lowered her phone, her expression dark.

“This isn’t a fight for the three of us to take on,” she said. Completely unaware about the irony of her statement. “This isn’t our place to do anything. We can only hope that whatever that person is saying is true. That the Bluemoon is here, and will come forward.”

My heart fluttered, like a bird in a cage.

I’d never seen Coach Tilly like this before. I’d never seen Eve like that.

Watching them like this, seeing another side of those you had known for years, I might as well be meeting them for the first time. They were so unrecognizable.

I broke.

And then the music cut out.

A few clicks, the amplified sound of someone picking up a phone.

I gave you a time limit, and you didn’t comply, Bluemoon. I’m very disappointed.

All three of us were looking up at the ceiling, staring at a distinct circle affixed there.

Now this is where I make my first guess. You, what’s your name?

There was an abrupt moment of ruffling, like someone was passing a phone to someone else.

A second voice. The verge of tears.

Suzie Nguyen…”

That name…

I was breaking out into a cold sweat. I heard a faint sound in the distance.

That abrupt ruffling, again.

Are you the Bluemoon?

Benny was back on.

The device was being passed back and forth between the two of them. Crackling and popping of the signal.

No, I’m not, god please, I’m not that thing.

How can I be so sure?

I’m not! Please! Isn’t it obvious I’m-

She was interrupted. A loud bang sounded off, distorting the speakers. It cut out again, I didn’t hear the whole thing ring out.

We all screamed, anyways.

Someone gone. Lost. Forever. All because of me. All because of the fucking Bluemoon.

I jumped out of my seat. I lost my sense of where I was, what was happening, who I was. I had a mouth, and I just had to scream. Rage backed by something within me, deeper.

A hand went over my mouth, and I was pushed into the wall behind me. The desk banged in place, several books fell out of the shelves.

Eve had her hands on me, pushing me back, keeping me down.

“Shut up!”

Her hand caught my mouth while it was still open, her palm pressed against my tongue.

That taste.

Thoughts in my head were screaming to bite into her hand. It took all of my willpower to back down.

Neither of us said anything, but it wasn’t quiet. The music returned. Light, jazzy elevator music.

Eve glared, pulling her hand away, a line of spit following. She wiped her hand at her side, cleaning it.

“Dammit, Alexis, we missed that next part because you wouldn’t shut up.”

She backed up some more, resting against the edge of Coach’s desk, placing her hands beside her. Her eyes went to the floor, grimacing.

“Don’t be so hard on her, Eve,” Coach said, somber. She turned her attention to me. “They put the music back because they’re starting the timer again. Five more minutes, and then they make their next ‘guess.’”

Coach’s face looked green as she said it, like the words carried an illness with them.

My back was to the wall, figuratively and literally.

Benny was going to have another person killed. Another student, who went to this school.

First Thomas, now this. Suzie.

I wasn’t very acquainted with her, but I knew of her, and it pained me all the same.

Oh my god, holy shit, holy fuck, holy shit

I caught sight of Eve again, and I had to will myself to breathe in, then breathe out. Slow. Cool it for a moment. I couldn’t afford to let myself freak, not here. The tension was already layered on thick, and it was only getting more palpable, and noxious.

But something had to be done. Couldn’t just sit here. Or more innocents would…

I want to throw up.

There was a waste bin by Eve, could I relieve myself real fast?

Get it together, Alexis. You know what you want to do.

“Get out,” I said aloud, anger in my tone.

Coach Tilly and Eve both turned to me. Confusion.

Oh.

I breathed, finding some mental footing again. Marginal. “How, how are we going to get out of this?”

Coach had returned to her chair, arms crossed. She looked as if she aged ten extra years.

She talked, with no emotion. “We’re going in circles now, Alexis. They want that Bluemoon thing, who is apparently here, and they want the rest of us stuck in one spot. If we move, and try anything, and get caught, it’s only going to get worse. Everything’s pinned on that one person, if they’re actually here.”

Music played. The timer continued.

“This went way too far, way too fast,” Eve said, nearly out of breath. “Doesn’t the Bluemoon know this is serious? Why wouldn’t they just give it up, already? Someone’s already-”

Her voice cracked again, and she just stopped there, looking even more downcast.

My chest was beating until it hurt, my eyes kept darting from my feet to the door. My feet to the door. My feet, the door. Feet, door.

Get Benny, find Benny. Paint the walls with her. Eat. Drink. Eat.

Flicker.

I tugged at my collar, airing myself off. I scanned the small room again, at a loss of what to do.

The room was getting smaller. Claustrophobic, amplified by the four of us. Not a lot of space to compose ourselves and-

Wait.

Me, Coach Tilly, Eve…

And that.

The edge of a man’s outline, in the corner of my eye. It evaded a direct look when I moved my eyes to catch it, floating to stay in the edge of my vision.

Black. Shadow.

It slinked as it moved, sliding across the wall, growing taller as it went from one corner to the other, closing in on me. I had to lift my head as its head reached the ceiling, a tendril-like arm stretching to touch my face and-

Alexis, we need to get out of here. You need to get us out of here.

I backed away again, into my own corner, knocking into the chair I was once sitting in. Eve jumped, avoiding it as it rolled to her.

“Alexis, what the fuck are you on?”

The tone and her choice of words drew my attention back to Eve. Her look was more worried than confused. Drawn in, shielded, like she was handling a snake, ready for when it would inevitably bite.

I had to tell myself to run my hand through my hair. A normal action in an attempt to stabilize myself.

I glanced around, one more time. Just the three of us. The music continued playing, the notes harrowing, piano keys drilling into my head.

“Nothing, I’m alright,” I said, utterly failing to sound convincing. I couldn’t even convince myself.

“Right…” Eve said, trailing away. She didn’t relax.

Damn, I couldn’t stand to be in here.

Then a noise clattered, different from anything else we’d been subjected to, recently. Coach Tilly and Eve turned their head in response. I did too.

Coming from right outside.

Another sound, same direction, muffled.

Voices.

Not the ones in my head.

“Get down, get down,” Coach Tilly whispered, but she still stressed her words.

We all got down, crouching.

“Who’s out there?” Eve asked, whispering.

“For one last time, Eve, I’m not in a position to tell you,” Coach responded. “Keep quiet, and keep low.”

Eve did the latter, but ignored the former. “Is the door locked?”

“I can’t lock that door from the inside.”

Shit.

“Do you think we can turn off the lights?” Eve asked.

The voices returned, this time louder. Talking, responding, but there was only one discernible tone to it. Only one person?

“It’s too late,” Coach said, “Here, crawl here behind my desk, we’re switching places.”

Neither of us were in a position to argue. We waited for Coach to move away from her desk, closer to the door. Eve slipped under the desk first. I was right behind her.

The space was limited, cramped. Vision compromised. I bumped shoulders with Eve.

We only had our hearing.

Four knocks on the door. Not the friendliest knocks I’d ever heard.

No response, not from any of us.

I heard the fumbling of the metal knob.

The door opened. Not from our end.

“You.”

A woman. Not deep, but still menacing. “Why are you on the floor?”

She was addressing Coach Tilly.

Coach answered her, sounding surprisingly firm, given everything.

“The school’s on lockdown, it was part of our drills. This is a school, in case you didn’t know.”

“Oh, I’m more than aware. Are you the only one in here?”

I felt Eve go completely still.

“I am,” Coach said, hard.

“I’m inclined to take a quick look around. Sorry, part of our drills.”

I felt myself go completely still.

“There’s no one else in here,” Coach said. “Just me.”

“Maybe I believe you, but I want to see for myself.”

“Don’t, I’m the only one-”

“You-”

Sneakers squeaking on tile. The grunts between two people. Signs of a struggle.

An all-too familiar click.

Not Coach too.

It was as if some other force had taken over. I sprung to action.

I pushed myself up, hands on the desk. I kicked my legs up, feet pressed on the wall behind me.

I only had a fraction of a second to process the situation. More than enough time.

Legs against the wall, a hard push, and I sent myself over the desk, slamming my body into the woman that was fighting with Coach.

Blurry.

The resulting crash took me out of the office, the woman under me. We hit the wall opposite the door, the woman’s back taking most of the impact.

I was back on my feet as the woman slid to the floor, hands to her side, empty. Dazed.

I moved on instinct, what I felt I needed to do. I grabbed her by the ankles, and pulled her back into Coach’s office.

“Holy fuck, the hell was that?”

Eve was hollering in my ear. She had gotten out from our hiding spot.

“Close the door,” I said as I came in. I was oddly cool about things. “No yelling.”

Eve had enough wits about her to listen. She stepped over the woman, getting the door.

I let go of her ankles, going to the woman’s collar. I picked her up to prop her against the corner of the room, I kept my hands on her, one on her neck, the other over her eyes. I was crouched to be at her level, one knee pressed between her legs, a foot on her hand.

She wasn’t going anywhere. Not unless I had a say in it.

I took a glance behind me, and Eve was standing over me, hands on her head, taking everything in. She wasn’t doing a very good job.

Shit.

Eve stammered. “Okay, okay, you need to tell me what-”

“In a minute, but we need to watch our language. No names.”

Why?”

“Because these people hold grudges, as you can see. If you give them a name and a face, they’ll go to the ends of the earth to get back at you.”

“No, as in, why would you know that?”

Shit, shit.

If my mind was a book, I flipped through the pages of my memory.

“Remember Jillian?” I said. “Brandon’s cousin?”

“Jillian? You mean that one… She’s Brandon’s cousin?”

“Yeah. Let’s just say she runs with these kinds of guys, and I’ve been on the receiving end of their kinds of grudges, once before”

Eve only had one word to say at that, one sound. “Oh.”

I had left some details out, fudging others, and I didn’t mention that I was currently on another receiving end of such a grudge, but I gave her a decent enough picture to work with.

“How’s Coach?” I asked, changing course before Eve could dwell on it for too long.

“Ah, I… Fuck, she’s not responding. She must have gotten hit in the head by her gun-”

“Gun? Where is it now?”

“On the floor, I kicked it away.”

This isn’t good, and it’s only getting worse.

The voice was sing-songy.

One thing at a time.

I had to come up with something.

“Keep her head up, do we have ice?”

“There’s ice in the breakroom.”

So there was none here.

Think, but couldn’t think too hard. Or I’d be inviting more unknown elements into my headspace.

“I can get ice,” I said. I turned to the woman I had pinned. “We just need-”

The music stopped.

Of all times.

It was as if the world itself stood still.

You are testing my patience, Bluemoon. I’m surprised you can be so cruel to your fellow classmates.

Benny…

A certain fire was starting to spark within me.

It’s time for my next guess. And your name is?

Elena… Zhang…

Again, that name…

Are you the Bluemoon?

Then, crying. The sound of crying coming out from the speakers above. Going throughout the entire school. Everyone was hearing this.

I’m not-”

Interrupted by a distorted fuzzy bang.

I gritted my teeth, lowering my head a fraction. Seeing red. Eve shrieked behind me.

You two, start cleaning this up. Ah, seems like I was wrong again. But I will eventually be right. It’s all up to you, Bluemoon. You have five more minutes.

Phone hanging up.

Music.

The timer started again.

Choking.

I opened my eyes, and I saw that my fingers were around the woman’s neck. Getting tighter.

I stopped myself.

“You,” I said to her, low, so it stayed between us. “Answer, truthfully, with a nod or by shaking your head. Any other friends of yours in the hallways right outside?”

She shook her head.

I shifted a little to get another view of Eve.

“You go into the breakroom, you get the ice.”

Eve pointed to herself.

“Me?”

Who else?

“Yes, you, I need to keep this one here.” I moved the woman’s head, tapping the back of her skull against the wall. I wasn’t exactly being careful with her. “And hurry. It’s not like in movies. If someone’s out, then it’s dangerous. We need to do what we can until someone else can treat her more properly. Go!”

She sprang at that last word, leaving the office in a sprint, despite her ankle. The door was shut behind her.

I went back to the woman.

“I’m allowing you to talk, now. Tell me everything you know,” I said. “Starting with your name.”

She didn’t try to fight or stall me. She knew her place.

“Sofia. Are you the Bluemoon?”

“Thank you, Sofia, and no, I’m not. And I’m the only one who gets to ask any questions around here, not you. The person on the intercom, where are they doing it from?”

Leaving out details was crucial. Wouldn’t do to let slip I knew it was Benny.

“Front office.”

“How many of you are there, around the school?”

“There’s a lot of us, I’m not sure.”

Liar.

“Ballpark it,” I said, seething.

“Definitely more than twenty, less than forty?”

She’s fucking with you. Kill her.

I shook my head.

I asked another question. “Those explosives, where are they, and can they be disarmed?”

“Are you telling me a kid is going to take out every single explosive?”

I gripped her neck harder, restricting more airflow. She started writhing. I released, then gripped, then released again.

“Answer the questions.”

She answered, ragged. “There’s three bombs. One in that big gym, one in the theater, the last one’s in the cafeteria. As for disarming them, you can’t, you’d need a bomb squad.”

She. They. Benny. They’re the real monsters. Do it. Spill them all.

Concentrate.

I needed every ounce of concentration, and even that was slipping away.

“But there is a temporary fix. Some of us are carrying coolant spray, in case something goes wrong with the detonator. Hitting the bomb with that should knock it out of commission for at least a whole day.”

That, I could use.

“Do you have that spray on you?” I asked.

“I don’t, you’d have to get it from someone else, but I doubt they’d give it up so easily.” Sofia tried moving her head, getting my hand out of her eyes. I pushed her back into the wall to get her to stop.

“Are you sure you’re not the Bluemoon? All this talk, these questions you’re asking, it doesn’t sound like something a normal kid would concern herself with.”

“I’m not who you think I am,” I said, keeping my tone as neutral as possible. “But what makes you so sure that the Bluemoon is even here? You might be wrong, the Bluemoon might be somewhere else. Another school, or they might not even be a student. If they were here, they would’ve answered you, already.”

Sofia reacted. It made me sick.

“We know. The Bluemoon will make her move, eventually, and that’ll be the end of her. How many people die until then is all up to her.”

“It’s already the end for all of you, aren’t you aware of that? How do you expect to escape from this?”

I had Sofia’s eyes covered, but I could still see the lower half of her face. She reacted, again. A sickening smile.

“We all go to Hell,” she said. “All of us. The only choice we have is how soon we get there.”

You could snap off her head right here. Drink the juice that drips from the moist end.

Before I could react or respond, Eve came back.

“Got ice,” she said, without me having to ask. She moved to Coach, out of my field of view.

“Good, do what you can. I’ll…” I looked at Sofia, then to the door.

“I’ll go find the nurse.”

Eve immediately stood back up.

“You are not going out there, and you are not leaving me here.”

“I’m not leaving you, I’ll be back, and I’ll be coming back with help. Coach can’t afford to be in that condition for too long, and between the two of us, we’re not equipped to help.”

“Are you freaking insane? You’re going to go out there, and get yourself killed. There’s more of them out there, and we got found out just from sitting here. What if someone else comes while you’re gone?”

I didn’t have an answer for her, not for that last part. Another factor I had to deal with.

But I had to deal with this.

“I’m not going to get myself killed, that’s a promise. I won’t be gone for that long. The nurse’s-”

“Her office is right by the front office, where all the other fucking terrorists are! How are you going to get there and back without getting caught?”

“I’m fast, I can sneak-”

“No, just no!”

Eve was on the edge of being entirely hysterical, the situation getting to her. She wasn’t accustomed to this sort of stress, not used to having to deal when things suddenly fell out from under her. Not used to taking action.

She was just a regular girl.

And you are not Alexis. Not anymore.

“I have to do something,” I said. “We have to do something. Coach might not die from that injury, but do you want something bad to happen as a result of it, something that might last?”

I let the word hang in the air, despite how heavy it was, filled with all the guilt I could put into one syllable.

I continued, “We’re losing time, not just because of Coach, but the music. I’m going.”

More silence from Eve. I took that as my ‘permission’ to leave.

Before I could go ahead and do that, I needed to do something about Sofia. Even if I had her down, her very presence was still a concern.

“Is there any duct tape?” I asked.

“Um, I don’t see any.”

“Check the drawers in the desk.”

I was too in the way, Eve had to step on the desk and over to get around.

Metallic clanging, papers rustling…

“Here,” she said.

“Give it to me,” I said. I took my hand away from Sofia’s throat, reaching to Eve.

She placed it in my open palm, and I went to work. I used it liberally, there was a lot available. I started with her eyes, moving fast so she couldn’t get a glimpse of us. Some hair got stuck underneath the tape, but I wasn’t here to be gentle. Another strip of tape went over her mouth. I got off her, then flipped her to her stomach. I worked to tie her hands behind her back. Her feet, too, for good measure.

I tore the last piece of tape I needed, and set it. I noticed a sheath strapped to her hip.

A pocketknife.

I took it, slipping it into my own pocket.

Even after what happened with Jillian, I didn’t see the need to bring a knife with me to school. Nothing happened since. Not until this.

Even though it was against school rules, I wished I had started bringing it with me.

Lesson learned.

“There,” I said, as I finished, “That should do it. Keep her in a corner, keep an eye on her…”

I finally caught sight of the gun Eve was talking about. A black rifle. I wasn’t much of a gun fanatic to know its exact name.

“… and keep her as far away from that as possible. Don’t even touch it anymore.”

I noticed Coach as well, on her back, eyes closed, head raised by the bag of ice Eve brought.

It made me want to slam Sofia into the wall again, just for Coach’s sake. And a little bit of my own.

“What if someone else tries to come in?” Eve asked.

I spoke as I got up, grabbing my stuff, seeing what else was worth bringing. “Move the desk and block the door, it swings into the room.”

Eve seemed to accept that, she didn’t ask about any other options. Barring the door was all she’d have as far as defenses go, and I was rather sure that she wasn’t keen on using the gun herself.

I checked through the stuff I had brought in here, to no avail. Just my notebooks and textbooks. My backpack was in my locker. I set what I might need on one side. The remaining duct tape, the paper bag that Coach had given me, my new uniform inside. I made a note of the knife in my pocket.

Unprepared and Ill-equipped, all around. I didn’t have anything I could use to carry everything I might need. And I was uncertain in how exactly I would disarm three fucking bombs before I made my way to Benny.

Not to mention that Coach Tilly needed someone to give her proper treatment.

This was impossible.

Think on your feet, it’s what got you this far.

It was also what brought me this low.

Even so, even without much of a plan, I went for the door, anyways.

“I’m heading out,” I said, carrying the paper bag and duct tape in my hands. “Stay safe, and take care of Coach.”

I didn’t say anything for Sofia.

“One second.”

I turned.

“Take my jacket.”

Eve unzipped her hoodie, an inoffensive beige, and tossed it to me. I caught it.

“Anything to help you stay on the down low. The pockets are pretty large, you can carry a lot with you.”

“Eve…” I was about to say more, but she shook her head.

“Just hurry and go, because this is really freaking me the hell out, and the less I have to see you, being all freaky, the less my brain starts making connections it really doesn’t want to.”

I swallowed, hard. Connections. This really was the beginning of the end.

Fuck.

I wanted to stay and refute her, tell her she’d be wrong in making that connection, but I didn’t have the luxury.

I left, Eve closing the door behind me.

I changed.

It was a patchwork of a costume, a baggy hoodie, a paper bag over my head, holes poked into it. I threw out the uniform, leaving it behind. A roll of duct tape in a jacket pocket, a knife in the pocket of my jeans.

I stepped out into the hallway of the school proper, just as the music cut off for a third time.

Previous                                                                                               Next

043 – Revealing Bell

Previous                                                                                               Next

August 25, 2014

I wasn’t outside for that long, but the heat was starting to get to me. Well, not me exactly, but my makeup.

This line needs to move faster.

Those upperclassmen had it easy. They could just walk right into the school and chill wherever they wanted, hanging out until classes would start.

But, for us freshmen? We were stuck waiting in a line to get our schedules for the semester.

Around a hundred teenagers, filled to the brim with nervous energy, worried over the next four years in high school, and we were forced to keep still, and stand in a line.

It was hardly fun.

The line was so long that it snaked, going out of the doors of the school gym, wrapping around the building. Scratch that, the line led into the smaller of the school’s two gyms, meaning there were more people in a smaller space, making the line go slower, meaning I had to stand out for even longer and…

Ugh.

This is so freaking lame.

A minute passed, with everyone only collectively moving about half a foot. I wasn’t that far back, but I still wanted to be inside rather than out here. It was still summer, and summer here meant that it was several degrees hotter than hot. Like… something that was really hot.

Like a really hot boy, whatever.

The point was that the heat would end up ruining my outfit that I had meticulously planned out the night before, and the bit of makeup I applied. Not enough so that Mom would notice, but, with the amount I applied, maybe I’d look a little bit more mature than I usually did. I was sick and tired of always being mistaken for a little kid, I wasn’t that small.

I was in high school now, high school, I was more than ready to start growing up a little, doing grown up stuff.

If this line would only move faster.

We all shuffled our feet forward, and I finally saw the doors when I went around the corner. Still a ways to go, but complaining wasn’t going to make us move faster.

I checked behind me, to see how people were doing in the back. The line was getting longer, and I saw some other freshmen walking back and forth down the length of the line, trying to find anyone they were comfortable cutting in line to meet with. Some were successful, others resigned to going all the way back. No one really cared either way, it wasn’t like we were lining up to get concert tickets or anything.

I wasn’t one of the successful ones, even though I thought I came early. I didn’t see any of my friends from middle school, even Katy was nowhere to be found.

So, here I was, stuck. In between some people I didn’t know.

Speaking of Katy…

I pulled out my phone, and went to check my different social media feeds. The phone connected to the school’s internet with ease. Yeah, we were at school, but I wasn’t in the building, and the day hadn’t started yet, no one should raise a fuss over it.

A few new notifications, so I checked them. I tapped to like some pictures, reblogged some funny posts and status updates. A decent way to pass the time, certainly better than standing around and doing nothing.

No text back from Katy. I was beginning to wonder if she’d end up missing the first day of school. The first day of high school, no less.

That would be like… super duper bad.

“Hey!”

I seized up when something slapped me in the shoulder blade. My fingers tightened around my phone, holding for dear life. I put a foot out to prevent myself from bumping into the person ahead.

“Eep!”

A lame sound just squeaked out of me.

Woops.

I caught myself, but the girl ahead of me was already staring back, eyebrow raised.

I, in turn, squared my shoulders and glared at the person responsible. But the act didn’t last long when I saw who was responsible.

“Katy!” I exclaimed excitedly.

Katy grinned, her lips vulpine. She put one hand on her hip, and slung her arm over my shoulder, in a sort of half-hug. I returned the favor, greeting her how girls did.

“Oh my gosh, how are you?” I asked as we broke the hug. As we split, Katy kept herself close to me. Sneaky sneaky.

Ça va bien,” Katy responded, “Et toi ?

I puffed my cheeks in a pout. “No fair, I’m taking Spanish this year, not French.”

Je suis désolé– I mean, sorry, but I’m still a little jetlagged from the trip. My brain’s still in ‘France mode.’”

I drew out the sound. “Aw, I’m so jealous, I wish I could go to places like that. Was it fun?”

“It was super fun, we went sightseeing and saw all the ‘touristy’ places, but, get this, because my mom spends so much time over there, we were granted like the best access. Even the museums were awesome. Tell me, who else gets to see the Mona Lisa up close and personal, with no crowd in sight?”

My jaw dropped. “Get out of here, that sounds so dope!”

“I know right?”

“Can you tell your parents to adopt me already?”

“Depends if we have enough room in our place. You might end up staying with Annie.”

“Worth, if it means you taking me on trips to France.”

“By that point, the only place I’m taking you is the backyard.”

I stuck my tongue out at her, and lightly smacked her on the arm. The line moved a smidge more.

As we moved, my eyes caught the black straps across Katy’s shoulders.

“Whoa, cute bag,” I said, “Looks expensive.”

She turned so her back was facing me, showing off her bag. All black, small. Petite, rather. A gold letter ‘G’ across the front.

“That’s because it is,” Katy said. She spun around to show off the rest of her outfit. An oversized white shirt, tight white denim jeans, and black boots that almost reached her knees.

She continued, “Got it while I was over there. All designer, by P-”

I stopped her. “If another French word comes out of that mouth, I’m tearing your tongue out and throwing it as far as I can.”

Katy made a face, playfully shocked. “Ever so violent, Lexi. Good to know your temper hasn’t… tempered.”

“Well, then, don’t push me that far,” I said, making sure to lay on the sarcasm as thick as possible, to the point of overcompensating. “I actually tried to make myself look good for the first day of high school. Unlike you.”

“Whatever do you mean? You look good,” Katy said, and I could tell she was telling the truth. “I look good.”

“Yeah, but not all of us have fancy clothes we can just randomly pick out and automatically kill it. Some of us, you know, have to make do with what we have.”

I glanced down at my clothes, but I tried not to look down on them. Converse shoes, classic black, the white laces even brighter in the sun. Denim shorts, lightly ripped. A white shirt, long enough to tuck in the front. And a black, light fabric long sleeve on top of that, a flower pattern going across the whole thing.

My backpack wasn’t designer. Just a regular backpack you’d see anywhere.

Most of this stuff was taken from the bargain bins of different stores, pieced together over the summer, when my allowance could afford it. I didn’t look down on them, no, putting these articles together actually made a good outfit.

But Katy’s was better.

Katy gave me another look. “Stop beating yourself up like that, it’s not healthy. Listen, we’re both hot, so let’s make these next four years rock.”

I had to force a grin. “Nice half-rhyme there.”

“Thanks, I half-try.”

We continued chatting, catching up somewhat, with Katy telling me more about her trip. Nobody paid Katy any mind, considering that she did cut in line.

Having my best friend helped make the time tick faster, and we finally made it into the gym.

Whoa.

There were a bunch of people in here, and the gym’s acoustics made it sound like there were even more people. Mostly other freshmen, going into other, smaller lines in front of tables lined up and down the length of the gym. Waiting to get schedules. Other freshmen had already gotten theirs, and were walking around, either trying to find their friends or just trying to find the way out.

“I’m that way,” Katy said, pointing. “Of course ‘T’ has to be all the way over there.”

“Ha, I guess I’m lucky for once,” I said. “Mine’s right here.”

“Then, I’ll see you in a little.”

We went into our respective lines, maneuvering through the crowd to find where our lines started. The hard part was already over, waiting-wise, and I got to the front pretty fast.

“Barnett,” I said.

The woman manning the ‘B’ section nodded and flipped through folders in a cardboard box on the table, labeled as such. She didn’t take long.

“You don’t look like a ‘Dylan,’” the woman said, “So you must be Alexis. Alexis Ki… Barnett.”

She took a stack of papers out of the folder and box. My hand was already out, expectant.

She stopped short before I could grab for it.

“You look familiar.”

Not a question, but it did call for a response, an answer. I looked up at the woman.

Blonde, and not that much taller than me. Even with the air condition, it was still hot, but she had on a tracksuit.

Her eyes were intense. Studying me.

An adult.

“Do I?” was all I had to say back.

“I think I’ve seen you at a game, somewhere?”

Something clicked in my head.

“I played volleyball at my old middle school,” I said.

“That’s it!” she said, snapping her fingers. “Normally I wouldn’t have caught that, but maybe seeing your face in a gym again brought it back to me.”

“Right,” I said. I just wanted my schedule. People were still waiting, behind me.

Not that I could just say that, could I?

“Well, here you are.” the woman set the stack in my hand. It was weightier that I initially thought.

The woman continued, “I’m Coach Tilly, by the way. Are you thinking about playing in high school?”

“Yes,” I said, even though I wanted to get a move on. Why lie about volleyball? “Definitely.”

“Great, we have a general meeting and tryouts in about two weeks. Oh.” The coach raised her chin, peeking. “Sorry to keep you, there’s more info about it in the student handbook.”

“Thank you,” I said, meaning it. That made it easier for me, as far as finding out how to join the volleyball team. The only question was if I was good enough to even make the team.

Coach Tilly smiled, exuding a warmth, there. I quickly waved as I took my handbook and left.

Pushing through more, much taller people, I found Katy in the crowd, conversing in a ring of other freshmen. I nudged her to get her attention.

Katy nodded, and broke away from the group. Some acquaintances from my old middle school, some from the other middle schools but came here. Katy and I both waved and smiled at them as we left the gym.

As we explored the school, we flipped open our respective packets, reading.

“What’s your first class?” Katy asked.

“Let me check.” I flipped through the packet I received earlier. It had everything about the school, the rules, dress code, school calendar, locker info… and class schedule.

“Pre-AP World Geography,” I said. “You?”

“Pre-AP Algebra-Two. Is geography your only advanced class?”

“English, but that’s it. No way can I do math.”

“I’m taking all Pre-AP, ha.” Katy really sounded like she was rubbing it in.

“Yeah yeah, what don’t you have?” I asked, “Nerd.”

It wasn’t anything to actually be perturbed over. We shared a chuckle and continued on.

We were out of the gym, but the territory was still largely uncharted. Every hall we traversed seemed bigger than the last. Posters advertising clubs and upcoming events, some better drawn than others. Some signs were in Spanish, others in French. Maps telling us where we were, what hall this was. Computer labs, chemistry labs. Doors leading back outside, but there were still places to go from there.

Other kids were in the hallways, too. Upperclassmen. They were either standing around, relaxed, leaning on the wall behind them, or they were walking like they knew where they were going and how to get there. With purpose. They were familiar with the school.

And they all looked like adults.

Katy and I were in a different grade from them, but we all went to the same school. We were one of them, now.

It was like what I’d seen in TV, the movies, my mom’s favorite cartoons and dramas.

High school.

Electrifying, even if thinking so was corny. Hey, I could admit to that.

“So this is Stephenville High School,” I said, summing up my thoughts. “Feels weird to be here.”

“Eh, we’ll be used to it in a week, and after a year we’ll be going to parties and doing all sorts of crazy stuff,” Katy said, “Just you wait.”

“I’m not sure what you mean by ‘crazy stuff,’ but I’m down.”

“Alright, let’s not get too ahead of ourselves.”

“C’mon, we’ve got four years here, let’s make the most of them.”

Katy and I exchanged looks. A mutual agreement.

We moved into another hallway, and the amount of things happening here nearly overloaded my senses. Students moving, pushing to go one way. Students standing around like before, but in much bigger clusters, chatting away. A couple tucked between two sets of lockers, making out. A teacher had to step out of his classroom to shoo them away.

This was a kind of lawlessness I wasn’t used to before, and it energized.

“Oh shoot,” Katy said, bringing my focus back to the now. “What was your first class again?”

“World Geography.”

“Oh, then you have to go. That’s in D Hall, upstairs. I saw it on the map. And the first bell is about to ring soon.”

I checked our surroundings again. There were more people moving than loitering, and they were hurrying. Not much time left.

And I didn’t know my way around the school. Not yet.

“Aww heck,” I said, turning to go back the way we just came. Much less crowded. “Katy, I’ll see you later!”

Katy continued down the packed hall. “Sure, lunch?”

“Uh-huh!”

And then we split up from there, preparing to tackle our first day of high school.

I jogged to find my first class, the bell about to ring.

November 28, 2016

The bell had already rung. I slipped into the only empty desk, on the farthest side of the room. Eyes followed as I made my way.

“You’re tardy, Alexis,” Ms. Powers said, watching me as I sat, hand still on the chalkboard. “Did you get a late slip?”

“No, I did not get a late slip,” I said, just barely holding myself back.

“You do owe me one, or that’s a mark on your record. Don’t forget that.”

I grunted, but she wouldn’t have been able to hear me. I settled in and put my notebooks on the desk.

“Psst, Alexis, you alright?” someone asked from behind me. A boy. Jacob.

“I’m good,” I lied.

I set a textbook on my desk, then propped my arm up on the surface, resting my head.

Just two more classes, and I was out of here.

If only it were that easy.

I thought I could make it through just one more day, one more full day of school. I was wrong.

It was a torture to be here. I got no sleep from the night before, much less from the week before, and the result was leaving me with a loose grip on myself. My head felt as if it was being beaten in from the inside, the impacts reverberating throughout my body. As if I was having an allergic reaction to this place itself. The school. The atmosphere.

Especially the atmosphere. The rain crashed down, we could all hear it, even from inside the school. It hadn’t let up from last night.

A dull haze.

But this wasn’t right, I knew that much. The old Alexis would have, at minimum, tolerated a regular school day like anyone else, or had a handful of enjoyable moments of social interaction with friends to power through. Looking forward to volleyball practice when the day ended. Regular, mercifully menial things.

This though, this? The ‘me’ as I was, now? It was like jamming a square into a circle. In theory, it was possible, but something would have to give way, something would have to break.

Either me, or this.

Papers flipping, out of sync. Everyone was turning pages in a book. I hadn’t even opened mine, yet.

I flipped it open.

I couldn’t understand any of it.

No, the words, the numbers, that I could get, but the formulas and concepts…

At least some things hadn’t changed.

Ms. Powers was already going into her lecture, but I already had her drowned out. As far as I remembered, no homework was due today, so I had a chance to get some peace-

“Alexis, can you do example number eight on the board for us?”

And quiet.

Murmurs among students, pages flipping, pencils and pens scratching away at the inside of notebooks. The clock ticking away seconds.

“Alexis?”

More seconds, ticked away.

Alexis.”

I raised my head, not because of the word itself, but the tone.

Ms. Powers was looking right at me, stern.

“Yes?” I asked.

“Please come up to the board and complete example eight.”

I grunted again, a hair louder, but not to irritate Ms. Powers even more. More as an outlet for myself.

I took my textbook with me, going up to the board. I had enhanced strength, yet my feet were heavy.

“What page again?” I had to ask, taking the chalk from Ms. Powers.

“Page one-four-five, section five.” She didn’t sound happy to give the answer.

I flipped to that page, and stared at the problem. Then I stared some more.

I put chalk to board, copying the equation, the numbers. Putting the ‘X’s and ‘Y’s and funny looking ‘F’s where they belonged.

I stopped.

Another significant block of time was wasted away. Someone sneezed.

“Are you stuck?” Ms. Powers asked me.

“I don’t know how to start,” I said, “Or even where.”

The numbers were turning into undecipherable hieroglyphs the more I looked at them.

“Start by isolating your variables, and take out what you don’t need. This should be review for you.”

This might as well be another language. I supposed, in a sense, math was one, but it wasn’t universal for me.

“I don’t, I can’t…” I dropped my arm to my side, the chalk leaving the board.

Ms. Powers sighed.

I made the next move, back to my desk. Ms. Powers didn’t stop me.

“Amy, you do number eight.” She ended up asking someone else.

I fell back into my seat, head back to resting on the desk.

Aww fuck.

Sit here, and be normal. That was it. That was all I had asked of myself.

I couldn’t even do that.

Everyone probably thought I was dumb for no longer being able to grasp the basic concepts. One of the idiots. I supposed I could concede that.

But, if to only be a little fair to myself, I hadn’t been in a proper frame of mind for quite some time.

You got that right.

I closed my eyes.

When I opened them again, class had ended.

My other classmates were already up and ready to go. I lagged behind, gathering my stuff.

“Alexis,” I heard from behind, just as I was about to leave the classroom.

Internally, I groaned, but still I went over to Ms. Powers at her desk, my steps even heavier.

Ms. Powers was in her chair, and the chair was in her, in another sense. Her rotund body folded over the armrests. The effect wasn’t that pronounced, she wasn’t that big, but the chair did look like it was a part of her.

I stifled a giggle.

Ms. Powers started off. “I’m very concerned, Alexis, your grades have been slipping more and more. Not much improvement since the last time we spoke like this.”

No answer.

“You still haven’t come in to do a makeup test for the most recent one, and you have a pile of quizzes to correct… and you’re only turning in half of the homework I assign, and half of those have just been wrong.”

Again, no answer.

“How have your other classes been going?” she asked.

I shrugged. “Okay. Been managing.”

“So it’s just my class, then? My class is the one that’s giving you the most trouble.”

I didn’t answer, only because I didn’t know how to respond.

Ms. Powers exhaled, and her body seemed to deflate with her. “I’m not going to give a long-winded lecture over that now, since I have another class coming in, but I do want you to see me after school. The midterm is in less than a month, and if you really buckle down and get to work, you might be able to start next semester with a passing grade.”

“Yeah.”

Ms. Powers sat there, as if waiting for me to say more, but I didn’t. I could see her face almost contort into a frown.

She spoke again. “Principal Kirk spoke with me, told me about what’s happened. I understand it’s been hard, but you can’t forget, or neglect, the responsibilities you have as a student.”

She gestured to the door, “Go, I’ll see you after school.”

Saying it as a matter of fact, almost like an order.

“And you don’t need to worry about the late slip,” she added. “No need.”

“Oh, thanks”, I said, then I left the classroom.

The next class was far more forgiving. It came and went without incident. The lunch bell tolled.

I didn’t go to the cafeteria, I didn’t even try to leave campus. I went straight to the office, instead.

As it happened, there was a line here. Wasn’t the biggest fan of those.

Then again, who was?

I was the only one in line whose shoulders weren’t wet. Another student, her parents, and a group. Workers, it looked like, wearing the same construction uniform.

The line actually moved along, which was a nice change of pace. The workers picked up their bags and were allowed to enter the office proper. They disappeared after they turned a corner.

Then I was up.

“Is Principal Kirk in?” I asked the lady manning the front desk.

“Hold on a second,” she said instead. She picked up the office phone beside her. A cord attached the phone itself to a base. She positioned it between her ear and her shoulder, pressing a number on the base.

“Yes, can Mia Tran, Elena Zhang, and Stacy Phan please come to the front office? Okay, bye.”

She hung up the phone, and finally addressed me.

“Name and ID?” she asked, as she chewed on gum. Smacking.

“Alexis Barnett…” I started, then provided her my school ID.

“What is this for?”

“I wanted to ask about possibly doing my schoolwork at home. He extended that offer to us a week back.”

“I know what you’re referring to,” she said, typing at her computer. “Principal Kirk is actually no longer available, but…”

She stopped typing, and turned to the printer beside her. She handed me the form that sputtered out of it.

“Get a parent and your teachers to sign it, then come back here,” she said. “Principal Kirk will take it from there.”

“Thanks,” I said, folding the paper in half. “Do coaches have to sign it too?”

“Um, if you’re in a team, then yes.”

“Then I’ll start with her, thanks again.”

She didn’t respond as I left, she was more interested in whatever she was typing. I left the office and took the shortest route to the small gym. The halls were sparse with people, as everyone went to lunch.

Right before I got to the gym itself, I went through a door that led me into another hall. One way led to the locker rooms, then the gym.

I went the other way. The coaches’ offices.

Voices.

Wait.

I listened.

Not my own, and clearly from other sources.

But, for a moment, I felt trepidation.

I followed the sounds into the breakroom. Coach Bronson and Coach Taylor were chatting.

Coach Tilly was with them.

I knocked on the open door.

They turned.

“Hey, if it isn’t the Beast from the East,” Coach Bronson said. His words were slathered in a Southern drawl.

“Hey,” I said.

Coach Tilly snapped her fingers at him, “Don’t call her that. Did you need something, Barnett?”

I lifted up the folded form, putting it into view. “It’s a personal thing, do you…”

She picked up where I left off. She nodded and got up. “We can move to my office. The rest of you, find something better to do.”

The other two coaches chuckled, but they left us alone. They followed Coach Tilly out of the breakroom, but they left the area entirely. Coach Tilly and I went into her office.

Her office wasn’t bad, as far as space went, but it wasn’t the Principal’s office. Her desk was cluttered with papers and paperweights and journals. Fitness and health and diet books filled the small shelf on one wall. Nothing on the other wall but posters relaying the same kind of information. She’d need the room to get to the other side of her desk.

It also lightly smelled of sweat. But being by the gym would do that.

We both sat on our respective side of her desk. I dropped my stuff, and gave her the paper. She looked at it, quick. She set it down.

“You’ve gotten this far, skipping practice without my permission, why do you need it now?”

I bit my lip.

“Go on, Alexis, you have a mouth, tongue, working jaw. Use them.”

I moved around a bit in my seat. I tried to relax myself. I found that I couldn’t.

“I wasn’t doing it deliberately, there’s been…”

I couldn’t find the words so easily.

“There’s been what?”

Vampire. Monster. Hero. Killer. Tell her you’re a demon.

I broke away, glancing at a wall. A poster, a diagram of the human body, limbs splayed. Organs and veins visible. Its eyes followed me.

I blinked, shook my head, reoriented myself. Its eyes looked straight ahead.

“There’s been a lot going on,” I said.

Vague, but whatever.

Coach Tilly sighed, taking the paper again. She leaned back.

“I’m not that sour about it, everything considered. I heard about what happened with Katy’s father. I know you’re good friends with her and all. My condolences.”

As if I needed another reminder. I sat there, taking the blow once again, in full force.

“Broke my heart,” I said, my voice hitched at the last word. Coach must have caught that, it wasn’t very subtle.

“Where’s Katy right now?” she asked.

Good question.

I made my best guess. An inference, really. “She’s out for lunch… somewhere.”

“Eating in the cafeteria like a good little junior?”

“Let’s give her the benefit of the doubt,” I said.

“Okay, I can do that, but you haven’t been keeping tabs on her?”

I looked away, casting a glance somewhere else. “We’ve kind of decided that giving each other some space would be the best.”

“And that’s something you both agreed to do?”

Was it?

“Something like that,” I said. “It’s complicated, and probably for the best. I’d actually go so far as to say it’s necessary.”

Coach Tilly usually had an easy-to-read face. She carried such a passion inside her that her expressions were a sort of amplified version of what she felt, internally.

The face she had right now was much more confused and subdued.

“Hey, you know what? I’m a coach for a high school volleyball team, not a psychologist. If that works for you, it works.”

“Yup.”

Coach Tilly scrunched up her nose, breathing in, then out. She set the paper down, reaching for a pen.

“I hope you make good use of your time away from school,” she said, as she signed her name on a dotted line.

I thought about what I had in mind. Start by going back to Braham Barn, looking for anything I missed. If I had to tear the thing down, plank by plank, literally, then that was what I had to do. I probably owed Gomez another conversation, even though I intended to retire the Blank Face shtick. See where he stood, what else was left to do in that regard. If Solace had somehow dissolved into a non-issue, I needed to know for sure. If not…

Good luck to him.

It would be nice to be able to come clean to my loved ones about me, about everything. It also would have been nice to have Thomas back, but that was impossible, now. Even if I had the clearest details in the world about who I really was, I wondered if they’d accept me all the same. Or if they’d cast me out, not unlike a leper.

The thought of that made me reconsider it all.

“I hope so, too,” I said, verbalizing my thoughts.

She gave me the form, and I took it back. She then moved, bending down under her desk. When she came back up, she had a white paper bag. Medium sized, about the size of my head.

Coach set it down, then pushed it to me. “Here.”

I took it, setting it on my lap. A staple sealed the folded paper at the top.

“What’s this?”

“You would have known about it, had you been to team meetings, but I had put in an order for new uniforms. New design, same colors, of course, but the girls say it’s more comfy, it’s snug.”

“A brand new uniform.” I could barely remember the last time I wore my old one, or even played volleyball. It felt like some ancient tradition, now.

“Neat,” I said.

“Yes, and you’re still a part of the team, even though you’re not around. But, I want you to have it. Something to come back with, when you come back.”

I tried picturing a day in which I did come back. Playing with the girls, as a team, doing something I was actually good at.

Nothing but a dream, now.

“Thanks, Coach,” I said, honestly expressing my gratitude.

Coach seemed content at that, smiling a little. “Good. Now, Barnett, anything else you need from me? I think the lunch period is almost over.”

“I think that’s it,” I said.

“Alright, then, can you get the door? Looks like someone wants in on this pity party.”

“Hm?”

I turned to the door. Sure enough, someone was at the other end, their head visible through the small window.

The handle was within arm’s reach. I opened it.

“Alexis, hi.”

It was Eve.

“My gosh, hey,” I said.

“Are you coming back?” she asked.

Another gut punch. I could see the excitement in her eyes. It’d suck to cut her down.

“Just the opposite,” I said.

I saw her expression change.

Like ripping off a thousand bandaids.

“Enough about me though,” I said, “How’s the ankle?”

“Oh, this?” She lifted up her foot, gauze and bandages wrapped around the ankle. She rotated it easily. “It’s fine, I just need to keep up with my PT, then we’re golden. I was just swinging by to get some more pointers from Coach. Need all the help I can get if I wanna go pro.”

“Really? You’re wanting to go all the way?”

Eve lifted her chin up, beaming wide. “Of course, I think I can, and Coach does too.”

I looked at Coach, she shrugged.

“If she thinks she can… Maybe?”

“Hey!” Eve exclaimed.

We all burst into a laugh. Though it was at Eve’s expense, she took it in stride.

“That’s why you need to come to practice, Lexi,” Eve said, “We can spar.”

“I’m game,” I said, just talking to talk. “But I might be a little rusty.”

“We’ll just see about-”

A siren.

Wailing. A constant sequence of the same note, over and over. The sounds hit.

We all leaped. Like we just got blindsided with a jumpscare.

Eve shrieked, cupping her ears and dropping to the floor.

I covered my ears as well.

“What is that!” I had to yell in order to be heard.

Coach Tilly answered, yelling back, “It’s not the lunch bell! Get the door!”

I got it, quickly moving my arm to shut it. The volume didn’t decrease, it was that loud.

“It’s the alarm for a lockdown! Get on the floor!”

I followed her order, dropping out of my seat to get lower. Hands still on my ears.

So loud, and it wasn’t letting up. Endless, ever present, no respite. My focus was too caught unaware to question why the school was even on lockdown.

If noise could actually force a physical impact, this was the equivalent of being kicked into the ground, and kept there with repeated kicks.

Then, it stopped.

It just stopped.

As slow as glaciers, my hands moved away from my ears. Ringing, but as an echo, not nearly as loud. Easy to tell that the alarm had ceased.

Eve was still discombobulated, hands over her head. I was in too low of a position to see Coach Tilly’s reaction.

And then another sound came on. I heard it. Bile crept up my throat as I listened.

That should have gotten your attention. No, not ‘their’ attention, but yours, Bluemoon. I know that you’re here. I know.

Previous                                                                                               Next

042 – Empty Head

epy arc 7 fail

Bonus                                                                                               Next

The service ended early in the evening. It was dark, and it would only get darker.

Thomas didn’t make it.

Time of death, four forty-five in the morning. Cause of the death, severe bodily injury below the neck, various infections, multiple organ failure, complications during surgery…

Severe blood loss.

He died in his sleep. They tried, the doctors said, but his condition was too grave by the time he reached the hospital.

Maybe if he arrived a second sooner, maybe if an entire night wasn’t wasted in trying to find him.

A lot of maybes.

Apparently, Thomas had already made plans for his family to be taken care of, in the event that something were to happen to him. Not that they particularly needed it, Kristin was as much a breadwinner as her husband was, but the gesture was there. It was in writing.

As for him, he would have wanted to donate his body to science. Cremation was the second option. Given everything that happened to him, a choice had to be made. His family discussed it, and decided to do the latter.

The memorial took place a week after he passed. Enough time for family and friends to come into town, fly in from another state.

Even James Gomez showed up.

It was still a small gathering, relatively speaking. Kristin preferred it to be a private service, and that was what she got.

Everyone had something to say, to give their piece about a man they cared about. Preaching to the choir, perhaps, but it was a way to vent, to cope with the news. Everyone needed it. To give a eulogy, and to hear one.

Mom sang. She was great.

We all did our best to try and celebrate the life of Thomas Thompson, rather than mourn his death. But it was like a heavily overcast day. The sun was out, but the clouds colored our perception of things.

It was quiet when the memorial started, it was quiet when it ended. Everyone filed out of the funeral home, with hardly a word being whispered.

Dark, heavy clouds hung over our heads. A static feeling that sat in the air. It was going to rain, and it was going to rain hard.

In the crowd of people, I found Katy, and I drifted towards her. She didn’t get off the porch right away, instead sitting on one of the porch swings. I joined her.

Her feet were planted flat on the floorboard. My big toe grazed it.

It was just her profile, but it was the best look I had of her all week.

Her hair was done up nicely, curls lightly moving in the wind. She had on makeup, but the edges of the one eye I could see were fudged a bit, the eye itself irritated and red. Her cheeks puffy, the edge of her mouth would occasionally tremble, the more I looked at it. She wore a dress. Black.

She was dressed well. Of course she was. To slack off now would be an offense to her father’s memory. I was sure she thought about it like that. I was sure she was right.

Silence yawned as neither of us said a word.

Minutes came and went, nothing.

“Hey,” I finally said, though it was more of a sound than it was a word.

Katy didn’t move.

“Hi,” she said back, seemingly out of breath.

Silence started settling back in.

I could imagine what she was feeling. ‘Bad’ was probably a good guess. ‘Sad’ was another. But there was very likely other emotions thrown in the mix, each with their own potency, and how Katy would respond to those emotions would be completely unique to her.

I had to really be careful if I wanted to talk with her.

But it was hard, coming up with anything to say.

“Hey,” I ended up saying again. It was the best I could come up with.

“What do you want, Alexis?”

Her tone struck a raw wound in my heart. Cold.

But, it was a start. A question I could answer.

“I just want to sit next to you, is all. Maybe talk, if you’re up for it.”

I mentioned sitting next to her, but there was noticeable space between me and Katy. Another person could sit there comfortably.

Katy breathed, and it was shaky.

“What else is there for me to say that I hadn’t already said back there?”

Her standing at the podium, by a large portrait of her father. He was smiling in that picture, she was much less energetic. She took her time with her eulogy, making sure every word was delivered clearly, with intent. Clearly, it had taken a lot out of her.

It also showed just how strong Katy truly was.

“It was really good,” I said, summing it up in four words. But, in no way did it represent the full weight her speech had on everyone. How heavy and suffocating it was on my chest.

“I tried,” Katy said. “I’m trying.”

In a way, her own four words to sum everything up.

“It’s been a… weird week,” Katy said. Her gaze kept forward, looking out, languid. A car drove across the street ahead, but it was hardly noticeable.

“I can… imagine,” I said, choosing my words very, very carefully.

“Nearly lost my perfect attendance streak. I’d oversleep sometimes, he liked to call from work to wake me up.”

Again, heavy.

“And dinner at home is awkward now. It’s not that we haven’t had nights where he was late and we had to eat without him… but, I’ve just been eating in my room, recently.”

Something welled up in my throat, preventing me from even uttering a sound to acknowledge that I heard her.

“And yesterday? It was early in the morning, but I woke up because Mom was… You know, too hard and all. I found her in his office, his study. Hadn’t, it hadn’t been open since… There were pieces of trash, crumpled paper, used tissues and clippings and stuff. Coffee rings on his desk. Is it weird, that, I almost didn’t want to throw it away, or clean it up? Is that weird?”

Every word, felt like a punch to my windpipe. But I had to get it out, somehow.

“No, it isn’t.”

That was all I could manage.

“I just, it…”

Katy’s voice cracked.

“It’s just that-”

Cracked again. Her eye twitched.

“I’m, I’m ready for the punchline. I’m ready for the rug to be pulled out from under me again, and this is just one elaborate, cruel joke. He’ll come out from under some curtain I forgot to check, he’ll smile mischievously, and we’ll all have a big laugh. I’m ready to be played the Fool. Capital ‘F.’”

I could only speak in whispers, as if all the wind was knocked out of me.

“I feel the same way.”

That was when she turned. She stared me down, dead in the eye.

Ice. A shiver went through me. Behind her eyes, there was only a glimmer of life and energy. Normally there would be so much more. Cold, now.

“Maybe I’ve been played the fool this whole time.”

This conversation had been going so slow, the awkward pauses were starting to become the norm.

Was that directed at me? At another topic?

Katy sighed, her shoulders dropping. Her gaze wandered elsewhere.

“I was still asleep when that stuff at city hall took place. I had to hear about it online, before Uncle James called us. Everyone pretty much concluded that he was a terrorist, or at least he was involved…”

“That’s just straight up incorrect, and you know that,” I said. I felt like I had to interrupt, there, even though it should have been obvious to everyone who showed up. Or anyone with a brain. “He was taken and set up. Mr. Gomez held a conference saying that was the case, and he had Edgar Brown and Linda Day publicly make statements to back that up. Nobody actually thinks that he was…”

“But people did, even if it was just for a second. That can taint a reputation, like when you’re convicted of murder, and it turns out, years later, that it wasn’t you. It sticks like gum in hair, and he… Dad doesn’t deserve that.”

“If people can’t understand that, then they aren’t the kind of people you want to hear any opinions from,” I said. “I almost want to say that it’s obvious, but that’d be too much, right now.”

The corner of her lip twitched, ever so slightly. Up.

“I need the obvious to be made out to me, actually. It helps, well, I don’t know how it does, but it does.”

I couldn’t take my eyes off of Katy. Every minute movement, every twitch of the muscle. How she tried to keep still. She was barely keeping it together, hanging by her last thread.

It ached, to watch her like this.

A flicker in my eye, and I rubbed at it.

Maybe trying another topic? Something less of a touchy subject?

“Um, well, I missed you, you know, I haven’t seen you for a week,” I said. “What have you been up to?”

I nearly flinched at my own wording. Something told me that I could have asked that better.

Katy didn’t seem to react to that, but she wasn’t really reacting much to anything.

“Playing chess,” she finally answered.

“With who, your mom?” I asked.

Katy turned.

“What are you trying to do, Alexis, huh? Why are you talking to me?”

That threw me off.

“Like I said, I just want to talk and catch-”

“Talk about what? About how Dad is gone and I’ll never see him again? About how I heard about him being killed… twice? About all the stuff he wanted to do that he can’t anymore? He so desperately wanted to be district attorney, and he got elected, only to not be able to do anything with that position. And, also, he was thinking about a family vacation after I graduated high school. He was hinting at wanting to go to Japan, actually, saying how it’d be nice to invite you two, you and Shiori. But it can never happen, not anymore, not like that.”

Speechless. I couldn’t say any more, even if I wanted to. I never knew that last point, and it only served to add to the weight of it all, how much of a hole Thomas had left behind. In all of our lives.

But Katy, she continued.

“I was trying to be nice and entertain you, Alexis, but I can’t, alright? I can’t. I don’t want to talk. Not about me, or your whole fucking thing, okay, nothing. I’m not, I’m not there yet. Maybe I’ll be there one day, and I’ll call you and we can talk all the livelong day, until our lips bleed and fall off of our mouths. You can get what you want then, tell me whatever, but not now. Not now.”

Her words hung in the air, and it numbed me. I’d never heard her talk that way before, though, she’d never been in this kind of situation. This was uncharted territory, emotionally.

Had to frame it that way. Couldn’t blame her for being short with me, after all she’d been through this past week. I understood where she was coming from, in a sense. We were all suffering the same loss, but we had to take it in our own, individual way.

If she needed a punching bag, I was willing to take the hits. I deserved it.

I hung my head, and looked out ahead. Nothing but empty blackness, if I chose to ignore the street and cars and houses. I did, and I was in the center of it all.

A void.

Neither of us shared a word after that.

A hand settled on my shoulder. I looked.

Maria.

“Can I sit?” she asked, behind a weak, almost pitiful smile. Like she read the atmosphere, and was trying to see what she could do.

“Be my guest,” Katy said, but she got up, and left, disappearing into a group of stragglers who were just now leaving the funeral home. They noticed her and got out of the way.

Maria took her place, sitting beside me. Relatively speaking. She was about an inch or so closer.

“Ouch,” Maria said, but her voice was still light. Sympathetic. “I was hoping I could talk to her… guess not?”

“Yeah,” I said, “Guess not.”

“I guess I can settle for talking with you, then.” Maria smiled softly again, and bumped my arm with her elbow. “How are you?”

I was willing to talk… and tell, but that feeling was directed to Katy. I wasn’t ready for a conversation with Maria.

I was, however, willing to do what I could.

“I’m not sure how to put it into words,” I said. “It’s a whole bunch of feelings that clash together, individually they’re sharp, distinct, but blending it with everything else muddles it, blunts it, until it just ends up being a numbed… nothingness.”

What the hell did I just say?

“Wow,” Maria said, taking half a minute to process whatever the hell I just said, “I don’t think I’m qualified to take all that apart.”

That actually managed to prompt a small laugh out of me. “Don’t worry about it. It’s something I can just bottle up inside and drink down.”

Maria nodded. “Certainly not the best idea, but I’m with you, there.”

“Yeah, but enough about me. How’ve you been holding up?”

“Doing good… everything considered. I don’t have to go to school at least, so I can just sit at home and do whatever I want, without having to worry about that… other stuff. So that’s neat.”

“That’s right, you took the offer,” I said. “I’m actually considering it myself, now. I was going to tell Katy, but, I couldn’t find a way to bring it up.”

“You can bring that up another time, no big deal.”

“I don’t want her to think I’m abandoning her,” I said, “Or something.”

“I doubt she’d take it like that,” Maria said, reassuring me.

“Hope so.”

Maria leaned into the bench, and we started swinging. “It really is sad, and I really feel for Katy, too, but it’s also kinda… weird, for me. I was surprised when Katy texted me the invite.”

“Really?”

“I mean, who do I know here outside of you and Katy? Yes, Thomas, obviously, but I didn’t get the chance to know him that well, sadly. I’m not family, or even a family friend. I’m pretty sure, out of everyone here, I knew him the least.”

“There’s nothing wrong with that,” I said. “It’s not like it’s a contest to see who can pay the most respect.”

“I suppose,” Maria said. She pushed against the floorboard to keep us rocking back and forth. “I just rationalized that I’m here for Katy, and to just see the damn girl. Haven’t seen her all week.”

“Same here. Good luck trying to talk to her though.”

“I bet, she’ll need her space.”

The bench swung forward, and I felt my feet leave solid ground, just for a second. I felt like I was about to fly away.

I rubbed at my eye again. A flicker.

Intrusive thoughts.

I rubbed until I started seeing things. Brown blobs.

“You good there?” Maria asked.

I put my hands away from my eyes, blinking.

“It’s like a bug got in there,” I said.

“It has been hot, lately,” Maria said. “It’s going to suck when it rains.”

I rested my hands beside me, still blinking. We were swinging slowly, and it gave me a chance to get my thoughts back in order.

“What are we going to do?” I asked.

“About what?”

“About Katy. Maybe you caught a bit of it before you came over here, but, I’m afraid she might not be herself for a long time.”

The bench swung back, and I felt that singular moment where we were about to go forward again, and my legs felt the heaviest.

Maria stuck her feet out, and we stopped.

“There’s nothing we can do about it, not exactly. Katy’s taking it how she’s taking it, and she needs to let those feelings ride out, and take her wherever they take her. And she has a good head on her shoulders, she wouldn’t let herself do anything drastic. She’s way smarter than me, at least.”

Maria laughed to herself. It was delicate.

“People are used to the status quo, right, they hate change. Even accepted, natural changes, we spend a huge amount of time planning and preparing for it. Like graduating high school, and going to college. So big, crazy, sudden changes? People hate those the most. Because everything tends to change along with it, and people get caught off guard, and then they don’t know how to react. So they overcompensate, they get more intense than what might be necessary, they freak out. Panic. There’s going to be bumps along the way when they try to right themselves again, and get used to the new status quo.”

Briefly, Maria paused.

“If anything, yeah, you and I will just have to be there to soften the bumps for Katy.”

Those words settled within me.

“That’s… incredibly poignant of you,” I said, amazed. As amazed as one could be at a time like this.

Maria smiled, but there was a hint of sadness, there, that I hadn’t noticed before.

“No matter how many times… It never gets any easier.”

Before I could respond, or react, I heard someone calling for me.

“Oh, that’s my mom,” I said, “Looks like we’re heading out. Text you later?”

“Definitely.”

We both got up from the bench, and we hugged. A prolonged hug, and the longer it lasted, the more it actually helped.

But, we couldn’t stay like that forever. We broke away, walking off the porch together, then going our different ways. I joined my mom, Maria went to her own car.

Maria and I left the conversation on that note, and that note rung into the open air.

My mom and I took our time getting to the van, which was parked at a lot a block away. We were stopped twice by others who were going the same way, people who wanted to compliment my mom on her singing. I had to stand by, waiting until they were done providing their accolades.

We eventually made it to the van. We got in, but Mom didn’t start it up right away.

“Something the matter?” I asked.

“No, it’s nothing.”

She started the van, and proceeded to take us on the road, the funeral home behind us.

The ride was quiet, the radio kept off.

I decided to say something.

“Um, Ma, maybe it doesn’t mean much since you’ve already heard it like a million times, but you were good.”

Mom’s face was still largely neutral, but I was sure she appreciated the comment.

“I could have done better. I didn’t get enough time to practice.”

“Well, you unprepared is better than some stuff I’ve heard on the radio.”

“Now you’re just patroning me.”

“It’s ‘patronizing,’ Ma, and I’m not. I mean it. It was cool that other people got to hear you sing, since you don’t do it much, out in public.”

“No, but now I sort of regret not doing it before.”

“Why? Because they’ve asked to hear you before?”

Mom didn’t answer, or she was too focused on making a turn to provide one.

“Kristin seemed to like it,” Mom then said, after the turn. “At least there is that.”

Mom then turned on the radio, a radio host talking about some bible verse. I started to tune it out, lazily dragging a finger across the face of my watch.

My thoughts went to what Katy said. A vacation. A dream that would never come true. I wanted to bring it up to Mom, but it seemed like it would be in bad taste. I finally zipped it.

Turning to face the window on my side, I watched a single droplet of water hit the glass. Then, another. Then more.

The rain came down harder by the time we got back home, but I had a feeling that it’d only get stronger throughout the night. We rushed inside for refuge from the weather. We forgot to bring an umbrella.

We each went into our own rooms, Mom turning on the TV beforehand. Knowing her, she liked to let the TV run even if she wasn’t actually planning on watching. She liked using it as background noise to not make the apartment feel so lifeless.

I went into my room, making sure to close the door behind me. In doing so, my eye flickered yet again.

The lights were still off, but a shape passed from one corner of my room to the other. A deeper black.

After turning on the lights, I rubbed my eye, moving to check that corner.

Nothing there. Just the edge of my computer desk, with nothing but wires and plugs underneath. No bug or rat.

Great, I was seeing things.

I returned to my original course of action. I stepped inside my walk-in closet, and got undressed.

I slipped into an oversized white shirt, and turned to look for some pajamas. My eyes wandered over to the pile of my old ‘hero stuff.’

I breathed out, hard, but it came out shaky, instead.

I bent down to inspect the pile, the bag, then opened it.

My old blue windbreaker, my old grey joggers. A bag of dirty clothes I hadn’t gotten around to cleaning yet.

My old mask, a blank face that stared back at me.

After it was all said and done, this was all I had left of that time. Most of the things that he had given me had gone up in flames. It might as well have never existed.

But, that costume did exist, and the events that took place while I wore that costume still happened. And I had to face that truth.

Thomas was gone.

And I had a part in it, if not being completely responsible.

My fault, one way or another.

If only I hadn’t accepted Thomas’s offer in being a hero, if only I had done more in trying to find Thomas faster that night. I replayed it all, in my head. Where I could have done better, all in all.

But, it was all just speculation. Wishful thinking.

I had failed. And, above all else, I was a failure.

If only I wasn’t me.

I was all cried out, already, there weren’t any more tears to squeeze out of me. So I moved to other modes of expression. But it wasn’t enough, maybe it would never be enough. Through the cuts, the peeled skin, the burns, the eating, the insomnia, it was all I could do in order to feel something. And no amount of powers or healing could fix a very particular, pointed wound.

The only thing left was to quit, entirely. Give up.

Katy needed space, and so would I.

Solace hadn’t made a move since the riot at city hall. No announcements, no hijacked television stations, nothing. It made for the days following the riot more tense than they were already, but nothing came of Solace afterward. I hoped that remained the case.

Nothing but more questions, but I didn’t want to be in the business of finding those particular answers.

This was a hit that landed too close to home, and that meant that things were closing in on me. Katy, Maria, Kristin, Mom, they all deserved an explanation, and as much as I wanted to give them one, who – or what – I was, was still up in the air. Too many distractions made my focus stray elsewhere. Dealing with my changes, the gangs, Solace, it all stacked too quickly for me to get any foothold on my new place in the world.

They all deserved an explanation, and I needed to start gathering the pieces so I could give them one, one day.

The state national guard came into the city to help clean up after the big riot, and announced a short-lived presence in the city to help restore and maintain peace. The FBI even announced that they were going to launch an official investigation against Solace and Blank Face. All the more reason to stop sticking my neck out.

And that was the end of it. Just like that.

No more Hleuco, no more Solace. No more Benny, no more Styx. No more Gomez. And I didn’t have a spare fuck to give about a ‘Mister.’

I was done.

Finished. Over. I was out of the game. Tonight, much like how Thomas was reduced to ashes and buried, I had done the same to Blank Face. The Bluemoon had set.

A flicker.

Alexis, any updates?

A voice. In a flash, I threw the mask and the bag back into the corner of the closet, then spun. My mom? Did she see me? Was she calling?

Again, nothing. The closet door was open, but there wasn’t anyone outside.

Odd.

The voice sounded real, like someone else was here. But, no one was around. If there was, there’d be a problem.

I rose to my feet, carefully stepping out of the closet. Just me, standing in my own room. Actually, as my eyes did a once-over across my room, it was feeling less and less like my own room. Like I was sleeping over at someone else’s place.

It was an isolating feeling, one that-

Do you feel like quitting?

I almost jumped out of my skin.

There it was, that voice. Except it was much clearer this time, but much less distinct.

It sounded like my own, except a few notches deeper, with a masculine tone underneath it all. It sounded deformed.

And it didn’t seem to come from one source, or one direction, it seemed to be coming from every direction.

Everywhere.

Surrounding me.

Oh my god.

“Who’s there?” I asked out loud, unsure of what answer I’d get, if I even wanted an answer. Getting one could mean any number of things.

Then, quiet. It extended for some time, until there was a light ringing in my ears, having to stand there and try to focus on any sound that wasn’t rainfall.

My eye flickered again, and-

I’m a lawyer, not a doctor.

My head whipped in one direction, and I was looking at the sliding doors that led out to the balcony.

No one was there. No one.

But there was.

A shadow, standing outside. Not completely solid, there was an idea of a shape.

A man.

Water hit the glass doors. It wasn’t hitting it.

Nothing there, there was no face, but I looked and stared back.

What do you want to do?

“What, what do I do!” I screamed out, without thinking, as though it was an automated response to my own thoughts.

No, these weren’t my own thoughts. Couldn’t be.

I screwed my eyes shut, and dropped to my knees.

Raw, fire. My throat felt like I was drinking acid.

Hands fell upon me. I squirmed.

I jerked away, and I felt my arms hit against something. I collapsed to the floor, but I fought to get to my bed, struggling all the way. I grabbed the blankets, then spun across my bed so I’d get wrapped in them. Faster than trying to get under.

I was face to face with my mom. She was white.

“What’s wrong? Why are you screaming?”

My mom’s mouth moved. Words came from them. Real words.

I was screaming?

My heart was still racing, like I had just finished a hard set of volleyball. Gasping for breath, it was hard trying to get out my own words.

Bug.

“B- bug, thought I saw a bug,” I lied.

My mom gave me a look. Disconcerting. Disbelief.

“Where?”

Under the bed.

“A cockroach, u- under the bed, I dropped something, and it just came out of nowhere. Scared the living hell out of me.”

Everything, except for that last part, was a lie. But, I had a feeling that the one part that was true, I was really selling it.

My mom’s body posture said it all. She had relaxed. She took a step to me, and I shifted to back away. My body posture said it all.

She looked sad at my reaction.

That’s promising. That says something about you, that others seem to be glossing over.

Stop talking to me.

“Stop-” I almost started, but I put a hand over my own mouth, shutting myself up.

My mom had gone stiff, again.

The both of us were frozen in time. Neither of us moved, waiting for the other to give in.

It was my mom who gave in first.

“I go to heat up tea,” she said, at a careful whisper. “It will be ready in fifteen minutes. You have some, and you sleep early.”

I couldn’t move, but nothing I did or said now would have changed her mind.

My mom took to leave my room, closing the door.

And I was alone again. Ears ringing, drenched in sweat, hair on ends.

Alone.

Seemingly.

Every alarm in my head was blaring to not look back at the glass doors again, but I did anyway, turning at a snail’s pace.

Still there.

No.

Yes.

The shape was still there, irregularly defined. Staring.

No.

I looked again, but this time, I looked at the rain.

And then it disappeared.

The darkness, the rain hitting the glass. Dots. My brain was filling those dots to form a shape it wanted to see.

Why it wanted to see it though…

It was beyond me.

A cruel joke. My mind playing tricks on me.

I had been in a burning building, and I was sweating even more, here.

What the hell was that?

I pulled the covers over my head, and I curled into a fetal position. My eyes were opened wide.

“What’s happening to me?” I asked aloud. It came out hoarse, rough, choked up at the end.

My question was answered with silence, and that silence was as telling as it was deafening.

And haunting!

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Omake.02 (Bonus)

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*Start from the right-most comic, reading from right to left, then from top to bottom. Click them to see a larger version. Enjoy!

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041 – Wake

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The sun pierced through broken windows, visible rays coming down onto the rotunda.

I’m still up. I’m still doing this.

Too exhausted, I wasn’t registering the swarm of people here as people, merely obstacles. Getting in my way, preventing me from moving forward. At this rate, I’d be stuck. At this rate, I’d lose them.

I’d lose him.

I continued to press onward, shoving more people out of the way. Sound and noise stacked upon one another, the shouting and the ruckus of things breaking and shattering filled what was essentially a huge echo chamber. It disoriented, threw me off course, whenever my focus momentarily slipped.

A man turned, facing me directly. Me. He wanted to impede my progress.

No.

I swung my hand, despite the little space allowed. It was cramped.

The back of my hand struck his cheek, and he flew, spinning into more people behind him. His tumbling down led to a chain reaction, clearing a path for me.

I took it, before the sea of people could swallow up the space again, like waves after an impact.

The blasts and crashes, it buzzed in my head, and I could hardly hear my own thoughts. Not that I needed them, I was being driven by only one goal, by a singular objective I needed to complete. Everything I was doing went towards that goal’s fulfilment.

Go go go go go go get get get get get get.

Another person. Another thing in my goddamn way.

My foot moved without a conscious thought controlling it. I hit her square in the chest.

She got sent back, delivered elsewhere. More followed, more of a path made.

I was in a crowd of many. I almost blended in. Too much was going on for any one person to pay any attention to one small, masked girl among a large number of others. A needle in a haystack. I could work without largely being noticed.

I continued on, stepping over bodies and debris, trying not to get my foot caught on anything, trying not to get slowed down. Though, I couldn’t do the first without compromising the second.

More pushing, more pulling. The masses pushed, and I had to push back.

An endless fight.

Finally, finally, I made it out of the crowd. There were still many here, but they were in scattered clumps, groups fighting amongst themselves. Here, I had room to move without bumping into anyone, or anything else.

So I moved.

I went to where I saw them last, heading into the large corridor on the east wing. The noise didn’t lessen since leaving the rotunda. Instead, it seemed to get worse, the sound more free to travel throughout the more empty space.

I shook my head, then immediately regretted it. Dizzy. Hurt.

So sleepy.

I looked again, trying to find them.

Not here.

Fuck, no, fuck.

I tried again, checking around.

No…

A glimpse.

A group, moving up the large marbled stairs that zig-zagged to the next floor. The second floor. I lost visual when they went up high enough for the ceiling to block my view.

I moved, as swiftly as my weary legs would take me.

I took the stairs by three, before I almost tripped. My hand reached for the wooden railing for support.

Hasty, so hasty.

Could jump all the way, skip the first flight of stairs and middle landing entirely, and work my way up the second flight instead. But I was so fucking heavy. Exhausted. Tapping into empty reserves. A shell of a person, moving only with the purpose that was last in its mind before the mind had shut down completely.

A zombie, in a very scarily real sense.

I took the stairs a step at a time, sometimes two, when I felt daring enough. I turned when I reached the middle landing, then turned, taking the stairs as painfully slow as before. I moved someone out of the way, where they were resting their back on the railing, juice flowing from their sides.

Juice, red, red juice, yes.

No. Him first.

I want him first.

Finally, finally, I completed my trek, and ascended the stairs. I was on the second floor, in another large, grand hall.

Here, there was much less in the way of obstacles, but the sound was only marginally dampened. The hall led back to the center of the building, the rotunda. The chaotic cacophony carried here, too. I couldn’t escape it.

Left, right, I looked both ways.

Not that way, back to the rotunda, that way.

Down the hall, into a room.

I saw them move.

I followed.

The door closed before I got to it. Big. Two, three times my size. It looked heavy.

I pressed, arms straining, and the door opened, swinging.

Six in here. Five, excluding him. The one I wanted so bad it was killing me.

They all turned to the door. To me.

All of them had some kind of blunt instrument in their hand, looking like they were more than ready to strike, and they did.

They ran at me.

Still up, still doing this.

I got into a crouch, ready to jump.

Get over their heads, change up our placement on the field, make things easier on me

My legs had another idea.

Instead of tense, potential energy ready to turn and propel me upward, I continued, and fell down onto my knees.

On my knees.

Oh no no no no no.

My chin depressed into the space between my collarbone, I was leaning forward. I had pretty much spent all that I had, all that I was.

Body failing me, betraying me.

I was completely open.

The first hit struck home, a club to my temple.

My ear touched my shoulder.

I went one way, having to catch myself by throwing my hands to the floor.

I shifted, crawling, but I could not get away from the next hit.

A swift kick to the stomach.

I choked, and my body contorted, falling onto my back.

Everything was going wrong so fast, I barely had the time to process what was happening.

Mind running slow, body not moving how and when I wanted it to.

It was an attack on all fronts. Externally, internally.

Another person took their turn, striking. I lifted an arm to block my face.

The knife went through me like I was butter. Hot, through cold.

Piercing. The pain shot through my body, jolting my brain awake. I saw the blade stick out through my arm, through the sleeve, crimson soaking the fabric.

My breath was cut short, reduced to fits and starts, and I was twitching, trying to get away. But I was pinned, my limbs felt like jelly from the shock of it all.

With me being stunned, the others took that as an opportunity to continue their assault, hitting and clubbing me, giving it all they had. The knife stayed in my arm, the owner of it having stepped back to give the others more room. I would have turned into a bloody mess, had it not been for my healing, but I did have my limits. And I was about to meet them.

Not healing fast enough.

Never drank blood, instead losing it. I was seeing stars, losing my sense of self.

Lost in a sort of black emptiness.

Hit. Pain. Hurt. Cut.

I was meat, being tenderized. Served up.

A hand grabbed for my face, balling itself into a fist. My goggles and ski mask were starting to come with it as it pulled away.

Can’t let that happen.

Both of my hands went in front of my face, gripping the arm that had my mask by the wrist. I gripped as hard as I still could, then twisted.

Bones cracked, then shifted out of place.

A cry. It should have been close, but it sounded farther off.

I felt hands come off of me, a momentary lapse of inactivity where I wasn’t being hit or attacked. I was blinded, my mask and goggles scrunched up over my eyes, but I used that as my chance to find my way to my feet.

I still had their arm in my grasp, I wouldn’t let go.

Anger, and but a blip of energy left to express it.

I spun, their body flailing around me, and I released them at the top of my turn. The pained cries of others, the crashing of flesh onto wood. I must have thrown hard enough to slam a number of them back.

Over the crying, I heard an exchange, but I missed the first part of it.

“Why is it beeping?”

“It’s beeping?”

“I thought we were supposed-”

“Fuck, everyone get out! We’re leaving him!”

“What about-”

“Benny! You waste the time to do it now, you’ll be blown sky-fucking-high. Let’s go.”

Squeaks of sneakers on marble, then steps on carpet, then nothing.

My back hit a wall behind me, and I pushed my legs to prop myself up, getting myself to stand. I fixed my mask and goggles with my right hand as I did so.

My vision was blurry, but it was better than nothing. I could make out the room.

Wider than it was tall, it was like an office space that had been cleared out for future use. It had a regal look to it, that matched the marble and Roman architecture of the rest of the building. The only light in here was natural, coming in from the windows on one side of the room.

I glanced across the floor. My eyes fell upon a vest, sliding across the floor, and the man who threw it.

Thomas.

Jacket was off, tossed behind him. He was by the corner on the opposite end, fallen over.

I looked back at the vest. The beeping vest.

My body moved before I could make sense of it all. Before the danger actually settled in. Like something else has taken over.

I threw everything I had into one last sprint. One last go. One last chance to get something right.

Everything blurred together. A whirlwind of heat and sound.

I crossed the room as everything fell apart.

One hour ago

I had to lift a goggle lens away from my eye if I wanted to rub at it. I wanted to, but the police officers squished beside me prevented me from taking that course of action.

I sat in the back of a police van, rubbing shoulders with others stuffed in here. Stuffed, because I couldn’t move, couldn’t rest. Tilt my head either way, I’d end up resting my head on an officer’s arm. Lean forward, I’d bump into James Gomez.

Considering everything that had happened in the past few hours… this was really awkward. Super awkward.

The van was stuck in traffic. We weren’t even close enough to be considered close, but long stretches of cars kept us from moving an inch. Honking horns blared randomly, sometimes in spurts, other times all at once into one huge wall of sound. Even if I had the room to rest my head and sleep, the sound kept me up.

It had been like this for at least for an hour and a half. Progress hadn’t been good.

I was becoming twitchy, despite my weariness. We were supposed to have the upper hand, but we weren’t moving fast enough to make any use of it, and that advantage was slipping away with every passing second.

It grated, and it must have been the same for Gomez, too.

I could tell because I saw it.

He had kept checking his wristwatch to the point that I had lost count, and opened his phone just as many times. Irritated.

He shook his head.

“You, you, and you,” he said, pointing to a select few, including the two officers beside me. But not me. “We won’t make it in time like this. I want eyes on the field. Get out and run.”

They followed his order without so much of a ‘yes sir,’ opening the metal doors to make it out of the van. I turned away from the opening to better obscure myself, hide my visage.

I did notice how the light changed, through the front window. The sun was rising.

They closed the doors behind them, and I was left alone with Gomez, and one other police officer, sitting to Gomez’s right.

That didn’t make things any less awkward.

The van inched some, the most progress we’d made in minutes.

Gomez handled most of the questioning, but there wasn’t anything else we got out of Linda Day that was terribly useful. She was a lackey, apparently forced to pay some kind of debt. A debt that was big enough to warrant faking her death. Either way, her circumstances weren’t helpful to us stopping the planned riot on city hall.

Gomez then ordered his men to be split up into groups. One to keep an eye on Linda and the other two henchmen, and the weapons they stole back from police. Another would have to keep tabs on Edgar Brown. The final group had to go to city hall… just to see what could be done, if anything. We were stretched thin, by that point. At most, it would have to be damage control.

I was included in that final group.

I sat in thought, trying to come up with a way to foil Solace’s plan that didn’t involve total anarchy, given how stacked things were against us. Nothing.

“Ah!”

A feeling like I was falling, my whole body jolted. I jumped in my seat.

I had drifted too far forward without realizing it.

Gomez and the other cop both looked at me.

“Tired?” he asked.

I nodded, sleepily.

“I’ve been at this all night, I had hoped that this would be over by now. Guess not.”

“Almost there, almost.”

I would have agreed, except this whole ordeal wouldn’t just magically fix itself overnight. Even if we got Thomas back, Solace was still a very real threat that still needed to be taken head on. Even this was a distraction, a detour, towards the real goal.

I made some sort of gesture.

Gomez cleared his throat before saying, “Law enforcement officers have a sworn duty to protect and serve their citizens, that means a lot of late nights, early mornings. That’s something one should expect, going into this, and it’s something one gets trained for. You… you weren’t trained for this, were you? You didn’t expect this?”

I put my head back, glancing away.

“No, I wasn’t. If anything, it’s more like I was thrown into the ocean without having ever learned how to swim. And the ocean’s on fire. And full of sharks. And my hands were tied behind my back.”

“Your analogy lost it’s focus at the end there, but I see what you mean. I think. You’re new to your… powers?”

“More than you know. I’m not an alien, or a super… whatever. I’m…”

I trailed off.

“You’re what?”

I exhaled.

“I’m just very unlucky.”

A glance back, and I saw Gomez on his phone again, typing away.

“Well, you’re young, younger than anyone would realistically guess, I’m surprised you even managed to manage,” he said, eyes still on his screen, “I wonder how well I’d hold up, if I were in your shoes.”

I would have rolled my eyes, if my eyes didn’t feel so hot, as though they were overheated. Why was I talking to him, why was I engaging? It didn’t seem to fit with what had happened not too long ago, when I was berating him for not jumping at the gun to cooperate.

I wanted to distract myself some more, pass the time. At least, I had to keep myself mentally pacing.

But my only option was to keep talking with Gomez.

“Any updates?” I asked. I sounded like Hleuco, there.

He continued typing on his phone, and a slight frown formed on his lips. “They’ll let me know when they get there, give it a minute.”

“That’s why I suggested to go down there myself, by rooftop. I could find a bird’s eye view of things, see how things are, and I can direct you guys from there.”

Gomez grunted, and it was prolonged, as though he was actually irritated by my suggestion.

“It’s too risky, and there are a lot of eyes at city hall already. Granted, those eyes aren’t mine, but we know the situation enough that throwing you in there would be like throwing a bull in a china shop.”

“I can hide,” I said, “I’m not even wearing my usual costume.”

He eyed me. “Somehow I doubt your ability to be inconspicuous. You heard Linda Day, people have been camped out there, waiting for the mayor to come out and speak. And, considering how fast word gets out nowadays, more must be coming out in droves to see what’s going to happen. Reporters, bloggers, activists, actual protesters, the morbidly curious…”

He tapped his foot, before adding, “By itself, that’s enough cause for concern. A riot might very well break out on its own, and that’s before considering both you and Solace. I don’t want fuel to the fire.”

“You don’t trust me,” I said.

“I don’t know you, but I suppose that does extend to me not trusting you completely. You’ll have to understand that I’m coming at this from a police officer’s point of view. There’s still a lot we don’t know about you, both in your true nature and your true intentions. The less of a factor you yourself play, the better.”

I gritted my teeth. Being benched, at such a crucial hour? Hell no. I didn’t spend the whole night tearing the city apart to find Thomas, just to hand it off to others. Why was I brought along, if I’d end up being stuck in here?

I tried balling my hands into fists, but I found there was some missing strength, there, too much effort for such a weak grip. I looked at Gomez head on, asking him something I probably should have made clear before I got into a van full of policemen.

“So you are going to arrest me, after all this. Is that why you want me out of the way, keep me close so I don’t escape?”

Gomez traded a quick look with the cop sitting next to him. Campbell, now that I tried to put effort in remembering his name.

“Right now, we’re aligned by mutual interests, but there’s a fine line, here. I will tolerate you being here, so long as you don’t give me a reason to change my mind. But, right here, right now? I’m more concerned about damage control, and getting Thomas back.”

I took note of that word, ‘tolerate.’ I kept that in mind.

I turned to Campbell, curious about his thoughts, too.

“And you? Do you agree with him?”

He looked at me straight in the eye. Or the goggles.

“If the Chief is willing to go along with it, then I’m in no position to complain. I can’t speak for my colleagues, but I’d like to think they’re of the same mind.”

I huffed through my nose, and I felt it heat up my face.

“Speaking for myself, though,” Campbell said, “There were times where you’ve been there to help, and we weren’t, or you’ve provided assistance at a critical moment. I was there when you stopped that car with your bare hands. That was impressive.”

An immense pressure pressed on my arms. The sensation came back to me. A memory.

“Um, thanks, I guess,” I said.

“But I’m just speaking for myself,” Campbell reiterated. “Maybe the others feel the same way, or they despise you all the same, but they trust in the Chief’s judgement enough to, like he said, tolerate you being here, without handcuffs.”

Tolerate.

“You know, if I can stop a speeding car with my bare hands, handcuffs won’t be enough to keep me down.”

Gomez put his phone away. “I suppose, if you really wanted to, you could get away quite easily. How far you’d go, that’s a different matter, entirely.”

An uneasy feeling stirred inside me. A rocky truce between me and the police, that only existed in the now. How things would play out in the near future, was unclear.

It might help to make a good impression, in the meantime.

The van inched once more. I was scared that we wouldn’t make it in time.

“Do we, or, you, not have any allies that can help us there?” I asked, switching topics. “Police that are already stationed at city hall?”

“If anyone’s already stationed there, that means they’re there on someone else’s orders, not mine. It might be fine if I show my face, but I have to be careful not to tip anyone off about what we know.”

“You’re the police chief, are you really that powerless?”

Campbell looked over at Gomez, but Gomez had his eyes on me. They held something deeper than disappointment.

“I have authority over my men, don’t get me wrong. I can tell them where to go and what to do when they get there. Generally speaking. But, quite a number of them are in the pocket of someone else, for any number of reasons. And for some of them, reasons I can’t fault them for. So, under normal circumstances, they’ll listen, and they’ll entertain me, but I know where their loyalties lie.”

I almost had a sense of pity for Gomez. What did it mean to be at the top, when you weren’t allowed to exercise the power that came with that position? I could imagine someone becoming jaded over time, as the frustration gave way to a reluctant acceptance.

This world…

“I’m… sorry,” I decided to say. That last word was especially difficult. I wasn’t sure I meant it, it just felt right to say. “I called you inept… and a motherfucker.”

Gomez chuckled at that, surprising me. “Oh, that? I already forgot about that.”

“She called you that, sir?” the officer beside him asked.

Gomez shrugged, “It’s nothing. I’ve been called far worse things by good friends of mine. But let’s not concern ourselves with something so trivial, let’s focus on getting Thomas back.”

That, we could all agree on. If only the traffic would let us through.

The van moved along again, but not by inches, this time. It was slow, but we were moving.

“Looks like traffic’s being directed away from city hall now,” Gomez explained. “That should speed things along.”

“Are we going to make in time?” I asked.

“We might miss the first part of the mayor’s speech, but we’ll get there.”

I grumbled, but I was unable to do anything about it. I just sat, and waited for the van to take us there.

Fifteen minutes ago

They benched me, after all.

Fuck this.

Gomez and Campbell – even the driver – hopped out of the van as soon as we arrived at city hall, disappearing into the crowd of people. There was a scary amount of people here.

I looked out from the front windshield of the van.

City Hall. The building was big, expansive. Modeled after the U.S. Capitol building, sans the giant dome that topped it off. White, with columns across the front, stairs leading up to it. A symbol of democracy.

I had been here once before, on a school field trip back in elementary school. It was big then, and it seemed even bigger now, especially with all the people here.

So many people.

The van was parked right past the large front gates that served as the official entrance to the premises. Past the gates was a field that was about the size of a football field, if not bigger. It was more like a park, though, with pathways for a stroll and trees to have a picnic under the shade. Not a bad place to do some sightseeing, and enjoy the weather.

However, right now, there was so many people I could hardly find a patch of green, just heads, other vans, picket signs, raised fists. It was as if a popular rapper decided to hold a concert here.

And the sheer volume, from the chanting to the cheering, to the random person shouting their own manifesto, I only made out a few words from Mayor Scott, who was standing at the head of the crowd, above them on a makeshift stage, in front of city hall. Pretty much a dot, from here.

He spoke into some mics attached to a podium.

“Blank Face, and this terrorist… not be tolerated… justice will be…”

I can’t understand what he’s trying to say.

I grabbed the walkie-talkie by my side, the only consolation Gomez lent me. I spoke into it.

“What’s the deal?” I asked, “Did you find him yet?”

Now I’m the guy in the van.

The device produced a burst of static before I heard Gomez.

Nothing yet. I’m approaching the stage, trying to get close to the mayor, but I’m not seeing anything on my way there. There’s too many people, and a lot of them are dressed like you, by the way.

“I can see that from here. Guess I wouldn’t be much help here, either. It’s like the whole ‘needle in a haystack’ thing.”

Or maybe a ‘haystack in a pile of needles.’ I’ll keep my eyes peeled. The others will, too.

“Yeah,” I said, and I left it at that. Powerless.

I was getting twitchy. I was here, but Thomas was nowhere to be found. So close, but he was constantly yanked from my fingertips. I wanted to get him so bad.

I went back to watching the mayor, trying to catch every other word, watching whether that dot or that dot was suspicious or not. My vision was swimming, from both the difficulty of it, and simply exhaustion and overwork taking its toll.

The mayor continued.

“We will see to it that-”

A dot moved across the stage. To the podium.

The mayor’s speech was interrupted. He was thrown to the floor.

Cries of surprise swelled over the crowd like a wave, starting from the front, and coming all the way back here.

I gripped the walkie-talkie.

Someone else was at the podium. Someone new. They were far away, but I saw the outline of a blue hood over their heads. Two other dots stood behind them.

They spoke, and they were somehow much more audible than the mayor.

“This is Thomas Thompson, District Attorney-elect for the city of Stephenville, and I stand in support of Solace.”

Another wave of surprise. I felt it, too.

There he is.

I immediately went to the walkie-talkie. “Are you getting this?”

No answer.

Hey!”

Again, nothing.

Thomas was the middle of his speech. I turned my eyes to him, again.

“In just a short amount of… time, the villain known as The Bluemoon has terrorized the good people of Stephenville, including me and my family. I had to turn myself to Solace in order to protect those that I love, and go into… hiding. But, it wouldn’t have been for long, because I want this city to be rid of this evil, and the only way to get back our sense of comfort in these… hard times, is to side with Solace!”

I pressed the button on the walkie-talkie, but my throat was dry.

Nothing he was saying made sense, none of it. He had to have been coerced into saying these things, like that guy back at the dinner party. The real Solace had to be speaking through him, spouting nonsense.

But, even if that were true, hearing Thomas say those things…

It cut, and it cut deep.

I need to stop him.

“Solace is not the enemy, rather our liberat-”

Someone interrupted Thomas, crossing the stage and slamming into him.

The panic was bubbling, now, and I saw it boiling throughout the crowd that was gathered here.

Then, a pop.

And all hell broke loose.

The crowd expanded out into every direction, as if to get as far away from the building as possible. But another group within that crowd made their play, too.

One out of every ten in the crowd were dressed like me, like Blank Face. Blue hoods, white masks. Some were carrying signs, others were clumped together, but they all dropped what they were doing to add to the chaos. The anarchy of it all.

They shoved into others, preventing them from getting away easily. Fights broke out, panic spreading like fire. A crush of people ran past the van, trying to go through the gates behind me.

Oh no.

I turned, and the walkie-talkie finally buzzed.

Blank Face, this is Gomez! I tried to tackle Thomas but… agh!

“What’s going on now?”

There’s a group with him, and they got away, taking him along. They’re fleeing into the building, and rioters are going in with them. I can’t follow anymore.

“Why not?”

The mayor’s hurt, I have to stay with him, keep him secure. And, I’m in no condition to give them chase. But you can.

I was drowsy as fuck, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me.

“I’m on it!” I said, and I tossed the walkie-talkie behind me. Needed both hands for this one.

I opened the back doors of the van.

The first thing I saw was that the gates were closed, people rattling them. They weren’t closed before.

Shit, I had to leave that behind, couldn’t help there. How were we supposed to control this damage?

Need to get to Thomas.

I stepped out of the the van, and was immediately flushed into the horde of masses. Not people, obstacles.

Barely budge, barely move, I had no agency here.

The city hall was a whole football field away. How was I supposed to get there in time?

I had to fight my way through.

I fought.

Present

The dust settled after the rubble.

The vest had exploded. Exploded. With far more force and energy than I would have ever realistically expected. I wasn’t a soldier, I hadn’t grown up in a war-torn area of the world. This was never something I had to anticipate. The shock, the sound, the impact, it rocked my very soul.

And the floor.

The explosion tore the floor to pieces, as if there was an anger to it, and it was lashing out at everything it came into contact with. Which was mostly everything in this wide room. I was instantly enveloped in heat, then smoke, before the floor broke from under me. I reached in front of me, feeling fabric, the weight behind it.

I pulled him toward me as we were tumbling down.

Glass, rock, wood. Everything had moved, the impacting tossing us every which way. It added to the disorientation, the dizziness of it all. I spun, and my head continued to spin. I tried with all my might to keep straight, to keep Thomas close. And, as everything crumbled and broke all around us, to not get him crushed.

I’d dropped before from far higher heights, but this was a whole other level. This was a fall, a descent. We were on the second floor, and we were headed to the first.

Thrashed around, like I was a rag in a dryer. It didn’t last, but it felt like forever.

The dust settled after the rubble.

Everything ached. Everything hurt.

I coughed, but found that my chest and back wouldn’t expand properly to let out any air. I sputtered, instead. My fast and short breathing heated up my mask, my face. Stuffy.

Down on my hands and knees. I felt like I was sinking into the earth.

Dark, cloudy, could barely see. Ears ringing.

An immense weight sat on me, threatening to crush me flat if I gave in to the pressure. Couldn’t, wouldn’t.

“Ah! Aaaah!”

With the dust, hysteria also settled in.

“H- help, help! Somebody help! There, there are p- people down here! We’re trapped here! Please someone come get us! Help! We’re down here! He-”

I coughed, again. Harder to get my breath this time. Wheezing. My arms shook, and that was enough for the rock that had me pinned to find more purchase, pushing me down. A rumble of other rocks shifting. I had to straighten my arms again, and sharp pang reminded me of the knife that was still in my arm.

Okay, no screaming, or we’ll be even more stuck down here.

Couldn’t let this fucking boulder crush me, wouldn’t.

Because Thomas was right under me, on his back, in between my arms.

In the gloom, I could make out his features. He’d seen better days.

Soot and dirt smeared his forehead, down to his right cheek. His hair was messy, sticking up in some places, reddened in others. A gash that traced his left temple to his nose, bad enough that he couldn’t open his left eye. Blood colored the left side of his face.

Whatever Styx had done to him, it didn’t include his face. That was hardly a relief, for my part.

Alive, but barely. But I had him.

I just had to find a way to get us out.

“Thomas,” I said. It was a struggle to say anything, but I wanted to say something to Thomas. I finally had him. After everything I’d been through, I had him.

“Are you hurt?” I asked.

He moved his head side to side, painfully slow.

It was obvious he was hurt, I could see it, I could infer, thinking back to the bloodied chair I saw back at the warehouse.

You don’t have to lie to me, Thomas.

“Kept you waiting, huh?” I asked instead.

Somehow, or perhaps miraculously, Thomas found it within himself to smile. It was weak, and I could tell it strained him, but he smiled.

“Took you long enough,” he said, nearing a whisper. “The wait was killing me.”

Despite everything, I cracked a smile too, though just as weak.

“I got your message,” I whispered, “But… But…”

“How? It was a precautionary measure. I figured Solace would be coming for me the moment he made himself known at the dinner party.”

He took a second to breathe. Several.

“Your pager. I had a text queued, timed to whenever Solace’s timers would reach zero. If I was okay, I could simply set it back twenty-four hours. If not…”

“I get the message,” I said.

“Precisely. If something were to happen to me, I wouldn’t be able to send you where I was exactly, or where I would be taken. They ended up taking my phone, anyway. My best bet was to send you to James, and you could work with him.”

I winced, my back… just my back. It fucking hurt.

“Sorry to break it to you,” I said, “But Gomez wasn’t willing to play along at first. He was harder to bring on board than I would’ve liked, but even then…”

His expression changed, disappointment.

“Shame.”

Shame on Gomez, his best friend, or shame on me, the supposed superhero? Shame that we couldn’t work together sooner to find him? Or maybe shame on himself, for having not seen this coming?

I was projecting, had to put my priorities elsewhere. Like keeping myself up.

The boulder was getting heavier with every second. Losing strength, strength that I needed, strength that I required.

I still managed to tell him more. “I was turning this city upside-down to try and find you. You have no idea what my night was like.”

Another frail smile from Thomas.

“Same.”

I couldn’t keep it up anymore, I frowned.

“I can’t hold on for much longer,” I said, in between short breaths. “I’m losing it… This thing is fucking heavy.”

“You’re doing great, Alexis.”

Alexis. That was it, right, my name? Hearing it made me feel better. By a small, almost negligible margin, but better.

“I think I can hear people,” Thomas said, “Checking over the debris.”

“Really?” I tried to hear, but it was impossible for me, now. It was as if my heart was in my head, pounding in my skull. Nothing but an intrusive, arrhythmic pounding.

“Really. I’d hate to put even more pressure on you, but if you can get this thing off…”

I shut my eyes, the beginnings of tears wetting the corners of my eyes.

“I can’t, I can’t, it’s taking everything I have just to stay in this pose. It’s too heavy.”

“You have to try, Alexis, believe in yourself, for once.”

The air in here was thinning, I couldn’t repeat myself.

I shut my eyes, tighter, and tensed all the muscles in my body. I tried to push, to find my way to my feet, to get this chunk of rubble off of me.

No. There was nothing there. It wouldn’t budge. I wouldn’t budge.

The attempt left my arms wobbling for a second, and the rock pushed on me even more. Thomas shuddered, but it wasn’t like he could go anywhere. I did what I could to straighten my arms again, to stop its progress in squashing us. It stopped, but I was closer to Thomas, now, my arms straining two-fold.

I gasped for air that wasn’t there. That was enough to show Thomas that it was hopeless.

I was burnt out, completely empty. Impossible, to do this on my own, with the resources I had available, with the resources I had within me. I needed something more, I needed more than I what I was.

Thomas met my eyes, and I stared back. I was so close to saving him, yet it had to be like this.

This isn’t fair, the world isn’t fair.

Thomas whispered softly. Barely audible, drowned out by the pounding in my head.

“What?”

“My blood, Alexis, drink my blood.”

My own blood ran cold.

What?”

“I’m giving you my blood to drink, Alexis, use it. Anything to get you back on your feet.”

I flinched, a particular jagged edge driving into the back of my shoulder. The rock pushed down on me again, pushing me closer to Thomas’s face.

He shifted, bringing his arms up. I could see the effort it took, how much it hurt him to do so.

He pulled up on my mask, freeing my lips, my nose. He was uncomfortably close.

“Do it, it’s okay,” he said. “In fact, consider it an explicit order.”

“I… can’t,” I said back, “It’s too…”

I trailed off.

“This is a matter of life… and death, Alexis, we can’t let something like that stop us now.”

I grimaced at the thought of it, but the desperation in me told me he was right. I might be able to get some strength back to get this thing off of me, but even then, I’d never pushed myself that hard before.

Thomas hacked out a cough, and spurts of blood flew from his mouth.

“Alexis, we need to get out of here. You… know, I managed to get some stuff on Solace. You were right about Benny, but she’s nothing but a hired gun, not unlike Edgar, and Linda. And Styx…”

He coughed again.

“I want to share my… notes, with you. You need to get us out of here.”

Impossible, it was impossible.

I blinked more tears away, the water collecting at the bottom of my goggles.

Damn me.

“Please, Alexis, it’s okay,” Thomas said, soft. “The search party might go away soon. If you can at least move the rock, you can get their attention, and they might find help on their end.”

My arms, my entire body, twitched from the weight of the burden. I nodded once.

“Take off my goggles,” I said.

I had my eyes closed when he did so, setting them above my eyebrows. I put my thoughts elsewhere, to the other times I drank blood. Blood from Thomas’s cut finger, blood spilled onto Styx’s bike, blood from when I stabbed Benny…

Blood from that rabbit.

Animal, I had to think of this like taking from a mere animal.

“Okay,” I said, defeated, “Okay.”

I opened my eyes, and saw Thomas working on unbuttoning his shirt, exposing his collar, the skin underneath.

Oh, right. How else was I to do this? Lick the wounds on his face? Not enough blood, there, to get anything substantial, I could tell by some twisted instinct. I had to go a more direct way.

“I’ve never really done it that way, before,” I said. The situation was too grave to be embarrassed at the wording.

“Let’s set a rule first,” Thomas said, leaning his head one way, until his forehead pressed against rock. “I’ll lift myself to you as much as I can, so you don’t have to lean down any more. I’ll have to determine when you’ve had enough, and, if and when we get to that point, I’ll pat you on the back. Do you understand?”

I nodded again.

“It’s going to hurt,” I said. I was sure it would.

“I can deal, let’s do this. Good luck.”

Thomas pushed himself up, and I felt his body heat get hotter as it approached my lips. My breathing got even heavier, as I realized what I was about to do.

I opened my mouth. My lips pressed against the top of his shoulder, then my teeth. My tongue tasted of sweat.

I closed my eyes.

I bit down.

I expected a resistance, where the skin would be hard to pierce. And there was… at first. It was a lot like biting an apple. A small instance of difficulty, putting more effort than what was probably needed, then juice spilled forth.

And it did.

Thomas drew in a quick breath. I felt muscles briefly tighten around my teeth.

It seemed easier than it should have been, biting him, and getting him to bleed. I didn’t think on that now, I only drank.

Drinking only brought attention to just how thirsty I was, how drained I was of sustenance. How I deprived myself of such a delectable flavor.

It was good. So good that I couldn’t think.

Tasting it again, I was at a loss of words, other than ‘sweet.’ It summed it up perfectly. Short, sweet, to the point.

I swallowed, and it reinvigorated. A surge that washed over me, leaving me with more power than I had felt in years.

With every gulp, I felt like I was gaining something. Yet, at the same time, I was giving up an essential part of myself in exchange.

It took me a while before I came back to my senses.

A smack, a slap against my neck. I made a sound in response.

“I think that’s… more than enough,” Thomas said, weaker than ever. “I feel like I’m about to faint.”

I made another sound. Had I gone too far? Would I have even stopped, if I wasn’t prompted?

Dangerous, nearly lost myself there.

I pulled away from Thomas, a trail of blood still linking my lower lip and his marks, dotted in red. A clear imprint of teeth was left behind.

Thomas fixed his shirt back into place, hiding it. He moved his arm, wiping my chin with his sleeve.

I didn’t thank him, I didn’t waste any more time.

I just fought my way back to my feet.

It was like there was a second wind under me, I could move without being completely hindered. I pushed up, by my back, and the rubble gave way.

It was still massive, and that jutted edge pressed more into my shoulder blade, but I was making progress.

The aches and pangs came back and stronger, screaming at my body to stop, to give up. I screamed in return.

I kept pushing, and the rubble was being lifted higher. I was almost about to think that I’d make it. That it was feasible. Escape.

The rubble was high enough that I was able to finally change positions. I shifted my feet so my soles were flat on the ground, and I was crouched. My hands no longer had to work to keep me up, and I pressed them against the rubble. My forearm that had the knife flared up in pain as I lifted.

I was working to a standing position, now, and to get this off of me.

For me, for Thomas. For Mom. For Katy, for Kristin. For Maria. Even for Gomez.

For everyone.

Heavy, my muscles stiffening, but I was still getting somewhere. Getting to my feet.

I heard the distant falling of other rocks. Rubble that was stacked on top of the one that had me pinned. It had added to the weight, but with excess sliding off, it was becoming much easier, now.

I howled, and I pushed.

More pain meant more progress, and I was on fire.

I was standing, but I was hunched over, and light was rushing in between slits and cracks. I was able to hear what Thomas was talking about earlier, the search party. They were here, and I had their attention.

One more, Alexis, just one more, and we’re out of here.

One more solid push, and I’d get this thing off of me, and out of my life.

One… more…

I mustered everything I had into one last effort. One last throw.

Everything went white. I was yelling, but I didn’t hear it. I was pushing, but my body didn’t feel it. I just did.

And then it was over.

When I came to, I was standing, and huge chunks of rubble were being flipped over, falling around behind me.

I was free. I felt like I was about to float away.

There was a moment of stillness, like even the world itself couldn’t believe what just transpired. Even I couldn’t believe it.

I stared at Thomas, and he stared back, eyes wide, mouth open.

Stunned as I was.

His mouth moved, but it was lost on me. I tilted my head, then turned.

The ceiling was completely gone, having collapsed into the room below. The explosion also left behind a huge, gaping hole in the wall, light pouring in. People were coming up the pile of rock and rubble, by way of the hole. Paramedics.

A few circled around me and Thomas. They went right to taking care of Thomas.

One of them faced me, his mouth moved. I didn’t quite understand, but it had something to do with my arms.

I looked at them. The knife, through my sleeve and my arm.

I shook my head once. I pulled the knife out, and tossed it away. My arm went right to taking care of itself, but my sleeve covered up the process.

Other paramedics were here, forming a larger circle around us. We were standing in a pile of debris, the footing uneven. I’d be taking up space if I stayed here, loitering around. I had to leave Thomas to the professionals. I didn’t need to be looked after.

I began to take the path of least resistance, where I could step without risking a tumble all the down. If I fell, I probably wouldn’t get up again.

Slow, cumbersome, but I managed, and I ended up essentially coming back the way I came. I stood in the wide and tall corridor, in one of the wings of city hall.

Arms by my side, stiff, and I had a slouch. I was more zombie than human, right now.

I want to sleep so bad.

Others were in the hall with me, mostly police. Some began to approach when they noticed me.

If I tried to run, I’d most likely fall over, and that’d be the end of it. I stayed put, readying myself for yet another fight, prepared to bite back, if I had to.

One other cop, originally standing by himself, jogged to intercept the incoming cops. He stopped them, waved his arms. Talking with his hands?

Then, the incoming cops turned around, and went elsewhere. The single cop approached, in their stead. I didn’t relax.

“I won’t lie, you saved my ass, up there. That was truly something.” He then drew out a long breath. “He should be in good hands, now.”

His voice, his face. I was familiar with it, I was supposed to recognize it, but I had trouble connecting the dots. Maybe it was the bloodied nose, mucking everything up.

It took a minute.

His face changed.

“You okay, do you need to be checked out?”

His name is James Gomez, he’s the police chief of the Stephenville Police Department. Thomas’s friend.

“James Gomez,” I said, like I was learning to read for the first time.

“I can’t see your face, but I know when someone’s out of it. Do you need to be checked out?”

No, you’re fine.

“No, I’m fine,” I said.

“Are you sure?”

Yes, you are.

“Yes, I am,” I said.

Gomez checked behind him before asking, “Can you walk?”

You can.

I nodded, and took a step. Gomez accepted that as an answer, and proceeded to lead the way, heading to the stairs.

“Things are still pretty bad,” Gomez said, as we went down. “Dozens injured, including the mayor, but thankfully no casualties. Yet, maybe. There’s still spurts of fighting here and there, but when the explosion happened, everyone cleared out of the building in an instant. Little did I know that you and Thomas were down there. Guess I was lucky to come, anyway.”

I had to hold onto the wooden railing to keep my balance. I was much slower going down, Gomez had to accommodate for me.

My throat wasn’t dry, but I had no energy to waste on words. I’d only speak when I really had to.

Gomez continued, “If things weren’t already bad, this happens. A massive explosion in a government building. I think the only thing that was bigger in recent memory was, well, you. I bet Solace didn’t see this coming.”

We turned, and continued down. The whole area was a stark contrast from before. Only our footsteps made any sound as we descended, and there wasn’t another soul on the lower floor.

“But, it’s not all bad,” Gomez said. “We prevented Solace from fully accomplishing whatever it is they had planned, and we got Thomas back. We didn’t net a win, but at least Solace suffered a loss.”

A win, a loss? There was a massive explosion in a government building. That was bad, no matter how you slice it. Solace played with fire, there, and maybe it was supposed to be a bluff, but it ended with everyone else getting burned. He’d pay for that, and I’d see to it, myself.

After I get some sleep.

“This way,” Gomez said, turning another way. “And pick up the pace.”

I did my best to follow as he led me behind the flight of stairs. A metal door was situated underneath. He opened it.

“Hurry,” he said, going through it. I was a step behind.

More stairs, leading down. The space was small, made of stone, lit by bulbs hanging above us. The stairs spiraled.

The explosion still had me in shock, I still hadn’t really processed anything that happened after it.

At the end of the stairs was another metal door, and Gomez pushed through. We both stepped into a lower level of the building. It looked to be like a underground bunker of sorts, a tunnel.

“Where are we?” I asked.

“Underground tunnels connecting different facilities, even offices that are located under city hall. Secret, but not really, this one in particular funnels to a kind of mini-mall, full of gift shops and knick-knacks, shit like that.”

Gomez walked again, and I followed.

“And?” I asked.

“Don’t make me admit that I’m invariably helping you slip away,” he said.

“Huh?”

“After the explosion, we set up a perimeter around the entire building. No one gets in or out. But the mall wasn’t included in that perimeter, it wasn’t considered. And it’s still early in the morning. Other than some shopkeepers opening up, no one’s going to be there.”

“You’re escorting me out?”

“I’m not going to go that far, I’m just showing you the way.”

I wasn’t about to question him if he was handing me an escape route on a silver platter. I walked.

We continued until we reached what seemed to be the end of the corridor. Larger metal doors, and I felt a draft coming from under it.

Gomez took a step back, gesturing towards the door. “The mall’s that way, and you can go from there. Wash your face, or get a fresh set of clothes if you can. Once you’re out those doors, you’re on your own again. Get caught, that’s on you.”

He then reached to his side, and whipped out a gun. He pointed it at me. He clicked it.

I tried raising my hands, but they were lifeless, by this point.

If I had to, though, I might be able to take him…

“Mind explaining this?” I asked.

“I found you, tried to take you in by myself for the credit,” Gomez said. “To get some more clout and pull in my own force again. But you fought, you got away.”

“Is that the story you’re going to tell others?”

“It’s the story I’m going to tell myself. Blank Face, or the Bluemoon, didn’t technically make an appearance at city hall, did she?”

“Guess not.”

“Call me crazy, but I do want to believe you can do more good out there than locked up. No matter what Solace says. Or, maybe I just don’t want Solace to get their way. Ha, I guess I am crazy.”

There was a compliment in there, somewhere, but I was too out of it to want to look for it.

I’d rather give him less of a reason to change his mind.

“Do you want some good? Thomas said that he has some dirt on Solace, it might be useful. Can you see what you get from him, and actually use that info?”

Gomez nodded once, slowly.

“Don’t make me regret this.”

Later, then.

I would’ve smiled, but my face hurt.

“Regret what? I fought you, I got away.”

Gomez didn’t drop his gun, but he moved it to the side, pointing to the door.

A mutual understanding.

Without a word, I turned to the door, and stepped through it. A cold air met me, and I moved on to my next goal. Getting the fuck home.

I sat in a chair in the corner, curled in a ball.

Through squinted eyes, I watched everyone as they handled the news.

Kristin had her arms around Katy, and they were both still bawling. Maria was sitting two chairs down, leaning forward, hands around her stomach. My mom was standing, an island of her own, quietly taking everything in, too. She must have been a wreck, as well.

I didn’t make it home in time. My mom had gotten the call while arriving at work, but turned right around to pick me up. But I wasn’t there yet. She found me crossing the parking lot, dressed in clothes she hadn’t seen before. I gave a weak explanation, that I decided to skip school and go for a walk. Even I wouldn’t believe me, if I was in my mom’s shoes.

Didn’t matter. She ushered me in the van, and she drove. I’d be in trouble another time.

Gomez called Kristen, and Kristen called my mom. I texted Maria.

They found Thomas. He was in critical condition, but he was hospitalized, now, and he was being worked on. We all rushed to the hospital he was at.

We sat in the waiting area, doing the only thing one could do in such a place. It had only been an hour, but I suspected we’d be here for many more.

Even here, I had to wear a mask. I had to lie to my mom about where I was, I had to pretend I was hearing about Thomas for the first time, I had to act like an ‘Alexis’ that never played a part in this. But that concept, that identity, had been gone for quite a while.

Again, another mask.

Everyone was absorbed in their own emotions, a mix of relief and fear. And I was wrapped up in that, too, but I was too exhausted to express anything.

We have him, I thought to myself, These are tears of happiness. Solace can wait, just for now. God, let me have this, let me revel in the comfort of that.

I let my eyes close. Leave it to being in a hospital, where I was allowed to rest in peace.

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