107 – Power Up

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Having stripped away everything, all that I was, it didn’t give me a lot in the way of people I could go to for help. Friends or those I would have considered family.

Couldn’t go to D. Wouldn’t. She’d have her hands full with the Fangs, and, according to Sarah, they weren’t so fond of me, to put it lightly. If I stuck my neck out anywhere near her, D’s hand might be forced to strike me down. I wouldn’t put her in that position. I wouldn’t put myself in that position.

I’d leave her alone. Probably for the best.

The fact remained, however, that my options were limited. But they weren’t zero.

I would just have to make my own luck.

Stalking the streets of the city, I searched for stress and strife.

Trash and debris drifted by my shoes and several feet away, like tumbleweeds. The wind itself breathed a hollow note, ringing in my ears. It gave a musical quality to the rhythmic crunch and crinkling of glass under each step.

There were other noises, farther into the distance. Sirens, screams and shouts, even a shot. I was seeing the aftermath of that disorder, the smoke rising above rooftops with no chimneys. The city was seething all around me, letting out yelps and barks, as if to warn anyone who might try and come closer. I heeded the warning, but I continued onward. I had left myself no other choice.

Until then, though, I was alone with my thoughts. And not the illusory kind.

I kept myself on high alert, eyes and ears open, watching and listening for anything that moved, anything that could make a noise. Extending my reach much farther than what my physical wingspan would suggest.

And after pulling all that in, everything gathered and taken stock, I was made starkly aware of my situation.

That I was alone, but I wasn’t by myself. Not quite.

More my ears than my eyes. In front, there wasn’t anything to keep my guard up for, aside from the very principle of just being in the city. Trash and debris here, smoke there.

Not ahead, then. Behind.

Listening, I picked up on faint but perceptible sounds. They weren’t too defined, too shapeless to be honed in on, but they were there, and they told me enough. That they were deliberate, that they were trying to dampen any audible clue of their approach but they could only do so much. One person would find it easy to blend into city’s ambiance, but several? Not as much, and that proved to be a setback.

And, it also told me that they were certain their numbers would make up for their lack in covertness. They were confident.

They were a crowd, they were coming up on me, fast, and they didn’t want me to be aware of them just yet.

Too late.

I maintained my stride, though, in keeping with the act, except I was an active participant in it, now. I walked down the road, paved by anger and frustration and retribution against ill intentions. It was a familiar path, so I walked with purpose, able not to dwell too much on the distractions around me. No more detours.

The street was long, with a lot of forks to the side. Alleys. A foggy, muted memory drifted into the gaze of my mind’s eye, clouding it for a moment, before being blinked away.

Something, not unlike this, had happened before. At that time, Alexis Barnett had gone down one of the alleys. Now, it was my turn.

The street turned at a corner. The light was red.

I stopped there and waited.

The shapeless sounds behind me stopped where they were and waited.

Still looking ahead, I almost smiled to myself.

Keeping my eyes on the light and my ears focused in the other direction, I considered the identity of my potential pursuers.

The Fangs were my first thought, it wouldn’t have been so far-fetched that they had found me already. Even if I was nowhere near their territory. They would be racing, like I was, to find the one who had wronged them and take them apart, piece by piece. And I did a lot wrong.

In my case, I had more than one that I was after, and I had to get to them before the Fangs got to me.

Whoever it was behind me, I’d have to shake them off.

I mentally checked and double-checked everything I had brought with me. The bag strapped around a shoulder.

Was there anything I could take out right away to defend myself? I knew where everything was, even though I had packed them all in a hurry. The knives I had grown to be rather familiar with, the guns less so. I could still go for either to arm myself, though.

Was there a chance I could take them without arming myself, going with just my bare knuckles? There was, but it wouldn’t be smart. A group was following me, and while I probably had the collective strength of all of them, I’d learned better now than to take those kinds of chances.

Something in hand, I knew I’d need that much, but to instigate? Not here, not with these guys. Wouldn’t be worth the time it would take to kick them to the curb. Nope, I had places to be and people I needed to find, and doing both required time. Something that was slipping between my fingers. I knew that much.

Time starts now, V, it’s ticking already.

As it went.

But I stayed there at the light, waiting. When the light turned, I’d just keep walking, and let them make the first move. If they were wanting to start something, anything, only then would I look to end it, for their sake.

The light turned.

I walked, and kept walking. The sound behind me picked up again. I wouldn’t dare turn around.

Listening still for the creeping stalk, I directed myself towards other sounds, the sirens, the screams and shouts, more than one shot, now. I was headed there anyways, but if I was being followed, I might be able to deter them from going any further, or farther. Scare them off.

Keeping straight, going where things would be warmer.

They didn’t stop.

Louder. Hotter now.

They continued.

Closer.

Hot.

I-

“Get the fuck back, skinhead.”

-Turned, and saw who had been on my tail.

People, as I had figured, but not quite what I was expecting.

One person. White, bald, skinny, but considering how he went with a sleeveless denim vest even in this weather, I could see that he was fit, or he’d been working on getting there at least. Tattoos crept down his arms and fingers, reaching up to his neck and jawline. Younger or older, it was hard to tell, his face looked like it had seen too many fights, blurring his natural features. Either it aged him, or the callouses kept things in place. In a sense.

Mean looking guy, overall.

One person. The only one here who matched that description. The rest weren’t mean, but stern.

The ‘skinhead’ wasn’t facing me when I had turned, not directly. Instead, he had positioned himself to the edge of the sidewalk, his back to the road, so he could get a view of the opposition he had on each side.

And the one across from me.

A group. About the stark opposite from the skinhead. They all had hair, for one.

For the rest, however, they were all Asian. Different in size, in build. Trying to be conspicuous about the firearms they had at their sides, but not really. I could see them, and the skinhead could see them, too.

“Farther than that, asshole.”

Someone else from the group across from me.

The skinhead, the asshole, gave the group a hard stare, then at me, then back again. Keeping a mean looking attitude, as if he wasn’t deterred after having been followed himself, and now cornered. His feet were planted firm into pavement, his chin was level, and his head seemed cool.

He didn’t move.

I just watched.

At the head of the group, a guy called him out a third time.

“Crazy time we live in, huh? Never had to ask a cracker motherfucker if they know English or not.”

No budge.

Several clicks and arms motioning at the skinhead’s direction. Firearms.

“You understand this? You’ve got three seconds to walk into middle of the street and let a car drag you across the pavement. Change incoming traffic for the rest of them.”

A few laughed at the small joke, but they were still dead serious.

Not a lot of seconds left-

The skinhead backed away a step, then another, and turned at the third. Hands in his pockets, seemingly still coolheaded, he walked towards the middle of the street, then passed it, crossing the whole thing.

Before he could step onto the other side, a crack rang out into the open air, and the skinhead hit the ground, his lips and chin splitting open as it kissed the curb. Blood pooled onto the street and sidewalk itself, where he dripped from the hip and face, respectively.

My chin, my jaw had to picked up from the ground, too. At least I was able to. Even I hadn’t expected that.

The group then formed a loose circle around me. Not to threaten, but almost like a protective barrier.

“You okay sister?”

The crack of the gun was still ringing in my ears.

“Beg your pardon?” I asked.

It was the guy at the head of the group who was addressing me.

“Skinhead there was tailing you for about a block or two. Good thing he was dumber than shit, or he would have noticed us sneaking up on him, sneaking up on you. Lucky us, lucky you.”

“Lucky lucky,” I said, mostly just to test my own hearing again. And, as if to test my sight and make sure I wasn’t under any spell or illusion, “You still shot him down.”

“Hey, I told him to go to the middle of the street and wait for a car to hit him. He went past the middle, and he didn’t wait. He asked for it.”

He isn’t moving anymore.”

The guy put his gun away, tucking into the back part of his jeans. The rest of the group remained on guard.

“Don’t tell me you feel bad for him? Trust me, sister, that asshole was going to do much worse to you if he got his hands on you. Part of the reason we started putting together groups, doing patrols. Lookouts. We have to start watching each others backs, because ain’t nobody else gonna to it for us.”

This guy sounds a lot like Dong-Yul, a voice told me.

I didn’t disagree.

“Hard to drum up sympathy for him,” I said, “But I would have been fine if he really was stupid enough to pick a fight with me. Not that I didn’t appreciate you stepping in when you did, though.”

The guy motioned to the group. “What’s done is done, and it’s better to move in a crew, anyways. Where you headed?”

I fixed the bag around my shoulder, feeling the shifting weight of my guns and knives and costume inside. “Anywhere there’s trouble, but it looks like it found me instead.”

The guy laughed. “Maybe! Hey, now that I think of it, you look familiar. We met before?”

I paused, wary.

“Don’t think so,” I answered, careful.

He snapped his fingers.

“Shit, we have for sure! Wellport, remember? A girl, Jasmine? She brought you over, she commented on your glasses. A lot happened during that crazy fucking night, but I can remember that.”

My glasses now were a crushing weight on the bridge of my nose, feeling like it would split my entire face in half.

“I can remember that, too,” I said. “Definitely a… crazy night.”

“What was your name again… Wendy, right?”

Somehow, I found myself nodding, calm, and not in a fake way. Like the calm someone might have felt if they jumped off a building. Except, in my case, I’d survived more than once.

And after the first time, nothing else mattered anymore.

I nodded again, more assured.

“But that’s something of a government name,” I said. “And right now, I’m a bit of an anarchist.”

The guy laughed.

“Andrew, by the way, and good! Because we’ll need some of that right about now. Hey, why don’t you run with us? Before our detour here, we were on our way to a… demonstration, I guess you could call it. I got a truck, and room for one more in the back. Jasmine will be there.”

He brought her up as if that would entice me. It… somehow sort of did.

I gave the guy, Andrew, my answer. A third nod.

“Wendy!”

Jasmine gave me a hug. A hug from the side, since I still had my bag with me.

“Didn’t know we were there already,” I said, pulling away. Faster than I probably needed to.

What would

A certain someone flashed in my mind, couldn’t help it. I dismissed the thought, just as quick.

“We’re all fam here, you know, we have to be.”

“I see you with the rhetoric, you don’t need to convince me.”

Jasmine grinned, I recognized that expression.

“Well, it’s good practice, for those who still need convincing.”

I grinned back.

As if on a general principle, I was beginning to gain an understanding on what fueled these people, now, and that particular understanding was running thicker than water. Anger and frustration, a need for blood. Those things fueled me, too.

A certain pressure had been made to boil under a certain population in Stephenville, and they were now finally jumping out of the pot, and they weren’t very happy. They were ready to turn around and kick the pot over, spilling everything out and setting the whole thing on fire. On principle, I was right there with them.

I was in the group with Jasmine and Andrew now, and that was group just one of many others.

A huge crush of people flooded the streets of Stephenville.

Too many to count, and yet there were even more who hadn’t gathered, doing their own damage elsewhere. Part of the bolstered numbers were because of the fact that not everyone here was a part of that certain population, but they showed up regardless, probably just to raise more hell than to stand and march in solidarity, but I’d imagine that their help would be otherwise appreciated.

Cheers and chants scraped my ears, and there was no rehearsed direction or plan to this parade. Being here, acting like a part of the procession, I was at the mercy of the crowd, meaning that I was at the mercy of random chance and chaos. It was definitely a demonstration. A demonstration in disorder, but a demonstration nonetheless.

With my hearing and the rest of my sense working overtime, I thought I heard Alexis Barnett’s name in that chorus, among others. But I didn’t focus too much on it, I wouldn’t let that affect me, now.

I hugged my bag, tighter.

“Should have left that at the truck,” Andrew said, raising his voice into my ear. Still wasn’t a fan of loud, but I had no choice but to deal.

“Better safe than sorry!” I replied back.

“What’s in there anyway?”

“You hear about Andrew shooting a guy on the way here?”

I raised my voice into Jasmine’s ear. She seemed alright about leaning over to catch it.

“I didn’t shoot him on the way here, I shot the motherfucker before we got in the truck to get over here.”

“Same difference!” I said to Andrew.

“I heard!” Jasmine replied. “You don’t know him yet but he’s trying real hard to be hard ever  since this thing blew up! Wants to prove himself!”

“I don’t have to prove shit!”

“Then why are you trying so hard?”

Jasmine grinned again, and gave Andrew a playful smack across the arm.

I watched these two, I’d seen them before. Back at Wellport. Jasmine had to kill someone to save me, and Andrew didn’t bat an eye. And now, it was Andrew’s turn, but he didn’t have to go that far for me this time, but he did. They were so cavalier about it.

Not that I was any position to cast judgement, myself. I wasn’t. But it had still given me pause, each time, I could still feel it take a toll, a heavy note that rang through me, clear as a bell.

It made me wonder, brief, what had led them to that point. What was the path that brought them here?

Then I remembered mine, and how much it didn’t really matter. Not in the long run.

Something to take away from them, I supposed.

I kept talking so Andrew wouldn’t inquire any more about my bag.

“You know who started this whole thing?”

“You mean the parade?” Jasmine asked.

“Not what I’d call it, but sure.”

“What would you call it then?”

I thought about it.

“A stampede,” I answered.

“Stampede? That does carry the appropriate weight, to it.”

“The kind of weight that tends to crush.”

“Hell yeah, dude. But actually, I couldn’t tell you who put this thing together, only because I really don’t know. Shit like this goes through a grapevine, and I’m too low on the thing to really know where it came from. I just go where I’m needed, and do what I need to do.”

“Sure, I understand that. Doing the same thing, myself.”

Jasmine gave me another half-hug, her arm staying there for seconds longer.

“Dude! I knew we’d click the second I saw you.”

I felt warm. The crowd around us, pushing, and clothes I had to wear for the weather. The season still had some time before things started springing up again.

A certain someone flashed in my mind again. The connection was cut, but the feeling was still there, exposed and raw. Had to dismiss it again, even faster.

Warm, but I was still cold on finding what I was after. Or rather, who.

As a contrast to my limited options in terms of help, my list of targets was long, and it was only a matter who I’d get to first.

Styx, Mrs. Carter, Dong-Yul, all of the gangsters with a seat at the table. D excluded. Maybe. Probably. It was still a good policy to stay clear of the Fangs.

But with D excluded that still included a lot of people. People with their own people, protecting them, a force I shouldn’t underestimate. Would Jasmine and Andrew be able to help? They were neither friends nor family, just a convenience. But were they a convenience I could use?

Somewhere ahead of us, the crowd roared.

I replied to Jasmine.

“And I was thinking you might be right,” I said. “Hey, what are your plans after this?”

“After this? Getting the fuck out of here and making sure pigs don’t come following us and bringing their shit with them. Why? Thinking of coming with?”

“I was thinking about it. If you’ll have me. I wanted to meet with whoever was spearheading these, um, demonstrations. The guy at Wellport, with the tiger mask.”

“Oh, Helly and Skelly?”

“If you want to call them that, I’m not stopping you.”

“I do, actually, thank you very much. But, actually, I haven’t seen him up close, or any of the masked dudes, much less seeing them without.”

“So you’ve been following orders from people who haven’t shown you their face? What if they look nothing like you? Or us, rather.”

Jasmine was about to answer, but the crowd roared again. Still somewhere up ahead, but closer. She had settled for a simple look in the meantime.

When the uproar died down enough, she responded with, “Doesn’t really matter to me. We’re out here, now, we’re making noise and best of all, they can’t ignore us. That’s all I give a shit about.”

Not much else I could say about that beside a quick, “Fair.”

The uproar rose back to life, louder and more present. It took my attention and centered it towards itself.

Jasmine and Andrew and the rest of the group looked ahead as well.

“What’s going on over there?” Andrew asked.

“Don’t know,” Jasmine said, “Why don’t you check? You’re taller than me or Wendy.”

Andrew listened right away, starting to pushing between people. Despite how cramped and crowded it was, people gave him room to slip through.

The parade continued, crawling down the streets like a centipede.

A wave of sound hit, it was loud, and then the physical equivalent came. Threatening to crush.

Forward momentum was lost. People started falling back. The uproar was getting closer and reached a higher pitch.

Something was wrong.

Jasmine was already turning. She looked right into my eyes.

“Flood’s coming this way, start swimming!”

I spun, or more like I was yanked the other way. Jasmine had pulled on the strap of my bag, and I almost lost my footing.

“Hey!”

She refused to let go, instead pulling even harder, taking me with her.

“No room to push back here, we have to move!”

‘My bag-”

“Come on!”

She kept pulling, forcing me to move along.

Not everyone had their wits about them, being more interested in yelling and raising some kind of disturbance. Once the tide turned in the other direction, they hadn’t been focused enough to adapt accordingly.

People had been falling back, and now they were falling. Crushed by an incoming stampede.

I pushed through the crowd, keeping in step with Jasmine. If she tripped while still holding onto me, I would be the only one who could even get back up.

“I’m with you, just let go already!”

She finally did.

Andrew managed to catch up with us, but not without having to knock someone else over. He went and answered the question before Jasmine and I could save a breath to ask it.

“Cops coming in to shut things down! Riot gear, rubber bullets. Choppers!”

“Choppers? Like-”

Copters. Helicopters!”

It was getting so loud that it was hard to catch everything Andrew was saying, and he was right there.

“Back to the truck!” he yelled. I heard that.

The group that Andrew had with him, and I had tagged along with, already dispersed into the rushing crowd, lost or maybe even flattened. I was only aware of Andrew and Jasmine, and I’d need at least one of them if they were going to be useful in getting me close to at least Dong-Yul.

With each step we ran, however, the prospect of that seemed to diminish, like I was getting farther away from that goal.

“Try over here!”

Jasmine grabbed for my bag and pulled again, but only to steer me in another direction. She soon released me.

The three of us pushed to the edge of the stream. I followed as Jasmine led us into an alley.

“Keep running!”

We kept running.

The alley was wide enough to accommodate the three of us, running side by side. Some others were starting to get the same idea, now, the stampede starting to spill out to the sides of the street.

We weren’t the only people who had that idea, apparently.

A block of metal rolled out to the other end of the alley. An armored vehicle. People started spilling out of that.

Jasmine skipped to a halt, turning on a heel.

“This way!”

She spun us around again, but instead of heading back to the street, there was another path perpendicular to the one we were on. She had us turn onto that.

I ran with them, and had to watch my speed. I didn’t want to make myself stand out.

We made it out, but from what I heard coming from our backs, we were lucky. The street opened up and we had much more room to move.

Andrew started to take the lead, taking us over to where he had parked the truck.

Again, he wasn’t the only one with that idea.

Over at the lot, a block away. More armored vehicles, beams of light illuminating the ground, gliding over everything. A quick check upward revealed the source, the helicopters Andrew had mentioned earlier.

“Fuck! They’re cutting us off!” Andrew shouted.

“Can we make it on foot?” That was from Jasmine. “It’s not like they can catch everyone!”

“Not far!”

They started running, past the block where Andrew’s car had been parked, the armored vehicles and police cars being right there. Cops were standing in formation like soldiers.

I ran with them, and saw more cars coming our way, the tops of them bursting with red and blue lights.

This won’t last, I realized, It’s already running out of gas now.

We changed directions, moving onto another street. More people here, cops and rioters alike, as the latter started to spread out more evenly to blocks around the initial demonstration. The police worked to introduce their idea of peace.

They started firing into the crowd.

People fell. I didn’t see or smell blood, but people were being rendered immobile, thrown flat to the ground. None of them were made to be as bloody as the skinhead from before.

Andrew spun, arms flailing, face to the pavement. He had gotten hit.

Then I tripped.

A hard punch to the back, in an area not any larger than a dime. I felt my spine crack with pain, and my legs turned to jelly.

I had the sense to turn, so I wouldn’t land on my bag and accidentally pop the packets of blood open.

My shoulder rammed into the side of something sturdy. My healing worked to set my back straight again. I hadn’t fallen over completely.

Jasmine was already pulling me back up.

“Dude, you okay?”

Beside me, something beige in the night. A taxi parked next to the sidewalk. No one inside, and the windows were cracked, stray rubber bullets making targets of other things.

But I did see a number printed on the side of the vehicle, and that had gotten my mind running again, pulling me out of the daze of having been shot.

“Andrew? The truck?” I asked.

“Lost him, it’s too hard to find him in this. His truck is stuck with a bunch of cops!”

“You have a car?”

A bitter and impatient expression crossed her face.

“Parked in the same lot. Come on Wendy, we can still get out of here on foot!”

“You have a phone?”

I had lost mine at the church, and I didn’t have another one to pack at my apartment.

Not that I would tell her that.

“Why?” she asked, but she was getting it out for me. She helped pull me up too, from the side of the taxi.

She handed me the phone, and I took off.

Another street close by. More cops heading to block the stampede off.

I ran harder, crossing an intersection. The police cars came in between me and the other two.

“Wendy!”

I didn’t stop.

Not for the cops, not for Jasmine or Andrew. I abandoned them and their uselessness.

It wouldn’t have worked, not with them, but they did manage to give me another idea.

Still running, I dialed the number that had come to me out of that daze, and made the particular arrangements, tossing the phone soon after.

Never before did the mundane stand out to me by such a large margin. The hum of rubber on road, the mechanical clicks of a turn signal, the white noise chatter of a jumbled radio chatter.

My blood was still pumping hard, so hard that it thrummed in my veins, and I found it difficult to sit still and relax, even if there was nothing threatening about my immediate surroundings.

Just a strange sense of déjà vu.

“Gotta say, boss, I never thought I’d hear from you again.”

“Funny how it all works out,” I said, as if on instinct.

The taxi rolled across the street.

I was sitting in the back, shoulder against the door. Half-open eyes watched as the scenery past the window sped by, the colors of the city smearing together, painting an even more chaotic image than before.

Anarchy, on the other side of that glass. Which made the relative quiet of the taxi’s interior all the more deafening.

I tried to kill some of that monotony. When I spoke up again, I almost thought I was screaming.

“How have you been, Claire? Last time I saw you I… I guess you could say it was a lifetime ago.”

Claire kept her eyes on the road as she crossed the lights and made the turns. The meter climbed up and up.

“Nothing worth reporting. Found myself keeping an eye on the news more often now.”

“Oh yeah? What do you see?”

“The shit I’m seeing right now.”

I chuckled, dry a bit.

“You boss?” she asked.

I shrugged, not knowing if she would have caught that or not through the rearview. “Been giving you something to watch, I guess you could say.”

It was Claire’s turn to chuckle. Just as dry.

The taxi continued its snaking path around the city, the meter running just as long. The ride itself was smooth, so smooth that it had become a noticeable thing. The more Claire drove, the less traffic seemed to get in her way.

“Have you been busy tonight?” I asked.

“Very,” she answered, “Ever since the riots broke out across the city, everyone’s taking any opportunity to leave while they still can. That includes us cab drivers. Been getting like six or even seven people crammed into the back at a time, all begging me to get as far away from the Eye as possible, no matter how costly it got. Haven’t been getting this much action since the city allowed rideshares… or the times I had you as a passenger, actually.”

I grinned at that.

“Suppose this time won’t be any different?”

Then I dropped that grin.

“Let me ask you something, Claire,” I said.

“Sure boss.”

“You call it action, but, I’m sure you’re aware of the danger as well. You’ve been taking people out of the city, driving past and through all the crazy… might not be long until it’s officially considered a warzone, from what I’ve seen. Anyways, it’s real, and it’s present. You haven’t thought about leaving as well?”

The ride was quiet for another moment.

“Of course I thought about it, but I also see an opportunity, here. Being busy means having had more customers, which means the pay’s been better than ever. And as far as danger, I know how to drive. You’d know by now.”

“I do,” I said, feeling more certain. “Your family still doing okay?”

“They are.”

She had left it at that.

The drive continued with that relative silence. The meter ticking like a clock, but only in one direction, never wrapping around.

“Hey boss?”

“Yes?”

“You hopped in and said ‘drive’ but, you never said where.”

“About that,” I said, “I actually want to leave it up to you. Where is the safest place you can think of, or the place you want to be the most?”

“The most? Um, maybe Sicily? I haven’t had a vacation in over ten years.”

“Somewhere your taxi can take us,” I said.

“There’s a diner at the edge of town. Are you hungry?”

“A little thirsty, honestly, but that can wait. Where else? I’ll need somewhere I can return to, rest up and stay low for an hour or two if possible.”

“How long are you expecting to use my services?”

“For as long as I need you. I’ll do my best to not take too much of your time.”

“I have to return the cab at the end of my shift, you know. That’s in a few more hours.”

Reaching into my bag, I pulled out a fraction of the money I had taken with me. It was only fraction of my total funds, but it more than covered the current fare.

I passed to Claire, who weighed it in her hand. She didn’t flip through it, the stack’s thickness indicated to her all she needed to know.

“Sorry Claire, but your shift has gotten a lot longer.”

“I can see that now, boss.”

The door swung open, creaking, light from the hallway creeping in. Claire flipped a switch somewhere inside the foyer, and the rest of the apartment opened up.

“Make yourself home, boss. For now.”

I brought my bag in with me. I was about to slip off my shoes, but Claire gestured, suggesting that I didn’t have to.

Following her deeper into the apartment, I looked around. Not a lot of room, and sparse of decoration, but it did looked lived in. Toys were strewn in places on the floor, and uneven lines of what looked like crayon and markers were scribbled across the wall, none them reaching higher than my hip.

Claire led me to the kitchen. Plastic tupperware and plates were collected on one side of a sink, and unfinished bowls of macaroni and cheese were left on a counter. Three glasses of milk filled at different levels had been left at a table.

Lightly tapping a toy car away with her foot, Claire went to the table, collecting the glasses of milk and setting them by the sink. She moved on to the fridge, opening it.

“Go ahead and take a seat. You said you were thirsty, and looks like we have…”

“Milk?” I asked, taking a seat.

“Orange juice. Fresh out of milk.”

“I’m fine, but thanks. Uh, do you happen to have brown paper bags? Like something to pack a lunch with?”

“I have kindergarteners, of course I have those.”

“Mind if I borrow a few? And some space in your fridge to store some stuff?”

Claire looked at me, eyes filled with suspicion, but she moved across to the pantry. She handed me several folded baggies. More than enough.

“Thank you,” I said.

Claire, for her part, had gotten a glass of juice for herself, and went to sit across from me at the table. She took a sip, and sighed when she finished.

An awkward beat.

“Never seen your face before,” Claire then said, barely below a normal speaking volume, probably as to not disturb the kids. “You usually have the mask, right? Or a hoodie, if I remember correctly.”

“And?”

“You’re young,” she said, breathing the word ‘young,’ “You’re older than my kids, obviously, but you’re still so young.”

I didn’t get offended over that. If anything, I thought she would have commented on another aspect of my appearance. Part of the reason why those riots were happening in the first place.

“Is that going to be a problem?”

Claire shook her head.

“No problem, no, but… I’m sorry if this is too personal a question, do you have parents?”

I felt something kick, somewhere in my heart.

“I do. I did.”

Claire frowned a bit. Not disappointed, but sympathetic.

“I know this isn’t my place to say, then, but I can’t imagine how they might feel, if they’re still around to feel anything. As a mother, it would break my heart to see any of mine being out there, getting into trouble like you tend to do.”

“What are their names?” I asked, a little too quickly, “Your kids?”

“Caleb and Willem.”

“Where are they now?”

Claire lifted her chin, pointing down a hall to my right.

“Their room. Sleeping. Or they should be.”

I went for my bag, opening it. On the table, I placed more stacks of cash. More and more until there seemed to be more green than there was the brown surface of the kitchen table.

Claire watched, more than astonished.

“Well, Claire, if you help me, you will be guaranteeing that little Caleb and Willem will never have to get into my kind of trouble, or any other kind.”

Still eyeing the money, I saw the glint in her gaze. Also the concern within.

“But the price for that guarantee… you’re inviting me into that world of trouble.”

“It’s only for a day, maybe even less than that. I just need someone who can drive me around, and a place for me to recuperate. That’s all.”

“That’s all? That’s a lot.”

“I’m hoping what’s on the table can cover any inconveniences.”

Another silent beat. Claire roved the money with a curious, hungry eye.

I talked.

“There’s more where this came from, if you need it. Just say the word. It was a lucrative business, having led a gang, and even if my connections aren’t what they used to be, I can still get you more. I know where things are stashed, how you can sell them. After tomorrow, you never have to work another day again.”

“That is a lot of money, Claire.”

We both turned.

From the hall that Claire had pointed to earlier, a woman had leaned against the wall. An Asian woman, about Claire’s age, maybe mid-thirties, wearing pink pajamas with white dots.

Watching us watching her, she then moved to the sink, picking up one of the glasses of milk. She started finishing it.

“Did I wake you?” Claire asked.

The woman finished the drink, moving onto the next one.

“I’m a light sleeper,” she said, taking a sip, “Ah, but I usually stay in bed with my eyes closed if I wake. Heard the door, used to that. But then I heard talking, and a voice I hadn’t heard before.”

She looked at me when she said that, drinking her milk.

“Sorry then,” Claire said. “This is… my boss, for the next twenty-four hours or so. Still working that out. And this is Kim. She’s my-”

“Partner?” I offered.

“Roommate,” Claire said. “Just a roommate.”

“Pleasure,” Kim said. She reached over for my hand to shake. I gave it to her.

Her hand was cold. It sent a shock through me. Eerie to the point of nearly pushing away my concentration and filling me with anxiety, instead.

“You felt that too?” Kim asked.

“Not sure what that was,” I said.

Kim let go, finishing her second glass. “Curiouser and curiouser.”

“Kim works in social services, and other jobs around the city. Though she has never been super specific in what she does.”

Kim gave Claire a look. “It’s money on the table, less chunk of rent you have to worry about.”

Claire nodded. “You’re right about that.”

“Speaking of, you want to explain what’s all this about?”

Claire drank more of her juice. Now I was starting to get thirsty for my own drink.

“My boss here is asking me to be her personal chauffeur for the next day. Might be a whole day thing, but she says she’ll try to make it less.”

“I understand the sudden burden I’m bringing you and your family, and Kim as well, so I’ll do what I can to make it quick.”

“What are you thinking, Claire?”

She turned to Kim.

“Money is money, and this might almost be worth it. Boss, how early did you want to start?”

“Early as possible, but I’d still want us to get as much sleep as possible tonight.”

“Kim? You mind taking the kids to school tomorrow before you do… whatever it is you actually do?”

“Sure, no problem.”

Claire took another moment, taking in all the money again. There was a lot here, and I was willing to offer more for the trouble.

She turned to me.

“Then I’m in, boss. We’ll start as early as possible.”

A relief surged over me.

“Thank you so much, Claire.”

Kim had already finished the last glass of milk, setting them all into the pile on one side of the sink. She yawned.

“I’m heading back to bed. I’ve got the kids, Claire, no worries. And Ms. Boss? It was nice seeing you, and I hope I’ll see all of you again in another time.”

Waving at me, Kim then went back down the hall, disappearing behind a door. The door shut.

“She’s…”

I started to say, but I stopped.

“Will she be cool?” I asked instead.

“She will be,” Claire said. “She’s someone I trust. Someone I trust enough to let live with us. Kim moved here from Las Estrellas a couple years back.”

“Las Estrellas?”

“Yeah. She was telling me about the riots that took place there back when she was a kid. Seems like this kind of stuff happens in cycles. First it was her, now you.”

“There were riots back then? Like the ones now?”

“Well, I’d say we’re living in crazier times, but she’d know more about that than I would. You would have to ask her.”

“That can wait, then.”

Claire sighed.

“It definitely can. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll go check on my kids. Feel free to use the couch. I’ll be back to get you some blankets.”

“Thank you again, Claire.”

“You can thank me when this is over. See you in the morning, boss, I’ll be ready when you are.”

Claire got up and did as she had said, going to check on her kids first. Now that I was alone, I took the paper bags and stuff my blood packs into them, sliding them into any free spots I could find in the fridge.

Then, I crashed on the couch, too tired to change, not that I packed the clothes for it.

I set my glasses on a nearby coffee table, readjusting myself when I felt something sticking into my lower back. A toy truck, this time.

Crash was an appropriate word for things.

In one night, my whole life around me crashed down. I salvaged what I could, and now I had to work with what I had.

It wasn’t much, but it was something.

And if there was anything I was at least decent at, it was getting back up again after a crash.

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Interlude – V

Previous                                                                     Bonus

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

Darn, the girl thought.

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

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

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

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

Darn.

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

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

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

Maybe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Pink.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How about… ah, Alexis?”

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

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

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

Alexis was completely alone.

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

Darn.

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

Something about… God, and Jesus… and giving.

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

She ventured a guess.

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

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

She wasn’t satisfied with that answer.

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

Ugh.

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

Alexis was a waste of time.

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

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

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

Alexis held up three fingers to accentuate her point.

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

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

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

It filled Alexis with a strange sense of satisfaction.

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

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

A new scene was being recalled.

An intimate one, but also equally not so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Attention.

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

She was too different from them.

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

Other stuff. Stuff she’d never done before.

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

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

The scene collapsed before anything more could happen.

New actors, new props. Everything was moved around.

Another recall.

The new scene started with an explosion.

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

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

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

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

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

And blow up it did.

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

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

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

Alexis pushed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But…

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

Here, at the bottom.

I’m a terrible person.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No voiced answer. The darkness emitted.

“Oh.”

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

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

The darkness relented, and the scenes dissipated.

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

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

The girl managed a smile.

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

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

“It’s us.”

Spoken as an objective fact. The truth.

The darkness reacted.

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

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

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

A checkerboard.

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

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

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

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

Under her own power, the girl stood.

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

“Hey, Alexis?”

V responded. “Yeah?”

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

V smiled, warm. “I’m okay.”

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

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

“Ow, what’d I do?”

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

V found the whole thing amusing.

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

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

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

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

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

V checked her watch.

“Emily, babe, I wasn’t actually…”

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

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

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

“I dunno, am I?”

His concerned expression dropped, replaced by a grin.

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

“How long have you two been together?”

It was Maria that asked.

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

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

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

Maria gave a look of shock.

“You said no?”

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

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

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

Justin pointed two thumbs in his direction.

“This guy!”

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

“Babe, I was kidding, I was joking…”

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

V checked her watch again.

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

“Oh, um, right.”

V had to tell herself to stop checking.

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

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

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

“That sounds like a dream.”

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

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

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

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

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

V spun her straw around the lid of the glass.

“Nothing really. Just waiting.”

“Just waiting?”

“Yup.”

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

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

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

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

“Like a kind of refuge?” Maria asked.

“Kind of, I guess.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What thing?” Emily asked.

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

Emily gave a her own look of shock.

“Holy shit, six months?”

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

“Oh. Handsome guy?”

“Oh yeah,” Maria said, sounding proud.

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

“That’s what I tell myself.”

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

Emily made a grunt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Glowing?

“I am not,” V said.

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

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

She settled for drinking more water.

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

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

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

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

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

“For now.”

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m full of surprises,” Maria said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The man yelled at the nearest waitress.

“You speak English?”

The waiter struggled to get out a word.

The man yelled some more.

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

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

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

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

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

V checked her watch. She waited.

“Sir, please calm down.”

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

The man’s face contorted.

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

“Sir, you said thirty minutes.”

The man just yelled.

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

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

Everyone began to voice their protest.

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

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

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

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

“I agree,” another said. A girl.

The man clearly did not agree.

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

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

V got up from her seat.

“Alexis?” Katy questioned.

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

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

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

“Fuck you doing here?” he asked.

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

V had thought over her words.

The man chuckled.

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

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

V was among that select few.

“Alexis!”

She heard Katy from behind.

“Damn you, don’t!”

V ignored her for the last time.

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

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

V swung with her arm, aiming for-

No.

A finger was faster than an arm.

The shot rang out.

V dropped.

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

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

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

V played dead.

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

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

She was being lifted.

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

“We’re moving out!”

The man. He sounded close.

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

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

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

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

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

The man was barking orders.

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

V was tossed, landing on leather.

Tires screeched as the door slid closed.

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

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

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

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

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

A yell, but the voice was small. Young.

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

“Wakey wakey.”

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

She needed time to get her bearings.

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

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

V pushed her hair back, fixing loose strands.

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

Someone else answered. The driver.

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

“Awesome.”

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

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

I really am a sentimental one.

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

“You’re late, Dor-,” V said.

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

D smiled wider.

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

She looked pleased with herself for making the various references.

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

“Something sweet, please,” Wendy said.

Previous                                                                     Bonus

047 – Latae sententiae

epy arc 8 bite

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

St. Francis Xavier had been trashed.

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

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

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

All this, in just a matter of days.

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

Katy and Maria were their names.

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s Mrs. Phan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was curious.

Mother put a hand on her shoulder. Firm.

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

“But,” Mrs. Phan said.

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

Mrs. Phan breathed in.

“And breathe out.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

I didn’t want to ask who Justin was.

But another question might serve me better.

“Where is Justin?” I asked.

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

“He should be there,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Alexis!”

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

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

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

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

Justin.

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

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

“Probably,” I said.

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

I stepped aside, and Katy and Maria moved in.

“Katy.”

“I’m Justin, nice to meet you.”

They shook hands.

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

“Justin, and yeah, it’s pretty bad.”

The two of them shook hands, too.

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

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

Justin cleared his throat

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

We all answered simultaneously.

“Yeah.”

“For sure.”

“I am.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He cleared his throat again.

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

I nodded. “Sure.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Sure,” I said.

“Careful, it’s heavy.”

“Okay.”

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

I did the same, but I just bent down.

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

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

“Holy- Alright then, let’s go.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh yeah, I guess you’re right.”

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

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

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

“But it’s not Halloween anymore.”

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

“I haven’t.”

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

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

Dammit,” he said at the end.

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

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

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

Nowhere near done, but progress was made.

Justin removed his bandana, and wiped his brow.

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

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

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

The others?

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

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

At least.

That, I could agree with.

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

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

But they weren’t here.

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

“Sound good to you?” he asked.

Reluctant, I answered, “I suppose.”

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

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

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

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

They immediately noticed us. Me. There were cheers.

“Alexis!”

“Holy shit, it’s you.”

“Wow, long time no see.”

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

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

I have no idea who any of you are.

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

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

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

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

“No, I’m good,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The tallest boy addressed me again.

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

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

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

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

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

“Nice going, Andrew,” a girl said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Harrian?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were various gestures all around.

“Maybe.”

“Yeah, right.”

“That’s probably true…”

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

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

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

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

“Definitely,” another said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

All lies.

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

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

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

You’ll what?

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

The girl, Emily, warned him.

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

Justin and Emily both looked in my direction.

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

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

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

“Same. Good to see you all again.”

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

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

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

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

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

We started heading back the way we came.

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

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

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

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

Still?

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

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

“Show me what?”

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

“Oh, okay. Fine.”

“Cool, let’s head.”

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

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

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

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

Justin continued.

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

“Why me?” I asked.

“Because you’re one of us,” he said.

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

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

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

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

“Look there,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

“Maybe,” I said.

“Well, at least you saw it.”

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

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

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

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

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

“There you are,” I said.

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

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

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

Maria stopped.

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

“DA?” Justin repeated.

“District Attorney.”

“Oh, yeah. Oh, your dad was…”

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

That, I could recognize.

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

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

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

“Where’s Father now?” Justin asked.

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

Talking about what?

Justin sniffled, wiped his nose.

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

Katy and Maria traded looks.

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

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

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

I did.

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

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

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

Checking again, I had noticed something else, too.

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

Unsightly.

What do you want to do?

I heard that voice ask.

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

I could imagine the taste on my lips. Sweet.

Perfect.

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

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

I smiled.

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

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