057 – Red Flavor

Previous                                                                                               Next

Benny was bound, wrists and ankles. She couldn’t move, fight back, or otherwise escape.

A chill ran up my spine.

We were in the abandoned factory, where Hleuco and Blank Face used to convene, back when Hleuco was still corporeal, and where I first encountered D. It was secluded, people would only come here if they knew about it, and few cared to remember. And at this hour, no one else was going to be wandering in here. The perfect place to hide a body, if it ever came to that. It was still up in the air.

I was still thinking about it.

I watched as D fixed the last zip tie. A hard tug, and Benny flinched.

“That’s the last of them,” D said, getting up from behind Benny. D went around her and joined me.

“Thanks,” I said.

Benny was on the floor, sitting on the tarp that used to cover up Hleuco’s van. We were on an upper level, overlooking the ground floor and machines. Inside a managerial office, situated in the very back of the factory, probably so the supervisor could watch over the sweating, tired workers break their backs while he sat comfy, leaning back in an air-conditioned room. We didn’t get that luxury, though. An abandoned factory meant no power, and the only lights that were available were backup flashlights D and I found in a nearby closet. The room was lit, though dim, the flashlights placed in a half-circle around Benny.

The whole setup looked like a ritual. Or maybe even a sacrifice.

With the lights, I still had to be careful. It was a good idea to bring the tarp.

If the ground floor was dusty, this place was even worse for wear. Pipes and tools were strewn about, along with dirty needles and broken bits of glass. There was enough dust that I had to watch my step, it was too easy to slip and fall.

The corner of a corner. No one was going to find us, here.

Benny groaned, shifting her arms and legs, trying to find what little allowance we gave her.

“Even without these, I’m in no position to run or fight. This is a bit much, don’t you think?”

I shrugged.

“Chalk it up to paranoia. I’m used to things suddenly going wrong, all at once, so forgive me if I don’t leave anything up to chance.”

She shrugged, herself.

“That’s a feeling I know all too well.”

She went quiet, and we stared at each other, an uneasy silence settling in. Not unlike the one from earlier, in the kitchen, but it was nice to definitively have the upper hand this go around.

A black skirt, with leggings to match. The skirt was tight fit, preventing her from sitting properly, giving the bindings, and she had to position herself so her legs were folded underneath her, feet together.

So, that’s what you’re wearing.

Sitting there, with her arms tied behind her back, her legs tied under her, completely powerless. Her hair had loosened from the different scuffles and being moved around, strands falling in front of her face. She exuded anger, though. I could see the scowl. She had no control or hold in this situation, here, yet she did what she could to exercise her remaining slivers of agency. Her expression.

Her face…

There was a quality to her, that I couldn’t quite place, but the sensation was real. Carnal.

Ah, I couldn’t take my eyes off of her.

Benny broke the silence. “Sitting here, in the dark, where it’s cold and filthy and why the hell is it damp-”

She coughed, probably from some dust catching in the back of her throat.

“This is fun and all, but I have to ask, why did you even bring me out here? I thought you were going to give me up, already.”

From the corner of my eye, I saw D shoot me a look, but my attention stayed squarely on Benny.

“I don’t know,” I said.

Benny gave me a funny look. Her voice wavered as she asked me her next question.

“Are, are you going to kill me, or are you leaving that up to the powers that be?”

D’s look and Benny’s stare remained on me. They were curious. I was too.

“I don’t know,” I said again.

Benny’s expression and body language both expressed different reactions. Her body relaxed some, but her face was stark terror.

“You don’t know?”

“You have to understand, I’ve been chasing after you for a long, long time. Now that I have you… I’m struggling to figure out what comes next. When you’re so focused and driven to a specific goal, and for so long… And when you finally do get it, see, I don’t know.”

I stopped, failing to have made any point, or any sense.

“Can’t say I’m all that flattered,” Benny said. “Having taken so much space in one person’s mind.”

“What can I say? That’s just how it happened. I… we, gave up a lot over the weeks in order to just be in the same room with you. And now, here we are.”

“Sounds like you’ve developed something of an obsession for me,” Benny said.

I didn’t reply to that.

Another break in the conversation, a period of silence.

Benny shifted, groaning again when the restraints dug deeper into her skin.

“Ironically, you’re indecision on killing me or not is killing me,” she said. “If you tell me either way, at least I’ll know, and I can come to terms with whatever happens.”

“Just wait, you’ll know in time,” I told her. “I’m still figuring it out.”

Benny grunted from the restraints, and coupled with the uncertainty of her ultimate fate, resulted in a more pained expression.

I was getting more of a satisfaction just from looking at her than doing anything else. I could stay here until the sun rose.

I saw a glow emanating from right beside me. D had taken out her tablet.

“You might want to figure it out sooner rather than later,” she said.

“Are we short on time?” I asked, still watching Benny.

“No, but the other Ghosts are going to be worried if we take too long, and Jordan can’t stay in the hospital room forever. With Lawrence out of commission, they’re going to need someone to take orders from.”

“Will they listen to us? This was a joint effort, not one person was supposed to lead the rest.”

“It’s not one person, it’s us two, and it’s better than nothing, and I’d like to think we earned enough of their trust if we ever need to take point. Like right now.”

D lifted her tablet. “I can communicate from this, but they’ll appreciate it more if we call the shots in-person.”

I watched Benny. She was still, now, listening to our conversation. But we weren’t trying to be discreet, exactly.

“Sooner, rather than later, huh?” I said. “That does move things up a little.”

“Sorry,” D replied, as if this was something she had control over.

“No need,” I said. “It’s better this way. If you give me all the time in the world, I’ll probably never come to a decision. I work better with my back against the wall, thinking on my feet.”

D hummed. “I feel that.”

I moved to crouch in front of Benny, getting on my knees.

“Lucky you, looks like you’ll get your answer sooner than you thought.”

“Fun,” Benny said, with no fun to be found in her voice.

I took off my bag, setting it aside. Then, I threw a hand into my pocket. I drew out my knife, revealing the blade. Dried blood caked the sharpest point, trailing down until it was reduced to a smear.

I set it down, placing it between me and Benny, the tip of the blade pointing to her. She was stiff.

“I mentioned that I’m struggling to find out what to do with you, that I’ve spent so much time and energy pursuing you that I haven’t put enough time and energy towards what follows.”

Benny was watching me, wary.

“But, that doesn’t mean I’ve come up completely blank. I do have a few ideas.”

Benny’s eyes grew to saucers.

“I thought about hurting all of your crew first, the rest I didn’t get to, back at the school. Demoralize you, bring you lower before it was even your turn. Then, I would hurt you, in every way I could think of. Take out your eyes, cut off your tongue, burning your skin. I’d take breaks, so I could be thorough. And then, once I’ve harmed you enough, I would kill you.”

Terrible, terrible things. But I was saying them like they were easy.

Her lower lip trembled, but no sound was produced.

I went on. “Things changed though, naturally. I joined up with D and the Ghosts, and now it’s no longer just about me. Not anymore. I won’t be able to get around to hurting your crew, but that’s such a small setback, and the Ghosts need you to be somewhat recognizable, if they want to cash you in for a prize. That takes some of my ideas off the table. Out of courtesy, I won’t be making a mess of your face, that’s for sure. And personally…”

I stopped myself.

Benny looked at me with confusion. A sharp anxiety. The wait really was killing her.

“Damn,” I said, “I never expected it to go down like this.”

“What, what do you want from me, exactly?” Benny asked. She was leaning back, as if she was afraid of what my answer would be. “Revenge?”

“From you? I want you to pay, for what you did at the school, for your involvement with Solace. For bringing me here. All of it, you’re responsible for all of it.”

Benny took a deep breath, shuddering as she exhaled.

“Revenge, then.”

I thought about what Gomez asked me, between ‘justice’ and something more… intimate. It wasn’t too long ago, but it felt like forever.

“Yeah,” I said.

“I hate to burst your bubble, but I can’t be responsible for everything, not when it comes to revenge. That takes some action on your part, an active hand to get what you want. You didn’t have to join up with Lawrence and that young girl, you didn’t have to set half of Eastside aflame, you didn’t have to threaten me using my closest friend. I may have pushed you, but you chose to keep falling, and drag me down with you.”

“You didn’t have to attack the school,” I said back. “You didn’t have to join up with Solace.”

“I didn’t have a choice, on that last part.” Benny sounded downcast, broken.

“But,” she said. “You are right. I recognize, now, that I was blinded by that desire for vengeance. That’s why I attacked the school. You hit me, and I wanted to hit back harder. But look where it brought me, brought you.”

“It’s too late to start feeling sorry for yourself.”

“Please, the last thing I feel right now is sorry. Regret, though, that’s a whole other matter.”

She looked back at me, meeting my eyes. Level.

“V, right?” she asked.

“Right,” I said.

Benny fixed her posture, not making a sound, the restraints probably numbing any feeling, there.

“We both pushed each other. We both fell, and we both dragged each other down. In our pursuit of revenge, it made us do hideous things. A chain of increasingly hideous things, and led us down into this hellhole. That’s what revenge does to you. It corrupts you, V, and it changes you, inside and out. It makes you ugly.”

“You’re very easy on the eyes, for someone so ugly,” I said. “I hope I age as well as you.”

She shook her head. “You don’t get it, do you? Or maybe you’ve made up your mind, and you don’t want to hear anything different. This… it’s a spiral of destruction, and it’s not going to end with one of us leaving here alive. It’s going to continue. Someone we hurt along the way, or something we did, it comes back. It’s a cycle. Maybe she stabs you in the back, one day.”

She pointed with her lips, pointing to D. I didn’t turn to look at her.

“I haven’t been in the city for that long, but her reputation precedes her. And I’ve seen it myself, too. Petty pranks. Nothing too damaging, until tonight. But, my point is, from what I’ve heard and seen, the whole world is a joke to her. What’s to say that she isn’t making a mockery of you, right now?”

“Are you trying to waste my time?” I asked. “Distract me, until I either run out of time, or you come up with something better?”

Benny shot me a look.

“Maybe,” she said.

“D, how long do we have?”

D answered. “Um, about an hour and a half. We do have to be back, but as of right now, it’s not super urgent.”

A noise, coming from Benny. It sounded like a snarl.

“An hour and a half,” I repeated. “That’s not bad at all. You know what? I decided what I want to do.”

Benny stiffened again, hearing that. “And that is?”

I sat, my butt on the tarp, my legs crossed. I inched myself so I was closer to Benny.

“Let’s talk.”

Benny blinked.

“Talk?”

“Why not? Even though you’re tied up and everything, you’re still willing to run your mouth. And honestly, I’m willing to listen. There’s a lot I want to ask you, actually, and I can imagine there’s a lot you want to ask me. So let’s do it.”

Benny opened her mouth, then closed it. Unsure of what to do or say next.

I threw in another point for her. “This might be your opportunity to convince me not to kill you. I can’t say the Ghosts, or whoever they hand you to, will show you that same mercy, but my offer’s there.”

Benny dropped her head a little, but it didn’t last long. She straightened herself, facing me again.

“I’ll take what I can get,” she said. “You start.”

She was a gang leader. She was used to power. She maybe even craved it, and was looking for as much power as she could consolidate, given her position, her situation.

It was admirable.

I smiled, remembering I had on a mask.

“Okay then, let’s start at the very beginning.”

Benny tilted forward, eyes down as she talked.

“I didn’t ask for any of this, it was forced upon me.”

“But you went along with it, and let those circumstances shape you,” I said. “Somewhere, on that path, there had to be a point where you could stop.”

“Are you admonishing me, V?”

I fell silent.

“I’m not,” I finally said. “Just an observation. I was much the same way.”

“Whatever happens,” Benny said, “Just make sure nothing happens to Roland. Just let him get back to Mexico.”

It was the third time she asked that.

“I make no promises about that last part, but nothing’s going to happen to Roland as long as you’re here, and your crew doesn’t pull anything.”

Benny nodded.

It was the third time I answered that.

“You care about your people a lot,” I said.

“Of course I do, they’re family. They’ve protected me my whole life, and I tried to protect them.”

A tear fell from one eye.

“And I failed.”

I didn’t really have a follow up. I was the reason why she failed.

I felt for her, in that moment. I had the memory of wanting to protect someone, and to fail, catastrophically. The tears wouldn’t come, however, that part of me was sectioned off, to be discarded.

But the memory was still there. I understood, and let Benny shed tears for the both of us.

“You say you want to kill me, but have you actually done it before? Take another person’s life?”

Flashes of memories surfaced. From a time I didn’t want to recall.

“Maybe. I’ve incapacitated people, using more strength than what was reasonably necessary. Maybe I left them to die. I can’t say for sure.”

“So, no, you haven’t.”

I squinted at her.

“Consciously, no. Have you?”

“I haven’t. That wasn’t my thing. If it ever came to that, I left it to the others. But I always tried diplomacy, first. Always.”

“Honor among thieves?” I asked. “Or among mobsters?”

“Something like that. People deserve fairness, even the worst of them. It’s a principle I tried to follow. A personal philosophy. No cheating.”

“The world isn’t fair,” I said, not to object, but as a general observation. “People aren’t fair, they cheat each other, and they get back at each other. At least you tried, but the world ended up beating you down, didn’t it? It broke you.”

Benny met my eyes.

“It broke you, too.”

“Tell me about Solace.”

Benny didn’t move.

“And Mister, too.”

Benny jerked her head up.

“If you’re going after him, then you are insane!”

“I’m just asking for information,” I said.

Benny slouched again.

“I don’t know much, honestly, about either of them. You’d be disappointed.”

“I’ll be the judge of that. But just tell me what you do know, for now.”

“Or,” I added, “I might have to bring Roland into this, again.”

Benny made a sound. Between a cry and a snarl.

“That’s not fair,” Benny said.

“I’m sorry,” I responded, meaning it.

“If you had the chance to start over, do it all again, would you change anything?”

“I…”

“You don’t think you would?”

“I think… people are incredibly stubborn, and, even if I was taken back to the beginning, I can’t imagine a reality where I don’t make the same mistakes.”

“That’s a rather stubborn thing to say.”

“I still see myself as ‘people.’”

“So you believe in fate? That you were meant to be here?”

“Not… exactly. I believe in moving forward, and learning from the past. My mistakes define me just as much as my successes do. If I could go back, do things different, I wouldn’t be me, and I’m not sure I want that.”

“I see. I can’t believe I agree with you on that.”

“We’re truly ugly people, aren’t we?”

“Ha, you could even say ‘hideous.’”

I sat back, more drained than I had anticipated.

“Thirty minutes,” D said. A reminder for me, and a sentence for Benny.

“Thanks for the heads-up,” I said to D. I turned back to Benny. “That went by faster than I thought it would.”

Benny’s face was hard to read, a dark look in her eyes.

“That’s too bad. I was hoping we’d go for a while longer.”

“I’m already beat. This, on top of everything else that happened tonight, I’m shocked you can go another round.”

“You should be the one with the endurance. You’re still young, after all.”

Benny lowered her head.

“And besides, my life is sort of depending on it.”

I looked at Benny. There was something… different, about her.

Nothing explicit had changed, though. She was still there, restrained, sitting on the tarp. Couldn’t run, couldn’t hide. The gold blazer, the black leggings. Her ponytail, her tan skin. Her makeup. She was still Benny.

Yet, there was that quality to her.

Benny looked at me.

No. Something was different, but not with her. With me.

The dim of the flashlights illuminated her, illuminated us, and there was a warmth to it, that I hadn’t noticed before. A certain sentimentality, and she glowed in that light.

It wasn’t the traditional sort, but there was beauty, there, that struck me in a way that managed to leave an impact.

We looked at each other. The silence was shared, but it had different meanings for each of us.

Then, I broke that silence.

“I won’t kill you.”

Benny arched an eyebrow.

“You… won’t kill me.”

She said it slow, deliberate, as if repeating it made it more real.

It did. I had made up my mind.

“I tried to find it in my heart, the anger I would need to hurt you, and then to end your life. And funnily enough, I didn’t even need to try that hard. It was easy. It’s just… right there, sitting on top of everything else. But, digging a little deeper, I found something else. Something new.”

“And that was?”

“An understanding,” I answered.

“Don’t pity me,” she said, growling the second word.

I shook my head.

“Not pity. I don’t want you to look at me in that way, so I won’t do the same for you.”

“How noble of you,” Benny said. She started struggling with the restraints around her ankles. “Now help me up.”

I let her struggle a bit more, until she realized she wouldn’t receive any help.

Slow, but Benny caught on. She stopped moving, and stared back at me, very carefully.

“You’re fucking kidding me,” she said, voice breaking before she finished. She sounded like she was either about to laugh or cry.

“It’s not what you think,” I said, as if to reassure her. “I have another thing in mind.”

“What?” she asked. In that one word, I could hear it so clearly. Trepidation.

I answered not with words, but with actions. I removed my gloves, setting them by the knife. With my hands free, I felt how cold the air was on my skin.

I touched my face, and felt the mask. The hard, cold plastic.

I hid my face with my hands, lowering myself. I undid the strap around my head.

The mask clattered to the floor.

I raised myself, taking off my hood. Benny and I looked at each other.

She took it all in, studying my face. Her eyes darted from one detail to the other. Up, down. From my forehead to my chin. Not a freckle or mole would slip by her, it felt like.

I pushed some hair away from my face, fixing it. I averted her gaze. The sudden and heavy attention had me strangely flustered, but it was also what I wanted. A paradox.

“I’m not at my best right now,” I said, just to say something. “I’ve had a busy night.”

I waited for a comment, a response from Benny. None came. The now all-too familiar stillness returned.

Couldn’t avoid it forever. A sharp inhale through my nose, and I faced Benny.

Shadows were cast on her face. Hard to read.

“Hey,” I said.

“You’re… just a kid,” she said, nearing a whisper. “You’re just as young as her.”

She was referring to D.

“I’m not that young,” I said. I made my back straight, so the shadows would fall differently on my face. “Surprised?”

“Not surprised, no. When I… visited the school, I had an idea in my head of who to look for. You’re not too far removed from that image. Maybe you’re a little thinner, a little more pale, but that isn’t what scares me.”

Benny chuckled, or at least she tried. It came out more strained.

“What does scare me, is this sickening feeling at the pit of my stomach. It feels like I’m staring death in the face.”

Slow, nervous, I put my hands on Benny’s shoulders. It took an ungodly amount effort to get them to not shake.

“I’m afraid I can’t do anything about that,” I said.

Gently, I removed Benny’s blazer. It fell to a bundle behind her. She still had her sleeves on, due to the bindings.

I worked on the buttons on her shirt next, undoing them. My hands felt like they were moving on their own.

Benny reacted, and she went still, stiff. Exhaling softly, then more pronounced as I got to the lower buttons. I had robbed her of the ability to vocalize, to protest.

Wrong, this was all wrong.

But I didn’t stop.

I was drawing it out, taking longer to undo the next button. Not to waste time, not to question myself, but to stay in the moment. To turn it into a picture in my head. Framing it.

I finished the shirt, and pushed the fabric off her shoulders. She was still wearing the sleeves, but I had gotten to what I wanted.

Her shoulders were exposed, and my eyes trailed see to what else touched the open air. Her chest, rising and fall as she breathed. Her stomach. A thin, white line of skin peeked out from the waistline of her skirt. Benny gasped as my finger grazed it.

I wouldn’t go farther than this.

I stalled.

Benny managed to get out some more words, between periodic, shallow breaths. “If… you’re not intending to… kill me… what, exactly, are you planning?”

What was I planning?

I searched for an answer.

I spoke, but I found it almost impossible. Shaky, and soft.

“I still hold you responsible for everything. This, me. There’s… a catharsis that comes with finally getting what you want.”

“A catharsis?”

“Yes, and it’s a very sweet taste.”

“Um, I can leave if you want, put a sock on the door.”

That didn’t come from Benny. Someone else? But I was sure it was just the two of us.

Hazy, getting to my head. It was cold, but my body was heating up. My fingers traced around Benny’s shoulder, her skin smooth with sweat. I felt her body heat.

I leaned closer.

Benny remained there, making it easier for me to remove a strap off one shoulder, letting it hang. My lips brushed against goosebumps.

If I had left it there, it would have been a kiss.

But there was more to come.

I held her with my hands, keeping her in place. She’d want to move. I wouldn’t let her.

I opened my mouth.

My tongue grazed a salty taste, and then my teeth brought forth a sweeter flavor. Red.

Small noises, smaller sips, and this continued until I had my fill.

I found myself at the top of the factory, the breeze in my face and hair.

The air was fresher here than in the city. It soothed, and helped in bringing my thoughts back to other matters.

It was cool, calm, and I hadn’t felt more collected. But, could I call this peace? The question gnawed at the back of my mind, raw.

I walked, and Hleuco landed ahead of me, waiting for me as I approached.

He looked worse for wear. His feathers were ruffled, matted in some places, sticking out in others. He slouched, and leaned one way, favoring a leg. I remembered how he’d raise his chest, giving off a sense of pride and power. Standing tall. Now, it took all he had just to keep standing.

Hleuco was standing, though, meaning like me, he had won.

I saw what he had in his beak, what was stuck in blood and feather. Bits of a blue windbreaker.

Hello there.

I heard his voice.

I smiled, soft.

“We did good, didn’t we?”

I continued walking, passing him. He stayed as I crossed the roof, heading for the edge. I found D there, sitting.

I sat with her, setting my mask beside me.

Our legs dangled, and it was long way to the bottom. Should an accident occur, only one of us would have been able to survive that drop. Yet she was sitting here without a care in the world.

D gave me a glance, then turned her attention back to the city.

We watched the skyline for a while. The smoke was all but gone, now, but even from here, I could see the wisps that were left. All that remained of what was once a greater fire.

“You’re late,” D said. “We’re late.”

“Are we in trouble?”

D raised her shoulders, then dropped them.

“Nah. I’ve been in contact with them, but we really should be heading back.”

D gestured again.

“But, now I need a break.”

“I would say I’m sorry, but it would only half true.”

“No biggie,” D said. “Hard to believe we actually pulled this off.”

“Yeah, it’s been a long and crazy night.”

“We ended up cutting it close, but we got lucky.”

D rubbed her hands together in her lap for warmth.

“It’s the kind of luck that makes you wonder if something truly terrible is just around the corner.”

I didn’t want to think about that.

“Either way,” I said. “You managed to prove yourself to me. Congratulations.”

D made a fist, and drew it in close.

Yes!”

We laughed a bit, briefly amused by the exchange.

As D settled back down again, she fixed her jacket.

“Oh yeah. How’s… um, the lucky girl?” she asked.

Who else was she talking about?

“Not a concern,” I answered. “Benny’s not getting up.”

That was all I was willing to offer.

D didn’t press for more details. “You’re carrying her back to the van, though. She’s heavy, and my arms are tired.”

“Will do,” I said.

“So, you finally got her, in more ways than one. All that’s left is to give her up to the Ghosts, and you don’t have to be there for that. Your part is done.”

Done? I didn’t feel done.

“What’s next for V?” she asked.

What was next for me? I couldn’t go back to the apartment. That wasn’t home for me. I couldn’t go back to being Shiori’s daughter, or Katy and Maria’s best friend. They weren’t connected to me. I couldn’t go back to a life that didn’t fit, to fill a hole that wasn’t shaped like me.

And I didn’t want to.

Styx, Solace, Mister. The girl at the center of it all. Not everything from the list was checked off.

There’s still much to do. The fire still burns.

I answered her.

“I won’t pull back, that’s for damn sure. I’ll press forward. Don’t count me out just yet.”

“I like that,” D said, sounding satisfied. “You’re up for another game. I’m hyped.”

The breeze picked up, strong enough that it pushed, and I gripped to the ledge to stay in place. It was cold.

It died down, and I could relax again.

“Sorry to disappoint, but that’s not really my thing. Also, I kind of can’t.”

Turning to D, I realized that I had grabbed her arm, as if to secure her as well.

I let her go. “That, I can apologize for.”

“You don’t have to. I don’t mind that, particularly. No one’s going to object to holding hands with a pretty girl.”

“Hm?” I asked.

D looked at me. This time it was longer than a glance. “Yup, you are seriously pretty.”

I wasn’t expecting to hear that. “Um, thanks. I’ve never been told that before.”

Me, as in V, and not her.

“Really?” D questioned. “There had to be someone who’s told you that before. Like a boy at school, or your grandma? I dunno.”

“Nothing I care to remember,” I said. “Sorry.”

“Eh, it’s whatever. But I hope it made you feel better.”

I had to think about it. It was a compliment, but that sort compliment was better suited coming from a boy. I’d even accept it coming from anyone else’s grandmother.

From her?

“It did, I think. Thanks again.”

“Happy to oblige.”

We spent another minute looking towards the city again. The smoke was all clear, now. From a distance, it was like nothing had happened at all.

The hectic buzzing, the chaos. We’d have to return to it, eventually. Sooner, rather than later.

Another minute passed.

“I thought you were going to say more,” I said. “About me showing my face.”

“Um, besides having a tiny bit of… something, on your upper lip, then no. If not that, gosh, you’re already fishing for compliments?”

Flustered, I wiped my lip. “Not that. Earlier, when I was trying to get back to E-One, I had gotten… distracted.”

“Yeah?”

“I had to gather myself together, to keep myself going, and that involved, um, raising my voice a notch or two.”

“Make that like ten notches. You almost blew out my ear back there.”

“Sorry, again. I wanted to ask, also because your stunt back at the restaurant nearly gave me a heart attack, but, while I had gotten distracted, did you pick up anything, especially at the end?”

“At the end?” D asked. She put a finger to her chin, thinking. “Not really, no. Again, you almost blew out my ear, and I was focusing on other things. You can’t expect me to catch everything, especially when it didn’t sound like it was something I was supposed to catch.”

“I suppose so,” I said.

“And, about my stunt, anyone in Benny or Christian’s position would jump at that kind of bait, even if it was true or not. They were desperate, and I took that to my advantage.”

“I see.”

I got my clarification, but I couldn’t take any relief in that. A strange part of me expected her to know.

Want her to know.

“Was there something I had to catch?”

I held my tongue. I tasted juice in my mouth. Intoxicating.

I made my choice.

“My name,” I said. “I want to give you my name.”

“Is it not ‘V?’” D asked.

“It’s more a placeholder, for lack of a better word. I’ve already shown you my face, so I guess my real name would follow.”

“Shucks, you don’t have to, but if you’re up for it, then I won’t stop you.”

She turned to face me.

“I’ll give you mine, too.”

I wasn’t expecting to hear that, either. “It’s not ‘D,’” I asked.

“Placeholder,” was all she said, with a wide smile. Toothy, with a gap.

“Hm,” I said, giving myself some time to think. Tonight wasn’t just about finding Benny. It was about finding where I stood, how I functioned without her. Alexis. Without her connections and memories. And I did pretty well, when all was said and done. I got what I wanted, and I didn’t stumble where she would have fallen. I proved myself, as much as D proved herself. I didn’t need Alexis. Not anymore.

I’d rejected her memories, and her connections, and I succeeded. I won.

A flurry of feathers. Hleuco flew over our heads.

I watched him go, joining other birds in the distance. As he got smaller, he tested himself with a flap of his wings, but he’d falter, flounder in the air. He settled to keep his wings level, more of a glide than flight itself.

He slowly became a dot, and then he was gone. There was something melancholic about his departure. A sort of finality to it.

I willed him good luck.

I turned my attention back to myself.

Alexis had never declared a name to the world. That was her first mistake, the first stumble. She let the world give her a name, stamp an identity on her. Their perception on her warped, despite her attempts, and the world fought back. They rejected her, wanted her gone. She didn’t shape herself properly, and instead let others give her a shape neither wanted. She tried to get take back her name, her identity, but it was too little, too late.

Names were important, names were everything. Names held meaning, not only for the individual person, but to others. And she’d called herself Blank Face. No wonder she was overwritten.

She was a white canvas, painted over in blue. Now, red and black.

Names were important, names were everything.

I’d need a new name.

Like the dying spurts of a candle, I felt a spark. A faded memory, a connection that Alexis had. Brief and fleeting to her, but to me, I would use that. Another rock to build upon.

There.

I returned to D, giving her a smile of my own, and we exchanged first names.

Previous                                                                                               Next

Advertisements

056 – Minor Piece

Previous                                                                                               Next

Everything exploded.

Loud enough to rupture ears. Loud enough that my heart sank to my stomach and stayed there. Loud enough that my mind went completely blank.

It was so loud.

Deafening.

Like the whole world was crashing around me. Destruction.

Not like the movies. The sounds weren’t mixed or mastered, here. Just a stinging intensity. The hail of gunfire put everything in the red.

A bang, followed by cracks and pops occurring with equal intensity. Sharp, jarring. Noise. My ears were ringing, and it only added to the sense of chaos. I lost my sense of placement. Left and right, up and down.

Classroom. It reminded me of the classroom. The bodies, the-

That thought was overridden.

I didn’t lose my sense of direction. I clung to it. Ingrained in the very fiber of my being.

Retribution.

My body moved under the orders of my last conscious thought.

Arms close, wrapping around me. Not a reflex, not for comfort, but to secure.

The action was interrupted, then blocked from moving any farther. Something was in my grasp. Someone.

No time to check. No time to think. Just had to focus on getting down, and staying out of harm’s way.

And then, it was quiet.

Not silent, not completely, sound wasn’t absent. There was the harsh intakes of breath, the clicks of guns being reloaded and ready to fire again. And there was the high-pitched ring that sang in my ears.

Not silent, but a stillness that sat heavy in the air.

It was quiet.

It took some time before I realized I could move. Testing, I used my legs, rubbing them together. No issue there. No pain, it seemed like, coming from any other part of my body. I had made it out okay. Miraculously.

I tried breathing. The air was thick. Almost polluted.

Something squirmed in my grip, trying to wrestle itself away from me. Tried.

I tightened my hold, exercising just a fraction of my full strength. The movement stopped.

The stillness remained, giving me a chance to survey the situation in full. It felt like the light was attacking my eyes as I opened them, and I needed a second to adjust.

Bits and pieces. I couldn’t see much. I was on the floor, all my weight on one side. One arm was pinned down. A body. They were close, and their back, neck, and head blocked most of my view. A few loose strands from a ponytail got into my eyes, and I had to blink them away.

A body. They were close, and they were wearing a gold blazer.

My heart jumped in my chest at the realization. Faster and faster, all from how close she was. I finally had her in my grasp.

She couldn’t hide from me, or slip away like before. I had her. Finally. There she was, and here I was.

Just me, just her.

It was everything I ever wanted.

We were together.

Now it was simply a matter of getting out of here, and taking her with me.

Easier said than done, though.

I shifted us around, moving so I had a better position to work with. I wasn’t about to try and leave. I had what I wanted, but I was still trapped here.

And I couldn’t just fight my way out.

As the dust settled, everyone else started getting their bearings again. Barking orders, my ears still too out of commission to pick it up. Everyone’s attention was pointed in different directions. The side door of the kitchen, the vents above, each other.

Me and Benny.

Scattered, disorganized, but it didn’t take long for everyone’s attention to point in a particular way.

With guns reloaded and ready, Benny’s crew had me in their sights.

“Let her go,” one of them said, voice tight. Oh, I could hear, now. It was the man in the suit.

I adjusted my posture, pushing my weight more into Benny. She grumbled from the added pressure, but she didn’t try to fight me.

I was crouched over her, my foot pressed into the small of her back. I had my knife drawn, the blade right against her gullet. My other hand went to the back of her neck, helping keep her down. If I tripped, or if she tried to move, the result would be rather messy.

I used that as my leverage.

Tapping the flat of the blade on her throat, I gave my response.

“How about no? I worked too hard, I worked too long, and I gave up too much to get here. I earned this.”

That garnered more grimaces and piercing glares. Itchier trigger fingers. Best not to push them any further.

I looked past the man in the suit, at the others in Benny’s crew, and the other Ghosts. There were more guns in play than I had fingers. Not all were trained at me though, some of Benny’s crew were keeping the Ghosts in check. After that bang, the players on the board had moved around, but the overall situation snapped back to the previous state of being. A standoff.

I looked for Lawrence. I didn’t see him.

I saw the streak of blood that led away from the nearby table and chair, past the man in the suit.

Benny? I checked, but there was no pool of blood under her. She wasn’t bleeding. By process of elimination, then, it had to be-

“You’re cornered, Bluemoon,” the man in the suit said. His gun was still staring right at me. “There’s no variation of this that sees you getting out of here alive.”

“That’s where you’re wrong again,” I said. “And on two different counts. It’s not the Bluemoon, it’s V. Even your boss acknowledged that.”

Underneath my foot, Benny tried to speak, but it came out as a muffled, incoherent mess.

The man in the suit glowered.

“Fine,” he said. “V it is.”

“And what’s your name?” I asked. Had to keep them busy, distracted. If they were talking, they weren’t shooting.

“Christian,” he said.

“Nice name. See, now that makes it easier for us to get a dialogue going.”

“I’m not interested in talking.”

So much for that plan.

A shuffle, behind Christian. People were moving around, stepping out of the way as more people came into the kitchen. A momentary interruption from everything that was going on.

I would have used that as my opportunity, but Christian maintained his position. He hadn’t budged.

“Found anything?” Christian asked, eyes still on me. The question was for his partners behind him.

“Found something, alright.”

Two men approached Christian, struggling to walk a straight line to him. I immediately saw why.

Carried by the armpits, feet off the ground. D was kicking and twisting to try and get away, but two fully-grown men proved to be much stronger than one little girl. They brought her to Christian, stopping at his side.

“We caught her hiding in a box, out in the hall where that door lead.”

D continued to kick, even trying to go for Christian’s knee, but he was too far, and her leg was too short.

For her trouble, D received a smack in the back of the head. The hit was audible.

She yelped, and they yelled over her. “Pipe down!”

I felt a surge in my body, a charge. I wanted to rush them for laying hands on her. But I had to remind myself where I was, and what I was here to do.

Keep a hold on Benny, and they can’t do anything.

The hit was hard, but D recovered enough to scan the kitchen. She noticed me.

“Hi, V,” she said.

“Hi, D,” I said.

“I tried, but I guess it’s gonna have to take more than that. Insurance?”

Not a question, a suggestion. I nodded. Like Lawrence, she didn’t have her earpiece. We really had to play the rest of this out by ear, now.

“Oh, where’s Lawrence?” D asked, skimming the kitchen from her perspective.

“Follow the trail of blood,” Christian said. “You’ll find him.”

D looked down, and saw the blood go past her feet, and behind a counter where we both couldn’t see. D kicked again.

“You dummies! What did you-”

Another outburst, another hit. D piped down.

Christian gave her a glance, but he kept his eyes on me when he said, “Lawrence, you, and now her? Talk about an unholy union.”

“You know her?” I asked.

“I know her work.”

He left it at that. Not giving me much to work with.

“You, what was that, just now?”

I wasn’t sure if that was for me or D.

“Bring her up here, too,” Christian ordered, nudging with this chin.

The men listened, carrying D somewhere between me and Christian. Her feet dragged behind her as they moved. Now we were both in the gun’s sights.

“Answer me,” Christian asked. That time, it was clear he was talking to D.

“Firecrackers,” D said, sounding out of breath. “Up in the vents. Scared you, didn’t I? And I kick open one door and you guys blow up like it’s the Fourth of July or something. Y’all…”

D started shaking.

“Y’all crack me up.”

D started laughing, and she was struck in the head again. She kept laughing. It took three more, increasingly violent hits to get her to wind down.

At the final hit, D’s head slumped forward, and she was panting, sounding hoarse.

“Respect your elders,” Christian said. “You should have learned that lesson by now.”

“You’ll find…” D started, she had to take another breath before continuing. “That I’m very selective with what lessons I retain.”

“Then I’ll beat that lesson into you, and many more.” Christian looked to the two men. “Search her, make sure she doesn’t have any tricks up her sleeve.”

A small noise came from D. A giggle.

The two men dropped D, and she fell to the floor, on her knees, barely supporting herself with her arms. They began patting her down.

“And you,” Christian said, looking straight at me. It was my turn, again. “Let her go. Don’t make me repeat myself.”

“Take one step forward,” I said, “And Benny will have to breathe through a tube.”

“You won’t harm her,” Christian said, shaking his head. “You want her, for reasons only you are keen to. But you need her alive.”

“You’re right, I do need her alive, but what does that really mean? What does it mean to be alive? Break it down to the most basic definition, it’s a state of being. Having life. And you can harm someone while still keeping them alive. It’s just a matter of taking away what isn’t necessary. Lose an arm, you’ll live. Lose a leg, you can still moving around okay. Lose all four limbs? You’ll need assistance, but as long as you can eat, breath, and shit, you’ll live. Quality of life sucks, but you’re still alive. And how about the other stuff? Gouging out eyes, cutting out tongues, burning skin. Breaking bones. It’s nothing that’ll kill you. The brink of death is still a state of being. Take one step forward, and you bring Benny close to that brink. I need her alive, but I can harm her.”

Benny didn’t seem to like the sound of that. She struggled, mumbled. Little success in either venture, but she got her message across.

Christian’s gaze narrowed.

“I shoot you, then, right through the head. I’m a good shot.”

I paused.

“You say that, thinking it will stop me. You would be very disappointed.”

It was partially true. I had been shot before, and I was shot earlier tonight, but they weren’t shots through the head. This body might survive… but would I?

I wasn’t sure, and I wasn’t about to put that to the test.

Christian stood there, his gun still out in front of him. If his arms were getting tired, he didn’t show it on his face.

We were at a standstill. I couldn’t move, or I might die, and Christian couldn’t move, or Benny would get mauled. And the first scenario had the implied risk of Benny getting injured, too.

There must be a way out of this.

I willed that thought to D.

“Christian, I think I have something.”

Of the two men that were searching D, one stood, holding a device in his hand. “Found this in her jacket.”

Christian gave it a quick look, then looked at it again, for a longer time. I didn’t move.

“A tablet?” Christian asked.

“Ah, crud,” D said, head still down.

The two men grabbed her and brought her up, making her stand. They didn’t take their hands off of her.

“What is this?” Christian questioned.

She lifted her head, facing Christian.

“I thought you didn’t like repeating yourself.”

He looked like he was about to snap.

“What’s on it?” he then asked.

D hesitated, her head down again.

“Crud,” she said.

“Tell me,” he said, teeth gritting together.

D didn’t answer, of the two men that held her, the one who wasn’t holding the tablet raised his free hand. A smack to the back of her head.

D squeaked, and her head drooped, hair obscuring her face.

The stillness stretched. Christian wasn’t going to ask again, instead waiting for D to finally give up an answer.

And then she did.

“Notes… crucial to our plan,” D breathed. “And drafts of other plans. Backups. Scribbles, really. There’s some other stuff on there, too.”

“Like what?”

She tried raising her head, only to lower it again.

“Personal stuff. Where other gangs keep their stashes. Drugs, weapons, money. Names, too. As… a bargaining chip.”

“Names?” Christian’s gaze shifted, from me to Benny. “Could use those chips as our ticket out of here. What kind of names?”

“The Bluemoon’s secret identity.”

It was like a shockwave. Everyone reacted. Myself included.

Christian looked right at D. I was too caught off guard to make a move. And I wanted to see what exactly she was up to, what she meant.

“The Bluemoon’s secret identity?” Christian repeated, but he was being serious.

“I’m not stupid,” D said. “I keep a lot of notes, I’m thorough. Otherwise I wouldn’t be able to last.”

Craning her neck, D looked at the two men that were detaining her, then at Christian. “Benny came to make a deal, how about a counteroffer? Let me go, that tablet’s yours.”

My eyes went wide.

Benny gurgled, and I was reminded that she was there. I was strangling her. I loosened my grip, but not by much.

“D,” I said, anger creeping in my voice.

She had the gall to look at them when she gave her terms, but she couldn’t bear to show me her face.

She’s selling me out.

Wait, I had to think. There was no way she knew that bit of information. The name that wasn’t my name. There was only one person that knew, and they were dead. There was no way D knew.

Right?

Something’s not right here.

Wait a minute…

Oh god.

A flash of a memory. The hooded figure, decked in blue. The declarations I used to fight it off.

I went cold.

Christian questioned her. “You’re willing to walk away from this?”

“If it means walking away from this. I can start from scratch again. It’ll take forever, but it’s a fair trade-off.”

D,” I said, harder that time. Seething. I was so close, and she was threatening to take away everything.

“Shut up,” Christian told me, gun still pointed and ready. “You’ve lost this game.”

He turned his attention to D. “You can let go of her.”

The men complied, releasing D. She was standing on her own now, but slouched. She started fixing her hair, massaging her head.

“What’s the password?” Christian asked.

“No password,” D said, tossing her hair back with one hand. “Just swipe it and you’re in.”

“Let me verify it, and it looks legit, you’re free to go.”

“Okay.”

It’s like I’m not even here right now.

Christian nodded at the man with the tablet, and let him be the one to turn it on.

He pressed the button on the side.

Stop him.

But I’d lose Benny.

They’ll find out. They’ll ruin everything.

We weren’t sure of that.

I struggled to find a proper course of action. I hesitated.

While I was drowning in my uncertainty, he swiped the tablet.

I held my breath.

The tablet was facing Christian. Only he had a good look at the display, and all I could do was gauge his reaction.

His expression was blank.

“I don’t understand,” he said.

“Follow the instructions,” D said. “It’ll make sense.”

Christian stared at the tablet, then took it from his partner. He started heading towards me.

“Hey!” I yelled, my knife still on Benny’s throat.

“Just… following instructions,” Christian explained.

D spoke, too. “It’s okay, V, let him.”

Christian approached, and I remained wary.

“Stop there,” I said, when he was a foot away. He stopped.

Christian bent down, and flipped the tablet, having it face me. He lowered it so even Benny could see it.

Black letters on a white canvas, the letters were sloppy and uneven, as if drawn with a finger instead of a pen. A poorly done smiley face was done on the side, too.

For Benny’s eyes. Swipe right.

Benny twisted herself, trying to get her arm out from under her. My weight prevented her from getting anywhere.

“Set the tablet down,” I ordered.

Christian set it down, flipping out a stand on the back of the tablet’s case to let it stay upright on its own.

“Back away,” I ordered, tapping the knife against Benny’s throat again.

Christian backed away, but his gun was still trained on me. The standoff remained.

I eased off of Benny, but only by a margin. Benny took the cue, and wedged her arm free, reaching towards the tablet in front of her.

“Remember where you are,” I told Benny. “Who’s allowing you a bit of freedom. Abuse it, and I abuse you.”

Benny grumbled, and I took that as her understanding the situation. She moved her head to get a better look at the tablet, and with her only free hand, she swiped right.

The picture changed.

A hospital bed, a man resting. Tubes ran into his arms, his nose, a device attached to his finger. Blankets covered his waist, over his stomach, but his face was visible. Eyes closed, mouth open. Either asleep, or knocked out by anaesthesia.

The room was dark, but the subject cast in a bright light, and source coming from whatever device had taken the photo.

“Who is this?” Benny asked, sounding rough.

“I think you know,” D said. “Not everyone from your crew is standing in this kitchen.”

Benny swiped again, and again. Again.

Every picture was similar, but not exactly the same. Each consecutive picture was closer to the man in the bed. From the whole bed in the frame, to the foot of the bed, to the side, to his face, eyes closed and mouth open.

In the very last picture, the angle changed again, higher up, the man still visible. But he wasn’t the only one in the shot this time.

D was in the shot, holding the tablet high, placing herself right up against the man’s face. She held up a victory symbol.

A selfie.

I couldn’t see Benny’s face, but sitting on top of her I felt her reaction. Her whole body tightened up, tensing at whatever the realization was.

“Oh no,” she said. It pained her to say, but I could catch it. “Oh no!”

“Oooh yeaah,” D said, drawing out the words. I saw her face as she mocked her.

She wore a toothy grin. Vulpine, though a tooth was missing.

“Benny, what?” Christian questioned. He turned to D. “What did you do?”

Benny answered him with a single word.

“Roland.”

Christian let his mouth drop.

“Ah crud,” D said, that grin never leaving her. “You guys got bamboozled.”

Another shockwave. Christian jumped back, so D and I would be more in his gun’s range. The men that held D went after her again, but she ducked down, rolling away. She got up and ran towards me, stopping at my side, hands raised.

“Nah ah ah, we’ve been so well behaved, it’d be a shame to be so rash, now.”

D was taunting them, when we were just barely keeping them back.

This better work.

Benny was fighting me, now, trying to break away from me. I had to press the knife a fraction harder against her throat to calm her down.

“Explain,” Benny said, straining, breathing hard. “Now.”

“Wow, I was really on edge, there. I couldn’t just tell you to open up the thing, or you wouldn’t have felt compelled enough to do it. Had to make up a whole bit about information to entice you guys. And you fell for the bait, and hard. You guys really are desperate.”

Christian repeated after Benny. “Explain, now.”

“Don’t worry, I will, that’s part of the fun. Last night, among so much other stuff, I was doing a little hospital hopping. I was actually looking for someone else, but guess who I found in the meantime?”

“But that’s impossible,” Benny said, exasperated but weary. Being on her stomach took more air out of her than she could use to speak. “We went through the proper channels, using the right doctors. They don’t snitch or let anything leak. It’s against their code.”

“Code, schmode,” D said, “A magician never reveals their secrets. But, that’s not what really matters. Double-tap the button at the bottom, there.”

Benny pressed the home button on the tablet, twice, in quick succession.

It switched to another app.

The tablet displayed another picture. Grainy, but it was the same image. The hospital bed, Roland. He was still asleep. It wasn’t as bright, though, most of the light came from a lamp in the background, and the ambient bulbs and screens running next to him.

“Wave hi, Jordan!” D said.

From under the picture, a hand emerged, palm facing us. It was lightly wrapped in bandages. The hand waved, and the screen shook, too.

I could feel Benny starting to sweat. Quickly checking my knife, I saw a small bead of water drip from the tip.

“It’s a live feed,” D said. “And he can hear everything that goes on here. If you shoot me or V, or if we just give the word, Jordan pulls a few plugs, removes a few casts and bandages, and then he’s out before anyone there gets the chance to notice. Maybe more, if he’s up to it?”

D spoke louder for her last question. Jordan’s hand gave us a thumbs-up.

Benny coughed, wheezing, due to my foot, my weight on her back.

“You… wouldn’t…”

“Hey, that’s all up to you. New deal. Me and V get to walk out of here, unharmed, and we get to take Benny with us.”

Christian laughed, but it sounded like Benny, right before D’s ambush. Wild. “As if we’re letting you walk out of here with our boss!”

“You are, and you will,” D said. “And I know exactly why you will.”

“And why is that?”

“It’s been over a week since you attacked the school. Over a week. You had all the time in the world to leave the city, and hey, I even came up with a few ways for you. You could’ve left in smaller groups, you’ve taken the long way and hopped the border in another state. You could’ve even set up a meeting with the Ghosts before all this. But you didn’t.”

No one responded. An invitation for D to continue.

D continued.

“Why? Well, it wasn’t clear to me until I laid eyes on that handsome man over there.” She pointed to the tablet on the floor. “You were waiting for him to get better. You couldn’t leave until he recovered enough to move without medical attention. And from what I saw, you would have waited for a long while. Broken arm, fractured ribs, severe burns. That takes time.”

I could feel Benny slump underneath me.  The fight had all but left her.

This was our final play, our last-ditch effort to get Benny to comply, in case we ended up in a pinch like this. Our insurance. I just didn’t know how D would lead up to that.

She had a knack for making things complicated.

It was scary.

But, enticing them by claiming she knew my secret identity. Genius.

“You’re wrong,” Christian said. “We have other matters to deal with before we can leave. Roland isn’t our highest priority. It’d be great if he gets better by the time we’re ready to go, but if he isn’t, then it’s a loss we’ll have to take.”

“Maybe,” D conceded. “You might have a point there. Except there’s a difference between him and those you already left behind. Like Sofia, and Samuel.”

“How do you know about that?”

D ignored him. “But you won’t leave without Roland. Even with the entire city, from good guys and bad guys out to get you, you won’t leave. In fact, you can’t. And you know why. Unlike them, he isn’t disposable. He’s family.”

“Paco,” Christian said. The fight was starting to leave him, too.

“And that is the not-so small detail that gives us the win. The Chariot, El Carruaje… You were originally here as representatives of larger cartel. La Rueda. And your real boss, Paco, or El Tunante, isn’t gonna be happy if you leave his nephew behind.”

D answered before Christian could repeat himself. “I’m thorough.”

Again, the stillness stretched. No one said a thing. Not Christian, not any of his partners, not Benny. The deal was clear, the terms obvious.

It was just a matter of them wrapping around the fact that they lost.

Checkmate.

Benny wasn’t moving, hardly breathing.

I wasn’t moving, hardly breathing. I wanted to say something, add more, involve myself, but I was lost for words.

I had my role here, though. I had to keep Benny pinned, or our position didn’t have legs to stand on.

Time passed.

Benny spoke. It was so quiet, but the words still carried.

“You win. I give up.”

Her crew needed a moment for that to sink in. I needed a moment.

We won.

“Benny, por favor,” Christian pleaded. “You don’t have to-”

Benny screamed. Prolonged, raw. Not a word, but an emotion.

Despair.

She trailed off, then sputtered, coughing. Her body shook.

“Don’t you lay a fucking hand on him,” Benny said, for all to hear. “I’ll come with you.”

“Smart,” I said, taking over. “Get up.”

I got off of Benny, my legs already aching, but it was easy to ignore. D gathered her tablet, then helped as I lifted Benny to her feet.

I put my knife to the small of her back, a simple but effective reminder. My other hand reached around her neck. She was taller than me.

I watched the others.

Christian didn’t react, he didn’t move or say anything. He finally had his gun down, arms at his sides. Defeated.

I nudged Benny, and she walked. The three of us moved as a group, careful not to trip over bullets and casing.

D stuck her tongue out at the two men that held her. They didn’t react.

It was odd, even awkward as we walked past Christian and the other leftovers of El Carruaje. The stares, the frustration that festered within. As if they were trying to kill me and D with looks alone.

But they couldn’t, and there was nothing they could do about it. All they could do was stand there and watch, and let the emotion sit.

“Jesus, what did they do to you?”

I turned when I heard D break formation, going ahead of us. She ran to a corner of a counter.

Lawrence was there, on the floor, bleeding. His knees were to his chest.

“Got shot, duh,” he said. He had to force it out. “They dragged me here, out of the way.”

“Shoot, shoot,” D muttered. She was clearly worried. It was obvious in her tone.

D’s hands hovered over Lawrence’s body, unsure where to help. Her head popped back up, looking around in haste, hair flying. “You!”

She pointed to one of the few Ghosts in the back. A girl. She pointed to herself.

“Yes, you! Get over here and get him some help!”

She looked between D and the girl who still had a pistol on her, though it was half-raised, now.

“Don’t worry about that, they touch you and Roland dies! Get over here, and a grab towel!”

She jumped, hearing D raise her voice, shrill. She hurried over to Lawrence’s side, grabbing a towel from a nearby rack along the way.

D turned back to Lawrence. “Where were you shot?”

He gestured, somewhere near his chest, closer to the shoulder.

“Oh god,” D said, sighing at the end. “Might not be fatal. Here, put pressure on it, and keep it there until we get someone else to handle it.”

D stood up, giving room for the Ghost to help Lawrence.

“What’s it to you?” Lawrence asked, wincing. “I thought you were a heartless bitch.”

“Hush. You work on making it through this, or I’m shooting you myself.”

D then left Lawrence, walking in front this time.

Surprising, seeing that from her.

I pushed Benny again, and we moved.

We stopped again when we reached the door. Our exit out of the kitchen. D approached one of the other remaining Ghosts.

“Call the others,” D said. “Tell them they can pull back now. You need numbers if you want to keep an eye on them. Make sure they don’t pull anything, and you’ll be free to take Lawrence and have him looked after. Oh, except Jordan. He stays until we’re all done.

“What if they do try to pull something?”

“If they try to fight back or sabotage this, I’ll know, and they know what happens after that. Round them up, have them give up their guns. It’s okay if we don’t have everything, we have who matters.”

“And where are you going?” the Ghost asked.

D turned to me. I didn’t know what to say. I was still trying to process this.

“Out,” D ventured. “We’ll be back. And to you peeps…”

She directed the next part to Benny’s crew.

“We promise you’ll see Benny again. You can count on it.”

She didn’t clarify whether or not Benny would be alive when they saw her again. Now that I finally had her, I started asking myself the same question.

Is Benny going to live to see the morning?

The debate in my head was ongoing as I pressed into Benny’s back, urging her through the door.

“We’re going,” I said, lost in thought.

“Bye bye!” D said with a wave. “And someone tell Mrs. Martinez I said sorry for making a mess of her kitchen!”

We moved out the kitchen, finally, into the dining area of the restaurant. It was just us, now. Me, D, and Benny. No one to interrupt, no one to interfere.

And I still couldn’t fucking believe it.

“You can sit here,” D said, “And I’ll bring the van around. We’ll wait for the rest of the Ghost to show up, and we can take it from there.”

“Alright,” I said, still taking it all in. “Alright.”

“You okay? You kinda went quiet after a while.”

“I’m alright, I’m just… I don’t know, I’ve told myself, for so long, that this day would come. Now that it’s here, now that I have it, I…”

I went quiet. Still.

Benny didn’t even have anything to say. She hung her head. Too dejected, I assumed, to do anything, anymore.

“I get it,” D said. “Just stay put, and take deep breaths.”

I nodded.

“We won.” she said.

We won.

Repeating it, over and over, in my head. I still couldn’t believe it.

We fucking won.

I nodded.

With that, D left, going through the front door. Through the glass, I saw her run off, crossing the sidewalk, to the other side of the street.

She was gone before I could think about stopping her. Asking her questions. But I wasn’t up for talking, myself.

Later, then.

So many things on my mind. If things were really handled here or not, if Lawrence would be okay. If D actually knew my civilian name.

And yet, I couldn’t give a fuck.

I had Benny, and she wasn’t getting away. It was everything I ever wanted. The floodgates opened, and I felt a pure sort of relief that overwhelmed me. Peace of mind.

I didn’t know what to do with myself, and I didn’t know what to do with Benny. But that was okay. I had the inklings of a start.

I cleared my throat. It itched.

It was generally considered rude to play with food. However, after a long night of hard work, a girl should be allowed to indulge herself.

Previous                                                                                               Next

055 – Vultures

Previous                                                                                               Next

Back to square one.

But I had no clear path to getting there, though.

Up ahead? No way. Behind me? Again, no way.

Left, the giant hole leading outside? Maybe, but I’d be even more out in the open.

Right-

No way in hell was I going right.

I only had a few seconds before bullets would start flying, and I’d be torn to shreds. Had to make a decision, a path to take. A direction to go.

Down

The bullets flew before the thought could fully take hold. I went with that draft of an idea.

The blast affected the walls, ceiling, and floor. A decent-sized hole was taken out from the floor, right by my hands.

I dove for it.

Hot, piercing. Tearing through me.

The deafening noise, the sudden darkness, it debilitated, and I lost control of my movements. The hole wasn’t neatly formed. I bumped and broke through wiring and pipes and other material. I got stuck partway through, but my weight ended up breaking through the rest of the stuff.

I fell, and collapsed onto another floor, the lower level. The gunfire above was hardly dampened.

I scrambled to find my way to my feet, but a searing pain kept me down. I fell again, flat on my face.

I’d been shot.

I felt it in my shoulder and hip. A clean shot through my right shoulder, a messier one through my side. A bullet was stuck in my left hip, and it flared in pain when I tried to stand. I couldn’t move properly.

Hot, hot. Bullets were flying, flaming bits of metal. It was fucking hot.

With my good arm, I touched my face, the back of my head. No wound there. I felt some relief, but not much. I was still injured.

Operating on half-thoughts, responding to certain and immediate stimuli. Pain, move. Safety, find.

I felt around for my knife, and found it among a small collection of wires, drywall, and other bits of metal. I balled my hand around the handle and crawled to get moving, in case someone tried to shoot at me through the ceiling. Pulling with my good arm, dragging my legs behind me.

Maneuvering was slow, but my shoulder started healing enough that I could use it. I hauled my arm out in front me, testing it. Heavy, tight around the shoulder itself. It’d be another minute until I had full functionality.

My hip, however, was glacial in its healing. I still couldn’t stand, or even move my foot or wiggle my toes. How bad was the hit? How far in was that bullet?

Wincing, I crawled to the nearest cubicle. Another office space, but it seemed like I was alone. If anyone else was here, they didn’t announce themselves after I crashed through the ceiling.

Had to hide for now, recuperate. Had to figure out what to do with my hip. The bullet was lodged in there, preventing my healing from fully doing its job. I’d have to get it out, somehow.

I placed myself under the desk of a cubicle, pulling my one good leg towards me, and letting the other leg rest, flat on the floor. With my back against the surface of the cubicle, I allowed myself a moment to breathe.

I could barely breathe.

The best I could manage were short, quick huffs. Like a snake had coiled around my chest, constricting me. I didn’t even get shot in the chest. But my body felt as though it was seizing.

My ears were ringing, my head and heart were pounding. My lungs were getting less air with every breath I tried to take.

And my thoughts couldn’t tear themselves away from that bullet that nearly went through my head.

It echoed. Loud. So loud that it discombobulated. I was losing track of who I was, where I was, and what I was originally trying to do.

Loud.

It echoed. Why? That bullet never even touched me, yet I was freaking out, my body just barely under my own control.

And why now? I’d experienced loud sounds, and I had a wandering memory that informed me that I’d been at shot before. I couldn’t make sense of this, or anything else.

I shut my eyes tight, drawing my arms and my only usable leg as close as possible. Voices were shouting in my head, muffled as murmurs, but amplified to a painful degree. Screaming, shouting. Classroom. It reminded me of the classroom. The bodies, the sweet fragrance they produced. The blood.

I couldn’t function like this. I still had the bullet in my hip, I still had to get it out. But I had little control over my mind and my body. Couldn’t function.

No, this couldn’t be me. Something else. I had to section it off, then discard it. This wasn’t me.

It wasn’t.

You’re right, this isn’t you.

Among the sea of voices fighting for my attention, one in particular stole my attention.

It was my own.

Cautious, I squinted into the gloom. I saw something move.

A solid as mist, but there was a general form to it. I could make out an outline.

Humanoid, but stretched out in places. Arms, legs. Hooded, covering the eyes, but two distinct, black lines dripped down snow-white cheeks, leaking from where I’d expect the eyes to be. A darker spot of black was seeped onto the top of hood, and its head lolled one way, as if the neck couldn’t support the head properly. Limping, lumbering forward. To me.

Between the dark it passed through, and passed through it, I saw dark streaks of blue.

I stopped breathing.

The figure lurched, stopping right at my foot. I wanted to pull that leg back, but it wouldn’t budge.

It stood there, staring at me.

Look at you,” it said.

I tried backing away, but the wall of the cubicle stopped me.

This is what I meant by getting more purchase, a stronger foothold. You keep relying on me, and in turn, my roots dig a little deeper. And in time, you know where that leads.

I shuddered, and sucked a sliver of air between my teeth. It was the most I managed.

“Get… out of my head,” I said, exhaling the words.

Compartmentalizing helped, I felt my body starting to relax, the convulsions less intense, but it also lead to this.

I sectioned it off, but it became harder to discard.

Something about its stiff, stilted posture changed. A twitch. A response to what I had said.

Funny, whose head do you think you’re in?

The convulsions came back, even stronger now. Harsher. My head felt like it was about to split down to the skull.

No more air in my lungs, but I yelled at the top of them.

The figure took a step closer, but I was done being here.

Still yelling, I took my knife, and plunged into my side. My hip, where I had been shot.

I started digging.

I poked around the wound, hitting flesh, blood, and bone. I flicked the blade out, and all three splattered out. I stabbed myself again. The pain was almost too much to bear.

But I carried on.

I was an inch away from blacking out, but I hit something, softer than bone but harder than muscle, the blade was pushed away. The wound flared up with an even more intense heat, and I could feel the different parts of my hip move around. Flesh, blood, bone. I wasn’t in a good enough position to see it for myself, but something was happening, there.

Before it closed up, the wound spat out any and all foreign objects, and I could move both legs again.

I brought both legs in, and then I kicked.

I pressed myself off the floor, pushing my back more into the wall behind me. It gave way, snapping away from the other cubicle walls, and I fell along with it.

I had a way out, though, the ability to make distance. I flipped onto my stomach, and rushed to my feet.

Eyes wet, I tried blinking, but it made everything worse. Dark, blurry. I hurried away from the figure, but I was stumbling, knees weak.

I was frantic.

“Get away from me! Get out of my head!”

I bumped into a wall. A real wall or the side of a cubicle, I wasn’t sure. I couldn’t see very well, and I was screaming to get my head in order, and to keep moving. Trying to find sense in the nonsensical.

I was wholly concentrated on the concept of forward.

“I am V! I am holdfast and set in stone! And on this blank slate I swear I will carve out my own name! I will prove myself, and I will take what’s mine!”

My words carried an edge to them, sharp at the ends. I screamed my throat raw.

“You had your chance, and you failed! Now it’s my turn, and I will accomplish what you could not, and then some!”

I heard a group rush onto the floor from two different ends, their shouts joining my own. I made haste, but I had to bring my shoulder against a wall, using it to guide me forward.

I didn’t turn back, couldn’t waste the time and energy. Too slow. They were there, and the figure was there, too.

“This body is mine, this mind is mine! I am in control, I wear the crown! Just try and take it from me!”

I had to keep screaming, or else I’d lose my sense of purpose and direction. Risk be damned.

I heard the bullets fly, and I ducked my head on instinct. Leaning on the wall, I started running.

“I reject your memories, and I reject your connections! I refuse to let them tie me down! I am not Alexis Barnett!”

The ends of my statements were drowned out by the bullets storming the room. I was running to the other side of the space, another wall, lined with windows. The bullets soared overhead, and one broke a pane of glass ahead of me. I threw my shoulder into the opening, into the jagged edges.

Glass rained as pieces around me as I fell.

Two, three, how many stories it was, I slammed into pavement, and hard.

But, the crash did help in reorienting me, somewhat. More bones broke in some places, and definite bruises, but the healing now worked to get myself centered and present. Aware. I was coming to.

The ringing in my ears subsided as I worked myself to my feet.

A sign, V, gimme a sign you’re here.

A voice came through the haze of my mind, helping me get back on track to what was happening right now. Helping me focus.

The earpiece. I still had it on.

“D,” I said, clearer than I had anticipated. I expected something more rough.

There you are. You scared me, thought I lost you for a second.

“I’m here,” I said, looking around. “I’m mostly here.”

Good, because I need you. Where are you right now?

“Right now?”

I checked around.

I was in an alley by the side of the building. Long, but I could see what was going on at both ends.

Red lights flashed at a consistent pattern, some blue appearing at regular intervals. Ambulances and cop cars. Gunfire still rang out, but it was contained in the building I had just jumped out of. Through the window.

I’ve been doing that a lot, lately.

I tested my thoughts, and they were my own. Checking again, I didn’t see the figure. It wasn’t here.

But that did not mean it would stay like that.

“I’m in an alley, right outside the FSM base. F…”

F-Six,” D offered.

“Yeah.”

Are you hurt, can you move?

Did that concern come from a genuine place, or did she want to see this plan through?

“Got shot at, got hit, but I’m fine now. I can move.”

Ah right, you’ve got that going for you.

Palms flat on the ground, I brought myself up, getting on my feet once again. More shouting, from both ends of the alley.

Police. Must have heard when I crashed through the window.

Surrounded again.

I scanned up and down the alley, and bolted one way.

It forced me to run towards one group of cops, but the alley branched off in another direction. I made a hard left.

A chain-link fence. Almost three times my height.

I leapt over it, pressing my foot against the side of a building for more leverage, my hands on the top of the fence to smooth the process along.

I didn’t lose any speed as I touched ground.

“I’m on the move again,” I said. Even though I was making a break for it, I got the words out. Clear.

Wish I could say the same for myself. Traffic’s got super crazy, everything’s backed up. Still at F-Four. You mentioned being mostly here, you know where we’re headed, right?

Running, staying on the move, it helped make my mind run, too.

The plan. The fires. The Ghosts. D. Lawrence. Benny. E-One.

“E-One, where Lawrence said he had Benny.”

Bingo.

“Do we know any more than that?”

Sadly, no. Lawrence isn’t responding.

That was a problem, and a lack of communication made this all the more suspect. Were we being led to a trap?

What, exactly, was waiting for us, back at E-One?

The alley branched off again, and I took the turn. The fence was enough to hold off my pursuers, buying me time. I was farther away from the FSM base, too, which meant less in the way of obstacles.

I ran faster.

“What do you think?” I asked. “Any ideas?”

Um, if Benny’s back at E-One, then the restaurant would be my first guess. Casa Martinez.

The Ghost’s base.

“I should have just stayed back if I knew she’d show up there,” I said.

Hindsight’s silly like that. At least we have a lead on Benny, now. We just need to get over there.

“Should we meet up?” I asked, thinking up other ideas, plans.

Nah,” D said. “We can communicate just as well, being separated. Chances are, you’ll get there faster than I will. Let’s meet at the restaurant.

“I was thinking the same thing. I’ll try to find one of Lawrence’s crew, maybe I can get some info from them.”

Yeah, I like that. I bet you’ll still beat me there.

“It’s a start. Okay, see you-”

I stopped.

I saw it, at the end of the alley.

I ran the other way.

Yeah, nope.

I found a fire escape I had passed earlier, and jumped to reach it. The first rung of the ladder was about ten feet high. I made it to the first level of the stairwell.

A squad of police appeared around the corner, running into this alley. Another group of them?

I ran up the stairwell, twisting and turning, higher and higher. Those cops probably had a visual on me, but I was already putting more distance between us.

They might have seen me, but they wouldn’t know it was me. The Bluemoon. I wasn’t dressed right, and aside from getting over the fence and reaching the stairwell, I wasn’t being obvious with my powers. From their perspective, it could be explained with some decent parkour.

What I was more worried about was that thing. The figure.

I was fine until it blocked my way.

I made it to the top of the stairwell, then, to the roof of the building. The last remaining wisps of smoke rose from three rooftops over. Still in F-Six. The border to E-Six was right there.

A single helicopter floated in place, high above the FSM building. Its attention was there, it wouldn’t notice me unless I made myself known.

Seeing the smoke as my marker, I knew which direction to go, how to get back to E-One. A straight line.

You have to stop doing that.

D was talking into my ear the whole time.

I stepped forward, getting ready to run some more.

“Sorry, I, I got distracted. Had to go another way.”

Stop getting distracted, then. I get thrown out of the loop when that happens. Hate that.

“I promise I’m here.”

Through my earpiece, I picked up the smallest of hums.

You better.

If this was a race, and E-One the finish line, I used D’s words as my mark to start. I sprinted to the edge of the building, and leapt across the street.

I wasn’t the only one soaring through the air.

I was being followed.

Being airborne, I had caught but a glimpse of the street beneath me. The activity was dying down, now being contained by the cops and other forces. People were tending those who were downed and managed to get back up, and others were gathering the ones who weren’t ever going to get back up again.

People were dead, down there. All due to a plan I had enacted. If there was any consolation to be found, it would be in the success of this mission.

But, in one corner of my vision, a blue figure moved to intercept me. As soon as my feet found a solid surface to cover, I dashed ahead. On the grid, I was going down the E column, there wasn’t a damn thing that had the power to stop me.

I was running across another rooftop, but the figure blocked my way, on the other side. I didn’t slow, stop, hesitate, or falter in any way.

“Move,” I said, “You are not getting another warning.”

The figure twitched, then bent its long limbs. It jumped, arms outstretched, reaching for me.

I sped up.

It would have hit me, brought me down to my knees, and I’d have another episode, one I’d might not make it back from. It didn’t hit me.

Hleuco swooped from up above, grabbing the figure by his talons. A hard push with his wings, and he flew to the clouds.

Clearer in mind, I was allowed a safe passage forward. I continued.

I knew they were visions, phantoms born from stress and trauma, but that didn’t make them any less real. They gave as much as they threatened to take away. Between it all, it was a struggle to find a balance.

I knew now, though, what would have to be broken away. Sectioned off.

I came to the end of a roof, and a street. Something down there grabbed my attention. Something real.

Two cars were stopped at a light, even though it was green. Both cars had their driver and passenger side doors opened.

People were huddled at the back, away from the cars. From here, I counted six total. Two of them were on the ground, being beaten by the other four.

Of the two cars, I recognized the farthest one.

It was the one that was being loaded up at the front of the restaurant. The people being beaten, they were Ghosts.

I dropped from the roof, getting on the sidewalk. Didn’t take many steps to make it to the car.

I wasn’t exactly concentrating on making this clean, just fast. One flew forward, slamming into the trunk of the car. One hit the curb, a mouthful of concrete. They dropped wooden bats as they were incapacitated.

No bullshit, no dancing around. I needed progress.

Two down, before anyone could really take notice.

The remaining two finally did, though, but I saw it in their eyes. Fear. They knew better than to stick around. To even try.

They fled.

I didn’t even have to use my knife.

However, I wasn’t here to loiter. I went to the least injured of the two, a man, and moved him on his back. I lifted his head, keeping him elevated.

He groaned.

Blood ran from his left ear to his chin. His eyes swollen shut. His lower lip was split at a corner, more blood flowing out. Anything resembling humanity had been beaten out of him.

If he was the least injured of the two, it said a lot about the other guy.

“Jonathan,” I said, surprised I could even recognize him in this state. “Nod if you can hear me.”

He nodded.

“Nod if you can talk.”

He didn’t nod.

“Who did this?” I asked. “FSM?”

He nodded.

“Alright, you don’t have to worry about them anymore,” I said. “But I need your help. I just heard from Lawrence that Benny’s back at E-One, maybe even at Casa Martinez. Do you happen to know anything about that?”

He didn’t move.

I asked him again. “Jonathan, you have to stay alert. This helps you as much as it helps me. Do you know-”

He started shaking his head.

“-anything regarding Lawrence and Benny,” I finished. He kept shaking his head, but more languid, now.

Nothing. Even he didn’t have a clue. No use.

The light up ahead changed from red to green, and the rumblings of an engine approached.

To my side, a motorcycle came to a stop. I looked at the rider.

Not a cop. The design of the bike, the uniform, it didn’t fit.

White, long brown hair tied back. Large, muscular frame, barely held back by the black leather jacket he was wearing. On his neck was a tattoo of a skull breathing fire. It even got over his Adam’s apple.

Like his jacket, the bike was black, too. I had little to no knowledge about cars and motorcycles and the like, but it looked more modified than anything I was familiar with. Its tailpipe was bellowing out exhaust, the metal of its engine was exposed, winding around the frame of the bike, heavy but thrumming with power. Life. It looked more alive than anything mechanical. Bestial.

I had a feeling I knew who the rider of this monster answered to.

“Are you going to stop me?” I asked the ferryman. “Is he?”

The ferryman smiled. It freaked me out.

He raised a hand, a finger pointing at me. Almost accusatory. With his index finger out, his lifted his hand again, along with the middle finger.

He gave me the victory symbol.

“Peace,” he said, as though he was correcting me. He was still smiling.

Interesting. I saw it as victory. I still did.

I wasn’t certain if this was another fight, but the ferryman answered that question for me. Never dropping that wide smile, he put both hands on the handlebars of his bike.

He drove away.

He and the growling of the bike’s engine faded into the distance, and I lost sight of him as he got around a corner.

That… was an odd encounter. I couldn’t make heads or tails of what that was supposed to mean, if there was any meaning at all.

I had other priorities, though. Lawrence and Benny.

The other Ghost stirred, sitting up, head in their hands. He was moving of his own power. Seemed like I was wrong about who was in better shape.

“You,” I said, “Take care of Jonathan.”

He glanced my way, and gave me a weak nod. Moving him slowly, I handed Jonathan over to his fellow Ghost.

I jumped back up to my feet.

“Hey D,” I said into the earpiece. I was already walking.

Wassup.

“Still stuck?”

I want to say I’m not, but it’s gonna be another while.

I caught her up. “I found Jonathan, he’s in a rough shape, no thanks to the FSM. He’s safe now, but he doesn’t know anything about E-One. I’m not liking the sound of anything of this, so I might just go on ahead.”

I’m cool with that. I’ll be right behind you.

“And,” I started.

“Yeah?”

I considered bringing up the ferryman, how he saw me, maybe even recognized me, but I decided not to bring it up. It wasn’t irrelevant, but it didn’t directly pertain to this matter, and it would only slow us down if I brought it up now.

And, that vibe he gave off… It wasn’t one that made me fear that all was lost.

She knew that feeling, all too well, and she was usually right about it.

By proxy, I knew that feeling, too.

“Never mind,” I said. “I’m heading back.”

My legs carrying me far, I was back on the roofs, an eye out for any other helicopters.

Anticipation, worry. I was filled to the brim with both feelings. If Lawrence was telling the truth, I was about to see Benny again. But there was also the chance that I was being led into danger, and everything I had worked so hard for might fall like dust between my fingers.

Casa Martinez. The building loomed from across the street. It wasn’t even that tall, made up of only the restaurant and a few office levels, but the feeling was palpable. Anticipation, worry.

The majority of the action that consumed East Stephenville was taking place in the middle of the ‘grid,’ with less people and activity the farther away I got. It even reached the point that I could walk the last two blocks with little trouble. I passed the occasional person, but my head was down, my hood was up, and my mask looked too much like an actual face in the gloom that no one would give me a second glance.

And here it was. The Ghost’s base. She had to be in there.

She’d better.

No one was outside, around the building, gang members or civilians or otherwise. No one to clue me in on what the situation was inside.

No hooded figure, and no Hleuco. Just me.

Even with no one around, I still looked both ways when I crossed the street.

“Going in,” I told D. “Taking the front door approach. Whatever goes down, I’ll try to manage until you get here. You have insurance?”

It’s all here. Hopefully it won’t come to that, and you can handle this without me. Still, I’m… almost there. Don’t have too much fun without me!

“Can’t say I will,” I said. I tested the front door to the restaurant, and found it unlocked. Even though the cardboard sign attached to the door said ‘closed,’ even though the whole building was dark.

I drew a long inhale as the door opened, and I drew out a long exhale as the door closed behind me.

Empty in here, too. Wooden chairs were put up on the tables, another signal that the establishment was done for the night. It was a Mexican restaurant, so the walls were a deep red, with green Christmas lights affixed around ornate plates, placed on the walls for display. In the middle of the area was a fountain, completely dry, and made of plaster.

I walked past the tables and chairs, and went to the kitchen. Light crept from the sliver of an opening.

I stepped through the door.

I blinked, having not been in a well-lit room since early evening. It was well past midnight, now.

Here they are.

This was where everyone had gathered.

Not many Ghosts, not many potential allies. Though, I wasn’t counting on them to have my back. We were only working together because of circumstance and convenience.

The rest were all new faces. Actually, no, that wasn’t true, I remembered some of them as I walked more into the kitchen. I couldn’t place any names, but I’d definitely seen them before.

They were part of Benny’s crew.

I arrived at the table at the far back of the kitchen, where we had our meetings, and where we hashed out this plan. My heart raced.

Benny.

She was sitting at the end of the table, facing me. For someone supposed to be in hiding, she looked ready for a night out on the town. Hair neatly tied, makeup on, bright red lipstick. She had on a gold blazer with a white dress shirt under that. The table prevented me from seeing what she wore at the waist and below.

Shame. I wanted to get a good look at her. Take her image in full. Savor it, before I tore it down.

I swallowed.

Standing behind her, to her right, was a man in suit. Tall, he looked strong. If I didn’t have powers, I would never think of messing with him.

Standing behind her, to her left, was Lawrence.

That basically confirmed my suspicions.

All eyes were on me. Benny and her crew had let me walk in, seemingly unsure of who I was. It wouldn’t take long before they’d find out, and it would all go to shit from there.

Everyone was armed.

“Lawrence,” I said. I had to pace out my words, to not let my swirl of emotions show. It was hard. “I came by for an explanation.”

“And you’ll get one, soon enough,” he said. He gestured to Benny. Her back was straight, she was prim and proper. “I believe you two have met?”

“Not formally, no, but that mask is big red flag. Lawrence, what is this?”

Her words were careful, unsure of this development of me being here. The man in the suit caught on, too, his shoulders becoming more square. Tense.

Oh.

“It’s your end, Benny. I’m not sorry, but this was over the moment you walked in.”

I had to stifle a laugh. She had no idea about any of this. She played herself.

Sorry, D. Looks like we’re having fun without you.

Benny’s face turned sour. She brought her hands together, resting on the table.

“You’re throwing away a good thing, Lawrence, by doing this. It’s a good deal.”

I was impressed that she still sounded measured, given this turn of events.

“What deal?” I asked. “Still looking for context, here.”

“Right,” Lawrence said. “I came back here to stock up on supplies, and I found them all here. Benny caught on pretty quick, that the Ghosts were involved, and she showed up to make a deal.”

“Wearing different colors isn’t enough to hide you,” Benny said, with a more vacant look to her eyes now. “I know your faces.”

Lawrence continued, ignoring Benny, ignoring her crew that had us outnumbered. “The deal was, if I assure her a safe passage across the border, she’d give me a position with the cartel she works with. La Rueda.”

“And what happens to the rest of the Ghosts?” I asked, keeping an eye on Benny and her surrounding crew. Having flipped the script on her was amusing in a cathartic way, but tensions were boiling here, and it wouldn’t take much for things to explode.

“I can pick who comes with me, and the rest fend for themselves. I get to work with a real boss, and I’m free from all the shit that’s keeping me down in this city. A fresh start, and a seat at a table.”

“A seat at the kitchen table,” I repeated. Partially repeated. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be the table in Stephenville.”

“Correct, it’s a more lucrative market there, too. But…”

Then, Lawrence pulled a gun from his jacket, and pointed it to Benny.

“You can take your fuckin’ deal and burn.”

Everyone jumped out of their skin. Even me.

Guns everywhere, pointed mostly to Lawrence and me. The man in the suit had his trained on Lawrence. I knew there were some behind me that I couldn’t see.

We were outnumbered, and we were outgunned. If one of us even coughed in a way that offended Benny, we were done for.

“Now you know where I stand,” Lawrence said, unwavering. “V, my apologies for not giving you a better heads up. Didn’t have a lot of time to myself when I encountered her.”

He tilted his head one way, showing that he didn’t have his earpiece. Only I knew what to look for in that gesture, what he meant.

“Apologies accepted,” I said, slowly. I tilted my head as well, trying to imbue my own meaning into it, hoping he’d pick it up.

That Benny was mine, and it was part of our deal.

He didn’t move, simply keeping his gun straight.

Benny, for her part, was letting a deep rage boil beneath her skin. She remained composed, though, her fingers still intertwined.

Why…” she whispered, but we heard her. Her head was lowered, eyes staring into the table, as if they burn holes into the surface.

“I learned it from you, señorita,” Lawrence said. “You don’t abandon family.”

“Lawrence, Lawrence, have you forgotten that I was included in that, too?”

Was,” he said, firm. “Was.”

Benny tried to smile, but it didn’t hold. “How unfair. Not fair. You want me dead, is that right? After everything I’ve done for you? After… after everything I gave you?”

“You left us first, Benny, now the table’s turned.” Lawrence said. “It’s just how it works.”

She slammed her hands down onto the table.

“I didn’t have a choice!”

She screamed, but I caught a bit of legitimate sadness, in Benny’s tone.

“Benny,” I said, and she looked at me. Skin pale, her makeup was starting to run, crumbling at the corners of her eyes. “In terms of numbers, you may have us beat in here, in the kitchen, but out there? It’s another story. The Ghosts have you guys swarmed, and if you try anything, everyone’s going to come knocking. You don’t want that.”

“Ah,” Benny said, her eyes wider. Her crumbling makeup turned to streaks. “It’s you, the source of all my misery. The Bluemoon, Blank Face, or V, according to Lawrence. How have you been? I tried visiting you, did you get my message?”

Did she not hear me? Or was she already losing it?

“I did get your message,” I answered. “I’m here to return the favor. There’s really only one way this could go. If I’m the source of all your misery, then I’m here to put you out of it.”

I added, “Come quietly, and no one from your crew has to die.”

It started small, growing, then became raucous. Laughter. Throughout the kitchen, Benny’s crew roared in laughter.

“What empty threat is that?” Benny said, in between laughing fits. She was starting to sound wild, unhinged. “You have no leg to stand on here! I have at least two guns on each of you pathetic Ghosts. You think I’m just going to walk out of here with you, to my death?”

“Yes,” I said, completely serious.

The laughter grew again.

Benny was practically screeching now. “I let you walk in here, I’m letting you stand there and live! I didn’t get you at the school, but I have you, now. Congratulations, Lawrence, you brought her to me and exposed yourself as the traitor you are. How do you think the other gangs will feel about you aligning yourself with a superhero?”

“They won’t know,” Lawrence responded, cool. “Wasn’t part of the plan.”

“Was this part of your grand plan? What did you expect to have happen, inviting her and having her waltz in here? How do you see yourself getting out of this?”

Lawrence glanced my way, and shrugged. “Shot in the dark.”

Benny snarled a word in Spanish. I figured that was it, and the bullets would just go

But everyone stayed in place. The tension bubbling.

Benny was in control, her crew at her beck and call, but she was slipping, mentally. Was she too occupied with talking to us to realize that she could kill us with a single word?

A small voice. Not in my head, but my ear. I ignored it.

Lawrence was still looking at me. “Can’t do everything myself. I was hoping for something crazy. Insane?”

I spread my arms, and more guns cocked from behind.

“Crazy and insane,” I said. “I think I have something worth serving up.”

“Don’t try me,” Benny tested.

That small voice filled my earpiece again.

I’m working on it! Jeez, just one more, ugh, screw this!

My hoodie was over my head. Benny didn’t know about the earpiece, that I was trying to keep a certain someone updated.

A certain crazy and insane little girl.

There!

There was a hissing, coming from above, but I couldn’t exactly place it. Prolonged.

The others started to notice, asking each other about it. Benny took a glance up, too.

Grab cover! Get away from the side door!

The side door. There was only one, about five feet away. In the middle of the wall closest to me.

The hiss started getting louder and louder, and it was clear that it was about to reach a crescendo. Everyone was on their heels.

Lawrence looked at me, and I nodded. With my hands raised, I signaled towards Benny. We both moved before anyone had the sense that they should be moving, too. Grabbing cover.

Hindsight’s silly like that.

The side door swung open.

Bang!” I heard, from both the earpiece and from right outside the door.

And then everything went to hell.

Previous                                                                                               Next

046 – Supernova

Previous

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

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

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

Flown into a barrage of metal and destruction.

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

Oh.

My head whipped back, cracking.

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

In a very real sense, I was killed.

Previous

Continue reading

045 – Trigger

Previous                                                                                               Next

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

What the fuck happened here?

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

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

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

Well then.

Hesitant, I traveled down the hall.

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

Melanie Wu.

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

They were all Asian names.

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

White, I supposed.

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

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

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

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

I wasn’t even fully anything.

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

Thing was, I was already blocking it out.

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

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

Thing was, I had to keep telling myself that.

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

That’s not it.

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

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

No police, no national guard, no one.

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

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

You have someone. Me.

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

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

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

A glass case, and a reflective surface.

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

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

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

Easier said than done.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There he was.

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

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

I had to lead him here.

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

A similar tactic, then.

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

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

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

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

Easy enough.

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

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

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

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

Added pressure for me to move.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something to take note of.

“Hands up,” I said.

He listened, raising his hands. Empty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, just basic tools.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

He seemed to notice, as well.

“Can you?” he asked.

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

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

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

“Walk,” I said.

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

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

The music cut once again.

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

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

Harder to block out of my head.

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

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

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

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

I poked him again. “Faster.”

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

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

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

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

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

Then listen to me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I saw the bomb.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But she’s already gotten to you.

My eye flickered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes I am.”

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

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

“I said I’m Samuel.”

“Okay?” I questioned him.

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

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

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

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

And that scared me.

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

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

Then listen to me.

I listened.

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

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

Move, stop Samuel, kill him.

I moved.

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

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

If.

Stop Samuel, kill him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Agh, yes, it is.”

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

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

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

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

“In the pit.”

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

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

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

“And those locations are clear of people?”

“Should be, probably.”

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

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

“Walkie-talkie,” Samuel answered, strained.

“Where?”

“Other side of my belt.”

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

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

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

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

He paused for a breath.

Estoy min-”

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

“You’re done, Samuel,” I said.

Kill him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I headed to the next bomb, the closest one.

The auditorium.

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

And so was the upstairs restroom in A-Hall.

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

Hopefully, that cleared the way to the second bomb.

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

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

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

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

I waited, prepared for a fight.

No one came.

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

No one there.

Dammit, I thought I saw someone.

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

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

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

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

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

I went into the auditorium.

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

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

I peered into the darkness.

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

In the darkness, I had freedom.

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

I massaged my temples.

Life wasn’t that simple.

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

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

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

Bent down, guarded, I unzipped the bag.

A pulsing light.

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

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

Definitely interesting.

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

Then…

Why put the bombs in such lowkey places?

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

Unless…

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

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

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

Kill her?

I didn’t answer.

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

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

I held my breath.

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

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

No light. Success.

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

Soon.

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

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

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

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

I had a chance, right?

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

I figured.

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

I held my knife, prepared.

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

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

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

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

I accelerated into a run.

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

I ran faster.

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

“Fuck off!” I yelled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was gone.

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

A door to a class.

Eyes wide, I ran.

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

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

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

And that man had his gun in their direction.

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

They were scared. I was scared for them.

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

“Take another step, and they’re all-”

I was a blur before he could finish.

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

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

I attacked as I rushed.

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

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

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

My back ached. Seeing stars, seeing things.

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

I did it.

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

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

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

They weren’t.

They weren’t even looking at me.

Someone behind me.

Aching, I wheeled around.

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

“Harrian,” I said, under my breath.

Harrian Wong, carrying a rifle.

A million thoughts sped through my scrambled mind.

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

No.

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

And his eyes.

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

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

Hatred.

But why?

Stunned, floored, I followed Harrian’s gaze.

My heart. Back and forth.

I saw him.

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

That was why.

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

Oh no.

“Harrian!” I shouted, already moving-

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

Harrian fired.

Previous                                                                                               Next

044 – Hide & Seek

Previous                                                                                               Next

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

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

Yet for me, that feeling just kept coming.

And this was the strongest that feeling had hit yet.

Fuck.

The intercom came back on.

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

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

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

It made for an easy guess.

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

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

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

She left it there. The threat was implicit enough.

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

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

Music.

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

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

Fuck this.

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

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

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

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

I averted my eyes.

I wish it was.

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

She was including herself in saying that, I noticed.

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

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

The music played. The pit in my stomach grew.

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

Regardless, Eve was shivering.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eve pulled out her phone.

“Eve, you can’t-” I started.

“Internet doesn’t work,” she said.

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good to have you,” Coach said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She lowered her phone, her expression dark.

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

My heart fluttered, like a bird in a cage.

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

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

I broke.

And then the music cut out.

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

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

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

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

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

A second voice. The verge of tears.

Suzie Nguyen…”

That name…

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

That abrupt ruffling, again.

Are you the Bluemoon?

Benny was back on.

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

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

How can I be so sure?

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

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

We all screamed, anyways.

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

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

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

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

“Shut up!”

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

That taste.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My back was to the wall, figuratively and literally.

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

First Thomas, now this. Suzie.

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

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

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

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

I want to throw up.

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

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

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

Coach Tilly and Eve both turned to me. Confusion.

Oh.

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

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

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

Music played. The timer continued.

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

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

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

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

Flicker.

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

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

Wait.

Me, Coach Tilly, Eve…

And that.

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

Black. Shadow.

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

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

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

“Alexis, what the fuck are you on?”

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

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

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

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

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

Damn, I couldn’t stand to be in here.

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

Coming from right outside.

Another sound, same direction, muffled.

Voices.

Not the ones in my head.

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

We all got down, crouching.

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

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

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

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

Shit.

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

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

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

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

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

We only had our hearing.

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

No response, not from any of us.

I heard the fumbling of the metal knob.

The door opened. Not from our end.

“You.”

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

She was addressing Coach Tilly.

Coach answered her, sounding surprisingly firm, given everything.

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

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

I felt Eve go completely still.

“I am,” Coach said, hard.

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

I felt myself go completely still.

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

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

“Don’t, I’m the only one-”

“You-”

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

An all-too familiar click.

Not Coach too.

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

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

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

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

Blurry.

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

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

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

“Holy fuck, the hell was that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shit.

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

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

Why?”

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

“No, as in, why would you know that?”

Shit, shit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Gun? Where is it now?”

“On the floor, I kicked it away.”

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

The voice was sing-songy.

One thing at a time.

I had to come up with something.

“Keep her head up, do we have ice?”

“There’s ice in the breakroom.”

So there was none here.

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

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

The music stopped.

Of all times.

It was as if the world itself stood still.

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

Benny…

A certain fire was starting to spark within me.

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

Elena… Zhang…

Again, that name…

Are you the Bluemoon?

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

I’m not-”

Interrupted by a distorted fuzzy bang.

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

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

Phone hanging up.

Music.

The timer started again.

Choking.

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

I stopped myself.

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

She shook her head.

I shifted a little to get another view of Eve.

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

Eve pointed to herself.

“Me?”

Who else?

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

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

I went back to the woman.

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

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

“Sofia. Are you the Bluemoon?”

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

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

“Front office.”

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

“There’s a lot of us, I’m not sure.”

Liar.

“Ballpark it,” I said, seething.

“Definitely more than twenty, less than forty?”

She’s fucking with you. Kill her.

I shook my head.

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

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

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

“Answer the questions.”

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

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

Concentrate.

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

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

That, I could use.

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

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

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

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

Sofia reacted. It made me sick.

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

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

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

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

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

Before I could react or respond, Eve came back.

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

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

“I’ll go find the nurse.”

Eve immediately stood back up.

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

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

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

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

But I had to deal with this.

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

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

“I’m fast, I can sneak-”

“No, just no!”

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

She was just a regular girl.

And you are not Alexis. Not anymore.

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

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

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

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

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

“Is there any duct tape?” I asked.

“Um, I don’t see any.”

“Check the drawers in the desk.”

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

Metallic clanging, papers rustling…

“Here,” she said.

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

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

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

A pocketknife.

I took it, slipping it into my own pocket.

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

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

Lesson learned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was impossible.

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

It was also what brought me this low.

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

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

I didn’t say anything for Sofia.

“One second.”

I turned.

“Take my jacket.”

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

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

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

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

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

Fuck.

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

I left, Eve closing the door behind me.

I changed.

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

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

Previous                                                                                               Next

Interlude – Benny

Previous                                                                     Bonus

Papa was mad again today.

Mama ushered Bernadette into the closet, then shut it behind her.

They both knew the drill, it was a lot like an earthquake. Find cover, stay low, keep your head down, and pray that it would end sooner rather than later.

They’d been through very many earthquakes.

Sometimes, they weren’t so bad. Just tremors, and they wouldn’t last long. Other times, not so much.

And sometimes, there were aftershocks.

Papa yelled, but Bernadette couldn’t understand it. A loud crash followed, the breaking of glass. Bernadette threw herself into the corner of the closet, pulling her legs to her chest. Boxes carefully stacked were knocked around her as she moved with haste.

From there, she heard Mama rush back out into the hall, trying to talk to Papa. It wouldn’t work, it never did.

But it was part of the drill.

Mama’s shouting crashed against Papa’s, and sounded like when the dogs barked at night. Her high shrieking and Papa’s low roar, Bernadette put her hands to her ears. It barely helped.

More yelling, more sounds of fighting. More glass breaking, more shelves falling over. Just… more.

More.

Bernadette forced her eyes shut, the tears welling up again. She tried to retreat somewhere in her head, think of something happy. A fond memory. Waking up early to help out Papa on the ranch, gathering eggs from the chickens, cleaning some of the equipment. Mama preparing dinner after they were done, eating together at the table.

Mama’s terrible jokes, the fact that Papa laughed anyway.

It didn’t work.

I hate this.

She hated that it happened, she hated that it kept happening. She hated that it was allowed to happen. Just because Papa was friends with Pedro, he had the money and power to get away with whatever he wanted. The ability. She knew that much. Papa was but a simple rancher, and she felt pride in being the daughter of a rancher, but that wouldn’t be enough to live in the house they had. There needed to be more, and that more had to come from somewhere.

Take, take, take.

The nice house, the cars, the wine… the girls, Papa was allowed to take whatever he wanted. Papa could afford to be as good and as bad as he wanted. She hated it. It wasn’t fair. Papa wasn’t playing by any rules, so there were never any consequences.

Papa was cheating, and Bernadette hated it.

Another crash, and Mama’s yelp followed. It went quiet for a second.

Then Papa yelled again.

This time, she could understand it.

He was calling for her.

“Bernadette!” he roared. “Come clean up your mother!”

Her pulse was speeding until it might go flat, but she had to stay still. She sat in the dark, curled up even tighter, heart in her throat. Shaking.

Bernadette!” he called again, much angrier, now. It startled her, she jumped.

Her arm bumped into a stack of boxes beside her, knocking some over.

She started to sweat.

She didn’t hear him call out again, just the footfall and booming that followed.

Stick to the drill, the drill.

She looked around, in the dark, looking for anything she could use.

Not sticking to the drill.

He was coming closer, faster.

She uncurled herself, and shifted around in the gloom.

Her hands touched something metal.

Her fingers wrapped around it, feeling the metal, the weight of it. She gripped it, her fingers finding their place on the weapon.

She tried to gulp, but found her throat dry.

The closest door flew open.

Bernadette let out a shriek, despite herself, and threw her hands out in front of her.

She had a brief second to face her father.

Shadows fell over his face, hiding his eyes. Her dread and horror warped her image of him even further. A wild look to his eyes, bloodshot, like he was hunting for something. His hair wasn’t long, but it was unruly, unkempt, standing up in places. His teeth bared. Sharp.

She kept shaking.

Papa had gotten down on his knees, arm reached into the closet to grab her. He stopped though, when his eyes fell on what was in her hands.

He smirked, and it freaked her out, just from how wrong it was.

His hands moved fast, seizing Bernadette by her shirt, dragging her out of the closet.

She shrieked again as she was tossed out, her fingers squeezing together.

Nothing fired, despite that.

Bernadette would have stopped to consider why, if it weren’t for her being hurled out of her parents’ room and into the hall. Her attention was elsewhere.

Light flooded into her eyes when she was taken out of her room, a temporary blindness. She was on the floor, finding it hard to get herself to stand.

“Come here!”

Fingers grabbed at her hair, twisting, then pulled, and Bernadette was dragged out of the hall. She couldn’t find her footing, Papa kept his hand by his hip, and she couldn’t raise her head any higher without her hair being pulled at even more. Dragged.

Instant regret. She berated herself for not keeping to the drill. For not keeping her head down.

She screamed again as her head was whipped in another direction, her body then coming with. It wasn’t a clean fall. Strands of hair had wrapped themselves around Papa’s fingers, going taut, yanking her head back, before being ripped of her scalp and letting her continue down. It added to the pain.

She landed on her shoulder.

She had to blink a few times to make sense of what she was seeing. The kitchen. She was on the floor, the cold tiles. She pushed herself up.

Her head pounded from being yanked around. Her heart pounded faster when she saw the blood.

Not her own.

It wasn’t a lot, but the fact that there was any at all, the wrongness of it. The smeared line, the red handprint, it resembled an upside-down exclamation point.

She glanced in different directions, peeking into another hall on the other side, the living room at another end, the glass door to the patio that led out into the dark. No one. She didn’t see Mama.

Bernadette looked at her hands. It wasn’t there.

A smack to the back of her head announced Papa’s reentry into the kitchen. She went down, hard.

“You wanna kill me, is that it? After everything I’ve done for you? After… after everything I gave you?”

She could smell his breath from here. Alcohol.

Bernadette had to reorient herself, but the yelling and the hurt and the questions threw her mind and focus in every direction.

Where’s Mama?

A clack sounded off by her ear, and she flinched. But no pain came after.

She moved her head again, and saw the gun. The gun she had taken from the closet, hidden under boxes and boxes of stuff.

“There, found the bullets for you. Do you want to kill me, huh?”

Papa was yelling enough to hurt his voice, a harsh rasp scraping out the end of his words. Like he was screaming just to scream.

Bernadette turned to see him. Papa. He was standing over her, towering, blocking light. She tried backing away, and found that she could. He’d let her.

No fair. Flexing power over those much weaker. Playing with them. That’s cheating.

As though her hand moved on its own, she grabbed for the gun at her side. Much heavier. She fumbled with it, then set it between her legs.

She felt like she was about to wet herself.

She looked back at Papa, and he had his arms raised, leaving himself open. Making himself open.

“Do it, I dare you, let’s see how you are without me.”

Tears rolled down her cheeks. She wanted someone, anyone else. Mama, one of the maids, even one of Papa’s girls. She couldn’t do this on her own, by herself. She needed someone.

The gun was heavier in her hands, like it was crushing her fingers.

Do it!” Papa bellowed.

No use. The gun wouldn’t budge. Even if she wanted to. And, being pushed this far, this fast, a large part of her did want to.

And that frightened Bernadette.

She heard Papa draw in yet another breath, to yell again. Bernadette braced herself.

A crash. Then more.

People stormed into the room.

They took over. One of them went right to Bernadette’s father, and struck him hard on the chest. He went down easy.

More people, more than the kitchen should reasonably fit. Some had guns trained on Papa.

The noise and shouting ratcheted up to another level.

Bernadette needed some more time to get a sense of what was happening.

Many of them. All men. Most were in regular clothes. Baggy jeans, white T-shirts, a sombrero or hat. Others wore more protective gear. Vests, armor, masks.

The sudden intrusion and activity only gave her more questions, more things to wrap her head around, but she was far too disoriented.

The group of men weren’t in any formation, but they moved, the group splitting down the middle.

Bernadette saw the patio door slide open.

A man stepped into the kitchen.

Just from the posture, how everyone moved out of the way for him, Bernadette knew this was a man who had power.

His hair looked recently cut, combed, and had a certain style to it. No beard or mustache. Young, for sure, maybe a decade younger than Papa. He wore a faded pink shirt, buttoned up, and khaki pants. A complete contrast to the other men here, even Papa. As if he wanted to make himself known, to stand out.

Bernadette just sat there, trying to take everything in.

The man walked down the length of the path his men – she assumed it was his men – set for him, and stopped halfway. He turned, looking down at her Papa. Papa was sitting, cross-legged, looking back up at the man. Other men all around him had guns trained in his direction.

“Who the fuck are you?” Papa asked.

“Your new boss.”

The man had answered, and his Spanish was smooth, condescending. To the point that Bernadette almost forgot where she was, what just happened, and felt insulted, herself. Someone talking to Papa like that?

Bernadette had to stop herself from going down that line of thinking. Focus on now.

“What happened to my old boss, then?”

“Dead.”

A single word, and it sent chills through her whole body. Bernadette was young, but she wasn’t ignorant. She’d only seen Pedro on a few occasions, when he came to visit, and Papa would take him out to the ranch to talk. Bernadette wasn’t allowed to go outside during those times.

She had seen the dots, and made the connections. She knew who Pedro really was, and what that meant for their growing town.

Hearing that single word, for Bernadette, changed everything.

“You’re lying,” Papa said.

“We have his head, along with the heads of those who stayed by his side. Enrique?”

That mention of a name, and Papa put his head down.

The way the man broke the news, his nonchalant manner of speaking, it made Bernadette wish he was lying.

The man made a gesture, and his men made Papa return to his feet. The man put his hand on Papa’s cheek, stroking his face.

“This city is mine, now, and so is La Rueda. It’s mine for me to steer. I was going around to Pedro’s constituents, and letting them know of the change in management… only to find this.”

The man spared a quick glance at Bernadette. She froze.

He faced Papa again. “I don’t know about Pedro, but I refuse to let swine freely bathe in their own shit and mud. Women and children? I will not tolerate those in power abusing those who do not have the power to fight back.”

He then turned his head, looking back outside. “Take him out.”

Three words, vague. The man’s workers took Papa, grabbing him, much like how Papa had grabbed Bernadette. Papa yelled, trying to fight back, but he was too drunk, out of sorts, and outnumbered to retake any freedom.

Bernadette watched as Papa was escorted out of the kitchen. She opened her mouth, but no sound came out. Maybe if she said something, he could stay, and he might not be taken out.

Bernadette closed her mouth.

The man turned yet again, this time facing her. He continued down the length of the kitchen, stopping right at her feet.

“Put the gun down, mija.”

She just realized that she still had it in her hands. She stared at it. The tingling numbness came from the gun that weighed her hands down. Even with this in her hands, she couldn’t do anything. She couldn’t protect Mama, or herself.

She opened her hands, and the gun fell to the side.

The man crouched, meeting Bernadette at eye level.

His eyes. Something about his eyes…

“What’s your name?” he asked, soft. Nearing a whisper.

“Bern… Bernadette.”

A sense of shame came upon her after saying that name. She didn’t know where it came from, or why.

The man nodded, as if he was sympathizing with her at some level.

“Hello, Bernadette. I’m Fransico, but you can call me Paco. May I call you ‘Benny?’”

She didn’t have any particular objections to that. She did a gesture, a nod and a shrug at the same time.

Gracias. Tell me, Benny, do you love your papa?”

The question struck her as funny. Like, bad joke funny. Of course she liked Papa, he played with her, gave her toys and phones, games, he’d let her help sometimes with the chickens.

But then she thought about the bad times. The drills. The here and now.

Not his fault, Papa just gets that way sometimes. Maybe… Mama and I just have to watch what we say and do.

Like? Maybe. Love…

She decided to answer how she felt right there, right now.

“No,” she breathed. It hurt to admit.

Gracias. No need to worry, Benny. I won’t hurt you or your mama, like he did. I’m here, now, and I will protect you. Your mama is fine, okay? I protected her already. She’s right outside, would you like to go see her?”

The girl nodded. She did want to see Mama.

Gracias. Let’s get you up.” Paco snapped his fingers. “Roland?”

Someone approached, a boy, in the white shirt and jeans. He didn’t look much older than her, maybe mid-teens, while she wouldn’t be there for some years.

He held out his hand for her.

She wasn’t sure if she could trust Paco completely, whether or not he’d actually protect her and Mama in the future. But she was tired, confused, scared. She wanted something to believe in.

And she didn’t believe in herself. Not Bernadette.

Benny took the helping hand.

The sun beat down.

“Move,” Benny ordered, and they did.

Roland led the men out of the van, and onto the dirt road. They walked in a line, without a word of resistance. To do so now would be useless. Foolish, even. It might cost them their lives.

Three men, all blindfolded, walking with caution. Roland had them stop before another group, another black van.

Benny followed, but walked past them to meet with the head of that group. A man, bald, tall. The men behind him had guns. Semi-automatics. None were pointed, but the message was clear.

She stood firm.

“You wanted them, here they are,” Benny said.

“Why the blindfolds?” the man, Javier, asked.

“Standard procedure.”

“Where’s El Tunante?” he then asked. Grovely.

“He’s attending to another matter. I assure you that your deal was handled with the best of hands. My own.”

His expression changed from flat to another. Uncertainty.

“I harbor doubts about that,” Javier said.

“Is it because I’m a woman?” Benny questioned.

“It is because you are a child. I feel personally insulted that El Tunante would skirt this responsibility and hand it off to someone so… small.”

Benny let herself grin. “You wanted these men out of prison, and El Tunante was willing to go a more direct way to go about it. I preferred for something cleaner.”

“Cleaner?”

“We made a deal of our own with the warden. We capture and bring in three other, probably more terrible scumbags, they’ll be willing to make an exchange. Along with a little cash to make it run more smoothly, everybody gets what they want. The public gets the real bad guys off the streets, the prisons get a little pocket cash along with some new goods, and you get your sons back.”

Javier’s face switched back to unreadable, again.

“Very well.”

He signaled, and the men behind him moved, taking hold of the blindfolded men, and escorting them to Javier’s van.

“And you’ll still hold up your end of the bargain?” Benny asked.

“I’m a man of my word, child, of course I will. I’ve already made the proper arrangements. El Tunante is allowed to take over the property and territory I have in the States. It’s his now.”

Muchas Gracias.”

“Hm, I only wish him luck.”

Javier spun on his heels, and returned to his van. Benny and Roland did the same.

They went into the back seats, sitting next to each other.

The driver prepared to turn them around.

“Good job, Benny,” Paco said, sitting in the passenger seat. “I’m very proud of you.”

The windows in the van were tinted black.

Benny released all of the tension in her body, going limp in her seat. “Oh my god, I thought I was going to die.”

“You weren’t going to die,” Roland said, “I would have had your back.”

“Yeah?”

“Duh, don’t be silly.”

Benny smiled a bit. ‘Silly’ was a silly word.

Paco interjected. “As did I, Benny. Your way might have asked for more trouble on our end, but it worked out. No one got hurt, and you did it fair. Again, very proud.”

“Stop, you’re going to make me blush and stuff.”

All three of them laughed.

“So it’s settled, then?” Paco asked, after the levity died down a tad. “We have it?”

“He confirmed it. His territory is ours, now. We just have to go through the necessary channels, make sure the Americans are aware of the new tenants coming in.”

“Yes. It’s not much, but it’s a start, and we need all we can get if I want this empire to spread. If you can make it there, then you’re the real deal.”

Paco paused. The van rocked from the uneven surface of the road.

“That’s why I want you, Benny, to oversee the new American branch.”

Tension quickly returned to her body.

“What, me?”

“Yes, you. The rules are different in America, they operate under a different code. I’m too set in my ways to try and bend to them, and I have too much to keep tabs on here in Mexico. You, on the other hand, you’re willing to take other approaches, less bloody ones, even ways that would greatly benefit other partners, whereas I might look for something decidedly one-sided. That sort of thinking will benefit us in the States, give us a good reputation, and help us expand fast and clean.”

Benny still couldn’t fathom it. Her, a leader of her own gang, representing El Tunante? Real authority and power, exercised by her vision? It was a dream she never thought would actually be realized.

No way.

“Why me?” Benny question. “Why not Roland, he’s your nephew!”

“Roland will be accompanying you, along with some others. They’ll be your eyes and ears. But I’m not asking Roland, I’m asking you.”

She looked at him, and Roland. He looked back, happy for her.

Stop being so good-looking.

It was something she’d only noticed in recent years, but Roland’s boyish features were really giving way to a more chiseled, masculine look. He could’ve modeled if he wasn’t working for a cartel.

Which made it even more weird, because they’d been through enough for her to think of him as an older brother.

Stop.

Benny asked, “Are you okay with this, Roland?”

“Yeah, I am. I’d prefer it, honestly. You’ve always been more of the planner, and I don’t mind getting my hands dirty every now and then. That part of the job doesn’t quite suit you.”

It doesn’t?

A small flash of a painful memory. Benny pushed it aside.

Paco interjected. “See, even Roland approves, as do I. He believes in you almost as much as I do. So, what do you say?”

Benny sat back, looking out the window, the trees as they passed.

She considered it.

“You really sprung this on me, no idea that was in the cards.”

Her gaze then shifted to meet Paco’s, who turned back in his seat to face her.

“Okay.”

Paco and Roland beamed.

“I’ll go to Stephenville.”

Paco and Roland, even the driver, cheered for Benny.

Who the hell are you?

Benny stared at the creature, and the creature stared back. Its body was blue, but the edges of its body were like smoke. Not an outline, but rather a suggestion. The edges seemed to eat away at the light around it, until it was wrapped in a sort of darkness, distorting the image even further.

And its face. Very human, but so wrong. Featureless, white as the moon, its expression blank. It unsettled her, it was uncanny. Its eyes piercing her with a look. Like it wanted something, a desire. A sort of lust.

The creature stood there, twisted and warped. And Benny was powerless to do anything.

No fair, no fair.

The creature spoke, though its lips didn’t move. The voice was strangely high.

Shoot me instead.

Benny tilted her head.

“What?”

Shoot me instead. Leave them alone.

Benny had to rattle her mind to find the context. Staring at the creature, trying to figure it out, made her lose connections to other things.

“How do you know I won’t just shoot you first, then kill him and his girl?”

She spoke as if on autopilot.

Then fine, you can do that. As long as you shoot me first, then we have a deal.

Something off about that, that concession. Benny had the power, here, not that thing. Why?

“Sounds like a trap,” Benny said.

Not a trap. Like you said, I don’t have a legitimate threat against you, not with me standing here, with only a knife. And it wouldn’t be fair if I went unpunished. I was a part of Eduardo’s scheme, I deserve a bullet.

Benny knew the creature was lying. It was taunting her, it had something up its sleeve. Playing her for a fool.

Cheater.

You’re not even supposed to be here.

“What are you?” Benny questioned, trying to mask her irritation.

The creature didn’t offer anything.

An ugly pause. And it stirred an even uglier memory within Benny. Papa.

Benny was sweating bullets. Darkness was creeping in from everywhere, and in her most base senses, she knew this was it. Over. Either she would die right here, or she would suffer something far worse. All because of this thing, this creature. It had to come in and ruin everything.

And it just stared, with those eyes.

Die die die die.

“Only because I want you to shut up,” Benny finally said, “You have your wish. I’ll kill you first.”

She lifted her hand, and found a gun there. The same gun she should have shot Papa with.

Benny didn’t get to pull the trigger.

The creature moved in a flash, disappearing from her sight. Before she could react, she folded in, getting slammed in the stomach.

A blunt force, but it also tore through her. Like being hit by a bullet the size of a volleyball, with a knife attached at the end.

Something went through her, sliding through muscle and meat. It electrified.

The creature’s claw? It vanished, and attacked. It was hiding something.

No fair no fair no fair.

Benny was down, and she felt a cold come in with the darkness. It didn’t take long for her eyes to feel heavy.

The last image in her mind before she opened her eyes again was being back in the closet.

She startled herself awake.

White ceiling. A touch too bright. A constant, regular beep. An eerie quiet.

She inspected herself. In a bed, scratchy pillows and blankets, tubes in her arms, tubes in her nose.

Hospital room.

Benny shifted to sit herself up, but a harsh sting rushed through her body, and she had to stop. She exhaled, slow, sitting back down.

“Don’t move too much.”

Her eyes roved towards the direction of the voice. A sight for sore eyes.

“Roland.”

He didn’t have his suit jacket, but he was wearing the same clothes from the last time she saw him. Presentable, but not good.

He stood by the window, close to the bed and the beeping machines. Some natural light was allowed in, but it was overpowered by the artificial lights from above.

“Doctor says you can’t move too much, not so soon. Might tear your whole stomach open.”

Smiling, he then added, “So much for kids.”

A joke, obviously, but he didn’t sell it very well.

“How long have I been in here?” Benny asked.

“About a day, you were out of it for the whole time. Sleeping.”

Sleeping?

It didn’t feel like sleep. There was lucidity to her rest, her brain running while her body didn’t. Memories looped, trying to parse and figure things out, until the images rotted over time, bastardized memories becoming nightmares.

Maybe she was out for the whole day, but she got no benefit from it.

Groggy.

“Is it bad?” Benny asked. Had to rip off the bandaid sooner than later, metaphorically speaking.

“Huh? No, what I said before? I was kidding.” Roland appeared a bit red at that.

“I know, don’t be silly. Is it bad?”

“Um, no. Nothing vital was damaged. Just don’t do anything strenuous for a month or two, and you should be good.”

“Good. My next question, then. Which hospital is this?”

That particular question shut Roland up. His eyes shifted elsewhere.

“You’re in our hospital, Benny.”

Another voice. Benny’s neck creaked when she turned.

A woman, standing at the edge of the hospital bed, hands behind her back. Gringo. She was dressed professionally, all black, Benny would have pinned her for a lawyer. Her blonde hair was up, tied into a bun. Prim and proper.

“And you are?” Benny asked.

The woman fixed her glasses.

“Carter.”

“Okay, Ca-”

Mrs. Carter, I do believe I’m a few years your senior.”

Benny squinted. She didn’t look it, but there was no point in thinking otherwise.

She had to go along with it.

“Okay, Mrs. Carter, I can only assume you’re here for something, and not because you want to wish me a speedy recovery. Which you haven’t yet, by the way.”

Benny felt an impulse to dig into her a little. To not keep herself in too low of spirits.

“You assume correctly, and I do wish you well, Benny.”

Mrs. Carter put her arms in front of her, and Benny saw the tablet she was holding. She tapped at it, swiping, before addressing Benny again.

“I’m here to give you some, um, news,” Mrs. Carter said.

“Good news, or bad news?”

A grin formed across Mrs. Carter’s lips.

“Yes.”

Benny didn’t like the sound of that.

A short pause. A prompt, in and of itself, for Mrs. Carter to continue.

“I’ll give things to you as it is, and you can determine which is which. You see, I represent Mister, and-”

If Benny’s stomach wasn’t cut, it would have dropped.

She kept her lips shut.

“- he regrets to inform you that The Chariot’s presence in the city is over.”

That is certainly not good news.

“What do you mean by that?” Benny asked. She eyed Roland, and he didn’t seem thrown off in any meaningful way. Just still.

Was he already filled in?

Mrs. Carter answered, “Meaning you’ve accrued one too many strikes too fast, and Mister isn’t very pleased with you. There’s a delicate balance that has to be maintained, between all the different groups we have stationed in Stephenville. We can’t exactly tolerate you smuggling so many weapons into the city.”

Benny went still. The weapons Paco had delivered to her, to spur her into making biggers moves, to become a larger presence in Stephenville. And Benny was well aware of the underlying feeling behind the gesture.

Disappointment.

Paco had trusted her in this, over his own nephew. She was supposed to make headway in the South, and build upon the empire Paco had created. It was supposed to be growth, not only for the cartel, but for her as well.

Years passed, and not much was gained in terms of expansion.

She thought about the people she attracted, the first batch of members that she had join just so she could get a footing in the city. Kids, teenagers. Stoners who were more interested in a quick fix than getting any work done, wannabes who were looking to indulge in ultimately empty power trips. Not that she expected much out of them, but it would have been nice to see some cream rise from that crop.

But, no. All the good guys had already found their place in the other gangs, and Paco was growing impatient. Then he sent his message, in the way of some firepower.

If you couldn’t get yourself through the door, break it down.

But Mrs. Carter, who represented Mister, found out about the weapons, and their plan.

It’s over.

“What happened to them?” Benny asked. “My guns?”

“They’ve been seized by the police. By our police, so we’ll be keeping an eye on them, and to keep the media’s nose out of this.”

“You’re- He’s taking them, why?”

“It’s for your own good, keeping this quiet means less people know about what you were trying to pull, meaning less people are pointing guns in your direction. And, it puts us in a better position to give you our terms.”

“Terms?”

Benny and Roland repeated that word at the same time.

“Yes,” Mrs. Carter said, tapping more on her tablet. “As far as you’re concerned, you’re blackballed, now. You and yours no longer have any hold in the territory we let you take. The word’s already out. It’s officially open season there, now, up for grabs to anyone who can hold it. It’s not the most prime location, so Mister’s willing to accept whatever the fallout ends up being.”

All that work, the deals, the close calls, down the drain. All because some bad luck.

And that creature.

“We’ve already had a discussion with El Tunante, and gave him our side of the story, and a warning for breaking the rules. He’s not happy, obviously, and I think he’ll be less happy if he sees you again soon.”

She didn’t know what a ‘warning’ entailed…

Damn.

If it weren’t for the cut in her stomach, she would have leaped out of her bed and strangled that bitch right there.

“You’re lying,” Benny said.

“Sure, call him up, or you can cross the border and see him yourself. Just keep in mind that everything that The Chariot claimed will be compromised. Your territory, your money, your product, your weapons. It must have been a large investment to come here and do business, and to lose all of that… It’s a shame that I can’t see your face when El Tunante beheads you for your failures.”

Benny lost herself. She screeched, getting up from her bed, reaching out for Mrs. Carter’s throat, cut in her stomach be damned. Roland had to pin her down, pressing her shoulders.

The beeping hastened.

“How dare you say that! You don’t know shit, you fly!”

Mrs. Carter remained there, unfazed. It infuriated.

Benny spat out more curses, in Spanish, before the pain got the better of her, and she had to back down. With a push, Roland put her back in bed.

She was breathing hard, scowling from both her cut and the insinuation that Paco would have her killed for this.

Paco wouldn’t be like that, would he?

Mrs. Carter put her hands back behind her.

“I tried detailing it as much as I could, but you’re effectively out of the picture, Benny. As you are, in that bed, you don’t have anyone to turn to. Which brings me to why I’m here…”

“Finally,” Benny muttered, while still full of spite.

“Yes, the terms. Under these circumstances, this is an offense that is punishable by death, but Mister is willing to make an exception.

Benny and Roland exchanged looks.

“Exception?” Benny repeated.

“In exchange for you… not dying, you work for him.”

“Excuse me, what?”

“Well, not like how I work for him, but as some extra for some work, when the time is right.”

“Why me? Is Mister more short-staffed than I thought?”

“Of course not, but you, and your connections and assets, can be of use to him.”

“What connections and assets? You made it quite clear that everything I built up here is gone.”

Everything, in about a day. All because of that.

Mrs. Carter shook her head. “I think I made it quite clear that it will happen, it hasn’t happened yet. It’s only been a day. Your crew that you brought with you across the border, will they still follow you, after all of this?”

Her thoughts went to her crew. The select few that she could trust, handpicked by Paco. Samuel, Sofia, Christian… Roland. The best El Carruaje had to offer.

More people she let down.

She looked at Roland. He nodded, slowly.

She looked at Mrs. Carter. “They will follow.”

“Swell. I suggest gathering them, along with any resources you can pick back up, before it gets lost in the fire. All that will be needed for when you’re needed. And when that time comes, we might even allow you access to your gifts from El Tunante, again. An added bonus.”

Benny was bewildered by offer. Changing hands to Mister? Getting the weapons back?

“Why? What’s Mister planning?”

“That’s not for me to tell you,” Mrs. Carter said. “Actually, I don’t even know myself. But, knowing him as long as I do, I can guess he’s doing the same thing you should be doing, gathering up resources.”

“I’m just a resource to him, then? Maybe even expendable?”

“Most likely.”

“And if I refuse?”

Mrs. Carter gestured, facing Roland. “We should still have plenty of unoccupied rooms, here. Shall I see to it that you get your own… accommodations?”

Roland glared, lips pressed to a line.

“You’re not leaving me with much of a choice,” Benny said, scowling again. “Putting power over those in a much weaker position.”

“Isn’t that how power works? I’m not hearing a ‘no.’”

Benny stared daggers at the woman. She’d very much like to stab daggers into her.

“I’ll accept those terms.”

Mrs. Carter smiled, seemingly genuine. “Fantastic. Then, my work here is done.”

She started to turn, heading out.

“Wait,” Benny said, “When will Mister be calling?”

“We’ll call you when we call you. Just be prepared. Like I said, I do wish you a speedy recovery.”

“Wait,” Benny said again, before she could turn again. “Just a few more. The officer who handcuffed me, who was it?”

Mrs. Carter made a face. “I don’t see how that pertains to this.”

“I remember how I got here. I wasn’t taken here in an ambulance, I was handcuffed and stuffed in the back of their shitty car. Who was it?”

Mrs. Carter made another face, still not getting why it mattered. “I can look into it.”

“And lastly. That creature…”

“What creature?”

“That fucking thing that stabbed me and ruined me and sent me here! Who is that, one of yours? A saboteur?”

Mrs. Carter fixed her glasses.

“The world doesn’t know what that ‘thing’ is. If it chooses to be a problem, we will respond accordingly. Now goodbye.”

She threw that last bit in before Benny could find another reason to keep her. Better for it, Benny had wanted her gone, already.

The door shut behind Mrs. Carter, and it was just Roland and Benny.

A constant beeping.

“Would Paco…” Benny started.

Roland finished, “Would Paco kill you over this? You know him as well as I do.”

“No, then.”

“That woman could lying about how angry mi tío really is, to make you feel more cornered to taking her deal.”

Benny fell into her bed, sinking her head into the pillow. Scratchy.

“Games, great. More cheating.”

“I can call him, see for ourselves.”

“You can if you want but… I can’t face him, not like this.”

The cut wasn’t lethal, but the shame that came with losing everything…

“Now what?” Roland asked. He sat back in a chair by the bed.

Benny moved her head so she could see him. She took out her hand, hanging it over the side of the bed. Roland took it.

“We’re resources, now, Roland, and as much as I hate to follow that bitch’s advice, we need to get the others. And whatever scraps are left of El Carruaje.”

“Shouldn’t be hard. I’ll get right on it.”

Benny had to fight the urge to cry. “I’m sorry I dragged you into this.”

Roland put his other hand on hers.

“For you, anything. It’s the same for the others, too.”

A tear finally rolled down.

“Anything? If there’s anything I want, it’s revenge.”

Benny stepped through the door, amid the cries and confusion.

Everyone was in place.

The apartment was dingier than she expected, but she’d seen worse conditions. Lived through worse.

It was more a hub than it was a place to live. Tables lined up against walls, computers on every one. Posters damn near covering every square inch. Bands she’d never heard of, movies she hadn’t had the chance to watch yet. A big television in one corner, a game system with controllers and wires sticking out of it. Action figures of cartoon characters lined up on any available surface.

A teenager’s haven. And Benny and crew just intruded upon it. Computer monitors were knocked over, a poster was torn where someone had their back on it, and the television was broken. The figures were strewn about on the floor, disorderly, like their human counterparts.

No problem. We go in, see if they have anything. Probably not.

If they do

Benny walked over to Sofia, who had a boy down on his back, gun trained on him. She stood over him.

Benny had a pencil skirt on, but if the boy was more concerned over that, then he wasn’t in enough danger.

Benny looked down at him.

“The Bluemoon Club, am I correct?” she asked.

The boy was shaking, hair falling into his eyes. Trembling.

Speak.”

“Y- yeah, we are, we are.”

She had seen the flyers, the website itself when she would scour the internet for more information about that pest. The Bluemoon Fan Club, they called themselves, and it was almost an affront to her senses.

They were among the ‘other,’ the fanatics who were fascinated with the existence of a superhero, rather than terrified of someone who defied all previous logic. They posted ridiculous content on every social media feed, usually of humorless, low quality pictures the Bluemoon’s mask on cats, or pictures of themselves in places where the Bluemoon was last sighted. They’d engage with others online, defending the hero’s actions no matter what it was. A kind of idol worship Benny thought was only designated to pop stars and other celebrities.

Different strokes, different folks.

She still didn’t like it.

One way they would try for more attention was to ‘sell’ what sliver of information they had for more ‘follows.’ A thousand follows and they’d share what brand jacket the Bluemoon wore. A thousand more, and they’d post an exclusive picture that a member managed to snag. The fanfare was enraging enough, but the fact that there were people out there that ate it up?

It ate at her.

“I have some questions I’d like to ask you. Answer them, and you can live to post shit for another day.”

The boy nodded fast.

I can’t believe I’m about to ask this.

“At one hundred thousand follows, your club claimed you’d share something personal about the Bluemoon. Something no one else knows. You’re only at forty thousand, but I’m here to collect that information, now.”

“I don’t know that, and we’ve deleted that tweet since.”

The boy’s voice was quivering.

“You deleted it, why?” Benny asked. “Because it was true, and you didn’t want to compromise the person behind the mask, if you reached that number?”

The boy went mute.

“Is it true?”

Again, mute.

She gestured to Sofia. “Make it quick.”

Sofia readied her gun. Click.

Multiple teenagers cried out.

Benny caught one sentence, in that.

She faced the source.

“What was that?”

A girl, hands up, her back against a wall. Samuel had her. Her hair was odd. Purple, and it moved whenever she breathed.

“It’s true, please don’t hurt him!”

The boy on the floor called out, “Steph, don’t!”

“She was going to kill you, Robby!”

Benny crossed the room, going to Samuel and ‘Steph.’

“Tell me what it is, and I promise that no one here, Robby or whoever, gets hurt.”

The girl’s face changed across many different expressions. Wincing, biting her lip, her tongue, closing her eyes.

Conflicting emotions.

Finally, she gave up, spilling it. “The… Bluemoon, she’s a girl. Asian. Vietnamese, Chinese, I’m not sure. She-”

The girl stopped herself, biting her tongue again. Perhaps for a reason.

“Is there more?” Benny intoned.

The girl tried to keep still. More trembling.

Liar.

“Sofia,” Benny said, not taking her eyes of Steph.

Another click.

“Stephenville High School!”

It was as if air was sucked out of the whole room.

Something. Finally, something.

Benny was elated, but she had to hide it for now.

“And how do you know that?” Benny asked.

The girl answered in between takes of crying. “I’ve… seen her up close. She was pretending, but I knew it was her. We’d seen her before, before she had a mask. She… was wearing a jacket that day, it had the school’s mascot on it. Please, I have friends that go to that school, I-”

Benny slapped her to shut her up. She shut down.

Benny looked right at Samuel.

They’d failed at city hall. A mishap during an altercation, and the bomb that lawyer wore went off. The plan wasn’t seen all the way through. Benny failed.

Styx was the one to tell her, after the fact. She was done, officially. Taken off the Solace project. Her blackballed status remained. Others would be going after her, now. After her and her crew. She didn’t have Mister’s deal to protect them, not anymore.

And she wasn’t the only one to suffer for their loss. Roland was in the hospital, this time, his arm shattered in four different places.

No choice but to run back to Mexico, to Paco. Tail between her legs.

But, before they left, Benny wanted to leave a parting gift to the hero that made her lose all that made her Benny.

“You know,” Benny told Samuel, “I never got to swing by and see Maria. How about we pay her a visit, too?”

Previous                                                                     Bonus