Interlude – Brandon

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“You remember your cousin, Jillian?”

Brandon looked up, the name catching his attention. It was name he hadn’t heard in a long time.

“Kind of.”

“She’ll be staying with us for a little.”

“For a little what?” he asked his uncle.

“Until your aunt can get her shit together.”

“So, she’ll be with us forever?”

“You get the idea.”

Brandon went back to his game, unpausing it. He pulled his legs up on the couch. He continued playing, focusing on moving forward down a long hallway. Inhuman sounds echoed on the other side, but due to the level design, he was forced to continue straight. The lights flickered, and he swore he saw the image of a little girl, but he couldn’t turn back now. Also, the door behind him was locked.

He pressed forward, literally, and tried distracting himself from the atmosphere of the game by thinking about his cousin. The one he hadn’t heard about for quite some time.

The news was sudden, but he didn’t mind. Becky wasn’t around anymore, so they had a free room. He wasn’t too familiar with his extended family, he hadn’t seen any of them in years, but he couldn’t think of anything bad to say about Jillian. They had hung out a few times, nothing memorable, but she was nice enough. Nothing bad to recall about her.

Her mom, though, he heard more than enough from his uncle.

Jill would be living here. Hmm.

The idea sounded like a decent change of pace. It wasn’t like he could play football anytime soon. Maybe she was into video games. He was wanting for someone to take that second controller. It had been a while.

Eyes not leaving the screen, Brandon decided to ask another question. “When’s she getting here?”

“Yeah, about that. Get ready, because we’re picking her up right now.”

Brandon’s attention again went away from the game. His character died, mauled by a little girl.

“Huh?”

Jillian reached across the table, taking yet another french fry. Brandon grunted again, but he let her commit her offense.

“You should say ‘you’re welcome’ one of these days,” he said.

“That’s for lames, though. We’re closer than that.”

“Says you.”

“Well, you’re letting me eat this as we speak.” To demonstrate, Jillian tossed the fry into her mouth, pleased with the taste. She chewed loudly, but she covered her mouth.

Lookin’ like a proper lady there, Jill.

Brandon wolfed down the rest of his burger. He was certainly hungry, but he also didn’t want to give Jillian the chance to steal a bite of his main course, too.

As he finished, wiping his hands and mouth with a napkin, he looked at Jillian.

It was like looking at a different person. Completely unrecognizable. Where was the girl he used to shoot hoops with, back in the day? Now, she wouldn’t look out of place in a ScHoolboy Q music video.

Bucket hat on her head, her face touched up in makeup. She wore trendy denim overalls, a strap slung over her shoulder, exposing her skin. She had traded the young, innocent aesthetic for something more mature, and she had done so long ago. She wore it well.

Jillian had her path in life, Brandon was sure of that. Like how he had his own, and now their paths have crossed into this particular burger joint. Brandon wondered how long their paths would continue to intersect, interweave.

Jillian eyed him funny while she sipped her drink. Brandon was still staring. “God damn, I’ll buy you fries next time.”

“Oh, no it’s not that,” he said, looking away, out the window beside them. He instead looked at a police car passing.

“Then what?”

“Nothing. How’s school so far?” Brandon asked, trying to switch gears. “It’s been about… a month now, I think?”

“You’re not my mom,” Jillian commented, matter-of-factly. She didn’t sound miffed or annoyed.

“And I don’t want to be. I’m just asking.”

“I know, and I’m just kidding. It’s been alright, teachers know to leave me alone, and I have some people I chill with, after school. Wouldn’t call them friends, but they cool.”

The word ‘friends’ stuck out to him.

“Where do you chill after school?” he asked.

“By those stores by the school, they call it something but I can’t remember right now.”

“You’d be better off joining a club or something, instead of wasting your time there.”

Jillian smacked her lips. “Don’t be telling me what to do. That’s it, I’m taking another one.” She picked up another fry from his plate. Brandon didn’t care.

“Do you have anything that interests you?” Brandon asked, “Any hobbies?”

She gave him a cold look as she ate. “Maybe I do.”

“Too scared to share?”

“No,” Jillian said, perhaps too quickly. “I just don’t see the point in sharing that.”

She went for another fry, but this time, Brandon retaliated. He lightly smacked her hand out of the way. She almost knocked over her own drink.

“Don’t be so salty,” she complained, frowning.

“That’s the last fry you take,” Brandon said. “Unless you tell me, then you can have the rest of the plate.”

Jillian pouted, she almost looked like a little kid again. Nostalgic, somehow, like he was holding a ball over her head that she couldn’t reach.

She fell back into her seat.

“I like to sing,” she said, with no hint of shame.

“How come I’ve never heard you?”

“I’m not gonna go around putting on a show for you and Uncle B. And, my mom used to sing, so I’d rather just find something else to be good at.”

Brandon scratched his neck. He might have touched upon a sour spot, there. But, it didn’t stop him from saying, “Either way, that’s a start. You can join… what do they call it, the singing club?”

Jillian scoffed. “You mean the choir?”

“Right, right.”

Jillian sighed. “But, there’s like white people, and stuff. They scare me.”

Brandon nodded, as if there was some universal truth that he understood, and sympathized with. He pushed the plate of fries away from him, and towards Jillian.

She wasted no time in helping herself. She spoke with her mouth full. “Enough about me, I haven’t asked you anything yet. Any girls you like?”

Brandon immediately felt a rush of heat go to his face. He didn’t expect the conversation to go there. He scratched his neck again.

“There is, hah, you’re such a dork,” she said, amused that she managed to get that reaction out of him. “Spill it.”

For some reason, a girl did come to mind. Courtney Brooks. A tall black girl who went to their school. She was on the girl’s basketball team, and a damn good player at that. Sweet, funny, and of course her body was top notch. They had hung out a few times, skipped school for lunch off campus, but nothing serious. He was thinking about asking her out one of these days, but he still needed to gather the courage to do so. Brandon couldn’t believe he even had to, he liked to think he had the confidence, the swag, to walk up to any girl and ask her out. But, here he was.

One of these days.

“No one, really,” he lied.

“Do you have a type, then? Don’t tell me you’re into white girls.”

Brandon raised his shoulders an inch. “Depends.”

“What else? You tryna get with any Asian chicks? Tryin’ to get them to go lo mein?”

Brandon tapped his foot once. “I’m about to take that plate away again.”

Jillian scrunched up her face, sneering. “I’m only screwin’ with you. Calm yourself.”

Brandon glanced away again, but another girl came to the forefront of his mind.

Alexis… he couldn’t recall her last name. A petite Asian girl who also went to their school. She was on the volleyball team, although he hadn’t heard any praise regarding her skills, if at all. He had talked to her on a few occasions, and she was nice enough. Kind.. and kind. The occasions were few, after all. If he was shallow, he would’ve ranked her body much lower than someone like Courtney. ‘Petite’ was certainly the right word.

If he was shallow.

Oh yeah, I almost forgot.

He recently had been invited to her birthday. They were holding it at an old plantation house at the edge of the city. Braham’s Barn.

That was in a week. Did he need to get her a gift?

I’ll think about it. Definitely not bringing Jill, though.

The broken chains swayed when the ball brushed against them.

The middle of the day, the middle of fall, but Brandon was heated.

“Ha ha ha!” Jillian cackled, as if they were the only ones on the court. “You suck ass!”

Brandon grimaced, ticked off by the way she was acting. Didn’t help that one of his friends was here, too.

Derek laughed along, “Bruh, you lucky your athleticism was in football.” He caught the ball as it came to him.

Brandon put his arms on his hips, and looked away. “Least I can still jump.”

“Whoa!” Derek protested, “White men can jump!”

“Yeah, on the moon, maybe.”

“Alright, buddy.”

Jillian stamped her foot down, clapping against the pavement. “This is funny and all, but are we gonna go now? Uncle B’s cooking spaghetti today, and I wanna be there when he finishes up the dinner rolls.”

“Almost done, Jill,” Brandon said. “I really wanna smoke Derek now and kick his ass.”

“You wish, buddy,” Derek teased. “You can’t take me, we’ve spent the last thirty minutes proving this point.”

“I wasn’t actually trying.”

“Oh, okay.”

Derek moved to the three-point line, directly in front of the net, and took three long steps back.

“Here,” he said, “If I make this, can I join you guys for spaghetti?”

“That has nothing to do with what we were talking about,” Brandon said.

“But I’m hungry, and spaghetti sounds dope as fuck right about now.”

Jillian made a noise, complaining. “Just make it, then. Uncle B’s got enough for everyone, but stop dicking around.”

Derek laughed, sticking his tongue out. “Sure thing.”

He took the shot.

The ball smacked against the face of the backboard, and it bounced past Derek before he could grab it. It rolled across the court, stopping at the other side.

The ball rolled dangerously close to the Nikes of a man at a bench, sitting with a gang of others. They all wore white. Members of the Royals.

Brandon swore under his breath, and could’ve sworn that he heard Jillian mutter something similar.

“I’ll get it,” Brandon said, taking the initiative, “I’ll be back in a minute.”

“I’m coming, too,” Jillian said, starting to move.

He didn’t protest. They both went towards the group. He heard Derek tag along behind them.

Careful, all we need to do is get the ball back.

They advanced, moving in silence, a contrast to how loud and boisterous the other group were being.

The other group continued talking amongst themselves when Brandon got there. They were ignoring them.

The ball was too close to the man’s foot, Brandon couldn’t just reach down and grab it. He’d have to ask for it.

Brandon steeled himself.

He had to be careful with the volume of his voice, his tone. Had to get their attention, but couldn’t get a rise out of them, either.

“Yo, mind if I grab that ball real quick?”

Of the group, only two paid him any mind. The man sitting down, and the other right next to Brandon. The others continued talking amongst each other.

“What you want, boy?” the man asked. Hard.

“Just want the ball, dawg.”

From his seat, the man picked up the ball, and stood. Brandon was tall, but he was tall.

Casually, he stalked over to Brandon and his crew. Mouth closed, Brandon pinched his tongue between his teeth.

“This ball?” the man questioned, holding the ball with one hand, shoulder level. The bottom of the ball was high enough to touch Brandon’s forehead.

“Yes, that ball.” Jillian was the next speak, despite Brandon. “Quit playin’ and just hand it over.”

Everyone went quiet.

Jillian, damn you.

They were outnumbered, outmatched, and probably outgunned. Brandon’s mind didn’t want to go to such a dark spot, but he couldn’t stop himself from doing so. No fighting, only flight.

If they could.

“Pssh, you got a mouth on you, don’t you?” another one of them said. “What else can it do?”

This is taking too long, things aren’t looking good.

“I can fuckin’ bite your dick off if you don’t stop playing.”

Jill!

“What the hell did you say?” the man with the ball said, aggravated. He stepped forward, and Brandon and Derek responded by stepping back. Jillian did not.

“Yah heard me,” she said, her cool not lost at all.

“Bitch I will-”

“Stop.”

Everyone did.

Another from the men in white. He moved to them, and the others parted to make way to Brandon and the man with his ball.

“Jay,” the other man said, presumably the leader of this group. “We’re here to kick it, not start trouble. We don’t need that.”

The man with the ball, Jay, didn’t delay. He returned the ball to Brandon, dropping it in his hands.

The leader nodded, happy with how things turned around. He directed himself to Brandon and Jillian. With a blinged-out hand, he waved them away.

“Y’all go.”

No apologies, or admittance of fault, but they took what they could get. Brandon and the others promptly left the court.

“Jill,” Brandon said as they turned the street, leaving the area, “You have to got keep yourself in check.”

Jillian spoke absentmindedly. “Who are those guys? If we were in Bedstine, we wouldn’t be here, talking about this.”

Did you even hear me?

“The Royals,” Derek explained, “Another gang.”

Jillian touched her chin. She was pondering over something, Brandon knew that much.

I really do have to keep an eye on you.

A very close one.

Brandon ran, trying to push past the crowd. A lot of people gathered. Too many.

He could manage, though. He was much taller than everyone else, and he was stronger. Getting through the bystanders was easy.

The police, not so much.

“Hey, you’re not allowed through, just like everyone else!” the cop ordered, loudly.

“Please, you don’t get it, that’s-”

The cop put his hand on Brandon’s chest, trying to push him back. Brandon immediately froze, fear seizing him, and he stepped back.

Probably dumb to do, Brandon thought, but he was going to try, anyway.

“You have to let me through,” he pleaded, “That’s my cousin.”

The cop turned back, looking over the scene again. After a short pause, he stepped aside.

Brandon ran again.

He followed the trail of cop cars, leading to the front of the Strip. His heart dropped when he saw an ambulance.

Jillian was in handcuffs, being led by two police officers. He yelled. Not sounds, or any tangible words, but they stopped when they heard him.

“Jill! What did you do?!” he yelled when he got to them.

She looked at him, her eyes puffy and red, dried blood caked on her nose. She wasn’t saying anything.

Can she, even?

“Don’t force her to speak,” one of the officers said. He had a thick moustache that moved when he talked. “Her nose is broken badly.”

Brandon had to wipe his palms on his pants leg, not looking forward to the answer to his next question.

“Then you tell me, what did she do?”

The mustachioed officer spoke like it was nothing big. “Assault with a deadly weapon. Attempted.”

Brandon’s heart couldn’t take much more abuse. It skipping, beating fast, dropping.

Yet he still found it in him to ask for more information.

“The other girl? Was she okay?”

The officer turned and pointed to an ambulance a little farther away. “You can ask her, if she’ll let you.”

Brandon’s eyes darted back and forth between Jillian and the ambulance in the distance. He grumbled.

Reluctant, he started to break away from Jillian and the officers. “I’ll be back in a minute, just don’t take her anywhere just yet.”

Neither officer said anything. Brandon went off running again.

He got to the ambulance. Certainly, now would be the time his heart gave out.

Alexis.

She was sitting at the back of the ambulance, legs dangling. A blanket covered her, and she looked haggard. Hair frayed, some strands stuck to her cheeks. She was staring at the ground, not focusing on anything around her.

Carefully, he walked. He wasn’t sure if his presence would spook her any further.

“Alexis,” he said, testing.

She responded, turning her head to him. The look on her face, it wasn’t one of shock or even anger. Rather, she just looked tired. But not physically exhausted, no, she looked like she was tired of being here. As if she was waiting to go and leave, and everyone was keeping her from doing so.

“Brandon,” she said, soft.

“Eric texted me, just now. Are you okay? Can I ask what she did?” Brandon wasn’t sure if it was he was allowed to ask, but he tried regardless.

“That bitch tried to stab me,” Alexis said, unapologetic about using the insult. “She had a knife.”

Brandon swore under his breath. He was afraid something like this might happen, but not like this, and not so soon. Despite himself, he had held onto the hope that Jillian would rise above her destructive tendencies.

“Uh, um,” Brandon stuttered out his next question. “Can I see? Are you hurt?”

Alexis turned away, breaking eye contact, but she started to move the blanket away from her body.

Her shirt was torn, her midriff exposed. Blood was stained where the fabric was ripped, but there was nothing there, he could see that clearly enough.

His eyes went downward. He’d seen her in those shorts before. They were never that dark, or damp. Jillian did scare her.

“Are you going to the hospital, at least?” Brandon questioned. “Don’t they have to check you out?”

“No, no, it’s really nothing. I’m not hurt, like, at all. I’m just waiting to be picked up by a friend.”

“You can’t just, I mean, if you’re absolutely sure you’re okay, then maybe, but…” Brandon couldn’t formulate a sentence, everything was too much, all at once.

Alexis looked up at him, and he gave up. She smiled. It was a soft, tired smile, a mask for a sadness that Brandon could recognize, but couldn’t point out where in her life it came from.

“You don’t have to worry about me,” she said.

Pushed away, once again. Brandon wanted to cry.

Night. The van sped along, the ride smooth. The music was loud, booming, but it eased none of the anxiety that held Brandon.

Six others were in the vehicle with him. He only learned half of their names yesterday.

The others, though, they were the homies.

But everyone was decked out in all black. A far cry from the white that represented the Royals.

“Don’t worry, B,” Jack, the boy next to him, said. One of the homies. “We’re in, then we’re out. We won’t take long, and we can split up the money however we need to. I can take out a few extra bands for you.”

Brandon raised his chin, and nodded. Honor among thieves, apparently, was a real thing.

Let’s pray.

They had come to him with the offer, and he accepted. A way to get some quick cash and pay for Jillian’s medical bills. At the tail end of his tirade, Uncle B had suggested suing the other family, as recompense for that girl breaking Jillian’s nose. Brandon immediately dismissed the idea. The suit wouldn’t hold up, Alexis had a solid argument in using self-defense, and considering how he found her, she seemed to be in enough danger to justify that claim.

He also simply didn’t want to interfere with Alexis’s life any further. He had a strong feeling that things weren’t going to work out before, but this more than sealed that particular deal. Maybe, sometime in the future, they could be good friends, at most.

The more important reason why they couldn’t pursue a lawsuit was that they simply couldn’t afford it. The money would sink them sooner than they could get anything out of it.

As for helping out Jillian, this was all they could do. She’d have to go through juvy on her own.

So many things on his mind, so many reservations. Brandon didn’t voice any of them, though. He couldn’t, wouldn’t. It was bad luck to do so. Even if there was one particular reservation he was sure they all shared, but no one said anything. Was there a reason to?

The rest of the drive, Brandon stayed quiet.

It was simple, the plan was. Six people, three pairs, two locations. A corner convenience store and a jewelry store down another street. The van would drop off a pair of people at one spot, another pair at the other, and would wrap around when both parties were ready. Lucas, the one at the passenger seat, would provide support and communication for Matt, the one driving. They were both more Jillian’s friends than his, but Brandon’s friends had trust in them, and he wasn’t about to say anything.

He just wanted to be done.

Brandon got partnered up with Jack, which helped. Better to do something illegal with someone you know, rather than with a complete stranger. They were the group that would be hitting up the convenience store, too, which was much easier than the jewelry store. In, out. It should be that easy. Jack had said so.

It should be.

They were beginning to pull up to the first stop. Brandon reached beside his seat to pick up the metal bat. Jack cocked his pistol. They both fixed the bags around their shoulders, and pulled down their balaclavas.

Another day, another struggle.

The van didn’t stop, it only slowed to a crawl. Brandon pulled the door open, and got out. Jack followed.

His mind raced. He didn’t hear the van speed off, or other ambient sounds of the city. Just his heart beating in his ears, the doors slamming opening, his rushing footsteps.

He would’ve shouted to get everyone down, but he didn’t have to. There wasn’t anyone else in the aisles. It would’ve been foolish to do so, too, since that would have alerted any shopkeepers or employees to their presence. Best take them by surprise, as much as possible.

Brandon moved. One employee at the counter, by the register. Manageable.

Now, he yelled, his deep voice carrying throughout the store. “You! As much money as you can put in this bag!”

He whipped around the bag, opening it more with one hand. Using the other, he held the bat above the employee’s head, threatening to swing it down.

The employee, a thin white male, mid-twenties, hesitated for too long. He was wasting precious seconds. Brandon looked over to Jack, who moved past him, and jumped over the counter.

One wave of the gun was enough to get the employee to move. He sprang open the register, putting in as much money as he could. There was another register beside him, meaning another load. Brandon knew the amount in a register would be anywhere from around one hundred to two hundred dollars, so they would be making at most four hundred, just from these two hits. There might be other stuff in the back, but that was Jack’s job to check.

Four hundred, plus whatever they pulled in from the jewelry store. Brandon was beginning to think that this might work out, after all.

No, don’t get cocky now.

The employee emptied out the first register, and Brandon only had to motion to the other with his bat to get him to move. The employee worked fast, to Brandon’s relief.

Jack returned from the back aisle, having checked around while the Brandon’s captive worked. “Got some extra stuff in the back,” he reported, patting his own bag. “It’s a good score. No one else is gonna be a problem here, too.”

“Good, so we good?” Brandon asked.

“Yeah.”

Just as Jack answered, his hip buzzed. The walkie-talkie that was connected them to the other parties. Jack picked it up.

“How’s it going on your end?”

A distorted blare. An alarm? A gunshot? No, wasn’t distinct enough.

However, they could make out the words.

Shit! It’s here! It’s too fast! I-”

The sound cut out. They no longer had a connection.

Brandon was already sweating, but he felt it getting worse.

What was going on over there?

Jack pressed a button to change frequencies. The walkie-talkie buzzed again, but this time the message was much more clear.

This is Lucas! Get outta there! Meet on Jefferson, we’ll get you at the corner!

“Hey!” Jack exclaimed into the device, “Tell me what’s happening!”

Jewels are a bust! We can’t get to them anymore! Just move!

Brandon and Jack exchanged looks. They agreed in silence.

They moved.

Brandon closed his bag as he ran, using his back to push open the door. They sprinted down the street, heading towards Jefferson.

Apparently, things weren’t going well. Something had tied up the pair at the jewelry store. Was it the police? A guard? Someone else? Brandon wished he could find out. He so desperately wanted to help, but it just wasn’t an option.

Derek and Adam. They were his friends, it was a bust, and Brandon and Jack were about to leave them behind.

Brandon bit his lip until it hurt, but he knew he had to keep going. He could wallow about it later, and he would. For now, they needed to cut their losses, and escape.

They got onto another street, running on the sidewalk. Other people were here, in the way, watching. They saw. They were witnesses. More losses to take, but the only thing they could do right now was to deal with it.

Brandon ran, having to push a woman out of his path. She tripped off of the curb, nearly being clipped by a car as it passed.

Another loss.

Jack barked again into the device. “We’re coming up on Jefferson! Where are you!”

Coming!” the device answered.

Sure enough, they were. The van reappeared from a corner further away, tires screeching. It was audible.

Brandon and Jack maintained their sprint, attempting to meet the van halfway. They were so close.

So close.

From above, it arrived.

A shape, that was all Brandon could describe it as from that distance. It seemingly appeared out of nowhere, from the rooftops above, coming down towards the van.

It landed, or moreso it crashed, slamming onto the hood of the vehicle. The van veered off in another direction, but it skidded to a halt before anyone outside out be injured.

The shape slipped off of the hood, too, and collided with the street. It was the first to move again, Lucas and Matt weren’t getting out of the van.

When the shape moved again, getting up straight, it was then when Brandon realized that it wasn’t a thing.

It was a person.

The Bluemoon, Brandon thought, He is real.

He had seen it on TV, online. Everyone in the world did. But there was nothing like seeing it for yourself. Nothing like seeing a real-life superhuman in action. They were actually real.

Even then, what he saw was still hard to believe.

Cast in a streetlight, The Bluemoon moved to the van, crossing the distance between them with an incredible jump. He had never seen anyone go that far or that high with a single bound.

Brandon turned to Jack. He had only now realized they were standing in place.

“What do we do?” he asked, weakly.

Jack’s mouth dropped. He was dumbfounded.

Brandon acted, regardless of Jack’s dawdling. He ran again, and swung the bat in front of Jack’s face to get his attention, nearly breaking his nose in the process.

“Let’s just move!”

They did, and the last visual Brandon had on the van was of the The Bluemoon opening the driver’s side door, with Matt stuck in place by the seat belt. Whatever The Bluemoon had in store for them, Brandon wouldn’t stick around to find out.

They went back the way they came, moving onto a different street when they saw the corner store. They were running for some time, now, and Brandon was confident they could find somewhere to hide, wait for things to cool down.

That confidence was immediately shattered by the shouting behind them.

“Split up!” Jack shouted, and forked down a different road from Brandon in a flash. Brandon didn’t question or argue anything, he simply went another way.

He went down an alley, searching for any backdoors to slide into. One, but a hard pull couldn’t open it. Locked.

Damn.

He moved on, coming out from the other end of the alley to another street. His legs were already aching, he couldn’t keep this up. Had to find a place to rest, at least. Catch a breath.

An old steel building, outfitted to be an auto repair shop. Under construction, or scheduled for demolition, or even a base of operations for Styx’s Gang. Brandon wasn’t sure, but the building looked like it hadn’t been used in decades, worn down and almost sad. In fact, a lot of the buildings closer to downtown were like that. A result of all the gang activity in the city.

Brandon was fully aware of this effect, why this decay came to be, but he couldn’t care less at the moment. He fled into the building.

He made his way into the garage. It was dark, meaning no one was around. Some light came in through the windows above, but it wasn’t enough to see clearly. Brandon could only barely make out the heavy machinery and equipment littering the spot. Cars and motorcycles both were stationed here.

Not a lot of dust, Styx’s Gang does work from here.

But, anywhere was better than being outside, where that thing was. He’d lay low in here. At least no one else was inside.

He did have his bat, too, but Brandon doubted that it would be much help.

He stuck to a corner, and crouched. All he could do now was wait.

The silence, the time to rest, gave Brandon a moment to reflect on what just happened. He prayed that splitting up would work, but he had no idea if The Bluemoon went after him or Jack, but what was he supposed to hope for? That The Bluemoon went after Jack instead? How could he think that?

The thought did cross Brandon’s mind. He felt ashamed, but mostly what he felt was regret. Regret that he agreed to this job, regret that he hadn’t been more assertive in helping Jillian, even when she didn’t want it. Regret that he didn’t help himself.

A clang. It tore Brandon away from his thoughts.

Another. Brandon was back to panicking again.

Sounds were ringing from the other side of the space, echoing throughout the garage. Footsteps. Getting closer.

You motherfucker.

Brandon was left with very little options. He couldn’t make a move, or he’d be immediately spotted, but if he stayed, he might eventually be spotted. He decided to take the lesser of the two risks. He stayed still.

The sounds stopped. The footstep gone. Brandon forced himself to not take another breath. The fabric of his balaclava soaked up his sweat.

Before he could try to come up with another course of action, he heard it.

Two subtle taps. Soft, but he heard it. The sounds weren’t far like the others, no, it was much closer.

Brandon lifted his head toward the direction he heard it.

He saw him.

The Bluemoon.

He was perched on the roof of a truck, lifted up by one of the car lifts. He was facing directly toward Brandon.

Even though Brandon was in a corner, in the dark, he was still spotted.

You motherfucker!

Brandon burst from his spot, going as fast as he could to another exit nearby. The back exit, by another corner. It wasn’t even on the other side of the garage. He could make it.

He could make it.

I can make-

“Aoffgh!”

It all happened too fast to register. Brandon found himself on the floor, his body sore. His years in football taught him how to take a fall, however, and he bounced back up on his feet. He spun around.

There he was. The Bluemoon. He was shorter than Brandon expected.

Brandon tried. He swung his bat, swinging with a strength that he didn’t know he still had. Adrenaline pulsated through him. Brandon aimed for his head.

The Bluemoon brought up an arm, and caught the bat in his hand. Brandon was struck with horror. The fact that he could catch a bat with his bare hands, stopping it mid-swing.

How strong are you?

With one sudden yank, The Bluemoon tore the bat from Brandon’s hands. Like candy from a child.

All too easy, unfortunately.

The Bluemoon thrusted with his other arm, pushing an open palm into Brandon’s chest. It was like getting hit by a metal bat himself.

He flew, going a distance. He banged against a wall, and dropped back down. Brandon wasn’t getting up this time.

He heard the bat get tossed away, sliding under something, somewhere. Much like his hopes of making a getaway.

Before he could even think to move, Brandon was pinned down by a single foot.

That same foot was taken off his back, and brought into his side. He was kicked over, flipped onto his back, his bag of money squished by his weight.

Brandon could hardly see, barely breathe, but he tried. The image was murky.

A dark figure hovered over him. A hooded figure, The Bluemoon had on a windbreaker fitting to his name. His face was obscured, the eyes in shadow.

All Brandon saw staring back at him was a blank face.

He shivered. He couldn’t move, couldn’t escape.

He was done for.

The Bluemoon put his foot on Brandon’s chest, deflating him. Brandon couldn’t take another breath.

“And here, we have the last mole to whack.”

The Bluemoon spoke, but the voice was higher pitched than he would have expected. It threw him off. Was he a kid? Maybe even a girl?

“Yeah, I think that’s it,” The Bluemoon said. “Then I’m done for the night. It’s getting late.”

The word weren’t directed to him. Is he talking to someone?

“Alright,” The Bluemoon then said, shifting his attention to Brandon. “Time to go.” He reached down and pulled off his balaclava.

Brandon closed his eyes, the fabric being pulled away from him. He kept shut, bracing himself for anything.

Anything.

But nothing came.

Brandon slowly opened his eyes again, and realized that he was allotted the time to do so. He saw the moon again.

The moon from a window above.

Huh?

Brandon was alone. The Bluemoon was gone, the sound of a metal door banging open. He left him alone.

Why?

Brandon had to take it slow as he got up. He found that his bag still wrapped around him, the money still there. The only thing The Bluemoon left behind was an unsettling fear, and confusion.

Why did he leave him be? What went down with Jack? The Bluemoon said something about the ‘last mole to whack,’ that would have to mean he got to the others. Brandon had to guess that he was singled out, but once again, why?

Was he simply not worth it to the superhero?

Was it worth getting into? No, Brandon felt like he survived an encounter with the Devil himself, but he was still in Hell. Sirens were coming, he could hear them. Red and blue lights tinged the edges of the windows, he could see them. He wasn’t entirely free.

Brandon wondered if he ever would be.

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021 – Blend, Smear

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I fell backwards. I hit the ground. A thin layer of artificial grass provided some cushioning.

Some.

I felt pummeled. Like a world-class boxer just went to town on my face. My brain was scrambled. Thoughts not coming together quite right. Maybe a memory or two got knocked out of my head, somehow. Perhaps a math equation.

Was this enough for a concussion?

No, it wasn’t that bad, all things considered. I had taken worse. Way worse. I was just taken by surprise. I wasn’t expecting it. As a result, I fell.

My faceplate took the brunt of the hit – the hits – but the hard plastic was thrust against my upper lip and nose. That had to leave a mark, if not break my nose entirely. I practically took it at point-blank range.

I went to the ground, more in shock than in pain. My healing immediately kicked in.

The numbing throb in my head started slowing in tempo, another type of feeling settling in. I felt my nose move a fraction, and immediately felt like I could breath again. Like I had forgotten that I could. My nose had definitely bruised.

The pain was dissipating, now, my healing doing its job, but I was now more confused than anything else.

What was that for?

“That’ll teach you to not stand over me.”

That voice. Grating.

Probably Jillian.

“Don’t go around getting the wrong idea,” she said. “You ain’t better than me.”

The more she spoke, the more dots I was able to connect. Why I thought she was familiar.

She called me something before, before she shot me in the face.

‘Shorty.’

It was an idiotic nickname, a laughable attempt at an insult, but I remember being called that, once before.

She, Jillian…

Paint had covered my faceplate, and it was hard to see. Some light cut through, but then it dimmed some. She was standing over me.

“It’s more like this, get it?” she intoned. “Know your place.”

The fuck?

“How is your ego that fragile?”

I managed to ask that. It came out clearer than I thought it would.

I couldn’t see her face, but I was sure she had a reaction.

“Quit talking.”

She shot her paintball gun again, this time to my chest.

It was solid hit. A clean punch.

If I was able to talk clearly before, I couldn’t now.

My body twitched at the hit, but I otherwise stayed down, still stunned from what just transpired.

I heard shuffling above me, the sound going away. She ran off. What a coward.

Did… did that just happen?

I was so confused.

In the end, getting hit by a paintball gun was relatively low on my new threshold for pain. I got back on my feet easy, right away.

Externally, I was okay. I barely broke a sweat, and I didn’t get any paint on my clothes. Internally, I was fuming.

I was already annoyed with Jillian for intruding upon my date with Brandon. Now that I actually knew who she was, not only did things come together, I was mad at the fact that they had to come together like this.

She was the girl at the Strip, the one that was pissing off both me and Katy. She was also Brandon’s cousin.

Because of course she was.

I wasn’t sure if she knew about my powers. Didn’t seem like it. She would’ve brought it up. But she did know of me and Brandon. She deliberately went and stepped outside of her home today to sabotage my date, she had to. It was the only thing I could speculate about this. The only thing I couldn’t figure out was why.

Why?

I tried wiping the paint away from my faceplate, but I ended up smearing it. The different shades of color blended into a murky, dark mess. I tried again, and it got a little better, but not by much. When my faceplate cleared up a little more, I crouched down on my knees, hands out, looking for my gun. I had dropped it when I got shot. It took some time to locate it. It somehow ended up at the base of a chest-high wall. How it got there, I could only guess.

I picked it up. Taking my time, I began to maneuver my way off of the field.

Another announcement, declared overhead.

The game has concluded. All players return to the front of the field.

I took that as a reason to remove my headgear, unfastening my other equipment.

I reconvened with the others at the front, by the door leading back into the lobby. Brandon was there. So was Jillian.

Everyone was starting to take off their equipment, returning them to the boxes. The team we went up against weren’t around.

“Alexis, hey,” Brandon said after he returned his stuff. He met me at one of the boxes. “Sick moves out there, Jesus Christ.”

I rubbed my nose, as if I could fix it myself. Which, in a sense, I actually could. “I guess.”

“As soon as we started, man, you left me in smoke. That was actually really dope.”

“It ain’t nothing,” I said, trying to force levity in my voice. “Just wanna get out of here.”

“We can, now. Because of you, we destroyed those other guys. They were so salty they went back to the lobby without saying anything.”

“Good,” I said, “They deserve it.”

Deserve it, I thought.

I tried not to, but I looked at Jillian, who already had her equipment off. She was talking with her friends. Talking like nothing happened. She was laughing, joking.

Like nothing happened.

If I was ever out for blood…

I blinked, realizing where I was. I had to put conscious effort towards unclenching my fists. I didn’t notice how tense I became while watching her. How agitated I was. I was ready to run up on her, make her bleed with my own two hands. I could do it, too. No knife needed.

I wouldn’t, though. Couldn’t.

As fucked up as it was, there was no point in making a fuss about it. The less attention I brought upon myself, the better, and apparently I had raised enough attention with Jillian.

Fuck this, this isn’t worth it.

“Wanna move on?” I asked Brandon, putting forth idea of leaving. I tried masking my regret, my anger, with a higher intonation.

It seemed to work. “I’m down,” Brandon said, as cheery as ever. It wasn’t his fault, I didn’t even want him to know, but his demeanor stung me.

I smiled.

“Cool.”

I didn’t bother with any other pleasantries. I promptly left, leaving everyone behind. Brandon could go say bye to the others, to Jillian, if he wanted, but I’d count myself out.

I returned my gun by simply leaving on the counter. I saw Number Two sitting on a chair, looking into the other arena. He still had his headgear on, but I could tell he was as angry as I was. Something about his body language. All he had to brood about, though, was losing.

Wait, wasn’t he around when I got shot? Why didn’t he do anything? Say anything? Was losing so bad to him, that he’d disregard anything else?

Fuck that guy, too, then.

This day took a sour turn really fast, and I had to do my best to salvage it.

I made it out of the building, and waited outside. It didn’t take too long for Brandon to follow. Good, I didn’t want to be left alone with my thoughts.

We walked to Brandon’s car. For now, I’d power through this, keep on moving. Jillian would only be an issue if I made her into one. There were other things worth concerning myself over, but even that could wait.

“What did you think?” Brandon asked, “You have fun?”

“I did have fun,” I answered. There was some truth there. The game itself, aside from how it ended, was a blast. That, I had no problems with. I could be honest about that.

“So, where to next?” Brandon asked as we moved. “You drink coffee?”

Literally impossible, but I wouldn’t phrase it like that.

“Not a fan, really,” I said, “Too bitter.”

“You’re aware you can put in sugar, right?”

“I’m aware, Captain Obvious,” I said, forcing myself to act more casually. Unnaturally acting natural. “Just not a coffee girl.”

“That’s why I ask,” Brandon said. We got to his car, and I went over to the passenger side.

“I mean, I don’t mind going to a cafe or whatever,” I said, “I just won’t get anything. Besides, it’ll be a good place to cool down, take a break.”

A break is really what I need, right now.

Brandon nodded, satisfied. “Cool.”

Maria slapped my shoulder, expressing her disbelief.

“You’re not gonna go out with him again?”

I would’ve shrugged, but I had my bags with me. No need for the effort.

“It’s… “ I tried searching for the word. “What’s the word?”

“Moronic? A waste?”

“Complicated?” I ventured. “It’s complicated.”

“Complicated how?” Maria wasn’t having any of it. “The date didn’t go down that badly, did it?”

I got shot in the face. Three times.

“It’s just something I don’t want to pursue anymore,” I explained, vaguely.

“This isn’t a career you’re pursuing, Alexis.” Katy interjected, and I remembered she was here, too. “This is a boy we’re talking about. Much more important.”

“Sorry to disappoint, guys,” I said. We turned to move down the hall. “As much as I wanted it to before, it’s not gonna work out.”

Katy whined, her disappointment obvious. “I’ll let you go for now, Alexis, since you have your practice. But we’re not done here. You going to give us the full deets about your date, eventually.”

“And I only just now found out you ever went on one,” Maria said. “I’m offended.”

We went to a flight of stairs, slowing down our pace as everyone else was trying to squeeze their way down. “Not much happened,” I said. “Nothing to report.”

“Yeah, yeah, we could do this all day,” Katy said, “And we won’t get anywhere. Go, text me when you’re done.”

“Imma dip, too,” Maria said. “No point in hanging around like I used to.”

I felt a sense of accomplishment, there. It was the small stuff. Just that could’ve made my week.

“See you,” I said, splitting up with them when we passed the front doors of the school. With their backs to me, I couldn’t help but sulk.

It had been a few days since my date with Brandon. After my date had ended, Katy kept pestering me with texts about how it went. I ignored them, didn’t want to talk about it. Kept quiet about it too, over the next few days. Katy didn’t push any more until just now, I guessed she’d wait until I was comfortable with sharing more. Which I wasn’t, and she was already losing her patience. It was understandable, she helped facilitate and set this up between me and Brandon.

She just didn’t see Jillian throwing a wrench in things.

Speaking of which, I started seeing her around school more often, like a word I just learned and suddenly it popped up everywhere, except I wanted to forget it. Mostly standing around in the hallways, in between classes, but I could pick her out from a crowd. Was she always there, or was I just going crazy?

Maybe it was both.

I hadn’t seen her after school, barring that one time we looked for Maria, so I was spared of her presence for now. Good.

Conversely, I hadn’t seen or heard from Brandon since. Maybe he already got the message, or caught on to the fact that there wouldn’t be one. Even though I ‘secured’ that second date.

Man, fuck Jillian.

I headed towards the gym on the other side of the school, trying to find something else to think about. Like that fact that I probably needed to drink blood soon. I could feel it in my throat.

I stopped when I saw Eric and Evan by a vending machine. Harrian was with them.

I remembered when I went into the Asian goods store, when I chatted with Harrian. It had been a few days since, and I had a chance to reflect on everything. I wasn’t exactly on my best behavior that day. Even if I did have my reasons.

Normally, I would’ve kept going, but this time, I approached.

“What are you two clowns up to?” I asked.

They turned to me, with a dumb grin plastered on their faces. Calling them ‘clowns’ was an apt description.

“Oh, hey Alexis,” Eric said, his deep voice rumbling.

“I hope you’re not bothering Harrian,” I said, looking to the boy in question. I didn’t know him that well, having only talked to him back at the store, and even then, I couldn’t get a read on his expressions.

“We’re not bothering anybody,” Evan said, “We were just laughing.”

“At what?”

“Not at anything, Harry just made a joke.”

A joke?

I almost did double-take to Harrian. Putting it lightly, the last thing I would’ve considered Harrian to be was funny.

I squinted. “Now I want to know what the joke was.”

Harrian glanced elsewhere. He spoke, but his voice still carried that dull tone.

“You wouldn’t get it.”

Eric and Evan broke down into laughter again, and if I had a magnifying glass, I might have seen Harrian’s upper lip move a bit, a smile trying to escape.

So you do have a personality. That’s a relief.

“See?” Eric said, shoulders shaking, “Told you we made it up to him.”

“Yeah, we’re practically family now,” Evan added.

“I wouldn’t go that far,” Harrian said. “My Aunt would hate to be related to you two.”

“Damn,” Evan leaned back and winced, like Harrian’s comment actually stung. “Too savage, man.”

I watched the three of them converse. I really wanted to know the story there, what exactly happened to get to this point, but that wasn’t any of my business. If nothing else, I was happy for them. Eric and Evan were working on getting their third musketeer.

“Didn’t mean to intrude then,” I said, “I was going to do the whole ‘stick up for the little guy’ bit, and win some cosmic brownie points, but it looks like things are alright, here. I’ll get going.”

“Wait, Lexis, hold up,” Eric said. His voice wasn’t as jaunty as before. He managed to stop me.

“Yeah?”

“You know Jillian, Brandon’s cousin?”

I wasn’t so enthused to hear that question. “I’m familiar.”

“She’s been asking around about you. Even went to me and Evan.”

I felt myself tense. “Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“What was she asking about?”

“Just anything. What you like to do after school, what classes you have. Stuff like that. We didn’t tell her anything, promise.”

“I appreciate it,” I said.

“Yeah. I like Brandon and all, but I’ve heard about her, and… like, Brandon doesn’t like to admit they’re related unless he absolutely has to, so something’s definitely off with her. I don’t know, just thought I’d let you know, before anything bad happens.”

Anything bad. I had no idea what her problem was, or why she was asking around about me, but this was becoming borderline creepy. I didn’t want her to be trouble, but it seemed like she was making trouble on her own. Had to do something about it now, nip it in the bud. Get to the bottom of this, as it were.

“Do you know where she hangs?” I asked, making sure.

“From what I’ve heard,” Eric said, “She usually chills at the Strip. Wait, you’re going, now?”

“Sure,” I said, serious. For whatever reason, Jillian wanted me, and she was going to get me.

Round two, I figured.

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020 – Broken Rules

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Brandon’s cousin and her friends relayed the plan to us, and it actually sounded like it would be a lot of fun. The place wasn’t that far, and it was another thing we could do. Sure, it took away from today feeling like a date with Brandon, but we agreed that we wouldn’t be long, and we’d have enough time after to go do something else. I had secured a second date with Brandon, anyways, so the low lights and scented candles could wait.

As for now, we were going to play paintball.

“Welcome,” an employee droned as we walked in. He was fumbling with a gun, setting it on a shelf above him. We had entered into the front lobby or ‘basecamp’ of Sheriff & Crook Paintball, a place that specialized in indoor paintball.

There were six of us. Me, Brandon, his cousin Jillian, and three others whose names I hadn’t gotten yet. Two other girls and a guy.

The establishment was located in a decent-sized warehouse, big enough to host at least two separate games at the same time, from what I heard from Brandon on the drive here. I heard about this place before, a lot of people I knew had been at least once, but I never had the opportunity to check it out myself. I had played paintball before, but that was a while back. Another reason why this ended up being worthwhile, I figured.

I was finally able to see what the big deal was about. I was glad, even if it meant having to be in another warehouse so soon.

I kept that to myself.

I followed the rest of the group to the front counter, which was also a display case featuring an assortment of different paint pellets and guns. The employee that ‘enthusiastically’ greeted us eventually met us there. His movements were slow.

“So, what’s up?” he asked. His brown hair was tied up in a bun, and the frame of his glasses were thick. He looked like he would be more interested in serving us coffee than a game of paintball.

“Here for a game,” Jillian said.

“Duh.”

She seemingly ignored that. “Is there any hyperball games going on right now?”

He pressed on a tablet by the register there, tapping on it a few times. “Um, yeah, both arenas have somethin’ going on right now. Give it maybe like nine minutes? That okay?”

“Perfect.” Jillian turned to the rest of us. “Does one game sound good?”

We nodded in assent.

“Then one game,” Jillian said to the employee. She turned back to Brandon. She nudged her head in the direction of the cash register.

“You were gonna have me pay?” Brandon questioned, puzzled.

“Mm-hmm,” she hummed.

“Was that why you came to the arcade? To swindle me?”

“I ain’t swindling you. You owe me from before.”

“From before what?”

Jillian made a smug expression. It wasn’t intended for me, but I felt offended by it.

“Do you want me to mention it now?”

Brandon made a perplexed look before he groaned, mildly annoyed. He stepped up to the register, wallet in hand.

“Thank you,” she said, in a sing-songy voice.

Something about her tone, it’s grating, I thought, And familiar. But, I didn’t want to think on it any more.

I also didn’t like whatever that interaction was about. But, I wasn’t close enough with Brandon to prod. Not yet, anyways.

“Thirty bucks for a game,” the employee said. He was a shining example of that famous Stephenville customer service. Or infamous, rather.

Without complaint, Brandon gave him a credit card.

“You guys all played before?” the employee asked. “You know the drill?”

We all nodded. I knew the drill enough, I figured.

“Need to rent equipment?”

Brandon nodded.

“Then that’ll be twenty bucks. Um, each.”

Brandon looked right at Jillian, eyes narrowed. “No way in hell am I paying that.”

Jillian laughed once. “I know, I know, we’ll cover ourselves there.”

We formed a small line, each ready to pay. I paid the appropriate amount, and looked over when he motioned to the armory side of the building, where we were free to pick whichever gun we wanted, all ready to go. He just had to unlock them from behind metal grates.

I wasn’t sure how I missed it. The lobby was pretty spacious, with tables and chairs set up by the windows on the farthest wall that you could look through and watch the other games. Doors were set up on either end of the room, leading into the different arenas. The armory was set up against the rightmost wall. Differents types of guns, different shapes and sizes. I didn’t know enough about the particulars to know what was what.

I stuck close to Brandon while we checked out the different guns. The others went elsewhere.

“Definitely didn’t expect this when I asked if you wanted to do something,” Brandon commented. It was like he was trying to apologize for something.

I reiterated what I had said before. “It’s cool. You didn’t know your cousin would show up out of nowhere, and I did randomly agree to come here. It’s not your fault.”

“Not my fault, but I still have to pay for it.” Brandon chuckled, which told me that he took the turn of events in stride.

“I’ve got you next time, then.”

“Cool.” He looked at a gun.

I wanted to pat myself on the back. A whole afternoon with Brandon, and things were going as smoothly as they ever could. I didn’t stumble or stammer over myself too much, and I managed to keep my cool, for the most part. Maybe there was a single, solitary benefit to being as busy as I was the past few weeks. My mind was taken off the stuff I would normally get hung up over, and now I could return to them refreshed, the worries I had not being as serious as before.

It was just the worries I did have now were deadly serious. Seriously.

“What gun you looking at?” he asked me. We started talking about something else.

I put a finger on my bottom lip, pondering over my different choices. I really didn’t know what the differences were between any of them, so I just went with what I liked, aesthetically.

Before I could go and declare my choice, I felt an elbow dig into my arm, and I was pushed to the side. I had to bring out my other hand and push against the metal grate in front of me to not get knocked over. It clanged.

“Oh, get that one Brandon! That one suits you!”

It was Jillian.

God fucking dammit, Jillian.

“Jill, watch where you’re going,” Brandon said, scolding her. “Alexis is right there.”

“Oh, didn’t see you there, sorry.”

I already fixed my stance, my hand off of the metal. I wore a smile.

“No big,” I said.

The fuck is wrong with you?

“But yeah,” Jillian continued, like I wasn’t there at all, “Let’s get going, our game is up. They’re pitting us up against another team that’s still sticking around.” She lifted up her gun, a green pistol with paint splatters on the handle. “See? Already have my gun. We’ll go get changed and we’ll see you in a bit.”

“Alright, just watch where you’re going.” Brandon said it again. I took that as him being on my side. Not that I needed it, but I appreciated the gesture.

I could’ve sworn I saw her roll her eyes. “Heard you the first time.” She left. Just like that. She joined her other friends and went through one of the doors leading into an arena.

Brandon shook his head, sighing. “Sorry about her,” he said. “She can get, well, you already saw it.”

I did see it. It was starting to come to me, but not completely. The way she talked, her tone. I’d heard it before, that was for sure.

“I won’t say anything, since she’s your family and all,” I said, “But you seem to already know what it is I would say.”

Brandon slightly grinned. “I’ll give you that. Yeah, we should actually get going.”

“Okay.”

We got the attention of another employee to help us get our weapon of choice. Brandon picked out a black gun, and I went for my original choice, a pink mechanical gun.

We went through the same door Jillian and her friends went through, leaving the lobby and entering the ‘arena.’ A much larger, expansive, but still enclosed space. It was what you’d expect a paintball field to look like.

Cover was few and far between, and only stood at about waist high. There were some bunkers, however, made of black-tubing. Meaning that, even if you were behind a wall, you still left too many openings that others could exploit. So constant moving was a necessity, creating a high-action, fast-paced energy and atmosphere. Situational awareness and speed was required. Which was exactly what I had. Meaning I knew I had to be careful.

We joined up with Jillian and her friends. They were all equipped with their gear, worn on top of their clothes. Except Jillian, who had put on a pair of paint-caked, heavy overalls before she could wear her gear. You weren’t allowed to play unless you were wearing the proper clothing, which begged a question I didn’t care to ask, mainly because I didn’t want to think about Jillian more than I needed to.

They all had their headgear on, which also protected the face, but I could still tell which one was Jillian. I didn’t like that I could.

One of her other friends, a girl, pointed to a heavy-duty box by the door we had come through. Brandon and I went to go get our own gear. I pieced together the most mismatched, off-color armor ever. My headwear was yellow, my vest blue, and my joint pads were a gross orange. I felt like an art supply shop threw up on me. But they were the only pieces in my size. Oh well.

At least Brandon looked much the same.

We rejoined the others.

“We look fucking awesome, I have to say,” the other boy said. “Like Power Rangers.”

“What Power Rangers team has two Black Rangers?” Jillian asked.

Everyone laughed.

I was lucky I had on my headgear, otherwise they’d see me crack a smile at that dumb joke.

Fuck you, Jillian.

A loud buzz sounded above, a signal that things were starting soon. With Jillian leading the way, we moved as a group, towards another group of six, standing in the middle of the field. From their build, I could guess that they were guys. College-aged, maybe. The headgear made it hard to tell.

“Hey!” one of them called out. He had the number ‘2’ spray painted across his vest. His squeaky voice was muffled by his headgear. “You the next batch of losers?” He pointed to me.

Why did he single me out? Cause I was shortest and probably least intimidating? What was I supposed to take from that?

“No, you are,” I said back, with little thought.

Wow.

There was no need to correct him, and now I felt stupid for doing so. I wasn’t good with jokes as Blank Face, so why did I keep trying?

Everyone snicked. The other team, even Brandon beside me.

“Nice going, Alexis, we sure got them,” he said.

I shrugged, rolling with it. “Anytime.”

The guy I started to refer to as ‘Number Two’ immediately stopped. “We’re doing elimination.” He pointed to his team, who were numbered one through six, spray painted across their vest. “Alright with you losers?”

“Yeah, yeah.” Jillian answered for us. “You’re not impressing anyone.” She waved them off, and that was enough for the opposite team to start huddling together.

Our team followed suit, picking a good place to start. I surveyed the field, thinking about how I should maneuver around.

If I wanted to, I could go in, and seriously do a number on those pricks. That way, we’d finish early, and Brandon and I could continue our actual date. Paintball was neat and all, but being around people like Jillian and Number Two was killing enough of my vibe to want to go and do anything else. Between the two of them, I felt like I was in the middle of an alley, between two large dumpsters, filled to the brim with rotting trash.

Okay, that was mostly due to my current feelings on Jillian spilling over to the other guy, but regardless…

If I wanted to, I could go in.

“So,” Brandon said, “I wanted to say. If you’re in a tight spot or something, just holler, and I’ll be there.”

I was still walking with Brandon. Checking around the the field, I had almost forgotten.

“How very macho of you, Brandon.”

“I try.” I could venture that he was joking, on some level, but he sounded pleased with himself. “Must be all this stuff I’m wearing. Makes me feel like I’m an action movie.”

“I’m wearing the same stuff too. That must make me twice as tough as you.”

“You think so?”

“I know so.”

“How very macho of you, Alexis,” Brandon said, spinning my earlier comment back at me.

“Ha ha, clever.”

I looked again. Everyone on our team went their own way. Brandon and I were the only ones who were still sticking together. Only now did the other team split up, moving into their own positions.

“Should we be talking strategy? How to take those guys out?” I asked.

Brandon adjusted his headgear. “We can if you want, but I don’t care if we win or lose this one. Jill might, but that’s because they’ll be staying here for a bit. We can go after a game.”

He is on my side. “Glad to know that we’re on the same wavelength, then,” I said, “I was thinking the same thing.”

“Cool,” he said. I had a feeling that was starting to become an inside joke. “I’ll make this quick, then.”

Me too, I thought.

We got into position as well, behind a small barrel. Another buzzing started over the speakers, a timer counting down. I heard the other team yell along. Perhaps an attempt at intimidation. I tightened my grip on my gun.

I breathed, focusing on finding a balance on getting this done fast, and not exposing myself to the world.

“Five, four, three, two, one!”

I jumped up, bursting past my cover, leaving Brandon well behind. I was the first to spring into action. The other team also went on the move, but I could track their movements easily. They were so sluggish. Like someone set a video in slow motion.

A guy was rushing from the corner of my vision. Like my team, he also had a number on his vest. Number Three. Shifting my weight, I dashed towards his direction.

Now, I was certain I wasn’t faster than a bullet, but I was at least faster than his finger.

I cleared the distance between us in only a few steps. My strategy was to just blitz my opponents, since I didn’t have much confidence in my aim. As long as I could close in fast enough, aiming didn’t have to be an issue.

After another step, I was within arms-length. I circled around him, so he wouldn’t see me as I rapidly came in. I readied my gun.

I took a shot at his back.

“Ah!” he cried out. He mumbled something else, which I couldn’t catch. Were we supposed to call out if we got hit? I should’ve asked. It had been some time since I played.

But I never played like this, before.

Someone new. Popped out of a bunker to my right. A number five. He was looking right me. I couldn’t just rush him anymore.

Instead, I ran towards nearby cover, then dove, to be safe.

I peeked out.

I saw him catch on, and hide back behind another piece of cover. He had to be crouching, behind one of the taller walls on the field, three feet high. I figured he’d wait until I came from either direction, and go from there. His tactic wasn’t hard to counter.

I ran towards the wall, and hopped.

I ended up overshooting it by a good foot, but for a moment, I was above him, and I saw him crouched by the wall, wary of his left and right. He was completely oblivious to my actual location.

With my gun out in front of me, I fired. He was out before I landed back down.

“Ay!” I heard a yell to my left.

Jillian. Brandon’s cousin. On her back, trying to get away from Number Two. He was walking slowly, but the shot was clearly his. Why wasn’t he firing?

I could’ve breathed out so hard my lips flapped together. People took themselves way too serious, sometimes.

Like you’re one to talk.

A third time, still a charm. I hurried towards my target, who was standing over Jillian, gun over her head. Gloating, probably. This should be good.

He never saw me coming. I only fired three successive shots, but my finger pulled the trigger four times.

He grunted, and fell down. I got him. I knew there were a few left, but I’d leave the rest to them. I more than played my part.

Standing over Jillian, I turned to her. I wished she wasn’t wearing her headgear, just to see her face.

“Here, I’ll help you up,” I stretched out a hand to her.

Nothing. She stayed down.

“You hurt?” I asked. “Need help?”

Something. She stayed down, but she mumbled.

“Come again?” I asked.

This time, she was audible.

“Thanks, shorty,” she said.

She threw her right arm out. She had her gun. One, two, three.

Three times, she pulled the trigger.

Three times, she shot me in the face.

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019 – Monachopsis

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Alcohol was an amazing thing. Courage distilled, a liquid capable of imbuing a certain power to whoever consumed it. Inhibitions cancelled, worries shrinking away, a tiny, insignificant dot, and you were free to enjoy yourself and worry not about the consequences.

I could go for some of that stuff, right now.

I stood before the lane. A foot forward, then another. My arm swung back, winding up. Another foot forward, and I brought my arm in front of me as well, releasing my grip. I tried not putting a lot of force into my throw.

I let go.

A gutter ball.

I clicked my tongue. I was never good at bowling.

Brandon laughed as I returned to where he was sitting. “Shouldn’t have used a sixteen-pound ball, then,” he said.

“Probably not,” I said, sounding a touch more disappointed than I expected to be. Still too scared of my own strength, I figured.

Lightwork. A big arcade at the Plaza. A sizable section of the space was an arcade, and Brandon had sent me a text yesterday, asking me out.

Naturally, I accepted.

But that was after spending the night before being wide awake, tossing and turning, fussing over every little detail, every reason to go or to decline. I’ve wanted to spend an afternoon alone with Brandon for a while now, but I didn’t want another incident, like the last time I saw him. Didn’t want to embarrass myself. But I didn’t want to be scared of myself, either. I had to learn how to live with this… condition, and I couldn’t live if I never tried.

Also, it was better late than never, since he was supposed to have texted me like over a week ago. This was way past overdue.

Also also, Katy had somehow managed to set this up from behind the scenes. If I declined Brandon, she would start casting some suspicion on me. I wouldn’t want her catching on. Her dad already got dangerously close.

Funny, that this was what kept me up at night, and after my first night as Blank Face, I slept like a rock.

But, in the end, I accepted.

I had to keep up appearances as a normal teenaged girl, after all.

When I did accept Brandon’s offer, I managed to change some of the details of his plan in my favor. He had to pick me up after lunch, and I had to be home before dinner. It would make refusing any potential offers for food a lot easier to do. And, despite how many times I’ve broken it, I did have a curfew in place. My mom knew I would be out with a friend, she just didn’t know who. She was too busy to ask, she had to get ready to go to the church for the barbeque.

Otherwise, Brandon’s plans stayed intact. And so far, things were going pretty well. No mention of The Bluemoon, or Blank Face, or anything. Just a nice, simple date. All I had to do was enjoy myself.

I was trying.

It was Brandon’s turn to go, so we switched places. I sat, while watching him make his choice at the machine that churned out bowling balls.

He had on a light pink shirt, and light denim jeans with several rips across the knees. His face was clean-cut, shaven, and his hair looked like it was recently trimmed, as well. He had put effort into this.

I had foreseen that. If I was going to go on this date with Brandon, I’d have to do it in style. I had on a beige long sleeves, with the front slightly tucked into my jeans, a loose pair with the cuffs rolled up until skin showed between them and my socks, my feet cozy in white slip-on sneakers. Subdued, yet fashionable. At least in my opinion.

Brandon picked up a ball, half the weight of the one I just used. “You want to learn how to bowl properly?” he asked. “Let a true pro show you how it’s done.”

“You’re a true pro?” I asked, eyebrow raised.

“Compared to you, I am,” Brandon said, sounding smug. “I know not to use a sixteen-pound ball.”

“Yeah, well…”

He assumed his position in front of the lane. I watched his back. He breathed, and stood still. The music overhead, sounds of balls hitting into pins, the people around us, they could’ve been a distraction, but they didn’t deter him. He looked particularly zen, at the moment. He breathed again, and I watched carefully as he went through the motions.

“It’s all-”

He stepped, then threw.

“-in the swing.’”

The ball slid down the lane, hitting a seven-ten split. The screen above me showed two silhouetted girls dancing, the numbers ‘seven’ and ‘ten’ spinning between them.

“I feel like there’s a lot more to it than that,” I said. I didn’t put it in my tone, but I was impressed.

Brandon went back to the machine, and tapped on the screen that was situated beside it. We had input our names on it earlier.

“Here, you try,” Brandon offered, taking a new ball from the machine, and meeting me where I sat.

“But’s still your turn.”

“You can take it. It’s the last round, and you’ve already lost.”

“Now you’re just teasing me. Salt in the wound.”

“Just take a shot,” Brandon said, smug. He gave me the ball using just one hand, placed in his palm. I grabbed it with two, and stepped up to the lane.

I saw why he was acting the way he was.

Small barriers had come up from the sides of the lane, raised as to prevent any balls from going in. He changed the setting on me.

I turned to Brandon, mouth agape. “Wow, you are such an asshole, Brandon.”

Brandon put on an exaggerated frown, like a kid who wasn’t sorry at all. “Watchu talking about?” He grabbed his soda that was by his feet, and took a sip, looking away.

“Hmph.” I faced back down the lane. I’ll show you, dick.

Internally, I sneered.

I positioned myself a few feet before the lane, feet together, holding the bowling in front of me, copying what Brandon was doing earlier. I wasn’t actually going to try and make this shot, but I wanted to get back at Brandon, in some way.

I brought my arm back, winding up. I stepped forward, swinging the ball in front of me.

Leisurely, the ball slid down the lane. It didn’t even roll, it just moved across the substance that made bowling lanes slick.

Eventually, it slowed to a stop, and the ball became stuck in the middle of the lane. It couldn’t fall into the sides, Brandon made sure of that.

“Aw, now that’s not fair.” Brandon laughed, “You spoilsport.”

“You asked for it,” I said. I made a face, trying to tease him back.

Brandon got back up from his seat, and came to me. “I’ll go set up the next game,” he said.

“Alright, I’m kinda thirsty, I’ll go get a drink?” I phrased it as a question for some reason. “You want anything?”

“I’m alright for now,” he said.

“I’ll be back in a bit, then.”

“Okie-doke,” Brandon said, picking up a ball, “Go ahead, take your time.”

I didn’t say any else, the agreement implied. I left the bowling lane and went to the other side. I didn’t go get a drink like I said, only standing around in the arcade. I looked at the different games that were available, the multitudes of people going around and playing, the loud music and bright lights crashing together. It was hard to focus. And I couldn’t relax, and allow myself to fully enjoy this date when there were other, heavier things that weighed on my mind. I thought I would be able to relax and enjoy myself, when Brandon sprung up the plans on me, but nope. Jittery, all around antsy, and too alert for my own good. I kept thinking about what Thomas had said to me, yesterday.

I kept thinking why he thought it was something I should be doing.

Why was it bothering me so much? I already turned him down, why wouldn’t my brain just let it go?

I lowered my head, and tapped my forehead with a finger, like my thoughts were tangible, and I could straighten them out with a physical interaction.

A hand on my shoulder. I immediately felt clammy. Exactly the kind of situation I wanted to avoid.

I turned around, hurried and flustered. “Brandon?”

There he was. I would’ve added ‘in all of his glory,’ but that would be too much.

“Hi,” Brandon said.

“I thought you were setting up the next game?” I asked. My words were slowed, paced, like a Neanderthal trying out the novel concept of ‘speech.’ He caught me while I was still deep in my thoughts, not that my thoughts were particularly deep, but I was startled out of my pondering.

Either he didn’t notice how I slurred that question, or he chose to ignore it. “Nah, we can do some other stuff,” he said. “Not going to get your drink?”

I shook my head. “No, and I was only kidding around, before. I’ll give you a proper game,” I said. “I promise I’ll beat you.”

He smiled. “That’s what I’m hoping for. Come on, let’s play a game, then.”

I gave him a smile of my own, though weaker than I wanted to show. Inside, my heart was bouncing off the walls.

I led the way, looking for a game we could play, and to take my mind off of the heavier stuff. That was why I agreed to come, anyways. The arcade was expansive enough that I had options. Fighting games, racing games, dancing games. No, the machines were too loud, too bright. Something else. I kept searching. There was a booth in the shape of a jeep, a shooting game, it looked like, based on the label on the side. Parasite Infestation, it was called. Isolated enough, and aiming a gun and pressing down a trigger wasn’t too hard. I slipped inside, and Brandon followed.

“Dark,” Brandon commented, the curtain falling in place beside him, the glow of the monitor illuminating his face.

“Did you want…” I started to say, soon realizing how poor a choice this game was. The space was too confined, and we were too packed together, my shoulder pressed against his bicep, and my butt slipped off the seat a little. Brandon was a few inches too tall for the booth, forced to lower his head, and slouch over. He tried to hide his discomfort, but I could sense it.

Brandon must have not heard me, since he picked up the plastic guns, attached to the console in front of us. “I got quarters,” he said.

I was briefly confused before remembering that the games here were fed quarters. This was an older establishment. “Go ahead, I’ll pay for the next game,” I said.

The quarters slid into the slot beside the console, clinging against the metal from the mechanism within. Brandon handed me a gun as the game started up. A dirt road opened up. Rain. Zombies appeared on the path, running, sprinting. Our goal was to shoot at them while making a getaway.

Between the two of us, one wasn’t a better shot than the other. We could fire as fast as our finger allowed, and there was little consequence to missing shots, since reloading was as easy as firing off-screen. The first level went by with no problem.

A cutscene started playing soon after, setting the scene of a chemical plant. The zombies this time around were glowing, and would blow up when shot at, meaning that they couldn’t get close, or we’d sustain continuous damage.

The challenge proved to be too difficult. We didn’t last very long. The difficulty spike was legitimately mean-spirited.

“You know what? I don’t mind trying out another game,” Brandon said.

“Agreed.”

We got out of the tiny vehicle, and I rubbed my eyes as light flooded back into my vision. Brandon walked around the booth, joining up with me.

“I’ll concede the next game to you,” I told him.

“Cool, cool. Wanna check out that one?” He pointed to a tower in a corner of the arcade. A strength tester. Slam a mallet down onto the button, and try to ring the bell at the top of the tower.

I immediately defaulted to avoiding it. “That one? Not fair. You’ll beat me too easily.”

“You don’t know,” Brandon said, behind a smug expression. “You might be stronger than me, after all.”

I absolutely am, by a mile. But once again, no point in saying that out loud. I kept mum.

This time, I followed him as we checked out the game. It reached the ceiling, the bell an inch away from touching the top.

Brandon read from the sign beside the tower. “Free to play, and you can get tickets based on how close you are to hitting the bell.”

“We should try to hit the bell, then.”

“Sounds easy enough,” he said, sounding confident.

“I saw prizes at the counter by the front. Let’s try to get something cool,” I suggested.

“Hell yeah.”

Brandon reached for the mallet first, which rested beside the small platform with the button on top, attached together by a cord. He stepped into a good position, and lifted the mallet above his head. His muscles tensed.

They were good muscles.

He slammed it down as hard as he could. A puck jumped up from the base of the tower. But, it only went a quarter of the way. As a reward for his effort, only five tickets were fed out of the side of the platform.

“Man, that sucks,” Brandon said, breathing heavy. “I can bench press about three hundred, and I can’t hit that thing?”

“That’s the catch,” I explained. “Can’t make it too easy.”

“Damn, thought I could impress you. Here, your turn.” He passed me the mallet.

“Uh.” I took it with both hands, and held it away from me like it smelled funny. “I think I’ll pass.”

“Aw, come on, give it a try.”

“Seriously, no.”

“Just hit it once. Once!”

I was put on the spot. My mind coming up with anything to get myself out of it. Anything. I mumbled, incoherent, looking back and forth between Brandon and the tower. Gripping the handle of the mallet until it hurt, I spoke without looking at him.

“If I beat you, you have to take me on another date. Payback for not texting me when you said you would.”

Terrible choice, brain.

I couldn’t bring myself to meet Brandon’s eyes, so I couldn’t see his reaction. Although, I did hear it.

“You’re mad about that.”

“Didn’t say that.” I looked at him.

Brandon scratched his elbow, far longer than necessary for any itch. “I’m really sorry about that, I got really busy, recently, and-“

“Hey, it’s alright, I get it.”

“I didn’t mean it like that, I-”

“I’m not mad, really. I’ve been busy, too. I don’t even know why I worded it like that. I just wanted to secure a second date out of you.”

Brandon frowned. “Is it wrong to say that you do look mad?”

I made a face, but I wasn’t teasing. “Kind of? But, no, I’m more happy that you randomly texted me out of the blue. Honestly.”

“I sense sarcasm.”

I wanted to curse, but that’d do me no good. My words weren’t getting through to him. I really wasn’t mad. Really.

“I’m not being sarcastic,” I said.

Brandon tried to keep going, “If you-”

“Can we drop it, please? It’s not a big deal.”

He nodded, slowly taking it in. “Sure.”

The thing was, I really wasn’t mad. There had been too much that happened since the last time I saw him that I barely gave him a second thought.

Not mad. If anything, I was a little let down..

“Scratch everything that just happened,” I said, shaking the mallet once. “That’s irrelevant, now. I hit that bell, I get that second date. Capiche?”

Brandon crossed his arms, and he grinned, a mischievous glint in his eye. “Then you’re on. But your chances were looking pretty good, regardless.”

I smirked. Things were moving back on track. I went to the button. I adjusted my hold on the mallet, getting ready to strike. I lifted it above my head.

This is gonna be-

“My gosh, Brandon!”

I turned my head, keeping my pose. A girl was running up to Brandon. She practically jumped at him, hugging him around the neck. If he wasn’t a football player, he’d be on the ground by now.

“Hey,” Brandon said, completely off guard, “What are you doing here?”

I’m thinking the same thing.

She was somewhere between me and Brandon in terms of height, though nowhere near as tall as Brandon. Her skin was dark, but lighter than Brandon’s. She had on a gray sweater, large enough to drape over what I assumed – hoped – would be shorts, and the hole for her head was wide so that it hung over one shoulder. And to tie it all together, her hair was up in a tight ponytail, bobbing back and forth as she backed away from Brandon, but still staying close.

Annoying.

She did, however, have a nose that resembled a pig…

Or was I trying to find something to poke at?

Actually, something about her seemed familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it.

“I’m with the squad,” the mystery girl said, “They asked me to come along. Small world.”

“I suppose so,” Brandon replied.

“Whatcha doing here? Just hanging around?”

“With a friend…”

Friend.

Brandon was still talking, “… Gonna go around the arcade some and-”

“Oh, cool! Let me join you!”

“You can’t just barge into other people’s plans. Besides-“

She cut him off, “Oh, you know what, I have a better idea! You should come with us and we’ll all-”

She squeaked, and jumped back, nearly out of her skin. Brandon was equally shocked.

The bell had rang, loud. Tickets were pouring out of the machine. I set the mallet down and made myself present among the other two.

“Hey Brandon, those tickets buy me that second date,” I said. I glanced at the girl. “Hi.”

It was like Brandon didn’t recognize me. “How… did you…” He shook his head, and pointed to the girl. “Sorry, this is-”

“Jillian, nice to meet you,” she extended out a hand for me to shake. The thought did come to me, to ignore her, but I tossed it aside, taking her hand. Wouldn’t do to make this any more of a problem.

“Alexis,” I said while we shook hands. My neck cracked when I lifted my head up to see her more clearly.

Standing here, my hand in hers. Again, that feeling. Have I seen her before?

She offered a brief smile before going back to Brandon, like she immediately forgot I was right there. “Anyways, like I said, we’re about to go do something else, oh, you two should totally come!”

She seemed really excited, for some reason.

“Sorry, Jill,” Brandon said, “This is kinda supposed to be a one-v-one situation.”

“Actually,” I said, putting myself more into the conversation. “Why don’t we join you?”

It was random, sudden, but I said it.

“Really?” Brandon asked, glancing my way. “You sure?”

“Sure,” I said, “I was ready to ditch this place, anyways. We can join Jillian for a bit and then we’ll go back to doing our own thing. Cool?” I looked to Brandon for his take on my suggestion.

He shrugged. “Cool.”

Jillian gave us a thumbs up. “Cool! I’ll go let ‘em know. Meet you outside!” She chirped the words, and ran down the arcade, towards a group of others I hadn’t noticed before. She chatted with them briefly before waving to us, and leaving the arcade. Two of them gave us a quick scan before they left.

If I was being conceited, I’d assume they were eyeing me, and me only.

My fingers tapped against my palms. Good thing I didn’t have the mallet anymore.

“Brandon, who was that?” I asked. I really wasn’t mad before, but I was about to be.

He answered. “Don’t worry. She’s my cousin. Man, she shoulda brought that up.”

I felt instant relief. His tone, his inflection, he didn’t sound like he was hiding anything. I believed him.

“Oh, cool,” I said.

“Why’d you want to join them?” Brandon asked a question of his own. “That came outta nowhere.”

I didn’t have a real explanation for him. It felt like something I would have done, before all of this. Before the powers, before the thirst. How did Katy put it?

‘The Lexi I know would have jumped at the chance to go anywhere, do anything.’

Something like that. I wanted to get some of my normal life back, and that was the closest thing to normal I’ve been in a very long time. In turning down Thomas, I made a choice, and I was going to stick with it. My priority was getting my own life in order, regain some lost normalcy, and this was another step to that goal. Others would have to wait.

I went ahead of Brandon, and called for him. “Ready to go?”

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006 – Soiled Veil

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The screaming of Coach Tilly tore me out my daze.

“Barnett! You’re up!”

I shifted on the bench. Normally, I was cool and collected at a time like this. Now, a mixture of emotions churned within me.

It was loud. People cheering from every corner of the gym. Names, numbers, words of inspiration all crashed together to form an irritating cacophony. Signs were thrashed around, shaken back and forth too fast for anyone to read it and be motivated by whatever was written there. Everything kicked up to a sensory overload. And it was Coach that got through to me.

“Huh?” I responded. Coach caught my attention, but her words barely registered.

“I said you’re up! Eve got injured!”

And as it turned out, she was right. Coach was helping Eve get to the bench, her arm hung around Coach’s shoulder. Even with that much, she still limped on the way.

“Whoa, you okay?” I asked, immediately feeling dumb after doing so. I sometimes wondered why people asked that when it was clearly evident that things were not okay. But at the moment, I couldn’t help it.

Eve grunted as a way of answering my question. She sat at the open seat to my right. Looked like a sprained ankle, possibly from a bad fall.

She had scraped her arm, too, as evident by a bit of floor burn. A miniscule amount of red glistened on her elbow. From even that, I hated how my nose flared, how I swallowed. Stop.

I reached to my side, and swigged the fifth sip of my sixth cup of water.

“Get moving!” Coach barked.

Dang, my number was up, I thought. Forty-eight, to be exact, which was the number on the front and back of my uniform.

“Uh, I,” was all I stammered out. I got up so fast my head rushed. Just anywhere not here was good. I murmured something of a ‘Feel better’ as I hurried to position.

Left corner, close to the net. The fifth and final set, and while we were down one, a few more good plays would give us the fifteen points necessary. That constituted a win.

I concentrated on my breathing, sizing up the team that Saint Augustine High had brought as our opposition. Their blue and white uniforms clashed against our red and black. I could do this. I hoped. Honestly, I had very little confidence in how much I could accomplish without seriously freaking someone out, myself included.

Having scored the previous point, Augustine got to serve again. I kept my eye on the ball.

The whistle blew, and everyone sprang into action.

The ball bounced back and forth between the two sides. I largely stayed unmoving, meticulously focused on every movement of my muscles. I could’ve easily swooped in for the kill, but I didn’t want to be too risky. Something inside me kept me from moving, something I hadn’t felt on the court since middle school.

Nervousness.

Finally, the ball was set up perfectly, practically asking me to be aggressively spiked. I could do this. My muscles tensed. With a step forward, I moved in.

The cheering of twenty-something girls echoed into the night sky.

I was standing right outside the school. Not waiting for anyone, or anything in particular, more like I was trying to delay the inevitable. Even though I had worked up a bit of a sweat after the game, the fall air did quick work in cooling me down.

The rest of the team was being celebratory, as expected. Even if we didn’t get any farther than this, at least we won this game. My teammates were either surrounded by their boyfriends, or other friends and family who came to congratulate us on our win. I would normally be mingling among that crowd right about now, but I had other things on my mind that currently distracted me.

“Sup, bitch.”

I turned at the greeting. Katy, sporting a short red dress, her heels helping her dwarf me even more. A cute outfit, but a little much for a high school volleyball game, I felt like.

“Woof,” I replied.

“Let me be the first to say ‘congrats.’ For the little bit you were out there, you did good.”

“Thanks.”

“Everything’s in the car already. Backpack, sports bag. Your smelly clothes.”

“Thanks.”

“You all right? You’ve been off all day.”

That, was true. I skipped school yesterday, and while I did go to school today, I hardly paid any attention during class or whenever I was with my friends. My pencil stayed in my backpack, my eyes were stuck glued to a corner of the classroom, my mind elsewhere whenever someone tried to ask me something. I might as well have been absent.

All of my energy was going to not passing out at a growing ache, enflaming my esophagus.

“Wasn’t feeling good,” I said, dryly.

“You just played a game.”

“Um…”

Katy shrugged, accepting that non-answer. She stepped a little closer, a little too close, ready to change the subject.

“Aren’t you coming?” she asked, already wrapping her arms around mine and pulling me one way. “We were all planning on going out for pizza. Oh, Maria can’t make it. Said she had something else to do.”

I looked the other way, avoiding eye contact. “That’s fine. Maybe I should head home this time, too.”

“Why’s that?”

“Ever since I got back from the hospital, things have been awkward between me and my mom. Doesn’t help that I missed curfew on Tuesday, and stayed in my room literally all day yesterday.” I told the truth about Tuesday, partial as it was, and completely lied about yesterday.

“Next time remember to charge your phone,” Katy said. “Or remember to remind me to pick you up. And your mom can’t hold it against if you needed to take another day off. You had just gotten out of a hospital.”

“I guess, I think my mom understood when I told her that. But if I don’t go home now, she might think I’m avoiding her.”

“From what it sounds like, that’s exactly what you want to do.”

I really didn’t have a retort.

Katy took that as an opportunity to tug at my arm again, harder. “Then, isn’t that a good reason to come chill?”

“What awful reasoning,” I told her, “Come on, let go already. Plus, I said I don’t feel good.”

“What are you gonna do then? Walk home?”

“Um. Maybe.”

“Nuh-uh. I’ll take the blame for not picking you up on Tuesday, so I’m not letting you out of my sights. Especially with your currently weakened constitution, as you said. And plus, I’m your ride.”

I grumbled.

“Just tell your mom that I had to run some errands or something, and your place wasn’t on the way. Whatever. We can come up with something.”

I grumbled again, this time louder. She tugged my arm again, this time harder. And, like a light bulb, she brightened up, her face beaming. I never liked that look. That meant she had something up her sleeve.

“You know what? I wasn’t going to tell you this, but I’ve got some clothes in the back of my car. We’re getting you into something better than that, and you are coming with me, Alexis.”

“And why should I?”

“Because, he’s going to be there,” Katy said.

“He? He who?”

He.”

“Like I said, he-” A light bulb went up for me, too. “Oh.”

“Yeah.”

I knew it was against my better judgment, but I gave myself a second to think about it. I really don’t want to go home, though, I thought. Katy gave me her most nefarious grin when I met her eyes.

“Fine, let’s go.”

She led the way, taking me to her car. Her own car, not one of her father’s prized possessions. A red Mercedes. With her only mentioning ‘getting pizza’ to go off of, I assumed that would we were probably going to go the Plaza. While not exactly downtown, it was a pretty sizable outdoor shopping center, enough to even be referred to as the Plaza. Like Braham Manor, it was a good place to chill out with friends.

I sat in the back seat, changing out of my clothes into a deep blue spaghetti strap and a pair of black jeans. My bare shoulders were covered with a leather jacket. Katy didn’t have any shoes in my size, so my not-too-bad fit got knocked down twenty points thanks to my tennis shoes.

“What is with all this stuff?” I asked, fishing through the other clothes she had in the back, “Did you plan for this?”

“What? Did you say something?” Katy asked back.

I playfully smacked the side of her face. She briefly jerked on the road.

“Dammit, Lexi,” Katy said. We laughed.

When we got there, a decent line was already peeking out of the door of the restaurant, an Italian restaurant known as Poggio’s. And here I thought we were early. We recognized some friends from school, so we had no problem sliding somewhere in the middle of the line.

“Stay here,” Katy ordered me, before leaving her spot. She went up and down the line, and I lost sight of her as she turned a corner to go further back. In the meantime, I killed time by talking to other friends that happened to be beside me.

Katy hadn’t returned when I got to the front desk, the waiter asking me for a name and a number of the party, putting me on the spot with no answer.

“Party of four,” I heard Katy say, slapping my lower back as she came up from behind. She winked at me.

“Uh, yeah,” I said. I checked the group Katy brought with her. There were two others. Valerie, another one of my teammates. A tall, lanky brunette whose height made her movements a little awkward. Made for a hell of a volleyball player, though, her reach was amazing.

The other one, was someone I was expecting, but still not ready for. On the drive here, I also spent some time trying to psych myself up. I wanted to be able to talk to him without looking like a complete idiot.

“Alexis, hi,” he said. His perfect white teeth were literally shining when he smiled. Literally. An all-white outfit of a shirt and skinny jeans contrasted his dark skin. Two gold chains clanged together when he walked up to me. He was about a head or two taller than me, and I strained my neck to look up at him. Handsome, muscular, clean-cut. The perfect boy, the type I’d want to take home to my mom. Except she would have a heart attack if she saw a six-foot black guy walk into the apartment.

Okay, he wasn’t that tall, but he might as well be. With Valerie here, and Katy in her heels, I felt like a bug.

“Buh- Uh,” I coughed, and blushed. My gaze went straight to the floor. I murmured, “Hi, Brandon.”

You idiot.

“How are you?” His voice was deep, but had a comforting sooth to it. It only made me feel more jumpy than a trampoline.

“Good,” I lied.

“I watched you guys, by the way. Good job at the game.”

My face was on the verge of melting away. “Thanks.” For now, I could only manage one-word answers. One-syllable answers.

“Come on guys, we’re going,” Katy said, gesturing to the waiter who had our menus. She saved me from any more embarrassment.

The waiter walked us to our seat, a booth in the far corner of the restaurant. The restaurant tried to go for a casual dining style, with walls covered by 1950s era-themed pictures and paraphernalia. Grainy photos of Italian families, posters of the Godfather movies. It only accomplished the opposite effect, making the place seem cluttered instead. Not calm or casual at all.

“I don’t think I can do this,” I whispered into Katy’s ear on the way. The back of my spaghetti strap was sticky and wet, and it wasn’t from the sweat I worked up from the game.

“Stop worrying,” she whispered back, “Or do, doesn’t change the fact you’ll be sitting next to him.”

“You…”

“Is that a ‘You’re welcome?’”

Didn’t want to entertain her any more. I backed away.

We were led to our booth, and we took our seats, Brandon scooting in before patting the space beside him. I couldn’t meet his eyes as I sat nearer to the edge of the seat, keeping some distance between us. Did he notice? Valerie and Katy sat on the other side, with Katy directly across from me.

“Man, I’m like, so hungry,” Valerie breathed, leaning back. She fixed her hair, and flipped back and forth through the menu, ready to strike at any food item worthy of her appetite. It was only a matter of choice. Katy was less animalistic in her hunt, holding her menu in one hand, and putting her attention to her phone in the other.

I glanced around absentmindedly, unable to settle down.

“You alright?” Brandon asked. My throat went dry. When was the water getting here?

“I’m good, just…”

“Tired?”

“More than.”

“I hear you,” he said. “At least tomorrow’s Friday.”

“Me too.”

“I’m sorry?”

I twitched from a horrible realization. “No, I thought you said… you were also tired.”

Oh my god. I wanted to die already.

He went quiet, not saying anything for what felt like forever. I still couldn’t find it within me to look at his face, resorting to reading the description of the bruschetta crostini one more time.

I had been wondering how he was, since that Friday night, my birthday. Between the two of us, we shared a rather memorable night, but for ultimately different reasons. Was that why he seemingly distanced himself from me for the past week? The girl he spent part of his night… idly chatting with, making the news shortly after. That had a lot of eyes on him, I figured. I was lost on how to interpret that. Was he an asshole for doing that? Or did he intend to give me some space? I’d recently come out of the hospital, after all.

Part of me felt grateful for it. I couldn’t let him learn about what really happened to me, or what I had become. Under any circumstances. His avoiding me turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

So, should I really be here, right now?

I wanted to say more, and save this sinking ship of a conversation, but I was interrupted by the waitress, who came back with cold tap water in a cup. I leaned in to chug a half of it down before she even finished distributing the rest to the others. My thirst didn’t get any better.

We ordered. I only got a salad, really wasn’t up to eating anything. The others agreed on sharing a meatball and mushroom pizza.

“You sure you’re not hungry?” Katy asked, having raised an eyebrow when she heard my order.

I shrugged in response.

“Maybe you can have Brandon give you an extra slice?” she teased.

“No, I can’t do that.”

“I don’t mind,” Brandon interjected. “If it helps, really.”

“No, really,” I said, “It’s cool.”

“Hey,” Valerie said, cutting in, “If anyone’s getting an extra slice, it’s me.”

Brandon laughed, “Oh, it’s on.”

They left it at that. It didn’t feel all that great, having to turn Brandon down like that, but the longer I sat here, the more I regretted being here. An endless loop. Needed to be home, but didn’t want to deal with my mom. Damned if I do, damned if I don’t. Sitting here – even if a part of me wanted to – wasn’t doing me any favors.

Mercifully, the food came quickly, or my attention to what was going on around me had slipped completely, and the time in between just disappeared. Either way, it temporarily rescued me from my thoughts. A large pizza, and because I had no appetite to speak of, they were free to take what would have been my portion. I didn’t care.

The others tore right into the pizza, like vultures to a carcass. These guys were ruthless. I put a slice on my plate, just to keep up with appearances.

“Oh wow,” Valerie said, with a mouthful of pizza, “Look at that.”

Katy looked to her left, off in the distance. “That’s not real, is it?”

Brandon and I turned at the same time.

Near our table was an old television, bolted to the corner. It played the local news. Dash cam footage from a police car. The scene of a terrible car accident. A truck, more specifically. An EMS officer attempted to restrain a victim, who was critically injured. The victim managed to get out of the officer’s grasp, knocking him back, and the victim made their escape by bounding on to the roof of the truck, and disappearing from the shot.

“Oh… my… god…” I said, flabbergasted.

“Everyone’s been talking about it, but I think it’s fake,” Brandon said, “Look at how that thing moves, too freaky.”

Thing,’ ‘freaky.’ The words stung.

“E-excuse me,” I called out to a waiter was passing by our table, “Could you put on subtitles, please?”

The waiter noticed me, and nodded. He went for the TV, and pressed a button on the side.

The image of a middle-aged, overweight white woman appeared on the screen, her son tightly hugging her. His faced buried into her side, and he was hugging her, but he couldn’t fully coil his arms around her. I didn’t need to see the kid’s face, but I could assume.

I read the subtitles.

-Billy was crying and crying when I got here, talking about a girl who saved him. I’m just glad he’s okay.”

A reporter, off camera, asked a question. “Would you want to thank whoever saved your son?

The mother smiled, “Sure, I would.

It cut to the reporter, a man in a suit. “Also, the police have confirmed that the driver of the truck was texting while driving. The driver has sustained serious injuries, but is currently in stable condition.

The program then cut to other people at the site of the accident, but I stopped reading any more. I got the gist of it.

“You really think it’s fake?” Valerie asked, bringing me back to the table. Back to reality.

“Has to be, you tripping if you think it’s real,” Brandon said, “Look at how the camera is cut at the top of the truck. They say the person jumped above the trees, but we can’t see it. They probably just hopped off, where the camera couldn’t see.”

“But did you see how the truck nudged back a little? Some strength has to be needed to move a truck like that, right?”

“I don’t know, maybe it’s hooked to something?”

“What? Now you’re tripping!”

The two bickered back and forth, casual banter than anything legitimately confrontational. But it was of no matter to me, because I was slowly starting to disassociate from everything. Sounds going distant, faded. I felt lightheaded, nauseated. Wobbly. I drew a long breath, but I heaved instead.

“You okay?” Katy asked. “You’re a touch pale.” Katy was the only one to notice as I stared down at my plate, poking my salad, and sipping water from my straw. Her level of perception could be fearsome, sometimes.

I uttered a guttural noise, less than a non-committal answer.

“Come on, take a bite,” she picked up her pizza, “Here. I’ll feed you.”

The cheese on the pizza smelled awful. I leaned away, faltering. “Stop it.” Barely above a whisper.

“Don’t do that, it’s your favorite!” She pushed it more into my face. I leaned away more.

Any farther, and I’d fall out of the seat.

“Hey, I said stop!”

My upper body was already leaning too far over the edge, and I was about to fall. I brought my hand to the table to stop myself. But from the loud slam and the clatter of ceramic, I had a feeling I didn’t just calmly grip the wooden surface.

Moreover, I didn’t stop myself fast enough. A waiter carrying his order crossed my path, and my back bumped into his arm.

In cartoons or movies, this type of situation would’ve normally resulted in the food in question being thrown high into the air, before inevitably crashing back down. The more ridiculous the height, the funny it would be. Here, it was no laughing matter.

The waiter’s tray slid, the food soon falling after. Two pasta dishes and three drinks. An unbelievable mess, should all that food hit the floor. And I was about to fall into it.

I had leaned too far out, and salvaging my landing was all I could do. As I fell, even that seemed to take some time, everything slowed to a crawl.

But, it was too late. I twisted to face the floor in an effort to find a decent place to crash. I didn’t get the chance.

As soon as I turned, a blunt force struck my chin and neck. Hot and heavy. The waiter backed away, and I collapsed afterwards. I landed on hot plates. A distinct crack. A sting in my palm. A slushy, hot mess.

The whole restaurant fell into a hush.

“Dang it,” I said as I stood, summing it up. I opened and closed my mouth, testing my jaw. It throbbed. I pulled my shirt away from me to inspect the mess. “Dang it,” I repeated.

One of the orders was a plate of fettuccini alfredo, and it went all over my front. The white sauce clumped into globs around my chest, and some dripped from my chin onto the jacket’s collar, from when the plate hit me in the jaw.

Really? In front of Brandon?

“Lexi,” I heard from Katy. She got out of her seat to bring me a wad of napkins and a cup of water. “Let’s get you to the restroom.”

“Don’t.” I took the napkins, balling them up in my hand. “Don’t follow.” I turned away from her, and left in a hurry.

We were sat in the back, the restroom not even twenty steps away. But it was hardly a consolation. Others may not have seen it, but they certainly heard it. I went into the restroom.

It was rush job, trying to get rid of the sauce. When I ran out of the napkins, I used the paper towels from the dispenser beside the sink, soaking them in water, and dabbing it on my top and jacket. I repeated that process until the front was near see-through. After standing around, patting at it again with dry paper towels, it got dry enough until it was the bare minimum of being presentable. There were still dull-white stains streaked across, but it was good enough. The jacket proved easier to clean.

After I finished cleaning off my face, I rubbed the palm of my hand in the running water. One of the plates broke when it crashed onto the floor. It cut into my hand when I landed on it. There was no cut now, but I couldn’t afford to let Katy learn of a cut in the first place.

I looked over myself in the restroom mirror again, eyes red, head thumping. The beginnings of a headache, coming with force of a freight train. How many times was I going to be close to tears, thanks to this fucking week? How many times was this week going to fuck me over? Was this like some kind of divine comedy, a way for the universe to laugh at my expense?

No…

I fought the tears back, both for myself and in case someone else was in here. Two of the stalls were closed. I checked myself one last time, and zipped up my jacket.  

When I returned to the table, I had been gone long enough for the mess to be cleaned up, and generic chatter settled back into the restaurant. A ‘wet floor’ sign was placed where the mess used to be. Like a tombstone.

“Hi,” Katy said, giving a frail smile, “I am so sorry, Alexis.”

I shook my head. “It’s nothing. Not your fault.” I quickly glanced at Brandon, and back to Katy. “Could you just take me home? Sorry Val, Brandon.”

“It’s all good,” Valerie said, chewing into her fourth slice.

“Same here,” Brandon said, “Go on ahead. I’ll talk to you later, or something?”

“Yeah, or something,” I said. “See you guys.”

Katy got up from the table, fishing out a twenty out of her purse to leave on the table. Brandon and Valerie waved as we left. We got into Katy’s car, and she took me home.

Unlike the trip here, the whole drive back was dead silent.

We got back to my apartment at around nine-thirty, a quick check from my phone informed me. With my bags in hand, I got out of the car. I had changed back into my old clothes, and a cold draft touched the back of my now exposed neck.

“Thanks again for the ride,” I said to Katy. “Sorry about your clothes.”

Katy called out from the car, responding. “It’s nothing. You gonna be all right?”

I faced forward, unmoving. “No. But whatever.”

“‘Kay, I’ll let you be overdramatic for now. I’ll text you later?”

“Please?”

And with that, she took off. Her car was so quiet, I had to turn back around to check if she even left.

I walked to my apartment building, and had a foot on the first step on the stairs. A light shone through the windows. I knew they would be on, but that didn’t alleviate any concern. My pulse quickened.

The idea to sneak in did cross my mind, via the balcony, but that wouldn’t do me any good. I’d have to face the music eventually. Accept that the other shoe was about to drop.

No… this week isn’t even half-over.

Taking my keys out of my bag, I unlocked the door to the apartment, letting myself in.

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