Omake.01 (Bonus)

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4koma interlude 1

4koma interlude 1 part 2

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016 – Culture Shock

epc arc 3 hero.png

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The ball struck the gym floor, bouncing behind me. I had moved a second too late, and the ball passed me by.

A piercing whistle followed.

“Alright girls! We’re calling it a day!” Coach Tilly yelled.

“Yes Coach!” we all responded.

The volleyball team split apart, quickly disorganizing. Some went straight to the lockers, others sat down to rest at the bleachers, and others grouped together to socialize. As for me, I stood at my position on the court, watching Coach Tilly approach. I’ve had a truck slam into me, guns pointed at me, and it was Coach that made my heart quicken with every step that brought her closer.

“Alexis,” she said as she arrived, intruding a little too much into my personal space than I would’ve liked. I resisted the urge to back away.

“Yes, Coach?”

“This is what happens when you don’t come to practice everyday. You’re slacking off, you’re slower to get the ball.”

“I can feel it.”

“Honestly? All of you girls are good players, some are even great, but I watch y’all play, practice, and most will reach a level their satisfied with, and just stay there. I’m a coach, so I have to push y’all, but kids your age… Their skulls are thicker than I’d like them to be.”

“I hear you.”

“As I was saying, with the next game coming up so soon, I’d really like to see you try and improve before then. I was looking forward to having you play more aggressively. You were doing so good, before.”

“Sorry.”

My eyes went to the floor, looking at her shoes. “I know it’s unacceptable to be-”

“Look me in the eyes.”

My eyes snapped back up, meeting her intense gaze. I was taller than her, but it certainly didn’t feel like it. And the way she said that sentence brought my attention to her accent. Not too prominent to be a stereotypical drawl, but enough so that I noticed. I’d usually not even think about it, but here, every word she uttered came with a certain edge.

“Sorry,” I said again.

“You have nothing to be sorry over. We already talked about that yesterday. Don’t worry about it, just work on it. No one’s mad at you, no one’s going to hate you over this, just keep moving forward.”

I nodded. “Sure thing.”

While I replied, Coach looked me up and down, “And eat a burger while you’re at it. You can’t improve on an empty stomach.”

“I’ll be sure to do that,” I said, rubbing my chin.

“Good, then see you tomorrow,” Coach said, giving me a good slap on the shoulder, and she left the gym. I had just stopped sweating before she talked to me, but now I felt like a waterfall. It was hardly a long conversation, yet I wanted to curl up in my bed, and sleep until winter.

Before I had the chance to go and take refuge in the lockers, I was stopped again by Valerie and Eve.

“Alexis,” Valerie started, “Sucks to be you.”

“Yeah,” I agreed. “It does.”

“Aw, Valerie’s just bitter,” Eve said, “Coach was chewing her out yesterday over screwing up the drills.”

Valerie elbowed Eve in the side, and Eve laughed in response. “Hush up! She didn’t need to know that.”

“Not my fault you can’t hit for shit.”

Valerie bumped her arm into Eve, and Eve had to fix her stance, favoring a leg.

“Hey, Eve, how’s your ankle?” I inquired.

“It’s okay. Needs a little rest, is all. But it blows, all I can do is sit around and watch.”

“But you actually have a good reason to skip practice, don’t you?” I asked.

“I can still help around and stuff. I’m trying to be useful.”

“Good girl Eve,” Valerie said, “But she can’t keep her mouth shut.”

Eve took that as an opportunity to elbow her back, and Valerie staggered. “So, Lexi,” Eve said, looking back at me, “We hadn’t asked you yet. Where were you last night?”

I froze. “What do you mean?”

“You know, like, I was doing PT, and Valerie was out eating dinner.”

“Breakfast tacos at 6 P.M., it was great,” Valerie said, patting her stomach. “And I picked the food out with the daggers Coach spat at me.”

Eve reiterated, ignoring Valerie, “Lexi, what about you?”

Alarms would have been ringing in my head, but I could safely assume what she was talking about.

“Oh, I see what you mean. I was out, too. Jogging. Didn’t see it until I got back home.”

“Ah. But didn’t that blow your mind? I can’t believe we live in a world where people like that exist.”

“Really?” Valerie asked Eve, “I think it’s freaking terrifying, the more I think about it.”

“Don’t think about it too hard, then,” I said.

“Right? You’re just jelly, Val,” Eve said.

“In what capacity?

“Jelly that you don’t have hops like that.”

“That’s exactly it, Eve. Nail right on the head.”

Eve would have cracked up, she made the motions for it, tilting her head back, but she instead inhaled, sharply, lifting up a foot.

Ah.”

“You need to go sit down,” I suggested.

“That’s probably the smart thing to do,” Eve said. “Alright, see you tomorrow, Alexis.” Eve waved, turned, and Valerie followed.

“Buh-bye,” I said back, and they left.

That could’ve been a close one, I thought.

I fanned myself off with a hand, and I went to take a shower.

While the water ran down my body, I thought about what Coach Tilly said to me, and I tried working out a balance between her expectations and my actual capabilities.

It wasn’t that I had gotten worse since my absences, in fact, if I was allowed to be cocky, I could wipe the floor with my whole team, on my own. But it wouldn’t be due to any mastery of techniques or anything like that. I was simply better. Stronger, faster, in every way. I was capable of things that would break anyone who tried. I had yet to test where exactly my upper limits were, but they had to be a hell of a lot higher than anyone I knew. I didn’t train to be better, I just became it.

Of course, I couldn’t let Coach know that.

And why should I? Coach would focus even more attention on me, and I’d be found out almost immediately. If there was a way to capitalize on my superpowers and make an extra buck or two, I would be down, but as things were, the risk was too high, the benefits paling in comparison. It meant having to let Coach down, but I had to keep things on the down low, and attract as little attention to myself as possible. Now more than ever.

An unfortunate consequence, but it was necessary.

I finished my shower, letting the hot water drip down my body. It had gotten hot enough for steam to billow everywhere around me.

“Hey, Alexis!” I heard from a corner of the shower. It sounded like Tiffany, another teammate. A freshman. “It’s smoking in here! Isn’t that the Devil’s Mouth?”

The Devil’s Mouth was a nickname of a particular showerhead, notorious for being broken, splashing out water that was way too hot, no matter the setting. I must’ve been too lost in my own head to notice that had I walked under it. I looked at my arms. There were red marks all over my forearms and chest, but they were vanishing at a fast rate, and they were gone by the time I turned off the shower and spoke.

“I was just testing it. It’s still hot!”

Good work on the whole ‘attract as little attention to myself as possible’ thing.

Tiffany didn’t bother to question any further, and she left. I toweled myself dry, changed, and left the locker rooms with all of my stuff. I met up with Katy at the front of the school, waiting for me in her car.

I greeted her. “Yo.”

Katy was too busy on her phone to respond properly, giving a non-committal grumble instead.

I got in the car. “You ready?” I asked.

She tapped twice more on her phone, not looking at me. “… a cherry on top.”

“You okay there, Katy?”

Katy put her phone away. “Uh-huh. You should really get your license, already.”

“I… I probably should, shouldn’t I?”

“Not ‘probably,’ absolutely.”

“Right.”

She started the car, and we sped off.

“Any updates on Maria?” I asked, as we passed by the Strip, recalling the incident that happened there.

“Not since lunch, but I’m not too nonplussed about it this time around. I’ll give the girl her space.”

Space.

Space was something I was willing to give to Maria, but I couldn’t help but worry in the meantime. Did Eduardo tell Maria about me, about Blank Face? Did he take my advice and split up with her? What did Maria know, now? So many things I needed to know, but I couldn’t press Maria too hard and accidentally tip my hand. I already played with fire a little bit by telling Eduardo what I knew about Maria, and I needed to know how much that burned me, if at all.

If it was any consolation, Maria was fine during lunch, as lively and bubbly as ever. She didn’t say or suggest anything that I could use as a hint for any of the questions I had for her, sadly enough, but no news was good news, right? Was I okay in assuming that?

I was forced to leave it be.

I only seconded Katy. “Giving her space is probably for the best.”

“She’ll be fine. She’s tougher than she looks, and she already looks tough.”

“Most definitely.”

Halfway down the street, traffic forced us to a stop. There was a light up ahead, but it was green. Cars around us were honking, trying to get things moving again, but it was useless. A crowd of people were blocking the way, marching down the intersection. They were shouting, carrying signs. Police were on cars and horses, guiding the line of people along.

Katy drummed her fingers on the steering wheel. “Dang, I thought I checked all the roads. People will protest over anything, nowadays.”

I frowned. It’s already begun, I thought.

I knew my public appearance would cause quite the stir, but I never expected the world to collectively lose their mind over it. The world. This made international news. It was the only thing anyone ever talked about all day. Even the teachers couldn’t stop talking about it, instead joining in the student’s speculation and general craze. A level of hysteria that I’ve never seen before. The atmosphere walking through the school was electric, and, even though phones weren’t allowed to be out, everyone was breaking that rule, looping the footage of me from every possible angle, trying to find that one flaw in my disguise that could potentially reveal my identity.

And all it took was a flimsy, plastic mask from preventing this from being a complete disaster. And my body shape, too, there was debate on the masked person’s gender. That helped in throwing any suspicion away from me.

Also, the world decided to give me a name without my permission. I was being referred to ‘The Bluemoon,’ a name even dumber than Blank Face. The reasoning behind it was because I was wearing blue that night, and a person with superpowers was an impossible, ‘once in a blue moon’ type of thing. I supposed.

A lot of excitement, and a lot of fear. As accidental is it was, I did stab a person on national television. People saw. And they wanted my head for it.

All of this fanfare, all of this fanaticism, from just a series of short video clips.

Imagine having to live with it. All day, everyday.

“‘Hashtag first contact,’” I said, referencing humanity’s summed up, viral thoughts on the matter, “‘Hashtag ‘where were you.’ What a time to be alive.”

“It’s like a modern-day witch trial,” Katy said, “Expect the witch is actually real.”

“It’s ridiculous. There’s nothing to gain by doing this. What do they expect, that he’ll suddenly show up and say hi?”

“We have proven, beyond a reasonable doubt, that superpowered-people walk among us. Apparently. Couple that with the footage of that girl a few weeks back, that’s enough evidence for people to believe that we live in some kind of comic book world now. To them, we’ve been living in a world either fantasy or science fiction this entire time, and we never knew it.”

“Truly the darkest timeline,” I said.

“Now, people are confused, scared, and if not that, angry. The whole world’s flipped upside down. Anything’s possible, and that frightens people, because the rules have been thrown out the window. And if you live in a democratic society, and you’re feeling any or all of those emotions, is there anything better than getting together with like-minded individuals who feel the same way, and air out your grievances in a civilly disobedient, but peaceful, manner?”

“You can always make memes on the internet and call it a day.”

Katy nodded, sagely. “Yeah, I guess you can.”

I massaged the side of my head. “It’s been less than twenty-four hours, and the world has lost all reason.”

“Better than starting a riot.”

“But you don’t think they’re overreacting, even a little?”

“There’s no precedent for this. You can’t make that call either way.”

“They’re chanting ‘death to the mask’ and ‘tear off their face.’ That’s hardly civil, or peaceful.”

“I did say ‘civilly disobedient,” Katy said, putting emphasis on that last word.

“You know what I mean.”

“Cool down, Alexis, it’s not like they’re protesting you.”

I held my tongue, and I noticed how dry it was.

Already?

We sat in wait, watching the parade pass. The noise had risen to annoying levels, and they weren’t even shouting anything comprehensible anymore, just various mindless obscenities. The signs they held were making less and less sense the more we tried to read them, from religious quotes to doomsday proclamations. One particular sign said ‘When’s the movie coming out?’ and Katy and I thought that was actually pretty funny.

Katy decided to wait them out by playing some music. Old school rap from the nineties. I wasn’t too familiar with the group, but the constant references to a specific type of sword style allowed me to guess with confidence. Katy started from the top of the album, and by the time we were told to ‘let our feet stomp,’ the last of the protesters cleared the street, and we were free to go.

We got back to my apartment just in time, despite the heavy setback. Curfew wouldn’t be beating me today. I thanked Katy for the ride, and proceeded to get out of the car.

“Before you go,” Katy said as I was getting out, “Keep your phone close, and actually be attentive to it for once.”

“What for?”

She winked, “You’re welcome.” She neglected to say more, and she drove off.

Cryptic for sure, but I was sure I’d find out what she meant soon enough. With no more chances for distractions, I went up the stairs, and to my apartment door.

I entered. My mom was already here, taking a nap on the couch. The TV was still on, repeating the events of last night. My blank face on the standard definition screen. I couldn’t escape that here, either.

I took off my shoes, leaving them by the door, and walked up the cocoon of blankets that was my mom. I tapped her on the shoulder to wake her up.

“Hi, Ma,” I said, greeting her with a kiss on the cheek. “You’re home early.”

“Yes,” she said, sluggishly, “Lucky me. How was school?”

“Alright. You can keep sleeping, I’ll just go do some homework and stuff.”

She made a sound, almost like she was purring, but she laid back and closed her eyes.

“This weekend. Do you want to go to the church?” she asked.

“I hadn’t thought about that place in years,” I said. St. Francis Xavier was a church my mom and I used to frequent back when I was younger, but we fell out of going over time. Other things in life popped up, and we learned that it wasn’t as high as a priority as we thought it was. Even without us, the church was still famous for being a hub for the Asian American community in Stephenville, hosting festivals all throughout the year that showcased the different cultures that made up that population. I still kept in semi-regular contact with some of the kids I went with back in the day, but that usually amounted to the occasional liking of a status update, or leaving a comment. Nothing too substantial.

But it had been so long since I was reminded of that place. Naturally, my mom bringing it up again had piqued my interest. “What brought that up?” I asked.

“Do you remember Mrs. Phan?”

“Ma, you’re killing me with all these nostalgia bombs right now.”

“She came in for a trim. She tell me they’re doing a barbecue, and she invited us.”

“And we’re going?”

“Maybe. She say we can take whatever’s left over back home.”

“That does sound like a good enough reason to return to the light of God,” I quipped.

My mom moved around on the couch, turning her back to me.

“Go do your homework.”

I stuck my tongue out, all in good fun, but I otherwise left my mom alone. Before I went into my room, I had to go into the kitchen to get myself a glass.

My mom would keep on sleeping, but I locked the door, just to be safe.

I cast my stuff aside, and went straight to my closet, opening it to get to a plastic bag. The plastic bag that had my dirty clothes, the ones I had yet to care of. I never threw them away. That might have labeled me as a hoarder, but I felt that I was justified by my circumstances. I found my old socks, soddened in blood, and my ruined black hoodie, a sweet fragrance lingering even now. I pushed them to the side. They were too old, now, too musty. They were begging to be cleaned, and I was aware that I had to find a way to do it soon. But, as for right now, they were to be ignored one more time.

I found the bandana, picking it out of the bag.

It was a token from an event I otherwise wanted to forget. The bandana from that guy who was chasing me through the neighborhood. His nose had been bleeding into the cloth, and I took it from him.

With only the bandana and the glass, I moved on to my bathroom, turning on the light.

I placed the glass right under the faucet of the sink, a little too hard, and I worried that I had cracked it. Stay calm, no need to rush, Mom’s asleep. I twisted the knob halfway, controlling the flow of water into the glass, so I didn’t accidentally spill anything.

I was way more manic the first time I did this, way more frantic, so there was a moment’s hesitation when I held the bandana right by the running water. I actually had time to consider what I was about to do. I wasn’t in a rush, knees wet in a gentle stream, hands cupped. However, I couldn’t let my hesitation prevent me from what I had to do. No way I could sugarcoat this – it was gross, disgusting – but it was better than nothing. I had to start brainstorming other possibilities, other methods, but until then, this would have to do.

I submerged half the bandana into the water, twisting it until some of the blood drained into the glass. I switched off the faucet just before the water was about to flow out.

The end result was an unappetizing concoction. I held the glass up to the light. It was a murky, sordid liquid, muddied with blood, sweat, and whatever else that got tracked into the cloth. Something moved in the pit of my stomach, threatening to jump out of my mouth, just by looking at what swam in the liquid. It wasn’t pretty, wasn’t ideal, but at the moment, I had little choice. Germs, disease, it couldn’t matter. I couldn’t afford to think how unsanitary this was.

Three… Three, three, two, one.

I took the glass like a shot, downing it in one gulp.

I didn’t know what was worse, that I had do it again within a week or that it didn’t taste that bad.

To be exact, it wasn’t as bad as it should have been. The taste was like drinking a sports drink that had been out and opened for a few days. Sweet, but you didn’t want to know what had gotten in there in the meantime.

The world was freaking out over what I could do, what would happen if they learned of what I had to drink?

The thought made me shiver.

I kept still for some time, focusing on keeping my ‘drink’ down. Really didn’t want to go through this again. Not so soon. I only stepped back into my room when I was sure I was okay to move.

My bed offered a warm respite, and I took it, throwing myself on top of the blankets. I decided to follow my mom’s example, and try to take a relaxing nap for myself.

How about if I sleep and forget all of this nonsense?

Yeah. The key word was try.

Those chants were echoing in my ears. Over and over and over. It was, in a strange way, both suffocating and exhilarating. Me, they were screaming over me. Because of me being whatever it was I was. They were freaking out, demanding answers, all from just a couple of minutes of me being out in public as Blank Face, or The Bluemoon, whatever they wanted to call me. They weren’t the only ones who wanted answers, but like me, those chances were looking slim.

Oh well.

Not liked it mattered. I had no plans on going out like that ever again. El Carruaje should be functionally dissolved, I parted ways with Eduardo, and I had faith that Maria would bounce back from this by a week’s time. Being Blank Face again was begging for more trouble. I had to keep a low profile, and start focusing on my personal life again.

I’m no superhero, and I have no need to go back out there again.

So, let them scream until they choked. I didn’t care. It all fell on deaf ears.

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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 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.

Previous                                                                                               Next

003 – Performing Magic

Previous                                                                                               Next

October fourth. Three days since my birthday. Also my first day back to school.

Needless to say, I was a little tired.

I stood right outside my place, a light fall air nipping at my face. My backpack was slung over one shoulder and my sports bag sat leaning against my leg. It was a routine I had grown used to in the past year. Every day, by eight-thirty, I would be picked up to go to school. Or that was supposed to be the plan. By now, I had known better, stepping outside at that time.

After ten minutes, I was tapping my foot. Was she testing me?

Typical.

A black BMW rolled up in front of me. Huh, I guess she kept herself well-behaved over the weekend. Funny, the last time I saw her she was a shot away from blacking out. Really, her dad was too easy on her. Opening up my phone, I looked at the time. Eight-forty-five.

“Right on time,” I said, as Katy rolled down her tinted window. “You look cute.”

She was prepped up in a clean white button-up, tucked into a black skirt. Her strawberry blonde hair was tied back into a neat ponytail. She lowered her designer sunglasses, revealing her olive green eyes. She shot me a look.

“Of course I do. But I can’t say the same for you.”

I tugged at my black hoodie, then adjusted my denim shorts. “Shut up, we’re going to have a last minute practice today.”

“Whatever, get in.”

I got in.

Katy looked left, right, and left again as she got back onto the road. She snorted when she noticed the phone in my hand.

“Ha, your mom really did get it.”

I thrust the phone into my pocket. I didn’t want to use it, or even look at it, as much as possible. “It’s lame.”

“Like, the fuck is that? You could build houses with that thing!”

“Very clever.”

“For really though, what can that even do?” she asked.

“I dunno, for such a thick and blunt object, it’s a pretty big thorn on my side.”

“I can see why you didn’t want to text back!”

Katy let herself laugh for another second before settling down. She inhaled deeply, indicating a shift in tone.

“Jesus though, what happened that night?”

I wish I knew. I stayed quiet.

“Hey, at least you’re okay. I was so worried when you didn’t show for your cake, and I looked everywhere for you. I thought something happened. Then an ambulance and a bunch of cops came by, and everyone freaked out and tried to dip. I went down to the wine cellar.”

My nose flared, amused at the imagery. A drunk Katy, taking refuge in a fortress of wine and fine spirits.

“I didn’t find out you were in the hospital until Sunday. I’d thought you’d got alcohol poisoning, or something.”

“Me too,” I replied.

“Hunh?”

“Nothing.”

“Anyways, I’m just glad you’re okay. How are you right now?”

I kept silent for some time. I really didn’t know exactly how I felt. Confused, angered, bewildered, frustrated, and any other synonyms of those two feelings. A little scared, too, I supposed. But how was I supposed to put that swirl of emotions into words?

Rubbing the back of my neck, I broke the silence. “I’m fine.”

“What about big mama? When I called, she sounded so pissed I thought I needed to check myself in for serious burns.”

I grinned slightly at the nickname. “You already know.”

“Got the silent treatment?”

“Oh yeah.”

“Damn, that bad?”

“Got that right.”

As we talked, I kept my head down, not looking out the window on my side. A bright pink nail poked my cheek.

“We can talk about something else.”

“Sure.”

“Like how everyone’s talking about it.”

“Thanks,” I said under a breath.

“I mean, it’s true,” she paused so she could turn a corner. “Okay, I exaggerate, but you know what I mean.”

It was vague, what she meant by ‘everyone.’ I wasn’t exactly sure what she meant.

“How bad then?” I asked.

She hummed as she thought, trying to summarize the past few days.

“Nothing too big. Of course people talked about it online and stuff. My dad showed me a quick snippet of it on the evening news, in between yelling my ear off.”

“My mom talked to your dad?”

She nodded.

“How are you allowed to drive your dad’s car, then?”

My car is still broken down, and I still need a way to get to school. And please, my dad has much cooler cars I’d rather be driving.”

“Your dad’s way too easy on you.”

She grinned, like it was all part of a grand scheme. “I know.” But she dropped it immediately. “But seriously, I feel bad about what happened. We shouldn’t have planned to go out there.”

“No,” I said, “Throwing blame around isn’t gonna help.”

“Good point.”

“So, I’m on the news?” I asked in order to move the topic elsewhere. “Everyone’s talking about it?”

“You could say that, but,” the corners of Katy’s lips couldn’t mask her slight smirk.

“But you’re not white, and your mom isn’t exactly someone who would do well in front of a camera. They didn’t make it that big of a deal.”

The thought of my mom either giving cold, one word answers to a reporter, or exploding into a tirade on how I needed to grow responsibility over my unconscious body – not in English, to boot – sprang to mind. It didn’t sit well with me.

“Thanks,” I said.

“You betcha, you’re ‘see page four-B,’ not front page material.”

“That’s not fair. I’m half-white.”

“Fine. You’re definitely scrolling at the bottom of a news ticker, then.”

“Is that your four-inch, or six-inch heel that you’re using to kick me while I’m down?”

We both cracked into a giggle, some tension being alleviated.

But that wasn’t my main reason for asking, although it should have been.

“Brandon?” I asked.

“Hmm?” she sounded, checking her side-view mirror.

“Did he say anything?”

“Ah,” she responded. Tapping a finger on the steering wheel, she gave herself some time to think. “I don’t know. I don’t know him that well.”

Means he doesn’t care. I raised my eyes to peek at the road ahead.

“Don’t jump to conclusions just yet, Lexi, just because I didn’t hear anything doesn’t mean-“

“Red.”

“Huh?”

“Red!”

Katy slammed the brakes. We both jolted forward, the seatbelts properly doing their jobs. The light at the intersection showed red. Two other cars were waiting ahead of us. The school was right around the corner, too.

“Geez,” I teased. “At least tell me when you’re gonna kill me.”

She rolled her eyes.

Driving into the parking lot, I took in a good view of the main school building. ‘Stephenville High School’ was spelled out in blocky metallic letters above the entrance of the building. The typical public high school that anyone’s seen before. Maybe a little older, a little dingier.

Getting out of the car, I grabbed my backpack, and wrapped my sports bag around one shoulder. Katy only had a purse with her. Walking alongside her towards the school, I shielded my eyes yet again.

“You good?” Katy asked.

“Yeah, you should let me borrow those sunglasses.”

“Nice try.”

We entered through the front doors. Seeing as classes were about to start in five minutes, we went our separate ways. Not before confirming plans to meet up for lunch, of course.

The bell sounded off as soon as I stepped into the classroom. I didn’t have the time to put away my bags.

The first class went about how I expected it to go. Tuesday, B-Day, thanks to block scheduling, meant my first class was US History. First order of business was to hand the teacher a doctor’s note for Monday’s absence.

“Thank you, Alexis,” Mr. Richards said as he accepted the small paper. He eyed me for a quick second while he went back to his desk.

Okay.

Leaving it at that, I went to my seat. All the desks faced one way, towards the chalkboard, and I was as middle as middle could get.

Dead center.

“Hey,” I said, alerting a small congregation of people around my desk to my presence. Classmates. Acquaintances.

“Hey,” one of them said back, a boy with dark, neatly combed hair. Mattie. “Happy belated birthday.”

“Thank you,” I said sweetly, meaning it.

As part of a normal routine, I usually had some time to converse with some friends I had in class before the teacher would take back control of the room. Today instead, I passed through the small group, exchanging hellos, sat down, and Mr. Richards began talking about the Reconstruction Era.

In reality, I only missed one day of class, but it felt like I had been gone forever. Whatever happened up until the party on Friday was but a distant memory. A blurry picture.

The classroom experience, though, was all too familiar.

Not two minutes since Mr. Richards began his lecture, and I was bored. I dug into my pocket for my phone.

I felt an unusual shape, an odd texture, and then remembered.

I wanted to cry.

I had to resign myself to actually taking notes today.

The class period went longer than I had hoped, or felt like it, with Mr. Richards’ words falling upon deaf ears. My pen lightly etched across my notebook, at a glance, it still looked blank.

I failed to stifle a yawn.

Thirty minutes later, a tap behind me, on my shoulder. Instinctively, I slowly brought my free hand behind my chair, keeping it low. A piece of folded my paper fell into my palm.

I brought it back to my desk, not turning to acknowledge the sender. Got to keep it low key, a teacher’s all-seeing eye was a force to be reckoned with. I had to unfold it four times to reveal the message.

‘Yo. How are you? the party, gimme deets! J.’

Three seats back, and one over, to my right. Jenny. She was at the party. That, I could remember.

I jotted my response quickly, and brought my hand back down to return it to where it came.

‘I’m fine. And I don’t have deets to share!’ was all I wrote.

A normal hour-long class was bad enough, but since the school moved to block scheduling for this year, every class was now an hour-fifteen. Hell, truly.

Finally, finally, the bell rang to excuse us. A five minute walking period was wedged between classes, and that was barely enough time to get to the next class.

I greeted anyone I knew as we students crisscrossed each other to get to our destinations. I didn’t want to admit it, but I was mostly trying to scan for a particular face. Couldn’t find him. Had I did, I would’ve been more willing to put up with second period.

But, nope. There was still another hour-fifteen minutes until lunch. And it was pre-cal.

The only thing standing between me and satiating my growing hunger, and thirst.

“Here you go, Ms. Powers,” I said, handing the note to the short, stout, fifty-year-old woman.

“Hmph,” was all that came out of her when she took it. She didn’t stand up out of her desk, or even look my way.

Kind of.

It was very small, very understated, but she did scan me from the corner of her eye. A look of disgust, like I had come in without showering for a week, and she could smell me a mile away. Her lip even curled up by a hair. Subtle, but she shouldn’t underestimate my eye for that type of stuff.

With my lips set into a straight line, I nodded once and turned to go to my desk, in the way back.

What a bitch.

“Alexis! Oh my god, how are you?”

Brittany, a good friend and a teammate, intercepted my way with a hug. She was tough, the force of her kindness nearly knocking some wind out of me.

Like the force of a car, if I could be overdramatic.

“I’m fine, I’m fine, now get off me!” I said, almost laughing as I tried to push her away. She was close enough to smell what I guessed was her perfume, a strangely citrusy scent.

“Are you sure, I heard all about it,” Brittany said, before leaning into my ear. “What happened? I heard people saying it was some prank.”

That’d be one theory, I thought. All I did was raise my shoulders. “No clue, it’s all fuzzy.”

She pouted, and bumped me in the arm. “Aw, sorry to hear that. Happy birthday, again. See you at practice?”

“No worries. And thanks, again. And yeah, you will.”

She let me go to my seat, and I got ready to zone out again.

My mind began to wander right about the time Ms. Powers was going over polynomial and rational functions for the n-th time. I wasn’t trying to think about that Friday, but no one else got the memo, apparently.

I was starting to get a good grasp of what Katy meant by ‘everyone.’

A grateful contrast to how the previous class went, and second period ended with a blur. With my backpack and sports bag in tow, I was ready to go.

And by ‘go,’ I meant ‘leave.’

When the bell finally sang its merciful tune, letting us off for lunch, I went down from second floor, practically floating on the stairs, and returned to the front hall where I split up with Katy earlier.

She was already there, along with someone else.

“Hey,” Maria said, waving a heavily nail-polished hand. Her bracelets clang together as she did so.

I nodded my head when I saw her. “Hola.”

She stuck out her tongue, but I saw her smile.

“How are you? Katy told me what’s up.”

“You know, you’re the first person to ask me that.” I made sure to be extra obnoxious.

Maria clapped her hands together. “Bitch, you’re fine!” She then slapped me on the back.

“So, where do y’all want to go first?” Katy asked, interjecting in the conversation.

“I wanna go to Flash,” Maria said, referring to the new boutique that just opened. The one that was so uppity, expensive, and pretentious that its logo could spell both ‘Flash,’ and ‘Fresh.’ And it ended with a period. It was that type of establishment.

“I’ve been dying to go down there,” Maria added.

“That’s all the way in downtown,” Katy responded. “That’s too far.”

Maria frowned, tilting her head and clicking her tongue. She looked to me, like I had some power of convincing Katy.

I wouldn’t have minded going, personally, even if it would take up the second half of the school day. I didn’t mind. And we all agreed to go one day. But sitting in an hour of traffic, both ways, was no fun.

Not worth it.

“I agree,” I said, taking Katy’s side. “We should just go and get something to eat for now, school food sucks dick.”

Maria puckered her lips and used them to point in my direction. “That ain’t the only thing.”

I glared at Katy. Damn you.

She shrugged, her smug expression showing that she wasn’t sorry in the slightest. Such a good girl, she was.

“Okay, pal,” I said to Maria, raising my hands. “Let’s just get out of here.”

They both laughed.

To get off campus, we had to take Maria’s car, a 2004 teal Honda. Not the most comfortable ride, but it was a lot more conspicuous than a black BMW. Only seniors were allowed off campus during lunch hours, after all. We juniors had to be a bit more creative about leaving.

Maria drove, and comparing driving skills between her and Katy, especially today, Maria was a much safer driver.

We opted for Lone Star Chicken, a local chain. We would have picked a closer location, but we didn’t want to risk running into any teachers who thought they were being clever by staking out the more popular hangout spots. There was no one else there when we came in, which was a good sign. That meant that we were safe.

Katy ordered a chicken salad, Maria got a fried chicken basket, and I chose the chicken sandwich combo. My personal favorite. With my throat parched, my stomach rumbling, I was looking forward to this all day.

We sat by the back exit, our eye on the front door. I stared down my sandwich, it looked as good as it tasted. I really was looking forward to this all day.

I bit into it. Katy noticed my reaction.

“Doesn’t taste good?”

“It’s okay,” I said. I held up the sandwich to eye level, inspecting it carefully. Two fried pieces of chicken, squished between their ‘world famous’ bread rolls. The secret sauce glistened. If we were in a cartoon, the sandwich would have sparkling lines coming off the top.

“Tell ‘em if it ain’t,” Maria said. “Shit, like I’d let ‘em fuck up my shit.” Her mouth was full of chicken, muffling her words. She stuffed in another piece.

I have a million comebacks for you right now, Maria…   

“Nah, it’s fine,” I answered. Hoping it would somehow taste better with a second try, I bit into it again. No Bueno. All the ingredients tasted like it was a week old, so stale and dry. It sat in my mouth like rubber. It took considerable effort to swallow.

Trying to wash down that taste with a large cup of sweet tea didn’t help any. Wasn’t sweet at all. To be precise, it was like drinking clam juice. I fought the urge to gag or make a funny face.

I didn’t want to lose said face in front of my friends, however, and if I wanted to find a something good to say about it, was that it at least the bare minimum of being considered edible. I managed to keep eating.

“Hey hey,” Katy said, dropping her plastic fork into her bowl, finishing her meal. “Lexi, show Maria your phone.”

“Oh yeah!” Maria brought a greasy hand to me, a chicken crumb sticking to a nail. “Lemme see.” Her voice was still stuffed by food.

“Uhh, no way.” I wiped my chin and skidded away from them an inch. “I don’t even wanna see it. Plus it’s in my backpack. In your car.”

A low groan that came from Maria, and she finally swallowed a whole mouthful. “Beach.”

“Oh, okay,” I said back.

“You can tap out if you want to, Lexi. You’ve gotten enough of a beat down for one day,” Katy said.

“Sure,” I said. “Only if I get to slug one to Maria.” I directed myself to her, and plucked a fry out of her hand before she could eat it.

“You said we would finally be able to meet your boyfriend at the party,” I said. “He never showed. What’s the deal?”

Maria cleaned her hands with a napkin. “That’s your slug? You can do better than that.”

“You’re deflecting,” Katy said. “She right. You said he’d show. I was kind of looking forward to meeting him, honestly.”

Maria clicked her tongue, and looked away from our gaze. “Don’t worry about it. I said he might come, but he couldn’t. No big.”

Katy kept pressing on. “Come on, together for two years, and I’ve never seen him once. I don’t even know his name. It’s getting pretty-”

“Drop it, okay?” Maria said, disrupting Katy, “Don’t worry about it.”

A singular huff from Katy. She dropped it. I wasn’t too bothered by that little bout. It was nothing new by this point.

We continued eating. I tried to eat more, but none of it was good.

There wasn’t much else to do after we finished our food, besides discussing other gossip Katy and Maria brought to the table. Nothing substantial, but it was fun to talk about. Katy brought up wanting to go somewhere else, but we were already pressed for time. Within the immediate vicinity of the school, the only places worth visiting were food chains like this. With that disappointment hanging over our heads, we concluded that going back to school was the best course of action. We left the restaurant. With only an hour for our lunch period, we made it back with three minutes to spare. We exchanged hasty see-you-laters before splitting off to our separate classes.

If you asked me, an hour wasn’t long enough for lunch.

The remainder of the day fared just the same as the first half. I gave my teachers the doctor’s note, and they let me be on my way. Mrs. Goldstein, my chemistry teacher, did allow me to extend the due date of my project, which was merciful of her. Some classmates I was acquainted with fussed over me, and the teacher having to calm them down. My pen glided over my notebook as I absentmindedly took notes, not really paying attention to anything my teachers were saying.

I had other things to worry about.

To release me from my boredom, the final bell sang, like music to my ears. At the beginning of the day, it was screaming at all of us to congregate into the building. Now, it was telling us to get lost.

I wasted no time getting to the gym.

“Barnett! Welcome back!” Coach Tilly boomed. A fit brunette in a track suit. Despite being so short – hell, even I was taller than her – that made her no less intimidating. “You good for today?”

“I’m fine!” I barked back.

“Good! Hurry it up!”

“Yes Coach!”

On the other side of the gym were doors that lead into the locker room. I ran along the edge of the court, passing my teammates. They were already doing their stretches and warm ups. None of them paid me any mind.

Having been on a volleyball team since middle school, I’d say it was my favorite activity to do after school. It’d be even more accurate to say that I came to school for the sole purpose of being able to play volleyball. To me, it was fun. Plain. Simple. Some people played video games, hunted, smoked weed. I played volleyball. I wouldn’t say I was particularly good at it, well, good enough to be on the team. Barely good enough to make varsity. But, I enjoyed playing. It helped clear my mind.

I went in and out from the locker room in a flash. A quick switch into my uniform, a combo of a red top and black shorts, I returned to the gym.

After everyone had gathered, about thirty of us or so, we officially started practice. Starting with stretches, a quick one and a half kilometer run across the gym, and then right into intensive setting and hitting exercises. Hard work, but I didn’t hate it.

Today particularly, it felt kind of easy.

Coach Tilly was especially grilling into us today, criticizing every tiny detail about our form. Not surprising, while she always got riled up right before a game, she especially would be around this time of the year.

Thursday, we’d be going up against Saint Augustine High, a formidable team from our district. Maybe the sixth or fifth best in the whole state. Every year, Stephenville and Augustine would be matched up around early October, and every year, Coach Tilly would not get off our asses about it. I didn’t know why she was so hell bent on beating her alma mater, but that was her own personal matter. If it meant that we had to play harder, then so be it. I was ready.

Three sharp whistles pierced the air in an odd rhythm, and we all knew what that meant. Time to ‘spar.’

Coach picked out our positions for the first match, and those who weren’t picked had to stand by and study our performances and figure out how to improve their own. I was picked for the first set, my position being the outside hitter. I was on the front-left, close to the net.

Our side was to set first, so I was on guard as the ball soared between the two halves of the court. I concentrated on every little movement of the other team, every twitch of a muscle of those around me. As expected, Brittany had a fantastic defense. Ah, I had to make sure I didn’t forget about the ball, too.

A lot to process.

But…

The flicker of Brittany’s eye, the angle of Taylor’s hitting wrist, the way Coach Tilly put her hand on her hip as she shouted instructions at us. I was able to focus on every tiny thing for far longer than I could, normally.

And the ball, flying way longer than it should. Had it always moved that slow?

Suddenly my muscles tensed. The ball was hit towards my general direction, and judging from the minute, miniscule movements from the girls around me, they were going to let me take it. This ball was my responsibility.

Don’t fuck it up.

A quick scan of the ball’s position gave me enough information. I could definitely spike that. I was far enough from the net to give myself an ample distance to run. The defense was looking a little thin on the other side. I could take advantage of that.

Alright then. Let’s go.

First, build momentum, keeping my arms forward. Next, I’d accelerate, swinging my arms back, my palms facing upward. As I closed in on the net, I’d convert my forward energy to vertical, arcing my hitting arm to a good ready-position, raising my opposite arm for midair balancing. By now, the ball should be in the perfect strike zone. I’d slam my hand down to the ball, using my core muscle and proper shoulder rotation to maximize power to the spike. Lastly, the satisfying smack of the ball to the floor, bouncing away as the defense scrambled behind, having failed to stop it.

I had done this thousands of times. This was nothing.

I took my first step forward. I built momentum, keeping my-

“Whoa!”

The sound of wind cutting past my ears, and I was immediately constricted. I crashed onto the floor. More noise of clanging metal, and cries of shock.

“Ah, what the heck?” I muttered. I couldn’t move, my arms and legs constrained in netting. I felt like a trapped animal.

“Calm down! Barnett, calm down!” Coach Tilly yelled. Eventually, I did, and some girls who were on standby ran to help me get untangled.

On my hands and knees, I crawled away to the wall. Turning back around, I was met with the tomato-colored rage that was Coach Tilly’s face.

“What the hell is that!” she shouted, pointing behind her.

“What the what is what?” I answered stupidly. With her taking up most of my view, I had no clue as to what she was referring to.

Her eyes widened, but she stepped to the side. I looked on with surprise.

The net was completely destroyed, limp on the floor with no chance of being reattached to the poles. Speaking of which, the upright poles which held up the net itself were ruined, bent at the floor sockets.

“Did… I do that?” I pointed at myself, feeling like an idiot.

“Yes you did, you jumped right into the net and ruined our set up! Do you call that a spike?!” She straightened herself up, looking back at the scene of the destruction. “That was the only net we had, repairs for the poles won’t be done until… Crap.

She stood there, silent, in a vain attempt to cool off. She scanned the gym as she did so. After some time, Coach blew her whistle. “Alright! That’s it! Go home and get your rest! Thursday, we kill that game!”

“Yes Coach!” the rest of the team cheered. All eyes were on me as the rest went back to the locker room. I felt my stomach churning. Must be that sandwich from earlier.

“Ah, I have to make some calls,” Coach whispered. “Should of let you rest, coming back from the hospital so soon…” She headed out the door, leaving the gym. Before the door closed behind her, she called out to me again.

“Hey, Alexis, sorry about that. Don’t beat yourself up over it. I’ll see you Thursday.”

The door closed behind her. The sound reverberated throughout the empty gym. I forgave her temper, we all knew she could get too worked up.

That swirl of emotions came back, but one in particular was more potent.

Confusion.

I stayed sitting on the gym floor, my back against the wall.

What… in the world?

My chest rose, and lowered as I let out a rough groan.

Before long, some of the girls started coming back into the gym, having left the locker room. A voice from across the space called out to me.

“Urkel, you alright?”

That sounded like Eve. I liked her. She was nice. Well-meaning.

“I’m fine,” I said, my two most-repeated words all day. But I kept my eyes down. I didn’t hear anything back, Eve seemingly taking my words at face value. Without looking at my face. I didn’t care, I wanted to be left alone, anyways.

I waited until the last of them left the gym, until I was sure I would be the only one in the locker room. I got up slowly, staggering into the room to change.

There wasn’t anything worth mulling over anymore. Changing slowly, I left behind my gym clothes and stuffed the sports bag into the metal locker. I’d wash it another day.

After I was done, I exited the near-empty school building, and checked the sky above me. I cursed under my breath.

Nighttime.

And I forgot to text Katy. Shoot.

I checked my phone, fumbling with the buttons to turn it on. It wouldn’t light up. Crap. Just how terrible was this thing’s battery life?

Or did I forget to charge it?

Awesome.

“And I have curfew too…” I said aloud. Remembering that I had a watch on me, I checked the time. Doing the math in my head, it would take me about forty minutes if I picked up the pace. I’d barely make it home on time. Public transportation was not an option either, there was no direct bus route from the school to my place, and I didn’t have enough money for the detour.

“Uhh, I’m so tired…” I complained out loud. Not that anyone would hear.

Figuring that to be my best – and only – plan, I began my walk home.

After I got a fourth of the way, I was walking down the sidewalk, heading towards a suburb. Houses to my right, a thick collection of trees lined up to my left, across the street. As I settled into my pace and the course set in my head, only now did I take notice on how cool the night sky looked.

Black and blue streaks painted the sky, making up the night colors. The stars vibrantly glittered on the dark canvas, so bright and intense, they were more like light bulbs than tiny white dots. Also, there was a lot of them. I’d have to go out to the wild, or to Braham’s, in order to see that many stars. The night seemed to bristle with life, in no way like the black, dead, nothingness I usually associate with this hour. It was the spitting image of that famous painting that my world history teacher last year wouldn’t stop obsessing over. What was it called again?

Something about a van going somewhere… I dunno.

Cars and trucks periodically darted down the road as I kept on my path, my hair getting into my face as they passed me. After about the tenth time of spitting out loose hair out of my mouth, I put my hood over my head. That was better.

Coming up from behind me, there was a rhythm clacking of wheels and wood. It was getting louder. I didn’t have to turn around to know it was a skateboard. As the sound closed in, I moved off to the side. That should’ve given them enough room. Didn’t stop the rider from being an asshole.

“Outta my way!”

He had no real reason to, but he knocked into my side as he passed. Some blonde kid riding goofy. Chubby. I noted the words ‘I Got Swag’ printed across his black shirt.

You probably do, kid, but that doesn’t excuse poor manners.

I didn’t say it, though. No need.

Fixing my backpack strap, I observed his skating. Coming from someone who had never skated, even I could tell that he was awful. His flabby physique threw off his balance, making him off-kilter, wobbling around as he stood on the thin wooden board. It was like he just got it the day before, and he never heard of what a skateboard even was. A fish out of water; a chubby blonde on a skateboard.

Pathetically, he attempted to ollie off the sidewalk and onto the road. How he thought he could pull it off, with that lack of balance, I’d never know. He didn’t kick it up, he kicked it away. The outcome was what you’d expect.

The board flew out from under him, but his legs kept moving as though it was where it was supposed to be. As such, he tripped over himself as he descended, faltering a few steps before falling face first on the other side of the road, hard. I held back some laughter. The whole sequence was viral video worthy. Didn’t color me surprised if his shirt now said ‘I Swag.’

“Hey, kid, you alright?” I decided to speak up. I knew if I were him, it’d be better than being ignored entirely.

Moaning, he rolled over onto his back. Not used to taking falls, I supposed. His body began to be cast in a white light. For a split moment, I thought of something stupid. Like aliens, or something. But of course that wasn’t right.

It was a lot worse than that.

A pickup truck was coming in from the distance, towards the kid. But it was closing in rather quickly, with no sign of slowing down. It must have not seen him. Meaning this would get really, really, bad.

“Hey, hey! Get up!” I yelled. No use, he wasn’t budging. Was he as smart as he was athletic?

Dammit.

“Get the hell up!” I yelled again. He didn’t move.

The truck zoomed closer. There were seconds until a disaster.

It’s no good, Alexis, you have to do something.

Do what?

Dammit!

Without thinking, I stepped onto the road. Without blinking, I was already in between the kid and the truck. My right arm grabbed a hold of the kid, holding him close to my body. I extended my left arm. The Heisman trophy had nothing on me.

My arm folded under the weight of the collision. So did the grill of the truck.

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