083 – Haunt

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D had picked up the phone in an instant. I was thankful for that. It saved me the ache of waiting too long.

Yes?

I never felt so relieved to hear such a cold, mechanical sound.

“D!”

I yelled out even though I knew that I had to keep it down. The tensions had been high, and they were only getting higher.

That’s a lot of pep. Something good must have happened.

“It’s the complete opposite, actually. We got ambushed and the RV was taken.”

D hesitated and stuttered. I could have sworn that she swore herself.

Sh- shoot. That is the complete opposite of good. Did you find the truck?

It was my turn to hesitate.

“I did, but none of our passengers were in there. Neither was Tone. I’m hurrying to find them.”

There’s a lot you have to catch me up on. I thought I told you to keep me updated.

“I’m doing that right now.”

I kept moving, pacing myself so I didn’t lose my breath as I explained what I knew to D. It didn’t amount to much, though.

“Okay, here’s the deal. I left the RV so I could go around this town and find Tone and the truck, myself. Before I found the truck, though, I did manage to find some of… I’ve been avoiding using the word ‘cargo,’ but yeah. I happened upon some of them.”

I paused.

And? Where are they now? Did you put them somewhere safe?

Questions I didn’t want to answer.

“One didn’t make it,” I said. “And I’m trying my damnedest to make sure the other one does.”

I expected a pause on D’s part, another hesitation, but she responded immediately.

So we’re already fricked.

“You could say it again, but I’d rather not hear it again. It’s freaky out here, D. I’m at the town’s amusement park, and it looks like it came straight out of a horror show. They’ve killed people and decorated the bodies, putting them on display. I couldn’t tell if some of them are our people or not. Didn’t exactly get the chance to check.”

Sounds like quite the party.

“D,” I intoned, “Not now.”

From the phone, I heard D clear her throat.

Then let’s not jump straight to conclusions and assume the worst, Vivi, but let’s not delude ourselves, either.

The knot in my stomach twisted, tighter.

“I’m just trying to pick up whatever pieces I can find,” I said, “And I need your help.”

Always,” D said.

I spun, changing my posture, so my shoes slid across the pavement, letting me ease into a full stop.

I put the walkie-talkie closer to the phone.

“Not sure if you can hear it, but I found the walkie-talkie from the truck. It was Tone’s.”

And Tone is still nowhere to be found. Shoot. Is something coming out it? I’m picking up some stuff, but it’s too muddied.

“Too many degrees of separation, right. They’re coordinates.”

Coordinates?

“I don’t know where it leads to, or who’s broadcasting it, but it could be our only lead. Right now it is our only lead.”

It could also be a trap.

“Like that didn’t dawn on me. But what else do we have?”

Did you try… talking to it?

“It’s been on, I’ve been pressing the button, no one’s responding. It’s just looping those coordinates. I don’t think it’s receiving any inputs.”

Sketchy for sure. You want me to punch them in for you?

“Could you?”

Anything, anytime. Just give them to me and I’ve got you.

It was a cumbersome process, hearing the mechanical, looped coordinates, and repeating them back to D. It had looped so many times that I was worried that I’d gotten them out of order. So many numbers and degrees. But, I managed to get it right, and D replied accordingly.

It’s loading… and there. Where are you, exactly?

I fumbled with my phone. “I can look it up real quick.”

I pressed the buttons, cursing the slow service. We were far away from any semblance of society or even reality. Precious time wasted due to the failings of a small rectangular piece of plastic.

I told D my exact position.

Thank you, ma’am. Okay, so that puts you… About half a mile north of where you are.

Half a mile. I didn’t have a map of the park, I didn’t know how big this place was. No way was this park so big that it could cover more than a mile of land. Wherever this broadcast was coming from, I’d have to leave the park to get there.

“North,” I said, “Got it. You wouldn’t happen to know where or what that leads to, do you?”

I don’t. The app isn’t giving me very clear readings in that area. It’s like that whole area doesn’t exist.

“Well, it does exist, and it’s a god damn fucking nightmare. I want to get out of here already.”

Fastest way to do that is to head to where those coordinates lead, then.

Exactly.

“North, right? I’m on way.”

I’ll try and help in guiding you as you get closer, so keep me on the line. I’ll stay close to my phone so if you need me just talk.

“Sure. I’m putting you in my pocket for now.”

Hope it’s not too tight a squeeze.

“You’ll just have to get used to it,” I said, shoving my phone into my pocket, robbing D of a chance to retort. No more time to stand around and chat. I switched off the walkie-talkie, too, I had got what I needed out of it.

I looked to Isabella.

Despite my ability to run faster than any top athlete without really trying, she’d managed to keep up with me. She was standing there, waiting, her fingers intertwined. Clearly nervous.

That tug, again.

I spoke, “I got you back, didn’t I? I’ll do the same for the rest. It’s only a matter of time.”

Isabella nodded, slow, her eyes not meeting me.

If only I had time to sit down and sort through this whole situation, figure out the details and make a proper plan. But it was one crisis after another. I could never seem to catch my breath.

“Come on,” I said, turning to start running. Winding. “Let’s get a move on.”

Isabella gestured, and I took that as a confirmation that she was up for it. And then we got a move on.

We were still in the back lot of the amusement park, and, while it was less of a maze to get through than the park itself, I still second-guessed myself with every corner and long pathway I took. I had been in this Death For Amusement Park for at least a half hour, and in Fuckington for a full sixty minutes, and every new thing I came across only made me disoriented and confused. It was as if I was running through a maze in my own head. I’d get lost if I wasn’t careful, wasn’t always diligent.

No distractions. Couldn’t afford them.

I found myself by the side of some buildings, smaller installments away from the rides and the park itself. Portable structures that used to be offices or staff headquarters, probably. They actually weren’t in a similar state to every other building I’d seen previous, in the park and in the surrounding town. No broken windows, no streaks of dirt, no sign of any damage of debris anywhere. The buildings themselves looked to be in the same style of architecture as the rest of the park, so they weren’t new constructions. These had been kept up, taken care of.

“People have to be coming through here.”

Isabella voiced my thoughts.

Hearing them out loud forced me to take action. I retraced my steps somewhat, going back around a corner I had passed, crouching. In case anyone was there, I had to stay hidden.

Isabella followed, sticking close, staying right at my back. She continued to bring up good points.

“We’re in the staff section of the park. There’s probably a lot emergency exits close by. We could just take the nearest one and be done with being here. It’ll make getting to those coordinates way faster. Less stuff getting in the way.”

All good points.

“There might be some clues inside those buildings,” I mentioned. “As to what this town and park even are.”

“Do we even need to know? You said it yourself, you want to get out of here already. We have to get the others back, everything else is secondary.”

I took a peek from around the corner, checking for anyone. No one. For now.

“I get that, obviously,” I said. “But information is one of the best secret weapons you can have. It’s not enough to just get… almost one hundred people back from a whole freakshow mob of people. The truck is still back there, stuck in the park. Either we drive the truck out of here, or we bring that many people back here, to the truck. Both options are pretty much impossible. If we can learn more about, about Fuckington, we can actually make a plan on how to get out of here. Fuck, I wish I had some time to think.”

“You have some right now, and you have to make a decision. Check those buildings, or go straight to the coordinates.”

Isabella wasn’t going to be making anything easier for me, was she?

Fair enough, though, she was right. I wasn’t graced with a lot of time to think this out and consider every little thing. I was pressed for time in every sense of the phrase. Not enough to think everything through, and Isabella was right up against my back, as if to urge me to take an action, any action. It just had to be immediate.

And I was right there with her, it was just that the slow-drip realization that there was so much to consider that it weighed on me and pressed me down, making the simple act of moving again that much harder.

What was I supposed to do what was I supposed to

“Behind you!”

Isabella hissed the words, but I sensed the urgency.

I’d heard it, too. Footsteps.

Forced into take an action. Of course.

I ran.

Heading towards the direction of the buildings, I went around them, to the back. I moved fast to get behind cover as soon as possible. Isabella was right behind me.

I checked where the sound had come from.

People.

They went around the corner, coming close to the office buildings, but not to us, specifically. They hadn’t noticed our presence.

But they were aware of it.

“Anything from the others?”

“Nothing.”

“Fuck, I wasn’t expecting this.”

“I doubt anyone was, sir. They just came out of nowhere.”

“Now they’re a problem. I don’t like problems. They make things complicated.”

“They already took out a handful of our guys. Some of them probably can’t walk no more.”

“We have to stomp them out now, before it gets too out of hand. We only have so many on the medical staff. Does anyone have anything new? Where we saw it last?”

“We don’t. Last known position was it going through the air, like it was flying. Our best guess was that it was heading toward the roller coasters. But it could have went on foot from there.”

“So they could be anywhere by now. Fucking shit.”

“Could it really be her? The Bluemoon?”

“It doesn’t really matter whether it is or not. Either answer has its own implications, none of them being any good to us.”

“Truly a problem, then.”

“No shit. So get cracking. I want her skull split open and her eyes gouged out before dinner.”

The rest of the group answered in unison.

“Yes, sir!”

Seven of them in total. No bikes or vehicles. They were all on foot. Moving in a group, in haste, searching for us. Hunting.

The voices had been muffled, somewhat, and I could see why. They were all wearing masks. Not like mine, though. Much more macabre.

Animal masks. Pigs, dogs, goats, one was even a frog or maybe even a toad. The muted colors and rough textures put a grotesque feel over the designs and look of the group.

Blood, or whatever it was that evoked the image of blood, smeared across the masks, pieces ripped out at the bottoms to resemble strips of torn flesh, dangling and loose. The eyes were filled in, black, from corner to corner. With all the added, disgusting detail, they really went the extra mile to make the masks look realistic. The pointed ears almost made me take extra caution, that they’d actually pick up my breath or my heartbeat as they became more elevated.

If the intention was to intimidate or freak me out, then congratulations, it worked.

They continued speaking, but they had lapsed into another language. I couldn’t understand them.

I whispered to Isabella. “Are you catching any of that? Do you know what they’re saying?”

“I can’t.”

“Too far, then.” I peeked around to corner to check on them again. They had spread out, moving to inspect the area, some closing in on the offices. “But they’re coming this way.”

“We have to move, Wendy,” Isabella said. Shaky.

“I know,” I murmured back. I considered my options.

Another mob was here, now, looking for us like how we were looking for Tone and the others, except their intentions were probably not as… good. These guys seemed to know something about Fuckington and the park, if not directly involved with what was going on, here. Between the clean office buildings and this group, it was like a goldmine of information had fallen right into my lap.

If there was ever a chance to get some context, it was right now.

“I have to,” I said, talking to Isabella, but mostly reaffirming my decision to myself. “It won’t do any good for us to find Tone and Sarah the others and not have a plan prepared afterwards. I have to get some info out of these guys.”

“It’s up to you,” Isabella said. “Just know that any wasted time is going to harm them more that it harms you.”

I drew in a breath, and was slow to draw it out. She wasn’t helping in the slightest.

Fine. It was a harsh dose of reality, but she was right. This was important, and there were very good reasons to do this, but it did take time, time I might not really have. People’s lives were on the line, and sacrificing time to better help them might end with those same people getting sacrificed instead, in a sick and ironic fashion.

Flashes of those shrouds and stuffed animals flickered through my mind. I couldn’t let any one of them become that. I got Isabella back, I managed that much, but there was still so much more I needed to get done, so many more people I needed to save.

Looped notions, the same constant thoughts, over and over. I was repeating myself. Ad nauseam.

I was tired.

I had gotten some blood in, but it was like being at the end of my rope, and then setting it on fire. I was already running on fumes. Pushing it would mean pushing myself, and I could only go so far, now. Physically, mentally, emotionally spent. Only so much left to give.

But I had to keep going. I had to do this.

“Okay,” Isabella said, as if she knew what I was thinking. “If you believe it’s worth it, then I’m with you.”

Now she was helping. But, it did make me feel a little better about this, though the seeds of doubt would always be there, by this point. I’d just have to learn to work around them, push through those weeds, anyways.

I pushed through them.

The masked mob began to cover more ground, and I moved in accordance. I stayed low, crouched, and I slinked away from the corner I was hiding behind to sidle along the back wall, sneaking around the mob. Keep out of sight, and wait for the right opportunity. Avoid getting into another fight, if at all possible.

Pick them off, one at a time. Get as much information and details as possible.

It was the best I could do, given the circumstances.

I kept an ear out, trying to map them out in my head as they walked and talked. Using my hearing to learn their locations. The results weren’t great, I wasn’t a bat, nor did my powers extend to that particular sense. Just more guesswork.

I noted a specific pair of steps come around from the back of us. They were definitely being thorough, deciding to search here. We’d get caught once they went around that corner. A cement wall that acted as a barrier between the park and the town was quite a distance away, and attempting to cross the gap to use the other office building as cover might expose Isabella and I, in the doing.

Nowhere else to go but up.

I held my hand out for Isabella, and I went up.

The roof was corrugated metal, and it made a bit of noise as I landed down, putting myself flat on my stomach. Not enough to attract their attention, though, I hauled us up rather than jumped, muffling any sound. Isabella was surprisingly light, too, helping her up and over was like moving a feather.

“You heard that?”

I pressed my tongue against the back of my teeth, hard. I held my breath. I was listening in on them from above.

“Heard what?”

“Up there, I think it came from the roof.”

“Must have missed it, then.”

“Whatever. Come on, we have more ground to cover.”

“Sure.”

I exhaled, hard, feeling lightheaded.

So many close calls. Too many, really. A lot of them could be counted in the holes and tears that riddled my clothes, my jacket.

I couldn’t chance any more. Even with my healing.

I listened.

They had sprawled out, searching everywhere, someone even went into the office building I was hiding out on top of, judging by the sound of a nearby door opening and closing, then opening and closing again. The office space inside must have been small or sparse with stuff, because they didn’t take very long to look around. They left and returned to the others.

“Nothing in there.”

“Same with the other storage, too.”

So they aren’t offices, I thought. At least I got something concrete.

“The whole search is turning into a bust, at least for this section.”

The conversation shifted into another language for a moment. Everything they said was lost on me, and Isabella wasn’t offering to translate.

One of them returned to English, saying, “Let’s just get a move on, Richie, check somewhere else. We have to round back to the base eventually, everyone’s going to want to get together and talk about this. Coordinate.”

Ah. Coordinate. That word had begun to stick out to me.

Another responded. But I didn’t have eyes on who.

“Soon, Leon, I just want to be thorough. The thing could be right under our noses and we’d have no idea.”

Or right above you, I thought.

“And then what? You saw what that thing did, no? Not even a whole spray of bullets could stop it.”

“It’s alive, Leon, and that means it’s capable of dying. And we will be the ones to kill it, skin it, and string it up for all to see, and then no one will ever try coming here to fuck with us again. Forever.”

“You make it sound so friggin’ easy.”

“Death isn’t a very far trip, and there’s plenty of ways to get there fast. Short cuts. We’ll find something for it. Put the devil back where it belongs.”

“Christ…”

Another voice spoke up. “Not just them, too, there’s still him.”

“I know. This has become a thing, now. Which is why I want this dealt with as soon as possible.”

“If it’s after the meat from the truck, we could just use them as leverage. Have it come to us.”

“That’s not a bad idea,” another replied.

The first guy, Richie, spoke.

“We only have so many to use. We need to budget them or we lost that as a potential bargaining chip. But… I am not against that idea.”

“So we should get back to the assembly already? Things have been getting way too messy, lately, and now there’s this, it, him, and if this gets out and we can’t control it then-”

“We’ll have it under control, Leon, we have it under control. We have the upper hand, and it holds the best bargaining chip we could ask for. This can be contained.”

“Then let’s get back to the assembly and get something prepared. Being split up and wasting time looking around isn’t going to help.”

There was a small round of discourse, at that. Another language.

“Then we’ll go,” Richie said. “Call Alessa, tell her that we’re heading back.”

“On it.”

I listened as their collective footsteps continued onward, away from what I knew now were the storage buildings, and away from me and Isabella. I crawled on my stomach, peeking from the lip of the roof, and I watched as the masked mob disappeared underneath a tent, the man in the toad mask closed a tarp behind them. It led back to the park proper, from what I could gather from their path and the direction they were headed.

And then they were gone. And I was free to move.

I dropped down from the roof, to the front of the office. It wasn’t a large drop, with the building being less than a story in height, if that.

Isabella managed to get down by herself, landing right next to me, a second after I touched ground.

“Close call,” I said.

“Like I needed any more,” Isabella said.

“Right,” I said. “Anyways. There is the option to follow those masked guys, they might lead us directly to the others.”

“Or they’re going somewhere completely different. Stop trying to get off track, Wendy.”

“I’m not, there’s just so many ways we can go about this. But you’re right, let’s just stay on the current course.”

Isabella did have a point, though, there was no guarantee that following those masked guys would lead us to Tone and Sarah and the others, and the looped transmission from the walkie-talkie was the only thing that was directly connected to the end goal. If we were going to make any progress in getting them back, it would be by going there.

I looked ahead, finally getting a decent look at the face of the buildings. Clean, maintained, unlike the park or anything else I’d seen in this forsaken place.

“Current course does have me doing a quick check through here,” I said, thinking out loud. “Sorry. Just give me a couple seconds, here, maybe a minute, or several.”

I looked at Isabella. She shrugged.

“It’s not my peace to make.”

I grimaced. First D, now Isabella. Everyone was giving me attitude today, it seemed.

But, that was fine, for right now. I could imagine Isabella being shaken up about what had happened, especially considering that it went down so fast. If she needed a way to vent, air out frustrations, and if she needed a punching bag to do that, then I’d be willing to take the hits.

“A couple seconds it is, then,” I said, before moving up to the first office, pushing the door open.

In stark contrast to the bloodied, mangled imagery of the shrouds and bodies, the interior was sterile, clean of any flecks or dirt or dust. Cold, even, but it was the closest thing to normal, to the point of mundanity, that happening upon it felt like a warm embrace.

I began to survey the area. A couple of seconds. Aside from that contrast, here wasn’t much to take in.

A single, tiny space in a temporary structure. It was never meant to hold much.

Boxes upon boxes. Cardboard and wood. The stacks of crates varied in length, some managed to reach the ceiling, but most were either as tall as me or a box or two short. There were two of these buildings, after all, it wasn’t like anyone would need to conserve space.

But, it was just that, in here. Boxes. Crates. Cardboard and wood.

I walked more inside, the door closing on its own. My finger traced the edge of one of the boxes. Wood. It smelled of lavender.

Not that one.

I went to another stack, instead, a cardboard box that reached up to my nose in height. I brushed away dust and cobwebs – a pair of gloves – kicking up a stale, musty scent. It wasn’t sweet, though. Closest thing to a jackpot I’d ever get.

Setting my breath in a firm line, holding my breath, I tore the box open. I coughed anyways.

Then, getting on the tips of my toes, I peeked inside.

Masks.

Curious, I grabbed the box and set it down at my feet. I dug through that box and the next.

More and more masks. Similar in fashion to the ones the group that had passed just before. There were different animals in here, different kinds of birds. Ravens, crows, blue jays and cardinals. All of them ripped and damaged to achieve that specific, gross aesthetic.

The next box had props, some of these I had yet to see being used, others… had tried to leave their mark. Varied, but they all sharing a theme. Ugly and wrong.

Claws and toy swords were next to handguns. Lanterns and miniature figures of ghouls were piled next to magazines. I must have shaken the box a bit when I set it down, because a pistol was lodged into the open mouth of a skull, stuck. The blank, empty sockets stared at me, wide and seemingly growing wider.

With the strange mixture between a fantastical sort of horror and the very real, it gave me a chill down my spine. For a split second, I considered the possibility that the skull was real.

A hint of honey began to waft-

I shut the box and kicked it away. I heard the contents shift around, inside.

I put my hand to my mouth. I felt the contents shift around, inside.

It was as if I had opened Pandora’s box. I couldn’t stop myself from thinking up terrible, horrifying ends to everyone I was responsible. What if I couldn’t save them? What if more of them died because of me? What if I never made it out of this town?

Tone. Sarah.

I thought about Sarah.

My knees started to shake, my shoulders shivering. Those were all very real possibilities, weren’t they? They could all come to be?

Death was amusement, here. This was how these monsters treated it.

The seeds weren’t roots, anymore. They had bloomed, to their fullest growth and effect.

It didn’t take long for the vines to wrap and constrict my mind.

One surreal visual after another, one surreal visual after another.

Everything was an assault on my grasp of reality. I could feel it slipping away with every second I didn’t get to sit down and rest.

“Wendy.”

It was so difficult, why did this have to be so difficult? Everything, always?

“Hey.”

I just wanted to shut myself away and lock-

“The door!”

I snapped, already moving to the door as it was pushed open again. Throwing my hands forward, catching onto cloth and skin.

I found myself back outside, back in the dead air and blinding sun.

I clawed for more purchase until I hit the ground, my fingers coiling around someone’s neck.

Someone.

It was the guy in the toad mask.

I saw his eyes from behind the mask, they were wide. I wasn’t as shocked, my ears were perked, twitchy, for any sound. With Isabella and my own growing paranoia, I had learned to constantly check my surroundings, now. Especially my back.

Even in my haze, I was still able to keep that in mind.

The toad masked man gurgled, struggling to speak.

“You- achk!”

I tightened my grip, squeezing.

“I thought you cleared out of here, already,” I said, even though I knew he wouldn’t be able to answer.

“Those gloves could be his,” Isabella offered, “Maybe he came back for them? Or maybe he was sent back to stock up on something else?”

Forcing myself to relax my fingers, I loosened my hold, bit by bit. Enough so that he could breathe.

I let him take raspy, harsh intakes of air.

“It doesn’t matter why he’s here, what matter is that I have you.”

I looked right into his eyes, the whites of mine probably wider than his.

I gave him my terms.

“You have a second to agree to answer my questions before I tear your mask and head off. A single second. Nod if you agree.”

The toad nodded.

Finally, information. Context. Something I could use to gain some understanding about what this fucking town was supposed to fucking be.

I opened my mouth to ask my first question, but Isabella interrupted.

“Heads up.”

My head went up.

I snarled.

Two more animals had come crawling back, perhaps to check on their squealing, disgusting friend. A pig and a goat.

But who would want to save such trash?

They hadn’t sniffed me out yet, but they would soon.

From skin, back to cloth and skin. I grabbed the toad.

Dragging him, I hobbled to my feet and, with my second step forward, turned at an angle to spin.

After a second revolution, I released the toad. The pig and the goat finally took notice of something being amiss, but it had come at them too fast.

The toad crashed into them both, crumpling them into the ground. The rest would come, surely, soon enough. The rest of those filthy creatures.

Too many complications.

Had to leave.

I motioned for Isabella and we took off, going over the storage building to put it between us and them. We ran for the short wall to jump over that as well, to finally leave this park and put it behind us.

Going through the air, I put my hands on my head, as if I needed to physically keep in place, or else I’d lose it for sure.

I was lost until D gave me a clear way to go.

Probably best to start in those apartment buildings, then.

I was holding the phone, D hadn’t gotten off the call. I went north, gauging the distance until I had to pull my phone out and ask D for help as I closed in.

Wandering, out of place and lacking any sense of direction. I was desperate for a guiding hand by this point.

“Yeah, that’s all I see, here. It’s going to be my best bet.”

Agreed.

The stretch of town from the park went back to being abandoned again, how it seemed to be when we first arrived. I knew that it was a veil, now, a front for something much more perverse. What that was, exactly, still escaped me, and it bothered me that I still didn’t know. ‘Bothered’ being a gross understatement.

But, I hadn’t run into anyone else on the way, no men or animals or monsters. They were around, somewhere, but not here. Did that mean that they had different bases they would congregate to and operate from? The group from before mentioned meeting back up with an ‘assembly,’ but what was that supposed to entail? As far as bases went, the park was probably one of them, but the rest of the town would be too wide an area for them to cover, I supposed.

If I knew how they operated, how they would make their rounds, I’d have a much easier time. Yet, at the same time, I wished I never knew Fuckington existed.

Like a nightmare I couldn’t wake up from.

Fumes. No amount of blood could supplement the beauty of sleep. Maybe if this had happened back when the sun was still down, I’d have a much better grip on things. Now? Reality and sanity both seemed to be slipping away at a rapid pace.

Hurry hurry hurry hurry.

I hurried.

The gate into the apartment complex was closed, but a car had crashed at the base of it, leaving a big enough opening to walk through. We walked through it.

Deserted, left to break apart, lifeless. A slight wind had picked up, and I could almost hear a low hum resonate through the broken windows and opened doors of the apartments.

Imagining smells, now sounds? Or was the town so far gone that any stimuli, no matter how minute, no matter how real, seemed to be a trick of the mind?

Fuck.

Something on a deeper level than just being abandoned. It had been made hollow. And it was a sort of emptiness that could claw out other things, making them blank, too. I could feel it happening to me.

I hurried.

A flicker in my eye.

“Two at two.”

Not from the phone, at my side.

I looked slightly to the right.

At the front of one of the apartment buildings, two animals stood, guarding the entrance. Two horses. I ducked behind a nearby set of dead shrubs before they could notice us. We were far enough, and if we stayed low, we could remain out of sight.

“Thanks, Isabella,” I whispered.

“Don’t mention it.”

My gaze stayed on them, studying them. They were relaxed, which blew my mind, and they were chatting amongst themselves, not focusing on the actual job of keeping guard.

Could they be in there? Tone and Sarah and the rest?

I clenched my fists, feeling my phone in one hand.

“D,” I said, “You’re going back in my pocket.”

I’ve got a snack and game with me, so I’m good.

I put the phone away.

“If you rush in, you might attraction more attention,” Isabella said, warning me.

“I know that,” I said. “But-”

I stopped.

My natural inclination was to suggest taking them both out at once, from an angle, but no. No.

I doubted myself too much, now. Couldn’t do it my way.

“I’ll just go around them, avoid getting into a fight.”

There was a pause.

The suggestion was left to hang, but I had a feeling that Isabella approved of the idea.

She didn’t offer a rebuttal, this time. I’d take it.

Staying low, I went around them, to the side of the apartment. The horses kept chatting.

The apartment building was several stories, but that was the least of my issues.

Easy enough.

With a jump, I scaled the side of the apartment, feeling how noticeably heavy my legs were getting.

Hurry.

I stalked over the roof, running. Too high up for them to hear me and register my footsteps.

I found a dip in the roof, a balcony poking out from the top floor. I directed myself over there.

A small drop, and I was right above the two horses.

It would have been so easy to take them out, to drop on top of the first and cripple the other. It was an urge that begged to be satiated. To get back at anyone who could be responsible. Revenge.

But, my needs didn’t come first. It was Tone’s, it was Sarah’s. Olivia’s, even, before my own.

I clenched my fists and ran into the apartment.

I was, however, prepared to defend myself if someone was unlucky enough to turn a corner and see me.

Dark, and damp. The carpeted floor muffled my footsteps as I continued to investigate the place. I could see, but the lack of light to give anything definition gave my brain the freedom to fill in the blanks, and I was so tired, that my vision began to swim. Blotches of grime on the walls looked like faces, and strips of peeled painted looked like mouths, tongues hanging open, as if it was savoring the stale taste in the air.

Some skin peeled away to reveal the bones underneath. Skulls.

The hallway twisted as I began my descent.

I cracked a smile. A faint giggle escaped my lips.

I covered my mouth, breathing through only my nose. I was fighting myself, now, my own body and mind to move forward.

Feels wonderful.

So so real. So surreal.

Then, music.

Music?

Sounds, pleasant. Soothing.

It guided.

Was I imagining things again?

Did I care?

I followed it.

It was coming from one of the rooms. My feet carried me inside.

Someone.

I moved my hands and then they went to sleep. Asleep. Sleep.

As though my sense of awareness was lagging behind, I was snapped back to the now.

I looked at my hands. My fingers were coated in fresh blood, a sweet taste in my mouth, a body at my feet. Breathing, but slow.

Did I blank out for a moment?

Oh well.

I shook my head and looked up.

Another someone.

In the dim, in the back of the hollowed living room, someone sat in a lounge chair. He was slumped over, his face covered, but with how it moved, I could tell he was breathing, too. His hands were tied behind him. A soft light broke past some blinds to his left, illuminating him. Light jazz music came from somewhere.

I walked over in a daze.

The music and his breathing filled my ears, and everything moved like I was in slow motion. Lagging, listless. Like I wasn’t pressed for time.

Then I got to him.

I pulled off the covering from his face. I saw his face.

Finally, I had him. I got him. I got you.

Another snap to the now.

Wait.

Who is he?

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081 – Ghost Town

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We had arrived at our destination.

Our speed was glacial as we approached… whatever this place was. An hour to get here, sixty long minutes to prepare and plan and hope, and my expectations were still circumvented.

An abandoned amusement park.

The entrance was dilapidated and decrepit. Rusted. Whatever color that had given this place life had been drained away and diseased with something more sickly. Shades of a dark red and orange scraped through the bright mascots and characters and childish imagery to warp and twist them into monsters and creatures. This was no place for a child.

Statues that were supposed to be welcoming us had deteriorated to the point where they were doing the complete opposite, now. In their current condition, with chunk of arms and legs and tentacles and trunks and eyes and ears missing or broken off, it seemed more like a warning.

Lamp posts were knocked down, bulbs were broken. Shattered glass and torn up pieces of cement prevented a proper path forward. There were only a few cars as we pulled up more into the parking lot, but, much like everything else, they weren’t in any condition to be used for its intended purpose.

Not a person in sight. And even if there was, I could only imagine how damaged they’d have to be to end up wandering into this place. Because no one should have to come here unless they had a very good reason to, and I would have liked to think that we had some decent justification.

But, the deeper we continued, the thinner that justification seemed to become. Seemed.

The whole damn town seemed like it had been forgotten by time and neglected by people. Though, in essence, it was like that exactly.

Brief, I thought back to the buildings we passed as we arrived here. Even they stuck with me.

Broken and barren. Par for the course, I knew now. Windows had been shattered, holes torn through bricks, houses and stores gutted of their belongings and wares. Graffiti had been streaked and marked across every available surface. More reds and oranges. More rust. Words, symbols, more warnings. I wasn’t able to make out the original name of the town as we entered, covered up too much by all the tagging. A fitting metaphor.

I was, however, able to catch the new name. Fuckington.

Alright then.

It was just another strange addition to an already strange town. Nothing seemed right, here. It was just… wrong. Twisted, even perverted. Things were stripped down and then built on top. Corrugated metal roofs covered wooden constructs that resembled shacks or huts, lined in certain spots down the different streets. Haphazardly put together and assembled with little care to overall aesthetics or designs. Squatters? People who took advantage of their surroundings for temporary housing? Didn’t know, and I didn’t want to know. Despite all the ‘work’ that had been done, I still hadn’t seen another person around. And I almost wished I wouldn’t. Almost.

Our trip from Stephenville to El Paso had taken us out farther west. And things have only gotten crazier and more wild.

Thinking backwards, from the park to the town to even the streets that led us in here. The dips and cracked cement, the potholes and snapped pipes. I was already thinking of ways to get out of here.

But there was still much more of the town that needed to be explored. We couldn’t turn back now.

Not good.

My focus snapped back to the present.

Sarah put the RV in park, turning the engine off.

“We’re… here.”

Sarah was just as unsure about this as I was.

I was standing between the two seats at the front of the RV, my elbows resting against a headrest on either side. Sarah was seated on the left, Isabella to my right.

Sarah took the keys out of the ignition. She held them, tight, the keys and kitty charm hidden by the firm fist she formed. Isabella was frozen, waiting for either Sarah of me to make a move.

Not me or Sarah.

Hello?

“Oh, D,” I said. D was still on the phone, situated on the dashboard.

You there or no?

“We are. I’m just trying to take this all in.”

Sarah chimed in. “You can include me in that, too.”

“Yeah,” Isabella said.

Where are you?

“I…” I started, but words escaped me. Even being in the RV, in relative safety, gave me a heavy oppressed feeling. Foreboding. Like a weight on my chest.

“We’re in Fuckington,” Isabella said.

What-”

“That’s what the sign read as we got here, don’t blame me.”

Alright then.

“That’s exactly what I thought,” I said. “You know anything about this place? From what I saw, it’s even smaller than the other town we passed through earlier, but it’s seen… a lot of shit.”

It was the best way I could describe it, out loud. The place looked like shit.

I wouldn’t know anything about that location, exactly, but I’ve heard of the concept.

“Concept?”

Whenever really small or obscure towns get even smaller or more obscure, because of a declining industry or other opportunities elsewhere. That gives outside groups, like homeless people or wandering hitchhikers or even gangs to come in and overpower whoever stuck around. Give it a few decades of people coming in, getting what they want, getting out, with some relative silence in between, and everyone kind of just forgets to care. And then you get this.

It seemed like it was a microcosm of what happened to Stephenville. A similar idea. Gangs coming into city that didn’t have the proper infrastructure to fight back, instead being corrupted by it. Similar, but not exact, because a small foundation had been set up for them when those gangs arrived. A parasitic underbelly that was ready to consume the seediness and nourish from it.

Mister.

But, here, it was like this town’s ‘Mister’ had left long ago. A corpse of a place. I couldn’t even consider it Hell, since we still hadn’t seen a soul around. And the more I stayed in the RV, the more I didn’t want to go outside and look for any, much less one hundred and three people.

But I knew I had to.

“What the hell is Tone even doing here?” I questioned. The second most pressing question regarding this situation. The first being where.

It’s what I got when I checked.

“Do you have a more accurate read? We didn’t see the truck coming in, and we’re getting deeper without having seen much else outside of decay.”

I can’t pinpoint it since you’re so far out, and with what I’m working with right now, which isn’t a lot, it’s the best I can do. I told you it wouldn’t be great.

“It’s good enough,” I said, second-guessing it all. The seeds had sprouted, the roots digging. “We can take it from here.”

Good luck, stay safe, yadda yadda. Keep me updated.

“Always.”

Sarah hung up the phone for me. WIth her other hand still balled up, she had to twist around and back in order to return it to me.

“How you want to do this?” I asked. “I can take a look around while you two stay in here. Work my way back, going by rooftops? Gives me a better vantage point that way, and it’ll be faster.”

Sarah nodded. “That’s not a bad idea. You could probably cover a lot more ground that way, and it’ll be easier for me to come to where you are when you find them.”

She looked at Isabella, “And it makes it easier for me to keep an eye on her.”

Isabella returned a look back at Sarah. I couldn’t see what expression she had, but it did prompt Sarah to add, “Not that you need it.”

I added my voice to Sarah’s.

“I can’t exactly have you wandering around on your own, Isabella. I’ll feel better and I’ll be able to work faster if I know you’re here with Sarah, relatively safe.”

Isabella turned in her seat so she had her legs folder under her, facing me properly.

“I know. I’ll take your suggestion and I’ll choose to stay behind.”

I found the humor in that. She’d try to find and scrounge up any agency she could and use it to make her feel better. Admirable and adorable.

“Good choice,” I said.

Isabella hugged the teddy bear she had with her. Tighter. As if she was choking the poor thing.

“This place seriously creeps me out. Just be fast so we don’t have to be here long and I won’t lose my head waiting for you.”

The admittance was admirable. Adorable, too. I really wouldn’t have minded if she decided to stay with us.

I spoke.

“Okay. Looks like I’m off. I’ll try to be quick.”

“You have a gun?” Sarah asked.

“I’ve got my knife, and my mask.”

I gestured, raising my arms to strike a pose. Flexing.

“Even without all that, I’m more than enough.”

Then, I dropped my arms. It didn’t work as well as it used to.

I had to work with what I got, though. And all I had to rely on was myself.

It sucked, but I wasn’t in a good position.

I starting gathering what I needed. I talked as I worked.

“Lock the doors, close the curtains on the side windows but don’t be afraid to check your surroundings every now and then. I’ll keep my phone with me so call if, knock on wood, trouble finds you guys. I don’t care if I’m in the middle of something or if it’s somehow inconvenient. If you’re in trouble, call. I want to know.”

“You got it ma’am,” Sarah said, her intonation rising at the end.

It was endearing, but I couldn’t comment or think on it.

I stood, ready, at the door of the RV. In the reshuffling of all the stuff I had packed, I couldn’t find everything in time. I had a new hoodie on, a temporary black padded jacket, and my mask. My knife and phone were close at hand, too.

I gave Sarah and Isabella a quick look to let them know I was ready. And to also tell myself that.

I’m tired.

“Heading out,” I said, holding back a yawn. I really hadn’t slept in some time.

Isabella was staring, with a certain intensity. Her mouth was hanging open. Easy to notice.

I heard her whisper, “La luna azul.”

“It’s V, now.”

“But still, it’s like the same thing.”

No it’s not.

I flipped the hood up.

“You look like a ninja,” Isabella added. “Or some shit.”

“I have to go,” I said. “Tone’s out there, somewhere, and I’m the only one who can find him. Can’t waste any time.”

I put my hand on the handle, cracking the door open.

“You can start by backtracking, checking any turns or corners we skipped on the main road to get here,” Sarah said. “If you can’t find them, then… just come back and I’ll make my way around the amusement park.”

“Let’s hope it doesn’t have to come to that.”

“Right. Let’s.”

I left the RV and took my first step outside.

Already, I wanted to turn and go back inside.

The smell

Even the very air was tepid and lifeless, and the collective odors of trash and rot and shit was allowed to sit and stew into this thick, atmospheric attack on the senses. It was almost like a vapor, or a fog, that made my eyes get watery, and they were covered.

I gasped, dreading the inevitable inhale that followed. A sour taste that was hard to swallow.

I pushed forward into the fog.

I didn’t see the truck as we arrived into the parking lot, so I crossed the street, leaving it behind. The RV. Sarah and Isabella. I dreaded the idea of leaving them more than the idea of maneuvering through this fog. This miasma.

Without much thought or consideration, my feet touched down on a rooftop. Some steps and a small push to reach another. The buildings weren’t tall at all. I was putting as much effort into crossing gaps and streets as a normal kid would playing hopscotch.

Every time I was in the air, I looked. Every clearance or open space I came across, I searched. Every corner or back alley or dead end, I investigated.

Nothing nothing nothing.

We hadn’t entered a very dense part of… of Fuckington, there were only so many places for me to check before I started going in circles, seeing the same things over and over. The same streetlights and corners, the same broken cars and storefront windows. Some trucks, but none of them with eighteen wheels.

Nowhere, did I see a large truck with a larger trailer.

I landed back down, this time on the street proper. I froze for a moment.

There was stillness, here, that sat above everything and kept it all down. It was so many things. Restlessness, unease, static… the feeling like I was being watched. I couldn’t shake any of it off. It was a paranoia of an almost unreal kind.

The farther I left Stephenville, the further I was going in the deep, it seemed.

I blinked, my eyes stinging.

I have to find them soon.

I couldn’t find the truck. Did they move somewhere else? Leave the trailer?

No way.

I could try looking in some of the buildings, find some other clues. If I were to run into anyone… would they be of any help? No, they’d probably be more trouble than it was worth. I still had yet to run into anyone else. Was there a chance that the town had been abandoned completely?

Maybe, probably. Hopefully.

I went on the move again, walking this time.

There were still some spots I hadn’t checked, yet. It was just that more locations were starting to become more familiar, which wasn’t exactly the coolest thing. I’d rather have this place behind me and out of my head, already.

But, no, I still had over one hundred people to find, and every second that they weren’t accounted for tugged at my mind and added to that paranoia.

I continued searching.

I checked off the spots I already visited in my head, a mental map I made of this one section of Fuckington. Only a few left, a storage warehouse at one end and what looked like a junkyard at the other. I had caught sight of them while I was in the air, looking for more places to search.

The junkyard was closer, actually, so I’d check there first.

In what felt like a few blinks, and fewer steps, I made it to the warehouse. I had to land into a roll onto a patch of grass because I had come in too high and too fast. I had to fix my hood as I got myself straight again.

I turned my nose up at the smell again.

It was even worse, here, foul in a way that gave form to the rot and decay I’d seen all over the town. A whole other dimension.

Another parking lot, then a chained fence with piles of junk and other trash. The ‘entrance’ was just a large missing chunk of the fence itself, and by that was a large sign, faded, posted up way above everything else. It gave me the impression that this area wasn’t original set up to be a junkyard, rather that it ended up being one after whatever used to be here… was no longer here. Maybe a restaurant or even another warehouse.

Either way, it was one more fitting metaphor for fucking Fuckington.

There was enough trash to obscure my view of everything, and the missing gap in the fence was wide enough to drive a truck through. I couldn’t jump across the piles and stacks of shit, with it being haphazard in its construction and too loose, I’d slip if I tried.

No choice but to walk.

The ‘aroma’ got even ‘sweeter,’ getting closer, and it made my steps lighter and eyes dart faster. I paced faster, checking the huge space, internally begging to find them… not soon, but now.

I had to watch my step, though. There were more jagged edges than there were flat surfaces to walk across. Broken glass, needles, bits of wood and plastic. Everything here had degraded in a way that I could only guess what they used to be. It was a graveyard for stuff, really.

Checking what I could see of the ground as I walked, my feet kicking and sifting through junk and detritus like they were dead leaves, I noted that none of it looked flattened or squished, as though a heavy set of wheels had drove through and crushed it. It all looked settled and untouched. Like they just fell into place and stayed there since.

So, no. Nothing here too.

I was losing time. Darn.

I could try one loop around the junkyard, just in case, but it didn’t seem like-

I turned.

A sound, like the rustling of leaves.

Then something more alive.

“He- help!”

I ran in the direction of the cry.

“Is someone there? Please!”

I ran faster.

I rounded the side of one particular pile of trash. Whoever was yelling got louder as they heard me approach.

And the smell.

It was getting stronger as I got closer. An actual aroma. It was actually sweet.

“Right here, I’m right here! Oh fuck, hurry!”

I hurried.

Then I stopped.

It took some time to process what I was looking at.

Or who.

Two, three… four people. Varied in height and age. All on the ground, lined up next to one another, slumped over.

A family?

Two of them were flat on their stomachs, faces buried in the bundle of cardboard and newspapers. One was on their side, eyes staring but not focused, jaw open, slack.

The last was in his back, yelling.

“You, please, I-”

He stopped as he saw me, his mouth snapping shut. Was it my appearance, with the mask and hood? I probably looked like the exact opposite of what he wanted to see, right now.

I approached anyways.

I got down on one knee, digging into dirt and debris, feeling something sharp poking against my leg. Not enough to break skin, though.

I took the man and helped him up the best I could, but his sudden pained expression gave me the impression that he was no longer able. Supporting him by the lower back and shoulders, I tried to him make as comfortable as possible.

“I’ve got you,” I said. “What happened? Who did this?”

He had been screaming his lungs out, before, but his voice had been brought down to a whisper when he had to explain this.

“They… got us… came in so fast. Truck got stopped, then it got so bright, couldn’t see. Loud, bright, hot. Couldn’t fight back.”

The man was only giving me pieces, there were too many gaps to put together everything and form a clearer picture.

But I got the broad strokes. And it added up to the worst case scenario I could think of.

“Who got you?” I asked. “How did the truck get stopped, and why here? How’d you get here?”

And where’s Tone?

I held back on that question for the time being. I doubted that this man would know anything in that regard. He was barely coherent about his own situation.

The man only whispered, tears now streaming down his cheeks. There had been dirt, there, but now I realized it was smeared streaks of blood.

“I got my… my kids, and ran…”

The tears continued, and he choked up.

It’s okay, I thought to say, but it was all too clear that it was not. Whatever he tried running from, he didn’t manage to get very far.

“Can you move?” I asked. Experimentally, I moved him some more, but the sudden scream made me stop.

The man shook his head hard, various fluids flung from his face.

“Too late for me,” he breathed. He sounded haggard. “Please… just help my kids.”

He gestured, or at least he attempted to, shifting his arm over to the next to him, one of two that were on their stomachs. Both weren’t moving.

It pained me to have to say that I couldn’t.

I froze up again, unsure of what to say, then, how to approach that topic. How to break it to him.

“I-”

A small wheeze.

The person on their side.

It was so small that I hadn’t noticed it at first. Barely imperceptible. A subtle rise and fall of their chest. A slow, drawn out blink, their eyes refocusing.

On me.

A girl. A girl like D and Isabella. She was still alive?

She looked worse off than her father. Her hair was mangled, clothes ripped and dirty, her lower lip swollen and red. I could imagine, and I didn’t even want to.

“Can she move?” I asked.

The father only grunted, now. I could see the life slowly leave him. He shifted again, his fingers reaching for his children, and I saw tiny black dots lining his arms, his veins.

The needles.

It really was too late for him.

Slow, with consideration, I set the man down, doing what I could to make him comfortable, despite the circumstance. He seemed to relax, because he let his eyes close, and drifted off…

All tension left his body, and I got up to leave his body be.

I stepped around to reach the girl.

I raised her by the shoulders, helping her get a better position.

“Hi,” I said.

“Hi…”

She was able to speak. It wasn’t as lively as the screaming from her father before, but it was clearer and more pronounced that his whispers. There was life to it.

All from one word.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Olivia,” she said.

Olivia was probably the oldest of the three kids, judging by her height and build. That put her around the same range as D and Isabella. Her hair was short, really short for a girl. I could have mistaken her for a boy if her features didn’t tell me the opposite. Her clothes were stained and smudged with grime, wet in some parts, disturbingly sticky in others.

“I’m going to help you up,” I said. “Can you move on your own?”

Olivia nodded.

“I can.”

“Okay, that’s good. How about your… siblings?”

Olivia’s response was more muted, that time. A whisper that I could forgive.

“No.”

“Okay,” I said.

I started helping her, getting her up so she could move more on her own. I did everything I could to not panic, and let that show in my body language or the lower half of my face.

Everyone in that trailer, everyone that I was responsible for, had been scattered, and some had even been picked off. I saw them, I’d seen their faces. The glimmering, the lack of hope, with their last chance at any peace was to go back to the way they came, back into the chaos and stress. Fathers, mothers… kids. Kids who were embarking on this trip by themselves.

Over one hundred people were supposed to make it to El Paso. Now, there was high probability that I’d lost an entire digit.

Even if we made it to El Paso now, I had already failed.

It was getting harder and harder to keep that panic in.

Olivia was up, now, her steps too small for any meaningful progress, and I needed to hurry. I took her arm around my shoulder for more support, and to get her to move faster.

I had to call Sarah, make sure they were still alright. Isabella.

I leaned one way, to better support Olivia while I used my other arm to reach for my phone and-

The phone started ringing.

I picked up.

“Sarah?”

It was Isabella that answered.

Uh, Wendy, I think there’s trouble.

The panic began to bubble.

“You think?”

There are some people standing around the RV. In the distance.

I started hurrying, walking faster. Olivia tripped over her feet, and we stalled.

Please tell me that you’re just joking,” I said.

Um… no?

Holy fucking shit, no.

“Where’s Sarah? Tell her to start getting the heck out of there.”

Fuck, we can’t. There’s cars, now, some motorcycles. They’re blocking the way out.

Motorcycles. I immediately thought of Styx’s Gang. Could they be out here?

No, that wouldn’t make sense.

I picked up the pace, Olivia whining and lagging behind. I’d drag her if I had to.

“Tell Sarah I’m on my way,” I said. “I’m-”

I heard it both in the distance and right in my ear.

Several shots rang out.

“Isabella!” I yelled.

She was yelling too, but it wasn’t directed at me.

Sarah, we have to-”

Her voice faded away, but I didn’t get another tone. The call was still ongoing.

“Isabella!”

Shrieks from the phone, shots from much farther away.

I had to be there, now.

I grabbed Olivia with hardly an explanation. I shoved my phone back into my pocket, and swooped Olivia up into my arms. She yelped as I took to the air, leaving the junkyard after a single bound.

I sprinted back onto the streets, finding myself back across the rooftops in no time. If she was shocked or scared, Olivia didn’t have to breath to say so.

Moving faster than I ever had before, crossing greater distances, pushing myself more and more. My muscles aching, the itch in the back of my throat getting itchier.

Have to be alert, have to be ready, I have to be there.

I tore through the air. So did the continued gunfire.

I was forced to land a block away, my feet hitting the ground, firm. From where I was, I had a decent vantage point of the chaos above.

Groups of people, a mob really. Cars revving engines and motorcycles circling. From the build of the bikes and the dress of the bikers themselves, they didn’t look like they belonged to Styx. The just looked normal.

Though, normal still wasn’t good.

Where did these guys come from? Where were they hiding? I’d probably never know, but it almost didn’t matter. What mattered was that they were here, now, and they were going after Sarah and Isabella.

The RV.

Through the continued firing and closing in of the mob, the RV was forced to move, being herded towards the direction of the amusement park. The entrance into the park was wide open, like the junkyard, it was able to go through the gap with little issue.

Still not a good thing.

It was too easy for them.

I moved again.

I took Olivia and ran into the nearest building, a souvenir shop that was no longer useful for much else besides providing cover. The mob didn’t seem to have noticed us, which meant I could still get the drop on them. Scatter them, break them apart so I could get to the RV, and hopefully, the truck.

There was a corner behind the counter of the store, I hopped and slid across it, setting Olivia down in one quick motion.

“Stay here,” I ordered. “Hide. I’ll have to do something about those guys, and I’ll come back for you. I promise.”

I pulled back to stand, but her hands were gripping my sleeves, tight. She wasn’t letting go.

“You can’t leave me here, please. They’ll find me. Please don’t leave me alone.”

“I’m not leaving you,” I said, putting extra effort to sound and stay calm while shots were firing right behind me. “I’m coming back for you as soon as I’m finished.”

She only held me tighter. She looked so scared.

I felt for her, I really did, but having her around would be like having a metal ball tied to my ankle. Especially with her being so weak. I wouldn’t be able to move or fight properly if I had something tying me down. I couldn’t afford that, not when time and other lives were on the line. I had to hurry.

I closed my eyes, brief. The desire to keep them closed got stronger.

I snapped them open, and snapped my arms back, breaking Olivia’s hold on me.

“Sorry,” I said. “I promise I’ll be back.”

Olivia whimpered and sobbed as I left the store, going back the way I came.

I’d work better if I ignored it for now. For her sake, even.

Back outside, into the chaos and madness. I managed to sort through it pretty easily.

I scaled the side of the shop to reach the roof. Like every other building here, it wasn’t tall.

A better view of the situation.

The RV was gone, now, blocked by the coiling metal structuring of the various rides and attractions. The mob was getting closer to the entrance, blocking it off with the different cars and bikes they brought with them.

They were coordinated.

Hurrying, panicking, I looked around for anything I could use. A knife wasn’t going to cut it, here.

A huge metal box. An air conditioning unit or something. It had broken down, now, the rust obvious and bright. A small door was hanging open, exposing some metal compartments inside. Some metal pipes were jutting out of its innards. I yanked one free, taking the door off its hinges as well. It was small, but could still cover my head and torso if I held it up.

I slipped my arm into the handles that were on the inside of the door, parallel to each other. I fixed my grip on the metal pipe, so the sharper was pointing away from me.

It had longer reach than my knife, at least.

No more time to waste. I had to move.

I moved.

Taking to the air, crossing the distance with just one jump. I was swinging before I even hit the ground, among the mob before they even realized what was happening.

I pushed with my shield-door, getting as many to fall over as possible, before striking any limbs or joints I could find. Swinging, and swinging hard.

I took a step back to reassess the situation. The mob was beginning to catch on, mobilizing, and I got some more shots in before I had to move.

Not everyone had guns, mostly a few in the mob. Some of the bikers had some, but being up close now, I saw that they had pitchforks.

This really was an angry mob. But what the fuck were people doing here with them? What the hell kind of place was this?

Figure it out later. Now you have to act.

Right.

Crowd control, and disarming the more dangerous individuals. If I could take out those who were armed first, I could power through the rest, easy. I didn’t have D with me, but I knew how to work a crowd.

I pushed through another section of the mob again, pushing them down, striking and stabbing where I could. The mob was sizable, but I could move fast and hit hard, with finality. And with the brief advantage of having gotten the drop on them, I was actually making some decent progress.

A shot was fired.

I lifted the shield over my head.

A sharp pang hit the metal, and it vibrated, shaking my arm. It nearly threw me off balance, from both the impact and the sheer volume of the shot.

Someone tried to take that as an opportunity, shoving me on the side with a shoulder. I shoved back, and they were back on the ground.

I jumped to get some air and distance.

More shots rang out, but they all missed. These guys weren’t used to hitting moving targets, much less ones who were soaring through the air with the sun behind them.

I was back down and moving, rushing those who had a weapon on them. More gunfire, some missing, some piercing through the shield. It wouldn’t hold up for much longer.

I was getting through the mob, picking them off, but I was starting to waste too much time focusing on just them. I had to actually get into the amusement park, follow the RV and find Sarah and Isabella.

Needed a move, a big move. One that would scare them enough and get them to break apart and away.

Ahead, a biker. He wasn’t far, but I’d have to jump to reach him fast. I jumped, throwing the sharp metal pipe at the same time.

It struck, impaling him in the right shoulder. He folded, wincing and crying, then collapsed on the ground.

I got to the bike before it fell over as well. I held it up with both hands.

Didn’t know how to ride one, but that wasn’t what I had in mind.

I gripped it, until I felt metal bend, and I turned. And turned again.

I spun until both wheels had left the ground.

I could hear the shouts, people yelling to get out of the way.

They wouldn’t get an ample enough warning. I let go of the motorcycle, and it cut the air as it flew.

The bike crashed, slamming into a ride past the entrance of the amusement park. I overshot it on purpose.

I still achieved the effect I needed. The mob got the message, and started to scatter away in various directions. Across the parking lot, back onto the street, the majority fleeing into the amusement park.

I’d have to follow them in there. This still wasn’t over.

Pressing on, I headed to the entrance, checking around to see if-

When fleeing, there had to be somewhere to flee to.

I watched as one half of the mob regrouped by the souvenir shop, some even going inside.

Olivia.

I looked back to the amusement park entrance.

Sarah and Isabella.

My eyes and throat burned. I wanted to cry and scream myself raw.

I had my priorities.

A split second decision.

I sprinted into the amusement park.

I told Olivia to hide. I had to trust that she found a good spot.

Shield across one arm, my knife in my other hand. It was all I had to bring in with me as I came in. If I could be fast, I could get back to Olivia in time.

I told myself that.

I had caught the name of the park as I went in. Like the sign as we entered Fuckington, the name had been spray-painted over and renamed.

Death For Amusement Park. A very cruel joke.

Previous                                                                                               Next

080 – 80808

Previous                                                                                               Next

“What happened?”

Isabella was standing as the RV kept driving on the highway, teddy bear in her arms. She had a curious and confused look on her face.

I hadn’t changed clothes.

“Those border patrol guys were fucking assholes,” I said, pushing my thumb through a hole in my sleeve, feeling the dampness of the dogs’ dribble. It was gross, but I couldn’t help but give in to a nervous tick. “They were toying with us the second we rolled up to them.”

“But why is your jacket all ripped up? I heard a lot of screaming and shouting. I was stuffed up in that luggage bag, but I still heard it.”

When I breathed, it wasn’t shaky, which was a good thing.

“Their dogs attacked us. Me.”

“Oh. Shit.”

“Shit,” I repeated, the word let out in a breath. The incident was still fresh in my mind, but it was so fresh that it felt like I was still there, thrashing around in the dark, the teeth digging into my skin and the growls filling out my ears. It was so loud.

I tried not to think about it, but something kept pulling my thoughts back in that direction. Sitting in that moment, giving it weight.

“Where’d they get you?” Isabella asked. “Did they bite you? Are you bleeding?”

I answered by deciding to remove my hoodie, letting it fall off my shoulders, the sleeves slipping down. It landed on the floor of the RV, I kicked it aside.

I rubbed my arms again.

“They did,” I said.

Isabella only looked more curious and confused.

“I don’t see anything.”

“It’s kind of another thing that comes with being me. Injuries don’t last, no scars, nothing.”

Isabella took a step forward, hurried. She would have ran at me if there was room in the RV.

Her momentum carried her, though, and she tripped at my knees. When her head popped back up, her hair flew into her face.

“Whoa,” she said, “Can I see?”

Now it was my turn to look curious and confused.

“What? My arms?”

“Uh, yeah.”

“Why?”

“I wanna see.”

“But there’s nothing there.”

Again, Isabella gave me that look. Like I had said something stupid.

“That’s the point.”

Another comparison to D. I didn’t quite get her. But, there wasn’t much to do, and filling in that downtime with something that wasn’t so taxing didn’t seem like a bad idea. I’d let Isabella take the lead on taking my mind off things.

I let my arms, and my guard, down. A small gesture.

Isabella set her teddy bear down, then she took my hands, gentle, observing every detail she could pour over. The tips of my fingers, the fingernails, the joints, the knuckles, the back and palm of my hands. Her fingers traced over mine. Tingling, until my hands became more numb.

It was sudden, it was weird, but I was getting used to sudden and weird.

“Where’d they get you?” Isabella asked, studying my wrist and my forearm.

“Um, one of them got me at the elbow, pulling me one way, and the other got my whole hand in his mouth.”

“Whoa, that’s fucking nuts.”

“I guess? I almost lost my hand back there. The dog’s teeth dug right into my wrist.”

Whoa. And there’s no trace of that anywhere. That is actually so fucking cool.”

I could see why she was seemingly so fascinated by my healing, but she was getting really into it.

“It’s not that big of a deal,” I said.

Isabella started shaking her head.

“Nuh uh, you don’t get to downplay this, because this is fucking cool. You have super strength and you can never get hurt? That is the fucking dream! Could you imagine how many people I’d be able to fuck up if I had your powers? No one would be able to mess with me ever again. I really, really like the sound of that. I wouldn’t have needed you to help me, and I could have fucked up Lawrence, myself. And that bitch.”

Isabella’s eyes were still on my arms, but they looked glazed over as she reiterated, “I’d really, really like that.”

The idea of a little girl running around exacting revenge on those who’d wronged her…

Wait.

“How far would you go to get at those people?” I questioned. “What does fucking someone up mean to you?”

Isabella answered without missing a beat.

“Anything and everything. Whatever I think is fair, even if it means hurting them until they can’t feel nothing, no more.”

Uh… huh…

“You’d say you go so far as to kill for revenge?”

“If it comes to that.”

Well then.

“What, you’ve never gone that far? You lead a gang, after all.”

What did she think gang leaders do, exactly?

“I can’t say that I have,” I answered, “I’ve been trying to be diplomatic in how I handle things. It’s not all violence and games. It does make it easier, thinking in that way, but that’s not the reality of it.”

“Bullshit. You’re telling me you’ve never had to kill anyone, for any reason? Because they wronged you or got in your way? I’ve seen it up close, people killed for far less justifiable reasons. I’ve seen it happen over a candy bar.”

Over something that petty?

I conceded somewhat, saying, “I’ll admit that I’ve been close, I’ve stood at that particular edge before. But, unless I couldn’t help it, I backed away.”

Isabella didn’t look convinced.

“If I had your powers, that’s how it’d go,” she said.

“It’s not all that great,” I said. “I still get hurt. Stings, burns, cuts, rips and tears and slices. I feel all of it, and it’s not like it completely goes away. I heal, but it’s only the physical injuries. There’s no real cure for mental trauma. Just your best attempt.”

I laughed, the sound coming out hollow. What had compelled me to add that last bit, I didn’t know, but I felt as if some levity was needed. To poke fun at myself a little, I supposed.

“And that, that taxes,” I said.

“You can always get help,” Isabella suggested. “Go to others.”

I shrugged, weak.

“I guess you could.”

If there were seeds of doubt, then I’d want my resolve to be like a tree, strong and unwavering and proud. If I had told myself that enough times, it would have been true. It should have been.

That was the point of everything.

“But yeah, anyways, it’s not like it matters anymore.”

Then, Isabella let go of my hands, and stood back up, seemingly satisfied by her very thorough inspection. If she had gotten something out of that, good for her. I just didn’t know what that was.

“Why’d they even throw their dogs at you?” she asked. “I thought we were trying to fly, or drive, under the radar. What ticked them off?”

We. I liked that Isabella had included herself in that effort. In hiding, she was protecting herself as much as we were protecting her.

And I had failed at my end of the deal.

I frowned.

“I thought so, too, but people like that are suspicious and cautious by nature, it’s part of the job. Even if there wasn’t anything to find, they’d make up something to trip us up on, to get us in trouble. Unfortunately, they did find something. They had stalled for time, and one of their dogs sniffed you out.”

“So it was my fault?”

“No, it wasn’t, and don’t ever think that it was, Isabella. They played us, played me. They thought they were being clever, and for a minute, they were.”

Darn, I hated to admit it. No amount of advanced healing could cover up that burn.

“Their dogs sniffed you out, and asked us to step out of the vehicle,” I said. “For a moment, there, I thought we were screwed.”

“And then you got slobbered on and chewed up? Unless I’m getting ahead of your story, I don’t see how you pissed them off to do that. Not that I’d be surprised if they did it just because, I’ve seen that before.”

“You have? That?”

“Oh, abso-fucking-lutely. People are capable of some fucked up stuff if they think they have all the power, or if they think they can get away with it. When that dynamic is off balanced, some nasty things can happen.”

I wondered how much Isabella had seen during her time in this country. How did that shape her, form her views on the world? It gave her enough of an impression that leaving was a better option. It seemed to me that the idea of hope was as foreign a concept to her as her presence was, in this country.

“I don’t disagree, but I don’t think that was the case, here. They only wanted to use their dogs to search the RV. What they didn’t expect was that the dogs would freak out and go after me on their own.”

“They attacked you guys just because? Aren’t they trained so that kind of thing doesn’t happen?”

“Maybe, but that got thrown out the window real quick. Whatever sense of loyalty or command they had was abandoned for…”

I lost the words to articulate it properly. Just the idea of saying it out loud seemed ridiculous.

La comida para perros,” Isabella said, finishing the thought for me. Hearing in another language almost fit, in a way. Still very real, but detached.

“That’s one way to put it,” I said, less enthusiastic.

Isabella went to cross her arms, but the RV shifted over, Sarah switching lanes. She leaned back against a nearby counter, instead.

“But how’d you even get out of that if the dogs got at you both? We’re lucky that the lady there can even still drive.”

The lady there. The lady being Sarah.

“Not us both,” I said, correcting Isabella. “Just me. Only me.”

“Oh? The way you phrased that makes it seem like that was supposed to mean something.”

Did it mean something?

“Maybe, it could,” I said. I set my hands on my lap, between my legs. “It’s definitely something.”

“Okay,” Isabella said. The word itself, and the phrasing, made it clear that she had no idea where I was going with this. Hell, I didn’t even know.

Maybe if I tried digging deeper, talking, I’d get somewhere.

I dug deeper, I talked.

“You weren’t there, or, you weren’t there to see that part of it. Those dogs… there was nothing holding them back. They were wild. And it wasn’t just on instinct, either. If animals could actually feel rage, I felt that, too. I felt intent. It was like they wanted me off the face of the planet.”

“What, you’re saying that you’re not a dog person?”

I almost laughed. I settled for a weak smile.

“That doesn’t sound too far off, exactly. You know, now that I’m talking about it, getting my thoughts together, this isn’t the first time it’s happened. Not even the second. I… just didn’t realize then since so much other stuff was going down at the same time.”

I recalled the handful of instances. Back when I first worked with Reggie, Tone, and Sarah, when I was chasing after a kid. Arturo, his name was.

Another time was with Alexis.

It was a reach to pick through the details, and it was a lot like fixing a broken cable. To re-establish a connection.

In Katy Thompson’s home, the night that Solace made his debut and gambit. She had a dog there, too, the name escaping me. If I connected the memory right, the dog flipped out then, too, at the sight of Alexis. There was nothing to question at the time, since everyone’s attention and stress were focused on other things. But now, there were enough data points to extrapolate a conclusion, or at least a decent hypothesis.

There was something about me, or in me, that dogs didn’t like very much.

It was natural that my line of question would lead to other possibilities. Natural still for me to not consider them for now.

“Maybe it would be more accurate to say dogs aren’t a me person. Or… me… dog… I, you know what I mean.”

“Okay,” Isabella said. That word and that phrasing again.

“Are you trying to be funny?” I asked her.

Isabella tilted her head one way.

“Why, did it work?”

A small puff of air blew out of my nose.

“I guess it did,” I said.

Isabella smiled, wide, all of her teeth showing. Her eyes were squinted shut.

“A point for me!”

Hm. What was it about her that made it easier for me to open up? Or Sarah, for that matter?

This road trip was seriously taking me places I had never expected to go.

“Well,” I said, moving my hands to help push myself up, “Let’s go check on that lady. No point in just sitting around, here.”

“I think there could be some good things about doing that,” Isabella said.

“Let’s put a pin in it for now.”

I started walking, crossing over to the front of the RV. Isabella grabbed her teddy bear and followed, having taken my invitation to. We had to step over and around some of the clothes I had tossed out of my bag, earlier. I hadn’t picked them back up yet.

Sarah was focused on the road, but she took the time, and the chance, to look back and greet us with a smile.

“Hey Vo- Wendy. And buenos días, Isabella.”

Isabella brought her hands together, her head tilted downward.

Buenos días, Sarah,” she said, surprisingly meek.

So you do know her name?

“How’s it looking?” I asked.

Sarah put her eyes back on the road.

“Smooth driving ahead. Back on the highway, it’s still early in the morning so the traffic hasn’t been too bad. No other obstacles in the way, expected or perceived or otherwise. We should be all in the clear, until we get to El Paso and the checkpoints there.”

A certain word stuck out to me.

“Should?” I repeated.

A very telling pause from Sarah.

“I can’t get a hold of Tone,” she said, a touch quieter.

A chill up my spine and a knot in my stomach.

“What do you mean you can’t?” I asked.

“I mean…” Sarah reached for the walkie-talkie on the dashboard, but stopped partway through. A half-hearted gesture.

“I got a response earlier, when we first left that last town, but I hadn’t gotten anything since. It’s been radio silent.”

That was one of the last things I wanted to hear at this juncture. Losing Tone meant losing over a hundred other people. The very thought of that made me sick, compounding on the disappointment I had with myself for failing to protect Isabella on my own. That feeling becoming exponential, ending with me drowning in it.

No.

“But you got something, right?” I questioned.

“I did, like an hour ago. I heard his voice, he responded.”

It’d been an hour. Anything could have happened.

Or nothing?

“He might be caught up in traffic up ahead, since he went around to pass the town, or something else is holding him up,” I said. “Have you tried calling or texting him?”

“On his phone? I haven’t.”

“Then do that.”

“My phone’s in my bag, on the counter there.”

“I’ll get it,” I said, as soon as Isabella started moving in that direction. “Do you want me to text him? I don’t think I have his number on my phone, yet.”

“Sure, go for it. Password’s just one big square, starting from the top left and going around counter-clockwise.”

I took a seat at the passenger’s side, Isabella having returned with Sarah’s phone in hand. She passed it to me, and I pressed the home button.

I saw the lockscreen. It was Reggie, Tone, and Sarah, standing on a beach, dressed appropriately. The sun was to their backs, their wide grins even brighter. Reggie and Tone were both in trunks, soaked from head to toe. They were both well-built, which I didn’t expect, since I usually saw them wearing baggier clothes.

And Sarah.

They were all standing in a line, but Sarah was above them, propped up by the boys’ arms and shoulders. Her arms were up in the air, as if she was presenting the sun behind them.

Her skin was tanned, a soft glow in the light, her shoulders bare with the type of swimsuit she was wearing. Her body in general was more developed than I could ever imagine for myself. There were actual curves, there, and a definition to them. Not a sore sight at all. Faster and faster, the longer I stared, the more my pulse and-

I flicked the password and got to the home screen. The wallpaper was different.

A quick search through Sarah’s contact list took me to Tone’s number. I called, left a message, and sent a text.

“There,” I said, passing the phone back to Isabella, who was still hovering over me. “I didn’t get anything back, but it’s only been an hour. We usually keep the updates keeping at that interval, anyways, so we’ll just give it a little while longer.”

“That’s fair,” Sarah said, a small hint of uncertainty in her voice. I wanted to get a glimpse at her and see if she was wearing a similar expression, but my face felt red and too warm for comfort. She’d think I was weird if she saw that now.

The road stretched ahead for miles, we crossed the entire length of what was in view twice without any other word spoken.

“So… are we there yet?”

Isabella brute forced her way through the thick silence.

“No, we’re nowhere close.”

“Ah, fuck.”

Please stop with the cursing, Isabella, I think I told you this before.”

“It’s not like you can tell me what to do.”

“I’d like to think that I can advise you on what’s best for the moment.”

“Uh, sorry Wendy, but you can’t. If I can’t do whatever I want, you better believe I’ll say whatever the fuck I want. It’s the only real bit of freedom I have. I’ll fuck and shit and piss as doubly and as triply as many times as I can!”

“You lost me at the end, there.”

“Well, too bad so sad. That’s how it is.”

I wasn’t facing her, but I still put my hands up in mock surrender.

“Alright, you can have that.”

“Yeah, damn right I will.”

Isabella was taking it too far with the swearing, but I couldn’t exactly take that away from her. She’d lost enough already, I’d bet.

I then felt hard pats on my shoulder. Just one was acceptable, but it quickly became overkill.

“What,” I said, brushing the hand away. “What is it?”

“I’m bored,” Isabella said.

Faint, but I heard Sarah chuckling.

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

“You coooould.” Isabella drew out that last word.

“Hold on, just give me a second.”

“But-”

“Just a second.”

A small pause.

Isabella muttered, under her breath.

I still had my eyes to the road, but I definitely didn’t miss the swear word she hissed out.

“Isabella,” I warned.

Her muttered turned into a peep, and I heard footsteps move away, down the RV.

I slumped more into my seat.

“Cute kid,” Sarah said. She slowed as a car moved into our lane.

“Is she? She’s seems like a handful. Isabella probably hasn’t had someone to steer her in the right direction for a while. Like a parent, or older sister, or something.”

“You could say the same for Miss D. I have a… fondness for her, but it is true that a girl her age shouldn’t be in the position she’s in.”

Maybe she had a point there. Isabella had kept reminding me of D in so many different ways.

“That is true,” I admitted. “It’s the whole lack of guidance thing. Everyone needs a little bit of that, at minimum. Or else you spiral out of control.”

“And what? Do you want to fill that role for her, for them? Give them direction?”

I would have said that I was up to it, if need be. I only paused and laughed, instead.

“Not my wheelhouse. I’m not that capable.”

“I guess it doesn’t matter much, though, considering we’re dropping her off at the border.”

“Actually, I asked if she wanted to join us, or at least I offered her protection back in Stephenville.”

“Oh, you did?”

“Yeah. She says she hasn’t made her decision, yet, but she has until we get to El Paso. Would you mind if she chose to come back to the city?”

“It’s not like it comes down to me. I’m not the boss.”

“I’m just asking for your opinion, silly.”

“Mine doesn’t matter, but if you’re really curious… I wouldn’t object. She’d be a nice change of pace to have around, I think.”

I didn’t mind at all to have Isabella around, but hearing Sarah be in favor of the idea made it feel all the more right.

“Keep in mind she’s only considering it because I promised that she wouldn’t have to be involved with the gang stuff, and that D stays away from her.”

“They have beef?”

“More like the whole cow.”

“Look at you, Wendy, you’re already looking out for them. You might be capable after all.”

That stupid warmth came back to my face. I hated it. It made me feel stupid and lame. And lame. And stupid.

But I didn’t… actually hate it. It was stupid, but it was warm.

“Stop,” I said, wanting to bury my face in my hands. “And it’s just one possibility, she could choose to keep going and cross the border for all I know.”

“Sure,” Sarah said.

She wasn’t taking me seriously. Maybe I wasn’t even taking myself seriously, too.

My headspace was all pulled in sorts of directions, now.

A loud ring.

“Can I answer it?”

Isabella shouted from across the RV.

Sarah’s was in her bag, the sound wouldn’t have been as clear.

“I’ve got it!” I said, moving again. “Oh, Sarah?”

“Oh, Wendy?”

“I didn’t a chance to thank you for saving our butts back there. I should have done more, or at least not fuck up as much as I did.”

“Please, you didn’t screw up, all I did was improvise the best I could, and even then I got too nervous and gave that Peter guy too much of an opening to work with. If you didn’t lure those dogs to you, I couldn’t have finessed an upper hand for us.”

“It was very clutch. Good job. I really did appreciate the help.”

“I doubt I deserve your praise, but, if it means getting thanked by you, I’ll take it. You’re welcome, Wendy.”

She turned back quickly to give me another wink.

Okay. I had to leave.

I got to my phone on the table, only to find Isabella had it in her hands. From behind, I could recognize the caller ID. It was a pseudonym, in case someone was in the know and had seen the screen. One letter could say so much.

I snatched the phone up from Isabella.

“You don’t want to pick that up,” I said. I put the phone to my ear. “Yeah, D?”

Isabella immediately got up to essentially switch places with me. I watched her go and sit by Sarah.

Just checking up. Still good?

“Nothing new to report. Things have been clear since we left that town. I kind of want to avoid any other detours by this point.”

That might be for the best. Just give it a few more hours. The road should be clear for a little while longer, anyways.

“Hope so.”

Enough of a quiet followed that I could hear Sarah and Isabella converse up ahead.

“Hey,” I said.

Hey,” D said.

“I, well, I’m down to go to the barn with you, when we get back. We can put it higher on our list of priorities, if not at the very top.”

The delay in her response was as telling as the response itself.

Good, that’s good. I’m glad. You’re finally coming to your senses.

“Or maybe I’ve finally lost it.”

Nope, this is good.

“To be fair, if I’m going to do this, I can’t do it alone. I’ll need someone with me, on this.”

Gosh, you doofus, stop. You’re going to make me cry.

“Whatever.”

Then you better get back here safe and in one piece. I want to start making headway with this as soon as possible.

I would have brought up the possibility of Isabella coming back with us, but I’d put one thing on our plate at a time. We hadn’t even gotten to El Paso, yet, and I was already thinking ahead.

The barn. The dogs. Who – or what – I really was, and what that meant in the grand scheme of things.

A sharp fear hit me.

Darn it, seriously. I was letting those seeds of doubt take root in me. Questioning my own capabilities. The very thing I didn’t want to happen. That one thing I wanted to prove.

“I’m not all that great,” I said. A statement, languid, that had no relation of what was said before. A very, very… very reluctant admission.

Don’t say that, Vivi, you’re plenty awesome. It’s just that… no one shoulders everything on their own, including possibly-maybe-not-really vampires with super strength.

“It’d still be nice if I could,” I said.

Save it.

“Yeah, yeah.”

Another thing that I didn’t want to admit. It felt nice getting back into D’s good graces again.

I’ll probably start checking on the territory in a few hours. Call me if anything else comes up.

“Of course. I’ll keep you updated.”

“Bye bye!

The call ended, and I was left feeling a odd myriad of things. Some the opposite of others. Warm, cold, scared, excited. Nervous.

Relief. Like a weight had been temporarily lifted off of my shoulders.

I removed my glasses, rubbing my eyes. Maybe I’d give myself a legit break, and give D another call in a bit.

Maybe.

“Something else came up.”

It was the of the last things I wanted tell D at this juncture.

What?

D sounded noticeably worried.

I’d have to break it to her.

“Tone hasn’t responded.”

The delay from D’s end stretched. Then, out came a loud, tinny sound.

Oh.

It was as succinct as it was a final nail in the coffin that we might be fucked.

It had been two hours since anyone had heard anything from Tone. The sun was rising, now, it was up.

The continued radio silence had gotten agonizing with every passing second, minute, every chunk of time gone without an answer formed an atmosphere of restlessness and uncertainty within the RV. A miasma of sorts.

Even Isabella, who had no stake or responsibility on the outcome of this transport, was pacing back and forth, going from a table to a counter, hugging her teddy bear or chewing the ends of her pigtails.

“You’re on speaker,” I said.

Oh, alright. So… What exactly do we know?

Sarah answered.

“We know that Tone hasn’t responded to any of our attempts to reach him. We went from every hour, to thirty minutes, every fifteen, and now it’s been a constant stream. Through the walkie-talkie and through our calls and texts.”

And nothing.

“Nothing,” Sarah reaffirmed.

Shoot.

“We got split up from them when we got caught up at the border patrol checkpoint at that town,” I said, running through everything one more time, as if I could determine a clue of his whereabouts from just piecing memories together. “Considering Tone got a head start after we stayed behind, he’d have to have been farther along the highway by the time we got past the checkpoint.”

“There’s been so many exits and turns since, though,” Sarah said, “He could have gotten off the highway again to stop and wait for us. You told him to do just that.”

I bit my tongue, holding it there.

Where are you now?” D asked.

“Still going down the interstate, we’re technically still on track to might it in time, but we’d be severely understocked when we get there.”

Then, Sarah added, “I kind of want to stop somewhere ourselves, and figure this out. Somehow.”

Stopping somewhere. That meant halting any forward progress. I wasn’t a fan.

But not knowing where an entire eighteen-wheeler was meant a halt in progress in another way.

Still not a fan.

I asked Sarah, “Do you have any way of finding a whole truck with over one hundred people in it?”

“I do not.”

“Yeah, and the only ones who could, we can’t exactly go to them for help.”

“What do you suppose we do, then?”

I was just as lost as everyone else, there. I had hoped that putting D in the loop would help start any plans, but the silence that continued from my phone as I held it up left me with little confidence.

“Hope and pray?” Sarah suggested, but I could hear the tone in her voice. She was just joking.

“Prayer doesn’t work so much,” Isabella said.

“We need something we can track them with,” I said. Then the word ‘track’ hit me. “D?”

Vivi.

“You think you can track Tone’s cellphone? Would you know how to do that?”

Uh, whoa.

“Is that a ‘no?’”

No, it’s not. I can, or actually I can’t, really, not from where I am at the moment, but if I send a text I can track where it ends up, and that’s like the same thing, except it’s not totally accurate and it doesn’t give me the best read if I want to-”

“Is it a yes or a no?”

Yes, hey, it’s a yes. But I’m out right now, so it’d take me some time to set up. You’ll probably have to wait somewhere while I get ready.

“That’s a start at least. Sarah, you can go ahead and find somewhere to-”

No, wait, I have it.

“D…” I said.

Sorry, sorry, I overestimated myself. But I have it here, it just needs to… Hold on, don’t touch that. Do you want this to work?

I could have sworn I heard another voice chime in from D’s end.

D spoke. “Then stop. I’m on right now.

“Is everything okay?” I questioned.

I heard some grunts and other sounds of physical exertion before I heard D herself.

Fianchetto,” D replied. “It’s not great, but I’ve got coordinates. I’ll just guide you how to get there. It’s super way out, but to start getting there you’ll have to get off at the nearest exit. Any exit, really.

If only I had time to pick D’s brain.

“Any exit?” Sarah asked.

If you’re only a few hours out of Stephenville, then yeah.

Sarah started making the appropriate signals and turns, switching lanes, and then getting off the highway entirely. Leaving the interstate gave me that pit that I felt when I first saw the border patrol in the distance.

“What do they lead to?” I asked. “The coordinates.”

There’s no official name on the map. It’s just in the middle of the road and the dot is stopped there.

“Stopped there? So Tone is parked at that spot?”

You won’t know until you get there. All I know is that I looked up his phone and that’s what it spat back out.

The middle of nowhere. That didn’t spell out anything good, in my eyes.

“How far?”

One hour.

One hour.

Those were going to be an agonizing sixty minutes.

“Fine,” I said, talking more to myself than her. “Sure. Lead the way, D.”

Leading. Next turn is going to be a right after the three more lights…

D rattled off the directions for Sarah. I placed my phone on the dashboard by the walkie-talkie so Sarah could follow along. I returned to the seat in the back, Isabella electing to stay by Sarah. Which was fine by me. I’d prefer to be alone, right now.

I couldn’t sit or rest. My glasses were still off. I went to one drawer and opened it. Stuffed inside were some of the clothes that I had Isabella put away so she could fit inside the luggage.

I found my mask.

More disturbances for my peace of mind.

One hour. One hundred and two people. One mask. If Tone was stopped there, and he couldn’t answer for whatever reason… It couldn’t have been for a pleasant reason.

And it would all end up falling on me.

Just one dot on a tiny screen, but it could be the root of so many possibilities. Not many of them being any good. Like a bad seed.

The seeds, the seeds.

My grip on my mask got tighter.

I couldn’t sit or rest. But I could very well break.

Previous                                                                                               Next

077 – Interstate Blues

Previous                                                                                               Next

“I’m here. Can you hear me?”

No response came.

“Hello?”

Again, nothing.

“I know you can hear me, D.”

A mechanical groan.

Then why are you asking?

The attitude on this girl.

On my phone, the image of D stretched, pixelated when she moved to adjust the screen on her end. The connection kept breaking up in some parts, making the sound and picture distorted and warped. I would have tried to make a joke about it, but D didn’t seem like she was in the mood.

Might as well just get to the point.

“Just wanted to make sure,” I said. “We just left the city, still on the road. Duh. It’s so… flat, out here, and wide. But also hilly. Expansive, you know what I mean?”

Sure.

“It never really occurred to me, that I’ve spent so much of my life in the city. It’s a whole different atmosphere out here. Being able to see the horizon and have it not being blocked by a building or a billboard. It’s oddly… liberating, in a way. Freeing. Just, like, being on the open road and seeing nothing but the clouds and trees. It’s a nice change of pace.”

What does this have to do with anything?

“I’m just saying, when all’s said and done, I could see myself spending some more time out here, going camping, or something. Star gazing.”

I didn’t know you were into that kind of stuff.

“I could be.”

Please don’t tell me you’re one of those girls that are super into horses. I never liked them. Creeps me out.

“I don’t, what? I don’t have any particular liking for them. Is that a thing?”

You never heard of it? It’s like, when certain girls get super obsessive with horses, for whatever reason. They put posters up in their room and carry binders and folders to school with pictures of them, so it doesn’t even stay at home. And they wear rhinestones and denim for everything, and, oh god, don’t ever ask them what they did on the weekend. It’s-”

“Um, D?”

The image of D pixelated again, when she brought her hand to her face.

Ugh, never mind. You threw me on a tangent. What did you even want, again?

“I told you, I was going to call as soon as I left the city. And to kind of loosen ourselves up a bit. You know, to take my mind off… everything.”

Then sleep.

“I can’t, or I won’t. If anything happens I need to be here and awake for that. But I can’t focus too much on that or else I’m going to go crazy, like, actually crazy. I need a destresser.”

The groan that came from D sounded dry and almost automated. It wasn’t from the lagging connection.

Wendy, it’s four in the morning. You’re rambling about the wide open plains and you’ve got me talking about horse girls. We’re already crazy.

“Touché.”

Just take the occasional nap. Close your eyes and take a break. It doesn’t even need to be for very long or very often. Just so you don’t crash later in the day, that’s when the pressure’s really on.

“I hear you.”

I’m being serious. This isn’t like a walk in the park or whatever. You’re out in the open, being on the interstate, and the cops out there will be looking for any little thing to pounce on, if they sense anything that raises their suspicion by even a smidge. And it’s worse once you get to El Paso. Border patrol aside, there’s the Army medical center, an Army airfield, and Fort Bliss, one of the largest military complexes in the country and the largest training area in the country. Which is to say, you’re going right into the belly of the military industrial complex with this one. It’s not something to take lightly.

“Thanks,” I said.

But, it’s whatever, nothing I hadn’t told you already. And I definitely won’t bring up the fact that you should have brought me along. You won’t hear that from me.

Ah.

“I think I’ll take your advice for that nap, then. Probably for the best.”

Yeah. Probably.

“What else, before I hang up? How’s Lawrence doing?”

He’s holding up. I just got back from helping him into his apartment. Took a bit longer because he was demanding more painkillers.

“Did you give him any?”

I made sure to give him a regulated dosage. I know the numbers. He’s not overdosing on my watch.

“I appreciate you looking after him, D.”

Whatever. You’re just trying to make me feel better about staying behind.

“You see right through me.”

More than you know. Just go get some sleep, Wendy, please? Don’t overwork yourself again, so soon.

“Sure, I’ll give it a shot. I’ll call again later?”

There was no verbal response. Just the call ending. I hadn’t touched my phone.

I sighed.

I set my phone down, the screen flat on the table, and I looked out the window.

The scenery passed me by.

Dark, but I didn’t have any issues when it came to seeing. Trees grouped into clumps zipped past, the long fields of tall grass rolling as the RV sped along. The sky, visible and unobstructed, open in all of its glory. Hardly any clouds, we had left most of them behind, along with the city, and all that was in view now were the stars. Plentiful and bright. Clusters of white dots that expanded and stretched into the horizon. Shades of blue and white hues streaked across like broad strokes of paint on a horizon. A canvas that wasn’t blank.

I knew light pollution was a thing, but I had never expected this. The night sky, shimmering with splendor. It looked so cool that I had to use words like ‘glory’ and ‘splendor.’

I recalled Hleuco, how he used to fly overhead as I traversed the rooftops. The freedom of it all. The desire to reach just a little higher. Being here, seeing how hills would dip and I could see the tops of the trees, the sky above, it seemed almost feasible.

Wings. If only I had those for a power. I could get up high, but something always brought me back down.

If only I was completely untethered.

To travel, going somewhere new, part of it was a little exhilarating.

There was a feeling that began to stir within me, the longer I stared out the window, listless. I couldn’t quite place it.

On some level, it bothered me.

I didn’t mind being by myself, but I didn’t like when my thoughts wandered. Because they invariably drifted towards me. And there was a tendency of that happening. I’d prefer not to be at the center of that kind of attention.

I would much prefer to focus on other things. Like this job, this favor for Styx. How I fit into all of this. What I would have to do to not fuck this up. Under that context, it was fine, since I was actively working to achieve something, but being alone with my thoughts, and nothing to direct it to or angle it towards?

I didn’t like where those thoughts might wander off to.

It was part of the reason why I wanted to call D, to clear my head, while still keeping my priorities in check. And talking to D was like getting splashed in the face with ice cold water. She was usually so bubbly and so extra that I had to stay on my toes, dealing with her. It took effort to keep up with her pace. But it was a good kind of effort. Keeping up with her? It was worth it.

Usually.

She was usually so bubbly… except when she wasn’t. Those times were rare, but I’d know if she slipped into one of those moods. This was one of those times.

It reminded me of similar instances, when she would be blunt about her sidestepping any of my attempts to learn more about her past. Before, she’d make dry jokes about it, orchestrating an uncomfortable atmosphere to get me to drop the subject. It would work, too, and we somehow formed a decent relationship in the face of that.

And there was this most recent time.

Seeing her with Styx, how close they had to be, or have been… Was I supposed to just stand there and not be curious? To not ask for a sliver or information, at least?

No jokes, this time. She had shut me down, and she shut me down hard. D really didn’t want to get into it. Not relevant.

I had sensed anger, there, stemmed from annoyance. I knew not to needle her about it, the last thing I’d want was to push her too far, and then away. But, despite her repeating it time and time again, it was relevant.

How did her connection with Styx factor into him giving us this job? How would it effect the next two? Was Styx, in his own twisted way, helping us out? He had already given us a hand on multiple occasions, thanks to D herself, what was more assistance to him, under his own terms? It’d be a nice thought, but I learned to never guess his next move. I’d be better off guessing a coin toss. At least my chances were even, there. In theory.

He did mention setting up for a final, ultimate joke, and that it was part of this favor. That didn’t instill me with a lot of hope about what the outcome of this would be.

Which was why I wanted to pick D’s brain about Styx. If I knew more, then we could plan properly, and be more prepared.

But, no. Just anger, just deflection.

And all that anger was deflected back at me.

It was obvious that D didn’t approve of me taking the trip to El Paso by myself, even though I was the only one who could. Lawrence wasn’t able bodied, and D needed to stay in the city and the territory. This job had to be done, and someone had to be physically present for this part of it. Of this particular puzzle, I was the only piece that could fit. The queen. I could make moves that the other pieces couldn’t, I wasn’t bound by certain limitations.

This was my role in Los Colmillos. The Fangs. My purpose. This was who I was. Wendy, V.

Who was I?

The RV hit a slight bump, and I jumped. Fuck.

Exactly the kind of thing I wanted to avoid.

The invariable drift.

My eyes closed, and I could feel the desire to sleep grow stronger. So tired that my eye flickered, involuntary. No. We hadn’t even started yet.

I lifted my eyes back open, and turned away from the window. The rest of the RV.

I saw Isabella, sleeping in the back. She was leaning over the table, head buried in her arms. Eyes closed, but she didn’t appear to be stressed or troubled. Just asleep, with all the peace that brought.

Good for her.

I wouldn’t bother her just to keep my mind running straight. It was a long journey, and she needed rest. There was no need for her to stay up. She could sleep the whole way there, and it would be fine.

I still needed to keep moving, though.

Sliding out of my seat, I got up to move to the front of the RV. The hum of the road gave way to light music, playing at a low volume. The upbeat was accented by sharp, bright guitars, and a dance groove kept the tempo fast and energetic. I could hear other instruments in there, too, but I wasn’t familiar with that kind of stuff. I heard horns, so there was that.

I sat back down in another seat. My view changed, the road out in front of me, the signs and lights passing overhead.

“Good morning, Voss.”

Sarah greeted me first.

“Hey,” I said.

With her eyes still on the road, Sarah turned a dial. The music was turned down.

“You don’t have to do that,” I said.

“If you have something to say, I want to hear it in full. No distractions.”

“No distractions,” I repeated. “What kind of music is that, though?”

“Oh, that? It’s just samba.”

“Samba?”

“Dance music from Brazil.”

“Are you from there, or have some connection there?”

“I do. My grandmother was from there. She was a musician. That’s her band, actually, she’s the drummer.”

“Really? Turn it back up.”

Sarah twisted the dial again, the volume swelled.

I could hear the music again. The song was at some extended interlude section, where each member of the band was jamming out with their respective instruments. The guitars were taking turns doing their own solos, the horns blared to the point of screeching, and the flutes and other woodwind instruments were playing harder now, making themselves more prominent to my ears.

Then the drumming.

Keeping up the pace, or maybe pace was being dictated by her. Each of the snare and cymbals crashed, the sound continuing long after another drum was hit. It built into a wall of sound, towering over every other instrument, almost overpowering the song itself.

But there was a trick to it. Something even a novice like me was able to pick up.

I could still feel the groove. The bounce and rhythm the drummer was going for. It gave the song a sense of direction, and gave the other musicians a platform to go all out and showcase their chops, too. The drumming didn’t overpower the song, it gave the song life.

A hit of the snare and a tap of the hi-hats signaled a change in movement, and another section started up. A vocalist came in, singing a melody that sat on top of everything else. The rest of the instruments had scaled back in intensity, including the drums.

But, for a time, they had the freedom to do whatever they wanted. And even now, the drums still carried the rest of the song, being the foundation that everything was built upon.

It resonated.

“That’s cool,” I said, and that felt like an understatement. “Your grandma’s a badass.”

“She is,” Sarah said, smiling. It dropped a bit. “She was.”

I immediately felt like an idiot.

“Sorry to hear that,” I said, soft.

“It’s okay, it was a while ago, already. And she wasn’t at a bad age to go. Seventy-four.”

“Not bad at all.”

“Actually, in that song we just listened to, she was seventy.”

“No way.”

“Oh yeah, it was the last album she recorded with her band. Sold pretty well too, considering she’s been around for so long, doing what she was doing. Musicians usually taper off and plateau in popularity later in their career, or they fade into obscurity completely. Thankfully, she managed to avoid both. She stuck to her guns, marched to her own beat, and with the help of friends and some awesome aunts and uncles, made some awesome jams for over fifty years.”

“That sounds like a good deal to me,” I said. “Sticking to your guns, marching to your own beat. Definitely a badass.”

“She was a fighter to the end. I just hope I have fire like that, to last as long as she did. Or even just a spark is good enough for me.”

I paused. I would have said ‘same,’ or something along those lines, but she wasn’t my grandmother.

“What’s her name?” I asked.

Sarah set the volume back down as the song concluded.

“Patricia.”

“Pretty name.”

“Ah, thanks. I’m sure she’d appreciate that.”

This was it. Exactly what I wanted. A decent distraction from the job we were doing, a small break. And it was nice to have Sarah be my distraction.

It… It was decent.

A break in the conversation itself, the sound of the road underneath us, the lights from the few cars, the streetlights, the stars above, made themselves prominent again in that lapse. Thoughts creeped.

I cracked a knuckle. The middle finger of my right hand. I felt a momentary heat.

“Sorry I kept asking about your grandmother, though. I didn’t mean to pry.”

I felt guilty about using Sarah’s grandmother as a topic to keep my mind occupied on other things. Guilty about pressing D and getting her mad at me.

“Nothing to be sorry about,” Sarah said. “Ask me about anything. I’m an open book.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, it’s totally fine.”

It is?

“Okay, then, uh, I’m guessing you’re from Brazil?”

Sarah slowed as a car ahead of us signaled that it was going right.

“I’m not from there, no. That side of me comes from my mom.”

“Oh, I’m similar. My-”

I stopped.

The break was sudden and noticeable.

“It’s alright, Voss. Just because I’m an open book doesn’t mean you have to be.”

Staring at the sky, I shook my head.

“It’s not that. Well, maybe it is that. But… I don’t know. It’s weird. The phrasing is weird.”

“Take your time,” Sarah said.

I was at a loss on how to process that. Her.

“I was going to say, my… the woman who had me was a musician, too. A singer. I never heard her myself, though, I couldn’t tell you if she was any good.”

“That is similar,” Sarah said. It would have been easy to construe that as patronizing, but, I didn’t get that impression from her.

The RV sped ahead, the car once in front of us was now out of the way, several lanes across.

Low in volume, but high in intensity, another samba jam started. The drums came in first.

“Maybe I’m overstepping my boundaries, here,” Sarah said, “But I’m guessing you didn’t have a good relationship with your mother?”

My lips formed a firm, set line. Sarah was driving, so she couldn’t see my expression, my reaction.

I could have stopped right at that moment, ended the conversation there and walked away. But, there wasn’t much else to do, I had to stay up, and Sarah wasn’t coming at me in a confrontational manner. It was relaxed, casual, and nothing I was used to.

I answered.

“I didn’t, but it was not so much good, but more like nonexistent. She was in my life for only a brief moment.”

“Oh. She left when you were young?”

“No. It was the opposite, actually. I left her. For this.”

More signs and lights. We passed under them in silence.

“I always wondered how you ended up on this side of the coin,” Sarah said, breaking that silence. “Considering you were on the other side of it, not to long ago.”

“I was, but I was trying force myself into a role that didn’t fit me. It didn’t work, and now people hate me, or they hate the old me, and I’m not much of a fan, myself. So now, I’m trying this instead, and it seems to be working out. Or at least, I’m seeing a lot more success from this. It’s freeing, in a way. And I still get to help people, like what we’re doing right now, or back at the territory. I just don’t have to do it behind a mask.”

“That’s good, then. You found yourself.”

“I, um…”

“Not quite?”

I exhaled.

“I don’t know.”

“Now it’s my turn to apologize for prying, Voss. You don’t have to answer if you’re not up to it.”

“No,” I said, shaking my head. “It’s… fine. I’m not exactly an open book, but, if it’s you, I’m not opposed to being… read.”

“If it’s you,” I added. Repeated.

“I’m flattered.”

The interstate began to wind, giving the path slight, soft curves. Sarah eased us around and forward.

“Like,” I started, unprompted. “I tried so hard to break away from my old life, that I veered into unfamiliar, uncharted territory, and I’m… I don’t want say lost, but it’s like a blank canvas. I want to fill it with different colors, but I’m not sure which ones I should pick.”

“Crisis of identity?”

“Something about that sounds too extreme, no, I wouldn’t call it that. I know who I am, who I’m supposed to be. I’m one third of the top brass at Los Colmillos, I’m the muscle of the group. I can be truly monstrous when using that muscle, but that’s the power that I have, and I won’t deny that about myself. But, it’s the other stuff, the simpler stuff, that I draw blanks on.”

My apartment. Lawrence’s comments, the other day. Even the clothes that weren’t my costume. My glasses. A lot of it was a conscious move away from her, from Alexis. But, in doing that, severing every connection and binding, I became free, but I was also now in free fall. It wasn’t like flying at all.

“Now I feel like I need to do some serious course correction,” I said. “To slow down and take stock of what’s around me, if there’s anything at all. Like, what do I even like? What music do I enjoy? I liked that song you showed me, but would I have come to that conclusion if I didn’t know the context? What about movies? Or what kind of paintings do I want in my room? I’ve never had the time to sit down and figure that out. This life, as I’ve known it, has been one job after another. Things that need to get done.”

Distractions, a voice in my head told me. I didn’t answer it.

“Do you really need to change yourself that much in order to disown your past self?” Sarah asked.

“I do,” I said, “I really do. Like I said, I’m not the biggest fan of my past self. I don’t even see her as me.”

“Hm, I won’t judge your conclusion, considering your circumstances…”

She had trailed off.

“But?” I ventured.

“But,” Sarah said, “While it might be a bit more on the extreme side, you just sound like any normal teenager. To me, anyways.”

Her words gave me a short pause.

“That sounds normal to you?”

“Well, sure. Every kid goes through something like that, growing up. Their body changes, their brain starts producing certain chemicals, and they start to look at the world, and themselves, in a different way. And kids and teens can struggle with trying to find out who they are, and where they fit into the grand scheme of things. They try so hard to figure themselves out, that they rush into adulthood and lose all perspective on how much time they actually have.”

“Time,” I said, still staring ahead, out the window. Something I felt like I had very little of. So much to do, so little time.

“So, if you want my advice, Voss, just take that stuff easy, and give yourself some time to learn and grow. You’ll have plenty of time and opportunities to find yourself. No need to hurry. Take it all in stride.”

“Taking it easy sounds hard,” I said.

“If it’s any consolation, then, you’ve done pretty well for yourself. You’re a teenager, but you’ve got adults answering to you. You hold real power and authority. You, you’re the best, Voss.”

“Now you really are patronizing me,” I said.

Sarah snickered. I turned to see her smiling.

“Where’s the lie? I mean it. You just need someone who’ll hold you down, keep you grounded. Ever had a boyfriend?”

We were still going straight on the highway, but we still took a sudden turn.

“Boyfriend?”

“Well, that’s fine, too, you’re still young.”

“Wait, don’t just assume.”

“My apologies, Voss.”

I gave Sarah a warning look, exhaling again.

For whatever reason, I wanted to refute her.

A few faces came to mind. Not because of any legitimate, lingering attachment, but because they were the only reference points I had.

A boy, back during her days in high school. Tall, black, looks were up to her standards. It never lead to anything substantial, otherwise I would have remembered his name.

And then there was Benny.

“Stuff from my old life,” I explained, not wanting to dwell on that particular thought. “And I’m not even sure if I’m into guys, or if I’m not into the idea of a relationship, in general.”

“I’ve heard that before.”

“Does nothing surprise you?”

“I’m just saying,” Sarah said, smiling again. “Been there, thought that. You get your heart broken and you swear off guys and romance forever, but closing yourself off like that will only lead to more pain. People do need people. No girl’s an island.”

“Solitude is pretty freeing though. Peaceful.”

“There’s a difference between being alone and being lonely. It goes back to my advice. Give yourself some time, space if you need it, and when things fall into place, you can go from there. Who knows? Maybe solitude is for you, after all.”

Or,” Sarah said, stressing the word, “Maybe you find out that being with guys isn’t what you really needed, this whole time.”

She was supposed to be watching the road, but Sarah chanced a look at me, and she winked.

A smile, genuine.

Was I supposed to take that as a suggestion, or an invitation?

My eyes went back to the road. The question would go unanswered.

“It,” I started, trying to find the proper words. “It’s been so crazy, these past few months. Hectic. Everything happening, back to back to back, never getting a chance to sit down and breathe. I guess, during all this, I never stopped to consider that some things were just… normal.”

I was already sitting down, next to Sarah. I forced myself to breathe.

“It’s all part of growing up,” Sarah said.

I put stock into those words.

“It’s not bad advice,” I admitted, “Giving myself time. I wouldn’t want to force myself into anything just because it’s different. Wouldn’t be fair to me, and it’d just feel cheap.”

“Good,” Sarah said. Her eyes were back to the road. The ride smoothed out, the amount of turns and curves and bumps lessening. Sarah’s music finished after some lengthy period of time.

We traveled by the roadway’s hum. Saw the signs pass, watched the fields go by. Every star, every streetlight.

I finally spoke up again.

“Okay.”

I took my eyes off the road. I got out my seat, putting a hand on Sarah’s seat to keep my balance. “Thanks for keeping me occupied.”

“No, thank you Voss, for keeping me company.”

“Well, there’s still a lot of miles and hours left, I’ll see if I can swing by again.”

“Can’t wait.”

“Anything I need to know about the trip? Any updates?”

“None really. Tone would radio in if there are any changes, but I’ll check on him again in a couple minutes. In about an hour, we’ll be getting off the interstate to take a detour.”

“In case of anyone on our trail,” I said.

“Yes ma’am. Right now, it’s just a precaution since it’s still so early on the trip, but if we get off early and take some back roads and pass through some dusty ghost towns, that should be enough to circumvent any trouble, or make it easier to deal with trouble if there is any.”

“Sounds about right.”

It was something D had mentioned and warned us about, going the route we were going. If cops or border patrol were to follow us, they wouldn’t make themselves known right away. They’d keep an eye on us, plan ahead, cut us off at any possible exits or farther down the interstate. If we didn’t know any better, we’d drive straight into their trap, snares and jaws and all.

If we didn’t know any better.

This was why we planned ahead. Being constantly on the move meant keeping them on the move, making them unable to set a proper plan into motion. They’d have to react to us, and we would be keeping them on their toes. Going onto obscure country road and passing through the smallest of small towns would force anyone after us into a bottleneck, and make them easier to take care of.

It wouldn’t be easy, but it would be easier.

“Then we’re right on schedule. Awesome. Thanks again for everything, Sarah, and not just for agreeing to drive me.”

“Anything for you, Voss.”

I moved my hand over as I changed positions, standing. Near Sarah’s headrest. My fingers were so close to her hair, I could feel stray strands brush my skin.

“Oh, and Sarah?”

“Yes?”

“It’s Wendy. You can call me that if you’d like. I’ve probably mentioned that before.”

There was a pause.

“Oh. Okay, Wendy.”

Weird, hearing her say my name. Weird in a good way.

“Go get some rest, Voss,” Sarah said. “We still have a long road ahead of us.”

I chuckled, loud enough so I was sure she could hear me. That was a start.

“Sure thing,” I said.

I took my hand off her headrest, and moved back down the RV.

I saw that Isabella was awake.

She was up, sitting at the table where she just had her nap. Looking outside the window, her lips hanging around one end of a chocolate bar.

I felt a tug.

My immediate instinct was to pull away, but that tug got stronger, more prominent, the more I tried to fight it.

Why, exactly, she gave me that feeling, I didn’t know. And I was almost afraid of knowing why. It was the one loop I wouldn’t have minded being kept out of.

But, I had time, and while my space was limited, I could still try to learn and grow. Getting some rest could wait.

Swallowing my pride, I approached the young girl.

Previous                                                                                               Next

076 – Burdened by Obligation

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I yawned, wanting to rub an eye, but I was too lazy to take off my glasses. Too much work.

One new thing I learned about myself. I wasn’t much of a morning person.

The early hour brought a certain chill. The sun wasn’t out yet, and while the months were getting closer to what was supposed to be spring, the weather could still dip below sixty when it wanted to. To someone else, that was probably laughable, but I had gotten used to the warmer temperatures that came with living in the South. Anything that dropped past a certain threshold was liable to make me shiver.

And with a certain static in the air, I shivered even more.

I zipped my jacket up higher, flipping the hood up.

It felt weird, wearing a hood while not in costume. It hadn’t occurred to me how much of a regular thing I turned… not regular. I had come to associate wearing something over my head, my face, with activities involving being V, the other me. Getting into a scrap, taking out people, putting on another identity. It put me on edge. Which would help, if I was actually in a scrap, but I wasn’t in any implicit danger. Not here, not now.

I walked between the different groups of people. There was space between the clusters, but there wasn’t any real order in the placement or space, so my path snaked around as I moved and observed. The people were all busy tending to themselves or their groups, not really paying any mind to me as I passed. Some gave me passing glances, but they didn’t last, and they went back to getting ready. All were sitting down, some had cut-up tarps to sit on, some only had the cold concrete.

The total count was one hundred and three. Men, women, children.

It felt weird.

Their faces were ones of… despair. Maybe with it being so early, my perception of things were exaggerated. I couldn’t exactly have coffee to perk me up. People looked tired, worn out, worn down, and despondent. There wasn’t any hope or glimmer of life in their eyes.

Again, it was probably because the sun wasn’t up yet.

One of them glanced, but it wasn’t in passing. I caught it.

A little girl, sitting on concrete. She looked to be about D’s age. She wasn’t with a group, and there was no one around looking after her. She was completely alone.

Well, not completely.

She had a teddy bear, which made me think of D again. It sat in her lap, her arms wrapped around it. She hugged it tight.

Her eyes stayed on me. A blank expression on her face.

It made me stop, staring back. Fighting my natural inclination to keep going and look away.

The girl didn’t, or wouldn’t, break her gaze. Did she want something?

Before I could think of any possibilities, the girl waved by moving the bear’s hand.

It was a cute little gesture. I caught myself waving back.

Darn.

I was trying to avoid this sort of thing.

Because what was left of these people’s lives were in my hands.

“Cargo?” I repeated.

Styx nodded. He smiled. Probably a cause for concern.

“What kind?” I asked.

Styx smiled wider.

“I’m still getting them together. Final count’s at the end of the week. You’ll know by then.”

He avoided answering directly.

Meaning he’s got something up his sleeve.

Definitely a cause for concern.

Styx lifted a finger, pointing upward.

“So, let me break it down for you, and set it straight. I’m preparing some cargo that’s to be sent across the border, to Mexico. Mexico City, to be exact, with some drop offs going as far south as Oaxaca.”

“You’re telling me we’re going to-”

“Did I fucking say you could talk!”

Styx bellowed. I shut my mouth.

He cleared his throat before starting again. It was a scratchy, rough sound.

“You’re going to be supervising the transport of that cargo, making certain it gets to the border in one piece, and in tact. If even one fucking thing ends up missing, I’ll fucking vomit in anger.”

That… was certainly one way to put it.

“And you don’t have to go down that far,” Styx said. “I’ve got a guy. Marco Montez. You’re going to meet him at the border.”

Styx spun his finger. The helmeted and long-haired Ferrymen moved, and moved fast. By the time Styx stabbed his finger onto the surface of the table, they had materialized a map, unfolded it, and placed it on the table to face us. His finger hit exactly where he meant it to. The border between us and Mexico. But it was more to the left, farther than I expected.

“He’ll take over things from there,” Styx said.

His finger moved again, sliding across the map. Over to where we were, right now. Stephenville.

Styx kept moving his finger back and forth between the two points. His nail started scraping and tearing a hole through the paper.

He continued, regardless.

“The trip will be taking you west. El Paso, to be exact. About seven hundred miles, or eight to ten hours, give or take. I suspect it’s going to take you longer than that, though, given that you’re not speeding off to a vacation. You’ll have to be deliberate, doing periodic stops, checking on everything, making sure the path ahead of you is clear and the path behind you isn’t being picked up on. Keeping the work of this in mind, I’ll give you twelve hours, thirteen hours tops. Take however long you need to get back.”

Styx took his finger off the map. He had torn a line between Stephenville and El Paso, and I could see the surface of the table underneath. A black line marked the path we’d have to take. The long journey we’d have to embark upon.

Just the sudden prospect of going on a road trip, it gave me pause.

I tried to gauge D and Lawrence’s reactions. D was hard to read, and Lawrence was harder still. But, to be fair to him, he was sort of preoccupied with that beatdown he gotten from Styx, earlier. I’d cut him some slack.

I would have tried to glean anything from Styx’s face, but it would be like trying to read a foreign language. I’d, more likely than not, be completely off base, and I’d most likely offend.

There was a slight opening in the conversation. If I was talking with anyone but Styx, I would have taken it.

“Now would be the time for questions,” Styx said.

Oh.

“What’s the cargo going to be transported in?”

Lawrence asked that question. I had ruled him out, but he managed to contribute something. I didn’t consider how much of a fighter he was.

“I got trucks for you to move the stuff with. Eighteen-wheelers. You probably only need one but I’m ordering at least two just in case. Standard dimensions, about forty feet in length, ten feet wide, and about twelve feet high. Doesn’t really matter, but I’m just giving you an idea of how big this thing really is.”

To illustrate, Styx got up from his seat, and set his hand on his crotch. I was about to avert my eyes before he moved his hand out, in front of him.

I realized he was making his point with a rude gesture.

“It’s really fucking big,” Styx said, spelling it out.

The gesture was unnecessary, but, in a sick and wrong way, it did give the job a sense of weight. This was serious, apparently. A long road trip to the border? And what were we transporting? Drugs, weapons? Some other kind of contraband? I couldn’t begin to guess what it could be, but with Styx telling us the dimensions of a standard trailer, it told me that there was going to be a lot of it.

Really fucking big.

“And drivers?” Lawrence asked, “It takes a different kind of license to drive one of those things. And it’s going to take time before any of us can get one.”

Dammit, I really needed to learn how to drive.

Styx pointed to the person sitting between us.

“She can drive one.”

He said it like it was so obvious.

“Are you-”

Lawrence tried, but he shook, going into a coughing fit, and every cough made him hurt more. D rubbed his shoulder as he attempted to settle back down.

“As Lawrence was trying to say,” I said, having found my opportunity to get a word in, “You’re asking for us to get pulled over if D gets behind the wheel of something so big. If that happens, we’re done for, and whatever you want us to supervise the transport of gets lost.”

“I know how to drive one,” D said.

I looked at her.

“I don’t doubt your ability to, but that’s still too much of a risk, and it’s really unneeded.”

Turning back to Styx, I said, “And I know you were probably kidding when you brought that up, but there’s no way any of us will be capable of driving across the state in an eighteen-wheeler, much less getting the license in time.”

“I know how to drive one,” D said again, which much more emphasis.

I didn’t look at her this time.

Styx looked disinterested, bummed out, as if he was expecting a certain reaction but didn’t quite get it out of us. As long as it wasn’t a lead up to more violence, because that violence would only find its way to one other person. I couldn’t get any lasting damage, and it didn’t seem like he would touch D.

Or… maybe he would, or did, but that was a can of worms I was trying not to open or even get close to.

I had to work this conversation in a way that didn’t lead to another beatdown on Lawrence.

“Then find drivers,” Styx said. “Or I’ll… fucking find someone, fuck, you were supposed to play along, there. D, I thought you had my back?”

“For your information, Styx, I’m sitting on this side of the table, this time. I’m not here to play with you.”

Styx made a face. Was I supposed to interpret that as being disappointed?

“Is that so?” he asked.

“It is.”

“Well then, I guess I really will be on my own from now on. How sad.”

His expression changed again. At this juncture, I couldn’t trust that any tell or sign from Styx was genuine. It all had to be a trick to keep us on our guard. Constantly putting us on our back foot.

Styx breathed, fixing his jacket.

“Any other questions?”

Lawrence spoke.

“Not questions, but concerns. I’m just failing to see why you’d want us to take on this job, even outside of it being one of your favors. Wouldn’t it be too much of a risk, sending us out on a job we don’t have any experience in? From the sounds of it, this cargo has to be a big deal, so trusting us with taking care of it seems like throwing caution to the wind. I don’t know, but this seems too heavy a responsibility for us to carry. Plus, isn’t this your forte, Styx? You do this sort of thing all the time, why put this particular job on us, now?”

It wasn’t surprising, that Lawrence would have reservations about the nature of this favor. They weren’t bad points to raise. And with this favor coming from Styx, it was even more cause for worry.

Styx put his hands on his hips. He looked downward.

“You’re right. This is a big fucking deal. The biggest, actually. And it’s compounded when you consider that, after the first hour of your trip, you’ll be in no man’s land. The same protections and safeguards that helped shape this city won’t be granted to you once you leave it. Cops out there have no reason to look the other way. In fact, they’ll be closer to bloodhounds, and they’ll sniff you out the second they catch a whiff of anything. And it will be even more arduous once you get to El Paso. The pigs there know the game, and they know what to look for, what to smell for. There is a trick to it, but it would only come through having done this route several times, learning the ins and outs. Experience.”

He took a second, and everything settled in.

Even more points as to why this job was such a risk. We weren’t ready to handle a task like this. It was too dangerous, too risky, our necks sticking out too much. The last thing I wanted was to screw this up and fuck up everything. There would be a lot riding on this, on us, if we were to undertake the job, not just the cargo. Styx’s work could be in jeopardy, our gang could potentially lose a lot of its momentum and a chunk of its leadership, depending on who we sent out. And Stephenville’s underground would get yet another shock to its foundation, after so many already.

And with us, me, being at the center of it, I might not make it out of the fallout.

These were seeds of doubt, for sure, but Styx might realize that we would be in over our heads if we took this.

Styx, with his hands still at his hips, lifted his head, and faced each of us down.

“I still want you to go.”

Hearing that hit harder than any punch I could have delivered. Good thing I was already in a seat.

“You… what?” Lawrence questioned, the confusion in his voice said it all.

Styx answered like the concerns Lawrence raised, and the ones Styx himself brought up, weren’t valid.

“I know what I’m doing. I have prep for my setup, so I can have my final and ultimate punchline. One last joke, then it’s off into the sunset. Wow, I really am getting sentimental in my old age.”

“You’re quitting after this?”

“I don’t quit, I never quit. But it will be quite… boring, for some time, after this. I suppose you could call it a form of death.”

“You still want us to do this? Why do I get the feeling that this is some trap?”

I wanted to get to the heart of the matter, and call Styx out directly. If he was adamant about this, there had to be a reason.

Setups, punchlines. Jokes. Styx wasn’t even trying to hide that he was leading us into… something.

“Not a trap,” Styx said. “If all goes smoothly, which it should, and if you plan it well enough as you go, I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t be back by the end of the day, or early morning of the next, depending on traffic. You’re not even doing the hard part of the job, once you meet with Marco, he’ll take the cargo off your hands, and it’s an easy ride back home. And it’s not as though you’ll be completely out of your element.”

Styx pointed to D again.

“She knows, I’ve taken her on this route hundreds of times.”

She has?

I knew I shouldn’t be surprised, but that only raised more questions.

“She should know the trick to it, otherwise I’ve been a terrible teacher.”

“That doesn’t excuse the fact that the nature of this job brings too much risk on it’s own, no matter how many tricks you throw into it,” Lawrence said. “And do you really expect to put this much of an obligation on a little girl?”

“I can do it,” D said.

“There has to be something else you could get us to do-”

It was like a switch flipped in Styx’s head. He jumped, not unlike how I would jump, using my power. He used his, getting up high enough to put himself over the table. He slammed both feet down, hard.

The table flipped.

My arms were resting on the surface, Lawrence had his arms there, too. The kick of the table forced our arms up, and I had to push my chair back so the wooden edge wouldn’t clip my chin. Lawrence wasn’t as fortunate to have the strength to move so fast.

Lawrence’s chin was sent pointing upward, his chair leaning back too far. With a gurgled noise, Lawrence fell to the floor.

“Styx! You, ugh!”

D dropped out of her seat to fall right beside Lawrence, tending to him once again. I stayed in my chair, but my mind and body were kicked into another gear, in case another fight broke out. Adrenaline was pumping through me, and I was ready to flow through it.

The table was flipped on its side, leaning over. I couldn’t see Styx from my point of view, with it being raised.

Then, I heard grunts, the sound of other people moving.

Styx’s head reappeared, popping up. He was being helped by his own men.

He got to his feet. In his hand was the map, or part of it. It had been torn to pieces after Styx… blew up. It was a larger portion of it, with the line Styx scratched out still there. It had torn wider, though, tearing through most of the country. A hole, instead of a line.

“You lot are so arrogant, thinking you can keep breaking the rules that bind you. The rules I set. Mother Hydra, Father Dagon, Cthulhu, let’s see if you deep croaking fucks can fathom that. Break those binds.”

Back on his feet, Styx started tearing up the map even more, tossing the pieces across the fallen table, sprinkling them on Lawrence. The bits of paper stuck to blood.

His chin had been split open.

“You came to me for help, and I provided it. On multiple occasions. And now, when I want to call in those favors, what I’m owed, you want to back down? I really don’t fucking think so.”

Of the three of us, I was the only one who was paying any attention to Styx. Lawrence was out, and D was screaming and panicking over the rush of blood flowing from the lower half of Lawrence’s face. She patted it with her shirt, her jacket, Lawrence’s shirt and jacket, the red seeping through everything.

Someone had to be here, in the moment, with Styx. I was the only one available.

“Fine,” I said, raising a hand to placate him. “We’ll do it.”

“There is no permutation that will let you get away from this, Vampiregirl. The consequences will catch up to you. You wanted my help, now I get what I’m owed in return.”

Vamp- what? What kind of name was that?”

Styx tore up the last of the paper, then made a thing of wiping his hands and showing he had no more scraps left, making his palms face us. D kept picking the bits of the map off of Lawrence’s cheek and his upper lip. Some collected by his chin, but she seemed too scared to put her fingers anywhere near it.

A hard clap sounded throughout the room.

“Stitch him up,” Styx said, hands together.

More Ferrymen moved, breaking from the perimeter that surrounded us. Again, in silence, they worked fast and in sync with one another, there was a system to it. One of them took Lawrence, two others went for D, in case she started kicking, which she did, and more pulled out medical kits and towels and other equipment to clean Lawrence up.

Styx stared at me the whole time. I couldn’t avoid it for very long. For all my strength, I couldn’t move a muscle.

I stayed there, sitting, letting Styx do whatever the fuck he wanted.

Styx beamed.

“Okay then, looks like everything’s straightened out. I’ll get you in touch with Marco so you two can coordinate, and I’ll contact you again once I have the cargo in full and ready to go. Good luck.”

Nothing good or lucky about this.

I put my hand down, putting both in the pockets of my hoodie. I looked away, and walked elsewhere, trying to act like that small exchange never happened. I tried checking on the other people, but my eyes wanted to wander back over.

It was hard to touch on why, exactly.

Putting my focus somewhere else, I watched people from my gang work and get everything prepared. Fueling the truck, checking the air of each and every tire, testing the brakes and axles, cleaning the interior of the trailer, and starting to hand out brown paper bags to those sitting down. Every individual got one, every child under ten was allowed another depending on how many was left before we departed.

Their lunch. It was my idea.

The people turned when shadows were casted over them, their gazes following up until they saw my people, bags in hand. I found Sarah among those passing them out. She handed the bag over, and I saw a little bit of light glimmer back into their eyes. Parents opened their bags and showed a chocolate bar to their child. The child’s eyes lit up, too.

Maybe it was a stupid, simple sentiment, but it made me smile.

It was a fucked up situation, and one I could imagine Styx having orchestrated just so he could see the looks on our faces when we found out what kind of ‘cargo’ we were transporting. I could still hear his cackling, ringing in my head. Was this his final, ultimate joke? It wasn’t very funny, and I certainly wasn’t laughing along.

For one reason or another, these people had went through the grueling effort to illegally immigrate into this country, and now, for one reason or another, they had to go back. More grueling effort. More sitting in the dark, more sweltering heat from being pressed against other sweaty people, more stress of getting caught by police or border patrol. And that was only the first part of their journey. They still had to cross the border back into Mexico, and it wasn’t like it was any safer for them, there.

And I had to ensure a safe passage for them. All one hundred and three of them. Lawrence had told me that up to two hundred people could fit into one of those trailers. But that was for coming into the country. Much less would want to leave after going through all the effort to get there.

Yet, here we are.

I wasn’t going to judge, to pry or ask. I just had to get the job done.

Sarah had a whole cardboard box of bagged lunches. She made her way to me as she kept passing them out.

“Hi Voss,” she said.

“Hey.”

“Kind of weird, to be in this position, don’t you think?”

“I’m thinking a lot more things than just weird.”

“Like?”

“Can’t say. There are kids around.”

“Ah.”

Sarah handed out another bag.

“Nervous?” she asked.

“I guess,” I said.

“You don’t have to do this if you don’t want to. There’s still some time to switch the plan around, somewhat.”

“No there isn’t. This is happening, and it’s happening now. There’s no one else that can do this. It has to be me.”

“But…”

“No ‘buts’ about it,” I said. “Take it from your Voss.”

Another bag passed.

“Yes ma’am.”

“Besides,” I said, walking up to Sarah, reaching into the box. “It’s not like you’re not coming.”

I grabbed a bag and left, maneuvering between the spaces of people.

Difficult, to put a finger on what compelled me to move to where I was going. But I walked, bag in hand.

“Morning,” I said.

I had walked up to the little girl I saw earlier.

Hispanic, her hair dark and long, in pigtails. She was wearing a leather jacket, and with the teddy bear she was holding, it drove the D comparison that much stronger.

Something about her…

Her face didn’t have any of that youthful energy or naivety that I’d expect from a kid. Rather, she looked downcast, tired. Part of that could be from it being so early, but it looked like it went… deeper, than simply the time of day.

All by herself. She didn’t have a parent or guardian around.

“Morning,” she said.

Despite her looking so down, she was looking up at me, her eyes squinted, her brow furrowed. As if she was studying me.

Being under a large amount of scrutiny, by someone so small, it felt weird.

Just give her the bag and be done with it.

“Here you are,” I said, giving her the paper bag. “Your lunch. There’s some candy in there, but, don’t tell anybody.”

She took the bag, taking a peek inside. She closed it, looking back at me.

I couldn’t tell if she appreciated it.

Gracias.”

I’d put that towards a ‘maybe.’

Breaking her stare, the girl put the lunch bag away, in a backpack that was placed beside her.

Zipping it back closed, she resumed her staring.

She definitely wants something from me.

“Anything else you need?” I asked.

“Um…”

She drew out the sound. I could hear the youth in her voice, in that.

“Wendy?”

A chill went through me. Wasn’t the weather.

“Do, do I know you?” I asked, feeling a certain trepidation.

“So you are Wendy, I thought you looked familiar. But you were in the distance, and I didn’t want to call you over because it might have been awkward, but then you came over and started talking and then I knew for sure. You cut your hair and got glasses, and it looks cute by the way, but it’s definitely you. Oh my gosh.”

Why was I feeling legitimate fear? From a little girl?

“Do I know you?” I asked, forcing myself to sound level.

The girl frowned. “Oh, you don’t remember?”

Again. For a third time.

“Do I know you?”

The girl held the bear, pulling it closer.

“I’m Isabella.”

The name hit, and I hadn’t braced myself. It was like smelling a fragrance that could take someone back to an earlier time in their life. The sights, the sounds, it all came back like a cancer. Something clicked, and a connection was made.

My eye flickered.

I scratched around my eye, avoiding smudging my glasses.

“Isabella?” I repeated. I had to hear the name come out of my own mouth. I still couldn’t believe it.

“You helped me get away from the Ghosts, back when they were forcing me to do those messed up initiation games.”

“Yeah, I hear you.”

I moved my hand from my eye to my temple, rubbing it hard. A headache.

“I remember,” I said.

I fucking remember.

“What, what happened? You didn’t leave the city?”

“It, uh, it was a long story. Or maybe it wasn’t that long, but that happened a long time ago.”

She brought her hand to her hair, pushing her bangs up. I saw a smooth white line that contrasted against her tan skin.

“It didn’t work out,” Isabella said.

The details were still muddied, but I recognized the broad strokes, and that was a problem, in and of itself. I thought I had taken myself out of that headspace, and out of that world entirely. But Isabella was here, and, through no real fault of her own, she had given me a grim reminder.

That world had a possibility of rearing its ugly head at any given time. That identity.

Isabella put her hand down, fixing her hair. Then they went around the stuff bear again.

“So you’re going back to Mexico?” I asked. I immediately recognized how dumb it was to ask that. Of course she was, otherwise she wouldn’t be here.

Isabella took it in stride, anyways. “I tried, believe me, I did. But it…”

Her voice cracked. A glimmer in her eyes, but it wasn’t from any happy feelings. Her eyes were wet.

“It just didn’t work out,” I said, finishing the thought for her.

Isabella nodded, her face in her sleeve.

I gave her the time she needed. It would be awful to walk away now.

Isabella lifted her head, a little bit of red around the eyes. She ignored it as she continued the conversation.

“I’m surprised to see you here. I thought you said you weren’t part of a gang.”

Did I say that?

I rubbed my cheek, and scratched the back of my head.

“Um, right, about that…”

Before I could come up with anything to say, another voice cut through the awkward silence.

“Vivi!”

I turned in the direction of the voice.

D came running at me, her feet clapping against the cement, cutting it too close when she turned corners around people. If she wasn’t being careful, she would have tripped over someone or kicked their lunch bag. Thankfully, she arrived while avoiding disaster.

“There you are! We were looking for-”

D stopped, and turned.

Isabella was standing, now, and any semblance of brooding she had before was dashed. She was animated, shaking, her jaw and her bear was dropped. Wide eyes were getting wider.

She was attempting to get words out, but all I heard were strained whimpers.

“You, I, you, you-”

“Yo…” D said, but it was without the usual fervor that I’d come to associate with that greeting. She was probably just as confused as I was.

Isabella jumped out at D, and they both fell.

A small scuffle, with Isabella on top of D, shaking her. She had her by the collar of D’s jacket. Isabella snapped, and she was trying snap D.

“You bitch! You’re the one who robbed me! You made me get into that shit and you crashed that fuckin’ bus! Bitch!”

She screamed more, but it was in Spanish. I missed the rest of it.

D flailed back and forth, her eyes rolling back, her tongue hanging out. That was how I knew she wasn’t taking any of this seriously.

People’s attention shifted to us. More than we needed.

I swooped in before it could get any worse.

“Whoa there,” I said, picking up Isabella by the back of her jacket. I only needed one arm to get her away from D.

“Hey, hey!”

Isabella tried a kick, but it hit air, and she stopped then and there, letting her arms and legs dangle. It was as if I was holding a cat by the back of its neck. She had completely shut down.

“Cool it,” I said. “Now’s not the time.”

Isabella groaned.

“Got it?”

“Okay,” she answered, voice small.

I set Isabella down, back on her feet. D was getting back to hers in the meantime.

Crossing my arms, I said, “Now, what was that all about?”

Isabella paused, she seemed like she needed a moment before she could respond. I gave it to her.

“I ran into that girl, right after we split up. I still remember that day. She was on the bus that the Ghosts attacked, and she roped me into helping her get out of it. And then she crashed that bus!”

The infamous bus crash. I’d heard it from Lawrence. This girl was there for that, too.

“And then she stole the money you gave me!”

I didn’t recall that.

“How much money?” I asked.

Isabella brought her voice to a whisper, but she still sounded heated.

“One thousand dollars.”

Shit. Alexis was balling, back in the day.

I looked at D.

“Is this true?”

D was fiddling with her fingers, avoiding eye contact.

“I mean, it could be, it sounds like something I would do.”

I rolled my eyes.

D,” I intoned.

She let out a nervous chuckle.

I adjusted my posture, crossing my arms again.

“Isabella,” I said, focusing on her. “I know it’s probably too little, too late, but D? You should apologize.”

D grabbed the front of her skirt, twisting it a bit. Nervous.

If she needed time, I’d give her that luxury, too.

“I… I’m sorry, Isabella.”

D bowed, her head low, almost comically so. The gesture was exaggerated.

“I’m sorry!”

She stayed that way for a long time. It started to get embarrassing.

“That’s quite enough,” I said. I lifted her back up with one arm.

“Whoa, head rush.”

Isabella looked at D, then me, and the D again. Now it was her turn to be confused.

“So, you two know each other?”

“Oh yeah!” D grabbed for my arm, getting closer to my side. “Vivi and I are practically sisters.”

“Stop,” I said, pushing her off, my hand in her face, messing with her hair. “Goofball.”

“Bleh.”

“What?” Isabella asked. “Wendy, I just, what? You’re part of a gang, and you’re working with her?”

“I suppose it’s a lot to take in,” I said. “Long story.”

I could almost see the gears turning in Isabella’s head. It still hadn’t sunk in for her, not yet.

“But why? I don’t get it.”

Isabella looked really disappointed about this revelation.

“What, are you jealous of me and Vivi?” D asked.

I nudged D with my elbow.

Isabella was exasperated, that much was obvious.

“No,” she said, but I noted a hint of something there, regardless. “And why are you calling her ‘Vivi?’ Her name is Wendy.”

“It’s a nickname,” D said.

“But that doesn’t even make sense.”

“Oh yeah it does. ‘Wendy’ starts with the letter ‘W,’ but in Spanish, it can be pronounced as either doble u, or-”

Doble ve,” Isabella finished.

“See, now you got it.”

“I didn’t even know that,” I said. “That, I guess that’s clever.”

“Ha, thank you.”

“Oh my god,” Isabella said, “Oh my god.”

“Now I feel like I have to apologize,” I said. “It seems like I’ve let you down.”

Isabella looked flustered. She stepped back, and picked the teddy bear back up.

“Maybe you did? You really helped me, back there. I thought I was going to die, if I didn’t finish that initiation game in time. But you showed up, and you beat up those guys. It was, it was awesome. You saved my life, Wendy. And now you’re here, a part of this gang. It’s, I don’t know.”

“Well, she’s not a part of the gang,” D said.

“She’s not?” Isabella looked my way. “You’re not?”

My turn to look away. I stammered.

“It’s not that. It’s not like I’m a part of it, so much as I’m-”

“Wendy.”

Yet another voice.

It was Lawrence, he approached with a careful, measured step. Every inch of progress came with a metallic series of clicks and snaps. Lawrence was using crutches.

“Don’t make me raise my voice to find you,” he said.

I took a glance to Isabella, to see how she was handling this.

If her initial reaction to seeing D was to tackle and beat her up, then it was the complete opposite with Lawrence. She backed up even more, her foot hitting against the backpack behind her. Shaking, scared. Subdued.

“You really have to be fucking kidding me,” she whispered.

Hearing her curse, it was jarring. Comparing Isabella with D again, the latter was a saint, in that regard.

“Oh,” Lawrence said. “I remember you. Long time no see.”

Isabella brought the bear up, nearly covering her face, putting it between her and us.

“I think this is the worst day of my life,” she said. “I think I’m going to throw up.”

“Please don’t,” Lawrence said, “We just finished cleaning the trailer.”

Her face turned green anyways.

“This whole thing is being run by the Ghosts?” Isabella asked. “Do you still do those initiation games?”

Lawrence looked at me and D, then Isabella.

“The Ghosts are long gone. Spirited away. We’re operating under a new name, now. Los Colmillos.”

Los Colmillos? The Fangs?”

“Yup!”

D struck a pose, forming a sign with both hands, two victory signs. She put them close to her face, her mouth.

“See, now they look like fangs, and one’s a ‘V,’ and another ‘V!’”

She shook each hand as she made her point.

“Vivi!”

Lawrence spoke, ignoring D.

“And as for those games, those were during a more desperate point in my career, my life. We don’t play like that anymore.”

Isabella only shook her head in response.

I wanted to reach out and put my hand on her shoulder, or something, but it didn’t seem appropriate.

“It’s a new name, a new operation. We’re not like those other gangs, trust me.”

Isabella looked back at me, truly appearing distraught. Like I had told her Santa wasn’t real.

She muttered something in Spanish, and finished off with, “This is the worst day of my life.”

More metallic clicks, and Lawrence shuffled over to me. He tapped the wristwatch he was wearing..

“No time for no crime,” he said.

I nodded, understanding him.

“Hey, Isabella?”

“Yeah?”

She sounded so down.

“I have to go, we can catch up a bit more later, okay?”

“I doubt I want any more updates. Just get me in that trailer, already.”

That… well it didn’t feel good, having to hear that.

“Catch you later,” I said. “D?”

“What? Oh.”

D didn’t sound very enthused to go, either. All that energy she just had was gone. She looked like she had something to say, but she decided against saying anything.

With my two partners beside me, we moved as a group, taking Lawrence’s walking speed into consideration. When we got far enough, I took a glance back, and saw Isabella sitting back down on the cold cement, teddy bear on its stomach, tossed a foot away.

Her eyes glimmered.

The light was snuffed, disappearing as I stepped through. Dark. I had to lead the way.

I kept the door open as D helped Lawrence into my apartment.

Our meeting with Styx had concluded, leaving us free to gather our thoughts, plan accordingly, and in Lawrence’s case, to lick wounds.

D had brought the van around, and we went straight here. From the Gonnishi, my place was closer than the territory, and we didn’t have time to waste. Lawrence needed to be looked at one more time, and we needed to discuss this.

I found the switches by the wall, and flipped them for D and Lawrence. Better lighting than the ones from the hallway.

D took the lead, now, taking Lawrence over to the couch in the living room. The steps were slow and careful, D making sure Lawrence wouldn’t hurt himself, or worse, open up those stitches again.

She set him down, being ginger. Lawrence grumbled and groaned, regardless.

I circled around the couch, standing across D and Lawrence. I tossed my bag with my costume in it, landing on the floor, by the couch.

I spoke first.

“Shit.”

It was the first word uttered between the three of us in a hour or so.

“Shoot,” D said, agreeing with me, but her attention was still on Lawrence. She checked the stitches.

A rough line, running from one corner of Lawrence’s mouth, crossing down to the other side of his chin. The immediate area around the wound was clean, Styx’s men really did know how to clean up a cut. Was it experience from having to deal with such an insane boss like him?

The cut and stitch work were clean, but I couldn’t say the same for everything around it.

Blood stained his collar and shirt, with red flecks on his nostrils and cheeks, small bits the Ferrymen missed. There were darker splotches farther down his clothes and neck, but it wasn’t anything a wash couldn’t get out. I hoped. Lawrence was really getting beat down, lately. It would be like salt in those wounds if he couldn’t salvage his clothes after this.

D had some of Lawrence’s blood on her clothes, too. She didn’t seem to care.

“So…” I started, but it was hard to find the words needed. How was I supposed to lead this conversation, when one of us was rendered unable to talk? D was still here and able, but I was the next oldest after her, I felt as if I had some responsibility, there.

“How you feeling, Lawrence?”

I asked something else instead. For now.

Lawrence’s head was hanging down a bit, his chin pointing down. Despite that, he still gave me a thumbs up.

D spoke for him, too.

“He’ll be fine. Just don’t talk for a while, okay?”

Lawrence responded by opening his hand, palm facing the floor. He shook it.

“No talking.”

“Maybe not him, but we have to talk about this,” I said. “About Styx.”

D got in one more look at Lawrence. She sat back into the couch, next to him. Her feet were up, her shoes were still on. I didn’t care.

“Then let’s talk.”

“Please, please tell me he was so hocked up on crack or something and he’ll forget all about this tomorrow.”

D shook her head.

“Believe it or not, you’ll never meet a more sober guy than me.”

D was right. I couldn’t believe it.

I lowered my head, fixing my glasses. My hand twitched as I tried to cool myself.

“Then, there’s no getting out of this, Styx called in his favor, and we have to do it. Thing is, how?”

“He laid it out pretty clear for us. A long road trip.”

“A whole day of travel,” I said.

“Have you ever been to El Paso?” D asked.

“I haven’t. You?”

“It’s alright. It’s dry.”

“You mean like weather or that’s the kind of place it is?”

“Yes.”

I tapped my foot. I wasn’t irritated at D, but this fell into my lap, and it was so sudden. The idea of a road trip. Going elsewhere, when so much of my time and energy was spent and focused here.

“I just don’t like how this was sprung up on us,” I said. “I knew that Styx would pull something, and I knew it would be soon, but like this? This sucks.”

“That’s just how he is. You can’t so much predict what he does next, you just have to roll with whatever he throws at you. Even I get caught off guard with him, after all this time.”

I dreaded asking, but it was too strange to not question.

“Yeah, about that. What’s the story between you two, anyways?”

I didn’t miss that D turned away. She didn’t even turn to check on Lawrence. Then, as if she realized it herself, turned the other way.

“I asked a question,” I said.

“Is it relevant?” D replied back, still examining Lawrence. Intently, closely.

“You tell me. Is it? You went to him when we were going after Benny, and again when we had to deal with Granon. And some other third time that I don’t know what for.”

“Not relevant,” D replied. She still wasn’t facing me.

“D, we owe Styx three favors because of you. This is only the first one. I can’t even begin to imagine what else he has in store of us. Sure, his help ended up being instrumental in putting us where we are today, but we’ve accrued some debt from that, and I didn’t even know we were in debt with Styx because you never told us about it. We were almost blindsided with this.”

“But we weren’t!”

D snapped. She faced me.

“We knew Styx would be coming, and like I said, you can’t predict what he’ll do, but we knew he’d do something. We weren’t blindsided. And you said before that you didn’t give a flip about why I know him. No excuses, just do better next time, remember? So why do you care about it now?”

“That was a different principle, a different matter.”

“No it literally isn’t.”

“That was before I saw it for myself. The way you got right up to him, hitting him like some annoying sibling would, and he wasn’t doing anything to stop you, I don’t know. It just begged so many questions, and I couldn’t help but ask one of them.”

Her lips pressed, firm. She was wearing a choker, and she kept playing with the metal loop, pulling at it.

“Getting to El Paso won’t be easy. Styx is right, it’s going to be tough as heck if you don’t know what you’re doing.”

“Hey,” I said.

D grunted, and I sensed real anger.

“My history with Styx doesn’t have any relevance here. I still would have went to him anyways, since I’d still be in the position I’m in, and he’d still be in the position he’s in. That’s just how it works, in this city. That other stuff is completely ancillary. Honestly.”

Wow. She really didn’t want to get into it.

“It is going to be tough,” I said.

I conceded. In the now, there were more important matters that needed urgent attention. I didn’t need a history lesson. Maybe later, but not now.

“Any idea what the cargo might be?”

D let the metal loop slip between her fingers.

“It could be anything, and I mean anything. Drugs, guns, maybe shipments of both. That’s usually what Styx handles. But if it’s that route, and he’s making us do it as a favor… I wouldn’t be shocked if it’s people.”

People. The possibility hadn’t even occurred to me.

“Do you really think he’d put that on us?”

“Really? Yes, I do. Just don’t be surprised if he does.”

I breathed in.

“I’ll try not to.”

People complicated things, even if they didn’t mean to. If that was what the cargo really was, then that made this favor even more tough. It was exactly the kind of thing Styx would pull for a laugh, I’d bet.

A big fucking deal.

I’d put that on the side, for now. Consider everything else.

“Styx mentioned you’ve taken this route before? And apparently you’ve been over to El Paso.”

“I have, it’s been some time though. I’d need a refresher, or I could just remember stuff along the way.”

“Okay,” I said, nodding. “You’ll have to fill me in as I go. Make sure to keep your tablet with you all day, that day.”

“I won’t have to if I’m… Wait, wait no. Wendy, no.”

She realized what I meant.

“I’m the only one who can do this,” I said.

“But you’re not, you’re literally not.”

“Lawrence can’t make the trip, no thanks to Styx, and I know you’ll want to look after him until he’s one hundred percent. And if this route is everything Styx described, and you corroborating, then there’s always a risk of something going wrong, and I can’t guarantee your safety if you’re around, as much as I’d want to. You’ll be better off here, in Stephenville.”

“Wendy, I can-”

“This part of the plan is final,” I said. “I’m serious. We need someone taking care of business back in the city, in our territory, and we can’t do that if two of us are out on a trip, and the other is temporarily out of commission.”

Lawrence groaned, shuffling around in the couch. D put a hand on his chest, and that was enough to get him to stay down.

“Quit it,” D warned.

“Point stands,” I said. I felt bad, using Lawrence’s various injuries to prove a point, but they weren’t bad points.

“How are you going to know what you’re doing out there? You’ve never even been out of Stephenville, before.”

“It’s not like I won’t have you. Keep your tablet with you and charged, we can keep a call going that lasts all day. I’ll provide you updates as I move along, and you can give your input from there. If there’s anything I’ll need to look out for, or, knock on wood, if anything happens, what to do in case of that. D, you work best when you’re elsewhere, at a distance. Let’s take advantage of that.”

“What about drivers?”

“It’s not like you can drive down all those miles on the interstate and have no one bat an eye. There has to be someone in the gang with the proper license. We’ll find them.”

“And you? You’re just going to sit shotgun the ride there?”

I tilted my head a little. “Is that not good?”

“No, Wendy, if you’re supervising cargo transport, don’t put yourself so physically close to it. If the truck gets pulled over or something, you’re going be stuck, and you’re done for. You have to take another vehicle, like a RV or camper, so you can run interference if you have to. Actually, you know what? That’s exactly what we’re doing. I’ll rent a RV, and you go in that. If you don’t want me around, let me do that, at least.”

“It’s not that I don’t want you around, D. You’ll just be at your best back here.”

D punched one of the couch pillows beside her. Not near Lawrence.

“Why are you actually like this!”

It took me a second to process that outburst. It had echoed throughout my apartment, and in my head.

I opened my mouth.

“She’s… right.”

We both looked at Lawrence.

He was struggling to sit up properly, lifting his head, his chin. Pushing himself with his arms.

“Lawrence-”

“D’s right. You… keep doing… this.”

“Doing what?” I asked.

“Darn it, Lawrence,” D said, dropping the anger she had just displayed. Concern, now. “You’re opening your stitches. Please, for once in your life, take it easy.”

Lawrence closed his eyes, and when he opened them, he was looking at her.

“As if you’d really let me.”

D got up from the couch.

“I’m getting a towel, and some ice. You’re about to start bleeding again.”

D walked, or maybe she stormed off, heading back farther into my apartment.

It was just me and Lawrence.

There was a growing silence, and I didn’t want it to be there.

I placed myself on the couch, where D had been sitting.

“Feeling better?” I asked.

When Lawrence answered, it was muttered, pained. His face was starting to swell.

“Give me more painkillers.”

I gave a slight smile, sympathetic.

“I’m right, though,” I said. “You know I’m right. Lawrence, you can’t expect to go on this trip in that condition, and D is competent, more than competent, but there’s a risk in bringing her, too. She’ll be a bigger help if she stays back. Taking care of the gang and the territory is more important. If I fuck this up, which I pray I don’t, we can go from there. But it doesn’t make sense to put too much of our manpower on something that should just be a side thing. A distraction.”

Lawrence gave me the same look he gave D. Eyes closed, then, when opened, staring right at me.

“Just… please don’t make this a thing. It’s a bad habit.”

“What is?”

Eyes closed, opened, looking elsewhere.

“So this is your place.”

A non sequitur. D had given him some painkillers on the way here, but how drugged up was he? Or was it finally starting to kick in?

“It is,” I said.

“It’s… empty.”

“Empty? No, there’s stuff around.”

“Where? I don’t even see a painting. Just that black, void looking one.”

“That’s because you’re staring at the TV, and it’s off.”

“Oh.”

Lawrence made a noise. Shaking, wincing, but his lips were curled upward. Was he trying to laugh?

“What else do you have here?”

“There’s my room, back there, some food in the kitchen if you want any. I’m not sure if you should try opening your mouth that wide, yet.”

“But you don’t eat food. Don’t need food.”

“It’s all of D’s candies and snacks. I let her fill up my fridge and pantry as long as she’s paying for it herself.”

“D… picked this apartment for you…right?”

“She did, yes.”

“The TV and furniture too?”

“Yeah, why?”

“Is there anything here that’s yours?”

“I-”

“Wendy?”

D.

I looked, and saw  D in the kitchen. She was holding a towel, and a pack of ice.

“Can I get your help in here please?”

“Sure.”

I left the couch, and Lawrence, and went into the kitchen.

D pointed to a shelf. “I need a glass, I can’t reach it.”

“Sure.”

I reached up, grabbing it. I had to get on the tips of my toes, though.

“There,” I said.

“Fill it with some water? Lawrence needs something to drink.”

“Got it.”

I went to the fridge, taking out a pitcher of water. I filled the glass.

“Don’t make Lawrence talk when he doesn’t have to,” D said.

I set the glass and pitcher down on a counter.

“Sorry. He’s talking all sorts of crazy though. I think the drugs are starting to get to his head.”

“He’s hardheaded to begin with. Stubborn. You’re pretty similar, too.”

“Similar how?”

“You don’t have to shoulder everything all on your own,” D said. “I thought I told you this already.”

“Did you? Sounds vaguely familiar.”

“I’m serious.”

D, being serious?

“I’m kidding,” I said. “But no one else is available to do this part of Styx’s favor. And it’s not like I’ll be completely by myself. Everyone will be helping, it’s just that I’m the only one who can handle that particular part. And I’ll only be out for a day. It’s a favor for Styx, but if all goes well, we’ll be done with it like that, and it’s on to the next thing.”

I snapped my fingers as I said the word ‘that.’

“Don’t be stubborn, Wendy, people don’t like that. And some people really really don’t like that.”

Somehow, that came off as a threat.

“It’s not stubbornness if the circumstances force certain actions,” I said.

D sighed. She opened her mouth.

“After we handled the thing with Dong-Yul, I was hoping we’d take a visit to that barn, see if we couldn’t find any clues.”

Barn?

Braham Barn.

“We can still do that,” I said, partly dismissive. “We’ll just have to put it off for now. Something did get in the way.”

A distraction, I thought.

D shook her head. “How many things are you going to let get in the way?”

That sounded very pointed.

“Just this one, I promise.”

I bit my tongue afterwards.

D wrapped the towel around the ice pack.

“I’ll do one more look at Lawrence, and we can start. I’ll make some calls, rent that RV, and get our people moving. I’ll brief you on what to look out for while on the road and in El Paso. We get in contact with this Marco guy, and when Styx comes back to us with the cargo, we’ll be ready.”

“Sounds like a plan,” I said.

I picked up the glass of water, and walked with D, back to Lawrence. Plans were in motion, now, and things would be moving very soon.

Things were moving now. People and vehicles. It was almost time.

D, Lawrence, and I were standing in the back, watching as our men opened the back door of the trailer.

Starting with the larger groups, families, then to individuals. That way, we could guarantee that everyone who needed to stick together were able to, and those going by themselves weren’t in anyone else’s way. Though, that last part would be pretty much impossible, given the limited space.

Everyone started filing in, being led and directed by our people. Herded in like cattle.

“This really puts it into perspective,” I said.

“Styx wasn’t lying when he said it was a big fucking deal,” Lawrence replied. He still had the stitches, but he was able to talk more clearly. Or he was just fighting through the pain better.

“One hundred and three people. And I can’t let even one of them get hurt, or get caught, or worse. I hope a fight doesn’t break out in there.”

“Right. So don’t fuck this up.”

I would have hit him with my elbow, but he’d suffered enough, already.

“Last chance to change your mind,” D said. She was cheerful before, when Isabella was here, but none of that was present, now. “I can come with you.”

I shook my head.

“I’m not changing my mind. It’s been settled. I need you here.”

D muttered. “Stubborn dummy.”

I didn’t offer a response.

“We’ll hold it down from here,” Lawrence said. “D and I. Trust us to do that, and we can do the same for you.”

“That’s all I ask,” I said.

“I’m surprised Styx isn’t here, actually. I had a feeling he’d swing by to see this, maybe say a few more words to freak us out.”

“Good thing he’s not, then.”

“But now I’m left wondering where he could be, and that freaks me out.”

“Take it…”

I stopped myself.

“You already know.”

“Same goes for you.”

D had spoken.

“Yeah.”

More people were getting into the trailer. It had gotten to the point that it looked like we reached max capacity, but there was a sizable group left to go. A little less than half.

The rest started squeezing in, people pushing into one another. I saw some trying to protect their lunch bags, only for it to get flattened by the oncoming crush of bodies. I frowned.

“Hopefully it doesn’t rain today,” I said, checking the sky. The clouds were darker than when I last saw them. Darker than the sky above them.

“It’ll rain,” Lawrence said. “Definitely.”

“Boo,” D said. “You’re being a stick in the mud.”

“What I mean is, it’ll probably rain later in the day. Afternoon, probably. And it’s only in Stephenville. Weather’s supposed to be clear everywhere west of us. It’s the other side that’ll get drenched.”

“Good timing,” I said, sarcastic.

About a quarter of the people left, mostly the individuals, now. A woman, with only the clothes on her back. A tall man with a buzz cut… and Isabella. She had her backpack, the head of the teddy bear sticking out. The bag wasn’t huge, but it protruded, and anything inside would be getting mashed together by the tight fit of people.

And she was the only kid going on this journey all by herself. Every other kid I saw had someone with them. But not Isabella.

“D,” I said.

“Wendy.”

“Grab Isabella, bring her here.”

“Why me?”

“Just go, before she gets in there. And don’t be obvious about it.”

I sensed that D had her reservations, but she didn’t voice them as she ran, catching up to Isabella and tapping her on the shoulder. Isabella turned, and D pointed our way.

I waved.

Grabbing her by the wrist, D brought Isabella over. No one else noticed.

“What, what is it now?” Isabella asked, sounding more tired than ever. Sleepy.

“The three of us had to put this transport together, but I’m the one that will be supervising the actual moving of you guys. I’ll be in a separate vehicle. It’s a RV. If you want, you can ride with me.”

She lit up, hearing that.

“I can?”

“Of course.”

“Oh my gosh, that is so much better than being in that smelly thing. Thank you, Wendy, you’re a lifesaver!”

It was still chilly out, but I felt a little warmer.

“Hey, we cleaned those, just so you know,” Lawrence said.

“Come on, let’s get going.” I turned to Lawrence. “Before they close the doors, let them know they’ll be down one in the trailer, but not to worry. Tell Tone, too.”

“Will do.”

I motioned to Isabella. “Come on.”

Isabella and I walked over to another part of the lot. D followed. There were other trailers, but they were in park, not attached to a truck, and not in use. The RV was parked somewhere in between two trailers, out of view from everyone else.

“Hey, Isabella?”

“What?”

“I wanted to say, before you left, I think it’s cool you still have the bear and jacket I gave you.”

“Oh, this? I thought about getting rid of them after meeting you again, but it’s still cold, even with all those people, and I already made this thing my own.”

Isabella pointed at the bear behind her, using her thumb.

“Ah, that’s super sweet of you.”

“Be quiet.”

We arrived at the RV. It was a rental, so it wasn’t extravagant, but it would work. Inside, it had the essentials. Chairs, a bed, a sink and microwave and fridge, among other things that I probably wouldn’t need. The exterior was white, with blue stripes running across the sides of the vehicle. It was on the smaller end, but it was originally going to be just for me… and Sarah. We had room for one more.

I approached Sarah at the side door of the RV.

“We got one coming with us,” I told her.

Sarah lifted a walkie-talkie. “Just heard it from Tone, we’re good to go. Hello there.”

“Hello,” Isabella said.

They shook hands, exchanging some words in Spanish.

“Alright, other than that Voss, we’re ready. All we need is your word.”

I nodded.

Sarah took over things from there, helping Isabella get into the RV. I turned back to D.

“How come I can’t come with you but she can?” D asked.

“I think you know why,” I said.

D pouted.

“I know, it’s still not fair.”

I put my hand on her head. She knocked it away before I could ruffle her hair like I usually do.

She was still mad.

Lawrence showed up, swinging forward with his crutches.

“Everything’s good. Ready when you are,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Any last words?”

“Don’t phrase it like that.”

“Whatever.”

“Um, if there is anything, there’s this kid, Nathan, back at the territory. I was supposed to meet with him about tagging certain places with our sign, marking things as officially ours. That’s not until, when was it?”

“Not for a few days, but I’ve got it covered,” D said.

“Okay, thank you.”

“Anything else?” Lawrence asked.

“Then, that’s it, I think.”

I breathed out, hard.

“I’m off to El Paso, guys, see you soon.”

“Good luck, Wendy, you got this.”

It was nice, getting encouragement from Lawrence.

“Bye.”

That brought me down a few notches.

“I’ll call when I get out of city limits.”

A pause.

“D?”

“I heard you.”

No point in sticking around, then.

Feeling bummed, I waved, and I got into the RV.

I saw Isabella, who made herself at home, sitting in one of the padded chairs at the back, eyelids heavy.

I crossed the length of the RV, meeting Sarah at the driver’s seat.

“I’m ready,” I told her.

She nodded, and started the RV. She relayed the message into her walkie-talkie. Tone replied back, a mechanical tone.

We started moving.

I moved myself back to the other side of the RV, where Isabella was. I found another seat by her, and sat.

I found my bag of stuff that I packed for the trip. Less than when I stayed at the Lunar, but I did have my costume.

The RV got off the lot, onto the street, and it was a longer drive until we got onto the highway.

Curiosity getting the better of me, I stood, and checked the back window. Isabella roused.

The eighteen wheeler.

It followed us. Seeing Tone driving the truck, and knowing who was inside the trailer, and being out in the open, made that feeling of trepidation come back even stronger.

Then the heavy sound of a motor.

I froze.

From my left, the right side of the truck, a motorcycle appeared. Black, the fringes of it appeared monstrous in nature. I saw the rider.

He motioned with a salute, then making a victory sign with hand.

Styx beamed, and I stepped away from the window.

That’s how he wants to see me off?

He was fucking with us.

Isabella managed to sleep through the rumbling of the engine, but it kept me up until we officially left the city. After what felt like an hour or more, the sound faded into the distance, Styx probably taking an exit somewhere along the highway. I could hear Styx cackling in my head, laughing at a joke I wasn’t in on.

Then, we left Stephenville. It was half past three in the morning. Seven hundred miles, ten hours, give or take, to the west. El Paso. And there was still the trip back.

I breathed, feeling shaky, but at the same time, there was an eerie calm, too.

Putting dark clouds, and darker sentiments behind me, it almost felt nice, to get away from the city, to take a break from it all.

Previous                                                                                               Next

075 – Whatever I Want (Fuck Who’s Watching)

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Styx took his sweet time, surveying the room, looking over everything and everyone. His arms were outstretched, as if he was presenting the scene that he saw before him. He studied every face, observing every detail he could soak in.

Then his eyes fell on D, and then me.

Wide, widening I saw more the whites of his eyes than the pupils. He was still beaming, harder than ever, and his fingers twitched. He balled up his hands, releasing, balling them up again. Releasing. Like electricity coursed through his body. He shuddered.

His eyes were still trained on me.

He looked nearly frantic, like he couldn’t contain himself. Excited.

I shuddered.

“Remain calm,” Styx said, looking anything but. “I only plan to do… whatever I want.”

‘En garde,’ and then ‘remain calm?’ Was he aware that he was inherently contradicting himself?

No one moved, no one made a sound. Nothing was stopping me from doing anything, I had the weight and the power to throw around, but…

Something was compelling me to fall in line. To listen, just like everyone else. Being brought down to their level. And to concede this moment to Styx.

I hated that I didn’t have that control.

But, it was either that, or pulling something that might put D at risk. We were surrounded before, and now those numbers, and the amount of threats, had swelled. Trying anything now would, more likely than not, lead to a disaster, especially when I was down and I had to get myself up. To the higher ground. D’Angelo’s words.

I can’t even circle about, here.

I lowered my head more. My hood should have obscured my face from everyone else but D and Styx. For Styx’s eyes only, I gave him a heated glare.

That seemed to make him beam even more.

“Hi,” he said.

I refused to grace him with a greeting back.

He didn’t drop his expression as he broke his gaze, letting it wander again, getting one more look over.

Everyone – that wasn’t with Styx – was frozen, unsure of what to do next, or what was about to happen. Dong-Yul’s men were petrified, still reeling from the attack in the dark, and now seeing their boss, and their plans, compromised. Nobody dared to move.

Seemingly satisfied, Styx turned around and motioned to the men behind him. To Lawrence and Dong-Yul.

They were still holding hands.

Styx motioned with his hands. A number of his men took their backs off the wall to join him. He motioned again.

Following Styx’s orders, his Ferrymen pushed Lawrence and Dong-Yul forward. Styx stepped to the side, letting them take center stage.

Styx still had command of the room, though.

“See? We all can get along!”

His face must have hurt by now, smiling as much as he was. Yet he kept at it. I would have been impressed if it weren’t so sickening.

“Isn’t it beautiful?”

Clearly he was enjoying himself.

There was movement as Lawrence took a step to Styx, and his Ferrymen bristled. They all tensed, ready to pounce on anyone who would dare touch their master, let alone speak against him. That was how I interpreted it, anyways.

“Dammit, Styx, quit fucking around and quit fucking with us!”

There wasn’t even a moment to react or process. Lawrence was on the ground, curled up arms covering his face and head, and Styx was pounding on him, stomping at him with heavy steel-toed boots. Dong-Yul had tripped over, on his knees, after whatever force sent Lawrence down hard.

“Do. Not. Fuck. King. Speak. While. I. Am. Feeling it!”

Styx punctuated every word, every syllable, with a kick to Lawrence’s side or arm. With the way Lawrence’s head jolted back, Styx probably got a good hit there, too.

I winced, feeling for Lawrence, feeling terrible. He couldn’t seem to catch a break.

D stirred, then she bursted out of my arms.

“D!”

I tried to grab her and pull her back, but she was running hard, running fast. She pushed past some of the men in suits, and some of the Ferrymen who hadn’t gotten into position around the walls.

They didn’t stop her, giving D a straight line to Styx. Would they have stopped me if I ran, instead?

“Styx!”

D jumped at Styx, her arms wrapping around his shoulders, her feet off the ground as she secured a hold. Styx didn’t look all that muscular, maybe closer to being spindly, but he stayed his ground while D was swinging, trying to throw her weight around. It didn’t work, he hardly budged, still kicking down Lawrence.

D kept at it all the same.

“Dummy! Stop it! You jerk!”

Bless her, she tried, but she couldn’t get Styx to stop, or ever falter. Even with the floor being wet. He only did because of his own volition.

Styx rolled his shoulders, forcing D to drop back down. He turned to face her.

D punched him in the arm.

“Dummy!” she shouted again.

I watched for the reactions of the Ferrymen. None of them budged.

“Are you done?” he asked, in a casual manner that stood out to me. That tone, that response to a kid. It wasn’t really in that patronizing manner that one would use when talking to someone younger. It went deeper than that, an implication of some familiarity, and, at least on some level, respect.

Lawrence had mentioned that Styx and D went way back, but to see it with my own eyes, with D yelling at Styx, hitting him to get him to stop, and with him addressing her in that casual manner…

Even seeing it with my own eyes, it was still hard to believe.

D crossed her arms, and stomped her foot. I could only see the back of her head, but she looked indignant.

“Are you?”

She was talking back to Styx, of all people. And he was letting her.

“I am now,” Styx said, dismissive. He shifted his balance, so he wasn’t standing over Lawrence, with his foot still hovering above him.

“Get off!” D shouted, shoving Styx away. One last try at getting him to fall. It still didn’t pan out.

Styx rolled with it, stepping over Lawrence before catching himself, smooth. He fixed his jacket with a hard tug.

“There,” he said, “Happy?”

D didn’t answer, instead kneeling over Lawrence, tending to him. As she worked, her back to me, I stole another glance ahead.

Styx was standing still, without the energy from before, almost deflated after D rudely interrupted him. Dong-Yul was picking himself back up, careful, as if to not set off Styx again.

He tried to get his bearings as well, looking over the whole lounge, and then his eyes fell onto me.

“Styx, what the fuck is all of this? Who the fuck are you?”

He was asking about me.

I stayed still, crouched low, refusing to acknowledge him, ignoring his questions.

Styx addressed him instead.

“You are not allowed to talk here, Donnie.”

He recoiled, flinching at the admonishment. To Dong-Yul, Styx was speaking to him like he would a child.

Dong-Yul didn’t look at all happy about it, but he had no choice. He went silent.

“Good,” Styx said, “Now where was I?”

Again, he took back control of the room. The situation.

“Ah yes, getting along. It’s as beautiful as I was told it would be.”

He clapped his hands together.

“It’s like a white canvas. Can’t say it’s my thing, personally, but that is what tastes are, and I’d like to think I’m the kind of person who tries to acquire as much as I can. White, though. For me, I’d much prefer a splash of red. But I digress.”

I had no idea what he was talking about.

He continued to address the room. Or more like he was talking just to talk.

“Some people can be so blind. Seeing only what they want to see, liking only the colors they like. They never see what else is out there for them. Sometimes, it’s better than what they were looking at and searching for. Other times… you should be aware of your surroundings.”

His wide, too-white eyes landed on me again.

“Gonnelli! Can you see the scene you sculpted with your very fingers?”

I thought he was talking about painting. Now sculpting?

Now I was officially and totally lost.

What was Styx doing here to begin with? Why did he have Lawrence and Dong-Yul? What the fuck was he talking about?

Too many questions, and I wasn’t really in a position to ask.

But, he was talking to me, directly. Styx. It would be wrong to ignore him.

I stood.

“I didn’t know you were a fan of my work,” I said, playing along. I tried deepening my voice, masking that as well.

“It still needs some refining, but I do think you’re onto something. Experimenting and seeing other methods to craft your art, will make for much more dynamic pieces in the future. I’m looking forward to it.”

He beamed again.

Yeah. Officially lost.

I wasn’t sure how to go about dealing with a guy like Styx. He seemed like he could snap at any second. He certainly snapped at Lawrence after just talking out of line. It wasn’t like he could beat me up, I wasn’t in his reach, and he didn’t have that kind of strength, but he did have the command of his men, and the room, and the situation. If he so desired, he could fill this place with more holes and lead than people.

He seemed to be keen to madness. I’d have to lean into that, appeal to that side of him. Appeal to that side of myself.

If I want to sell it properly and get out of this with everyone intact.

“I’ll look into it,” I said, “Art is ever-evolving, anyways.”

“Yes, it is.”

Where the hell is this conversation going?

“Now, Styx,” I said, cautious, “If I may be so bold as to steer this talk a little bit…”

I trailed out at the end, to test Styx in a way, to gauge his reaction. Would just that much be enough to make him flip?

I watched for the slightest of movements, any sign, however subtle. I couldn’t catch a thing.

Damn, it was so hard to get a read on the guy.

It was only when Styx spoke did I get any indication.

“Enough with the posturing, get on with it.”

Fucking what?

I was more envious of D’s ability to smack Styx without repercussions than I was perplexed. And it made me unsure of what my next move should be. If I should even have a next move.

Styx jumped to whatever was next on his twisted agenda.

“Get him up.”

Some of Styx’s Ferrymen moved, going to D and Lawrence. She was still taking care of him, making sure he was okay.

D noticed that they were approaching. She didn’t like it.

“Get away! Back off!”

They continued.

“I said get back! Or I pinky promise I’ll do something! I’ll spill rats down a wire cage attached to your faces! I’ll steal all of your personal info and passwords and upload them online! I’ll tape papers with bad words on them to your backs!”

Despite the warnings from a little girl, they continued. They worked together to split the pair apart.

One of them went for D, and she struck, swinging her fist to hit them across the temple. It connected.

He didn’t keep his balance like Styx did, but he didn’t completely fall to the ground. He wobbled, but he was still able to sweep D up with his arms, more prepared to hold her back when she kicked and hollered. It was the helmet that he was wearing that softened the blow.

I’ve seen that helmet before.

It was the same Ferryman that had given me the keys to the Lunar, the fake IDs.

I searched around. I didn’t have to look far.

The other Ferryman. The one I’d encountered during our burning of East Stephenville. The biker with long brown hair, tied back, looking almost as crazy as his boss. He was working on getting Lawrence back to his feet, propping him up when Lawrence was unable to stand straight on his own. Parts of his face and clothes had gotten wet from being in contact with the slippery floor.

So badly did I want to fly across the room and break them apart. To get Styx’s people away from mine. But they were already too tangled up, and Styx was so unpredictable that I couldn’t plan for any possible reaction on his part to counter. I didn’t want to make a move that I couldn’t follow up on, if I couldn’t guess what the opponent’s counter would be. It was all a gamble with Styx. And unless the odds were stacked in my favor by a large, large margin, I hated gambles.

“Grab El, he is to hold hands with-”

“Styx, god dammit, stop fucking around and explain yourself-”

Stepping forward, interrupting Styx. Dong-Yul was willing to make that gamble. It didn’t work out for him.

He crashed into a table, toppling over with him. Styx ran and tackled him with such an intensity and disregard for his own body and safety that bordered on manic.

Styx got up first, and Dong-Yul followed, as Styx lifted him with straps and latches that made up his jacket. A certain number of Ferrymen sprung to action without an order from their boss, running from their different positions at the perimeter, fixing the table and holding it down.

He slammed Dong-Yul back down to the table. It didn’t topple this time.

Not kicks, but fists. Styx laid into Dong-Yul with every word echoing.

“What. The. Fuck. Did. I. Tell you!”

Each fist was made more red as Styx pulled out from his face, thin trails of blood following the knuckles, connecting the two of them like threads. Deeper, more red, the color darkening.

I looked away.

Tell me, what the fuck did I say?”

Punch. Squelch.

“The fuck did I say! Tell me!”

Punch. Punch. Squelch.

“Tell me! Tell me! Tell me!”

Squelch. Squelch. Squelch.

It was like the sound of raw meat slapping against a marble slab. It nauseated. And was what worse was the sweet smell that began to waft from that direction.

I heard more noises, more movement. Like something cutting through air, and then another crash. I could only use my imagination, and I didn’t really want to.

He must have flipped him to the other table, the Ferrymen holding that one, too.

More punches, more squelching.

Styx and Dong-Yul went silent, both for very different reasons.

The silence stayed for some time.

“Clean this up.”

More sounds of activity. None of the wet noises from before.

I chanced a look.

The Ferrymen were working on cleaning ‘this’ up. They each were taking out rags from their leather jackets, setting the tables back to where they belonged, cleaning the surfaces and spraying away the blood with water. They kept pulling supplies from their jackets, sharing with one another whenever any of them needed something. One group of Ferrymen would spray the tables, another would wipe and dry, and another was setting Dong-Yul down to do whatever it was they were going to do with him.

A final pair of Ferrymen had towels, washing Styx’s hands as he talked once more.

“Now I hope you’ve learned the lessons you needed to learn. Do take Donnie here as another lesson as to what happens if you don’t get the simple things through your skulls. It’s so simple.”

I couldn’t make sense of anything that was happening, or what had happened leading up to this. Something about a fight in the dark? It wasn’t even anything directly involving me, yet, somehow, Styx created a situation so twisted and illogical and wrong that I couldn’t keep up. I tried to keep up, but it he was seemingly on another plane of existence.

I was discombobulated.

I watched Styx as he continued. It was all I could really do.

“I know all of your faces, and if I need to, I can learn all of your names. Your little crusade ends here. This war you think you were preparing for, it’s over. Your army has been stripped away and dismantled. You no longer are allowed access to those uniforms. And if you so much as look at a shirt with buttons on it… I’ve given you several examples.”

Gesturing behind him, to Dong-Yul. I realized that Styx was looking at each and every one of Dong-Yul’s men in the face.

He gestured again.

“There’s two elevators. If I may be so bold as to ask you all to take your leave, it would be much appreciated.”

Using my words, or some of them. Posturing. He really was just doing whatever the fuck he wanted.

After everything that just happened, everything Styx had done, I couldn’t blame anyone for taking long to start moving. Realizing they were allowed to, given that privilege by someone above them.

Dong-Yul’s men started walking. Slow, going together, filling the elevators that a Ferryman called for them. Most of them stared me down as they passed. For them, I was right there, like how Styx was right there, but they were powerless to do anything about it.

It took minutes, to get everyone in and out of the lounge, with Dong-Yul getting his own elevator to himself. Two Ferrymen carried him by the arms and legs, moving him with the utmost care so he wouldn’t bump into anything. Where Styx was capable of such violence, his men knew how to counter that.

I couldn’t see Dong-Yul’s face. His dyed hair was stained red.

Then, and only then, when the doors closed and what was left of Dong-Yul was out of sight, did I realize that Lawrence, D, and I were still stuck in a room with this biker psychopath and his merry band of other psycho bikers.

My heart started beating so hard I felt my body ache.

It was just me, Lawrence, D, and Styx’s Gang now.

Fuck me. Fuck us. Fuck all of this.

Styx clapped one more time, his hands now clean and dry. One of his men started collecting the red, soddened rags into a plastic bag.

“Onto the next one,” he said, somehow sounding bored.

We’re next, I thought.

With more gestures and motions, he ordered his men to come closer. The ones were still standing around the room began to walk forward, in unison, making the perimeter smaller.

They were closing in on us.

I wanted to avoid them, didn’t want them to touch me. I didn’t even want them to be near me, but I had no choice in that regard.

I walked over to the center of the lounge, the center of the perimeter Styx’s men were making.

I met D there, she’d been released by the helmeted Ferryman. Lawrence was now being supported by him and the other Ferryman I had met before.

D went to my side, hugging me. I put an arm around her.

Lawrence… wasn’t looking too hot. He was better than Dong-Yul by miles, but he was still taken up to a threshold of pain that certainly was not comfortable. He was hunched, cradling an arm, more bandages on his face. His expression was one of hurt. It hurt to look at him.

I couldn’t bear it anymore.

“Styx,” I said, facing him head on. The whole front of my body was pointed in his direction. Shoulders straight and square. Head held high. He was much taller than me.

What?” he asked, with that disinterested demeanor. It was like all the fight in him had left his body, and he was the only one doing the fighting.

This was him. Styx. I was face to face with the man who was connected to the Solace conspiracy, how Benny fit into all of that, and Mister.

He had been active in trying to take Blank Face out, and had a hand in Hleuco’s disappearance. That, I would never be able to forget.

And yet he was also the man who pulled strings to get us into the Lunar Tower, giving us a direct line to Granon in order to stop his group.

So many contradictions.

There was so much I wanted to ask him about, to interrogate or even beat that information out of him if I could. But, I wasn’t holding the reigns, here, and I’d have to start from the most pressing matter, first.

I readied myself.

“You better seriously fucking explain yourself with this. I, we, were in the middle of something, and you went ahead and… you didn’t throw a wrench in it, you broke the whole fucking machine.”

Styx leaned his head one way, with a soft grin. “Ah thank you.”

I clenched my hands. If I didn’t have my gloves on, my fingernails would have punctured the skin of my palms.

Styx fixed his jacket again, stroking his beard, straightening wiry hairs.

“Seriously? Seriously. If fucking anything, I was the one in the middle of something, and you meddling kids and your little bitch came in with the wrench to throw. But actually, you are right, I was the one to break the machine, so thank you again for the opportunity. I managed to salvage some fun out of it.”

“You knew about Dong-Yul and his volunteers?”

Styx looked legitimately offended, which was not a good thing.

“Bitch, I have been knowing. I’ve been following Donnie’s movements ever since his brother got offed and he took over, watching as he formed his army and tried to start his new cause. I was going to wait for the moment he was going to try something with them, I even knew what he had planned and where he had in mind. And you came and got ahead of me. I’ll have to keep a note of that, your enthusiasm. It would be impressive if it hadn’t gotten in my way.”

“You didn’t have to do that to Lawrence, you jerk.”

D spoke up, popping her head out from under my poncho.

“Dummy.”

“I had to set an example for Donnie and his boys, otherwise they wouldn’t get the message. Relax, D, I didn’t go for anything vital, and I know I didn’t break anything. I have self-control. You know that more than anyone here.”

He does?

“So that was just for show?” I asked, “All of it?”

“Not all of it. I do get enjoyment out of my work, I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t. But, I did have to deter them from their original course of action. I can’t have them conducting business in a way that interferes with my business, because my business is everyone’s business.”

“If Donnie started up trouble with tensions being what they are, it would make things even more complicated for this city, and everyone in it.”

“Effects ripple, leading to unforeseen circumstances. As fun as those can be, it allows room for disaster if you’re not careful, being blindsided. I detest that.”

He said those last three word with such clarity, it resonated within me. Because I was much the same way.

“I…” I started. “That can be a hassle.”

“Mass hysteria, something you seem to have a knack for causing.”

I couldn’t tell if Styx was criticizing me or commending me. Or maybe a little bit of both?

Then Styx directed himself to me. Like how I did to him.

“Hi,” he said again.

My response was the same as before.

“You’re looking much better than the last time I saw you. You were positively vibrating, then. If there’s more where that came from, I can dig this update very much.

My response was the same as before. Mostly because I had no idea how to begin to touch that.

“What do they call you, back at home base?” Styx asked. “Voss?”

I was glad that I still had my mask on, and that my skin had turned so white, over the months of having powers. He couldn’t see my expression change to dread and shock, and there was no color left to drain from my face.

I felt D tug tighter around the fabric of my poncho.

“So you do know,” I said, doing my best to drum up the confidence. To not look shaken. Fake it if I had to. And I had to. “Did D give you my warning?”

“She did. I considered it, as the courtesy as it was, but I’ll be riding on King of Pentacles long after everything’s said and done. I’m not sweating it.”

“No?”

“Eh.” Styx shrugged. “Death’s been waiting for me with a rope in hand, but she knows I can’t leave just yet. Too many people are standing on my shoulders. If I ever fall into a casket…”

“Unforeseen circumstances?” I asked.

Styx smiled in response. It made my skin crawl.

“You catch on quick. That’s funny.”

Funny?

“But you’re still the fool I remember from back then.”

“Fool?”

That word, I repeated back to Styx.

“You don’t remember? It was the first time we met. I can still see it in my mind’s eye, that image of you flailing with a chain around your neck. And what did I call you then. Oh yeah, the Blueballs.”

Several images flickered, as if someone had shined a strobe light into my eyes. I shook my head.

“Oh yeah, and I believe I had broken both your arms then, too. Yet here you are, as if it never happened. It’s not a good look for me, you know, when people think I can’t finish what I start. I have a reputation to keep.”

I tried to breathe, but it hitched.

Even if I couldn’t remember that exactly, I could feel a intense pressure begin to coil around my neck. Hard to breathe, hard to stay composed. Connections trying to come back online, after I had already put them down and laid them to rest.

I felt the beginnings of a headache.

It physically hurt to regain an equilibrium, and I had to do it while standing my ground here with Styx, and not giving any tells. Shit.

I hadn’t felt something like that since I left that old life behind.

“That was so long ago,” I said, voice sounding more dry than I wanted it to. “I’d like to think I’ve gotten better since then.”

“Or you could have just gotten better at hiding your flaws. From everyone and yourself. As foolish as ever.”

“You’re off the mark,” I said, but I was unsure if I was saying that more for him or for myself. “Totally off the mark.”

“I admit I could be, our interactions have been very limited. But, I seen crazy shit, man, seen crazy shit, and I know how to call it when I see it. And I can see-”

He raised a hand, wagging a finger, as if accusatory.

“-what you refuse to.”

The playing yet warning tone, the toothy sneer that came with it. He was toying with me.

D tugged even tighter. She’d crinkle the material if she kept that up.

“Lo, little Dolly,” Styx said. He was talking to her now. “It’s been fun seeing this side of you, thirsting so desperately for blood when all you need is water. I’m sorry to say, but you won’t be finding it in these two. They’re the dummies, and you’re grasping for straws, and stuffing them with it. I thought you grew out of this, already?”

“Hush, Styx, I don’t have to explain myself to you. Not anymore.”

“Of course you don’t. And I will respect that.”

Dolly. I hadn’t heard that one. That wasn’t the name she told me. A nickname?

Lawrence had mentioned that D and Styx went way back.

“What is this, really?” I questioned. The question ended up being more universal than specific. “Between you two. It bothers me, with you being so familiar.”

“Does it? Do I sense of hint of jealousy?”

“Curiosity, is all.”

“I… don’t even think I want to hear it.”

Lawrence. He struggled to get out his piece in this stilted conversation.

“There’s a legit chance it might be worse than anything I want to guess.”

I looked at D and Styx again.

“You two… You couldn’t have possibly…”

I didn’t finish the thought, not out loud. I wasn’t even sure if that was a thought I wanted to finish.

D didn’t say anything. Styx did.

“I am not a vain and cruel wretch, nor am I a hateful person. I chose to see past what she reduced herself to. Past the letter.”

He didn’t confirm or deny. Confirm or deny what, though? I had never finished the thought.

Maybe I didn’t want to know. I was with Lawrence on this one.

“Anyways,” I said, feeling more tired from just a conversation, ignoring the fight I had just gotten into earlier. “What else are you here for, Styx? We inadvertently got ahead of your plans, sure, but you couldn’t have come here just to give us a warning, too. We aren’t like Dong-Yul’s gang, and I think on some level you know that.”

Styx laughed, too hard for whatever he found funny.

“Actually, I did come here to do exactly that. But it’s two-fold. I really did want to see El and Donnie holding hands, getting along. Because, for humans, peace is an acquired taste, and they have to force themselves into it. It’s important to be reminded of that for my job, and I cannot ever slack, and the moment I slip up, even for a second, it all falls apart, and that’s on me. It’s weight on my shoulders, that only I can carry.”

I really fucking hated how much I got that.

Styx moved over to one of the tables. He pointed to some of the men at the perimeter, and they broke formation to prepare chairs.

“Come, sit,” he said. “Watch, speak, listen.”

I detested how hard it was to get my bearings with Styx. Every other minute, it seemed, he would do or say something that caused me to step back and try to understand it, only for everything to stack and I’d end up falling behind. It was so unfocused, scatterbrained, but not like how Dong-Yul and his gang’s structure was. This was… This had to be deliberate. This had to be a tactic. To keep himself ahead of everyone else, to maintain power and control.

Not a bad tactic, but I didn’t have to like it when it was used against me.

We went to the table, silent. D helped Lawrence settle into a chair, taking the chair between us when she finished. The helmeted and the brown-haired Ferrymen didn’t take seats beside their boss, rather they stood right behind him, one to his left and right. Were they his lieutenants, or something to that effect?

This was the worst reunion ever.

More seconds of silence. We had to wait for Styx to start.

Styx started.

“I came here to stop Donnie, he was prime to cause a fuckton of trouble, but the truth is, you all are much worse. With the three of you working together, with the capabilities you each bring to the table, your gang is liable to leave a much bigger and far wider impact than any gang in Stephenville. That can either be a good thing, or the destruction of everything I worked to build. Both ways sound entertaining, but I’m not ready for a grand finale, not yet.”

Sweat began to form around the back of my neck. How much did he really know?

“So, it’s up to me to steer you in the right direction. Which was one of the many, many reasons why I elected to help D the three times she came to me about this.”

Three times?

The third favor that D refused to talk about.

“Of course, I have to have my own fun with it.”

Styx beamed again. Seeing it so wide and free, it filled me with disgust.

“So you’re here to…” I started, but Styx interrupted.

“You do catch on quick. Very good! Yes, I’m here to cash in my first favor.”

One out of three. It had already begun. We stuck to our original plan, and Styx had showed himself, and it was up in the air how ready we really were.

Previous                                                                                               Next

074 – Bring da Ruckus

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“No way, D, no fucking way.”

“Yes way, Wendy, yes… um, flipping way.”

I took another look at the picture.

The tops of heads. Men. More than I could reasonably guess. With the suits they were all wearing, and with the situation being what it was, and everything Dong-Yul had been espousing, the context clues made me think mercenaries.

They were gathered, different groups of them sitting at different tables in what looked like a large waiting room. The colors of the wall and floor, and some of the decor, brought to mind the club we were in right now.

The angle of the picture itself stood out to me. For one, I could mostly see the tops of their heads and their shoulders, and there were thin, blurry lines that ran down the length of the image.

From above, behind some bars. Where did she take this from?

But, looking closer, none of them seemed particularly ready to jump the gun, and many of them were in the middle of having drinks, conversing, or just taking it easy. If I had to deal with them, I had some time.

But, they were there, they were in uniform, and they would be a problem.

“Is that what I think it is?” I asked, still looking at the picture.

“It is,” D said.

“Okay,” I said, before a brief pause. “Is this going to be my problem?”

“It’s going to be everyone’s problem if we don’t take care of it.”

“What I mean is, is it going to be my problem to solve?”

D patted me on the shoulder, her hand reaching over her head to get me.

“There, there, you’ll be fine.”

I grunted, starting to unzip the bag that D handed over. My bag. My costume.

“Wait, I’m just kidding, of course I‘m going to help. Geez. You overachiever.”

I looked over the contents of my bag, checking and double-checking that everything was there. And it had better be, I gave her everything before we left.

It was.

Maybe I was being too clingy with my stuff, or even attaching too much sentiment to material things, but knowing my mask and hood and knife were all accounted for, made me feel a little more at ease. It made me feel like I could take on anything.

I zipped it up partway, so nothing would spill out.

“Okay,” I said. “If you’re going to help-”

“I am.”

“-then I need as many details as possible. I don’t want to go into this blind.”

“I know you don’t, which was why I did as much as I could before you came by here, and I got some stuff ready beforehand. If we’re going to do this, we’re going to do this right.”

I liked the sound of that.

“I like the sound of that,” I said, “What do you have?”

D grinned.

“To be more or less accurate, there isn’t like, a hundred guys in there, there’s probably about forty, maybe fifty, but I tried to get as many people in the shot as possible, and that’s just me being zealous, I’d rather overestimate than underprepare. But yes, fifty would be my best guess.”

After a pause, D then added, “More or less.”

“Somehow, even with you cutting that number down by half, it still doesn’t make it any easier,” I commented.

“We should be fine.”

“Should be?”

D gestured with her tablet, as if she was waving me away.

“The beauty of this is we don’t have to beat all of them up, or hurt them in any lasting way. We just… need to keep them occupied until Dong-Yul needs them, and they don’t show.”

“You call that beauty?” I asked.

“There’s an art to chaos,” D answered, “I find it very appealing.”

I was about to comment further, but there wasn’t any time to discuss other things. We were on the clock.

I moved the tablet back, so I could a better look at it again.

“And where are all of these guys?” I asked, realizing that I hadn’t gotten that yet. That should have been the first, if not the second, maybe third, thing to be clear on. Maybe aside from an exact number, but we could be a tad flexible on that.

We couldn’t do anything about the mercenaries if we didn’t know where they were.

“There’s a bottom level of the club. What Dong-Yul didn’t make clear is that he owns the place, or rather, his brother did. It’s a decent headquarters for the Kung Fools, or the Hóngshuǐ, now that they’ve rebranded. Forty or fifty dudes, more or less, all hanging around a few stories below our feet.”

I let go D’s wrist, giving the tablet back to her.

“Any guesses as to what they’re doing here, and what Dong-Yul needs them for?” I asked.

“No guesses needed, you even heard it yourself. Using his surplus of recruits, gathering numbers. He’s preparing for a war, and to do that, he’s building an army.”

“What does that have to do with us, and why they’re here at the Gonnishi?”

“Because Dong-Yul doesn’t actually intend to make any friends. Especially with us.”

I could have laughed, but I didn’t want to make too much noise. I was spending too much time in the restroom as it was, getting briefed on the situation.

“He isn’t, of course he isn’t. He thinks he can lead us into a trap?”

“Looks like. It’s for very different reasons, but, like him, our gang has been growing pretty quickly, too. We’ve both been getting a lot of attention, making waves, as they say. So, what happens if two hot rookies are pitted against each other?”

“The winner gets the combined hype of both,” I said. “They get momentum.”

“Exactly. Which gives him more clout to do… whatever it is he wants to do. And, considering the rhetoric, it’s probably not very good.”

“Probably. What good does he think he’ll accomplish with a war, though?”

“Maybe he doesn’t want to do any good. Maybe he just wants to watch the world drown. Hóngshuǐ does mean flood, in case you didn’t know, but you probably did.”

I raised my chin, feeling compelled to wrap my head around that.

It was hard, trying to make sense of Dong-Yul and his actions. His attire, his attitude, the girls, the fact his gang’s name was in Chinese, structured like it wanted to be a triad, yet he owned a Japanese club and restaurant, all while having adopted a Korean name.

The whole setup of it felt all over the place, scatterbrained, cultures blending and mixing in a way that seemed forced, pushed to fit a vision of someone who might not understand what they were getting themselves, and others, into. He wasn’t even one to get his hands dirty.

And, apparently, according to Lawrence and Jess and Tiffany, there used to not even be a Dong-Yul. It was Donnie. Something had to have happened.

I shook my head.

But, I didn’t necessarily need to understand that, understand him. He just needed to be stopped.

“We can’t have floods,” I said. “Kind of puts a damper on what we’re trying to do.”

“A little bit,” D said, with a sly look in her eyes.

“Alright, then let’s get on with it, I actually don’t want to hang around a restroom and just talk.”

“Why not? It’s private, it’s clean, relatively. Can’t find a better place to converse up in da club.”

With a finger, I tapped D on the forehead. She made a noise, closing her eyes as a reflex.

“Focus,” I told her. “What’s the plan? You said we keep them occupied? How?”

D rubbed her forehead as she answered, “Mm, we distract. During dinner, Dong-Yul is going to want to play that card and sweep the rug under us, calling those men into the restaurant and overwhelm with numbers. He’d reveal his true colors, then. Dong-Yul might wait until you get back, but since you will be invariably taking your time, he might just go and rush it, or I can have Lawrence push harder with any negotiations and force Dong-Yul’s hand. Either way, we need to make sure he thinks he still has the upper hand, but in reality, we’re sweeping the rug from under him.”

“Conniving, but it can work. Give me more details.”

“Oh, the details are the best part, Wendy. I’ll go back up where I came from, through the ceiling. Access is somewhat limited, but I can get to what it matters. Like where the power comes from, for one. I can get in there and really start messing with some stuff.”

“And me? How am I getting down to the bottom levels?”

“The back lounge area that you just passed has two elevators. It’s employee access only, but I already went ahead and nabbed a key for you. It’s here, in your bag.”

D touched the side of my bag, the one pocket I hadn’t checked yet.

“What you do is call both elevators, but only get into the one on the left. That’s like, super important. Then, you’ll be going through there as Wendy, but you’re leaving as Vivi.”

“Is that going to work?” I questioned. “What about cameras, or the fact I’ll be immediately boxed in once those doors open again?”

“No need to worry. Power flows through the building in sections, meaning I can isolate certain chunks of the building from one another. By floor, elevator, and room. It’s a quirk in the design of the club. And we’ll be using, or abusing, every bit of that quirk to pull this off.”

“So I call both elevators, but only get into the left one…” I started.

“And I’ll have to shut power to the camera room to let you change. Wait for my text for the go-ahead to do that. And make sure you have your earpiece on after so we can coordinate from there.”

“Roger,” I said, musing. It felt like a ‘D thing’ to respond with.

“And then, the elevator itself. You’ll have to drop down the rest of the way to make it to the bottom. I hope you’re okay with that.”

“I’ll deal,” I said. “Large drops don’t faze me much, you know that.”

“Sweet, just making sure. And you’ll need to open the elevator doors at the bottom, yourself. Just so you know.”

“Doable.”

“Sweet sweet. Next would be the floor. I can’t mess with the power too much for too long, otherwise people will get onto us faster, but by the time you get those doors open, all power and lights and such to that floor should be cut. Then you do your thing.”

“Fuck them up like I did EZ and Krown?” I suggested, joking.

D huffed air out of her nose. “Maybe a notch or two shy of that.”

“We have an exit strategy?”

“Yeah, back the way you came. I can work on covering our tracks the best I can. I’ll let you know when you’re good to pull back. If we do this right, they will never know what hit them.”

“Man, this sounds crazy, but it might actually work.”

“It is crazy, I had to cobble this together on the fly. But that’s fine. Thankfully, we’re able to play this pretty loosely, by ear, so we have room to switch things around and improvise if we have to. As long as Dong-Yul isn’t able to do what he had planned to do, we’re good.”

“Sounds solid to me,” I said. “Elevators. Costume. Fuck them up from the shadows.”

“You got it, Voss.”

D slipped her tablet between her arm and her side, holding it there, while passing me to get closer to the toilet.

“If you keep your head straight and act like you know where you’re going, you should get to the elevators A-okay. That’s honestly the hardest part. Everything else should come naturally.”

Naturally. That word stuck out to me with a certain melancholy. And I couldn’t exactly place why.

“And Lawrence?” I asked.

“I’ll text him to keep him in the loop. If this goes well, he shouldn’t be in any danger at all. He’s a fighter, so he can hold his own in the meantime.”

D set the toilet seat and cover down with her foot, propping herself on top of it.

“Help me up?”

“Sure,” I said, moving.

Getting closer, I put my hands out for her to use as a foothold. She stepped, and I used my strength to lift her, almost tossing her up to the ceiling. She moved the panel and got through before she could bump her head.

“Arigatou,” D said. She fumbled around, and turned back so she was facing me again, like she was before she dropped down. Shadows obscured parts of her face.

“I’ll be off. Wait for my text in about… five minutes?”

“Five minutes,” I repeated.

“Hey,” I added, thinking. The lines going down the image. How she was getting around in the first place.

“How did you even get that shot, anyways?”

“What shot? The picture of the dudes I showed you?”

I nodded.

“Air vents that lead around the building, duh.”

“Don’t they make those too small to get through, even for kids?”

“They actually made them wider here, they have a lot of smoke they need to vent out. Weed, cigarettes, those weird scent machines that periodically spray stuff to make people feel good. Hotels have it too. It’s still a bit of a squeeze.”

I felt a pang of concern.

“That can’t be good for you,” I said.

“It’s not that bad, as long as I suck in my gut, I can fit anywhere.”

I looked at her, eyebrow up.

“That’s not what I meant. Being up in those things while they’re circulating out so much shit, that can’t be healthy.”

I saw D fumble about again. She removed a clump of cloth and unfurled it, dangling it from a strap.

She set it around her ears, covering her mouth, muffling her voice.

“Don’t sweat it, I use protection.”

I ignored her phrasing.

“Just don’t get stuck in there,” I said.

“I won’t, I’ll be in and out,” D said. “Like a ninja.”

I exhaled the word. “Ninja, right.”

It fit, with D’s sense of humor, and the fact we were in a Japanese-themed nightclub, about to take on fifty mercenaries, more or less.

Maybe I could laugh about it later. But not now.

“Alright little ninja,” I said. “Let’s do this.”

“Let’s.”

“Stay safe,” I said, but D’s face had already disappeared into the dark. She probably missed it.

I did more searching through my bag, finding, and taking out the employee card D had slipped into the side. I moved it from the bag to my pocket.

Zipping the bag back up, and putting it around my shoulder, I finally left the restroom.

The air was clearer as I stepped out, but it was only relative. The faint traces of sweat and flavored smoke filled my nose as I went down the hall, taking a turn that took me away from the restaurant.

I found myself in the lounge.

Different, from the one at the Lunar Tower, but only in aesthetic and atmosphere. The lighting was moody, dim, and the walls were dark, the edges of the tables and the bar were fuzzy with a neon glow. People were lazing around in some drug-induced haze, either by a drink or something smoked. The music had a heavy bass and bounce to it, the hi-hats stuttering.

It gave me a strong, strange sense of déjà vu, not because I was in another lounge, on my way to take care of another gang, but this atmosphere, this aesthetic. Like I had been at this kind of scene before…

Like…

No. I knew the time, it wasn’t midnight yet. I discarded the fleeting thought and moved on.

The lounge wasn’t full or cramped like what I had seen on the dance floor. People probably paid top dollar to enjoy themselves up here, above everyone else, so there was some exclusivity, in the lounge and the restaurant. Walking across the area, with purpose, no one paid me any mind.

I used what I had learned at the Lunar, how to blend into the background, how to act like I belonged.

I reached the elevators.

I saw a reader for the card, by the buttons. I got the card ready, and swiped without missing a beat.

I pressed to call both.

The elevators beeped, the doors sliding open.

I got into the one of the left, the doors sliding closed. I kept my head low and my face hidden.

That wasn’t hard at all.

I checked my phone, waiting for a text from D.

It didn’t take long for it to come.

Camera’s down. Change.

I changed.

I went quick, taking everything out first before putting on just what I needed. The essentials. Mask, outer layer, gloves, knife. Hood up. I wouldn’t have time to change to my proper pants or thermals. But if we only needed to provide a distraction, then I was ready.

I had finished changing.

Responding to D’s text, I put the earpiece in last.

The call came in.

Hear me, Vivi?

“Loud and clear,” I replied.

Nice. Hit the button that says B-Three.

I found the button. I hit it.

The elevator started moving.

Do you see the door to get out from the top?

I looked up, searching.

“There, in the corner.”

You’re going to need pull the latch to get it open, and make sure to close it behind you. I won’t be able to keep power away from the cameras and elevator forever, so in case someone else needs to use the elevator, it’ll be there for them, and that means less suspicion.

“Sure.”

I watched as the glowing numbers ticked down. I passed the first floor, getting to B-One.

Thinking of it as a timer, it did make me a little nervous. Just a little.

The elevator shuddered to a halt before going down another level.

And… There you go, power’s knocked out on the elevator. Same should be for the bottom level once you get to it.

“Should be?” I asked.

Will be.

Without any other words, I got moving.

The space inside the elevator was rather expansive, enough to fit a crowd if it had to. It took a few hops, but I was able to undo the latch, and with two more hops, I pushed the door open, clanging, and I got out of the elevator box from the top.

What immediately got my attention was the echo, and the pitch blackness of the chasm I was in. The elevator shaft was as long as it was dark.

Upon being greeted by the cold air, I immediately understood why D wanted me to bring up both elevators. Both elevators needed to be called up so I could have clearance to drop down once I was lowered enough. If I hadn’t, then I’d jump and get stuck, partway through. Then I would be fucked.

It was a good thing D knew to account for something like that.

The fact that she was so capable, it was kind of creepy, the more I thought about it.

I tried not to think about it.

I dropped down, feeling a split second of the jitters when the fall lasted just a second longer than it should have.

I landed, a thud echoing up and down the elevator shaft.

“Here,” I said, hushed, the sound still carrying.

And… done. Power’s cut for that whole floor.

I put my hands on the doors. I could hear the panic and confusing rising from the other side.

There were a lot of people on the other side of these doors.

“And if they try to communicate with Dong-Yul?” I asked.

Doesn’t really matter. They’ll all be down there with you so it’s not like Dong-Yul will be able to do anything about it.  Now go, I’ll keep you updated on my end. Do your thing. Operation Floodgate is in effect!

“Thank you,” I said. “I really do appreciate it.”

There was a stutter at D’s end. A connection issue from being in the elevator shaft?

And… I did hear you, by the way. You stay safe too.

I smiled.

It was such a small thing, but that gave me enough assurance that I could do this on my own. By myself.

I let the sounds of their panicking flow through me as I wiggled my fingers between the cracks of the doors. It turned into a thrill as I threw the doors open.

I rushed into the gloom, and began my ambush.

I pushed into the first person my arms fell into. He tumbled in an instant, and the force I used was enough to knock down others as he tried to grab anything in reach for purchase. They fell like dominoes.

I jumped, to get my bearings and distance. I used the few seconds I was airborne to get a scan of the room.

The layout was similar to the lounge area above. Round tables placed about, a private bar area that wasn’t manned, but open for everyone who was allowed to be in here. There was a set of lockers on the opposite side of the room, long, some open. I saw the weapons that were placed and displayed within. Guns and models of stuff I hadn’t learned the names of yet.

I took note of any doors and exits, anything they might use as a means of escape and getting help.

I couldn’t let anyone get closer to the lockers or the exits.

Another scan… Fifty suits. Seemed about right. More or less.

I began to descend, and I put my feet out, preparing to get a kick in before I could touch ground.

My feet crashed into someone’s face, and they crashed into more people. The chain reaction that followed to several more out of commission.

Was it too early to think that this was going well? Because it was.

No one could see me, and everyone was confused as to what was happening. It was just chaos, pandemonium. I kept myself shrouded in the dark, keeping quiet as everyone else screamed and shouted for anything that could help them understand, but there wouldn’t be anybody that could offer any help.

I was causing terror, doing quick damage.

Wild, in a frenzy, someone started swinging, arms flailing. I ducked, getting out of the way, swinging at him when I found the chance. It connected, and he flung across the length of the room, making a heap of those he slammed down into.

Close to one of the exits.

Hurrying, I leapt over the crowd to get over to that side.

I struck again as I landed, hitting someone square across the jaw. Maybe the same person I had sent flying, earlier. My arm extended to its full length, and I felt something give.

Not me, someone else.

I probably just broke someone’s jaw.

I-

A smack to the back of my head, forcing me to stumble in another direction. The angle was awkward, and I would have tripped if I didn’t grab for the edge of a table.

I righted myself, and jabbed, striking one of the mercenaries right in his ribs. I felt something give there, too.

A howl, and he fell over.

Dammit. I almost lost myself in the moment. Getting too swept up in the disarray and disorder of everything. I couldn’t let myself drift, or someone could get a lucky shot it.

Throwing my arms out, pushing and shoving, I tore through the crowd, hurting more to debilitate than anything lasting. As long as they were out of the picture, as long as they were distracted, and as long as Dong-Yul was unable to get any use of these mercenaries.

Maybe mercenaries isn’t the right word, I thought, as I backhanded a man into a group of his friends, one of them splitting their chin at the end of a counter. They were more like glorified volunteers.

I had to ease off on the action, hold myself back. One reason why, even though I had my knife at the ready, I wasn’t going for it right away. It didn’t need to get any worse.

“D,” I said, over the continued confusion. I kept moving towards the nearest exit, tossing anyone who even had the thought of leaving.

Yes?

“Any other tricks up your sleeves? It won’t be long until someone does get out of here, I can’t keep it contained to here forever.”

I was working on that. Let me see… here!

I heard a series of hard clicks, scattered across the ceiling.

I heard a series of hard taps, pattered down on my hood.

Water?

Sprinkler’s on.

Using my shoulder, I shoved one suit into another, causing yet another chain reaction. Doing it like this, attacking from the dark and taking advantage of everyone being discombobulated. Unless I jumped, I wasn’t allowed much leg room to kick, but shoving people around was getting the job done. I’d stick with that strategy until the circumstances changed.

People fell, and they slipped as they tried to scramble back up. The floor was collecting water in some places. It was working.

Have to watch my step, too.

I made my way over to the closest exit, clawing my way through. I saw a thin line of light as someone cracked the door open.

I grabbed his arm, twisting it. The line disappeared. I threw my arm back, and him with it.

Putting my hands on the metal bar, I pulled the handle off the door.

A blunt hit right between my shoulder blades. It was more the weight of the hit than the actual pain that caused me to slam into the door, cheek pressed up on the metal surface.

I could feel hands trying to get at me, reaching and pulling for the hood and flowing sides of the poncho of my costume. They’d snag a hold, but it wouldn’t last, their grip slipping away. Was it the water, making me harder to pin down?

With the metal handle still in my hands, I pressed it back on the door, and I hopped, bringing my feet up as well. With a kick, I sent myself flying back. The door didn’t crack open.

Sending my full weight behind me, I shoved the portion of the crowd back. They collapsed and landed in a pile, with me at the top.

I stepped over bodies, heads and hands to climb out of the pile and get back on my feet.

I jumped to reach another part of the room. The tapping of water momentarily got stronger when I got closer to the sprinklers above.

Crowd control. Had to keep everyone inside, and everyone occupied, for as long as possible.

I underestimated the strength of my jump, my shoulder bumping into a locker to stop myself.

A group of suits had the dumb idea to grab for some guns. Couldn’t let that happen.

One of them grabbed for a rifle, hanging from an open locker. I put both hands on the metal handle I had gotten from the door.

I swung down, hitting an arm. Another underestimation, another howl. He recoiled, hugging his arms close and collapsing to his knees.

More people with the same dumb idea. I hit them with the door handle so they could reconsider.

Being in the dark, with so many people and so many things happening all at once, it would be so stupid to grab for a gun and start firing in here. People wouldn’t shoot if it meant friendly fire.

I swung again, and I was blocked.

A man in a suit, towering over me, using the gun as a blunt weapon.

He tried to fight me on this.

Pressing his arms, and the gun, down, he tried to overpower me and get me to heel. I could see the veins on his face and neck, I could see the effort.

My makeshift weapon was locked with his manufactured killing machine.

A light thrust. That was all it took to get him off of me and onto his ass.

I did one more sweep of the lockers, closing each one I came across, kicking other guns under counters and tables to prevent any searching hands from getting lucky.

There. That was one problem literally swept away. It would have to do.

What more could I do? There had to be something.

“D,” I said. “How is it on your end? And Lawrence?”

It took a moment before I heard anything from her. I had to get back at working on crowd control while I waited.

Then came her reply.

Hold on, hold on!

“D…” I said, huffing out the name. My focus was split between trying to talk and trying to fight.

I’m not at that room right now! They, I, it’s gotten a little complicated!

A little complicated?

I wanted to press for more info, but the amount of energy I was exerting was beginning to take a toll. I wasn’t getting too tired, but I was feeling like I had just completed the first significant stretch of a marathon. I couldn’t talk at the moment, but I could exhale out the words if I really wanted to.

Shoot, they’re here, crap crap crap!

I was worried to have to hear her cries for help, and I couldn’t do anything about it. I wanted to go up there and get her, but I still had a job to do, here.

I lunged, kicking. Several more people dropped at the wake of my hit.

Yeah uh okay this isn’t working Vivi get ready I’m heading-

I couldn’t hear the last part.

What I did hear was much, much louder.

Snapping, cracking, stuff crumbling out of place. The ceiling gave way at one part, leaving a hole where something broke through into the room.

Or someone.

There was a short pause in the action, as people tried, and failed, to make sense of anything that was happening.

V!” I heard from both the earpiece, and in that momentary pause. From across the room.

Across the room, with about fifty people between us, thirty or forty of them still standing. I had to get over there.

Getting there, and crowd control. I could do both at the same time.

I went to work.

I lashed out, swinging with the metal bar, going for limbs, making them fall. Breaking bones, if I had to. I just needed get to D.

Watching my footing, I walked over fallen mercs, hurting and whining over the various injuries I had given them.

I brought another foot-

Being in the crush of bodies, I felt a wave of movement. I almost tripped, if not for someone being right next to me.

People were pushing into me.

Maybe they were finally getting their bearings, coordinating with one another. Maybe they were finally catching on.

I can’t let them.

Powering through, I fought against the current, grabbing a hold of anything I could use-

I saw a fist coming at me. I didn’t have the room to dodge.

I threw the metal bar.

It hit him across the head, I heard a clang, and dropped limp onto a nearby table.

Anything I could use.

I grabbed edge of the table. It was round, so I had to bring out my arms to get a better grip on it.

I lifted.

People had gotten up on some of the tables, trying to get a better vantage point to see everything, despite how black it was. Some even managed to get out a phone or flashlight to try and find an answer.

The table turned, leaving the ground, and I flipped them off, back into the gloom.

I waved the table like I would a fan, if the fan was large, circular, and wooden. I swung it at people, literally swatting at them like flies. People scattered, clearing a path for me.

I threw the table, and it crashed into a corner of the room. Maybe it hit someone, maybe it didn’t.

I saw D.

She was being held up by another guy, picking her up by a headlock, properly restraining her. D tried to kick, but her legs only struck the air in front of her. Struggling, but it’d be useless.

I drew out my knife.

Without any real thought, just instinct, I sprinted forward. And with just a light spring in my step, I was going through the air.

I went over the man that had D, grabbing him by the hair. He tumbled back when I hit ground again.

I was on the floor, and him with me. Just him. D was free.

I stabbed with my knife. Arms and legs.

Didn’t care about inflicted pain, didn’t care about the screaming.

I kept going until he no longer-

Hands grabbed at me, pulling me back. I turned back and raised my arm to-

It was D.

She put her hands to my face, squishing my cheeks together. The sprinkling water made her hair stick to her face and forehead. Her clothes were damp.

“I’m not worth going that far for,” she said.

I blinked, water seeping into my mask, wanting to argue.

I didn’t get the chance to argue.

“So… plan’s changed,” D said. “Any ideas on how to get us out of here?”

I didn’t have any.

“That’s alright. We’ll stick to what we can control, let’s have you focus on-”

D didn’t get the chance to finish.

The lights cut back on, the sprinklers turning off.

I squinted, having to readjust.

This was not ideal.

I no longer had the dark to hide in, the shadows now too small to make useful. I was out in the open, and very visible.

I was able to assess part of the damage I had done.

About half of the glorified volunteers were down and out. The rest were huddled into groups of two or three, helping each other up, or trying not to slip with the floor being as wet as it was. Some did slip, only adding to the number of those who were out of commission.

There was still a sizable amount of those who were not, though. And they all had their sights on me, now.

I shifted, keeping low, head down, using part of my poncho to conceal D and keep her close.

“Change of plans, huh?” I murmured to D.

She didn’t respond.

I fidgeted, feeling for my knife, making sure I had it in hand. If I made the first move, now, I could still catch a few more by surprise.

I made the first-

An elevator made a ding.

Everyone had turned, so disoriented that any external stimuli could override their attention and focus.

I turned as well.

The doors opened.

“Oh flip me,” D said.

A man got out of the elevators, clapping. Biker’s attire, leather jacket, skinny jeans. All black, from skin to clothes.

More men filed out of the elevator. They were dressed in a similar style. As far as the gangs represented, they outnumbered us, but the glorified volunteers had them beat.

But only one group had the swagger to move about here, now.

They lined up around the perimeter of the room, and a few feet or paces across, until they had the whole lounge filled out.

The man was still clapping.

From behind him, Lawrence and Dong-Yul walked out, hand in hand. Neither of them seemed particularly pleased to be doing so. They stopped, still behind the still-clapping man.

D and I had control of the situation, earlier, and now I was brought down to the same level as those volunteers.

I had never seen the man before, not personally, but with the group he brought in with him, the uniforms, two in particular standing out by a lot, I felt like I could accurately guess who this was. Who else could it have really been?

A grand entrance, and he had made everyone watch.

He finally stopped his clapping, and beamed, his teeth shining, too white and too bright. He spread his arms out even more.

En garde,” Styx intoned.

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