052 – Q’s Gambit

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Everyone reacted in some way. Tilted heads, steps taken back, even D moved from behind to better face me, her curiosity piqued.

Hleuco, standing at my side, stood even straighter. Taller. His head just barely grazed the ceiling.

Lawrence stammered.

“Help? How? Why?”

I tried answering each three one-word questions, all at once. “I’ll need all the help I can get, and you need all the help you can get. It’s why I’m standing here, with her.” I gestured to D.

I continued. “You have my powers, and I have your numbers. And together, we all stand to benefit if we can get to Benny first.”

“That sounds ridiculous,” Lawrence said, “Why should I even trust you? And who even are you?”

All of you can trust me,” I said, stressing to point each of them out. “I saved your life, when I didn’t have to. And even outside of that, it’s not even about trust. It’s about the benefits far outweighing the idea to breach an alliance. Also, I wear a mask, I stopped a van with my bare hands twice in one night. Use your brain, and don’t ask useless questions.”

I saw the crease in his forehead forming, thinking. Then, he stared at me, eyes wide.

“You…” he said, but he became speechless. He mouthed the rest, and turned away.

I turned to the rest of the Ghosts.

“The offer is there. Help me get Benny, and in doing so, I’ll help your group get a better standing with the others. The only caveat is that I get to be the one to tear her head off. You can take it from there, and cash it in for whatever it’s worth.”

“What about after?”

Another Ghost asked. Sounded like a girl.

“After? That’s it,” I said. “We go our separate ways, doing our own thing. No tricks or loopholes about it. No fingers crossed. I’ll leave you alone, and I hope you’d do the same for me.”

They all took that in their own way, some huddling together to discuss it. Not even discussing with Lawrence, their leader.

Lawrence nudged the guy helping him, and the guy let go, leaving Lawrence to stand on his own. He watched his gang work without him.

He was visibly shaking.

“Hey!” he shouted, and then another thing in Spanish. The meaning was lost on me, but the intention was not.

“You’re all actually considering this? Working with that?”

He thrusted a finger at me.

“And her!”

His finger moved to D.

“We don’t know them, they aren’t part of the family. Fuck, look at them, do they look like they can be trusted? One of them wears a mask, and the other is that fucking heartless bitch, who just tried to kill me!”

D interjected. “Because you tried to get the jump on me!”

I shook my head. “Try to see the bigger picture, Lawrence. We work together, and everyone gets what they want. There’s no incentive for me to double cross you, or anyone here. Benny is the only one I’m after, and coming to a gang made up of those she abandoned for assistance, that’s a good start.”

“No, you,” Lawrence stepped closer to me. “You told me to use my brain, and I am. You’re the fucking Bluemoon, aren’t you?”

Watching the other Ghosts was a good way of assessing the general atmosphere of the situation. Their postures tightened, tensed up. Those who got together to talk broke away from each other to face me.

All had firm hold on their weapons.

I had given them everything but my name, as far as my old identity was concerned, but it didn’t click for them until Lawrence had to verbalize it, out loud. Showed the power in names, I supposed.

Hleuco was standing straight, and I tried to match him. No cracks in my stance, my posture. I couldn’t appear fazed.

“I was,” I admitted. “I was the Bluemoon.”

The Ghosts collectively bristled. They did not look thrilled.

I opened my mouth again. “But I’m not-”

Lawrence spoke over me.

“It was you,” he said. “Few months ago, in this same place. Some freak in a blue hoodie attacked while I… was trying to get shit done. In the end, I couldn’t get that shit done, but as it turned out, it didn’t matter. Because, what do I see the next day, on the news? The same freak in a blue hoodie, and fucking Benny. El Carruaje didn’t last very long after that.”

It wasn’t me… but semantics, I suppose.

The situation was degrading with every word that came out of his mouth. The truce standing on shakier and shakier ground, now, and it was faltering.

“Instead of Benny,” Lawrence said, “How about we turn in your head as a prize, you blue piece of shit?”

I kept my voice level. “You don’t know if there even is one.”

He shrugged. “I’m sure people would pay big bucks to get their hands on someone like you. Definitely more than a fifth of what we’d get from Benny. Enough that we all can be comfortable. Doesn’t that sound nice, no?”

He was appealing to his gang for that last part, and they were eating it up. Scraps weren’t enough, and they were hungry. I had seen it in their eyes, and in their dogs, too. It was why I tried to appeal to them, myself. If I could direct that anger, it could have been the edge I needed to turn things around.

As it turned out, that hunger could easily be directed to me.

Like a double-edge sword.

A few of Lawrence’s crew approached, testing with small steps. Their guns raised just a little higher than before.

Shit.

Hleuco bent down, wings extended. One went around my shoulder, as though to shield me.

This was going south, fast, and we were surrounded.

Could I make an escape? Yes, and it’d even be easy. I had healed enough that running wasn’t difficult, I’d move if I had to. D mentioned that the next building over was two level below this one. That was a drop I could make.

Now, if they fired…

Tricky, but manageable. There was always a chance of a stray bullet hitting me, or someone getting in a lucky shot, but I’d ultimately get out alright. I doubted that they could trip me up, but I’d been wrong before. Blindsided.

What about D?

D, right. That made things complicated. Was I even responsible for her? Considering I already saved her life once, and just minutes ago at that, it would be hypocritical to leave her behind now.

By myself, I could escape just fine. With D? It was safe to assume that she couldn’t heal like me. She was vulnerable, susceptible to actual, lasting injury. She was human.

Eyes on the Ghosts, I moved my arm, trying to find D at my side, in case I had to grab her and run. I spent too long touching nothing before I realized that no one was there.

Where is she?

I would have moved more, turned my head to locate her, but anything could set these guys off further.

Think of what else we can say to

“Bang!”

A sound, but nothing mechanical. Not nearly as loud.

A voice.

We turned all the same.

It was D, standing away from me and the Ghosts.

She had struck a pose. Standing on her toes, one arm pointing to the ceiling. Holding a gun.

“Bang bang bang!”

She was shouting, imitating the act of firing a gun into the air. But she wasn’t actually firing.

There was a pause that followed. No one was sure what she was doing, or what to do next. I wasn’t even sure.

We all watched D.

The pause stretched for a while longer, then D set her arm down, gun to her side. She coughed a few times.

“Alright,” she said, loud, for everyone to hear. “Now that I have your attention. I just want to say that you’re all being big dummies!”

It was like watching a sitcom with the laugh track missing. A momentary pause after a line, but with nothing to fill it. Dead air.

No one had a response.

D spoke again, picking up where she left off. “Do you people really think you have a chance on taking her out? Or even capturing her? Look!”

With her free hand, she pointed. A few, including Lawrence turned to look.

“See that pillar? She destroyed that thing with just one hand. Imagine what she could do to your face! And didn’t you see how fast she can move? You slowpokes can’t touch her. She’s gone in a blink, and now you have a super strong, super fast vigilante who is pissed off. What’s to stop her from coming back and picking you off, one by one?”

D looked my way, and directed everyone’s attention back to me. My turn, then.

“That’s something I could do, should you cross that line. I don’t want to, though.”

“Is that a threat?” Lawrence questioned.

Annoying. How fucking dense was this guy?

“It’s not a threat,” I said, having to spell it out for him. “But I can promise you that it’s a line we don’t want crossed. If that happens, both sides lose out on a lot, and nobody gets what they want.”

I kept it vague, on what exactly both sides would lose out on. I’d let them use their imagination on that.

Lawrence’s hard stare remained. He wasn’t satisfied.

I spoke. “Listen. Yes, I was the Bluemoon, and I’ve went after gangs like yours, The Chariot. I’m probably the reason why the Ghosts came to be, and why you’re in the position you are now. Sure, blame it all on me.”

“I think I will,” Lawrence said.

I spread my arms. “But I’ve put that behind me, now. The Bluemoon’s dead, I’ve retired that name. I’m looking to start things anew, and I truly think getting Benny is the first step. And to do that, I could use your help, and I think you could use mine, too. Because, we both know the Ghosts won’t last, and making me your enemy puts you on a fast track to actually being gone. And I doubt you that’s what you want.”

I would have made some kind of ‘ghost’ joke at the end, there, but it didn’t feel appropriate.

Before, the feelings of everyone here were easily known, and easily directed. Now? They were mixed, and each one of the Ghosts looked like they were at a loss of what to do. D’s distraction seemed to have set the tension back a bit.

Lawrence, for his part, was harder to gauge. His jaw was set, square, looking between me, D, and his gang. Would he try and convince his gang to fight me, again? Or would he finally come around?

He turned my way.

“Does she come included with your deal?” he asked, tilting his head one way. I didn’t need to look to know that he was referring to D.

I answered.

“We have our own arrangement, and that will continue into this one. She has to prove her usefulness, up until she can’t, and then I kill her.”

“It’s true,” D said, piping in.

Lawrence rubbed his chin, and scratched the back of his head. He looked at the members of his gang, and they looked back at him.

A sort of silent discussion.

After a time, Lawrence had something to say.

“Okay,” he said, facing me.

“Okay?”

“Yeah, I’ll agree to work with you, only if you let me into that deal, too.”

“Meaning?” I asked.

“I’m willing to give her one more shot. One. If she fucks it up, by messing with me or my crew again, I get to kill her myself.”

I turned to D. She shrugged.

“Eh, whatever,” she said. “I promise I’ll be good.”

She really is a strange one.

I turned to Lawrence. “Satisfied?”

He took his time in responding.

“I am,” he finally said.

He extended a hand.

“Do we have a deal?” he asked, his expression pained. For him, this had to be a hard pill to swallow.

Slow, I walked to him, aware of the Ghosts, their weapons, and their dogs.

“We do,” I said, bringing up my hand to-

“If you’re not the Bluemoon, then who are you?”

Another voice, but I heard it earlier. A woman. I pointed her out from the crowd.

“What do we call you?” she asked.

Put on the spot, with no answer prepared. My time and energy were being spent on something else. I had put it off for later.

But that wouldn’t fly, not with these people. Had to come up with something.

And there is a certain power in names.

I glanced at D. She was looking back at me, standing more relaxed, now. Her arms were at her side, her hands free. She was waiting for my answer, too.

Well, in the spirit of present company…

“V,” I said. “You can call me ‘V.’”

I could see Lawrence almost roll his eyes. But he took my hand, shaking it.

“Deal,” he said.

“Deal, I repeated.

“Sweet!” D cheered, from the back.

A wave of relief came over everyone, it seemed like. Everyone was settling down, even the dogs were starting to sit, or rest on their stomachs. People were even putting their guns away.

“Now that we have that squared away,” Lawrence said, crossing his arms, “What’s next?”

“We plan,” I replied. “We need to get everything straightened out, and figure out what our next official move should be.”

Lawrence nodded. “We’ll have to relocate, though, can’t stay up here forever. We have a base over in Eastside. It’s not much, but everything’s there.”

“Good!” D ran to us, joining in the conversation. “We’ll need everything. You Ghosts came from the rib of The Chariot, so I’m gonna have to pick your brains to see if I can’t finangle a lead from it.”

Lawrence definitely rolled his eyes that time. “Yeah, fine, yeah, do what you need to. You know how to get there, don’t you?”

D smiled her wide smile. “Of course I do. Speaking of, as part of our deal, the van’s all yours, free of charge. The whole thing, bears and all.”

“Thanks,” he said, though he didn’t sound thankful. “Wait, you’re not driving it back?”

She gestured to me. “She kinda broke the windshield. I’m not going to be able to drive it without getting some looks.”

Unwanted looks,” she added, as if she was correcting herself.

“How are you getting there?” Lawrence asked.

D smiled again. “I have my pick.”

I could sense that Lawrence was already losing his patience with her. He backed up, and addressed his gang.

“We’re rolling out, back to base! Ándele!”

They all went into motion, gathering into small parties, then moving to their own vans, bringing the dogs with them. They were quick, too, already ready to leave before any of us three could say anything else.

Lawrence turned to us again.

“Meet you there,” he said, and he left, meeting with the man who was helping him up from before. We took that as our signal to leave, too.

With Hleuco following, D and I walked as a group.

“So, V?” D asked.

I rubbed the fingers of one hand together, feeling where the glove was torn.

“Better than ‘The Bluemoon.’ And at least it’s a name I picked for myself.”

“I’m not complaining, I think it’s cool. Definitely better than ‘The Bluemoon.’”

“Glad you like it,” I said, unsure of how to take the compliment.

My thoughts fell upon another detail.

“Hey,” I said, “Is that why you brought me here, to see the Ghosts? You knew they had ties to The Chariot.”

“Um, kinda? I was just going to ask them if they knew anything, or had a lead. I didn’t expect Lawrence to cheat me, and I for sure didn’t expect you to recruit them.”

“Things happen,” I replied. “Do you think it was a good call?”

D brushed her lip with her finger. “Dunno, too early to tell. Nothing wrong with some extra hands, I guess.”

I grinned, and waited until we were out of earshot.

“Exactly,” I said. “You don’t win games with just a bishop. You need pawns, too.”

D found that funny, laughing loud and hard.

We continued walking, going down the garage, taking the stairs when we found them. We got to the first level, and I let D take the lead. She approached a dark red minivan. Mini, but it seemed larger than the last one.

“Give me a second,” D said. “Usually this goes by faster when you have the key.”

She got on her toes, and peered through the window. Her breath fogged up the glass.

Watching D, and taking the little moment of downtime to let her work brought my attention back to my thirst. My throat was dry, and I could feel myself on the edge of something worse. My arms twitched one way, as if itching to grab something, and keep it still. My legs were burning, and it wasn’t from earlier. It was as though I was filled with energy I needed to use, or I’d end up burning from the inside, out.

You need blood.

I needed to get this sorted out soon, preferably before we met up with the Ghosts again.

“D,” I said.

“Hmm?” she answered, her attention still on the window.

“Earlier, when you were asking about my powers? There’s more to it than that.”

The base was simple. Smaller than I expected. Or maybe my expectations were too high.

We were in a Mexican restaurant, all the way back into the kitchen. Everything was metallic and reflexive, making the already harsh lighting even brighter. It was chilly, being closer to the big freezers and coolers, but I had a jacket on. Nothing was being cooked or simmered, but the place was imbued with a strong, spicy smell.

The restaurant was the first floor of a five-floor building, and the Ghost’s base of operations extended to the rest of the place, but Lawrence saw it fit to hold the meeting here. This was all they had, supposedly. But, there was enough space for everyone, even when it became standing room only.

Everyone, except for Hleuco.

Multiple, mismatched tables were put together, so the important players could have a seat, and some elbow room. Me, D, Lawrence, and two of his officers. Charlie, a girl in her mid-twenties, and Jonathan, and a man a few years older. Both had long, dark hair, and serious expressions.

In the middle of the table, were everyone’s guns. Including D’s. And my knife. A sign of faith.

Six chairs were laid out, but five were filled. A chair was empty.

“Where’s Melinda?” Lawrence asked. He was turned in his seat, facing one of his men who weren’t at the table.

D and I exchanged looks.

“She’s supposed to be here,” the man said, unsure.

“I know she’s supposed to be here, that’s why I’m asking.”

“Last time I saw her, she was on her way inside. Lost her in the shuffle.”

“Dammit, we need to start-”

D smacked her hands on the table, directing everyone’s attention to her.

“Relax, I’m sure she’s around. It’s getting kinda late, you know, maybe she’s taking a quick nap? I know I need one, it’s way past my bedtime.”

Lawrence shot her a look, squinting. “Ha ha. Fine, let’s get started. I can catch her up later-”

“Wait.”

Jonathan raised his hand, and pointed to me.

“I’d feel more comfortable about this if she didn’t have her mask on.”

I breathed, and a faint, sweet smell escaped my lips.

“I set my knife down, it’s the equivalent of you setting down your gun. Believe me.”

“But-”

“It’s fine, Jonathan,” Lawrence said, interrupting. “We don’t need any more problems at this juncture. What we need is her, V, not the person behind the mask. It can stay on.”

Resigned, Jonathan sat back in his seat.

I nodded to Lawrence, a silent form of appreciation.

“Now, let’s get started?” I suggested.

Looks from across the table. No objections.

“Good. Let’s go over the basic terms, real quick. This is a temporary partnership between me and D, and you, the Ghosts. As requested by Lawrence, I am to establish that not one person here gets to lead the others. We discuss best course of action, and we go from there. Also, this alliance is to be held with utmost secrecy. No other rival gang or competitor must know of what we’re doing, or what we have planned. We lose any leverage we have, if that happens.”

More looks from across the table. No objections.

“Good, then let’s continue. The end goal is capturing Benny. And she should be alive, when we get our hands on her. What happens after, is another story.”

I exhaled.

“The problem is, she’s damn good at keeping herself out of my reach. So I’m hoping, since the Ghosts came from El Carruaje, that you have something or anything I can use to… extend that reach, as it were.”

Again, I exhaled. It hit me how long I had been after this woman. How long Alexis had been after this woman. There was seemingly no end to this fucking chase.

Soon, soon.

Voices reassured me.

I took a second to recompose myself.

“So let’s get right to it,” D said, talking in my stead. “What do y’all got? L… Lawrence, if I remember correctly, you weren’t one of the top brass of El Carruaje, but you were trying.”

Lawrence made a twisted expression, barely restrained.

“Yes, you’re right, I wanted to be one of the big guns, part of the crew she kept close to her. And when I heard about what Benny was planning, with the weapons, I thought that was my in. If I could get everyone on board, and show her we were up for the task, she’d let me lead.”

He looked over to me.

“That all went to shit, though. But anyway, after the family fell apart, everyone scrambled to pick up the pieces. Neighboring gangs like the Rattlesnakes took some turf, and some new groups cropped up, like us.”

Lawrence motioned with his hand, as if showing off the back of this kitchen.

“This is the only scrap of El Carruaje we got,” he said. “And to finally get around to your question, I don’t got nothing on Benny. If she’s still here, then she could be anywhere. Maybe she’s hiding out in some of her old bases, but that would mean that another gang is housing her. Competition.”

“And you don’t think anyone in Eastside would be willing to hide her?” D asked.

“I said ‘maybe.’ There might be someone out there loyal enough to want to help her, but with real dough on the table, they’re more likely going to grab it for themselves. If I’m any indication…”

D tapped her fingers on the table. “Tell me where those bases are. I can check, just to be sure.”

She then winked. “I can be pretty sneaky.”

“Will do,” Lawrence said, flat.

“Neat,” D said. “That’s one possible avenue, but we need something more… well, more. How about Benny’s crew, anyone you can contact?”

“I wish. Guys like Samuel, or Roland, you don’t go to them, they come to you, whenever they, or Benny, needed something. It was a top-down sort of deal, the channels went one way, and you had to force your way to the top if you wanted your voice heard.”

I put myself back into the conversation.

“We have to assume that she has her crew,” I said, remembering the events at the school. “Not if, but when we find her, we might have to go through them, first.”

“Meaning we’ll be going to war,” Lawrence commented.

“Not if we can help it,” I said. “That’s why we’re having this discussion. Hash it out, see if we can’t find a way to strike them from behind, when they aren’t expecting it.”

“Okay,” D said. “So her crew’s gonna be a problem, but if we can get a hold of one of them, we get a hold on Benny. Anything else? How about the police? I’m sure if we ask politely, they might know something.”

“That was my original idea, before I ran into you.” I briefly turned towards D. “Not all of them are clean, if any, and if they’re on the lookout for her, then it’ll help to keep an eye on their movements. Gomez himself, though? He’s not going to play ball.”

D groaned. “Aw, what a lame-o.”

“But, considering other avenues, the police might not be a bad option. Which was why the police scanners were so crucial.”

In that last word, I directed a smidge of irritation towards D. She noticed, and made a heart symbol with her hands, pointing it to me.

I can see how Lawrence got to the point of wanting to kill you.

“And,” I said, “Like Benny, some of them were a part of the Solace conspiracy.”

It was as though I told the room that God wasn’t real. No one, here in the kitchen, could keep themselves completely still. Murmurs broke out between those standing around, Charlie and Jonathan whispered to each other, and D lifted her eyebrows, exaggerating the motion.

And Lawrence reeled.

“Solace,” he said. “Fucking Solace? The guy that fucked the city sideways to get to you?”

He jabbed a finger my way.

“Not one guy,” I said, calm, “But yes. Solace wasn’t a single person, but a collaborative effort. The police, Benny, and I think Styx was involved, too.”

“Shit, how deep does that go?” Lawrence asked.

“I don’t know, but I almost want to say that it doesn’t matter. After the bombing at city hall, Solace hasn’t made a move since. Again, I don’t know why, but we can use that. We’re looking for Benny, but the other pieces that made up Solace are still around.”

“Are you saying we go after Styx?” Lawrence questioned. “You do know that picking a fight with him means picking a fight with everyone.”

“He’s right,” D said. “That’s a beehive you don’t poke. It stings.”

I spoke. “Believe me, I know.”

Or, at least Alexis knew.

“I vote to not go after the crazy fuck with the motorcycle,” Lawrence said. “Especially since the Ghosts need a working relationship with him after this is over.”

I placed my arms on the table, putting my hands together. Going into my thoughts.

We were talking, hoping to go somewhere, but all we managed were circles. Round and round. An idea brought up, and then the reasons why it wasn’t a good idea. We were moving, but we weren’t going anywhere.

This wouldn’t do. I had to break this loop, somehow. Something I could come up with, that could let us progress. Move forward.

Styx. Gomez. The warehouse.

“If not people,” I said, “How about places. There was a warehouse that housed some of those weapons that Benny had smuggled in. And it was here, in East Stephenville.”

“Tell us something we don’t know,” Charlie said.

“The whole stockpile wasn’t stored in one place. When Solace was active, that warehouse didn’t even account for a half of what they had. Tell me, Lawrence, the neighboring gangs, have you noticed them carrying anything different, as far as firearms go? Anything that packs more of a punch than what you usually see on the street?”

“Can’t say that I have,” Lawrence said.

“Meaning those weapons are still in storage,” I said. “When Benny attacked the school, she used heavy-duty stuff. Bombs, that could be used remotely. That’s not stuff you see everyday.”

“You think she still has access to those weapons,” Lawrence.

“That’s what I’m guessing. We find where she has the rest stashed… you can fill in the gap.”

“Do you have a lead on that?”

I grimaced, though I had my mask. “I don’t.”

“Great, another dead end. I’m starting to think this isn’t going to work.”

Dammit. Dammit.

There had to be something I could use, something that could work. I got some decent momentum, with getting the Ghosts to agree to this, but it wouldn’t mean anything if I let it stop dead in its tracks, here.

I caught a sight of the sixth chair. Previously empty. A vestige had taken a seat. A blank face, wearing blue.

Without being conscious of it, I was tapping into more connections.

Dammit.

“Edgar Brown, Linda Day, Officer Jeffery and Officer… Sumeet, I think his name was? They all either had something to do with Solace, or they were in the loop, in some capacity. How about that?”

“Maybe,” D said. “Brown and Day are locked up pretty tight now, though. Read up on that on my tablet. Officer Jeffery could be anyone… but Sumeet is a unique name. Definitely narrows it down.”

I saw the vestige again, and I felt a pressure in my head. Not on, in.

I wish Hleuco was here.

“Last time I saw Sumeet, he had just fallen a handful of stories. A lot of broken bones, I bet he’s still trying to recover.”

“So he’s stuck in one spot, then,” D said. “That’s usable. If he’s in a hospital, I can find him. I know how to get those records.”

“You do?” I asked.

“That’s why I’m here,” D said, grinning.

“That’s something,” Lawrence said. “But it’s not a guarantee.”

Charlie and Jonathan muttered, seemingly in agreement.

“No, it’s not,” I said.

I shifted in my seat, bringing my arms close, raising them so I could massage my head. Relying on her memories and connections was dangerous, but I was running out of options, here.

Running, yet going nowhere.

Why was finding one person so damn difficult?

Maybe we’re looking at this all wrong.

“Ah, we seem to be stuck,” D said. She was mimicking me, with her arms on the table, hands raised, but her fingers were intertwined, in front of her mouth. “We can’t seem to come up with a way to find her. It’s definitely frustrating.”

“You read my mind,” I said.

I didn’t see her teeth, but I saw her cheeks move. She was smiling.

“All the pieces are there, but individually, they pose problems. Benny, the police, Styx, the weapons. But, together, I think I can come with something workable, maybe even fun.”

“What are you proposing?” I asked.

She tried to hide behind her hands, but I saw it. D was smirking.

“Instead of trying to find her,” D said, “We do the opposite. We smoke her out.”

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051 – Give Me Teeth

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There was a flash, coming at me from behind. I spun and caught it out the air.

“Snowball fight!” D said, a few seconds too late.

She shouted from across the parking lot. I could pinch my fingers together and have her fit in the space between.

“You actually got it?” she called out.

I lifted the white package above my head, showing her that I indeed ‘got it.’

A brick.

“Wow, that is legit super rad!” D exclaimed, skipping as she headed my way.

“I thought we were heading to one of your ‘jobs,’” I said, tossing the brick back as she approached. “Shouldn’t you be taking this more seriously?”

D had to jump to catch it, or the brick would have flown over her head.

Oof,” she said, as she got it secured. “And relax, we’ve got time.”

Her reply was dismissive in tone. Something I’d have to get accustomed to.

She passed Hleuco as she approached, who had been waiting outside the whole time. He moved in step with her, eyeing her closely, a very curious creature. But D had no idea.

“And it’s better to be on time than be early,” D added.

“And why’s that?”

“So you’re not a sitting duck, and people won’t get the jump on you.”

“You don’t seem to have much trust in the people you work with,” I said.

“That’s just the nature of the game,” D said, smiling. “You always have to watch your back, no matter who you’re playing with.”

Was I supposed to take that as a joke, or a warning? It was hard to tell, coming from her. Everything she said or did seemed like something I wasn’t in on, or I had to look at it a different way to catch the true meaning. Maybe that was just in her nature, to playfully jest. Maybe she was playing me.

But, she had her use, and I needed someone useful.

“Message… received,” I said, as D met me at the van. We were right outside the forsaken apartment complex, in a parking lot that was home to more vehicles that didn’t work than did. I was standing outside with my mask on, but it was too dark for anyone to notice, and even if anyone did notice, would they even be able to connect the dots? I wasn’t dressed as the Bluemoon. To them, I was just any random masked weirdo.

“Is this job anything I need to concern myself with?” I asked. “Or involve myself with?”

“No and no. Just delivering some toys to some lucky kids. And while I’m at it, I’ll ask about Benny, see if we can’t pick up anything already.”

“Doesn’t sound too bad.”

“See? Oh yeah.” D reached down at her feet, picking up an actual brick. “Try this next.”

She held it out, then dropped it. I would have let it fall, but it would have hit my feet, and I didn’t have the room to back up. The van was a foot behind me.

My hands moved, and I grabbed it out of the air.

“Watch it!”

Relax, you had a fast reaction the first time, and that was when I threw something at you, when you weren’t looking.”

“I saw it coming from the window, I can get blindsided, for your information.”

“But you still had enough sense to react. Most people would have ducked for cover after it collided with the window.”

Most people?

She was just messing around.

I lifted the brick to her face, a small reminder for her sake.

“Anyways, what’s with the bricks?” I asked.

D’s eyes lit up.

“Crush it.”

“What?”

“Break it in your hand!”

I looked at D, then at the brick. Both with confused looks.

“Is there something I’m missing?”

“Come on, you have superpowers, don’t you? I want to see you use them. It’s so cool!”

I let my disappointment show. I loosened my shoulders, and slouched. My arms fell beside me.

“They’re not cool,” I said.

“Uh, yeah they are, and you know it. They’re like magic tricks, except real.”

“And me chasing after you on foot wasn’t enough?”

D pouted, but it felt off. Rehearsed. As if she knew she was a kid, and was using that to play up the act even more. It was eerie.

“That’s different,” she said. “I was trying to run away, but now that you have me I wanna see it up close. Now come on, crush the damn thing!”

I brought my hand, and the brick, up again. I stared at it for almost a minute.

There was nothing to gain from crushing a cement brick with a single hand. Could I, even? Probably, but what would that prove? I’d just be doing this to entertain a little girl. Magic tricks, as she so aptly put it.

But, damn me. She had the keys. She knew how to drive.

As if I need another reminder.

And we apparently were early. Nothing else to do.

I put the brick back in front of D’s face. She gave me some space.

I wrapped my fingers around the brick.

Without much effort, my thoughts went to Benny. To the world.

I channeled that energy, through every individual digit. It coursed.

Then, I applied the necessary pressure.

Cracks through cement. Whole, then fractured. I felt the brick begin to crumble in my hand.

One more push of pressure, and I closed my hand completely.

“Whoa!” D said, astonished. She seemed genuine. “Ah shit, I wish I recorded that!”

“No recording anything,” I said, patting my gloves together. “Now, are we done, or do you want me to crush that, too?”

I quickly pointed to the white, tightly packaged block in her hands.

D pulled it closer to her chest, slipping into her jacket. “No way, I actually need this one.”

When she moved her hand out of the jacket, she was holding a ring of keys.

“Alright, that’s enough playing around, for now. Hop in.”

She moved to the other side of the van, unlocking it from there. We got inside, both of us having to move teddy bears in order to find our seats.

After we settled, D worked to put the key into the ignition, turning it. The van activated, but only after some fits and starts. It soon got to a low, even rumble, and D stepped on the gas.

Or, more accurately, she stood on it.

I watched D as she drove the van. I couldn’t help myself. I was as curious as I was concerned we might hit something.

As I expected, she wasn’t tall enough to see over the wheel if she were to take a seat. She had to stand, placing herself between the seat and the wheel, with the seat adjusted farther back to provide her some room to move around. She was buckled in, but the strap that was supposed to go across her chest was tucked back and away, leaving only the waistband part that hugged her stomach. As an added measure, she had a stack of phone books propped up behind her.

I observed her every time she shifted her weight from each foot, moving from gas to break, or just coasting. Glancing from the wheel to the cracked windshield, signaling when needed. For someone who shouldn’t even legally be behind the wheel, she was doing pretty well for herself.

I wanted to find something to critique, as if I was a driving instructor myself, but that assumed a level of experience I didn’t have. And she seemed to be doing a decent job. The ride was smooth, and she was aware of what was happening around her, checking her mirrors and blindspots. If she was skilled enough to race through the city, drifting and performing other stunts, then she was better than me.

It was a sight for sure.

D glanced to her side, and noticed me watching.

“Are you that impressed?” she asked.

“Can you blame me if I am?” I asked in return, my eyes still trained on her. “It’s something I’ve never seen before. Kind of like a magic trick.”

“Hah, kind of, if you wanna look at it that way. But I still think the whole ‘crushing a brick with your bare hands’ thing has me beat.”

“Mm,” I said, shifting my focus to the street ahead. The cracks in the glass had spread, but D was managing fine. If nothing else, I was more concerned over the van itself than D’s driving.

“So, what’s your deal?” D asked, her eyes to the road.

“My deal?”

“Don’t act like having superpowers is the most normal thing in the world. You had to get it from somewhere. So spill the beans. I wanna know.”

My memories on that day were of broad strokes. Like skipping through scenes of a movie I had already seen before. I got most of it, but I was glossing over the details.

A party. A walk. A barn. A girl.

And I didn’t really need to know more than that. The broad strokes were enough.

“Sorry,” I said. “But I’m not up for saying.”

D pouted.

“Aw, that’s no fair. But hey, you know, we just met. We can work up to that.”

As if, I thought.

Part of me wanted to get back at her the same way.

I asked, “And your deal is?”

“My deal?”

“Don’t act like being a thirteen year old van-stealing, delinquent drug dealer is some normal thing.”

“Hey, let’s get something straight. I’m not thirteen.”

“How old are you then?”

She grinned, and left it there.

If she was going to be like that, fine, I was being the same way. I could even make a decent guess from there, anyways.

But, damn, I really wanted to pin her down, have her figured out.

I continued a stream of questions.

“Where are your parents?”

I had already asked that, but she being smart with me before, and there were more pressing matters at hand. Now? D said we were early, so right now we had time.

And, like the last time I asked her, there was a moment’s pause.

“Didn’t I already give you a jokey answer? Wasn’t the bit funny enough the first time?”

Oh. That was harsh.

Definitely struck a nerve, there.

“Guess they’re not around,” I whispered, so she couldn’t hear me. It was probably the best assumption. D lived alone in that apartment, aside from Macy, but I could barely consider her a roommate. And if she did have parents that were around, they would have to be majorly fucked to let a child run free, doing…

My thoughts went to Shiori.

Point taken.

“You said you’re free to do whatever. I’m guessing you don’t have school to keep you busy during the day?”

“Nah,” she said, with more pep. “School’s for chumps. I learn by being outside, by doing. And if there’s anything super technical I want to know, I dunno, I can just grab a book, or something.”

I wouldn’t question her methods, considering they got her this far. She seemed more capable than any kid her age. Probably more capable than some adults.

“So you do this all day?” I asked.

D checked a mirror, and made a turn.

“Eh, not really. Before I picked up this gig, I was getting into a lot more trouble, just for the fun of it. That’s all well and good, but I learned pretty quickly you need some structure. This helps center me, keeps me busy, all the while giving me a chance for that sweet, sweet upward mobility.”

“You want structure, but no school?” I asked.

“Nope. It’s for chumps.” She took a hand off the wheel, pressing a button on the center console. Heavy metal music started playing, at an almost unreasonable level.

“Maybe I am still looking for trouble,” she said, barely registering over the noise.

The music played, and it put up enough of barrier to stop any more conversation, which was fine by me, I wasn’t here to soul-search with a little kid. My eyes drifted to the side, watching the streets go by. I found Hleuco in the skies, spinning and rolling through the air, zipping ahead, only to spiral around and do it again. His great wings pushed with a sense of strength. Power. Freedom.

It was a fantasy, but how could I be so envious?

It had been but a handful of days, but I was already drained from having to play Alexis Barnett. It was a role I had little enthusiasm towards, a mask I didn’t want to wear. Some of her connections were needed, like her experiences as Blank Face, but they came with trite, superfluous information. I didn’t need to know about how she got into volleyball, I didn’t care to know about the intimate details of her first kiss. But that was the draw, they came with the more useful bits.

And it is going to stack, dilute your thinking, until you’re a little less you, and a little more her.

I didn’t want that. I didn’t want to disappear.

It made having to find Benny all the more imperative. That was me, and me only. A goal I would see to the end, and not Alexis.

And what happens after we get Benny?

I didn’t know. Would I disappear? Like a robot, after it fulfilled its programming. Would I shut down, waiting further instructions?

I didn’t want that.

I couldn’t let myself be stuck to Alexis when I was done. Chained. To be shackled back in that apartment, haunted by phantoms of a past I wanted nothing to do with. To have bits of my mind chipped away, until my very self faded to a dark nothing. What would happen to me, then? Where would I go?

Pressing a finger to my chin, I fixed my mask.

No.

No no no.

I couldn’t let that happen to me. Couldn’t let that be my fate. I wasn’t going to let her win. I wasn’t going to let her connections tie me down.

Her friends weren’t mine, her family wasn’t mine, and I hated wasting the effort to pretend. I hated it, and I hated Alexis.

I wanted to be up there, with Hleuco. Free.

After Benny, then, shall we-

“Yo, here we be.”

D’s word provided a needed distraction. I looked through the broken glass ahead.

We were entering a parking garage, near a larger department store. Familiar, but I stopped my mind from going down that route. No more connections than were necessary.

There were other vehicles on the first floor, but none as D drove us up to the higher levels. We passed by the third, the fourth, then the fifth. As we reached the sixth, lights drew towards us.

D took her foot off the gas, steering us through the vans, people, and dogs.

The windows were tinted, they wouldn’t see us. But the eyes still put me on edge.

D positioned us so we parked in one of the few empty spots, the front of the van facing the gang. In a way, our backs were against the ropes, since the end of the parking spot was lined with metal cables, towards open air.

She put the van in park, and relayed the plan to me before I could get a voice in.

“Alright, you’re gonna have to stay in here and sit tight. I’ll handle all of this, and see what info I can squeeze out in the meantime. Just stay low, and we’ll be one and done before you know it.”

“This is a lot more people than I expected, and I’m not liking how cornered this is making me feel,” I said. “How do I know you’re not leading me into a trap, by leaving me in this van?”

D gave me that look again, like I asked something stupid. “You can fight your way out, can’t you? You’re strong.”

She then reached across to my side, opening up the glove compartment. A black handgun made itself very well known.

“In case of trap, pull trigger,” she said.

She closed the compartment, and then she was out, leaving me inside the still-running van.

Fuck.

I had my suspicions of D, and while I was confident in myself and my own abilities, this was playing too close to the fire. I might recover from the burns, but I’d still have been burnt.

For just this moment, D had me stuck. I was forced to watch as she took things from here. A wary spectator.

D walked in front of the van, cutting through all the heavy beams of light. The dogs barked as soon as they laid eyes on her, their teeth snapping. Only held back by leashes, and the armed men holding them.

Some of the lights got cut, giving me a clearer view of the scene. D had her back to me, facing a man twice her size. The right side of his face was patched with bandages, the other I could tell was swollen. He’d seen some action, or at least, got his ass kicked.

His mouth moved, but I couldn’t catch the words. The dogs were too loud.

D gestured in response, but I had no way of picking up the meaning. She flipped open her jacket, showing him something, then she jabbed a thumb over her shoulder, briefly turning around. I could have sworn she was looking right at me.

Fuck.

I took off my seatbelt, and tried to make myself smaller.

The man nodded, then shook his head. He raised his chin.

He howled.

Enough!”

The dogs stopped barking. Some whimpered before they completely went quiet.

D and the man continued talking. I could hear them, now, but I couldn’t understand them.

Glancing to a button on my side of the door, I considered pushing it, cracking the window open.

My entire body tensed as I moved my hand, a finger hovering over the button.

Teeth gritting together, I barely gave it so much as a tap.

“-very lucky that I’m letting you walk away without a fuckin’ scratch.”

“Lucky? Please, L-Boy, you’re not going to last if you don’t have a stream of revenue, and no one in this town is willing to do business with you. Well, no one except me. You should be considering yourselves lucky.”

There. I had an ear in the conversation. It was faint at best, but it was something.

“You’re just doing this to spite me,” the man said. “To rub salt in the wounds you caused.”

“Yeah, so?”

“You’re such a heartless bitch.”

D brought her hands behind her back, and tapped her foot on the ground.

“Aw,” she said, tapping her foot again. “I like the sweet talk, Lawrence, but it’s not sweet enough. Just having me work with you is best deal you’re gonna get. The price stays.”

“Yeah yeah, you heartless bitch.” The man, Lawrence, took a step to pass D, and she moved, walking with him. “You really got this stuff from him?”

They were coming towards the van. Towards me.

All night, I had been keeping a mental note of where my knife was, at all times. Now, I made of note of the gun in the glove compartment.

‘In case of trap,’ she said.

“Who else am I gonna get it from?” D replied.

“But you understand why I’m hesitating, even when I’m desperate. If you stole shipment from-”

“Relax, it’s gonna be fine. He’s not even really going to miss it. It’s from an older stash, meaning the quality isn’t the best-”

D murmured that last part.

“-and there isn’t much. But, you said it yourself, you’re desperate. So you’ll take what you can get, and you and your Ghosts can go on to haunt for another day.”

“Stop. I’m tired of finding reasons to call you a heartless bitch. Just let me and my boys walk with some dignity.”

I lost sight of them as they came around to the driver’s side. I ducked even lower. Ready, if this really was a set up.

The door slid open. Not the driver’s door.

“Too late for that, L-Boy. Here’s everything, you can-”

I heard a commotion.

Grunts, a startled shout, a thud of metal on flesh. The sounds of a struggle.

Some dogs started barking again.

Before I could make sense of what was happening, D reappeared from the back row, jumping into the space between the driver’s seat and the wheel.

Every dog was gnarling and gnashing teeth.

“What did you-” I started, but D once again cut me off.

“Fuck fuck, mission abort,” she said, clutching the gear knob. “Either you buckle in, or you find us another way out of this.”

And then she pulled on the gear knob, and she stomped.

The van jerked, then flung.

But not forward.

Backward.

The van accelerated backwards, and immediately hit the metal cables. But we were going at a decent speed, and the cables already looked weak, unattended to.

Looks weren’t deceiving, in the case.

I heard them snap. The van continued.

She’s sending us off the edge of the building.

I turned to D, her hands still on the gear, her foot still planted down flat.

No words. My body just moved on its own.

D had curled herself into a ball around the gear, protecting it with her body.

I thrusted out my hand, squeezing it between her and the gear. I found her chest. I shoved.

D was practically lifted into the air, the gear shifting and her foot taken off the gas. As she came back down, she covered her head, to not hit the wheel. Her small body fell into the space where the driver was supposed to put their legs.

But the van kept moving. Toppling.

I felt us tipping back.

We were going to fall.

No.

Had to do something.

My body moved on its own, again. No thoughts, just action.

I pushed myself up, my hands on the seat itself, my feet on the back part. I lifted my head to see the window.

It was cracked. Could I break through it with a strong enough impact?

Maybe, potentially.

The gun. Could I use it to give me an opening?

As if in response, the van swayed back, and I felt my stomach leap.

No time for that option.

I steeled myself.

Using the back of the seat as a platform, I sprang from the seat. My arms over my head, bracing for the shattering of glass.

I heard it, I felt it.

Glass shattered all around me. The sounds of glass, barking, and shouting.

I felt the open air, the rush as I knew I had to continue to work, and work fast.

The van and I moved in opposite directions, all at the same time. It made it easier for me to get over the hood.

Hard, my landing on solid cement. I landed, but I didn’t collapse. I didn’t let myself.

I sprung back up, turning around. I went straight to the van. I could see the underside of the thing, already.

Throwing out both hands, I scrambled for a hold underneath the grill of the van. It was the only place I could get a good grip.

I had to dive to get that grip.

Got it.

I grabbed a hold of the van, but now I was moving with it, too. It’d bring me over with it, if I didn’t do anything else.

My hands still in place, I pushed my body up, using my hips. I went a bit into the air, and I used that to throw my legs and feet under me, getting some footing.

I got it, but I was still sliding, inching forward.

I needed to get us to stop.

Planting my feet down as hard as I could, I tried pulling the van towards me, all the while pushing the vehicle down. If I could get the damn thing down flat, it might save me some trouble.

Not much progress in that regard. Cement moved from under me.

My muscles in my arms hurt, my legs screaming in pain. I already went through the wringer, earlier in the night, with this very same van. With the very same person behind the reason why.

I couldn’t take much more.

But I kept pulling, even if every second made the effort harder. More in vain. I kept on.

I screamed, as if that would accomplish anything.

I tossed my head back, trying to pull more. More of the same.

Through squinted, sweat-soaked eyes, I saw something.

A pillar dividing one section of the floor to the next. Between two parking spaces. As I was sliding, I was passing it, getting closer.

I could reach it. But…

We can’t reach the far end of it for a hold. Too far.

That couldn’t stop me. The next best thing, then.

Which, really, was an absolutely terrible idea.

Which shows just how fucked I was. If the the next best thing was a terrible idea.

I took a hand off the van. The closer one. The left.

I punched the cement pillar.

I wasn’t sure what broke first. My hand, or the cement.

But I got a hold.

I had made a hole in the pillar, but my fist stayed inside. About half of my forearm was within the thing.

An intense, blinding pressure. A tug, all focusing onto my elbow.

My arm went taut.

An anchor.

And I used it to keep myself in place, with the van in hand.

I screamed, not because it helped, but because it hurt so fucking god damn much.

The weight of the van tore at me, threatening to separate me from my arm. It was probably even feasible.

My head was about to be split open, my eyes about to burst out of their sockets.

Hold out for a bit more.

Easier said than done.

My fingers on one hand dug into metal, and there was no feeling in the fingers of the other. Just pressure from that elbow, up to the rest of my arm, my shoulder, then my whole fucking body.

Metal kept digging, and in turn, I kept pulling.

Something was bound to break. Probably me.

D said there was a lead to Benny, here. Let this go, and I’d lose everything. I had to salvage this somehow.

With my last remaining strength, I drew my arm back, and as hard as I could possibly manage.

I felt it bend.

My arm was moving. My grip on the van.

Perhaps negligible, but there. I felt it.

And it seemed to be enough.

The van creeped, bit by bit, away from the drop, its metal belly scratching the cement edges.

Come here, come here, dammit.

Tiny, but usable centimeters of progress, but I could only do so much, like this. I did have a breaking point. Someone else was going to have to pick up my slack.

I screamed again. But there was a purpose in my tone. Not just raw expression. A calling.

The sound of movement, the shuffling of feet. Shouts.

A man came running to the van, stopping right where I was. He had a length of chain in one hand, extending somewhere behind us.

He searched around for something he could do, somewhere to apply the chain. Couldn’t help him there. I didn’t have the voice.

He bent down, working the chain under the van, right by my hand. He figured it out himself.

The man worked fast, he was already up and running away. Another person took his place. A female, with chains of her own. She was about as fast as the first guy, tying the chain somewhere underneath the grill. She was up and out in a flash.

I watched, the chains slowly lifting off the ground. Getting tight.

The chains stretched into straight, parallel lines, and then the van started moving forward.

To me.

There was a transfer of power going on, between me and the chains. The van moved, and I felt the pressure on my body lessen. The metal dug into my fingers a little less, my arm in the cement pillar getting a little looser. The strain on my body was easing up.

Which gave room for the pain to sweep in and make itself known.

The soreness, the throbbing. It hit my whole being. As if stretching a rubber band as far as possible without breaking it, when the pressure was alleviated, the band was left loose and flaccid.

I felt like rubber. Stretched-out. No cuts, I wasn’t bleeding, but I was still hurting. The healing process started, but it was within me. Reconnecting muscles and joints. Making them firm again. Feeling things worm inside me.

I almost lost enough of my senses to laugh. Of all the things I inherited from Alexis, it just had to be her penchant for self-abuse.

Fuck you, Alexis.

Fuck you.

The van moved some more, the grill pressing into my chest and face. Moving me along with it, but I was still elbow-deep into the cement pillar.

I waited a bit, the van pushing me more. Positioning myself.

When I found myself at a decent position, I yanked my arm out of the pillar. It fell beside me, and I fell onto my back.

I couldn’t get a good look at my arm, but I could guess how mangled it had become. The van kept moving, rolling over me. I was small, I didn’t get run over.

I was breathing hard when the van was secured, people moving about. I needed to be present.

The desire to stay down and mope in the pain, I pushed it aside.

I forced myself up, propping myself up with my okay arm.

My healing was working all this time, and I was feeling somewhat better by the time I was on my two feet. I checked the arm I used to hit the pillar. The jacket sleeve was still decently intact, but the glove was tattered. My fist looked compact, more like a ball of flesh and bone than separate digits and parts.

I hitched in my breathing at seeing that, and I put my arm down. It’d heal, in time. I just didn’t want to look at it anymore.

Shit. After the first accident earlier tonight, I could have went another night without needing to feed. Now, I had to get something to drink before I returned to the apartment.

It’s fine. You’ll find something.

I’d better.

Arms at my side, I approached the van. Every door was wide open, with teddy bears spilling out. Some of the dogs were tearing them up, fighting each other for their own to chew up. One was licking a man by the cheek. A bandaged cheek. He was sitting on the ground, a distance away from the van. Rattled.

Their boss? He was in the van, too?

Other dogs noticed me, and went to barking.

It brought the gang’s attention to me.

I already had my arms up before it was a solid thought in my head. Even the bad arm, or the one that was more worse off.

“None of the macho stuff,” I said. “I think I just saved your boss. Let’s call it a truce, and we can settle this with words.”

The gang members looked among each other. They turned to me, all nodding. They tugged at their hounds, getting them to zip it.

Good. They weren’t stupid.

D collapsed out of the van, heaving for air. She stayed on her back. She had the handgun, clutched to her chest.

One of the gang members closed in on her, weapons ready. She immediately brought her gun up, but she was pointing more to the ceiling than anyone here. Her arms were too stiff, if she had any intention of pulling that trigger.

“Get away! Back off! It’s Lawrence’s fault, he tried to short me! You don’t fucking cheat me! You can’t!”

The gang members stopped. I walked over to D.

“D,” I said, looking at her. “You’re safe now. No one’s going to hurt you. Relax. I don’t know why, but I got you. I saved you.”

“Thank, thanks you,” she said, between heavy breaths. Hiccups.

“Thank you,” she said again, correcting herself.

Funny. It was in this situation when she acted most like a kid.

“What the hell were you thinking, doing that?” I asked.

“I know, I knew what I was doing. The next building over was only two levels lower. I woulda made it, I would have.”

As she fell over her words, Hleuco came to my side. Browsing the scene, he squawked at the few dogs that couldn’t keep calm.

She’s as crazy as the rest of us.

“Can you get up, or do you need help?” I asked.

“I’ve got it,” she replied, but she soon shook her head. “No, can you? Please help?”

She dropped one arm to her chest, along with the gun. She extended a small hand my way.

I took her hand, using my worse one. My healing really did wonders for me.

I helped her up, while checking my surroundings. And we were surrounded.

All hostiles, with only a temporary, shaky truce keeping them back. I had to maneuver through this – through them – carefully, if I wanted to be able to walk away with no further harm done.

Coming around the front part of the van, I saw the man D was talking with. Lawrence. One of his men was helping him, getting him to stand. He managed, but he still had to rely on his lackey.

Much like this parking garage, he seemed familiar.

It made me realize I was still holding D’s hand. I let go, and heard a faint whimper.

I walked to him, Hleuco coming with. The gang members reacted, and as if by routine, I raised my hands.

The truce remained.

“Lawrence,” I said, voice raised. “You tried to sabotage the only good thing going for you and your gang. Why?”

I made it a point to phrase it like that, to get everyone up to speed, while making Lawrence out to be the offended. It might shake his gang’s faith in him. Anything to get an edge in this.

“I didn’t sabotage shit, she was the one constantly talking shit. You don’t know her like I do, this has been going on so fucking long. From pranks and shit, and when El Carruaje disbanded, she kept going, after me.”

“Because you make it too fun,” D said. She moved behind me, holding my jacket.

“Shut up! She fucked with me when I tried to build up the Ghosts, and now I have to buy from her if I want my boys to continue holding a presence in the city. I swear she planned out this whole damn thing from the beginning.”

“Not now,” I told D, pushing her back with my arm. I returned to Lawrence. “And you wanted to get back at her? At a little girl?”

“I’ll do what I can to survive, I’ll bite that bullet. But if I one up her, then sure, fuck it. I just didn’t expect…”

I filled in the blank for him. “Me?”

“Yeah, you.”

I scanned the people around, and looked back to Lawrence. “Your gang’s on the skids, and you put everyone at risk by trying to pick a fight with a girl half your size. And you still lost, you would have died if I wasn’t there to do something about it. Tell me, was it worth it?”

I didn’t intend for the question to hang, but Lawrence let it, not answering for a good minute. But his silence was saying a lot for the others. Exchanging looks, lowered weapons, an overall down disposition. Even the gang member Lawrence was holding onto shifted, almost as if he was trying to pull away from him. Doing the minimal effort required to keep him up.

“You’re not a gang,” I continued, “You’re scavengers, picking up whatever scraps possible, hoping to see the next day, and you fucked up the last bit of scraps you’re ever going to get. Let that sink in.”

I reiterated the same point for effect. It did sink in. Lawrence dropped his head, and everyone else in his gang felt that. They were all in this together, and they were struggling. I didn’t have any knowledge of the Ghosts before this, but I wouldn’t be surprised if everyone gathered was all the gang had to offer.

“But,” I said, “There is a way to turn it around. There is someone you should direct your anger to.”

All eyes were on me.

“Benny,” I said.

Lawrence lifted his head, eyeing me. “Benny?”

“Yes. You were part of her old gang, were you not? But after her plans failed, the one that necessitated all those weapons, The Chariot fell apart, and you, Lawrence, tried to pick up the pieces for yourself. To scavenge.”

“So what if I did?” he asked.

“It would have worked, for a time, if Benny didn’t decide to shoot up a school.”

Various looks from all around. Mostly concern.

“She did do it,” Lawrence said.

“Yes, she did, and that’s probably a reason why the Ghosts are losing traction in the city. No one wants to associate with someone with too much dirt on their hands, even with a few degrees removed. Shit sticks, and then it spreads.”

“Okay? What does that have to do with us?”

“It has everything to do with you. Benny slipped away, but she’s still in the city. There’s a nice prize for her head. Find her, and you might be in a better standing. Your gang earns a seat at the table.”

Lawrence glared at me, a puzzled expression.

“Why are you suggesting this to us?”

His question gave me pause.

Why was I suggesting this? Benny was mine, but I was telling a branch of her old gang to go after her.

Because I couldn’t do this myself, because it was something Alexis would have never resorted to.

Because it would be a nail in her coffin.

And we need all the nails we can get.

Glancing at Hleuco, I found the confidence I needed to say my next piece.

“Because, I’m thinking we should team up.”

Previous                                                                                               Next

050 – Les Enfants Terribles

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“Yo…”

I repeated the word, still trying to process what I was seeing.

This girl was the one driving the van. Her. Someone this young.

Drifting around corners, racing down streets like a professional. Like a madman, honestly.

I kept staring at her, but it was becoming more and more implausible.

She was short, young, definitely not the legal age to even hold a permit. Short, brown bob cut, disheveled from the van’s sudden stop. Pale skin, indigo eyes. A white sweater with a bomber jacket on top, three sizes too big. The jacket matched with her skirt, leather and black. Black boots. The choker around her neck threw me for even more of a loop.

For a getaway driver, she was pretty well coordinated.

But that was neither here nor there.

Just her being here raised so many questions.

I regained enough of my senses to ask the most pressing one.

“Where are your parents?”

The girl made a face, as if the most reasonable question to ask was instead the most stupid.

“Mind if I lie to you? I’m not up for giving you a proper explanation. I’d rather make it up.”

Flabbergasted couldn’t even begin to describe it.

This was it, right? Thomas’s van? I couldn’t have done this whole chase across the city just to find some stuffed animals… and her. Did I have it right, or was this some elaborate prank?

I had enough sense to ask something else, instead.

“Where’d you find this van? Did you get it back at the factory?”

“What if I did?”

She had a subtle lisp, I noticed. Probably from that missing tooth. She whistled when she talked.

But she still sounded like a child. High-pitched and grating. It annoyed.

She really was just a kid.

I gave her a pointed look.

“It’s not good to take things that aren’t yours, kid. Didn’t your parents ever teach you any common sense?”

She made another face, complete with that sneer from before. “They taught me plenty, thank you very much.”

I noted the past tense, but I didn’t comment.

A honk, and I moved my head. Claire’s taxi was approaching, coming up beside me.

She brought down her window.

“Hey!”

She didn’t sound very happy.

“Claire,” I said, but I didn’t know how to go about handling her. My mind was preoccupied with another matter, and my body was doing its own thing.

I was sore, and my healing wasn’t done doing its rounds. Bones creaked as they joined together, a strange, welcoming numbness soothed me into a better condition.

My clothes didn’t have the same ability, however. My windbreaker weathered a few rips in some places, and I was a few steps away from becoming soleless.

Your shoes, you mean.

Yeah.

“One second,” was all I could tell Claire. For the moment.

I looked back at the girl.

“I’m not through with you, but we have to take this somewhere else. Can’t have cops interrupting us. Do you have any place we can go?”

Using her sleeve, the girl wiped the bottom of her lip.

“There’s a place,” she said.

“Good, because you’re taking us there, now. And don’t try anything funny.”

I backed up to close the driver’s side door, and turned to address Claire.

“My taxi’s-” she started, but I spoke over her..

“I’m really sorry about… this, but she’s going to have to take precedence,” I said. “We’re heading somewhere else to have a proper discussion.”

“Where?”

“Don’t know, but you’re free to come along. And after I’m through with her, we can figure something out, between the two of us. Sound okay to you?”

Claire put the taxi in reverse, presumably to get a better look at the girl.

“Yo!” the girl said.

Then, Claire gave me a pointed look.

“Her?”

“Yeah. It’s… strangely complicated.”

Claire shook her head.

“Whatever. I’m coming.”

I nodded. “Alright. See you in a bit.”

I was in a hurry, now, moving back to the van, sliding the passenger door open. More stuffed bears fell out onto the street.

“Hey, I need those!” the girl whined. “And what are you doing?”

I picked up the bears, throwing them back inside. I closed the door.

“I’m making sure you don’t cause any more trouble,” I said. “Go.”

This place was a shithole.

The building smelled of must, and it was warm. The recent rain seeped into cracks and holes, dripping from the ceiling and soaking the tiled floor, making the air sticky. Moist. It would be very easy to slip and fall into one of the many bags of trash or litter accumulating the different floors.

This place was an apartment complex. People lived here.

The girl led the way, taking us into one of the apartments. Based on the numbers of the doors around us, this was apartment 414, but the ‘1’ was scratched out, the grooves in the door making a ‘0’ instead.

“I’m back,” the girl called out, as all of us filtered inside. No one answered.

The lights were already on, but they were low, not running on full capacity. Everything was cast in a burnt orange hue.

Looking around, the apartment might as well have been ransacked. Nothing of even potentially sentimental value was anywhere to be found. Just boxes, stacked together and kept out of the way. There was a single bedroom, kitchen, and bathroom, and only a couch here in the living room. The doors were closed, I could only imagine what was being hidden behind those doors, considering how seedy this place was.

The air was humid in here, too, the smell masked only by an air freshener plugged in the corner. It smelled of lavender.

Cracks in the wall, the floor creaking with every step. Smaller, secluded holes in corners that suggested other, four-legged tenants.

This girl lived here, didn’t she?

No shit, but it was still a hard pill to swallow. Who would subject themselves to these living conditions?

“Welcome to my humble abode,” the girl said, falling into the couch, by a bundle of blankets. The bundle squirmed.

“Humble doesn’t even begin to put it into words,” I said.

“Well, originally, it was gonna be renovated and cleaned up, you know, gentrification, but the tenants had something to say about that. With the help of some local gangs, they drove out the company in charge, and the city hasn’t really cared to do anything about it, after the fact. Of course, they scared off everyone whose job it was to clean this dump, and it’s been running itself into the ground ever since. Eating itself alive.”

“And you chose to live here?”

The girl shrugged. “I dunno, I needed a quick and easy place to crash. I just came back into the city.”

“You mean you’re by yourself? Alone?”

Claire got a word in before I could. But she was speaking for the both of us, there.

“I’m not alone, I’ve got Macy.”

A hard tug, and the girl threw the blanket off the couch, revealing a woman laying there, curled up. She wasn’t moving, but she was breathing, looking more unconscious than asleep.

Claire, for her part, took several steps back.

“Ah, damn, I told you to lay off the stuff already,” the girl said, leaning over Macy and swatting at her hand. “One more hit like that and you’re donezo.”

Macy reacted, twitching, yet delayed. Her hands opened, and a needle slipped between her fingers, onto the floor.

Claire took another step back.

“Is that…” she started to ask.

“Huh? Oh, nah, she was already here when I moved in, but I don’t think she’s noticed.”

“How could-”

“Wait, hold on.”

I had to stop Claire, or we’d end up going nowhere. I lifted my hands, a signal to move to a different topic.

“I came up with a whole list of questions to ask on the way here, just so I can get it down all at once, and not forget anything. This might be pressing by itself, but there are more important things I want to get to.”

While I was talking, the girl was pulling the blanket over Macy again, fixing it so her face wasn’t obscured. When she finished, she fell back into the couch.

“Sure, ask away. You did catch me, after all, so I guess you deserve a prize.”

From behind my mask, I gave her a pointed look. Even though her biological parents weren’t seemingly around, she was in desperate need of some serious guidance, and counseling.

“First off, a name.”

She sneered.

“You first, O’ Masked One.”

I bit my lip.

I was in need of some blood, soon. I could drain her dry right here, and no one would miss her.

I looked at Claire, but she averted her eyes. Looking at her made me realize it was the first time I’d ever had a clear view of her.

Shoulder length hair, red, tied back. White shirt and jeans. Pushing thirty, if not there already. The creases in her forehead aged her.

She would have been pretty, in another, less stressful life.

My eyes went back to the girl.

“You know who I am, or who I used to be.”

The girl crossed her arms.

“Say. It.”

I tapped my side, making sure my knife was still there.

“The Bluemoon.”

She grinned, showing the gap in the upper row of her teeth.

“How super, the hero in the flesh. Emphasis on super.” She then eyed me. Up, then down.

“Not gonna lie, I thought you were a boy.”

I nearly rolled my eyes. She would have seen if I did that.

“I thought the same thing, too.”

I saw Claire, hands in her pockets. She sounded guilty.

I fixed my hood, setting it more evenly on my head. “Sorry for not choosing something more revealing, or skin-tight. I went for something neutral, people made their assumptions and I didn’t feel the need to correct them. Truth be told, it’s probably been a more effective disguise than any mask I’ve worn.”

But that disguise is gone now. Benny blew it wide open. Now everyone knows that the Bluemoon is a girl, of some Asian ethnicity.

I felt the anger flow within, continuing to shift me. Like magma, under plates of earth.

“That doesn’t matter, not anymore. I’m not here as the Bluemoon, and I’m not quite sure if I’m even here as a hero.”

The girl spoke. “That surprisingly keeps us at square one. I’ll call you ‘Bluemoon,’ easier that way.”

I was more than a touch annoyed, but not enough to make a big fuss over it.

“That’s fine, I suppose,” I said. “But now it’s your turn.”

“Right. Okay, if we’re going by code names, then you can call me ‘D.’”

“Dee?”

“Like the letter. D as in ‘deepthroat.’”

Again, I tapped my side.

The girl, Dee – no, D – laughed, the sort of laugh that was unrestrained, uncaring of public decency.

Full of surprises, she was.

D settled down, and cleared her throat.

“Alright, what else you got?” she asked.

Now she was the one asking questions.

I decided to roll with it.

“The van. You stole it from that factory, did you not?”

“That’s a pretty strong word, but sure. I needed a way around, and I happened upon it. If it’s any consolation, I’ve been good about parking it there whenever I’m done with it, and I gas it up every time.”

“Barely a consolation,” I commented. “But the van isn’t my main priority, actually, though it is useful. There was equipment in there I was looking for. Police scanners, radios, laptops. I didn’t see any of it when I rode with you here.”

“Oh, all that junk? I needed the space, and some cash, so I pawned it.”

I crossed the living room.

I grabbed her at the collar, and threw her onto the wall behind her. I kept her up there.

Claire yelped at how sudden I was.

“You fucking didn’t,” I said, my patience with her having thinned away to nothingness. Young, old, it didn’t matter. I’d break them if they deserved it.

D hardly reacted or panicked. Her arms stayed by her sides. Her vulpine sneer returned.

“I fucking did. I saw an opportunity, and I took it. I was short on cash when I came back, and anything helps when trying to get back on your feet, yeah? Can’t blame me for trying to feed myself a little.”

I made a sound, nearing a growl, and I dropped her. D fell onto the couch, landing on top of Macy. I walked back to where I had been standing before.

I was seething. Barely restrained.

All that work, that whole rabbit chase, and it led to nothing. I was still empty-handed. Nothing to show for all that effort.

I tired of this, spinning my wheels and going nowhere. I craved progress, even more than I craved blood.

I tried looking around for Hleuco, but then I realized he hadn’t come in with us. I would have imagined him wanting to come through the window, but the ones here were boarded up. Unless he didn’t want to show himself if I moved my head elsewhere, I was by myself.

Standing still, I gave myself a moment to cool off, shifting my weight from foot to foot.

D propped herself up, pushing away from Macy, settling back onto the couch. She looked at Claire.

“Props to you, by the way,” she said, as she tugged at her choker.

“About what?”

“That’s some serious driving you did, good job.”

“Oh, thanks?”

“Seriously, it was really badass, like-”

“Stop, stop.”

We all looked at Claire, who had begun to make an ‘X’ with her arms.

“Look, girls, I’m just a cab driver. I purposely put myself in the dark about this stuff so I can try and sleep at night while making some decent money for my own girls. I don’t know why the literal actual superhero is looking for police scanner shit, and I don’t know why you… are whoever you are. My taxi got fucked in that chase, and my shift ends in an hour. How am I supposed to explain that to my real boss when I take it back in?”

D grumbled, getting up from the couch, towards one of the stacks of boxes. She moved them, opening one from the middle of the stack.

She pulled out a teddy bear. And a sizable stack of cash.

Across the room, she tossed them to Claire. She caught them both.

“Do you know Patrick, over at Pecan? The Ferryman.”

Claire answered, holding the bear out in front of her. It didn’t look particularly dirty.

“I’ve passed there a few times,” she answered.

“Give that bear to him, and tell him I send my regards. He should give you a good enough patch-up job. Nothing crazy, but it’ll do. The cash should be enough to cover your ‘detour’ for the night.”

Claire held the bear away from her even more. “Is there something in here?”

“Unless you’re a customer yourself, then nope.”

Hearing that, Claire’s entire body language changed. She let her arms fall beside her, still holding the bear, and money.

“Appreciate it,” she said. The sarcasm was laid on thick.

She looked to me, and my head had cleared up some more. I was ready to get back into this conversation.

“Yeah?” I said.

“I have to leave now if I want to get everything back in working order and clock out on time. If I hurry, I can drop you off somewhere, but it’d have to be along the way.”

Taking a breath, I placed a hand on my hip.

“You can go, I still have unfinished business here. I’ll manage getting back.”

I wasn’t expecting this night to go down the way it was going, considering I was expecting Gomez to be my go-to option, but with D being here, I wanted to get a grip on what she was about.

Claire nodded, curt. “If that’s okay with you, then I’ll be going. And if you ever need a lift in the future, boss, you have my number. I promise I won’t run the meter.”

Not surprised, but pleased.

“That means a lot, Claire, thank you. Again, sorry about the-”

She stopped me with a gesture, lifting the bear. Then, she went to leave the apartment.

The door closed with a heavy clunk, and it was just me and the girl. D.

Well, there was Macy, but she wasn’t so much here as she was… there.

I turned, facing D again. She had returned to the couch, her legs crossed, with an expectant expression.

This fucking girl…

No, she was more like a character.

“And I’m not done with you,” I told her.

“I’d be disappointed if you were.”

“Those scanners would have been really helpful. The police have got eyes and ears everywhere, and I’d-”

“Puh-lease,” she said, interjecting. “That old junk’s worthless, they can’t pick up even half the channels the cops use nowadays, and what they can pick up, the signal’s shoddy at best. They’re outdated, even paperweights make fun of them. If you want something better than that, I’m your girl. I can out-scan any pleb-tier gadget that Señor Gomez has.”

I took a step to her.

“Wait, ‘Gomez?’ As in James Gomez, Chief of Police?”

D snapped her fingers. “Yeah yeah, him.”

“You know him?”

She glanced to the corner of the couch. “I’ve had some run-ins with him, in the past.”

Another surprise. It was getting harder to keep up.

“Do you know where I can get another scanner?” I asked.

D grumbled, and then her hands went into her lap.

“Scanner this, scanner that, blah blah blah. What do you even want to do with those things, anyway? They’re not even very fun to play with. If you want a toy so bad I’ve got a spare tablet I picked up-”

“Because I’m looking for someone.”

She stopped for a second, and then looked very interested. Curious.

“Who?”

I sighed. No harm in telling her.

“Benny, from The Chariot.”

D lifted an eyebrow.

“Oof, if I had dollar for every time I heard that name.”

I approached her again, at a pace that was inhuman. D reacted, putting her feet up on the couch, pressing her back to the wall.

Even Macy stirred.

“Don’t tell me you know her, too,” I said. “You know where she is?”

I was cornering her, throwing her off. I had enough of her attitude. Too smug for her own good, and for her age.

I put my foot on the couch, raising my head to look at her. I questioned her again. “Do you know where she is?”

D brought up her hands, her palms facing me. “Whoa whoa, I’m not saying that at all! I just meant I’ve heard people mentioning her ever since I came back. Like with Gomez, I’ve run into her and her gang, but they were still nobodies last time I checked. Now? It’s like she’s the hottest thing on the block. It’s strange.”

“It’s not strange. Everyone’s after Benny, and I have to beat them to it. She’s in hiding, biding her time until she can leave the city. But I’m not going to let her have that chance, she’s not getting out of this alive.”

The expression on D’s face changed, taking in everything. The corners of her mouth folded upward.

“Oh ho? I like the sound of that.”

She shifted, standing on a couch cushion, her hands on her hips. She leaned towards me, seeing me at eye level.

“I was afraid that you were going to turn out to be boring. But you’re already bringing the party to me. I’m in.”

The hell is she rambling about?

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“I mean exactly that. I want to help. Wait, not want, I will help you.”

I frowned, but my mask’s expression was blank.

“You? You’re going to help me?”

Her smile widened.

“Of course. I know these streets like the back of my hand. Other kids my age couldn’t even walk down the street without their heads in their phones, telling them where to go.”

“That’s not the part I’m questioning,” I said.

D restated her point, “You don’t have to worry about me. I’ll be your eyes and ears, even your personal bodyguard, if it has to come to that.”

I huffed, a light scoff. “Highly doubt it’ll get to that point.”

D rolled her eyes. “Fine, but I’m still a good piece to have on the board. You could stand to have me by your side.”

“Hm, and what piece would you be, should I decide to put you on this metaphorical board?”

I saw careful thought cross D’s face, taking her time.

After some deliberation, she answered.

“The bishop.”

Speaking for myself, I’d never played chess. And, gathering from what connections and memories I decided to take, neither had Alexis.

But that wasn’t the main focal point, here. Was this girl actually going to be of any use? She seemed to be pretty knowledgeable about Stephenville and its underground, and she probably knew more than I ever did. My ventures into that world usually took place in the night, and I had a clean bed to come home to. This girl lived in that world. It was the ugly reality she faced each and every day.

And she faced it with a smug, irritating sneer.

Oddly inspiring, I had to admit.

But there was another point to consider.

“How do I know that I can trust you?”

I decided to ask, rather than speculate in my own head.

D seemed to be taken aback, stumbling on the couch. She straightened herself, and her back.

“Of, of course you can trust me. I mean it when I say I will help you. It’s just a matter of whether or not you want it.”

Talking around my question. She wasn’t being entirely convincing.

“Alright, how about this? Why should I let you help me?”

“Because you don’t have any leads, and you don’t have a lot of time. I can get you both. You wear a mask, and that tells me that you have some other life you need to attend to. Me? I’m out there, all day, every day, by myself, and no one bats an eye. I’m free to do whatever. During the day, I can ask around, discreetly, and see what I can come up with. And that saves you time to properly prepare, and you can do the whole superhero schtick, and give the bad guys exactly what they deserve.”

I saw into her eyes, and I knew she meant every word. She was being serious.

It was a look I’d seen before. But exactly when or where or who was unclear. Vague, like a foggy memory, getting more distorted the more I tried to reconnect. It wasn’t worth the resulting headache.

Maybe she really would be of use? My options were limited, no thanks to her, but she did have a point about accessibility. I was still chained to the name of ‘Alexis,’ and someone like Gomez was chained in a similar way, by the law, as perverted as it was. Even Claire had other responsibilities, I couldn’t expect her to be at my constant beck and call. D didn’t seem to be tied by those restrictions. As she put it, she was free to do whatever.

‘D’ for ‘different,’ I suppose.

By and large, an extra pair of eyes and ears wasn’t a bad idea. It just had to be her eyes and ears, though.

If she ever proves to be an issue, we can dispose of her easily. A resource for blood.

Even I had my reservations about that idea.

I broke eye contact with her, and gave her some space. She got down from the couch.

“Here’s what we’ll do,” I told her. “You’re… an anomaly, but in the grand scheme of everything, so am I. I’m willing to give us a shot, if you’re really as good as you think you are.”

D clasped her hands together, doing a small hop in celebration. “Yes! This is going to be so fun!”

But,” I said, cutting her short. I let the word hang. “If you give me a reason to doubt you, for even just a second, I will kill you.”

I didn’t mean that last part, but it was over-the-top enough to drive the point home.

D didn’t seem very bothered by that threat. “Looks like I’ve got my work cut out for me. Double fun!”

I heard a soft rumble, and D patted her jacket, then slipped her hand into a pocket. She took out a cell phone. It looked new, better than any phone I, or Alexis, had ever owned.

“And will you look at that, great timing. Hey, do you have anywhere else you need to be right now? Or better yet, when does your whole superhero shift end?”

I thought about Shiori, sleeping in the smaller of the two bedrooms in the apartment. Come morning, she’d wake up, get ready for work, then leave without ever checking on me or my room. She gave Alexis her space in the mornings, something I was more than happy to capitalize on.

“It ends when I get my hands on Benny,” I replied. “Why?”

“Because, I was originally on my way to park your van and call it a night, though you kinda got in the way of that. But, I did have a job I was saving until morning, might as well take care of it now, since I still have the van with me. So my real question is, do you want to come along?”

“Why should I?”

D grinned.

“If it all goes well, we might have a clear lead on Benny. Instead of asking you to trust me, I’ll prove it.”

I watched as the little girl puffed out her chest, even though there wasn’t anything to puff out. It would have been endearing, if it hadn’t come from her.

A piece on the board, begging to be played. I just hoped it was the right move.

Previous                                                                                               Next

Interlude – Harrian

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[一种语言永远不够。]

The thought had hit Harrian like a brick to the face, jolting his jet lag-addled brain awake.

Everything was foreign. The people, the sights, the sounds, the smells. Foreign from him, foreign from each other.

Harrian included himself in that, as well.

He was as much a foreigner to this place and to everyone as they were to him. Everyone was different, in their own separate worlds, just out of reach. So many different barriers that needed to be overcome, just to get to know someone.

How he expected to connect to anyone, here, was beyond him.

What was the phrase, again?

He tried remembering if there was a Mandarin equivalent.

Like a fish out of water.

Exactly.

Already, Harrian was doubting himself.

It didn’t help that Auntie was over an hour late.

Harrian clutched his bags and luggage, keeping them closer. He was beyond exhausted, but he couldn’t afford to let his guard down. Being in an unfamiliar place, with unfamiliar people, was putting him on edge, and all he wanted was to relax.

He wondered where Auntie was, if she was even heading to the airport right now. He wondered if she even got his texts before his phone died. He couldn’t call, his phone wasn’t set up to work internationally, yet.

They were supposed to get that taken care of once she had picked him up.

All Harrian had on him was his tablet. He sent some emails, but no response from Auntie there, either.

Nothing to do but wait, keep an eye around him. Make sure nobody got too close to his things.

Wait, and wait some more.

He’d been waiting for so long, the baggage carousel had rotated out all the luggage that was on his flight, and was already working on a new group of arrivals. Out of the group he arrived with, he was probably one of the remaining few. When his plane landed and they were free to go, he ran to baggage claim to find a good spot to get his stuff. He found that good spot, claimed his baggage, and waited, and waited, and waited some more.

A vulgar, mean phrase entered his mind. No. Shouldn’t think that, not about family.

He tried to form his thoughts in English. For practice.

That is what I get for trusting others.

But, in spite of his annoyance, sitting and moping would do him no good. He still had his tablet, and there was some battery left. Taking it out of a bag by his side, he turned it on, and loaded up the next episode of a popular medieval fantasy series.

With English subtitles. He was still practicing.

He put in some earphones, and began to watch.

Harrian got about halfway through the episode before something kept nagging at him.

“Yo!”

Harrian had been hearing bits and pieces of other people’s conversation while he watched, but this, in particular, stood out to him. It seemed more directed.

Yo.”

Is this what is known as ‘rapping?’

“请问。”

That perked his ears.

Harrian turned to his left, taking his earphones out. He raised an eyebrow.

A little girl. A white girl. An American girl. Her hair was short and brown, her eyes a mystifying blue that he’d never seen before. Like the color of the sky, and not the smoggy grey of the city. The real sky.

Harrian was captivated, if not confused and concerned, as well.

A little girl. A white girl. An American girl. Standing before him. Yet she spoke his tongue?

“你会不会讲普通话?”

Harrian asked.

The girl shook her head. “No, no, not really. I had some time on the flight so I decided to get some reading done. Mind if I take this?”

Harrian looked to where she pointed. One of his bags that he had set in the seat beside him.

“Um,” Harrian said.

“The seat, silly, I want to sit next to you.”

His eyes went back to her, staring blankly.

She stared back, her face in a bashful expression. Cute.

“Can I?”

Harrian jolted back to his sense.

“Yes, right, of course!”

He hurried to put his tablet and earphones back in the bag and set it down, off the seat. Using his feet, he kicked the bag under, securing it there.

The girl offered a bow. “谢谢。” She then took the seat, smiling as she got settled.

Harrian didn’t know what to make of any of this.

She set her only bag in her lap, then extended a hand to him.

“What’s your name?” she asked.

“Harrian Wong,” he answered. He thought back to his English textbooks. “And what is your name?”

“My name? You can call me ‘D.’”

“Dee?”

“Like the letter.”

“Oh, I see.”

The girl – D – giggled. “That’s three letters.”

Harrian tilted his head. “Hm?”

Her giggle turned into a full, hearty laugh.

“You’re a funny guy, Harrian!” she said, chortling.

Harrian glanced away, flustered. Nothing like this was ever covered in his textbooks.

He took a moment to regain his composure, then faced her again, studying her in a different light.

She had on a light denim jacket, completely white in some splashes of her sleeves. Black tights, or some kind of fitting pair of sweatpants.

What really stood out him, however, was the belt that coiled around her neck. He recognized it as a sort of fashion statement, but seeing it stated by a girl so young made him question if what he was seeing was real.

Back where he was from, girls with her appearance only showed up in fuzzy television sets and imported magazines. Yes, he recognized that she was but a child, but aside from the flight attendants who helped lead him to his connecting flights, he’d never interacted with American girls before.

Or any girls, for that matter. He wasn’t the most popular guy back home.

Harrian couldn’t help but keep his guard up.

A question was about to leave his mouth when D sat back, reclined her head and groaned.

“Man, they’re really keeping us waiting, huh?”

“Waiting?”

She shifted her eyes so she could see him. “Yeah, we’re in the same boat, or plane, I guess. I’ve been sitting here, waiting for my ride to show up. I noticed you were doing the same for a hot minute, so I decided to come over here. Might as well kill time sitting with someone else.”

Harrian nodded, more disappointed than he wanted to admit. She didn’t come over here for him, specifically. Anyone could have been sitting in this chair, and she’d come all the same.

D put her hand on the armrest between them.

“But, you seem like a nice guy, so I guess I’m getting more than I asked for,” she said.

Harrian felt his face go warm, more delighted than he wanted to admit. He did what he could to not show it.

But, before he could get too swept up in the emotion, some things about her stood out to him.

“Excuse me, D?

She made a sound, like a pur. “Hm?”

“Were you on the same flight as me?” he asked.

“I think so? I came in from LA and I claimed my baggage here.” She pointed to the carousel ahead of them. “I didn’t take an international flight, though, if that’s what you’re insinuating.”

“Insinuating?” He’d never heard a word like that before.

“Implying.”

“I see.”

Harrian nodded once, the meaning a little more clear to him.

“You flew by yourself?” Harrian then asked.

“Yup.”

“I am impressed. This was my first time flying.”

“It’s nothing, I’ve done it before. And I mean, I still need those flight attendants to escort me around, I’m still underage.”

Underage, right.

He stole a glance at her again, and she was shuffling through a pocket of her jacket, removing earphones and her phone. Listening to music, probably.

Shame.

He wanted to talk with her some more, and anything was better than staring into space, waiting for Auntie. But, he didn’t know where to take the conversation.

“Is this your final destination?”

D noticed him looking, staring now. Harrian had to move his gaze away.

“No, actually, I still have a drive to S… Ste…”

He knew the name of the city, he’d heard it in his head and read it a million times over, but saying it was another matter.

“Stephenville?” D offered.

It clicked in his head, and he remembered.

“Yes, Stephenville. I am to study there next semester.”

D perked her head up.

“That’s cool, and a crazy coincidence, too. I’m actually headed that way, myself.”

“You are?”

“Yup, I’m from there, and I’d be there already if my ride wasn’t late.”

“I understand.”

D hummed, as if to acknowledge that she heard him, and she went back to her phone and wires.

There, Harrian recognized. The conversation would end here if he didn’t say anything else.

He didn’t want that.

Harrian wanted to take the reigns of the conversation, this time.

“What is it like, in Stephenville?” he asked.

He was curious, he’d heard the stories, but firsthand accounts were alway more intriguing.

D leaned his way, untangling the wires.

“What’s it like?” she repeated back to him.

Harrian had to reiterate.

“I heard that it can be a really bad place sometimes. Is that true?”

“Hmm,” D said, thinking. She placed a hand on her face, and looked right at Harrian.

“It’s definitely a dog eat dog kind of city.”

Harrian made a face, making clear his confusion.

“I don’t understand.”

“You know, eat or be eaten, take or be taken from. You can’t afford to let yourself wander in a place like that.”

Harrian watched her, listening, trying to keep up.

What was the word? Metaphor? He didn’t quite get the exact meaning, but the tone wasn’t anything particularly promising.

“Sounds scary,” Harrian commented. He felt a pang of regret about asking, but better to know now than be caught off guard.

D shrugged. “I mean, it’s not unlike any other big city. Just keep an eye out at all times and be alert, you’ll never know when someone might sweep the rug out from under you.”

Harrian nodded again, clutching his bags, tapping his foot on the luggage underneath him.

“Thank you for the advice,” he said, earnest.

In return, D smiled a toothy smile, though a front tooth was missing.

“No problem! Speaking of which…”

D put one of her earbuds in one ear, and handed Harrian the other.

“Wanna listen to some music?”

Harrian took the offered earbud. “Are you sure?”

“Yeah, of course, let’s try and unwind. Anything helps when you just got done flying for twenty hours.”

Harrian found himself in agreement. Flying for twenty hours, plus layovers, delays, language barriers, and doing it largely by oneself, took a toll on him, and he wanted nothing more than to unwind. Listening to music with a nice girl was definitely better than doing nothing, and the music could add a cozy crutch for him to rely on. He wouldn’t be forced to come up with anything to say.

Harrian looked at the earbud, to D, then back to the earbud.

“Don’t worry,” D said, taking Harrian out of his thoughts. “They’re clean.”

He felt an embarrassment, again.

“That was not what I meant,” he said, trailing off to a mumble at the end.

Without another word, Harrian placed it in his ear. The music was already playing.

Light, easy-going music, with a jazzy undertone. A female singer, crooning in an Asian language, but not one he understood.

He wasn’t too big into music, but even he could sense a retro feel to the sound, the mix.

“What is this?” he asked, his eyes getting heavy.

“Not sure, just picked it up. Late nineties, I think. It’s just old pop music.”

“Ah,” Harrian said.

“I’d try and read the name, but kanji trips me up, and I’m beat.”

‘Beat’ meant tired, Harrian knew that much.

“I agree,” he said, before starting to unwind.

Harrian focused on the music, blocking out the bustling airport around him. It worked. The music soothed, the singing relaxed him. His eyes closed completely, and the drowsiness and jet lag got the better of him, and he began to fall asleep-

“Harrian!”

Harrian woke up.

In surprise, he lurched forward, his bags almost slipping off of him. He caught them, though, before anything could happen.

He moved his head, and saw the person he was waiting for.

“Auntie,” he said.

Auntie clasped her hands together, head lowered.

“I’m so sorry, but work wouldn’t let me leave early for you, and of course it had to be rush hour when I could leave. I know you were waiting, but I hope it wasn’t too bad?”

“No, it was not,” Harrian said. He noticed that he didn’t have the earbud, anymore. No music.

“Awesome! Alright, let’s get you out of here, I’ll help you with your bags.”

Harrian nodded, collecting his bags and-

He froze.

Harrian checked his sides, the seats next to him.

Gone. The girl was gone.

Harrian checked under his seat.

Gone. The bag was gone.

The one with his tablet and earphones.

She didn’t, she wouldn’t…

He looked around, panicked but still tired. Everyone and everything was a blur to him.

How long was he asleep? When did she leave? Could he still find her?

Too scatterbrained and worn out to make a concrete decision, he looked back to Auntie.

“What? What happened?” she asked, rightfully worried.

He tried to find the words, and he thought back to what the girl had told him.

“I think the rug has been swept under me,” Harrian replied.

[蠢驴。]

Harrian worked, busy as a bee.

He couldn’t say the same for his partner.

For the last half of class, Mr. Graham had paired everyone up to work on exercises over today’s lessons, and he had paired Harrian up with Jaclyn, a cheerleader.

He tried not having any expectations, but he was left disappointed.

She could have at least asked him how to handle a problem or two, and he’d be more than happy to help, but she seemed more interested in chatting with the girl beside her than practicing how to find the surface area of a cube.

He was fine with that. It was fine.

No expectations.

“And, oh my gosh, when everyone rushed in at the end, I did not see that coming!”

“I know, right? I couldn’t stop posting about it, I felt like such a geek.”

“So worth, though. But how are they even going to make another season when they just killed off all my favorite characters like that?”

“That’s the thing, I don’t know. If you want to find out what happens next, you’ll have to read the books.”

“Oh really? Nah, I’ll just wait, then.”

Harrian was right there, it was impossible to block out their conversation. And he knew what they were talking about.

Popular. Medieval fantasy.

He spoke before he could stop himself.

“I saw it too.”

Jaclyn stopped halfway through her next sentence, and both girls turned to him.

“Saw what?” she asked.

“That episode. I saw it too. I watch that show.”

The girls didn’t say anything in response. Was that to prompt him to elaborate further?

He took that prompt.

“I also couldn’t believe it when that wedding scene happened, but Bogart was my favorite, so it was a good thing he was not in the throne room. Who was your favorite that-”

“Were we talking to you?”

Jaclyn interrupted him.

It threw him off. Harrian sputtered.

“I just, you were talking about, and I wanted to-”

“Were we talking to you?” Jaclyn asked again, more pointed this time.

That point hit him in the chest. Dejected, Harrian returned to his papers.

“No you weren’t.”

The girls didn’t acknowledge that he answered them, and went back to talking amongst themselves.

Harrian didn’t like the feeling that sat inside his chest.

No expectations.

He worked another problem, and finished another. Putting his mind elsewhere helped. Anything to distract him from his unfortunate reality. That he was Harrian Wong.

The bell tolled.

Finally.

Harrian was released from another long day at school.

He couldn’t wait to go home.

He scooted his table back to its original position, away from Jaclyn’s. He packed his stuff together, filing away the sheet of exercises. Anything left unfinished had to be done for homework, but Harrian had a good grip on the material. He’d complete it in time for the next class.

Picking everything up, he checked his classmates around him, Jaclyn. He’d wait for them to leave first, so they wouldn’t see him as they left. So they wouldn’t think of him.

It had already become routine. The norm. And it had gotten to the point where he didn’t think much of it anymore.

He was just waiting for it to be over.

Endure.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

His time in America wasn’t turning out to be what he wanted. A change of scenery should have done him some good, to get away from the stress from back home. Father agreed to him studying abroad, although reluctantly, he would have rather not tackled the problem of his son being so weak head on.

He’ll grow up to be a man on his own, Father had said. Those who can’t grow up and take the world on their own deserve to be stomped out.

So he was cast out here, and Harrian was to grow, and find a world he could take on his own.

It didn’t quite turn out that way.

Even in another county, even in another language, Harrian was still Harrian.

The more things changed, the more they ended up staying the same.

Harrian resigned himself to that.

He walked over to his locker, hurrying now. The buses left in ten minutes, and he still needed to go to his locker on the other end of the school. He was no athlete, but it was doable, and more often than not, he could make it.

He just had to hurry, and pray they wouldn’t bother him.

There, his locker. At least it was on the first floor.

Spinning the dial, entering the code, Harrian got it open in no time flat.

He threw his stuff into his bag.

Come on, hurry, faster.

A foot entered his field of view, moving in a flash. Harrian drew his hands away.

The locker was kicked closed.

Shadows fell around him.

“Oh shit!”

No, no.

A small, inconsequential thought, but he noticed he could worry in English.

That had to account for something.

Harrian turned around.

Two boys. Men, if he compared their size and weight to him.

Eric and Evan.

Both football players, both taller and stronger than him. Both situated to his left and right.

Whenever he saw these two together, something was about to happen. And usually, that ‘something’ would happen to him.

Nowhere to move, nowhere to run.

Harrian immediately went on the defensive, if ‘defensive’ meant wanting to curl up into a ball and disappear.

“What?” was all Harrian could ask.

The taller and wider of the two boys, Eric, answered with his deep voice.

“Sorry, Harry, I’m actually really sorry for hitting your locker, but we were just in a hurry, and we didn’t want to miss you.”

“Same, it’d suck if you left already,” Evan said.

Harrian had no real expression on his face, his body ready to jump at whatever Eric and Evan were going to do next.

By this point, he couldn’t put it past them to not try anything, even though they had already done everything.

What else was left?

Evan approached, and Harrian backed up, but he found himself against the lockers.

Evan put his hands up.

“Hey man, that’s actually why we’re here. We… wanted to apologize.”

Apologize?

Harrian had to make sure he knew the meaning of that word.

Express regret for something that one has done wrong.

These two had done plenty wrong.

“For?” Harrian asked, unsure of everything.

“For being really shitty to you,” Eric said, filling it in. “We, Evan and I, we recognized the pranks and stuff we pulled weren’t exactly cool, and so we wanted to apologize for everything. Sorry.”

Harrian looked at both of them again. Their expressions were one of genuine regret.

Did Harrian believe it?

There was a lot to be sorry for. Missing lunches, ruined art projects, a light tap in the back of the leg so he’d trip in the hall. Anything and everything.

Something would happen, and he’d turn and see the sneers, and hear the laughter. He would see those two.

Harrian fantasized about standing up to them, telling them off, getting back at them in some way. It never happened. It would never happen. Harrian was aware of his own weakness. And worse yet, he didn’t want to tell anyone about it. He could admit it to himself, but he couldn’t admit it to the world.

Then being here would mean it was all for nothing.

But, despite everything they had done, Eric and Evan were here, in front of him, telling him that they were remorseful about their actions.

Too convenient, too easy.

Being cornered by the two, however, they didn’t give him an option other than going along with it.

“Is this true?” Harrian asked. His head started throbbing, remembering what they did last time.

“It is,” Evan said. “We usually do shit like that with our friends and teammates, and they’re big enough to take it, but we realized that we weren’t there with you yet, so there was a, um, what’s the word?”

“Disconnect,” Eric said.

“Yeah, that. Again, we’re sorry, and we wanted to make it up to you by being friends.”

“Being friends?” Harrian repeated it back, but even when saying it himself, he couldn’t believe it.

They wanted to be friends with him, now? With Harrian?

“Yes, friends,” Eric said, reassuring him. “And to make it up to you, we got you a little something.”

Harrian went back to being concerned, again.

Eric extended a hand, his fist as meaty as a full-sized ham, and showed him what he had.

Chocolate bars.

“This premium stuff, right here,” Eric said. “The best the school vending machines had to over.”

“And there’s more where that came from, too,” Evan added. “Just ask us anytime, and we’ll hook you up.”

Harrian stared at the candy, unsure of what to make of all of this. This was their sign of goodwill? Chocolates?

He did like chocolates, though, he really did.

Was that enough to make up for all the pranks? Were they really just harmless pranks, only done to those Eric and Evan were close to?

Harrian wasn’t sure, anymore.

“Come on, take them,” Eric said, bringing his hand closer. “They’re actually really good.”

Harrian wanted more time to consider, but he remembered that he was against the clock. The bus would leave soon.

It was Friday, all Harrian wanted was to sit at home on his computer, maybe play some games. He wanted a break.

“Okay,” Harrian said, quietly. He took the chocolates off of Eric’s hands.

They both gave him, and each other, a thumbs-up.

“Nice,” Evan said. “Alright, Harry, that’s all we came here for, and we’re sorry again for being such dicks. If you ever want to chill or do anything just let us know.”

“Okay,” Harrian said, quietly, staring at the chocolates.

“See you,” Eric said, and they left, giving Harrian the space he so desired.

He continued to stare at the chocolates.

He didn’t have to do anything, and he was given candy and their friendship. And they asked for his forgiveness.

They seemed genuine enough, too.

The gesture was starting to get to him.

Maybe it was worth it, coming here. Maybe he could learn a thing or two about connecting with others.

Maybe he could learn to be better than just simply being Harrian.

Oh yeah.

The bus.

Harrian still had a bus to catch.

He turned, opening his locker again, grabbing his backpack. He stuffed the chocolates into a pocket on the side. Then, after he was certain he had everything he needed for the weekend, Harrian ran off to catch the bus.

[蠢驴。蠢驴。]

“What’s ‘good bye’ in Japanese?”

Harrian asked.

Alexis stared back at him. The expression she had gave him pause. For an instant, he forgot to breathe.

Cold.

It made him question if he had said something wrong.

She threw her hands into her pockets, tilting her head.

“The only word I can think of is ‘sayonara.’ But I think people don’t typically say that. It implies a sort of finality. Don’t quote me on it.”

She actually answered him, to his relief, he worried that was taking too much of her time already.

He wanted to make a comment on how she answered with an American accent, how it was a little funny to hear coming from her, but he knew he was keeping her. Her face said it all. Her eyes.

Harrian accepted that.

“Good enough,” he said, summing it all up. He’d let her go. She need not to waste her time with him.

She remained there, standing, as if there was more to the conversation.

Did he miss something? A cue to say more? He knew he was no social butterfly, so perhaps there was something else he needed to add.

He couldn’t think of anything.

Did she maybe want to hear more stats about the Japanese workforce?

Harrian considered it.

“Sayonara, Harrian.”

Alexis spoke up.

Oh, I see.

She wanted to say properly, with that Americanized accent?

For his sake? No, he couldn’t be so, so presumptuous.

She wasn’t used to speaking in another language, and he could tell. Her lips were set in a line, as if uncomfortable after folding to produce such foreign sounds. Her expression was equally neutral, perhaps shy, if he really wanted to stretch it.

Cute, he couldn’t help but think.

Alexis grinned slightly, then turned to leave, going about the rest of her day, whatever that meant for her.

Harrian waved as she turned, watching her leave. Checking her out.

He… would, but only in a sort of far-off, unbelievable fantasy. Maybe if he was more confident in himself, he’d talk to her more, ask her out when they became closer friends. Maybe, but he knew better. She was totally out of his league, and he was…

He was Harrian.

Harrian looked again, but Alexis was already gone, out of his line of sight. He tried to stop thinking about it, about her, but his brain wouldn’t let him. A successful interaction with someone of the opposite gender. Rare. Of course his brain wanted to go over it, picking at every single detail.

He was Harrian.

Did she enjoy talking to him? Potentially, she was the one to initiate it. Did she like him? Enough to want to start a conversation, he supposed, but didn’t he get on her nerves, back at Auntie’s shop? Potentially, but he didn’t know the root cause.

I was just trying to better connect with her.

He let himself wander in his thoughts.

With the amount of interactions he had with her, he could count them on one hand, but there was something about her that drew his interest. Alluring, to put it in a word, now that his English was getting better.

Something about her.

Her eyes. Something about her eyes…

“Hey man, did you wait long?”

Harrian blinked, and his attention was back to the real world.

Evan was approaching, as chipper as ever.

A friend. One of the only ones.

”I did not,” Harrian said, hiding the truth. He did wait for some time, but he did show up early.

“That’s good. Let’s dip, then.”

“Yes, let us dip.”

Harrian picked up his bag, and followed Evan to his truck. They arrived, Evan getting the passenger side door for Harrian.

“Oh, thank you,” Harrian said.

Problemo nada, my man.”

Harrian got in the truck, his bag at his feet. His hands were still on the straps. Four points of contact with his belongings, at all times.

Even with people he knew, he learned his lesson.

“Where’s Eric?” Harrian asked, as Evan got into the driver’s seat.

Evan started the truck, and worked on backing out of the spot.

“We’re gonna meet him there,” he said. He didn’t specify where ‘there’ was.

Harrian felt like he should ask, but music started up as soon as the truck did. A rap song that he wasn’t familiar with. Loud, and it startled, and Harrian quickly forgot what he had in mind to say.

The truck left the school, and they headed out. Harrian looked to see if he could see Alexis as they crossed the parking lot. He couldn’t.

Eyes on the road, Evan adjusted the volume.

“Did you catch the new episode last night?” Evan asked him.

Harrian knew exactly what he was talking about. “I did.”

“I think it’s the best one yet, even though they keep wrecking the main character. I’m surprised he’s even still alive.”

“Me too,” Harrian said. He almost said more, but he’d be spoiling it for Evan, by that point. The best parts were still to come.

“Shit, I might start reading the books after this season wraps up, and that never happens.”

“I happen to have whole series, if you would like to borrow a book.”

Evan glanced at Harrian, even though the truck was going pretty fast, now.

“Really? You’d do that?”

“Yes, I would.”

“Wow,” Evan said, scratching his chin. “That’s pretty dope of you, thanks. I’ve actually got something for you, too. I’ll show it to you when we meet up with Eric.”

Harrian nodded, but he felt warm and fuzzy, inside. He looked forward to whatever Evan had planned.

Things had started to turn around once Harrian had accepted Eric and Evan’s apology. The two actually became his friends, for one, and Harrian started feeling more comfortable being in America, speaking English, and being himself.

It was a feeling he thought he’d never experience.

Being with – hanging out with – Evan himself helped in that feeling. He had a class with Evan, an art class, and what once used to be a class he dreaded, became one he now looked forward to. Evan was funny, charismatic, lively. The kind of person Harrian wished he was.

Harrian made it a point to learn something from him.

“It definitely is nice to get out every now and again, right?” Harrian asked, starting another conversation.

“Definitely, but man, things have been going off the fucking deep end recently.”

“The deep end?”

“You know, with the whole Bluemoon thing, and all the riots and stuff. To think it’s all happening here, in Stephenville.”

The Bluemoon thing. Harrian heard about it, seen it on the news. The vigilante superhero taking on the notorious gangs. It sounded like something he’d read in comic books, but there he was, leaping over buildings in a singular bound. It was incredible, and a little scary.

To think it was all happening in the city he transferred to.

“Hopefully it doesn’t get too bad,” Harrian said, wishing aloud.

“Same here. If the Bluemoon is actually trying to make this city better off, he better do it right. Otherwise, with all these riots, he might as well burn everything down himself.”

That was a scary propostion, but Harrian didn’t comment on that.

“Anyway, how about you?”

“Me?”

“Yeah, what would you do if you had superpowers? Like, strength or flying or something?”

The question made him ponder. He daydreamed about it before, but that was before Eric and Evan made their peace with him. Now? He was content.

“I’m not sure,” Harrian answered. “I probably couldn’t fight gangs or criminals.”

“No? I’m up for beating up some bad guys. With strength like that, it’s probably a piece of cake.”

Harrian shrugged, and watched cars pass by. “Probably.”

“But who knows? There was a time when that question would have been purely hypothetical. Now, oh, here we are.”

Harrian peered out from the front window. Gray towers were replaced with brown fields of corn.

They were entering into a rural part of town.

“Where is this?” Harrian asked.

“This, is Braham Barn.”

The truck got off the road, and onto a trail. Harrian saw the broken-down barnhouse come into view. Another truck was there, parked.

Harrian had never heard of this place.

The truck rolled to a stop, and Evan put it into park.

“Come on, we’re here.”

Evan hopped out of the truck, and Harrian followed. He decided to leave his backpack behind.

“Here,” Evan said, meeting up with Harrian. “Take this.”

He handed Harrian a large bundle. Harrian grabbed it, and unfolded it.

“A jacket?”

“Put it on, it’s gonna be chilly inside the barn.”

Harrian listened, putting on the jacket, zipping it up. It was heavy, and thick with a strange odor.

“What are we to do here, anyway?”

“Run.”

The word stood out to him. The tone sour.

He moved to face Evan, but he was already in the distance, running back to the truck.

Why-

Then, he heard it.

Barking.

Then, he saw it.

Out of the field, two dogs burst from the vegetation. Rottweilers. Sprinting.

Toward Harrian.

Instinct and panic kicked, and Harrian turned to run.

Nowhere to go, except the widening mouth of the Braham Barn.

Faster, faster, faster.

Harrian ran, but he was no athlete, he couldn’t outrun animals. They were built for this, evolved to do better.

They were hunters. And he was prey.

The dogs caught him as soon as he passed through the doors, falling into the darkness.

Merciless. Powerful.

Violent.

They tore at him to shreds.

His limbs were yanked this way and that. Covering himself was useless when his arms could get pulled away again.

Teeth sank into his sides. Digging. Tooth and nail. Claws. Dark. Panic. The hurt.

No, no, no, no no no no no no no no.

Fabric flew into the air. Spit. Growling, barking.

He didn’t have the breath to scream. Pulled by the beasts. Made into a meal.

They wouldn’t stop. They wouldn’t stop. They wouldn’t stop.

Wouldn’t stop biting, wouldn’t stop gnawing.

Stop stop stop.

Where was anyone? Where was everyone?

Powers. They were talking about powers, earlier. What he would do if he had them.

He’d save himself.

Harrian reached with his power. Focusing control.

And then he remembered he didn’t have any. Of course. He was just a human. He was just Harrian.

Stop stop stop stop stop stop stop.

A sharp whistle cut through the everything.

Then, it did stop.

The dogs turned tail, and backed away.

Harrian, for his part, could no longer move. Face messy with tears and sweat and snot.

His brain could not process what had just transpired.

On the wooden floor, the high ceiling above, consumed in darkness.

Laughter.

He heard laughter.

Getting louder. Getting louder.

Unbelieveable.

“Oh my god, shit, shit, sorry Harry, sorry.”

“I can’t, I can’t! I’m so sorry!”

Sorry. Words used when people apologized. When expressing regret for something that one has done wrong.

But why were they still laughing?

Dark, but Harrian saw their faces when they looked down at him.

Eric.

Evan.

Their laughter was dying down, they were rubbing the corners of their eyes.

“Man, you shoulda seen how you were running, flopping like a fucking fish!” Eric said.

“You would not make it onto the team with that top speed, my dude.”

Harrian opened and closed his mouth, gasping for air.

“See? He really does look like a fish!”

Laughter again.

Harrian breathed out his word.

Why?”

One of them answered. His ears were ringing too much to discern the voice. It was deep, though.

“Why? Well, because some gangs are looking to score with some new dogs, and I told them Rover and Russel were the best in town. People are beefing up in any way they can, now that there’s a hero in town.”

“We actually legitimately need the money, too. Can’t keep kicking vending machines forever.”

No, no, no.

Harrian was speechless. Mostly due to being out of breath, but the betrayal cut deeper than any knife.

“Did you get it?” one of them asked.

“Yeah, it’s all here. Once they see how fast they can go, others will come begging.”

“Dope.”

It? It? It?

All here?

Tape. Film. Camera. They filmed it, him, everything.

“You’ll… be in trouble.”

Harrian whispered.

“What’s that? Hey, get the jacket off.”

“Right.”

One of them went to work, taking the jacket off of him. They rolled him, so they could pick it up.

“Damn, it’s all fucked up now. How’s he?”

“He’s good. Nothing on him.”

“Not a scratch?”

“None.”

“Dope.”

None? None? Impossible. How? He was torn to shreds. He felt it.

“You’re going to get in trouble for this.”

Harrian managed to get that out. Clearer.

“Huh?”

Someone bent down to see him. The smaller of the two.

“You gonna tell on us?”

“Yes… I will.”

Laughter.

“You tell on us,” one of them said, “And those gangs will kill you if you stop them from getting any more protection. You tell on us after, who’s gonna believe you? I don’t see a single scratch on you, and those gangs would probably kill you for that, too. Probably do it with the dogs.”

Harrian’s breathing hitched.

“Tell you what. You did good, so we can give you a cut of whatever we get, if you want. And look, we’ve been cutting class pretty often recently, so we probably have a detention coming our way. We’ll take that punishment, and we’ll think really hard about what we did, here. Right?”

“Yeah, we really are sorry. But it is a fuckton of money, and I really do need it.”

“There you go! Here, there’s a twenty, you can take the bus back. Here’s your backpack, too, we didn’t touch it.”

Harrian heard the bag land beside him. The money fluttered, then landed on his face, stuck to his cheek from the tears and sweat and snot.

“And here.”

Another thing fell right by his eyes. He saw it.

Chocolate.

“See you, Harrian.”

“Wait,” he whispered, but they didn’t hear him. They were already leaving.

He heard the footsteps fade, the trucks start, the vehicles driving off.

Then Harrian was alone, on the floor, the rug swept out from under him.

Cruelty such as this knew no reason.

It was not supposed to be like this.

If Auntie lived somewhere else, if he hadn’t met that girl, starting his experience here on the wrong foot.

If they hadn’t done this. If he chose to not come to this country.

No… no.

This was his fault. His weakness. It happened back at home, and it happened here. He let this happen. He wasn’t strong enough.

He let himself be taken from.

[蠢驴。蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴。蠢驴。]

You understand now, do you?

Harrian did-

Back against the wall, everyone was shouting.

He couldn’t hear the music.

Harrian’s attention was brought back to the now.

The school. Terrorists. People looking for the Bluemoon.

Here?

One of the terrorists barged into the room, pointing his gun at them.

He thought he was going to die. Right then, right there.

But another came in. A person with a paper bag over their head. They had moved so fast that Harrian could barely register it.

The Bluemoon?

No, it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered. Nothing else mattered.

The gun was knocked out of the man’s hands. He recognized the model. AK-47. Painted black. 7.62 by 39 millimeter cartridges. He did some research after the barn.

There it was. The gun. And Evan was here too.

Everything flashed before his eyes. His time in this country.

You know what you want, don’t you?

Harrian did.

Idiot. Stupid donkey of a kid.

You failure.

Nothing else mattered.

Nobody understood him. No existing language could possibly describe his rage in a way that was accurate, in a way that connected.

It wasn’t enough.

Nobody understood him.

But one day, they will.

Harrian ran, and swept the rug out from everyone else.

Previous                                                                                               Next

Interlude – Isabella

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“You’re positive you didn’t forget anything?” The man eyed her carefully. She felt like she was being judged for a crime, waiting for a verdict.

In a way, she was. She wasn’t supposed to be here.

“Just myself,” Isabella answered.

The man, the driver, didn’t avert his hard gaze.

“The trip is eight hours, are you sure you’re going to be okay without any anything to bring? Not to mention, you have to purchase a ticket online.”

Isabella stared up at the driver, and he stared her down. He was more like a pig than a man, overweight, large nose, balding. Not the most friendly appearance.

Her chances of getting on the bus weren’t looking good.

She knew she had to start making haste. She already made the call, so she’d be finished if she stuck around for whatever the aftermath would turn out to be. Like a fire under her butt.

She had to go.

‘No one will ask any questions if you can cough up enough dough.

The words of that lady, Wendy, came to her. The lady that saved her.

No use trying nothing.

She reached into her back pocket, and took out a small brick of cash. It was but one of four. The most amount of money she’d ever seen in her entire life. She flipped through it, pulling out two fifty dollar bills.

Isabella stuck out her hand, holding one hundred dollars.

“Is this enough for a ticket?”

The man’s eyes softened to those of wonder, then confusion. Then, a glint in his eyes.

He didn’t take too long to think it over, however. He moved his head.

“You sit in the back, and you don’t make a sound,” he said. Isabella took that as a sort of warning.

Wordlessly, Isabella got on the bus, taking the few steps to reach the driver. Smoothly, she slipped him the money, and he accepted it with a nod.

Gringos must really be easy to pay off.

Isabella moved down the bus.

The bus wasn’t full, she had her pick if the driver hadn’t given her stipulations. But, it wasn’t empty, there were people here she probably could not pay off.

A man in his late fifties, wearing a suit, talking on a phone. A teenage girl, fiddling with her phone. A boy with his mother, both already napping. There was another girl here, too, closer to her age, but she actually had luggage to bring. The rest started to blend together, the features starting to look too familiar. Unless they were famous, Americans all looked the same to her.

No one paid her any mind as she passed by, going down the aisle to get to the very back. The seats here were unoccupied, and she was able to make herself comfortable, lifting up the armrest in the middle so she could rest her legs.

The bus started, thrumming with life, then drove off.

Isabella leaned her head against the window beside her, watching the city pass.

At least I got a view this time.

She had barely just started getting used to things in Stephenville, and already she had to relocate. It was sudden, too, and now she was going to step foot in a new city, empty-handed. Again.

Well, she did have nine hundred dollars to her name this time.

Though, maybe she would have better chances if she moved elsewhere. The gang and cartel situation here was only marginally better than the one back home, but Stephenville still had way too much baggage attached, and it wasn’t very friendly to outsiders. Southern hospitality was as foreign a concept as she was.

All that, she learned in a week of being here.

Part of her did wish she could stay longer, though. She wanted to see the local celebrity one more time. La luna azul.

Isabella’s stomach grumbled. She massaged her shoulder.

Relocating might have been a good idea, but it was one she hadn’t planned for. That ‘Wendy’ practically pushed it on her. Nine hundred dollars might pull her through the next week, but there were so many other things to worry about. Like, where would she stay? What were the gangs like there? The cops? How would she make money? She was underage, no official papers on her. Illegal, in multiple senses of the word. Not many places would want to take her in, or they might get in trouble, too. Maybe an orphanage?

See, how am I to survive without a gang? They can provide for me, kind of.

The word ‘orphanage’ struck her again.

Her chest welled up. She probably was one by now, if she wasn’t already. It was why she had to flee, they were going to come for her next, and string her up. Isabella had given up hope on seeing her parents ever again, before any of this began. A harsh reality.

Isabella closed her eyes. There were no more tears to shed.

A lot to handle, more than she was reasonably capable of. But, it would have to come later. In eight hours, approximately. She’d deal, then. She would have to. Or she’d never survive.

For eight hours, she would rest. She needed it. To make the most of an unexpected, and shitty, situation.

The bus stopped.

Isabella half-opened her eyes.

That was fast.

She heard the other passengers. Whispers, questions. They weren’t in the know.

Meaning we’re not supposed to stop.

Other voices came into the mix. Outside, yelling, barking orders. Coming from her side of the bus. She checked the window.

She quickly ducked under her seat, cursing under her breath.

Lawrence.

He, and a small crew of his Ghosts, were circling around the bus. Tapping at the windows, tapping at the door. Searching, looking for something. Isabella could only think of one thing they’d want.

Me.

She cursed under her breath again. She made the call like Wendy asked, and told the operator on the other end everything the Ghosts were doing. The skirmishes for territorial expansion, the attempts to get their own slice of the drug trade, the screwed up initiation games for the newbies. And which studio apartment Lawrence was running the whole thing in. She told them everything. Everything she knew. And, through one way or another, Lawrence found out. Fuck.

From what she had seen from the window, she was barely out of the downtown area. Still in the city. Double fuck.

And she saw that the majority of the Ghosts had guns. Triple fuck.

Surrounded. Trapped. Isabella was the fish in this particular barrel. Even so, her mind still went to ways she could make it out of here. As alive as possible.

There was a restroom in the back, but they’d definitely check there, and that would make her a sitting duck, and another analogy. The emergency exit above also wouldn’t do, not with all the Ghosts still ‘haunting’ the area around the bus. The window beside her wouldn’t open, the most it could do was let a little air in. And there was still there issue of multiple hostiles outside. And their cars.

She was stuck here, through and through.

Quadruple fuck.

And with being stuck, it was better to be hidden than to escape and be instantly caught. Luck was all she had.

She stayed put.

If this was a setup by Wendy… she was gonna be pissed.

The yelling and knocking then ended, only because the door was opened.

Footsteps rushed in.

“Thank you, sir.” Isabella heard Lawrence thank someone, probably the driver. No brainer. If Isabella could convince the driver with some cash, there was nothing that said that Lawrence couldn’t.

Pudrete en el infierno.

She tried pressing herself closer to the floor, shimmying under the seats. Sticky, all around icky. Not a pleasant experience. And, while she was small, the space was smaller. Not much in the way of cover.

Isabella held her breath.

“What’s the meaning of this?” Finally, a passenger spoke up. Probably the old man.

“A not-so-routine inspection,” Lawrence responded, “But we won’t take too much of your time. We know you all have places you need to be, and you still have a long trip ahead of you. Ah, the door, please.”

The door closed, squeaking as it shut. Isabella cursed for a fifth time.

Lawrence continued with his orders. “Check every person, every row. Be thorough. We ain’t letting that bitch get away.”

She could hear them get to work, walking down the aisle and harassing the other passengers. Zippers were opened up, things dropping to the floor. Isabella wasn’t that small.

They’re taking advantage of those poor folk, all because of

“Yo!”

Isabella moved her head, shifting her gaze.

Someone also dropped to the floor, a row over. Facing Isabella. A leather jacket, light jeans, a choker. Short brown hair. Deep blue, almost indigo eyes, and something about them carried a feeling of mischief, not concerned in the slightest. Gringo.

The other girl her age.

She whispered, but excitedly, like she was sharing a secret she wasn’t supposed to, but telling someone was more fun.

“Mind if I steal from you? I’m lucky I made it here before he opened the door, or I woulda been a goner. Man, can’t go three steps without running into some trouble, am I right or am I right?”

Isabella blinked. Who…

The girl nodded fast. “Another good idea. We’ll communicate using nonverbal cues instead. Smart. Let’s do that.” She flashed a toothy grin, though a front tooth was missing.

Isabella blinked twice more.

The girl whispered again, already breaking her own rule. “Roger roger. Can’t be back here forever, since they’re about to find us. Mind if you follow my lead? I can take it from here. Oh, I wanna apologize now for the trouble. The Ghosts wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for me.”

… ¿Qué haces?

Isabella blinked one more time. For good measure.

Things just took a weird turn.

The Ghosts were after her? This girl? But that didn’t seem right at all.

What did she do?

The footsteps were nearing them, louder, sounding like a stampede. More than one person, more than just Lawrence. To Isabella, she was as good as caught, maybe even dead. This was very much it.

I shoulda taken the money and went back to Lawrence in the first place.

Isabella was about to curse for the sixth time, but she looked over to the girl hiding with her. The girl’s face hadn’t changed. Her toothy grin stayed.

She winked.

The girl then flipped onto her back. Isabella couldn’t see what she was doing, but she could hear it. A prolonged hiss.

It became louder, almost becoming something like a warning. The gang members noticed, asking about it.

Louder, then louder again.

It came to a crescendo.

“Now!”

The girl got out from her hiding spot. Isabella saw her feet. She was standing.

She jumped back.

Everything exploded.

One big bang, followed by crackling and popping. Also very loud. Screams, cries. Even Isabella shrieked. A bomb had definitely went off, and that girl was involved in a way.

Bomb. Girl. Loud. Ringing.

Pull.

Isabella was being pulled.

Forced onto her feet, moving towards where the blasts were coming from. Too disoriented to resist.

“Push them forward, not down!” the girl called out, making herself known. “Make it snappy.”

Isabella followed, but she didn’t follow. She lagged behind as the girl let her go and worked, pushing the Ghosts, backing them up. Few tried to fight back, but they were in the midst of the explosions, stunned, susceptible to being pushed around. They stumbled backwards, the girl moving them like cattle.

Only one other Ghost was unaffected.

“I’ll skin you for that!” Lawrence bellowed, though quieter from Isabella’s ears. “And for last time!”

“You need better hobbies, L-Boy!” the girl said back.

Lawrence started getting ready for his move. His counter.

“You’re up next!” the girl ordered, as she pressed on more bodies. “Get that last guy!”

Isabella woke right up. “I, I can’t do that! And he has a gun!” She hushed herself on that last word, as if she was trying not to remind Lawrence of the weapon in his hand.

“You’ll be fine!”

Is this girl freaking insane?

“Just go! I’ll back you up!” She sounded serious this time.

Reluctant, Isabella sprang to life.

She never considered herself to be agile, but she could move when the situation called for it. She could run. She hopped, pulling herself above the seats by the overhead bars. Putting her feet on the seats, she maneuvered over everyone.

“Get down! One more!”

The girl yelled.

Isabella dropped down, putting herself between the girl and the Ghosts, and Lawrence. He was a good three feet away.

She saw it fall in front of his face. Red cylinders, attached by a string, hissing. She’d played with those before, back in Mexico.

Firecrackers.

She didn’t see them go off.

It was loud, if not louder than before. But she was ready for it this time, she had turned and covered her ears. It crackled, popped.

Lawrence, however, wasn’t as prepared.

As soon as she was certain the firecrackers were done, she spun, then rushed to Lawrence. Isabella knew she wouldn’t be stronger than him, but the element of surprise was well in her favor.

Her shoulder rammed into his side. His ribs.

He cried out. More pain than she had expected. Sensitive? A previous injury?

As if severe burns weren’t sufficient.

Lawrence buckled, but Isabella held onto him so he wouldn’t fall. By the hair, she dragged him toward the front of the bus. He didn’t fight back.

They got to the front, and Isabella turned and kicked, and Lawrence tumbled down the steps. The top of his head hit the door.

Oh Dios mío that felt so good.

She looked at the driver, and he was drenched in sweat, bug-eyed. She wanted to hit him, too.

“Incoming!”

The girl joined Isabella, bringing the remaining Ghosts with her.

“Out of the chair, fatso!” the girl said.

Isabella took the initiative, putting her hands on the driver, pulling him up. Despite his heavy weight, he was out of his seat with ease.

“Move!”

The girl pushed past Isabella and grabbed the driver by the collar. She threw him down the same steps, atop a pile of sore bodies. The driver, the various Ghosts, then Lawrence.

Surprising strength.

We actually beat him…

“Nice!” The girl lifted a hand, and on instinct, Isabella gave her a high-five. “We’re on the same wavelength after all.”

“Ha, maybe.”

“But next comes the really really really fun part. Keep an eye on the Ghosts, and try to calm the other peeps.”

She fell into the driver’s seat, and started moving stuff around, like she knew what she was doing.

Isabella questioned her. “Exactly what-”

The bus sped off.

Isabella grabbed for a metal bar, preventing a fall. The other passengers jerked forward.

“What is she doing?” one of them asked. The woman, the mother. She tried standing, but the bus did a sharp left, then righting itself. The ride was bumpy.

“Just stay seated, everything is fine!” It wasn’t true, but it was the only thing Isabella had to say.

Things just took another, actual weird turn.

What is she doing?

Gripping the bar, holding on for dear life, Isabella shouted her question at the girl.

“What’s the deal?”

“I’m taking us out of here.”

“Do you even have a license?”

“I’m not old enough for one, you dummy.”

Some of the others in the bus caught that. They raised their voices, protesting.

“Stop the bus! Stop the bus!”

“Why is a little girl driving?”

“Jesus, please, someone else take the wheel!”

The bus swerved, harshly getting on another street.

“Pipe down!” the girl shouted. “I’m not taking us super duper far!”

“Then where?” Isabella asked. The whole bus was shaking from the speeds they were reaching.

The girl paused, eyes on the road. She took a right, and a deep breath.

“Hmm… oh, how about a little window shopping?”

“What-”

The bus veered again, but the girl didn’t correct the vehicle. Instead, it stopped very suddenly.

It crashed.

The opposite of slow motion. Everything happened so fast.

Glass crashing together. Metal and tires screeching. Deafening. A hard jolt, everything thrown forward. Violent. Too fast and too sudden to truly process. It just happened.

Isabella was standing when it just happened.

The abrupt stop made her ragdoll, and it was a rough fall to the floor, glass landing on and around her.

Blunt force and sharp stings. Pain of every variety, surpassing any known threshold. Inconceivable.

Isabella didn’t feel like moving. Couldn’t even twitch a muscle.

Couldn’t even question if she was still alive.

But it wasn’t her call to make.

“Dang, you’re still alive.”

Heard that voice before. Recently.

“People will be coming soon. Cops, more Ghosts. Can you stand?”

I can barely think.

“No go, huh? Here, I’ll help. I’d say we should take our time, but we can’t afford the luxury.”

Isabella felt hands on her, and she gasped. The stings. The pain. Intensified.

“Oof, okay. Looks like we’re gonna do this the hard way. Don’t hate me too much for this.”

The hands came upon her again, and grabbed. The pain reached newer and newer heights, and Isabella let herself block out what followed.

By blacking out.

Waking up was a long, nebulous process. She didn’t come to, not immediately. Instead, it was a long stretch of soft breathing, followed by the realization that she was indeed alive, and awake.

And with that realization finally becoming clear in her mind, Isabella opened her eyes.

Nowhere she knew. An old brick factory, somewhere. Was this still Stephenville? Streaks of dawn spilled through the cracks in the walls and ceilings. How long had it been?

Right. Lawrence. The bus crash. The girl. Help.

Even the stuff with Wendy. That felt like another lifetime. Was that all really the same night?

Oddly enough, it didn’t feel like this was the first time her brain had run this particular lap.

Isabella nearly did so herself, but her whole body seemed to scream in pain. Though, it was like a dull knife, now. Still hurt, but a bit of the edge had been taken off.

Standing was a great ordeal, but she had to do it. She was on her feet… after a minute.

No one. Nothing. Isabella was alone.

She checked her body. So very sore. Nothing broken, but scratches all over. It hurt. Small cuts across her arms and legs and face. And one really painful one on her forehead. From the way the skin was pulled, she could tell it was stitched up.

She was wearing a leather jacket, she didn’t have one before. Her shirt underneath, when she checked it, was more blood than white.

Oddly enough, she didn’t feel shocked about what she saw.

Lawrence. The bus crash. The girl. Wendy.

Piecing things together was hard, nearly impossible. She was worried that she was completely abandoned. It might have been quiet and calm in here, but she didn’t know what dangers might be lurking right outside, ready to screw her over once she stepped outside. She wasn’t sure what her first move should be.

Her stomach grumbled.

Maybe I should start with some food, first.

She started to leave, but she stepped on something. It was soft. Squishy. She stopped, and checked.

A teddy bear?

She picked it up, the pain coming back. She fought through it, because there was another thing there that caught her attention.

A note was attached, tied to the bear’s hand by a red string.

She undid the string, then opened up the note. She noticed how pretty the handwriting was.

Isabella read it.

To whatever your name is… sorry that I forgot to ask!

You can call me D, like Deep Throat, get it?

Isabella didn’t get it. Perhaps it was a reference of some kind.

She kept reading.

Anyways, sorry again for the whole bus thing, I was actually on my way out of the city to wait for things to cool down. I know I cause too much trouble for my own good okay, I just get bored sometimes!

So it was her fault that Lawrence came? Isabella still couldn’t believe it, her 9-1-1 call had to play a part, somehow.

Any-anyways, I crashed the bus into some clothing store to get the Ghosts off our trail. But nobody got hurt! Well, except you, Lawrence and those Ghosts, and the driver. I didn’t have time to check on the passengers so…

‘D’ drew a face. A sad face.

You were bleeding pretty badly, but thankfully there was nothing serious. I didn’t have time to bring my stuff, but I did my very best to patch you up. A cut on your forehead was the worst of it. And you were pretty responsive while I worked on you, so that’s good! Whew! Other than that, you’re all golden. Just don’t bathe with any lemons!

Isabella didn’t find that very funny. Everything stung.

So yeah, sorry about everything. I wanted to help you because you’re cute, and being a Ghost doesn’t fit you to be honest. You can keep the jacket as a gift, my way of making it up to you. Hope you dig it, it was originally Styx’s, if you know who that is.

She did. How did she get a jacket from him? Who was this anomaly?

And… cute? And she knew Isabella was a gang member?

Like Isabella needed another reason to think this girl was something else.

Well, the jacket’s not uncomfortable, Isabella thought. She’d might as well hold on to it.

Okay, now here’s the sucky part. I know this is going to sound bad, but I still need to lay low in another zip code for the time being, and I left all my stuff and money on the bus…

¿Qué?

Alrighty, this is goodbye! I don’t know if you’ll be staying in Wanderland, but I’ll definitely be back. If you’re ever in the area, come chase me down. Let’s play again sometime!

¿Qué? ¿Qué?

Love, D.’ She drew a smiley face.

Isabella immediately jammed her hands into her pockets, dropping the bear. Front pockets, then back pockets. Nothing. Empty. Nada.

That bitch…

She robbed me.

Isabella swore for the sixth and seventh time.

Quintuple fuck.

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