Interlude – Maria

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She clicked the lighter. She brought the warm glow close to her lips. She took a slow, drawn breath.

Maria exhaled, smoke filling her room.

It wasn’t something she did on the regular, but considering the past week, she figured it was something worth her while. She massaged her neck, popping it as she flipped through channels on the outdated TV. A cartoon, an American drama, a movie, a telenovela. She stopped at the telenovela, taking another hit of the joint as she watched a couple arguing.

She tried to sigh as her exhale, but she coughed, instead.

This past week was nothing short of hectic for Maria. She didn’t want to think about it anymore, but the events were too pressing, constantly nagging at the back of her mind. It made her tense, agitated, she couldn’t be around her friends in that condition. What she needed was a little relaxation, time alone to let things settle down again.

How long would that take?

Twice within a week, she was jumped. The first instance was at that party she went to with Alexis and Katy. The second time was at the parking garage, with Eduardo right next to her. She’d never been more scared in her life, but she put up a front, acting tough for both her boyfriend, and for herself. She wondered if she even convinced anyone.

And what made things worse was that it was almost all entirely her fault. Jordan, one of Lawrence’s homies, was asking around for Eduardo, and she knew of Eduardo and Lawrence’s relationship, or lack thereof. Whatever he wanted, she knew it wasn’t good. She tried to get them off Eduardo’s tail, telling Jordan to meet Eduardo in one place when he’d actually be elsewhere, completely ignorant to what she was doing.

The plan didn’t work for very long, though. Jordan had managed to find her, and pulled her out of that house, physically punishing her for leading them on like that. Her heartbeat sped up a little from remembering that incident, or was it because of the joint’s medicinal properties? But the fact remained. She could have died that night.

It was a miracle that she made it out of that situation intact. Barring some bumps and scratches, but much worse was threatened to her. It happened so fast, that she could only recall specific snippets of instances, but she knew one thing. She didn’t get out of it alone. Someone was there, and they helped her. She didn’t know who it was, maybe it was someone at the party, someone who wandered outside, able to hear her shouts and cries. Didn’t know who, didn’t know how, and she wasn’t going to ask around, especially with Alexis and Katy there. She was okay, and she tried to leave it at that.

If that person wasn’t there…

And yet, when Lawrence and his boys finally tracked them both down, she was the most scared, then.

Before she could sink any deeper into her thoughts, or her chair, the doorbell rang, followed by three heavy knocks, followed by another ring of the doorbell. Maria set down the remote. Someone was here, and they wanted to get in, badly.

And in this neighborhood, that was enough of a reason to be cautious.

She set her joint down on the ashtray on her desk, and left her room, leaving the TV on, and slowly went down the hall, through the living room, and to the door. She was considering taking something with her, a knife maybe, in case trouble found its way to her doorstep.

The door kept knocking, ringing, along the way. A voice on the other end kept calling out to her.

“Maria? Maria! It’s me, hey! Abre la puerta!”

Eddie?

She quickly dropped her guard, and went to open the door.

“Eddie?” she asked when she saw him, fully framed. He was in a different outfit from earlier that afternoon, when he took her home. His jacket was gone, replaced with a dark hoodie that was a size too small, and his shirt was a pastel blue. Didn’t match at all. And his hair was messy, streaks of dirt smeared his cheeks and chin. His eyes were puffy and red, like he hadn’t gotten sleep in days.

Maria tried to venture a guess as to why he was here. “Did you forget something?”

He didn’t respond, instead stepping forward and bringing his arms around her. She was immediately wrapped in his embrace, unable to move. Tight, snug. But also familiar and comfortable.

If not a little confusing.

“What are you doing here?” she asked, her mouth pressed against his shoulder, muffling her voice.

“Thank god,” Eduardo said, ignoring her, “You’re okay. Thank god, thank god…”

Hey,” she warned, and tried to push away. He only pulled in tighter.

“No one came by? Was anyone else here? Are you home alone?”

“I’m fine, what are you talkin’ about, you weirdo!”

Eduardo refused to answer, holding Maria until she had to accept that this was what they were going to be doing, now. They stayed like this for what almost felt like an eternity, until she heard the telenovela’s ending theme playing in the background, from her room. Maybe ten minutes, at most.

“What are you trying to pull?” Maria asked, her patience having finally run out, and she wedged her arms between them, and pushed away. Eduardo relented, finally letting her go, but not before planting his lips on her forehead, kissing her.

“Looks like I have time to explain,” Eduardo said. “Is your dad here?”

“He’s out.”

“‘Out,’ out? Or just out?”

Maria shrugged. “Both.”

“So you’re home alone?”

Maria placed her hands on her hips. “That hasn’t been a problem before. I can take anyone that tries to test me.”

“You sound pretty confident in yourself.”

She huffed. “That’s because I’m fucking awesome, bitch.”

Eduardo put his hands up. “Okay, whoa, the language isn’t necessary.”

“Yeah it is, bitch.” She sneered. And almost at the drop of a hat, she dropped her act, and went to the kitchen, opening the refrigerator.

“Do you want ice cream?” she offered, “There’s strawberry.”

“No chocolate?”

“I don’t like chocolate.”

“But I do.”

“Too bad, not your fridge.”

Eduardo inhaled, looked around, and sniffed the air. “Were you smoking?”

“Yeah, but I just started.” She tugged at her loose pants, her pink pajamas. “You did come at weird time, you know.”

“It’s weird times for everyone.” He pointed down the hallway, “Can I come in your room?”

“Anytime, but wait. I want my ice cream.”

Maria went back to preparing herself a bowl. She could tell that Eduardo was behaving oddly, scatterbrained for some reason. Whatever it was about, she’d give him his space, and let him take his time. When she was finished in the kitchen, she returned to her room, and found Eduardo already there, sitting on her bed and helping himself to the joint.

She reprimanded him. “Hey, at least ask.” She sat back in her chair, and placed her bowl of ice cream on the desk beside her.

She pouted. “And you took the remote.”

“Where’s my water?” he asked.

“You never asked.”

“Really? Thought I did.”

“Boy, you crazy.”

“Never mind, well, I’m guessing you haven’t seen it yet,” Eduardo said as he changed channels.

“Seen what?”

“You’ll see… I said I’ll explain.”

“Mhmm, I’m turning blue from waiting.”

Eduardo took another hit of the joint, and leaned back. “I apologize, Maria, but I haven’t exactly been honest with you, lately.” He looked her square in the eye. It was enough for Maria to realize that it could be something serious.

“The truth is,” Eduardo confessed, “I’ve been seeing another woman.”

Maria crossed her arms, and lifted an eyebrow. “Oh, really now? Was she prettier than me?”

“Can’t say. She wore a mask.”

“I didn’t know you were into that kind of thing. Coulda told me.”

“Eh. Masks are more trouble than they’re worth, it looks like.”

“Alright,” Maria said, before turning back to her bowl to get a spoonful of ice cream. “What is this actually about?” she asked, her mouth full.

“Here, I found it,” Eduardo said. He got onto the channel he was looking for. The news.

They both watched. Newscasters were talking about a car accident, showing footage from various angles. A lot of it was unclear, unfocused, but Maria was able to piece most of it together.

Two people, standing across from each other. One of them had a mask covering their face. The other one had a gun, pointed down at another person, slumped over.

Maria’s face went as pale as the moon. “Is… is that Benny? Is that you?”

Eduardo answered, softly, with only a single word. “Yes.”

“Isn’t that your car? How the hell did you get here?”

“It’s hard to explain.”

“In what way?”

“I mean, I took a taxi.”

Maria was dumbfounded. “What the hell were you doing? When was this? Just now?”

“This is what I was up to the past few days. I… wanted to go against Benny, the group. Remember what we talked about before? What it would be like if we left? I was trying to do that.”

“And this somehow accomplishes that? And who is that?” She pointed to the TV, at the masked figure.

“The woman I’ve been seeing.”

“The time for jokes is over, Eduardo. Fuckin’ tell me.”

“Oh, I was hoping you’d know,” Eduardo said, intently watching the TV.

“What? How would I know? How could I?” She looked again at the TV, this time watching the girl in the mask. The girl now had an arm up, showing a knife in her hand. Benny’s mouth moved, responding to the girl in some way, the audio bleeped for a second, and the sound was too distorted to make out what she had said. Subtitles were provided, though.

How is that even a legitimate threat, you’re standing all the way over there!

For Maria, watching Eduardo and Benny on the screen was not unlike airing out dirty laundry, except it was on a much larger scale, for everyone to see. She stopped herself from taking the joint from Eduardo, wanting to smoke it again.

“I only said that because,” Eduardo said, “Because she claimed to know you.”

“That girl? Why would she? She could be lying.”

“She knew your last name. I never told her that.”

Maria’s put her hands to her face, mouth agape, but found her fingers, cold, clammy. She looked again to the girl. This girl in blue, wearing that expressionless, freaky mask.

She was standing there, with a slight hunch, and from the subtitles, asking Benny to shoot her. This was someone that knew her? At least, knew of her last name?

She compiled a list of every girl she knew in her head. Who could possibly fit that bill? She thought of everyone. Katy? Alexis? Lorena? DJ? Jillian?

No, the hands aren’t the right skin tone. She dismissed the thought.

Then, who in the world is this?

“Eduardo, Eddie, did this woman of yours have a name?” Maria asked. “You had to have called her something.”

Eduardo massaged his back. “Her name’s Blank Face. And as much as she wants to deny it, she’s a superhero.”

“Excuse me?”

Maria soon found that it was unnecessary to even ask, she saw it for herself, even if she couldn’t believe what she saw.

It was like she simply disappeared. There, then gone. The masked girl – Blank Face – barely did so much as flinch before she was occupying the same space as Benny, and they both flew away from Eduardo’s body. Like she had teleported to Benny, and tackled her.

It wasn’t exactly like teleportation. There was movement, there, that Blank Face exhibited, before and as she moved, but Maria wasn’t expecting movement that fast, and her brain almost didn’t register what was happening in between. Astounding, terrifying. Literally unreal.

People don’t move like that.

Almost as instantly as she saw it, Maria squeaked in surprise. She wasn’t prepared to see that. Neither were the people holding the cameras, the footage immediately shook, and cut to another camera that had a better angle

“Jesus Christ, Eddie,” Maria said, “Tell me this is a prank, I told you, no more fucking jokes. I cannot believe this shit!”

“She’s the real deal,” Eduardo said, gravely. “Don’t know how, but I never seen anything like that before.”

“No one has,” Maria added. “What in the…”

Eduardo explained further. “And I was working with her. We found out the big thing that Benny was planning.”

Maria recalled the rumors, the hushed whispers amongst others in the gang. “What was it?”

“A turf war. Benny smuggled in weapons, a whole bunch of them. She wanted to pick a serious fight with the competition.”

Maria couldn’t believe what she was seeing on the TV, now she couldn’t believe what she was hearing.

Eduardo continued. “But Benny, she caught on, she found me. Benny was going to make me bring her, here.”

She couldn’t take anymore left hooks. Maria’s heart was thumping harder and harder, reverberating her entire body.

All of this was happening, while I was sitting here, smoking weed?

“But as you can see, she stopped her, Blank Face. We don’t have to worry about Benny, not anymore.”

Maria continued watching the TV, showing the incident from another angle, another phone. Benny was down, trembling, holding her shoulder. Blank Face was down, too, over Eduardo’s body. Police were standing around them, forming a circle. She soon found herself enraptured with finding out how the events onscreen would unfold, forgetting that Eduardo was sitting right beside her.

And, without the sudden burst of speed from before, Blank Face lurched forward, standing and picking up Eduardo. She jumped with no warning, out of frame of any camera, leaving the area, taking Eduardo along.

They were gone. The news station cut back to the news anchors, commenting on the footage. The headline parroted what Eduardo said previously. ‘World’s First Superhuman?

Maria turned away from the TV, and tried going for more ice cream. But it had melted somewhat, a small clump of the ice cream like an island in a sea of milk.

She looked at Eduardo, who was taking yet another hit. “Stop that,” she said, taking it away from him. She put it away, pressing it into the ashtray. “This is serious, apparently, why didn’t you tell me about any of this?”

Eduardo looked her in the eye, but he couldn’t maintain it. He looked away when he spoke. “I want to say it was so I could keep you safe, but it ended up being the complete opposite. Siento.”

“Ugh,” Maria sounded, pushing herself back in her chair. It was lot to process, for sure. She had to come up with more questions, glean more information, but her questions were disorganized and out of order.

She shut her eyes, and pinched the bridge of her nose. “Okay, so wait, let’s back this up. How did you even meet this, this Blank Face?”

And what kinda stupid-ass name is that, anyways?

“When Lawrence tried to get at us, you ran, she came then. She helped me, uh,  take care of him.”

“And what? You just decided to join up with this person and run up on Benny?”

“She offered to help. I didn’t know why, at first, but she did offer.”

Maria injected, “Why is it, I can believe that more easily than you saying you managed to fuck them up all on your own?”

“You didn’t believe me?”

She raised a brow in disbelief. “I didn’t say anything at the time, since it happened so fast, and we made it out… kinda okay, but you ain’t no fighter, Eddie.”

He looked down at his hands. “Guess I’m not.”

“But you are a dumbass, doing all this behind my back. This is real shit, Eddie, how could you?” But, all at once, a sharp prick of guilt, of self-awareness, struck her deep. Maria shook her head. “But you did have your reason, and I’m sure you thought they were worthy enough.”

He didn’t move.

Maria breathed, and extended a hand, massaging Eduardo’s shoulder. “I’m only a little bit kidding. But you’ve gotta remember, I worry about you twice as much as you worry about me.”

Eduardo chuckled. “Honesty from Maria, how nice.”

“Hey, you deserve it.”

Maria went for the remote, and turned off the TV. The ambient noise was silenced, and there was only the hum of the air conditioning.

Maria spoke, “Now what? If you’re here… what about Benny?”

“She’s… going to jail. Blank Face stopped the weapons from going anywhere else.”

Maria thought about Benny. She could count, on one hand, how many times she has met the woman in person. But she always left a lasting impression. Powerful, to encapsulate Benny in one word. Imposing, if she wanted to use two. And ambitious. Maria knew that just from how Benny held herself. She kept an eye to the future. Now, a prison wall will be all that Benny could see.

“They’ll string her up for that,” Maria said.

Eduardo talked as if he didn’t hear her. “Her little ‘family,’ El Carruaje, is done. That’s what Blank Face, I mean we, were trying to accomplish, give us our chance to leave.”

Our chance to leave. Maria thought about the past year and a half, her time in El Carruaje. She had joined because it was easy, it was less of a life choice than it was something she just fell into as she hung out with certain friends. Easy money, easy weed, a lot of highs with not a lot of lows. Surprisingly. And she met Eduardo, and that was even more of an incentive to stick around.

But things started changing in the past few months. In small ways. Maria could feel it, Eduardo knew it. A shift, coming from the top, reaching to the bottom. Internal politics degrading, people asking for more, sooner. Gossip about Benny, that she may be planning something big, regarding the future of the gang. It wasn’t what Maria had signed up for, an easy escape from a stressful home-life. She discussed it with Eduardo, who had come to the same conclusion on his own, and they both agreed to leave. But Benny had her own vision of the direction of the gang, and with things becoming as bad as they were, simply walking away could potentially mean suicide.

And now, thanks to this ‘Blank Face,’ an opening, a hole, was made for them to step through. But who did she really have to thank?

Maria scratched her head, still confused. “But, this Blank Face person, do I actually know her?”

“Now I’m worried,” Eduardo said, “And freaked out. She was saying all kinds of stuff about you, she knew your last name, she knew your hobbies. Are you sure you don’t know anyone like that? Because that would be wild, considering everything.”

Maria thought for any possible answer. Who knows me like that?

… Could it be Katy? Alexis? Those were the only two who were up in my business about all of this shit.

“What color was her hair?” Maria asked. “Did you see it?”

“Um, nah. She had a hoodie up the whole time.”

“Was she tall?”

“Not at all. Even you’re taller than her.”

Could it be… Is that even possible?

A…

“Maria?” Eduardo asked, concerned. “You look like you’re about to pull your hair out.”

Maria twitched a finger, and found it wrapped in her hair. She was twirling it in thought.

“Ah, ow. Nah, I’m alright.”

“I know that look. Did you come up with someone?”

Maria slowly took her fingers out of her hair, and made a mental note to comb it later. “No, I was just thinking. Doesn’t make sense.”

“Don’t actually beat yourself up over it, there’s still something else I wanted to talk about. Gimme the joint.”

“No, just tell me.”

Eduardo rolled his shoulders back, and rubbed some dirt off of his brow. He kept mumbling to himself, like he had forgotten how to speak and he needed to practice the motions. He fumbled through his words. “Right. Uh… The two of us, we, I think, we’ve, have to… I think we need to take a break, from the two of us, yeah.” Instead of complete a coherent sentence, he simply stopped altogether.

Maria immediately laughed when she realized he was done, harder than she wanted, but she still found it funny. “Ha! You don’t sound genuine at all!”

Eduardo forced himself to lift his head up. “Haha, yeaaaah. It was her idea, Blank Face, she suggested it.”

Maria said unapologetically, “Wow, what an asshole.”

“She wasn’t the nicest person, but she did try and help.” He shifted in place, and cleared his throat.

“And, she did have a point.”

Maria cleared her throat as well, exaggerating the gesture, mocking Eduardo. “Entertain me.”

“It isn’t only gonna be Lawrence. Jordan, Peter, Teeny, they’re all gonna want to have a ‘chat’ with me once word gets out about Benny. I can’t… I don’t want you to be around me if it goes down like that. Maybe, maybe, it’s best if I do stay low.”

Maria felt her body draining of heat, a chill coming. His tone. His face. He was serious.

“I’m not going to tell you again, no more joking around.”

“You don’t agree, Maria? You know what they can do, and that’s not even if they’re mad. I can’t stick around, if they think they can use you against me.”

“That won’t stop ‘em, with or without you around.”

Eduardo put his head in his hands. “You’re right, I don’t know anymore. I don’t know what to do.”

Maria stood to move from the chair to the bed, next to Eduardo’s side. She wrapped an arm around his shoulder, bringing him close. “Hey, as helpful as that Blank Face may have been, we’re not going to be putting any faith in some masked freakshow who may or may not know me. And you shouldn’t be blindly following her advice, either. We figure this out, we do it on our own terms, and we do it together. Do you understand me?”

“I gotcha,” he replied.

“But do you really, though?”

“I do,” he said, stressing the last word.

“Good, then cheer up, baby,” Maria said, accentuating her point with a pat on the back. “You’ve done enough on your own.”

“You know, you’re taking all of this surprisingly well,” Eduardo remarked.

“Do I have a choice? You gotta roll with it as it comes. Now come on,” she reached back to grab the joint, lit it, and started smoking it again. In her next move, she turned, and thrusted Eduardo down on the bed. “Since you here and all.”

“Whoa, really, right now?” he questioned, as Maria tugged on his collar. “I’m kind of sore, actually.”

“Buckle up, then. I said we’ll figure this out. Didn’t say we have to do it now.”

“Shoulda brought a mask.”

“Ha ha.”

Eduardo repositioned himself on the bed. He complained, “But seriously, everywhere hurts. I don’t think I can…”

It was Maria’s turn to kiss him on the forehead. “You’ll be okay. And I said it before, didn’t I? You can come anytime.”

Eduardo closed his eyes in thought, trying to decipher what Maria meant. He opened them.

“Oh, you are so fucking lame.”

Maria smiled. “See? You really do know me.”

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011 – Bird Forced to Fly

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Eddie continued to plead with the men, perhaps to keep them stalled. It worked out for me, since I was still trying to prepare myself.

Qué haces? Leave her out of this!”

“She’s been a bitch to my boys, too. Leading us on, Jordan’s hand got broken because of her, from what I’ve heard. So yeah, I don’t think I’ll be leaving her out of anything.”

There was so much I didn’t know, so much I had to deal with, right now. Why were these guys here? What were they trying to get out of Eddie? Why did Maria need to be involved with this?

I held the mask in my hands.

This mask, I had found it at a store selling party goods. To be more specific, Maria found it, and showed it to me, telling me how creepy it looked. It was.

It was blank. A white face, holes for the eyes. A simple, plastic mask meant for a costume party, not to legitimately conceal my identity. The way it seemed to look back at me was unsettling, in an uncanny valley sort of sense. I ended up getting it, mostly because I thought I could use for Halloween this year.

Not today, not now.

I put it on.

My breaths were hot and heavy. Loud, too, since there was no hole for the mouth, just indentations where my lips could fit in to. My breathing filled my ears, and I was worried someone could hear me. I tried to calm myself, slow down, but it didn’t really work.

“Maria, how about you get to the car?” Eddie asked, his voice shaking as much as I was.

“Hell no, I ain’t letting these shitheads fuck with me, or you. Not anymore.”

I silently admonished her. What? Maria, now is not the time to be tough!

Eddie spoke for the both of us. “Maria, please!”

“Or you can come with us,” another one of the men said, “You’re gettin’ a ride either way.”

“Fuck you.”

I took a peek out through the window, looking as Maria stomped her foot and crossed her arms. I knew she was stubborn, but this was a whole new level.

I thought back to what Katy said. Idiot.

I sifted through my sports bag some more. I put on my old blue windbreaker, and put the hood up. Next was a pair of grey joggers, which I put over the shorts I was already wearing.

What was left in the bag were the things that were supposed to be in there. My uniform and towels.

The tension in the air, I could cut through it like butter. Things were about to escalate in a way that benefited no present parties, actually present or otherwise. I adjusted my mask, stroking the flimsy string that wrapped around my head.

The man Eddie referred to as ‘Lawrence’ laughed. But there was nothing funny about this. “Guess that’s how you wanna do it.” He started advancing towards them.

What do I do? I was all dressed up, but I had no plan of action. I was here, but now what?

Without realizing it, I put my hands on the car.

I nearly shrieked in surprise at the sudden car alarm.

A few of from that gang did yell, and Eddie, too. “Maria, run!”

I took that as my cue, as well.

I dashed out of my hiding spot, leaving everything else behind.

Move fast, catch them off guard. The car alarm was still going off, so all eyes were on me as I moved.

Five people, excluding Eddie and Maria. Maria finally got around to doing the sensible thing, and was running away. Three of them were already reaching for their waistbands. If that meant that they had weapons, I couldn’t give them that chance. I went for them first.

Animals. I had try and think of these guys as animals. Like rabbits. They were going to hurt Maria.

Oh, and Eddie, too.

But, I couldn’t just go all out. I didn’t even want to know what ‘all out’ meant for someone like me. I had to also be careful.

The middle ground was something I’d have to discover on my own.

I ran up to the closest guy, a man in an oversized shirt. I placed my hand on his chest, and pushed him back. He stumbled, and ditched his effort in getting a weapon. I continued his momentum with a kick to the groin. He groaned and fell, hard.

The second man already whipped out a knife. I felt my blood quicken even more.

He struck first, thrusting at me with a jab. But I had time to process his movements, and I had the chance to grab at his wrist with my free hand.

With my other hand, I-

“Agh!” I shouted.

I was pulled back, enough to let go of the man I was engaged with. My arms were restricted, and something pressed against my lower back. I couldn’t move.

Fuck, shit, fuck!

The guy in the red polo, Lawrence, stood right in front of me. With a gun pointed to my face.

“Who in the fuck are you?” He had to bellowed over the car alarm, spit flying out of his mouth.

I didn’t bother to answer. I squinted as I stared him down. Though I was curious if he could see that through my mask.

“I thought I asked you something!”

Again, I didn’t answer.

It was me, Lawrence, and the three men who held me in place. One man on each side, seizing an arm, and another behind me, the metallic clicking confirming to me that it was indeed a gun.

Because of course it’s another fucking gun.

Eddie stood not too far from Lawrence. Maria was well away from the scene. At least I had that going for me.

The only other concession made on my side was that I had taken out at least one guy. He was writhing on the ground, hands on his crotch.

My body was being yanked between fight or flight, but the gun pressed against my back kept me glued to the spot. Coursing with adrenaline, my energy instead went to my thoughts, the incessant car alarm simulating what was going on in my head. What could I do, what could I say, that could get me out of this? Right now, all I had was a disappointing nothing. And just because I had good healing, that didn’t mean I was willing to risk a bullet searing through my insides before I did heal. Until a viable, bright idea would miraculously descend upon me, I stood still.

I wanted to kick myself until I broke my leg, healed, and do it again. I should’ve brought my knife.

Lawrence interrupted my mental sprint. “Don’t wanna talk? Don’t make me skin you.”

I was in Lawrence’s – and his gun’s – sights, and me keeping quiet wasn’t easing him up any. He looked to the guy to my right, who had a hold of my right arm, and said something in Spanish. My B-minus wasn’t enough to know exactly what he said, but I heard the word máscara, and I doubted he was talking about taking the time to dolly themselves up right now.

The man beside me grunted in response, and took one hand off my arm. I knew he was about to reach for my mask.

This really was not going my way.

“Wait!” I shouted, my voice carrying over the car alarm.

The guy going for my face stopped, or must have, since my mask wasn’t removed yet, after some time. Lawrence faced me again, and straightened out his arm to me, holding his gun.

“The hell you want?”

I did my best to speaking calmly, hoping my mask would muffle the shakiness in my voice. “I just wanted to say, probably not a good idea to shoot that gun.” The silent, tough act wasn’t doing me any favors, so I tried something different.

“Why’s that?”

I scoffed, even though I was in no position to do so. “Are you an idiot? We’re standing in the middle of a parking garage, filled with cars, and a car alarm that won’t shut up. And you’re about fire a gun? It’s like you’re asking to get caught, literally red-handed.”

“Yeah? I think my finger and our feet are fast enough. Like right-”

“Whoa whoa, wait! Wait!” My knees went weak, but the two men’s grip on me was firm. I didn’t fall. Couldn’t.

Lawrence sounded a step past irritated. “What?”

“You’re holding your gun funny. Arm’s too straight. You’ll hurt yourself with the recoil.”

“You an instructor? You came here to lecture me on gun safety?” He was sneering, but he fixed his arm as he talked.

Don’t let him get back on task of shooting me. Keep talking.

But what could I say? Jokes? Stuff like that didn’t come to me naturally, and that would probably get me killed even faster. No jokes.

Doesn’t even have to make sense. Say something!

I thought back to the conversation earlier, when Lawrence interrupted Maria and Eddie, picking out any details I could recall.

“The boss. He, he sent me. Just in case.”

Lawrence tilted his head. “In case of what?”

“In case you fucked up, which you clearly are right now, since I had to come onto the scene.”

“Nice try. What’s the boss’s name?”

“He’s gonna be pretty mad when he hears about this. You can’t just do a simple thing? An easy task? A straightforward chore?”

“You didn’t answer the question!”

I don’t need to make sense, I just need to waste your time.

“So, yeah. Can you tell your boys to get off me? I don’t need this, the bossman’s gonna be pissed. Eddie, you told them, right? That I’m here to help you out.”

Eddie made a face and mouthed a word. ‘What?

Lawrence laughed. Too hard and too sudden to be genuine. Almost immediately, he stopped and spoke, too quickly for me to get another word in. “You know what? Fuck it, it’s too obvious you lying. I’m done with you now, bitch.”

My whole body tensed, probably popping a vein in the process. “Hold-”

A scream, loud and over the blaring car alarm. Eddie crouched, and lunged into Lawrence’s hip, knocking him over before he had a chance to react.

This was the best chance I was ever going to get.

With all my strength, I swung my right arm forward, throwing off the guy holding me. I underestimated my strength, since he let go and was flung away. I thought he’d crash into Lawrence and Eddie, but they were rolling on the ground, fighting over the gun. He flew through the windshield of a car instead, and another car alarm went off. The lopsided rhythm and the differing pitches only made things more hectic.

I wasted no time on the guy constricting my left arm, doubly so, since I still had a gun behind me to deal with. Moving my hand so I had a hold on his arm, I spun around. If he was the hour hand of a clock, he’d have moved from the nine position to the six position, clockwise. He slammed into the man behind me, knocking his gun away. I effectively moved fast enough to catch them both off guard. They slid a distance away, grunting in pain when they stopped. I hoped that was enough to keep them down. To be safe, I went and kicked the gun, sliding it under a car farther down the parking garage.

Lawrence and Eddie were still going at it, but Lawrence was getting the upper hand. He was on top, wrestling the gun out of Eddie’s hands. One good yank might have been enough to turn the favor to Lawrence, and I knew I wasn’t the only one who didn’t want that.

They weren’t too far, but I broke into a run. I headed for Lawrence, and prepared to kick, like running to kick a soccer ball. I hit him in the ribs. I felt something give way to my foot, then snapping. He howled in pain, and crumpled over to his side. That should be enough for him.

If they were moaning and groaning over their injuries, the two car alarms were too loud for me to hear them. None of them looked like they were in any position to be a threat again, so it seemed like I was in the clear. I fixed the string that held my mask in place, and adjusted my hood.

As I was doing that, Eddie was getting to his feet, taking apart Lawrence’s gun and tossing the pieces away. He was taking deep breaths, like a huge weight was finally taken off his chest, and he wanted to test his breathing.

I could sympathize. That was too close of a call, and my head was pounding from the adrenaline.

I really wanted to let this go, be done with this situation. But I couldn’t walk away, I wasn’t done here, yet.

I looked at Eddie. This was the guy who put Maria in this position. And for some reason, at the risk of her own life, she was willing to stand up for him. This guy. I couldn’t see why.

Noticing me, he started to say something to me, but between my pounding head and the two alarms, it just looked like he was mouthing to me again. If he wanted to talk, I’d have to move us to a better spot. The alarms might attract others, too.

Using too much force than I intended, I grabbed Eddie by the collar. He started to scream, struggle, but one easy lift off of his feet was enough to make him comply. With my hands still on him, I moved us to the side of the parking garage.

We were high up enough that I could see the roof of a building across an alley. It wasn’t that low a drop, but from my vantage point, it still looked terrifying. By myself, I was confident I could make that gap. Carrying another, though…

I propped a foot on the short wall that normally separated cars and a bad fall. I took a hand off of Eddie, just one, and pointed a finger at him.

“Wanna live?” I asked, “Hold tight.”

Eddie went from confusion, to sheer terror, to thrashing to get away from me. All in the span of a few seconds. But I proved to be too strong, and he couldn’t escape. To secure him better, I wrapped an arm around his torso, and twisted the fabric where I had him by the collar. In that time, Eddie probably had an opportunity to get out of my grasp and run away, but the implicit threat that came come standing so close to the edge made him compliant.

I leapt out of the building, with Eddie by my side.

A one-second drop at most, but Eddie wailing did not let up the entire time, blasting my ear with a deafening cry. On top of the wind rushing past, it was definitely loud.

Carrying Eddie came with the disadvantage of not being properly balanced when I landed. I hit the roof funny, Eddie weight forced me down, and I fell on top of him. I rolled off of him as soon as I realized where I was.

He was on his back, coughing, not trying to get on his own two feet. I had no issues on that front, but getting here wasn’t as hard on me as it was on him. To be fair.

I grabbed him yet again, and picked him right back up. I ignored his cries of protest, his yelling in Spanish.

“Ah! Aaaah!” he kept going.

Man, you will not shut up.

“Yo! Heh-low-oh?” I sang, drawing out the word.

“What are you doing?!”

“No, it’s more like what you’ll do for me. You’re going to tell me the backstory for everything that just happened, now.”

“Fuck, no, I mean, what the fuck are you doing?”

I brought him closer, slightly. “I don’t follow.”

“That’s it? You just want information? Even if you weren’t holding me like this, I’m still stuck on a roof with you! You have complete control of the situation! There, there’s no need to threaten me like this!”

Behind my mask, I looked like I just got slapped in the face. I felt dumb.

“Oh,” I muttered.

I let him go. He immediately collapsed onto his knees, heaving for air.

Why did I keep defaulting to some kind of tough guy act? It wasn’t doing me any favors. This thin, plastic mask was making me scary.

I stood over him, watching as he composed himself. He didn’t stand this time, though, he only sat, his head in his hands.

I gave him another minute to settle.

He spoke up, weakly. “I took a chance on you, because you said something about helping me out. But, shit. Did the boss really send you?”

“You should know by now that nothing I said back there was true. I was only trying to buy some time. You actually helped me out.”

Though I hate to say it.

He gave me a look. Bewildered? Like everything that just happened as finally settling in. “I guess, one some level, I thought so. But, who are you? What the hell are you? I’ve seen some crazy shit, but not that, people don’t move like that. What’s your deal?”

I still really don’t know. “Don’t worry about that,” I said.

“And what’s with the mask? You a superhero? An actual superhero with actual superpowers?”

Superhero? Superpowers? That was one way to look at it, maybe. And, while that was how I got this idea, I didn’t feel like a hero, and calling these new changes to my body as superpowers was sugarcoating it somehow. It didn’t sit well with me.

“Uh, I’m no superhero. I just happened to swing by.”

“Why’d you intervene, then?”

“Wait a second, wasn’t I supposed to be the one asking the questions? We’re getting off topic.”

Eddie put his head down, almost defeated.

“Alright, I told you enough. Now it’s my turn. That little conversation you just had with, Lawrence, was it? Give me the details.”

Eddie sighed. “Sorry to ask another question, but why?”

I ignored his inability to follow simple directions, and instead thought about Maria. “Let’s just say I’m tired of innocent people getting caught up in stuff that they don’t need to be caught up in.”

“Huh, in a weird way, you’re kinder than I thought.”

I don’t mean you, asshole.

But all I said was a tough, “We’re off topic. Again.”

He nodded while massaging his head, like he was rubbing a magic eight ball for answers. “Okay, um, what do you want?”

I started simple. “Who’s that Lawrence guy? Why was he coming after you?”

He ran his fingers through his hair. “Lawrence is part of El Carruaje. The right hand man of the boss, or at least he wants to be.”

“And you’re a member, too, aren’t you?”

He looked up, at me. Right in the eyes. “Yeah, but that’s the thing. I’m trying to get out.”

I didn’t expect him to say that.

“But as you saw, ain’t that easy. El Carruaje isn’t one of the bigger gangs in the city, but lately, they’ve been working to remedy that, and start performing operations deeper in the Eye. I wasn’t about to take part in that… expansion. It’s not why I joined.”

“Then why did you join?” I questioned him.

Eddie touched his chin, and looked away. “I was new to the area when I joined. It’s one of those situations where you have to know someone in order to survive. They were my ‘someone.’ It was also easy money, but that’s another story.”

I hated to ask, but I had to know. “And the girl? Is she also part of the gang?”

“My girlfriend? Like, yeah.”

My stomach dropped. Eddie really was Maria’s boyfriend, and she really was a member of a cartel.

“Why did she join? Did she tell you?”

He gave his answer some thought. More than I expected him to. “No, she hadn’t told me. We met through another, um, co-worker.”

Typical. Thanks, Maria. I had to move to another question take my mind off those confirmations for now.

“And you want to leave? But you can’t, because that would be some form of betrayal?”

“Pretty much. And with what the boss has been planning, and with how small we are, it’s an all hands on deck type of thing. I think, I know they know about my doubts, and they’re trying to beat the loyalty back into me.”

“And that just makes you want to leave even more?”

Eddie didn’t say anything, but it wasn’t difficult to gather what his answer would be.

After a little while, he uttered, under his breath, “I don’t know the exact details, but the boss is planning something. Something big. Whatever that means, I just know I can’t have Maria be in that sort of danger, I just can’t.”

Something big. I didn’t like the sound of that.

I looked at the man. Maybe man wasn’t the right word, he only looked to be a few years older than me. Disheveled, tired, but most of all, genuine. He seemed to mean what he said, that he wanted to leave. There was a hint of hope, there.

I asked my last question. “Is this girlfriend of yours, Maria, is she willing to leave with you?”

“I think so, yes.”

“Hmph,” I grunted. I straightened myself, then walked closer to Eddie. He stiffened.

“Do you have a plan? About how you’re going to ditch that gang?”

Eddie shifted where he sat. “Not really, no.”

“Then, I’ll help.”

He snapped his head back up, staring right at me, mouth agape. “What?”

“I said that I’d help you out, didn’t I?” I said. “I don’t have much of a plan either,” I clarified, “But I want to help you two leave that shit behind. If you’re serious about this, that is.”

“I am,” he said, serious, calm.

“Good,” I replied. I hastily asked another question. “Do you have an email? Any way I can contact you without having to meet in person?”

“Yeah, sure.” He told me the proper information, and I committed it to memory.

It certainly didn’t escape me, how much I was interfering with Maria’s life without her knowing, but there had to be some justification, here. Maria’s life was threatened, on multiple occasions, within days of each other. This couldn’t continue. Even if this, too, was dangerous, the alternative would be even more so.

This was for Maria.

But, this guy here? I still couldn’t shake off my anger at him, for attracting this type of risk towards Maria. Hell, I was starting to get mad at Maria, too, for even being a part of this at all. But she wasn’t here right now. Now that I thought about it, I didn’t know where she ran off to.

I turned, my back to him, and walked to the edge of the roof, facing the parking garage. Was it just in my head, or were the car alarms still going off? No, it was definitely both.

“Where are you going?” Eddie questioned me.

“Have to go back. That girl is still up there, and there are still five assholes there, too. Down for the count, sure, but they’re still around. I’ll go check on the girl, make sure she’s alright, and I’ll keep an eye on her until you get back. Then you go and take her somewhere safe, wherever that means to you. I’ll contact you later.”

And my bags are still up there, I thought, I hope nobody came across it.

Eddie didn’t say anything in response.

“Hurry,” I said. “I’m sure you can find your way down from the roof.”

“You’re leaving me here? Just like this?”

There was an irritation within me, poking at me every time he spoke. I couldn’t explain why, and I knew that it was completely irrational, but I felt it, despite myself. A feeling like I wanted to get back at him for something. Like he wronged me, personally.

“You weren’t a fan of dropping down here, right? You can find your own way down.”

“And what if I can’t?”

“Your problem, not mine.”

Eddie grunted, and if my back wasn’t to him, I would’ve imagined him flipping me off.

My body tensed, getting ready. “Just hurry before anyone else comes.”

“Dammit, stop, one last thing!” Eddie hurriedly slurred, stopping me before I could jump. “We should use some kind of code word, so that I know that it’s you when you contact me.”

“Wouldn’t me contacting you be enough?”

“Let’s not take any chances. Give me something. Like, for example, a name. Yeah, what in the world do I even call you?”

A name? I didn’t think that far ahead, and now I was put on the spot. I just thought of the first thing that came to me. I thought of my mask.

“Blank… Face…” I answered, with a lack of certainty, before leaping back up to the fifth floor with a hard push of my legs.

Previous                                                                                               Next

010 – Hate and Separation

Previous                                                                                               Next

El Carruaje?”

“They’re a branch of a Mexican cartel that set up shop in the city a few years back. My dad has dealt with them a few times before, in one way or another.”

“Fantastic. A cartel? What kind of luck is that?”

“I’m oddly conflicted, though. This is going to sound really bad, but I’m actually kind of relieved.”

“Relieved? How?”

“Yeah, they’re a cartel, but they’re relatively miniscule as far as operations go. Tiny fish in an unfortunately large pond. They’re not running anything terribly serious.”

“Are you hearing yourself? Did you already forget about that night? This is terribly serious.”

“And I get that. All I’m saying is that we know how bad it is, now. It’s bad, but not as bad as I initially feared.”

“Bad is still bad.”

“Acute observation, Alexis. It’s the difference between a knife… and a missile. If this was the Cobras, or even AZ-Tec, I’d be sweating a lot more than I already am.”

“I see what you mean, kind of, but is Maria right? Is there really nothing we can do about this?”

“What can we do? There’s a myriad of reasons why someone would join a gang. Anything we try to do, we’re liable to make things worse.”

“So we just do nothing?”

“For now, we can keep a closer eye on Maria. As close an eye as she’ll let us.”

“That’s hardly reassuring.”

“There is no reason to be hitting anywhere close to that particular beehive. It won’t end well for anyone.”

“But we can’t just leave it at that, can we?”

“As of right now, we have to. Does it suck? Totally, but we have our own wellbeing to worry about, too.”

“…”

“Ah, gotta go. Oh, El Carruaje means ‘The Chariot,’ by the way.”

“No shit. I am taking Spanish, thank you very much.”

“No problem! Tomorrow we can… I don’t know what we can do, to be honest. Talk in circles again? I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Bye.”

Katy hung up.

I folded my phone, closing it came with a soft, plastic clap. I set it beside me, and closely studied the details of my ceiling.

I didn’t want to get out of bed.

I thought back to all the times Maria had ignored texts, declined invitations, or bailed on us at the last minute because she had ‘something else to do.’ What was she doing, exactly? Why?

Thinking stuff like that wasn’t doing me any good.

“Alexis!” I heard from the door. My mom. She sounded strained.

Tossing those thoughts aside, I hurried to my feet, and left my room.

My mom was fine, curled up the couch, knees to her chest. She really was the most comfortable in the most uncomfortable positions. A phone in one hand, and a remote in the other. The TV was on, but it was muted.

“What’s up?” I asked, as I entered the living room. She didn’t answer right away, but her attention was still focused on the silent television. I wasn’t offended, she just got easily enraptured with her dramas.

I waved, and that got her attention. She took the phone away from her ear.

“I’ve been calling you,” she said.

“Oh. I was on the phone, too.”

She held the phone towards me.

“Hospital called. They want to know a good time for check-up appointment.”

I swallowed. There already were plenty of things I didn’t want to deal with, and doctors were one of them. A simple visit to a doctor might end with a total lockdown of the whole hospital, doctors and nurses in a frenzy, trying to get more out of me after they find out what I’ve become since my last visit down there. I didn’t want to put myself in a situation in which they’d find out about my body.

And, although I was certain the government didn’t do secret experiments on their own citizens, I wasn’t about to give them a reason to start.

“Um, do I need to go?” I asked.

“Do you not need to?”

I thought up of as many possible excuses as I could. Any would be good enough.

“It’s already been over a week, and I’m fine. So…”

She didn’t give any physical cue to my answer.

When she spoke again, I felt dumb for not realizing that she was talking to the phone sooner. “Alright, won’t be necessary. Yes, yes. Yes, she’s sure. Thank you.”

She hung up. She pressed a button on the remote, and sound came back to the TV. She hugged her legs closer to her.

“What in the world are you doing?” I asked her.

“I am watching TV,” she said, serious.

I turned to look at exactly what she was watching, trying to make out the standard definition picture the television was providing, listening to the fuzzy sound.

I somewhat recognized it. A major summer blockbuster. I saw the trailers a while ago, but I never went out to see it for myself. It was already on TV?

“Is it any good?” I asked her.

“It’s corny, but it’s on,” my mom replied.

“You can change the channel.”

“No. You can if you want.”

I chuckled. “Alright, I’m going back to my room.” I turned.

Before I could leave, she stopped me with a question. “Are you sure you don’t need to go?”

“I’m sure,” I said, facing her. It would be trouble if other people found out about me. For the moment, I’d be better off keeping this to myself.

“Are you hungry?” my mom asked, all of a sudden.

“No,” I lied, “I ate out again, with Katy. After practice.”

My mom shifted her arm, and scratched her leg. “You can’t keep doing that. I only make so much.”

I opened my mouth, but I didn’t answer. I couldn’t tell her that I hadn’t been eating at all. I definitely couldn’t tell her why.

I simply returned to my room.

I kept the light off, throwing myself onto my bed. Eyes back to the ceiling, I let my mind run over everything that happened today.

Like I hadn’t done that enough, already.

There had to be something I could do to help Maria. To help her leave that type of danger behind. How defeated and helpless she looked back then, that image didn’t mesh at all with how I normally thought of her. Partial anger, some frustration, wholly fear. Maria should never make that face again.

Tossing and turning in my bed, I finally rested on my stomach, with my cheek in the pillow.

I stared at the closet, across the room. I briefly thought of the movie my mom was watching.

Would that even work in real life?

Perhaps, perhaps not, but I thought it.

Katy said there was nothing we could do, and Maria said the same thing, but that was due to their own limitations of their human capabilities. Me? Those limitations were hardly relevant.

I caught Maria at the parking lot.

“Maria, wait up!”

She stopped, and looked back at me. She grimaced.

“What are you doing here?”

I briskly walked to her, my bags bouncing around me.

“Hi,” I said, getting closer.

“Didn’t answer me,” was her response.

“I know you’re doing the whole ‘ignoring me and Katy’ thing, but hey, it’s just me, see?”

She made a face, like I told her a lame pun, instead.

“Funny,” she said, “What is it?”

I would’ve made some sort of placating gesture, but with only one free hand, I wouldn’t resort to any half-measures. “Can’t remember the last time it was just us. Want to go somewhere?”

“You’re too obvious.”

“See? Now, we’ve already removed any and all pretense. I think I know a place you’d like to go.”

“Where?”

“Flash,” I suggested, referring to the boutique Maria mentioned wanting to go to, some time ago.

“You crazy? That’s on the other side of the city, and I don’t have my car.”

I thought about what that meant, her not having her car. She was going to be picked up again today, too.

“Bus?” I suggested.

She tapped my forehead, her nail poking my skin. “Takes even longer. Think.”

“Alright, maybe next time.”

Maria took her finger off of me, and I read her body language before she took any conscious action.

“What about the mall? It’s only fifteen minutes by bus.”

She blew into my face, and she messed up my bangs as it fell into my eyes. I blinked my hair out of the way.

Her posture slumped. “Why are you doing this?”

I cleared my throat, preparing to deliver a real answer. “I want drop the whole act, already. You doing this whole ‘keeping distance’ thing isn’t going to make anything better. Let’s just be friends.”

She didn’t anything for a little bit. I let her take her time.

“Does Katy know you’re here?” she asked.

“Nope.”

Another, longer pause.

“Don’t you have practice?” she asked.

I smiled. “I’d skip it for you, babe.”

She slouched again, giving up. “Just for a little bit.”

And with that, I actually managed to get through to Maria. We walked to the nearest bus stop, and caught it just in time.

The bus rumbled as it made its way towards the edge of downtown. Maria sat down beside me, engrossed in her phone. I was envious, but I was starting to get used to not having a smartphone to help pass the time. Because I had the window seat, I watched as cars and buildings passed us by. I counted the different graffiti that littered walls of buildings and windows, noted the shoes that hung from powerlines. One particular symbol, tagged on a sidewalk, caught my attention before disappearing out of sight as the bus took a turn.

An incomplete circle, a chunk missing so to form a letter ‘C.’ Lines extended inward towards the center, meeting at a not incomplete circle. Like a broken wheel of a chariot.

El Carruaje.

We made it to the mall. Highmount Mall, a decent-sized shopping center. There were bigger, cooler malls in Stephenville, but we didn’t have that type of time. Tomorrow was still a school day.

We walked in, and even though it was the middle of the week, a sizeable crowd moved through the different stores and major chains. As a pair, we strolled around.

“Want me to hold your bag?” Maria offered, reaching for my sports bag. “There’s a lot of people around.”

“No, no no. It’s good.” I switched hands, so she couldn’t grab it.

“Okay,” was all she said about that, and we kept going.

Good.

As far as checking out clothes, we started at an urban apparel shop. Pop punk music played in the background as we searched through what they had to offer.

I picked up a black t-shirt, emblazed on the chest was an exploding cat’s head, shooting lasers out of its eyes. “Cool, huh?”

She smirked at the imagery. Anyone would, considering how silly the shirt was. “Not my thing, but you could rock it.”

Gracias, but this isn’t ‘morning mist’ enough for me.”

I set it down, and we moved out, going to another store.

The second we entered, I knew we wouldn’t be staying for long. The way two of the workers looked at us, it bugged me. A lip, curled in distaste, before twisting to into fake smile. An instant switch, but I noticed.

We looked around, parsing the different items they had, comparing sizes, color, and prices. A worker approached us as I tossed some undergarments back into a pink basket.

“Can I help you two?” she asked, high-pitched.

Maria answered for us. “Just looking,” she said, facing her and being polite.

“Alrighty, you can let me know if you need anything. And ma’am, the smaller sizes are down the aisle, that way.”

She gestured, and I caught her glancing at Maria’s chest, and mine.

“Thanks,” Maria responded with a more neutral tone, but still appreciative of that information, nonetheless.

“Actually, I’m curious about something,” I said, getting the saleswoman’s attention.

“Yes?” she said, and faced my way. Everything about her seemed artificial, from her wide eyes to her smile and voice. I felt like I was being talked down to.

“Your line of colored contacts, do you know if those would be on sale anytime soon?”

“Oh, those are one of our many specialty items, those don’t go on sale. And, I don’t mean to be rude, but I wouldn’t recommend them. For someone with your particular eye shape, you might have some trouble getting them in.”

Maria and I traded looks. She opened her mouth wide, and closed it.

Woooow.

I looked back to the saleswoman, and thanked her. “I appreciate the heads-up, then,” I intoned, an octave higher.

She smiled one last time, and walked away. Maybe it was what they wanted, but that was a battle I had no intention of fighting. We promptly left, it wasn’t like either of us needed bras, anyways.

Maria led the way this time, taking us to the food court on the second floor. She went to get a smoothie for herself, and I found a place for us to sit. It didn’t take too long for Maria to come back.

“Is it more sad that it happened, or that I ain’t surprised?” she asked as she sat across from me.

“I’m already trying to forget about it.”

“What’s their fuckin’ beef, you know? Shit, I shoulda kicked that bitch’s ass.”

“White people,” I commented, in jest, “Am I right?”

“And c’mon, you work at the fuckin’ Highmount, like you couldn’t suck good enough make it at the Realm.”

“That might give ‘Flash’ a whole new meaning,” I said.

We both snickered.

“Speaking of white people,” Maria added, “Katy annoyed me too, yesterday.”

“I saw that.”

“And it’s not even fair. Why isn’t she getting all up in your business? You were straight up gone when… when I got back to the house. Katy was freaking over you, now she’s only freaking out over me.”

“I was passed out in the upstairs bathroom,” I said, “She didn’t find me until later.” I let that half-truth spill out from my mouth.

“It’s so typical. I hate that attitude of hers. Like she knows everything.” Maria gripped her smoothie harder, and I was afraid she might crush it in her hand, her drink spilling everywhere.

“Don’t beat her down, not when she can’t defend herself. She wants to look out for you. She wants you to give her the opportunity to. We both do.”

Maria put the smoothie down, which gave me some relief, and she traced her finger around the lid, instead. “Never mind. I don’t wanna think about it.”

The tone of her last word ushered in a sense of finality, and neither of us could find anything else to say.

But I tried.

“S-see? This is fun,” I joked.

She smirked again. “It sure is.” She brought the smoothie to her lips, taking a sip. She then passed it to me. “Want? It’s strawberry banana.”

“No, I’m good.”

“Hmph, thought you’d say that. Maybe it’s because I haven’t really seen you in a few days, but you’ve been looking-”

She didn’t get to finish that sentence.

“Maria!”

A boy came to our table. Tall, lanky. Hispanic. His hair was slicked back, the sides shaved. I didn’t recognize him by face, but the jacket he wore gave me all that I needed to know.

“Eddie!” Maria gasped, completely shocked. She stood up, the chair skidding behind her.

“You weren’t answering your phone, and all you said was you were going to be at the mall. How was I supposed to know where?”

Maria looked between me and the boy, completely at a loss. Another new side to Maria I hadn’t seen before. It was obvious that this was the last thing she wanted to have happened.

“Alright,” the boy – Eddie – said, “We need to go. I parked at the parking garage nearby. Did you get anything?”

She held the smoothie. “Just this.” Her voice was soft, confused.

“Alright. Let’s go,” he took her wrist.

“Whoa,” I said, standing up, my chair skidding back. “If she doesn’t want to go, then she doesn’t have to.”

Eddie gave me his attention, finally noticing I was here. “Hey, sorry about this, but we’re leaving.”

I thought back to yesterday, when Maria fled into this guy’s car, and he drove off.

I repeated myself. “If she doesn’t want to go, then…”

Maria shook her head. “It’s cool, Alexis. I should get going.”

“But…”

“Think you take the bus back home?”

I was confused. “Are you okay with this?”

She bobbed her head, signaling to me that she somehow was.

“If that’s the case, then cool.” I jabbed a finger in her direction. “You better be at lunch tomorrow. Katy’s been missing you.”

She gave me a peace sign. “I will.”

Eddie tugged, and she willingly came along. They walked off, leaving the food court and taking an escalator down. Standing at the table, I watched them go.

Everything about that was sketchy.

I grabbed my backpack and sports bag, and followed them.

I definitely felt like a creeper, hiding in the crowd and maintaining a distance from them as they left the mall. But my conscience couldn’t let me leave this alone. Not with things ending the way they did.

I watched them head into the parking garage, adjacent from the main parking lot. They got into a nearby elevator. Shoot, I had no way of knowing where Eddie parked. I changed course, going into the parking garage, but towards the stairs beside the elevators.

I ascended the stairs, by two or three steps, trying to get to the next floor before their elevator would, and waiting by the doors to see if I got the right floor. I was confident I could flee and hide before the door beeped and opened.

The elevator had beaten me to the fifth floor, it must have caught up while I waited up to ten seconds on each level. They were already walking down the garage, towards Eddie’s car. That, too, I was already familiar with.

Everything looked okay.

Alright, this is good enough, I thought. Maria was with Eddie, now, and I could only assume that he was going to take her home. I had no way of following them, anymore. Maria’s safety was now in Eddie’s hands. That was it.

Was this all I could do? Try to hang out with Maria as much as possible, to help mend the rift between us? And watch from afar, keeping Maria safe from a distance? A temporary solution, until Maria squared up and broke up with the guy. I hoped for that. Let her cut ties with him and that gang all on her own. She wouldn’t need my help, then.

I took a step back to the stairs, ready to leave.

But suddenly, I saw them.

Five men got out of a car, and started tailing the couple.

God please, no.

They hadn’t noticed me, since I immediately crouched low upon seeing them. I stayed far back, hiding behind the closest car. I couldn’t risk it and move any closer.

Conveniently, the car window wasn’t tinted, allowing me to keep an eye on the scene while still keeping myself hidden.

“Imma have to ask you to stop, homes,” one of the guys said. He was wearing a red polo shirt, buttoned up all the way.

Maria and Eddie wheeled around, Maria staying firm by Eddie’s side.

Eddie spoke, his voice now higher pitched. “Lawrence, now’s not the right time or place.”

“But I finally got a hold of you. The boss hasn’t appreciated you being so hard to find, you know.”

“The boss sent you? I don’t believe that.”

“You don’t have to. Boss wants you, and I’m here, now.”

“Please, you can’t do this, not now. Porfis.”

“I got a good idea, then, how ‘bout you come with me, and I’ll have my boys keep an eye on your girl.”

Word of agreement were exchanged between the other men. They sounded enthusiastic.

No.

I crouched lower, away from the window. Slowly, as not to make any noise, I set my bags down in front of me.

It was supposed to be a fluke, a dumb idea I concocted out of the blue. The last of my last resorts. Not only did I not expect to be actually doing this, but to actually be doing it so soon.

I opened the bag, and the mask was already staring back at me.

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