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 She massaged her neck, popping it as she flipped through channels on the outdated TV.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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015 – Bird Buried in Drowning Mud

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Earlier in the day, Eduardo asked me if I had any other powers. I dismissed him, like the ones I had now weren’t enough on my plate.

Now? I wished I had something secret up my sleeve.

People were screaming, multiple police officers barking the same things at different times. My own heartbeat sounded like it was pounding in my head. A cacophonous chaos.

“Stay down! Hands in the air! Don’t move!”

Can’t everyone shut up?

A massive headache was about to hit me full on, and all this damn noise wasn’t helping any. I was trying to think, to process everything, and everything was turning into a distraction.

I was so tired.

Everything was hurting. Like I finished a marathon, sprinting. I burned up all of my energy. Every muscle in my body was throbbing, aching with stings. Throb, throbbing. Tender. I was out of breath. Weak, lightheaded. Could I even pick my hands up, anymore?

And worst of all, I was thirsty. The whole area around my neck was on fire, screaming for nourishment. I wanted it, I needed it. My entire body was heated, and I couldn’t shake off the feeling unless I got it.

Blood.

Breathe, I tried. It was hard. Not at this point in time. Didn’t have the luxury. I was still plagued by the stress of being in a blinding spotlight. Everyone could see me. Everyone would know what I was.

They would know.

I blinked, but everything was still blurry. Shapes of blues, projecting a maddening sound.

I thought I asked everyone to shut it, but apparently not. Still ordering me around, a million voices flooding my ears.

I had to deal with this, didn’t I?

I needed to get somewhere, to leave this place. But I could barely move, barely stand, barely do anything. Process. Put the pieces together. It was hard.

Mom. I was late for dinner. Homework. I was behind on some stuff. Coach T. She wasn’t too thrilled about my recent absences. Wait, no, these were distractions. My mind kept going to places that were irrelevant. Thinking of unrelated things that didn’t matter. Now I was being redundant. Focus, or at least try.

All from just pushing myself a little harder. I didn’t know my mind and body would shut down so easily, be so out of it from all of that.

Never doing that again.

I lifted my head up, trying to make as much sense of the scene as I could. Fuzzy, unclear images, but I did notice something.

The police, they weren’t getting closer. They stood in a formation, circling me, but they weren’t approaching.

Were they afraid?

Couldn’t blame them, in all honesty. They were hesitating, unsure of exactly what I was and what else I was capable of.

I’m still unsure, myself.

I could use this, though, their reluctance to come any closer. It bought me some time, valuable seconds to come up with a way out of here.

A million things ran through my mind. A million things to consider.

A voice snarled. “We said drop the knife! Hands up!”

I clenched my hands. The knife. I was still holding it. Could I do something with it? Fight? Fight my way out?

No violence.

Why was that my first resort? There had to be better solutions than that. I shouldn’t try to make this any worse. For me and for everyone here. Plus, there was the ‘couldn’t move at all issue’ that prevented that particularly awful idea from being a feasible one. I scrapped it as soon as I thought of it.

You’re still going make use of the knife, right?

Yeah.

Thought so.

At this juncture, doing anything would be better than doing nothing.

I brought my arms close, to my chest, and let myself collapse onto Eduardo’s body.

There were some gasps, the clicks of guns, but no sudden spikes in volume. No one fired. I knew they wouldn’t, or at least, I had betted on it, because the cops wouldn’t be done with evacuating civilians from the scene just yet. They couldn’t risk anything.

I could use that, too.

I heard a few footsteps try and test their luck, to inch closer, but they were sparse and wary. I only had a few more moments before they gathered enough courage to put me in handcuffs.

They started speaking amongst each other, formulating a plan. They had gotten close enough for me to hear.

“Robinson, go around the back, deal with Benny. We’ll handle this masked devil-thing.”

“Do we inform Mister about this? About Benny. We got that report, not too long ago. This sounds like something he’d need to know about.”

“We’ll talk about that later. First we have to clean this shit up.”

What were they talking about? Mr. Who? And Benny. They mentioned that name like they were familiar with it. Why?

It didn’t bode well with me, their manner of speaking, their familiarity with someone like Benny. I couldn’t leave here in handcuffs, and deep down, I knew I couldn’t let that happen to Eduardo.

I tried to concentrate on the task at hand. Eduardo wasn’t moving, aside from the slight rise and fall of his back. His breathing was shallow. He wouldn’t be getting up by his own volition. How badly did the car accident injure him? My guilt was becoming much harder to swallow.

“Eduardo,” I whispered, although frail. “Say something. Are you hurt? Concussion?”

He grunted, but he answered. “No concussion, but I’m not exactly sunshine and rainbows.”

“Cool. Don’t move, I’m going to try and get us out of here.”

He didn’t respond.

Under the cover of my own back, I worked. With my free hand, I wedged it between Eduardo’s torso and the cement, essentially hugging him with one arm. With my knife, I tried forcing in between my mask and lips, without stabbing myself. So inconvenient, but it wasn’t like I ever anticipated having to do this. The bottom of the mask kept getting in the way of the knife. It was taking too long, and I was getting frustrated, but I couldn’t be hasty, which made me even more frustrated.

The footsteps around us started becoming more frequent, faster. Orders given throughout the different officers to approach carefully. Any minute, now. Any second.

With one last push, I got the knife where I wanted it. The tip of the knife brushed against the tip of my nose. I briefly paused, almost reconsidering.

Before, on the rooftops, I didn’t have the time to be dramatic and consider what exactly I was about to do, I just had to do it. So soon after that, I was faced with yet another, similar situation.

The blade was to my lips. Red, soaked in Benny’s blood. I stuck my tongue out, licking the metal.

Aaaah!

A surge of energy. Electricity. A short but focused burst, a static shock throughout my whole body.

I shuddered.

The police halted. Couldn’t afford to revel in the feeling of drinking blood, despite loathing how good it tasted.

This was it.

I moved.

It wasn’t in a fast or graceful motion, but I got on my two feet, flipping Eduardo in my arms, carrying him like I would a bride, with one arm under his legs and the other supporting his back. The knife was uncomfortably stuck between my mouth and my mask. My mouth was opened in a funny position, I couldn’t close it.

The police ordered me again, but I didn’t bother to listen.

I licked the knife again.

As the resurgence of energy came, I took two steps forward before jumping away. I didn’t reach the height I wanted, considering the added weight and some fatigue that remained, but it worked. I touched ground amongst the civilians that made up the outer perimeter of the scene, now running away and crying out at the sight of me.

I was running, too, looking for an escape. My vision was getting better, clearer, letting me see exactly where I was going. But with every step, I flinched in pain. The more I ran, the knife was cutting into the corners of my mouth. But I couldn’t spit it out. The mask kept it stuck in its position. Besides, were was some leftover blood I needed.

Drool dripped down my chin as I ran across the street. The area was filled with cars stuck in place, unable to move or turn back due to the car accident. Part of me wanted to double back and check if other vehicle’s passengers were okay, but I’d have to leave that to more qualified individuals.

The cars here were becoming an obstacle, slowing down my progress. I stepped onto the hood of a car, hopped onto the roof of the next, and hopped again until I got to the sidewalk.

I now had more room to run forward without obstruction. I was leaving the police behind, but I knew that I couldn’t keep this up forever. I had to find a place where I could settle down and hide.

I searched my available options, and found my next course of action.

A nearby building was lower than the rest, with a balcony that overlooked a street. A restaurant-bar type of place. With the strength I had, I could manage that with one good jump.

I tried. I made it.

There were others here, too. Some were sitting at picnic tables, eating and drinking, while others were by the balcony, trying to sneak a peek at what was happening below. They didn’t expect someone to be coming up here.

As expected, there was a lot of commotion when I arrived.

I kept going, running past the surprised and confused, and I jumped again before anything significant could be done about my presence.

Another building, another rooftop. I was positive I’ve lost everyone who’d try to come after me, come after us, but it wouldn’t hurt to move farther away.

I crossed another rooftop, leaped, and landed. Eduardo grumbled, complaining from all of the bouncing from being in my hold, and the exhaustion was coming back faster and stronger than I had wanted. Also, the knife was piercing even more into my flesh.

Maybe it would hurt to move farther away.

But there was one roof I saw, and I knew I needed to get there. It was the top of an apartment building, with a clothesline clipping some clothes up. Not bad as cover goes, especially now, since it had gotten darker.

I was starting to accept that I would never be one for smooth landings. The last of my extra energy had given out, and I collapsed when I got to the apartment’s roof. Unfortunately for Eduardo, he had to be subjected to my fall, as well.

“Aghfghr!” we both cried.

I knew some time had passed, because I had forgotten where I was, and what I was doing. I flipped over, unable to be fully on my back because of my backpack. It took real effort just to get on my knees.

Eduardo wasn’t any better, also on his back. He coughed heavily, his chest heaving. He couldn’t see what was about to happen, what I was about to do.

I took that as an opportunity to fix myself. I lifted the mask away from my chin, and had to stretch my mouth open even more to spit out the knife. A few dots of blood splattered onto the roof, a gross mixture of Benny’s and my own. Blood and spit dripped from my mouth, and I wiped it away with my hand. I smacked my lips, like I was applying lipstick, and licked a bit of the residual blood that got on a finger.

Fuck me.

I tried communicating with Eduardo. “Oddwardlow,” I started, before recoiling in agony, and I closed my mouth. The cuts really did their work, digging deep into the corner of my lips, and they stung, bad.

That stinging eventually turned into a certain type of numbness, and I felt the cuts shrink, disappearing. It wasn’t long until they were completely gone, they were only minor injuries, in the grand scheme of things. Considering that I’ve actually survived worse, it was relatively nothing.

“Eduardo,” I said, able to speak again. “We have to keep going, but I can’t carry you forever. Who knows if they manage to find us up here?”

Eduardo had calmed down enough to speak as well, no longer coughing. “Why… you… brought me?”

His sentence was disjointed, but I got the meaning behind it. “The cops seemed to know Benny, or at least they knew of her. I don’t know, something about it didn’t feel right. When they find out about the weapons in the warehouse…”

When?”

“I called 9-1-1. I told them about the crates.”

“You did what?”

Worry crept up my spine, reaching my voice. “Was I not supposed to do that?”

“What? No, I dunno.” Eduardo started moving into a better position, sitting up, placing his arms behind him. “It’s better than leaving it out in the open.”

“Yeah, you’re right.”

I fixed my mask, setting it properly on my face, before trying to stand, but I felt a certain head rush that brought me right back down. I fell back on my butt.

“Dammit,” I hissed to myself. I didn’t want to look weak, feel weak, especially in front of Eduardo. And I didn’t have time to be weak. Had to hold out for a bit longer.

I wanted to leave and keep moving, but I also wanted to catch my breath. I figured we could spare a minute or two.

“I thought you were hiding. How did Benny get you?”

“I don’t know, I was looking out in every direction, too. I was careful. I was even about to move to another spot, just to be safe. But…”

“But?”

“Out of nowhere, there was a tap at my window, and it was her with a gun. I had to let her in, or she’d shoot.”

“Shit.” I had nothing else to say. I coughed, instead.

“So,” Eduardo said, in between heavy breaths, “What do we do, now?”

“You tell me. As far as Benny is concerned, she’s out of the picture, and hopefully for a long time. What does that say about the gang? Can they function without her?”

Eduardo pondered, looking at the clothes swaying in the wind as he did so. “Not really. She was at the top, and the crew she kept close to her will be scrambling to figure out who takes her place, and what to do in her absence. That’s a lot of reorganizing that needs to be done, and that’ll slow them down.”

“And if the police or any other gang find out about her plans?”

“Then The Chariot will have had its last ride.”

A sense of relief momentarily came over me. “Then, yeah. It ended up being a messy process, but I gave you your chance to leave the gang.”

Eduardo changed his posture yet again, this time leaning forward, hands in his lap.

“My chance to leave, huh?”

“After everything that went down, including the whole ‘crates of weapons’ thing, El Carruaje should be shaken up enough so that you leave without much noise,” I said.

“My girl, what about her?”

I thought about Maria. I knew that she should be okay, but I was worried regardless.

“We, you should go see her,” I said, “Check if she’s okay. Do you have money for a taxi, or something?”

He reached into the jacket he was wearing, a pocket on the inside. “I do,” he said, without taking out anything.

“Taxi should be a safe enough way to get there. I said this before, but I don’t think you heard me. Sorry about your car.”

“Don’t,” Eduardo said, shaking his head, “I’m not too pissed about that. I hated driving that thing around, anyway. It was never really mine.”

“Okay, then, that settles that. Go to her. And you’re going to have to tell her everything. I have a feeling she won’t appreciate seeing you on the news without you telling her first.”

“The news?”

“Yeah. I tried my best to hide your face, but people are going to be talking about this. Our escape wasn’t exactly subtle. Which brings me to my last point.”

I tried standing one more time, and this time, I was finally successful. I took it slow, being careful to get to my feet.

My words weren’t as slow to come out, though.

“You need to break up with your girlfriend,” I said, bluntly.

Eduardo shot me the most stunned look. There was even a little anger in there. “What? Are you shitting me?”

“You want to protect her, don’t you? You’re going to have to stay away.”

“Now is not the time to be doing that.”

“Isn’t it? There might be some from your old gang that have a score to settle with you. Especially if Benny decides to sell you out. And the police will mostly be after me, but they’ll be looking for you, too.”

He balled his hands into fists. “Then why did you take me?”

“You want to walk right out of a gang and into a jail cell? You weren’t going to last. I wouldn’t.”

Eduardo coughed again. “Shows how much you know. You get to hide behind a mask, you get to have superpowers.”

“They’re not as liberating as you think.”

“Fuck,” Eduardo said, under his breath. “Fuck this.”

“It’s up to you, in the end,” I said, conceding with him somewhat. “Your decision. I’m just telling the circumstances you’re in. We’re in.”

If nothing else, I at least planted the idea in his head.

I reached back down to pick up the knife, flipped the blade back in, and put it away. I had to wash it later.

“And what about you?” Eduardo asked. “What are you going to do?”

“I’ll keep looking after your girlfriend, of course.”

“Huh? How? You don’t even know her!”

Earlier this week, I had said something similar, myself. Even now, there was a lot I didn’t know about Maria, a lot of darkness that even I couldn’t see through. But I made my decision. She was my friend, and I was going to help her. And I was going to keep doing that.

And I had to give Eduardo something, in order for him to put his trust in me.

“Of course I do,” I said, like it was the most obvious thing in the world.

“What are you saying?” Eduardo questioned.

“Maria Gonzalez. She’s into fashion, loves strawberry, and she can’t say no to a good foreign flick.”

“Who…” he began to say.

“I’m not saying any more,” I said, “But I will ask you to trust me. You have your part to play, and I have mine.”

I walked to the edge of the roof, and looked down to find another fire escape.

“I’ll be going. There’s a fire escape here, so after a few more minutes, you can come down. I don’t condone thievery, but if you decide to take these clothes and change into them, I won’t stop you.”

And I know I just said that I don’t condone thievery, but getting some cash from you for a taxi would’ve been nice.

“Oh, and here,” I said, almost forgetting. I brought back out the walkie-talkie for the last time, and tossed to it Eduardo. He caught it.

“Leaving me on a roof?” Eduardo asked, shaky, his voice cracking at the end. “Again?”

“It’s not out of spite, not this time. I mean, I’d offer to carry you some more, but I’m spent, and the last thing you probably need is someone to uncomfortably rattle you around more.”

“It wasn’t that bad. It’s the closest thing I’ll ever get to flying.”

Part of me was taken aback at that point of view. “That’s one way to look at it.”

“And what do you mean, ‘not this time?’”

“Uh, goodbye, Eduardo.” And with any luck, I’ll never need to see you again. But that, I kept to myself.

“Yeah, bye.”

Having said my piece, I left it, and Eduardo, at that. I dropped down from edge of the roof, landing on the fire escape. I made it down to the alley, not exactly rushing, but not taking my sweet time, either.

The alley was empty, and dark enough that I could change without worrying about anyone. I checked above me, in case Eduardo was trying to be sneaky and curious. Nope. I dropped my backpack, and took out the sports bag inside. The mask was first to be taken off, and it felt so satisfying to finally get it off my face. I stuffed it into the bag, along with the jacket. It was like peeling off a second skin, with how much sweat had accumulated on the inside. The fanny pack was the next to go, and after I put away the joggers, I was back to being Alexis. No longer Blank Face.

I took out my phone, and checked my face from the reflection, cleaning off what I could. There were a few messages waiting for me. Some from Katy and Maria, probably from our group chat, a lot from my mom, and one from Brittany and Eve. Have to handle these later.

I left the alley, bags in tow, getting on the sidewalk. I didn’t recognize this part of town, but that wasn’t a big issue. I had enough money for a bus, and if nothing else, I’d have to walk the rest of the way. Not like I had a choice, otherwise.

The sounds of a helicopter zoomed overhead, flying by as I walked. Was it trying to search for me? I was equal parts relieved and terrified. Relieved to know that I successfully slipped under the radar, and terrified that they had went to this length to find me. Tomorrow, maybe even the weeks to come, I was certain that I would never hear the end of this night. People might be talking about it now.

I made it out of that situation, alive and intact. It already felt distant, like these were someone else’s memories. How did I manage to pull it off, even? Could this even be considered a success?

And my night wasn’t even close to being over. I had to find my way home, and it had gotten unreasonably late. I did give my mom a similar story like I did with Katy, but I still had some explaining to do. And somehow, that felt like the harder task.

People, pedestrians, passed me. They didn’t know, had no reason to suspect me. I was, in present appearance, a normal girl. Something about it was exciting.

Exhausted, sweaty, slightly dehydrated, I strolled into the night.

Previous                                                                                               Next

014 – Only the Weak Among You Will be Sacrificed

Previous                                                                                               Next

I ran out of the warehouse, out the metal door that was now open. It didn’t take me long to get back on the street, where Eduardo dropped me off.

Where is he, where did he go? Fuck!

This could not have gone down south any faster. Eduardo was taken against his own will, driving to Maria, and I had to prevent that somehow, on foot. How was I supposed to do that? Nothing could be worse than this.

I kept running. My mind was racing just as fast, doing everything I could all at the same time.

I pulled out the phone I took from Roland. A standard smartphone. I didn’t know the password to his phone, but I didn’t have to. I could still use it to make an emergency call.

I dialed 9-1-1.

It didn’t take long for the call to get through. “9-1-1, what is your emergency?”

“Agh!” I yelled as I ran.

The operator spoke softly, despite my panic. “Please calm yourself, and speak slowly. What is your emergency?”

I couldn’t get my words out. I was freaking out, and running faster than I ever had before. Running so intensely didn’t make for an easy conversation. But, it was either that, or take it slow and have Eduardo slip further away.

I made it to an intersection and turned left, and almost came into a collision with an incoming car. I jumped, letting the car pass under me. It honked, and I heard tires screech behind me as I kept on.

People were around, I knew that. There were some passersby, walking on the sidewalk. People in their own vehicles, waiting at the intersection. They saw me running faster than any normal human. They saw me vaulting over the car. For my part, I was outed. I was displaying my powers in public. At the very least, I had a mask on. But it only alleviated some of the vulnerability I was feeling. It took everything I had to push through it, and run.

I tried again, practically barking into the phone.

“East Stephenville the warehouse on Irving Street a lot of weapons someone has to go get them warehouse on Irving Street help!”

That was the opposite of calm and slow.

I didn’t wait to hear the operator’s response. I hung up, and threw the phone away. It slid across the street, falling into a storm drain nearby.

The next order of business was to locate Eduardo. The only idea I had of where to start was to go to where he was hiding. I knew the location, it was something we previously discussed.

A few blocks away from the warehouse. Five minutes by walking. By the time I was finished with my call, I was already there.

The parking lot of a church. There were some other vehicles here, too. A van, more than one motorcycle, but not Eduardo’s car. It wasn’t here. He wasn’t here.

My heart dropped.

Which way did he go? How far away was he? Who was the woman on the other end? Was that actually Benny? Was Benny with Eduardo?

So many questions, and I was running out of time.

Could I use the walkie-talkie again? Was it even turned on at their end? Maybe, but I could potentially provoke whoever had Eduardo hostage, and things could get even worse, even faster. I didn’t want to chance it.

For the moment, I put the walkie-talkie away.

The longer I was taking to find him, the more Eduardo was getting away. But I was hesitating, even though I knew that would waste even more time. I didn’t want to pick any random direction and blindly run off, inadvertently increasing the distance between me and Eduardo. It wouldn’t be wise, it wouldn’t be smart.

How can I find him? Use your brain Alexis, outside the box.

Right.

I couldn’t find him like this, not at street level. I needed a higher position, a higher point of view.

In East Stephenville, the buildings weren’t the skyscrapers that made up downtown, but they were tall, and I could get a better view from up there.

I looked back at the church. It was no cathedral, and the steeple that spiked up wasn’t any higher than the buildings that were around. No good.

I hurried, dipping into an alley between the church and another building. I stepped over a homeless man, sitting next to a dumpster, drinking a beer, undoubtedly watching as I found the fire escape, jumped to reach the lowest level, and rushed up the stairs. Don’t dwell on it.

When I got as high as the fire escape would let me, I had to jump again to reach the roof. I grabbed the edge, and pulled myself up, my arms aching.

I crossed the roof, perching on the other side, looking down at the street below. This was much better, I could see several streets down, a wider perspective. People walked about, cars cruising. Up here, I went unnoticed. I felt like an eagle, searching for prey.

Even as a kid, I was never really afraid of heights. To clarify, it was just that the idea of being afraid of heights had never occurred to me. Even then, being so close to the edge of a long fall should be cause for some caution, daredevil or not. But here? I didn’t feel much of anything in that regard. I wondered why. Adrenaline?

I tugged at the straps of the backpack that I just remembered I had on. That would explain some of the tenseness I was feeling. A literal weight on my shoulders. I wanted it off already.

Being here, crouched, it gave me an opportunity for a brief breather. My body was sore, a consequence of all the strenuous activity I wasn’t entirely used to. My throat was dry, almost scratchy. I licked my lips. The knot in my stomach was getting tighter, twisting to the point that I could throw up from the stress. The craving, the want for blood, was getting stronger. It was something of a catch-22. I had to rely on my above-average strength and speed, but the more I did, the more my craving grew.

But it was something I’d have to sacrifice, if I wanted to find them. If I wanted to save them.

For Maria, for Eduardo, and now for myself, I had to find that car, fast.

Something in the corner of my eye. I turned.

Tiny, far. Black, a gold stripe blazoned across the top of the body. Eduardo’s car?

Before I could get a better look at it, the distant shape had taken a right, going behind a building, and I lost sight of it. It was a hunch, but no other car around here matched that particular description, and I had to take a concrete action, soon.

It was a risk, but I took it.

I could catch up to the car if I ran, and I could cut the distance and time between us by half if I went across the rooftops. I tried to steel myself as quickly as possible. No time to be scared.

All I had to do was go.

I burst into a run as soon as I got up. The first step was to get to that street. The street that car just got on. I was sure that I could catch up, no car would ever dare drive in a way that would attract attention. Especially Eduardo, at the moment. He had to be inconspicuous.

It was sick, disgusting, that someone would force Eduardo to do this, but I could take advantage of that. Rather, it was because of that, that I had a chance.

A chance to save Maria.

The distance between buildings wasn’t that great. Comparatively speaking. I had never tried jumping far before, I’ve only tried going high instead of going long. But I was sure it was something I could handle.

I was sure of it.

My pace increased to a sprint, and my foot reached the edge of the rooftop. With a hard push, I was flying away from the building.

Not flying, exactly. What went up had to come down.

I was in the air long enough to want to scream, but I returned to solid footing soon enough. But my landing was hard, rough. I fell over, tumbling.

As I spun, I used my momentum to spring back up on my feet. I lost my bearings, and I had to reorient myself. I had landed farther than I had anticipated, in the middle of the roof of the next building over. My own strength kept throwing me for a loop. I had to keep that in mind.

But, it was definitely a step above tripping over fences.

Losing precious time, Alexis, I reminded myself. I brushed my shoulders, and pressed on.

My next attempt went a lot more smoothly. I didn’t use as much force in my legs this time, and I crossed the gap to the next building with no problem, landing properly and maintaining momentum. Running along rooftops like this, I felt like some kind of ninja. The fact that it had gotten darker since my wild chase added to that sense of immersion.

Wind was passing through my ears as I soared through the air, getting louder when my hood was flapping around. It did help in soothing my nerves, though. Also, the mask served to protect my face, letting a rush of air flow through my hair. It felt good, and if I wasn’t running to prevent my friend’s murder, it would’ve been relaxing.

Some buildings were taller than others, forcing me to draw more of my strength to reach that height, which led to a larger drop to get to the next building. Sweat was already sticking my hood to the back of my neck, and my mask was making my face feel stuffy and hot.

I should’ve brought some water.

By the time I got into a stride, I was standing over the street I needed to get to. Where I last saw what I thought was Eduardo’s car. My eyes darted around, searching everywhere. A corner grocery store, a liquor store, a couple walking, a blue truck, a manhole.

No no no no and no. Where is it?

There!

That was definitely it.

I saw the car, on the same street, but farther along. Eduardo was in there, and at least one unwanted passenger. I looked ahead, past some buildings, and saw a ramp that led to a highway. Were they headed there? If they got on that highway, it’d be impossible for me to catch up. I had to get to that car before then. But they were too far ahead, and even if I booked it as hard as my legs would allow, they’d get there before I could get to them.

I ran anyways.

As I went, I took out the walkie-talkie from my fanny pack. I leapt across the rooftops, parallel to the street below, homing in on the car. I was getting closer, catching up, but it wouldn’t be long before the car merged onto the highway, and everything would go to shit.

I yelled into the walkie-talkie.

“Eduardo! I can see you! Just hit the brakes, stop right where you are!”

Nothing. The car was going as fast as ever. My stomach sank, and it wasn’t from soaring through the air, atop rooftops. Did I have the wrong car?

No, it can’t be.

“Eddie!” I shrieked.

As if in response to me specifically, and not the walkie-talkie, the car halted, stopping in its tracks. Another car slammed into the rear, and they both skidded in different directions. As soon as it happened, both were no longer moving.

I wanted to punch a wall and shatter all of the bones in my hand. Couldn’t give a fuck if I didn’t heal from that. I didn’t intend for that to happen.

But, I had to put that in the back of my mind. There were other priorities at hand.

I moved to the edge of the building I was on, the alley waiting below. I dropped down onto the fire escape. The stairs rattled as I hurried.

I was back on the street in a flash. Cars and pedestrians had either slowed down or stopped entirely, looking at the scene of the accident I caused. I was hating myself more and more every second, seeing what happened, and while I added that as another priority to deal with, it would have to be at the bottom of the list, for now.

A larger crowd was starting to gather around the wrecked vehicles. I was going to try and push my way through, but that would only slow me down. I had no other choice, and the damage was already done, on that front.

I jumped over the crowd.

I heard cries of surprise when I touched down. Walking to the cars, I pretended they weren’t there.

Eduardo’s car was still, lifeless in the middle of the road. The back bumper took most of the impact, but the damage wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. There was a dent there, but nothing alarming. Was Eduardo okay? Were the people in the other car okay?

I approached the black car at brisk pace, but some reservation made my feet a little heavy. Once I got to that car, what would happen next?

Moving in, I swapped out the walkie-talkie for the knife. I had to be ready.

One of the back doors of the car swung open, and someone plopped out. A man. No one I knew.

He twitched. Still alive. That was a good sign.

The passenger door was the next door to open. The person who exited wasn’t as out of it as the first man.

A woman, this time. She was tugging at something, trying to take it out of the car with her. She managed to drag it out of the car before I got there, and I saw what it was.

Who it was.

“Eduardo,” I said, but I was sure no one heard that.

Eduardo collapsed onto the road, the woman putting a foot on his back. To make matters worse, she pointed a gun at him.

Like things weren’t already bad.

“You must be the thorn in my side,” the woman said, “I’m happy that I’ll be pulling you out soon.”

“Benny,” I said, assuming that was who she was. If it wasn’t her, then I was an idiot, trying to be dramatic with one-word statements.

The woman grinned. “Nice to meet you.”

It was Benny. The leader of El Carruaje. From what Eduardo had told me, I had made a mental image of what she might look like, and it was remarkably close to what I had in my head.

Latina, wearing a red blazer over a solid gold, form-fitting dress. Her eyes were sharp, like a hawk. Albeit a little younger than I had anticipated, but I was still pretty spot-on. She looked like someone that was used to having power, used to being at the top and controlling the movements of those below her. Had she not gotten rattled by a fender bender, her appearance alone would’ve been enough for me to not say another word.

“It’s over,” I said, loudly, “Look where you are right now. You’re surrounded. You’re pointing a gun at someone, in public. There’s nowhere to go, nowhere to hide. You’re done.”

The crowd that surrounded us began quickly dissipating, thinning out, at the mention of a gun. Others were shouting that fact into the air, to get those who weren’t as close to move out of the way. The noise of panic was getting louder.

“Does it look like I’m done?” Benny taunted, her gun still to Eduardo.

“Police will be here soon, they’re going to take you away. Please, drop the gun. We can do this without anybody getting hurt.”

“Who even are you? Who are you working for? Why? What’s with the mask?”

She’s engaging with me. Good. Let’s keep it that way.

“I’m nobody, just a blank face. No group ties. Why? It’s complicated, but I’m sick and tired of people getting hurt in this city. As for the mask? Well, I’m not as pretty as someone like you.”

She scowled. “I’m flattered.”

“You should be, you wouldn’t want what’s under this thing. Believe me.”

While speaking, I was inching myself closer to her and Eduardo, taking baby steps.

“Not another foot closer,” she suddenly ordered me.

I stopped.

“I see you. Trying to stall me? I can play that game, too. I have a lot more time than you think to shoot this boy, and getting his girl is simply a button away. You get any closer, both of them die.”

Sweat was rolling. Everywhere. She was five feet away, but it might as well have been a mile. How do I stop her?

Keep talking, then.

“When I said I was sick and tired of people getting hurt, I meant you, too. It doesn’t have to be like this, it shouldn’t. Back away, and drop the gun, please.”

With my arm moving excruciatingly slow, I showed her my knife, blade out.

“And I won’t have to use this.”

Benny jeered, “Are you fucking with me! How is that even a legitimate threat, you’re standing all the way over there!”

“If you haven’t figured out by now, I’m pretty fast. See? No car, no police help.”

“You cheated.”

“Fair,” I said, shrugging.

Eduardo stirred, beneath Benny’s foot, but he wasn’t getting up. Benny moved her arm, readjusted her aim to his head.

“I hate cheaters. They make me so sad.”

Was she talking to herself?

Benny continued, “You know what? I am done. And I will be taking all of you with me. Starting with this young man.”

I saw her finger move to the trigger.

“Benny, Benny!” I cut into her monologue. She looked back at me, her expression different.

I couldn’t make it out, exactly.

My mind was racing for any ideas, desperate for anything that could get us out of this in one piece. This was a standoff of the worst kind, and tensions were about to bubble up and explode. Sirens were sounding off in the background. They were getting closer. This was almost over.

My mouth was dry. There was one thing that might work. I had to improvise to get there.

Sacrifice myself.           

“You said you hate cheaters! I’m the biggest cheater there is! You don’t have to hurt them, but, you can, can…”

I was struggling to get my words out.

“Shoot me instead.”

She cocked her head to the side. “What?”

“Shoot me instead. Leave them alone.”

“How do you know I won’t just shoot you first, then kill him and his girl?”

“Then fine, you can do that. As long as you shoot me first, then we have a deal.”

“Sounds like a trap.”

“Not a trap,” I reassured her, “Like you said, I don’t have a legitimate threat against you, not with me standing here, with only a knife. And it wouldn’t be fair if I went unpunished. I was a part Eduardo’s scheme, I deserve a bullet.”

Benny eyed me, genuinely confused. “What are you?”

For once, I had no answer.

She didn’t say anything for a while, keeping me in her sight. With every passing second of that oppressive quiet, I thought I was getting closer to death from just standing there, waiting.

“Only because I want you to shut up,” Benny finally said, “You have your wish. I’ll kill you first.” She lifted her gun, moving it away from Eduardo.

Benny didn’t get to pull the trigger.

I rushed forward, faster than ever. So fast that it officially scared me. I crashed into her side, and she crumpled from the impact. Everything blurred for a second, I was almost blind, unable to register everything that was happening. I had tackled her, and we slid a foot before stopping. Only a weak whimpering to confirm that Benny was still alive.

I was laying on my side, fighting my own body to get up. It didn’t want to. I had sacrificed the last of my energy to stop Benny. I was spent, exhausted.

Dead tired.

But, staying down wasn’t an option. I had to try and try again, to stand.

It was a compromise, but I was able to get on all fours. It’d have to do.

I crawled over to Eduardo. No scratches, no injuries. But he wasn’t getting up.

My voice croaked. “Hey, hey,” I nudged his body, “Wake up, I got Benny, I got her.”

He shifted some. Not enough.

“We have to go, people are around. I’ll help you up, take you elsewhere. Sorry about the car.”

No real response from him. I sighed. I breathed in, with my nose.

I smelled it.

I looked down at my hands. I hadn’t noticed it before, everything was still slightly hazy. There was blood. And my knife blade was soaked in red.

When was this?

I wheeled around to Benny. She was bleeding, clutching her shoulder, her red blazer becoming a deeper crimson. My knife went into her? I didn’t remember, I couldn’t recall the sensation of pressing a blade into another person’s body.

“Freeze!”

I turned back around, not listening to the order. Several people in blue, surrounding us.

Police.

“Freeze! Hands behind your head! Now!”

It finally hit me, just how bad this was. There were still people around, not just bystanders, but police. People had phones, police officers had bodycams. I was surrounded, I was being filmed.

I was thirsty.

Previous                                                                                               Next

013 – Everything Doesn’t Go Well, as I’d Hope

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“Now that I have a better look at you… You’re a lot smaller than I remember.”

“Keep your eyes on the road.”

“You’re like the size of a twelve-year-old. What is this?”

I nudged his shoulder, with enough force to make him briefly lose his grip on the wheel. The car jerked.

Jesus,” Eddie said, regaining control of the car. “You’re gonna get us killed!”

“I can afford to take that chance. Eyes on the road.”

The car rolled along speedily.

We were driving to East Stephenville, while not the worst part of the city, comparatively speaking, it certainly wasn’t the best, and unless you had some serious, pressing business to attend to, there was no real prerogative to go and simply visit.

But, today, we had a good enough reason.

Eddie – or Eduardo, as he introduced himself as in his email, ‘Eddie’ was probably some kind of nickname Maria had for him, and to think I was referring to him as that the whole time – was at the wheel, taking us to the destination. One of the few bases that El Carruaje had. Like Eduardo had mentioned, they weren’t one of the big name gangs in the city. Far from it. But they were still dangerous. I knew that much.

Benny was the name of the boss. A woman, and putting in Eduardo’s own words, she was ‘someone not to fuck with.’ Despite being the leader of one of the smaller gangs, she was secretive, and hardly met with the people at the bottom. She also kept a crew with her, a select few that she allowed to stay close. The middlemen between her and the rest of the gang. It was a hierarchy that was easy to understand.

The plan was simple, so simple that I felt it wasn’t enough in terms of going up against a drug cartel. Eduardo explained in his email that he was one of the low-ranking members, but he did have something of a lead as to what El Carruaje had planned. A shipment was recently dropped off at an El Carruaje-owned warehouse, and through his own info that he gathered, Eduardo knew that Benny would be sending one from her crew to do a thorough inspection.

Our plan was to simply intercept that process. If there was anyone who knew what Benny’s big plans were, they would be there. We could learn what they were planning, what the shipment was, if it was relevant, and find a way to stop Benny and El Carruaje, if possible.

Maybe dismantle them entirely, but that was a reach.

And I was nothing more than a gun that Eduardo could point and fire. But I was fine with that. They wouldn’t expect a masked individual to sabotage their plans, and if I messed with them enough, they would be more concerned over me than two small-time members quietly leaving the gang.

I was expecting a silent, wordless drive, with perhaps only music filling the air. But the music, an intense instrumental jazz song, was played low, and the soft volume seemed like a disservice to the energy the band was playing with. And Eddie – Eduardo – was more interested in prodding me with questions than letting the music stay between us.

“At the risk of crashing,” Eduardo started, “I want to ask a weird question. Is there more of you?”

“More of me what?”

“More of you with powers.”

“Oh,” I had to give that question some time, largely because I never expected someone to ask me that question. “That’s more a good question than a weird one.”

“What do you mean? You don’t know?”

I thought about that night, the night before my birthday. Whatever that thing actually was, I still wasn’t sure. I hadn’t even thought about that possibility. Could there be more of those things, out there?

More of me, if I thought about it that way.

“I’m not sure.”

“How are you not sure? How did you get your powers, then? Were you born with them?”

“No.”

“Then, how? The way you were jumped, like, that’s unreal. Were you bitten by, I dunno, a radioactive kangaroo?”

“Fuck off.”

“Wow. Okay, no problem, I’ll back off.”

Eduardo took a right. I kept my eyes to my side window, watching the scenery pass. I wasn’t concerned about someone seeing me in a mask, the window was tinted.

I decided to speak up again, although I was unsure of what to say. “It’s that… I’m not exactly one hundred percent used to this. And I didn’t exactly ask for this, either.”

“I get that,” Eduardo said, matter-of-factly. “From what I’ve seen in movies and shit, no one ever asks to get superpowers.”

Why did I even bother?

I rested against the door, like I was trying to physically distance myself from Eduardo as much as possible.

But Eduardo wanted to blabber on. “I can tell that I’m being annoying.”

“More than.”

Eduardo grumbled, but kept it at that. The music came back to my attention, and I was thankful for the bit of silence that came in.

“What other things can you do?” Eduardo suddenly asked. “Shoot laser out of your eyes? Fly? Create projectile suns?”

“Dammit, I thought we dropped the subject.”

“Hey, you have to be fair to me. I never talked to a person with real, actual superpowers before. That’s some real-ass shit, right there.”

“And stop calling them ‘superpowers.’”

“Isn’t that what they are?”

I complained, “Forget it. All I’m saying is, you wouldn’t want to wake up one day and be blindsided by all of this. It’s not as fun as it looks. I, I don’t even know why I’m telling you this. It’s not worth explaining.”

“That’s good, ‘cause you don’t have to. We’re here. Or as close as I can get.”

I looked ahead. It was between two other, decaying buildings. A warehouse, dirty and dusty. It was made of brick, and only two stories tall, and not even a block wide. Much smaller than I had imagined in my head. The metal door for an entrance was inviting enough, rusted and bent in some places. Torn police tape was stuck to the top left corner and the bottom right corner of the door. A fitting metaphor for this place.

Its very presence oozed sketchiness.

“Are you sure we can get this close?” I asked, “Are you sure no one’s around?”

Eduardo reassured me. “I’m positive no one’s here. That’s kinda the point.”

I wanted to protest further, but I stopped myself. I had to project some image of strength, of power, and casting doubts now would throw a wrench into things. And this was already set in motion. Couldn’t back out now.

I randomly tapped my fingers along my thigh. It was all I could do in order to not fidget, scratch my face, bounce my leg up and down, or do any other nervous ticks.

“Here,” Eduardo said, bringing me back to reality. He moved towards me. I tried backing away further, but the door was stopping me. He raised an eyebrow.

“Relax. Or you can do it yourself.” He backed away, and pointed to the glove compartment. “There are two walkie-talkies in there.”

Oh.

I reached under the dashboard in front of me, feeling for the handle. I opened the glove compartment, and found the walkie-talkies. I handed Eduardo one, and took one for myself.

“You know how these work?” Eduardo asked, waving the device around.

“I know,” I said, annoyed that he even had to ask. I’ve gone camping before, with friends.

“Cool, then let’s do this thing.”

Don’t need to tell me twice.

I got out of the car, and checked the sky.

It wasn’t that late out, the sun casting an orange hue on the sky, but I was concerned about whether or not I’d make it home on time. Chances are, I probably wouldn’t.

I reached back into the car, and took out my bags. My sports bag was emptied out of all its contents, so I folded it up, and put it into my backpack.

“You can leave that in here, you know,” Eduardo said, “You’re coming back, aren’t you?”

“No way,” I said. “I’ll feel a lot better if I have my stuff with me.”

“I’m not about to snoop through your stuff! You can go put it in the trunk if you want.”

“Thanks but no thanks.”

“Suit yourself. Well, I’m off to my hiding spot” he said. “Buzz me if you need anything, or when you’re done. If you do buzz me, I’ll assume that no one else is around to hear you. And to be safe, I won’t try to communicate with you.”

I saw Eduardo’s hand stick out of the car. He was leaning over to point at the warehouse door. “Side entrances are locked, of course, and there’s no point in trying to open that door. With that said, I don’t think you’ll have trouble getting in. Also, whoever Benny sends to check the shipment shouldn’t be bringing that many people to help. Five guys tops, including themselves. Nothing you can’t handle, I bet.”

Don’t overestimate me.

“Sounds good,” I said.

I patted myself down, checking that I had everything. Backpack, fanny pack, in it my knife and pepper spray, and now the walkie-talkie. I touched the back of my head, feeling the bun I tied my hair into.

Physically, I was ready. Emotionally, or mentally? Not so much.

I was about to go close the door, but I was met with Eduardo’s face. I couldn’t lie, the look on his face startled me. Hard, firm. Good thing I had a mask on.

Eduardo opened with, “I wanted to say, before you go…”

He trailed off, and broke the intensity of his stare.

“What?” I asked, prompting him.

“It’s nothing, I’ve been talking too much.”

“If it’s important, that’s when I don’t mind.”

“It’s not. It can wait.”

Saying that is only going to make this harder. But I didn’t respond. Couldn’t, since whatever more I could say probably wouldn’t be of any help. Also, I was catching myself trying to delay this.

“Then I’m out,” I said, turning.

“Good luck.”

“Sure.”

Eduardo drove off, heading to the predetermined place where he could park and hide his car, while staying close.

I walked around the building, disregarding the rusted metal entrance as a possibility. I found one of the side doors Eduardo mentioned, the handle wrapped in a chain and lock. Maybe I could break it, but that would defeat the purpose of an ambush. I ignored it, and moved on.

The wear and tear of neglect was even worse, upon closer inspection. Brick was weathered, foliage making their way through holes and cracks in the building. Cracks also stretched across the pavement.

Graffiti covered over everything else, so much graffiti that it told a story. I saw the faded markings of another group’s emblem, now obscured by the symbol of El Carruaje. Another gang had claimed this territory before. Did the old group move out? Or did El Carruaje manage to take over?

No distractions. I moved along. I couldn’t afford the mental energy on that, right now. Had to move and get into a good position.

The ruined state of the warehouse fortunately gave way to a few options. More than a few windows were broken in, enough for me to step through, and if I really wanted to, I could always try the roof. Wouldn’t be that difficult to make my way up there.

But, I wasn’t that desperate, so I hauled myself up through a window frame, the glass was all but gone. I hunched over to get through, careful to not cut myself from any small shards.

Gloves. I knew I was forgetting something. Gloves.

I found my way into the warehouse. The interior of the warehouse was essentially one large room, lined with rows of metal racks, forming long, wide aisles, connecting to a main corridor down the center of the building. The racks were only about ten feet high or so, and the ceiling was double that.

I decided to test the walkie-talkie. I pressed the button on the side, and held it down as I spoke.

“Mic check, one-two, one-two, can you hear me? I’m in, over.”

The walkie-talkie buzzed, and Eduardo’s voice came through, fuzzy.

I can. They should be almost there, if we timed this right. You in a good spot?

“No, over.”

Get going. Stay out of sight, and for your sake, don’t do anything too reckless.

“Thanks for caring, over.”

Welcome. And you don’t have to keep saying ‘over.’

“Isn’t that what people say?”

What people? Just get a move on.

“Alright, over.”

I put it away, and pressed forward.

To find a better vantage point, I scaled up one of the racks beside me. I reached the top, and had to maneuver over wooden boxes as I began my snooping around. I didn’t have much in the way of lighting, the fluorescent lamps attached from the ceiling were broken. Not that it would matter to me, anyways.

As I went along, it occurred to me that this place was more like a prop house than anything else. I passed by a life-sized animatronic of a lavender-smelling purple bear, stepped over a collection of busts used for holding wigs, and I had to jump over to another rack when a pile of netting proved too tough to walk over without tripping. Years of stuff, lost and forgotten.

Ah, I’m getting distracted.

My best bet for locating them was by the entrance, by the metal door. I leaped across the racks, trying to make as little noise as I could, heading towards what I believed was the front of the building.

A noise, one aisle over, closer to the main corridor. And then another. The clanging of sliding metal.

I was right. I headed that way.

I got to the source of the noise, and crouched over the edge of the rack to observe the four people below, entering the warehouse.

Four people, nice. That made things easy. But not too easy. They each had their own flashlight.

Three men, and a woman. Benny? For some reason, I didn’t think so. She was standing in the back, and from her posture, she wasn’t commanding any sort of presence.

A downside to the plan Eduardo and I came up with was that I had to pick out who among these four would be part of Benny’s main crew. I was sure that if I watched them long enough, I could figure it out. But, I could venture a guess, right now.

Probably the man at the head of the group, the one in the suit. An expensive looking one, too. He looked closer to the image of an Italian mobster rather than a member of the cartel.

He was in the middle of a sentence when I settled in to eavesdrop.

“… to make sure we have everything we need. We’re working against the clock, now, and we’re starting to be spread thin, but we can’t not be diligent.”

“You can thank Lawrence for the ‘spreading thin’ part,” the woman said.

“Does anyone even know what the fuck went down?” another one of them asked. “They all looked like they got hit by a fuckin’ bus.”

“Not really, Lawrence doesn’t wanna say,” the woman said. “Like he has some pride worth protecting.”

“Same with the others?”

“Yup. They’re a sad bunch.”

“And that’s why they’re out there, licking their wounds, and not here,” the man in the suit said. “Enough. Let’s get this done.”

Likewise, I thought.

I was right above them, and they had no idea I was there. There was something exhilarating about that, a rush bubbling inside me.

Certainly better than being seen.

I watched them go, down the main corridor, and take the fifth aisle to their left. They disappeared from sight, forcing me to move.

I dropped back down to the ground floor, and slowly followed their path. I peeked around the aisle to see all of them standing around large, wooden crates, situated at the bottom shelves of the racks.

“Hand me a crowbar,” the man in the suit ordered. One of the men handed him one, previously attached to his hip. I saw the holster of a gun there, too. I tensed. The man in the suit pried open a box.

I couldn’t see it from where I was, but I didn’t have to.

“Holy…” the woman said, “That is a lot. Isn’t this overkill?”

The man in the suit explained. “It’s what Benny wanted, but don’t expect we’ll be needing all of this.”

“But still, this is heavy. This is asking for war.”

War?

“It’s not going to be a war, it’s going to be a straight-up obliteration. They won’t know what’s coming, and by the time they do, we’ll have taken all of their shit, territories and all.”

“Everyone’s going to be up our asses for this.”

“That’s why we’re going to be smart about this. Trust in Benny, mija.”

The other men murmured, agreeing with the man in the suit. The woman said no more.

“Let’s get to counting. The first moving group will be coming in about an hour.”

A moving group? Eduardo never mentioned that. Did he not know?

Great. Just great.

My time was now cut way short. There were other coming to pick up those crates. I couldn’t let them leave this warehouse, not when the threat of war was somehow a possibility.

The man in the suit. He seemed to know what he was doing, leading the others. I designated him as my target.

They started working open the other boxes. That was my prompt. I had to make my move, and unlike last time, I had to be smart.

I had to assume they were all hostile, and that they all had guns. That made any encounter with them tricky at best, and tragic at worst. A head-on fight wasn’t the way to go.

Think, think.

I started by giving myself some distance from the scene, backing away so they couldn’t hear me when I tip-toed into an aisle opposite them. I looked around to see what I could do.

There was a set of drums on the third shelf of a rack beside me. Not exactly a drum set, but instead number of bass drums lined up together. A good hop brought me up to where they were. I looked for the biggest drum, and gave it good slap.

The sound reverberated throughout the warehouse.

I heard them from down the aisle.

“Did you hear that?” a voice called out. It sounded like the man in the suit. “Sounded like it came from there. Go check it out.”

I didn’t hear a word of assent, but I heard the footsteps coming my way.

So much for not being reckless.

Weird, referring to them as henchmen, but as far as I knew, that was what they were. I watched as the henchman – the henchwoman, I noted when she got closer – looked about with her flashlight. She walked slowly, wary, completely out of her element with how dark it was. Me? I no longer had that issue.

I perched over the edge of the shelf, waiting until she walked right below me. I took out my knife from my fanny pack, but I didn’t take out the blade. I gulped, trying to swallow down any second thoughts.

I dove.

My hand caught her mouth first, taking away her ability to scream. She toppled easily, offering little resistance.

Her flashlight was knocked away as she fell, and I moved to sit on her, my knees on her back, stopping her from reaching for it. The light shone on us, elongating our shadows. I knew that certain types of masks could change facial expressions at different lighting and angles. I wondered if the same effect applied to my cheap mask.

If so, what did she see?

I brought my knife to her neck, but only the handle, and pressed it against her skin. I wouldn’t dare bring the blade out.

My other hand was still covering her mouth, and the handle of my knife being where it was seemed to be an implicit enough threat for her. She didn’t struggle, and she didn’t try to scream for help.

Mom had given me a pocket knife for a reason, but I didn’t think this was the reason she had in mind.

I leaned in closer, so I could be heard without having to be too loud. “You. Know anything?”

She only stared up at me, glaring with an intensity I wasn’t used to.

“I know I have my hand on you,” I whispered, “And I’m about to take it off. You answer me, quietly, and your night will be a lot better for it. Trust me.”

A click, coming from behind. Subtle, faint, but I heard it. Someone else was coming, and they had a gun.

Shit. Now I was in a bind. I had to get away, and fast, but I had this woman to deal with. How would I knock out someone without causing serious injury?

No, I didn’t trust my own strength, not yet.

I got off of her, kicked the flashlight so it slid under a shelf, and then jumped away, leaving her unscathed.

I had left just in time, watching from a high-enough spot. A man came to tend to the woman. The one who had the crowbar.

“Get up! Here.” The man extended a hand, helping the woman up. It took her some time to reach for it, still rattled by her encounter.

“What happened to you? Did-”

He never got a chance to finish that sentence.

I had searched the props around me, trying to find anything that I could use. All that was usable were two old cue sticks, ones used for playing pool. I threw the first one, throwing it like I would a spear.

The cue stick struck him in the neck, preventing him from yelping in pain, even if he wanted to. Part of me wanted to shake a fist in celebration, but I couldn’t spare the time. I dropped back down with the other cue stick.

I didn’t waste a beat, striking him the across the face with the stick. A quick jab into his gut brought him down, and a knee to his chest for good measure. It might not have been enough to knock him out, but I caused enough pain to keep him down and out.

For the other, the woman, I put my foot on her throat, and tried using my words instead.

“And you. I don’t care who comes, or what happens, but you stay down for the next hour, or it’s not going to be my handle that I press into your neck.”

Again, a yell in the distance. There were two others left, and they must’ve heard the cue stick that I threw clatter against the ground, or the quick sounds of my brief scuffle. It wouldn’t be long before they made their presence.

To hurry her along, I pushed down on her throat some, until she started writhing and reaching for my foot, trying to push it off. I wouldn’t budge.

“Do I make myself clear, then?”

Begrudgingly, she nodded.

She was probably lying, but it was better than taking a risk and seriously hurting someone. Again. But, to be sure, I moved the man I just knocked down, and placed his body on top of her. I picked back up the closest cue stick, and once again, I went back up to the racks, staying hidden at the very top. The hit-and-run tactic was working well for me so far.

The last two men came into the aisle, including the man in the suit. They were running, now. Some time had passed since they sent in the first person to investigate, and suspicious noises didn’t help any.

Being in the dark, and being able to see, gave me the advantage, even if they had the firepower. It gave me the luxury of picking how I would strike, and something to hide back into should something go awry. It would be harder to hit what they couldn’t see.

And as if he heard my train of thought chugging along, one of the two men took out a flashlight of his own, and began investigating the aisle, searching through the shelves and props. I hid behind a box before the light could get to me.

I really hate flashlights, I thought.

I peeked my head out, taking a look, assessing the situation. They dropped their search, instead tending to the other two I knocked down. There wouldn’t be a better opportunity.

With purpose, I dropped, intending to land on top of the other other man. It turned into a crash, instead. My weight slammed into him, and the man collapsed into the pile of bodies I already amassed.

Another down.

The man in the suit tried swinging with his crowbar, but a fast swipe to his side with a cue stick solved that issue. He reeled, dropping it, and giving me another opportunity to hit him again.

I kicked him in the knee, and it bent at an odd angle. He crashed onto the floor, wailing in pain. Once, twice, three times, and another I beat him with the cue stick to keep him from getting up. I had lost count by the time it broke, and he had stopped moving, besides some shallow breathing.

I looked over my handiwork. Four people, adults, who probably had killed or were at least willing to, and I took out all of them. But, I recognized that I ended up going overboard. It amounted to numb feeling. In all honesty, I wasn’t sure what to feel. Satisfaction? Horror?

I loomed over the woman once more. “Clock’s still ticking. Stay there.”

She didn’t answer, but she was no longer a concern. I’d proven enough to her. To all of them.

I tossed away the broken cue sticks, and returned to the man in the suit.

It was annoying, having to keep referring to the supposed leader as the ‘man in the suit,’ but that was why I was here, in a sense. For information.

Before the man in the suit could react and help himself, I put a foot to his chest, pinning him down.

“Please don’t tell me the suit’s a rental,” I said, “I don’t have the money to pay for it.”

He didn’t stutter in his response, surprisingly. He spoke calmly, and deliberate. “Who are you?”

“That doesn’t matter, well, because my name sucks, honestly. What does matter is who you are. Name, please.”

He took his time to answer. “Roland.”

“Roland?” I crouched in front of him, “That’s a nice name.”

Roland’s face contorted into a mean mug, but even then, I could see the handsomeness that hid behind that expression. He looked rugged, tough, the type I could imagine in a magazine. Front cover.

Stop getting distracted again.

“Okay, Roland, this can either get a little better for you, or a lot worse. I have a few questions for you, and let’s see if you can answer them without too much trouble.”

“Fuck…” Roland took a breath, but his chest was constricted, thanks to my foot. “… you.”

I sighed until I was out of breath, little wisps of air escaping my lips. Interrogation was not something I’d ever expect to be doing at any point in my life, and any resistance Roland put worth was wasting my time. Others would be coming in, soon, and I had to find a way to keep those crates here.

“Let’s start with what’s in those crates,” I said. “Tell me.”

“Weapons.”

“What kind of weapons?”

“Why don’t you check for yourself? They’re right there. You might be so impressed, your mask will make a face.”

“Roland, it’s not smart to be fighting me like this,” I said. I brandished my knife. “Can’t you be good?”

Although subtle, I missed the first part of what he said. “… bebé. That knife is no good. Blade is too cheap. You’ve never used it before, and you’re too scared to.”

I shrugged, showing him the blade. There wasn’t enough light for him to see it clearly, but I had to make do. “Cherish the face you have right now, because it’s about to look really surprised.”

Roland grunted, saying something in Spanish.

My fanny pack made a sound. Was it Eduardo? If it was, it had to wait.

“You’re only making this harder for yourself,” I said. “I took you out, and your guys. By myself. Aren’t you a little scared? Even a smidge?”

Roland scoffed. “You do not scare me.”

How?

“Really forcing my hand, buddy,” I muttered. I brought my knife to his face, gliding it across his cheek. He barely responded.

“Pretty please?” I asked.

After a slow minute, Roland finally conceded. “What do you want?”

“I heard a little bit of what you said earlier. Who are you going after? Which gang?”

“Heh. All of them.”

“You’re not very funny.”

“Is that not the truth? We want to be on top in this town. We’ll be going up against everyone, eventually.”

This guy, going out of his way to be an ass.

I tried a few more questions, but I already knew where this was going.

“This Benny, that’s your boss, right? Know where I can find him easy?” I had to switch pronouns, to throw off any possible suspicion.

“Benny never stays in same place for long. Always moving.”

“Do you know where he’d be now?”

“No.”

I groaned. “He has to have a place he frequents, right? Strip club, restaurant, bar? Some kind of headquarters?”

Roland shifted his eyes, looking away. “Benny will kill me.”

“And I won’t?”

“No, you won’t.”

Damn this Roland. He was playing my bluff, and winning. I only had so much time to work with, and he was wasting it by being stubborn. I was almost amazed at how obstinate he was.

And there was a lot I could be getting out of him. I had to take advantage of this. More names, stashes of supplies. Of money. Anything that could hit Benny hard.

I’d give it thirty more minutes, and try to get as much info I could. After that, I’d have to deal with the crates of weapons.

Oh.

I felt a knot tie in my stomach. All this physical exertion, was starting to make me thirsty.

Maybe I didn’t have thirty minutes, anymore.

“Ay, Roland,” I said, “Got a phone?”

He refused to answer. I heard my fanny pack sound off again. What did Eduardo want?

“Ugh.”

I bent down, and searched his person. Jacket pocket. Found it easy.

“Thanks for nothing, dickhead,” I said.

“Pleasure…” he stopped to cough, “Is all mine.”

I got up and walked away, leaving all four of them behind. They wouldn’t be a problem. I picked up the pace, to the crates, walkie-talkie in one hand and Roland’s phone in the other.

I was at the main corridor when I spoke into the walkie-talkie. “I thought you said you wouldn’t be buzzing me up. What is it?”

No response from Eduardo. I pressed the button again.

“Since you’re on the line, El Carruaje’s planning a turf war against one of the neighboring gangs. They won’t tell who they’re going after, or how, or when, but I’ve secured the shipment. For now. Some people are coming to get them soon.”

Again, no response. Again, I pressed the button.

“There’s a fuckton of weapons stockpiled here, a lot of guns. Do you think it would be a good idea to direct some cops here, or find a way to sabotage the stuff that’s here?”

The walkie-talkie buzzed this time, from the other end. “That won’t be necessary. But I’m sad my plans won’t be a surprise anymore.

A female. It wasn’t Eduardo’s voice.

“Who is this?” I asked, my palms beginning to sweat.

I’ve been hearing a lot about a mysterious person messing with my boys. I couldn’t believe it myself, but then I thought, maybe they’ve been getting help from the inside, huh? And from what I’ve heard, these incidents have surrounded the same few people, and who do I find a few blocks away from my warehouse, with a walkie-talkie in his hand?

I swallowed, with nothing to say.

I don’t know who you are, or why you’re trying to interfere with my plans, but I do know one thing. Eduardo, it’s true that you want to take Maria and leave our family, right?

A shrill, distorted scream came from my walkie-talkie. I bit my tongue.

That’s what I thought. Okay. Hey, hey, shh, calm down, it’s okay. You want to leave us? Alright. Let’s go see Maria. She should be at home by this time. You two can leave together. Let’s take your car. You drive.”

I yelled, with no forethought. “No!”

Oh, and you. You can sit tight and stay there. Whatever it is that you’re trying to do, it ends tonight. If I see any other car or police coming after us, I’ll make the call, and have Maria killed before we can get there. You cannot stop me. But don’t worry, I’ll turn this thing on when we arrive, so you can hear every little detail.

Another voice suddenly jutted in, shouting.

Blank Face! You have to do something! Come-”

The line was cut off. Silence. I didn’t waste a second.

I started running.

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012 – The Things That Matter to Us

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I sat in front of my computer, stuck at what to say. What to type. Where would I even start?

I had to set up a whole new email account. Like I was going to let Eddie know my main one. No way. Exchanging phone numbers was also out of the question, I didn’t want anything to be tracked to my actual identity. This was a necessary precaution, albeit a little annoying. I had to come up with a whole new username and password.

Like, Blank Face. What kind of name was that? It was the first thing that popped into my head, but that didn’t mean I had to say it out loud. It sounded dumb. A lame thing to call myself, but deep down, I knew it ultimately didn’t matter. I didn’t have to commit to that name, and it wasn’t like this whole ‘superhero’ thing, as Eddie put it, was something I had to continue after everything here was said and done.

Hopefully.

‘This is Blank Face,’ I started typing. I almost gagged.

Fight through it, Alexis, I told myself, There are more pressing matters to deal with.

I wrote out my message to Eddie. Nothing too extensive. A simple introduction and a request for more in-depth information about El Carruaje. The boss’s name, any headquarters, basic operations, but mostly importantly, what exactly was the ‘something big’ that they were planning. It was a lot to ask for, a lot of information to go through, but knowing was a large chunk of the battle.

I finished typing up the email, double checked for grammar and spelling mistakes, and after a third reread, I sent it.

There was nothing to do but sit there and wait. And think.

When I got back to the parking garage, it wasn’t that difficult to find Maria, she was by Eddie’s car, phone to her ear. I kept my distance and snuck past her to get to my bags, hoping all the while that she wouldn’t gather the courage the get up and move around.

The car alarms were still blaring, but Lawrence and his men were already gone, even the one who I sent through car window. They didn’t touch Maria, which was a relief.

I waited, crouched by the yelling car, until my knees began to hurt, but Eddie successfully made his way off the roof I left him on, and met up with Maria. They didn’t exchange any words, they only hugged. Eddie took Maria into his car, and they left, leaving me to gather my belongings, change, and take a bus back to school. I made it in time for Katy to pick me up and take me home, none the wiser to the escapades I just returned from.

And now, there was this. Was this the help I had to offer? Could I really do anything to untangle Maria out of that web of gang activity and violence? If there was anything I could do, I told myself I would take that opportunity. Because I had the ability to do something, the power to help. With this, my powers, I capable of things that someone like Katy or Maria couldn’t even think of. They felt walled in, and I could very well soar over those walls.

And I certainly couldn’t stand by and do nothing. I had to do this. This was the card I could play, and I was ready to play it.

Let’s pray it works.

Slightly curious, and mostly bored, I decided to refresh my inbox. Nothing. Not that I expected an immediate reply.

No use in waiting around. I left my room.

My mom hadn’t come home yet, still at work at the hair salon. There was nothing to do, other than wait for Eddie to return my email. There was some homework that needed my attention, but I was too anxious to sit still and focus on something so small and inconsequential by comparison. Besides, it would make for a good excuse to skip dinner tonight.

I was too jittery on the inside. I wanted to get up and move. I needed to.

Impulsively, I turned on the TV, and started cleaning around the apartment.

As small a gesture as it was, I figured I could do something for my mom while she was out. And help out in a way that didn’t involve kicking other people’s ribs in. I dusted off table tops, curtains, the television itself, fluffed the pillows on the couch, took out the dishes from the dishwater and returned them to their proper place. The whole nine yards. With the TV droning in the background, I did a lot more than I initially planned. And it was a benefit for me, too. I was able to take my mind off of everything, zone out for a little while.

Maybe I should do this more often, I mused.

Alright, I was getting ahead of myself.

I worked my way back into the living room, capping off my small detour by turning off the TV. The whole room glowed. It was dumb, but I felt proud of myself for doing this much. I didn’t plan on pointing it out to my mom when she got home, nor would I care if she ended up not noticing at all. This was enough. It was good.

I went back into my room, refreshed. I checked my inbox, and found a reply waiting for me.

I sat down, and read the message.

“This is an absolute betrayal, a serious offense. I can’t believe y’all would do something like this.”

“You’re overacting.”

“And you, Alexis, you’re the worst. How could you keep something like this from me?”

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

“It’s only the mall,” Maria added.

“Yeah, the maaaall.” Katy dragged out the word. “And you went without me. That has to be some sort of felony, somewhere.”

“Relax, it’s not even the good mall,” I said.

Maria bounced off my point, “And, I only went with her because you weren’t there.”

Katy pretended to wipe tears from her eyes. “That hurts. That really hurts.”

The three of us weren’t exactly all smiles, but it was a breath of fresh air, compared to the last few days.

Katy was more than happy to see Maria meet up with us at the front of the school. I, too, was astonished to see her come back to us so soon, even though I asked her to. But, considering what happened the day before, I wouldn’t have put it against her if she didn’t come. But I was more so impressed at how composed she was. She had gotten better at hiding things from me and Katy. But I knew better. Mostly because I was there.

As for Katy, she had no idea. And she probably would never find out.

And, as if to lighten the mood between the three of us, Maria brought up our trip to the mall. Very major details excluded, but nevertheless, it was enough to get Katy playfully worked up.

We walked down the hall. A stream of students were heading to the cafeteria, ready for the break in the middle of the day. With so many people, we had a hard time going against the flow, and to leave the school through a side exit. We had plans to meet with some other friends for lunch. Mattie and Janine, and maybe William, he hadn’t quite confirmed if he was down to join us. I already had my excuses prepared, should any of them ask me why I wasn’t going to eat anything.

It was already lunchtime. I wasn’t hungry, but my stomach was in knots.

“Barnett!”

Easily going against the current of people was Coach Tilly. She walked with a speed that suggested that no one else was around her, but that wasn’t the case. People were scrambling to get out of her way. She approached us.

“Barnett, I hope you’re not about to leave school grounds for lunch.”

“No Coach,” I said, “We’re off to the cafeteria like good little juniors.”

“I appreciate you trying, but no.” She put a finger on a clipboard she was holding. “Since you’re here, mind if I talk to you for a few minutes?”

“Sure,” I said, hiding the added nervousness that was already creeping within me.

We stepped to the side, Katy and Maria waiting close by, but out of earshot.

Coach Tilly started. “I haven’t seen you at practice for the past few days. You should tell me if you can’t show up.

I hung my head. “Sorry, Coach. Things have been a little hectic, lately. Been busy.”

“Everyone’s busy. And they still manage to come to practice.”

There was little I could say in response to that. I said nothing.

But Coach said more. “The only reason why I’m on your case like this was because I wanted you to be on the starting line-up for the next game. You did well against Augustine, and I’ve seen you improving at practice. When you were at practice.”

I had to say something to that. “You were thinking of having me start?”

“I am. I was. But it wouldn’t be fair to the other girls who’ve been coming, showing up and giving it their all. Do you think that’s fair?”

“No.”

Coach gave me a hard gaze, making it impossible to look away. “Me too. I’m not doing this to be mean, I’m not even doing this to tell you I’m mad. I’m telling you this because communication is important towards building a team, and keeping trust within that team. I want you to know that.”

“Okay, I understand,” I replied, but I didn’t fully understand what that had to with the conversation. “I would apologize again, but I know you wouldn’t accept that.”

Coach’s face lightened up. “Now you’re catching on. Now, with that being said, may I be allowed to assume that you’ll be at practice, today?”

I gave my answer, loudly and clearly. Showing any hesitation in front of Coach would be spitting in the face of her mini-lecture.

“I won’t be able to make it.”

Coach only nodded, taking in my reply.

“Thanks for letting me know,” she said, before walking away.

It hurt to watch, but I had to give her the truth, after what she said. And I knew she wouldn’t press any further.

I rejoined my friends.

“You skip practice twice, and she’s already hounding you for it?” Katy asked.

“You’re good,” I said. “But she wasn’t that mad. Oh, before I forget. You don’t need to take me home today.”

“Why’s that?”

“Coach wants to run me ragged today, for missing practice. I’ll be out later than usual, and I’d feel bad if I make you hang around for too long, waiting for me.”

“I don’t mind too much,” Katy said. “I can do some shopping with Maria. At the maaaall.”

“Blah blah blah,” Maria intoned. “Get over yourself.”

“Nah, I’ll be alright,” I said, reiterating my point to Katy. “I’ll take a bus home.”

Katy shrugged. “If you say so.”

It sucked, having to lie right to Katy’s face like that, but I knew she would press further if I told her otherwise. I wondered if there would come a day when I came clean to Katy and Maria about everything. About my ‘powers,’ my appetite. But the longer I kept them in the dark about that, that day was pushed back even further.

And after tonight, I doubted that day would ever come.

We left the school, and went out for lunch.

The rest of the school day ended up being unremarkable. Certainly a good thing, but that made the day go faster than I would have liked. When that final bell rang, it didn’t signal the end of a school day, but instead, the beginnings of a really long night.

After leaving Mr. Stevens’s class and going a separate way from Katy, instead of going straight to the gym, I went to my locker on the first floor. I took out my sports bag, and made sure I had it secured right next to me. Checking that I had everything, I headed for a side exit out of the school, the same one we went through earlier at lunchtime.

My footsteps were drawn out and slow. I took my time, so that Katy and Maria would have already left the school grounds by the time I was out of the building.

I went the opposite way of the Strip, knowing full well that Maria would be there, waiting for her boyfriend. That he would be on his way to pick her up, and take her home. And some time after that, he would be meeting to pick up someone else.

Me.

And I was on my way to the meeting place.

I could’ve taken a bus, but I was getting low on funds, and I didn’t want to ask my mom for any more money than she was already giving me as an allowance. At least it wasn’t that far, and as thing were, I preferred to waste the time by going there by foot. Taking a bus would make me get there early, and I didn’t like standing around and waiting.

The details of our meeting was seared into my mind, I didn’t need to check anymore. I had been thinking about it all day. The time? Five, on the dot. The place? A non-descript location, the alleyway between the Highmount mall parking garage and that other building, the one I jumped across the day before.

A walk through the city was much different than taking a bus. In a bus, there was some sort of barrier between me and reality, the harsh truth of how messed up this city actually was. I was born here, in the city. And from the get-go, I was placed in a unique position. I didn’t live close enough to the city to experience the symptoms of this societal illness firsthand, but it was prevalent enough that I had grown to accept it as some kind of universal constant. Things are like this because they are. And I was about to get a true taste of that reality.

That taste would hardly be sweet.

The mall was few more blocks away. A few more blocks of cracks in the sidewalks, tags and markings on buildings, broken windows, littered streets. How did I not see this, before? Was I that blind?

Even with enhanced strength and healing, I hugged my bags even tighter.

I made it into the alley. Despite my long trip here, I was still early, so I hid behind a dumpster to change. Blue windbreaker, grey joggers, a blank white mask.

I brought some new things, as an extra precaution. Pepper spray, and my pocket knife. I placed them into a fanny pack, and strapped it to my waist. It wasn’t fashionable, but I wasn’t doing this to be seen.

A car rolled up by the alley, a black muscle car with a gold racing stripe. It honked three times. My cue. I adjusted the mask one final time, grabbed my bags, and walked up to the car.

I thought I was ready to play my card. I was so wrong. But there was no way I could back out now.

The window rolled down. A voice came out.

“Get in.”

I got in.

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