Interlude – Harrian

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[一种语言永远不够。]

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

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

Harrian included himself in that, as well.

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

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

What was the phrase, again?

He tried remembering if there was a Mandarin equivalent.

Like a fish out of water.

Exactly.

Already, Harrian was doubting himself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wait, and wait some more.

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

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

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

That is what I get for trusting others.

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

With English subtitles. He was still practicing.

He put in some earphones, and began to watch.

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

“Yo!”

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

Yo.”

Is this what is known as ‘rapping?’

“请问。”

That perked his ears.

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

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

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

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

“你会不会讲普通话?”

Harrian asked.

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

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

“Um,” Harrian said.

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

His eyes went back to her, staring blankly.

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

“Can I?”

Harrian jolted back to his sense.

“Yes, right, of course!”

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

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

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

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

“What’s your name?” she asked.

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

“My name? You can call me ‘D.’”

“Dee?”

“Like the letter.”

“Oh, I see.”

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

Harrian tilted his head. “Hm?”

Her giggle turned into a full, hearty laugh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harrian couldn’t help but keep his guard up.

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

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

“Waiting?”

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

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

D put her hand on the armrest between them.

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

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

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

“Excuse me, D?

She made a sound, like a pur. “Hm?”

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

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

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

“Implying.”

“I see.”

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

“You flew by yourself?” Harrian then asked.

“Yup.”

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

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

Underage, right.

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

Shame.

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

“Is this your final destination?”

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

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

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

“Stephenville?” D offered.

It clicked in his head, and he remembered.

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

D perked her head up.

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

“You are?”

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

“I understand.”

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

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

He didn’t want that.

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

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

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

D leaned his way, untangling the wires.

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

Harrian had to reiterate.

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

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

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

Harrian made a face, making clear his confusion.

“I don’t understand.”

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

Harrian watched her, listening, trying to keep up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No problem! Speaking of which…”

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

“Wanna listen to some music?”

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

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

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

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

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

He felt an embarrassment, again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ah,” Harrian said.

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

‘Beat’ meant tired, Harrian knew that much.

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

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

“Harrian!”

Harrian woke up.

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

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

“Auntie,” he said.

Auntie clasped her hands together, head lowered.

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

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

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

Harrian nodded, collecting his bags and-

He froze.

Harrian checked his sides, the seats next to him.

Gone. The girl was gone.

Harrian checked under his seat.

Gone. The bag was gone.

The one with his tablet and earphones.

She didn’t, she wouldn’t…

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

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

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

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

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

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

[蠢驴。]

Harrian worked, busy as a bee.

He couldn’t say the same for his partner.

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

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

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

He was fine with that. It was fine.

No expectations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Popular. Medieval fantasy.

He spoke before he could stop himself.

“I saw it too.”

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

“Saw what?” she asked.

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

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

He took that prompt.

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

“Were we talking to you?”

Jaclyn interrupted him.

It threw him off. Harrian sputtered.

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

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

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

“No you weren’t.”

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

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

No expectations.

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

The bell tolled.

Finally.

Harrian was released from another long day at school.

He couldn’t wait to go home.

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

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

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

He was just waiting for it to be over.

Endure.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

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

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

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

It didn’t quite turn out that way.

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

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

Harrian resigned himself to that.

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

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

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

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

He threw his stuff into his bag.

Come on, hurry, faster.

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

The locker was kicked closed.

Shadows fell around him.

“Oh shit!”

No, no.

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

That had to account for something.

Harrian turned around.

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

Eric and Evan.

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

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

Nowhere to move, nowhere to run.

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

“What?” was all Harrian could ask.

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

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

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

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

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

What else was left?

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

Evan put his hands up.

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

Apologize?

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

Express regret for something that one has done wrong.

These two had done plenty wrong.

“For?” Harrian asked, unsure of everything.

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

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

Did Harrian believe it?

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

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

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

Then being here would mean it was all for nothing.

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

Too convenient, too easy.

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

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

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

“Disconnect,” Eric said.

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

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

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

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

Harrian went back to being concerned, again.

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

Chocolate bars.

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

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

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

He did like chocolates, though, he really did.

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

Harrian wasn’t sure, anymore.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He continued to stare at the chocolates.

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

They seemed genuine enough, too.

The gesture was starting to get to him.

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

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

Oh yeah.

The bus.

Harrian still had a bus to catch.

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

[蠢驴。蠢驴。]

“What’s ‘good bye’ in Japanese?”

Harrian asked.

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

Cold.

It made him question if he had said something wrong.

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

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

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

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

Harrian accepted that.

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

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

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

He couldn’t think of anything.

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

Harrian considered it.

“Sayonara, Harrian.”

Alexis spoke up.

Oh, I see.

She wanted to say properly, with that Americanized accent?

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

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

Cute, he couldn’t help but think.

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

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

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

He was Harrian.

Harrian looked again, but Alexis was already gone, out of his line of sight. He tried to stop thinking about it, about her, but his brain wouldn’t let him. A successful interaction with someone of the opposite gender. Rare. Of course his brain wanted to go over it, picking at every single detail.

He was Harrian.

Did she enjoy talking to him? Potentially, she was the one to initiate it. Did she like him? Enough to want to start a conversation, he supposed, but didn’t he get on her nerves, back at Auntie’s shop? Potentially, but he didn’t know the root cause.

I was just trying to better connect with her.

He let himself wander in his thoughts.

With the amount of interactions he had with her, he could count them on one hand, but there was something about her that drew his interest. Alluring, to put it in a word, now that his English was getting better.

Something about her.

Her eyes. Something about her eyes…

“Hey man, did you wait long?”

Harrian blinked, and his attention was back to the real world.

Evan was approaching, as chipper as ever.

A friend. One of the only ones.

”I did not,” Harrian said, hiding the truth. He did wait for some time, but he did show up early.

“That’s good. Let’s dip, then.”

“Yes, let us dip.”

Harrian picked up his bag, and followed Evan to his truck. They arrived, Evan getting the passenger side door for Harrian.

“Oh, thank you,” Harrian said.

Problemo nada, my man.”

Harrian got in the truck, his bag at his feet. His hands were still on the straps. Four points of contact with his belongings, at all times.

Even with people he knew, he learned his lesson.

“Where’s Eric?” Harrian asked, as Evan got into the driver’s seat.

Evan started the truck, and worked on backing out of the spot.

“We’re gonna meet him there,” he said. He didn’t specify where ‘there’ was.

Harrian felt like he should ask, but music started up as soon as the truck did. A rap song that he wasn’t familiar with. Loud, and it startled, and Harrian quickly forgot what he had in mind to say.

The truck left the school, and they headed out. Harrian looked to see if he could see Alexis as they crossed the parking lot. He couldn’t.

Eyes on the road, Evan adjusted the volume.

“Did you catch the new episode last night?” Evan asked him.

Harrian knew exactly what he was talking about. “I did.”

“I think it’s the best one yet, even though they keep wrecking the main character. I’m surprised he’s even still alive.”

“Me too,” Harrian said. He almost said more, but he’d be spoiling it for Evan, by that point. The best parts were still to come.

“Shit, I might start reading the books after this season wraps up, and that never happens.”

“I happen to have whole series, if you would like to borrow a book.”

Evan glanced at Harrian, even though the truck was going pretty fast, now.

“Really? You’d do that?”

“Yes, I would.”

“Wow,” Evan said, scratching his chin. “That’s pretty dope of you, thanks. I’ve actually got something for you, too. I’ll show it to you when we meet up with Eric.”

Harrian nodded, but he felt warm and fuzzy, inside. He looked forward to whatever Evan had planned.

Things had started to turn around once Harrian had accepted Eric and Evan’s apology. The two actually became his friends, for one, and Harrian started feeling more comfortable being in America, speaking English, and being himself.

It was a feeling he thought he’d never experience.

Being with – hanging out with – Evan himself helped in that feeling. He had a class with Evan, an art class, and what once used to be a class he dreaded, became one he now looked forward to. Evan was funny, charismatic, lively. The kind of person Harrian wished he was.

Harrian made it a point to learn something from him.

“It definitely is nice to get out every now and again, right?” Harrian asked, starting another conversation.

“Definitely, but man, things have been going off the fucking deep end recently.”

“The deep end?”

“You know, with the whole Bluemoon thing, and all the riots and stuff. To think it’s all happening here, in Stephenville.”

The Bluemoon thing. Harrian heard about it, seen it on the news. The vigilante superhero taking on the notorious gangs. It sounded like something he’d read in comic books, but there he was, leaping over buildings in a singular bound. It was incredible, and a little scary.

To think it was all happening in the city he transferred to.

“Hopefully it doesn’t get too bad,” Harrian said, wishing aloud.

“Same here. If the Bluemoon is actually trying to make this city better off, he better do it right. Otherwise, with all these riots, he might as well burn everything down himself.”

That was a scary propostion, but Harrian didn’t comment on that.

“Anyway, how about you?”

“Me?”

“Yeah, what would you do if you had superpowers? Like, strength or flying or something?”

The question made him ponder. He daydreamed about it before, but that was before Eric and Evan made their peace with him. Now? He was content.

“I’m not sure,” Harrian answered. “I probably couldn’t fight gangs or criminals.”

“No? I’m up for beating up some bad guys. With strength like that, it’s probably a piece of cake.”

Harrian shrugged, and watched cars pass by. “Probably.”

“But who knows? There was a time when that question would have been purely hypothetical. Now, oh, here we are.”

Harrian peered out from the front window. Gray towers were replaced with brown fields of corn.

They were entering into a rural part of town.

“Where is this?” Harrian asked.

“This, is Braham Barn.”

The truck got off the road, and onto a trail. Harrian saw the broken-down barnhouse come into view. Another truck was there, parked.

Harrian had never heard of this place.

The truck rolled to a stop, and Evan put it into park.

“Come on, we’re here.”

Evan hopped out of the truck, and Harrian followed. He decided to leave his backpack behind.

“Here,” Evan said, meeting up with Harrian. “Take this.”

He handed Harrian a large bundle. Harrian grabbed it, and unfolded it.

“A jacket?”

“Put it on, it’s gonna be chilly inside the barn.”

Harrian listened, putting on the jacket, zipping it up. It was heavy, and thick with a strange odor.

“What are we to do here, anyway?”

“Run.”

The word stood out to him. The tone sour.

He moved to face Evan, but he was already in the distance, running back to the truck.

Why-

Then, he heard it.

Barking.

Then, he saw it.

Out of the field, two dogs burst from the vegetation. Rottweilers. Sprinting.

Toward Harrian.

Instinct and panic kicked, and Harrian turned to run.

Nowhere to go, except the widening mouth of the Braham Barn.

Faster, faster, faster.

Harrian ran, but he was no athlete, he couldn’t outrun animals. They were built for this, evolved to do better.

They were hunters. And he was prey.

The dogs caught him as soon as he passed through the doors, falling into the darkness.

Merciless. Powerful.

Violent.

They tore at him to shreds.

His limbs were yanked this way and that. Covering himself was useless when his arms could get pulled away again.

Teeth sank into his sides. Digging. Tooth and nail. Claws. Dark. Panic. The hurt.

No, no, no, no no no no no no no no.

Fabric flew into the air. Spit. Growling, barking.

He didn’t have the breath to scream. Pulled by the beasts. Made into a meal.

They wouldn’t stop. They wouldn’t stop. They wouldn’t stop.

Wouldn’t stop biting, wouldn’t stop gnawing.

Stop stop stop.

Where was anyone? Where was everyone?

Powers. They were talking about powers, earlier. What he would do if he had them.

He’d save himself.

Harrian reached with his power. Focusing control.

And then he remembered he didn’t have any. Of course. He was just a human. He was just Harrian.

Stop stop stop stop stop stop stop.

A sharp whistle cut through the everything.

Then, it did stop.

The dogs turned tail, and backed away.

Harrian, for his part, could no longer move. Face messy with tears and sweat and snot.

His brain could not process what had just transpired.

On the wooden floor, the high ceiling above, consumed in darkness.

Laughter.

He heard laughter.

Getting louder. Getting louder.

Unbelieveable.

“Oh my god, shit, shit, sorry Harry, sorry.”

“I can’t, I can’t! I’m so sorry!”

Sorry. Words used when people apologized. When expressing regret for something that one has done wrong.

But why were they still laughing?

Dark, but Harrian saw their faces when they looked down at him.

Eric.

Evan.

Their laughter was dying down, they were rubbing the corners of their eyes.

“Man, you shoulda seen how you were running, flopping like a fucking fish!” Eric said.

“You would not make it onto the team with that top speed, my dude.”

Harrian opened and closed his mouth, gasping for air.

“See? He really does look like a fish!”

Laughter again.

Harrian breathed out his word.

Why?”

One of them answered. His ears were ringing too much to discern the voice. It was deep, though.

“Why? Well, because some gangs are looking to score with some new dogs, and I told them Rover and Russel were the best in town. People are beefing up in any way they can, now that there’s a hero in town.”

“We actually legitimately need the money, too. Can’t keep kicking vending machines forever.”

No, no, no.

Harrian was speechless. Mostly due to being out of breath, but the betrayal cut deeper than any knife.

“Did you get it?” one of them asked.

“Yeah, it’s all here. Once they see how fast they can go, others will come begging.”

“Dope.”

It? It? It?

All here?

Tape. Film. Camera. They filmed it, him, everything.

“You’ll… be in trouble.”

Harrian whispered.

“What’s that? Hey, get the jacket off.”

“Right.”

One of them went to work, taking the jacket off of him. They rolled him, so they could pick it up.

“Damn, it’s all fucked up now. How’s he?”

“He’s good. Nothing on him.”

“Not a scratch?”

“None.”

“Dope.”

None? None? Impossible. How? He was torn to shreds. He felt it.

“You’re going to get in trouble for this.”

Harrian managed to get that out. Clearer.

“Huh?”

Someone bent down to see him. The smaller of the two.

“You gonna tell on us?”

“Yes… I will.”

Laughter.

“You tell on us,” one of them said, “And those gangs will kill you if you stop them from getting any more protection. You tell on us after, who’s gonna believe you? I don’t see a single scratch on you, and those gangs would probably kill you for that, too. Probably do it with the dogs.”

Harrian’s breathing hitched.

“Tell you what. You did good, so we can give you a cut of whatever we get, if you want. And look, we’ve been cutting class pretty often recently, so we probably have a detention coming our way. We’ll take that punishment, and we’ll think really hard about what we did, here. Right?”

“Yeah, we really are sorry. But it is a fuckton of money, and I really do need it.”

“There you go! Here, there’s a twenty, you can take the bus back. Here’s your backpack, too, we didn’t touch it.”

Harrian heard the bag land beside him. The money fluttered, then landed on his face, stuck to his cheek from the tears and sweat and snot.

“And here.”

Another thing fell right by his eyes. He saw it.

Chocolate.

“See you, Harrian.”

“Wait,” he whispered, but they didn’t hear him. They were already leaving.

He heard the footsteps fade, the trucks start, the vehicles driving off.

Then Harrian was alone, on the floor, the rug swept out from under him.

Cruelty such as this knew no reason.

It was not supposed to be like this.

If Auntie lived somewhere else, if he hadn’t met that girl, starting his experience here on the wrong foot.

If they hadn’t done this. If he chose to not come to this country.

No… no.

This was his fault. His weakness. It happened back at home, and it happened here. He let this happen. He wasn’t strong enough.

He let himself be taken from.

[蠢驴。蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴蠢驴。蠢驴。]

You understand now, do you?

Harrian did-

Back against the wall, everyone was shouting.

He couldn’t hear the music.

Harrian’s attention was brought back to the now.

The school. Terrorists. People looking for the Bluemoon.

Here?

One of the terrorists barged into the room, pointing his gun at them.

He thought he was going to die. Right then, right there.

But another came in. A person with a paper bag over their head. They had moved so fast that Harrian could barely register it.

The Bluemoon?

No, it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered. Nothing else mattered.

The gun was knocked out of the man’s hands. He recognized the model. AK-47. Painted black. 7.62 by 39 millimeter cartridges. He did some research after the barn.

There it was. The gun. And Evan was here too.

Everything flashed before his eyes. His time in this country.

You know what you want, don’t you?

Harrian did.

Idiot. Stupid donkey of a kid.

You failure.

Nothing else mattered.

Nobody understood him. No existing language could possibly describe his rage in a way that was accurate, in a way that connected.

It wasn’t enough.

Nobody understood him.

But one day, they will.

Harrian ran, and swept the rug out from everyone else.

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046 – Supernova

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I was fast, I could overtake people with just my speed alone. It was one of my assets when it came to being a superhero. It gave me an advantage, it gave me value.

People had guns, but I was faster than those people. Even if they had a tool to level the playing field, more often than not, I still had them beat. I was still much faster than they were.

But, in the most critical of critical moments, I wasn’t faster than this finger, this pulled trigger. The bullets that followed.

Flown into a barrage of metal and destruction.

I was torn to ribbons, and then the others. I lost the breath needed to vocalize the pain.

Oh.

My head whipped back, cracking.

Eyes rolled in the back of the sockets. I was thrown back, along with the splattered blood and the picked-apart meat.

In a very real sense, I was killed.

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036 – On One’s Own

epy arc 6 rest

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Physically, mentally, emotionally spent. I was at the end of my rope. And the rope was on fire.

I was burned-out.

I didn’t get the gift of sleep. I was on the floor, unmoving, eyes to the ceiling, my mind running, until daylight started slipping through the windows. Everyone woke up before the alarm, and I woke up with them. Or got up, rather. Though, I couldn’t imagine anyone else getting a wink, not after what happened last night.

Judge Edgar Brown. I had never heard of the name before, but he was at that party, he was targeted, and now he was dead. Didn’t know anything about him, what he was like, his hobbies, what his kids were like, what he liked to do with his family. But he was a person, the center of his own world and universe, and we failed in stopping the destruction of that world. Gone. No more. Dead.

The guilt slowed my steps down the stairs, until I was falling behind.

I failed to think about anything else, but I kept trying. I lumbered into the kitchen, joining everyone for breakfast.

My mom was already up, helping Kristin prepare the food. Kristin herself was on the phone, talking while cooking bacon. The smell wasn’t appetizing.

“I won’t apologize this time, Sumeet, what’s keeping him? Don’t give me that! He can’t spare a second just to say a word? Where’s Jeffery?”

Dang, Kristin was going in on that Sumeet guy.

I grabbed a seat at the table, Katy and Maria on the other end. The dog was outside.

“What’s that all about?” I asked as I rubbed in one eye. Crust stuck to my hand when I moved it away. Ew.

Katy explained, “Dad hasn’t back home yet from last night, so she’s been freaking out. I don’t think she went up to her room.”

“She’s been down here all night?”

“Seems that way.” Katy fixed her disheveled hair, tying it up. It flew apart at the ends.

“I’m worried too, but this isn’t the first time my dad’s pulled all-nighters, they’ve even ramped up in the last month or so. He can get pretty absorbed with his work when he wants to. There were times when I didn’t see him for a couple of days.”

She put her fork in her mouth, but there was no food, there. She was biting on the metal.

Maria picked up her own spoon, then put it down. “It might be the norm for you guys, but considering what’s been going down, you can’t blame your mom.”

Katy set her fork to the side. “I’m not, and I won’t.”

Now I was beginning to worry.

Thomas wasn’t the type to go a length of time without informing someone of his activities. During our outings, he demanded updates from me, and I could expect the same from him. It was a mutual respect that I appreciated, coming from the one person who saw Blank Face as something other than a monstrosity. It meant a lot to me, and it wasn’t a notion I expressed to him as often as I would have liked to.

So, if Thomas isn’t even contacting his wife…

I put myself in check. Couldn’t be thinking that way, or I’d come apart, completely.

“Maybe he’s just asleep at his desk, or stuck in some absurdly long meeting,” I said, “We’ll probably see him tonight.”

It felt like I said that mostly for my own sake.

“We better,” Katy said, with no energy.

I watched my friends as they picked at their utensils, spinning them around. We never had a sleepover with the three of us before, but I always thought it would have been fun. We’d sit and chat over boys, watch a movie, maybe get into the stereotypical pillow fight, for kicks. Maybe even try and squeeze a game of chess out of Katy and her strange chessboard.

We did some of those things, but…

I never expected it to be like this, under these circumstances.

“Don’t talk with that tone,” my mom said, coming to the table. She set down different dishes for us to eat. “Not that you are rude, but it’s discouraging.”

“Sorry then,” Katy said.

“Don’t apologize, just eat.” My mom then went to putting food on all of our plates. Eggs, bacon, and an extra helping of rice for me. I was so out of it that I didn’t even protest.

Though I should have.

Kristin stepped out of the kitchen, continuing to rant on the phone. I had no one to bail me out from my breakfast. Not even Solace.

The food looked delicious, though, I couldn’t say much for the taste.

The bacon glistened in oil and juice, the eggs a bright golden color. The rice was steaming, fluffy. To think, my mouth would have watered at the sight of it, maybe over two months ago.

And the smell coming from the food did the opposite of reinvigorating me. It drained, leaving me even less willing to face the rest of the day.

And it served as a reminder that I was becoming thirsty, again.

I tried not to show it on my face. I tried not to act. It was like walking on eggshells, letting any tells slip now would be a certain and complete disaster. Had to stay calm, had to maintain my composure.

I pushed my plate away.

“Maria, do you want like, half of my food?” I asked. “I’m not too hungry.”

Maria’s look was telling. She would have rather had me eat. But, she still agreed to take a load off of my shoulders, reaching across the table for my food. “This is only because I want to eat food your mom made.”

Maria took some food, then took some more.

“Maria, that’s more than half,” Katy said.

Maria glowered at Katy. “Look, Ms. Barnett looks like she’s a good cook, okay? Can I live?”

“But my mom helped cook, too…”

She took until there was about enough for three big spoonfuls. She wasn’t about to make things easy.

How delightful.

My mom went over the sink, moving on to washing pots and pans. “You eat, Alexis, you need energy. But hurry, we will be late if we don’t leave soon. I will be taking you all today.”

Ah, that’s right, I thought, We still have school.

The food was like a void, and it was staring right back at me. Three bites. If I ate this, it’d help in quelling some of the worries my mom and my friends had. It wouldn’t be by much, but it was something.

And that was all I needed for now.

Especially after ‘promising’ to tell my friends everything, after Solace was defeated.

I gathered some food with my spoon. A little bit of everything. Rice, bacon, egg. I knew a day like this would come.

I swallowed, before food even entered my mouth.

It was considered rude, but I placed my left elbow on table, resting my head in my hand. I situated myself away from everyone, facing downward. Discreet.

With my right hand, I took the first bite.

For Edgar Brown… rest in peace.

The rice and egg had the consistency of mud, the bacon was like cardboard.

Harder to chew, harder still to swallow.

But I did, and it burned.

I almost gagged.

I gathered the second bite, the spoon much heavier, now.

I put it in my mouth, like I was force-feeding myself. Well, I was.

For Thomas, Hleuco. Together, we can take Solace down.

Leftover rice was starting to cling to the insides of my mouth, as if I had eaten dirt, and bits of soil were stuck. The egg tasted rotten, somehow reminding me of a skunk. Dead, on the side of the road, decaying and smelly. The smell, condensed to a taste.

I almost threw up, right then and there.

I took a minute to stop myself from trembling. From shaking.

The third and final spoonful. The most daunting one of all.

And for myself. I wish it would all end, already.

I went right into it, sliding it between my lips.

If my arm wasn’t propping my head up, I would have slammed my chin onto the edge of the table, passing out.

I couldn’t describe this one. It made my mind go blank, hurting me on every front. Physically, emotionally, mentally.

It was just fucking awful.

Every bit of me was screaming to run. My mind going cloudy. Chewed, then swallowed, doing all that I could to keep it down.

The next part was critical to everything. I had to get up, and leave.

But, could I?

I powered through it, had no choice but to. Dropped the spoon, stood, then shuffled along the perimeter of the kitchen. My hand ran along the counter and wall for balance.

I tried to enunciate as clearly as possible.

“Imma try shower…”

Tried.’

Only my mom responded, Katy and Maria were eating their own food, Maria even going for seconds. “Collect your clothes and sleeping bag, I can get them later when I come back.”

I nodded once, sluggishly, then I left. I didn’t move any faster up the steps, or into the bathroom.

I stripped, entered the shower, and let the water run.

In the gloom, all alone, I had the freedom to let everything out.

Katy, Maria, and I all met back at the kitchen, cleaned up and ready to go. I had my backpack, Katy had a purse, and Maria had nothing at all.

Kristin and my mom were sitting at the table.

“I cannot believe this,” Kristin said. She had hung up the phone. “All I want is to talk to him.”

My mom consoled her. “He’ll be back, Kristin. He’s passionate about his work, and we have to do our part too.”

Kristin nodded, sleepily.

“And you also need rest. We don’t want Thomas coming back and you’re not awake to greet him, do we?”

Kristin nodded sleepily, again. She snacked on a piece of bacon while she talked. “No, we don’t. Speaking of which, will you and Alexis be spending the night with us again?”

My mom glanced at me, and I tilted my head towards the front door.

“I appreciate the offer for us to intrude for another night, but I think it is best for us to start staying at our apartment. We can’t be here forever, and I do not want to be a burden.”

“You two are anything but a burden,” Kristin said. “You’re welcome anytime, and you can stay for as long as you need. If you want, you and Alexis can move in and live with us. Maria is also welcome.”

My mom gave her a look. “That’s not reasonable. I still have work, and we can’t leave the apartment unattended for too long.”

“Same here,” Maria said. “Don’t wanna overstay my welcome.”

Kristin responded with a weak smile. “That was my poor attempt at a joke. You go do what you have to, Shiori, Maria. I can arrange for an officer to come by and check on you guys every now and then, if you’d like.”

My mom offered a similar expression. “I will be sure to let you know.” She turned to the three of us. “Let’s get going.”

Kristin dropped the other strip of bacon she was about to eat. “Shiori, let me take them. You’ve already taken credit for cooking breakfast.”

That made my mom give her a sterner look. “No, you stay here, eat, and then you sleep. If I come back and you’re still up, I will put you down myself.”

Maria whispered to us, “Damn, your mom is giving orders to your mom.”

“Mom, let Shiori take us,” Katy said, out loud. “We’ll really be late if we don’t leave now, and Mom? I have a feeling Shiori might make good on her word.”

Kristin sat back, and started chewing on bacon again. “Not might, will. Go, I’ll take a nap.”

My mom accepted that, then left the kitchen, then the house. The rest of us had to hurry to catch up, or she’d somehow leave us behind. We all managed to hop into my mom’s blue van in time.

The drive to school was rather uneventful. I would have liked for some meaningless chatting to come and pass the time, but no one offered up anything to start with. Solace must have been weighing on everybody’s mind.

My mom drove us up to the front of the school, and we filed out as soon as she stopped.

“Thanks for the ride, Ms. Barnett,” Maria said. “You’re the best.”

My mom made a small gesture. “I will be back here when school ends. Alexis, I get your stuff together, and we go back home after I drop off Maria and Katy.”

I needed a second to realize she was talking to me. Still out of sorts.

“That’s cool,” I said, mildly. In truth, I was itching to be back home. I wanted to have easy access to my Blank Face things again.

“Bye,” my mom then said, and she went off.

The three of us moved as a group, entering the school. Loud as ever, with kids bustling and hurrying to their classes. Some gave us looks. I knew that had some effect on Katy and Maria.

But, there was no time to relax, we had to start our day.

Before we could go our separate ways, we were approached by a woman.

“Katy Thompson, Maria Gonzalez, and Alexis Barnett?” She listed us off, wording it like a question.

Cautiously, we nodded.

“Good morning, you three,” she then said, as kindly as one could.

“Good morning,” Katy said back. She had delegated herself to speak for us. I was cool with it.

“Principal Kirk would like to see you.”

The woman’s name escaped me, but I was not unfamiliar with her. She was one of ladies who ran the front office. A secretary.

“Right now?”

“It won’t take too much of your time, you’ll be done before your first class ends.”

Maria interjected, “Are we in trouble already? We just got to school.”

The woman didn’t take it as very funny, answering her directly. “I assure you, you’re not in trouble. All three of you, please come follow me.”

The three of us exchanged some looks, but there wasn’t really much of a choice in the matter.

We followed her towards the front office.

The number of students out in the hall were thinning, giving us room to walk without bumping arms.

I caught sight of Harrian from across the hall.

He didn’t notice me, and I only noticed him because of how hard he was trying to not be noticed. Decked in all black, head down, hands in his pockets, and if he was any faster, he’d get called out by a teacher. He seemed to be in a hurry.

Harrian turned my way, but he still didn’t see me. I got a better look at his face. Haggard. He was skinny, but I could tell that he hadn’t been eating, even from a distance. Shadows were cast on his eyes and cheeks, and his mouth hung open, like he didn’t have enough energy to lift his jaw. He looked weak.

He didn’t come any closer. His eyes went wide, then he spun on his heels, returning the way he came.

Okay… that happened.

If I wasn’t so out of it myself, and if I wasn’t headed to the principal’s office, I would have let myself be more curious as to what that was about. But, from my handful of interactions with him, he was always a bit odd, and I did have my own business to take care of, as both Alexis and Blank Face. Harrian would have to be a lower priority.

Still following the woman, we went around a corner, going towards a side entrance of the front office. The hallway was nearly empty, now.

“Coming up behind you!”

“Let me get that for you, ladies.”

Eric and Evan. Right before the woman hold put her hand on the knob, the duo passed us and opened the door.

“What are you two doing here?” Katy asked as we continued inside. Faculty and some students were here, busy with differents tasks and errands. A lively atmosphere. We passed the front counter, heading into the faculty area.

“Student aide,” Eric answered, “Printing papers, stacking papers, filing those papers, and sometimes, go around school to give people pink slips. They don’t seem to like those.”

“Sounds fun.”

“It’s a blast,” Evan said.

“You two are involuntary student aides,” the woman added, “Don’t act like you want to do this.”

“Aw, come on, Mrs. K.” Eric slouched his shoulders and hunched forward, but he still towered over all of us. “We’re liking it now, promise!”

Evan nodded along, agreeing with Eric.

“What are you in for?” I asked.

“It’s either that or detention,” Eric said. He didn’t offer any more, but he didn’t sound too bummed over it, either.

“This way,” the woman said, going another way in the office, down a smaller hallway where the principal and assistant principal’s offices were.

“It’s nothing, but I can explain some other time,” Eric said.

“I don’t really care,” Katy said, straightforward. Normally, she’d play along with their fooling around, but she wasn’t having it, this time. “Like how we have our own thing.”

“Fair.” Eric started going in the opposite direction, another hall. “We’re this way, got more papers to print.”

“Then stack, then file,” Evan said.

“Yup, and it is fun, Mrs. K!” Eric’s voiced boomed across the halls, but ‘Mrs. K’ didn’t respond. She was standing, hands resting behind her back, facing us. In front of Principal Kirk’s office.

We split up without a proper ‘see you later,’ the boys going to do menial work, and us girls going to do… another thing. I still didn’t know what this was about.

Mrs. K waited until all three of us entered the office before closing the door. She didn’t come in with us.

It wasn’t my first time coming in here. At least I wasn’t alone, this time.

Principal Kirk’s office was like any other principal’s office. Neat and tidy, muted colors, with a few personal touches to make it his own. Namely, a picture frame of his family, and a Van Halen record on his wall. Signed.

The principal himself was typing at his computer. Average looking, he looked nice in a suit, but he wasn’t Thomas. For someone his age, he sure didn’t show the signs of his number. His hair was still chestnut brown, neatly combed back. He had circular framed glasses, but they didn’t look old-fashioned on him. Stylish, in fact.

He stopped what he was doing when he heard Katy pull at the first chair.

“Ah yes, here y’all are, feel free to take a seat,” he motioned to the chairs in front of his desk.

He was prepared for us to come. Three chairs were set, normally there would be only two. Two of the chairs were supposed to be here, they kept in line with the general aesthetics of the room. Wooden, with cushions on the seat. The third chair was clearly pulled from another room. A metal folding chair. It didn’t match with anything in here.

Katy and Maria took the cushioned seats. I settled for the metal folding chair, dropping my backpack beside me.

“How are you all today?” he asked, sounding chipper. It bothered me, or maybe that was a testament to how fucked up I was, mentally and emotionally. It was coloring how I perceived others.

“We’re trying,” Katy said, answering for us again. It wasn’t even much of an answer. We were just… trying.

Trying to do what?

“It’s better than not giving up,” he replied, his tone still the same. I couldn’t argue with him, there.

Principal Kirk came across as the kind of guy who would have been popular when he was in high school, he had that air, that charisma, about him. Maybe he was even a captain of the football team. Though, looking at it another way, it was like he never left high school.

He closed the monitor of his computer, then he gave us his full attention, resting his elbows on the desk, putting his hands together.

“I’ll try to make this snappy, and let you go about your day. Now, from your parents, I’ve heard about the… ordeal, that y’all are going through, and it truly tears me apart that you girls have to go through something of this magnitude.”

I didn’t need to see my friends’ faces to confirm for myself, I could already guess what they were thinking.

Nothing but empty words.

“But,” Principal Kirk said, as if to counter my line of thinking, “Luckily for me, I don’t have just my condolences to give.”

I blinked, the extent of how much energy I was willing to spend. I fought back a yawn.

“I haven’t run this through your parents yet, but I’ve spoken with your teachers, and they’ve all agreed to let you continue your courses from home.”

Katy fixed her seat, briefly lifting herself up so she could scoot her chair forward. She was curious.

“You’ll have to elaborate,” she said.

“The school has a duty and responsibility to provide a safe environment for our students to feel comfortable in. However, given that this is a… special circumstance, we, the school, are willing to overlook your attendance on campus for as long as you need.”

“You’re saying we don’t have to come to school?” Maria asked.

If you feel safer spending the day in the comfort of your own home, the school will not penalize you for doing so. Of course, you will still have schoolwork. The school will email you the lessons, notes, assignments, and reviews for all of your classes, put together by your different teachers. It’ll be in one big file. You complete it from home, send it back, and your teachers will grade it.”

“What about tests or quizzes? Don’t we have to come to school to take those?”

“We will accommodate you on that as well. It’s up to your teachers, but they might change the format, making it multiple choice, or depending on how well you do on your assignments, they might forgo tests, entirely.”

Maria fell back into her chair. Obviously, she was into this.

“Of course, this is all up to you,” the principal said, “Well, it does require your parents’ consent, but this is your decision. Whatever you feel is best for you, we’ll go with that. Want to go home? No problem. Want to come to school? More power to you. This is all about what makes you comfortable.”

The effort Principal Kirk was putting in to get that idea through our heads was admirable. He wanted us to be taken care of, he wanted us to feel safe. Did it suck that the Solace situation had gotten so out of hand that it was affecting the school administration? Sure, but they were trying, and doing their part, too. It might have been a small gesture, but it was going a long way. A small light in an ever-consuming darkness.

“Do we have to make that decision now?” Katy asked.

Principal Kirk shook his head. “Not now, not this instance, though you can, if you’ve come to a decision already. Just let me know anytime, and I’ll make the necessary preparations. All I ask for now is to talk to your parents about this, and give this some serious thought.”

It was an alluring option, I wouldn’t lie. Time away from school could be a big help, it meant time away elsewhere. Mom would be out of the apartment, and I would be free to-

“I’m in.”

We all turned to Maria.

“You’ve already made your decision, Maria?” Principal Kirk said. “You don’t need to discuss this with your father?”

“He won’t mind. It might actually be better. Yeah, I’m sure.”

The principal nodded. “Understood, stick around after we’re done here, and I’ll get things going for you.” He then faced me and Katy. “I don’t suppose either of you have already decided?”

Katy spoke first. “I really appreciate the offer, I do, but I’ll decline. I can tough it out here, at school.”

So Katy decided to stay? Does this have something to do with Thomas talking about not folding to pressure? Tougher stuff?

Principal Kirk sat back, his hand still together, resting on his lap. “I’ll respect that decision, too. We do have extra officers on campus for some added security. I can promise you, you are as safe here as you are in your own home.”

His eyes then went to me. It was my turn.

I want to discuss this with Thomas, too. See if we can’t meet or plan during normal school hours. Maybe even some Blank Face action in the afternoon.

I put my finger to my chin. My eyes went elsewhere.

“I’ll have to talk with my mom about this. She’d want to be in the know before I make a decision.”

Principal Kirk accepted that, too. “That’s just as fine with me. And remember, this is an option that will always be available to you. Katy, if you happen to change your mind, I’ll be more than willing to move in that direction. And Alexis, just let me know either way, after you’ve spoken with your mom.”

“Will do,” I said, “Thank you, though, you didn’t have to go that far.”

“Oh, we do. It wouldn’t be right if we stood here and did nothing. Like I mentioned, it’s our duty and responsibility.”

Duty and responsibility. The words repeated and looped in my head. Somehow, it was reassuring.

Principal Kirk changed his position, tapping a key on his keyboard. His computer woke up.

“I know it’s not a lot of fun for me to have called you down here and talk about boring tests and quizzes, but it is important. Is there anything else you’d like to say to me? Any questions?”

The three of us exchanged looks again. I got the general impression that we were just about done, here.

“I think we’re good,” Katy said, speaking for all of us. “Thanks again.”

“Then that settles it,” Principal Kirk said, getting back onto his computer. “Hope to hear from you soon, and I hope this situation gets resolved as fast as possible, as safely as possible. Maria, stay right there, and we’ll get started. You’ll need to bring back a permission slip for your father to sign.”

“Guess I can’t leave with you,” Maria said to me and Katy. “See you later?”

“Yeah, see yah,” Katy said.

“We’ll text you when we’re out of school,” I said. We got up, taking our stuff with us.

“Oh, Katy, tell your dad the school has his back,” Principal Kirk said.

“Sure,” Katy said, “I’ll let him know as soon as I see him.”

I kept to myself for that one.

Katy and I left the principal’s office, Principal Kirk and Maria getting right to work. We took the same path back of the office, and we were back in the hallways of the school. We didn’t run into Eric and Evan on the way.

The hall was empty. Not even a kid walking around with a hall pass. Somewhere in between going to the front office and conversing with Eric and Evan, the bell rang, but I never heard it.

“Maria’s really gonna stay at home?” I asked. We moved to the front of the school. My locker was on the other side of the building.

“I don’t fault her for that,” Katy said, “Deep down, I think she’s the most freaked out by the whole thing.”

I agreed with her by saying, “I don’t fault her, either.”

“And you?” Katy asked.

“Me?”

“Are you going to end up taking Principal Kirk’s offer?”

Not even deep down, I was definitely considering it. “It depends on what my mom has to say about it. She’ll probably want me to keep coming to school, but I might be able to convince her if I really wanted to.”

“Do you really want to?”

Again, she asked me. She really wanted a direct answer.

“I do. It’d be nice if I could. It’s just that, if my mom says no, that’ll be the final word.”

Katy nodded, slow. It almost looked like she was shaking her head, too.

“Bye, Alexis.”

And that was the final word between us for that morning. We split to go to our classes, located at different ends of the building.

On my way, I stopped to take a sip at a nearby water fountain. The sips turned to gulps, as I was spending more time there than I should.

I tried getting myself back into the mind of being just a student, to being just Alexis, but other things were too prominent, too heavy.

I wish things could go back to the way they were.

I remembered when all I had to deal with were due dates and test grades. And now, I was handling deadlines of the most literal kind.

Because, in less than twenty-four hours, if nothing happened, we would be going through the same thing all over again.

No, no no no, no no no no no no no.

No.

This was the same thing all over again.

I staggered into the closet. My mom left me alone, letting me retreat into my room.

I clawed through piles of clothes and boxes. Bits of dust had settled in my absence.

Ripping open the bag, I found the mask. I yanked it out, hugging it close.

I collapsed to the floor, I curled up into a ball.

My chest was pounding, my heart was sinking.

My whole body, my very being, felt like it was on fire.

The end of my rope.

Solace came back, on the TV, posturing like he or she always did. They listed off more names, and they rattled in my head, echoing and echoing and echoing and echoing.

I wasn’t able to do anything. Not in time. Even if it was just another pair of eyes, it was enough to keep me locked up in my apartment. Like a bird in a cage.

I couldn’t cry, couldn’t tear up. I shook, I trembled.

Please, no.

A wide range of emotions, that I wasn’t sure what to call it. Anger? Horror? Panic? Dismay? It was everything, all at once, until it wrapped back around and became nothing.

A certain sadness.

The names Solace said…

Edgar Brown… Linda Day…

Thomas Thompson.

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022 – Wrong Foot Forward

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This bitch wasn’t getting on my nerves. She was trampling on them. Like a fly that wouldn’t stop bugging you, no matter how many times you swatted it away. It’d buzz in your ear, you’d try to move elsewhere, but it’d keep following you, until you either went crazy, or you killed it.

Summarily, I could confidently say that I hated her, and I barely knew her.

I exited the school building, going the opposite way of the gym. I headed straight for the Strip. My pace was fast, hasty.

“Alexis, wait!”

Eric was following me, Evan and Harrian a few steps behind. They were closing in. “What are you even going to do?”

“I’ll find out when I get there,” I said, eyes forward.

“Then I shouldn’t have said anything. I’m not about to let you get hurt.”

“No one’s about to get hurt, and I can take her.”

“I’m not saying you can’t, just, Alexis-”

My arm was pulled back. I stopped.

Eric had me by the forearm. From the angle of the sun and where we were standing, I was cast in his shadow.

He looked where he was holding me, and immediately let go.

“Didn’t mean to do that, but I need your full attention,” he said. “Tell me exactly what you intend on doing.”

I came up with something on the fly. “Just gonna talk.”

“It doesn’t sound like that’s all you want to do.”

“If it goes there, and I’m not saying it will, but if it does, I can handle it. She’s nothing.”

Eric set his jaw square. He didn’t speak for some seconds. I quickly added a few more words before he could.

“You don’t have to come.”

I was speaking to all three of them. Others didn’t need to be around for this. Wasn’t necessary. I wasn’t even sure why Eric followed. Evan would go anywhere the other went, and Harrian was still a mystery to me.

Eventually, Eric spoke. “If she really was nothing, you wouldn’t be acting like this. Clearly, she’s pushed your buttons before.”

I looked at him, almost amazed. “You’re sharper than you look.”

He flashed a smile. “I get that a lot.”

While he was still in that mood, that headspace, I spun on my heels, and walked away.

“I’ll be okay on my own,” I said as I left.

“H-hey!” I heard from behind me. Eric.

They kept following me. By this point, I was beginning to get frustrated with them, too. I had already told them to buzz off.

For the final time, I spun back around. Eric stopped, with the other two right behind them.

I could feel the muscles of my face contort into an unfamiliar expression. Like a scowl. My lips set in a line, my eyes holding a strong, penetrating stare. If only I had a mirror.

“I’ll be fine on my own,” I said.

Eric started to open his mouth to argue, but he changed his mind, zipping it. He turned, and walked past Evan and Harrian.

“Let’s go,” was all he said.

I didn’t watch them go. Didn’t have to. My message was clear. I got through to them.

Now, it was time to get through to her.

Like I had said, I was only going to talk.

I made it to the Strip. Others were here, skating, or otherwise loitering around.

It wasn’t difficult in finding her. Even among her kind, the slackers and the stoners, she stuck out like a red, pulsating thumb, gushing with pus and other bodily juices.

She was standing in a circle, with others, her back to me. I recognized two of the girls that accompanied her during my date with Brandon. Somehow, I didn’t find it in me to be mad at them, my anger was too focused, too narrow.

Jillian.

I went straight for her.

“Jillian,” I said, trying to get her attention. She didn’t respond. Or maybe she wouldn’t. I knew she could hear me, and I was advancing closer.

I’d give her one thing. She had a knack for egging me on.

Jillian,” I said again, stressing the three syllables that made up her name.

She finally looked my way, and her expression almost made me pause.

There was no sense of recognition, no look of acknowledgement. As if she was looking through me.

As if she hadn’t the faintest clue to who I was.

“Yes?” she asked, like she was talking to a child. A condescending tone. It grated.

I disregarded the nuance. “I need to speak with you, can we move somewhere else?”

Her expression didn’t change. No response.

Patience, she’s just testing you.

I tried again.

“I won’t take too much of your time, don’t want to humiliate you in front of your friends.”

There, poked the lion enough.

That got the attention of the others, and seemed to get a rise out of Jillian, too. She stepped forward, breaking away from the group.

“Move,” she said, dryly.

I moved, even though doing so made it seem like I was following her order, but I couldn’t be bothered to care. I wanted to be done with her as soon as humanly possible, and get back to my own life.

We went around a corner. I took the both of us to the back of the long building chaining together some of the businesses here. Nothing here besides some dumpsters. Fitting, I thought.

We positioned ourselves to face each other. Maybe I shouldn’t have led the way. My back was to the wall, and where Jillian stood prevented me from returning the way we came. I could just simply walk the other way, down the length of the building to get back, but that wasn’t necessary. It’d be a sign of weakness in front of her, too.

I set my bags down. My backpack, too. Time to get right into it. Compared with talking to someone like Benny, this was nothing. A walk in the park.

I went first.

“I don’t know what the hell your problem is, but it stops now,” I said. “I don’t want you going around with my name in your mouth. It’s… freaking weird, and weird is not what I need more of at the moment.”

Again, standing there, no reaction. Was it her way of allowing me to continue?

I did, regardless.

“I’m willing to look past what you did on Sunday, at the paintball place. As fucked up as what you did was, I’ll look past it. I won’t even go one another date with your cousin, anymore. I’ve decided to cancel it. So there. I’ll cut my ties, leave him alone, and you can go do… whatever it is you want to do. I don’t care. I just don’t.”

Again, nothing, but I was about to wrap things up, anyways.

“I’ll leave you guys alone, all I’m asking is that you do the same for me. Okay? Just leave me alone, and we can go about our lives never seeing each other again.”

Jillian stood there, looking completely disinterested. It took a moment before she opened up to speak. Finally.

“No.”

‘No?’

“No?” I repeated, turning the word into a question.

Loudly, Jillian exhaled, drawing out the sound until it became a low moan.

“You don’t really get it, do you? You can marry Brandon for all I care, I don’t give a shit.”

She spoke, but the words didn’t make sense to me.

“Why?” I asked, honestly perplexed. “Why are you doing any of this? Why waste the energy, the breath? You’ve done way more shit to me than I ever done to you at this point. It makes no sense.”

I was beginning to think she had some sick obsession with me, or at least a personal vendetta. If what she had just said was true, this would be going way past the point of reason. And I had to know why.

So much for making this quick.

I tried, one more time.

“I’m trying to be decent, here, and this is what is you give me?”

She made a face, like I was speaking in another language. Complete nonsense.

“Wow, how super of you. Do you want a prize?”

I clenched my fists.

Jillian shrugged, taking a moment before talking again. “Do you really want to know why? It’s because there’s something about you that’s off.”

In a second, I became confused, and concerned.

Did she know?

“And that something is?” I asked, worried about the answer.

Jillian answered. “I saw the look in your eyes, that day. I can’t explain it, but it scared me. Actually scared me. It was like looking into the eyes of an animal that was about to eat you alive. Eyes that looked at you like you were less than human. Like prey. For days, I couldn’t get it outta my head.”

I gulped. What was she going on about?

“And I fuckin’ hated it. I hate being looked down upon. Especially by someone as short as you. I don’t give a shit about what you do, because one day, I’m going to make you feel like how I did, that day. I’m going to make you feel small, I’ll look at you like you ain’t nothing but shit.”

She was that insecure. Over a look. How rattled was she over something I never even considered?

This much, apparently.

But I wasn’t going to let her damaged psyche push me around. Not today. Not ever.

I spoke. “And you want to bully me over your frail sense of self? I don’t think so. What else are you gonna do, stuff me in a locker, ambush me in a bathroom? You got lucky once, but I promise you that’s all you’re going to get. I was more than capable of dropping this entirely, but I’m not about to let you walk all over me just so you can reaffirm your place in the world. Fuck off, bitch.”

I picked up my bags, my backpack, and walked in her direction. I knew she would stand her ground, but I continued. We were going nowhere, talking like this, and I didn’t want to be in her presence any longer.

“Out of my way,” I said, sensing a threatening undercurrent in my words.

Finally, she did move, but not to make way for me. Instead, she rushed forward, to me.

Oh, yes yes yes.

My bags flopped on the ground. I let them go.

I stepped back to give me some space between me and her, and for me to evaluate what her move would be.

She swung her right arm. A wide swing, no technique or skill in her attack, just blind hope for it to connect.

It wouldn’t.

I blocked. I reached out, and stopped her with my hand. Her arm was in my grip.

Fluid, with no delay, I pressed, tightening my hold. A similar trick from when I first encountered Jillian. Like that time, her eyes widened, fearing I might actually break it. I wouldn’t go that far, even if I felt like she deserved it.

I stepped back again, and pulled, throwing her off her balance and tugging her to me.

With my other hand, I guided her, pushing her past me as she fell. I let go. Jillian went into the ground. Using my momentum from pushing her, I returned to my bags and swept them up in one swift move.

It was that easy.

“There,” I said, “Back where you belong.”

I put my back to her, feeling sickly smug yet undeniably satisfied. I probably made it worse, but I had put her in her place. It felt good.

I started walking away. I’d have to deal with her again, but at least I had this over her. A win.

I heard a shuffling behind me, a patter of steps. Jillian had gotten up and started running to me again. I could applaud her tenacity, but that would require a level of respect that simply was not there.

Once more, I faced her, the weight of my bags swinging my arms slightly. I felt like taunting her.

“You not going to-”

Uck!

My bags dropped again.

A piercing in my stomach, my lower abdomen.  Sharp. Unexpected. Cold.

My lower lip trembled.

Jillian had stabbed me in the stomach.

You really did that.

Her body was pressed against mine, so I couldn’t see what she had thrusted into me, but the cold metal narrowed down my options.

A knife. She had pulled a knife on me.

Where did that come from? No, didn’t matter right now, because right now, it was in me.

I winced, water collecting in the corners of my eyes, the pain rushing through me. I couldn’t speak, say anything. My breaths were stunted.

So much for just talking.

I couldn’t speak, but I could move.

My hands immediately went for her shoulders, gripping tight. I saw her struggle, from both my strength and coming to terms with she had just done. Now wasn’t the time for second guessing.

I considered that for the both of us. No second guessing.

I pulled my head back, winding up, then I brought it forward, slamming my forehead into the bridge of her nose. I headbutted her.

The impact forced her back, and Jillian was falling again. I felt the blade slide out out my stomach, it’s uneven path slicing the roof of my intestines. Scrambling. I could vomit.

The weapon dropped out her hand, landing beside us. It was red. It was a knife.

Oh, no no no.

She had drawn blood from me, but I got her, too. Jillian’s nose was bleeding, flowing red. It smelled so good.

My hand went to her face, pressing into her mouth and nose. She tripped over herself, leaning back too far. She went to the ground again.

I looked at my hand, drenched in red. I moved to Jillian, looming over her. Blood had gotten into her eyes, and she was whimpering in pain, her hands to her face. She couldn’t see me.

“You’re officially a psychopath,” I said, noting the irony.

I licked my fingers.

Damn this taste.

Too delicious.

I feel like I actually could get used to this. The clarity is addicting.

I brought a finger to my midriff, feeling around. Nothing. My stomach was already stitching itself up, healing, but the scene here was already a mess. Jillian was still bleeding, I had a hole in my shirt, streaked in red, and there was still the knife here to deal with. People might come to investigate soon, especially with the racket Jillian was raising.

Come up with something. Think.

I sprung into action. I bent down, opening up my sports bag, and took out a tall bottle of water. I popped the top off, and began spilling some of the water on the knife, washing away most of the blood. I made sure to conserve enough water, but I managed to clean it off. Any blood that was still here would be Jillian’s.

I spilt more of the water around us, around me, and I sat down next to my sport bag. Using the last of the water, I splashed it on my abdomen and shorts. I put the empty bottle back in the bag, and zipped it closed.

I let myself fall onto the ground, onto the wet cement. My clothes were wet, now, my hands too, and I wiped my mouth.

This should be convincing enough.

I screamed, and footsteps followed.

The place wasn’t hard to find. Getting there was the challenge.

The buildings here were tall, but they were office buildings, with brightly lit windows and people working. Someone could spot me if I wasn’t careful, even if it was this late into the night.

The city bustled below, cars sounding off, people just as loud. They had no idea.

I told myself I wouldn’t do this again, and yet, here I was.

I had everything on. Grey joggers, blue windbreaker, the mask. The wind was strong up here, serene, and it separated me from the noise below.

Soothing.

I checked the windows of the building across from me again. Everyone looked distracted enough. This was my chance.

It was an old building, quite a few floors, with a few windows on each floor really being an entrance to a balcony overlooking the street below. I was aiming for a balcony on the thirteenth floor, which was set lower than the building I was on. It was also one of the few windows that had no light shining through it.

Once I make the plunge, I thought, There’s no going back. You know that, right?

I asked myself that.

I do.

I leaped.

After a solid thud, I landed perfectly. I had crossed the street, successfully. I was sure of that. No use standing out in the open, though. Briskly, I walked to the window.

I wasn’t going to delude myself, I still didn’t want to do this, but she had opened my eyes. Jillian. There really was a fucked up world out there, full of people who had no business freely being around others. Capable of harm, capable of much more. I had seen a bit of it when I went against El Carruaje, but they were an organization, a group of people working towards something bigger. Too hard, too dangerous to tackle on my own, and I didn’t. I had help. I needed it.

But Jillian? She was one person, a psychotic individual. Her, I could handle. People like her.

If it wasn’t me, it would’ve been someone else. Jillian would’ve gotten to someone who didn’t have powers like I did, and they’d be seriously hurt, with lasting consequences. I’d make it my job, to stop people like that, before they got to anyone else. Because I could take it, whatever they threw at me.

Bring it on.

I got to the window, and found it hard to peek through. I knocked four times.

The seconds were tense. And after ten, the window clicked, and opened outward. I saw him.

Thomas.

He had the faintest expression of amusement. An ‘I told you so’ kind of look.

“I’m glad to see you again, and so soon,” he said.

“Likewise,” I said sarcastically.

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021 – Blend, Smear

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I fell backwards. I hit the ground. A thin layer of artificial grass provided some cushioning.

Some.

I felt pummeled. Like a world-class boxer just went to town on my face. My brain was scrambled. Thoughts not coming together quite right. Maybe a memory or two got knocked out of my head, somehow. Perhaps a math equation.

Was this enough for a concussion?

No, it wasn’t that bad, all things considered. I had taken worse. Way worse. I was just taken by surprise. I wasn’t expecting it. As a result, I fell.

My faceplate took the brunt of the hit – the hits – but the hard plastic was thrust against my upper lip and nose. That had to leave a mark, if not break my nose entirely. I practically took it at point-blank range.

I went to the ground, more in shock than in pain. My healing immediately kicked in.

The numbing throb in my head started slowing in tempo, another type of feeling settling in. I felt my nose move a fraction, and immediately felt like I could breath again. Like I had forgotten that I could. My nose had definitely bruised.

The pain was dissipating, now, my healing doing its job, but I was now more confused than anything else.

What was that for?

“That’ll teach you to not stand over me.”

That voice. Grating.

Probably Jillian.

“Don’t go around getting the wrong idea,” she said. “You ain’t better than me.”

The more she spoke, the more dots I was able to connect. Why I thought she was familiar.

She called me something before, before she shot me in the face.

‘Shorty.’

It was an idiotic nickname, a laughable attempt at an insult, but I remember being called that, once before.

She, Jillian…

Paint had covered my faceplate, and it was hard to see. Some light cut through, but then it dimmed some. She was standing over me.

“It’s more like this, get it?” she intoned. “Know your place.”

The fuck?

“How is your ego that fragile?”

I managed to ask that. It came out clearer than I thought it would.

I couldn’t see her face, but I was sure she had a reaction.

“Quit talking.”

She shot her paintball gun again, this time to my chest.

It was solid hit. A clean punch.

If I was able to talk clearly before, I couldn’t now.

My body twitched at the hit, but I otherwise stayed down, still stunned from what just transpired.

I heard shuffling above me, the sound going away. She ran off. What a coward.

Did… did that just happen?

I was so confused.

In the end, getting hit by a paintball gun was relatively low on my new threshold for pain. I got back on my feet easy, right away.

Externally, I was okay. I barely broke a sweat, and I didn’t get any paint on my clothes. Internally, I was fuming.

I was already annoyed with Jillian for intruding upon my date with Brandon. Now that I actually knew who she was, not only did things come together, I was mad at the fact that they had to come together like this.

She was the girl at the Strip, the one that was pissing off both me and Katy. She was also Brandon’s cousin.

Because of course she was.

I wasn’t sure if she knew about my powers. Didn’t seem like it. She would’ve brought it up. But she did know of me and Brandon. She deliberately went and stepped outside of her home today to sabotage my date, she had to. It was the only thing I could speculate about this. The only thing I couldn’t figure out was why.

Why?

I tried wiping the paint away from my faceplate, but I ended up smearing it. The different shades of color blended into a murky, dark mess. I tried again, and it got a little better, but not by much. When my faceplate cleared up a little more, I crouched down on my knees, hands out, looking for my gun. I had dropped it when I got shot. It took some time to locate it. It somehow ended up at the base of a chest-high wall. How it got there, I could only guess.

I picked it up. Taking my time, I began to maneuver my way off of the field.

Another announcement, declared overhead.

The game has concluded. All players return to the front of the field.

I took that as a reason to remove my headgear, unfastening my other equipment.

I reconvened with the others at the front, by the door leading back into the lobby. Brandon was there. So was Jillian.

Everyone was starting to take off their equipment, returning them to the boxes. The team we went up against weren’t around.

“Alexis, hey,” Brandon said after he returned his stuff. He met me at one of the boxes. “Sick moves out there, Jesus Christ.”

I rubbed my nose, as if I could fix it myself. Which, in a sense, I actually could. “I guess.”

“As soon as we started, man, you left me in smoke. That was actually really dope.”

“It ain’t nothing,” I said, trying to force levity in my voice. “Just wanna get out of here.”

“We can, now. Because of you, we destroyed those other guys. They were so salty they went back to the lobby without saying anything.”

“Good,” I said, “They deserve it.”

Deserve it, I thought.

I tried not to, but I looked at Jillian, who already had her equipment off. She was talking with her friends. Talking like nothing happened. She was laughing, joking.

Like nothing happened.

If I was ever out for blood…

I blinked, realizing where I was. I had to put conscious effort towards unclenching my fists. I didn’t notice how tense I became while watching her. How agitated I was. I was ready to run up on her, make her bleed with my own two hands. I could do it, too. No knife needed.

I wouldn’t, though. Couldn’t.

As fucked up as it was, there was no point in making a fuss about it. The less attention I brought upon myself, the better, and apparently I had raised enough attention with Jillian.

Fuck this, this isn’t worth it.

“Wanna move on?” I asked Brandon, putting forth idea of leaving. I tried masking my regret, my anger, with a higher intonation.

It seemed to work. “I’m down,” Brandon said, as cheery as ever. It wasn’t his fault, I didn’t even want him to know, but his demeanor stung me.

I smiled.

“Cool.”

I didn’t bother with any other pleasantries. I promptly left, leaving everyone behind. Brandon could go say bye to the others, to Jillian, if he wanted, but I’d count myself out.

I returned my gun by simply leaving on the counter. I saw Number Two sitting on a chair, looking into the other arena. He still had his headgear on, but I could tell he was as angry as I was. Something about his body language. All he had to brood about, though, was losing.

Wait, wasn’t he around when I got shot? Why didn’t he do anything? Say anything? Was losing so bad to him, that he’d disregard anything else?

Fuck that guy, too, then.

This day took a sour turn really fast, and I had to do my best to salvage it.

I made it out of the building, and waited outside. It didn’t take too long for Brandon to follow. Good, I didn’t want to be left alone with my thoughts.

We walked to Brandon’s car. For now, I’d power through this, keep on moving. Jillian would only be an issue if I made her into one. There were other things worth concerning myself over, but even that could wait.

“What did you think?” Brandon asked, “You have fun?”

“I did have fun,” I answered. There was some truth there. The game itself, aside from how it ended, was a blast. That, I had no problems with. I could be honest about that.

“So, where to next?” Brandon asked as we moved. “You drink coffee?”

Literally impossible, but I wouldn’t phrase it like that.

“Not a fan, really,” I said, “Too bitter.”

“You’re aware you can put in sugar, right?”

“I’m aware, Captain Obvious,” I said, forcing myself to act more casually. Unnaturally acting natural. “Just not a coffee girl.”

“That’s why I ask,” Brandon said. We got to his car, and I went over to the passenger side.

“I mean, I don’t mind going to a cafe or whatever,” I said, “I just won’t get anything. Besides, it’ll be a good place to cool down, take a break.”

A break is really what I need, right now.

Brandon nodded, satisfied. “Cool.”

Maria slapped my shoulder, expressing her disbelief.

“You’re not gonna go out with him again?”

I would’ve shrugged, but I had my bags with me. No need for the effort.

“It’s… “ I tried searching for the word. “What’s the word?”

“Moronic? A waste?”

“Complicated?” I ventured. “It’s complicated.”

“Complicated how?” Maria wasn’t having any of it. “The date didn’t go down that badly, did it?”

I got shot in the face. Three times.

“It’s just something I don’t want to pursue anymore,” I explained, vaguely.

“This isn’t a career you’re pursuing, Alexis.” Katy interjected, and I remembered she was here, too. “This is a boy we’re talking about. Much more important.”

“Sorry to disappoint, guys,” I said. We turned to move down the hall. “As much as I wanted it to before, it’s not gonna work out.”

Katy whined, her disappointment obvious. “I’ll let you go for now, Alexis, since you have your practice. But we’re not done here. You going to give us the full deets about your date, eventually.”

“And I only just now found out you ever went on one,” Maria said. “I’m offended.”

We went to a flight of stairs, slowing down our pace as everyone else was trying to squeeze their way down. “Not much happened,” I said. “Nothing to report.”

“Yeah, yeah, we could do this all day,” Katy said, “And we won’t get anywhere. Go, text me when you’re done.”

“Imma dip, too,” Maria said. “No point in hanging around like I used to.”

I felt a sense of accomplishment, there. It was the small stuff. Just that could’ve made my week.

“See you,” I said, splitting up with them when we passed the front doors of the school. With their backs to me, I couldn’t help but sulk.

It had been a few days since my date with Brandon. After my date had ended, Katy kept pestering me with texts about how it went. I ignored them, didn’t want to talk about it. Kept quiet about it too, over the next few days. Katy didn’t push any more until just now, I guessed she’d wait until I was comfortable with sharing more. Which I wasn’t, and she was already losing her patience. It was understandable, she helped facilitate and set this up between me and Brandon.

She just didn’t see Jillian throwing a wrench in things.

Speaking of which, I started seeing her around school more often, like a word I just learned and suddenly it popped up everywhere, except I wanted to forget it. Mostly standing around in the hallways, in between classes, but I could pick her out from a crowd. Was she always there, or was I just going crazy?

Maybe it was both.

I hadn’t seen her after school, barring that one time we looked for Maria, so I was spared of her presence for now. Good.

Conversely, I hadn’t seen or heard from Brandon since. Maybe he already got the message, or caught on to the fact that there wouldn’t be one. Even though I ‘secured’ that second date.

Man, fuck Jillian.

I headed towards the gym on the other side of the school, trying to find something else to think about. Like that fact that I probably needed to drink blood soon. I could feel it in my throat.

I stopped when I saw Eric and Evan by a vending machine. Harrian was with them.

I remembered when I went into the Asian goods store, when I chatted with Harrian. It had been a few days since, and I had a chance to reflect on everything. I wasn’t exactly on my best behavior that day. Even if I did have my reasons.

Normally, I would’ve kept going, but this time, I approached.

“What are you two clowns up to?” I asked.

They turned to me, with a dumb grin plastered on their faces. Calling them ‘clowns’ was an apt description.

“Oh, hey Alexis,” Eric said, his deep voice rumbling.

“I hope you’re not bothering Harrian,” I said, looking to the boy in question. I didn’t know him that well, having only talked to him back at the store, and even then, I couldn’t get a read on his expressions.

“We’re not bothering anybody,” Evan said, “We were just laughing.”

“At what?”

“Not at anything, Harry just made a joke.”

A joke?

I almost did double-take to Harrian. Putting it lightly, the last thing I would’ve considered Harrian to be was funny.

I squinted. “Now I want to know what the joke was.”

Harrian glanced elsewhere. He spoke, but his voice still carried that dull tone.

“You wouldn’t get it.”

Eric and Evan broke down into laughter again, and if I had a magnifying glass, I might have seen Harrian’s upper lip move a bit, a smile trying to escape.

So you do have a personality. That’s a relief.

“See?” Eric said, shoulders shaking, “Told you we made it up to him.”

“Yeah, we’re practically family now,” Evan added.

“I wouldn’t go that far,” Harrian said. “My Aunt would hate to be related to you two.”

“Damn,” Evan leaned back and winced, like Harrian’s comment actually stung. “Too savage, man.”

I watched the three of them converse. I really wanted to know the story there, what exactly happened to get to this point, but that wasn’t any of my business. If nothing else, I was happy for them. Eric and Evan were working on getting their third musketeer.

“Didn’t mean to intrude then,” I said, “I was going to do the whole ‘stick up for the little guy’ bit, and win some cosmic brownie points, but it looks like things are alright, here. I’ll get going.”

“Wait, Lexis, hold up,” Eric said. His voice wasn’t as jaunty as before. He managed to stop me.

“Yeah?”

“You know Jillian, Brandon’s cousin?”

I wasn’t so enthused to hear that question. “I’m familiar.”

“She’s been asking around about you. Even went to me and Evan.”

I felt myself tense. “Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“What was she asking about?”

“Just anything. What you like to do after school, what classes you have. Stuff like that. We didn’t tell her anything, promise.”

“I appreciate it,” I said.

“Yeah. I like Brandon and all, but I’ve heard about her, and… like, Brandon doesn’t like to admit they’re related unless he absolutely has to, so something’s definitely off with her. I don’t know, just thought I’d let you know, before anything bad happens.”

Anything bad. I had no idea what her problem was, or why she was asking around about me, but this was becoming borderline creepy. I didn’t want her to be trouble, but it seemed like she was making trouble on her own. Had to do something about it now, nip it in the bud. Get to the bottom of this, as it were.

“Do you know where she hangs?” I asked, making sure.

“From what I’ve heard,” Eric said, “She usually chills at the Strip. Wait, you’re going, now?”

“Sure,” I said, serious. For whatever reason, Jillian wanted me, and she was going to get me.

Round two, I figured.

Previous                                                                                               Next

007 – To Eat a Jackrabbit

Previous                                                                                               Next

The smell as I came in, it was no longer tempting. A shame, since it was what I now recognized as rice and soy sauce. It emanated from the kitchen, where I saw my mom, her back to me, hunched over the sink. She was washing dishes, and because she liked to work with background noise, the TV in the living room between us was on. She hadn’t heard me come in.

I pushed the door closed, harder than usual to make my entrance louder.

She didn’t budge. Was I already that deep in the red?

“Ma,” I said, raising my voice over the TV. Still nothing.

Ma,” I said again, this time louder. I hoped it didn’t seem like I yelled at her.

She finally turned to face me. She had no discernable expression.

“How was school?” she asked.

I shrugged. “It was good.”

She didn’t react.

“Sorry,” I continued, “We had a game today. We won.”

“Good,” she said. She let a short pause settle in, the sound of the TV coming in between us. Some cop show. “Have you eaten yet?”

“We went out to eat after the game.”

“Who were you with?”

“Katy… and some people from the team,” I made sure to neglect bringing up Brandon.

“Okay.” Another pause.

I took that as an opportunity. “Alright. Tomorrow’s Friday, and I still have a lot of homework, so…” I made a move for my room, walking through the living room, passing the TV.

“Come here,” she said, catching me off guard. I hesitated.

“I’ve really got a lot of-”

“Just come here.”

I set down my stuff, my sports bag and backpack. I walked into the kitchen, and found my mom facing me, water no longer running from the sink.

I was about to sweat. Worried about what could come next. A stern talking-to over this past week and weekend? Would I get grounded? From what, though? That shitty-ass phone? I guess I had my computer, but-

My mom extended her arm out to me, motioning me to come closer. “Come here.”

Really don’t want to. “What’s up?” I asked, trying to stay calm, casual. Wary, I got closer to her.

Her arm went around my shoulders, and she pulled me even closer. Tight. My chin brushed against the top of her head.

“You give me hug when you come home,” she said, completely serious. “You know already.”

About half of the worry fatiguing my body was instantly tossed away. But I didn’t show it on my face.

“Sorry,” I said.

My mom pointed to the food at the counter, placed in containers. “Why don’t you eat more?” She asked. “There’s still some soup and chicken.”

“Really, I’m good,” I answered, my voice scratchy. I coughed a bit. She was too close for comfort. Her neck was right there.

“Are you sure? You should eat more.”

“I’m sure,” I said as I broke away from the hug, and began sifting through the overhead cabinets for a glass. “I am a little parched though.”

As much fun as this was, I’d prefer to be back in my room. I got my glass of water, and headed out of the kitchen to get my bags and seek refuge.

“Alexis.”

I stopped, with doorknob right there. So close.

“Yes?”

“Is everything alright?” I had already passed the kitchen, so I couldn’t see her anymore. I only heard her voice.

“Everything’s fine,” I replied. Despite the very clear fact that everything happening to me at the moment was absolutely not fine, I didn’t want to get into that right now. I’d deal with it myself. “Everything’s good.”

I retreated to my room.

That actually went a lot better than I expected.

But, could that mean a really bad lecture later down the line? I didn’t know. Definitely wasn’t looking forward to that. My vocal cords scraped together with yet another cough. Like a reflex to that fear.

Just have to take it easy, if that’s even possible.

To take my mind off of the past few hours, I settled with doing my homework. I was actually looking forward to doing it.

Although settling in was easy, it turned out that doing my homework was arduous. Not the work itself, just some pointless math worksheets and Spanish vocabulary, but just having to bring myself to do it. Something kept nagging at me, the feeling of needing to do something else.

I dropped my pencil, and took a swig of water. After a deep breath, I went for my computer.

Sure enough, I found it online. Footage of me, on that night of the accident. If I had never seen this before, I definitely would’ve called bullshit. I could see why Brandon thought it was faked somehow. The person in this video, they moved too quickly, like some kind of creature.

The dash cam, however, was positioned in a way that the image cut off at the roof of the truck. You couldn’t actually see me jump away. The rest though, me knocking away the officer, pulling myself up and leaping to the roof of the truck. That was all there.

There was no real upside. Nothing I could pull away from this that would make me feel better. I found the website of the local news program that ran the story, an online written version. An interview with the EMS officer I had dealt with. Girl this, female that. He kept confirming that it was indeed a girl he dealt with. Even if the video was taken at night, even if it was a little hard to see, the words were right there, for everyone to read. No room for speculation. Awesome.

On the other hand, he wasn’t be able to identify her, thanks to the dark and that she was wearing a hood.

Alright, there was one upside, I thought to myself, Just one.

I reclined in my chair. My thirst and hunger were nagging at my consciousness even more, now, to the point that it had to be addressed. Like an alarm clock that I couldn’t turn off. I tried drinking more water, only to find that I had but a few sips left. Already?

I wanted more water – as if that would help – but I didn’t want to bump into my mom, in case she was still out there. Was that a pathetic thought? Absolutely, but I also wanted to avoid any conflict as much as possible.

How frustrating.

My head went to rest in my hands, and from the prickling feeling at the back of my neck, I knew I was about to heavily perspire. It was bad when I woke up this morning, getting worse and worse throughout the day. I had managed to fight through it for school and the game, but now, it was feral and impatient, clawing at my insides until it had been relieved of a certain, particular desire. All day, I tried to push it away, tried to ignore it. But I didn’t have that option anymore.

Dammit. I can’t take it. 

Alexis. Slow, deep breaths. Try to stay cool, calm. Collected.

I couldn’t.           

When I raised my head, and checked the time, thirty minutes had passed.

Dammit. I literally cannot even take it.

A knock on my door. I tensed.

“Alexis?” It was muffled from behind the door.

“Mom?” I sounded hoarse.

“I’m going to bed. I left the soup out.”

“Oh, okay, thanks.”

“Good night.”

“Night.”

A handful of seconds passed with silence. Did mom head to her room already?

I don’t care.

Without hesitating, I grabbed for a hoodie and my phone, and went out to the balcony. I secured a grip on the railing, and vaulted over.

I walked until I was deep into a suburb. It was a neighborhood I wasn’t unfamiliar with, just from simply living in the area for so long. Being so late and all, I was all alone as I roamed. Back when I was younger – a little younger – us kids used to play around at even this hour, but now parents were calling their children to come inside earlier and earlier as the years went by.

Every few steps, I was basked in the artificial light of a street lamp above me. After a few more, I was back in darkness. The more I walked, the tighter I hugged my midriff. A type of ravishing pain that could only come about from a few days of improper eating. I hunched over to try and wind down the grumbling. Had anyone seen me, I’d probably be mistaken for a bumbling hobo.

I inhaled a deep breath, but coughed as I exhaled.

I wanted to go for a walk to clear my head, but I only confused.

The very thought, the concept itself was something I despised having to just think about. The fact that this was something I had to seriously consider and wrap my head around. I clenched my fists, infuriated, remembering what happened back at the restaurant. Back at the game, with Eve. Back at that truck, when I discovered the woman. This awful realization.

Regular food sucked now. And the only thing that seemed to whet my appetite was…

I clenched again, even harder, until my fingernails dug into my palm.

Blood.

Blood. A bodily fluid that runs in humans and animals, transporting nutrients and oxygen to cells, giving them what they need to properly function in a living body. A fundamental necessity for life.

Unbelievable.

What was I, some kind of vampire? I didn’t even want to use the word vampire, since even that sounded more ridiculous than the situation I was currently having to deal with. And, didn’t vampires have an aversion to sun and stuff? I haven’t melted in the sunlight. Not yet, for all I knew. All food sucked now, and that would include garlic. What else? Anyone would die from a stake to the heart, and anyone would die from a bullet, whether or not it was made from silver. A shadow? If I didn’t have one, it would have been among the first things I’d notice. Counting rice? I used to count spare rice on my plate when I was bored at the dinner table. But that was due to me being a hyperactive kid, not due to any sprung-upon supernatural OCD.

The only similarity here was that I needed blood.

And even if I was a vampire, how was I supposed to get sustenance? Going after people was out of the question. I’d rather just starve to death instead. The day that happens would be the day I no longer considered myself a person. But then what? What were my alternatives? Maybe I could still technically eat regular food, but it was just really bad. Could I last a week eating like that? Could I last the rest of my life eating like that? I recalled the smell of food, now. The answer was a hard ‘no.’ But then what?

As though to answer my question, a shape moved in the dark. What I assumed was the dark, anyways, since it was sitting in the middle of the road, outside the range of the streetlamps.

A rabbit.

Walk around for long enough, whether it was an apartment complex or a suburb, it was almost guaranteed that you’d eventually come across one. Annoyingly common. I used to chase them all the time as a kid, but naturally, they were always too fast to catch. Dumb but agile creatures. Cute, though.

A bodily fluid that runs in humans… And animals.

I didn’t like the direction my thoughts were going, but the idea came to me regardless.

I stepped onto the street. There shouldn’t be any cars at this hour, but I was still careful. Making sure every step made no noise, I walked closer to the animal. When I was about eight feet away, the rabbit’s ear twitched.

It immediately broke into a run, scurrying left, off towards a house. By now, I’d just let it run off, but that would defeat the purpose of me being here. I straightened my back, preparing myself.

I too broke into a run, attempting to intercept it as it went directly to a bush. I surprised myself, as I already made it in between the rabbit and its escape route.

“All righty,” I said, talking aloud for whatever reason.

I threw out my arms, hoping to catch it. It shifted directions instantly, juking me to get to a fence past me. It slipped under a small hole in the wood, and got to the other side.

“Tricky bastard.” But I wasn’t going to give up so easily. My stomach had already begun to twist into knots. I blinked away tears as my thirst spiked in pain.

“Fuck.”

I jogged to the fence, and performed the smallest hop I could. I recalled the time at the barn. And the truck.

“Agh!”

This time, I underestimated it. I did get over the fence, but my foot got caught at the top, and I toppled over, my body thumping on dirt and grass.

Will I ever get the hang of this?

I got up, and dusted my clothes off. I was in the backyard of someone’s home. If I wanted to catch that rabbit, now was the time.

Searching the surprisingly small perimeter, I found it, still in a far corner. It probably calmed down, thinking it escaped me. Sorry, buddy, not this time.

I ran to its position, staying light on my feet, carefully observing the animal for any tells for where it would run.

It didn’t even look at me, but from the way it twitched, I knew it was going to go left.

I moved in accordance to it, shifted my weight properly, and crouched down, my knees pressed against my chest. From that position, I dove to intercept it.

“Gotcha!” I announced with some pride, feeling fur enter into my open hands.

I stayed on the ground for a moment, securing my hold on the animal. It wriggled and squirmed around, wanting to get free.

When I was sure I had a good hold, I stood up.

It continued to struggle in my hands, but I wasn’t going to yield so easily. “Ow!”

A sharp prick on my right hand. It bit me. I moved my hand away, and secured my grip elsewhere on its body. I watched as the small mark by my thumb disappeared.

What I had planned, I definitely couldn’t do in someone’s backyard. I leapt over the fence, properly this time, and returned to the neighborhood proper. I thought of where to go. I scouted over the different routes in my head.

The park. The only place that came to me. Not too far from here, and plus, there wouldn’t be anyone there. Shouldn’t.

Perfect.

Securing the rabbit in my arms, I jogged over there.

The park’s setup was simple. A simple playground, with a swing set on one side, and a playhouse made up of climbers and swings on the other. But I wasn’t here to play. I was more interested on what was past the playground. As I crossed the playground, woodchips crumpled under my feet.

I didn’t know whose bright idea was it to build a playground near a ditch, but there it was. The slope was steep enough that a wooden railing was built on the side that faced the playground to prevent kids from falling in, not that I ever heard of that happening. Like whoever put it here did it only to get any complaining parents off their back, and thought, ‘Good enough.’ The ditch itself was wide, and was filled with tall grass and a single tree. No one would see me here.

The railing went only up to my hip, so getting over wouldn’t be an issue. But I did have to brace myself when I landed on the slope, running to prevent a fall. I slowed down when I got into the waist-high grass.

When I was sure I was all good, I held the rabbit out in front of me. It still squirmed around, but it was more sluggish now.

“Tired?” I asked the rabbit. Why did I ask that?

I took a better look at it. It was so cute, with its fluffy white fur, and its round shape. There was some black on it, a splash of dark fur across the left shoulder. Other than that, it was wholly white. How it twisted and turned, looking for a way to escape, it broke my heart. But when another fine pang of pain almost caused me to bowl over, I remembered why I was here.

“Sorry,” I said, stroking its head. “I really am.”

While I stroked it, I brushed its fur, exposing what should be its neck. I stalled for a moment, watching as it no longer protested, and it just stayed still, breathing. It gave me second thoughts.

Was this even sanitary? I could heal from cuts and broken bones, but that didn’t necessarily mean I was immune to disease. I grimaced.

The now-constant pounding all throughout my body served as a decent reminder. I’d take the risk.

“Here I go.”

I bit into its neck. Immediately, my mouth was filled with blood and fur. I had to fight the urge to back away and spit it out, because, if I backed down now, I couldn’t bring myself to do it again. Plus, it was just gross. The feeling of the rabbit’s body writhing for a second, and then going limp, relenting all control, I’d never forget that.

I brought the rabbit away from my face, being careful to not get blood on my face or hoodie. I was now holding a dead animal. Probably a good idea to get rid of this.

Going further into the grass, I placed it down, setting it down in its final resting place. Silently, with all my heart, I thanked it for its sacrifice.

Walking back up the slope, I picked at my tongue, trying to get out every strand of fur. Some blood dripped down a corner of my mouth. A chill soothed the back of my neck. I was significantly less on edge than when I got here. I kept thinking back to the taste of that rabbit.

“Not bad.”

Like a thick raspberry jelly, few days old. Not exactly the best thing ever, but by god, it was better than literally everything else I had all day. All week. It disturbed me, just how much I was mulling over this. How good it tasted.

But I could drink it. That was the golden takeaway from all of this. I had an alternative. What a fucking relief. I nearly buckled down to my knees.

A vibration in my pocket. I went for the phone, checking the message. I read the message from Katy.

“How bad was it?” she texted.

Both hands were necessary to reply. I hated how I needed to press a number multiple times in order to cycle to the letter I wanted. Accidentally press it one too many times, and you’d have to cycle through it all again. It made texting slow and frankly, not fun. A simple reply that I could knock out in a second took me thirty times as long.

“Wasn’t bad, maybe bad later. L-O-L,” I said as I typed it, not bothering with punctuation and capitalization.

A reply already. “Good. Think you can take it easy?” I read.

A word was certainly easier than a sentence, my response coming much faster this time.

“Yes.”

Katy left it at that, no longer responding. I put the phone away.

Elated. My thoughts went back to my newfound discovery. An alternative. I had an alternative.

I wiped the blood, and the smile, that was smeared across my face.

“Alexis, Lexi!”

“Hey, vámonos.”

A smack to my arm almost led to me smacking my chin against the table. I caught myself in time, but it woke me up to where I was. Lone Star Chicken. Around lunch time.

“Get up, girl, we ‘bout to head out.”

“Huh, what’s going…” I mumbled. I faced the blurry images sitting in front of me. I pressed my wrist against my eyes, but that didn’t help at all.

“I said c’mon, I can’t afford another tardy no more.” From the Hispanic accent, I could tell the blurry shape to my right was Maria.

“I agree, let’s go.” And by process of elimination, the one on my left was Katy.

“Yeah, sounds… sounds good,” I said, still drowsy from my short nap. They both started coming into focus.

Katy was the first to voice her concern. “You okay? I’ll get you something.”

I raised my hand, the palm facing her. “Not hungry.”

“That’s not good. You can’t keep skipping lunch, you’re gonna get thinner.”

“Really, no need to worry.”

She pursed her lips, but arguing with me would be futile. After how many years, she should know that by now. She knew I was stubborn. Katy huffed out of her nose, and got up from the table, putting away her tray.

After we cleaned up, we headed out. When I got outside, I grabbed the sunglasses clipped to my sweater, and put them on. Maria drove us back to school.

Friday. As for now, my thirst, and appetite, had largely been curbed. I still got thirsty from time to time, but I could tell it was thirst for water, and not the ‘other’ thirst. Just somehow, within me, they were distinct sensations. And, I’ve also noticed that my other thirst was, in one way or another, tethered to my hunger for food. I was honest when I told Katy I wasn’t hungry. I hadn’t been at all since last night. Since I had rabbit for the first time. I did wonder how long until I had to feed again, though.

If I had known that I could never eat my favorite chicken sandwich ever again, I wished had I savored my last one a little longer.

We got to school in time, slipping into the mass of bustling students and making it into our respective classrooms. Just as the bell rang, I slipped into my seat, and put away my sunglasses. Made it by the skin of my teeth.

Thoughtlessly, my pen jotted down whatever it was my teachers said.

Classes ended one after another, with little homework for the weekend, which I liked. I didn’t want any more on my plate at the moment. The school day ended, and I left my English classroom with Katy, the bell ringing in the background. Between the two of us, we couldn’t look any less alike. She had on tight jeans and an even tighter red sweater, while I wore shorts, and a green and white striped long sleeve sweater. She had only her purse and a notebook, and I had my binder and my backpack slung over one shoulder. By looks, we were so mismatched.

Being on the second floor, it was always a hassle getting down, having to move with the mass of people who want to escape from the school and fall into the warm embrace of the weekend as soon as possible. It was Friday, after all.

“By the way,” Katy said, sparking up conversation, “Let’s go down to Braham this weekend. You never got to eat your birthday cake.”

I just kept looking forward.

“Sorry, maybe not this time.” I wasn’t ready to go back there again. Not so soon, anyways.

Katy pretended to stumbled on the last step of the stairs. “Whoa, that’s not the Lexi I know.”

I rolled my eyes at her, and elbowed her in the arm. “And who is the Lexi you know?”

“The Lexi I know would have jumped at the chance to go anywhere, do anything.”

“I’m not that carefree. And what if I said I had some homework over the weekend? I still haven’t finished my project for Goldstein.”

“A paper and model representation of chemical bonding can wait.”

“What about my mom?” I brought up.

“What about her?”

“She’s not going to let me out the house that late. Not anytime soon.”

“You still have your rope, don’t you? We’ll go after she falls asleep. And we’ll be back before she ever wakes up. It’ll be fine.”

“You really thought this through, didn’t you?”

“Sure did. We don’t even have to invite Brandon this time around, keep your mind off of making a mess of yourself in front of him.”

“Wow, holding that over me?”

“Come on, it’ll be fun. Even more fun since we’ll be careful this time. I’ll hire a bodyguard, my eyes and ears.”

“You’re joking.”

“Between me and Maria, not even germs will be able to touch you. Maybe we can even get Maria’s boyfriend for some extra muscle.”

“You’re definitely joking.”

Katy shook her head. “Speaking of which…” she trailed off, and let the conversation die.

We got to the front hall of the school, but we couldn’t make our way out. From the other side of the hall, two boys in letterman jackets came running towards us. We stepped one way, and they stepped to block us. We stepped another way, and they blocked us again.

“Let’s just leave through another hall?” Katy suggested. I agreed.

“Hey hey! Hold on now!” one of the boys said. Eric.

“Lexis, Katy, sup!”

Katy raised her shoulders, crossing her arms as she did so.

“Hi.”

I gave the boys my own message with my body language, throwing my hands into my pockets, smiling.

Eric ignored my intended meaning, and winked my way. He was more brick wall than man, and I didn’t expect anything to get through his thick skull, anyways.

The thin, spindly blond beside him, Evan, nodded with a coy look. Whenever I saw those two together, something was about to go down. Those two were probably known more for their pranks than their actual performance on the football team.

“What is it this time?” Katy asked. Her voice was higher than usual. She raised her chin and tilted her neck.

Eric answered Katy with another question. “Either of you have cash?”

“How come?”

“Oh, nothing,” he said in a sing-song voice. It sounded off with how deep his voice actually was.

“You want money? You’ll have to earn it somehow.”

Evan spoke up. “We’re putting something together for Harry. Something of a little gift.”

My mind focused on the name ‘Harry.’

Harrian Wong. Some sophomore who had been in the sights of those two troublemakers for the past few months. Why exactly was he subjected to their practical jokes, I didn’t know. Was it because he was a foreign exchange student, just coming in from China? Maybe, but considering my being half-Japanese, they didn’t bug me about that.

They bugged me in other ways.

But, other than his ethnicity, I didn’t know much else about the guy. I only really knew him from his association with Eric and Evan. Meaning that this conversation wasn’t about anything good.

“What are you two planning this time?” I asked.

Eric winked. “Stick around, you’ll find out.”

I broke eye contact with him. “Nah.”

“Either way, I don’t have any money on me, sorry,” Katy said, her tone playful on that last word.

“Aw, I bet you can spare me something, babe,” Evan raised an eyebrow, reaching to stroke Katy’s hair.

Katy slapped his hand, but giggled anyways. On occasion, she still scared me.

“How about you?” Evan asked me, acting in much the same manner. Not that I didn’t want to play along, but I just wanted to go home. Coach let us off the hook for our performance at the game yesterday, allowing us a break. The stream of people leaving the school had already thinned out. These two were getting in my way.

“I’m with Katy. You’re not getting a cent if you don’t tell me.”

Evan dropped his shoulders, and his act. “We’ve been messing with Harry for a bit, and we wanted to make it up to him.”

Eric jabbed a thumb at Evan. “Yeah, that. We realized we were being assholes, we thought we were just joking around, but nah.” He shrugged.

“What is this so-called ‘gift’?” I probed. This seemed more like an interrogation than a casual conversation.

The boys glanced at each other. “That’s really between us,” Evan said, with no trace of any mischief. As he spoke, the bell rang. The last bell of the day, meaning that any students who had no legitimate business still being in school, academic or otherwise, they’d better get lost. Meaning I should already be out of the building.

Evan continued. “We’re only talking to you ladies since you were close. It’s really nothing if you don’t have nothing.”

I looked at the two of them, surveying them carefully.

They seem genuine enough…

“Ugh, here,” I fished into my backpack for my wallet, taking out a dollar and some cents. I held the money over Eric’s already outstretched hand.

“Hold it,” I said, pulling my hand away just as he was about to reach for it. “I don’t really get it, but I swear you better be serious.”

“No worries,” Eric said. “Cross my heart, hope to die, and all that shit.”

“And one more thing,” I said, pulling my hand away even more.

“What?” Eric asked.

“Brandon, has he said anything?”

Eric tilted his head. “Anything? About what? You?”

I was too embarrassed to say more.

“Hate to say it, babe, but no. Haven’t seen him around lately.”

I grunted, eyed him suspiciously, but the clock in my head began to tick louder. Wanna go home. I dropped the money into his grasp. Eric and Evan fist bumped, and they ran back down the hall, turning a corner, and they were gone.

Katy sighed. “Those two are just asking for something crazy to happen.” She turned to me, dropping the previous mask she wore for the boys. “And you. You’re coming with us to a party. This weekend.”

I exhaled. “We’ll see.”

“You mean we’ll see you there?”

“You’re delusional.”

She clicked her tongue. “Shut up. Saturday, Sunday, whatever, I’m going to pick you up, we’re going to get a cake, and we’re meeting up with Maria and we’ll party it up. This is happening.

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001 – A Fool’s Apple

epy-arc-1-yomi

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There was an hour before midnight, but I already wanted to go home.

I stood by the door, idly watching as the others partied and had a good time. There must have been, what, twenty or thirty people here, and it was loud. Surprised I could hear myself think. The fat bass that spilled out of the speakers at the other end of the room filled my ears. The stuttering hi-hats tapped on my patience, withering it away with every loop of its uneven rhythm. The room was dimmed until I could only see my hand from arm’s length, so the only real source of light came from the neon strobe lights that illuminated people as they danced. A girl was grinding on a guy. That looked like Jenny, and that looked like Eric. Actually, multiple girls were grinding on multiple guys. I was reluctant on calling that ‘dancing’ anymore.

In other words, it was Friday night.

“Hey!” A familiar voice called out to me. I looked away from my watch to search for who that was. I could barely make out the outline of her body, but only one person wobbled like that when she was drunk.

“Katy,” I said, my tone more accusatory than I had intended.

“Wutteryou doing?” Katy slurred, “Come on, this was supposed to be all fer you!” She tossed me a red cup, and I caught it before its contents could spilled on me. No, it was empty of any liquid, but full of a nauseating smell. Rum.

“Nah, you know I’m not into that,” I said. “Plus, it gets my face way too red.”

“Nuh-uh, if that were really true, then you wouldn’t have went off with Brandon for shots just twenty minutes ago,” she teased, using that upper register tone that I hated.

I cleared my throat. “Well, that… That was different,” I said, wiping my lip and looking down. I was glad she couldn’t see the pink flush in my cheeks.

Katy tried to start another sentence. “But that’s… that’s…”

“What?”

“Irreverent.”

“Excuse me? Do you mean, ‘irrelevant’?”

“Yeaaaah, that. Tell me, did you… do…” In failing to articulate herself through words, she went for a vulgar gesture instead. I slapped at her hands.

“Shut up!”

“Anyway, one, one, one, one,” Katy kept repeating, until she started to sing the word ‘one’ along with the song playing in the foreground. It took me longer than it should have to realize she meant, ‘At least have one.’

Fuck, I told myself, I’m gonna regret this. I looked at my watch on my left wrist. Eleven o-three.

“Fine.”

Shit, I knew it.

It had only been thirty minutes, and I could feel the room spin. Like I was in those tea cups on a merry-go-round, and I was spinning in that while the whole thing was spinning around. Spinning forever. But I was only lying on the couch, with a cold glass in my hand.

The music sounded far away, fading into some nothingness. Weird, I didn’t know the living room could fit sixty more people.

Shit, I knew it. I just hoped I didn’t get another stain on my new skirt.

Struggling to get off my back, my head dizzied exponentially with every movement. The headache tomorrow morning was going to suck, that much was certain. But I couldn’t bring myself to care right now.

I weighed the glass in my hand. Heavy. I brought it to eye-level. Not a glass, a bottle. Completely devoid of any liquid. I deserved no pat on the back for that one.

I pushed myself to get off of the couch, accidentally bumping into a couple sitting beside me. I would’ve went to apologize, but they were more concerned with each other than to pay me any mind. I left the bottle behind at the couch.

Again, I looked at my wristwatch. It took an embarrassing minute to finally get it down, since the time changed from eleven thirty-one to eleven thirty-two. Twenty-eight minutes until midnight. Until…

Until I was wholly and unequivocally screwed.

With no conscious effort, I stumbled towards the door leading outside, maneuvering through the crowd of ‘dancers’. I was operating under a previous thought, before Katy swung by to bestow this horrible feeling upon me, before leaving me alone. If I didn’t know any better, it was like she was trying to intentionally screw me over.

“Yehryuhjoeeng?” I heard from behind me. Didn’t recognize the voice. I knew this one, ‘Where you going?’

I didn’t want my attempt at speaking to be as horrendous. I answered without turning back, “Out, bit.”

What I had meant was, ‘I’ll be out just for a bit.’ Whatever, they’d get it.

I reached out for the knob, missed, missed again, finally got a hold of it, and twisted. Good work, team.

The chilly night air greeted me as I stepped outside, a sudden burst of wind closing the door for me. The soft fabric of my skirt lifted up away from my waist. My hands were slow in fixing it, but there was no one else out here anyways.

I took a deep breath in through my nose, hoping to avoid how thick my mouth was with the stench of alcohol. Looking up, the moon rose high above. Pretty, though it basked in its light rather than providing any use for me. As I expected, it was really dark out here.

Despite everything, going for a walk right now sounded kind of enticing, so I opted to take it, if not just to get away from the music, which I could still hear from only a few steps away from the porch. I turned around to get a good look at the house. Or mansion, to be specific.

Braham Manor, the perfect secluded spot for teens and young adults to party. The two-story, old-school plantation home used to be a site of awful human right violations I read about in Mr. Richard’s US History class on Tuesdays and Thursdays. But now, on Friday nights, it was the place to be for teens to drink, have sex, and generally be free to act with no limits. Not that I condoned that type of behavior, but hey, a party was a party.

Screw it.

I took my phone out from the pocket of my skirt, and lit the way.

Strolling away from the house, my legs were on autopilot. Braham Barn, which was somehow more iconic than the fancy mansion, was down the dirt path that led back onto actual road, and then the city. Katy and Maria had originally planned it to be the main venue of the party, but more people came than anticipated, and because of the usual Friday festivities going on anyways, it was decided to merge the two together. There shouldn’t be anyone there, I guessed. Take a seat, and chill there. Sounded like a good idea to me. Clearing my head became a priority. I couldn’t recall why at the moment, but I wanted to go home. Unfortunately, I couldn’t right now. This was a decent compromise.

I now had a goal in mind. Good. Better than going about aimlessly. I squeezed past the cars and trucks that haphazardly parked in front of the mansion.

The farther I got away from the mansion, the louder my ears rang. From all that music and screaming, I could hardly hear my own footsteps as I walked on the dirt and rocks.

I could hardly even hear the rustling of the dry corn fields that made the edges of the path.

My head was still spinning, and I knew I wasn’t going in a straight line. I could turn around and verify via my footsteps, but that was unnecessary work. Not wanting to make my walk a terribly boring one, my thoughts went to my school schedule the next week. Had to keep my mind off of other stuff.

But I tried to make it into a game. How much could I remember if I was this inebriated? I checked off the list in my head. A chemistry project due on Monday. Tuesday… I had to read a chapter. Was it chapter seven or chapter ten? Dang, but that was what this game was about.

Nothing in particular on Wednesday, I thought, I can relax then.

As though they could agree with me, the dry leaves scraped together behind me.

So then, on Wednesday… What to do, then? Maria said a boutique opened up recently, should I dip during lunch and go with her? Maybe. But back to school. Was there anything else? Math, possibly? Probably.

Thursday, though, Thursday, was the big game. No chance in hell could I miss that. Coach would kill me.

Again, the plants agreed. I tried to tune it out, but they were already grating their way to the front of my attention. These damn plants wouldn’t stop. How windy was it?

Wait, but I felt no wind on my skirt. The plants in front of me weren’t moving either.

Don’t tell me…

I wheeled around.

I peered into the darkness, and only now did I realize just how far I walked. The mansion was miniscule, the roof lit by wandering red and green spotlights, but other than that, it was pitch black. I raised my phone’s light a bit higher, but I couldn’t see anything else. It was just me on this path.

Well, it should be, at least.

That rustling noise continued, but I couldn’t see who was behind it. Wouldn’t surprise me if it was some boys from the football team. For some reason, they liked to think they were funny. Probably from one too many head collisions.

“Not funny, guys,” I yelled out. My voice carried into the open air. Nothing. That noise continued.

“When I beat your ass, I don’t want to hear ‘it was just a prank!’”

Nothing.

Whatever, I thought. I was too drunk for this shit. Speaking of which…

Turning on the front-facing camera on my phone, I decided to take a look at myself. The bright light took some time getting used to. Yikes. Maybe not the best idea. Just from my cheeks, I was red as an apple. My eyes were more squinted and slanted than ever, and I had to force one of them open with my fingers to see that it was also red.

That was enough. No need to see how messed up I was.

Putting the phone out in front of me again, I looked down again at my watch. Eleven forty-two. It had already been ten minutes? Damn, and it’d take ten minutes to get back, obviously. It’d be awkward if they started off the countdown without me. Chilling out at the barn was now out of the question.

I turned to head back. At the same time, the noises stopped.

It was about ten feet ahead of me. A figure of something I had a hard time getting a grasp of, shrouded in the dark. But I was close enough to venture an educated guess.

“Dammit,” I muttered to no one, “Coyote.” Coyotes were known to frequent these fields, but no one I knew ever ran into any whenever we came out here. Sure, there was a rusted old sign at the entrance of the plantation that read ‘Beware of Coyotes,’ but nobody ever spare a second to read it.

It blocked my path back to the house. The only way I would be getting back was if I managed to walk past it, but I’d rather not chance that. Walking through the field and around it would take away my vision and mobility completely. Drunk or not, I wasn’t that stupid. But I took one step forward, hoping maybe, just maybe, I’d end up scaring it away. I halved the distance between me and the coyote, but it hadn’t budged.

Okay, maybe I was that stupid.

Sweat started to trace the back of my neck, and my thoughts rushed to figure out something I could do. Maybe call Katy? Perhaps, but considering how drunk she was before, she was probably out cold in a corner somewhere by now. Maybe someone else? A good quarter of my contact list did make up the people at the party, so I had the luxury of choice, at least. Now, just gotta go through my phone, I silently planned. Be careful, and try not to shine it in its eyes. My wrist shook as I tried.

Hold on. Wait a minute. My phone light caught something.

First of all, coyotes have fur, and this thing’s legs were thin, grey, and hairless. And those weren’t paws, they looked like hands.

Without thinking, I moved my light a tad higher. It was hunched over on all fours, crouching like it was about to pounce. Step by step, I backed away while keeping my eyes on the thing.

Where I was supposed to see a snout, was instead just long, jet black hair, soaked and covering its whole head. Also, coyotes weren’t generally known to be draped in a dark scarlet cloth.

It shivered. And so did I.

It shook again, and I noticed a red liquid glistening from my artificial light, dripping through its cloth down onto the dirt. It trailed off the path, and some of the tall plants were soaked in the same color.

Blood?

Was it bleeding all the way here?

“Keh… keh… keh…” The thing breathed. Raspy and frail. Dry. My grip on reality slipped with every intake of breath. There was nothing to base this thing on, nothing to help me compartmentalize and understand it.

I’d much rather beware a coyote right now.

It shifted, and the subtle movement was towards me.

Run, what are you doing, run!

Shock rushed through me. There were no real thoughts, just instinct. Get the fuck away from whatever this thing is. My body took over for me, and sprinted away in the opposite direction. As though my body could purge itself from my drunken stupor, I ran. Where? Didn’t care, just not here.

I heard a rush behind me, and I only managed about ten wobbly steps.

My leg fell out from under me, and I collapsed onto the dirt.

“Ack!” I coughed.

There was a strange sensation, a tugging on my left leg, and the ground crawled away from me. Wait, the earth itself wasn’t moving.

I was being dragged.

Mustering up whatever energy I had left, I brought my body in tight and spun. I broke free, and both my legs hit the ground.

Sluggishly, I crawled to the edge of the path, pulling myself up using the stems of dried plants. My head was thumping in every direction. This wasn’t good.

It was taking too long for me to get up, my body betraying me in this crucial moment. Was that brief burst of adrenaline the best I could do?

“Ohmygod,” I cursed, “Jesus-fucking-Christ.” My heart was in my throat. I had no clue what that thing was, or why I was being attacked. Why it had to be me. Fear began to grip my body. All the reason in the world to run away, but none of the energy.

I wanted to cry.

Instantly, two intensely sharp pains penetrated my lower back, and I was lifted up from those fine points. My feet lost the feeling of the earth beneath me, and my stomach sank into nausea. Like going down a rollercoaster.

Without warning, I was thrown into the air.

One, two, three seconds airborne. Tears streamed down my face as I descended back down.

On instinct, I threw my arms out in front of me. Awful idea. I crashed onto the hard dirt, and my arms folded into themselves. They snapped like twigs, and the sound of bones breaking was audible.

Upon my rough fall, I continued to roll from the momentum. I rolled, rolled, rolled. How I felt on the couch paled in comparison to this. Desperately, I wanted to stop, but luck wasn’t on my side today.

Finally, I did, and I was on my back. Scratches peppered my legs, face, and I knew it was worse for my arms. By now, they were nothing but dead weight, I couldn’t even move a finger. My back was wet, my clothes getting seeped in blood.

To cope with everything, I tried to make out where I was.

My vision was blurry, fading, yet I could tell that I was on the crossroads of the dirt path, and the path to the barn was right up ahead. The barn’s doors were open, taunting me with a false promise of refuge.

I want to go home.

“Ugh…” My eye widened until they were saucers.

A thick mass of substance suddenly rose from my stomach and up my throat. I threw up.

A mixture of a hamburger, rum, Brandon, more rum and blood. Any attempt not to gag was futile.

Why, why… why? Was this how I was going to die? Covered in blood and vomit, and my entire upper body enflamed in an excruciating pain? Why did this have to be me? I didn’t deserve any of this.

No one did.

And as if all of that wasn’t enough, a cold claw gripped my neck, and lifted me back up to the air.

“Agh, kuh… okh!” My windpipe was forced closed, and a scraping wheeze was all that came out. But from being this close up, and the moon high above, I finally got a good look at whatever the hell this thing was.

It held me with only one hand, a testament to its strength. Standing upright, it glared at me with beady, black eyes. Its wet hair finally parted away from its face, only the occasional strand sticking to its cheeks. And like its hair, the cloth it was wrapped in parted away from its body, exposing its naked torso.

I could see it all. A sickly grey skin tone, a canvas for the blood that dripped from a gaping wound in its chest. My eyes wandered to its legs.

A… girl?

She cocked her head back, catching more moonlight, and opened her mouth for another harsh breath. A freezing terror slithered down my spine. Her canines were unnaturally sharp. Grotesquely sharp.

Snapping out of my trance, a will to fight back bubbled in me. My arms were useless, so I tried my legs. Coiling a leg, I sprung a kick.

Fuck, I missed. All I did was brush right beside her.

But she noticed.

With her free arm, she seized my left forearm and violent jerked back. I immediately more felt right-heavy.

“Gyaaaaaaaaaaaaah!”

Fuck! What the fuck!

She twisted in place, and I was spun around. After a stomach-churning rotation, she let go of my neck, and I was thrown.

I soared through the barn entrance, all light was robbed from me as the ceiling passed overhead. My back slammed onto hard wood, and I banged against chairs and tables before skidding to a stop.

The pain was so bad I swore that I was getting used to it, and I just stayed on the cold dusty floor, shivering. My breathing was short and shallow, my chest not moving at all. A punctured or collapsed lung? I wouldn’t know, I wasn’t a doctor. But you wouldn’t need a doctor to know that I was fucked. It was easier to list what wasn’t broken than what was.

There were no tangible thoughts. No particular memory, person, or concept came to me. I just wanted to die five seconds ago.

A repugnant smell of blood soon filled my nose, and the messy stump that was once my left arm continued to bleed out. In a second, I was lying in yet another pool of red.

Just…

Please…

Let it end already.

And to my shock and continued horror, she pounced, clearing the distance from the barn’s entrance and landing on top of my stomach, officially knocking out all the little remaining wind out of me. Pinning down my one arm, she dug sharp nails into my fresh stump. I cried out. She breathed again. Somehow, I had the feeling she was wholly disinterested.

She removed her hand out of where my arm used to be, and as a move that, even then, I was shocked by, she brought her hand into her mouth. She licked her fingers. She swallowed. A slight change, but her body language shifted. Loosened.

By drinking my blood?

“ノノノノ, ノノノノ, ノノノノ, ノノノノ!” Her voice was so weak. Like it pained her to speak.

Or…? A? Were they even words?

“ノノ… ノノノ ノノノノ ノノ ノノノノノノノノノ, ノノノノ ノ ノノノ ノノノノ ノノノノノ!”

Perhaps at her response to her attempt at communication, I began to spasm uncontrollably, my heart racing to a near flat-line. A final resort? It was as useless as anything else I tried to do.

Ignoring me, she removed her hand out of where my arm used to be, she slowly stroked my fractured collar bone. Blood trickled from her finger down the curve of my neck, mixing with sweat. She leaned in closer to my face. Her breath reeked. Like rotten fish.

Those teeth again.

“ノノノ, ノノノ, ノノノ… ノノノ’ノノ ノノ ノノノノ ノノノノノノ. ノノノ, ノノノノノノ ノノ!”

She bit into my neck.

Funny…

It really was…

I saw myself there, on the floor of that forsaken barn, writhing in pain and agony as her sharp fangs pierced the nape of my neck, and tore out a sizable chunk. I watched as my face went blue, as I was no longer operating on a sufficient amount of air. I tried to flail, but her overpowering strength constrained me, kept me down.

But, it was funny, because I didn’t feel any of it. No longer did I feel anything real. Like I was outside of myself, watching a secondary character from some schlock horror movie get brutally killed off, and not really sympathizing. And I was okay with that.

If this was what it was like to die, then I didn’t really mind at all.

Maybe it was better this way.

That- was what I thought.

A rumble. Far away. Like a single instance of a boom of thunder.

There was no sign of acknowledgement on her part, but she suddenly got up, and leapt away, allowing me only a little bit of air. I looked up, but everything was hazy.

A shape loomed over my body. A person, maybe. Features too blurry. Help?

It moved over me, and there was a still, brief respite before I was dragged again, tugged by my only arm. An unhurried, uneven pace. I was set down elsewhere, moved somewhere else in the barn, but I couldn’t determine where.

Another distant boom of thunder.

My vision was worsening by every passing moment, and when the shape appeared over me again, it was much less a shape, and more like a gray blob, the edges smudged into the black surrounding it like a watercolor painting.

To my right, I heard something like a dull thud. A sensory reminder that I was still alive, however barely.

The colors on the top part of the blob shifted a bit. If this was a person, or the thing from before, then it would be the approximate placement of their face. Exchanging words? A gesture? Baring their teeth? I no longer had the sensory capabilities to understand anything. A throbbing pulse throughout my body, and sizzling sensation coming from my left stump, like the wound was splashed in acid.

That- was all I felt.

The hazy blob-shape shifted again, and my face was stuck, forcing my head to look right. And that was when I saw it. It was close enough that I could actually tell what it was.

My left arm.

White as snow, and most likely just as cold. Unmoving, helpless. I cast my final few glances at the watch that adorned the wrist. And a singular, gold line inside the watch, pointing in one direction. I could surmise.

Midnight.

At last, I was starting to feel sleepy, my eyesight completely fading to black, my heart slowing down to a near stop. Right before I went to bed, I heard something. Faint.

A succession of individual sounds, each carrying a different pitch. A distinct rhythm.

A melody.

A song?

They must have started without me. I sang along in my ahead, it’d be weird to do it out loud.

Happy birthday to you, Alexis…

Happy birthday to you.

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