044 – Hide & Seek

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Frozen, color drained, all the blood in my body feeling as though it stopped circulating. Realistically, that sensation only lasted some odd seconds, but it might as well have lasted for years on end.

There were very few things in this world that would do that to a person. Maybe once, perhaps twice, it’d happen to them.

Yet for me, that feeling just kept coming.

And this was the strongest that feeling had hit yet.

Fuck.

The intercom came back on.

Bluemoon, or Blank Face, whatever the fuck you want to call yourself, you’ve been a goddamn thorn in my side the second this all started. And all from the safety and comfort of a fucking mask. That’s cheating, you know that? But no more. That mask can no longer protect you. I know you’re a student here. I know that you’re actually a girl.

I battled with the urge to vomit all over the floor. I had to settle with ugliness sitting inside me.

The voice was female, I could gather that much. With that talk about cheating, and the fact that there was only really one female I’ve explicitly dealt with during my time as Blank Face…

It made for an easy guess.

And that’s why we’re here,” Benny said, “To end it. Willingly give yourself up, and we’ll all be on our way. No one has to get hurt.

There was a pause. Seconds came and went. Then minutes. It wasn’t like I was in a position to respond directly.

Very well. If that’s how you want to play this game, then, so be it. I’ve got my crew all over the premises, we will find you. And, this goes out to everyone else, but don’t bother contacting anyone from outside. There’s explosives placed at key points in the building, and I have access to the cameras. If I see anyone trying to enter, or trying to leave…

She left it there. The threat was implicit enough.

The only one who is in any position to spare you people is the ‘hero’ herself. And as for you, Bluemoon, I’m giving you five more minutes to come clean, to make yourself present and known. After that, and still nothing, I’m making my own guess.

There was a click, then nothing. Before any of us could relax, sound came back on the intercom.

Music.

Not just any music, it was the music that played during passing period, in between classes. Light elevator music, easy to tune out. Except now, there was an eerie, overbearing quality to it.

Passing period was about five minutes. She was giving me a timer.

Fuck this.

How was this possible, how was this happening? How did Benny manage to find me, and find me here, of all places, when I wasn’t able to get to her? Was she doing this as a part of Solace? Another one of those ‘games’ like from before?

Whatever Benny did, whatever trick she pulled to get here, it was fucked, unfair.

Like salt in a wound, the music kept playing, and I crawled back into the chair, though hunched. Eve and Coach Tilly were getting up, too.

“This is a dream, right?” Eve asked, voice shaky, her eyes as wide as saucers. “This has to be some kind of joke or prank or something.”

I averted my eyes.

I wish it was.

“Stay calm, everyone,” Coach Tilly said, sounding surprisingly level. “We’ll get through this if we stay calm.”

She was including herself in saying that, I noticed.

“Who was that?” Eve asked, “Is the Bluemoon really a student here? And did they say it was a girl? Why are they coming after it here?”

“That’s a lot of questions,” Coach Tilly said, “Luckily I can answer all of them with just one answer, I don’t know.”

The music played. The pit in my stomach grew.

Eve sat back down, backing into the corner of the room, by the door. It was November, it was raining outside, but the cold hadn’t gotten inside the building.

Regardless, Eve was shivering.

“Then, what do we do? Do we just… sit here?”

Coach wiped her forehead with her sleeve. Her brow was glistening with sweat. “I don’t know. It’s either that, or go out into the hall, but I can’t risk that, not with students. Not with my players.”

“We have our phones? Can’t we try something?”

Coach’s phone was on her desk. She picked it up, looking at it. She shook her head.

“Phone works fine, but if what they’re saying is true, I don’t want to be the reason why-”

Her voice cracked, and she went mute. Coach Tilly fell into her chair.

Eve pulled out her phone.

“Eve, you can’t-” I started.

“Internet doesn’t work,” she said.

“What?”

“It won’t let me connect, I can’t go online.” Eve then laughed, a touch manic. “Okay, I know that I’m going to sound really stupid right now… This is definitely the real deal.”

Her eyes went wide again. “Oh god, oh god.”

She looked like she was on the verge of hyperventilating. For my part, I was right behind her.

Eve,” Coach Tilly said, putting heavy emphasis on her name, “You need to not let yourself freak out like that. And Alexis?”

I lifted my head. Coach was watching me, close.

“Same goes for you. You’ve been quiet.”

I had been quiet, but I was having trouble process any of this. Was this the end of everything? Should I give myself up? If I did, Coach Tilly and Eve would be the first people to find out. Two people who had nothing to do with this. What would they do if I told them? Would they let me leave the room? Would Benny stick to her word, as far as innocents were concerned?

The music continued. Years of it playing in the background while I walked from class to class… Never before did it have such a presence.

And there wasn’t much of the song left to play.

I wanted to hit something, the wall beside me, make it break. I couldn’t, obviously, and that made me feel like shit.

Coach Tilly attempted to address me again. “Alexis? Don’t go into shock now.”

I opened my mouth, or rather, I just let it hang. It was hard to vocalize.

“I’m… here,” I said. “I’m here. Present.”

“Good to have you,” Coach said.

I tried swallowing, but my throat was dry. More ways than one.

“Is there anything we do know?” Eve asked. Her eyes looked glossed over, unfocused. Retreating more into her corner.

Coach massaged her head, hands over ears. Blocking out the music, I surmised.

“There are only so many places you can access the school’s intercom,” she said. “Whoever’s talking has to be somewhere in the front office. Maybe the nurse’s office, but that might be a stretch.”

I bent back down in my chair, clutching my stomach.

Was there a way I could get to the front office and stop Benny without getting caught? No, it was improbable, if not impossible. The logistics of it were too complicated. I was limited to what we had here, in Coach Tilly’s office, and even then, there weren’t a lot of resources at hand.

Shit, I was stuck, and the metaphorical clock kept ticking. I wanted the song to never end.

I spoke up, getting out my first lengthy sentence in what felt like hours. “Coach, can you contact anyone from the front office? See what’s the situation over there?”

“Maybe, but,” Coach had her phone in her hands, staring at it. “Contacting anyone there might put them in jeopardy, we’re in the dark about how it is over there.”

She lowered her phone, her expression dark.

“This isn’t a fight for the three of us to take on,” she said. Completely unaware about the irony of her statement. “This isn’t our place to do anything. We can only hope that whatever that person is saying is true. That the Bluemoon is here, and will come forward.”

My heart fluttered, like a bird in a cage.

I’d never seen Coach Tilly like this before. I’d never seen Eve like that.

Watching them like this, seeing another side of those you had known for years, I might as well be meeting them for the first time. They were so unrecognizable.

I broke.

And then the music cut out.

A few clicks, the amplified sound of someone picking up a phone.

I gave you a time limit, and you didn’t comply, Bluemoon. I’m very disappointed.

All three of us were looking up at the ceiling, staring at a distinct circle affixed there.

Now this is where I make my first guess. You, what’s your name?

There was an abrupt moment of ruffling, like someone was passing a phone to someone else.

A second voice. The verge of tears.

Suzie Nguyen…”

That name…

I was breaking out into a cold sweat. I heard a faint sound in the distance.

That abrupt ruffling, again.

Are you the Bluemoon?

Benny was back on.

The device was being passed back and forth between the two of them. Crackling and popping of the signal.

No, I’m not, god please, I’m not that thing.

How can I be so sure?

I’m not! Please! Isn’t it obvious I’m-

She was interrupted. A loud bang sounded off, distorting the speakers. It cut out again, I didn’t hear the whole thing ring out.

We all screamed, anyways.

Someone gone. Lost. Forever. All because of me. All because of the fucking Bluemoon.

I jumped out of my seat. I lost my sense of where I was, what was happening, who I was. I had a mouth, and I just had to scream. Rage backed by something within me, deeper.

A hand went over my mouth, and I was pushed into the wall behind me. The desk banged in place, several books fell out of the shelves.

Eve had her hands on me, pushing me back, keeping me down.

“Shut up!”

Her hand caught my mouth while it was still open, her palm pressed against my tongue.

That taste.

Thoughts in my head were screaming to bite into her hand. It took all of my willpower to back down.

Neither of us said anything, but it wasn’t quiet. The music returned. Light, jazzy elevator music.

Eve glared, pulling her hand away, a line of spit following. She wiped her hand at her side, cleaning it.

“Dammit, Alexis, we missed that next part because you wouldn’t shut up.”

She backed up some more, resting against the edge of Coach’s desk, placing her hands beside her. Her eyes went to the floor, grimacing.

“Don’t be so hard on her, Eve,” Coach said, somber. She turned her attention to me. “They put the music back because they’re starting the timer again. Five more minutes, and then they make their next ‘guess.’”

Coach’s face looked green as she said it, like the words carried an illness with them.

My back was to the wall, figuratively and literally.

Benny was going to have another person killed. Another student, who went to this school.

First Thomas, now this. Suzie.

I wasn’t very acquainted with her, but I knew of her, and it pained me all the same.

Oh my god, holy shit, holy fuck, holy shit

I caught sight of Eve again, and I had to will myself to breathe in, then breathe out. Slow. Cool it for a moment. I couldn’t afford to let myself freak, not here. The tension was already layered on thick, and it was only getting more palpable, and noxious.

But something had to be done. Couldn’t just sit here. Or more innocents would…

I want to throw up.

There was a waste bin by Eve, could I relieve myself real fast?

Get it together, Alexis. You know what you want to do.

“Get out,” I said aloud, anger in my tone.

Coach Tilly and Eve both turned to me. Confusion.

Oh.

I breathed, finding some mental footing again. Marginal. “How, how are we going to get out of this?”

Coach had returned to her chair, arms crossed. She looked as if she aged ten extra years.

She talked, with no emotion. “We’re going in circles now, Alexis. They want that Bluemoon thing, who is apparently here, and they want the rest of us stuck in one spot. If we move, and try anything, and get caught, it’s only going to get worse. Everything’s pinned on that one person, if they’re actually here.”

Music played. The timer continued.

“This went way too far, way too fast,” Eve said, nearly out of breath. “Doesn’t the Bluemoon know this is serious? Why wouldn’t they just give it up, already? Someone’s already-”

Her voice cracked again, and she just stopped there, looking even more downcast.

My chest was beating until it hurt, my eyes kept darting from my feet to the door. My feet to the door. My feet, the door. Feet, door.

Get Benny, find Benny. Paint the walls with her. Eat. Drink. Eat.

Flicker.

I tugged at my collar, airing myself off. I scanned the small room again, at a loss of what to do.

The room was getting smaller. Claustrophobic, amplified by the four of us. Not a lot of space to compose ourselves and-

Wait.

Me, Coach Tilly, Eve…

And that.

The edge of a man’s outline, in the corner of my eye. It evaded a direct look when I moved my eyes to catch it, floating to stay in the edge of my vision.

Black. Shadow.

It slinked as it moved, sliding across the wall, growing taller as it went from one corner to the other, closing in on me. I had to lift my head as its head reached the ceiling, a tendril-like arm stretching to touch my face and-

Alexis, we need to get out of here. You need to get us out of here.

I backed away again, into my own corner, knocking into the chair I was once sitting in. Eve jumped, avoiding it as it rolled to her.

“Alexis, what the fuck are you on?”

The tone and her choice of words drew my attention back to Eve. Her look was more worried than confused. Drawn in, shielded, like she was handling a snake, ready for when it would inevitably bite.

I had to tell myself to run my hand through my hair. A normal action in an attempt to stabilize myself.

I glanced around, one more time. Just the three of us. The music continued playing, the notes harrowing, piano keys drilling into my head.

“Nothing, I’m alright,” I said, utterly failing to sound convincing. I couldn’t even convince myself.

“Right…” Eve said, trailing away. She didn’t relax.

Damn, I couldn’t stand to be in here.

Then a noise clattered, different from anything else we’d been subjected to, recently. Coach Tilly and Eve turned their head in response. I did too.

Coming from right outside.

Another sound, same direction, muffled.

Voices.

Not the ones in my head.

“Get down, get down,” Coach Tilly whispered, but she still stressed her words.

We all got down, crouching.

“Who’s out there?” Eve asked, whispering.

“For one last time, Eve, I’m not in a position to tell you,” Coach responded. “Keep quiet, and keep low.”

Eve did the latter, but ignored the former. “Is the door locked?”

“I can’t lock that door from the inside.”

Shit.

“Do you think we can turn off the lights?” Eve asked.

The voices returned, this time louder. Talking, responding, but there was only one discernible tone to it. Only one person?

“It’s too late,” Coach said, “Here, crawl here behind my desk, we’re switching places.”

Neither of us were in a position to argue. We waited for Coach to move away from her desk, closer to the door. Eve slipped under the desk first. I was right behind her.

The space was limited, cramped. Vision compromised. I bumped shoulders with Eve.

We only had our hearing.

Four knocks on the door. Not the friendliest knocks I’d ever heard.

No response, not from any of us.

I heard the fumbling of the metal knob.

The door opened. Not from our end.

“You.”

A woman. Not deep, but still menacing. “Why are you on the floor?”

She was addressing Coach Tilly.

Coach answered her, sounding surprisingly firm, given everything.

“The school’s on lockdown, it was part of our drills. This is a school, in case you didn’t know.”

“Oh, I’m more than aware. Are you the only one in here?”

I felt Eve go completely still.

“I am,” Coach said, hard.

“I’m inclined to take a quick look around. Sorry, part of our drills.”

I felt myself go completely still.

“There’s no one else in here,” Coach said. “Just me.”

“Maybe I believe you, but I want to see for myself.”

“Don’t, I’m the only one-”

“You-”

Sneakers squeaking on tile. The grunts between two people. Signs of a struggle.

An all-too familiar click.

Not Coach too.

It was as if some other force had taken over. I sprung to action.

I pushed myself up, hands on the desk. I kicked my legs up, feet pressed on the wall behind me.

I only had a fraction of a second to process the situation. More than enough time.

Legs against the wall, a hard push, and I sent myself over the desk, slamming my body into the woman that was fighting with Coach.

Blurry.

The resulting crash took me out of the office, the woman under me. We hit the wall opposite the door, the woman’s back taking most of the impact.

I was back on my feet as the woman slid to the floor, hands to her side, empty. Dazed.

I moved on instinct, what I felt I needed to do. I grabbed her by the ankles, and pulled her back into Coach’s office.

“Holy fuck, the hell was that?”

Eve was hollering in my ear. She had gotten out from our hiding spot.

“Close the door,” I said as I came in. I was oddly cool about things. “No yelling.”

Eve had enough wits about her to listen. She stepped over the woman, getting the door.

I let go of her ankles, going to the woman’s collar. I picked her up to prop her against the corner of the room, I kept my hands on her, one on her neck, the other over her eyes. I was crouched to be at her level, one knee pressed between her legs, a foot on her hand.

She wasn’t going anywhere. Not unless I had a say in it.

I took a glance behind me, and Eve was standing over me, hands on her head, taking everything in. She wasn’t doing a very good job.

Shit.

Eve stammered. “Okay, okay, you need to tell me what-”

“In a minute, but we need to watch our language. No names.”

Why?”

“Because these people hold grudges, as you can see. If you give them a name and a face, they’ll go to the ends of the earth to get back at you.”

“No, as in, why would you know that?”

Shit, shit.

If my mind was a book, I flipped through the pages of my memory.

“Remember Jillian?” I said. “Brandon’s cousin?”

“Jillian? You mean that one… She’s Brandon’s cousin?”

“Yeah. Let’s just say she runs with these kinds of guys, and I’ve been on the receiving end of their kinds of grudges, once before”

Eve only had one word to say at that, one sound. “Oh.”

I had left some details out, fudging others, and I didn’t mention that I was currently on another receiving end of such a grudge, but I gave her a decent enough picture to work with.

“How’s Coach?” I asked, changing course before Eve could dwell on it for too long.

“Ah, I… Fuck, she’s not responding. She must have gotten hit in the head by her gun-”

“Gun? Where is it now?”

“On the floor, I kicked it away.”

This isn’t good, and it’s only getting worse.

The voice was sing-songy.

One thing at a time.

I had to come up with something.

“Keep her head up, do we have ice?”

“There’s ice in the breakroom.”

So there was none here.

Think, but couldn’t think too hard. Or I’d be inviting more unknown elements into my headspace.

“I can get ice,” I said. I turned to the woman I had pinned. “We just need-”

The music stopped.

Of all times.

It was as if the world itself stood still.

You are testing my patience, Bluemoon. I’m surprised you can be so cruel to your fellow classmates.

Benny…

A certain fire was starting to spark within me.

It’s time for my next guess. And your name is?

Elena… Zhang…

Again, that name…

Are you the Bluemoon?

Then, crying. The sound of crying coming out from the speakers above. Going throughout the entire school. Everyone was hearing this.

I’m not-”

Interrupted by a distorted fuzzy bang.

I gritted my teeth, lowering my head a fraction. Seeing red. Eve shrieked behind me.

You two, start cleaning this up. Ah, seems like I was wrong again. But I will eventually be right. It’s all up to you, Bluemoon. You have five more minutes.

Phone hanging up.

Music.

The timer started again.

Choking.

I opened my eyes, and I saw that my fingers were around the woman’s neck. Getting tighter.

I stopped myself.

“You,” I said to her, low, so it stayed between us. “Answer, truthfully, with a nod or by shaking your head. Any other friends of yours in the hallways right outside?”

She shook her head.

I shifted a little to get another view of Eve.

“You go into the breakroom, you get the ice.”

Eve pointed to herself.

“Me?”

Who else?

“Yes, you, I need to keep this one here.” I moved the woman’s head, tapping the back of her skull against the wall. I wasn’t exactly being careful with her. “And hurry. It’s not like in movies. If someone’s out, then it’s dangerous. We need to do what we can until someone else can treat her more properly. Go!”

She sprang at that last word, leaving the office in a sprint, despite her ankle. The door was shut behind her.

I went back to the woman.

“I’m allowing you to talk, now. Tell me everything you know,” I said. “Starting with your name.”

She didn’t try to fight or stall me. She knew her place.

“Sofia. Are you the Bluemoon?”

“Thank you, Sofia, and no, I’m not. And I’m the only one who gets to ask any questions around here, not you. The person on the intercom, where are they doing it from?”

Leaving out details was crucial. Wouldn’t do to let slip I knew it was Benny.

“Front office.”

“How many of you are there, around the school?”

“There’s a lot of us, I’m not sure.”

Liar.

“Ballpark it,” I said, seething.

“Definitely more than twenty, less than forty?”

She’s fucking with you. Kill her.

I shook my head.

I asked another question. “Those explosives, where are they, and can they be disarmed?”

“Are you telling me a kid is going to take out every single explosive?”

I gripped her neck harder, restricting more airflow. She started writhing. I released, then gripped, then released again.

“Answer the questions.”

She answered, ragged. “There’s three bombs. One in that big gym, one in the theater, the last one’s in the cafeteria. As for disarming them, you can’t, you’d need a bomb squad.”

She. They. Benny. They’re the real monsters. Do it. Spill them all.

Concentrate.

I needed every ounce of concentration, and even that was slipping away.

“But there is a temporary fix. Some of us are carrying coolant spray, in case something goes wrong with the detonator. Hitting the bomb with that should knock it out of commission for at least a whole day.”

That, I could use.

“Do you have that spray on you?” I asked.

“I don’t, you’d have to get it from someone else, but I doubt they’d give it up so easily.” Sofia tried moving her head, getting my hand out of her eyes. I pushed her back into the wall to get her to stop.

“Are you sure you’re not the Bluemoon? All this talk, these questions you’re asking, it doesn’t sound like something a normal kid would concern herself with.”

“I’m not who you think I am,” I said, keeping my tone as neutral as possible. “But what makes you so sure that the Bluemoon is even here? You might be wrong, the Bluemoon might be somewhere else. Another school, or they might not even be a student. If they were here, they would’ve answered you, already.”

Sofia reacted. It made me sick.

“We know. The Bluemoon will make her move, eventually, and that’ll be the end of her. How many people die until then is all up to her.”

“It’s already the end for all of you, aren’t you aware of that? How do you expect to escape from this?”

I had Sofia’s eyes covered, but I could still see the lower half of her face. She reacted, again. A sickening smile.

“We all go to Hell,” she said. “All of us. The only choice we have is how soon we get there.”

You could snap off her head right here. Drink the juice that drips from the moist end.

Before I could react or respond, Eve came back.

“Got ice,” she said, without me having to ask. She moved to Coach, out of my field of view.

“Good, do what you can. I’ll…” I looked at Sofia, then to the door.

“I’ll go find the nurse.”

Eve immediately stood back up.

“You are not going out there, and you are not leaving me here.”

“I’m not leaving you, I’ll be back, and I’ll be coming back with help. Coach can’t afford to be in that condition for too long, and between the two of us, we’re not equipped to help.”

“Are you freaking insane? You’re going to go out there, and get yourself killed. There’s more of them out there, and we got found out just from sitting here. What if someone else comes while you’re gone?”

I didn’t have an answer for her, not for that last part. Another factor I had to deal with.

But I had to deal with this.

“I’m not going to get myself killed, that’s a promise. I won’t be gone for that long. The nurse’s-”

“Her office is right by the front office, where all the other fucking terrorists are! How are you going to get there and back without getting caught?”

“I’m fast, I can sneak-”

“No, just no!”

Eve was on the edge of being entirely hysterical, the situation getting to her. She wasn’t accustomed to this sort of stress, not used to having to deal when things suddenly fell out from under her. Not used to taking action.

She was just a regular girl.

And you are not Alexis. Not anymore.

“I have to do something,” I said. “We have to do something. Coach might not die from that injury, but do you want something bad to happen as a result of it, something that might last?”

I let the word hang in the air, despite how heavy it was, filled with all the guilt I could put into one syllable.

I continued, “We’re losing time, not just because of Coach, but the music. I’m going.”

More silence from Eve. I took that as my ‘permission’ to leave.

Before I could go ahead and do that, I needed to do something about Sofia. Even if I had her down, her very presence was still a concern.

“Is there any duct tape?” I asked.

“Um, I don’t see any.”

“Check the drawers in the desk.”

I was too in the way, Eve had to step on the desk and over to get around.

Metallic clanging, papers rustling…

“Here,” she said.

“Give it to me,” I said. I took my hand away from Sofia’s throat, reaching to Eve.

She placed it in my open palm, and I went to work. I used it liberally, there was a lot available. I started with her eyes, moving fast so she couldn’t get a glimpse of us. Some hair got stuck underneath the tape, but I wasn’t here to be gentle. Another strip of tape went over her mouth. I got off her, then flipped her to her stomach. I worked to tie her hands behind her back. Her feet, too, for good measure.

I tore the last piece of tape I needed, and set it. I noticed a sheath strapped to her hip.

A pocketknife.

I took it, slipping it into my own pocket.

Even after what happened with Jillian, I didn’t see the need to bring a knife with me to school. Nothing happened since. Not until this.

Even though it was against school rules, I wished I had started bringing it with me.

Lesson learned.

“There,” I said, as I finished, “That should do it. Keep her in a corner, keep an eye on her…”

I finally caught sight of the gun Eve was talking about. A black rifle. I wasn’t much of a gun fanatic to know its exact name.

“… and keep her as far away from that as possible. Don’t even touch it anymore.”

I noticed Coach as well, on her back, eyes closed, head raised by the bag of ice Eve brought.

It made me want to slam Sofia into the wall again, just for Coach’s sake. And a little bit of my own.

“What if someone else tries to come in?” Eve asked.

I spoke as I got up, grabbing my stuff, seeing what else was worth bringing. “Move the desk and block the door, it swings into the room.”

Eve seemed to accept that, she didn’t ask about any other options. Barring the door was all she’d have as far as defenses go, and I was rather sure that she wasn’t keen on using the gun herself.

I checked through the stuff I had brought in here, to no avail. Just my notebooks and textbooks. My backpack was in my locker. I set what I might need on one side. The remaining duct tape, the paper bag that Coach had given me, my new uniform inside. I made a note of the knife in my pocket.

Unprepared and Ill-equipped, all around. I didn’t have anything I could use to carry everything I might need. And I was uncertain in how exactly I would disarm three fucking bombs before I made my way to Benny.

Not to mention that Coach Tilly needed someone to give her proper treatment.

This was impossible.

Think on your feet, it’s what got you this far.

It was also what brought me this low.

Even so, even without much of a plan, I went for the door, anyways.

“I’m heading out,” I said, carrying the paper bag and duct tape in my hands. “Stay safe, and take care of Coach.”

I didn’t say anything for Sofia.

“One second.”

I turned.

“Take my jacket.”

Eve unzipped her hoodie, an inoffensive beige, and tossed it to me. I caught it.

“Anything to help you stay on the down low. The pockets are pretty large, you can carry a lot with you.”

“Eve…” I was about to say more, but she shook her head.

“Just hurry and go, because this is really freaking me the hell out, and the less I have to see you, being all freaky, the less my brain starts making connections it really doesn’t want to.”

I swallowed, hard. Connections. This really was the beginning of the end.

Fuck.

I wanted to stay and refute her, tell her she’d be wrong in making that connection, but I didn’t have the luxury.

I left, Eve closing the door behind me.

I changed.

It was a patchwork of a costume, a baggy hoodie, a paper bag over my head, holes poked into it. I threw out the uniform, leaving it behind. A roll of duct tape in a jacket pocket, a knife in the pocket of my jeans.

I stepped out into the hallway of the school proper, just as the music cut off for a third time.

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043 – Revealing Bell

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August 25, 2014

I wasn’t outside for that long, but the heat was starting to get to me. Well, not me exactly, but my makeup.

This line needs to move faster.

Those upperclassmen had it easy. They could just walk right into the school and chill wherever they wanted, hanging out until classes would start.

But, for us freshmen? We were stuck waiting in a line to get our schedules for the semester.

Around a hundred teenagers, filled to the brim with nervous energy, worried over the next four years in high school, and we were forced to keep still, and stand in a line.

It was hardly fun.

The line was so long that it snaked, going out of the doors of the school gym, wrapping around the building. Scratch that, the line led into the smaller of the school’s two gyms, meaning there were more people in a smaller space, making the line go slower, meaning I had to stand out for even longer and…

Ugh.

This is so freaking lame.

A minute passed, with everyone only collectively moving about half a foot. I wasn’t that far back, but I still wanted to be inside rather than out here. It was still summer, and summer here meant that it was several degrees hotter than hot. Like… something that was really hot.

Like a really hot boy, whatever.

The point was that the heat would end up ruining my outfit that I had meticulously planned out the night before, and the bit of makeup I applied. Not enough so that Mom would notice, but, with the amount I applied, maybe I’d look a little bit more mature than I usually did. I was sick and tired of always being mistaken for a little kid, I wasn’t that small.

I was in high school now, high school, I was more than ready to start growing up a little, doing grown up stuff.

If this line would only move faster.

We all shuffled our feet forward, and I finally saw the doors when I went around the corner. Still a ways to go, but complaining wasn’t going to make us move faster.

I checked behind me, to see how people were doing in the back. The line was getting longer, and I saw some other freshmen walking back and forth down the length of the line, trying to find anyone they were comfortable cutting in line to meet with. Some were successful, others resigned to going all the way back. No one really cared either way, it wasn’t like we were lining up to get concert tickets or anything.

I wasn’t one of the successful ones, even though I thought I came early. I didn’t see any of my friends from middle school, even Katy was nowhere to be found.

So, here I was, stuck. In between some people I didn’t know.

Speaking of Katy…

I pulled out my phone, and went to check my different social media feeds. The phone connected to the school’s internet with ease. Yeah, we were at school, but I wasn’t in the building, and the day hadn’t started yet, no one should raise a fuss over it.

A few new notifications, so I checked them. I tapped to like some pictures, reblogged some funny posts and status updates. A decent way to pass the time, certainly better than standing around and doing nothing.

No text back from Katy. I was beginning to wonder if she’d end up missing the first day of school. The first day of high school, no less.

That would be like… super duper bad.

“Hey!”

I seized up when something slapped me in the shoulder blade. My fingers tightened around my phone, holding for dear life. I put a foot out to prevent myself from bumping into the person ahead.

“Eep!”

A lame sound just squeaked out of me.

Woops.

I caught myself, but the girl ahead of me was already staring back, eyebrow raised.

I, in turn, squared my shoulders and glared at the person responsible. But the act didn’t last long when I saw who was responsible.

“Katy!” I exclaimed excitedly.

Katy grinned, her lips vulpine. She put one hand on her hip, and slung her arm over my shoulder, in a sort of half-hug. I returned the favor, greeting her how girls did.

“Oh my gosh, how are you?” I asked as we broke the hug. As we split, Katy kept herself close to me. Sneaky sneaky.

Ça va bien,” Katy responded, “Et toi ?

I puffed my cheeks in a pout. “No fair, I’m taking Spanish this year, not French.”

Je suis désolé– I mean, sorry, but I’m still a little jetlagged from the trip. My brain’s still in ‘France mode.’”

I drew out the sound. “Aw, I’m so jealous, I wish I could go to places like that. Was it fun?”

“It was super fun, we went sightseeing and saw all the ‘touristy’ places, but, get this, because my mom spends so much time over there, we were granted like the best access. Even the museums were awesome. Tell me, who else gets to see the Mona Lisa up close and personal, with no crowd in sight?”

My jaw dropped. “Get out of here, that sounds so dope!”

“I know right?”

“Can you tell your parents to adopt me already?”

“Depends if we have enough room in our place. You might end up staying with Annie.”

“Worth, if it means you taking me on trips to France.”

“By that point, the only place I’m taking you is the backyard.”

I stuck my tongue out at her, and lightly smacked her on the arm. The line moved a smidge more.

As we moved, my eyes caught the black straps across Katy’s shoulders.

“Whoa, cute bag,” I said, “Looks expensive.”

She turned so her back was facing me, showing off her bag. All black, small. Petite, rather. A gold letter ‘G’ across the front.

“That’s because it is,” Katy said. She spun around to show off the rest of her outfit. An oversized white shirt, tight white denim jeans, and black boots that almost reached her knees.

She continued, “Got it while I was over there. All designer, by P-”

I stopped her. “If another French word comes out of that mouth, I’m tearing your tongue out and throwing it as far as I can.”

Katy made a face, playfully shocked. “Ever so violent, Lexi. Good to know your temper hasn’t… tempered.”

“Well, then, don’t push me that far,” I said, making sure to lay on the sarcasm as thick as possible, to the point of overcompensating. “I actually tried to make myself look good for the first day of high school. Unlike you.”

“Whatever do you mean? You look good,” Katy said, and I could tell she was telling the truth. “I look good.”

“Yeah, but not all of us have fancy clothes we can just randomly pick out and automatically kill it. Some of us, you know, have to make do with what we have.”

I glanced down at my clothes, but I tried not to look down on them. Converse shoes, classic black, the white laces even brighter in the sun. Denim shorts, lightly ripped. A white shirt, long enough to tuck in the front. And a black, light fabric long sleeve on top of that, a flower pattern going across the whole thing.

My backpack wasn’t designer. Just a regular backpack you’d see anywhere.

Most of this stuff was taken from the bargain bins of different stores, pieced together over the summer, when my allowance could afford it. I didn’t look down on them, no, putting these articles together actually made a good outfit.

But Katy’s was better.

Katy gave me another look. “Stop beating yourself up like that, it’s not healthy. Listen, we’re both hot, so let’s make these next four years rock.”

I had to force a grin. “Nice half-rhyme there.”

“Thanks, I half-try.”

We continued chatting, catching up somewhat, with Katy telling me more about her trip. Nobody paid Katy any mind, considering that she did cut in line.

Having my best friend helped make the time tick faster, and we finally made it into the gym.

Whoa.

There were a bunch of people in here, and the gym’s acoustics made it sound like there were even more people. Mostly other freshmen, going into other, smaller lines in front of tables lined up and down the length of the gym. Waiting to get schedules. Other freshmen had already gotten theirs, and were walking around, either trying to find their friends or just trying to find the way out.

“I’m that way,” Katy said, pointing. “Of course ‘T’ has to be all the way over there.”

“Ha, I guess I’m lucky for once,” I said. “Mine’s right here.”

“Then, I’ll see you in a little.”

We went into our respective lines, maneuvering through the crowd to find where our lines started. The hard part was already over, waiting-wise, and I got to the front pretty fast.

“Barnett,” I said.

The woman manning the ‘B’ section nodded and flipped through folders in a cardboard box on the table, labeled as such. She didn’t take long.

“You don’t look like a ‘Dylan,’” the woman said, “So you must be Alexis. Alexis Ki… Barnett.”

She took a stack of papers out of the folder and box. My hand was already out, expectant.

She stopped short before I could grab for it.

“You look familiar.”

Not a question, but it did call for a response, an answer. I looked up at the woman.

Blonde, and not that much taller than me. Even with the air condition, it was still hot, but she had on a tracksuit.

Her eyes were intense. Studying me.

An adult.

“Do I?” was all I had to say back.

“I think I’ve seen you at a game, somewhere?”

Something clicked in my head.

“I played volleyball at my old middle school,” I said.

“That’s it!” she said, snapping her fingers. “Normally I wouldn’t have caught that, but maybe seeing your face in a gym again brought it back to me.”

“Right,” I said. I just wanted my schedule. People were still waiting, behind me.

Not that I could just say that, could I?

“Well, here you are.” the woman set the stack in my hand. It was weightier that I initially thought.

The woman continued, “I’m Coach Tilly, by the way. Are you thinking about playing in high school?”

“Yes,” I said, even though I wanted to get a move on. Why lie about volleyball? “Definitely.”

“Great, we have a general meeting and tryouts in about two weeks. Oh.” The coach raised her chin, peeking. “Sorry to keep you, there’s more info about it in the student handbook.”

“Thank you,” I said, meaning it. That made it easier for me, as far as finding out how to join the volleyball team. The only question was if I was good enough to even make the team.

Coach Tilly smiled, exuding a warmth, there. I quickly waved as I took my handbook and left.

Pushing through more, much taller people, I found Katy in the crowd, conversing in a ring of other freshmen. I nudged her to get her attention.

Katy nodded, and broke away from the group. Some acquaintances from my old middle school, some from the other middle schools but came here. Katy and I both waved and smiled at them as we left the gym.

As we explored the school, we flipped open our respective packets, reading.

“What’s your first class?” Katy asked.

“Let me check.” I flipped through the packet I received earlier. It had everything about the school, the rules, dress code, school calendar, locker info… and class schedule.

“Pre-AP World Geography,” I said. “You?”

“Pre-AP Algebra-Two. Is geography your only advanced class?”

“English, but that’s it. No way can I do math.”

“I’m taking all Pre-AP, ha.” Katy really sounded like she was rubbing it in.

“Yeah yeah, what don’t you have?” I asked, “Nerd.”

It wasn’t anything to actually be perturbed over. We shared a chuckle and continued on.

We were out of the gym, but the territory was still largely uncharted. Every hall we traversed seemed bigger than the last. Posters advertising clubs and upcoming events, some better drawn than others. Some signs were in Spanish, others in French. Maps telling us where we were, what hall this was. Computer labs, chemistry labs. Doors leading back outside, but there were still places to go from there.

Other kids were in the hallways, too. Upperclassmen. They were either standing around, relaxed, leaning on the wall behind them, or they were walking like they knew where they were going and how to get there. With purpose. They were familiar with the school.

And they all looked like adults.

Katy and I were in a different grade from them, but we all went to the same school. We were one of them, now.

It was like what I’d seen in TV, the movies, my mom’s favorite cartoons and dramas.

High school.

Electrifying, even if thinking so was corny. Hey, I could admit to that.

“So this is Stephenville High School,” I said, summing up my thoughts. “Feels weird to be here.”

“Eh, we’ll be used to it in a week, and after a year we’ll be going to parties and doing all sorts of crazy stuff,” Katy said, “Just you wait.”

“I’m not sure what you mean by ‘crazy stuff,’ but I’m down.”

“Alright, let’s not get too ahead of ourselves.”

“C’mon, we’ve got four years here, let’s make the most of them.”

Katy and I exchanged looks. A mutual agreement.

We moved into another hallway, and the amount of things happening here nearly overloaded my senses. Students moving, pushing to go one way. Students standing around like before, but in much bigger clusters, chatting away. A couple tucked between two sets of lockers, making out. A teacher had to step out of his classroom to shoo them away.

This was a kind of lawlessness I wasn’t used to before, and it energized.

“Oh shoot,” Katy said, bringing my focus back to the now. “What was your first class again?”

“World Geography.”

“Oh, then you have to go. That’s in D Hall, upstairs. I saw it on the map. And the first bell is about to ring soon.”

I checked our surroundings again. There were more people moving than loitering, and they were hurrying. Not much time left.

And I didn’t know my way around the school. Not yet.

“Aww heck,” I said, turning to go back the way we just came. Much less crowded. “Katy, I’ll see you later!”

Katy continued down the packed hall. “Sure, lunch?”

“Uh-huh!”

And then we split up from there, preparing to tackle our first day of high school.

I jogged to find my first class, the bell about to ring.

November 28, 2016

The bell had already rung. I slipped into the only empty desk, on the farthest side of the room. Eyes followed as I made my way.

“You’re tardy, Alexis,” Ms. Powers said, watching me as I sat, hand still on the chalkboard. “Did you get a late slip?”

“No, I did not get a late slip,” I said, just barely holding myself back.

“You do owe me one, or that’s a mark on your record. Don’t forget that.”

I grunted, but she wouldn’t have been able to hear me. I settled in and put my notebooks on the desk.

“Psst, Alexis, you alright?” someone asked from behind me. A boy. Jacob.

“I’m good,” I lied.

I set a textbook on my desk, then propped my arm up on the surface, resting my head.

Just two more classes, and I was out of here.

If only it were that easy.

I thought I could make it through just one more day, one more full day of school. I was wrong.

It was a torture to be here. I got no sleep from the night before, much less from the week before, and the result was leaving me with a loose grip on myself. My head felt as if it was being beaten in from the inside, the impacts reverberating throughout my body. As if I was having an allergic reaction to this place itself. The school. The atmosphere.

Especially the atmosphere. The rain crashed down, we could all hear it, even from inside the school. It hadn’t let up from last night.

A dull haze.

But this wasn’t right, I knew that much. The old Alexis would have, at minimum, tolerated a regular school day like anyone else, or had a handful of enjoyable moments of social interaction with friends to power through. Looking forward to volleyball practice when the day ended. Regular, mercifully menial things.

This though, this? The ‘me’ as I was, now? It was like jamming a square into a circle. In theory, it was possible, but something would have to give way, something would have to break.

Either me, or this.

Papers flipping, out of sync. Everyone was turning pages in a book. I hadn’t even opened mine, yet.

I flipped it open.

I couldn’t understand any of it.

No, the words, the numbers, that I could get, but the formulas and concepts…

At least some things hadn’t changed.

Ms. Powers was already going into her lecture, but I already had her drowned out. As far as I remembered, no homework was due today, so I had a chance to get some peace-

“Alexis, can you do example number eight on the board for us?”

And quiet.

Murmurs among students, pages flipping, pencils and pens scratching away at the inside of notebooks. The clock ticking away seconds.

“Alexis?”

More seconds, ticked away.

Alexis.”

I raised my head, not because of the word itself, but the tone.

Ms. Powers was looking right at me, stern.

“Yes?” I asked.

“Please come up to the board and complete example eight.”

I grunted again, a hair louder, but not to irritate Ms. Powers even more. More as an outlet for myself.

I took my textbook with me, going up to the board. I had enhanced strength, yet my feet were heavy.

“What page again?” I had to ask, taking the chalk from Ms. Powers.

“Page one-four-five, section five.” She didn’t sound happy to give the answer.

I flipped to that page, and stared at the problem. Then I stared some more.

I put chalk to board, copying the equation, the numbers. Putting the ‘X’s and ‘Y’s and funny looking ‘F’s where they belonged.

I stopped.

Another significant block of time was wasted away. Someone sneezed.

“Are you stuck?” Ms. Powers asked me.

“I don’t know how to start,” I said, “Or even where.”

The numbers were turning into undecipherable hieroglyphs the more I looked at them.

“Start by isolating your variables, and take out what you don’t need. This should be review for you.”

This might as well be another language. I supposed, in a sense, math was one, but it wasn’t universal for me.

“I don’t, I can’t…” I dropped my arm to my side, the chalk leaving the board.

Ms. Powers sighed.

I made the next move, back to my desk. Ms. Powers didn’t stop me.

“Amy, you do number eight.” She ended up asking someone else.

I fell back into my seat, head back to resting on the desk.

Aww fuck.

Sit here, and be normal. That was it. That was all I had asked of myself.

I couldn’t even do that.

Everyone probably thought I was dumb for no longer being able to grasp the basic concepts. One of the idiots. I supposed I could concede that.

But, if to only be a little fair to myself, I hadn’t been in a proper frame of mind for quite some time.

You got that right.

I closed my eyes.

When I opened them again, class had ended.

My other classmates were already up and ready to go. I lagged behind, gathering my stuff.

“Alexis,” I heard from behind, just as I was about to leave the classroom.

Internally, I groaned, but still I went over to Ms. Powers at her desk, my steps even heavier.

Ms. Powers was in her chair, and the chair was in her, in another sense. Her rotund body folded over the armrests. The effect wasn’t that pronounced, she wasn’t that big, but the chair did look like it was a part of her.

I stifled a giggle.

Ms. Powers started off. “I’m very concerned, Alexis, your grades have been slipping more and more. Not much improvement since the last time we spoke like this.”

No answer.

“You still haven’t come in to do a makeup test for the most recent one, and you have a pile of quizzes to correct… and you’re only turning in half of the homework I assign, and half of those have just been wrong.”

Again, no answer.

“How have your other classes been going?” she asked.

I shrugged. “Okay. Been managing.”

“So it’s just my class, then? My class is the one that’s giving you the most trouble.”

I didn’t answer, only because I didn’t know how to respond.

Ms. Powers exhaled, and her body seemed to deflate with her. “I’m not going to give a long-winded lecture over that now, since I have another class coming in, but I do want you to see me after school. The midterm is in less than a month, and if you really buckle down and get to work, you might be able to start next semester with a passing grade.”

“Yeah.”

Ms. Powers sat there, as if waiting for me to say more, but I didn’t. I could see her face almost contort into a frown.

She spoke again. “Principal Kirk spoke with me, told me about what’s happened. I understand it’s been hard, but you can’t forget, or neglect, the responsibilities you have as a student.”

She gestured to the door, “Go, I’ll see you after school.”

Saying it as a matter of fact, almost like an order.

“And you don’t need to worry about the late slip,” she added. “No need.”

“Oh, thanks”, I said, then I left the classroom.

The next class was far more forgiving. It came and went without incident. The lunch bell tolled.

I didn’t go to the cafeteria, I didn’t even try to leave campus. I went straight to the office, instead.

As it happened, there was a line here. Wasn’t the biggest fan of those.

Then again, who was?

I was the only one in line whose shoulders weren’t wet. Another student, her parents, and a group. Workers, it looked like, wearing the same construction uniform.

The line actually moved along, which was a nice change of pace. The workers picked up their bags and were allowed to enter the office proper. They disappeared after they turned a corner.

Then I was up.

“Is Principal Kirk in?” I asked the lady manning the front desk.

“Hold on a second,” she said instead. She picked up the office phone beside her. A cord attached the phone itself to a base. She positioned it between her ear and her shoulder, pressing a number on the base.

“Yes, can Mia Tran, Elena Zhang, and Stacy Phan please come to the front office? Okay, bye.”

She hung up the phone, and finally addressed me.

“Name and ID?” she asked, as she chewed on gum. Smacking.

“Alexis Barnett…” I started, then provided her my school ID.

“What is this for?”

“I wanted to ask about possibly doing my schoolwork at home. He extended that offer to us a week back.”

“I know what you’re referring to,” she said, typing at her computer. “Principal Kirk is actually no longer available, but…”

She stopped typing, and turned to the printer beside her. She handed me the form that sputtered out of it.

“Get a parent and your teachers to sign it, then come back here,” she said. “Principal Kirk will take it from there.”

“Thanks,” I said, folding the paper in half. “Do coaches have to sign it too?”

“Um, if you’re in a team, then yes.”

“Then I’ll start with her, thanks again.”

She didn’t respond as I left, she was more interested in whatever she was typing. I left the office and took the shortest route to the small gym. The halls were sparse with people, as everyone went to lunch.

Right before I got to the gym itself, I went through a door that led me into another hall. One way led to the locker rooms, then the gym.

I went the other way. The coaches’ offices.

Voices.

Wait.

I listened.

Not my own, and clearly from other sources.

But, for a moment, I felt trepidation.

I followed the sounds into the breakroom. Coach Bronson and Coach Taylor were chatting.

Coach Tilly was with them.

I knocked on the open door.

They turned.

“Hey, if it isn’t the Beast from the East,” Coach Bronson said. His words were slathered in a Southern drawl.

“Hey,” I said.

Coach Tilly snapped her fingers at him, “Don’t call her that. Did you need something, Barnett?”

I lifted up the folded form, putting it into view. “It’s a personal thing, do you…”

She picked up where I left off. She nodded and got up. “We can move to my office. The rest of you, find something better to do.”

The other two coaches chuckled, but they left us alone. They followed Coach Tilly out of the breakroom, but they left the area entirely. Coach Tilly and I went into her office.

Her office wasn’t bad, as far as space went, but it wasn’t the Principal’s office. Her desk was cluttered with papers and paperweights and journals. Fitness and health and diet books filled the small shelf on one wall. Nothing on the other wall but posters relaying the same kind of information. She’d need the room to get to the other side of her desk.

It also lightly smelled of sweat. But being by the gym would do that.

We both sat on our respective side of her desk. I dropped my stuff, and gave her the paper. She looked at it, quick. She set it down.

“You’ve gotten this far, skipping practice without my permission, why do you need it now?”

I bit my lip.

“Go on, Alexis, you have a mouth, tongue, working jaw. Use them.”

I moved around a bit in my seat. I tried to relax myself. I found that I couldn’t.

“I wasn’t doing it deliberately, there’s been…”

I couldn’t find the words so easily.

“There’s been what?”

Vampire. Monster. Hero. Killer. Tell her you’re a demon.

I broke away, glancing at a wall. A poster, a diagram of the human body, limbs splayed. Organs and veins visible. Its eyes followed me.

I blinked, shook my head, reoriented myself. Its eyes looked straight ahead.

“There’s been a lot going on,” I said.

Vague, but whatever.

Coach Tilly sighed, taking the paper again. She leaned back.

“I’m not that sour about it, everything considered. I heard about what happened with Katy’s father. I know you’re good friends with her and all. My condolences.”

As if I needed another reminder. I sat there, taking the blow once again, in full force.

“Broke my heart,” I said, my voice hitched at the last word. Coach must have caught that, it wasn’t very subtle.

“Where’s Katy right now?” she asked.

Good question.

I made my best guess. An inference, really. “She’s out for lunch… somewhere.”

“Eating in the cafeteria like a good little junior?”

“Let’s give her the benefit of the doubt,” I said.

“Okay, I can do that, but you haven’t been keeping tabs on her?”

I looked away, casting a glance somewhere else. “We’ve kind of decided that giving each other some space would be the best.”

“And that’s something you both agreed to do?”

Was it?

“Something like that,” I said. “It’s complicated, and probably for the best. I’d actually go so far as to say it’s necessary.”

Coach Tilly usually had an easy-to-read face. She carried such a passion inside her that her expressions were a sort of amplified version of what she felt, internally.

The face she had right now was much more confused and subdued.

“Hey, you know what? I’m a coach for a high school volleyball team, not a psychologist. If that works for you, it works.”

“Yup.”

Coach Tilly scrunched up her nose, breathing in, then out. She set the paper down, reaching for a pen.

“I hope you make good use of your time away from school,” she said, as she signed her name on a dotted line.

I thought about what I had in mind. Start by going back to Braham Barn, looking for anything I missed. If I had to tear the thing down, plank by plank, literally, then that was what I had to do. I probably owed Gomez another conversation, even though I intended to retire the Blank Face shtick. See where he stood, what else was left to do in that regard. If Solace had somehow dissolved into a non-issue, I needed to know for sure. If not…

Good luck to him.

It would be nice to be able to come clean to my loved ones about me, about everything. It also would have been nice to have Thomas back, but that was impossible, now. Even if I had the clearest details in the world about who I really was, I wondered if they’d accept me all the same. Or if they’d cast me out, not unlike a leper.

The thought of that made me reconsider it all.

“I hope so, too,” I said, verbalizing my thoughts.

She gave me the form, and I took it back. She then moved, bending down under her desk. When she came back up, she had a white paper bag. Medium sized, about the size of my head.

Coach set it down, then pushed it to me. “Here.”

I took it, setting it on my lap. A staple sealed the folded paper at the top.

“What’s this?”

“You would have known about it, had you been to team meetings, but I had put in an order for new uniforms. New design, same colors, of course, but the girls say it’s more comfy, it’s snug.”

“A brand new uniform.” I could barely remember the last time I wore my old one, or even played volleyball. It felt like some ancient tradition, now.

“Neat,” I said.

“Yes, and you’re still a part of the team, even though you’re not around. But, I want you to have it. Something to come back with, when you come back.”

I tried picturing a day in which I did come back. Playing with the girls, as a team, doing something I was actually good at.

Nothing but a dream, now.

“Thanks, Coach,” I said, honestly expressing my gratitude.

Coach seemed content at that, smiling a little. “Good. Now, Barnett, anything else you need from me? I think the lunch period is almost over.”

“I think that’s it,” I said.

“Alright, then, can you get the door? Looks like someone wants in on this pity party.”

“Hm?”

I turned to the door. Sure enough, someone was at the other end, their head visible through the small window.

The handle was within arm’s reach. I opened it.

“Alexis, hi.”

It was Eve.

“My gosh, hey,” I said.

“Are you coming back?” she asked.

Another gut punch. I could see the excitement in her eyes. It’d suck to cut her down.

“Just the opposite,” I said.

I saw her expression change.

Like ripping off a thousand bandaids.

“Enough about me though,” I said, “How’s the ankle?”

“Oh, this?” She lifted up her foot, gauze and bandages wrapped around the ankle. She rotated it easily. “It’s fine, I just need to keep up with my PT, then we’re golden. I was just swinging by to get some more pointers from Coach. Need all the help I can get if I wanna go pro.”

“Really? You’re wanting to go all the way?”

Eve lifted her chin up, beaming wide. “Of course, I think I can, and Coach does too.”

I looked at Coach, she shrugged.

“If she thinks she can… Maybe?”

“Hey!” Eve exclaimed.

We all burst into a laugh. Though it was at Eve’s expense, she took it in stride.

“That’s why you need to come to practice, Lexi,” Eve said, “We can spar.”

“I’m game,” I said, just talking to talk. “But I might be a little rusty.”

“We’ll just see about-”

A siren.

Wailing. A constant sequence of the same note, over and over. The sounds hit.

We all leaped. Like we just got blindsided with a jumpscare.

Eve shrieked, cupping her ears and dropping to the floor.

I covered my ears as well.

“What is that!” I had to yell in order to be heard.

Coach Tilly answered, yelling back, “It’s not the lunch bell! Get the door!”

I got it, quickly moving my arm to shut it. The volume didn’t decrease, it was that loud.

“It’s the alarm for a lockdown! Get on the floor!”

I followed her order, dropping out of my seat to get lower. Hands still on my ears.

So loud, and it wasn’t letting up. Endless, ever present, no respite. My focus was too caught unaware to question why the school was even on lockdown.

If noise could actually force a physical impact, this was the equivalent of being kicked into the ground, and kept there with repeated kicks.

Then, it stopped.

It just stopped.

As slow as glaciers, my hands moved away from my ears. Ringing, but as an echo, not nearly as loud. Easy to tell that the alarm had ceased.

Eve was still discombobulated, hands over her head. I was in too low of a position to see Coach Tilly’s reaction.

And then another sound came on. I heard it. Bile crept up my throat as I listened.

That should have gotten your attention. No, not ‘their’ attention, but yours, Bluemoon. I know that you’re here. I know.

Previous                                                                                               Next

030 – Fragile Ego

epy arc 5 look

Previous                                                                                               Next

“Alexis!”

I raised my head, squinting. Head rush.

Ms. Powers stood at the head of the classroom, displeased.

Delayed, I made a sound in response. “Hmm?”

That didn’t help any.

“I’d be less offended if you spent my class on your phone the whole time, rather than sleeping.”

But I don’t care what you have to say.

Sleepily, I pulled a strand of hair out of my mouth, pushing some back behind my ear. I rubbed my thumb right under my eye.

“Sorry, didn’t mean-”

The bell cut me off.

Everyone started getting up, gathering their belongings, chatting amongst themselves. I followed, sweeping up my binders and journals into my arms, keeping them close to my chest. I got out of my chair, and started leaving the classroom, looking for Brittany. I wanted to walk and talk with her as we headed to our next class.

“Alexis.”

I stopped, then turned. Ms. Powers was at her desk, sitting. She motioned for me. She looked stern.

Not now.

Reluctantly, I walked up to her, I clutched my school stuff tighter, closer.

“Yeah, Ms. Powers?” I asked, my pitch a bit higher.

She took a look past me before saying anything. Waiting until everyone has filed out of the classroom?

Ms. Powers put her hands together, resting them in her lap. “What’s going on, Alexis?”

I answered her like I did before. “Hmm?”

She pressed her lips to a line, and tilted her head to the computer beside her. “You’ve missed several homework assignments in the last few weeks, you haven’t done very well on the last few quizzes, and you’ve been out of it in that time, too. We have a test coming up, do you know that?”

“I do, yeah.” I vaguely remembered Ms. Powers mentioning something like that, but I was pretty confident that it wasn’t for another week or so. I’d study later.

She had an eyebrow raised at me. “There’s a lot of material there that I don’t think you have a grip on, yet. Are you going to be okay?”

I considered my chances. I could make a passing grade on it, possibly. Worst case scenario was that I’d have to beg Katy to help and tutor me, even though she might not be entirely familiar with the material. She was taking a more advanced class.

“I think I will be.”

Her accusatory expression remained. “We’re only in the first half of the school year, so you have time to turn things around, but, if you don’t get a handle on this soon, it’s going to be a lot harder on you later.”

Are you already saying that I’m going to fail this class?

“I’ll make sure that it doesn’t come to that,” I said, trying to remain cheery. We only had five minutes for a passing period, and it took three minutes to get to my next class. I’d end up being late if Ms. Powers didn’t end this soon.

“I’m asking if there’s anything you’re having trouble with. I have after school hours, so I can help with whatever you’re having trouble on. Some students from the math club show up, too, so you can get help from your peers if you’re uncomfortable with me over your shoulder.”

I wanted to roll my eyes, but there was no way I could get away with it. Plus, she was actually being reasonable. I’d feel awful if I kept up an attitude.

“Sure, definitely. I’ll swing by if I need it.”

I wasn’t sure if I meant that. I’d still prefer Katy helping me out.

Ms. Power’s whole, rotund body relaxed some, like I had just let go of holding mochi, and was watching the snack slowly return to its original shape.

“I’d really recommend it,” Ms. Powers said. “You were a good student, Alexis, you just need to get your priorities straight.”

Oh, I know.

“Is it because you’re in the middle of volleyball season?” Ms. Powers asked. “Is Coach T running you too ragged to study at home?”

I drummed my fingers on my binder, four quick successive taps. “It’s not volleyball. It’s something… more personal.”

Ms. Powers made a face. Concern, I recognized. “Oh, alright then.”

I could hear them behind me. Kids from the next class coming in to take their seats. The bell would ring again soon, and I’d get a tardy.

“Uh, Ms. Powers? I gotta head to my next class. Otherwise…”

Her eyes widened, slightly. Ms. Powers rocked back in her seat, then forward, using the momentum to get to her feet.

“I apologize for keeping you. Go, go.”

I turned.

“But don’t forget what I said!” She called out as I left the classroom.

“Sure thing!” I said back. With seconds on the metaphorical timer, I rushed to my next class.

Valerie had her elbows on the table. She whined.

“Man, this is terrible. I wanna go out for lunch.”

“Can’t,” Eve said. “Staff and teachers have upped their game during lunch hours. They’ll check anyone walking outside, asking for a school ID. I’d rather not take that chance.”

“Right?” I agreed, “These new rules are such ass.”

“Watch what you say,” Jenny said, grinning. “Someone might be listening.”

I agreed with her. Sometimes, being secretive was more important than any ounce of honesty. I glanced around in the bustling cafeteria.

The school’s atmosphere had changed in recent weeks, a certain electricity in the air that made everyone antsy. The new rules, the stricter policies, stricter teachers, and the addition of another school cop made for a particularly new environment that the student body hadn’t quite adjusted to just yet. I could almost say there was a sense of paranoia, if I wanted blow things out of proportion.

All because of one person.

I would have found it interesting, if I didn’t have to keep watching my back.

“You gonna be okay with just that?” Eve asked, pointing to the apple I had in front of me. I hadn’t taken a bite out of it, for reasons known only to me.

“I’m not hungry right now, so I’m gonna save this for later, probably during Mr. Richard’s class.”

“That’s your prerogative,” Eve said, “But you’ll turn to dust if you keep up with that diet. You actually have to settle and stop, you know?”

“I do know.”

“Coach is going to get on your case about it, too, if she hasn’t already.”

“If I’m not at practice, it’ll be harder for her to do that.”

Brittany cut in, this time. “You’re not coming today?”

I put my hand on my notebooks, set beside the apple. “I have to start super studying for tests and stuff, especially math. If I don’t, I won’t have a practice to go back to.”

I was sitting in a group of my volleyball teammates, but, if this cafeteria wasn’t so full of people, and was also a lot smaller, I would’ve felt like I was suddenly being interrogated.

Not that I didn’t love these girls, but I couldn’t find Katy and Maria in time. My teammates found me first.

“It’ll be alright,” I said, both lying and deflecting. “Pretty soon, I’ll be back to warming the benches for you.”

The table laughed.

The other girls went off into their own conversations with each other, and I decided to look into my notebook. Maybe I’d try to get some studying done, for once.

“By the way, Alexis, how were things with Brandon, before…”

Or not.

Valerie, sitting across from me, had asked that unfinished question. But that was enough to get the attention of the others here.

“What even happened there, anyways?” Eve asked.

Jenny answered, “Got caught with armed robbery, along with other accomplices that belong to the same gang. That’s more than enough to get him expelled, but, even if it wasn’t, I don’t think we’ll be seeing him anymore. Not for the rest of the school year.”

“God damn, you seem to know a lot about this, Jenny.”

Jenny flipped her hair. “What can I say? It’s juicy stuff. I even heard that The Bluemoon helped catch him.”

There were gasps from everyone at the table.

I tried to mimic their shock as much as I could, but I was more concerned over the fact the conversation moved to that topic.

“Yeah, Alexis, didn’t you go on a date with him, just before that?” Valerie asked, bringing that topic back to me. Which I feared.

Word spreads, doesn’t it?

As much as I didn’t want to answer that question, I’d earn some unneeded suspicion if I refused to address it.

“We did, I guess, but it really didn’t feel like a date, to be honest. It was more like two friends hanging out.”

“Ouch. The friend zone?”

That was a small revelation. Oh, it so totally was that, wasn’t it? That blows.

I let it a fake chuckle. “Yeah, that exactly. It… just didn’t work out. Simple.”

Not the full truth, but the general strokes were there. I didn’t mention Jillian.

“But did you know he did gang stuff?” Valerie asked.

“That was a surprise to me,” I said. That part, was the complete truth. “He didn’t seem like that kind of guy.”

“Ah, what could’ve been. Such a tragic love.” Valerie stuck her tongue out.

I recalled the time I saw Brandon. It was the first time Hleuco and I worked together. What luck. I was floored when I saw him, couldn’t quite process it. I freaked out, and I ran, unintentionally leaving him hung out to dry. Maybe I thought I gave him a good enough chance to make his own escape, but I could have been guessing under my own metrics. A personal price, a personal consequence, for being Blank Face. It was hard to get over, but I wasn’t going to let something like that stop me so soon.

As awful as that thought was.

“It was never going to work out, looking back at it now,” I said, “But it’s still heartbreaking, hearing about what happened.”

Valerie then looked deflated, “Man, stop trying to make me feel bad for wanting to joke around.”

Everyone at the table laughed again, but it was more downplayed, this time.

The conversation continued, but over another subject. It wasn’t before long the bell rang, and everyone had to leave for class.

My group split apart, saying goodbye, then we went to our respective classes.

Before I got to the stairs to reach the second floor, I came across the scene.

Two teachers, and a cop, were in the middle of stopping a student who was also leaving the cafeteria. They were talking to him, and he had a serious expression on his face. Upset that he was caught? He might as well have painted a target on his back.

Most students minded their own business, and kept moving, but a few watched as the teachers led the boy down the hall, in the opposite direction of where he was originally going. He looked forward, and I saw in detail why they had stopped him. Everyone did.

He was wearing a blue hoodie.

The school had rules that prohibited wearing colors that might insinuate gang affiliations, but what could you do if the whole spectrum of the rainbow was used for colors? It was never the most well-enforced rule, but recently, the school had updated the dress code. No one color was allowed to dominate an article of clothing. It had to either be all-black, or have some design or pattern that allowed another color to be incorporated. No blank shirts with strictly one color, pretty much. A hard rule to follow, honestly, it made a third of my wardrobe unwearable at school. Today, I had to wear a black school sweater, with the school mascot across the chest. A bat.

In the face of that rule, another update to the dress code was that you weren’t allowed to wear blue hoodies.

The Halloween Riots were still going, after all, and the school didn’t want any reference or image of that appearing in the building. Why? I wasn’t sure. Maybe the administrators didn’t want a possibility of a riot breaking out here, but that seemed unlikely to me.

Maybe it was an extension of the gang affiliation rule.

Either way, this student broke a rule, now he was being reprimanded for it.

He passed me, and he broke his forward gaze to glance at me.

I felt a spike in temperature, however slight.

He doesn’t know, of course he wouldn’t.

Impossible, absurd, didn’t make sense.

But I was still about to sweat.

The cop was following behind the teachers, and addressed me as he walked by.

“Nothing to see here, go to class.”

I stuttered, “O-okay.”

I hurried along, like a good student was supposed to.

With each step up the stairs, my paranoia increased. If that was what the school wanted, then they passed with flying colors.

The bell had sung its last tune for the day. Every student did their best to try to make it out of the building as fast as they could, and be free… until the next morning. I was more lax in my step, walking at a pace that the elderly would have been annoyed by.

My last class of the day had me in the back of the school. Because of that, the gym wasn’t far, not much of a walk. But today, I wasn’t going that way.

After getting to my locker, and stuffing all of my belongings into my backpack, I took one of the side doors, leading outside. Figured I’d get some fresh air while I wrapped around to get to the front of the school.

Crossing the back parking lot, I passed some kids standing around, smoking cigarettes. I turned the corner, and nearly bumped into someone who was absentmindedly standing too close to the turn.

Harrian Wong.

“Oh, Harrian, hi,” I said.

“Hello,” he responded, as despondent as ever. He was in black, too, but his clothes were baggier, his hair covering his eyes. He reminded he of a grim reaper. If he actually was one, though, I’d suspect there would be even more people on Earth. Not a lot of energy or pep in his movements.

“Watchu doing here?” I asked. “Waiting to be picked up?”

“I, um, I’m meeting with those two guys?” He phrased his answer weirdly.

“Those two guys?” I asked back. I tried a guess. “Eric and Evan?”

Slowly, he nodded.

“Neat, how’s that going? Do you hang out with them a lot?”

“Sometimes.”

Doesn’t exactly answer the question.

“But you’re going to go chill with them today, right?”

Harrian shrugged. “I guess so. Eric just ask me to come here after school ended, today.”

“Sounds fun,” I said, with not a lot of fun inflected in my voice, admittedly. I should probably move along, but something compelled me to stick around for a little longer.

“You went to the barbeque, right? How was that?”

“Good. There were games and food and stuff, a lot of the Asian kids from here went to it.”

“Oh? Who went? Jasmine, Mary?”

“I only recognized their faces.”

“Okay,” I said. “Did you do anything there?”

“I volunteer. Help out at different booths, and organize different events.”

“Wow, that’s actually really impressive.”

“I was so tired, I thought I was going to die.”

I almost laughed at the statement, but I didn’t, even though I was sure it was a joke. “Been there, almost done that.”

“I’m not sure I follow.”

“I was trying to say to that I’ve been so tired I thought I was going to die.”

Harrian paused, in thought.

“Oh no, isn’t that a big deal? People die every year from overwork, especially in Japan.”

“Wait, no, that’s not, that’s not what I was getting at.”

“No? Because it’s an issue that doesn’t get talked about a lot. Did you know, according to the Japan Times, that 23 percent of 1,743 Japanese companies surveyed said that they have employees who worked more than 80 hours of overtime a month? And twelve percent said that some employees work more than 100 hours? And that last year, 96 people died from brain and heart illnesses linked to overwork? Other countries across the world have a similar issue, too.”

I frowned, “And the two of us, talking here, isn’t going to help solve it.”

He actually frowned in return. “No sadly.”

A second, then several, passed.

Wait…

How did we go from a barbeque to the overwork epidemic plaguing Japan?

Is he just dense, or a genius?

The conversation was losing air, and I wanted to abandon it. I had other things to get to, after all.

“I have to go, I’ll see you around, Harrian,” I said. “I wouldn’t want to keep you from the boys when they get here.”

I moved to leave, but Harrian had begun to speak, and that gave me pause.

“… zài jiàn.”

I scratched my head. “Didn’t catch that, exactly.”

“I just wanted to say ‘see you later.’ In Mandarin.”

“How nice of you,” I said, genuine.

“What’s ‘good bye’ in Japanese?”

Put on the spot. I didn’t have a response prepared. My knowledge of Japanese was pathetically sparse, despite all the years of my mom trying to teach me.

I searched in the recesses of my memory.

I put my hands in my pockets, and I tilted my 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.”

Harrian accepted that. “Good enough.”

He stood, almost in anticipation.

Did you actually want me to say it?

If I say that, will you let me leave?

I tried not to look fazed. I’d entertain him, for the moment.

“Sayonara, Harrian.”

He waved, and I left, going towards the front of the school.

Harrian was an odd guy, with an odd way of speaking and with an odd way of presenting himself. But, he seemed well-meaning. In only a few minutes, I had the oddest conversation I would ever have ever. And somehow, I doubted it was going to be my last one with him.

“How does this look?” Katy stepped out of the changing room, wearing a dark blue gown, black heels. She struck a pose.

I laughed until I started coughing. Maria cackled.

Katy puffed out her cheeks with a pout, turning red. “I’m being serious, here.”

“I’m being serious here, too,” Maria said, “You look like a host for a game show.”

“Katy, sorry, but I’m with Maria,” I said, “But I am ready to take that cruise to the Bahamas.”

Between the two of us, we made even more of a racket. Women from other changing rooms poked their heads out to stare, but we hardly cared.

Katy, however, was not so enthused. “Screw you guys. I like it, I’m buying it.”

She went back into the changing room.

“Wait, wait,” Maria said, trying to catch her breath. “Did you even check the tag, it’s not on sale.”

“I don’t know the price, and I don’t care to know,” she said from inside the changing room. “I’m buying it, screw you guys.”

Through our pointed teasing, we pleaded with Katy to not buy the dress. She didn’t listen. She left the changing room, storming past us to get to the register. After she purchased that extravagant piece of fashion, we exited the pricey store from the upper end mall known as the Realm.

Instead of taking me straight home, Katy took us here. Maria agreed to tag along.

The Realm wasn’t strictly a part of the upper districts that made up a richer part of town, but it was a start, a sort of hub where the upper middle class citizens liked to spend their time, and where the upper class would go to kill theirs, when there was nothing else to do. The stores here were nice, the employees were nice, everything looked nice. It was a good place to be. To be. Purchasing anything was another question entirely if you were just a normal working person.

We continued to walk around, Maria and I took in the glitz and glamour of the stores and pretty people. Granted, we were probably taking things too seriously, but it wasn’t like we got to be here every day, much less right after school. For myself, anyways, I tried to enjoy my time here.

I was following advice given to me.

“Now we need to find dresses for you two,” Katy said, pointing to me and Maria.

“Why?” I asked, “And like we can afford anything from here. As if.”

“We can find what you like, and we’ll look for cheaper alternatives elsewhere.” Katy tapped her head. “Trust me, I got this.”

“What is this for, again?” Maria then asked. We stood in a line to take an escalator down.

“My mom’s planning a small gathering on the weekend,” Katy explained, almost coming across as tired.

“I’m not willing to believe anything your mom does as ‘small,’” I said.

“It’s for my dad, Mom wants to celebrate.”

I had a feeling she was understating things.

We reached the fourth floor, and checked out other stores, here.

“Celebrate what? Their anniversary?” Maria asked.

“No, it’s lamer than that.”

“Doesn’t sound like any party I want to go to.”

“Shut up. I want you to go, Maria, consider this your invitation. You can’t refuse either, Alexis, my mom’s already invited your mom.”

“Wasn’t planning on it?” I said in a funny way. I had a feeling I knew what Katy was referring to, and if I was right, that could really screw me over.

Part of me wanted to refuse.

“But what is it?” Maria asked, more adamant.

Katy looked reluctant to share, but she couldn’t withhold details forever. Through an uncharacteristically bashful look in her eyes, Katy explained.

“My dad’s been running for public office for the better part of the year, now, and the day for voting on it is about to come up. My mom is so confident that he’s going to take it that she’s been planning the whole thing ahead of time.”

“Isn’t that putting the cart before the horse?” Maria asked.

“My mom won’t stop talking about the polls, and I’ve seen it myself. It’s pretty dismal for the other guy.”

“If that’s so, then congrats. What’s the job?”

“DA. District attorney.”

“What do they do?”

“In the case of this city, he’s going to go up against the gangs. Personally.”

Maria looked like she just got shot. “Oh shit. Good thing I’m…”

Maria stopped, but she didn’t know what Katy and I already knew.

“Why’d you never bring it up before?” Maria asked instead, grilling into Katy at this point.

“It wasn’t relevant to bring up, and I didn’t think he’d actually get this far.”

We continued towards another store, checking the options inside.

I could see why Katy was so apprehensive about bringing this stuff up. She knew all too well about her dad’s public efforts over fighting the crime in the city. Officially making himself a public figure would complicate matters even more, and give him a wide scope of enemies and detractors to deal with.

If she only knew what else Thomas was up to, in the midst of this.

More than twenty-four hours since the attempted ambush of Styx’s Gang, and I was trying to follow Thomas’s advice, to help myself before I could help out others. I was… working on it. In my time as Blank Face, I had neglected some personal stuff that I should have been on the ball about. School, friends, my personal life, they were all put on hold while I tried to figure out these powers… and this thirst.

Things were starting to fall apart, and if it wasn’t for Thomas’s intervention, it was liable to get worse.

In the end, we all have secrets we want to keep.

“Anyways,” Katy said, disappointed with what this store had. “It is what it is, now. Let’s keep checking around.”

We took another escalator down. We checked a store, the name Italian, and the prices made the dresses not desirable at all. Not that they weren’t pretty – they were – but they were so unobtainable.

Even with the money Thomas had paid me for my nights as Blank Face. I felt guilty for accepting it before he knew, guiltier still after he did know. I offered, but he refused to take it back.

Right now, despite it being in cash, I couldn’t use it now, not with Katy and Maria being curious. Especially Katy.

Which had raised another concern I didn’t know I should have had.

Does Katy know I’m Blank Face?

Thomas admitted to figuring out who I was the second he saw me in person. Was there a similar case with Katy? She was smart, she could have pieced things together as the weeks passed. Dammit.

I was afraid to ask, afraid to find out. Because if I tried, and I was wrong, then I would have inadvertently spilled the beans before I was ready.

Thomas was a unique case as far as revealing my identity went. We went through a considerable amount in a short span of time, more than anyone should go ever through. And, in more ways than I could imagine, Thomas had saved my life.

Even if they were my friends, even if they were my best friends, I wasn’t ready to just tell Katy and Maria everything. Not yet. Once I got a grip on the other stuff in my life, the stuff I had been neglecting, then I’d consider it.

Katy was smart, insightful, and Maria had a way of surprising me. For now, I’d have to be wary of them.

As shitty as that was…

“Katy, let’s call it a day, we still have time to find a dress,” Maria said eventually. She pointed to the window roof, where the sunlight peeked through. An evening glow.

“Fine, we can head out,” Katy said, caving in. “I refuse to believe you’ll find anything that works.”

“Fuck you, I already have dope shit at home, believe that.” Maria sounded confident, and I could bet she had every reason to be. “It’s her you should be worried about.”

She directed that to me. I had to defend myself.

“Hey, I can clean up nice when I want to. Don’t you fret, Katy, I saw some decent pieces here, I’ll use those for inspo for finding something later.”

Katy huffed. “You two better be smoking when I see you there.”

Maria and I almost synced up. “I’m insulted that you’d question that.”

With that, we decided to make our way down to the first floor. Our way out to a parking lot was through a large department store. Of course, we had to at least look at the clothes they had, and smell the perfumes they had available. Worth it.

After some time, we took to leaving the Realm, getting outside.

A girl was standing outside, around the doors, trying to get people’s attention.

“Any information on the Bluemoon, please! We’re looking for any information about Stephenville’s watchful protector! Any help is appreciated!”

She was trying to hand out fliers, papers of differing, bright colors. Hardly anyone took them.

“Crazies,” I heard Katy mutter. I wasn’t willing to go that far, but to think there were fanatics just as much as there were detractors.

As if she could hear us, the girl came our way, stopping us. She held out a flier to us.

“If you have any information, please don’t hesitate to contact us!”

‘We’re?’ ‘Us?’

Is this some kind of organization?

The girl wasn’t any older than the three of us, though strangely familiar.

“Not interested,” Katy said, handling it quickly. She stepped past the girl, and Maria followed. I was a step behind, looking at the girl, still curious at her curiosity about the Bluemoon. As I passed, I took the flier from her hand.

Her glance to me turned into a hard, intrusive stare. Then, a wide-eyed stare. She looked me up and down.

She grabbed my hand.

“I know you!”

My heart sank.

I looked at this girl again. Loose denim jeans, striped shirt, with each stripe a different color. But I recognize her hair. Dyed a deep purple, cut into a bob that bounced.

Shit.

The girl from Braham Barn, from when I went back after discovering my powers. I scared off her and her friends. They saw me. I didn’t have a mask, back then. I wasn’t Blank Face yet.

Stephany? Her name was something like that.

Shitty shit.

Her hold on me was tight. If I tried to be forceful, it might cause a bigger scene.

“Yeah, oh my god, it is you! I can’t believe I finally found you!”

I looked back. Katy and Maria were staring back, confused.

Oh shit.

“Come with me, just for a second,” Stephany said, tugging at my arm, “I just want to talk. It’s really you, the-”

I couldn’t let her continue.

Everything would come to an end if I let her. Everything.

I didn’t have a lot of cards to pull, except one.

“Hey, excuse me!” I said, getting her attention, and stopping her.

“I don’t know you, and we’ve never met. We don’t all look the same, you know. If you have an Asian friend, that doesn’t mean you can pick on anyone else and say you know them. That’s messed up.”

Stephany’s face turned as red as a tomato. Others were looking at us as they went on with their day.

“I didn’t, that’s not what I was trying to get at,” Stephany said, distressed. Her grip loosened. “I thought-”

“Oh, you thought. Clearly not enough thought went into what you just did.”

Someone else came up to us. A mall cop.

“Is there a problem, here?”

“No, officer,” I said, “I was just leaving.”

I pulled, and my arm went free. I walked away, leaving the girl and the cop behind. I returned to my friends.

“What was that about?” Maria asked, half-grinning.

“Mistook me for someone else,” I explained. “Happens all the time.”

“Hah, I feel you.”

We continued down the parking lot. My heart beating like it was about to jump out of my chest.

Such a small encounter, but that was still too close of a call.

I checked the flier I took from her. Bright orange. ‘The Bluemoon Fan Club’ was printed across the top, followed by an address, contact information, and meeting times.

“A bunch of crazies,” Katy commented, seeing that I was reading the flier. “Following a bigger crazy.”

I folded the paper, and put it in my back pocket. Might have to deal with this later.

“Man, I ain’t gonna lie,” Maria said, “The Bluemoon freaks me the fuck out.”

We’re still on that subject?

“Yeah?” Katy said.

“I mean, yeah, but… don’t really want to get into it right now. Just wanted to say that.”

She trailed off. She had another point, but she didn’t want to say.

Couldn’t press her on it.

“I can see where you’re coming from,” Katy said. “That Bluemoon proved that two plus two equals five. Nothing makes sense, anymore, and people are still trying to cope, however they can.”

“If you think two plus two equals five, Katy,” I said, “Never mind about asking you to help me with my math class.”

“Ha, ha,” Katy said, flat, “What did you need help with?”

“What do you know about Algebra Two?”

“Enough to write the book on it.” Katy grinned. “I can help, just tell me when.”

“Cool, thanks.”

Good, the conversation went elsewhere, away from myself, essentially. Maria’s car was parked closest to the mall, so we split up with her first, before heading into Katy’s car. We started the drive back to my place.

A whole day, working towards getting my life back together. A whole week without the mask. Somehow, it felt like it was going to be harder than anything else I had ever done.

Previous                                                                                               Next

016 – Culture Shock

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The ball struck the gym floor, bouncing behind me. I had moved a second too late, and the ball passed me by.

A piercing whistle followed.

“Alright girls! We’re calling it a day!” Coach Tilly yelled.

“Yes Coach!” we all responded.

The volleyball team split apart, quickly disorganizing. Some went straight to the lockers, others sat down to rest at the bleachers, and others grouped together to socialize. As for me, I stood at my position on the court, watching Coach Tilly approach. I’ve had a truck slam into me, guns pointed at me, and it was Coach that made my heart quicken with every step that brought her closer.

“Alexis,” she said as she arrived, intruding a little too much into my personal space than I would’ve liked. I resisted the urge to back away.

“Yes, Coach?”

“This is what happens when you don’t come to practice everyday. You’re slacking off, you’re slower to get the ball.”

“I can feel it.”

“Honestly? All of you girls are good players, some are even great, but I watch y’all play, practice, and most will reach a level their satisfied with, and just stay there. I’m a coach, so I have to push y’all, but kids your age… Their skulls are thicker than I’d like them to be.”

“I hear you.”

“As I was saying, with the next game coming up so soon, I’d really like to see you try and improve before then. I was looking forward to having you play more aggressively. You were doing so good, before.”

“Sorry.”

My eyes went to the floor, looking at her shoes. “I know it’s unacceptable to be-”

“Look me in the eyes.”

My eyes snapped back up, meeting her intense gaze. I was taller than her, but it certainly didn’t feel like it. And the way she said that sentence brought my attention to her accent. Not too prominent to be a stereotypical drawl, but enough so that I noticed. I’d usually not even think about it, but here, every word she uttered came with a certain edge.

“Sorry,” I said again.

“You have nothing to be sorry over. We already talked about that yesterday. Don’t worry about it, just work on it. No one’s mad at you, no one’s going to hate you over this, just keep moving forward.”

I nodded. “Sure thing.”

While I replied, Coach looked me up and down, “And eat a burger while you’re at it. You can’t improve on an empty stomach.”

“I’ll be sure to do that,” I said, rubbing my chin.

“Good, then see you tomorrow,” Coach said, giving me a good slap on the shoulder, and she left the gym. I had just stopped sweating before she talked to me, but now I felt like a waterfall. It was hardly a long conversation, yet I wanted to curl up in my bed, and sleep until winter.

Before I had the chance to go and take refuge in the lockers, I was stopped again by Valerie and Eve.

“Alexis,” Valerie started, “Sucks to be you.”

“Yeah,” I agreed. “It does.”

“Aw, Valerie’s just bitter,” Eve said, “Coach was chewing her out yesterday over screwing up the drills.”

Valerie elbowed Eve in the side, and Eve laughed in response. “Hush up! She didn’t need to know that.”

“Not my fault you can’t hit for shit.”

Valerie bumped her arm into Eve, and Eve had to fix her stance, favoring a leg.

“Hey, Eve, how’s your ankle?” I inquired.

“It’s okay. Needs a little rest, is all. But it blows, all I can do is sit around and watch.”

“But you actually have a good reason to skip practice, don’t you?” I asked.

“I can still help around and stuff. I’m trying to be useful.”

“Good girl Eve,” Valerie said, “But she can’t keep her mouth shut.”

Eve took that as an opportunity to elbow her back, and Valerie staggered. “So, Lexi,” Eve said, looking back at me, “We hadn’t asked you yet. Where were you last night?”

I froze. “What do you mean?”

“You know, like, I was doing PT, and Valerie was out eating dinner.”

“Breakfast tacos at 6 P.M., it was great,” Valerie said, patting her stomach. “And I picked the food out with the daggers Coach spat at me.”

Eve reiterated, ignoring Valerie, “Lexi, what about you?”

Alarms would have been ringing in my head, but I could safely assume what she was talking about.

“Oh, I see what you mean. I was out, too. Jogging. Didn’t see it until I got back home.”

“Ah. But didn’t that blow your mind? I can’t believe we live in a world where people like that exist.”

“Really?” Valerie asked Eve, “I think it’s freaking terrifying, the more I think about it.”

“Don’t think about it too hard, then,” I said.

“Right? You’re just jelly, Val,” Eve said.

“In what capacity?

“Jelly that you don’t have hops like that.”

“That’s exactly it, Eve. Nail right on the head.”

Eve would have cracked up, she made the motions for it, tilting her head back, but she instead inhaled, sharply, lifting up a foot.

Ah.”

“You need to go sit down,” I suggested.

“That’s probably the smart thing to do,” Eve said. “Alright, see you tomorrow, Alexis.” Eve waved, turned, and Valerie followed.

“Buh-bye,” I said back, and they left.

That could’ve been a close one, I thought.

I fanned myself off with a hand, and I went to take a shower.

While the water ran down my body, I thought about what Coach Tilly said to me, and I tried working out a balance between her expectations and my actual capabilities.

It wasn’t that I had gotten worse since my absences, in fact, if I was allowed to be cocky, I could wipe the floor with my whole team, on my own. But it wouldn’t be due to any mastery of techniques or anything like that. I was simply better. Stronger, faster, in every way. I was capable of things that would break anyone who tried. I had yet to test where exactly my upper limits were, but they had to be a hell of a lot higher than anyone I knew. I didn’t train to be better, I just became it.

Of course, I couldn’t let Coach know that.

And why should I? Coach would focus even more attention on me, and I’d be found out almost immediately. If there was a way to capitalize on my superpowers and make an extra buck or two, I would be down, but as things were, the risk was too high, the benefits paling in comparison. It meant having to let Coach down, but I had to keep things on the down low, and attract as little attention to myself as possible. Now more than ever.

An unfortunate consequence, but it was necessary.

I finished my shower, letting the hot water drip down my body. It had gotten hot enough for steam to billow everywhere around me.

“Hey, Alexis!” I heard from a corner of the shower. It sounded like Tiffany, another teammate. A freshman. “It’s smoking in here! Isn’t that the Devil’s Mouth?”

The Devil’s Mouth was a nickname of a particular showerhead, notorious for being broken, splashing out water that was way too hot, no matter the setting. I must’ve been too lost in my own head to notice that had I walked under it. I looked at my arms. There were red marks all over my forearms and chest, but they were vanishing at a fast rate, and they were gone by the time I turned off the shower and spoke.

“I was just testing it. It’s still hot!”

Good work on the whole ‘attract as little attention to myself as possible’ thing.

Tiffany didn’t bother to question any further, and she left. I toweled myself dry, changed, and left the locker rooms with all of my stuff. I met up with Katy at the front of the school, waiting for me in her car.

I greeted her. “Yo.”

Katy was too busy on her phone to respond properly, giving a non-committal grumble instead.

I got in the car. “You ready?” I asked.

She tapped twice more on her phone, not looking at me. “… a cherry on top.”

“You okay there, Katy?”

Katy put her phone away. “Uh-huh. You should really get your license, already.”

“I… I probably should, shouldn’t I?”

“Not ‘probably,’ absolutely.”

“Right.”

She started the car, and we sped off.

“Any updates on Maria?” I asked, as we passed by the Strip, recalling the incident that happened there.

“Not since lunch, but I’m not too nonplussed about it this time around. I’ll give the girl her space.”

Space.

Space was something I was willing to give to Maria, but I couldn’t help but worry in the meantime. Did Eduardo tell Maria about me, about Blank Face? Did he take my advice and split up with her? What did Maria know, now? So many things I needed to know, but I couldn’t press Maria too hard and accidentally tip my hand. I already played with fire a little bit by telling Eduardo what I knew about Maria, and I needed to know how much that burned me, if at all.

If it was any consolation, Maria was fine during lunch, as lively and bubbly as ever. She didn’t say or suggest anything that I could use as a hint for any of the questions I had for her, sadly enough, but no news was good news, right? Was I okay in assuming that?

I was forced to leave it be.

I only seconded Katy. “Giving her space is probably for the best.”

“She’ll be fine. She’s tougher than she looks, and she already looks tough.”

“Most definitely.”

Halfway down the street, traffic forced us to a stop. There was a light up ahead, but it was green. Cars around us were honking, trying to get things moving again, but it was useless. A crowd of people were blocking the way, marching down the intersection. They were shouting, carrying signs. Police were on cars and horses, guiding the line of people along.

Katy drummed her fingers on the steering wheel. “Dang, I thought I checked all the roads. People will protest over anything, nowadays.”

I frowned. It’s already begun, I thought.

I knew my public appearance would cause quite the stir, but I never expected the world to collectively lose their mind over it. The world. This made international news. It was the only thing anyone ever talked about all day. Even the teachers couldn’t stop talking about it, instead joining in the student’s speculation and general craze. A level of hysteria that I’ve never seen before. The atmosphere walking through the school was electric, and, even though phones weren’t allowed to be out, everyone was breaking that rule, looping the footage of me from every possible angle, trying to find that one flaw in my disguise that could potentially reveal my identity.

And all it took was a flimsy, plastic mask from preventing this from being a complete disaster. And my body shape, too, there was debate on the masked person’s gender. That helped in throwing any suspicion away from me.

Also, the world decided to give me a name without my permission. I was being referred to ‘The Bluemoon,’ a name even dumber than Blank Face. The reasoning behind it was because I was wearing blue that night, and a person with superpowers was an impossible, ‘once in a blue moon’ type of thing. I supposed.

A lot of excitement, and a lot of fear. As accidental is it was, I did stab a person on national television. People saw. And they wanted my head for it.

All of this fanfare, all of this fanaticism, from just a series of short video clips.

Imagine having to live with it. All day, everyday.

“‘Hashtag first contact,’” I said, referencing humanity’s summed up, viral thoughts on the matter, “‘Hashtag ‘where were you.’ What a time to be alive.”

“It’s like a modern-day witch trial,” Katy said, “Expect the witch is actually real.”

“It’s ridiculous. There’s nothing to gain by doing this. What do they expect, that he’ll suddenly show up and say hi?”

“We have proven, beyond a reasonable doubt, that superpowered-people walk among us. Apparently. Couple that with the footage of that girl a few weeks back, that’s enough evidence for people to believe that we live in some kind of comic book world now. To them, we’ve been living in a world either fantasy or science fiction this entire time, and we never knew it.”

“Truly the darkest timeline,” I said.

“Now, people are confused, scared, and if not that, angry. The whole world’s flipped upside down. Anything’s possible, and that frightens people, because the rules have been thrown out the window. And if you live in a democratic society, and you’re feeling any or all of those emotions, is there anything better than getting together with like-minded individuals who feel the same way, and air out your grievances in a civilly disobedient, but peaceful, manner?”

“You can always make memes on the internet and call it a day.”

Katy nodded, sagely. “Yeah, I guess you can.”

I massaged the side of my head. “It’s been less than twenty-four hours, and the world has lost all reason.”

“Better than starting a riot.”

“But you don’t think they’re overreacting, even a little?”

“There’s no precedent for this. You can’t make that call either way.”

“They’re chanting ‘death to the mask’ and ‘tear off their face.’ That’s hardly civil, or peaceful.”

“I did say ‘civilly disobedient,” Katy said, putting emphasis on that last word.

“You know what I mean.”

“Cool down, Alexis, it’s not like they’re protesting you.”

I held my tongue, and I noticed how dry it was.

Already?

We sat in wait, watching the parade pass. The noise had risen to annoying levels, and they weren’t even shouting anything comprehensible anymore, just various mindless obscenities. The signs they held were making less and less sense the more we tried to read them, from religious quotes to doomsday proclamations. One particular sign said ‘When’s the movie coming out?’ and Katy and I thought that was actually pretty funny.

Katy decided to wait them out by playing some music. Old school rap from the nineties. I wasn’t too familiar with the group, but the constant references to a specific type of sword style allowed me to guess with confidence. Katy started from the top of the album, and by the time we were told to ‘let our feet stomp,’ the last of the protesters cleared the street, and we were free to go.

We got back to my apartment just in time, despite the heavy setback. Curfew wouldn’t be beating me today. I thanked Katy for the ride, and proceeded to get out of the car.

“Before you go,” Katy said as I was getting out, “Keep your phone close, and actually be attentive to it for once.”

“What for?”

She winked, “You’re welcome.” She neglected to say more, and she drove off.

Cryptic for sure, but I was sure I’d find out what she meant soon enough. With no more chances for distractions, I went up the stairs, and to my apartment door.

I entered. My mom was already here, taking a nap on the couch. The TV was still on, repeating the events of last night. My blank face on the standard definition screen. I couldn’t escape that here, either.

I took off my shoes, leaving them by the door, and walked up the cocoon of blankets that was my mom. I tapped her on the shoulder to wake her up.

“Hi, Ma,” I said, greeting her with a kiss on the cheek. “You’re home early.”

“Yes,” she said, sluggishly, “Lucky me. How was school?”

“Alright. You can keep sleeping, I’ll just go do some homework and stuff.”

She made a sound, almost like she was purring, but she laid back and closed her eyes.

“This weekend. Do you want to go to the church?” she asked.

“I hadn’t thought about that place in years,” I said. St. Francis Xavier was a church my mom and I used to frequent back when I was younger, but we fell out of going over time. Other things in life popped up, and we learned that it wasn’t as high as a priority as we thought it was. Even without us, the church was still famous for being a hub for the Asian American community in Stephenville, hosting festivals all throughout the year that showcased the different cultures that made up that population. I still kept in semi-regular contact with some of the kids I went with back in the day, but that usually amounted to the occasional liking of a status update, or leaving a comment. Nothing too substantial.

But it had been so long since I was reminded of that place. Naturally, my mom bringing it up again had piqued my interest. “What brought that up?” I asked.

“Do you remember Mrs. Phan?”

“Ma, you’re killing me with all these nostalgia bombs right now.”

“She came in for a trim. She tell me they’re doing a barbecue, and she invited us.”

“And we’re going?”

“Maybe. She say we can take whatever’s left over back home.”

“That does sound like a good enough reason to return to the light of God,” I quipped.

My mom moved around on the couch, turning her back to me.

“Go do your homework.”

I stuck my tongue out, all in good fun, but I otherwise left my mom alone. Before I went into my room, I had to go into the kitchen to get myself a glass.

My mom would keep on sleeping, but I locked the door, just to be safe.

I cast my stuff aside, and went straight to my closet, opening it to get to a plastic bag. The plastic bag that had my dirty clothes, the ones I had yet to care of. I never threw them away. That might have labeled me as a hoarder, but I felt that I was justified by my circumstances. I found my old socks, soddened in blood, and my ruined black hoodie, a sweet fragrance lingering even now. I pushed them to the side. They were too old, now, too musty. They were begging to be cleaned, and I was aware that I had to find a way to do it soon. But, as for right now, they were to be ignored one more time.

I found the bandana, picking it out of the bag.

It was a token from an event I otherwise wanted to forget. The bandana from that guy who was chasing me through the neighborhood. His nose had been bleeding into the cloth, and I took it from him.

With only the bandana and the glass, I moved on to my bathroom, turning on the light.

I placed the glass right under the faucet of the sink, a little too hard, and I worried that I had cracked it. Stay calm, no need to rush, Mom’s asleep. I twisted the knob halfway, controlling the flow of water into the glass, so I didn’t accidentally spill anything.

I was way more manic the first time I did this, way more frantic, so there was a moment’s hesitation when I held the bandana right by the running water. I actually had time to consider what I was about to do. I wasn’t in a rush, knees wet in a gentle stream, hands cupped. However, I couldn’t let my hesitation prevent me from what I had to do. No way I could sugarcoat this – it was gross, disgusting – but it was better than nothing. I had to start brainstorming other possibilities, other methods, but until then, this would have to do.

I submerged half the bandana into the water, twisting it until some of the blood drained into the glass. I switched off the faucet just before the water was about to flow out.

The end result was an unappetizing concoction. I held the glass up to the light. It was a murky, sordid liquid, muddied with blood, sweat, and whatever else that got tracked into the cloth. Something moved in the pit of my stomach, threatening to jump out of my mouth, just by looking at what swam in the liquid. It wasn’t pretty, wasn’t ideal, but at the moment, I had little choice. Germs, disease, it couldn’t matter. I couldn’t afford to think how unsanitary this was.

Three… Three, three, two, one.

I took the glass like a shot, downing it in one gulp.

I didn’t know what was worse, that I had do it again within a week or that it didn’t taste that bad.

To be exact, it wasn’t as bad as it should have been. The taste was like drinking a sports drink that had been out and opened for a few days. Sweet, but you didn’t want to know what had gotten in there in the meantime.

The world was freaking out over what I could do, what would happen if they learned of what I had to drink?

The thought made me shiver.

I kept still for some time, focusing on keeping my ‘drink’ down. Really didn’t want to go through this again. Not so soon. I only stepped back into my room when I was sure I was okay to move.

My bed offered a warm respite, and I took it, throwing myself on top of the blankets. I decided to follow my mom’s example, and try to take a relaxing nap for myself.

How about if I sleep and forget all of this nonsense?

Yeah. The key word was try.

Those chants were echoing in my ears. Over and over and over. It was, in a strange way, both suffocating and exhilarating. Me, they were screaming over me. Because of me being whatever it was I was. They were freaking out, demanding answers, all from just a couple of minutes of me being out in public as Blank Face, or The Bluemoon, whatever they wanted to call me. They weren’t the only ones who wanted answers, but like me, those chances were looking slim.

Oh well.

Not liked it mattered. I had no plans on going out like that ever again. El Carruaje should be functionally dissolved, I parted ways with Eduardo, and I had faith that Maria would bounce back from this by a week’s time. Being Blank Face again was begging for more trouble. I had to keep a low profile, and start focusing on my personal life again.

I’m no superhero, and I have no need to go back out there again.

So, let them scream until they choked. I didn’t care. It all fell on deaf ears.

Previous                                                                                               Next

006 – Soiled Veil

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The screaming of Coach Tilly tore me out my daze.

“Barnett! You’re up!”

I shifted on the bench. Normally, I was cool and collected at a time like this. Now, a mixture of emotions churned within me.

It was loud. People cheering from every corner of the gym. Names, numbers, words of inspiration all crashed together to form an irritating cacophony. Signs were thrashed around, shaken back and forth too fast for anyone to read it and be motivated by whatever was written there. Everything kicked up to a sensory overload. And it was Coach that got through to me.

“Huh?” I responded. Coach caught my attention, but her words barely registered.

“I said you’re up! Eve got injured!”

And as it turned out, she was right. Coach was helping Eve get to the bench, her arm hung around Coach’s shoulder. Even with that much, she still limped on the way.

“Whoa, you okay?” I asked, immediately feeling dumb after doing so. I sometimes wondered why people asked that when it was clearly evident that things were not okay. But at the moment, I couldn’t help it.

Eve grunted as a way of answering my question. She sat at the open seat to my right. Looked like a sprained ankle, possibly from a bad fall.

She had scraped her arm, too, as evident by a bit of floor burn. A miniscule amount of red glistened on her elbow. From even that, I hated how my nose flared, how I swallowed. Stop.

I reached to my side, and swigged the fifth sip of my sixth cup of water.

“Get moving!” Coach barked.

Dang, my number was up, I thought. Forty-eight, to be exact, which was the number on the front and back of my uniform.

“Uh, I,” was all I stammered out. I got up so fast my head rushed. Just anywhere not here was good. I murmured something of a ‘Feel better’ as I hurried to position.

Left corner, close to the net. The fifth and final set, and while we were down one, a few more good plays would give us the fifteen points necessary. That constituted a win.

I concentrated on my breathing, sizing up the team that Saint Augustine High had brought as our opposition. Their blue and white uniforms clashed against our red and black. I could do this. I hoped. Honestly, I had very little confidence in how much I could accomplish without seriously freaking someone out, myself included.

Having scored the previous point, Augustine got to serve again. I kept my eye on the ball.

The whistle blew, and everyone sprang into action.

The ball bounced back and forth between the two sides. I largely stayed unmoving, meticulously focused on every movement of my muscles. I could’ve easily swooped in for the kill, but I didn’t want to be too risky. Something inside me kept me from moving, something I hadn’t felt on the court since middle school.

Nervousness.

Finally, the ball was set up perfectly, practically asking me to be aggressively spiked. I could do this. My muscles tensed. With a step forward, I moved in.

The cheering of twenty-something girls echoed into the night sky.

I was standing right outside the school. Not waiting for anyone, or anything in particular, more like I was trying to delay the inevitable. Even though I had worked up a bit of a sweat after the game, the fall air did quick work in cooling me down.

The rest of the team was being celebratory, as expected. Even if we didn’t get any farther than this, at least we won this game. My teammates were either surrounded by their boyfriends, or other friends and family who came to congratulate us on our win. I would normally be mingling among that crowd right about now, but I had other things on my mind that currently distracted me.

“Sup, bitch.”

I turned at the greeting. Katy, sporting a short red dress, her heels helping her dwarf me even more. A cute outfit, but a little much for a high school volleyball game, I felt like.

“Woof,” I replied.

“Let me be the first to say ‘congrats.’ For the little bit you were out there, you did good.”

“Thanks.”

“Everything’s in the car already. Backpack, sports bag. Your smelly clothes.”

“Thanks.”

“You all right? You’ve been off all day.”

That, was true. I skipped school yesterday, and while I did go to school today, I hardly paid any attention during class or whenever I was with my friends. My pencil stayed in my backpack, my eyes were stuck glued to a corner of the classroom, my mind elsewhere whenever someone tried to ask me something. I might as well have been absent.

All of my energy was going to not passing out at a growing ache, enflaming my esophagus.

“Wasn’t feeling good,” I said, dryly.

“You just played a game.”

“Um…”

Katy shrugged, accepting that non-answer. She stepped a little closer, a little too close, ready to change the subject.

“Aren’t you coming?” she asked, already wrapping her arms around mine and pulling me one way. “We were all planning on going out for pizza. Oh, Maria can’t make it. Said she had something else to do.”

I looked the other way, avoiding eye contact. “That’s fine. Maybe I should head home this time, too.”

“Why’s that?”

“Ever since I got back from the hospital, things have been awkward between me and my mom. Doesn’t help that I missed curfew on Tuesday, and stayed in my room literally all day yesterday.” I told the truth about Tuesday, partial as it was, and completely lied about yesterday.

“Next time remember to charge your phone,” Katy said. “Or remember to remind me to pick you up. And your mom can’t hold it against if you needed to take another day off. You had just gotten out of a hospital.”

“I guess, I think my mom understood when I told her that. But if I don’t go home now, she might think I’m avoiding her.”

“From what it sounds like, that’s exactly what you want to do.”

I really didn’t have a retort.

Katy took that as an opportunity to tug at my arm again, harder. “Then, isn’t that a good reason to come chill?”

“What awful reasoning,” I told her, “Come on, let go already. Plus, I said I don’t feel good.”

“What are you gonna do then? Walk home?”

“Um. Maybe.”

“Nuh-uh. I’ll take the blame for not picking you up on Tuesday, so I’m not letting you out of my sights. Especially with your currently weakened constitution, as you said. And plus, I’m your ride.”

I grumbled.

“Just tell your mom that I had to run some errands or something, and your place wasn’t on the way. Whatever. We can come up with something.”

I grumbled again, this time louder. She tugged my arm again, this time harder. And, like a light bulb, she brightened up, her face beaming. I never liked that look. That meant she had something up her sleeve.

“You know what? I wasn’t going to tell you this, but I’ve got some clothes in the back of my car. We’re getting you into something better than that, and you are coming with me, Alexis.”

“And why should I?”

“Because, he’s going to be there,” Katy said.

“He? He who?”

He.”

“Like I said, he-” A light bulb went up for me, too. “Oh.”

“Yeah.”

I knew it was against my better judgment, but I gave myself a second to think about it. I really don’t want to go home, though, I thought. Katy gave me her most nefarious grin when I met her eyes.

“Fine, let’s go.”

She led the way, taking me to her car. Her own car, not one of her father’s prized possessions. A red Mercedes. With her only mentioning ‘getting pizza’ to go off of, I assumed that would we were probably going to go the Plaza. While not exactly downtown, it was a pretty sizable outdoor shopping center, enough to even be referred to as the Plaza. Like Braham Manor, it was a good place to chill out with friends.

I sat in the back seat, changing out of my clothes into a deep blue spaghetti strap and a pair of black jeans. My bare shoulders were covered with a leather jacket. Katy didn’t have any shoes in my size, so my not-too-bad fit got knocked down twenty points thanks to my tennis shoes.

“What is with all this stuff?” I asked, fishing through the other clothes she had in the back, “Did you plan for this?”

“What? Did you say something?” Katy asked back.

I playfully smacked the side of her face. She briefly jerked on the road.

“Dammit, Lexi,” Katy said. We laughed.

When we got there, a decent line was already peeking out of the door of the restaurant, an Italian restaurant known as Poggio’s. And here I thought we were early. We recognized some friends from school, so we had no problem sliding somewhere in the middle of the line.

“Stay here,” Katy ordered me, before leaving her spot. She went up and down the line, and I lost sight of her as she turned a corner to go further back. In the meantime, I killed time by talking to other friends that happened to be beside me.

Katy hadn’t returned when I got to the front desk, the waiter asking me for a name and a number of the party, putting me on the spot with no answer.

“Party of four,” I heard Katy say, slapping my lower back as she came up from behind. She winked at me.

“Uh, yeah,” I said. I checked the group Katy brought with her. There were two others. Valerie, another one of my teammates. A tall, lanky brunette whose height made her movements a little awkward. Made for a hell of a volleyball player, though, her reach was amazing.

The other one, was someone I was expecting, but still not ready for. On the drive here, I also spent some time trying to psych myself up. I wanted to be able to talk to him without looking like a complete idiot.

“Alexis, hi,” he said. His perfect white teeth were literally shining when he smiled. Literally. An all-white outfit of a shirt and skinny jeans contrasted his dark skin. Two gold chains clanged together when he walked up to me. He was about a head or two taller than me, and I strained my neck to look up at him. Handsome, muscular, clean-cut. The perfect boy, the type I’d want to take home to my mom. Except she would have a heart attack if she saw a six-foot black guy walk into the apartment.

Okay, he wasn’t that tall, but he might as well be. With Valerie here, and Katy in her heels, I felt like a bug.

“Buh- Uh,” I coughed, and blushed. My gaze went straight to the floor. I murmured, “Hi, Brandon.”

You idiot.

“How are you?” His voice was deep, but had a comforting sooth to it. It only made me feel more jumpy than a trampoline.

“Good,” I lied.

“I watched you guys, by the way. Good job at the game.”

My face was on the verge of melting away. “Thanks.” For now, I could only manage one-word answers. One-syllable answers.

“Come on guys, we’re going,” Katy said, gesturing to the waiter who had our menus. She saved me from any more embarrassment.

The waiter walked us to our seat, a booth in the far corner of the restaurant. The restaurant tried to go for a casual dining style, with walls covered by 1950s era-themed pictures and paraphernalia. Grainy photos of Italian families, posters of the Godfather movies. It only accomplished the opposite effect, making the place seem cluttered instead. Not calm or casual at all.

“I don’t think I can do this,” I whispered into Katy’s ear on the way. The back of my spaghetti strap was sticky and wet, and it wasn’t from the sweat I worked up from the game.

“Stop worrying,” she whispered back, “Or do, doesn’t change the fact you’ll be sitting next to him.”

“You…”

“Is that a ‘You’re welcome?’”

Didn’t want to entertain her any more. I backed away.

We were led to our booth, and we took our seats, Brandon scooting in before patting the space beside him. I couldn’t meet his eyes as I sat nearer to the edge of the seat, keeping some distance between us. Did he notice? Valerie and Katy sat on the other side, with Katy directly across from me.

“Man, I’m like, so hungry,” Valerie breathed, leaning back. She fixed her hair, and flipped back and forth through the menu, ready to strike at any food item worthy of her appetite. It was only a matter of choice. Katy was less animalistic in her hunt, holding her menu in one hand, and putting her attention to her phone in the other.

I glanced around absentmindedly, unable to settle down.

“You alright?” Brandon asked. My throat went dry. When was the water getting here?

“I’m good, just…”

“Tired?”

“More than.”

“I hear you,” he said. “At least tomorrow’s Friday.”

“Me too.”

“I’m sorry?”

I twitched from a horrible realization. “No, I thought you said… you were also tired.”

Oh my god. I wanted to die already.

He went quiet, not saying anything for what felt like forever. I still couldn’t find it within me to look at his face, resorting to reading the description of the bruschetta crostini one more time.

I had been wondering how he was, since that Friday night, my birthday. Between the two of us, we shared a rather memorable night, but for ultimately different reasons. Was that why he seemingly distanced himself from me for the past week? The girl he spent part of his night… idly chatting with, making the news shortly after. That had a lot of eyes on him, I figured. I was lost on how to interpret that. Was he an asshole for doing that? Or did he intend to give me some space? I’d recently come out of the hospital, after all.

Part of me felt grateful for it. I couldn’t let him learn about what really happened to me, or what I had become. Under any circumstances. His avoiding me turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

So, should I really be here, right now?

I wanted to say more, and save this sinking ship of a conversation, but I was interrupted by the waitress, who came back with cold tap water in a cup. I leaned in to chug a half of it down before she even finished distributing the rest to the others. My thirst didn’t get any better.

We ordered. I only got a salad, really wasn’t up to eating anything. The others agreed on sharing a meatball and mushroom pizza.

“You sure you’re not hungry?” Katy asked, having raised an eyebrow when she heard my order.

I shrugged in response.

“Maybe you can have Brandon give you an extra slice?” she teased.

“No, I can’t do that.”

“I don’t mind,” Brandon interjected. “If it helps, really.”

“No, really,” I said, “It’s cool.”

“Hey,” Valerie said, cutting in, “If anyone’s getting an extra slice, it’s me.”

Brandon laughed, “Oh, it’s on.”

They left it at that. It didn’t feel all that great, having to turn Brandon down like that, but the longer I sat here, the more I regretted being here. An endless loop. Needed to be home, but didn’t want to deal with my mom. Damned if I do, damned if I don’t. Sitting here – even if a part of me wanted to – wasn’t doing me any favors.

Mercifully, the food came quickly, or my attention to what was going on around me had slipped completely, and the time in between just disappeared. Either way, it temporarily rescued me from my thoughts. A large pizza, and because I had no appetite to speak of, they were free to take what would have been my portion. I didn’t care.

The others tore right into the pizza, like vultures to a carcass. These guys were ruthless. I put a slice on my plate, just to keep up with appearances.

“Oh wow,” Valerie said, with a mouthful of pizza, “Look at that.”

Katy looked to her left, off in the distance. “That’s not real, is it?”

Brandon and I turned at the same time.

Near our table was an old television, bolted to the corner. It played the local news. Dash cam footage from a police car. The scene of a terrible car accident. A truck, more specifically. An EMS officer attempted to restrain a victim, who was critically injured. The victim managed to get out of the officer’s grasp, knocking him back, and the victim made their escape by bounding on to the roof of the truck, and disappearing from the shot.

“Oh… my… god…” I said, flabbergasted.

“Everyone’s been talking about it, but I think it’s fake,” Brandon said, “Look at how that thing moves, too freaky.”

Thing,’ ‘freaky.’ The words stung.

“E-excuse me,” I called out to a waiter was passing by our table, “Could you put on subtitles, please?”

The waiter noticed me, and nodded. He went for the TV, and pressed a button on the side.

The image of a middle-aged, overweight white woman appeared on the screen, her son tightly hugging her. His faced buried into her side, and he was hugging her, but he couldn’t fully coil his arms around her. I didn’t need to see the kid’s face, but I could assume.

I read the subtitles.

-Billy was crying and crying when I got here, talking about a girl who saved him. I’m just glad he’s okay.”

A reporter, off camera, asked a question. “Would you want to thank whoever saved your son?

The mother smiled, “Sure, I would.

It cut to the reporter, a man in a suit. “Also, the police have confirmed that the driver of the truck was texting while driving. The driver has sustained serious injuries, but is currently in stable condition.

The program then cut to other people at the site of the accident, but I stopped reading any more. I got the gist of it.

“You really think it’s fake?” Valerie asked, bringing me back to the table. Back to reality.

“Has to be, you tripping if you think it’s real,” Brandon said, “Look at how the camera is cut at the top of the truck. They say the person jumped above the trees, but we can’t see it. They probably just hopped off, where the camera couldn’t see.”

“But did you see how the truck nudged back a little? Some strength has to be needed to move a truck like that, right?”

“I don’t know, maybe it’s hooked to something?”

“What? Now you’re tripping!”

The two bickered back and forth, casual banter than anything legitimately confrontational. But it was of no matter to me, because I was slowly starting to disassociate from everything. Sounds going distant, faded. I felt lightheaded, nauseated. Wobbly. I drew a long breath, but I heaved instead.

“You okay?” Katy asked. “You’re a touch pale.” Katy was the only one to notice as I stared down at my plate, poking my salad, and sipping water from my straw. Her level of perception could be fearsome, sometimes.

I uttered a guttural noise, less than a non-committal answer.

“Come on, take a bite,” she picked up her pizza, “Here. I’ll feed you.”

The cheese on the pizza smelled awful. I leaned away, faltering. “Stop it.” Barely above a whisper.

“Don’t do that, it’s your favorite!” She pushed it more into my face. I leaned away more.

Any farther, and I’d fall out of the seat.

“Hey, I said stop!”

My upper body was already leaning too far over the edge, and I was about to fall. I brought my hand to the table to stop myself. But from the loud slam and the clatter of ceramic, I had a feeling I didn’t just calmly grip the wooden surface.

Moreover, I didn’t stop myself fast enough. A waiter carrying his order crossed my path, and my back bumped into his arm.

In cartoons or movies, this type of situation would’ve normally resulted in the food in question being thrown high into the air, before inevitably crashing back down. The more ridiculous the height, the funny it would be. Here, it was no laughing matter.

The waiter’s tray slid, the food soon falling after. Two pasta dishes and three drinks. An unbelievable mess, should all that food hit the floor. And I was about to fall into it.

I had leaned too far out, and salvaging my landing was all I could do. As I fell, even that seemed to take some time, everything slowed to a crawl.

But, it was too late. I twisted to face the floor in an effort to find a decent place to crash. I didn’t get the chance.

As soon as I turned, a blunt force struck my chin and neck. Hot and heavy. The waiter backed away, and I collapsed afterwards. I landed on hot plates. A distinct crack. A sting in my palm. A slushy, hot mess.

The whole restaurant fell into a hush.

“Dang it,” I said as I stood, summing it up. I opened and closed my mouth, testing my jaw. It throbbed. I pulled my shirt away from me to inspect the mess. “Dang it,” I repeated.

One of the orders was a plate of fettuccini alfredo, and it went all over my front. The white sauce clumped into globs around my chest, and some dripped from my chin onto the jacket’s collar, from when the plate hit me in the jaw.

Really? In front of Brandon?

“Lexi,” I heard from Katy. She got out of her seat to bring me a wad of napkins and a cup of water. “Let’s get you to the restroom.”

“Don’t.” I took the napkins, balling them up in my hand. “Don’t follow.” I turned away from her, and left in a hurry.

We were sat in the back, the restroom not even twenty steps away. But it was hardly a consolation. Others may not have seen it, but they certainly heard it. I went into the restroom.

It was rush job, trying to get rid of the sauce. When I ran out of the napkins, I used the paper towels from the dispenser beside the sink, soaking them in water, and dabbing it on my top and jacket. I repeated that process until the front was near see-through. After standing around, patting at it again with dry paper towels, it got dry enough until it was the bare minimum of being presentable. There were still dull-white stains streaked across, but it was good enough. The jacket proved easier to clean.

After I finished cleaning off my face, I rubbed the palm of my hand in the running water. One of the plates broke when it crashed onto the floor. It cut into my hand when I landed on it. There was no cut now, but I couldn’t afford to let Katy learn of a cut in the first place.

I looked over myself in the restroom mirror again, eyes red, head thumping. The beginnings of a headache, coming with force of a freight train. How many times was I going to be close to tears, thanks to this fucking week? How many times was this week going to fuck me over? Was this like some kind of divine comedy, a way for the universe to laugh at my expense?

No…

I fought the tears back, both for myself and in case someone else was in here. Two of the stalls were closed. I checked myself one last time, and zipped up my jacket.  

When I returned to the table, I had been gone long enough for the mess to be cleaned up, and generic chatter settled back into the restaurant. A ‘wet floor’ sign was placed where the mess used to be. Like a tombstone.

“Hi,” Katy said, giving a frail smile, “I am so sorry, Alexis.”

I shook my head. “It’s nothing. Not your fault.” I quickly glanced at Brandon, and back to Katy. “Could you just take me home? Sorry Val, Brandon.”

“It’s all good,” Valerie said, chewing into her fourth slice.

“Same here,” Brandon said, “Go on ahead. I’ll talk to you later, or something?”

“Yeah, or something,” I said. “See you guys.”

Katy got up from the table, fishing out a twenty out of her purse to leave on the table. Brandon and Valerie waved as we left. We got into Katy’s car, and she took me home.

Unlike the trip here, the whole drive back was dead silent.

We got back to my apartment at around nine-thirty, a quick check from my phone informed me. With my bags in hand, I got out of the car. I had changed back into my old clothes, and a cold draft touched the back of my now exposed neck.

“Thanks again for the ride,” I said to Katy. “Sorry about your clothes.”

Katy called out from the car, responding. “It’s nothing. You gonna be all right?”

I faced forward, unmoving. “No. But whatever.”

“‘Kay, I’ll let you be overdramatic for now. I’ll text you later?”

“Please?”

And with that, she took off. Her car was so quiet, I had to turn back around to check if she even left.

I walked to my apartment building, and had a foot on the first step on the stairs. A light shone through the windows. I knew they would be on, but that didn’t alleviate any concern. My pulse quickened.

The idea to sneak in did cross my mind, via the balcony, but that wouldn’t me any good. I’d have to face the music eventually. Accept that the other shoe was about to drop.

No… this week isn’t even half-over.

Taking my keys out of my bag, I unlocked the door to the apartment, letting myself in.

Previous                                                                                               Next

003 – Performing Magic

Previous                                                                                               Next

October fourth. Three days since my birthday. Also my first day back to school.

Needless to say, I was a little tired.

I stood right outside my place, a light fall air nipping at my face. My backpack was slung over one shoulder and my sports bag sat leaning against my leg. It was a routine I had grown used to in the past year. Every day, by eight-thirty, I would be picked up to go to school. Or that was supposed to be the plan. By now, I had known better, stepping outside at that time.

After ten minutes, I was tapping my foot. Was she testing me?

Typical.

A black BMW rolled up in front of me. Huh, I guess she kept herself well-behaved over the weekend. Funny, the last time I saw her she was a shot away from blacking out. Really, her dad was too easy on her. Opening up my phone, I looked at the time. Eight-forty-five.

“Right on time,” I said, as Katy rolled down her tinted window. “You look cute.”

She was prepped up in a clean white button-up, tucked into a black skirt. Her strawberry blonde hair was tied back into a neat ponytail. She lowered her designer sunglasses, revealing her olive green eyes. She shot me a look.

“Of course I do. But I can’t say the same for you.”

I tugged at my black hoodie, then adjusted my denim shorts. “Shut up, we’re going to have a last minute practice today.”

“Whatever, get in.”

I got in.

Katy looked left, right, and left again as she got back onto the road. She snorted when she noticed the phone in my hand.

“Ha, your mom really did get it.”

I thrust the phone into my pocket. I didn’t want to use it, or even look at it, as much as possible. “It’s lame.”

“Like, the fuck is that? You could build houses with that thing!”

“Very clever.”

“For really though, what can that even do?” she asked.

“I dunno, for such a thick and blunt object, it’s a pretty big thorn on my side.”

“I can see why you didn’t want to text back!”

Katy let herself laugh for another second before settling down. She inhaled deeply, indicating a shift in tone.

“Jesus though, what happened that night?”

I wish I knew. I stayed quiet.

“Hey, at least you’re okay. I was so worried when you didn’t show for your cake, and I looked everywhere for you. I thought something happened. Then an ambulance and a bunch of cops came by, and everyone freaked out and tried to dip. I went down to the wine cellar.”

My nose flared, amused at the imagery. A drunk Katy, taking refuge in a fortress of wine and fine spirits.

“I didn’t find out you were in the hospital until Sunday. I’d thought you’d got alcohol poisoning, or something.”

“Me too,” I replied.

“Hunh?”

“Nothing.”

“Anyways, I’m just glad you’re okay. How are you right now?”

I kept silent for some time. I really didn’t know exactly how I felt. Confused, angered, bewildered, frustrated, and any other synonyms of those two feelings. A little scared, too, I supposed. But how was I supposed to put that swirl of emotions into words?

Rubbing the back of my neck, I broke the silence. “I’m fine.”

“What about big mama? When I called, she sounded so pissed I thought I needed to check myself in for serious burns.”

I grinned slightly at the nickname. “You already know.”

“Got the silent treatment?”

“Oh yeah.”

“Damn, that bad?”

“Got that right.”

As we talked, I kept my head down, not looking out the window on my side. A bright pink nail poked my cheek.

“We can talk about something else.”

“Sure.”

“Like how everyone’s talking about it.”

“Thanks,” I said under a breath.

“I mean, it’s true,” she paused so she could turn a corner. “Okay, I exaggerate, but you know what I mean.”

It was vague, what she meant by ‘everyone.’ I wasn’t exactly sure what she meant.

“How bad then?” I asked.

She hummed as she thought, trying to summarize the past few days.

“Nothing too big. Of course people talked about it online and stuff. My dad showed me a quick snippet of it on the evening news, in between yelling my ear off.”

“My mom talked to your dad?”

She nodded.

“How are you allowed to drive your dad’s car, then?”

My car is still broken down, and I still need a way to get to school. And please, my dad has much cooler cars I’d rather be driving.”

“Your dad’s way too easy on you.”

She grinned, like it was all part of a grand scheme. “I know.” But she dropped it immediately. “But seriously, I feel bad about what happened. We shouldn’t have planned to go out there.”

“No,” I said, “Throwing blame around isn’t gonna help.”

“Good point.”

“So, I’m on the news?” I asked in order to move the topic elsewhere. “Everyone’s talking about it?”

“You could say that, but,” the corners of Katy’s lips couldn’t mask her slight smirk.

“But you’re not white, and your mom isn’t exactly someone who would do well in front of a camera. They didn’t make it that big of a deal.”

The thought of my mom either giving cold, one word answers to a reporter, or exploding into a tirade on how I needed to grow responsibility over my unconscious body – not in English, to boot – sprang to mind. It didn’t sit well with me.

“Thanks,” I said.

“You betcha, you’re ‘see page four-B,’ not front page material.”

“That’s not fair. I’m half-white.”

“Fine. You’re definitely scrolling at the bottom of a news ticker, then.”

“Is that your four-inch, or six-inch heel that you’re using to kick me while I’m down?”

We both cracked into a giggle, some tension being alleviated.

But that wasn’t my main reason for asking, although it should have been.

“Brandon?” I asked.

“Hmm?” she sounded, checking her side-view mirror.

“Did he say anything?”

“Ah,” she responded. Tapping a finger on the steering wheel, she gave herself some time to think. “I don’t know. I don’t know him that well.”

Means he doesn’t care. I raised my eyes to peek at the road ahead.

“Don’t jump to conclusions just yet, Lexi, just because I didn’t hear anything doesn’t mean-“

“Red.”

“Huh?”

“Red!”

Katy slammed the brakes. We both jolted forward, the seatbelts properly doing their jobs. The light at the intersection showed red. Two other cars were waiting ahead of us. The school was right around the corner, too.

“Geez,” I teased. “At least tell me when you’re gonna kill me.”

She rolled her eyes.

Driving into the parking lot, I took in a good view of the main school building. ‘Stephenville High School’ was spelled out in blocky metallic letters above the entrance of the building. The typical public high school that anyone’s seen before. Maybe a little older, a little dingier.

Getting out of the car, I grabbed my backpack, and wrapped my sports bag around one shoulder. Katy only had a purse with her. Walking alongside her towards the school, I shielded my eyes yet again.

“You good?” Katy asked.

“Yeah, you should let me borrow those sunglasses.”

“Nice try.”

We entered through the front doors. Seeing as classes were about to start in five minutes, we went our separate ways. Not before confirming plans to meet up for lunch, of course.

The bell sounded off as soon as I stepped into the classroom. I didn’t have the time to put away my bags.

The first class went about how I expected it to go. Tuesday, B-Day, thanks to block scheduling, meant my first class was US History. First order of business was to hand the teacher a doctor’s note for Monday’s absence.

“Thank you, Alexis,” Mr. Richards said as he accepted the small paper. He eyed me for a quick second while he went back to his desk.

Okay.

Leaving it at that, I went to my seat. All the desks faced one way, towards the chalkboard, and I was as middle as middle could get.

Dead center.

“Hey,” I said, alerting a small congregation of people around my desk to my presence. Classmates. Acquaintances.

“Hey,” one of them said back, a boy with dark, neatly combed hair. Mattie. “Happy belated birthday.”

“Thank you,” I said sweetly, meaning it.

As part of a normal routine, I usually had some time to converse with some friends I had in class before the teacher would take back control of the room. Today instead, I passed through the small group, exchanging hellos, sat down, and Mr. Richards began talking about the Reconstruction Era.

In reality, I only missed one day of class, but it felt like I had been gone forever. Whatever happened up until the party on Friday was but a distant memory. A blurry picture.

The classroom experience, though, was all too familiar.

Not two minutes since Mr. Richards began his lecture, and I was bored. I dug into my pocket for my phone.

I felt an unusual shape, an odd texture, and then remembered.

I wanted to cry.

I had to resign myself to actually taking notes today.

The class period went longer than I had hoped, or felt like it, with Mr. Richards’ words falling upon deaf ears. My pen lightly etched across my notebook, at a glance, it still looked blank.

I failed to stifle a yawn.

Thirty minutes later, a tap behind me, on my shoulder. Instinctively, I slowly brought my free hand behind my chair, keeping it low. A piece of folded my paper fell into my palm.

I brought it back to my desk, not turning to acknowledge the sender. Got to keep it low key, a teacher’s all-seeing eye was a force to be reckoned with. I had to unfold it four times to reveal the message.

‘Yo. How are you? the party, gimme deets! J.’

Three seats back, and one over, to my right. Jenny. She was at the party. That, I could remember.

I jotted my response quickly, and brought my hand back down to return it to where it came.

‘I’m fine. And I don’t have deets to share!’ was all I wrote.

A normal hour-long class was bad enough, but since the school moved to block scheduling for this year, every class was now an hour-fifteen. Hell, truly.

Finally, finally, the bell rang to excuse us. A five minute walking period was wedged between classes, and that was barely enough time to get to the next class.

I greeted anyone I knew as we students crisscrossed each other to get to our destinations. I didn’t want to admit it, but I was mostly trying to scan for a particular face. Couldn’t find him. Had I did, I would’ve been more willing to put up with second period.

But, nope. There was still another hour-fifteen minutes until lunch. And it was pre-cal.

The only thing standing between me and satiating my growing hunger, and thirst.

“Here you go, Ms. Powers,” I said, handing the note to the short, stout, fifty-year-old woman.

“Hmph,” was all that came out of her when she took it. She didn’t stand up out of her desk, or even look my way.

Kind of.

It was very small, very understated, but she did scan me from the corner of her eye. A look of disgust, like I had come in without showering for a week, and she could smell me a mile away. Her lip even curled up by a hair. Subtle, but she shouldn’t underestimate my eye for that type of stuff.

With my lips set into a straight line, I nodded once and turned to go to my desk, in the way back.

What a bitch.

“Alexis! Oh my god, how are you?”

Brittany, a good friend and a teammate, intercepted my way with a hug. She was tough, the force of her kindness nearly knocking some wind out of me.

Like the force of a car, if I could be overdramatic.

“I’m fine, I’m fine, now get off me!” I said, almost laughing as I tried to push her away. She was close enough to smell what I guessed was her perfume, a strangely citrusy scent.

“Are you sure, I heard all about it,” Brittany said, before leaning into my ear. “What happened? I heard people saying it was some prank.”

That’d be one theory, I thought. All I did was raise my shoulders. “No clue, it’s all fuzzy.”

She pouted, and bumped me in the arm. “Aw, sorry to hear that. Happy birthday, again. See you at practice?”

“No worries. And thanks, again. And yeah, you will.”

She let me go to my seat, and I got ready to zone out again.

My mind began to wander right about the time Ms. Powers was going over polynomial and rational functions for the n-th time. I wasn’t trying to think about that Friday, but no one else got the memo, apparently.

I was starting to get a good grasp of what Katy meant by ‘everyone.’

As a grateful contrast to how the previous class went, this class and the next passed with a blur. With my backpack and sports bag always close in hand, I was ready to go.

And by ‘go,’ I meant ‘leave.’

When the bell finally sang its merciful tune, letting us off for lunch, I went down from second floor, practically floating on the stairs, and returned to the front hall where I split up with Katy earlier.

She was already there, along with someone else.

“Hey,” Maria said, waving a heavily nail-polished hand. Her bracelets clang together as she did so.

I nodded my head when I saw her. “Hola.”

She stuck out her tongue, but I saw her smile.

“How are you? Katy told me what’s up.”

“You know, you’re the first person to ask me that.” I made sure to be extra obnoxious.

Maria clapped her hands together. “Bitch, you’re fine!” She then slapped me on the back.

“So, where do y’all want to go first?” Katy asked, interjecting in the conversation.

“I wanna go to Flash,” Maria said, referring to the new boutique that just opened. The one that was so uppity, expensive, and pretentious that its logo could spell both ‘Flash,’ and ‘Fresh.’ And it ended with a period. It was that type of establishment.

“I’ve been dying to go down there,” Maria added.

“That’s all the way in downtown,” Katy responded. “That’s too far.”

Maria frowned, tilting her head and clicking her tongue. She looked to me, like I had some power of convincing Katy.

I wouldn’t have minded going, personally, even if it would take up the second half of the school day. I didn’t mind. And we all agreed to go one day. But sitting in an hour of traffic, both ways, was no fun.

Not worth it.

“I agree,” I said, taking Katy’s side. “We should just go and get something to eat for now, school food sucks dick.”

Maria puckered her lips and used them to point in my direction. “That ain’t the only thing.”

I glared at Katy. Damn you.

She shrugged, her smug expression showing that she wasn’t sorry in the slightest. Such a good girl, she was.

“Okay, pal,” I said to Maria, raising my hands. “Let’s just get out of here.”

They both laughed.

To get off campus, we had to take Maria’s car, a 2004 teal Honda. Not the most comfortable ride, but it was a lot more inconspicuous than a black BMW. Only seniors were allowed off campus during lunch hours, after all. We juniors had to be a bit more creative about leaving.

Maria drove, and comparing driving skills between her and Katy, especially today, Maria was a much safer driver.

We opted for Lone Star Chicken, a local chain. We would have picked a closer location, but we didn’t want to risk running into any teachers who thought they were being clever by staking out the more popular hangout spots. There was no one else there when we came in, which was a good sign. That meant that we were safe.

Katy ordered a chicken salad, Maria got a fried chicken basket, and I chose the chicken sandwich combo. My personal favorite. With my throat parched, my stomach rumbling, I was looking forward to this all day.

We sat by the back exit, our eye on the front door. I stared down my sandwich, it looked as good as it tasted. I really was looking forward to this all day.

I bit into it. Katy noticed my reaction.

“Doesn’t taste good?”

“It’s okay,” I said. I held up the sandwich to eye level, inspecting it carefully. Two fried pieces of chicken, squished between their ‘world famous’ bread rolls. The secret sauce glistened. If we were in a cartoon, the sandwich would have sparkling lines coming off the top.

“Tell ‘em if it ain’t,” Maria said. “Shit, like I’d let ‘em fuck up my shit.” Her mouth was full of chicken, muffling her words. She stuffed in another piece.

I have a million comebacks for you right now, Maria…   

“Nah, it’s fine,” I answered. Hoping it would somehow taste better with a second try, I bit into it again. No Bueno. All the ingredients tasted like it was a week old, so stale and dry. It sat in my mouth like rubber. It took considerable effort to swallow.

Trying to wash down that taste with a large cup of sweet tea didn’t help any. Wasn’t sweet at all. To be precise, it was like drinking clam juice. I fought the urge to gag or make a funny face.

I didn’t want to lose said face in front of my friends, however, and if I wanted to find a something good to say about it, was that it at least the bare minimum of being considered edible. I managed to keep eating.

“Hey hey,” Katy said, dropping her plastic fork into her bowl, finishing her meal. “Lexi, show Maria your phone.”

“Oh yeah!” Maria brought a greasy hand to me, a chicken crumb sticking to a nail. “Lemme see.” Her voice was still stuffed by food.

“Uhh, no way.” I wiped my chin and skidded away from them an inch. “I don’t even wanna see it. Plus it’s in my backpack. In your car.”

A low groan that came from Maria, and she finally swallowed a whole mouthful. “Beach.”

“Oh, okay,” I said back.

“You can tap out if you want to, Lexi. You’ve gotten enough of a beat down for one day,” Katy said.

“Sure,” I said. “Only if I get to slug one to Maria.” I directed myself to her, and plucked a fry out of her hand before she could eat it.

“You said we would finally be able to meet your boyfriend at the party,” I said. “He never showed. What’s the deal?”

Maria cleaned her hands with a napkin. “That’s your slug? You can do better than that.”

“You’re deflecting,” Katy said. “She right. You said he’d show. I was kind of looking forward to meeting him, honestly.”

Maria clicked her tongue, and looked away from our gaze. “Don’t worry about it. I said he might come, but he couldn’t. No big.”

Katy kept pressing on. “Come on, together for two years, and I’ve never seen him once. I don’t even know his name. It’s getting pretty-”

“Drop it, okay?” Maria said, disrupting Katy, “Don’t worry about it.”

A singular huff from Katy. She dropped it. I wasn’t too bothered by that little bout. It was nothing new by this point.

We continued eating. I tried to eat more, but none of it was good.

There wasn’t much else to do after we finished our food, besides discussing other gossip Katy and Maria brought to the table. Nothing substantial, but it was fun to talk about. Katy brought up wanting to go somewhere else, but we were already pressed for time. Within the immediate vicinity of the school, the only places worth visiting were food chains like this. With that disappointment hanging over our heads, we concluded that going back to school was the best course of action. We left the restaurant. With only an hour for our lunch period, we made it back with three minutes to spare. We exchanged hasty see-you-laters before splitting off to our separate classes.

If you asked me, an hour wasn’t long enough for lunch.

The remainder of the day fared just the same as the first half. I gave my teachers the doctor’s note, and they let me be on my way. Mrs. Goldstein, my chemistry teacher, did allow me to extend the due date of my project, which was merciful of her. Some classmates I was acquainted with fussed over me, and the teacher having to calm them down. My pen glided over my notebook as I absentmindedly took notes, not really paying attention to anything my teachers were saying.

I had other things to worry about.

To release me from my boredom, the final bell sang, like music to my ears. At the beginning of the day, it was screaming at all of us to congregate into the building. Now, it was telling us to get lost.

I wasted no time getting to the gym.

“Barnett! Welcome back!” Coach Tilly boomed. A fit brunette in a track suit. Despite being so short – hell, even I was taller than her – that made her no less intimidating. “You good for today?”

“I’m fine!” I barked back.

“Good! Hurry it up!”

“Yes Coach!”

On the other side of the gym were doors that lead into the locker room. I ran along the edge of the court, passing my teammates. They were already doing their stretches and warm ups. None of them paid me any mind.

Having been on a volleyball team since middle school, I’d say it was my favorite activity to do after school. It’d be even more accurate to say that I came to school for the sole purpose of being able to play volleyball. To me, it was fun. Plain. Simple. Some people played video games, hunted, smoked weed. I played volleyball. I wouldn’t say I was particularly good at it, well, good enough to be on the team. Barely good enough to make varsity. But, I enjoyed playing. It helped clear my mind.

I went in and out from the locker room in a flash. A quick switch into my uniform, a combo of a red top and black shorts, I returned to the gym.

After everyone had gathered, about thirty of us or so, we officially started practice. Starting with stretches, a quick one and a half kilometer run across the gym, and then right into intensive setting and hitting exercises. Hard work, but I didn’t hate it.

Today particularly, it felt kind of easy.

Coach Tilly was especially grilling into us today, criticizing every tiny detail about our form. Not surprising, while she always got riled up right before a game, she especially would be around this time of the year.

Thursday, we’d be going up against Saint Augustine High, a formidable team from our district. Maybe the sixth or fifth best in the whole state. Every year, Stephenville and Augustine would be matched up around early October, and every year, Coach Tilly would not get off our asses about it. I didn’t know why she was so hell bent on beating her alma mater, but that was her own personal matter. If it meant that we had to play harder, then so be it. I was ready.

Three sharp whistles pierced the air in an odd rhythm, and we all knew what that meant. Time to ‘spar.’

Coach picked out our positions for the first match, and those who weren’t picked had to stand by and study our performances and figure out how to improve their own. I was picked for the first set, my position being the outside hitter. I was on the front-left, close to the net.

Our side was to set first, so I was on guard as the ball soared between the two halves of the court. I concentrated on every little movement of the other team, every twitch of a muscle of those around me. As expected, Brittany had a fantastic defense. Ah, I had to make sure I didn’t forget about the ball, too.

A lot to process.

But…

The flicker of Brittany’s eye, the angle of Taylor’s hitting wrist, the way Coach Tilly put her hand on her hip as she shouted instructions at us. I was able to focus on every tiny thing for far longer than I could, normally.

And the ball, flying way longer than it should. Had it always moved that slow?

Suddenly my muscles tensed. The ball was hit towards my general direction, and judging from the minute, miniscule movements from the girls around me, they were going to let me take it. This ball was my responsibility.

Don’t fuck it up.

A quick scan of the ball’s position gave me enough information. I could definitely spike that. I was far enough from the net to give myself an ample distance to run. The defense was looking a little thin on the other side. I could take advantage of that.

Alright then. Let’s go.

First, build momentum, keeping my arms forward. Next, I’d accelerate, swinging my arms back, my palms facing upward. As I closed in on the net, I’d convert my forward energy to vertical, arcing my hitting arm to a good ready-position, raising my opposite arm for midair balancing. By now, the ball should be in the perfect strike zone. I’d slam my hand down to the ball, using my core muscle and proper shoulder rotation to maximize power to the spike. Lastly, the satisfying smack of the ball to the floor, bouncing away as the defense scrambled behind, having failed to stop it.

I had done this thousands of times. This was nothing.

I took my first step forward. I built momentum, keeping my-

“Whoa!”

The sound of wind cutting past my ears, and I was immediately constricted. I crashed onto the floor. More noise of clanging metal, and cries of shock.

“Ah, what the heck?” I muttered. I couldn’t move, my arms and legs constrained in netting. I felt like a trapped animal.

“Calm down! Barnett, calm down!” Coach Tilly yelled. Eventually, I did, and some girls who were on standby ran to help me get untangled.

On my hands and knees, I crawled away to the wall. Turning back around, I was met with the tomato-colored rage that was Coach Tilly’s face.

“What the hell is that!” she shouted, pointing behind her.

“What the what is what?” I answered stupidly. With her taking up most of my view, I had no clue as to what she was referring to.

Her eyes widened, but she stepped to the side. I looked on with surprise.

The net was completely destroyed, limp on the floor with no chance of being reattached to the poles. Speaking of which, the upright poles which held up the net itself were ruined, bent at the floor sockets.

“Did… I do that?” I pointed at myself, feeling like an idiot.

“Yes you did, you jumped right into the net and ruined our set up! Do you call that a spike?!” She straightened herself up, looking back at the scene of the destruction. “That was the only net we had, repairs for the poles won’t be done until… Crap.

She stood there, silent, in a vain attempt to cool off. She scanned the gym as she did so. After some time, Coach blew her whistle. “Alright! That’s it! Go home and get your rest! Thursday, we kill that game!”

“Yes Coach!” the rest of the team cheered. All eyes were on me as the rest went back to the locker room. I felt my stomach churning. Must be that sandwich from earlier.

“Ah, I have to make some calls,” Coach whispered. “Should of let you rest, coming back from the hospital so soon…” She headed out the door, leaving the gym. Before the door closed behind her, she called out to me again.

“Hey, Alexis, sorry about that. Don’t beat yourself up over it. I’ll see you Thursday.”

The door closed behind her. The sound reverberated throughout the empty gym. I forgave her temper, we all knew she could get too worked up.

That swirl of emotions came back, but one in particular was more potent.

Confusion.

I stayed sitting on the gym floor, my back against the wall.

What… in the world?

My chest rose, and lowered as I let out a rough groan.

Before long, some of the girls started coming back into the gym, having left the locker room. A voice from across the space called out to me.

“Urkel, you alright?”

That sounded like Eve. I liked her. She was nice. Well-meaning.

“I’m fine,” I said, my two most-repeated words all day. But I kept my eyes down. I didn’t hear anything back, Eve seemingly taking my words at face value. Without looking at my face. I didn’t care, I wanted to be left alone, anyways.

I waited until the last of them left the gym, until I was sure I would be the only one in the locker room. I got up slowly, staggering into the room to change.

There wasn’t anything worth mulling over anymore. Changing slowly, I left behind my gym clothes and stuffed the sports bag into the metal locker. I’d wash it another day.

After I was done, I exited the near-empty school building, and checked the sky above me. I cursed under my breath.

Nighttime.

And I forgot to text Katy. Shoot.

I checked my phone, fumbling with the buttons to turn it on. It wouldn’t light up. Crap. Just how terrible was this thing’s battery life?

Or did I forget to charge it?

Awesome.

“And I have curfew too…” I said aloud. Remembering that I had a watch on me, I checked the time. Doing the math in my head, it would take me about forty minutes if I picked up the pace. I’d barely make it home on time. Public transportation was not an option either, there was no direct bus route from the school to my place, and I didn’t have enough money for the detour.

“Uhh, I’m so tired…” I complained out loud. Not that anyone would hear.

Figuring that to be my best – and only – plan, I began my walk home.

After I got a fourth of the way, I was walking down the sidewalk, heading towards a suburb. Houses to my right, a thick collection of trees lined up to my left, across the street. As I settled into my pace and the course set in my head, only now did I take notice on how cool the night sky looked.

Black and blue streaks painted the sky, making up the night colors. The stars vibrantly glittered on the dark canvas, so bright and intense, they were more like light bulbs than tiny white dots. Also, there was a lot of them. I’d have to go out to the wild, or to Braham’s, in order to see that many stars. The night seemed to bristle with life, in no way like the black, dead, nothingness I usually associate with this hour. It was the spitting image of that famous painting that my world history teacher last year wouldn’t stop obsessing over. What was it called again?

Something about a van going somewhere… I dunno.

Cars and trucks periodically darted down the road as I kept on my path, my hair getting into my face as they passed me. After about the tenth time of spitting out loose hair out of my mouth, I put my hood over my head. That was better.

Coming up from behind me, there was a rhythm clacking of wheels and wood. It was getting louder. I didn’t have to turn around to know it was a skateboard. As the sound closed in, I moved off to the side. That should’ve given them enough room. Didn’t stop the rider from being an asshole.

“Outta my way!”

He had no real reason to, but he knocked into my side as he passed. Some blonde kid riding goofy. Chubby. I noted the words ‘I Got Swag’ printed across his black shirt.

You probably do, kid, but that doesn’t excuse poor manners.

I didn’t say it, though. No need.

Fixing my backpack strap, I observed his skating. Coming from someone who had never skated, even I could tell that he was awful. His flabby physique threw off his balance, making him off-kilter, wobbling around as he stood on the thin wooden board. It was like he just got it the day before, and he never heard of what a skateboard even was. A fish out of water; a chubby blonde on a skateboard.

Pathetically, he attempted to ollie off the sidewalk and onto the road. How he thought he could pull it off, with that lack of balance, I’d never know. He didn’t kick it up, he kicked it away. The outcome was what you’d expect.

The board flew out from under him, but his legs kept moving as though it was where it was supposed to be. As such, he tripped over himself as he descended, faltering a few steps before falling face first on the other side of the road, hard. I held back some laughter. The whole sequence was viral video worthy. Didn’t color me surprised if his shirt now said ‘I Swag.’

“Hey, kid, you alright?” I decided to speak up. I knew if I were him, it’d be better than being ignored entirely.

Moaning, he rolled over onto his back. Not used to taking falls, I supposed. His body began to be cast in a white light. For a split moment, I thought of something stupid. Like aliens, or something. But of course that wasn’t right.

It was a lot worse than that.

A pickup truck was coming in from the distance, towards the kid. But it was closing in rather quickly, with no sign of slowing down. It must have not seen him. Meaning this would get really, really, bad.

“Hey, hey! Get up!” I yelled. No use, he wasn’t budging. Was he as smart as he was athletic?

Dammit.

“Get the hell up!” I yelled again. He didn’t move.

The truck zoomed closer. There were seconds until a disaster.

It’s no good, Alexis, you have to do something.

Do what?

Dammit!

Without thinking, I stepped onto the road. Without blinking, I was already in between the kid and the truck. My right arm grabbed a hold of the kid, holding him close to my body. I extended my left arm. The Heisman trophy had nothing on me.

My arm folded under the weight of the collision. So did the grill of the truck.

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