036 – On One’s Own

epy arc 6 rest

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

I was burned-out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dang, Kristin was going in on that Sumeet guy.

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

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

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

“She’s been down here all night?”

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

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

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

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

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

Now I was beginning to worry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We did some of those things, but…

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

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

“Sorry then,” Katy said.

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

Though I should have.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I pushed my plate away.

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

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

Maria took some food, then took some more.

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

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

“But my mom helped cook, too…”

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

How delightful.

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

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

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

And that was all I needed for now.

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

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

I swallowed, before food even entered my mouth.

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

With my right hand, I took the first bite.

For Edgar Brown… rest in peace.

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

Harder to chew, harder still to swallow.

But I did, and it burned.

I almost gagged.

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

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

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

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

I almost threw up, right then and there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was just fucking awful.

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

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

But, could I?

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

I tried to enunciate as clearly as possible.

“Imma try shower…”

Tried.’

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

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

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

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

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

Kristin and my mom were sitting at the table.

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

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

Kristin nodded, sleepily.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cautiously, we nodded.

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

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

“Principal Kirk would like to see you.”

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

“Right now?”

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

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

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

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

We followed her towards the front office.

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

I caught sight of Harrian from across the hall.

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

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

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

Okay… that happened.

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

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

“Coming up behind you!”

“Let me get that for you, ladies.”

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

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

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

“Sounds fun.”

“It’s a blast,” Evan said.

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

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

Evan nodded along, agreeing with Eric.

“What are you in for?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“Then stack, then file,” Evan said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trying to do what?

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing but empty words.

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

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

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

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

“You’ll have to elaborate,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m in.”

We all turned to Maria.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, see yah,” Katy said.

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

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

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

I kept to myself for that one.

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

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

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

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

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

“And you?” Katy asked.

“Me?”

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

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

“Do you really want to?”

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

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

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

“Bye, Alexis.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No.

This was the same thing all over again.

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

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

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

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

My chest was pounding, my heart was sinking.

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

The end of my rope.

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

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

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

Please, no.

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

A certain sadness.

The names Solace said…

Edgar Brown… Linda Day…

Thomas Thompson.

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030 – Fragile Ego

epy arc 5 look

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“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 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

022 – Wrong Foot Forward

Previous                                                                                               Next

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

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

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

“Alexis, wait!”

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

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

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

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

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

My arm was pulled back. I stopped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You don’t have to come.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll be fine on my own,” I said.

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

“Let’s go,” was all he said.

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

Now, it was time to get through to her.

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

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

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

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

Jillian.

I went straight for her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her expression didn’t change. No response.

Patience, she’s just testing you.

I tried again.

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

There, poked the lion enough.

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

“Move,” she said, dryly.

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

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

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

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

I went first.

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

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

I did, regardless.

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

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

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

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

“No.”

‘No?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

So much for making this quick.

I tried, one more time.

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

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

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

I clenched my fists.

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

In a second, I became confused, and concerned.

Did she know?

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

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

I gulped. What was she going on about?

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

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

This much, apparently.

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, yes yes yes.

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

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

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

It wouldn’t.

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

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

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

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

It was that easy.

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

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

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

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

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

“You not going to-”

Uck!

My bags dropped again.

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

My lower lip trembled.

Jillian had stabbed me in the stomach.

You really did that.

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

A knife. She had pulled a knife on me.

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

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

So much for just talking.

I couldn’t speak, but I could move.

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, no no no.

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

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

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

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

I licked my fingers.

Damn this taste.

Too delicious.

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

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

Come up with something. Think.

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

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

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

This should be convincing enough.

I screamed, and footsteps followed.

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

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

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

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

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

Soothing.

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

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

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

I asked myself that.

I do.

I leaped.

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

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

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

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

Bring it on.

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

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

Thomas.

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

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

“Likewise,” I said sarcastically.

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021 – Blend, Smear

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

Some.

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

Was this enough for a concussion?

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

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

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

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

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

What was that for?

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

That voice. Grating.

Probably Jillian.

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

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

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

‘Shorty.’

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

She, Jillian…

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

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

The fuck?

“How is your ego that fragile?”

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

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

“Quit talking.”

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

It was solid hit. A clean punch.

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

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

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

Did… did that just happen?

I was so confused.

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

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

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

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

Because of course she was.

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

Why?

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

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

Another announcement, declared overhead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good,” I said, “They deserve it.”

Deserve it, I thought.

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

Like nothing happened.

If I was ever out for blood…

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

I wouldn’t, though. Couldn’t.

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

Fuck this, this isn’t worth it.

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

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

I smiled.

“Cool.”

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

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

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

Fuck that guy, too, then.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A break is really what I need, right now.

Brandon nodded, satisfied. “Cool.”

Maria slapped my shoulder, expressing her disbelief.

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

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

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

“Moronic? A waste?”

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

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

I got shot in the face. Three times.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe it was both.

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

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

Man, fuck Jillian.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“At what?”

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

A joke?

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

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

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

“You wouldn’t get it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah?”

“You know Jillian, Brandon’s cousin?”

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

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

I felt myself tense. “Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“What was she asking about?”

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

“I appreciate it,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

Round two, I figured.

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017 – Rookie

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Nevertheless, this was no dream, and what was happening was reality.

It wouldn’t be very smart of me to deny that fact.

None of my problems would be solved if I stayed holed up in my room, never stepping out to see the light of day. None of them would disappear on their own. Though, it would be nice if they did.

I had to drink blood. Human blood. It was a necessity. The sooner I could accept that, as ghoulish as it was, the sooner I could do something about it.

What that ‘something’ was, I struggled to figure out.

How was I supposed to get blood? Going after people… had to be the last of last resorts. What about criminals? Gang leaders? The idea did come to me. Maybe I should spend my nights running around, giving bad guys bloody noses with one hand while holding a towel in the other. Could I just do that? Maybe being a superhero was for me, after all.

Maybe a better word was vigilante.

Bad guys, bad people do exist. Would anyone really care if someone gave them their just desserts? Briefly, I remembered Eduardo. He was a gang member, but he wasn’t a bad guy. He did rub me the wrong way at times, and I would admit for my part, it was undeserved, but he wasn’t evil, or malicious in any way. He had his circumstances for joining a gang. Which meant that others did, too.

Was my judgement of character good enough to decide who was worthy of a good punch in the nose? Maybe. Probably not.

I’d be better off volunteering at a blood bank.

As I debated with myself, going over everything in my head, I jogged.

It was the weekend, and I was free. Like, free. No parties, no big projects to worry about, nothing. It was still up in the air whether my mom and I would go to the church or not, but other than that, I had a significant block of time in which I could focus on myself. A free weekend. Liberating, really.

I got on another block, and continued, paying attention to every strain of my muscles, the rhythm of my breathing, the speed I ran.

Doing physical activities would seem counter-intuitive, since I’d become thirsty sooner, but I needed some actual practice with my super-enhanced body. I needed finer control, so I wouldn’t go around carelessly breaking things that I wasn’t physically supposed to break, or flying through volleyball nets. I had to keep things on the down-low, and knowing exactly how my body works was a step in the right direction.

A precaution, was what it was.

I ran down another block. I saw a telephone pole that was covered in sheets of paper. Multi-colored flyers of low-resolution images of me as Blank Face. ‘Wanted,’ they said. Not actual wanted posters, just printed papers from angry citizens.

I started slowing down.

God damn, it’s only the middle of October.

Everything, and I meant everything, happened so fast. It was almost inconceivable that it all took place within such a short time frame. It felt like seventeen weeks’ worth of events, really. I was astonished that I managed to keep it together to get this far. If you could call this keeping it together.

The wind brushed against my face. Chilly. I made a good call in putting on a sweater today.

I slowed to a stop once I started realizing the buildings around me were getting taller. Without being conscious of it, I ended up in the heart of downtown. From my place, where downtown began was ten miles, give or take. How long was I running again? I checked my watch. Noon. I started about forty minutes ago.

I really need to learn how to dial it down.

Since I was in the area, walking around wouldn’t be such a bad idea. I could take a break, regain my energy. As for getting home, I could take a bus if I really had to, but it’d be easier on my mom’s wallet if I could avoid that.

Or would Katy like to pick me up? Nah.

Not surprisingly, that run made me thirsty. Not for that, not yet, but for water. There should be water at a corner store, somewhere.

I checked around to see what I could find.

After going farther along, I found my way into a small shopping center, in the shadow of an office building. There were few people out and about in the area, making things easier on me. I didn’t find a corner store, but there was an Asian goods store. Good enough.

Metal clanged on glass as I pulled the door open. Door chimes.

I entered, and immediately the smell violated my nose. A pungent, putrescent stench. Bags on bags of rice, stacked neatly right by the entrance. I almost considered turning back around and going elsewhere, but this was another thing I needed to get used to. ‘Regular people’ food no longer had an appetizing aroma, and it was a requirement that I could stomach certain smells and odors, or risk being outed.

I’d also have to learn how to eat in front of people, too. Fake it enough to be convincing. ‘Dieting’ wouldn’t be an acceptable excuse forever.

Red and gold colored the interior of the store, various oriental snacks and knick-knacks were neatly displayed in aisles. It wasn’t just a store, I learned, there were a few tables at the other end of the space, and a menu above the counter. It was a restaurant, too.

It was my first time in here, but there was a certain familiarity about this place. Even the smell, while warped and distorted, brought me back to a younger time, a tinier me.

Already, I wanted to go back to a time like that.

The place was small, so finding the drinks wasn’t difficult. In refrigerators located at the back of the store, there were plastic bottles of green tea and water. I took a bottle of each. My mom might like the tea. There was nothing else I needed, so I went straight to the counter.

No one here. Now that I thought about it, no one greeted me when I came in. Was this place even open?

“Um, hello?” I called out to no one. “Got water, money too, if you like that.”

There was a clock by the register. A cat with a fat belly, the clock itself serving as the creature’s midriff. The second hand made three rotations before anyone came out to take care of me.

A skinny Asian kid in a white shirt passed through a curtain from behind the counter and met me at the register. Skinny, and I could’ve said mal-nourished if I wanted to be rude. His shirt looked like it was hanging off him rather than being worn. He had a deadpan expression as he tapped on the buttons.

“Hi,” he said, lifelessly.

If I’m a vampire, then you’re a zombie, dude.

I bobbed my head once, and gave him the bottles. He scanned them. He lifted his head.

Either he looked at me, or he gave me a look. I couldn’t tell from his sunken, reddened eyes. I straightened my back.

“You, Alexis?”

I gave him a look of my own. “Do you know me?” I asked, while simultaneously confirming my identity.

“I seen you around. At school.” He pressed another button. “Harrian.”

Harrian Wong. The kid Eric and Evan liked to tease. If using the word ‘tease’ put it lightly or harshly, I didn’t know the particulars to say for sure.

This was him.

“Oh, hey then. I didn’t know you worked here,” I said.

“My Aunt own the place. I help on weekends.” His accent was thick, but it was still easy for me to understand.

“That’s neat.”

His operating of the cash register was painfully slow, like this was the first time he was doing this. That might actually be the case.

“How did you find here?” he asked, looking over the buttons.

“I was in the area. Running.”

He tapped another button. “Do you like running?”

“I don’t hate it, but it’s something I have to do.”

“Oh.”

Harrian’s hand hovered over the machine, deciding what button he should be pressing.

Without being aware of it, he was pressing all of mine. He was so slow.

My mind went to where my wallet was. In the pocket of my shorts. I was willing to pay more for this to end already.

“Are you going to the church tomorrow?” he asked as he made his choice.

“Church?” I said, breathing out the word. He didn’t pick up the hint, my tone.

“The barbeque.”

“Oh, my mom and I haven’t decided yet. It’d be the first time we went in at least five years.”

“That long?” His eyes went to me, and back to the register, again. “Sorry.”

“For what?”

“I only ask because you, you’re Asian, I just assume you go to the church, too.”

“No biggie, people have asked me that before.”

Another button pressed.

Mine, and the register’s.

“What are you?” Harrian asked, like it was on purpose, what he was doing.

The question made me stiffen up. “In what way are you asking that question?” I asked back, cautious.

“Vietnamese? Chinese? Taiwanese?”

A deep breath, calming me. “Right. I’m Japanese, actually. If you want to be specific, I’m half.”

“Half?”

“White.”

“Ah. Were you born in Japan?”

“No, I was born and raised here. My mom moved from Japan a while back.”

“What about your da-”

I firmly set my hand down on the counter, rattling spare change and other loose items on the surface. Harrian jumped.

“You’re very curious about me,” I said, my voice hard. “Am I allowed to ask why?”

Harrian’s face changed to something readable for the first time since this exchange. Sheepish.

Harrian had nothing to say.

That was what I wanted, but now it bothered me.

“Is everything alright?” I asked.

When he did speak, his voice was brought down to a low tone. “I was just trying.”

“Trying?” I repeated.

He didn’t shake his head, or make any gesture. “Here.”

Harrian finally finished ringing me up, putting my bottles in a paper bag. I would’ve pursued this further, but this sad attempt of a conversation left me mentally drained and physically ready to leave. I handed him the cash.

“You can keep the change,” I said.

He gave me the paper bag, with my drinks inside.

“I’ll see you at school,” he said as I took the bag.

“Bye,” I said, trying to maintain my courteousness.

I left the store, the chimes ringing again as the door closed.

That kid was the definition of awkward. I can see why Eric and Evan would give him a hard time.

But, whatever, he’s harmless enough.

The farther away I got from the store, the more I tried to forget about it.

I still had some time to kill before I needed to head home, so I decided to check around the shopping center some more. See what was around.

Not a lot, from the looks of things.

There were a few points of interest, however. A jewelry store, a bookstore, a pet supply shop, all right next to each other. Points of interest, but not interesting enough for me to walk in.

A woman was walking her dog, coming my way. The dog was tiny, a cute little maltese, but upon approaching me, its face turned sour, and started barking. I didn’t expect it, and I backed away in surprise. I wasn’t even close enough to pet it.

“Shush, Coco,” the woman said in between her dog’s high-pitched yelps, clearly embarrassed. “She is never like this.”

“No worries,” I said, not thinking about it. I kept going, and went another way.

With the shopping center behind me, I soon came into a seedier part of town. I would have had no qualms about turning around and going back the way I came, but that was before I saw it.

Cars were parked along a sidewalk across from me, and one particular car was much nicer than the others. Someone else must’ve noticed, too, because they were huddled by the driver’s side door, working the handle.

A car thief? In broad daylight?

I looked around. No one else was nearby, and he didn’t seem to notice me. Should I stop him?

I had the power to, but was it my responsibility?

The car was black, and I couldn’t put my finger on it exactly, but something about the car seemed familiar to me. I didn’t know why.

I checked my surroundings once again. People either were not around, or they didn’t care to intervene. This city was decayed in a way I had never known before.

I know what I said before, but leaving now would turn me into an accomplice. Crap.

If I made this fast as possible, it shouldn’t a problem. Scaring him off shouldn’t be that hard.

Eh, and it’s a nice car. It’s not his to take.

I’ll do it.

But I didn’t bring my mask, since I had never planned on wearing it again. I had to improvise.

I bent down, and took out the bottles of the paper bag, setting them down, and poked two holes into one side. The bag went over my head, and I fixed it so I could see through the holes.

There, now I had a mask. I felt as stupid as I looked.

I gathered my bottles, one in each hand, and went to approach the man.

“Good day, sir,” I said when I was sure he could hear me.

He wheeled around, startled. Clearly, he was on edge. He spoke, testing his words.

“This one’s already taken, man.”

“Hunh?”

“This is my score, you better look somewhere else.”

I tilted my head, the paper bag I wore crinkling.

“Do I look like I’m here to help?”

He paused, the realization settling in. “Yes?”

I shrugged. “Is it the bag?”

He nodded.

“Figured.”

I was about to close in more to engage him, but I reconsidered. Things weren’t dire, like the other times I went up against bad guys. I could take him on my own. And I should probably try to not break him, too.

“Go,” I said after thinking it over.

Go?” he repeated back to me, saying it like it was a whole new word to him.

“I’m giving you a free pass. You can go, you just can’t take the car with you. Is that fair?”

“You lettin’ me walk away? Not gonna call the cops?”

“I’d hate for the cops to be here, even more than you would. Just go, and try not to steal anything else on your way out, okay?”

His eyes went one way, to his feet. A steel pipe.

He swung his arm down, picking it up and bringing to my head in one motion.

Ah, yes. Just what I wanted on my lazy weekend. A fight.

I didn’t even try. I caught the pipe with one hand, stopping him. The bottle I was just holding hit the ground after I blocked it.

I yanked the pipe away from him. Candy from a baby, and all that.

“Not cool,” I said.

I dropped the other bottle, and gripped the other end of the pipe. With some effort, I pressed inward, and bent the pipe in half.

The man watched, shaking.

“You, you’re,” he spluttered.

“I did warn you,” I said, “Go, or you’re getting a bloody nose.”

He listened this time, running like he had a tail between his legs. He was loud, incoherent as he bolted away from me. I should have probably went after him, in case he directed others to my presence. Or, I could just leave, too.

I looked at the pipe in my hands. I had bent it into a right angle.

My strength still found ways to leave me astonished.

Alright, I need to go.

“Hello there.”

A male voice.

I looked back.

That was why the black car seemed familiar.

A black BMW.

Katy’s black BMW.

More precisely, her father’s black BMW.

Thomas was standing right there. Like, right there.

That’s not good.

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