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 think you have a grip on, yet. Are you going to be okay?”

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

“I think I will be.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, I know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I turned.

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

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

Valerie had her elbows on the table. She whined.

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

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

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

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

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

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

All because of one person.

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

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

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

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

“I do know.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The table laughed.

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

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

Or not.

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

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

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

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

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

There were gasps from everyone at the table.

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

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

Word spreads, doesn’t it?

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

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

“Ouch. The friend zone?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As awful as that thought was.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was wearing a blue hoodie.

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

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

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

Maybe it was an extension of the gang affiliation rule.

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

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

I felt a spike in temperature, however slight.

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

Impossible, absurd, didn’t make sense.

But I was still about to sweat.

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

“Nothing to see here, go to class.”

I stuttered, “O-okay.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harrian Wong.

“Oh, Harrian, hi,” I said.

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

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

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

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

Slowly, he nodded.

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

“Sometimes.”

Doesn’t exactly answer the question.

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh? Who went? Jasmine, Mary?”

“I only recognized their faces.”

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

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

“Wow, that’s actually really impressive.”

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

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

“I’m not sure I follow.”

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

Harrian paused, in thought.

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

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

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

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

He actually frowned in return. “No sadly.”

A second, then several, passed.

Wait…

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

Is he just dense, or a genius?

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

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

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

“… zài jiàn.”

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

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

“How nice of you,” I said, genuine.

“What’s ‘good bye’ in Japanese?”

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

I searched in the recesses of my memory.

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

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

Harrian accepted that. “Good enough.”

He stood, almost in anticipation.

Did you actually want me to say it?

If I say that, will you let me leave?

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

“Sayonara, Harrian.”

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

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

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

I laughed until I started coughing. Maria cackled.

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

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

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

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

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

She went back into the changing room.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was following advice given to me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I had a feeling she was understating things.

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

“Celebrate what? Their anniversary?” Maria asked.

“No, it’s lamer than that.”

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

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

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

Part of me wanted to refuse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“DA. District attorney.”

“What do they do?”

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

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

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

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

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

We continued towards another store, checking the options inside.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does Katy know I’m Blank Face?

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

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

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

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

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

As shitty as that was…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘We’re?’ ‘Us?’

Is this some kind of organization?

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

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

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

She grabbed my hand.

“I know you!”

My heart sank.

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

Shit.

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

Stephany? Her name was something like that.

Shitty shit.

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

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

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

Oh shit.

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

I couldn’t let her continue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Someone else came up to us. A mall cop.

“Is there a problem, here?”

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

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

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

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

“Hah, I feel you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re still on that subject?

“Yeah?” Katy said.

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

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

Couldn’t press her on it.

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

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

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

“What do you know about Algebra Two?”

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

“Cool, thanks.”

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

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

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003 – Performing Magic

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October fourth. Three days since my birthday. Also my first day back to school.

Needless to say, I was a little tired.

I stood right outside my place, a light fall air nipping at my face. My backpack was slung over one shoulder and my sports bag sat leaning against my leg. It was a routine I had grown used to in the past year. Every day, by eight-thirty, I would be picked up to go to school. Or that was supposed to be the plan. By now, I had known better, stepping outside at that time.

After ten minutes, I was tapping my foot. Was she testing me?

Typical.

A black BMW rolled up in front of me. Huh, I guess she kept herself well-behaved over the weekend. Funny, the last time I saw her she was a shot away from blacking out. Really, her dad was too easy on her. Opening up my phone, I looked at the time. Eight-forty-five.

“Right on time,” I said, as Katy rolled down her tinted window. “You look cute.”

She was prepped up in a clean white button-up, tucked into a black skirt. Her strawberry blonde hair was tied back into a neat ponytail. She lowered her designer sunglasses, revealing her olive green eyes. She shot me a look.

“Of course I do. But I can’t say the same for you.”

I tugged at my black hoodie, then adjusted my denim shorts. “Shut up, we’re going to have a last minute practice today.”

“Whatever, get in.”

I got in.

Katy looked left, right, and left again as she got back onto the road. She snorted when she noticed the phone in my hand.

“Ha, your mom really did get it.”

I thrust the phone into my pocket. I didn’t want to use it, or even look at it, as much as possible. “It’s lame.”

“Like, the fuck is that? You could build houses with that thing!”

“Very clever.”

“For really though, what can that even do?” she asked.

“I dunno, for such a thick and blunt object, it’s a pretty big thorn on my side.”

“I can see why you didn’t want to text back!”

Katy let herself laugh for another second before settling down. She inhaled deeply, indicating a shift in tone.

“Jesus though, what happened that night?”

I wish I knew. I stayed quiet.

“Hey, at least you’re okay. I was so worried when you didn’t show for your cake, and I looked everywhere for you. I thought something happened. Then an ambulance and a bunch of cops came by, and everyone freaked out and tried to dip. I went down to the wine cellar.”

My nose flared, amused at the imagery. A drunk Katy, taking refuge in a fortress of wine and fine spirits.

“I didn’t find out you were in the hospital until Sunday. I’d thought you’d got alcohol poisoning, or something.”

“Me too,” I replied.

“Hunh?”

“Nothing.”

“Anyways, I’m just glad you’re okay. How are you right now?”

I kept silent for some time. I really didn’t know exactly how I felt. Confused, angered, bewildered, frustrated, and any other synonyms of those two feelings. A little scared, too, I supposed. But how was I supposed to put that swirl of emotions into words?

Rubbing the back of my neck, I broke the silence. “I’m fine.”

“What about big mama? When I called, she sounded so pissed I thought I needed to check myself in for serious burns.”

I grinned slightly at the nickname. “You already know.”

“Got the silent treatment?”

“Oh yeah.”

“Damn, that bad?”

“Got that right.”

As we talked, I kept my head down, not looking out the window on my side. A bright pink nail poked my cheek.

“We can talk about something else.”

“Sure.”

“Like how everyone’s talking about it.”

“Thanks,” I said under a breath.

“I mean, it’s true,” she paused so she could turn a corner. “Okay, I exaggerate, but you know what I mean.”

It was vague, what she meant by ‘everyone.’ I wasn’t exactly sure what she meant.

“How bad then?” I asked.

She hummed as she thought, trying to summarize the past few days.

“Nothing too big. Of course people talked about it online and stuff. My dad showed me a quick snippet of it on the evening news, in between yelling my ear off.”

“My mom talked to your dad?”

She nodded.

“How are you allowed to drive your dad’s car, then?”

My car is still broken down, and I still need a way to get to school. And please, my dad has much cooler cars I’d rather be driving.”

“Your dad’s way too easy on you.”

She grinned, like it was all part of a grand scheme. “I know.” But she dropped it immediately. “But seriously, I feel bad about what happened. We shouldn’t have planned to go out there.”

“No,” I said, “Throwing blame around isn’t gonna help.”

“Good point.”

“So, I’m on the news?” I asked in order to move the topic elsewhere. “Everyone’s talking about it?”

“You could say that, but,” the corners of Katy’s lips couldn’t mask her slight smirk.

“But you’re not white, and your mom isn’t exactly someone who would do well in front of a camera. They didn’t make it that big of a deal.”

The thought of my mom either giving cold, one word answers to a reporter, or exploding into a tirade on how I needed to grow responsibility over my unconscious body – not in English, to boot – sprang to mind. It didn’t sit well with me.

“Thanks,” I said.

“You betcha, you’re ‘see page four-B,’ not front page material.”

“That’s not fair. I’m half-white.”

“Fine. You’re definitely scrolling at the bottom of a news ticker, then.”

“Is that your four-inch, or six-inch heel that you’re using to kick me while I’m down?”

We both cracked into a giggle, some tension being alleviated.

But that wasn’t my main reason for asking, although it should have been.

“Brandon?” I asked.

“Hmm?” she sounded, checking her side-view mirror.

“Did he say anything?”

“Ah,” she responded. Tapping a finger on the steering wheel, she gave herself some time to think. “I don’t know. I don’t know him that well.”

Means he doesn’t care. I raised my eyes to peek at the road ahead.

“Don’t jump to conclusions just yet, Lexi, just because I didn’t hear anything doesn’t mean-“

“Red.”

“Huh?”

“Red!”

Katy slammed the brakes. We both jolted forward, the seatbelts properly doing their jobs. The light at the intersection showed red. Two other cars were waiting ahead of us. The school was right around the corner, too.

“Geez,” I teased. “At least tell me when you’re gonna kill me.”

She rolled her eyes.

Driving into the parking lot, I took in a good view of the main school building. ‘Stephenville High School’ was spelled out in blocky metallic letters above the entrance of the building. The typical public high school that anyone’s seen before. Maybe a little older, a little dingier.

Getting out of the car, I grabbed my backpack, and wrapped my sports bag around one shoulder. Katy only had a purse with her. Walking alongside her towards the school, I shielded my eyes yet again.

“You good?” Katy asked.

“Yeah, you should let me borrow those sunglasses.”

“Nice try.”

We entered through the front doors. Seeing as classes were about to start in five minutes, we went our separate ways. Not before confirming plans to meet up for lunch, of course.

The bell sounded off as soon as I stepped into the classroom. I didn’t have the time to put away my bags.

The first class went about how I expected it to go. Tuesday, B-Day, thanks to block scheduling, meant my first class was US History. First order of business was to hand the teacher a doctor’s note for Monday’s absence.

“Thank you, Alexis,” Mr. Richards said as he accepted the small paper. He eyed me for a quick second while he went back to his desk.

Okay.

Leaving it at that, I went to my seat. All the desks faced one way, towards the chalkboard, and I was as middle as middle could get.

Dead center.

“Hey,” I said, alerting a small congregation of people around my desk to my presence. Classmates. Acquaintances.

“Hey,” one of them said back, a boy with dark, neatly combed hair. Mattie. “Happy belated birthday.”

“Thank you,” I said sweetly, meaning it.

As part of a normal routine, I usually had some time to converse with some friends I had in class before the teacher would take back control of the room. Today instead, I passed through the small group, exchanging hellos, sat down, and Mr. Richards began talking about the Reconstruction Era.

In reality, I only missed one day of class, but it felt like I had been gone forever. Whatever happened up until the party on Friday was but a distant memory. A blurry picture.

The classroom experience, though, was all too familiar.

Not two minutes since Mr. Richards began his lecture, and I was bored. I dug into my pocket for my phone.

I felt an unusual shape, an odd texture, and then remembered.

I wanted to cry.

I had to resign myself to actually taking notes today.

The class period went longer than I had hoped, or felt like it, with Mr. Richards’ words falling upon deaf ears. My pen lightly etched across my notebook, at a glance, it still looked blank.

I failed to stifle a yawn.

Thirty minutes later, a tap behind me, on my shoulder. Instinctively, I slowly brought my free hand behind my chair, keeping it low. A piece of folded my paper fell into my palm.

I brought it back to my desk, not turning to acknowledge the sender. Got to keep it low key, a teacher’s all-seeing eye was a force to be reckoned with. I had to unfold it four times to reveal the message.

‘Yo. How are you? the party, gimme deets! J.’

Three seats back, and one over, to my right. Jenny. She was at the party. That, I could remember.

I jotted my response quickly, and brought my hand back down to return it to where it came.

‘I’m fine. And I don’t have deets to share!’ was all I wrote.

A normal hour-long class was bad enough, but since the school moved to block scheduling for this year, every class was now an hour-fifteen. Hell, truly.

Finally, finally, the bell rang to excuse us. A five minute walking period was wedged between classes, and that was barely enough time to get to the next class.

I greeted anyone I knew as we students crisscrossed each other to get to our destinations. I didn’t want to admit it, but I was mostly trying to scan for a particular face. Couldn’t find him. Had I did, I would’ve been more willing to put up with second period.

But, nope. There was still another hour-fifteen minutes until lunch. And it was pre-cal.

The only thing standing between me and satiating my growing hunger, and thirst.

“Here you go, Ms. Powers,” I said, handing the note to the short, stout, fifty-year-old woman.

“Hmph,” was all that came out of her when she took it. She didn’t stand up out of her desk, or even look my way.

Kind of.

It was very small, very understated, but she did scan me from the corner of her eye. A look of disgust, like I had come in without showering for a week, and she could smell me a mile away. Her lip even curled up by a hair. Subtle, but she shouldn’t underestimate my eye for that type of stuff.

With my lips set into a straight line, I nodded once and turned to go to my desk, in the way back.

What a bitch.

“Alexis! Oh my god, how are you?”

Brittany, a good friend and a teammate, intercepted my way with a hug. She was tough, the force of her kindness nearly knocking some wind out of me.

Like the force of a car, if I could be overdramatic.

“I’m fine, I’m fine, now get off me!” I said, almost laughing as I tried to push her away. She was close enough to smell what I guessed was her perfume, a strangely citrusy scent.

“Are you sure, I heard all about it,” Brittany said, before leaning into my ear. “What happened? I heard people saying it was some prank.”

That’d be one theory, I thought. All I did was raise my shoulders. “No clue, it’s all fuzzy.”

She pouted, and bumped me in the arm. “Aw, sorry to hear that. Happy birthday, again. See you at practice?”

“No worries. And thanks, again. And yeah, you will.”

She let me go to my seat, and I got ready to zone out again.

My mind began to wander right about the time Ms. Powers was going over polynomial and rational functions for the n-th time. I wasn’t trying to think about that Friday, but no one else got the memo, apparently.

I was starting to get a good grasp of what Katy meant by ‘everyone.’

As a grateful contrast to how the previous class went, this class and the next passed with a blur. With my backpack and sports bag always close in hand, I was ready to go.

And by ‘go,’ I meant ‘leave.’

When the bell finally sang its merciful tune, letting us off for lunch, I went down from second floor, practically floating on the stairs, and returned to the front hall where I split up with Katy earlier.

She was already there, along with someone else.

“Hey,” Maria said, waving a heavily nail-polished hand. Her bracelets clang together as she did so.

I nodded my head when I saw her. “Hola.”

She stuck out her tongue, but I saw her smile.

“How are you? Katy told me what’s up.”

“You know, you’re the first person to ask me that.” I made sure to be extra obnoxious.

Maria clapped her hands together. “Bitch, you’re fine!” She then slapped me on the back.

“So, where do y’all want to go first?” Katy asked, interjecting in the conversation.

“I wanna go to Flash,” Maria said, referring to the new boutique that just opened. The one that was so uppity, expensive, and pretentious that its logo could spell both ‘Flash,’ and ‘Fresh.’ And it ended with a period. It was that type of establishment.

“I’ve been dying to go down there,” Maria added.

“That’s all the way in downtown,” Katy responded. “That’s too far.”

Maria frowned, tilting her head and clicking her tongue. She looked to me, like I had some power of convincing Katy.

I wouldn’t have minded going, personally, even if it would take up the second half of the school day. I didn’t mind. And we all agreed to go one day. But sitting in an hour of traffic, both ways, was no fun.

Not worth it.

“I agree,” I said, taking Katy’s side. “We should just go and get something to eat for now, school food sucks dick.”

Maria puckered her lips and used them to point in my direction. “That ain’t the only thing.”

I glared at Katy. Damn you.

She shrugged, her smug expression showing that she wasn’t sorry in the slightest. Such a good girl, she was.

“Okay, pal,” I said to Maria, raising my hands. “Let’s just get out of here.”

They both laughed.

To get off campus, we had to take Maria’s car, a 2004 teal Honda. Not the most comfortable ride, but it was a lot more inconspicuous than a black BMW. Only seniors were allowed off campus during lunch hours, after all. We juniors had to be a bit more creative about leaving.

Maria drove, and comparing driving skills between her and Katy, especially today, Maria was a much safer driver.

We opted for Lone Star Chicken, a local chain. We would have picked a closer location, but we didn’t want to risk running into any teachers who thought they were being clever by staking out the more popular hangout spots. There was no one else there when we came in, which was a good sign. That meant that we were safe.

Katy ordered a chicken salad, Maria got a fried chicken basket, and I chose the chicken sandwich combo. My personal favorite. With my throat parched, my stomach rumbling, I was looking forward to this all day.

We sat by the back exit, our eye on the front door. I stared down my sandwich, it looked as good as it tasted. I really was looking forward to this all day.

I bit into it. Katy noticed my reaction.

“Doesn’t taste good?”

“It’s okay,” I said. I held up the sandwich to eye level, inspecting it carefully. Two fried pieces of chicken, squished between their ‘world famous’ bread rolls. The secret sauce glistened. If we were in a cartoon, the sandwich would have sparkling lines coming off the top.

“Tell ‘em if it ain’t,” Maria said. “Shit, like I’d let ‘em fuck up my shit.” Her mouth was full of chicken, muffling her words. She stuffed in another piece.

I have a million comebacks for you right now, Maria…   

“Nah, it’s fine,” I answered. Hoping it would somehow taste better with a second try, I bit into it again. No Bueno. All the ingredients tasted like it was a week old, so stale and dry. It sat in my mouth like rubber. It took considerable effort to swallow.

Trying to wash down that taste with a large cup of sweet tea didn’t help any. Wasn’t sweet at all. To be precise, it was like drinking clam juice. I fought the urge to gag or make a funny face.

I didn’t want to lose said face in front of my friends, however, and if I wanted to find a something good to say about it, was that it at least the bare minimum of being considered edible. I managed to keep eating.

“Hey hey,” Katy said, dropping her plastic fork into her bowl, finishing her meal. “Lexi, show Maria your phone.”

“Oh yeah!” Maria brought a greasy hand to me, a chicken crumb sticking to a nail. “Lemme see.” Her voice was still stuffed by food.

“Uhh, no way.” I wiped my chin and skidded away from them an inch. “I don’t even wanna see it. Plus it’s in my backpack. In your car.”

A low groan that came from Maria, and she finally swallowed a whole mouthful. “Beach.”

“Oh, okay,” I said back.

“You can tap out if you want to, Lexi. You’ve gotten enough of a beat down for one day,” Katy said.

“Sure,” I said. “Only if I get to slug one to Maria.” I directed myself to her, and plucked a fry out of her hand before she could eat it.

“You said we would finally be able to meet your boyfriend at the party,” I said. “He never showed. What’s the deal?”

Maria cleaned her hands with a napkin. “That’s your slug? You can do better than that.”

“You’re deflecting,” Katy said. “She right. You said he’d show. I was kind of looking forward to meeting him, honestly.”

Maria clicked her tongue, and looked away from our gaze. “Don’t worry about it. I said he might come, but he couldn’t. No big.”

Katy kept pressing on. “Come on, together for two years, and I’ve never seen him once. I don’t even know his name. It’s getting pretty-”

“Drop it, okay?” Maria said, disrupting Katy, “Don’t worry about it.”

A singular huff from Katy. She dropped it. I wasn’t too bothered by that little bout. It was nothing new by this point.

We continued eating. I tried to eat more, but none of it was good.

There wasn’t much else to do after we finished our food, besides discussing other gossip Katy and Maria brought to the table. Nothing substantial, but it was fun to talk about. Katy brought up wanting to go somewhere else, but we were already pressed for time. Within the immediate vicinity of the school, the only places worth visiting were food chains like this. With that disappointment hanging over our heads, we concluded that going back to school was the best course of action. We left the restaurant. With only an hour for our lunch period, we made it back with three minutes to spare. We exchanged hasty see-you-laters before splitting off to our separate classes.

If you asked me, an hour wasn’t long enough for lunch.

The remainder of the day fared just the same as the first half. I gave my teachers the doctor’s note, and they let me be on my way. Mrs. Goldstein, my chemistry teacher, did allow me to extend the due date of my project, which was merciful of her. Some classmates I was acquainted with fussed over me, and the teacher having to calm them down. My pen glided over my notebook as I absentmindedly took notes, not really paying attention to anything my teachers were saying.

I had other things to worry about.

To release me from my boredom, the final bell sang, like music to my ears. At the beginning of the day, it was screaming at all of us to congregate into the building. Now, it was telling us to get lost.

I wasted no time getting to the gym.

“Barnett! Welcome back!” Coach Tilly boomed. A fit brunette in a track suit. Despite being so short – hell, even I was taller than her – that made her no less intimidating. “You good for today?”

“I’m fine!” I barked back.

“Good! Hurry it up!”

“Yes Coach!”

On the other side of the gym were doors that lead into the locker room. I ran along the edge of the court, passing my teammates. They were already doing their stretches and warm ups. None of them paid me any mind.

Having been on a volleyball team since middle school, I’d say it was my favorite activity to do after school. It’d be even more accurate to say that I came to school for the sole purpose of being able to play volleyball. To me, it was fun. Plain. Simple. Some people played video games, hunted, smoked weed. I played volleyball. I wouldn’t say I was particularly good at it, well, good enough to be on the team. Barely good enough to make varsity. But, I enjoyed playing. It helped clear my mind.

I went in and out from the locker room in a flash. A quick switch into my uniform, a combo of a red top and black shorts, I returned to the gym.

After everyone had gathered, about thirty of us or so, we officially started practice. Starting with stretches, a quick one and a half kilometer run across the gym, and then right into intensive setting and hitting exercises. Hard work, but I didn’t hate it.

Today particularly, it felt kind of easy.

Coach Tilly was especially grilling into us today, criticizing every tiny detail about our form. Not surprising, while she always got riled up right before a game, she especially would be around this time of the year.

Thursday, we’d be going up against Saint Augustine High, a formidable team from our district. Maybe the sixth or fifth best in the whole state. Every year, Stephenville and Augustine would be matched up around early October, and every year, Coach Tilly would not get off our asses about it. I didn’t know why she was so hell bent on beating her alma mater, but that was her own personal matter. If it meant that we had to play harder, then so be it. I was ready.

Three sharp whistles pierced the air in an odd rhythm, and we all knew what that meant. Time to ‘spar.’

Coach picked out our positions for the first match, and those who weren’t picked had to stand by and study our performances and figure out how to improve their own. I was picked for the first set, my position being the outside hitter. I was on the front-left, close to the net.

Our side was to set first, so I was on guard as the ball soared between the two halves of the court. I concentrated on every little movement of the other team, every twitch of a muscle of those around me. As expected, Brittany had a fantastic defense. Ah, I had to make sure I didn’t forget about the ball, too.

A lot to process.

But…

The flicker of Brittany’s eye, the angle of Taylor’s hitting wrist, the way Coach Tilly put her hand on her hip as she shouted instructions at us. I was able to focus on every tiny thing for far longer than I could, normally.

And the ball, flying way longer than it should. Had it always moved that slow?

Suddenly my muscles tensed. The ball was hit towards my general direction, and judging from the minute, miniscule movements from the girls around me, they were going to let me take it. This ball was my responsibility.

Don’t fuck it up.

A quick scan of the ball’s position gave me enough information. I could definitely spike that. I was far enough from the net to give myself an ample distance to run. The defense was looking a little thin on the other side. I could take advantage of that.

Alright then. Let’s go.

First, build momentum, keeping my arms forward. Next, I’d accelerate, swinging my arms back, my palms facing upward. As I closed in on the net, I’d convert my forward energy to vertical, arcing my hitting arm to a good ready-position, raising my opposite arm for midair balancing. By now, the ball should be in the perfect strike zone. I’d slam my hand down to the ball, using my core muscle and proper shoulder rotation to maximize power to the spike. Lastly, the satisfying smack of the ball to the floor, bouncing away as the defense scrambled behind, having failed to stop it.

I had done this thousands of times. This was nothing.

I took my first step forward. I built momentum, keeping my-

“Whoa!”

The sound of wind cutting past my ears, and I was immediately constricted. I crashed onto the floor. More noise of clanging metal, and cries of shock.

“Ah, what the heck?” I muttered. I couldn’t move, my arms and legs constrained in netting. I felt like a trapped animal.

“Calm down! Barnett, calm down!” Coach Tilly yelled. Eventually, I did, and some girls who were on standby ran to help me get untangled.

On my hands and knees, I crawled away to the wall. Turning back around, I was met with the tomato-colored rage that was Coach Tilly’s face.

“What the hell is that!” she shouted, pointing behind her.

“What the what is what?” I answered stupidly. With her taking up most of my view, I had no clue as to what she was referring to.

Her eyes widened, but she stepped to the side. I looked on with surprise.

The net was completely destroyed, limp on the floor with no chance of being reattached to the poles. Speaking of which, the upright poles which held up the net itself were ruined, bent at the floor sockets.

“Did… I do that?” I pointed at myself, feeling like an idiot.

“Yes you did, you jumped right into the net and ruined our set up! Do you call that a spike?!” She straightened herself up, looking back at the scene of the destruction. “That was the only net we had, repairs for the poles won’t be done until… Crap.

She stood there, silent, in a vain attempt to cool off. She scanned the gym as she did so. After some time, Coach blew her whistle. “Alright! That’s it! Go home and get your rest! Thursday, we kill that game!”

“Yes Coach!” the rest of the team cheered. All eyes were on me as the rest went back to the locker room. I felt my stomach churning. Must be that sandwich from earlier.

“Ah, I have to make some calls,” Coach whispered. “Should of let you rest, coming back from the hospital so soon…” She headed out the door, leaving the gym. Before the door closed behind her, she called out to me again.

“Hey, Alexis, sorry about that. Don’t beat yourself up over it. I’ll see you Thursday.”

The door closed behind her. The sound reverberated throughout the empty gym. I forgave her temper, we all knew she could get too worked up.

That swirl of emotions came back, but one in particular was more potent.

Confusion.

I stayed sitting on the gym floor, my back against the wall.

What… in the world?

My chest rose, and lowered as I let out a rough groan.

Before long, some of the girls started coming back into the gym, having left the locker room. A voice from across the space called out to me.

“Urkel, you alright?”

That sounded like Eve. I liked her. She was nice. Well-meaning.

“I’m fine,” I said, my two most-repeated words all day. But I kept my eyes down. I didn’t hear anything back, Eve seemingly taking my words at face value. Without looking at my face. I didn’t care, I wanted to be left alone, anyways.

I waited until the last of them left the gym, until I was sure I would be the only one in the locker room. I got up slowly, staggering into the room to change.

There wasn’t anything worth mulling over anymore. Changing slowly, I left behind my gym clothes and stuffed the sports bag into the metal locker. I’d wash it another day.

After I was done, I exited the near-empty school building, and checked the sky above me. I cursed under my breath.

Nighttime.

And I forgot to text Katy. Shoot.

I checked my phone, fumbling with the buttons to turn it on. It wouldn’t light up. Crap. Just how terrible was this thing’s battery life?

Or did I forget to charge it?

Awesome.

“And I have curfew too…” I said aloud. Remembering that I had a watch on me, I checked the time. Doing the math in my head, it would take me about forty minutes if I picked up the pace. I’d barely make it home on time. Public transportation was not an option either, there was no direct bus route from the school to my place, and I didn’t have enough money for the detour.

“Uhh, I’m so tired…” I complained out loud. Not that anyone would hear.

Figuring that to be my best – and only – plan, I began my walk home.

After I got a fourth of the way, I was walking down the sidewalk, heading towards a suburb. Houses to my right, a thick collection of trees lined up to my left, across the street. As I settled into my pace and the course set in my head, only now did I take notice on how cool the night sky looked.

Black and blue streaks painted the sky, making up the night colors. The stars vibrantly glittered on the dark canvas, so bright and intense, they were more like light bulbs than tiny white dots. Also, there was a lot of them. I’d have to go out to the wild, or to Braham’s, in order to see that many stars. The night seemed to bristle with life, in no way like the black, dead, nothingness I usually associate with this hour. It was the spitting image of that famous painting that my world history teacher last year wouldn’t stop obsessing over. What was it called again?

Something about a van going somewhere… I dunno.

Cars and trucks periodically darted down the road as I kept on my path, my hair getting into my face as they passed me. After about the tenth time of spitting out loose hair out of my mouth, I put my hood over my head. That was better.

Coming up from behind me, there was a rhythm clacking of wheels and wood. It was getting louder. I didn’t have to turn around to know it was a skateboard. As the sound closed in, I moved off to the side. That should’ve given them enough room. Didn’t stop the rider from being an asshole.

“Outta my way!”

He had no real reason to, but he knocked into my side as he passed. Some blonde kid riding goofy. Chubby. I noted the words ‘I Got Swag’ printed across his black shirt.

You probably do, kid, but that doesn’t excuse poor manners.

I didn’t say it, though. No need.

Fixing my backpack strap, I observed his skating. Coming from someone who had never skated, even I could tell that he was awful. His flabby physique threw off his balance, making him off-kilter, wobbling around as he stood on the thin wooden board. It was like he just got it the day before, and he never heard of what a skateboard even was. A fish out of water; a chubby blonde on a skateboard.

Pathetically, he attempted to ollie off the sidewalk and onto the road. How he thought he could pull it off, with that lack of balance, I’d never know. He didn’t kick it up, he kicked it away. The outcome was what you’d expect.

The board flew out from under him, but his legs kept moving as though it was where it was supposed to be. As such, he tripped over himself as he descended, faltering a few steps before falling face first on the other side of the road, hard. I held back some laughter. The whole sequence was viral video worthy. Didn’t color me surprised if his shirt now said ‘I Swag.’

“Hey, kid, you alright?” I decided to speak up. I knew if I were him, it’d be better than being ignored entirely.

Moaning, he rolled over onto his back. Not used to taking falls, I supposed. His body began to be cast in a white light. For a split moment, I thought of something stupid. Like aliens, or something. But of course that wasn’t right.

It was a lot worse than that.

A pickup truck was coming in from the distance, towards the kid. But it was closing in rather quickly, with no sign of slowing down. It must have not seen him. Meaning this would get really, really, bad.

“Hey, hey! Get up!” I yelled. No use, he wasn’t budging. Was he as smart as he was athletic?

Dammit.

“Get the hell up!” I yelled again. He didn’t move.

The truck zoomed closer. There were seconds until a disaster.

It’s no good, Alexis, you have to do something.

Do what?

Dammit!

Without thinking, I stepped onto the road. Without blinking, I was already in between the kid and the truck. My right arm grabbed a hold of the kid, holding him close to my body. I extended my left arm. The Heisman trophy had nothing on me.

My arm folded under the weight of the collision. So did the grill of the truck.

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001 – A Fool’s Apple

epy-arc-1-yomi

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There was an hour before midnight, but I already wanted to go home.

I stood by the door, idly watching as the others partied and had a good time. There must have been, what, twenty or thirty people here, and it was loud. Surprised I could hear myself think. The fat bass that spilled out of the speakers at the other end of the room filled my ears. The stuttering hi-hats tapped on my patience, withering it away with every loop of its uneven rhythm. The room was dimmed until I could only see my hand from arm’s length, so the only real source of light came from the neon strobe lights that illuminated people as they danced. A girl was grinding on a guy. That looked like Jenny, and that looked like Eric. Actually, multiple girls were grinding on multiple guys. I was reluctant on calling that ‘dancing’ anymore.

In other words, it was Friday night.

“Hey!” A familiar voice called out to me. I looked away from my watch to search for who that was. I could barely make out the outline of her body, but only one person wobbled like that when she was drunk.

“Katy,” I said, my tone more accusatory than I had intended.

“Wutteryou doing?” Katy slurred, “Come on, this was supposed to be all fer you!” She tossed me a red cup, and I caught it before its contents could spilled on me. No, it was empty of any liquid, but full of a nauseating smell. Rum.

“Nah, you know I’m not into that,” I said. “Plus, it gets my face way too red.”

“Nuh-uh, if that were really true, then you wouldn’t have went off with Brandon for shots just twenty minutes ago,” she teased, using that upper register tone that I hated.

I cleared my throat. “Well, that… That was different,” I said, wiping my lip and looking down. I was glad she couldn’t see the pink flush in my cheeks.

Katy tried to start another sentence. “But that’s… that’s…”

“What?”

“Irreverent.”

“Excuse me? Do you mean, ‘irrelevant’?”

“Yeaaaah, that. Tell me, did you… do…” In failing to articulate herself through words, she went for a vulgar gesture instead. I slapped at her hands.

“Shut up!”

“Anyway, one, one, one, one,” Katy kept repeating, until she started to sing the word ‘one’ along with the song playing in the foreground. It took me longer than it should have to realize she meant, ‘At least have one.’

Fuck, I told myself, I’m gonna regret this. I looked at my watch on my left wrist. Eleven o-three.

“Fine.”

Shit, I knew it.

It had only been thirty minutes, and I could feel the room spin. Like I was in those tea cups on a merry-go-round, and I was spinning in that while the whole thing was spinning around. Spinning forever. But I was only lying on the couch, with a cold glass in my hand.

The music sounded far away, fading into some nothingness. Weird, I didn’t know the living room could fit sixty more people.

Shit, I knew it. I just hoped I didn’t get another stain on my new skirt.

Struggling to get off my back, my head dizzied exponentially with every movement. The headache tomorrow morning was going to suck, that much was certain. But I couldn’t bring myself to care right now.

I weighed the glass in my hand. Heavy. I brought it to eye-level. Not a glass, a bottle. Completely devoid of any liquid. I deserved no pat on the back for that one.

I pushed myself to get off of the couch, accidentally bumping into a couple sitting beside me. I would’ve went to apologize, but they were more concerned with each other than to pay me any mind. I left the bottle behind at the couch.

Again, I looked at my wristwatch. It took an embarrassing minute to finally get it down, since the time changed from eleven thirty-one to eleven thirty-two. Twenty-eight minutes until midnight. Until…

Until I was wholly and unequivocally screwed.

With no conscious effort, I stumbled towards the door leading outside, maneuvering through the crowd of ‘dancers’. I was operating under a previous thought, before Katy swung by to bestow this horrible feeling upon me, before leaving me alone. If I didn’t know any better, it was like she was trying to intentionally screw me over.

“Yehryuhjoeeng?” I heard from behind me. Didn’t recognize the voice. I knew this one, ‘Where you going?’

I didn’t want my attempt at speaking to be as horrendous. I answered without turning back, “Out, bit.”

What I had meant was, ‘I’ll be out just for a bit.’ Whatever, they’d get it.

I reached out for the knob, missed, missed again, finally got a hold of it, and twisted. Good work, team.

The chilly night air greeted me as I stepped outside, a sudden burst of wind closing the door for me. The soft fabric of my skirt lifted up away from my waist. My hands were slow in fixing it, but there was no one else out here anyways.

I took a deep breath in through my nose, hoping to avoid how thick my mouth was with the stench of alcohol. Looking up, the moon rose high above. Pretty, though it basked in its light rather than providing any use for me. As I expected, it was really dark out here.

Despite everything, going for a walk right now sounded kind of enticing, so I opted to take it, if not just to get away from the music, which I could still hear from only a few steps away from the porch. I turned around to get a good look at the house. Or mansion, to be specific.

Braham Manor, the perfect secluded spot for teens and young adults to party. The two-story, old-school plantation home used to be a site of awful human right violations I read about in Mr. Richard’s US History class on Tuesdays and Thursdays. But now, on Friday nights, it was the place to be for teens to drink, have sex, and generally be free to act with no limits. Not that I condoned that type of behavior, but hey, a party was a party.

Screw it.

I took my phone out from the pocket of my skirt, and lit the way.

Strolling away from the house, my legs were on autopilot. Braham Barn, which was somehow more iconic than the fancy mansion, was down the dirt path that led back onto actual road, and then the city. Katy and Maria had originally planned it to be the main venue of the party, but more people came than anticipated, and because of the usual Friday festivities going on anyways, it was decided to merge the two together. There shouldn’t be anyone there, I guessed. Take a seat, and chill there. Sounded like a good idea to me. Clearing my head became a priority. I couldn’t recall why at the moment, but I wanted to go home. Unfortunately, I couldn’t right now. This was a decent compromise.

I now had a goal in mind. Good. Better than going about aimlessly. I squeezed past the cars and trucks that haphazardly parked in front of the mansion.

The farther I got away from the mansion, the louder my ears rang. From all that music and screaming, I could hardly hear my own footsteps as I walked on the dirt and rocks.

I could hardly even hear the rustling of the dry corn fields that made the edges of the path.

My head was still spinning, and I knew I wasn’t going in a straight line. I could turn around and verify via my footsteps, but that was unnecessary work. Not wanting to make my walk a terribly boring one, my thoughts went to my school schedule the next week. Had to keep my mind off of other stuff.

But I tried to make it into a game. How much could I remember if I was this inebriated? I checked off the list in my head. A chemistry project due on Monday. Tuesday… I had to read a chapter. Was it chapter seven or chapter ten? Dang, but that was what this game was about.

Nothing in particular on Wednesday, I thought, I can relax then.

As though they could agree with me, the dry leaves scraped together behind me.

So then, on Wednesday… What to do, then? Maria said a boutique opened up recently, should I dip during lunch and go with her? Maybe. But back to school. Was there anything else? Math, possibly? Probably.

Thursday, though, Thursday, was the big game. No chance in hell could I miss that. Coach would kill me.

Again, the plants agreed. I tried to tune it out, but they were already grating their way to the front of my attention. These damn plants wouldn’t stop. How windy was it?

Wait, but I felt no wind on my skirt. The plants in front of me weren’t moving either.

Don’t tell me…

I wheeled around.

I peered into the darkness, and only now did I realize just how far I walked. The mansion was miniscule, the roof lit by wandering red and green spotlights, but other than that, it was pitch black. I raised my phone’s light a bit higher, but I couldn’t see anything else. It was just me on this path.

Well, it should be, at least.

That rustling noise continued, but I couldn’t see who was behind it. Wouldn’t surprise me if it was some boys from the football team. For some reason, they liked to think they were funny. Probably from one too many head collisions.

“Not funny, guys,” I yelled out. My voice carried into the open air. Nothing. That noise continued.

“When I beat your ass, I don’t want to hear ‘it was just a prank!’”

Nothing.

Whatever, I thought. I was too drunk for this shit. Speaking of which…

Turning on the front-facing camera on my phone, I decided to take a look at myself. The bright light took some time getting used to. Yikes. Maybe not the best idea. Just from my cheeks, I was red as an apple. My eyes were more squinted and slanted than ever, and I had to force one of them open with my fingers to see that it was also red.

That was enough. No need to see how messed up I was.

Putting the phone out in front of me again, I looked down again at my watch. Eleven forty-two. It had already been ten minutes? Damn, and it’d take ten minutes to get back, obviously. It’d be awkward if they started off the countdown without me. Chilling out at the barn was now out of the question.

I turned to head back. At the same time, the noises stopped.

It was about ten feet ahead of me. A figure of something I had a hard time getting a grasp of, shrouded in the dark. But I was close enough to venture an educated guess.

“Dammit,” I muttered to no one, “Coyote.” Coyotes were known to frequent these fields, but no one I knew ever ran into any whenever we came out here. Sure, there was a rusted old sign at the entrance of the plantation that read ‘Beware of Coyotes,’ but nobody ever spare a second to read it.

It blocked my path back to the house. The only way I would be getting back was if I managed to walk past it, but I’d rather not chance that. Walking through the field and around it would take away my vision and mobility completely. Drunk or not, I wasn’t that stupid. But I took one step forward, hoping maybe, just maybe, I’d end up scaring it away. I halved the distance between me and the coyote, but it hadn’t budged.

Okay, maybe I was that stupid.

Sweat started to trace the back of my neck, and my thoughts rushed to figure out something I could do. Maybe call Katy? Perhaps, but considering how drunk she was before, she was probably out cold in a corner somewhere by now. Maybe someone else? A good quarter of my contact list did make up the people at the party, so I had the luxury of choice, at least. Now, just gotta go through my phone, I silently planned. Be careful, and try not to shine it in its eyes. My wrist shook as I tried.

Hold on. Wait a minute. My phone light caught something.

First of all, coyotes have fur, and this thing’s legs were thin, grey, and hairless. And those weren’t paws, they looked like hands.

Without thinking, I moved my light a tad higher. It was hunched over on all fours, crouching like it was about to pounce. Step by step, I backed away while keeping my eyes on the thing.

Where I was supposed to see a snout, was instead just long, jet black hair, soaked and covering its whole head. Also, coyotes weren’t generally known to be draped in a dark scarlet cloth.

It shivered. And so did I.

It shook again, and I noticed a red liquid glistening from my artificial light, dripping through its cloth down onto the dirt. It trailed off the path, and some of the tall plants were soaked in the same color.

Blood?

Was it bleeding all the way here?

“Keh… keh… keh…” The thing breathed. Raspy and frail. Dry. My grip on reality slipped with every intake of breath. There was nothing to base this thing on, nothing to help me compartmentalize and understand it.

I’d much rather beware a coyote right now.

It shifted, and the subtle movement was towards me.

Run, what are you doing, run!

Shock rushed through me. There were no real thoughts, just instinct. Get the fuck away from whatever this thing is. My body took over for me, and sprinted away in the opposite direction. As though my body could purge itself from my drunken stupor, I ran. Where? Didn’t care, just not here.

I heard a rush behind me, and I only managed about ten wobbly steps.

My leg fell out from under me, and I collapsed onto the dirt.

“Ack!” I coughed.

There was a strange sensation, a tugging on my left leg, and the ground crawled away from me. Wait, the earth itself wasn’t moving.

I was being dragged.

Mustering up whatever energy I had left, I brought my body in tight and spun. I broke free, and both my legs hit the ground.

Sluggishly, I crawled to the edge of the path, pulling myself up using the stems of dried plants. My head was thumping in every direction. This wasn’t good.

It was taking too long for me to get up, my body betraying me in this crucial moment. Was that brief burst of adrenaline the best I could do?

“Ohmygod,” I cursed, “Jesus-fucking-Christ.” My heart was in my throat. I had no clue what that thing was, or why I was being attacked. Why it had to be me. Fear began to grip my body. All the reason in the world to run away, but none of the energy.

I wanted to cry.

Instantly, two intensely sharp pains penetrated my lower back, and I was lifted up from those fine points. My feet lost the feeling of the earth beneath me, and my stomach sank into nausea. Like going down a rollercoaster.

Without warning, I was thrown into the air.

One, two, three seconds airborne. Tears streamed down my face as I descended back down.

On instinct, I threw my arms out in front of me. Awful idea. I crashed onto the hard dirt, and my arms folded into themselves. They snapped like twigs, and the sound of bones breaking was audible.

Upon my rough fall, I continued to roll from the momentum. I rolled, rolled, rolled. How I felt on the couch paled in comparison to this. Desperately, I wanted to stop, but luck wasn’t on my side today.

Finally, I did, and I was on my back. Scratches peppered my legs, face, and I knew it was worse for my arms. By now, they were nothing but dead weight, I couldn’t even move a finger. My back was wet, my clothes getting seeped in blood.

To cope with everything, I tried to make out where I was.

My vision was blurry, fading, yet I could tell that I was on the crossroads of the dirt path, and the path to the barn was right up ahead. The barn’s doors were open, taunting me with a false promise of refuge.

I want to go home.

“Ugh…” My eye widened until they were saucers.

A thick mass of substance suddenly rose from my stomach and up my throat. I threw up.

A mixture of a hamburger, rum, Brandon, more rum and blood. Any attempt not to gag was futile.

Why, why… why? Was this how I was going to die? Covered in blood and vomit, and my entire upper body enflamed in an excruciating pain? Why did this have to be me? I didn’t deserve any of this.

No one did.

And as if all of that wasn’t enough, a cold claw gripped my neck, and lifted me back up to the air.

“Agh, kuh… okh!” My windpipe was forced closed, and a scraping wheeze was all that came out. But from being this close up, and the moon high above, I finally got a good look at whatever the hell this thing was.

It held me with only one hand, a testament to its strength. Standing upright, it glared at me with beady, black eyes. Its wet hair finally parted away from its face, only the occasional strand sticking to its cheeks. And like its hair, the cloth it was wrapped in parted away from its body, exposing its naked torso.

I could see it all. A sickly grey skin tone, a canvas for the blood that dripped from a gaping wound in its chest. My eyes wandered to its legs.

A… girl?

She cocked her head back, catching more moonlight, and opened her mouth for another harsh breath. A freezing terror slithered down my spine. Her canines were unnaturally sharp. Grotesquely sharp.

Snapping out of my trance, a will to fight back bubbled in me. My arms were useless, so I tried my legs. Coiling a leg, I sprung a kick.

Fuck, I missed. All I did was brush right beside her.

But she noticed.

With her free arm, she seized my left forearm and violent jerked back. I immediately more felt right-heavy.

“Gyaaaaaaaaaaaaah!”

Fuck! What the fuck!

She twisted in place, and I was spun around. After a stomach-churning rotation, she let go of my neck, and I was thrown.

I soared through the barn entrance, all light was robbed from me as the ceiling passed overhead. My back slammed onto hard wood, and I banged against chairs and tables before skidding to a stop.

The pain was so bad I swore that I was getting used to it, and I just stayed on the cold dusty floor, shivering. My breathing was short and shallow, my chest not moving at all. A punctured or collapsed lung? I wouldn’t know, I wasn’t a doctor. But you wouldn’t need a doctor to know that I was fucked. It was easier to list what wasn’t broken than what was.

There were no tangible thoughts. No particular memory, person, or concept came to me. I just wanted to die five seconds ago.

A repugnant smell of blood soon filled my nose, and the messy stump that was once my left arm continued to bleed out. In a second, I was lying in yet another pool of red.

Just…

Please…

Let it end already.

And to my shock and continued horror, she pounced, clearing the distance from the barn’s entrance and landing on top of my stomach, officially knocking out all the little remaining wind out of me. Pinning down my one arm, she dug sharp nails into my fresh stump. I cried out. She breathed again. Somehow, I had the feeling she was wholly disinterested.

She removed her hand out of where my arm used to be, and as a move that, even then, I was shocked by, she brought her hand into her mouth. She licked her fingers. She swallowed. A slight change, but her body language shifted. Loosened.

By drinking my blood?

“ノノノノ, ノノノノ, ノノノノ, ノノノノ!” Her voice was so weak. Like it pained her to speak.

Or…? A? Were they even words?

“ノノ… ノノノ ノノノノ ノノ ノノノノノノノノノ, ノノノノ ノ ノノノ ノノノノ ノノノノノ!”

Perhaps at her response to her attempt at communication, I began to spasm uncontrollably, my heart racing to a near flat-line. A final resort? It was as useless as anything else I tried to do.

Ignoring me, she removed her hand out of where my arm used to be, she slowly stroked my fractured collar bone. Blood trickled from her finger down the curve of my neck, mixing with sweat. She leaned in closer to my face. Her breath reeked. Like rotten fish.

Those teeth again.

“ノノノ, ノノノ, ノノノ… ノノノ’ノノ ノノ ノノノノ ノノノノノノ. ノノノ, ノノノノノノ ノノ!”

She bit into my neck.

Funny…

It really was…

I saw myself there, on the floor of that forsaken barn, writhing in pain and agony as her sharp fangs pierced the nape of my neck, and tore out a sizable chunk. I watched as my face went blue, as I was no longer operating on a sufficient amount of air. I tried to flail, but her overpowering strength constrained me, kept me down.

But, it was funny, because I didn’t feel any of it. No longer did I feel anything real. Like I was outside of myself, watching a secondary character from some schlock horror movie get brutally killed off, and not really sympathizing. And I was okay with that.

If this was what it was like to die, then I didn’t really mind at all.

Maybe it was better this way.

That- was what I thought.

A rumble. Far away. Like a single instance of a boom of thunder.

There was no sign of acknowledgement on her part, but she suddenly got up, and leapt away, allowing me only a little bit of air. I looked up, but everything was hazy.

A shape loomed over my body. A person, maybe. Features too blurry. Help?

It moved over me, and there was a still, brief respite before I was dragged again, tugged by my only arm. An unhurried, uneven pace. I was set down elsewhere, moved somewhere else in the barn, but I couldn’t determine where.

Another distant boom of thunder.

My vision was worsening by every passing moment, and when the shape appeared over me again, it was much less a shape, and more like a gray blob, the edges smudged into the black surrounding it like a watercolor painting.

To my right, I heard something like a dull thud. A sensory reminder that I was still alive, however barely.

The colors on the top part of the blob shifted a bit. If this was a person, or the thing from before, then it would be the approximate placement of their face. Exchanging words? A gesture? Baring their teeth? I no longer had the sensory capabilities to understand anything. A throbbing pulse throughout my body, and sizzling sensation coming from my left stump, like the wound was splashed in acid.

That- was all I felt.

The hazy blob-shape shifted again, and my face was stuck, forcing my head to look right. And that was when I saw it. It was close enough that I could actually tell what it was.

My left arm.

White as snow, and most likely just as cold. Unmoving, helpless. I cast my final few glances at the watch that adorned the wrist. And a singular, gold line inside the watch, pointing in one direction. I could surmise.

Midnight.

At last, I was starting to feel sleepy, my eyesight completely fading to black, my heart slowing down to a near stop. Right before I went to bed, I heard something. Faint.

A succession of individual sounds, each carrying a different pitch. A distinct rhythm.

A melody.

A song?

They must have started without me. I sang along in my ahead, it’d be weird to do it out loud.

Happy birthday to you, Alexis…

Happy birthday to you.

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